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Sen. Maria Cantwell tells a lie too big even for the press corps

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Dan Froomkin reports in The Intercept:

Sen. Maria Cantwell [D-WA] engaged in a very public maneuver on the Senate floor Thursday, withholding her vote in favor of the big trade bill until she got assurances that there would be a vote on renewing the Export-Import Bank.

Afterward, explaining the fervency of her support for the Ex-Im Bank, she told such a howler that even the Capitol press corps, not  empowered to actually call a senator a liar, made sure to offer readers the opportunity to reach that conclusion on their own.

The Democrat from Washington state, where Boeing is the single largest employer, said her support for the Ex-Im – often called the “Bank of Boeing” because fully $8 billion of the bank’s $12 billion in annual loan guarantees support the international sales of its jetliners – wasn’t inspired by the aerospace giant, but by small businesses in her state, like one in Yakima that exports music stands.

Erica Warner’s story for the Associated Press was headlined “Sen. Cantwell turns Senate divisions on trade to advantage,” and began as follows:

President Barack Obama’s trade bill faced a crucial test vote in the Senate, and Washington state Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell saw an opportunity.

In a tense drama that unfolded in real time on the Senate floor Thursday, Cantwell withheld her vote to move forward on the trade legislation until she received assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that the Senate would vote on renewing the Export-Import Bank.

Ex-Im is a little-known government agency that guarantees loans to help U.S. exporters. One of its major beneficiaries: Boeing Co., which employs 80,000 people in Washington state.

Warner then drily noted Cantwell’s explanation:

But Cantwell said she thought not of Boeing but of a little company in Yakima., Wash., that exports music stands to China as she made her stand in the Senate well.

And she added this kick at the end of the story:

Her moves did not go unnoticed by Boeing, whose executive, James McNerney, was on the Hill Thursday morning to meet with Senate Democratic leaders. Company spokesman Tim Neale said, “She’s been very supportive of us on this issue which we really appreciate.”

The Ex-Im bank has become a target of Tea-party conservatives and other free-market purists who see it, with some justification, as the height of crony capitalism. It will have to shut down on July 1 if Congress doesn’t reauthorize it. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2015 at 2:21 pm

The Section 215 wrecking ball

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An interesting column in the New Yorker by Amy Davidson:

In the past week, two fights over domestic spying—one political and one legal—have converged in Congress and the courts. They both began in June, 2013, when the Guardian, as part of a series based on files leaked to it by Edward Snowden, published a secret National Security Agency document ordering Verizon Business Services to hand over call records for all its customers. This immediately caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, not least because it was itself a Verizon Business customer. Its affiliate, the New York Civil Liberties Union, had been one, too. This was not so strange—Verizon is one of the few major providers in the country. (Government officials soon acknowledged that the other providers received similar orders.) But it had legal consequences. A number of previous attempts to challenge secret government surveillance practices in court had failed because the plaintiffs lacked what’s called standing: they couldn’t prove that they, in particular, had been affected, and you need to do that to bring a suit. Just six days after the first Snowden story appeared, the A.C.L.U. went to court, Verizon bill in hand, claiming that the law and the Constitution had been violated.

This was not the only response. The dismay about the bulk collection of phone records was broad; many Americans had assumed that this was the sort of thing for which the government needed an individualized warrant, rather than a dragnet. President Barack Obama and other defenders of the program said, though, that the practice was legal under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which was first passed after September 11, 2001, and which allows the government to collect “tangible things” that are “relevant” to a particular investigation. That rationale seemed dubious. The N.S.A. had relied on the secretly operating Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. Without access to its classified legal interpretations, a citizen, or a congressman, even one reading the bill carefully, would still not have known that the assembly of the phone records of just about every American into a searchable database was an activity the law envisioned. (Indeed, James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, had denied that such a thing was taking place in testimony before Congress. He is a defendant in the A.C.L.U. case.) But the N.S.A.’s story was that it was acting in perfect accord with Section 215, and it has largely been allowed to stick to it. Bulk collection, with some tweaks, has continued.

Section 215, however, expires on June 1st, two weeks from now. Congress has, basically, three options. One is to let Section 215 die, and, presumably, the bulk-collection program with it. (But that might allow the N.S.A. simply to tear up the previous order and look for another route to the same end.) A second option is to bring the program above board: pass a new law that would allow the N.S.A. more controlled access to what it said was valuable information. This is the U.S.A. Freedom Act, and it has both Republican and Democratic supporters, including Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, who has a strong record on civil liberties. The White House has said that the President will sign it. The House passed a version on Wednesday, by a vote of 338-88, and sent it to the Senate. But it may run into trouble there, because of a third option: to extend Section 215 and, implicitly, accept the N.S.A.’s interpretation and let it keep collecting everyone’s records with what amounts to impunity. This is the option favored by many Senate Republicans, foremost among them the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who refers to it as a “clean” renewal of Section 215.

Then, last Thursday, the Second Circuit Appeals Court found that the A.C.L.U. was, at least partly, correct: Section 215 did not authorize bulk collection. The program was never legal. Once the court reached that finding, it didn’t have to address the question of whether the practice was unconstitutional, but it did suggest that it was a pretty good one to ask. That all made McConnell’s clean renewal look pretty dirty.

“This is a very delicate issue,” John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, said earlier this week of the House version of the Leahy bill. “I know members would like to offer some amendments, but this is not a place for people to bring out the wrecking ball.” The members he was referring to were libertarians in his own party, who, in this case, want more privacy protections than the bill provides. They are not the only potential wrecking-ball rig operators, though: there is also the McConnell faction, which seems unmoved by the Second Circuit decision and continues to act as though it’s enough to renew Section 215. (As Benjamin Wittes points out, ignoring the court, at the very least, “involves serious litigation risk.”) McConnell may insist on bringing a five-year renewal of the Patriot Act to the floor, as is, which could set off more inter- and intra-party fights. Boehner said, “I’m not going to speculate on what the Senate may or may not do. But all I know is that these programs expire at the end of this month.”

So, while this is a fight about the future of the bulk-collection program, there are bigger puzzles on the table, which have to do with the intersection of law and politics. One is about the direction of both parties, which are not internally unified on surveillance questions. Another is where the public should look for redress, in the face of an uproar like the one that Snowden’s documents brought about. Can Congress handle it, or is this where the courts must come in? Perhaps the largest question is how much laws, and their language, matter. The most outrageous aspect of the N.S.A. revelations was that the agency believed that it could have its own hidden reading of laws like Section 215, divorced from the ordinary meaning of the words that Congress debated and passed. 

The crucial finding of the Second Circuit decision—and why it matters, going forward, even if Section 215 expires—is that the meaning of words does matter. Two central ones in this case are “relevance” and “investigation.” The judges found that the government’s argument, in response to the A.C.L.U., amounted to saying that everyone’s phone records were relevant because, someday, “utilizing its ability to sift through the trove of irrelevant data,” the government might find something helpful. The judges added, “The interpretation urged by the government would require a drastic expansion of the term ‘relevance.’ ”

Similarly, the court found that, when the government asked to connect these searches and seizures to a particular investigation, it had a habit of just invoking names of terrorist groups, which has all the specificity of saying that the world is a dangerous place: “Put another way, the government effectively argues that there is only one enormous ‘anti-terrorism’ investigation, and that any records that might ever be of use in developing any aspect of that investigation are relevant to the overall counterterrorism effort.”

Although the court found that the law was being broken, it held off on ruling on the A.C.L.U.’s request for a preliminary injunction that would end the program immediately. That was because, the judges said, of the June 1st deadline. Something would have to change then. The restrictions introduced in the U.S.A. Freedom Act—having companies like Verizon hold onto the records, instead of the government; making sure that searches were more specific—address the same problems that the court recognized. On the other hand, the court noted, “If Congress chooses to authorize such a far-reaching and unprecedented program, it has every opportunity to do so, and to do so unambiguously.” The court’s decision explicitly left open the possibility that, in either of those scenarios, whatever replaced Section 215 would still face a tough constitutional challenge. (And it indicated that it would be better if any higher court dealt with the law in place after June 1st.) Until then, the judges, it seemed, wanted to give Congress room to do the right thing and end an illegal practice.

Congress, of course, has been known to do nothing. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 May 2015 at 3:02 pm

GOP opposes community policing initiatives

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Radley Balko, among his morning links (worth checking), points out:

House Republicans want to kill the DOJ’s community policing office, which “focuses on improving the relations between police departments and their communities.” They also want to cut funding to the civil rights division, which has been investigating police departments that have shown a pattern of constitutional violations.

I truly do not understand the GOP mind, but that’s been obvious for quite a while.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 May 2015 at 2:26 pm

Why do Republicans oppose infrastructure spending?

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First, watch this (and particularly the Hollywood blockbuster trailer that ends the segment):

RETIII reports in DailyKos:

As the Amtrak derailment showed (again), the refusal to spend on infrastructure literally kills.Also, infrastructure spending: (i) is necessary and unavoidable (failure to timely spend on infrastructure increases the deficit in real terms), (ii) improves the gross domestic product and competitiveness, and (iii) is an obvious source for increased employment, particularly in currently hard hit segments.  Moreover, infrastructure spending remains unambiguously popular.  Indeed, infrastructure spending historically has had bipartisan support.

So, why are modern Republicans ideologically opposed to infrastructure spending today?  For example:

In 2012, House Republicans introduced a transportation bill (including cuts in Amtrak subsidies and increases in truck-weight limits) that Ray LaHood, secretary of transportation during Obama’s first term, called “the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service.” LaHood himself had been a seven-term Republican congressman from Illinois before he agreed to serve in Obama’s cabinet.

The most accepted (or easily reported) explanation is that today’s Republican party is dominated by Southern states, the center of heavy infrastructure (and costs) is located in the Northeast, and Republicans refuse to spend on states that don’t vote Republican.  There is truth to this explanation and, frankly, it is not properly reported as part of the wider partisan scandal that it is.  For example, although federal disaster relief is uniformly passed in the wake of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc., the Hurricane Sandy relief bill was passed only when (as one of a few instances) the “Boehner Rule” was lifted to allow a bill to pass with largely Democratic votes. Why?  Because only 70 House Republicans could be found who were willing to vote for federal emergency hurricane relief if the affected area was the the East Coast.  Nice.

While as egregious as that geographic partisanship is, there are also at least four other fundamental reasons that explain the new Republican refusal to invest in infrastructure – all of which are largely undiscussed in general reporting.

1.  Starve the Beast: While Republicans continue to refuse to raise revenue necessary to fund infrastructure spending (traditional Starve the Beast), the latest application – Starve the Beast 2.0 – looks to hold hostage any and all necessary spending for cuts to other, unfavored, government spending.  In that sense, you have to understand the crucial (even threatening) need for infrastructure spending as identical to the “debt ceiling.”  For Republicans, the hundreds of billions to trillions of unmet infrastructure spending represents a massive, annual golden opportunity to extort draconian cuts to social, regulatory, non-defense spending.  That is why Republicans also reject deficit-financing for infrastructure spending (at historically low interest rates) or alternative proposals like a private-public infrastructure bank.  The goal here is not to invest in the country, but to seize upon any vulnerability to “drown the government in a bathtub.”

This is plainly evident, btw.  When President Obama proposed increased infrastructure spending in 2011 Republicans opposed it with a plan that would have “paid for the spending with a $40 billion cut in unspent funding for other domestic programs . . . and would block recent clean air rules and make it harder for the administration to issue new rules.”  In 2014, Eric Cantor explained that  Congress should not be adding new money, but instead streamlining the process for getting current resources to state and local governments.”  In 2015, Republicans opposed Democrats’ proposed additional infrastructure spending by proposing instead to create a “deficit neutral reserve fund,” that didn’t identify the amount of such fund, or how – or whether – it would be funded. Just yesterday I saw Paul Ryan flatly reject any increased spending for infrastructure, regardless of the fatal Amtrack crash.

2.  Privatizing the nation’s infrastructure: This is the big kahuna that the press generally feels uncomfortable reporting.  Republicans – at the behest of their mega-bank/private equity patrons – really, deeply want to privatize the nation’s infrastructure and turn such public resources into privately owned, profit centers.  More than anything else, this privatization fetish explains Republicans’ efforts to gut and discredit public infrastructure, and it runs the gamut from disastrous instances of privatizing private parking meters to plans to privatize the federal highway system.

Indeed, if you listen to Republican proposals for “infrastructure reform,” what you hear is: privatization and a longing for private tolls, tolls, tolls.  As the Cato Institute explained in Senate testimony, now is the time to go back in time:

The way to do that is to reduce hurdles to entrepreneurship and more private investment. Private infrastructure is not a new or untried idea. Urban transit services in America used to be virtually all private. And before the 20th century, private turnpike companies built thousands of miles of toll roads. The takeover of so much infrastructure by governments in the 20th century was a mistake, and policymakers should focus on correcting that overreach.

If the goal is to privatize and monetize public assets, the last thing Republicans are going to do is fund and maintain public confidence in such assets.  Rather, when private equity wants to acquire something, the typical playbook is to first make sure that such assets are what is known as “distressed assets” (i.e., cheaper to buy).

3.   Private Activity Bonds:  This one is a real unreported doozy, and is directly related to both privatization efforts and the Starve the Beast scheme. Known as “Private Activity Bonds,”under current law, state and local governments are allowed, effectively, to delegate the ability to issue tax-free bonds to private corporations and investors.  As a result, the private investors have the lower borrowing costs associated with government financing and the interest earned on such bonds is tax-free at both the federal and state level.  Do you get that?  Local governments are financing the efforts to privatize their own public assets and the private equity investors earn tax free profits on their investment.  Privatization is not just a golden opportunity, but a tax-payer subsidized, tax-free opportunity – – with no demonstrated public benefit:

What is more, the projects are often structured so companies can avoid paying state sales taxes on new equipment and, at times, avoid local property taxes. While some deals might encourage businesses to invest where they might otherwise not have invested, there are few guarantees that job creation or other economic benefits actually occur.

4.  Repeal Labor and Environmental Laws: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 May 2015 at 11:12 am

Wall Street analyst pushed railroads to lobby against safety rules

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Because implementing safety rules would reduce profits, and profits are the God of Wall Street. Lee Fang reports in The Intercept:

Positive Train Control, a technology system used to monitor trains and automatically keep them from reaching unsafe speeds, would likely have prevented the tragic Amtrak derailment earlier this week and many other train crashes in recent years, according to the National Transportation Safety Board and train safety experts.

But ever since Congress passed a law in 2008 requiring train companies to implement PTC by the end of 2015, the railroad industry has mounted a ferocious lobbying campaign to delay the rule.

Amtrak, like many other railroads, has been slow to comply. The federal government has been accommodating. And most recently, senators have been fighting primarily over how long an extension should be granted.

Train companies did not want to invest the needed funds to upgrade their systems. But they may have been feeling direct pressure from Wall Street, as well.

In one revealing exchange during an investor call in 2009, Jason Seidl, then a financial analyst with the Dahlman Rose & Co. investment bank, asked Wick Moorman, the chief executive of Norfolk Southern Corp., what “you guys can do in terms of lobbying” on the PTC. And given the costs of complying with the PTC rule, the analyst wanted to know how future investments might be impacted.

Moorman said he and other rail executives were busy working to “educate members of Congress as to what the implications of this legislation are.” Seidl encouraged Moorman to “further educate” them.

Lobbying and other government records show the rail industry extensively sought to influence the Federal Railroad Administration and Congress on the PTC rules. Individual rail companies, including Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, CSX, Canada National Railway Company, among others, hired a small army of lobbyists.

But the largest and most prominent lobbying group to work to delay and weaken the PTC rule was the American Association of Railroads, which employed a veritable who’s who of D.C. consultants and lobbyists, including: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 May 2015 at 3:16 pm

Rendell Blasts GOP ‘SOBs’ Who Didn’t Have ‘Decency’ To Delay Amtrak Vote

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UPDATE: See also Adam Gopnik’s column “The Plot Against Trains” at the New Yorker. So far as the GOP hatred of subsidizing railroads, they might want to consider that our highways, roads, and streets are totally subsidized except for a few toll roads. Maintenance of transportation infrastructure has traditionally been seen as a government responsibility, but the government has been shirking its responsibilities in order to grant more money to the extremely wealthy.

It did strike me that the Republicans in Congress showed too much eagerness to cut the Amtrak budget the day after the terrible crash (caused in part by previous Amtrak budget cuts that did not allow safety measures to be implemented in time). Caitlin MacNeal writes at TPM:

“Here, less than 12 hours after seven people died, these SOBs, and that’s all I can call them, these SOBs didn’t even have the decency to table the vote,” he said.

Hayes, who said he was playing devil’s advocate, pressed Rendell, asking why the accident should influence a vote on the budget.

Rendell said that Republicans’ “policy is terrible.”

“This country used to have the world’s best infrastructure,” he continued.

Rendell then recalled testifying about transportation funding in Congress while he was governor of Pennsylvania.

“Senator Shelby said, ‘Well governor, you’re asking us to subsidize Amtrak.’ I said, ‘Senator, there isn’t a rail system in the world that isn’t subsidized,'” Rendell said. “What are these guys smoking?” . . .

Continue reading. Video clip at the link.

See also this informative NY Times article by Michael Shear and Jad Mouawad:

The Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night was equipped with an automatic speed control system that officials say could have prevented the wreck, which killed eight passengers and injured hundreds. But the system, which was tantalizingly close to being operational, was delayed by budgetary shortfalls, technical hurdles and bureaucratic rules, officials said Thursday.

In 2008, Congress ordered the installation of what are known as positive train control systems, which can detect an out-of-control, speeding train and automatically slow it down. But because lawmakers failed to provide the railroads access to the wireless frequencies required to make the system work, Amtrak was forced to negotiate for airwaves owned by private companies that are often used in mobile broadband.

Officials said Amtrak had made installation of the congressionally mandated safety system a priority and was ahead of most other railroads around the country.

But the railroad struggled for four years to buy the rights to airwaves in the Northeast Corridor that would have allowed them to turn the system on.

“The transponders were on the tracks,” said one person who attended a Thursday morning briefing for congressional staff members. “But they also said they weren’t operational, because of this ongoing spectrum issue.”

Despite the delays, the system may have been just months from being operational when Northeast Regional Train No. 188 careered into a sharp curve at over 100 miles per hour, twice the posted speed, and hurtled off the tracks Tuesday night. The Federal Communications Commission had approved Amtrak’s application for the purchase of wireless spectrum from an entity called Skybridge Spectrum Foundation on March 5, clearing the way for final tests on the system, a spokeswoman for the commission said.

If the system had been operational, “there wouldn’t have been this accident,” said Representative Robert A. Brady, Democrat of Pennsylvania. . .

Continue reading. Later in the article:

. . . Still, several federal officials and safety experts defended Amtrak’s record. Many pointed out that the railroads was one of the few in the United States that were on schedule to meet a federal deadline to have positive train control technology operational before the end of the year.

“Amtrak has been in a leadership role on this,” said Mark Rosenker, a former chairman of the safety board. “They were talking about positive train control when I was at the board.”

Railroads other than Amtrak, particularly freight railroads, have been much slower to implement these systems, citing the technological challenges, shortages in equipment and the availability of radio spectrum, among other issues.

“The sad irony in this accident is that Amtrak is further along than almost anybody in reaching their deployment of positive train control,” said Joseph C. Szabo, a former administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. “They have been very steady and very committed. So much has been done.”

Edward R. Hamberger, chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, said railroads would not complete the installation of all systems for positive train control until the end of 2018. After that, he estimated, it will take about two years to test that all components of the system work together correctly.

To date, he said, railroads have installed the technology on about 8,200 miles of tracks, out of 60,000 miles where the technology is federally required. At the end of last year, about 15 percent of locomotives were fully equipped, and railroads had installed about 56 percent of the track systems.

Railroad officials said Thursday that installation of the safety system on tracks across the country was also hampered for more than a year by longstanding F.C.C. rules that required environmental and preservation reviews before the safety system’s antennas could be installed in historic areas or near tribal lands. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

15 May 2015 at 10:41 am

As Train Crash Death Toll Reaches 8, GOP Votes to Cut Amtrak Budget by $250M & Delay Safety Upgrades

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It occurs to me that part of the decline of the US is that the GOP is actively working to hasten the decline—see headline, for example, or see the earlier post today about how the South Carolina legislature prevented the man from getting medical care. Democracy Now! has a video report and transcript. Their blurb:

The death toll from Tuesday’s Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia is now at seven and is expected to rise. About a dozen passengers are still missing. Authorities now say the train was traveling at about 106 miles per hour, more than double the speed limit, as it headed into a steep curve. National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said the accident would have been preventable if Amtrak had installed positive train control technology on that section of track.

Just hours after the crash, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee rejected a Democratic amendment to offer $825 million to speed up positive train control implementation. In addition, the committee voted to cut Amtrak’s budget by $250 million. We speak to Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFLCIO, which represents two million transportation workers, including the vast majority of Amtrak workers, and David Sirota, senior writer at the International Business Times. His recent piece is headlined “Lawmakers Moved to Delay Rail Safety Rule Weeks Before Philadelphia Derailment.”

Written by LeisureGuy

14 May 2015 at 11:59 am

Posted in Congress, GOP, Government


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