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George Zornick

George Zornick

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

The Most Compelling Testimony From the Congressional Drone Hearing

Serious, public explorations of the United States’ drone policy are uncommon in Washington, to say the least—but on Wednesday the Congressional Progressive Caucus held a hearing on Capitol Hill that was remarkable for its breadth and critical approach to current policy. The thrust of the hearing was to ask the administration to both limit the scope of its drone strike policy and be transparent about what it is doing.

Here are four of the most compelling bits of testimony from the proceeding:

(1) In the video above, Yemeni human rights activist Baraa Shiban spoke directly to the very real toll drone strikes are taking in his country. He said:

Another reason strikes are more damaging than the US realizes is that, while the US may not be acknowledging or discussing dead civilians, Yemenis are.…

The farmers from Sabool showed us videos of people pulling charred bodies from the wreckage. They were scarcely recognizable. But besides the horror of it all, one thing struck me about the footage I watched. In it, you could see many Yemeni farmers gathered around the carnage filming exactly the same thing.

This is how stories of US injustice percolate through Yemen. Terrible images like those I saw can take on a life of their own. US aid reaches these areas rarely, if ever.… This is not a pointless popularity contest for America. Every lethal mistake the US makes is kerosene for an insurgency. And it all comes at a critical time for Yemen.

(2) Adam Baron, a freelance journalist based in Yemen, expanded on how civilian casualties from drone strikes are providing a useful recruitment tool for extremist groups, and drew on his reporting there:

For the civilians under the crossfire, anxieties provoked by fears of another ‘mistake’, continue to fuel distrust and resentment against the US and Yemeni governments, rather than against AQAP. In some areas, AQAP has managed to reap the benefits from such sentiments. The situation in al-Baydah is particularly telling. In a recent military offensive, swaths of tribesmen in the area opted to fight the government on the side of Al Qaeda, rather than cooperate with US forces to push the militants out.

“Some tribesmen are fighting the army even more than Al Qaeda is,” a contact from the area told me at the nascence of the winter military push. “People are angry about drone strikes and condemn foreign intervention. Al Qaeda has really been able to build popular sympathy.”

(3) Naureen Shah, the acting director of the Columbia Law School Human Rights clinic, addressed in her testimony the importance of establishing routine investigations of civilian casualties from drone strikes—both to comply with international law but also to dignify the concerns of local communities. She stressed these investigations must be public and transparent:

Moreover, established systems to investigate war crimes and serious violations of the laws of war would build legitimacy into the Administration’s position that drone strikes are conducted in compliance with international humanitarian law. Adequate investigation systems would address some of the concerns of cooperating governments and help allay the international community’s concerns.

Secret or unacknowledged investigations would likely be insufficient to address the moral dimensions I have identified. Secret investigations cannot provide dignity and a sense of justice to communities impacted by drone strikes. Secret investigations do not provide answer to widely publicized reports of particular cases of civilian casualties from drone strikes, which cause the United States to lose credibility on the world stage and appear deaf to criticism. Whereas the results of investigations can ordinarily be aggregated and systematically analyzed to determine the validity of pre-strike estimates and intelligence, secret investigations may not serve this function.

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(4) Eight members of Congress entered into testimony a letter they sent President Barack Obama, demanding further clarification of the legal justifications behind drone strikes. It read, in part:

The information from the Justice Department meme leaked on February 4, 2013, in the context of an increasing devolution of accountability, transparency and Constitutional protections in US counterterrorism operations, leaves us deeply concerned about what appears to constitute overly broad authority language….

These are vague legal boundaries that raise the risk of the executive branch authorizing the deaths of American civilians otherwise protected by the Constitution and appear to effectively vitiate due process of law without meaningful oversight or accountability….

As you state in your recent State of the Union address, “we must enlist our values in the fight.” We ask, therefore, that you follow through with your commitment to engage with Congress to ensure that the ways in which we target, detain, prosecute, and kill suspected terrorist are consistent with the commands of our Constitution, including our system of checks and balances.

We strongly urge you to release the documents requested in this letter for the reasons articulated above.

Read George Zornick on the GOP’s Working Families Act—and why it’s a hoax to attract women voters.

The GOP's New Outreach to Women: It's a Trap


Speaker of the House John Boehner has promised to pass Martha Roby’s Working Families Flexibility Act. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.)

House Republicans are launching their first concerted effort to win back female voters on Tuesday with the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013, a bill that’s being packaged as a lifeline to working moms across the country.

Unfortunately, the legislation is a particularly cruel hoax—a slick attempt to give employers more power, and hourly workers much less.

At first blush, the idea sounds good. The bill would allow hourly workers to convert overtime pay into time off: in other words, instead of getting paid for extra hours, they could stockpile additional vacation time. The pitch here is that working parents could have more flexibility in their schedule and an enhanced ability to balance work and family. “This week, we’ll pass [Representative] Martha Roby’s bill to help working moms and dads better balance their lives between work and their responsibilities as parents,” House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday.

The GOP is specifically invested in convincing women this bill is for them. The GOP spent $20,000 last week on a digital ad campaign focusing on so-called “mommy blogs,” like Ikeafans.com and MarthaStewart.com, and geo-targeting Democrats in swing districts. “Will Rep. Collin Peterson stand up for working moms?” one iteration of the ad asked.

A fawning National Review profile of Roby, the bill’s sponsor, explains how she wasn’t sure she could handle a run for Congress in 2009 because of concerns about taking care of her children while running for a House seat and potentially becoming a member of Congress—and how those concerns have now inspired her to push this important legislation.

But it’s not too hard to see how pernicious this legislation truly is. “Flexibility” is a word that should make hourly workers check for their wallets—employers hold most of the power in the relationship with hourly workers, which is all the more true if they are not unionized. So “flexibility” to decide if you want to get paid for overtime work, instead of getting fewer hours later on, can quickly become a way for employers to withhold payment for overtime work while also cutting your hours down the road.

Over 160 labor unions and women’s groups sent a letter to members of Congress on Monday, protesting that the Working Families Flexibility Act is “a smoke-and-mirrors bill that offers a pay cut for workers without any guaranteed flexibility or time off to care for their families or themselves.”

Republicans say this isn’t true, and that there are safeguards in the bill that would prevent employers from muscling their employees into surrendering overtime pay. “It is illegal for them to do that. There are enforcement mechanisms in the bill,” Eric Cantor said in February.

But this is where they’re being really tricky—the bill does give workers the right to sue over such intimidation, but denies them the right to use much quicker, and cheaper, administrative remedies through the Department of Labor. It also gives the Department of Labor no additional funds to investigate nor enforce provisions of the act.

So if hourly workers get intimidated into giving up overtime pay in exchange for working even fewer hours down the road, they’re more than welcome to hire a lawyer and sue—a rather improbable outcome given how expensive that might be. Otherwise, tough luck.

There also isn’t quite as much flexibility in the act as it seems. As the National Partnership for Women and Families points out, while the bill does allow hourly workers to turn overtime pay into as much as 160 hours of comp time, it gives them no right to decide when they can use that time—even if there’s a family emergency. That’s still entirely up to employers.

Further hampering workers’ flexibility is that once they bank more than eighty hours in comp time, employers can unilaterally decide to cash out any additional hours. Also, workers who decide later that they need to cash out the comp time they’ve earned can do so—but employers have thirty days to cut the check, which could certainly be a problem for hourly workers on a tight budget.

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Moreover, this isn’t even a new idea. Republicans proposed this same bill ten years ago, prompting the late Molly Ivins to remark “the slick marketing and smoke on this one are a wonder to behold.”

The legislation, simply, is a straightforward boon to big employers. “It pretends to offer time off but actually asks [employees] to work overtime hours without being paid,” Judy Lichtman of the NPWF told reporters on a conference call Monday. She added that it’s simply a “no-cost, no-interest loan to the employer.”

House Democrats will be nearly, if not entirely, unified in opposition. “The Working Families Flexibility Act sounds good, but it is a sham and we are going to call it out for what it is. It would cause more harm than good and we are going to reject it,” Representative Rose DeLauro said yesterday during the same conference call.

Due to the Republican majority in the House, the bill is likely to pass on Tuesday, but Senate passage seems dubious at best, and the White House has already issued a veto threat.

Of course, if Republicans are indeed interested in providing extra flexibility to help hourly workers balance family concerns with their jobs, they could pass paid family leave legislation. Only 11 percent of all private industry workers have access to paid family leave, and the United States is the only high-income country in the world not to mandate it. Unlike the Working Families Flexibility Act, paid family leave is generally something the employee has the unilateral ability to exercise.

Unfortunately, that’s something Congressional Republicans are deeply opposed to enacting. They blocked a proposal from President Obama in 2011 that would have created a $1.5 billion fund to push paid family and medical leave programs at the state level, and several similar efforts to enact such laws at the federal level.

In 1993, when Congress considered and ultimately passed the Family and Medical Leave Act—which mandates only twelve weeks of unpaid family time off—Republicans were apoplectic. One House member from North Carolina called it “nothing short of Europeanization—a polite term for socialism.” A young John Boehner, years from becoming House Speaker, said the legislation would “be the demise of some [businesses].

“And as that occurs,” he said, “the light of freedom will grow dimmer.”

Additional reporting by Nation DC intern Anna Simonton.

UPDATE: The final vote on the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013 has been pushed back to Wednesday. 

Also, it's worth knocking down a particular Republican talking point on the bill, as expressed by Eric Cantor's communications director to me over Twitter, among many other places. They argue that, since federal workers already enjoy the ability to trade overtime pay for extra time off, workers in the private sector should enjoy the same rights. 

The problem with this argument is that the federal government is not a profit-driven employer likely to muscle workers into giving up overtime pay in return for reduced hours. If that did happen, federal workers are unionized and enjoy many employment protections that Walmart workers, for example, do not. 

It's important to note here that, during the mark-up for this bill last month, Representative Timothy Bishop, a Democrat from New York, offered an amendment that would make the Working Families Flexibility Act apply "only if the employer enters into an employment contract with the employee that provides employment protections substantially similar to those provided to Federal, State or local employees under civil services laws." 

Every Republican voted against it, and the measure was defeated.*

*A prior version of this story said four Democrats also voted against the Bishop amendment, but they were just not present for the vote. 

UPDATE 2: The House passed the Working Families Flexibility Act on Wednesday afternoon, 223-204.

For better news, read George Zornick on Obama’s promising pick for FHFA director.

Obama Names New FHFA Director


Representative Mel Watt (D-NC) addresses the Democratic National Convention in 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.)

This afternoon President Obama will introduce his choice to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency—Representative Mel Watt from North Carolina, a twenty-year veteran of Congress and member of the powerful House Financial Services Committee.

FHFA Director may not seem like a sexy appointment, but the agency has a monumental impact. It controls Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises that own 60 percent of US mortgages. With thousands of foreclosures taking place every week, FHFA is in a position to send a lifeline to many of these distressed homeowners.

For months, the White House, state attorneys general and liberal activists groups have been demanding that the FHFA write down the principal of underwater mortgages held by Fannie and Freddie—in other words, reduce the amount people owe on mortgages that are worth more than their homes. Analysts estimate as many as 500,000 homeowners could benefit from FHFA principal reduction, which could provide an additional boost to the flagging economy.

Acting FHFA Director Edward DeMarco briefly flirted with the idea, but then refused to do it. So activists launched a “Dump DeMarco” campaign, urging Obama to replace the acting director with someone who supports principal reduction.

On that score, Watt is a good choice. He has repeatedly supported the idea of principal reduction and would presumably undertake it at FHFA.

Key reformers in Congress are thus applauding his selection this morning. Senator Elizabeth Warren called Watt an “excellent choice” with a “long record as a champion for working families.” Representative Keith Ellison, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tweeted he was “thrilled that homeowners will finally have an advocate leading FHFA.” The CPC has relentlessly called for DeMarco to be fired and replaced with someone who favors principal reduction.

Watt’s record has some serious blotches, however. His North Carolina district includes the headquarters of Bank of America, and commercial banks are the number-one contributor to Watt’s political coffers over his career. Bank of America is second among individual career contributors.

FHFA has quite a bit of business that overlaps with big banks—in fact, late last year the agency sued several large financial institutions, including Bank of America, for concealing the low value of mortgage-backed securities and contaminating the books of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

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Watt’s transition from a member of Congress that benefits from Bank of America’s largesse to one of the bank’s chief executive branch antagonists naturally troubles some advocates. (Watt’s office would not comment to The Nation about his appointment.)

Most progressive activists, however, are still backing his nomination. “I don’t think we’ll be counted as his loudest cheerleader, but you can’t fall off the floor with where are now. DeMarco is a problem. I think Mel Watt is a solution,” said Bart Naylor, financial policy advocate for Public Citizen.

“Obviously Public Citizen wishes there wasn’t any money involved at all from vested interests. That’s not where we are now, that’s not what we have with Mel Watt,” Naylor said. “Fortunately as FHFA director, he’s not going to take campaign contributions. While he no doubt will be meeting with JP Morgan and Bank of America, those meetings will neither be preceded nor succeeded by campaign contributions.”

Progressive angst about Watt’s ties with the commercial banking industry, and Bank of America in particular, probably won’t appear on congressional roll calls—with Elizabeth Warren backing his nomination, it’s unlikely there’s a senator willing to tack left of her on the nomination. Warren has been a visible proponent of FHFA write-downs for a long time.

Republican opposition is another story, however. The GOP has already blocked one of Obama’s nominees for FHFA Director: Joseph Smith, the North Carolina banking commissioner. Smith had relatively unknown views compared to Watt, who has a long history of backing principal reduction. Senator Bob Corker, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, wasted no time this morning blasting Watt’s nomination.

This is a real problem for homeowners that might be helped by FHFA principal reduction. Even in the best-case scenario, Watt probably wouldn’t be confirmed for several months, if he is confirmed at all.

Consequently, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pushing for Obama to take immediate action. Schneiderman’s theory, per a memo his office prepared last month, is that Obama has the legal power to dump DeMarco right away, since he is only an acting director.

Obama couldn’t pick Watt to serve as acting director in this scenario. Federal law says it would have to be one of DeMarco’s three deputies, one of whom might be more inclined to enact principal reduction.

There’s no guarantee the courts would uphold this move, as there are ongoing legal questions about similar White House maneuvers to staff the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board. Schneiderman’s memo cites some legal precedence for the switch, like a 1996 DC Circuit case involving a holdover on the Board of the National Credit Union Association.

But the idea for now is to get a new director in place and get the principal reductions moving as soon as possible.

“This nomination is a good first step, but struggling homeowners cannot afford to wait for the Senate to complete the confirmation process,” Schneiderman said in a statement this morning. “The President should use his legal authority to replace Edward DeMarco with a new acting director who will start the effort to put FHFA on the side of working families immediately.”

Federal regulators failed on several fronts with the fertilizer plant that exploded in Texas, and now the Senate has taken a good first step by beginning a formal investigation, George Zornick writes.

Senate to Investigate Texas Plant Explosion


Firefighters conduct search and rescue at the scene of the fertilizer plan explosion in West, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero.)

A torrent of troubling information about the massive explosion in West, Texas has emerged since April 19—it’s becoming increasingly clear that the federal regulatory structure failed on multiple fronts when it came to the West Fertilizer Company plant.

Tuesday afternoon, Senator Barbara Boxer announced the first formal federal investigation into the tragedy. The Senate and Environment and Public Works Committee will hold hearings soon on what happened in West and how it might have been prevented.

No hearing date has been announced, but Boxer has sent letters to the Chemical Safety Board and the Environmental Protection Agency demanding some very specific answers about what each agency did—or failed to do—before the explosion.

Specifically, Boxer wants to know, among other things, why the EPA isn’t concerned with how much ammonium nitrate is stored at chemical plants under its jurisdiction. Here’s her full list of questions, sent to acting EPA administrator Bob Perciasepe:

The plant’s ammonium nitrate stock has been a subject of considerable debate since the explosion. The West Fertilizer did report its ammonium nitrate inventory to state and local authorities, as recently as February. It did not, however, report it to the Department of Homeland Security, as it is required by law to do. (Any operations that have a ton of ammonium nitrate or more must report it to DHS; West Fertilizer Co. had 270 tons.)

The company also did not report its ammonium nitrate stock to the EPA, and what Boxer’s getting at here is that it wasn’t even required to.

Even though the Clean Air Act mandated the EPA to reduce the risk from explosive chemicals, ammonium nitrate isn’t on the list, despite being one of the more common explosive chemicals in commercial operations today. It’s also one of the most dangerous—it’s what Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

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This isn’t an accident—the Sunlight Foundation reported last week that agribusiness giants have been lobbying the EPA hard not to regulate ammonium nitrate. Since 1998, lobbying disclosures from the Agricultural Retailers Association and the Fertilizer Institute have indicated “safety and security of chemical facilities” as their most frequent lobbying priority. The two groups have spent $2.9 million and $14.4 million on lobbying respectively in that period.

Now Boxer wants to know why those lobbying efforts have apparently been successful. It’s good that manufacturers have to disclose their inventory to DHS, but that agency is concerned with whether criminals can get access to the dangerous explosive—not more routine safety issues concerning storage and safety. That’s what the EPA should be doing.

Boxer’s questions for the CSB are more routine; she wants “a list and description of all recommendations you have made in the past relating to reducing risks at facilities that handle highly explosive and toxic materials and whether they have been adopted by government or industry.”

The hearings are a useful leverage point for Boxer—she reminds each agency that EPW will convene them soon and asks for answers by May 16. You can bet that EPA and CSB officials will be called to testify.

This is a good start, but what remains to be seen is if other Senate commmitees—and their counterparts in the House—will follow suit. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has jurisdiction over the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which only inspected the plant once since it opened.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are planning even deeper cuts to food stamps, George Zornick writes.

House GOP Plans Even Deeper Food Stamp Cuts


Volunteers fill bags for a school lunch program at the Cleveland Foodbank. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta.)

Lost in the shuffle of last year’s big fiscal cliff deal was the deal that didn’t happen on a new farm bill.

One of the major points of contention was funding for food stamps through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, run by the US Department of Agriculture. Republicans in the House proposed steep cuts: $16.5 billion over the next decade, which would eliminate food assistance to as many as 3 million low-income Americans. The Senate countered with a farm bill cutting $4.5 billion from SNAP over the same time period.

There was simply no deal to be had on the farm bill, and so Congress passed a simple extension until September 30. Now Congress has to start over—all prior versions of the farm are dead, since there’s a new Congress.

And this time around Republicans are only going to increase, not moderate, their demands for steep food stamp cuts. Representative Frank Lucas, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, told the Capital Press this weekend that the new House farm bill will mandate $20 billion in SNAP cuts over the next ten years.

Democratic leadership in the House is already blasting Lucas’s proposal. “SNAP doesn’t just offer much-needed support to vulnerable Americans, it provides a significant boost to the economy, nearly doubling the return of every dollar we put into it,” Drew Hammill, communications director for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, told The Nation. “Just when you think you’ve seen the extent of [the House GOP’s] misguided priorities, they strike at the ability of millions of low-income children, the elderly and American families to put food on the table.”

There’s going to be a lot of blowback to Lucas’s proposal—not only from Democrats, particularly in urban areas, but from some Republicans, particularly in the Midwest, who know that cutting food stamps depresses food sales, which in turn hurts farmers.

Some other Republicans, like Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, oppose the cuts because so many people in their state rely on nutrition assistance. “I come from a state where we have higher-percentage participation [than the national average],” Cochran said last year. “I have never had to apologize in Mississippi for supporting it,” he said, referring to food stamps.

But, as is so often the case in recent years, it’s a hardcore group of conservatives in the House that are roiling debate over an issue that used to be mainly non-controversial, and pulling it to the right. The backdrop here is that Representative Paul Ryan’s most recent budget, like the ones before it, demanded food stamp cuts that make Lucas’s plan look as if it was crafted by Mother Teresa.

Ryan’s 2013 budget blueprint calls for $135 billion in food stamp cuts over the next ten years, with $125 billion coming in the first five years. That would toss up to 13 million people from the program.

Boehner has openly acknowledged that hardcore conservatives who found Lucas’s cuts too timid were a primary reason the House couldn’t pass a farm bill last year.

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“The current situation that we face is we’ve got people who believe there’s not enough reform in the farm bill that came out of (the House Agriculture) committee,” Boehner said last September, when he announced the House wouldn’t try to pass a final farm bill. “We’ve got others who believe that there’s too much reform in the bill that came out of the committee.” (Read “reform” as “cuts” here, a good rule of thumb for most Washington budget debates.)

But to be clear—Washington should, if anything, be debating an expansion of food stamp benefits. Research shows that for every federal dollar spent on food assistance programs, there is $1.84 in economic benefit.

And the conservative rationale for cutting the program is based on faulty assumptions. Ever since 2009, conservatives have been railing against the rapid expansion of the SNAP program as if it was a policy choice by Obama. (Recall Newt Gingrich’s endless invocations of the “food stamp president” during the 2012 GOP primary.)

But food stamp usage increased as a natural function of the steep recession, which created a lot more people who were eligible for the program. (In fact, Republican counties are responsible for most of the food stamp growth.) Republican demands to enact deep SNAP cuts, while crudely punitive to the millions of low-income Americans who depend on food stamps, are also unnecessary. Spending on SNAP will decrease significantly over the next ten years all by itself as the economy recovers, as this chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows:

But Lucas’s proposal makes clear the Republicans will still use the current peak to try to enact deep cuts. There’s no doubt that a ferocious battle is looming.

Read George Zornick on Congress's gun control reform failure and where we go from here.

Live Updates on the Boston Marathon Bombing

Shame on the Senate: Gun Control Is Dead, For Now


Senator Ted Cruz points to a photo of a Remington rifle during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun control. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.)

Among so many depressing days in Washington, Wednesday is surely one for the ages.

In the Hart and Russell office buildings, staffers panicked over packages deemed “suspicious” by police, which later turned out to be nothing, and a “man with letters in his backpack” was taken into custody. Meanwhile, Senators across the street in the Capitol were taking a decidedly more relaxed approach to policing potential danger—virtually ensuring that criminals can continue to by weapons at gun shows or online without submitting to a background check, and that those weapons can still be military-style assault weapons with 30-round clips.

As family members of the children killed in Newtown, Connecticut watched from the gallery, some crying, the Senate killed the Manchin-Toomey compromise on background checks by a 54-46 vote, though it was in practice 55-45, since Majority Leader Harry Reid voted ‘no’ for procedural reasons. All that’s left is the even stronger language in the original bill—which now surely cannot pass. The Senate is also expected to vote down amendments banning both assault weapons and high-capacity clips.

Equally as depressing was the rationale for doing so. Tuesday night, Republican Senator Dean Heller signaled the official death knell for the bill by announcing his opposition. “I believe that this legislation could lead to the creation of a national gun registry and puts additional burdens on law-abiding citizens,” he said. This is the central argument of the conservative opposition, typified by Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

The problem—and what any journalist covering the debate ought to point out—is that this language exists nowhere in the Manchin-Toomey bill. It simply extends background checks that already exist and have never lead to a national gun registry to gun shows and online sales. The ACLU said Manchin-Toomey would make such a registry less likely.

Even Cruz himself admitted this Wednesday—he said “on its face, the currently pending legislation does not purport to create a national gun registry”:

In other words, they know this isn’t actually in the bill, but it sounds like an awful good reason to vote against it. Other rationales were similarly empty: Right before the vote, Senator Mike Johanns said he would vote no because family members couldn’t give each other their guns—something not true of Manchin-Toomey and not even true of the more far-reaching, underlying bill it was supposed to amend. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, announced her opposition because “This conversation should be about what is in people’s minds, not about what is in their hands.” (If you can figure out what that means, drop me a line.)

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This might seem to make victory impossible to achieve going forward—how can these Senators be reasoned out of positions they have not reasoned themselves into?

If anything does, it will be the public outrage. Americans favor background checks 90 to 10 percent, and Manchin-Toomey even received a majority of votes in the Senate. But it won’t become law because of the irrational obstinacy of a very small handful of Senators.

When the vote was announced, a cry of “shame on you!” rang out from the gallery. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee announced it would launch ads against the Democrats who voted no. Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords might fund a primary opponent to Arizona Senator Jeff Flake.

If gun control is going to stay alive in the Senate, it will be because the ‘no’ votes feel the heat and fear the consequences. But if you decide to contact them, maybe don’t send a letter. 

For what might have been, see George Zornick's original cheat sheet on the components of the gun control package.

Gun Control Package Nears the Tipping Point


Senators in favor of gun control have rolled back their proposals, but they still don't have enough votes. (AP Photo/Ricardo Moraes.)

So here’s the state of play on the gun control package, which has been subject to intense internal debate in Washington as most of the nation focuses its attention on the horrible bomb attack in Boston: A decent bill still exists, but is being weakened almost literally by the hour.

Right now, the point of contention is on background checks. The original legislation passed out by the Senate Judiciary Committee required near-universal background checks on all weapons transfers, with only very narrow exemptions for immediate family members and short-term transfers at gun ranges and the like. Critically, it also required that dealers keep a record of all those transactions, to help ensure the checks were being conducted and to help track guns used in crimes.

That wasn’t going to fly in the Senate, so Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey came up with a compromise: background checks would be required at all gun shows and intrastate online sales (interstate online sales are already subject to background checks), and their compromise would also keep record-keeping requirements. It’s just that virtually no personal transfers would be subject to a check.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns and other gun control groups backed this compromise, though some criminologists wondered if it would just push the black market for guns even further into the shadows. The ACLU backed it, because it addressed some concerns they had about record-keeping in the original legislation.

Alas, this too seems to be too proactive for the Senate to pass. Most whip counts show only 52 votes for Manchin-Toomey, eight short of the 60 presumably needed to pass. Six red-state Democrats are uncommitted, as are three Republican Senators: John McCain, Dean Heller and Kelly Ayotte. (As Greg Sargent notes, however, it’s not immediately clear if these Senators would actually filibuster Manchin-Toomey or just vote no once a vote is ordered.)

Now a new compromise is being floated: yet another exemption that would allow any gun buyers who live over one hundred miles from a licensed federal firearms dealer to forgo any background checks. The idea is to attract the support of rural-state Senators, particularly in Alaska and North Dakota.

Frankly, this isn’t a huge problem from a gun control perspective: There are licensed dealers everywhere. Running the zip code of Homer, Alaska through the GunBroker.com database shows two dealers in close range. Homer’s population is 5,003, and is located far out on the Kenai Peninsula, surrounded mostly by a national park:

But Democratic Alaska Senator Mark Begich said Wednesday this still doesn’t address his concerns. “It’s not going to seal the deal,” he told The Hill.

So this is where things get really dangerous. The question is: How low is the Senate willing to go? Senator Tom Coburn is pushing a “compromise” that renders background checks virtually meaningless: transferees could use an online portal to self-check themselves, print out the approval, and bring it to a firearms dealer. It would also forbid any records of these checks.

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For many gun control groups, that’s a bridge too far. Manchin-Toomey is as far as they’re willing to go. “This is where we will hold the line,” the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence said in a statement. “Attempts by the gun lobby and their Republican allies in Congress to further water down gun violence prevention will be met with determined resistance by our coalition and its supporters in the day ahead.”

If Republicans and moderates coalesce around Coburn’s “compromise,” the gun control debate gets really ugly. Activist groups will likely reject it, and perhaps many Democrats will as well. Then what?

Even if that debate is resolved satisfactorily, the NRA is still going to attempt to gut the straw purchasing language, creating an almost impossibly high burden of proof for prosecutors. Then there’s the amendments, which are in danger of becoming poison pills if passed: concealed-carry reciprocity, for example, would require every state and municipality to respect the gun laws of other localities, which in effect would vitiate every local gun law.

In the coming hours and days we’ll learn more about these proposed changes to the gun control bill, and a Senate debate will probably start Wednesday. This is where the most public attention is needed, because the whole package could be reaching a tipping point: from weak but effective to meaningless and possibly counter-productive. 

For more information on the issues at stake, see George Zornick's cheat sheet on the main components of the gun control package.

Why Obama’s Chained-CPI 'Protections' Aren’t Good Enough


New proposals would restore some benefits for older retirees, but still represent an overall cut. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke).

The Chained-CPI provisions in President Obama’s budget proposal come with an ostensible sweetener: extra protections for the very elderly and poor, along with veterans.

As we touched on last week, these protections fall short in several ways. Obama proposes exempting Supplemental Security Income (SSI) from readjustment by Chained-CPI, but there are 9.4 million poor or near-poor on Social Security who are not on SSI, and another 2.8 million “dual eligibles” who draw from both.

All means-tested veterans’ pensions, as well as any Montgomery GI Bill or post-9/11 GI Bill, are also exempt from Chained CPI, which is good, but one in every five Social Security recipients is a veteran—so they’re still going to get squeezed some. (Incidentally, if Chained-CPI is truly a “more accurate” measure of inflation—that is, just taking away an existing windfall, as proponents argue—why do veterans need protecting?)

Another way the administration proposes to help seniors hurt by Chained-CPI is to provide a bump in benefits at age 76, or after 15 years of disability payments. The Simpson-Bowles plan and several others that include Chained-CPI have had similar provisions with some variations—each restore some of the lost benefits, but still amount to a net benefit cut.

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Alas, the same is true with Obama’s proposal. The folks at Social Security Works have crunched the specific numbers the White House has proposed and kindly shared them with The Nation. As you can see, seniors still have their benefits cut rather dramatically under Chained-CPI:

As the table below shows, seniors from 65 to 75 have the same benefit cut, and at age 85, there’s a cumulative cut of $9,521 instead of $13,921:

A cumulative benefit cut of nearly $10,000 is still extremely significant, given that the median income of today’s elderly is only $19,939. (The administration provides another bump at 95, but SSW didn't include that in its analysis given how few seniors live past that age.)

As Social Security works notes: “With protracted high unemployment and wage stagnation, and other sources of retirement security dwindling, there is no reason to expect coming generations of retirees to fare much better in retirement. In this environment, policymakers should be strengthening, not cutting Social Security.”

In case you missed it: George Zornick debunks five common myths about Chained-CPI.

Congress Weakens a Key Transparency Bill—Obama Prepared to Sign


The STOCK Act was drafted after 60 Minutes revealed that Senator Spencer Bachus bought stock options to benefit from Wall Street's coming collapse on the basis of a secret briefing. (Reuters/Gary Cameron.)

A busy day in Washington, in which the Senate began debate on a gun control package and Republicans in the House unanimously voted down the Paycheck Fairness Act, was ending sleepily late Thursday afternoon.

At 5:30 p.m., Representative Steve King was in a nearly empty House chamber, delivering a dreary stem-winder slamming the yet-to-be-announced immigration bill. Towards the end of his speech, King was interrupted so the House could receive a report from the Senate, declaring that it had just passed a bill the lower chamber needed to consider. After the House secretary read the announcement, King seemed confused.

“I had to pause for a minute there, I was concerned that might be the amnesty act coming over from the United States Senate. But I’m relieved to know it might be a few more days,” he said, before resuming his reading of a 1986 op-ed from then-Attorney General Edwin Meese.

No, the Senate had not somehow announced, passed through committee, and voted to approve a comprehensive immigration package without King noticing. Instead, it had passed a bill almost completely gutting the STOCK Act—one of the only recent efforts by Congress to police its own ethics and transparency problems, and one that passed with much self-congratulation a year ago. The House approved this “fix” on Friday.

The STOCK Act’s essential purpose was to stop insider trading in government: to prevent members of Congress and the executive branch, and their staffers, from using exclusive information gained through their jobs to profit financially.

The bill was rushed into law after an explosive 60 Minutes report detailed how, among other instances of improper dealing, Representative Spencer Bachus bought stock options that would yield high returns if the stock market tanked—immediately after a confidential briefing from Treasury Department officials that Wall Street was on the brink of collapse.

Before the STOCK Act even passed, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor stripped key language that would outlaw “political intelligence” operations—companies that work to obtain nonpublic information from Congress or the executive branch and then provided it to Wall Street traders. (The foolishness of these changes was underscored just this month, when one such company, Height Securities, appeared to obtain advance notice of a Medicare Advantage rate change that would benefit insurers. Health insurance stocks soared on April 1, even though the rate change wasn’t announced until April 3.)

But what remained in the bill was still good. It made it illegal it for members of the Congress and executive branch to personally profit off confidential work information, and created extensive online reporting requirements for a wide swath of important government officials: members of Congress, their staffers, Congressional candidates, the president, vice-president, and cabinet officials along with senior executive branch employees.

Their already-required disclosures would have to be placed online in an easy-to-use and frequently updated database, so that watchdogs could track the disclosures against the movements of the stock market and ferret out insider trading. The bill passed the Senate 96-3 and the House 417-2, and President Obama held a public signing ceremony.

Unfortunately, the disclosure requirements for senior executive branch officials created immediate problems—the 28,000 people subject to it protested because they were already subject to extensive ethics rules governing their investments, and such personal dealing was already illegal; because some of them worked in national security and didn’t want their information online; and because identity theft might be a problem.

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In fact, many reformers agreed: the requirements for executive branch employees were added to the bill belatedly by Senator Richard Shelby, and many people saw his amendment as punitive, because he hated the legislation and wanted to mess with the administration by imposing onerous and redundant requirements. Congress twice delayed the disclosure requirements and a federal judge even entered a temporary injunction. 

But instead of tailoring narrow exemptions for national security employees or even removing the senior executive branch employee requirement altogether, Congress has done something quite drastic. The revision to the STOCK Act permanently scraps the online posting requirements for senior executive branch employees and legislative branch employees.

Even worse, for those who still have to comply with the STOCK Act—members of Congress, candidates, the President and Vice President, and people subject to Senate confirmation—electronic filing is now optional, and the online data no longer has to be “searchable, sortable, and downloadable.” In other words, the database is rendered almost entirely useless.

Good government groups are outraged. “The database was the only useful part of the bill ever anyway,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, who noted that the sunlight it provided was the only real enforcement aspect of the bill, since members of Congress and staffers are very difficult to prosecute because of the “Speech or Debate” clause of the Constitution.

 “It was a bill that seemed to do more than it did in reality, and so by getting rid of the online disclosure they get rid of the only effective part,” Sloan said. “It’s almost a useless act.”

The Senate passed the “fix” to the STOCK Act on Thursday without a roll call vote, and after many members left town for the weekend. The bill was not made available to the public nor the Library of Congress before the vote. The House approved the fix by voice vote on Friday.

This is a stark contrast to the publicity that surrounded the STOCK Act’s initial passage. “That was an election year,” Sloan said. “This is an off year. And now they figure in the dark of night they can gut what they passed with fanfare.”

Now it’s up to Obama to sign the legislation—or not. “I’m not sure why he should sign this,” Sloan said. “Mostly what it does is kills stuff he touted and said ‘This is going to be great.’” The White House did not return a request for comment about the president’s intentions.

UPDATE, 6:15 pm: Roll Call reports that Obama will sign the rollback, citing a court filing released Friday. "Department of Justice counsel have been informed that the President will sign S. 716,” it read. Roll Call reports that the White House also "refused to answer" its inquiries about the rollback, and notes ">both chambers attempted to keep the process quiet in an apparent attempt to avoid the political vulnerability that could come from instituting less transparency in government."

Washington 'Mythbusters': George Zornick debunks the top five misconceptions about the Chained-CPI formula.

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