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Last night presented an interesting contrast of different Democratic approaches to regulating Wall Street. Bill Clinton brought the house down at the Democratic National Convention with a brilliant stem-winder packed with policy details—but, naturally, some policy he didn’t mention was the massive financial sector deregulation that took place under his watch. When Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, he allowed commercial banks to run wild in the stock markets and helped pave the way for the financial collapse less than a decade later.
But if Clinton was the ugly deregulatory past of the party, perhaps the woman who preceded him is the promising future. Elizabeth Warren, now a Senate candidate in Massachusetts, conceived the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and helped shepherd it through the tough early days, when Republicans attacked the bureau relentlessly and called Warren a liar to her face. Last night, Warren had tough words for the financial sector: “Wall Street CEOs—the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs—still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them,” she said.
Where President Obama stands on getting tough on bad actors in the financial sector is the source of some progressive consternation. Early on, he hired many old Clinton hands known for friendliness to Wall Street, but then got Dodd-Frank passed—a significant achievement, though one that has been substantially hollowed out by financial industry lobbyists.
One man at the center of this question about Obama’s backbone for battling Wall Street is New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He is a co-chair of the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities working group, an investigation into Wall Street malfeasance leading up to the financial collapse that was celebrated by progressives when Obama announced its formation during this year’s State of the Union address. But the reformers have since protested a lack of action from the working group, and noted its comparatively low staffing levels. This week, Phil Angelides, who headed the federal inquiry into the financial collapse, wrote that “the jury is still out on whether the investigation will bring Wall Street CEOs to justice and deter future wrongdoing.”
I caught up with Schneiderman in Charlotte on Thursday and asked him about the anxiety that his working group won’t produce results—and he hinted that some movement is imminent.
Right after the working group was created, on January 30, Schneiderman appeared on Up w/ Chris Hayes and said he would be “very disappointed” if there weren’t major announcements within six to eight months. Even at the high end of that timeline, we’re about to hit it.
I asked Schneiderman about that projection. “I think I’m still good with that timeline,” he said with a smile. He wouldn’t give any further predictions, but a staffer told me to “stay tuned.”
Of course, they have said this before, which Schneiderman acknowledged along with the anxiety about the pacing—but said “I think that the question will be answered at the end of the day when we see what the results are.”
Schneiderman did express concern, however, that a Romney victory in November could derail future RMBS progress. “It obviously would raise a question about whether or not there’s continued support, resulting in a change of personnel. I guess I would be the only co-chair whose job would be secure,” he said. (The other four co-chairs are federal appointees). “So yes, I think that anyone who is concerned about regulating or enforcing laws regarding financial services should be concerned about the direction the Romney-Ryan ticket would take the country.”
Beyond the RMBS action, Schneiderman has several other high-wattage investigations underway—into potential tax fraud at the US Chamber of Commerce, the questionable tax status of nonprofits that pump dark money into election, and whether Bain Capital and other private equity firms are avoiding federal taxes.
An obvious theme here is targeting the undue influence of the financial sector, whether it’s influencing elections or manipulating the tax code. Schneiderman acknowledged this was a priority of his. “It’s something that I am very concerned about. The health of our democracy is so essential to all of the work we do, anything that threatens the vitality and the viability of our electoral process and our democratic process, has to be closely scrutinized,” he said. “And if there are improprieties in the way money is being spent to influence elections we have an obligation to take a look at it.”
The Democratic Party platform released this week ahead of the national convention in Charlotte laudably opposes any privatization of Medicare and Social Security, and doesn’t mention those programs in the section on deficit reduction. But it doesn’t explicitly say Democrats will protect those programs from cuts—only that trimming them can’t be the “only” solution. That’s an important distinction, given the upcoming fiscal cliff negotiations and recent willingness by the administration to discuss, for example, raising the Medicare eligibility age.
I asked Representative Keith Ellison, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, about the platform language yesterday. Speaking outside a church on the outskirts of downtown after a Progressive Democrats of America forum, he told me that nobody should worry too much about what the platform left out, but that he still wished it included stronger language on the safety net.
“I would prefer that it would say we won’t cut Medicare, Social Security [and] Medicaid. I’d prefer that,” he said. “But just because it’s not in a platform, doesn’t mean we’re not going to fight for it. Certainly the Progressive Caucus is absolutely dedicated, and I believe there’s way more people than just the Progressive Caucus believe in that idea, so I’m not too worried about it.”
The Progressive Caucus’ “People’s Budget,” unlike the official Democratic platform, straightforwardly promises to protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from cuts. I asked Ellison if he was worried the administration would once again offer benefit cuts during the upcoming negotiations. “Well, it might be put on the table, but we’re going to take it right off the table,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has an op-ed in today’s USA Today urging President Obama to explicitly promise to protect Social Security during his acceptance speech tomorrow night.
“In order to win support from the American middle class, it is absolutely imperative that the president provide a strong agenda that speaks to their needs, and that makes clear he will fight to win those proposals against the right-wing extremists who now control the Republican Party,” Sanders wrote. “The president must make it clear to the American people that he will not cut Social Security.”
Last night, the Democratic Party released the platform that will presumably be approved at tonight’s convention. For the most part, it’s an unsurprising document that reprises many of the political and policy themes pushed by the party over the past several years, and won’t shock anyone who has followed the Obama presidency and the last three years in Congress. But there are still a handful of promising aspirations listed—and a few disheartening planks and omissions as well.
Here’s a quick look at what’s encouraging and disappointing. Again, this critique is in the context of what we understand to be Democratic Party politics. One could certainly imagine a far more progressive platform. (The Nation did, here: “A People’s Platform for the Democratic Party.”) This platform isn’t that, and I won’t belabor that point. I also won’t waste time lauding well-known positions like unequivocal support for Roe vs. Wade.
A constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The Republican National Convention sucked up a lot of media oxygen last week, so many people missed an important development in the campaign finance battles: during a Reddit session, President Obama proposed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The White House, for the first time, was endorsing a massive grassroots movement already underway to undo the highly destructive Supreme Court decision, and it turns out Obama was also previewing the Democratic platform. It reads: “We support campaign finance reform, by constitutional amendment if necessary.”
Exempting the safety net from deficit reduction. There are a few encouraging things about the platform when it comes to deficit reduction, which will be a major issue very soon after the election as Congress must deal with the fiscal cliff. The first is that the platform counts the $2 trillion in spending cuts already signed into law during debt ceiling negotiations as part of an effort to get $4 trillion in deficit reduction—an accurate but not universally agreed upon metric. (Many deficit hawks argue for $4 trillion more in reductions). Encouragingly, the section on deficit reduction then talks about ending the Bush tax rates for top earners, closing corporate loopholes, and enacting the Buffet Rule—but does not include reductions in Medicare and Social Security. Given that Democrats seemed prepared to cut these programs during the debt ceiling negotiations, this is a heartening omission from the deficit reduction section of the platform.
Gay marriage. We’ve already known for months the platform would include this, but it’s worth noting again: for the first time, a major party platform explicitly endorses same-sex marriage. “We support the right of all families to have equal respect, responsibilities, and protections under the law,” the Democratic platform states. “We support marriage equality and support the movement to secure equal treatment under law for same-sex couples.”
Voting rights. Amidst a slew of aggressive voter suppression laws by Republicans in several different states, the Democratic platform contains some strong language fighting back on the right to vote: “ We believe the right to vote and to have your vote counted is an essential American freedom, and we oppose laws that place unnecessary restrictions on those seeking to exercise that freedom…. Democrats know that voter identification laws can disproportionately burden young voters, people of color, low-income families, people with disabilities, and the elderly, and we refuse to allow the use of political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens.”
Omits support for Jerusalem as capital of Israel. The 2008 Democratic platform advocated the controversial and inflammatory position that “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel.” That is still Mitt Romney’s position, but the 2012 platform has excised that section completely, much to the chagrin of Israel hawks. (The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has already labeled it “the most radically unsupportive statement of policy on Israel by any major party since the founding of the state of Israel.”)
Minimum wage. We’ve covered recent legislative efforts to raise the minimum wage: a coalition of progressive lawmakers, backed by Ralph Nader, have proposed a bill to immediately raise the minimum wage to $10 (roughly what it was in 1968, adjusted for inflation) and then link it to the consumer price index one year after that. Representative George Miller and Sen. Tom Harkin have a less progressive, but still valuable, bill as well: it would raise the minimum wage to $9.80 over three years, and then tie it to inflation. The platform endorses the spirit of both bills, though the specifics of neither: “We will raise the minimum wage, and index it to inflation,” it reads.
Assault weapons ban. The platform vaguely references recent mass shootings, saying “we understand the terrible consequences of gun violence,” and then calls for renewing the assault-weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole: “We can focus on effective enforcement of existing laws, especially strengthening our background check system, and we can work together to enact commonsense improvements – like reinstating the assault weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole – so that guns do not fall into the hands of those irresponsible, law-breaking few.” An important caveat, however, is that Obama ran on banning assault weapons in 2008, and then mentioned it only once in the ensuing three-and-a-half years in a speech to the National Urban League—and White House press secretary Jay Carney quickly said after the speech that the president wasn’t really calling for any new laws.
Reiterates support for cap-and-trade. Congressional Democrats and the White House may have abandoned cap-and-trade in recent years, but at least the platform (somewhat obliquely) affirms support for it going forward. “Democrats will continue pursuing efforts to combat climate change at home as well, because reducing our emissions domestically – through regulation and market solutions – is necessary to continue being an international leader on this issue. We understand that global climate change may disproportionately affect the poor, and we are committed to environmental justice.”
Lowering the corporate tax rate. The platform states: “We are also committed to reforming the corporate tax code to lower tax rates for companies in the United States.” It advocates closing loopholes, and is probably meant to support President Obama’s supposed revenue-neutral reduction of the corporate tax rate announced earlier this year. But this is a disappointing approach—it takes all the money gained from closing massive loopholes that allow numerous corporations to pay little or no taxes, and dumps the revenue gained into lowering the overall tax rate for corporations. This bypasses a major opportunity to raise money for public investments, safety net programs, or deficit reduction. Moreover, as Citizens for Tax Justice notes, Obama’s plan only actually specifies about one-quarter of the loopholes and exemptions that should end, and is decidedly vague about the rest. Given the arcane nature of the debate over tax code exemptions, which would likely be conducted mainly out of public view, along with the proven power of corporations to lobby members of Congress, it’s quite possible that in the end Obama’s plan would lower the corporate tax rate without ending enough exemptions to pay for it.
Housing section. The entire housing section is essentially horrendous, containing highly misleading claims (“finely crafted bullshit,” as David Dayen puts it), and omitting several policy promises that should be common sense. For one, the platform makes no reference whatsoever to principal reduction, a hugely important policy that the White House has at least claims to support—though it won’t follow through by appointing a replacement to FHFA chief Ed DeMarco. Next, it says that “President Obama took swift action to stabilize a housing market in crisis, helping five million families restructure their loans to help them stay in their homes, making it easier for families to refinance their mortgage and save hundreds of dollars a month.” Dayen has a great breakdown of why this is wildly misleading—it claims to have helped people that likely have not actually been helped, or for whom help is not yet guaranteed. It also seems to take credit for things the administration didn’t directly do: homeowners are refinancing because of low interest rates. In the end, HAMP has been such a spectacular failure—“nothing short of abysmal” in the words of the program’s Inspector General—that it’s truly stunning the platform tries to take credit for it. Finally, the platform claims that the administration has “cracked down on fraudulent mortgage lenders and other abuses,” when that’s not the record at all—no high-ranking Wall Street officials or firms have been held responsible for the subprime catastrophe. The administration did create the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities working group, but it has accomplished nothing so far and is distressingly omitted from the platform. A statement of support for the working group might have added some heft to claims of holding Wall Street accountable.
Civil liberties. As Adam Serwer details here, the 2008 Democratic platform contained strong language on indefinite detention, warrantless surveillance, racial profiling in fighting terrorism, Guantanamo Bay, and torture. The 2012 platform is completely silent on several of these issues, or uses wishy-washy language on others to modify previous stances.
No support for card-check. In 2008, the Democratic platform pledged to “fight to pass the Employee Free Choice Act,“ also known as the card-check legislation that would make it easier to organize a union. Despite a lot of flowery language on unions in the 2012 platform, there is no pledge to take another bite at the apple on EFCA, which was stymied by Republicans in Congress.
Doesn’t pledge not to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As noted earlier, the platform does not say that the safety net should be part of deficit reduction. That’s good. But nowhere does it affirm support for protecting those programs from cuts or pernicious changes like raising the retirement or eligibility age—things that, in the past, Democrats were prepared to do. Sure, Democrats will “block Republican efforts to subject Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market through privatization,” and “adamantly oppose any efforts to privatize or voucherize Medicare,” but that’s a low bar and wouldn’t preclude cuts or eligibility changes. The platform says “We reject approaches that that cutting benefits is the only answer.” To me, the operative word there is “only.”
Affirms support for the death penalty. The platform only says that it should be administered fairly: “We believe that the death penalty must not be arbitrary. DNA testing should be used in all appropriate circumstances, defendants should have effective assistance of counsel, and the administration of justice should be fair and impartial.” Of course, the historical prejudicial nature of capital punishment is exactly the problem, and these paeans to DNA testing and better lawyers are unlikely to remedy that.
Signals Support for Keystone XL pipeline? Perhaps I’m just being a nervous nelly. But this line concerned me: “We are expediting the approval process to build out critical oil and gas lines essential to transporting our energy for consumers.” That language is new to the platform—the 2008 document had no reference to approving oil and gas lines, and it strikes me as an odd and very specific addition to talk positively about approval processes for oil pipelines. Perhaps the platform is simply trying to promote the approval of other pipelines, and even the southern portion of Keystone XL, to inoculate against attacks about postponing the entire project. But remember, it hasn’t been killed completely, and the platform doesn’t tout the responsible move of delaying Keystone—only speaks highly of industry-friendly approval processes.
After the Republican National Convention climaxed with Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech (and Clint Eastwood’s bizarre performance art), a week of industry-funded parties was capped off by a huge “nonpartisan” bash thrown by the American Petroleum Institute, an oil trade group that, as Lee Fang writes in this week’s issue, has been anything but nonpartisan. API has funded massive lobbying efforts to counteract any attempt by the Obama administration to battle climate change—an administration failure Mitt Romney openly mocked in his speech last night—and has also funded opponents of Democrats who might want to make it an issue.
After the convention wrapped up, thousands of people flocked to a nearby concert venue in the Channelside district of Tampa to see a concert by the Zac Brown Band, a wildly popular country music group. A stream of luxury cars idled out front, though most of the attendees seemed to be young people looking for a party.
As Fang demonstrates, API’s lobbying runs much, much deeper than a concert at the RNC—Romney’s energy platform is clear evidence of that. But the show by Zac Brown Band, Grammy-winning artists that regularly sell out large arenas, was by far the most talked-about afterparty of the night. And that’s what API wanted. “We knew we’d have everybody’s focus,” Marty Durbin, vice president for governmental affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, told FuelFix. “So we wanted to make sure we were here and visible and participating in as many of the policy discussions as we can.”
While API’s lobbying efforts are clearly targeted at the Obama administration, its party planning is still nonpartisan. Next week in Charlotte, during the Democratic National Convention, it will be throwing another big concert featuring O’Malley’s March—a Celtic rock band that once featured Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who currently chairs the Democratic Governors Association.
Last night at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the handsome young governor of Puerto Rico took the stage to a warm reception. Luis Fortuño greeted the crowd and millions watching on television with a jovial “Buenos Noches Puerto Rico! Buenas Noches America!,” and went on to hit on the popular GOP theme of “tough choices.”
”You and I know there is a better way, and like many conservative governors—we are proving it,” he said.
But what most viewers at home didn’t know, and what Fortuño didn’t mention, is just how tough his choices were—in almost every way, his budget plans exceeded the brutality of any current GOP governor, including even Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.
When he was sworn into office in 2009, Fortuño essentially instituted economic martial law. He got Public Law 7 passed in March 2009, which declared a state of economic emergency and allowed Fortuño to take actions that would have otherwise been illegal. His plan was to lay off 30,000 public workers—10 percent of the federal workforce—and Public Law 7 allowed him to unilaterally suspend union contracts, override labor laws and deny remaining workers the benefits already promised to them. (Despite a supposed dedication to fixing Puerto Rico’s budget problems, he later slashed the corporate tax rate by 9 percent).
Unions fought back hard, instituting a crippling one-day general strike, and mass protests overwhelmed the streets. Collective bargaining rights were eventually restored, but a staggering 20,000 public workers were eventually laid off. Puerto Rico’s economy slowed, and the unemployment rate naturally shot up and is hovering around 16 percent.
It’s no wonder GOP honchos are so attracted to Fortuño’s craven economic doctrine of deep public-sector cuts to help pay for corporate tax easements. Fortuño didn’t explicitly boast about the layoffs but instead presented a friendly Latino face that GOP leaders surely hope will help win over a crucial voting bloc. This makes last night’s appearance all the more craven. If Fortuño’s policies continue to be enacted in the United States, it’s Hispanics who will suffer most—historically, public sector jobs provide more equitable opportunities to women and people of color.
A rally against voter supression at Centennial Park in Tampa Bay, Florida, on August 28, 2012. Photo by George Zornick
On the first full day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, Republicans were not running from their record of voter suppression. At a fundraiser Tuesday afternoon not far from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, GOP superstars lined up to pay their respects to one of the key architects of recent voter-suppression tactics—Cleta Mitchell, a Tampa Bay–based attorney who is head of the Republican National Lawyers Association.
Earlier this year, before the House Judiciary Committee, Mitchell proudly testified that the “burdens” of voter identification laws—that is, some people not being able to vote—were justifiable to prevent non-existent fraud. “Because the purpose of a voter identification, a photo identification, is to ensure and protect the integrity of the election, whatever burden may exist is offset by the need to protect the integrity of the elections,” she testified. And Mitchell is not a newcomer to the voter-suppression game—back in 2008, she was running “training sessions” for GOP poll-watchers so they could fight back against a supposed “long pattern of abuses in registration by groups such as ACORN and their Democratic allies.”
The guest list to her party included six Republican senators, including powerhouses Jim DeMint and Marco Rubio, as well as former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who would address the convention hours later. (I staked out the entrance to the party and didn’t see the A-listers enter, though they appeared to be coming in through a secure parking garage. I did, however, spot conservative columnist George Will and Grover Norquist coming in).
Later that night, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley got one of the biggest applause lines of the convention so far when she boasted about her voter-suppression achievements back home. “We said in South Carolina that if you have to show a picture ID to buy Sudafed and you have to show a picture ID to set foot on an airplane, then you should have to show a picture ID to protect one of the most valuable, most central, most sacred rights we are blessed with in America—the right to vote,” she said.
But Haley’s timing was awful—the ground beneath voter-suppression efforts is falling away, in her state and elsewhere. On the same day Haley spoke, a trial was underway in South Carolina in which the state is suing Obama’s Department of Justice for blocking the voter identification law. And it isn’t going so well for the state. (Ari Berman has excellent coverage here).
The bill’s author, state Representative Alan Clemmons, took the stand yesterday and admitted he cannot produce a single example of in-person voter impersonation, and also conceded his law wouldn’t really stop a dedicated impersonator anyhow. Then, one lawyer presented racist e-mails sent to Clemmons about voter-identification laws—with which Clemmons agreed. (Someone e-mailed Clemmons to denounce the idea that black voters wouldn’t sign up for photo identification if an incentive was offered, saying “it would be like a swarm of bees going after a watermelon.” Clemmons replied, “Amen, Ed, thank you for your support,” a response he admitted in court yesterday was “poorly considered.”)
And just this morning, in Mitchell’s home state of Florida, a federal judge ruled that he would strike down one of the more pernicious Florida vote-suppression laws—one that restricted the ability of third-party groups to register voters. Republicans in the legislature passed laws that hurt Floridians’ ability to vote, all of which have now been halted: they shortened voting hours (which was blocked by a federal judge this month), attempted to purge voter rolls (also stopped by a court), and now the harsh restrictions on groups like the League of Women Voters and Project Vote have been lifted. These restrictions caused a huge imbalance in partisan voter registration—see this chart from The Rachel Maddow Show:
That gap is likely to be closed dramatically now that third-party registration can resume.
And outside the RNC, protesters were closely watching and demonstrating against the voter-suppression policies being trumpeted inside. At what was billed as a “large-scale” rally in Centennial Park, hundreds of young people—mainly African-Americans and undocumented Latinos—marched against voter-suppression tactics. “A lot of us here are undocumented immigrants and DREAMers, and we also have the African-American and Latino community gathered here to let the Republican Party know that it’s time to stop suppressing these communities of minorities,” said Erika Andiola, who traveled to the demonstration from Mesa, Arizona.
“Voter suppression directly affects immigrants. A lot of people ask me ‘What do you care about voter suppression if you can’t vote in the first place,’ and that’s exactly the point,” said Mayra Hidalgo, an undocumented immigrant living in Lakeland, Florida, who helped organize the rally. “Historically DREAMers have been so active in civic engagement and registering other people to vote, so that we can have our voices heard at the polls and elect those pro-DREAM Act and pro-immigration reform politicians. And now all of those voices are being silenced by these voter suppression laws.”
Rev. Charles McKenzie, the Florida coordinator for the Rainbow PUSH coalition, agreed that the demographics of the country are changing, and Republicans can’t suppress new votes and voices forever. “The message for [Republicans] is that there is another demographic in this country that is on the move. We’re watching you, we do not support your core value system, and you’re going to either change or you’re going to have to face the consequence of becoming a party that is out of date with, and out of step with, what America is becoming.”
The unmistakable theme of Tuesday’s Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, Florida, was “We Built It”—a riposte to President Obama’s supposed claim to small business owners that “you didn’t build that.”
Speaker after speaker hammered the president and extolled the self-reliant businessman who created a successful venture. “We need a president who will say to a small businesswoman: congratulations, we applaud your success, you did make that happen, you did build that!” said Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell during his address. “Jack Gilchrist is the face of small business in America,” said Senator Kelly Ayotte of a small-business owner in her home state of New Hampshire. “And yes he did build it!”
John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, even suggested Obama might get beat up for so grievously insulting small-business owners. “Now if a guy walked into our bar, heard all that, and said, ‘If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.’ You know what we’d do? Throw him out.”
Of course, as countless fact-checkers have pointed out, all President Obama was saying was that private business and the government need each other to create a vibrant economy—and specifically that businesses counted on public investments in infrastructure to succeed. This seems an obvious point, and should have been all the more obvious to convention attendees: this week’s festivities simply would not have been possible without massive infusions of public dollars and government-funded projects.
Here is a quick look at all the ways government money has made the RNC in Tampa Bay possible:
• The convention site, the Tampa Bay Times Forum, is a publicly financed and publicly owned venue. It was built in 1996 by the Tampa Bay Sports Authority, a public agency created to develop major sports attractions in the city. The project was majority financed using $80 million in city and county bonds, backed in part by taxes. To this day, the Forum is actually owned by Hillsborough County, and leased back to the Authority.
• Both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions are directly financed, in part, by taxpayer money. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund gave public grants of $18,248,300 to each convention, according to the Federal Election Commission.
• The city of Tampa Bay undertook a wide variety of public projects—financed by federal and local dollars—to prepare the area for convention-goers. The city paid for $2.7 million in beautification projects and infrastructure upgrades to get ready for the RNC, which improved highways, planted trees and redesigned signage. The city has also received $11 million from the federal government to complete The Riverwalk, a two-mile greenspace near the Forum and utilized by many RNC attendees.
• The federal government also doled out a $50 million grant to provide security for the RNC, which is being used to pay police overtime and enhance equipment.
Over at Next New Deal, Jordan Fraade, Sarah Pfeifer and Jeff Madrick have a nifty back-of-the-envelope calculation estimating that for the public infrastructure costs alone—which total about $100 million for the arena costs and area improvement projects—each delegate would have to kick in $43,745 in order to accurately say “We Built It.” Checks can be made payable to the City of Tampa Bay and the US Treasury.
The convention stage may have been empty on Monday, thanks to Hurricane Isaac, but the corporate money machine grinded on as special interests with business before Congress put on swanky gatherings for key lawmakers.
It’s actually against Congressional ethics rules for lobbyists to throw parties for lawmakers at the national conventions—thanks to a 2007 reform bill passed in the wake of the Abramoff scandals—but Monday night showed that the system can easily be gamed.
For example, only about a half-mile from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, a collection of big transportation companies threw a party for transportation “leaders” in Congress. Actually, to be technically accurate, a front group called GOP Convention Strategies sponsored the party—and that’s how everyone involved avoided violating ethics rules. Since GOP Convention Strategies is not a registered lobbyist, it was free to throw a party for whomever it wanted. But it was crystal clear to everyone involved who was paying for the party, and what the goal was.
For $20,000, a corporation could “sponsor” the GOP Convention Strategies event, which would get it prominent placement on all advertising and marketing for the party, as well as twenty-five tickets to the party and a chance to address the crowd personally. This presented any interested transportation company (and its lobbyists) the opportunity to meet and glad-hand key lawmakers from the House and Senate—the exact same thing the 2007 law was trying to outlaw. “In reality, lobbyists are behind this party, but the ethics rules are too porous to recognize the reality,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen.
Outside the event, which was held at Stump’s Supper Club in the Channelside district, there was a prominent sign that said “THANK YOU” above the logos of many major transportation companies, including BNSF Railways, Canadian National Railway, Norfolk Southern, Expedia and several others. (No advertising for GOP Convention Strategies, though).
I spotted Representative John Mica, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, holding court on the patio before the event began. His committee passed out a massive transportation bill this year that was repeatedly slammed as a massive giveaway to special interests. (“This is an earmark for a handful of wealthy people who own these companies. This is a windfall,” a transportation union official told the Huffington Post.) Among many heinous provisions, his committee’s version stripped rail-industry workers of federal minimum wage and overtime protections. Rail companies—the very ones sponsoring this party—often pay workers only the minimum wage, and many employees are forced to work long hours during long-distance hauls.
Senator Jim Inhofe, the ranking member and potential future chair of the Senate Public Works Committee and a key figure in getting that transportation bill through the Senate, was also there. I caught him coming out of the party after about ninety minutes inside, and he amiably said he had a “great” time. I asked who was throwing the party, and he responded “it’s a transportation thing. Transportation industry.” I asked if he spoke with any lobbyists, and Inhofe said “it’s funny, I don’t remember meeting many,” before his staff shooed me away. (And called me a “punk” for good measure).
This is hardly the only party of this nature in Tampa Bay this week. The calendar is full of them, each carefully calibrated to avoid violating ethics rules—the storm may stop the speeches, but won't stop the all-important cash from flowing.
Far away from the glistening convention center in downtown Tampa Bay on Monday, there was a battle over the minimum wage as throngs of workers and progressive activists marched in driving rain outside the corporate headquarters of Bloomin’ Brands, a mega-restaurant chain owned by Bain Capital.
Nearly 200 protesters arrived at a corporate park about five miles from the convention site in the late-afternoon—only to find a massive police presence that included two helicopters circling overhead. Police and private security officers asserted that Bloomin’ Brands did not want anyone on the property and even tried to remove reporters from a public sidewalk before relenting.
When the protesters arrived, the marched in circles chanting “How many millions do you need? We've got hungry mouths to feed!” and holding up homemade signs against the soaking rain, as a perimeter of police watched. Bloomin’ Brands is the Tampa-based owner of Outback Steakhouse, Carraba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Fleming’s Steakhouse, and other restaurant chains, and is valued at $1.29 billion. (Bain Capital stands to earn a 88 percent return on its investment in Bloomin’ Brands, which it purchased in 2007).
Those restaurants frequently only pay the minimum wage, both for tipped and non-tipped workers. In Florida and Arizona, Bloomin’ Brands actually helped lead an effort to lower the prevailing state wages for tipped workers to the federal minimum of $2.13. This didn’t sit well with the minimum wage-earners at the protest. Simara Martinez, of Boston, MA, recently quit her job at Dunkin’ Donuts where she was paid the minimum wage for one year, before receiving only a 50-cent hourly raise. “It just doesn’t cut it, for myself or even for the house. We’re still struggling,” she said. “We pay market rent, and it’s not helpful. And I do a whole lot for the money that I get. I train people in my job.”
Though Mitt Romney was not a part of Bain Capital when it acquired Bloomin’ Brands, Martinez said she felt he is part of the same corporate philosophy. “I see the jobs he’s trying to create and now he’s trying to become president. I just don’t think that he’s going to do a good job,” she said. “He doesn’t know what it’s like to live a lifestyle where like you’ve got to feed your family and you’ve got to live paycheck to paycheck, and he doesn’t understand that.”
Others at the protest had better-paying jobs, but traveled to Tampa Bay with the help of community organizers to lend support to the effort. “I’m retired, and thank god I had a good pension, and my wife has a good job. That’s what I want for my kids and grandkids,” said John Dougherty of Latrobe, PA. “I was blessed. My generation was blessed. But if you make 7 and a quarter an hour, you make a little over $15,000 a year. How can you live on that?”
After about 30 minutes, the protesters loaded back into buses and headed seven miles away to protest a dinner for the Republican Governors Association. A helicopter overhead tracked them the entire way.
When the edge of Hurricane Isaac brushes Tampa Bay today, the Republicans gathered here for the national convention will be ready—events have been canceled, speakers reshuffled and the convention staff “is working around-the-clock to ensure the delegations housed in storm-impacted areas have alternative housing if needed.”
This may not have been necessary, as it’s been clear for more than twenty-four hours that the storm is shifting away from the area; blue patches of sky were even visible over the city this morning. But the party is clearly sensitive to evocations of Hurricane Katrina, which top Bush advisers viewed as “the final nail in the coffin” for the Bush-era GOP after the administration failed to respond properly. (“Ghost of Katrina hangs heavy as Romney readies for convention,” reads a headline in today’s Washington Post.) So Republicans are willing to sacrifice their carefully planned itinerary in the name of appearing responsive and sensitive to the impact of major storms.
This, to be clear, is purely optical. Since assuming control of the House, Republicans have consistently played dangerous politics with disaster relief funds and slashed the budgets of storm monitoring agencies, thereby executing the same small-government-at-all-costs mentality that led to widespread destruction in New Orleans. They may go to great lengths to assure the safety of party delegates in Tampa Bay, but they have not shown the same compassion for storm victims in the rest of the country.
When the GOP nominates Paul Ryan as its vice-presidential candidate on Wednesday night, they will be putting a man who proposed steep reductions to disaster relief funds in his most recent budget—restrictions so radical that GOP appropriators in the House disobey them. Ryan proposed that Congress adhere to the debt-ceiling limitations, and not spend over them when appropriating disaster relief, but instead make cuts elsewhere to pay for them. This is the same “morally reprehensible” approach to disaster relief funding taken by House Republican leaders last summer: even as Hurricane Irene bored down on the eastern seaboard, Congressional Republicans threatened to withhold disaster relief funds if offsetting cuts were not made elsewhere in the federal budget. Holding federal disaster relief hostage to political food-fights was a truly unprecedented move.
Republicans have also continued to starve the Federal Emergency Management Agency of the money it needs to respond to natural disasters. It held FEMA hostage to the same budget battles last summer, withholding money until cuts were made elsewhere. This brought the agency literally to the brink of bankruptcy, and it was even forced to temporarily suspend relief efforts in Missouri and elsewhere last summer as the dispute raged on in Congress.
Federal agencies that monitor storms have also been targeted. The funding resolution passed by Republicans in early 2011 specifically cut funding for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association by $454 million from the president’s request. The National Weather Service, part of NOAA, saw a $126 million reduction.
Even at the state level, the party hasn’t been kind to funding victims of natural disasters. Under Republican Governor Rick Scott’s most recent budget, “Florida may not have enough money to pay off hurricane insurance claims if a big storm hits this year.”
The Progresssive Change Campaign Committee is running a web advertising campaign today in Florida, asking people to hold the GOP accountable for playing politics with disaster relief. Congregants to the convention will surely decry the nasty federal government countless times this week—but would they really rather there be a feeble National Weather Service to monitor storms, or an underfunded an agency like FEMA to help respond? Because that’s what many of the people up on stage are fighting for.