On the Hill this Week

With just a few weeks left before the August break, Congress will try this week to pass a few spending bills for the next fiscal year. And the Senate may address the student loan interest rate hike that took place July 1.

Spending Bills

While work continues on 2014 spending bills, chances are slim that they will be completed by the end of September, when the current continuing resolution expires. Most expect that Congress will again pass a continuing spending resolution to ensure 2014 funding.
Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (S 1243): this bill would spend $54 billion in 2014, $10 billion more than the House version, and is the first spending bill for next year that the Senate has considered.
HR1243
Defense Appropriations Act (HR 2397): This bill spends $512 billion in non-war funding, down about $5 billion from last year’s bill but up $28 billion from current spending levels that include the sequester.
HR2397
As part of the debate on the defense spending bill, House members will be considering amendments to reduce military aid to Egypt and Syria — and limit NSA surveillance. Learn more in this week’s What to Watch with Charlie Mitchell.

In the Senate

Student Loan Interest Rates (S 1334): Congress might also finally pass a bill modifying the interest rate on student loans from the current 6.8 percent. A group of senators said they agreed to a bill last week that would peg the interest rate to the government’s borrowing rate, and the Senate may be in a position to pass this bill.
S1334
Many Democrats oppose the compromise, however, as it could lead the student rate to rise above 6.8% should interest rates rise higher. However, several key Democrats said last week that they support the bill, which would have the immediate effect of lowering the rate from 6.8 percent. The Senate compromise is very similar to a House-passed bill that many Democrats and President Obama said they oppose. As a result, Senate passage of the bill this week, could let the House quickly pass it as well.

In the House

The House may also take up to energy deregulation bills this week:

  • Energy Consumers Relief Act (HR 1852): would block regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency if they have an impact of $1 billion or more and would hurt job creation.
  • Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (HR 2218): would give states permission to set their own standards for managing coal runoff.

Finally, the House will consider up to six, less controversial suspension bills throughout the week:

  • Three Kids Mine Remediation and Reclamation Act (HR 697): conveying park land in Nevada to the city of Henderson, Nevada.
  • HR 1300: amending the Fish and Wildlife Act to reauthorize wildlife volunteer programs.
  • California Coastal National Monument Expansion Act (HR 1411): adding land in California to the National Landscape Conservation System.
  • WMD Intelligence and Information Sharing Act (HR 1542): establishing intelligence activities in the Office of Intelligence and Analysis in the Department of Homeland and security, related to weapons of mass destruction.
  • HR 2353: allowing vehicles currently allowed to operate on Route 41 in Wisconsin to remain legal even if a segment of the road is designated as a route on the Interstate System.
  • HConRes 44: A resolution allowing the Capitol grounds to be used for the Olympic torch run.

_________________________________

Last week, the House voted last week to delay parts of Obamacare, the 2010 health care law, after the Obama Administration decided to delay the employer insurance mandate. 

Advertisements

Articles I’ve Been Reading: 2013-03-04

THE BOEHNER-QUESTER
Sequester: The Finger on the TriggerRichard (RJ) Eskow, Op-Ed: Today is the day the package of budget cuts they call the “Sequester” takes effect. There will be endless postmortems and real-time analyses. But as its draconian effects, there’s one thing to remember above all: Congress did this. Let’s hold the guilty parties accountable, especially as the chaos they’ve created rains down around us. Let’s not forget that the Sequester is really a weapon—a weapon whose purpose is to harm government and those it serves. In the end, that includes all but the most powerful among us. Let’s respond in a measured, appropriate and high-minded way to this act, but let’s not forget who’s committing the act.

The Truth and Consequences of Sequestration

Terrance Heath, Op-Ed: What if someone told you that a disastrous event is just days away from happening; one that will play havoc with the economy and bring pain and hardship to millions? What if the same someone told you that our government set this disaster in motion, and could easily stop it, but appears unable or unwilling to do so? You’d call them crazy, right? Well, welcome to the insanity called “sequestration.” Here’s why and how it could trickle down into your life. Here’s the truth and consequences of sequestration.

Of Sequester, Squander, and How Congress Sold Out the People

Carl Gibson, Op-Ed: Back in the days when I used to be a legislative reporter for Mississippi’s NPR affiliate, I was covering a story where Gov. Haley Barbour refused to stop cuts to mental health programs and schools in Mississippi with money from the rainy day fund. My favorite Southern legislator, Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville, had this to say: “There’s hay in the barn, but we’re not feeding the horses.”

Robert Reich | The Sequester and the Tea Party Plot

Robert Reich, Op-Ed: Imagine a plot to undermine the government of the United States, to destroy much of its capacity to do the public’s business, and to sow distrust among the population. Imagine further that the plotters infiltrate Congress and state governments, reshape their districts to give them disproportionate influence in Washington, and use the media to spread big lies about the government. Finally, imagine they not only paralyze the government but are on the verge of dismantling pieces of it.

Obama on Sequester Impact: No Exaggeration to Struggling Families Facing a Pay Cut

Isaiah J. Poole, Op-Ed: “So I want to be very clear here. It is absolutely true that this is not going to precipitate the kind of crisis we talked about with America defaulting and some of the problems around the debt ceiling. I don’t anticipate a huge financial crisis, but people are going to be hurt. The economy will not grow as quickly as it would have. Unemployment will not go down as quickly as it would have – and there are lives behind that. And that’s real. And it’s not necessary – that’s the problem.”

ECONOMY

How Inequality Is Killing the Dinosaurs

dinosaurSalvatore Babones, Truthout: What killed the dinosaurs the first time around? Meteor? Global warming? Smoking? The culprit for the loss and destruction of what little is left of the dinosaurs today is economic inequality. Collectors argue that as long as they break no laws they should be free to collect what they want, be it art, coins, fossils. But let’s be serious: Who really wants a 40-foot long tyrannosaurus for the living room? Even if you’re allowed to buy one, who would?
According to CBS News legal correspondent John Miller, the buyers are “wealthy people who want something really interesting for their friends to talk about put under their key light in their basement for their 70 dinner guests.”

After the Sequester: Can We Create Better Jobs for Military Employees?

James Trimarco, Op-Ed: The sequester, a set of massive budget cuts required by the ongoing debt ceiling deal, will slash billions from Medicare, education, and other programs that benefit our society’s neediest if it goes through. That’s bad news if you care about those people. But there’s also something to like about it: the largest share of the cuts would come from the military. Many of us have been calling for such cuts for decades, and we should celebrate the possibility of finally getting what we’ve been asking for—even if it comes as the result of Republican demands for austerity. But we should also stand with those who will lose their jobs as a result of defense-budget cuts.

Debt” Campaign Exposed

Amy Goodman, Video Report: With the Capitol Hill showdown over the $85 billion across-the-board budget cuts taking effect this Friday, The White House and analysts fear the so-called “sequester” could jeopardize hundreds of thousands of jobs. While Republicans and Democrats largely agree the cuts are ill-advised, they are far from reaching any sort of agreement. President Obama wants Republicans to end tax breaks, mostly for the wealthy; Republicans are insisting government spending be cut first.

While Republicans Warn Against ‘Greece,’ That is Exactly Where Austerity Budgeting Will Lead U.S.

image

Joe Conason, Op-Ed: Indebted America is in danger of turning into destitute Greece, or so congressional Republicans and conservative commentators have been warning us for years now. For many reasons, this is an absurd comparison — but it may not always be quite so ridiculous if Washington’s advocates of austerity get their way.

HEALTH
4 Common Dangers Lurking in Your ‘Health’ SupplementsAnthony Gucciardi, News Report: In a world where health consciousness is increasingly more popular each day, major corporations have entered the health supplements marketplace under new ‘health’ brands in an attempt to soak up some of the profits. In doing this, these corporations that truly do not have any concern for the actual quality of their products tend to cut costs by using dangerous fillers and additives that pose a serious risk to your health. A risk that is particularly concerning when considering that these supplements are supposed to enhance your health.

Native American Women Demand Rightful Access to Emergency Contraception

imageBy Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project & Charon Asetoyer, CEO, Native American Community Board at 2:31pm

Imagine being denied emergency contraception after a sexual assault; to not even be informed about the steps you can take to prevent an unwanted pregnancy; and to later find yourself pregnant as a result of the rape.

For thousands of Native American women this is reality.  Read the full article here

Price-gouging in ‘Free Market’ Medicine

Froma Harrop, Op-Ed: When folks pan the Affordable Care Act for being nearly 3,000 pages long, here’s a sensible response: It could have been done in a page and a half if it simply declared that Medicare would cover everyone. The concept of Medicare for All was pushed by a few lonely liberals. And it would have been, ironically, the most conservative approach to bringing down health care costs while maintaining quality. Medicare bringing down health care costs? “Ha, ha, ha,” says the program’s foes, citing the spending projections for the government health plan serving older Americans.

CULTURE WAR / HUMAN RIGHTS / VOTING RIGHTS

“A Racial Entitlement” – The Right to Vote

image

Written by  Benjamin Jealous; Joan Walsh | Portside

“It no longer surprises me when extremist state legislators try to restrict our voting rights. I don’t like it and we fight against it, but I’m no longer surprised by it.” “What surprises and outrages me is that yesterday a Supreme Court Justice said that the protection of the right to vote is a ‘perpetuation of racial entitlement.'” Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO, NAACP

Report: Campaign Law Changes Hasten Power Imbalance Between Rich, Poor

Dave Levinthal, News Report: The U.S. political system is increasingly gamed against Americans of modest means—a situation exacerbated in recent years by major changes in the nation’s campaign laws. That’s the overriding takeaway from a new report slated for release today by Demos, a left-leaning nonprofit public policy group “working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy.” The 39-page report, entitled “Stacked Deck,” paints a picture of corporate powerhouses and wealthy businesspeople dominating political discourse and exacting disproportionate influence over policy incomes.

Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act Headed for President’s signature

Kristen Lombardi, News Report: The House of Representatives passed federal legislation aimed at combating campus sexual violence on Thursday, including it in a bipartisan renewal of the Violence Against Women Act following months of congressional gridlock. The Senate has already approved the measure, which means passage is virtually assured; President Barack Obama could sign it into law as early as next week. In a vote of 286 to 138, House members approved a reauthorization of VAWA that incorporates, as Section 304, the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, known as Campus SaVE.

AGRICULTURE

Monsanto’s Patents on Life

Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins, News Analysis: Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a seed patent infringement case that pits a small farmer from Indiana, 75-year old Vernon Hugh Bowman, against biotech goliath Monsanto. Reporters from the New York Times to the Sacramento Bee dissected the legal arguments. They speculated on the odds. They opined on the impact a Monsanto loss might have, not only on genetically modified crops, but on medical research and software.

Maine Quietly Mounting Massive Support for Historic GMO Labeling Bill

imageFrits Kreiss, News Report: For many months legislators and community leaders in the State of Maine have been quietly building broad and unprecedented support for passing a historic first-in-the-nation Right-To-Know GMO Labeling law. This week the bill, LD 718, jointly sponsored by the bi-partisan team of Representative Lance Harvell (R-Farmington) and Senator Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln), was introduced to Maine citizens and legislators.

ENVIRONMENT / CLIMATE

Will ALEC Block EPA Coal Pollution Safeguards at Illinois’ Controversial Prairie State Energy Campus?

Connor Gibson, News Analysis: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the Illinois-based Prairie State Energy Campus, a combined coal mine and power plant spearheaded by Peabody Energy, co-owned by eight public power companies based in the Midwest. Numerous cost overruns from construction delays and equipment problems at the Campus resulted in customers in several states having to pay for power well above market price. While Peabody defends Prairie State Energy Campus (PSEC) from SEC scrutiny, a corporate front group has developed copycat legislation that could exempt dirty projects like PSEC from national clean air and water laws.

U.S. Security Establishment Increasingly Worried about Climate Change

Joe Hitchon, News Report: More than three dozen national security officials, members of Congress and military leaders are warning of the threat climate change poses to U.S. national security, the latest in an indicator that U.S. intelligence and national security circles are increasingly worried about a warming planet. In a new bipartisan open letter, they stress the need for urgent action and call on both public and private support to address issues that included forced migration and the displacement of vulnerable communities, as well as the dangers related to food production during extreme weather events.


8 Ways Corporations are Poisoning Our Food, Water, the Earth
Mike Barrett, News Report: While we may be under the impression that our system of government is here to protect us, corporations—and the politicians getting paychecks from them—do a fair job of making that difficult. This manner of “legislative capture” is manifesting itself in a host of appalling ways far beyond those listed here. Here are 8 ways corporations are poisoning our food supply, humans, and mother earth.

ENERGY

Cape Wind Still Hopeful to Construct America’s First Wind Farm

imageAshley Curtin, News Report: Harnessing the power of wind off the coast of Cape Cod was the vision business owner Jim Gordon had in mind to provide renewable clean energy to the New England area. And in 2001, Gordon and his independent power company, Energy Management Inc., pursued the idea of converting solar energy into mechanical power and Cape Wind was born. The energy conservation project, which began development in 2001, will be America’s first offshore wind farm, but legal battles and potential federal budget cuts might stall the construction of the wind farm.

It’s Tar Sands, Not Just the Pipeline, that Threaten the Climate

William Boardman, News Analysis: The same day that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was promising a “fair and transparent” review of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast, the CEO of the company building that pipeline, TransCanada’s Russ Girling, was reported as saying that his company’s “Plan A” was finishing a different pipeline that would take the same tar sands oil to Canada’s east coast. TransCanada’s plan to establish a pipeline to the Atlantic coast has received little attention since CEO Girling’s February 6 interview on Bloomberg Television and Bloomberg’s later report.

Millions of Acres of Land — Larger Than California and Florida Combined — Already Leased to Oil and Gas Industry

Amy Mall, News Report: According to a new NRDC analysis, at the end of 2011, seventy of the largest oil and gas companies operating in the U.S. held leases covering at least 141 million net acres of American land—an area greater than California and Florida combined. Given the sordid environmental history of oil and gas development that has already occurred across the U.S., NRDC is extremely concerned about the additional harmful environmental, health and safety impacts that oil and gas development of this magnitude will bring in the future.

NATIONAL SECURITY / DOD / WAR

‘Homeland Security’

Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer, Op-Ed: Imagine a labyrinthine government department so bloated that few have any clear idea of just what its countless pieces do. Imagine that tens of billions of tax dollars are disappearing into it annually, black hole-style, since it can’t pass a congressionally mandated audit. Now, imagine that there are two such departments, both gigantic and you’re beginning to grasp the new, twenty-first century American security paradigm. For decades, the Department of Defense has met this definition to a T. Since 2003, however, it hasn’t been alone.

The Drone War Doctrine We Still Know Nothing About

imageCora Currier and Justin Elliott, News Analysis: Consider: while four American citizens are known to have been killed by drones in the past decade, the strikes have killed an estimated total of 2,600 to 4,700 people over the same period. The focus on American citizens overshadows a far more common, and less understood, type of strike: those that do not target American citizens, Al Qaeda leaders, or, in fact, any other specific individual. In these attacks, known as “signature strikes,” drone operators fire on people whose identities they do not know based on evidence of suspicious behavior or other “signatures.”

How Does the U.S. Mark Unidentified Men in Pakistan and Yemen as Drone Targets?

Cora Currier, News Report: Earlier this week, we wrote about a significant but often overlooked aspect of the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen: so-called signature strikes, in which the U.S. kills people whose identities aren’t confirmed. While President Obama and administration officials have framed the drone program as targeting particular members of Al Qaeda, attacks against unknown militants reportedlymay account for the majority of strikes.

INFRASTRUCTURE

Poland, in Crisis, Cuts Public Transport, Stranding Thousands

Pawel Wita, News Analysis: Poland was widely praised as the European state least touched by the financial crisis in 2008. Its economy grew even when all of its neighbors, including Germany, were in recession. With the wave of funds provided by the European Union in recent years, the country managed to connect its major cities by freeway and improve its infrastructure with shiny new sports fields. But these types of development are only one side of the coin. In Poland’s version of modernization, like in many other places, the biggest advantages have gone to cities while the countryside has become ever more marginalized.

(And if you look around the U.S., most of the infrastructure builds have taken place in urban instead of rural areas.  Is the GOP taking us the way Poland just chose to go?)

CONGRESSIONAL ACTIVITY (AND INACTIVITY)

Under Obama, More Appointments Go Unfilled

Theodoric Meyer, News Analysis: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services haven’t had a Senate-confirmed administrator since 2006. The Federal Labor Relations Authority has had only a single member since January and can’t issue decisions. And the Election Assistance Commission hasn’t had any commissioners at all since 2011. All presidential administrations have vacancies. But an analysis of appointments data by ProPublica shows that President Obama hasn’t kept up with his predecessors in filling them. A greater share of presidentially appointed positions that require Senate confirmation were sitting vacant at the end of Obama’s first term than at the end of Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s first terms.

Three-Quarters of Progressive Caucus Not Taking a Stand Against Cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid

imageNorman Solomon, Op-Ed: For the social compact of the United States, most of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has gone missing. While still on the caucus roster, three-quarters of the 70-member caucus seem lost in political smog. Those 54 members of the Progressive Caucus haven’t signed the current letter that makes a vital commitment: “we will vote against any and every cut to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits — including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.”

THE NRA

NRA to African Americans: You’ll Need Guns to Protect Yourselves From the Government
Igor Volsky, News Report: The National Rifle Association (NRA) is increasing its outreach to African Americans with a new campaign that links the Civil Rights struggle and nonviolent resistance to gun ownership, arguing that blacks need firearms to protect themselves from the government. The video is part of an effort by the gun lobby to grow the organization’s appeal beyond a mostly white, middle-class membership and attribute high rates of gun violence in some African American communities to “culture” rather than the prevalence of guns.(Yeah … and then once you have those guns … they’ll turn around and vilify you as a criminal. Humor me — Just do a Google search for “guns NRA” … how many “black gun owners” do you NOT see?  Is that a subtle racist meme … if a white guy has a gun, he’s a protector, a hunter … but if a black guy has a gun … he’s a criminal and should be locked up.)

The Capital of Inequality

The Washington region’s increasingly rich elite are now zipping along in Lexus lanes.

By Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati

Politicians inside the Beltway that circles Washington, D.C., most of us would agree, don’t understand the challenges of daily life that average Americans face outside the Beltway.

But these days, if you really want to understand everyday life in our deeply unequal society, the best place to look may now be on the Beltway.

The highway officials who run the Beltway’s stretch that winds through Northern Virginia have just opened up the nation’s latest set of “Lexus lanes.” For a stiff fee, affluent motorists can now zip around the Beltway in “express toll lanes” while less affluent fellow motorists sit stalled in rush-hour traffic jams.

And those fellow motorists do a lot of stalling. The Washington region has more traffic congestion than any other major U.S. metro area. In 2010, commuters in the D.C. area lost an incredible 74 hours to traffic jams, up from just 20 hours in 1982.

Something else fundamental — besides traffic — has changed around Washington. The area has become substantially more unequal.

The national capital region used to be a middle class haven, a place where average federal employees, The Washington Post recalls, could take home “modest but steady paychecks.”

But the federal government has been outsourcing federal jobs, over recent decades, to private contractors. For average workers, this change has meant less secure employment and smaller paychecks. For Washington’s “growing upper class of federal contractors, lobbyists, and lawyers,” notes a recent Reuters analysis, this switch has brought a steady gusher of windfalls.

image

Two decades ago, a family had to make $368,000, in today’s dollars, to enter the Washington area’s most affluent 1 percent. Top 1 percent status today doesn’t kick in until $527,000. In 2011, the top 5 percent of D.C. area households took home 54 times more income than the bottom 20 percent. No state in the entire nation has a wider top-to-bottom gap.

Economists see powerful links between levels of inequality this high and traffic congestion. In deeply unequal regions, the wealthy bid up the price of the choicest real estate, and that forces cash-squeezed middle class families to move further out to find decent housing.

The further away people live from their work, the more traffic on the roads. Those American counties where commuting times have increased the most, Cornell economist Robert Frank points out, just happen to be those counties “with the largest increases in inequality.”

How should we respond to all this congested commuting? Americans have traditionally battled traffic jams by building new roads with the dollars that come from gas taxes. But state gas taxes in the United States, on average, haven’t increased in a decade. Overall government spending for infrastructure, meanwhile, has been dropping, from 3.3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in 1968 to 1.3 percent in 2011. This long-term decline began at almost exactly the same time as the level of inequality in the United States started rising.

Researchers see no coincidence here. The states where the rich have gained the most at the expense of the middle class turn out to be the states that invest the least in infrastructure.

Enter “Lexus lanes.” These “dynamically priced” roadways solve the problem of traffic congestion — but only for the affluent. If too many people start using a Lexus lane and traffic slows, the tolls rise — and keep rising until the car volume drops enough to get traffic moving again.

Toll fees on Washington’s new Lexus lanes have no cap. In really bad traffic, officials acknowledge, tolls might jump to $1.25 per mile.

That’s no problem for the affluent. They get speedy, tension-free commutes — at a cost they find negligible.

The rest of us do get something out of the Lexus Lane deal. We get confirmation, as we sit and stew in horrific traffic, that inequality as deep as ours simply makes no sense.


OtherWords
columnist Sam Pizzigati is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class. OtherWords.org