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George Zornick | The Nation

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George Zornick

George Zornick

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

Paul Volcker: Goldman Op-Ed Proves the Need for My Rule

A (now) former Goldman Sachs executive penned a much-discussed opinion piece in the New York Times this morning explaining that he’s resigning from Goldman because the environment inside the company “is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.” Greg Smith, who spent twelve years at the firm, said it dramatically prioritizes profits over clients, whom are often mocked as suckers (or “muppets,” in company parlance). “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” he wrote.

At The Atlantic’s “US Economy Summit” in downtown this morning, Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker gave the keynote remarks and sat for an interview with the magazine’s Washington editor at large, Steve Clemons. Volcker said he read the piece and that he trusted Smith’s diagnosis. “It is a reflection of a changing market mentality,” he said.

Moreover, Volcker suggested the mentality problem is one that can be solved by enacting the Volcker Rule, which would ban commercial banks from making speculative, proprietary trades.

Volcker recalled the period in the 1990s where commercial banks were allowed to buy and incorporate trading firms into their business, and diagnosed this as toxic not only to the culture at places like Goldman but to the country as a whole.

“[Trading] is a business that leads to a lot of conflicts of interest. You’re promised compensation when you’re doing well, and that’s very attractive to young people. All these firms can attract the best of American graduates, whether they’re philosophy majors or financial engineers, it didn’t make any difference,” Volcker said.

“A lot of that talent was siphoned off onto Wall Street. But now we have the question of how much of that activity is really constructive, in terms of improving productivity in the GDP,” Volcker said. “These were brilliant years for Wall Street by one perspective, but were they brilliant years for the economy? There’s no evidence of that. The rate of economic growth did not pick up, the rate of productivity did not pick up, the average household had no increase in their income over this period, or virtually no increase.”

Volcker noted that commercial banks hold the money of average Americans, and are insured by the federal government. “Should the government be subsidizing or protecting institutions that…are essentially engaged in speculative activities, often at the expense of customer relations?”

This is exactly what Smith described—it was known inside Goldman as hunting elephants. “In English [this means]: get your clients—some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t—to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them.”

Regulators are likely to delay implementation of the Volcker Rule past the July deadline; the financial sector has been lobbying intensely on virtually every aspect and potentiality of the rule. Smith’s op-ed is a good pressure point towards a stronger rule.

Spencer Bachus Survives

Well, in the end, it wasn’t all that close after all. Representative Spencer Bachus crushed his challenger, state Senator Scott Beason, by a 59-27 margin in Alabama’s 6th Congressional district last night, with two other candidates picking up a small amount of votes.

Bachus’s Wall Street–funded, $1.5 million ad campaign apparently worked. And Beason’s rabid anti-immigrant grandstanding may have hurt him. A 76-year-old Republican voter from Beason’s hometown told the Birmingham News last night that “I don't like Beason. I just think he's a demagogue.”

Given Bachus’s long history of gutting financial regulation and executing his belief that the federal government should “serve the banks,” many will be discouraged that he pulled it out. But it’s not easy to weep for Beason, given his own xenophobic extremism, and one can certainly chuckle at what may be the saddest concession speech in history, which Beason delivered last night at the Gardendale Civic Center:

 

Bachus is very likely to win against the Democratic nominee this fall in the heavily Republican district.  

A Wall Street Favorite May Lose His Congressional Seat Tonight

Tonight’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi certainly have implications for Mitt Romney in the long term, but they will be decisive for another powerful Republican: Alabama Representative Spencer Bachus, who is currently chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

He is facing a strong primary challenge from state Senator Scott Beason, a virulent anti-immigrant grandstander and author of Alabama’s draconian H.B. 56, which caused thousands of Hispanics to flee the state. But Bachus is also being battered by ads from the Texas-based, anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability Super PAC—the same group credited with helping to oust Representatives Dennis Kucinich and Jean Schmidt in Ohio last week.

The Super PAC is pummeling Bachus for his massive Wall Street contributions—he’s received nearly half of his donations this cycle from the financial sector—and for an ongoing ethics investigation into whether Bachus profited from insider knowledge in the run-up to the financial crisis. (60 Minutes nailed Bachus on this late last year, in the same piece that led to the pending passage of the STOCK Act.) Advertisements like this one have been running in Alabama for weeks:

 

That ad hits Bachus for financial sector donations, but then it gets fuzzy by portraying a quid pro quo when Bachus voted for the financial sector bailout. The bailout is certainly unpopular in deeply conservative areas, but Bachus has done much more insidious tasks for Wall Street than supporting a basically necessary rescue plan.

As Pat Garofalo at ThinkProgress notes, in recent years Bachus sought to weaken the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, including gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; he’s sought to dramatically weaken the budget of financial regulators and has also sought to undermine foreclosure prevention programs. (He notoriously said before taking the chairmanship that the job of regulators is to “serve the banks.”)

Wall Street loves the guy, which is why Bachus has received funding for a final push in the past few days from Citigroup, Barclay’s and RBS, among others. He’s mounting a $1.5 million advertising counteroffensive portraying himself as a consistent opponent of the Obama administration and in particular the healthcare reform bill.

It’s going to be a nerve-wracking night for Bachus, with the race expected to be very close. Wall Street would lose a key ally in Bachus if he goes down, but let’s also be realistic—the next Republican in line on Financial Services will be lavished with the same donations, and will likely carry out the same agenda. Still, Bachus’s skill, experience and contacts will be missed by the Street.  

Progressives Mount Major Campaign to Intimidate Corporate Election Donors

The announcement of a campaign to expose secret donors, Monday morning in Washington. Photo courtesy HCAN.

Short of an outright ban of corporate money from elections, disclosure is perhaps the best antidote to the political influence of big business. Notably, since Super PACs disclose donor information, only one-half of one percent of all contributions to the most active Super PACs this campaign season came from publicly traded corporations, which are naturally sensitive to coming under attack for political activities.

Business interests instead prefer the type of electioneering practiced by nonprofits like the US Chamber of Commerce, which is planning a $50 million campaign to influence House and Senate races coast to coast this fall—and they won’t have to disclose where a single dollar came from.

With that in mind, a coalition of public interest, labor and progressive groups announced today a major, fifty-state campaign to force disclosure by any means possible. 

The headline-grabbing element of the plan is a $25,000 reward, offered by Americans United for Change, to the first employee who documents that his or her employer is using corporate funds to contribute to a non-profit that buys election ads and doesn’t disclose donors—such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. But the groups plan to use a wide array of other tools to force disclosure, from shareholder actions to regulatory and legislative pressure.

As companies are outed as political donors, the strategy is to use immense public pressure, including perhaps boycotts, to shame them and hurt business—which happened, for example, to Target when it was revealed in 2010 that it was giving money to an anti-gay candidate.

“What happened to Target was child’s play compared to the strength that all of these organizations can bring to bear against companies that decide they’re going to go against the people’s will and involve themselves unduly in the political process,” said Bill de Blasio, New York City’s public advocate, at the announcement of this campaign in downtown Washington this morning.

“Just ask Rush [Limbaugh] what happens when you do something that violates the values of the majority of people in this country,” said Ethan Rome of Health Care for America Now.

If all goes according to plan, once the coalition gets a few scalps, the fear of being outed will help keep corporations on the sideline in the upcoming elections and beyond. “For many CEOs, it’s secrecy or no go. They won’t spend the money because they know the reputational harm that will come,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen.

As you might have noted, tough talk abounded at this morning’s announcement. “If you think you can run money through independent organizations in the 2012 election, you are wrong,” Weissman said. “You will be found out. You will be held to account. And you, not our democracy—you will pay the price.”

“There is damage that will come from inflicting damage on America’s voters,” said Rome.

A member of Occupy Wall Street was in attendance as well, and promised serious protest action against the corporate donors, describing it as the next phase for the group after being mainly dispersed from public areas since last fall. “If you secretly contribute to scheme and buy our elections, we’re going to come knocking on your door. And it’s not just going to be a couple of us—its going to be thousands of us, everywhere you turn your head,” said Aaron Black of Occupy Wall Street. “We’re like a hornet’s nest that got whacked—scattered everywhere and ready to swarm on a particular target.”

The coalition stressed that the campaign will target donors to any campaign—Republican or Democrat. “Let the chips fall where they may,” said Bob Edgar of Common Cause.

“We don’t want corporate money in the election process, period. Full stop,” said Weissman. “It is changing what the Democratic political party is. It has to, as it changes what kind of funding they’re going to get. And actually, amazingly, politicians are accountable to their funders.”

The participating groups and individuals are: Common Cause, Public Citizen, New York Public Advocate and New York City Pension Fund trustee Bill DeBlasio, Coalition for Accountability in Political Spending (CAPS), Service Employees International Union, MoveOn.org, Americans United for Change, Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), USAction, Sierra Club, Campaign for America’s Future, National People’s Action, Progress NOW, Every Child Matters, Health Care for America Now and Occupy Wall Street. 

Americans to Obama: Get Out of Afghanistan

The talk of Washington this morning is a new Washington Post/ABC News poll showing strong disapproval of President Obama’s handling of the economy, which appears to be tied to increasing gas prices. His overall favorability has decreased to 46 percent, from 50 percent one month ago, and he’s now running even with Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

But there’s another crucial element here. President Obama is suffering a steep polling decline on his handling of the war in Afghanistan—mainly because people want to end the conflict now.

Obama receives a 46 percent approval rating on Afghanistan in the poll, conducted Wednesday through Saturday. This was before the shooting of Afghan civilians by an American soldier, but after a spate of bad news from the war zone, including Koran-burning protests and betrayal of American troops by Afghan government forces.

Of the four options presented (strongly or somewhat approve, strongly or somewhat disapprove), the plurality of answers come in the “strongly disapprove” category. This is the lowest support for the war has been in nearly a year—it was flagging until the United States killed Osama bin Laden last spring, but has now returned to previous levels:

When one dives deeper into the internals, it’s crystal clear that Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan because they want US forces out of the country. Only 35 percent say the war is worth fighting, and 60 percent say it’s not. This is a steep decline from when the question was last asked, in June—and an overwhelming plurality of people, 44 percent, say they feel “strongly” that the war is not worth fighting:

Fifty-four percent of respondents said the United States should withdraw troops even if the Afghan Army is not adequately trained, while 43 percent say they should stay until training is complete.

That’s a somewhat loaded question, and yet those polled still favored withdrawal. Obama’s current strategic plan involves staying in Afghanistan until 2014, when training is (supposedly) complete—and senior military commanders are reportedly urging him to stay even longer.

But there’s pressure in the other direction, coming not only from Americans, as this poll shows, but from Capitol Hill. Late last week two dozen Senators, including two Republicans, sent a letter to Obama urging a speedier withdrawal from Afghanistan:

We simply cannot afford more years of elevated troop levels in Afghanistan. We are spending roughly $10 billion in Afghanistan each month at a time when we’re making tough sacrifices at home. Your recent budget calls for $88 billion more for the war in Afghanistan in 2013. If this money is appropriated, we will have spent a total of $650 billion in Afghanistan. A majority of Americans worry that the costs of the war in Afghanistan will make it more difficult for the government to address the problems facing the United States at home. They’re right.

Remember, this poll and the pressure from the Hill came before this weekend’s awful shootings—which prompted even Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to question the American mission. The president’s position is increasingly becoming a lonely one.  

February Jobs Report: Beware Austerity

The jobs numbers released this morning contain good news almost across the board: nonfarm payroll employment rose by 227,000 jobs, above the 210,000 predicted by economists. Recent jobs numbers were also revised upwards: the Bureau of Labor Statistics says 284,000 jobs were added in January, not the initial estimate of 244,000. December actually saw 223,000 jobs added, not 203,000. This makes the three best months of hiring since the recession began.

The hiring came in nearly all-categories—both high-paying and low-paying sectors added workers. The service industry, mining, and professional services all added jobs. The manufacturing sector added 31,000 jobs, which is good news and a great news hook for President Obama’s visit to Virginia today, where he will announce a new manufacturing innovation initiative.

There are many reasons for the uptick, from businesses having reached productivity limits, thus requiring the addition of new workers to keep up with increasing demand, to auto manufacturing kicking back into gear after being disrupted by the earthquake in Japan one year ago today.

But the employment situation is getting better for another crucial reason: public sector jobs are no longer being savaged. Over 570,000 public sector jobs have been lost since the recession began, decreasing steadily every month—even though the private sector has been adding jobs since mid-2009. In 2011, the public sector was losing an average of 22,000 jobs per month, but in February only (“only”) 6,000 jobs were lost.

People often talk of outside factors that could derail the fragile economic recovery, from gasoline price shocks, to economic instability in Europe, to another bank failure on Wall Street. These are worrisome yet mostly uncontrollable events.

But a return to slashing austerity cuts at the federal and state level would also retard the recovery—and this is not only a completely controllable policy choice, but one many people in Washington are actively trying to make.

The bipartisan debt ceiling deal in August mandated hard spending caps for the next ten years, and they get steeper beginning in the upcoming fiscal year 2013. This automatically increasing austerity will inevitably harm not only federal workers, but also slow down aid to states struggling to retain employees. Even worse, House Budget chairman Representative Paul Ryan is going to release his blueprint for the federal budget in the coming weeks—and he’s reportedly pushing for federal spending below even these caps.

Democrats have made laudable proposals to retain teachers, firefighters, police and other public employees, but House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer is also reportedly working on some as-yet unspecified austerity plan—and as we noted last month, in his budget proposal President Obama advocated trashing the defense sequester, which if successful would ensure that much of the upcoming budget cuts would come from non-defense discretionary spending. This would mean the cuts could be less focused on eliminating expensive weapons systems, and more heavily focused on things like state aid and federal employee salaries—not to mention a wide array of indirectly stimulative domestic programs like Head Start. 

One needs only to look towards Europe to see how steep austerity measures can hamper economic recovery—and progressives are already keying up to prevent that from happening here. “The US economy is finally producing jobs again, but our weak recovery—which has been aided by good public policy—could easily be choked off by stupid budget policies which would condemn a new generation of Americans to joblessness and a bleak future,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. “Americans should be wary of politicians telling us that the economy is recovering enough to turn immediately to cutting public spending.”

UPDATE: Via Chris Hayes, Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior points out another entirely controllable policy choice that could greatly help or harm the recovery—whether the Federal Reserve continues a misplaced focus on controlling inflation at the cost of helping unemployment:

[A] panic-y federal reserve and an over-obsession with keeping inflation expectations moored is the biggest threat.

For now I think it should be the mission of every Journalist to harp on Fed Officials as to why they are willing to tolerate half a decade of unemployment above 5% and the devastation and loss of skills associated with that but they are not willing to tolerate Core-PCE rising above 2%?

A reminder here that Congressional Republicans are getting involved on this issue too—Republicans on the House Financial Services Commitee are considering a measure that would strip the Fed of its dual mandate entirely.

Senate Narrowly Rejects Provision to Build Keystone XL

By a thin 56-42 margin, the Senate rejected a Republican measure that would have allowed construction on the Keystone XL pipeline to begin immediately. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid agreed on Wednesday to let the amendment come to the floor as part of an effort to break a Republican filibuster on the overall transportation bill, but a sixty-vote requirement was attached.

North Dakota Senator John Hoeven offered the measure, which would have removed the White House from the Keystone approval equation entirely. In 2004, President George W. Bush signed an executive order establishing the current presidential permit process for oil pipelines that cross an international border, which did not previously exist. Hoeven’s amendment would negate that order.

When he announced the amendment would come up for a vote, Reid expressed confidence it could be defeated, and told reporters earlier today that the GOP didn’t have the votes. But victory for pipeline opponents was never assured—forty-five Republicans were assuredly going to vote for Hoeven’s amendment, and many “moderate” Democrats had been wavering in recent days. (There are forty-seven Republican Senators, but Mark Kirk is recovering from a stroke and John Thune’s mother just passed away).

Environmental and progressive groups flooded Senate offices in the past twenty-four hours, with over 800,000 messages against the Hoeven amendment. President Obama also personally called wavering Democrats and urged them not to support the provision.

Unlike the Keystone provision that made it into the payroll tax cut deal late last year, the Hoeven amendment could have actually kicked off immediate construction of the pipeline. The earlier measure simply forced the White House to make a decision within two months—which it did, and denied the permit. But by removing the administration from the permit process, TransCanada could start building in the United States immediately wherever it had the appropriate state permits.

If Hoeven succeeded, Obama would have had to choose between vetoing a major transportation bill that took extensive wrangling to pass—a feat nobody on the Hill would want to repeat—or allowing Keystone to proceed. His urgent phone calls may have worked (eleven Democrats still defected), but Republicans have been hammering for it all day. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner blasted out multiple statements today on the issue, as they are eager to paint Obama’s opposition as both job-killing and detrimental to gas prices. (Both claims are false.) McConnell said that “frankly, it’s hard to even comprehend how out of touch [Obama] is” on Keystone, and Boehner was equally rambunctious during a press conference this afternoon:

I think the White House owes the American people an explanation. The president said this week that he wants to see lower prices at the pump—at least in an election year. But his own policies are making matters worse and driving up the cost of energy. But by “personally lobbying” against the Keystone pipeline, it means the president of the United States is lobbying for sending North American energy to China, and lobbying against American jobs.

You’ll hear these attack lines again and again leading up to the November elections, but this may have been the last opportunity Republicans had this year to actually get a Keystone measure passed.

It was a bad day overall for big energy interests in the Senate; an amendment by Senator David Vitter to open up vast offshore areas to oil drilling was defeated, as was an amendment by Senator Susan Collins to delay EPA regulations on air toxics from incinerators and industrial power plants.

On International Women's Day, House Republicans Hold Anti-Choice Hearing

Today is International Women’s Day, a celebration of women’s achievements and an occasion to reflect upon the push for gender equity. In some countries it’s a national holiday, and while it’s not here, the day is still marked by proclamations from national leaders, nationwide events and even a cool Google doodle.

With most major media outlets covering International Women’s Day, one might think that Republicans in Congress might at least temporarily ease up on their recent anti-woman agenda, which has centered around an embarrassing debate about contraception. There are already reports that Republican leaders are “anxious to change the subject” and ready to “slow down” the contraception debate.

Republicans on one House Judiciary subcommittee, however, aren’t dissuaded. Today they are holding a hearing on the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act, which would make it a crime for anyone other than a parent to accompany a young woman across state lines for abortion care.

Anti-choice groups have already been very successful in limiting abortion clinics to select geographic areas, and this bill would make it harder for young women to access the services that do exist. NARAL Pro-Choice America is strongly opposed to the bill:

“We believe that loving parents should be involved when their daughter faces an unintended pregnancy and thankfully, most do. But in some tragic circumstances, young women cannot involve their parents because they come from homes where physical and emotional abuse are present or their pregnancies are the result of incest,” [Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America] said. “Under this bill, a grandmother could be prosecuted for accompanying her granddaughter to a doctor in another state—even if that doctor is closest to the young woman’s home. Ministers helping a young woman in their congregation would face similar threats. This bill is not a solution; it is a callous example of government intrusion into tragic family circumstances.”

This bill, or some version of it, has been introduced in each Congress for the past fifteen years. The American Medical Association and many other major health care groups oppose the measure, because they view it as a roadblock to confidential access to physicians. House Republicans have picked a pretty bad day to make the push again.

House Republicans Go After SEC Regulation and Fed Stimulus

When it comes to goosing the lagging economy, the White House has largely focused in recent months on executive branch actions—something they dub the “we can’t wait” campaign. The motivation is obvious: with Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and able to wield a filibuster in the Senate, it’s really all the administration can do. It has implemented policy changes, like allowing underwater homeowners to refinance at current rates, and also taken steps to increase regulation of dangerous Wall Street practices—see, for example, Obama’s recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Republicans in Congress, however, are not going to stay on the sidelines. In particular, the House Financial Services Committee has taken aggressive steps in the past two weeks to both weaken enforcement of Wall Street and slow down federal actions to decrease unemployment.

A popular way to stop regulation already on the books is to underfund the enforcement agencies—the big Republican push to “reform” the CFPB included a proposal to let Congress set the agency’s funding levels. Having failed in that effort, the GOP is seeking to maintain completely inadequate funding for the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Yesterday, SEC chairman Mary Schapiro begged Congress to increase the agency’s funding, arguing that “the rapidly expanding size and complexity of the markets presents enormous oversight challenges.” Representative Barney Frank, ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, offered a bill to provide that funding—and Republicans voted lockstep to trash it.

Republicans on the committee offered the perverse argument that since the SEC has repeatedly suffered oversight breakdowns in the past, it’s not entitled to additional funding. Representative Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican and member of the House Appropriations Committee, echoed this argument in the hearing with Schapiro yesterday:

“I think this body is reticent to throw more money at the SEC until ya’ll have proven that you have addressed the structural problems from within…in a comprehensive way,” [Emerson said]. “Since 2001, SEC’s budget has increased over 200 percent. Despite this tremendous growth in resources over the past decade, the SEC failed to detect Ponzi schemes such as Madoff and Stanford, the U.S. financial system nearly collapsed, and judges continue to question SEC settlements and regulations.”

Further starving a regulatory agency that’s already clearly unable to handle its massive mission is not a terribly convincing argument—one would have to truly believe the SEC is completely capable of policing Wall Street but simply suffering from “structural problems,” as Emerson asserts. (To give a sense of the very real funding problems, JPMorgan Chase—only one of the 35,000 entities the SEC is tasked with regulating—spends four times the entire SEC budget on information technology alone).  But it’s the only argument Republicans have—the SEC is funded entirely by fees from the financial industry, so Republicans can’t carp about the deficit.

Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee have been making mischief in other areas, too. Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, introduced a bill this week to strip the Federal Reserve of its legal mandate to seek maximum employment. The Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978 gives the Fed a dual mandate of seeking low inflation and high employment, but Republicans would prefer it only focus on combating inflation—which, not incidentally, is something the very wealthy are typically quite concerned with, as it can devalue their large piles of assets or investments.

Sensing a political opportunity, all twenty-seven Democrats on the panel have signed a letter asking the chairman, Representative Spencer Bachus, to hold a full hearing on the matter of keeping the Federal Reserve from addressing unemployment. They stress they do not support the bill, but coyly say that “the country would benefit from having a full discussion of this issue, now that it has been raised by various influential figures, including you.”

Perhaps this turnabout will work, and in any case, it’s doubtful the Senate would pass this measure and all but certain Obama would veto it. But it’s clear that Republicans are not content to sit idly by while the White House attempts to wield the power it can without Congress—and these are all ideas that will be sitting in the hopper should Republicans take the Senate and White House back this fall.

Obama Poised to Restrict Protest Rights

by Nation intern Loren Fogel

Last week, Congress sent the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011 to President Obama’s desk. If enacted, the law would broaden federal power to prosecute and levy penalties upon anyone who disrupts government or is deemed trespassing “without lawful authority” upon grounds that are protected by the US Secret Service. These grounds would not only include the White House, the vice president’s residence (US Naval Observatory) and other federal buildings but also anywhere the president or people protected by Secret Service are visiting.

The bill passed in the House of Representatives with only three dissenters—but they raise important points about potential misuse of this law and worry that it might make protesting in the presence of politicians much more difficult. Representative Justin Amash, a freshman Tea Party member from Michigan, noted on his Facebook account that current law already forbids people from entering these restricted areas:

[This] bill expands current law to make it a crime to enter or remain in an area where an official is visiting even if the person does not know it’s illegal to be in that area and has no reason to suspect it’s illegal. Some government officials may need extraordinary protection to ensure their safety. But criminalizing legitimate First Amendment activity—even if that activity is annoying to those government officials—violates our rights. I voted “no.”

While proponents of this bill haven’t explicitly referenced the Occupy movement, the timing is certainly interesting. Avoiding protests is becoming an increasing governmental concern, as evidenced by this week’s relocation of the G8 summit to Camp David. And if enacted, it is possible the enhanced powers of the Secret Service could be applied as a means of deterring or arresting protesters along the campaign trail or at the national party conventions.

In these times of risk, fear and demands for change, the tension between the authority and needs of those who provide security and the right of individuals to protest and freely express their grievances are pushing particularly hard against one another. The Secret Service has its needs, and the risks and responsibilities inherent in its duties require realistic empathy and consideration. At the same time, protesters have rights, and efforts to keep them out of spaces in which federal officials gather is a sign of diminishing democracy.

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