Nel's New Day

December 12, 2014

Holidays Take Privacy, Pensions

The torture report and then the fight over letting banks destroy the country again became the media focus during the past few days. At the same time, the week brought even scarier events than Halloween:

Congress passed a 47-page intelligence bill that increases the government’s warrantless surveillance powers. Despite protests from Rep. Justin Amash (R-WI) to stop the bill, it passed over the objections of 55 Democrats and 45 Republicans. Amash claims that the provision “grants the executive branch virtually unlimited access to the communications of every American.” The Senate unanimously passed the measure which gives statutory authority for surveillance of private communications previously existing only under Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order 12333.

The intent of this executive order, just as the intent of the PATRIOT Act allowing for mass collections of domestic phone metadata, is foreign surveillance, but an unknown amount of U.S. data is “incidentally” tracked. There is nothing, however, to keep the NSA from collecting and storing all communication if it occurs outside the United States. Former State Department official John Napier Tye wrote:

“No warrant or court approval is required, and such collection never need be reported to Congress. None of the reforms that Obama announced earlier this year will affect such collection.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) said that the language is “the exact opposite of what the House passed this summer,” requiring the NSA to obtain a warrant before reading Americans’ private messages that were collected through a program intended to target foreigners. Backers praise the measure because it limits communications data storage to five years with some exceptions, but that is typically the length of time these communications are kept at intelligence agencies.

President Obama had promised to reform the massive domestic spying, but a bill to begin a control of the government surveillance died in the Senate because of 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.

While Congress increased surveillance, the House failed to pass a bill unanimously accepted by the usually rancorous Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act would have made Freedom of Information requests easier with potentially faster response times. It called on all agencies to have a “presumption of disclosure” to all FOIA decisions and set up a central online method for FOIA requests under the Office of Management and Budget. The bill would also require agencies to release information publicly once it is released to individual journalists.

The Senate unanimously approved its version last Monday. If the House had endorsed the Senate version, the bill would have gone off to the president for a signature. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) did not explain why he wouldn’t bring the bill up for a vote, but it’s probably because the result would be increased transparency. It would reform Exemption 5, used—and abused—to protect inter- or intra-agency communications. Another change would be that government records withheld using this exemption can be de-classified after 25 years. The bill also includes a provision that says agencies must prove that actual harm will occur before they use many exemptions.

The failure demonstrates that Boehner will not allow any bill that Democrats support. Or maybe he wants everyone in the country under surveillance except for Congress.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is almost gone, but she had a parting shot—bombing Iran. At the White House holiday part for congressional members, she told President Obama that he should bomb nuclear facilities in Iran. When he didn’t immediately agree with her, she spread the word that he didn’t treat her well:

“And he got his condescending smile on his face and laughed at me and said, ‘Well, Michele, it’s just not that easy.’ And I said to him, ‘No, Mr. President, you’re the president, [Iran’s nuclear weapon] will happen on your watch, and you’ll have to answer to the world for this.’ And that was it and then I left. Merry Christmas.”

Secretary of State John Kerry reported that negotiations between Iran and six countries—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—may have an agreement by February or March. Conservatives want more sanctions on Iran which the president has said will destroy the talks.  Bachmann is also upset about military budget cuts, Guantanamo Bay prisoners releases, and the end of the CIA torture program.

Having failed to become president herself and no longer running for Congress, Bachmann plans to give speeches across the country and write op-eds before the 2016 election. Unlike Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, opponents for the 2012 presidency, Bachmann hasn’t declared her own candidacy—yet.

In another failure of privacy within the United States, two million cars, one-fourth of those on sub-prime loans, have GPS-based kill switches allowing the vehicles to be remotely shut off at any time. One woman was on a three-lane freeway when her car stopped; another woman who had left her abusive husband to go to a shelter was tracked down by a subprime lender.

Financial analysts estimate about a quarter of all automotive loans are subprime with that number climbing as consumer debt continues to rise. These loans can be highly lucrative for lenders, with interest rates that can be well over 20% sweetened by the late fees. Nearly 4% of all subprime auto loans are more than 60 days late, up by 3% from 2013. Wisconsin is the only state that presently bans these starter-interrupt devices.

Technology may play a part in apartment renters behind on payments. Electronic lock systems can remotely or automatically lock out the renters.

Conservatives are vying to see how petty they can be. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) suggested defunding Air Force One. Rep. Paul C. Broun (R-GA), who is gone from Congress in 19 days, asked Boehner to not call for the president’s traditional State of the Union speech. Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, encouraged this action:

“If I were John Boehner, I’d say to the president: ‘Send us your State of the Union in writing. You’re not welcome in our chamber.’”

When ousted House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Congressional Republicans tried to block President Clinton from delivering his State of the Union address in 1999, his approval rating shot up to 69 percent. Boehner won’t take this action, however, because he’ll want to be seen sitting next to future Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Another scary move GOP congressional members have threatened is keeping funds from Homeland Security, the source of Secret Service salaries. Many far-right federal legislators have threatened this because it also funds immigration services.

The cruelty of the GOP representatives is perhaps best illustrated by the provision in the House version of the $1.1 trillion spending bill to cut pension benefits for over one million retired and current truck drivers, construction workers, and other union workers. Multi-employer pension plans covering over 10 million people have struggled with major investment losses, putting a strain on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation which insures pension plans.

According to the House spending bill, plans projected to run out of money in the next 10 to 20 years can cut benefits to those under 80 years old. About 10 percent of the 1,400 multi-employer pension plans, covering over 1 million workers and retirees, meet this criterion. Current law prevents cutting benefits from those already retired, but troubled plans can reduce benefits that employees earn going forward and raise employee and employer contributions despite the fact that retirees have paid for their pensions through years of contributions. The bill requires participant and government approval for cuts, but plans could still make cuts if retirees vote against it.

Welcome to the lump of coal in your Christmas stocking, your reward for a Republican congress.


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