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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

House Dems Pledge Crucial Support for Unemployment Insurance Extension

Nancy Pelosi

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (AP Images)

Thursday morning, House Democrats held a deeply emotional hearing featuring several long-term unemployed Americans who pleaded with Congress to extend the expiring federal Emergency Unemployment Insurance program, which provides benefits to jobless Americans after their state benefits run out. (It’s really worth a watch, to see the emotional pain that comes with being unemployed.)

The program has been extended or modified eleven times since it was created in 2008 as the economy cratered, but is set to expire at the end of 2013—meaning 2.15 million long-term unemployed would lose benefits entirely.

The looming House-Senate budget negotiations have been viewed as the best vehicle to extend the EUC program—and Thursday’s hearing ended with some dramatic news from House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. She made it clear that Democrats couldn’t support any agreement that didn’t have an EUC extension, either in the actual budget or as a separate piece of legislation.

Addressing the long-term jobless who testified, Pelosi said:

"Yes, indeed, we are making a very clear statement that we cannot, cannot support a budget agreement that does not include unemployment insurance in the budget or as a sidebar in order to move it all along.It would undermine who we are as a country, [and] most importantly, it would strike at the heart of what you bring to America. Everything you have said is about the middle class—the backbone of our democracy."

Meanwhile, a senior Democratic Senate aide close to the budget negotiations confirmed to The Nation that a EUC extension is still very much in the mix. Senator Murray, who is leading the negotiations for Democrats, “continues to push for this and it remains an open item as the negotiations continue.”

Details of a possible agreement have been leaking out in recent days, though there is no mention of the EUC program either way. The agreement is sure to be fragile, however, given the spending levels and federal pension changes rumored to be included—meaning that every last vote will be crucial in the House. That’s what makes Pelosi’s pledge so notable.

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Additionally on Thursday morning, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters he would be “willing to take a look” at a long-term unemployment insurance extension.

The White House, too, is pushing for an extension—President Obama plugged it in his major economic address Wednesday, and on Thursday the White House issued a report detailing how many long-term jobless in each state would lose benefits.

President Obama recently called inequality the "defining challenge of our time."

Tough Thanksgiving for Food Stamp Families

Food pantry

A volunteer at St. Ignatius Food Pantry in Chicago restocks items as individuals and families in need visit the facility. More than 2 million low-income Illinois residents who receive food stamps will soon see their benefits cut. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Forget conservative fantasies of food stamp beneficiaries living high on the public dole and feasting on king crab legs—life on food stamps is anything but luxurious.

The average daily food stamp benefit is $4.44, which as you might imagine is almost unworkable. It’s very difficult for beneficiaries not to go over that amount each day, and data collected by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that 90 percent of benefits are redeemed by the twenty-first day of each month. So the last week of the month is particularly rough for people who rely on food stamps:

That’s worth reflecting on during this Thanksgiving week—a holiday known almost exclusively for its food, and one that always falls during the last week of the month. Having anything resembling a proper Thanksgiving meal on $4.44 per person is already basically impossible, and most beneficiaries are over-budget by this point anyhow.

Remember, too, that on November 1 food stamp benefits were reduced thanks to indifference by both Democrats and Republicans towards the already paltry benefit amount. So this Thanksgiving is even tougher than years’ past, and the upcoming winter months will be as well. Nonprofits that serve the hungry are buckling under increased demand.

And a quick look at local news stories around the country shows it:

From Newton, Massachusetts:

The season of feasting has begun. But even as some pore through cookbooks in search of the perfect stuffing, nearly one in eight residents of Massachusetts worry that the food in the cupboard won’t last until the end of the month.

The problem is growing and it’s not just in the poorest urban neighborhoods. Hunger exists in every community, including Newton. According to Tracie Longman, the Newton Food Pantry regularly serves over 450 households in Newton, providing food to over 600 people a month. That represents an increase of approximately 25 percent over two years ago.

Westchester, New York:

Local pantries and soup kitchens throughout New York were stretched thin even before a cut in federal food stamp benefits took effect Friday. Now, their managers don’t know how they’ll meet the increased demand.

“There’s never enough food,” said Jeanne Blum, executive director of the Westchester Coalition for the Hungry and Homeless. “There is an increased demand, definitely. The cuts are really devastating to families who are in need of food for their children.”

Watertown, New York:

A hot meal. That’s what brings people in need to the Salvation Army Soup Kitchen in Watertown. What makes them stay is the conversation. “Being able to eat a meal with someone else, to be able to talk over a meal,” said Lt. Summer Hough of the Salvation Army.

But lately a rise in demand has made it tough for the soup kitchen to keep up. “Up until about three months ago, we were serving on average about 80 people in our soup kitchen and in the last couple months it’s actually gone up into the hundreds,” said Hough.

East Hampton, NY:

The pantry spends $4,000 to $5,000 each week to provide fresh produce, meat, dairy and bread for clients which is supplemented with staples. But there’s less than $20,000 currently in the food pantry account and Scarpaci fears that without major donation dollars coming in soon, the pantry will have to close for at least a few weeks when demand is at its peak.

“There have been times before where we’ve gotten low, but never this low,” says Scarpaci, who notes that a fundraising New Year’s Day polar bear plunge at Main Beach in East Hampton will bring in some money for the town’s four pantries, but not nearly enough.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients saw a 13.6 percent cut in benefits beginning the first of November. For a family of four, on what’s still largely called food stamps, the reduction adds up to $36 per month. And fewer federal dollars is starting to have an impact on area food banks. One organizer summed it up—demand the last few weeks is up and donations haven’t kept pace. Now the concern is whether this is a temporary blip as families adjust to the reductions or whether it’s the “new normal” that food pantries will have to meet in the future.

Northern Virginia:

Many families still face unemployment or underemployment, said Bonnie Inman, executive director of Loudoun Interfaith Relief. Many people seeking help from the food pantry cited the federal government shutdown as an added financial stress, she said. “The demand for our services has really not decreased at all,” Inman said.

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That’s just a sampling. And the worst part is the situation isn’t going to get any better—in fact, it’s about to get worse.

House Republicans passed a farm bill earlier this year that cut a nearly $40 billion from the program. Senate Democrats’ “better” plan is a cut of $4 billion. The real amount will no doubt be somewhere between those two numbers. Those bare cupboards this holiday season will almost certainly have even less next year.

On Black Friday, Walmart employees nationwide will be protesting the retail giants’ poor labor standards. Allison Kilkenny reports.

A Progressive Victory on the Filibuster

Filibuster vote

Thursday morning, as Senate majority leader Harry Reid was on the floor guiding his caucus through the necessary steps to scrap the sixty-vote threshold on judicial and executive branch nominations, Heritage Action sent out a strongly worded alert. “For Harry Reid and President Obama, this is not about a couple circuit court judges; this is an attempt to remake America to reflect their unworkable and unpopular progressive vision.”

In many senses this is a crazy thing to say; as scholars of the Senate correctly note, Thursday’s maneuver simply returns the body to its constitutional and historic norms, wherein the president is able to effectively staff the executive branch and federal judiciary. The sixty-vote threshold was a relatively recent aberration, wielded to the extreme by the Republican minority in the Senate.

But in practical context, Heritage is actually correct. Filibuster reform is a victory for progressive politics.

Recall that the biggest historical achievement of the filibuster was to delay a federal anti-lynching law and then to delay enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1950s. Today, it’s one of the most powerful tools for conservative politicians: just in recent months, they have used it to dramatically delay or stop a Democratic president from filling crucial posts at a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, designed to protect Americans from rapacious financial companies; to keep seats on the National Labor Relations Board empty; and to prevent the president from appointing judges to the federal bench who can counterbalance the right-wing ideologues placed there by George W. Bush. (Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who were both reluctant to embrace rules reform, were reportedly finally swayed last month when a Bush-appointed judge on the District of Columbia Appeals Court ruled against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act as an infringement upon religious liberty.)

In short, the filibuster provided one more pump-brake on the slow but sure recent leftward trend in American politics; it was of utility only to the minority party, which is of course the ossifying, conservative GOP.

After Senate Democrats finally executed the rule change Thursday afternoon, and after Reid and his leadership team held a relatively somber news conference where Reid said it was “not a time to celebrate,” Reid and some of the Senators behind the push for rules reform—Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Chuck Schumer and Tom Harkin—met with progressive groups in a room off the Senate chamber. (The Nation and a small handful of reporters were invited to observe.)

The people in the room and the outright celebratory nature of the meeting belied the true ramifications of Thursday’s rule change for progressive politics. The Senators entered to thunderous applause and more than a few hoots and hollers, and behind their podium stood many members of the Congressional Black Caucus and representatives from a wide array of progressive groups like, for example, the Sierra Club.

Many people in the room were responsible for mobilizing public support for a relatively obscure Senate rule change—groups like Democracy for America, CREDO Action and Daily Kos, which arrived at the meeting with 285,000 signatures supporting filibuster reform.

Progressive organizing was indeed crucial to changing the filibuster, with Senators like Merkley and Udall working the inside game while the outside groups got the public riled up. Many Democratic senators—including Reid—didn’t want to do rules reform back in 2009 when the GOP began its unprecedented obstruction, and it took a lot of convincing.

They were candid about this fact during the Thursday meeting. “There were some people that needed to be convinced, and—we don’t need to go into that—but they are convinced,” Harkin said, as the room erupted in laughter.

“[Merkley and Udall] brought this idea to me, and in my heart I knew they were right, but I couldn’t accept that they were,” Reid said of his initial reluctance. “I wanted to try to get along. For two Congresses I tried to get along…we tried and tried and tried.”

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Though the assembled progressives were ebullient, they also hinted that the push wasn’t over. Progressive legislation, too, has often fallen victim to the filibuster. Few people remember that, before Republicans took over the House, Democrats passed out a cap-and-trade climate bill and the Disclose Act, a major piece of campaign finance legislation—both of which died in the Senate despite a Democratic majority.

“Let no one think our work is finished,” Merkley declared at the end of his remarks. “What was accomplished today was tremendous. I am looking forward to Mel Watt being the Federal Housing Finance Authority director. I am looking forward to President Obama having his fair opportunity to fill judicial vacancies.”

“But I am also looking forward to the moment when we can have legislation come to the floor of the US Senate and have a fair chance of getting an up-and-down vote, to do right by working Americans,” Merkley concluded, and left the podium to raucous applause.

Todd Gitlin on how students are leading the fight against climate change.

JPMorgan Agrees to Historic Settlement—Is It Enough?

Eric Schneiderman

Tuesday afternoon, the Department of Justice announced a final $13 billion agreement with JPMorgan Chase over the risky mortgage practices and financial securitization practices that lead up to the 2008 financial collapse.

So what’s in the settlement, and how far does it go in truly making the financial sector accountable for the widespread economic misery it caused five years ago?

What wrongdoing is JPMorgan paying for?

This goes to the heart of what caused the financial crisis. The settlement is resolving claims that JPMorgan Chase (and two firms it later purchased, Washington Mutual and Bear Stearns) sold Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities when it knew the underlying mortgages were troubled.

It was these toxic securities that infiltrated the global economy and then turned sour, taking the financial system with them. JPMorgan Chase did not formally admit to guilt (which would have placed the bank in even more serious regulatory and legal jeopardy) but did agree to a statement of facts outlining severe malfeasance in the run-up to the crisis. Specifically, the statement of facts outlines how, on multiple occasions, bank employees knew that the underlying mortgages were not appropriate for securitization but allowed it anyway and never told the investors who were making the purchase.

Getting at this misconduct was the reason the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities task force was formed. “Since my first day in office, I have insisted that there must be accountability for the misconduct that led to the crash of the housing market and the collapse of the American economy,” said Attorney General Schneiderman, co-chair of the RMBS group. “We won a major victory today in the fight to hold those who caused the financial crisis accountable.”

How much is JPMorgan Chase paying, and where does the money go?

The settlement is for $13 billion—the largest sum a single company has ever paid the US government, more than tripling the previous mark, which was the $4 billion BP paid the government for the Deepwater Horizon spill. Thirteen billion dollars also represents half of JPMorgan Chase’s annual profits.

Nine billion of that goes to settle claims brought by various regulatory agencies and states over claims related to RMBS. Specifically, JPMorgan will pay $2 billion as a civil penalty to settle the Justice Department claims under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act; $1.4 billion to settle federal and state securities claims by the National Credit Union Administration; $515.4 million to settle federal and state securities claims by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; $4 billion to settle federal and state claims by the Federal Housing Finance Agency; $298.9 million to settle claims by the State of California; $19.7 million to settle claims by the State of Delaware; $100 million to settle claims by the State of Illinois; $34.4 million to settle claims by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and $613.8 million to settle claims by the State of New York.

The remaining $4 billion must go to distressed homeowners. Half of it will come in the form of principal reduction—where the amount owed on distressed mortgages is reduced—and the rest will go towards refinancing mortgages at better rates, donation of bank-owned properties to nonprofits or Land Banks, new mortgages to low- and moderate-income families hurt by the financial crisis, and below-market loans to some people who had their homes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

Why is the deal important?

In January 2011, this deal didn’t seem possible. The looming National Mortgage Settlement was heavily rumored to include immunity and indemnification to all involved banks for all conduct related to the crisis. But a strong progressive pushback led to immunity’s being stripped from the deal and to the creation of the RMBS task force, which brokered this settlement.

And more prosecutions are possible—Attorney General Eric Holder was explicit on that point Tuesday. “Without a doubt, the conduct uncovered in this investigation helped sow the seeds of the mortgage meltdown,” he said. “JPMorgan was not the only financial institution during this period to knowingly bundle toxic loans and sell them to unsuspecting investors, but that is no excuse for the firm’s behavior. The size and scope of this resolution should send a clear signal that the Justice Department’s financial fraud investigations are far from over. No firm, no matter how profitable, is above the law, and the passage of time is no shield from accountability.”

While there is plenty to criticize in this settlement (more on this next), it’s important to note some ways in which the federal government refused to be pushed around by JPMorgan. As The New York Times reports today, CEO Jamie Dimon tried to settle for just $3 billion, but DoJ officials refused to even meet with him. Only when the amount was dramatically raised did a meeting occur.

JPMorgan also wanted the FDIC to indemnify it for misconduct related to Washington Mutual, and that request was denied. It also wanted immunity from an ongoing criminal investigation in California related to RMBS—that was also denied. These sticking points delayed finalization of the deal for weeks, but JPMorgan ultimately had to relent.

What are critics saying?

There are many strong criticisms of this settlement, however. The central one is that no actual bank executives were charged—despite the fact that the Justice Department clearly established a pattern of misconduct at many different levels of the bank. “The bottom line is that there’s continued reliance on the immaculate conception theory—that no people were actually involved,” Bartlett Naylor, a financial policy advocate with Public Citizen, told The Nation.

Naylor, who served as chief of investigations for the Senate Banking Committee during the Savings & Loan crisis—where more than 800 bank officials went to jail—said such prosecutions are crucial because they create a true disincentive to bad behavior on Wall Street, as opposed to a fine, even a substantial one, that will essentially be paid by investors.

“Now, the price [for malfeasance] is you have negotiations with the government and you suffer some embarrassment, some negative press, but it’s the price of business,” Naylor said. “This shouldn’t be the price of business—this is something beyond just present value of future earnings. This is about morality. This is about the fabric of our society. We’re financializing our economy. We’re becoming increasingly an economy about banking. And lawlessness.”

Last week, US District Judge Jed S. Rakoff penned an op-ed excoriating the Justice Department for failing to charge a single high-level bank executive in relation to the crash, despite ample evidence of wrongdoing. This isn’t some random activist, but rather a senior judge in the Southern District of New York who is intimately familiar with prosecutions of the financial industry. When he’s concerned, everyone should be.

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The other main criticism is that JPMorgan Chase will end up paying much less than $13 billion in the end. Only $2 billion applies to after-tax profits, meaning the rest can be accounted as a loss—so after taxes, it will cost the bank less than $9 billion. Many people have noted that the homeowner relief “penalties” in the settlement are for things the bank is already doing anyway, like extending payment schedules for troubled mortgages, extinguishing badly troubled second-tier loans and donating distressed properties to nonprofits.

Lee Fang investigates the invisible hand of business in the 2012 election.

Senators to Obama: Congress Must Vote Before Another Decade of War in Afghanistan

Dover Air Force Base

Tuesday afternoon, news broke that the United States and the Afghan government were on the verge of a new security deal that could potentially create an indefinite US military presence in the country. NBC News obtained a draft of the agreement, which extends until “2024 and beyond” and allows for the United States to operate military bases in Afghanistan and maintain combat operations against who it deems Al Qaeda operatives.

The draft agreement didn’t specify troop levels, but Afghan officials told NBC News they hoped 10,000 to 15,000 American troops would remain in the country for at least the next decade, though American officials said it would be closer to 7,000 or 8,000. In either case, if signed, the United States would be agreeing to at least a decade-long military commitment in Afghanistan—meaning a twenty-three-year war, at the very least.

But a bipartisan group of senators—led by Jeff Merkley of Oregon—is trying to pump the brakes. They have a simple principle: before President Obama agrees to another decade of war, he should consult Congress and the American people.

The Nation has learned that Merkley, along with original co-sponsors Rand Paul, Joe Manchin, Mike Lee and Ron Wyden, will introduce an amendment to the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act that expresses a sense of the Senate that Obama should seek congressional approval no later than June 1, 2014, for any extended presence in Afghanistan.

This is how the relevant part of the amendment, which was provided to The Nation, reads:

A Senate leadership aide, however, told The Nation that Merkley’s amendment was unlikely to receive a vote before the Senate breaks for Thanksgiving recess, and that once the Senate returns, “there will be a priority to wrap up NDAA and vote on a final bill.” The aide did not rule out, however, that a vote on the amendment could still occur after the holiday.

A similar measure asking Obama to seek congressional approval for an extended war in Afghanistan passed the House earlier this year by a 305-121 vote, also as an amendment to the lower chamber’s version of the NDAA. It also had bipartisan sponsorship.

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While neither amendment is binding, both clearly put the White House in a difficult position. Polls show the grinding war in Afghanistan is highly unpopular, with 67 percent of Americans believing the war was not worth it. A debate over authorization to continue a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan might mirror the debate over intervention in Syria earlier this year—where congressional support never materialized.

Take Action: Tell Senator Harry Reid: Before Another Decade of War, Let Congress Vote

Check out The Nation’s interactive database compiling civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001.

Elizabeth Warren Comes Out for Expanding Social Security

Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren added her name to the growing list of legislators who want to expand—not cut—Social Security benefits during a Monday afternoon speech on the Senate floor.

Warren began by outlining the increasing financial strain faced by elderly Americans, and built towards a call for expanded benefits:

Among working families on the verge of retirement, about a third have no retirement savings of any kind, and another third have total savings that are less than their annual income. Many seniors have seen their housing wealth shrink as well. According to AARP, in 2012, one out of every seven older homeowners was paying down a mortgage that was higher than the value of their house.

And just as they need to rely more than ever on pensions, employers are withdrawing from their traditional role in helping provide a secure retirement. Two decades ago, more than a third of all private sector workers—35 percent—had traditional, defined benefit pensions—pensions that guaranteed a certain monthly payment that retirees knew they could depend on. Today, that number has been cut in half—only 18 percent of private sector workers have defined benefit pensions. Employers have replaced guaranteed retirement income with savings plans, like 401(k) plans, that leave the retiree at the mercy of a market that rises and falls, and, sometimes, at the mercy of dangerous investment products. These plans often fall short of what retirees need, and nearly half of all American workers don’t even have access to those limited plans. This leaves more than 44 million workers without any retirement assistance from their employer.

Add all of this up—the dramatic decline in individual savings and the dramatic decline of guaranteed retirement benefits and employer support in return for a lifetime of work—and we’re left with a retirement crisis—a crisis that is as real and as frightening as any policy problem facing the United States today.

[…]

I hold deep values, and I look at basic facts. Today, Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus. If we do nothing, Social Security will be safe for the next twenty years and even after that will continue to pay most benefits. With some modest adjustments, we can keep the system solvent for many more years—and could even increase benefits. The tools to help us build a future are available to us now. We don’t start the debate by deciding who gets kicked to the curb. We are Americans.

The context of Warren’s remarks is crucial Social Security benefits are under unique threat, given dramatic and seemingly endless crisis negotiating over the federal budget and a Democratic president is prepared (and some might say eager) to enact Chained-CPI, which would, even under the most generous formula, take $15,615 in cumulative benefits from the average senior who lived to 95.

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Warren not only rebuffed that idea in her speech but provided a critical boost to the emerging campaign to expand Social Security. Almost everything Warren has done in recent weeks has been closely watched by 2016 hobbyists (not a trivial constituency among Beltway journalists), and she used that attention to juice the emerging pro-expansion movement. The Washington Post published an editorial Monday morning criticizing the campaign to expand Social Security—as sure a sign as any that it has arrived on the Washington scene—and Warren mentioned the editorial in her remarks and pushed back on the writers for, among other things, putting scare quotes around “retirement crisis.”

While naturally there will be many people left unpersuaded by Warren’s pitch, the point is that she’s thrusting the debate forward and helping to entrench the pro-expansion movement deeper into the political conversation. It was a significant moment.

Zoë Carpenter reports on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign to end ‘too big to fail.’

Momentum Forms Around Extending Long-Term Unemployment Insurance

Unemployment

In the past twenty-four hours, both the White House and House Democrats have said they want an extension of unemployment benefits included in the upcoming budget deal—and now senior Senate Democratic aides close to the budget discussions have told The Nation that they are pushing for an extension as well.

The Democratic Senate negotiating team for the budget talks “would absolutely be interested in whether getting a fix would be possible in this deal,” said the aide, who also noted that naturally “the big question is whether Republicans would be open to that.” Representative Paul Ryan, who is leading the Republican negotiating team in the House, did not return a request for comment.

Without a Congressional fix, 1.3 million Americans who are long-term unemployed—meaning they’ve been out of work for six months or more—will lose access to the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. Another 850,000 would lose access in the first quarter of 2014 (chart courtesy National Employment Law Project):

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The program was created in 2008 to help support Americans who remained jobless after their state unemployment funds ran out. There were 4.1 million long-term unemployed Americans in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, higher than at any point in the Great Recession.

A fix would throw a crucial lifeline to those job-seekers, and also provide an economic return of $1.74 for every federal dollar spent. The program has been expanded or renewed eleven times since it was created—but almost always in crisis standoffs like the looming budget talks. With Democrats now unified from the White House through the two chambers, the prospects are certainly looking up—but the question is whether Republicans will go along, and at what cost.

George Zornick on how the next fiscal cliff could jeopordize the long-term unemployed.

The Next ‘Cliff’ Threatens the Long-Term Jobless

Job fair

Yes, there’s another “cliff” at the end of this year—and another already disadvantaged group ready to fall off Washington’s self-made escalator to nowhere. This time it’s the long-term unemployed, many of whom will lose their benefits if Congress doesn’t act by the end of the year.

Those who have been jobless for more than six months are categorized as “long-term unemployed.” Unfortunately, thanks to an extremely anemic recovery, there are actually more long-term unemployed than ever before. There were 4.1 million long-term unemployed workers in September, which is higher than in any month during the Great Recession, and the share of unemployed workers who are long-term unemployed (36.9 percent) is also at historic highs.

Many of these workers receive benefits from the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which was created in 2008 to support workers who remained jobless after their state unemployment benefits expired. It was necessary then—when the unemployment rate was only 5.6 percent—and has only become more vital since. It has been expanded or renewed eleven times, most recently during the fiscal cliff deal at the end of 2012.

That renewal expires at the end of 2013, and there is alarming silence from Capitol Hill about renewing it. This would be catastrophic for over 2 million long-term unemployed: 1.3 million would be cut off immediately in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and about 850,000 would lose access to EUC in the first quarter of 2014, as this chart from the National Employment Law Project shows:

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Many of the past renewals have happened during crisis standoffs like the fiscal cliff. But advocates for the unemployed are calling for an immediate fix. “Unemployment levels are still unacceptably high, labor market conditions are persistently weak and long-term unemployment remains at crisis levels,” said Christine Owens, executive director of NELP. “Lawmakers in Washington must renew federal unemployment insurance for 2014, and should do so without delay or brinksmanship.”

Sequestration has already battered the long-term unemployed by reducing benefits by 15 percent. Without action from Washington, this already fraying lifeline will break away completely, leaving those that have already paid the steepest price for the financial crisis of 2008 all alone.

In the GOP, compassionate conservatism is out, and poverty denial is in. What is it going to take to get America's poor back on the agenda? asks Michelle Goldberg.

Border Patrol Will Continue Using Lethal Force on Rock-Throwers

Border patrol

The US Border Patrol will continue to use lethal force against people throwing rocks, as well as people inside vehicles—ignoring a set of recommendations from an independent review of lethal-force practices at the agency.

Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher told the Associated Press in an interview that the recommendations were “too restrictive” and that “just to say that you shouldn’t shoot at rock-throwers or vehicles for us, in our environment, was very problematic and could potentially put Border Patrol agents in danger.”

Twenty people have been killed by the Border Patrol since 2010, and last year sixteen members of Congress demanded an investigation into the death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, an undocumented immigrant who was tased and beaten by Border Patrol agents.

People on the Mexican side of the US border will often toss rocks at agents in order to create a diversion and open space in a nearby border area. The use of deadly force against people throwing rocks is an unfortunately common theme in these deaths; eight of the twenty people killed by the Border Patrol since 2010 were accused of throwing rocks at agents.

The Border Patrol reported 185 rock attacks last year, and in twenty-two cases lethal force was used. Another forty-two times, “less-than-lethal force” was used, which can include batons and pepper spray.

One particular case has galvanized activist anger against the Border Patrol: on October 10, 2012, a 16-year-old Mexican boy was shot eleven times by agents after they allegedly saw him throwing rocks in their direction. An autopsy revealed that all but one shot hit the teenager from behind.

Advocates have blasted Fisher’s decision—and are shifting the ultimate responsibility for fixing the problem to President Obama. “This unacceptable statement from Border Patrol Chief Fisher is another example of the violence and impunity that has become a staple of US Border Patrol,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org.

“Without acting to curb or even question continued and expanded Border Patrol violence, President Obama is effectively giving a license to kill Latinos on both sides of the border,” he continued. “If the president really considers himself a supporter of Latinos at the border and in the country as a whole, he needs to step in to end the irresponsible violence. The president can’t blame Republicans for the murder of innocents by Border Patrol agents he leads as commander in chief.”

The mounting outrage over deaths at the border led to an internal review by the Border Patrol, as well as an independent review by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group that advises law enforcement agencies.

But both sets of recommendations have been secret up until this week. When Fisher said he would ignore PERF’s recommendations against using lethal force on rock-throwers, it was the first time anybody outside the agency actually knew what the report said.

Similarly, the Border Patrol review released in September was heavily redacted. Some minimal tweaks to the agency’s policy were announced, including additional training on lethal force for agents, but most of the report’s recommendations looked like this in the public version:

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The Border Patrol’s lethal force policies are going to become increasingly relevant—and likely problematic—in the months and years ahead, if comprehensive immigration reform is enacted. The Senate bill passed this summer spends $46 billion on border security and adds 20,000 Border Patrol agents to the US-Mexico border. “This is not only sufficient, it is well over sufficient,” Senator John McCain said of the security measures in June. “We’ll be the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

“How did the US-Mexican border become the place where the American past chokes on itself?” asks Greg Grandin.

Food Stamp Cuts: A Bipartisan Scandal

Food stamps

Starting Friday, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will see a $5 billion reduction in funding. This means families of four who rely on food stamps will receive $36 less each month, starting now—a serious blow to struggling families, but also the economy, since every federal dollar spent on food stamps generates $1.74 in economic activity.

This is just a prelude to deeper food stamp cuts likely to come, as Congress debates a five-year farm bill. So it is important to get the political dynamics of Friday’s cut correct. There is a troubling trend among some left-leaning writers to blame the big bad GOP. See for example Jonathan Capehart in The Washington Post: “Oh SNAP, veterans get dissed by the GOP.” But that’s not the entire story.

SNAP benefits were boosted by the 2009 stimulus bill, and were to remain at that higher level until the annual inflation adjustments overtook it. But in 2010, Congress (controlled of course, at the time, by Democrats) passed a bill that took $2.2 billion from SNAP and applied the funds to one of Michelle Obama’s pet projects: a healthy lunch initiative for low-income children. This is what created Friday’s abrupt drop in benefits.

At the time, many House Democrats refused to punish food stamp recipients and would not agree to the funding offset, especially since SNAP had already been raided once before to help fund a round of emergency aid to states. This lead to clashes with the White House and phone calls from Michelle Obama, as a contemporary Politico story notes:

Despite heavy lobbying by the first lady, more than 100 House Democrats have balked at approving the Senate’s $4.5 billion version of the nutrition bill because it is funded in part with $2.2 billion in cuts to SNAP, the federal food stamp program. They want assurances from the Obama administration that the funding cuts the Senate approved will be restored in the near future.

“The White House’s preference is to just pass the bill,” said a congressional staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity while the negotiations are ongoing.

The White House kept promising to “find a different offset in the future,” in the words of a spokesman at the time, and Democrats eventually relented. But no offset was ever found—despite several crisis negotiations that have happened since: the spring 2011 near-shutdown, the summer 2011 debt-ceiling deal, the fiscal cliff of late 2012 and this fall’s dual government shutdown and debt-ceiling faceoff. Democrats extracted numerous policy concessions throughout all this, but solving the so-called “hunger cliff” was not one.

There were surely plenty of other funding offsets that could have been explored, or of course Democrats (who, again, controlled the House and sixty votes in the Senate) could have just passed the relatively small school lunch bill without any funding offset.

Why insist on the SNAP offset? Again, 2010-era Politico:

[Rahm] Emanuel and members of the president’s legislative affairs team have been trying to broker a deal to satisfy progressives. Offsetting the cost of the lunch program with cuts to food stamps was not an ideal approach for the White House, either; but there are also concerns about the deficit. And the White House has already made several funding promises to lawmakers, including assurances to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) that she would receive agriculture assistance in exchange for her support for small-business legislation.

So it was “deficit” concerns and a desire to preserve “agricultural assistance” (read: farm subsidies) that motivated the White House to press House Democrats to raid SNAP.

It is no coincidence that both deficit reduction (incidentally, not offsetting a $4.5 billion bill would have a sub-trivial impact on the long-term deficit) and farm subsidies are both very high priorities to people with very large amounts of money. This gets back to a truism about Washington that is only getting more stark: the poor have virtually no pull.

Marty Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton, has demonstrated this concept convincingly. When rich people and poor people disagree on policy, the rich people win:

Friday’s punitive and economically damaging food stamp cuts are much less a result of red-team-versus-blue-team politics, and much more a result of a political process where money talks.

That’s not to say that Republicans aren’t much worse on this front: indeed, the House GOP passed a terrible farm bill that cuts $40 billion from SNAP over ten years. House Democrats have been bravely rallying to restore the SNAP cuts this week, but getting nowhere with Republican leadership in the House.

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But as the history of Friday’s “hunger cliff” shows, a basic indifference to the plight of people on food stamps is sadly a bipartisan problem. The Democratic alternative to the House farm bill is a Senate farm bill that cuts “only” $4 billion from the program, while continuing any number of bloated agricultural subsidy programs.

To actually end the insanity of simply debating the scale of harsh safety net cuts during an economic recession, instead of whether they are appropriate in the first place, it’s important to understand why this is happening. It’s not a simple case of mean old John Boehner.

Sasha Abramsky describes how the government shutdown hurt America’s most vulnerable.

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