Nel's New Day

December 10, 2013

The Poor on Human Rights Day

Sixty-five years ago, the United Nations adopted the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights; its drafting committee was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt because of her expertise. The document, celebrated every December 10’s Human Rights Day, defines the world’s commitment to human rights as “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Human rights standards for everyone include “the right to life, liberty and nationality, to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, to work, to be educated, [and] to take part in government.”

From the beginning of years of the 21st century, the United States has been increasingly negligent about human rights as the government supported torture, unjustified imprisonment, and other unethical and illegal violence. Within this country, however, the government has failed millions of people in poverty as Congress has increasingly failed to support a safety net while creating an economy that promotes this poverty.

Because of  bad or nonexistent legislation and a president who struggled to compromise with recalcitrant, extortionist lawmakers in the House, the poor are in the midst of a losing game. The sequester that further puts the screws to the poor digs deeper on January 1, one week after the Christian holiday that celebrates a compassionate Jesus. Here are a few experiences, the poor can expect, thanks to GOP House members:

Homelessness: Budget cuts from increased sequestration will take rental assistance vouchers away from 140,000 low-income families by the beginning of next year, making housing more expensive as agencies raise costs to offset the budget cuts. About three million disabled seniors and families will be affected to save the $2 billion that the government shutdown cost in back-pay to federal workers.

Cold: Those who can stay in their homes may not be able to heat it. Sequester cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) meant that 300,000 low-income families in 2013 were denied government support for energy costs. 

Hunger: The recent reduction in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, affecting more than 47 million Americans, is the largest wholesale cut in the program since Congress passed the first Food Stamps Act in 1964. Those cuts were made on November 1, but the House isn’t satisfied. Their goal is to take $39 billion from SNAP during the next decade. The result is loss of benefits for 3.8 million low-income people in the upcoming year. An additional 2.8 million will lose benefits each year. Last year alone, SNAP kept 4 million people out of poverty.

Cutting SNAP is just a start in creating more hunger. Cuts to Meals on Wheels will cost poor seniors 4 to 18 million meals next year.  The Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which provides health care referrals and nutrition to poor pregnant and postpartum women and children up to age five, took cuts of $500 million this year with far more next year.

Lack of Education: Head Start started to take children out of its program last March and removed 57,000 children from their classrooms in September. More than half of the public schools fired personnel because of cuts. Forty percent of children who don’t receive early childhood education are more likely to become a parent as a teenager, 25 percent are more likely to drop out of school, and 70 percent are more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

Joblessness: The unemployment program in the United States is one of the worst in the developed world, and it’s getting worse. People out of work for 27 weeks or more–40 percent of the unemployed –have already begun and will continue to lose a large portion of their benefits between January and March. Eight percent of this year’s sequestration cuts are coming from unemployment insurance.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has given the party line that the GOP is doing unemployed people a favor by taking away their benefits because that will force them to get jobs. Evidence shows that government assistance helps the job searches of 4.4 million people. On January 1, 1.3 million will lose the extended jobless benefits if Congress doesn’t take action—which looks highly unlikely. Cuts to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF, or welfare) means even less of safety net.

A proposed shift in Social Security would keep fewer jobs available for the unemployed. President Obama proposes cuts in this program for 2014 through a new formula called Chained CPI. Instead of building an economy that contributes more taxes to the Social Security program, the government plans to keep more money out of circulation, causing more joblessness from fewer consumers.

Sickness: In the 25 states where GOP governors have refused to accept federal funding for Medicaid, a gap between the state’s version of Medicaid and the level for exchanges leaves more than 5 million people in poverty without health insurance. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the part of the Affordable Care Act requiring all states to extend Medicaid to people with household income up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level despite the federal government picking up the entire tab for the first three years and then gradually phased back to 90 percent.

The law states that people over 100 percent of the poverty line can go to exchanges, but those under 100 percent are ineligible. It was assumed that Medicaid would take care of them. The GOP governors changed all that. Coverage in Texas is almost non-existent for the poor: Medicaid is available to only these making less than 25 percent of the poverty level. A family of three cannot participate on the exchange if they make over $4,000, the state’s level for Medicaid, and $19,500, 100 percent poverty level.

Today, a bipartisan Congressional committee chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) released a two-year budget plan that they hope will pass both chambers. The poor is sure to not benefit from Paul’s work. He continues to believe that poverty can be cured by “spiritual redemption” as he again said in a speech last week at the Heritage Foundation. There were no specifics of how religion will put food on the table.

A missing part of the budget deal is any tax reform. Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s low tax rate is a prime example of the nation’s tax abuses. The “carried-interest loophole” allows investors to have their entire income taxed as if they were capital gains, saving them 19.6 percent on income over $400,000. Using the 20-percent capital gain tax rate instead of the 39.9-percent income rate takes $25 billion from the government and lowers the percentage of taxes paid by the wealthy below those in the middle class.

The refusal of 25 GOP governors to accept federal Medicaid funding is both driving up rates in their own states’ exchanges by 15 percent and returning billions of dollars back to the federal government. That means that everyone on exchanges have to pay much more, and the state doesn’t have the jobs resulting from improved economy that the federal infusion would provide. Just 15 of these states, including Texas, have turned down $8.4 billion in assistance.

The estimate of reduction to the deficit from the ACA has increased since the original projections. In 2020, Medicare spending will be $137 billion lower than thought in 2010, and Medicaid spending will be 16 percent, $85 billion, lower. Private health insurance premiums are expected to be about 9 percent lower. These projections are assuming a temporary slowdown, but the savings could actually be $750 billion over a decade.

The proposed deal is split between revenues through fees and spending cuts. Travelers will pay higher prices on airline tickets, and federal workers will have to contribute more to pensions. Millionaires and billionaires are safe from higher taxes. Defense spending takes half reduction of sequestration for 2014 of $45 billion, and non-defense discretionary spending takes the rest. The sequester’s cuts to mandatory spending are not affected. There is no chance of an extension for unemployment benefits.

As of today, the House plans to vote on Friday to pass the budget deal and delay the SGR’s cuts to Medicare’s doctor pay. There are no changes to Social Security and Medicare in the deal, but amendments can always change that. If conservatives have their way there will be another “continuing resolution” for a few days so that Republicans can avoid talking about issues such as jobs.

 

The struggle will be between the Republicans who are afraid that they will lose their next elections because the country knows they are unreasonable and the extremists who believe that no one can defeat. Three years ago, the mainstream Republicans thought the Tea Party would save them. Now they see them as a menace.

cartoon snake tea party

Later this week, the fight begins as conservative Republicans push to inflict the poor with more homelessness, cold, hunger, lack of education and jobs, and sickness because they think the poor deserve to suffer. Even if today is Human Rights Day.

January 2, 2013

GOP Passes Tax Cuts, Otherwise Fails

After stalling for two months, the House finally decided late last night to support the Senate version of the fiscal cliff bill one day before the end of the 112th Congress. Although the end vote was bipartisan, the Republicans were badly split: Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) voted in favor; House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R- CA) opposed.

Grover Norquist can’t complain about the tax increase on the top 2 percent because it wasn’t really an increase. According to the GOP, the taxes went up on midnight of 12/31/12; the new bill lowered the taxes on the bottom 98 percent and left the top 2 percent the same. They think like children do.

Provisions of the new law:

  • Tax rates will revert to the ones in 2001 for families making over $450,000 and individuals over $400,000. All income below these amounts, basically the bottom 98 percent of the people in the United States, will permanently remain at the current level.
  • Taxes on capital gains and dividends are permanently set at 20 percent for the top 2 percent and stay at 15 percent for everyone else. [Clinton-era taxes were 20 percent for capital gains with dividends taxed as ordinary income, topping out at 39.6 percent.]
  • The estate tax is permanently 40 percent for the top 2 percent ($450,000/$400,000), indexed to inflation, with a $5 million exemption.
  • The pay freeze for Congress, lifted by President Obama this week, has been re-imposed.
  • The 2009 expansion of tax breaks for low-income Americans: the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit ($2,500 tax credit to help college students and their families pay for tuition and related expenses) will be extended for five years.
  • The Alternative Minimum Tax, which sometimes raised taxes for the middle class, has been fixed.
  • Two limits on tax exemptions and deductions for higher-income Americans will be reimposed: Personal Exemption Phaseout (PEP) will be set at $250,000 and the itemized deduction limitation (Pease) kicks in at $300,000.
  • Extended for the coming year are the full package of temporary business tax breaks, federal unemployment insurance that benefits those unemployed for longer than 26 weeks, and avoidance of Medicare cuts to doctors.
  • A farm bill fix is good for nine months, probably keeping the price of milk the same.

After two months of wallowing in the possible disaster of the tax-cut situation, the climate of antagonism and fear will continue for the next two months.  That’s when the debt ceiling expires, and Congress has to approve its increase. The Republicans will spend most of their time claiming that raising the debt ceiling costs us money. It doesn’t. Raising the debt ceiling just allows the United States to pay their bills; it doesn’t spend any additional money.

The sequester, the across-the-board spending cuts of $110 million both domestic and military, has not been settled, just delayed for two months. And the payroll tax “holiday” has expired, raising taxes 2 percent for Social Security on the first $113,700 of wages.

Thus the GOP will rattle their sabers for two months about raising the age for Social Security, lowering the payments, and screaming about how “entitlements”—that people have already paid for—are the reason for the deficit instead of the Bush tax cuts and wars that cost the country over $4 trillion.

The fiscal cliff bill did provide bonuses to corporations in the form of subsidies.

  • NASCAR – Sec 312 extended the “seven year recovery period for motorsports entertainment complex property.” That means the tax breaks for anyone who builds a racetrack and related facilities to the tune of $43 million during the next two years.
  • Railroads – Sec. 306 provides tax credits to certain railroads, private businesses, for maintaining their tracks which costs taxpayers about $165 million a year.
  • Movies – Sec. 317 costs about $150 million for two years by providing a subsidy to Hollywood studios.
  • Mining Companies – Sec. 307 and Sec. 316 offer tax incentives for miners to buy safety equipment and train their employees on mine safety because laws can’t make companies protect their workers.
  • Goldman Sachs Headquarters – Sec. 328 extends “tax exempt financing” an extension of post-9/11 recovery funds that pretty much goes to “fancy Manhattan apartments and office towers for Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Corp,” according to Bloomberg. That paid Goldman $1.6 billion in tax-free financing for its new headquarters through Liberty Bonds.
  • Off-shore Loophole for banks – Sec. 322 allows American corporations such as banks and manufacturers to avoid taxes on certain lending practices. Those benefiting from the $9 billion include GE, Caterpillar, and JP Morgan.
  • Foreign Subsidiaries – Sec. 323 extends the “Look-through treatment of payments between related CFCs under foreign personal holding company income rules.” This provision cost $1.5 billion from 2010 and 2011 and allows U.S. multinationals to not pay taxes on income earned by companies they own abroad.
  • Bonus Depreciation, R&D Tax Credit was projected to cost $8 billion for 2010 and 2011, and the depreciation provisions were projected to cost about $110 billion for those two years, with some of that made up in later years.

The Joint Committee on Taxation in 2010 did an analysis of what many of these extenders cost, more than the over $100 billion per year listed above.

While the Republicans were stalling on the fiscal cliff bill, they refused to address the issue of the money needed after Superstorm Sandy. After the House adjourned on Tuesday night without passing the $60.4 billion Sandy relief package that the Senate approved last week, many GOP members affected by the storm became livid. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) told people in New York and New Jersey to not donate one cent to congressional Republicans.

Boehner felt so threatened that he promised to address the bill on Friday. That’s after the 112th Congress ends, meaning that both House and Senate have to restart the entire legislative process. Chris Christie, New Jersey governor, used much stronger language when he charged that the GOP put politics “before our oaths to serve our citizens”:

 “Our people were played last night as a pawn. Last night, the House of Representatives failed that most basic test of public service and they did so with callous indifference to the suffering of the people of my state. There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims: the House majority and their Speaker John Boehner. [Historically] disaster relief was something that you didn’t play games with, but now in this current atmosphere everything is a subject of one-upmanship. It is why the American people hate Congress.”

Christie finished by emphatically saying, “Shame on you, shame on Congress.”

Boehner may back down on the Sandy relief bill, but it appears that after 18 years, the Violence against Women Act is gone.  Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Democratic point person on VAWA, said:

“The House Republican leadership’s failure to take up and pass the Senate’s bipartisan and inclusive VAWA bill is inexcusable. This is a bill that passed with 68 votes in the Senate and that extends the bill’s protections to 30 million more women. But this seems to be how House Republican leadership operates. No matter how broad the bipartisan support, no matter who gets hurt in the process, the politics of the right wing of their party always comes first.”

If proponents succeed in reviving the bill in the 113th Congress, there will still be far fewer resources available for state and local governments to combat domestic violence until they succeed. The original VAWA was drafted in the office of then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) in 1994; maybe the vice-president can resurrect his creation.

At this time, no one knows if Boehner will even continue as Speaker of the House. Conservatives claim that they have enough votes to oust him. Again, they are behaving like children. No one has come out for Boehner’s job because they are afraid, and no one will try a coup if they aren’t 100 percent positive that they will succeed. Boehner has already taken retribution against his opposition, and he’ll continue to do that.

So Boehner stays, the House GOP will cause Congress to be the same failure for the next two years, and the bottom 98 percent won’t have to pay more taxes.

August 6, 2012

Where Is Congress? And the Jobs?

Today is Monday, and many workers went back to work. Those  people at work don’t include the members of the U.S. House of Representatives: they’re off on a month vacation. Their excuse for all this time off is that they need to listen to their constituents. More likely, they are fund-raising and campaigning, working very hard to get re-elected for another two years.

Last year the House calendar listed 175 legislative days. Those included the 17 pro forma days when a few of them marched into session, said they were there, and then left in order to keep President Obama from making any recess appointments. Therefore, they were in working sessions for fewer than 44 percent of the days. Most people with full-time jobs work 250 days a year, so the representatives’ days in session were fewer than 64 percent of the days employers require for full-time work.

This year the House plans to meet an average of three days for 26 weeks. They list a fourth day at the beginning of the week most of the time, but those days all state that there will be no vote before 6:30. At the other end of the week, days indicate no votes after 3:00 pm. So they leave for the weekend at 3 and don’t get back until 6:30 pm three days later. This means fewer than 100 working days during the entire year. Fortunately for them, they only have to work one month after they get back in September because they won’t be in Washington for the last four weeks of October—except for the one who calls the House into session twice a week to again stop the president from carrying out his constitutional right.

If they actually accomplished something while they were physically in the nation’s capitol, they might be forgiven for their absence this month. Two years ago, this House was elected because candidates promised that they would get jobs for people and reduce the unemployment that George W. Bush created during his eight years. Instead, they have worked to reduce the safety net for all people in the country.

Despite the desperate plight of farmers and ranchers from the horrendous drought throughout the country, the Congress failed to pass any emergency aid for them. The House failed to consider the five-year farm measure, providing only a short-term, $383 million package of loans and grants for livestock producers and a limited number of farmers. In disgust, the Senate ignored the bill because the House would not even discuss the broader legislation. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Agriculture Committee, said that her committee would work during August to put together a new measure for the House.

Without any legislation, livestock producers have lost their safety net program for feed losses. Their only recourse is to find another source of feed or sell or kill off animals. Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-OK) told the Republicans in the House, “If you want to leave people hurting, I guess that’s your choice.”

The House also declared an anti-abortion bill for Washington, D.C. a priority, but it failed because of the two-thirds requirement. Banning abortions after 20 weeks, it would have prevented up to 1.5 percent of abortions performed. Meanwhile some Senate members have been busy adding anti-abortion amendments to any bill available: Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) tried to attach on to the bill providing federal flood insurance. In June, the House passed a Homeland Security spending bill that includes a provision to bar Immigration and Customs Enforcement from providing abortions for illegal immigrant detainees. This hasn’t happened since 2003.

The Violence against Women Act is still being held hostage by conservative lawmakers. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) pointed out last Friday that “it has now been more than 300 days since VAWA expired, a timeline that has also seen the deaths of more than 1,100 women due to domestic violence.” She continued, “In April, the Senate passed VAWA by a vote of 68-31, a rare bipartisan feat that included 15 Republicans.”  The House refuses to take action.

While the Senate Finance Committee voted to renew tax breaks for businesses such as biodiesel and wind energy, the House has passed a bill to erase these breaks. While not discussing the farm bill and VAWA, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) reintroduced an English-only bill at a House Judiciary subcommittee. The bill has 122 co-sponsors.

Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) wants a law exempting honoraria won by U.S. Olympic medalists from taxes to show the country’s appreciation. On the Senate side, Marco Rubio  (R-FL) introduced the Olympic Tax Elimination Act, which would “exempt U.S. Olympic medal winners from paying taxes on their hard-earned medals.” It’s a moot point because the $25,000 won for a gold medal won’t result in much taxes unless the athlete makes over $250,000 after exemptions for training, uniforms, etc.

The day before the representatives walked off the job for a five-week vacation, Rep. Paul Labrador (D-ID) joined three Republicans in proposing a bill to clarify that the individual mandate in the 2010 healthcare law, and associated penalties for not buying health insurance, “shall not be construed as a tax.” Once again the conservatives are trying to do away with health care for the people of the United States.

The House did pass a measure (H.R. 4078) last week that would prevent any new regulations—or even actions leading up to their proposal—until the unemployment rate reaches 6 percent, pretty much an impossibility. Even former Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert from New York objected to the measure and wrote an article entitled, “GOP right wing is serious about disabling government.” He wrote, “The legislation might as well just directly order the agencies that were created to protect the public to close up shop.”

The measure turned out to be more of a joke than the Republicans intended. First, a typo that said “employment” rather than “unemployment” gave the meaning that new regulations would be suspended until unemployment reached 94 percent. In repairing that problem, they referred to H.Res. 783 instead of H.Res. 738. In a desperate move to make Democrats vote quickly on all these issues about a bill that has almost no chance of being law, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) reminded the opposition that life is short, a reference to the mass murder in Aurora (CO) the week before.

Another successful bill in the House was one that would fire federal employees if they don’t pay their income tax. More than 96 percent of federal employees pay their taxes on time, and laws exist to take care of this. The issue with the IRS is that the conservative lawmakers keep cutting back on their funding so that they cannot pursue people who fail to pay taxes.

The summary of House floor activities presents a compendium of legislative trivia that includes authorizing battery recharging stations for privately owned vehicles in parking areas under the jurisdiction of the House of Representatives and authorizing the use of the rotunda of the Capitol for the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Unfinished business included preventing abuse of government charge cards. The summary shows micro-management to excess.

Although Congress avoids most compromises, the Senate and the House did agree to tighten sanctions against Iran. In addition, a tentative agreement would keep the government operating after the end of the fiscal year on September 30 until March 31, but the measure hasn’t passed either the House of Senate. Conservative lawmakers are not known for keeping their promises.

One agreement has conservative bloggers spitting in anger over a bipartisan bill passed last week. The president can now appoint some executive branch and military officers without Senate approval. The far right is still safe in refusing to confirm all the judges that President Obama nominates. President Obama began his administration with 1,215 executive branch positions requiring Senate confirmation. By contrast, fifty years ago President John F. Kennedy had only 286 positions to fill. At the start of the Obama administration, there were 1,215 executive branch positions that required Senate confirmation.

Ted Cruz, the newest Tea Party candidate to defeat an establishment Republican, gave the party line on compromise: “I am perfectly happy to compromise and work with anybody, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians. I’ll work with Martians. If–and the if is critical–they’re willing to cut spending and reduce the debt.” The definition of compromise has been, and continues to be, doing that the Tea Party wants. Running for the Senate in Texas, he will most likely win, contributing to the craziness in Congress.

It’s been over 19 months since the Tea Party hijacked the Congress with the promise that they would solve the unemployment problem. They have enacted just 151 laws in these 19 months, almost 20 percent of them renaming post offices and courthouses or adding people to the Smithsonian board. This is far less than half of any other Congress during the past 64 years, even 15 percent of one Congressional session’s output. The popularity of the Congress, shrunken to 12 percent, is as drastically low as the number of acts.

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