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George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

Obama Hits the Warpath Over TPP

President Barack Obama

Barack Obama (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Obama took the inter-Democratic party debate over trade up a notch Friday morning, when he joined a White House conference call with Labor Secretary Tom Perez and a small group of reporters as a surprise guest and mounted a vigorous, and at times testy, defense of his administration’s trade policy. Obama spoke for 31 minutes straight, and became almost the fact-checker-in-chief: pushing back on several specific points raised by Democrats about the deal, ranging from labor standards to fast-track to the secrecy of the process.   

At the end of the call, Obama offered a warning: “What I am averse to is a bunch of ad hominem attacks and misinformation that stirs up the base but ultimately doesn’t serve them well. And I’m going to be pushing back very hard if I keep on hearing that stuff.”

Many of Obama’s claims, however, don’t match up to what we know about the deal so far. Others are impossible to fact-check, as the final language of the deal remains a secret to the public and even many Congressional staffers.

The members of Congress who have seen the deal can’t disclose what’s in it, but their public statements reveal a deep unease about the text. This was illustrated clearly in an anecdote Obama told about Representative Sandy Levin, the ranking member of the House Ways & Means Committee. “I sat down with Sandy Levin. He gave me a list of probably 20 things that he wanted to see in the trade deal,” Obama said. “And I spent an hour walking through one by one, showing him how on eighteen of the twenty, we had addressed either 100 percent or 80 percent of his concerns.”

Levin’s office declined to comment on whether that was a fair characterization of the meeting. But incidentally Levin did release a statement one hour after the call, about the passage of fast-track through the Ways & Means Committee. It didn’t sound like the words of a man who had a vast majority of his concerns assuaged.

“The negotiating objectives included in the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA legislation are primarily so vague or flexible that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is being negotiated without strict guidelines in many areas,” Levin said. “Workers in Vietnam and Mexico have no assurance that labor laws in those countries would be brought into compliance with International Labor Organization standards. Foreign investors could challenge an American law or health regulation in an arbitration panel without clear guidelines, instead of U.S. courts with clear rules of law. Countries will be able to manipulate their currencies—harming American businesses and workers—without any clear recourse except consultations. Or take agricultural market access. The negotiating objective is simply to ‘reducing or eliminating’ duties on agricultural products. Japan’s opening offer met that objective, because they agreed to ‘reduce’ but not ‘eliminate’ agricultural tariffs on hundreds of products.”

The labor standards in the trade pact, and the extent they will be enforceable, are a huge point of contention between the White House and Democrats. If TPP adopts weak or unenforceable labor requirements, American jobs and production capacity would flow even more quickly towards other countries in the trade pact.

As Levin’s comments relay, Democrats and organized labor want the pact to force compliance with the International Labor Organization standards, which apparently won’t be the case. Past trade deals with Jordan and Cambodia adopted those standards, and were endorsed by labor groups. This would make Obama’s contention during the call that TPP would be “the most progressive trade deal in our history” pretty debatable.

Many union organizers assume, with good reason, the labor standards in TPP will fall somewhere below the ILO rules. Perez didn't do much to assuage these fears in a recent interview with the Washington Post's Greg Sargent, where he said that Vietnam—which has essentially zero labor rights—would only have to make "signficant changes" in labor laws in order to enter TPP.

Obama also strongly disputed that the bill was being fast-tracked: “there’s nothing fast about it,” he said, adding that Congress has 90 days to review the deal before it votes.

That is true—but Democrats and advocates have raised serious concerns about how hard it would be to remove TPP or any future pact from the fast track if there were concerns about the final text.

Once the current fast-track legislation is enacted, only the Senate Finance Committee or House Ways & Means Committee can derail fast track (meaning, revert to a 60-vote requirement with amendments possible) before the final vote, by negatively reporting out the implementing language of TPP. But the resolution to stop fast track generated by that committee vote would then need a full Congressional vote, and that resolution would not be privileged—meaning House Speaker John Boehner or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could simply decline to bring it for a floor vote, thus keeping fast track in place. Both men strongly favor TPP.

Moreover, this whole process can only happen after the president signs the trade bill and sends the implementing language to Congress. Even if Congress somehow derailed fast-track and amended TPP, all the signatory countries would have to agree to back out and renegotiate.

What’s especially notable about this is that, under the fast-track legislation passed in 1988, either committee could stop fast-track immediately with a simple majority vote—no wider floor vote would even be needed. This could also happen before the president entered into the trade pact. In this way, as Public Citizen has noted, the TPP process is a significant a step back from NAFTA when it comes to fast-tracking. 

Obama also blasted critics who call TPP secret, and said “When I keep on hearing people repeating this notion that it’s ‘secret,’ I gotta say, it’s dishonest.” He added that members of Congress have been offered 1,700 briefings on the pact and can see the text whenever they like.

But Obama also admitted that some parts that are being negotiated—and there are a lot of them—remain secret. This is also a case where Obama and some TPP critics are talking past each other; Elizabeth Warren says not that TPP is secret from her but, in an e-mail to supporters this week, said it was secret to them. The AFL-CIO’s Eric Hauser told The Nation in a statement that “the best way to regain workers’ confidence is to release the text, not scold the critics.”

During other parts of the call, Obama did some exercises in partisan identification. His message to the Democratic base in recent days has been: you know me. “My overarching priority in everything I do, since I was elected and until I am done with my last day of the presidency, is figuring out how we can create greater opportunity for the middle class and people who are working hard to get into the middle class,” he said, before reciting a litany of administration accomplishments from the stimulus act to rescuing the auto industry.

It’s a good political strategy, though one that may be hard to advance. No major environmental or labor groups have backed the deal—and many are fighting it tooth-and-nail. As David Dayen noted Friday, many of the TPP endorsements listed on the White House website from smaller-scale environmental groups aren’t endorsements at all—they are letters requesting better terms in the TPP and even in some cases offering concerns the the hoped-for terms won’t be met.

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The difficulties facing the White House here were evident in Perez’s response to a question from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on this topic. Perez went on to list three progressive backers of the deal: former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (who just joined Bain Capital), Ben Cardin, and former Washington Governor Christine Gregoire. With respect to those politicians, Perez was reaching pretty far into the barrel of high-profile liberal stars.

And perhaps the biggest obstacle to Obama’s party-identification gambit: all those Republicans boosting the deal. Also on Friday afternoon, Republicans announced that Representative Paul Ryan—who Democrats spent much of 2012 vilifying as a budget-slashing pawn of Wall Street—would give the weekly address on the topic of TPP.

 

Read Next: George Zornick on the increasing intensity of the TPP debate in the Democratic Party. 

Democrats Prepare for Battle as Fast Track Nears the Senate Floor

Protesters gather outside of the Capitol building with a message against the TPP. (Stop FastTrack/CC BY 2.0)

A bill to give fast-track approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement cleared the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday evening, and the legislation will hit Senate floor for a full vote in the coming days.

It’s the biggest stage yet for a showdown between (most) congressional Democrats and the president they helped elect. Thursday morning, two Senate Democrats from the Finance Committee who voted against the fast-track bill called out the White House in strong terms for its hard sell on the corporate-friendly trade pact.

In a meeting with reporters in the US Capitol, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio said his caucus has been “talked to, approached, lobbied, and maybe cajoled by more cabinet members on this issue than any [other] issue since Barack Obama has been president. And that’s just sad.”

Brown continued: “I wish they had put the same effort into the minimum wage. I wish they had put the same effort into Medicare at [age] fifty-five. I wish they had put the same effort into some consumer strengthening on Dodd-Frank.”

Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania agreed. “What I would hope is that we could take of that same, as Sherrod mentioned, that intensity to lobby folks on trade—it’d be nice if we all came together as a party…to have a much more concerted focus on a strategy for the middle class. A strategy to get wages higher.”

The duo’s remarks obviously demonstrate the increasing intensity of the TPP debate. But they also illustrate how the fight over TPP is yet another vehicle for the even more serious debate within the party about being less beholden to corporate interests and more invested in populist economic policies.

On MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show Tuesday night, Senator Elizabeth Warren said the deal had been negotiated by corporate lobbyists and that the process has been too secretive. “When the process is rigged, then the outcome is likely to be rigged,” she said.

Brown offered dozens of amendments to the fast-track bill during the committee mark-up—88, to be exact—and will no doubt be a key player in the floor debates, where he will try again to attach some of those measures. He predicted he will have “well, well over half” of Democrats with him, though without some Republican votes that obviously won’t be enough.

One key objection to the bill among both Senate and House Democrats: how weak the negotiating objectives are in the legislation. Fast track is a basic deal between Congress and Obama (or any future president negotiating a trade deal before fast track expires) where legislators lay out a series of objectives for the president to include in his negotiations, which he promises to abide by, and in exchange Congress agrees to fast-track the final trade deal: a vote has to happen within ninety days, cannot be amended, and only needs a simple majority in the Senate.

But the strength of the president’s promise is seriously questionable in the legislation passed by the Senate Finance committee, which demands only that the president “makes progress in achieving” the various negotiating objectives. So the president—who negotiated the deal in the first place—just has to deem that progress was made, and that’s that. In the eyes of many Democrats, this language actually means the president is free to ignore whatever Congress has asked him to negotiate.

Brown introduced an amendment that would strengthen these obligations, and it’s a major feature of the counter-proposal to fast track offered by House Ways & Means ranking member Sandy Levin. More than any issue, this could decide the fate of fast track and ultimately TPP: Congressional demands on labor, intellectual property, human rights and the highly sought-after currency manipulation prohibitions are meaningless if they can’t be enforced.

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The Senate Finance bill will hit the floor sometime after the body deals with the Iran nuclear deal legislation and other matters, and Democratic opponents are clearly ready to fight—even if it causes huge public inter-party rifts.

“I think it’s important to have a debate inside the Democratic Party. I know some people don’t like to hear that,” said Casey. “But this issue is too important and too consequential for workers in states like ours not to have a fulsome debate.”

 

Read Next: George Zornick on two resolutions calling for debt-free higher education

Liberals to Hillary: Make Public College Debt-Free

(Andrew Bossi, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Several top congressional Democrats will embrace on Tuesday a loose plan to make public colleges a debt-free proposition—and will receive an immediate boost from progressive activists who are hoping to shape the 2016 Democratic agenda.

In the House and Senate, legislators will simultaneously introduce two resolutions calling for “all students [to] have access to debt-free higher education.” In the Senate, Brian Schatz, Chuck Schumer, and Elizabeth Warren will attach their names to the resolution. Representatives Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, are leading the House effort along with several members, including Representatives Chris Van Hollen, Steve Israel, Donna Edwards, Katherine Clark, and Alan Grayson.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is helping to organize the push, and released a short paper along with the think tank Demos about how to make public higher education achievable without debt. It briefly outlines how increased federal aid to states for higher education and expanded Pell Grants, along with other smaller reforms, might eliminate the debt burden at public institutions.

Non-binding resolutions and a three-page policy paper don’t (yet) represent a serious legislative push to eliminate student debt at public universities and colleges, but it’s a fairly remarkable idea to embrace, particularly for more moderate Democrats like Schumer, who is likely to become Senate majority or minority leader in 2017. The point of the movement now is to insert the premise that college could be debt-free into the political discussion.

“When it comes to making college affordable, I’m hopeful that debt-free college is the next big idea,” Schumer said in a release. “We need to do more to make college more affordable for all students so that they can graduate without debt holding them back,” said Schatz.

The PCCC will immediately organize rallies at ten college campuses this week, including four in the early-primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The students at these rallies will explicitly call on presidential candidates to embrace the debt-free college plan. Hillary Clinton and her advisers are no doubt the primary intended audience here, since she leads Democratic polls by such a wide margin. “Students, families, and progressive leaders are working together to make a national goal of debt-free college central to the 2016 debate,” said PCCC co-founder Adam Green.

In her tour of Iowa and New Hampshire last week, Clinton repeatedly brought up college tuition costs, but did not say it should be debt-free specifically, but rather “affordable.” She did embrace the idea outlined by President Obama in his State of the Union address that community-college education should be free.

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As the student-debt crisis metastasizes. it’s becoming increasingly hard for presidential candidates to ignore. On the Republican side, Marco Rubio is advancing honest, if very limited, proposals to reduce the cost of higher education through college credits for workforce experience and more transparency about potential earnings of a given college degree versus its cost.

Many other plans, like one released by Warren last year, focus more on relieving the existing debt load of students. Warren’s bill would allow students to re-finance federal loans at lower rates, and would pay for it by closing tax loopholes for the wealthy.

 

Read Next: George Zornick on the Democrats who are backing Fight for 15

Now Congress Is Fast-Tracking the TPP Fast Track

Senator Ron Wyden

Senator Ron Wyden, D-OR, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

After months of back-room negotiations, key congressional negotiators are finally ready to unveil legislation that would fast-track approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The bill would prohibit Congress from amending the trade deal, and would require a simple-majority vote for passage, but would in exchange set a variety of negotiating parameters.

If the architects of the legislation—Senators Ron Wyden and Orrin Hatch and Representative Paul Ryan—are at all worried that members of Congress will feel fast-track leaves them out of the process, they are doing a pretty terrible job of addressing those concerns.

A Senate Finance Committee hearing Thursday morning featured top US trade officials—but occurred before the legislation was even unveiled, and was called with almost no notice. This drew some unusual and strong rebukes from Democrats on the Finance Committee over an unfair process.

Hatch and Wyden, the chairman and ranking member of Senate Finance respectively, called hearing on Wednesday night that was ostensibly about “Congress and US Tariff Policy.” It featured several top US officials that deal with trade: US Trade Representative Michael Froman, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

Hatch announced at the top of the hearing that fast-track legislation could come as early as the afternoon, and both he and Wyden began their opening statements by talking about the looming bill.

Members of the committee thus suddenly found themselves in a fast-track hearing without knowing it—and before they saw the legislation. Many of them didn’t like it.

Senator Chuck Schumer, likely to be the next Democratic majority leader, opposes fast-track and objecting in the hearing to “rushing” the legislation. Senator Sherrod Brown said “We got twelve hours notice on a bill we haven’t seen…you can’t fast-track fast track.”

Senators appeared unsure if they would even get to see the legislation before a vote. Senator Debbie Stabenow asked if the committee would have to vote “on an agreement that we have not yet even seen and that hasn’t been reached,” according to the Huffington Post.

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As the hearing was going on, six Democratic members of the committee took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement objecting to the hearing they were sitting in on:

“With millions of jobs on the line, American workers and manufacturers deserve more than a hastily scheduled hearing without an underlying bill. Congress should undergo a thorough and deliberative committee process for debating trade agreements that account for 40 percent of our world’s GDP. And we should be debating a bill that has seen the light of day and contains strong provisions to protect American workers against illegal trade practices like currency manipulation.”

Schumer, Brown and Stabenow, along with Senators Robert Menendez, Ben Cardin and Bob Casey attached their names to the statement.

Take Action: Demand that Congress Reject Fast Track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Read Next: George Zornick on the Democrats who are backing Fight for 15

If Elizabeth Warren Were Running for President, This Would Be Her Agenda

Elizabeth Warren

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

If Elizabeth Warren ran for president, a key part of her campaign—if not the centerpiece—would likely involve how to restructure the financial sector in a less dangerous and more productive way. Dodd-Frank was by many accounts a good start, but it’s clear the economy is still over-financialized and too-big-to-fail banks continue to pose an existential threat.

Warren isn’t running for president, but she unveiled that exact agenda in a sweeping speech Wednesday in a conference at the Levy Institute in Washington. It advocated an array of specific, often ambitious policy proposals, many of which have circulated in Washington for years and that Warren, at various times, has already called for.

But tied together in one place, and packaged as a clear call for structural and not just technocratic changes, a blueprint emerged for how Warren thinks Democrats should attack continued financial reform. Whether purposeful or not, the speech was timed exactly to start of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Her ideas fit into four basic categories: first, getting tougher on bad financial actors, particularly big banks, and presenting them with actual legal accountability for malfeasance. Second, Warren outlined how to change the basic structure of the country’s largest financial institutions so their very existence doesn’t threaten the economy nor taxpayer money via inevitable bailouts. Third, she outlined how to change tax policies that incentivize financial risk-taking and instability. And finally, Warren called for tougher regulations on the shadow-banking sector that was a huge contributor to the 2008 crash and which remained largely untouched by Dodd-Frank.

Under no conceivable set of circumstances could most of this happen in the current political climate. Rather, it’s a world Warren wants to see—“She has outlined what a functional Congress and a willing president could do,” Bartlett Naylor, the financial policy advocate for Public Citizen, told The Nation.

Warren openly criticized the Obama administration’s lack of criminal prosecutions related to the 2008 crisis, declaring that “the Department of Justice doesn’t take big financial institutions to trial—ever—even when financial institutions engage in blatantly criminal activity.” She pointed to the overuse of deferred prosecution agreements, in which big banks get a sometimes-large financial penalty but don’t face any further repercussions, nor even admit guilt.

Use of deferred prosecution agreements for large corporations has spiked dramatically under Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, with the same corporations sometimes receiving several such agreements. Justice entered into 27 such agreements in 2013, compared with eight in 2004. Warren said “no firm should be allowed to enter into a deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreement if it is already operating under such an agreement—period.” She also said any agreements with financial firms going forward should have “mandatory minimum” fines equal to “at least every dime of profit generated by their illegal activity.”

Also on the enforcement front, Warren called for a vote by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors on major enforcement decisions. In 2013 the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency reached a $9.3 billion settlement with mortgage servicers for improper foreclosure on millions of homes. Warren later found that the Fed Board of Governors didn’t vote on the settlement—widely seen as too weak—and that all the decision-making happened at the staff level.

Warren further called for congressional action to allow the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to police the auto-loan industry, which it is largely prohibited from doing in the Dodd-Frank legislation that created the bureau. Warren said “the auto-loan market looks increasingly like the pre-crisis housing market” and that immediate oversight is needed.

She also advanced familiar ideas for shrinking the size of too-big-to-fail financial institutions: Warren advocated for a bill that would cap the deposits, liabilities, and assets of large financial institutions. Senators Sherrod Brown and Ted Kaufmann proposed an amendment to this affect to Dodd-Frank, but it failed. Warren also called for reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall division between commercial and investment banking, and for limits on the Federal Reserve’s ability to provide emergency lending to big banks. “The prospect of receiving low-cost loans from the Fed completely undermines market discipline—big banks are free to take big risks, knowing full well that the Fed will be there to bail them out if things go south,” she said.

Several changes in the tax code, such as closing loopholes that allow financial institutions to write off large bonuses and limiting the ability of banks to fully deduct interest payments, are needed, according to Warren. She said both would shift incentives away from short-term corporate decision-making and cash-hoarding. She also boosted a financial transactions tax on high-volume traders, which she said would “push sophisticated trading firms to invest in companies for the long haul and strengthen our markets.”

Warren stressed that these big structural changes—breaking up the big banks, limiting bailouts and increasing prosecutions—would shift the political-economic advantage away from large financial institutions. “Too much reliance on a technocratic approach also plays right into the hands of the big banks,” she said. “Regulatory solutions that pit the government against giant banks too often get diluted over time with loopholes, carveouts, and rollbacks, each of which favor a few well-connected firms over everyone else.”

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Without a doubt, if Washington went down the path outlined by Warren it would set off an Armageddon-like showdown with the US financial sector. But in an attempt to pre-empt some of the war-on-banks rhetoric, Warren presented these changes as fundamentally pro-business.

“[F]or too long, the opponents of financial reform have cast this debate as an argument between the pro-regulation camp and the pro-market camp, generally putting Democrats in the first camp and Republicans in the second. But that so-called choice gets it wrong,” Warren said. “Rules are not the enemy of markets. Rules are a necessary ingredient for healthy markets, for markets that create competition and innovation. And rolling back the rules or firing the cops can be profoundly anti-market.”

Read Next: George Zornick on the leading House Democrat who will be opposing the TPP Fast Track

Hillary Clinton, Progressive Democrats Back ‘Fight for 15’ Protests

Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton meets with local residents in LeClaire, Iowa on April 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Across the country Wednesday, tens of thousands of low-wage workers protested for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, marking the latest—and largest—battle in a widening war to boost pay in the service sector and, more broadly, to draw increased attention to the U.S. wage gap.

The protests, which were backed by the Service Employees International Union and other unions and progressive activist groups, occurred in several major cities including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington.

Politicians in DC—and on the campaign trail—were presented with a crucial test: whether to voice support for what is the biggest existing, grassroots challenge to the unequal American economic structure. Several outlets noted it raised a particularly pointed question for Hillary Clinton, who is leading polls for the Democratic nomination and began her campaign the same week as the large-scale protest. Would she, as The New York Times asked Monday, speak to the “the desire of voters and party activists for an aggressive approach to mitigating income inequality”?

Late Wednesday night, a tweet from Clinton’s campaign account, signed by the candidate, provided the answer:

Many see the “Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity,” co-chaired by Lawrence Summers and UK Labour leader Ed Balls, as a tentative economic blueprint for the nascent Clinton campaign. Clinton’s support for the “Fight for 15” movement is consistent with what’s outlined in the report: among other things, it says that it’s important for “minimum wages…adjust to keep up with pay at the middle and top.” It calls for “a minimum wage that is at least high enough to prevent full-time workers from living in poverty,” specifically, a pay rate of “at least $10.10 per hour” and linked to the consumer price index.

The repeated “at least” qualifiers left uncertain what pay rate, exactly, Clinton thinks should be the floor. In the Times story Monday, progressive economist Dean Baker noted there is pressure on Clinton to “come up with a number,” and her tweet Wednesday was clearly intended to support the workers asking for $15 per hour.

Does that mean $15 is her number? We may have to wait for the campaign’s official platform to be unveiled. A campaign spokesperson told The Nation only that “Hillary applauds the efforts of organizers coast to coast fighting for an increase in their wages because you shouldn’t have to be a CEO to get a raise. Everyday Americans should be able to make a little more so you can worry a little less. Higher wages don’t just help those at the bottom of the pay scale, they have a ripple effect across the economy and helps millions of American workers and middle class families.”

Another potential 2016 contender, Bernie Sanders, released a statement earlier in the day that said “I want to applaud the workers who are organizing today in the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.”

There were no immediate statements of support from Democratic Congressional leadership; neither Senator Harry Reid nor Representative Nancy Pelosi released a statement or tweet about the protests. Several higher-profile Democrats did, however.

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In the House, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus Representative Xavier Becerra tweeted his support, as did Budget Committee chairman Chris Van Hollen.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus convened a forum Wednesday afternoon on the “Fight for 15,” where several low-wage workers spoke. Various members of the caucus voiced their support throughout the day.

In the Senate, Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, Sherrod Brown, Chris Murphy, Tammy Baldwin, Kirsten Gillibrand, and likely future Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer all sent out messages of support for “Fight for 15.” Senator Patty Murray sent out several messages with the hashtag #RaisetheWage throughout the day, though didn’t explicitly back $15 per hour.

No Republican members of Congress nor potential GOP presidential candidates mentioned the movement.

Read Next: George Zornick on how this Senate candidate will not be accepting donations from Wall Street banks

Breaking: Leading House Democrat Will Oppose TPP Fast Track

Chris Van Hollen

House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (AFGE/CC BY 2.0)

As legislation to fast-track congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership gets ready to finally make its debut in Congress this week, a top Democratic member of the House announced he would oppose the bill.

Representative Chris Van Hollen, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, wrote in a letter to Representative Sandy Levin, the ranking member of the House Ways & Means Committee, that he would oppose fast-track authority, also known as Trade Promotion Authority or TPA. The letter was obtained by The Nation and its authenticity was confirmed by an aide to Van Hollen.

Van Hollen opposed a previous iteration of fast-track legislation last year, as did most other top Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But so far, many of those Democrats (including Van Hollen) had not yet announced a position on the new TPA legislation being hammered out by Senators Ron Wyden, Orrin Hatch, and Representative Paul Ryan. (Levin opted out of those talks, and believes Congress should see at least the outline of a trade deal before taking up legislation to fast-track its approval.) Pelosi still remains publicly undecided.

If Van Hollen—a visible member of the Democratic caucus and ranking member of a major committee—ultimately supported the Wyden-Hatch-Ryan bill, it would have been a signal that House Democrats were ready to go along with the Obama administration’s trade agenda. But in his letter, Van Hollen wrote “it is clear that many [of my concerns] will not be included in a revised TPA.”

While the legislation remains behind closed doors for now, Van Hollen said continuing public opposition from Republicans made it clear that the TPA legislation wouldn’t include additional currency, labor, and environmental provisions. Moreover, he wrote that since TPA was being unveiled so close to the conclusion of the overall trade talks, “it is clearly too late for TPA to have any meaningful impact on the shape of TPP negotiations.”

Like virtually all Democrats, Van Hollen cited concerns that enforceable currency manipulation obligations would not be included in the trade deal.

He also said he objects to further entrenching the investor-state dispute settlement process, which according to negotiating documents leaked last month by Wikileaks will be included in the TPP deal. Those provisions set up a process of international tribunals where foreign companies can challenge regulatory actions by sovereign governments, and seek financial damages for any lost profit as a result of regulation. Van Hollen wrote that “a TPP that allows for increased investor lawsuits could undermine a government’s right to regulate in the public interest and involve the US in costly and detrimental lawsuits covered by American taxpayers.”

Van Hollen further cited concerns over labor standards in some of the signatory countries, particularly Vietnam, and said he insists on an agreement that includes “strong and enforceable labor protections as well as an action plan to ensure that countries are complying with internationally recognized labor rights.”

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The next several days will be crucial for the fate of TPA. Many Democrats have so far remained neutral or muted on the ongoing talks, but as the legislation finally proceeds towards a vote, several leading and visible Democrats like Van Hollen will start to take positions. Activists were heartened that Van Hollen dropped an early marker in the fight. “This letter lists some good reasons why fast track is in trouble—including investor lawsuits, currency manipulation, and workers rights—but this will come down to the growing realization that fast track will make it easier to send American jobs overseas,” said Jason Stanford of the Coalition to Stop Fast Track.

Wyden’s office did not immediately return a request for comment. Van Hollen’s letter can be seen here:

4.14.15 Van Hollen to Levin Letter on TPA

 

Take Action: Demand that Congress Reject TPP Fast Track

Read Next: 15 questions we want answered about Hillary Clinton’s stance on these key economic and foreign policy issues

Senate Candidate Forswears Wall Street Money—Who’s Next?

Donna Edwards

Donna Edwards (JD Lasica, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Democratic primary for Maryland’s open US Senate seat will be one of the most closely watched in the country, and potentially one of the most expensive. One candidate, Representative Donna Edwards, announced Thursday that she will not accept any donations from “Wall Street banks.”

In a letter to the progressive group Democracy for America, Edwards wrote “I don’t want Wall Street’s money. I don’t work for them. I work for you.” She cited recent reports that large financial institutions were threatening to withhold funding from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee because of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s rising prominence in the party, and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s corollary call for the DSCC to pre-emptively reject any Wall Street donations.

The campaign for Representative Chris Van Hollen, Edwards’ high-profile opponent in the race, declined to comment.

Swearing off Wall Street donations might not be a huge impediment for him; the financial sector has not been a traditionally large source of support for Van Hollen’s campaigns nor his leadership PAC. Employees of securities and investment companies was only his tenth-biggest source of individual contributions to his campaign in 2014, and there were no big Wall Street banks in the top 20 individual contributors to his leadership PAC. Financial sector trade groups have at times attacked Van Hollen, as they did earlier this year when he included a financial transactions tax in his budget action plan.

But if he refuses to agree to the pledge, it could give Edwards a powerful rhetorical weapon in the campaign, and help her paint Van Hollen as too close to Wall Street. It’s also a fundraising tool for Edwards—in her letter to DFA members, she asked for small-dollar donations.

More broadly, Edwards is the first 2016 candidate to refuse Wall Street donations in a race. Some progressive groups are hoping it becomes a trend. “If Democrats want to prove that they’re not owned by Wall Street bullies, it starts by making clear that you can’t be bought and we’re hopeful that other House and Senate candidates will join Donna Edwards in boldly speaking out,” said DFA chair Jim Dean in a statement.

It’s not clear where the red line around “Wall Street banks” will be drawn, however.

Reich’s letter, which Edwards cites, calls on Democrats to reject “contributions from Wall Street banks like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, and Bank of America.”

That leaves uncertain whether donations from private equity firms, hedge funds, accounting giants, or insurance companies like AIG would violate the pledge.

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Also, “Wall Street bank” is a fungible term. Bank of America, for example, is based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Colloquially, the term means a big bank—but where is the line? M&T Bank is the second-largest bank in Maryland by market share, according to the FDIC, but the thirtieth-largest in the country and generally not deemed too big to fail.

The pledge could also be hard to police. Campaigns aren’t allowed to accept a direct corporate contribution anyhow, though its associated PACs are. But if any PACs are 501(c)(4)s or otherwise non-transparent about donors, it would be impossible to know who is giving.

Edwards’ campaign did not immediately respond to a request for clarification.

Speaking about DFA’s general desire for more Democratic candidates to take the pledge, a spokesman said violations would be fairly easy to deduce—members will know it when they see it.

 

Read Next: George Zornick on why Elizabeth Warren shouldn’t be Senate majority leader

No, Elizabeth Warren Probably Shouldn’t Be Senate Majority Leader

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Harry Reid announced Friday that he won’t seek re-election in 2016, bringing a fascinating three-decade political career into its final chapter. Reid has been a unique Senate leader who, contrary to the old Lincoln maxim, actually kept most Democrats happy most of the time. While Reid often (though not always) maintained the trust and support of conservative Democrats all the way back to Joe Lieberman, liberals remember his heroic stance against Social Security cuts and outright privatization, his elimination of the filibuster on nominations, the gun-control battle of early 2013, and a variety of other skirmishes over the years where Reid demonstrated a willingness to fight for progressive causes—and a refusal to cave to the vocal minority of conservative Democratic Senators.

Already, the horse race to replace Reid in 2017 is on—whether it’s as majority or minority leader, though the electoral map and 2016 presidential election make the former more likely.

Liberals are sure to be skeptical of the heavy favorite to win the job, Senator Chuck Schumer, who has represented Wall Street literally as New York’s senior senator and figuratively in a variety of ways over the years. Reid has also already endorsed Schumer for the job, which comes off as heavy-handed.

Two progressive groups, Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, are stoking the idea that Senator Elizabeth Warren should become the new leader. Neil Sroka, Democracy for America spokesman, said the position “shouldn’t be a slam dunk for any early front-runner, especially someone closer to Wall Street while the Wall Street wing of the party is dying and the Elizabeth Warren wing is rising.”

This is a tempting idea for progressives. It replicates the logic of the movement to draft Warren for president: by advancing the prospects of a populist crusader, it puts the more moderate sector of the party on notice that things are changing.

Greg Sargent makes a persuasive case that it’s great to start that debate now, even if it’s a steep uphill climb for Warren, as the Senate prepares to take up crucial debates on things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership; it’s good for progressives if Schumer and other moderate Democrats hear Warren’s footsteps when they are deciding whether to support Obama’s plea for a fast-tracked proposal.

There are other attractive things about Senate majority leader Warren, too—she is a prodigious fund-raiser for other Democrats, which is a crucial job requirement for Senate leader, and during the midterms she drew large crowds even in red states like West Virginia. The Senate leader also exercises a unique power to bless (or kill) potential Senate candidacies; in this role, Warren could help ensure strong progressive candidates emerged as the Democratic candidates in Senate races across the country.

So what’s not to like? I’m not sure the Warren push is a bad idea, but I have some serious concerns.

There are a few smaller-bore worries that could possibly be overcome, but are worth thinking about. For one, Warren’s office already said she doesn’t want the job. That’s a pretty big roadblock.

As leader of the Senate Democrats, Warren would necessarily lose the consistency of her positions. Her job every day would be to bring Democrats—all of them—into line to either support or oppose a particular provision. There would be messy compromises, especially when dealing with a House that’s likely to be Republican for the foreseeable future. One wonders if Warren would actually better serve progressive causes using her popularity as a normal senator, giving floor speeches and rallying Democrats away from some bad position the leadership wanted, instead of trying to herd all the cats herself.

Senate majority leader Warren also wouldn’t sit on any committees, meaning the senator who subjects the administration’s economic team or Wall Street executives to granular, probing questions on the Senate Banking Committee would be gone. Warren’s direct oversight power over Wall Street—gone.

Maybe that’s all worth it in the end. But the main reason this seems like a bad battle for progressives: it’s one they just can’t win. It’s definitely possible someone other than Schumer could be elected leader, but Warren is way too heavy of a lift.

There is a plausible argument, I think, that Warren could actually be elected president. At the end of the day, all she needs is for people to come out and vote—and give her a donation or two. But Senate leadership elections aren’t purely democratic exercises like a presidential election.

All that matters are the votes of around fifty Democratic senators, give or take a few, which are cast in a secret ballot. Nobody else gets a say, making it a pretty bad target for an organizing campaign. Sure, progressives could theoretically extract pledges from Democratic candidates or incumbents in the 2016 elections to support Warren, but there probably aren’t enough open, competitive seats to get a Warren majority that way.

The leadership election also comes at a uniquely bad time—right after the general election, and as far as possible from the next one. In other words, it happens when activists have the least amount of leverage.

Moreover, seniority is the lifeblood of the Senate. It’s the system by which senators know their service and time served will hold greater benefits down the line. It might not be pretty, nor fair, but any Senate observer will tell you it’s how the institution works. Even a theoretical senator who really wanted Warren to lead the party over Schumer would still really worry about overthrowing the seniority system that has, or would, benefit them.

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That doesn’t mean Schumer should get the job automatically, but the idea that senators would elevate a first-term member to the top seat borders on laughable. It won’t happen.

The danger in pushing a hopeless mission is that it weakens your stature. Earlier Friday, an anonymous Democratic aide in the Senate told TPM’s Sahil Kapur that the idea of Warren for leader is “absurd” and claimed the groups pushing it have little sway. I think there’s plenty of evidence of their influence—but it would be a shame if they helped prove that aide right.

Moreover, this all gets away from the task at hand: making Schumer scared of, and thus responsive to, the progressive wing of the party. Schumer almost surely isn’t worried about Warren.

My advice would be to pick a much more viable, veteran non-Schumer option like Dick Durbin, Patty Murray or even Sherrod Brown, and to throw the weight of progressives behind that person. Some of the those senators might make imperfect messengers, but the point is that they would be progressive-backed candidates who could actually win.

 

Read Next: George Zornick on getting rid of the Hyde amendment.

Let’s Just Get Rid of the Hyde Amendment

Abortion-rights activist

Abortion-rights activist Erin Matson holds up a sign as anti-abortion demonstrators march towards the Supreme Court in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez)

Two seemingly innocuous pieces of legislation recently ran into unexpected roadblocks in Congress this month: a bill to permanently fix the Medicare doctor-payment formula, and legislation to aid victims of human trafficking.

The culprit in both cases was abortion language that would mirror the infamous Hyde Amendment. Many Democrats insist the provisions must be removed before they vote for either bill. The debate has metastasized so quickly that it’s now holding up the confirmation of Loretta Lynch to be attorney general; Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said he would not bring her nomination to a vote until Democrats relent on the human-trafficking bill.

You’ve probably heard of the Hyde Amendment before—the oft-employed shorthand is that it’s the thing that prevents taxpayer dollars from going to abortion services. Ever since 1976, the bill has been a goblin haunting domestic politics, often throwing unrelated debates into chaos.

What if, once and for all, Democrats just got rid of it?

In many ways, the Hyde Amendment’s mythology outpaces its actual effect. As the dispute over these two bills shows, the Hyde Amendment isn’t an all-encompassing federal ban. Otherwise, there would be no fight here, because its principles would automatically be applied.

The Hyde Amendment actually deals mainly with Medicaid dollars, and prevents healthcare providers who have Medicaid patients from providing them abortion services.

This means it has a devastating effect on low-income women. Research has shown that lack of Medicaid funding for abortion services creates serious delays for low-income women seeking help, as they must save money necessary to pay for any procedures. Sixty-seven percent of poor women who had an abortion said they wanted to have it sooner, according to a Guttmacher Institute study. For some, the wait ends up being too long, or the cost is too burdensome—several studies estimate that somewhere between 18 and 35 percent of women on Medicaid continue their pregnancies despite wanting an abortion because the funding isn’t available.

The eponymous Representative Henry Hyde was pretty straightforward about the discrimination that his amendment created when it was enacted. “I certainly would like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle-class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the…Medicaid bill,” he said in 1977. “If rich women want to enjoy their high-priced vices, that is their responsibility…that is fine, but not at the taxpayers’ expense,” he said during another debate.

Though limited to Medicaid, the Hyde Amendment’s fundamental logic has inspired similar bans on abortion services for federal inmates, for Peace Corps volunteers, and for members of the military. Obamacare was almost derailed over the question of whether the Hyde Amendment would apply to all the new government healthcare spending; an executive order from President Obama assured that it would. In each case, the argument is always: should we apply the Hyde Amendment?

Getting rid of the Hyde Amendment could therefore reverse the debate, and put pro-choice politicians on the offensive instead of constantly playing defense against Hyde creep.

Logistically, it might not be that hard. The Hyde Amendment expires every year—and is renewed by Congress annually when it appropriates money for the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs Medicaid.

Some Democrats are at least talking about fighting back. The co-chairs of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, Representatives Louise Slaughter and Diana DeGette, issued a statement Tuesday blessing the abortion language in the Medicare payment bill because they feel the provisions don’t expand Hyde any further. They did note, however, that the Hyde Amendment “is a temporary rider that expires every year, and we—along with many women across this country—look forward to the day when it will end.”

Slaughter and four other House members embarked on a national bus tour to repeal the Hyde Amendment last summer.

Pro-choice activists are starting to look harder at getting rid of the Hyde Amendment too. URGE, a group that works to mobilize younger Americans around reproductive issues, has been running campaigns to make people aware of the issue. URGE has held rallies in twenty cities, and delivered petitions to members of Congress urging them to stop renewing Hyde.

“A lot of people didn’t even know what the amendment was, and that so many low-income women are affected. People were, one, surprised, and two, pissed off,” Kierra Johnson, the group’s executive director, told me. “It’s been under the radar for so long that congressional members haven’t had to do anything about it. We’re no longer going to let Hyde pass year after year, as if that’s just the way it should be.”

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If there is finally a push to get rid of the Hyde Amendment, it wouldn’t be the first time. As ThinkProgress recently noted, Bill Clinton actually made this a campaign pledge way back in 1992, and later asked Congress to act. Hyde, still in Congress at the time, was able to narrowly defeat the effort, and it’s never been tried in earnest since.

The chances of doing so in a Republican-controlled Congress are nil, but movements like these generally need some momentum. There will also another Clinton seeking the White House in the coming months. If she is looking for things to campaign on, getting rid of the Hyde Amendment and its anachronistic, discriminatory logic is a good place to look.

 

Read Next: George Zornick on a court victory for Chelsea Manning

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