Nel's New Day

October 1, 2016

Be Careful What You Vote For!

Filed under: Legislation — trp2011 @ 12:02 AM
Tags: ,

When in doubt, attack the government. That’s what George W. Bush did in 2003—and he didn’t even attack the government of 9/11 attackers! And attacking a government for the action of 15 of its citizens is what Congress just did.

Just days after the 15th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by 19 individuals, Congress passed Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) allowing any U.S. citizen to sue any country with the claim that the country financed or otherwise aided and abetted a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. People in the U.S. could already sue countries designated as “state sponsors of terrorism”; currently, that list includes only three countries—Iran, Syria and Sudan—because the designation is assigned only after very careful review by national security, intelligence and foreign policy officials. It isn’t left to private litigants and judges.

Congress has voted not once but twice to throw a long-held principle of international law, sovereign immunity, under the bus by removing countries from immunity from lawsuits in the courts of other countries. JASTA was touted as helping 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia through the court system, but it also allows courts to waive claims to foreign sovereign immunity in situations involving acts of terrorism on U.S. soil. Congress passed the bill, and after President Obama vetoed the bill, Congress passed an override to his veto in the first time of the seven years, eight months, and eight days of the president’s terms.

Many legislators who voted in favor of the override are now saying “oops!” while President Obama has the right to say “I told you so.” After 123 Democrats and 225 Republicans of 425 representatives in the House and 97 out of 98 senators voted for the override, they’re beginning to consider the consequences of a law that might produce laws in other countries that force U.S. government officials and military members into foreign courts. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said that these lawsuits would expose the U.S. to tremendous liability although he voted in favor of the law. He said, “We’ve got assets deployed all around the world more than any country. So if sovereign immunity recedes, we’re the nation that is most exposed.” While voting for the law, Corker said that Congress “has [not] functioned in an appropriate manner as it relates to a very important piece of legislation.”

President Obama warned that there could be lawsuits against the U.S. for “actions taken by members of an armed group that received U.S. assistance, misuse of U.S. military equipment by foreign forces, or abuses committed by police units that received U.S. training.” There has to be proof of liability, but U.S. taxpayers will be on the hook for fighting the vastly increasing number of lawsuits.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said:

“The biggest issue is that [JASTA is] … not limited to Saudi Arabia, and it’s likely to have a much larger impact on the U.S. government than the Saudi government, because the U.S. government takes rules very seriously.”

He gave an example of lawsuits filed against the federal government by victims of drone strikes and other American military activities. John B. Bellinger III, who served as the State Department’s legal adviser from 2005 to 2009, said measures in other countries “are hardly likely to be as precise and surgical as our Congress has been.”

An immediate reaction from Saudi Arabia could be their removal of hundreds of billions of dollars in assets from the U.S. causing problems for the economy.

GOP congressional leaders are now saying that they need to revisit the law—the day before they left town until after the general election that occurs in 40 days. “I’d like to think that there’s a way we could fix [it] so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas, while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) who supported the bill in public statements without casting a vote in the override. You think, Rep. Ryan!? Yet the man who controls legislative access to all bills hasn’t said that he will address the issue in the lame duck session in November and December.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who did vote for the override, said that the law could have “unintended ramifications” and needed “further discussion.” You think!? McConnell laid the blame on the passage of the override on the White House because it didn’t make a forceful argument about its threats to U.S. officials. The bill has been pending only seven years, but McConnell claimed that “nobody had really focused on the potential downsides in terms of our international relationships.” [I always worry when I know more about the “potential downsides” than members of the congress, especially those who have been there forever and call themselves “leaders.”]

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that comments from lawmakers [such as those like McConnell] are a “deeply embarrassing” display of “rapid-onset buyer’s remorse.” He added:

“The suggestion on the part of some members of the Senate was that they didn’t know what they were voting on, that they didn’t understand the negative consequences of the bill. That’s a hard suggestion to take seriously. All of that communications was made public before Congress passed the first vote to put this bill into law yesterday. Ignorance is not an excuse, particularly when it comes to our national security and the safety and security of our diplomats and our service members.”

The White House told legislators that the bill is too broad and could set a dangerous precedent, inviting other nations to respond by suing American diplomats, military personnel and other officials in foreign courts over U.S. foreign policy actions. What part of that information didn’t the legislators understand? The vast majority of legislators ignored statements from not only the White House but also national security officials, the European Union’s delegation to the United States, and business leaders who warned the law will damage relations with Saudi Arabia and encourage other countries to pass laws that would allow them to target U.S. officials. Yet the GOP, which can’t find time to replace a Supreme Court justice or pass a long-term budget bill, pushed through the bill before the current recess.

The understanding about JASTA’s disastrous effects seemed to come during the voting. Before the Senate finished voting 97-1 to override Obama’s veto, 28 senators signed a letter that they would support legislation to blunt its impact if [when?] other countries retaliate. [Here’s the letter with the signatures. Check for your senator if you can read the handwriting!] Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), whose signature I didn’t see on the letter, said: “I’m for the 9/11 families having their day in court, but I’m also for not exposing our people unnecessarily. If you want to go forward in the Mideast without Saudi Arabia as an ally, then be careful what you wish for.”

The only senator seeming to have an understanding of the bill, Majority Harry Reid (D-NV), was the only senator to have complete understanding of the bill’s ramifications. Sens. Tim Kaine and Bernie Sanders didn’t vote on the bill.

The Republican party has hit a new low: they passed a bad bill that President Obama told them was a bad bill; the president vetoed the bill; the GOP pushed through an override after the president told them again how it was a bad bill; they discovered how bad the bill is; and GOP legislators blamed President Obama for not forcing them to understand that this is a bad bill. As Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) said on All In with Chris Hayes tonight in explaining that the GOP blames President Obama for everything. If Barack Obama walked on water, the GOP would say that he does it because he can’t swim.

Congress may be able to change a terrible vote. Buyer’s remorse for a vote for Donald Trump can’t be taken back. Voters in the United States need to consider what they would get with a man who wants the office of the presidency only for his own benefit. Supporters think that he will take care of him, but Trump takes care of only himself.

September 19, 2016

Media Focuses on Clinton’s Non-Stories, Largely Ignores GOP Zombie Issues

Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s emails are two issues that Republicans refuse to let die, despite tens of investigations into each one that fail to prove anything that the Democratic presidential candidate has done wrong. Today, the Clinton Foundation zombie problems returned when a headline referencing a quote from Bill Clinton read “‘Natural’ For Foundation Donors to Seek Favors.” As usual, the media, determined to make something out of nothing, took this headline out of context from Bill Clinton’s response in an NPR interview:

“It was natural for people who’ve been our political allies and personal friends to call and ask for things. And I trusted the State Department wouldn’t do anything they shouldn’t do.”

Leaked emails show that people aren’t getting the favors that they request, and all the aggressive searching by Hillary haters has found absolutely no “pay for play” from the Clinton Foundation that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

While dwelling on Clinton non-stories, Sunday talk shows ignored the real story about the “pay for play” Trump Foundation already fined for illegal campaign donations to Florida’s AG Pam Bondi in exchange for her dropping an investigation into the fraudulent Trump University. A less biased media would have covered the New York investigation into Trump illegally using the Trump Foundation charity funds to purchase at least one oil painting and one football helmet. Trump has not donated one cent to his “foundation” since 2008 while he gets credit for donating funds that other people gave to his foundation. Instead of reporting on Trump’s “pay for play” violations, the media concentrated on Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis and Trump’s infomercial on Dr. Oz’s show.

The same media largely ignored Kurt Eichenwald’s detailed cover story in Newsweek which reported that Trump’s business interests “will constantly jeopardize the security of the United States” if Trump wins the presidency and does not sever all connections to the Trump Organization. As Eichenwald wrote, the Trump Organization has been “largely ignored” by media despite its “serious conflicts of interest and ethical quagmires” in nearly all foreign policy decisions during a Trump presidency. Eichenwald provides information about the Trump Organization’s “deep ties to global financiers, foreign politicians, and even criminals” and “a web of contractual entanglements that could not be just canceled” which could conflict with presidential major national security decisions and negotiations.

GOP members zombies:

Donald Trump desperately wanted to drop the birther issue after claiming for many years that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States. His giant mistake, however was blaming Clinton for initiating the theory. A strategist had suggested that the 2008 Clinton campaign could use the idea that Barack Obama was “not American,” but Clinton immediately quashed it. There’s no fire where Trump is blowing smoke. Yet campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus repeatedly accused Clinton of starting the birther theory on Sunday talk shows.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went one better. He told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Trump hadn’t said anything about the issue “for a long time.” Fortunately, Tapper, a journalist who believes in telling the truth, reminded Christie that Trump continued birthering for five years after the president released the long-form birth certificate to the public in 2011. A lively exchange of “true” and “not true” ensured followed by Christie saying, “It wasn’t like he was talking about it on a regular basis.” In fact-checking Christie’s claim, the Washington Post wrote:

“This is such bogus spin that we have to wonder how Christie manages to say it with a straight face…. [C]learly Christie is either lying or he is so misinformed that he has no business appearing on television.”

Christie should shift to protecting himself. His involvement in the closure of the George Washington Bridge that created havoc and physical danger to people has returned. While his allies and employees have pled guilty or gone to court in this issue, Christie has stuck to his position that “I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act.” In today’s trial for two of those accused of closing the bridge, both both prosecutors and lawyers for the defendants agree that Christie “knew his close associates were involved in a plan to shut down lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge as it was happening and that the closings were intended to punish a local mayor for declining to support him.”

In 2013, at the time of the event, Christie ridiculed the controversy because his office would never be so petty and partisan. After evidence proved that it was a petty and partisan vendetta, Christie claimed ignorance. The micromanaging governor swore that he had no idea that his top aides used his name to abuse their power. Today Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna has told jurors that David Wildstein and Bill Baroni “bragged” to the governor directly about the scheme to close lanes onto the George Washington Bridge in order to deliberately cripple Fort Lee. The trial is against former top Christie aides Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, but Christie may suffer the fallout, perhaps to the point of being impeached. It already lost him being a potential GOP vice-presidential candidate, and last May, Christie’s approval rating had fallen to 29 percent.

Dick Cheney, another zombie, has come to life in the body of GOP vice-presidential candidate, Mike Pence who said that his role model is the vice-president who put the United States into the preemptive war with Iraq costing the country millions of jobs and trillions of dollars. Cheney’s career as VP was a time of incompetence, lies, opaque ruling, scandal, missing emails, and deadly bad judgment. When he left office, Cheney’s approval rating was 13 percent, about half Richard Nixon’s support at the height of Watergate. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell called Cheney an “idiot.” If Trump were elected and followed his plans, Pence, who sees himself a Cheney clone, “would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy” while Trump would focus on “making America great again.”

The zombie of Ralph Nadar, which may have led to George W. Bush’s appointment as president in 2000, may have returned in the name of Gary Johnson. A rumor circulated last week that Bill Weld might drop out of the race as Libertarian vice-presidential candidate because he didn’t want to be another Nadar. “No chance,” says Gary Johnson, top of the Libertarian ticket. Polling at 9 percent, Johnson is far away from the 15-percent threshold for participating in a presidential candidate debate, an advantage for him because he doesn’t interview well and might lose votes in a debate. Asked on public radio whether he was worried about votes for him leading to Trump as a president, he responded that he didn’t care and that it wouldn’t be his problem.

A pattern in GOP campaigning is to have one message in English and a different one in Spanish. For example, during his successful Nevada senatorial run in 2012, Dean Heller put his hardline immigration policy into English with a softer approach in Spanish. Another shift came from the GOP response to the State of the Union address last year when the Spanish version supported immigration reform—opposite to the message in English. This last spring, Kansas printed the wrong voter registration deadline, six days after the deadline, in the Spanish version and omitted the use of a passport for identification.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) brought this zombie to life in his struggling re-election. In Spanish, McCain brags about seeking comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for children brought illegally to the United States; the English skips over these policies and draws an image of McCain as hardcore immigration control. After this “translation” was questioned, a campaign spokesperson said that the website versions were “never intended to be identical.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blocking the budget bill has aroused the zombie of shutting down the government. Congress has only 11 more days—two “working weeks” before a the government closes down, but McConnell “delayed” a procedural vote until 2:15 pm tomorrow. At least the bill may allow Puerto Rico’s Planned Parenthood clinic to access federal grants to fight the Zika virus, a provision that had held up the bill for several months. In his arrogant manner, McConnell said that “Senate Republicans stand ready to move forward” and wants Democrats to “complete negotiations,” something that they have been willing to do for some time.

Asked about the agreement, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said, “Close is relative.” The Dems also want funding for the Flint (MI) water crisis to be in the mix, something the GOP turns down.

Ideally two weeks is enough time, but the bill must be sent to the House, returned, and then reconciled while ultra-conservatives in that chamber demand itty-bitty budget bills instead of an omnibus which go into next year instead of being a stopgap that returns—in zombie fashion—on December 9 this year.

Just a few zombies from people who ignore history.

September 10, 2016

Good News While Congress Stays in Gridlock

The Obama administration made two monumental decisions this week.

Contractors building a pipeline attacked protesters with mace and dogs as they blocked construction on federal land and asked the company to suspend nearby work, and a federal judge refused to block the $3.7 billion pipeline crossing four states. Two hundred Native American tribes were joined by activists and celebrities to oppose the pipeline. The U.S. Departments of Justice, Army, and Interior stopped the pipeline, however, and said that “this case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects

With their tribal land a half-mile from the proposed pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux declared that the pipeline would desecrate sacred burial and prayer sites as well as leak oil into their water source of the Missouri and Cannon Ball rivers. The government will not authorize construction at Lake Oahe and asked the contractors to stop work on other land. The proposed 1,100-mile pipeline was to take crude oil from North Dakota, Montana, and Canada to the U.S. Gulf.

The company driving the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partner, originally promised that all the oil would stay in the United States and lessen the nation’s independence on foreign fossil fuel, but they have withdrawn this guarantee after their successful lobbying to remove the 40-year ban on crude oil exports. The company’s filing with the SEC notes that “export projects” will “balance this market [with general oversupply] by 2018.” It also lists the pipeline as a “leader in the export of hydrocarbons.” In a presentation, Energy Transfer Partners stated that it is “exceptionally well positioned to capitalize on U.S. energy exports.”

The second welcome federal decision last week is a proposed rule from the Department of Health and Human Services that would eliminate Title X funding to states cutting Planned Parenthood funding. PP uses about $70 million to serve over 1.1 million patients with incomes under $23,500 with contraceptives and screenings for cancer and STDs. Although none of the Title X funding can be used for abortions, 11 states have blocked PP funds. Congressional Republicans are also so intent on defunding PP that they won’t provide funding to protect people in the U.S. from the Zika virus.

PP is also attacking the Zika virus through the distribution of Zika prevention kits and education where the virus is shown to be spreading. Yet some high-risk states for the virus—Florida, Louisiana, and Texas—have blocked PP funds. In Florida alone, 84 pregnant women are currently infected with Zika. The most recent research shows that most of these women will give birth to infants with birth defects. About 84 pregnant women in Florida are currently infected with Zika, officials have said.

The 30-day public comment on this rule ends on October 7, 2016. Women who need the services of Planned Parenthood will appreciate all the support they can get. This is the link to the give a comment.  http://www.regulations.gov/document?D=HHS_FRDOC_0001-0645

Good things may happen in threes. This week, the House finally passed the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights after the Senate passed its version last May. The bill mandates that victims be informed of rape kits’ results and legal status as well as preventing victims from being charged for the processing the kits. The law applies only to federal cases, but it’s a start.

Otherwise, Congress has spent its first four days after a long session doing almost nothing. They did pass a bill allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts, but it could lead to retaliation against U.S. citizens by other countries. At this time, victims can sue a country designated as a state sponsor of terrorism; this bill would allow citizens to sue countries without that designation. Although 15 of the 19 perpetrators of 9/11 tragedy came from Saudi Arabia, there is no proof that Saudi Arabia instigated the attack.

The problem about the bill comes from the concept of “sovereign immunity,” giving foreign governments immunity from prosecution in U.S. courts, according to the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FISA).  As “state sponsors of terror,” Syria, Iran, and Sudan are the only exempt countries from FISA. Congress claims that the bill just passed would make only an exemption for this one lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, but legal experts have said that it would expand exemptions to any countries that commit the same terrorism defined in the legislation.

The bill may lead to other countries passing similar sovereign immunity exceptions, putting the U.S. at risk of being sued by their citizens. For example, Iraq could pass a law permitting its citizens the right to sue the U.S. government for damages during the Iraq War. If the U.S. lost its case in Iraqi courts, then the Iraqi government could seize U.S. assets in their country to pay the victims. Saudi Arabia has threatened that it would pull its assets out of the U.S. if the bill became law. The end result of this law might be to increase chaos in foreign policy process and undermines the ability of the president to craft a careful, cohesive foreign policy for all people in the nation.

The president has another nine days to make a decision on the bill.

As low as the bar has been put for Donald Trump, it’s even lower for Congress. Its only goal during September before they leave for another two months is “don’t close the government.” Even a stopgap funding bill has become difficult. The far-right Freedom Caucus wants one that goes into next year so that newly elected legislators can decide the budget. The others want one to end in December because they fear that next year will have fewer Republicans.

The first problem attacked on the first day of this session was the standoff in funds for combating the Zika virus. Republicans refuse to support the funding without eradicating all funds for Planned Parenthood. The Senate added more blackmail with demanding that environmental regulations on pesticides be loosened before granting Zika-related funds. The government has been taking anti-Zika funds from other areas, but all the funding is gone by the end of September.

A 52-46 procedural vote kept the Senate from moving forward to end debate on a conference report with the House about Zika funding, the third time that the proposal has failed because of targets against Planned Parenthood. The bill was attached to spending on military construction and veterans affairs, giving McConnell a chance to announce that Democrats opposed veterans. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said:

“Republicans were more interested in attacking Planned Parenthood and flying the confederate flag. Can’t make that stuff up — that’s really the truth — than protecting women and babies from this awful virus.”

The White House asked for $1.9 billion, but the Senate offered only $350 million in new money and moved the rest of the proposed $1.1 billion from other health accounts, including the fund for fighting the Ebola virus.

While Congress dithered, “the number of Zika cases in the U.S. more than doubled to 2,700, and people infected with the virus turned up in every state,” an LA Times editorial. “A total of 17 babies have been born with Zika-related birth defects, and about 1,600 pregnant women are known to have been exposed. And those are just the cases we know about; some 80 percent of those infected with the disease have mild or no symptoms.”

Another “big” issue in the House is an argument about impeaching IRS Commissioner John Koskinen for something done before he got the job. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has caved into the Freedom Caucus’ demand to put the issue up for a vote despite claims from GOP leaders and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) that Koskin is guilty of incompetence, not a crime. Only once—in 1876—has the House voted to impeach a Cabinet member and never to an executive branch official below the Cabinet rank. Any action from the House would require a two-thirds majority from the Senate for conviction, an unlikely possibility.  Opposed to the impeachment is a group of 123 tax-law professionals, the American College of Tax Counsel, and a group of former IRS commissioners.

As Democrats pointed out, the House is pursuing what they see as “baseless attacks” while ignoring “urgent issues”—“Zika virus, the Flint water crisis, the opioid crisis, and gun violence.” Ryan has his own priorities: his next one is probably to “punish” the Democrats who held a 25-hour sit-in because he wouldn’t bring any gun legislation to the floor. The man in control of whether any bill ever reaches a vote in Congress said about the sit-in, “That’s not the way that a democracy works.”

A year ago, the Freedom Caucus got rid of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH); now they have their sights set on Paul Ryan when he comes up for speaker again in January. The 40-member group is even considering a departure from the 180-member House Republican Study Committee if the conservative group won’t let the far-right members of the House take over. A three-way split in the House could greatly benefit Democrats even if they don’t achieve a majority.

At least Congress will be gone in another three weeks. The question is whether the government will stay open after September 30.

July 16, 2016

Congress Takes Seven-Week Vacation

Congress hobbled out of town two days ago for a seven-week recess, one of the longest in its modern history after they filed a resolution to impeach the IRS commissioner, John A. Koskinen, who had nothing to do with the issue of asking political Tea Party PACs to show that they weren’t political. Another witch hunt was the committee to destroy Planned Parenthood and anyone who had any relationship—no matter how intangential. Thus far, its efforts have been as unproductive as the multi-million-dollar effort to find an involvement between Hillary Clinton and the deaths at Benghazi, Libya.

Two bills – both bad jokes – were sent to the president for signing: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and opioids.

The bill to “label” foods with GMO ingredients was designed to stop states from taking action on this issue after the federal government had refused to deal with it. The so-called “label” is a small square code that must be scanned with a smart phone for a person to get information. An option for small food companies is printing a website URL or phone number where customers can request information about the GMO content. Not all ingredients must be identified, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture gets to pick which ones. For example, refined products such as soy oil or sugar from beets might be exempt because they are made from GMO crops but the final product supposedly doesn’t contain GMO material. Corn, an ingredient in a great deal of food products, may also be exempted from the labeling requirement.

The Agriculture Department also determines the quantity of GMO material before requiring identification, leaving many products with GMOs unidentified with a high threshold. In addition, penalties for noncompliant companies are minimal or none, and the bill prevents any states, including those that have already passed labeling laws, from regulations requiring actual information on food labels.

The bill is largely thanks to Sens. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who have received more than $2.1 million in campaign contributions this cycle from agribusiness donors. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fast-tracked the bill with no amendments or debate by pasting the content into the empty shell of a bill that had already been passed by the Senate, but not enacted into law. The act was passed by a vote of 63-30.

The FDA pointed out a number of loopholes, and labels won’t start appearing for at least two years. Nicknamed the “Deny Americans the Right to Know” (DARK Act), the bill is in opposition to the 90 percent of people in the nation who want clear labeling for GMOs.

The second bad joke in recently passed bills addresses the painkiller overdose epidemic. The bill that was passed and sent on to the president includes a pain management task force, research, better access to treatment options and drug rehabilitation instead of incarceration. The bill, however, doesn’t provide any funding. President Obama had proposed $1 billion, and Democrats tried to get $920 million in funding. The GOP rejected both.

The rising death tolls from overdoses of painkillers came from the pharmaceutical industry pushing higher and higher levels of prescribing opioids for even minor pain. Thirteen years ago, Purdue Pharma gave doctors 34,000 coupons for free OxyContin prescriptions along with OxyContin “fishing hats, stuffed plush toys, coffee mugs with heat activated messages, music compact discs, [and] luggage tags.” Within ten years, the prescriptions for opioids almost tripled from 1991. Pharma-paid doctors changed pain guidelines to favor opioids.

The bill allows greater access to buprenorphine, a medicine treating addiction, from 100 to 275 patients at a time. Nurses and other medical professionals can also administer the drug. Corporations will now make money from buprenorphine, as addictive as opioids, that gives a high as does OxyContin. While Congress rewards pharmaceutical companies with more money for another addictive drug, it ignores the fact that deaths from painkillers are down 25 percent in states with medical marijuana.

The House passed a $32 billion spending bill for the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency that rolled back regulations on coal-fired power plants, but it’s only the fifth of twelve funding bills for Cabinet agencies. It passed, also on party lines, a bill to impose new sanctions on Iran and the Conscience Protection Act, which prohibits the government from discriminating against health care providers who do not want to perform or cooperate in abortions.

The House “celebrated” the one-month anniversary of the massacre at the LGBT nightclub in Orlando (FL) where 50 people died with a hearing on anti-LGBT legislation to allow anyone to avoid federal protections for LGBT couples and families with an excuse of religious liberty. Those who discriminate would have no legal repercussions, financial or otherwise, for refusing to provide spousal tax, medical, or educational benefits, to same-gender couples. The measure is similar to a Mississippi law overturned by a federal judge  because it would in reality hurt religious liberty by favoring certain beliefs over others. As of April 2016 over one hundred active bills across 22 states legalized discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

The House’s approval of its financial services appropriations bill repealed a law passed by Washington, D.C. that protects workers from employer retaliation over reproductive health choices such using birth control, getting a baby, or obtaining an abortion. Congress has control over the city’s laws and budget because it does not have state status.

That’s what Congress “accomplished.” Their failures? A major one is that ignoring the Zika virus epidemic. When a few cases of Ebola came to the United States in 2014, lawmakers went to pieces and approved $5.4 billion in emergency funding. Yet Florida has over 300 Zika cases reported, among the almost 1,200 cases confirmed in continental U.S. Pregnant women infected with the virus can carry fetuses with a number of birth defects, including microcephaly that causes abnormally small heads in fetuses. Caring for each microcephalic child can cost between $1 million and $10 million.

As of June, seven babies had been born in the U.S .with Zika-related birth defects. A baby was born with microcephaly in Texas on the day that Congress left Washington for the rest of the summer. Zika is also linked with Guillain-Barré syndrome with possible permanent nerve damage and paralysis.  The virus is transmitted either by mosquito bites or through sex and extremely difficult to track because 80 percent of infected people do not exhibit symptoms.

The Zika virus is a public health crisis in the nation, and Congress disappeared from Washington for seven weeks, perhaps hoping that the mosquitoes will be dead by the time they get back. A bill would provide emergency resources for vaccine development, mosquito control efforts, and other research into containment and prevention. House Republicans refused to move the bill forward without restricting abortion, overturning clean water regulations, defunding part of the Affordable Care Act, and undoing the ban on flying the Confederate flag at federal cemeteries. Republicans insisted on blocking Planned Parenthood funding in Puerto Rico to fight the virus, and Democrats voted against the measure.

House Speaker Paul Ryan managed to get out of town before Democrats could stage another sit-in to demand votes for gun safety measures. He had promised to put an NRA-approved gun bill on the floor but called it off after protests from GOP conservatives. Senate Republicans had previously blocked a bill to keep people on the federal terrorist list from buying guns. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said, “This is going to be a long, hot summer for people who aren’t going to be able to take nice long vacations, people who are in our streets fearing for our children, people wondering why Congress has failed.”

The Senate has not moved on a new Supreme Court justice and done little for other judicial approvals. A $575 billion Pentagon funding bill failed because of concern that it would boost defense while freezing domestic programs and unravel the hard-fought budget deal from last year reversing caps on both Pentagon and domestic budget lines. No resolution means that September may bring a stopgap  spending measure to stave off a shutdown.

Lawmakers, mostly in the House, have already been debating whether to write a short-term government spending measure that runs into December or a six-month stopgap measure that would expire in March under a new Congress and president. The last two election years for presidents saw funding bills pushed into March following the election.

The GOP House “celebrated” the one-month anniversary of the massacre at the LGBT nightclub in Orlando (FL) where 50 people died with a hearing on anti-LGBT legislation to allow anyone to avoid federal protections for LGBT couples and families with an excuse of religious liberty. The bill would permit those who discriminate to have no legal repercussions, financial or otherwise, for refusing to provide spousal tax, medical, or educational benefits, to same-gender couples. The measure is similar to a Mississippi law overturned by a federal judge  because it would in reality hurt religious liberty by favoring certain beliefs over others. As of April 2016 over one hundred active bills across 22 states legalized discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

Maybe it’s a good thing that congressional members left town.

March 31, 2016

“Small Government” in Kentucky, Alabama

bevins hammerWhen GOP Matt Bevin ran for Kentucky’s governor, he promised to save the people by doing away from the dreaded “Obamacare” in the state. Republicans elected him, and he kept his promise. Under the former governor, the state’s health care, KYNECT, was a model for the country in its coverage for over 500,000 people.

Here is what happened with the Tea Party’s new state computer system:

  • Benefind—Bevin’s new system to replace KYNECT for—has shut people out of their online accounts or entirely eliminated their health coverage with no warning and no explanation.
  • Children have been cut off from Medicaid coverage.
  • People who visit overcrowded state offices where they are forced to wait hours—sometimes an entire day—to see anyone. Or they are forced to come back the next day after the computers crash.
  • The helpline is available only from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm, limiting access for people who work those hours.
  • The recorded message sends people to a website which has many glitches, is hard to use, and provides no help for people without computers or Internet access.
  • People looking for help in public benefits now are forced to wait hours or days as they repeatedly call the helpline that gives them only a recorded message before hanging up.
  • People who can’t get coverage are cutting back on their medications and ending up in the hospitals’ emergency rooms multiple times.
  • Over 500 workers statewide trained to help people sign up for health coverage cannot access Benefind and thus cannot help people to apply for coverage or fix problems with their coverage.
  • People who formerly provided proof of citizenship can no longer get health coverage until they resubmit the documentation.

Bevin’s answer? On YouTube, he says, “I’m aware of and sensitive to your frustrations.”

Republicans who say that big government doesn’t work may be right—when they’re trying to operate it.

[Personal comment: Today I spent over two hours on the telephone with insurance companies and pharmacies on behalf of my partner. One of her medications cannot be generic; therefore she needs prior approval from her insurance company to pay for the brand medication. She has prior approval, but the insurance company will not send her anything in writing to prove it. Even after that, the cost of the medication with differs from $87 to $1500 for a ninety-day supply—with insurance.

I called three pharmacies multiple times to find the prices. All of them started out by stating that they couldn’t do that without the prescription although one of them said on the opening telephone message that it would give the prices of medications for Medicare. The cheapest pharmacy, gave three different prices on three different calls, but refused to give any written verification. It will take faxes for the prescription but won’t send a fax to request the prescription from the pharmacy that holds the prescription. That pharmacy will fax the prescription on but only after it is asked. Another prescription will require a doctor’s visit.

I’m retired—sort of—and have the time to make the calls during the daytime when these places are open. I’m also determined and willing to take on the problems of these calls. After a drastic increase in my blood pressure over the two hours, I can’t imagine the pain that people in Kentucky are now enduring—just because the GOP doesn’t like “big government” and probably people. Then there’s the issue of a different in almost $6,000 for a prescription from a local pharmacy and the “mail-in” part of a huge insurance company. These problems are something that could be changed by single-payer or universal health care, but it might violate our freedom. Big business loves our freedom because it gives them trillions of dollars.]

Did I mention that Republicans hate “big government”? Here’s a fine example of how they legislate it. Mississippi just passed the “Religious Liberty Accommodations Act,” yet to be signed by GOP Gov. Phil Bryant, allowing discrimination against sex by anyone except a male/female couple after marriage. According to the language, an unmarried couple having sex in their personal bedroom is breaking the law if signed by Bryant.

In another Southern state, the big story out of Alabama less than two weeks ago showed GOP Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley governing the state by giving an 80 percent increase in salary to four cabinet members, an extra $73,405 each, after signing a bill banning all cities from raising the minimum wage—the federally mandated $7.25 an hour. These salary increases were the biggest, but dozens of other people—cabinet and staff members—also got sizeable raises.

Last August Bentley defunded Planned Parenthood in the state before a federal judge overturned his move. Taxpayers had to pay for the legal fees. Last December Bentley diverted funding from the 2010 BP oil spill recovery effort to renovate a second Governor’s mansion on the Gulf Coast. In January he took 45,000 people off food stamps if they weren’t supporting minor children. Each of these people had received only $194 a month.

bentleyThis month, however, things got very bad for Robert Bentley after it was revealed that he is having phone sex—and maybe more—with his top aide, Rebecah Mason, on “burner” phones bought at Best Buy. (To find details, just Google the situation.) Rumors have been swirling about his infidelities for quite a while, but they became much more open after his wife of 50 years filed for divorce. He first denied the accusations, despite the tapes played on the media, and then asked for forgiveness. Just for his infidelity and not for refusing poor women health care, causing people to go hungry, appropriating funds for his own personal use, and trying to block LGBT rights in the name of “family values.” Bentley supporters complain that the emphasis in the country shouldn’t be on sex—no problem as long as conservative laws don’t prioritize sex in their “big government” prohibitions.

Although some lawmakers talk about impeaching Bentley, he says he won’t quit. His former Baptist pastor talked about “church discipline” and said that Bentley is no longer a member of the Tuscaloosa congregation where he was once a deacon. The subject of Bentley’s desire has resigned, wanting to spend more time at home with her family, but her husband, state director of the state faith-based initiative office, remains at his job.

Mason’s company was paid over $328,000 during the past three years, more than his cabinet members before their 80 percent raise. She may have been received much more than this. Although Mason served as Bentley’s top aide, she didn’t have to file financial disclosure forms because she wasn’t designated as a state employee.

Alabama has trouble with politicians: a former governor is in prison for corruption, and the speaker of the State House of Representatives is to stand trial this year on 23 felony charges of ethics violations.

Bentley is using his position to investigate two men for blogging about his alleged affair with political adviser Rebekah Mason. He ordered the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the Law Enforcement Tactical System (LETS) to find incriminating evidence against attorney Donald V. Watkins, and Legal Schnauzer blogger, Roger Shuler. Some people question whether Bentley broke any laws in his love fest, but Watkins claims investigations will find “wire and mail fraud, money laundering, conspiracy, and racketeering violations under federal law, among other charges …[in circumventing] public oversight, transparency and competitive bid laws by channeling millions of public dollars into entities like the Workforce Councils of Alabama and others legitimate agencies and then directing the recipient agency to execute vendor contracts with certain special friends and supporters.”

The U.S. House Freedom Caucus, each making an annual salary of $174,000, is working toward “small government”by not going to work. Despite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)’s claim that the entire last year of the presidential term is a “lame-duck session,” the HFC understands that this time is only the approximately 75 days between the general election and the new president’s inauguration. Members hope to not go into session for this time, causing only 17 days in session after July 15 and  zero days after September 30. They have to wait until April 12 to do this because they aren’t in session.

Conservative House members have already killed the budget and the appropriations process for the year, and the government can’t operate after September 30 without a continuing resolution to maintain last year’s spending levels. HFC board member Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) described the lame-duck session as “a bunch of people who have already either quit, retired or been fired by their constituents decide they still want to vote on major stuff.” He admitted that quitting work that early this year wouldn’t look good for the legislators. He also said, “When you’re one of the people who tends to think most of what we do here is screwed up in the first place, then the less we do, maybe the better.”

That’s life in the world of conservatives who want “small government.”

February 29, 2016

Supreme Court in Flux

Justice Clarence Thomas celebrated his tenth anniversary of not asking questions during oral arguments in a case about gun rights. He fired off not one but ten questions to Justice Department lawyer Ilana H. Eisenstein, who was defending a federal law that bans anyone with a misdemeanor domestic violence conviction from owning a gun. Two Maine men claimed that pleading guilty to hitting their partners shouldn’t stop them from owning guns. Thomas’ focus asked about any other area in which “a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right.” The sound of Thomas’ voice produced “audible gasps” from the audience.

The case, Voisine v. United States, isn’t about the Second Amendment although Thomas tried to make it the issue. The high court agreed to review only the question of whether law can be violated by reckless conduct rather than intentional actions and refused the petition’s second question, whether the ban on possession of firearms by individuals convicted of domestic violence violated their rights under the Second Amendment. A 4-4 split would hold up the ruling from the 1st Circuit Court that rejected the men’s arguments.

Despite constitutional law, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee announced that the committee will not hold hearings on any of President Obama’s nominees for the Supreme Court. In addition, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) stated that will not support a vote and may not accept a White House invitation to talk about a nominee. Grassley said:

“I don’t care if I ever go down in history. I’m here to do my job.”

Grassley’s job is to fulfill his duties, honor the U.S. Constitution, and prepare for confirmation hearings. Instead, he puts his ideological interests ahead of his job—one that pays $174,000 a year. Grassley is also blocking the nomination of a top health official in revenge for the Obama administration’s not investigating Planned Parenthood for the 12th time.

Scalia’s death came almost exactly in the middle of the current court term, and several cases with serious consequences will be determined by a court split between four progressives and four conservatives—with one of those sometimes voting with the progressives. For these cases, a split will retain the lower court’s decision, and a 5-3 will probably turn progressive.

Former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell: Scalia’s death may put him in prison. Convicted of all 11 corruption-related charges against him, he was sentenced to two years in prison. The 4th Circuit Court affirmed his conviction, but the Supreme Court decided to hear the case. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may let McDonnell out of jail because she narrowed what counted as honest services fraud in Skilling (2010). That was for a CEO, however, and not an elected official.

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association: A wealthy organization tried to stop public sector unions from collecting mandatory dues to fund collective bargaining. The lower court ruled against them, meaning that the unions in California and 22 other states keep their right to collect dues with a 4-4 split or majority in their favor.

Evenwel v. Abbott: Texas attempted to distort the “one-person, one-vote” democracy, established in Reynolds v. Sims (1964), by claiming that districts are determined not by residents but eligible voters. The lower court upheld counting all residents. With Scalia’s vote, many states might be forced to redraw their congressional maps to give more power to white voters and less to communities with large numbers of immigrants.

Zubik v. Burwell: The relationship between “religious liberty” and the Affordable Care Act, first covered in Hobby Lobby, reappears in this case of whether signing forms opting out of providing contraceptives for employees violates a corporation’s religious beliefs. Every circuit court except the 8th upheld the president’s administration rules allowing women to obtain health plans that cover birth control through corporations’ statements that they will not provide this insurance. Justice Anthony Kennedy may vote with progressives to uphold the rules, but a split could discriminate against women in the 8th Circuit (Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota).

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt: In this threat to Roe v. Wade, the case covers an appeal from a lower court allowing burdensome restrictions on clinics that perform abortions. A 4-4 tie would allow Texas to create these restrictions, but it would not require the rest of the country to accept them. If Justice Anthony Kennedy sides with the four progressives because the Texas law exerts an “undue burden,” the Texas decision would be overturned.

Fisher v. University of Texas: This zombie case that just won’t die also comes from Texas. The affirmative action case concerns the school’s including race in its admissions plan. This decision gets only seven votes because Justice Elena Kagan recused herself after working on the case when she was solicitor general. If Kennedy moves to the right, the court will strike down the university’s affirmative action program will be struck down. Scalia’s death eliminates the possibility of a tie vote.

There’s no doubt of how Scalia would vote. Among other egregious statements during oral arguments, he said that he was not “impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer” Black students. He added, “Maybe it ought to have fewer. I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many Blacks as possible.” Kennedy seems to lean toward affirmative action, which would allow the University of Texas to retain its current policy.

United States v. Texas: The three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit upheld a federal district ruling against President Obama’s plan to defer deportation for almost five million undocumented immigrants and refused to stay that decision. A 4-4 split would be a win for Texas, defeating the president’s program in three states—Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi—but authorizations could proceed in the other 12 circuit courts.

Carbon emissions reductions: President Obama charged the EPA with a 32-percent reduction by 2030, but the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the plan with a 5-4 emergency order, put on hold pending a decision from the DC Circuit Court. The generally liberal court refused to grant the stay before the high court made this move and will hear the case this summer. Two of the three judges on the panel of the lower court assigned to hear the case are Democratic appointees, and the third, a George W. Bush appointee, leans toward supporting the EPA plan.

The high court could decide to rehear cases with a 4-4 split when a ninth justice is confirmed.

The impact of Scalia’s death has already been felt: Dow Chemical has decided not to appeal a $1.06 billion judgment against them and settle for $835 million. A 2013 Kansas court ruling was found liable for price-fixing through collusion with four other chemical companies in overcharging customers for products used to make urethane foam. Scalia’s death meant that a 4-4 split decision would require Dow to pay the $1.06 billion or they would be facing a more liberal court if President Obama succeeds in putting a justice on the Supreme Court. Dow pulled the case because it needed Scalia’s vote

Dow isn’t alone in wanting a conservative court. Oral arguments indicated that Tyson Foods might lose almost $5.8 million in a class action judgment, and Wal-Mart is also awaiting the results of a $187 million class action suit. Microsoft is trying to throw out a class action lawsuit from Xbox 360 owners claiming the videogame console has a design defect.

Scalia has led conservative judges in curbing class-action litigation against businesses, giving 5-4 victories to Wal-Mart (2011) and Comcast (2013). He has given billions of dollars to corporations by protecting them from liability, limiting access to justice for workers and consumers, and allowing the companies to evade regulations in climate, discrimination, and monopolies. He also gave corporations the right to spend unlimited funds in elections through Citizens United so that they can hire their own legislative members, both state and national. Now, the Supreme Court is evenly split, and progressives have appointed the majority of judges in nine of the 13 federal courts of appeal.

Scalia was a radical right-wing ideologue who used his purported “original” philosophy to support his personal beliefs. He favored unlimited corporate election spending and uncontrolled gun ownership. He opposed reproductive rights, universal health care, same-gender marriage, affirmative action, environmental protection, and rights for voting, immigrants, labor, and LGBT people. Questioned about his vote to appoint George W. Bush as president in 2000, he snapped, “Get over it.” His majority opinion allowing law enforcement to chase people without probably cause or reasonable suspicion, Scalia quoted Proverbs: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.”

As for the GOP position that President Obama shouldn’t nominate a justice, 14 presidents, one-third of the total, appointed 21 justices during presidential election years starting with George Washington. Over half were Republicans includingAbraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ulysses S. Grant. Ronald Reagan’s nomination for justice was approved during his last year. Six presidents filled Supreme Court seats after their successors had been elected—Benjamin Harrison, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, and John Adams.

My comment to the whiny, lying GOP senators? “Get over it.”

January 27, 2016

Koch Brothers’ Underhanded Methods to Control U.S.

Jane Mayer, writer for The New Yorker, has just published Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Her personal adventure with the Koch brothers began five years ago when she learned about private investigators digging into her background. She had just published an in-depth piece chronicling the rise of the “Kochtopus,” headlined “Covert Operations,” which brought the Koch brothers in the limelight that they avoided for decades. Her depiction of them as secretive bankrollers warring against President Obama and environmental safety measures enraged the Koch brothers.

Mayer was first accused of plagiarism when David Strong, reporter at the conservative Daily Caller, asked David Remnick, New Yorker editor, this allegation and sent several pieces that attempt to back up his allegation. New York Post reporter Keith Kelly, who received the same allegations, asked the Daily Caller’s editor Tucker Carlson, about the origins. He couldn’t support the information and dropped it, but Strong refused to talk to Kelly about the story. When the purported victims stated that there was no plagiarism, the accusation collapsed. It took Mayer three years to track the origin.

The Koch machine had hired at least six people, working in borrowed space of the lobbying firm operated by former GOP Rep. J.C. Watts, to investigate Mayer . She noted that a source told her, “If they couldn’t find it, they’d create it.” An unnamed source also told her that the Koch operatives “thought they had you. They thought they were going to be knighted by the Kochs.” The accusation of plagiarism appeared after operatives failed to turn up anything “truly incriminating,” such as a friend from college who later had problems. As Mayer said, “It was 60 years ago.”

The general counsel of Koch Industries also sent a letter to the American Society of Magazine Editors tried to keep the New Yorker from receiving a National Magazine Award for Mayer’s writing about the Koch brothers. That also failed.

Another firm hired to investigate her was Vigilant Resources International, whose founder and chairman, Howard Safir, had been New York City’s police commissioner under the former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Two other people involved in the operation against Mayer were Philip Ellender, who heads Koch’s government affairs arm, and Nancy Pfotenhauer, who has served as president of a nonprofit advocacy group funded by the Kochs. The only person to speak on the record was Ken Spain, spokesman for Koch Industries, who claims that Mayer’s writings about Koch are “grossly inaccurate.” Asked about if he was saying that Mayer’s investigation had not happened, Spain answered, “We stand by the statement.”

It’s understandable why the Koch brothers would want to smear Mayer’s book. She tells about how their father helped build a major oil refinery in Nazi Germany. Fred C. Koch became successful in business in the years immediately preceding World War II. The oil refinery, third largest in the Third Reich and vital to Hitler’s war machine, came from his partnership with U.S. Nazi sympathizer William Rhodes Davis. Fred Koch admired German discipline so much in the 1930s that he hired a fervent Nazi as a governess for his eldest boys.

In 1938, the same year that Hitler’s new laws seized assets and confiscated property from Jews, Fred Koch said, “Although nobody agrees with me, I am of the opinion that the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy, and Japan, simply because they are all working and working hard…. When you contrast the state of mind of Germany today with what it was in 1925 you begin to think that perhaps this course of idleness, feeding at the public trough, dependence on government, etc., with which we are afflicted is not permanent and can be overcome.” Conservatives can trace their current philosophy back to Nazi Germany.

Mayer also writes about the oldest Koch brother, William, participating in blackmail with Charles and David to force David’s twin, Frederick, to relinquish any claim to the family business. If he had not, the other three said that would tell their father that Frederick is gay. This information comes from the 700-page book Stealth: The History of Charles Koch’s Political Activities, that William commissioned to describe Charles’ secret plan to manipulate U.S. politics.

In the 1990s, Koch Industries admitted that it had pocketed millions and millions of dollars by mis-measuring oil from Indian reservations and stealing it. The Koch brothers said that it was an accident, but no other companies had this problem.

Twenty years ago, Koch Industries environmental technician Sally Barnes-Soliz revealed that their Texas refinery was releasing 15 times more than the legal limit of benzene into the atmosphere. When Koch falsified a report by 1/149th of the amount she calculated, she reported that also. Barnes-Soliz got an empty office with no email access, and Koch Industries paid $20 million. She quit in 1999 with an undisclosed settlement.

Dark Money chronicles how a small sect of the ultrarich—Richard Mellon Scaife (heir to the Mellon banking fortune) and Harry and Lynde Bradley (brothers wealthy from military contracts) among them—were largely creators of the current conservative movement, now controlled by Charles and David Koch. With others, these political donors poured hundreds of millions of dollars, usually with little or no public disclosure, into supposedly non-profit organizations for anti-government and anti-tax purposes under the veil of promoting public interest.

The Koch brothers are known for their heavy investment in fossil fuels and their leadership in funding climate change denial. Their “crown jewel” is the Pine Hill Refinery in Rosemount (MN), polluting the air with emissions from heavy “garbage” crude from Alberta’s tar sands by daily importing 25 per cent of the 1.2 million barrels of oil into the U.S.

Charles Koch founded the Cato Institute which issued reports such as “Apocalypse Not: Science, Economics, Environmentalism and the Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn’t Worry about Global Warming.” A non-peer reviewed study claiming that climate change was not endangering polar bears came from Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation with funds from ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute. Other climate denial reports came from funding provided by Scaife, heir to the Gulf Oil fortune, and John Olin, whose companies have manufactured DDT.

The nucleus of the Koch donors comes from an owner of coal reserves, two fracking pioneers, and a variety of oilmen and coal company owners. Between 2003 and 2010, climate denial groups colleged over one-half billion dollars which came from self-identified tax-exempt, philanthropic endeavour,” according to Robert Bruelle, Drexel University professor of sociology.

The Koch brothers attack on climatologist Michael Mann was more successful than the one on Jane Mayer. Co-author of a 1999 study showing the way that the earth’s temperature shot up in the 20th century, Mann was briefly discredited by a hacker who gained access to internal emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. Misconstrued wording in one email about Mann and his research led to congressional Republicans investigating Mann and sending threatening letters to Penn State about their tenured professor. A self-described CIA officer offered Mann’s departmental colleagues $10,000 for any dirt they could find on him. State GOP legislatures withheld Penn State’s funding until the university took action against Mann. He received death threats and opened a letter with white powder. Mann was exonerated, but the episode left a trail of terror for other researchers.

The Koch’s vast network was designed to persuade other wealthy business owners to donate to the Koch-controlled political groups. Scaife, who died in 2014, joined Koch’s cause with over a billion dollars to prevent his inheritance tax by donating its net income to charity for 20 years. Koch-financed groups provided strategies to oppose the Affordable Care Act and climate change mitigation while supporting cuts to Social Security. Mayer reports that in 2011 about then House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) visiting David Koch for help in resolving a debt ceiling stalemate.

The Koch brothers plan to spend almost $1 billion to elect a Republican president this year. And that doesn’t include all the “dark money” that they collect for their ultra-conservative efforts. Jane Mayer describes their recipe for doing this:

“The Kochs have built kind of an assembly line to manufacture political change. And it includes think tanks, which produce papers. It includes advocacy groups, that advocate for policies. And it includes giving money to candidates. And you put those three together, and they’ve pushed against doing anything about climate change on all those three fronts at once. So you get papers that look like they’re real scientific opinions doubting that climate change is real, you get advocacy groups saying we can’t afford to do anything about it, and you get candidates who have to sign a pledge that—their largest political group is Americans for Prosperity.

“They have a pledge that says that if you want to get money from this—from their donors, you have to sign a pledge saying that, if elected, you will do nothing about climate change that requires spending any money on the problem. And 156 members of Congress currently have signed that pledge. So, it sort of is a recipe for how to tie the hands of the country from doing anything on this.”

Charles Koch was a member of the John Birch Society that his father helped found, and both brothers thought that President Eisenhower was a communist and Ronald Reagan was too liberal to be a president. Their attempt to reform the criminal system is based on getting rid of crimes related to pollution, corporate crime, and tax crimes. And they control billions of dollars to push their agenda. That’s what the progressives are facing in this year’s election.

January 21, 2016

Flint’s Poisoned Water Problems Not Disappearing

In the wake of his PR disaster—and the Flint residents’ water disaster—Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder released 249 emails to show that he was not to blame. Heavy redactions in the emails don’t hide the administration’s dismissive and belittling attitude toward people concerned about health issues from the brackish water coming into their homes. After traces of “coliform and fecal coliform bacterium” appeared in the city’s water plant, officials just added chlorine to the water. An email from Snyder’s Chief of Staff shows how the administration refused to take responsibility:

 “I can’t figure out why the state is responsible except that [State Treasurer] Dillon did make the ultimate decision so we’re not able to avoid the subject.”

The emails accused residents of using their children’s health as a “political football” and refused action after a hospital and a university stopped using Flint water because it was corroding their metal instruments.  An email stated that Flint residents were only concerned about the aesthetics of the water, “taste, smell and color being among the top complaints.”

According to Snyder, the released emails represent all the Flint-related correspondence in 2014 and 2015. Missing are the ones from 2013 which began the debacle through key decisions. Aides have been non-committal when asked about release of these emails. Snyder has been “invited” to appear in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on February 3, 2016 regarding the poisoned water that government has provided Flint residents. He has not been “called” to appear because only Republicans can do this.

The EPA may also be asked to appear at a congressional hearing.

A few missing pieces from yesterday’s blog on the Flint water travesty:

In December 2011, Snyder appointed Michael Brown as emergency manager of Flint to replace elected Flint officials and act unilaterally as an extension of state executive power. Brown was George W. Bush’s head of FEMA during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. He sent untrained rescue workers to the disaster area while telling fire and rescue departments not to send trucks or emergency workers without a direct appeal from state or local governments. Three days after the disaster, he told the media that he was not aware that the New Orleans Convention Center housed thousands of evacuees who lacked food and water and blamed those stuck in the city of not choosing to leave the city, despite the lack of transportation. Brown quit the FEMA job days after the hurricane. Later he declared that President Obama wanted the Deepwater Horizon oil spill so that he could “pander to the environmentalists.” Brown lasted in Flint for only nine months.

In March 2013, State treasury and Department of Environmental Quality officials ignored external reports showing that changing the water to the Flint River would not save money Three months later Flint’s emergency manager abandoned Detroit water.

In August 2014, Flint River water violated National Primary Drinking Water Regulations twice with more violations in September and December of that year. Last September, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services claimed that spikes in illnesses from lead were “seasonal and not related to the water supply.”

The first cases of Legionnaires’ disease in Flint in five years appeared two months after the water source was changed. After a year with 47 cases and five deaths, Snyder declared that the epidemic was over, but the numbers doubled in the next months. The incidence of this waterborne bacterial infection that can be deadly for between 5 to 30 percent of those who contract it is nine times greater in Flint than the national average. Doctors had predicted the onslaught of the disease because of iron caused by corrosion. No one will ever know the source of the Legionnaires’ disease because Michigan failed to take the appropriate cultures. The disease could return with warm weather because the state has not done any testing.

EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, the director overseeing a region including Flint, resigned after it was discovered that she told the former Flint mayor that a report from one of its own scientists be concealed until it was vetted and revised.

The EPA has announced an emergency order requiring that the state and city “take a series of immediate steps to address the drinking water contamination in Flint.” It said the city and state’s response to the crisis has been “inadequate to protect public health.” The EPA will take over lead sampling because of repeated delays and a lack of transparency in the water crisis continue to pose “an imminent and substantial” danger to residents. Months after the EPA required corrosion controls be added to Flint’s water system and the water source be shifted back to Lake Huron water from the Flint River, “underlying problems” and “fundamental deficiencies” remain. The state has one day to comply with the order.

Michigan is also ordered to create a public website for all reports and sampling results, and the state is to inventory all homes in Flint with lead service lines. The EPA told Flint and Michigan to establish an independent advisory panel on drinking water issues and required that the city must show “technical, managerial, and financial capacity” before moving to a new Lake Huron water system.

At the U.S. Conference of Mayors, President Obama announced that the federal government will send at least $80 million next week, some of it to be used to rebuild water lines and other city infrastructure. The funding comes from a federal revolving loan fund that provides low-cost loans to eligible entities, including municipalities for water infrastructure projects. Replacing lead service lines and making other infrastructure repairs could cost as much as $1.5 billion.

The EPA, which could also be called to appear at a congressional hearing said to be set for early next month, also requested that its Inspector General evaluate Region 5’s supervision program for public water systems, a move U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., applauded as a way to “better understand how EPA could have helped prevent Flint’s water crisis and what they can do to keep this situation from ever happening again.”

Last September, a Flint lawmaker asked Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Shuette, to investigate the Flint water situation. Schuette, a Republican thought to be considering a gubernatorial run, refused. In December, his staffer said that an investigation was not necessary. Five months after building negative publicity about Flint water, Shuette said he would launch an investigation the day after Snyder asked the president to declare a federal emergency in Flint.

In the weeks after Schuette refused to investigate, national media attention on Flint increased, and on Jan. 14, Republican Governor Rick Snyder asked President Barack Obama to declare a federal emergency. The next day, Schuette had changed his tune. He said that he would launch an investigation “without fear or favor.” He office is already defending state officials in a lawsuit generated by protesting Flint residents alleging that officials ignored evidence of the toxic water.

Under state law, the AG has to represent emergency managers when they are sued, but the entity that the manager runs has to pay for the legal costs. Thus the same person who investigates the water poisoning also protect the officials who did it while the people bringing the law suit must pay for the defense’s legal costs. Schuette has not said whether he will bring in outside counsel.

Gov. Snyder was an accountant with no elected office experience before he took over a state with a population of almost 10 million people. Before the Flint water crisis, he had contemplated a run for president. Snyder is a prime example of what happens when the private sector attempts to take over government functions.

After almost two years of Flint water’s fiasco, the state Department of Environmental Quality Director Keith Creagh said that “we should have been more aggressive. He blames two top officials in the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance for the misinterpretation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, but both officials still have state jobs. They just been reassigned to keep away from the Flint water issues. No one has been fired over the catastrophe.

flint safe to washTen days ago, Rick Snyder told the media that the Flint water is so safe that he would let his grandkids bathe in it. It’s a safe assertion because he doesn’t have grandchildren. This poster on the right has been removed from the government website.

This is Republican leadership at its “finest.”

After I wrote the above, I went into the kitchen and ran the water a few seconds, grateful that I don’t live in a state with governor-appointed emergency managers instead of elected officials.

 

December 18, 2015

Bipartisanship: Both Parties Hate the Omnibus Bill

Congress has decided to keep the government open for the next few months by passing the $1.8 trillion spending and tax bills, spreading holiday cheer and dismay throughout the country. After the House passed the tax bill yesterday by 318 to 109, it passed the spending bill today by 316 to 113 with four Democrats and one Republican not voting. Only 150 of the 247 Republicans voted in favor of it, destroying the Hastert Rule that demands any bills must have GOP support.

The Senate sent the bill to President Barack Obama with a 65-33 vote with six Democrats and independent Bernie Sanders voting no. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) were the only senators not voting. Rubio said during an interview in Muscatine (IA) that he would slow down the bill if not just stopping it while the Senate agreed to a time limit and moved forward.

The president signed the bill into law today.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who voted no, said that the GOP vote was a favor to the new speaker. This bill will send Tea Party constituents into full revolution for the next election. Democrats voted for the bill in spite of the removal of the ban on exporting oil and the absence of a bankruptcy provision for fiscally stressed Puerto Rico. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) got commitments to address the Puerto Rico issues early next year. Meanwhile, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has blamed any problems in the ominibus on the former speaker, who resigned because he couldn’t handle the House.

It was a true bipartisan effort because no one is happy with the result. Democrats did get a permanent renewal for a health plan for 9/11 First Responders that expired October 1 because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) refused to put a vote on the floor. Comedian Jon Stewart, lately of The Daily Show, shamed Republicans and the nation by taking 9/11 First Responders to senate offices. Republicans also got several tax cuts although the bill had no new restrictions on Syrian refugees coming to the U.S.—a recent obsession for the GOP.

Also missing in the omnibus bill was “defunding” Planned Parenthood, a misnomer because PP simply gets paid for its services to Medicaid patients. Early next year Congress plans to use an alternative budget procedure called reconciliation to advance Senate  legislation on a simple majority vote in its continued effort to exchange $390 million to PP for $235 million for community health centers. Many of these give women false information about pregnancy and abortion except in California where the law bans this. President Obama pledged to veto any bill defunding Planned Parenthood. The omnibus bill also failed to defund the Title X family planning or teen pregancy prevention programs or allow employers to block their employees from receiving insurance coverage for abortion.

The deficit hawks went AWOL: the proposed spending bill adds $78 billion a year for the next ten years. Republicans pretend that permanently extended business tax credits don’t add anything to the deficit because they reflect current government spending. Fear of terrorism may also have made the hawks more cooperative, but they will most likely return in full force this next year. It would be nice to think that deficit hawks had figured out that the deficit has fallen sharply in recent years and is now down below 3 percent of GDP, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Across-the-board “sequester” cuts are mostly gone with this bill, and the package has about $700 billion in tax cuts—none of them paid for as the GOP has insisted in the past. Most of the cuts are those set to expire, such as R&D credit for businesses and anti-poverty cuts such as the expanded child tax credit and earned income tax credit. Others are taxes from the Affordable Care Act on insurance companies and medical device manufacturers that are delayed for a year. The two-year delay of the “Cadillac tax” on high-cost health insurance plans levying a 40 percent tax on the most expensive health insurance plans  allows unions to negotiate larger benefits packages instead of higher wages. The tax would not have taken effect until 2018; now it is delayed until 2020. Renewable energy producers received extensions of tax credits for wind and solar that are phased out over five years.

Here’s a chart of the tax cuts:

Taxes Omnibus Bill

Policy riders can be the most controversial items on a spending bill, these these are some of the bad ones that stuck to the final version:

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission cannot require publicly traded corporations to disclose their political spending, making the “dark money” allowed by Citizens United even darker. When the Supreme Court allowed almost unlimited campaigning expenditures because corporations are “people,” it endorsed disclosure of public spending. Congress followed a different path.

Country-of-origin labels for pork and beef have been eliminated; people in the U.S. no longer know the source of their meat.

The four-decade limit on exporting crude oil produced in America has been eliminated. Big Oil can now create fuel shortages in the U.S. by shipping their product to countries that will pay more for oil.

Restrictions on overseas coal financing are limited.

The IRS is prevented from modernizing its vague, outdated rules for political activity by nonprofits, allowing more dark money into elections from groups such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the billionaire Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity.

The president cannot issue an executive order requiring government contractors to disclose their political spending, including donations to nonprofit groups engaged in elections, as a condition of submitting a bid. Contractors can still be required to disclose their donations after they have secured their contract.

Personal privacy took a hit in the “cybersecurity” rider that allows businesses to share information with far less restrictions.

On the positive side, producers of genetically engineered salmon are required to develop guidelines and implement a program for the mandatory labeling of its product. The bill also does nothing to block states from creating their own mandatory labeling laws.

The best news is what was stripped from the final version of the omnibus bill:

Makers of cigars and electronic cigarettes will have to apply retroactively for approval of any products sold after February 2007.

The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law can still force retirement investment advisers to act solely to the benefit of their clients.

The Clean Power Plan rules to limit carbon emissions from U.S. power plants are still in effect as is President Obama’s promise to end federal funds to the global Green Climate Fund, created by the recent Paris agreement.

The Justice Department can still track buyers of multiple long guns although the GOP blocked funding of other research into gun violence.

A pointless rider in the bill: “None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to maintain or establish a computer network unless such network blocks the viewing, downloading, and exchanging of pornography.” The GOP must be trying to protect members of its own party.

The dumbest part of the new spending bill? The Republicans defunded Acorn—again!

“SEC.522 [p. 1,016 of the 2,009-page bill]: None of the funds made available under this or any other Act, or any prior Appropriations Act, may be provided to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), or any of its affiliates, subsidiaries, allied organizations, or successors.”

The anti-poverty group officially closed over five years ago, it has no “affiliates” or “subsidiaries,” but the GOP continues to defund it.

December 17, 2015

Prison Reform: Don’t Trust the Koch Brothers

The United States is the largest police state in the world, with more prisoners than China or Russia both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population. Charles and David Koch, worth over $100 billion by ripping off the middle class and poor as well  as heavy investors in the oil industry, are now backing a bipartisan attempt to reduce the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. which has the highest imprisonment rate in the world, especially burdening the poor and people of color.

While the press has been complimentary about the Koch brothers’ efforts in this arena, the two wealthy men may have a nefarious motive—protecting their corporations to block prosecution of corporate violations of environmental and financial laws designed to protect the public. Their proposed changes would, at the public’s expense, effect more problems in holding executives and their employees responsible for violating U.S. laws while protecting financial interests of the wealthy and corporate leaders. For at least five years, the Kochs and their American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have pushed to increase the “intent” standard for criminal violations, particularly for so-called “white collar” crime and executive suite criminals. The result would provide huge benefits for Koch Industries and their corporate friends.

After the Senate passed bipartisan legislation to make the criminal justice system fairer, the House took a Koch idea that has now passed its Judiciary Committee. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s (R-WI) bill fails to address mass incarceration but instead requires prosecutors to prove that a person or corporation “knowingly” engaged in illegal conduct and additionally “knew” or should have known that the conduct violated federal law. If passed, the bill “would make it much harder for prosecutors to criminally prosecute companies that swindle the public, endanger their workers, poison the environment or otherwise imperil consumers,” said Rob Weissman, President of Public Citizen. Koch Industries is one of Sensenbrenner’s top contributors in this election cycle.

An “intent” requirement called “mens rea” requires that prosecutors prove a person intended to cause harm and violate the law before imposition of long prison sentences. Criminal laws for acts of violence typically have this mandate, but federal law does not have to prove intent in many federal laws for white collar crimes such as environmental violations and financial crimes under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. For example, federal law does not require proof that a company or its leaders intended to violate the law by polluting waterways or crashing the economy. Just the existence of these acts can hold corporations and their leaders criminally liable because of complexity of hierarchy and authority.

The Upper Big Branch Mine disaster killing 29 workers from cost-cutting led to an unusual criminal conviction for the former CEO of Massey Energy. This conviction could not happen with the Koch brothers’ bill in the House. Frank O. Bowman, law professor at the University of Missouri, explained:

“Requiring that prosecutors prove that a corporate executive is both consciously aware of the conduct of their subordinates and consciously aware that the conduct of those subordinates violates criminal law is very, very difficult. This would make [white collar] prosecutions more difficult than they now are, and they are already hard.”

Over-incarceration is not a problem for corporations and their leaders because the Justice Department has a large number of deferred prosecutions in exchange for defendants’ promises not to break the law in the future. Koch’s “intent” standard on all federal crimes would undermine the few corporate criminal prosecutions that could take place. Sensenbrenner’s bill prevents such guilty pleas as the one from Jensen Farms, that killed 33 people from a failure to follow food safety standards with its cantaloupe. The default intent requirement would lessen prosecutions of violations in the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Resource Recovery and Compensation Act (RCRA), etc.

Naturally the Koch brother’s bill protects the Koch Industries. In 2000, Forbes reported that “a federal grand jury indicted the privately held company and four of its employees in September on 97 related charges for alleged violations that took place at the company’s refinery in Corpus Christi, Tex.” The Koch brothers may not have deliberately intended to spew 91 metric tons of toxic chemical benzene into the air and water before hiding their actions from federal investigators. Yet the lack of protections and emissions monitoring resulted in 15 times the legal limit of benzene to be emitted from the refinery. Benzene is a Group 1 carcinogen causing acute myeloid leukemia, lymphocytic leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, reduced production of bone marrow, suppression of T-cells, chromosomal aberrations, reduction of birth weight, and other health problems.

The Koch brothers donated $378,500 directly to George W. Bush’s campaign and the GOP as well as unknown quantities of money to other groups. Bush’s AG, John Ashcroft, reduced the charges for violations, which could have cost the company over $500 million, and dropped all except one count for the Koch Petroleum Group. Koch paid only $20 million.

The Koch brothers said that this experience inspired their interest in criminal justice reform. For example, Koch Industries Associate General Council Marsha Rabiteau gave a presentation titled “Overcriminalization: Liberty, and More, At Risk for Corporations and Their Employees,” with the “intent” requirement to solve any prosecution of corporations. Heritage Foundation has an “Overcriminalization” project, and the Koch-backed National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has a report called “Without Intent: How Congress Is Eroding the Criminal Intent Requirement in Federal Law.”

Rabiteau also maintains that corporations cannot form any “intent” to be held liable for a criminal act—despite the Supreme Court’s declaration that a corporation is a “person” for the purposes of “free speech.” She argues corporate criminal justice law reform is vital to punish wrongdoers “with laws that are clear and adhere to our Anglo-American heritage.” This reference furthers separates white collar criminals from a criminal justice system that largely falls on non-Anglo-Americans.

The debate over the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in 2010 led to two Koch-backed groups, the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Heritage Foundation, issuing a comprehensive joint report and project, “Without Intent,” criticizing “overcriminalization” and the lack of intent requirements in the federal criminal code. The report’s co-author, Tiffany Joslin, is Deputy Chief Counsel for the House Judiciary Crime Subcommittee—chaired by Sensenbrenner—and the report has been repeatedly cited in the congressional debate on criminal justice reform. Fortunately, even intense lobbying didn’t keep “intent” out of the Dodd-Frank Act criminal provisions–at least then. A large part of Koch brothers’ business comes from oil speculation; they created the first oil derivatives in 1986 and worked with then-Sen. Phil Gramm to deregulate energy speculation with credit default swaps in 2000 with the “Enron Loophole.”

Although the Koch brothers’ NACDL received positive press, the group has a large section focused on helping some of the wealthiest white-collar defense firms in the country and reshaping the law to address “overcriminalization” just for corporations. The current Director of NACDL’s White Collar Crime Project, Shana-Tara Regon (now Shana-Tara O’Toole), has testified on Capitol Hill in favor of an intent requirement for white-collar crimes. She has also co-authored op-eds with the Heritage Foundation favoring intent laws, and has represented the organization on the “Congressional Task Force on Overcriminalization.” In 2011, Regon testified before Congress to put “intent” into the white collar crime law, the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which prohibits U.S. corporations from bribing foreign public officials. The FCPA prosecutes an average of 14 cases per year. While Regon testified, the Kochs were involved in a bribery scandal in France.

The Koch-backed ALEC, which increased the number of prisoners and length of prison time through its success in “three strikes you’re out” and “truth in sentencing” bills, now criticizes the lack of intent for white collar crimes. An ALEC focus, however, is prison privatization to benefit its corporate funders such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). When Walmart started funding ALEC, the group pushed bills to create mandatory minimum sentences for shoplifting, enacted new penalties for retail theft, and even added sentencing enhancers for using an emergency exit when shoplifting to fill the private prisons. For corporations however, ALEC adopted the Criminal Intent Protection Act as a “model” bill for states to impose a strict criminal intent requirement.

At the same time as the publication of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, ALEC and other Koch-backed groups worked on voter suppression laws to greatly decrease voting power for people of color. The high-level Koch operative Mike Roman led the perpetuation of voter fraud myths through race-baiting after Barack Obama was elected president.

When the Koch brothers talked about incarceration reform, I had a slight ray of hope. It’s gone.

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