George Zornick | The Nation

George Zornick

George Zornick

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

Can Congress Fix What John Roberts Wrecked?

Chief Justice John Roberts. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

The bad news about Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder is, of course, that the majority declared Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. That’s the part of the law that determines which localities are covered under Section 5, which requires areas with problematic voter discrimination to pre-clear any changes to voting laws with the Justice Department.

The good news, however, is that the Court did not find Section 5 itself unconstitutional, much to the chagrin of some conservatives. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Congress should update the coverage formula to require that states and localities with recent voting rights violations preclear new election law changes.”

The Beltway wisdom is that this will never happen—the Congress is hopelessly dysfunctional, and specifically, obstructionist Republicans are happy with the Supreme Court’s decision and completely unwilling to allow new formulas for Section 4. “As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don’t have sixty votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance,” Senator Charles Schumer declared bluntly Tuesday.

But everything is impossible until it isn’t. Suppose for a second Congress is able to act on Roberts’s request to update the coverage formulas—how would it do so?

One step would be to have the Senate Judiciary Committee pass out such legislation. The chairman of that committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, has already promised to do that: “I intend to take immediate action to ensure that we will have a strong and reconstituted Voting Rights Act that protects against racial discrimination in voting,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

The next would be to have that bill debated by the full Senate. And Majority Leader Harry Reid is already on board, too: “I have asked Chairman Leahy to immediately examine the appropriate path for the Senate to address this decision,” he said Thursday. “I am confident in Congress’s ability to judge what is necessary to prevent racial discrimination in election practices.”

So far, so good. The House, of course, is a tougher road: the majority is held by Republicans, and the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Bob Goodlatte, does not appear to be particularly interested in this issue—unlike his Republican predecessor, who happened to be a strong defender of the Voting Rights Act.

But some House Democrats are determined to try—and in fact, to make the Voting Right Act even tougher than it was before.

At a press briefing on Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon, Representative James Clyburn—the third-ranking Democrat in the House—said that the Court’s decision was an opportunity to expand Section 4 beyond the mainly Southern application that existed until Tuesday.

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Clyburn noted that thirty-eight states enacted some form of voter identification before the last election. He also referenced Ohio and Pennsylvania in particular, where some Republican officials blatantly admitted the voter identification laws were meant to suppress the black vote or achieve partisan goals. (In Ohio, a close adviser to Governor John Kasich said, “We shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African-American—voter-turnout machine.” In Pennsylvania, the Republican leader of the state House said voter identification laws are “gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”)

“If you look at…the actions that thirty-eight states took in the run-up to the 2012 elections, there are records that have been developed,” Clyburn said. “Most of us are very familiar with the record that developed in Pennsylvania. And I’m pretty familiar with the activities taken by the secretary of state in Ohio. Let’s look at their language, and the record we will develop this time—we’ll bring their words into this record. We didn’t have their words in 2006 [during the last reauthorization]. We’ve got them now.”

Clyburn continued: “The intent to turn the clock back is very, very clear. I think that there are counties in Pennsylvania and in Ohio that would probably come under in the new formula that we develop.”

There are caveats to this approach: for one, the majority opinion in Shelby suggested that new formulas still might not pass constitutional muster unless they prove Jim Crow–era levels of discrimination, which the justices don’t think applies to voter identification bills. “No one can fairly say that” current data “shows anything approaching the ‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination that faced Congress in 1965,” it read.

But most Democrats in Congress disagree—and remember this was a 5-4 vote, and the Supreme Court could look different by the time any new Congressional Section 4 formulas reach it.

The larger problem of course is Schumer’s point: Republicans in Congress won’t allow Clyburn’s approach to become law. But on a day where President Obama opened the door to denying the Keystone XL pipeline, it is important to remember that public pressure shouldn’t be underrated—especially, in this case, when targeted at a Republican Party that is already admittedly worried about its appearance as racially intolerant.

[UPDATE: Late Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor released a rather stunning statement to Talking Points Memo endorsing Congressional action: “My experience with John Lewis in Selma earlier this year was a profound experience that demonstrated the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all,” Cantor said. “I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside, as we did on that trip, and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”]

This was the tone struck by several members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Tuesday, some of whom marched for civil rights fifty years ago and aren’t afraid of doing it again.

“The American people should use the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, and other opportunities, to say we still need protection in our country,” said Representative John Lewis at a briefing Tuesday. “They must compel each and every member of Congress to act in a bipartisan fashion to fix, or repair, what the Supreme Court broke. We must do it. We must do it now, before another national election takes place. It is our calling. It is our mission. It is our mandate, and we have an obligation to act.”

Representative Marcia Fudge, chair of the CBC—and who also said she wants Section 4 formulas expanded—agreed. “If they want us to march again, then we are up to the task,” she said.

Take Action: Tell Congress to Guarantee the Right to Vote

Ari Berman explains what was lost when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act.

Pelosi Blasts Proposed Food Stamp Cuts, Says Farm Bill Is Endangered

Nancy Pelosi. (AP Images)

UPDATE: The House of Representatives, by a 195-234 vote, failed to pass the farm bill on Thursday afternoon. It failed along lines very similar to what Nancy Pelosi predicted below; she estimated only somewhere between 26 and 39 Democrats would support the bill, and 24 did. Sixty Republicans voted no, and the bill fell 23 votes shy of passage. 

Notably, Pelosi also said that if the GOP made the SNAP cuts even worse, "all bets are off." Shortly before the final vote, House Republicans passed "one of the most extreme SNAP amendments to be offered in the program's history," that would basically pay states to cut off SNAP benefits. 


Late Wednesday afternoon, the House of Representatives killed an amendment by Representative James McGovern that would have eliminated planned food stamp cuts in the GOP’s five-year farm bill, and replaced the cuts with reductions to big agriculture subsidies.

As it stands now, the bill has $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts over the next ten years—a number that could grow as restive conservative members are pushing for even deeper cuts, and in one case, removal of food stamps from the bill entirely.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took to the House floor shortly before the vote on McGovern’s amendment and urged Democrats to vote for it, which all but eight of them did. In an interview with The Nation in her Capitol office shortly after the vote, an exasperated Pelosi said the food stamp cuts could now endanger the entire farm bill.

“I don’t know if this is even going to pass,” she said. “I don’t know what the Republicans have in votes, but they better have a lot.”

Here’s the problem: as it stands now, many Democrats, like McGovern, have said they simply won’t vote for a farm bill with $20.5 billion in cuts, calling them a “poison pill.”

There are some Democrats who will: thirteen Democrats on the agriculture committee, many from rural areas that badly want a farm bill to be passed, voted for the version of the farm bill with those cuts.

But Pelosi predicted that only “somewhere between two and three times” that many Democrats would vote for the final farm bill with that level of food stamp cuts, meaning that House Speaker John Boehner would have to get a majority of his caucus to vote yes on the farm bill for it to pass.

And many conservatives are deeply unhappy with the legislation, in large part because they feel it doesn’t cut enough from food stamps. Boehner may not be able to get a majority of them to vote yes. And if, in order to win their votes, Boehner allows even deeper food stamp cuts, then Pelosi said it’s possible no Democrats would vote yes.

“If they change it on the floor, then all bets are off. It’s not even—I don’t think they can get Collin [Peterson, the ranking member on the agriculture committee who supports the food stamp cuts], depending on where they go with it,” she said. “If they have any adult supervision over there, somebody will say, ’If we go this far, increase these cuts, we better have all the votes that are necessary.‘ ”

Pelosi seemed incredulous at times about the debate happening in the House this week. She called the twenty-week abortion ban that passed Tuesday “beneath the dignity of even bringing something to the floor of the House of Representatives.”

“So that’s what we did yesterday,” she said. “Today we’re taking food from the mouths of babes. What else is there to say?”

The cuts as they stand now would kick 2 million Americans off food stamps, including several hundred thousand children who would no longer receive lunch and breakfast programs at school, according to the CBO.

At several points in the interview, Pelosi widened her complaints about the food stamp cuts to direct broadsides on the conservative, anti-government House Republican caucus.

“They’ve said to me directly: instead of ending subsidies on big oil, you can save the same amount of money by cutting Pell Grants by that amount. And, on top of that, they vote against the raising of the minimum wage,” she said. “I mean, people just don’t have a shot with this crowd. It is stunning who they are.”

I asked Pelosi if heavily gerrymandered districts that give Republicans an incentive to only worry about primaries from the right were to blame for the hard-right—and ultimately very unpopular—policies emerging from the House of Representatives.

She dismissed that theory, at least in part. “I don’t know that it is necessarily tied to that. That may be one element of it,” she said. “But I do believe, and I’ve said this of the Republicans, you have to give them credit—they don’t believe in government, and they act upon their beliefs.”

Pelosi continued: “They don’t believe in anything—clean air, clean water, food safety, public safety, public education, public transportation, public health, Medicare Medicaid, Social Security—they don’t believe in it.”

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The makeup of their district, in other words, isn’t a big factor in Pelosi’s eyes. “Now are you saying there’s a handful who would rather be voting with shared values? In a bipartisan way?” she asked. “I don’t know what that number is. Smaller and smaller.

“I can’t speak with any authority on whom is motivated by what there, in the micro, in the individual,” she said. “But in the macro, I think they are comfortable where they vote. I think they are doing what they believe. And what they believe is not a healthy thing for children or other living things.”

Hard Right Rallies Against 'Amnesty' Outside Capitol

Representative Michele Bachmann at a rally outside the US Capitol on June 19, 2013. Photo by George Zornick.

Halfway through a passionate speech Wednesday that railed against comprehensive immigration reform, Representative Michele Bachmann asked if every person under the age of 18, amidst the crowd of hundreds, could join her on the small stage outside the US Capitol.

A surprising number of kids rushed up to the makeshift platform, filling it to a somewhat alarming capacity. Bachmann had to ask some to stand on the grass nearby instead. “We don’t want to collapse. Like our economy,” she cracked.

Then Bachmann hoisted up a lily-white infant. “Say hello to Terra. And say hello to America’s future,” she shouted, as the crowd went nuts. But, Bachmann quickly intoned, “little baby Terra is looking at a very different future.”

This rally, organized by Tea Party groups across the country and promoted by Glenn Beck on his Internet television empire for much of the past week, is basically the GOP’s worst nightmare. As party leaders and the consultant class try to convince the Republican base, 60 percent of which opposes a pathway to citizenship, to support an immigration bill, and as people like Senator John Cornyn frame their opposition as pro-reform but concerned about border security—well, you don’t want Michele Bachmann on the Capitol lawn, holding up white babies and talking about America’s future.

Representatives Bachmann, Steve King and Louie Gohmert organized the rally as a “Lincoln-Douglas” style debate to show Congress—and specifically House Speaker John Boehner—that significant opposition to the idea of immigration reform exists inside and outside Congress.

Such voices have been largely marginalized in the reform debate so far, but the conservative base in the House, as we noted last week, is launching a push to force Boehner only to introduce bills that can pass with a majority of the Republican caucus. That is: only to introduce bills that do not offer a clear pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

There was, to be sure, a strong nativist tone to the rally. American and Gadsden flags abounded, as did the ever-present activists dressed up as Revolutionary War–era patriots. There were also signs: “Immigration Reform = Legalized Invasion.” Another large flag had a Jesus fish stylized with the stars and stripes; “Proud American Christian,” it read. “Shut the door,” read another. “No Amnesty for Illegals,” read several.

Bachmann and the other speakers knew their audience. “It looks like a beautiful family reunion to me. It looks like the American family is here, at your house,” Bachmann began her speech. “Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t real people that the politicians fear more than anything else. We’re seeing a lot of real people here today, and I’m so extremely grateful that you’re here.”

“Very quickly we are observing a nation that we no longer recognize,” Bachmann said. But she also apparently understood that her wider audience wasn’t limited to the people in attendance—and realized how this all might look. “And by that I mean, it has nothing to do with the color of anyone’s skin,” she continued. “It has nothing to do with anyone’s ethnicity. It has to do with our American creed: because bottom line, we are believers, and proud believers, in the Declaration of Independence.”

The heart of Bachmann’s speech, and many of the speeches Wednesday morning, was that a new wave of immigrants would further bankrupt an already broken state. “If you walk into that building, the United States Treasury, and you can get past the guards that are there, and you get over to the vault, and you say, by some miracle, ‘Would you open that vault?’—I’m just here to say, if they opened it, it would be moths and feathers that would fly out.” Her explanation of why baby Terra won’t have a future is that she would have to pay “up to 75 percent of her future income” to support an expanding welfare state.

Well, what about the CBO report, released yesterday, that said immigration reform will reduce deficits? The rally had an answer in the form of Robert Rector, a Heritage Foundation expert, who assured the crowd with plenty of facts and figures that the CBO had it all wrong. In short: “The CBO is bullshit!” as one man shouted out during the lecture.

This is where, perhaps, the real danger to immigration reform lies, as members of Congress who are undecided contemplate their votes: the economic insecurity and distrust of government that have undergirded not only the Tea Party, but are also shared by plenty of other Americans these days.

That view was best expressed by a member of the Pittsburgh Tea Party who took the microphone at one point, as organizers encouraged attendees to do. “Why is it that instead of having NSA tap the phones of the American citizenry, they don’t go find out who these illegals are and who they’re calling back in their home countries, and to whom they are sending money—American money—back to their banks?” the man said. “These are the things that we want to know.”

Plenty of other signs spoke to this concern. “Exporting Illegals—Importing Jobs for Americans!” said one; “Amnesty = Cheap Votes + Cheap Labor.”

These folks share a common concern with senators like Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an avowed liberal who spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday about the dangers of importing low-wage labor from Mexico when many Americans are out of work.

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For many people who attended the rally, these economic concerns were wedded with concerns for an explicitly white, Christian country—and combined with the fear of losing majority and political power.

“It will cause capitalism to crash,” one retired teacher from Moore County, North Carolina told me matter-of-factly about immigration reform. “Capitalism crashes, we’re into socialism.”

“These people [immigrants] don’t realize they’re being given all this stuff just to collect their votes so that people in power can gain more power—and they’re so ignorant,” she continued. “You know they spoke of their educational level, it averages the highest is about tenth grade. They’re being used as pawns. The people that are here are educated, they know what’s going on, they are aware. They also, most of them are Christian, okay, they have conscience. They know right from wrong—and it’s against their conscience just to see these people used as pawns,” she said as she sliced an apple in her folding chair. “They’re going to end up losing their freedoms. They’re just being led like sheep to the slaughter.”

Why do Aiyana Jones and Trayvon Martin matter? Read Mychal Denzel Smith’s argument here.

Immigration Reform Is a Great Reason to Scrap the Debt Ceiling Deal

President Barack Obama gestures while speaking about immigration reform, Tuesday, June 11, 2013, in the East Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The Congressional Budget Office released a report late Tuesday afternoon detailing the economic and budgetary impact of the comprehensive immigration reform bill as it currently stands in the Senate.

The top line of the report is that the immigration reform legislation will increase spending by $262 billion over ten years, but also increase revenue by $459 billion, for deficit reduction of $197 billion. It does so by the taxes, fines and economic growth produced by adding 10.4 million permanent US residents and 1.6 million new temporary visa holders.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I just want to flag one thing—what the CBO says about immigration reform and the Budget Control Act of 2011, colloquially known as the debt ceiling deal.

As you may recall, in the summer of 2011 President Obama—fully enthralled with deficit reduction, and fearful of a debt ceiling default caused by congressional Republicans—agreed to a deal that set hard budget caps over the next ten years. Then, sequester cuts were set in motion over the same period because the super-committee couldn’t agree on a deficit plan. This made the budgetary straightjacket even tighter.

But, as the CBO notes, this was done in the context of a notably smaller official population than what we’d see if immigration reform passes. The projections used to set these caps (specifically, the funding levels in CBO’s 2010 baseline) didn’t take over ten million new Americans, that can join a variety of federal programs, into account: the total amount of discretionary funding is currently capped (through 2021) by the Budget Control Act of 2011; extra funding for the purposes of this legislation might lead to lower funding for other purposes.

So, the $262 billion in extra spending will have to be jammed in under the spending caps: to use the popular DC metaphor of a family’s budget, this is like setting strict spending limits for your household, and then sticking to them even though you have another kid.

The CBO report muses that this will crowd out other funding, but of course there’s another solution—just raise the caps, or scrap them entirely.

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This has been almost unspeakable in the Beltway debate since the debt ceiling deal, despite the very real pressures the budget caps are already putting on the budget. But immigration reform provides two good justifications—not only the sensible need to adjust the caps due to unforeseen spending (that both parties seem to agree is necessary) but also all the extra revenue and deficit reduction it provides on the backend.

At the very least, this is an elegant solution to offsetting the sequester cuts, which both parties want to do. But even then, the budget caps are a very real problem that will need to be fixed.

Journalist Michael Hastings, 33, died in a car crash yesterday. Read Greg Mitchell's obituary here.

House GOP Revolt Against Immigration Reform Begins

The headline-grabbing debate over immigration reform is happening in the Senate this week, as the entire body debates a series of amendments to the comprehensive legislation passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. There is a very real chance that reform could die there—if, for example, Senator John Cornyn’s border security amendment passes, the bill might become unsupportable for many Democrats.

But lurking in the background is an even more difficult fight in the House, where the Republican caucus is much more hostile to reform. House members are beholden to smaller, more conservative districts, and there are no leaders calling for reform analogous to Republicans Marco Rubio and John McCain in the Senate.

This week began with some promising signs from the office of House Speaker John Boehner. For months, he said virtually nothing about his strategy for passing immigration reform—not even whether one existed—but Politico reported Monday that “privately, the Ohio Republican is beginning to sketch out a road map to try to pass some version of an overhaul in his chamber.” The next morning, during an ABC News interview, Boehner hinted that he might allow an immigration bill to pass the House with a majority of Democratic votes, thereby abandoning the so-called “Hastert rule.”

Without question, that was tremendous news for proponents of immigration reform. But don’t think conservatives opposed to any legislation didn’t notice—and the first unified effort by anti-immigration House members might have now begun.

Thursday morning, Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze had the exclusive news that seventy members of the House GOP “are planning a politically risky showdown” with Boehner. Led by Representatives Steve King, Michele Bachmann and Louie Gohmert, the group is demanding two things from Boehner: (1) a special Republican conference meeting about immigration, and (2) a promise to be true to the Hastert Rule.

The caucus meeting could be perilous for Boehner—his strategy of keeping the House at a very low temperature and mollifying, at least for now, the hardline anti-immigration members couldn’t survive a head-to-head confrontation. Boehner would have to address their Hastert rule request directly. (Note, too, that conservative activists also began pressuring Boehner on the Hastert rule this week—the heads of the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, the American Conservative Union and the Family Research Council sent Boehner a letter on Tuesday demanding he never stray from the Hastert rule again.)

Boehner could of course ignore their request for a meeting, but that’s a somewhat unattractive option as well. [UPDATE: Boehner announced late Thursday that on July 10, there will be a caucus-wide meeting on immigration. It’s not immediately clear if he was acting in response to the conservative push, nor whether they will insist on meeting sooner.] The Blaze report said the letter will arrive in Boehner’s office on Friday.

What’s striking—and potentially catastrophic for the GOP, politically—is how direct the leaders of the looming House revolt are about opposing immigration reform. This is in contrast to say John Cornyn, who is at least claiming to support reform but pushing for stronger border security requirements.

Representative King, for example, not long after the Blaze story broke, characterized undocumented students who came to his Capitol Hill office thusly:

Bachmann just gave an interview to World Net Daily this week that depicted "amnesty" as a master plan to create a permanent “progressive class.” The Blaze included that interview in its exclusive on the new Bachmann-King-Gohmert strategy:

“This is President Obama’s number one political agenda item because he knows we will never again have a Republican president, ever, if amnesty goes into effect. We will perpetually have a progressive, liberal president, probably a Democrat, and we will probably see the House of Representatives go into Democrat hands and the Senate will stay in Democrat hands,” Bachmann said.

She also said that if it passes, the bill would create a permanent progressive class.

“That’s what’s at risk right now. It may sound melodramatic, I don’t mean it that way, but this is that big and that important,” Bachmann said.

And Beck was quick to do his part. Within an hour of The Blaze’s story, Beck appeared on his web television show to herald the House GOP revolt and described it as a potential Waterloo for the entire Tea Party:

These seventy [members] are standing up and saying, ‘Take away all of our power.’ They know that if they lose, they lose. The Tea Party has—this is putting all of the chips on the table. You’ve been asking for it, you’ve been asking for people with a spine.

This one is not going to be easy. They’re going to be called racist, they’re going to be called every name under the sun, and so will you. You have to know why you are for it, why you say… I am not a racist. I am not violent. But I am not going to be silent any more. We have been silent far too long.

You may have noticed Beck’s slight intimation of violence there. As his fifteen-minute rant on the House GOP pushback escalated, he called for both civil disobedience and, apparently, violent struggle:

Is there anything worth losing your life over, more important than this? Is there anything more important than standing up for human dignity? For the rights of all mankind? They are going to try to make this into a civil rights case, and it is not. It is an affront to anyone who understands civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr. was not saying, ‘We’re all breaking the law here.’ Unless the law is unjust, you cannot eat at that supermarket counter. The hell I can’t.

No, I’m not quite sure what that means either. But the point is that Beck wants his audience to see the immigration battle as a must-win, where the entire Tea Party movement is at stake. Seventy House GOP members, including several Tea Party stars, are ready to being the battle. While this was, at some point, inevitable, it's bad news for Boehner, and much more importantly, bad news for immigration reform.

The Most Important Hearing in Washington This Week

United States Capitol. (Wikimedia Commons)

Though it won’t garner many headlines nor blocks of cable news coverage, a Wednesday morning hearing on Capitol Hill has massive import for potentially millions of Americans waiting for the government to enforce some basic health and safety regulations.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will consider the nomination of Howard Shelanski to head the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a little-known outfit that consumer and good government groups have been complaining about for years—with good reason.

OIRA’s job is to evaluate cost-benefit analyses of regulations performed by executive branch agencies. Its blessing is needed to publish the regulations in the federal register and begin enforcement—but for reasons that are often unexplained, OIRA is sitting on numerous rules and indefinitely delaying their implementation.

The process for actually getting new regulations into law is already pretty burdensome. Once an agency elects to write a large-scale new rule—in some cases, after Congress has passed legislation requiring them to, which means it has already gone through the legislative meat-grinder—this is what happens with OIRA, via the Center for Effective Government:

This week the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards—an alliance of over 150 consumer, small business, labor, and scientific groups—released a report detailing the myriad ways in which OIRA is serving as a chokepoint in the regulatory process.

More than 120 rules that have already been written by a regulatory agency are stuck at OIRA. By executive order, OIRA is supposed to review the regulation for no more than 90 days—but seventy of 120 orders stalled there have been under review much longer, essentially in defiance of federal law. In many cases, though OIRA is supposed to explain delays, it just doesn’t.

The CSS report fingers industry influence as a major factor in the delays. It outlines the case of a rule on silica dust, which is particularly galling. Silica is a mineral found in sand, rock, brick and concrete, which if inhaled in dust, can be seriously damaging to human lungs. Naturally, construction and building industry workers typically inhale this dust, and as many as 4,400 people are diagnosed with silicosis each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It kills 146 people every year, and it is often a very painful death.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed lowering the amount of silica workers are allowed to be exposed to—the rules first created in 1972 were deemed far too lax. The silica rulemaking at OSHA was initiated in 1998, and took over a decade to complete—but finally, in February 2011, they sent a proposed rule to reduce worker exposure to silica dust.

That rule, therefore, went to OIRA almost two and half years ago, and should have left the office in the spring of 2011. Why the delay? It seems that industry influence is the big culprit here.

The CSS report notes:

Since the rule was sent to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for review in February 2011, the office has hosted 11 meetings with outside groups to discuss the rule. Nine of those meetings were with industry groups that oppose the rule.

The report also describe a troubling revolving door between industries affected by regulation and OIRA, which no doubt gums up the works even further. The silica rule is just one example—the report details important regulations on food safety, minimum wage and overtime rules for homecare workers, energy efficiency, and controls on Wall Street traders that are all stuck at OIRA.

This is a clear failure that Obama is responsible for—OIRA is located at the White House. Some Democratic Senators, like Sheldon Whitehouse and Tom Harkin, have written the administration in protest of OIRA’s foot-dragging, as Brad Plumer notes.

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During Shelanski’s confirmation hearing, Senators have a responsibility to press him on undue delays in approving rules and attempt to extract promises that things will get better. You can watch here and the CSS report is here. We will certainly follow up on how the hearing goes.

Republicans have repeatedly called for the repeal of Obamacare. Lee Fang reveals how those same GOP lawmakers have solicited grants from the program they claim to despise.

The Sword Drops on Food Stamps

A sign announcing the acceptance of electronic Benefit Transfer cards at a farmers market in Roseville, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

It’s official: Congress will slash food stamp funding in the midst of a deep economic recession, when more people rely on food stamps than ever before.

Monday night, the Senate passed a five-year farm bill that contained $4.1 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over ten years. This ensures that the only debate now will be about how much to cut—and it’s likely to result in cuts much deeper than $4.1 billion.

The House Agriculture Committee passed a farm bill last month that cut $20.5 billion from SNAP by removing “categorical eligibility” (more on that here), which would take food stamps away from 2 million Americans and hundreds of thousands of children.

That bill has yet to be fully debated and passed on the House floor, and the push to make the cuts even deeper will be strong—conservatives have insisted on even deeper cuts. Representative Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget, for example, called for $135 billion in food stamp cuts, and on Tuesday, twenty-five House Republicans wrote to House Speaker John Boehner to remove food stamp funding from the bill altogether. (They just want the program debated on a separate track, but the barely implicit message in the letter is that they don’t want to be forced to agree to “only” $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts at the risk of killing the farm bill.)

The House bill, once passed, will head to conference committee, and the negotiators will have to reach a consensus number. Without question, it won’t be lower than $4.1 billion.

Why did Democrats in the Senate head down this road? Some attempted not to—Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill last month that blocked any food stamp cuts, but only twenty-five of her colleagues, and zero Republicans, voted for it. It failed 70-26.

Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture committee, has defended the cuts as designed only to stop “waste, fraud and abuse” in the SNAP program, and urged Democrats to vote against Gillibrand’s bill. “Every family that currently qualifies for nutrition assistance in this country continues to get that assistance,” she said. “We do make sure there is integrity in the programs.”

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That’s not really what the bill does, however. It cuts $4.1 billion by eliminating the “Heat and Eat” programs adopted by several states that coordinate low-income heating assistance with SNAP benefits, thus allowing a slightly larger benefit. The Coalition on Human Needs explains:

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have opted to provide SNAP households with a nominal [Low Income Heating Assistance Program] payment, so that instead of having to provide burdensome monthly documentation of their shelter and heating/utility bills, they can deduct a standard allowance from their income, thereby increasing the amount of SNAP benefits they qualify for. This “Heat and Eat” approach disproportionately helps seniors and those with disabilities, who pay a high proportion of their income on shelter costs. Without this coordinated approach, such households may lose $50—$75 a month in SNAP benefits.

Aside from being, well, cruel, the food stamp cuts in the Senate bill are also damaging to the economy. The Center for American Progress, in a study released in March, found that for every $1 billion cut from SNAP, 13,718 jobs are lost:

So the Senate bill, by that calculation, will cost 56,243 jobs. CAP noted the losses “will likely have the greatest impact on younger workers, since they account for a disproportionate share of workers in food-related industries.”

The only hope now to at least moderate the cuts is a band of House Democrats who have pledged to fight the food stamp cuts ferociously, as we reported last month.

AT&T’s deregulation campaign will hurt low-income Americans, people of color and rural communities. Read Leticia Miranda’s report here.

Remember When NSA Surveillance Was Used to Help Launch the Iraq War?

A government building burns during heavy bombardment of Baghdad, Iraq, by United States-led forces on March 21, 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay) 

Many Washington policymakers and journalists have framed the NSA surveillance controversy as a debate between privacy and security. Proponents of the data dragnets argue straightforwardly that it is necessary to protect Americans from terrorists. “I flew over the World Trade Center going to Senator [Frank] Lautenberg’s funeral, and in the distance was the Statue of Liberty. And I thought of those bodies jumping out of that building, hitting the canopy,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said on Sunday. “Part of our obligation is keeping Americans safe.”

Opponents often accept the same frame, but argue that the country has traded away too much privacy. “I want our law enforcement people to be vigorous in going after terrorists.” Senator Bernie Sanders told Chris Hayes on MSNBC’s All In Monday night. “But I happen to believe they can do that without disregarding the constitution of the United States or the civil liberties of the American people.”

But what if the government abuses the vast surveillance power it is accumulating? What if the NSA is used for political purposes, not safety? This is often left out of the debate, or dismissed outright. Eric Posner wrote at The New York Times website that “I am unaware—and correct me if I am wrong—of a single instance during the last 12 years of war-on-terror-related surveillance in which the government used information obtained for security purposes to target a political opponent, dissenter or critic.”

Unfortunately, the NSA has already abused its surveillance power in at least one case where political opponents were targeted, and it’s a big one.

In 2003, a woman named Katharine Gun, who was working for a British intelligence agency, leaked a memo to the press from an NSA agent named Frank Koza. It described a massive American effort to monitor the communications of six delegations to the United Nations—the so-called “Middle Six” who were undecided on authorizing the Iraq War and who were being fiercely courted by both sides.

Here’s what memo said, in part. (Note “the Agency” is the NSA):

As you’ve likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council (UNSC) members (minus US and GBR of course) for insights as to how to membership is reacting to the on-going debate RE: Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/ negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/ dependencies, etc—the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises. In RT, that means a QRC surge effort to revive/ create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.

We’ve also asked ALL RT topi’s to emphasize and make sure they pay attention to existing non-UNSC member UN-related and domestic comms for anything useful related to the UNSC deliberations/ debates/ votes. We have a lot of special UN-related diplomatic coverage (various UN delegations) from countries not sitting on the UNSC right now that could contribute related perspectives/ insights/ whatever. We recognize that we can’t afford to ignore this possible source.

The British newspaper The Observer had three former intelligence officials confirm its authenticity, and confirmed that indeed a man named Frank Koza worked at the NSA. The British government tacitly admitted the memo was real by charging Gun with violating the Official Secrets Act. The charges were later dropped when the British government was worried it would have to disclose secret legal advice about the war during the trial.

James Bamford, a veteran journalist covering the NSA, confirmed the account in his book and said it extended to monitoring United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq. At the time, however, US media outlets covered the story lightly, or ignored it completely, in the case of The New York Times.

So here is a clear case where the US government used its surveillance powers—ostensibly in place for national security—to target political opponents and advance an invasion of Iraq. The memo states explicitly that the surveillance is being used to “give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises.”

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While this may be news to many people fiercely debating the NSA this week, it is not news to the United Nations. It has already accepted illegal surveillance as a part of international diplomacy. Here’s what several United Nations official told Foreign Policy this week:

Several U.N. based diplomats and officials interviewed for this story said they shared similar expectations—that most of their electronic and digital communications are being monitored by friendly and unfriendly governments.

“I think we all assume all of our emails are being monitored by all sorts of countries,” said one senior U.N. official, who like most others interviewed for this piece spoke by telephone or communicated by email on the condition of anonymity.

One chief argument made by civil libertarians is that massive surveillance power will inevitably lead to abuse—that the mission will creep from security to political and diplomatic applications. The fact is, it already has.

So one must then wonder: Where does it go next?

For more NSA coverage, Bob Dreyfuss pushes back against those comparing Obama's surveillance scandal to those of Nixon, Bush.

Immigration Reform Gets Real: What to Look For

John Cornyn. (Courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore)

After months of behind-the-scenes haggling and committee work—and really, years and years of organizing, activism and elections—comprehensive immigration reform will have its moment on the big stage of the Senate floor this week.

Monday evening, the Senate will hold a roll call vote on a five-year farm bill, and assuming there are no hitches, will then begin floor debate on immigration reform. It will take weeks, but Democrats want the debate wrapped up and a bill passed by the July 1 recess.

As it stands now, the legislation (known officially as Senate bill 744, The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013) creates a path to citizenship for most—but not all—of the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in America. That’s a huge step forward, and Congress hasn’t seriously debated anything like it since 1986.

But it also spends $5.5 billion over ten years on border security, on top of the $18 billion the country spends annually on border enforcement, more than all other law enforcement activities combines. The ACLU warns that the legislation “creates the kind of militarized environment along our southern border that is extremely costly, harmful to border communities’ quality of life, and enormously inefficient.”

Over the coming weeks, a fascinating push-and-pull will happen through the amendment process. Senate conservatives will propose measures that, if they pass, would amount to a “poison pill” that renders the entire legislation un-passable because Democrats wouldn’t be able to support it. Meanwhile, pro-reform activists and senators will be attempting to push the bill as far towards justice as is possible, with the aim of including the most possible people and removing as many roadblocks as possible.

Here are a few of the major flashpoints to watch for:

Senator John Cornyn’s border security amendment. Things will get interesting right away, as the Texas Senator and minority whip in the Senate will introduce a measure this week that basically tears out all the border security sections agreed upon by the “Gang of Eight” and the Senate Judiciary Committee, and replaces them with much tougher—and to most Democrats and reformers, unacceptable—requirements.

Cornyn’s amendment would deny undocumented immigrants permanent residency until there was 100 percent surveillance of every mile of the southern border, a 90 percent apprehension rate, a national E-Verify system, and a biometric ID system at all airports and ports. The head of the Department of Homeland Security and the Government Accountability office would be the arbiters of whether those goals were met. He would also require even more spending on border enforcement, and narrow the group of people eligible for citizenship further by excluding “serious misdemeanors.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already deemed these provisions unacceptable, and said this weekend:

QUESTION: How far are you willing to compromise on this bill to make it happen? In other words, what are you willing to give up and what is a deal-breaker?

REID: Well, I will not accept any poison pills. I mean, we have a senator from Texas, Senator Cornyn, who wants to change border security, a trigger, saying that it has to be 100 percent border security, or there’ll be no bill. That’s a poison pill….we’re not going to have big changes in this legislation.

The question now is obviously whether Cornyn can marshal enough votes—he would need all Republicans and some conservative Democrats—to pass the amendment. Just as important will be how Senate conservatives react if the amendment failed. Senator Marco Rubio hasn’t explicitly backed Cornyn’s amendment but has certainly suggested he favors it. If it fails, will Rubio declare the process dead and walk away?

Rubio’s own border security measures. Despite Harry Reid’s declaration that no “major changes” to the bill will be made, Rubio has repeatedly insisted that the legislation must move to the right in order to pass.

In particular, Rubio has said he will introduce a measure that makes Congress, not the executive branch, responsible for deeming that certain triggers have been met before citizenship can be granted. He also wants to further limit the government benefits that provisional immigrants can receive.

Democrats oppose these measures but haven’t thrown down the gauntlet as they have with Cornyn. Some degree of compromise with Rubio will be likely, but how far? At what point do the Democrats say no? At what point would Rubio walk away?

Agitation by far-right senators. There’s a group of far-right conservatives in the Senate who have made it pretty clear they oppose immigration reform outright. One of the leaders of this movement, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, is proposing all kinds of extreme amendments, like 700 miles of double-layered fencing on the southern border and exit visa tracking at every point of entry in the United States, not just air and sea.

The question isn’t really whether these will pass—they won’t—but how much Sessions is able to rile up the right-wing base when they fail.

Until now the far right has been relatively quiet on immigration reform. There have been no rallies against reform, as there were in 2007, and evangelical churches are playing a key role in calling for real reform.

Sessions’ floor speeches and media appearances are basically more important than his amendments. His goal isn’t really to change the bill—he can’t—but to wake up and shake up the base. His op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on Monday is a good demonstration of this effort. “Should it pass, [this legislation] would represent the ultimate triumph of the Washington elite over the everyday citizen to whom Congress properly owes its loyalty,” he wrote.

Who is eligible? Senators are going to keep trying to both trim and expand the number of people eligible for citizenship.

The headline will be Senator Patrick Leahy’s effort to include LGBT immigrants in reform, so that all partners are eligible for benefits and citizenship that until now is limited to straight immigrants and their families. Leahy was unable to marshal many of his fellow Democrats on the committee to support it, let alone any Republicans—who again, are having their rear covered at this point by evangelical churches—and the amendment is likely to fail on the Senate floor.

Activists are also focusing on the cut-off date in the bill: anyone who came after December 11, 2011, is ineligible for any path to citizenship. So hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came since then would continue living in a shadow society, and some senators may try to push that date forward. There is also serious concern about the list of criminal offenses that can lead to denial of citizenship and deportation, that reformers view as “quite extreme.”

But some senators are trying to pull it in the other direction. There is Cornyn’s aforementioned effort to expand the list of criminal offenses that ultimately lead to denial of citizenship. Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, is set to introduce an amendment that would force the children of undocumented immigrants to get a college degree or join the military before receiving citizenship.

Congress, White House on NSA Spying: Nothing to See Here

This photograph shows a copy of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order requiring Verizon on an "ongoing, daily basis," to give the National Security Administration (NSA) information on all landline and mobile telephone calls of Verizon Business in its systems. (AP Photo)

For several years, Senator Ron Wyden and Senator Mark Udall have been ominously warning that the federal government has been interpreting the Patriot Act in a way that would shock the public. In a 2011 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, they wrote:

We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.

Late Wednesday night, we finally learned what Wyden and Udall meant, at least in part. Glenn Greenwald published a blockbuster story disclosing the existence of an April 25 order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), which required Verizon to provide the National Security Agency information on all telephone calls placed by Verizon’s Business Services clients on an “ongoing, daily basis.”

While the document Greenwald obtained only relates to a ninety-day period, ending July 19, and only involves Verizon Business Services clients, it’s very likely just a snapshot of a much broader data-gathering effort by the NSA.

In 2006, USA Today reported that the NSA was vacuuming up the call data of tens of millions of Americans, from several different major carriers. Greenwald’s story confirms that this effort continues today, and it would be extremely surprising if the effort was only limited to one service offered by one carrier.

The order does not give the NSA permission to eavesdrop on phone calls, but does give them access to so-called “meta-data.” This means the NSA has a massive database of phone numbers and the serial number of the phone associated with it; which other phones it contacts and for how long;and potentially the geographic location of the user.

The order does not allow the NSA to get the names or addresses of the users at this stage, though the government can go back to FISA for permission to do so. Still, privacy experts warn that metadata allows government intelligence analysts to “build detailed picture of individuals’ lives.”

Finally able to speak publicly about the surveillance, Wyden was quick to blast it on Thursday. “The program…is one that I have been concerned about for years,” Wyden said. “I believe that when law-abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information. Collecting this data about every single phone call that every American makes every day would be a massive invasion of Americans’ privacy.”

Most of Wyden’s colleagues, however, don’t appear to share his outrage, nor does the White House. Senate leaders and administration officials have mounted a multi-pronged defense of the spying program: (1) that it’s crucial to protecting the country from terrorist attacks, (2) that it’s essentially harmless because it doesn’t collect your name nor listen to your communications, (3) that it’s been going on for years, and that (4) don’t blame us, because the other branch of government knows about it too.

It’s worth probing these claims in a little detail. The primary claim here is that we need this program to keep us safe. “The information of the sort described in the article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror,” White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told reporters on Air Force One today.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Capitol Hill the same. “I read intelligence carefully, and I know that people are trying to get to us. This is the reason why we keep [NSA] doing what it’s doing,” she said. “It’s to ferret this out before it happens. It’s called protecting America.”

But that’s easily contradicted—by people like, say, Dianne Feinstein. Only moments earlier, she said this:

As you know, and I’ve pointed out many times, there have been approximately 100 plots and also arrests made since 2009 by the FBI. I do not know to what extent metadata was used or if it was used, but I do know this: That terrorists will come after us if they can, and the only thing we have to deter this is good intelligence.

So, the massive metadata sweep is key to stopping terrorist plots—except we don’t know if it’s actually ever worked. Representative Mike Rogers claimed later in the day that the NSA program has disrupted a specific domestic terror plot, but couldn’t reveal the details. Defenders of torture under President George W. Bush often made ultimately unsubstantiated claims of its efficacy, so it’s worth treating these claims lightly until more details come out.

But moreover, even if it has “worked,” can the government justify the program? Senator Saxby Chambliss, ranking member of the intelligence committee said Thursday that “we have gathered significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years.” But that’s clearly not true—tens of millions of records are being collected. “The president welcomes a discussion of the tradeoffs between security and civil liberties,” Earnest said. Ideally, Greenwald’s story will spur that conversation.

The next point made by government officials is that the program is more benign than civil libertarians assert. “The order reprinted overnight does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls,” Earnest said. “As you know, this is just metadata. There is no content involved. In other words, no content of a communication,” Feinstein reminded reporters.

This directly contradicts the efficacy argument, however—either the program works at ferreting out individuals and their communications, or it doesn’t.

The final arguments are that the program is legal, and thus not scandalous. Also, proponents argue that it has been approved by all three branches of government, which serves to spread the blame around and limit political fallout.

This is a little confusing. It’s legal because these lawmakers made it so. As Marcy Wheeler notes, there were several attempts—most recently in 2011, led by Wyden—to reword Section 215 of the Patriot Act so that it was much more restrictive, and couldn’t be used to create a data dragnet. But a majority of members of Congress, of both parties—and backed strongly by the administration—quashed these efforts.

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At the heart of the controversy, then, is why it’s legal, and if it should be. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has launched a drive to re-examine the matter, and Representatives John Conyers, Jerrold Nadler and Bobby Scott have already called for hearings.

In the Senate, Dick Durbin, who led earlier efforts to reign in Section 215, is calling for the same. “As I said when I offered my amendment in 2009, ‘someday the cloak will be lifted and future generations will ask whether our actions today meet the test of a democratic society—transparency, accountability and fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution,’” he said. “Today that cloak has been lifted and this important debate must begin again.”

Read John Nichols on the need of senators to step up to defend privacy rights. 

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