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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Holiday in Austerity Land: 1.3 Million Americans Lose Jobless Benefits

Paul Ryan and Patty Murphy

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) at a Congressional Budget Conference. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

When initially discussed as a rude repercussion of a bungled budget deal, the prospect that 1.3 million Americans would lose long-term unemployment benefits just days after Christmas was bad enough.

Now that the day has come, however, it stands as a stark reminder of the extent to which the United States has regressed from the days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt greeted the holiday season with a celebration of the fact that “today neighborliness no longer can be confined to one’s little neighborhood. Life has become too complex for that. In our country neighborliness has gradually spread its boundaries—from town, to county, to State and now at last to the whole Nation.”

Imagine a country that during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day abandons those hit hardest by economic turbulence, and you have a sense of what the United States has become under the cruel hand of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan—who refused to agree to any budget deal that included an extension of benefits—and those members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, who compromised with the failed Republican vice presidential candidate’s austerity agenda.

Because Congress accepted Ryan’s crude calculus, 1.3 million jobless Americans were abandoned on December 28 by a government that could, and should, have assisted them. And if Ryan continues to get his way, unemployment benefits will end in coming months for an additional 1.9 million Americans.

“It is not only immoral to cut off help for workers struggling to find jobs, it is also bad economics,” argues Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. “At a time when long-term unemployment is near a record level, cutting benefits will hurt the rest of the economy and cause even more jobs to disappear.”

Ryan claimed that extending jobless benefits “would have blown a hole in our deficits” and “prolonged unemployment.”

He is off the mark, morally and economically.

Sanders correctly points out that there is no sound economic argument for adopting the Ryan approach. A continuing refusal by Congress to extend benefits has the potential, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, to cause a $25 billion blow to the economy in 2014. The CBO projects a 0.2 percent drop in the nation’s gross domestic product—and the loss of 200,000 additional jobs—unless the benefits are extended.

In other words, this is cruelty for the sake of cruelty.

That’s what adds a decidedly Dickensian twist to the bipartisan budget deal that National Nurses United correctly characterized as “an endorsement of austerity at the expense of all of us.”

There is little debate that Ryan defined the scope and character of the budget negotiations that played out in November and early December. Yes, he would have gone further if Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and other Democrats had not been in positions to constrain his ambitions. But Ryan bragged that the deal reflected his bottom line: no new taxes on the extraordinarily wealthy, no closing of loopholes for corporations, no economic stimulus, continuation of many of the worst of the sequester cuts and an austerity calculus that unburdened billionaires.

Though Murray and many of the leading lights of the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate were involved in the budget negotiations, Ryan was the definitional player. And he shaped a plan that embraces his fiscal ethic of erring consistently on the side of Wall Street speculators, “golden parachute” CEOs and million-dollar campaign donors.

When Ryan is done delivering for his core constituencies, there’s little left for working Americans—and even less for out-of-work Americans.

Explaining his opposition to the budget deal, Congressman Mark Pocan (D-WI) said: “At the end of the day, the bill abandons 1.3 million Americans who desperately need unemployment insurance, and does nothing to promote economic growth or job creation. Furthermore, the legislation is paid for on the backs of the middle class and military families, while not touching the wealthiest amongst us and allowing corporations to continue to benefit from tax loopholes.”

Pocan, a former co-chair of the Wisconsin Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee and a member with Ryan of the House Budget Committee, is recognizing reality.

The budget deal fails to demand that the primary beneficiaries of the federal policies that Ryan has helped shape for more than a decade—bailed-out banks, border-hopping multinational corporations and billionaires seeking tax shelters—do anything more to reduce deficits and debts. Instead, it shifts the burden to federal workers and military personnel, who were hit with a demand that they pay more for basic benefits.

That’s how Ryan’s austerity works: CEOs get to keep their golden parachutes because the government is making the clerks and park rangers and soldiers and sailors do all the sacrificing. It’s the redistribution of wealth upward, in the grand tradition of the Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge, who griped that his clerk’s request for a Christmas holiday was “a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December.”

The cruelest calculus comes now, after December 25, as 1.3 million Americans are denied assistance that they need to pay for shelter, food and the transportation they use in searching for jobs that in many parts of the country just aren’t available. Roughly 28,000 Wisconsin families, including many residing in Janesville, Ryan’s hard-hit hometown, are among those slated to lose benefits.

Paul Ryan and Patty Murray had every opportunity to include an extension in the agreement. Democrats were angling for it, and Republicans were unlikely to balk at a proposal to help the needy in the holiday season. Yet when the plan was presented, no provision was made for the long-term unemployed. Despite Democratic objections prior to the House and Senate votes, the measure advanced with overwhelming support from compromise-prone members of both parties. And it was signed by the president on December 26.

Then they hightailed it home for the holidays.

So it was that a Congress that could easily have cared for the poor took actions that resembled those of old Scrooge, who replied to a request for a donation for the destitute, with a growl of “It’s not my business.”

Politicians are rarely so crass in their language. Yet the budget deal Paul Ryan did so much to shape, and that too many Republicans and Democrats endorsed, contains precisely nothing for those whose want is keenly felt.

The question now is whether Congress will be shamed sufficiently to act.

There are certainly those who are ready to respond.

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On January 6, when the Senate reconvenes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says the first measure up for consideration will be a plan to restore long-term unemployment benefits. The measure is backed by Nevada Republican Dean Heller and twenty-one members of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Give Heller credit. He is doing the right thing—for his constituents and for the national economy—by breaking with Ryan and the austerity agenda.

But there must be a bigger break—in the Senate and, especially, in the Republican-controlled House. As Sanders says, “The critical question is how many Republicans are prepared to stand with unemployed workers.”

Put another way: How many Republicans will join Heller in recognizing that the circumstance of the long-term jobless is their business? Indeed, it is all of our business.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the flawed budget deal

Thank a Postal Worker

Postal workers are giving it their all this holiday season, as cards and packages and returns must be collected and delivered amidst ice storms, snowstorms and wild temperature drops.

They deserve our thanks in 2013.

And our support in 2014.

Postal workers are still under assault from political slackers in Washington—like House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, and the wrecking crew he has assembled to diminish the United States Postal Service to such an extent that it can be bartered off to the highest bidder.

That assault has made this holiday season even tougher. Under pressure from USPS executives and privatization-prone members of Congress, the service has implemented closures and forced reductions in hours. That’s led to delays in some regions. “Much of the delayed mail is in areas where plants and post offices have been consolidated or closed or where hours at post offices have been reduced,” explains Debby Szeredy, the executive vice president of the American Postal Workers Union.

True, the Postal Service had a significantly better Holiday season than FedEx and UPS, both of which were on the naughty list amid reports on how "packages that were supposed to be delivered in time for Christmas didn't make it to their destinations."

But the Postal Service can't maintain universal, high quality service if closures, consolidations and cuts continue.

The assault on this Constitutionally-mandated service service must end in 2014.

It is true that the Postal Service faces challenges. But is wrong—and, frankly, absurd—to suggest that the only fix is downsizing. That’s precisely the wrong route. Schemes to cut services and sell off parts of the service begin with the false premise that its current financial challenges are evidence of fundamental flaws.

In fact, the Postal Service reported an operating profit of $600 million for the 2013 fiscal year.

Unfortunately, despite the operating profit, the Postal Service balance sheet showed a $5 billion “loss” for the 2013 fiscal year.

Why? “Only because of an unprecedented and onerous requirement imposed by Congress that it pre-fund 75 years of future retiree health benefits in just 10 years," as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders notes. “No other business or government agency is burdened with this mandate."

Ending the mandate and requiring the Postal Service to operate along the lines of the most responsible private businesses would make the USPS viable.

Indeed, the service could thrive if members of the House and Senate were to embrace the proposals of Sanders and Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.

Sanders recognizes what the rest of Congress should: “The way to save the Postal Service is not to dismantle it piece by piece, but to allow it to generate more revenue by offering new and innovative products and services that the American people want.”

Those reforms embrace many of the proposals advanced by National Association of Letter Carriers President Fredric Rolando in a July letter to Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the Government Oversight and Reform Committee. In it, Rolando writes that comprehensive postal reform must:

1. Stabilize the Postal Service’s finances by reforming or eliminating unwise and unfair pension and retiree health financing policies that have crippled the Postal Service’s finances since 2006.

2. Strengthen and protect the Postal Service’s invaluable first-mile and last-mile networks that together comprise a crucial part of the nation’s infrastructure.

3. Overhaul the basic governance structure of the agency to attract first-class executive talent and a private-sector style board of directors with the demonstrated business expertise needed to implement a strategy that will allow the Postal Service to innovate and take advantage of growth opportunities even as it adjusts to declining traditional mail volume.

4. Free the Postal Service to meet the evolving needs of the American economy and to set its prices in a way that reflects the cost structure of the delivery industry while assuring affordable universal service and protecting against anti-competitive abuses.

There is a future for the United States Postal Service. And for the letter carriers and other postal workers who are hustling to deliver cards and packages this week.

In this holiday season, thank a postal worker. In 2014, tell Congress that it is not just possible but necessary for the United States to have a strong Postal Service.

FDR’s ‘Christmas Carol’ is the Antidote to Lump-of-Coal Austerity

Each Christmas Eve in the 1930s and 1940s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would deliver a radio address to the people of the United States.

For the thirty-second president, it was an opportunity to mark the holiday. But Roosevelt also used these addresses to speak about the advance of economic and social justice. This, he argued, was cause for celebration, and for a renewed commitment to do even more in the year to come.

Roosevelt often read to his listeners from the Bible and newspaper columns and, invariably, “A Christmas Carol.” In the social commentary of Charles Dickens on the London of a century earlier, the president found a call to contemporary action.

“A Christmas rite for me is always to reread that immortal little story by Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Reading between the lines and thinking as I always do of Bob Cratchit’s humble home as a counterpart of millions of our own American homes, the story takes on a stirring significance to me,” Roosevelt recalled in his 1939 address. “Old Scrooge found that Christmas wasn’t a humbug. He took to himself the spirit of neighborliness. But today neighborliness no longer can be confined to one’s little neighborhood. Life has become too complex for that. In our country neighborliness has gradually spread its boundaries—from town, to county, to state and now at last to the whole nation.

“For instance,” Roosevelt marveled, as he spoke just days before the first Social Security checks would be dispatched, “who a generation ago would have thought that a week from tomorrow—January 1, 1940—tens of thousands of elderly men and women in every state and every county and every city of the nation would begin to receive checks every month for old age retirement insurance—and not only that but that there would be also insurance benefits for the wife, the widow, the orphan children and even dependent parents? Who would have thought a generation ago that people who lost their jobs would, for an appreciable period, receive unemployment insurance—that the needy, the blind and the crippled children would receive some measure of protection which will reach down to the millions of Bob Cratchits, the Marthas and the Tiny Tims of our own ‘four-room homes’?”

Today, with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid under threat not just from House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, but from Democrats who would compromise with Ryan, with food stamps being slashed, with Congress refusing to extend unemployment insurance, we have drifted far from the moorings Roosevelt provided for America.

But not too far.

Each year brings an opportunity to recognize that poverty did not end with Dickens, or Roosevelt. There is still a need for “some measure of protection which will reach down to the millions of Bob Cratchits, the Marthas and the Tiny Tims of our own ‘four-room homes.’ ” And we can still muster the energy and resources to meet it—just as we did in the days when a generous nation listened to FDR on the radio.

Scott Walker Goes All ‘Duck Dynasty’ on the First Amendment

Scott Walker will never be accused of displaying a high regard for the First Amendment.

The Wisconsin governor who tried to close the state Capitol to mass protests against his anti-labor policies, and who then engineered a rewrite of rules so that veterans, grandmothers, teachers and firefighters were arrested for singing, has offered ample evidence of his disregard for the rights to speak freely, to assemble, to petition for the redress of grievances

So it came as a surprise when Walker suddenly announced that First Amendment concerns had led him to sign a new Wisconsin law that makes it significantly harder to get schools to drop Indian logos, mascots and team names that Native Americans, educators and community members have identified as objectionable. Indeed, Walker has adopted a position that reinterprets the US Constitution’s free speech protection in a far more adventurous way than the folks who are currently arguing about the controversial statements of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson.

Walker readily admits that many Wisconsinites view the school nicknames as “seriously offensive.” And he says he personally supports “moving away” from the use of them.

In a letter to Wisconsin’s tribal leaders, the governor wrote: “I share many of your concerns about some of the mascots and nicknames used in Wisconsin and across America. If it were up to me personally, I would seek viable alternatives that were not offensive to Native Americans.”

So why didn’t Walker veto the measure—which Wisconsin Indian Education Association spokeswoman Barbara Munson decried as “institutionalized racism”—and just let existing law stand?

Walker says it has something to do with the First Amendment.

“If the state bans speech that is offensive to some, where does it stop?” asked Walker. “A person or persons’ right to speak does not end just because what they say or how they say it is offensive.”

But a school district is not a person, like Duck Dynasty’s Robertson, who was suspended from the A&E program after making statements that drew loud objections from civil rights groups. Robertson’s supporters have countered criticisms from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Human Rights Campaign, among others, by arguing that, as an individual citizen, Robertson has every right to say what he thinks.

Nor is a school district a private enterprise, like A&E, which has faced threats of boycotts from Americans who are uncomfortable with Robertson’s statements.

A school district is a public entity, which is supposed to serve all the people in a community.

“School districts are creatures of the state, bound to abide by state standards,” Milwaukee attorney Brian Pierson. who had helped defend the existing state law in court, explained to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.“A school district doesn’t have a First Amendment right to adopt an Indian mascot any more than it has a First Amendment right to adopt the swastika as school symbol or ‘white supremacy’ as school slogan

The issue never was—and is not now— “a person or persons’ right to speak.”

In fact, when Walker signaled he would make a First Amendment argument for his decision to sign the legislation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin objected.

“This is a bogus appropriation of the First Amendment,” explained executive director Chris Ahmuty. “The governor apparently does not understand that the First Amendment protects citizens from government censorship. Government programs are not allowed to offend, harm or otherwise discriminate against citizens on the basis of the First Amendment. The First Amendment simply doesn’t apply when it’s the government taking action.”

Noting that “school team names, mascots, logos and all that go along with them are the responsibility of the public school district,” Ahmuty explained that it was entirely appropriate for a public school district or the state Department of Public Instruction to take steps to address offensive names.

“Why would a public school district want to harm some of its students?” asked Ahmuty, who added, “Free speech is no justification.”

Liz Cheney’s Husband Registers to Vote in Two States? Is That ‘Voter Fraud’?

Liz Cheney

(AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Voter fraud is quite uncommon. In fact, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of law, which has conducted an ongoing examination of voter fraud claims, refers to the supposed “problem” as a “myth.”

However, if we employ the standard of those who claim that there really is a voter fraud crisis in America, then there is a case that is worthy of note. And it involves Liz Cheney’s husband.

Liz Cheney is running for the US Senate in a 2014 Republican primary. But she is not running in her long-time home state, Virginia.

Rather, she is running in distant Wyoming—which her father, permanent Washington fixture Dick Cheney, used as a political redoubt for congressional service to the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

The Wyoming run has been an inconvenient one for Liz Cheney. She has been forced to uproot herself from a comfortable life in suburban Washington, and to buy an expensive new home in the one reliably Democratic county in Wyoming. She has struggled to figure out how to obtain a fishing license, after initially overstating her history in the state—and paying a fine for “[failing] to meet residency requirements as required.” And she has had to declare her opposition to her sister’s right to marry.

But it hasn’t just been tough on Liz Cheney.

Her husband, Philip Perry, who practices law with a major Washington firm, has had to claim that he, too, is a resident of Wyoming.

In March, he obtained a driver’s license. And he has gone so far as to register to vote there

Unfortunately, he is also registered to vote in McLean, Virginia, where he voted in 2012.

When Perry registered to vote in Wyoming’s Teton County, he did not indicate that he was on the voter roll elsewhere. Indeed, says Teton County Clerk Sherry Daigle, “He signed an oath saying he was not currently registered anywhere else.”

Oops.

So we have a glaring case of double registration.

Sound the alarm!

Or not.

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Perry can fix the problem by asking Virginia to remove him from the rolls in the Old Dominion. Officials generally allow for such clarifications, recognizing that mistakes are made. Despite the headline in the local paper—“Cheney Husband in False Oath Kerfuffle”—it is unlikely that the double-registration mess will result in anything more than a slight case of embarrassment for a prominent lawyer.

So this does not appear to be a particularly big deal—just like most cases of supposed “voter fraud.”

Indeed, as the Brennan Center reminds us, “Voter fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is nearly non-existent and much of the problems associated with alleged fraud in elections relates to unintentional mistakes by voters or election administrators.”

Read Next: George Zornick on Senator Tom Harkin.

Willy Brandt at 100: Recalling, Renewing a Struggle Against Global Inequality

Willy Brandt

(Wikimedia Commons)

This week marks the 100th anniversary of Willy Brandt’s birth.

Born December 18, 1913, on the cusp of World War I, Brandt lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall before his death in 1992. He left a legacy of seeking to steer his twentieth-century world away from war and division and that still has the potential—as was his ardent hope—to define the twenty-first century as a time of response to global poverty and injustice.

In Germany, Brandt continues to be celebrated as the Social Democratic battler against Nazi totalitarianism, the courageous mayor of a divided Berlin, the chancellor who began a process of East-West reconciliation that anticipated the day when “what belongs together will grow together” and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for dialing down the tensions of the Cold War.

But another lasting legacy of Willy Brandt that must never be forgotten—in Europe or internationally—is that of the Brandt Reports. The product of an Independent Commission on International Development initially chaired by Brandt in the late 1970s and early 1980s, those reports challenged world leaders to think anew about the underdevelopment and neglect of the Global South.

The Brandt Reports considered inequality on a global scale, and argued that it threatened the future stability of the planet. Radical in their analysis and vision, the pair of reports—North-South (1980) and Common Crisis (1983)—sought to address the long-term challenges of what Brandt described as “a world in which poverty and hunger still prevail in many huge regions; in which resources are squandered without consideration of their renewal; in which more armaments are made and sold than ever before; and where a destructive capacity has been accumulated to blow up our planet several times over.”

A 2002 report from the Brandt 21 Forum noted, “The Brandt Commission made a set of bold recommendations to change all that. In a sweeping series of measures addressed to the global public, governments, and international agencies, the Brandt Reports called for a full-scale restructuring of the global economy, along with a new approach to the problems of development, including an emergency program to end poverty in developing nations.”

The grand vision, celebrated and embraced by some but certainly not all countries, remains unrealized.

The grip of poverty and hunger has not been released. The chasm of inequality is still exceptionally wide. Economic and environmental injustice continue to create crises.

Yet, the understandings that Brandt and his colleagues helped to develop remain influential.

And a new generation of leaders seeks to open a serious discussion about global poverty—and the possible responses to it.

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Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, has for many years urged the United States to embrace the concept of a “Global Marshall Plan”—based on the principles of post–World War II international development programs. Earlier this month, Ellison asked Congress to resolve that

1. The elimination of poverty and hunger should remain key foreign and domestic policy goals for the United States;

2. A Global Marshall Plan holds the potential to transform development assistance in a manner that would significantly reduce poverty; and

3. The President should implement a Global Marshall Plan to increase United States assistance towards the elimination of poverty.

That’s a proposal that is equal in its ambition and optimism—especially in a time of divided government that has tended towards austerity economics.

But it is right to aim high. And to recall the ambition and optimism of the Brandt Reports, and of the former German chancellor who declared,

A new century nears, and with it the prospects of a new civilization.

Could we not begin to lay the basis for that new community with reasonable relations among all people and nations, and to build a world in which sharing, justice, freedom and peace might prevail?

 

Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on Santa Claus and white racial panic.

Judge Rules Against NSA Spying; Congress Should Do the Same

NSA

(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Civil liberties advocates on the left and the right have argued for many years—but especially in the aftermath of revelations this year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden—that spying by the National Security Agency disregards privacy protections outlined in the Fourth Amendment and is surely unconstitutional. Indeed, as the American Civil Liberties Union has argued, the NSA’s “unconstitutional surveillance” represents “a grave danger to American democracy.”

Now, a federal judge has recognized the constitutional concerns.

“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying it and analyzing it without judicial approval,” wrote US District Judge Richard Leon.

Judge Leon’s decision, which will surely be appealed, focuses attention on legal challenges to the spying program. But it also serves as a reminder that Congress can and should act to defend privacy rights.

“The ruling underscores what I have argued for years: The bulk collection of Americans’ phone records conflicts with Americans’ privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution and has failed to make us safer,” says Senator Mark Udall, D-Colorado, a supporter of legislation to end the bulk collection program. “We can protect our national security without trampling our constitutional liberties.”

Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said: “Judge Leon’s ruling hits the nail on the head.  It makes clear that bulk phone records collection is intrusive digital surveillance and not simply inoffensive data collection as some have said. The court noted that this metadata can be used for ‘repetitive, surreptitious surveillance of a citizen’s private goings on,’ that creates a mosaic of personal information and is likely unconstitutional. This ruling dismisses the use of an outdated Supreme Court decision affecting rotary phones as a defense for the technologically advanced collection of millions of Americans’ records. It clearly underscores the need to adopt meaningful surveillance reforms that prohibit the bulk collection of Americans’ records.”

The senators had reason to be enthusiastic about Judge Leon determination that legal challenges to the massive surveillance program are valid. So valid, in fact, that he issued a preliminary injunction against the program. The judge suspended the order, however, in order to allow a Justice Department appeal.

But Judge Leon was blunt regarding the strength of the challenge that was brought after Snowden revealed details of the agency’s spying in The Guardian.

"I have little doubt that the author of our Constitution, James Madison... would be aghast," the judge wrote with regard to the NSA program for surveillance of cell phone records,

“The court concludes that plaintiffs have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s bulk collection and querying of phone record metadata, that they have demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their Fourth Amendment claim and that they will suffer irreparable harm absent…relief,” Judge Leon wrote in response to a lawsuit brought by Larry Klayman, a former Reagan administration lawyer who now leads the conservative Freedom Watch group.

The case is one of several that have been working their way through the federal courts since Snowden disclosed details of the NSA program.

Legal challenges to NSA spying are not new, and they have failed in the past.

Challenging the FISA Amendments Act (FAA)—the law that permits the government to wiretap US citizens communicating with people overseas—Amnesty International and other human rights advocates, lawyers and journalists fought a case all the way to the US Supreme Court in 2012. In February 2013, however, the Justices ruled 5-4 that the challengers lacked standing because they could not prove they had been the victims of wiretapping and other privacy violations.

The Justice Department has continued to argue that plaintiffs in lawsuits against the spying program lack standing because they cannot prove their records were examined. But Judge Leon suggested that the old calculus that afforded police agencies great leeway when it came to monitoring communications has clearly changed.

Suggesting that the NSA has relied on “almost-Orwellian technology,” wrote Judge Leon, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia bench. “The relationship between the police and the phone company (as imagined by the courts decades ago)…is nothing compared to the relationship that has apparently evolved over the last seven years between the government and telecom companies.”

The judge concluded, “It’s one thing to say that people expect phone companies to occasionally provide information to law enforcement; it is quite another to suggest that our citizens expect all phone companies to operate what is effectively a joint intelligence-gathering operation with the government.”

This case will continue in the courts, as will others.

But it is also in Congress. A left-right coalition that extends from Congressmen Justin Amash, a libertarian-leaning Republican, to Congressman John Conyers, a progressive Democrat, has raised repeated challenges to the NSA spying regimen.

Now, Congress needs to step up to what Congressman Alan Grayson, D-Florida, refers to as “the spying-industrial complex.”

A number of members are ready. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders responded to Judge Leon's ruling by saying: “In my view, the NSA is out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner. Today’s ruling is an important first step toward reining in this agency but we must go further. I will be working as hard as I can to pass the strongest legislation possible to end the abuses by the NSA and other intelligence agencies.”

The outlines for legislative action have already been presented by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that work on privacy issues.

“Congress should not be indifferent to the government’s accumulation of vast quantities of sensitive information about American’s lives,” Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal counsel told the House Judiciary Committee in July. “This Committee in particular has a crucial role to play in ensuring that the government’s efforts to protect the country do not compromise the freedoms that make the country worth protecting.”

Jaffer told the committee,

Because the problem Congress confronts today has many roots, there is no single solution to it. But there are a number of things that Congress should do right away:

• It should amend Sections 215 and 702 to expressly prohibit suspicionless or “dragnet” monitoring or tracking of Americans’ communications.

• It should require the executive to release basic information about the government’s use of foreign-intelligence-surveillance authorities, including those relating to pen registers and national security letters. The executive should be required to disclose, for each year: how many times each of these provisions was used, how many individuals’ privacy was implicated by the government’s use of each provision, and, with respect to any dragnet, generalized, or bulk surveillance program, the types of information that were collected.

• Congress should also require the publication of FISA court opinions that evaluate the meaning, scope, or constitutionality of the foreign-intelligence laws. The ACLU recently filed a motion before the FISA court arguing that the publication of these opinions is required by the First Amendment, but Congress need not wait for the FISA court to act. Congress has the authority and the obligation to ensure that Americans are not governed by a system of secret law.

•  Finally, Congress—and this Committee in particular—should hold additional hearings to consider further amendments to FISA, including amendments to make FISC proceedings more transparent.

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Members of Congress, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, have moved on a number of these fronts. Now it is time for concerted action.

The Congress does not have to wait for the legal wrangling to be resolved. It can, and should, act in defense of civil liberties.

Read Next: Greg Mitchell on 60 Minutes’s NSA whitewashing.

Congress Chooses Austerity Over Job Creation and Economic Growth

US Capitol

(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Most members of Congress were pleased with themselves Thursday.

They agreed to agree—crossing lines of partisanship and ideology—on an austerity budget that, as Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio has noted, “won’t create jobs, get the economy back on track, or meaningfully cut the deficit.”

That’s not the worst of it.

“At the end of the day, the bill abandons 1.3 million Americans who desperately need unemployment insurance, and does nothing to promote economic growth or job creation,” Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, explained Thursday. “Furthermore, the legislation is paid for on the backs of the middle class and military families, while not touching the wealthiest amongst us and allowing corporations to continue to benefit from tax loopholes.”

Pocan and DeFazio could not bring themselves to back the deal.

But they were outliers, two of the thirty-two Democrats who voted no, along with sixty-two Republicans.

The vast majority of House members—from both parties—backed the deal, which prevailed on a 332-94 vote.

So where does that leave America?

Let’s turn to National Nurses United, a union that parts company with both major parties on questions of public welfare, for a diagnosis.

“There is no reason to cheer an agreement that requires unwarranted pension cuts for federal workers, including VA nurses who earned that pension, underfunds nutrition programs and fails to extend assistance for the long-term unemployed,“ says union co-president Jean Ross, RN.

NNU refused to get on board for the bipartisan deal that takes the worst ideas of Wall Street–aligned Republicans and puts a Democratic stamp of approval on them.

Why? Because they understand the agreement—which was developed by a conference committee on which House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, played a defining role—as an expression of the austerity agenda that has stalled economic recovery and job growth in the United States and abroad.

“Austerity budgeting, reflected in this latest deal, continues the disturbing focus by politicians in both parties in Washington, who should be fighting for jobs at living wages, restoration of the disgraceful cuts in food stamps, healthcare for all, housing assistance, and other human needs, not simply how to please Wall Street and the banks,” says NNU’s Ross. “For our patients and our communities, it is past time to replace cuts for workers with revenues from Wall Street to revive Main Street.”

There was a time when austerity budgeting was accepted as valid—or, at least, necessary—to addressing the circumstance of countries where deindustrialization and economic setbacks have caused revenue shortfalls. But, in recent years, The Economist, the Financial Timesand the International Monetary Fund have recognized that austerity agendas based on in budget cuts and a failure to invest in infrastructure and development tend to lock in patterns of high unemployment and slow growth.

Countries fall into dysfunctional patterns, making cuts that lead to more cuts, and this stalls job creation, reduces labor-force participation and makes recovery more difficult. It is, as economist Paul Krugman suggests, an “awesomely destructive” pattern.

Congress should get this by now. Unfortunately, as an analysis from the budget analysts at the Campaign for America’s Future notes, “Somehow Washington has failed to get the message. This deal doesn’t end the cutting; it only reduces its severity. It doesn’t generate jobs; it only cuts fewer of them. It doesn’t help the economy; it only reduces the harm to it. Surely we can do better than that.”

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The nurses have an idea for how to do better. The union wants a Robin Hood Tax on high-stakes Wall Street trading—particularly speculation in stocks, bonds, derivatives and currencies. This tax is outlined in legislation developed by Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, who proposes “a small tax on Wall Street transactions to meet the needs of our nation.”

Ellison voted against the budget deal Thursday, saying: “The budget deal passed today is a compromise—it compromises the financial security of federal employees, the long-term unemployed and working families…. This is a case where ‘compromise’ in Washington means asking Americans to sacrifice more.”

The nurses agree.

“The sham of the present debate in Washington, DC, is that real fiscal solutions to slow growth and high unemployment, hunger, disease and poverty exist, but have been taken off the table by lobbyists for Wall Street,” says Ross. “It’s time Congress proves to the American people that Wall Street doesn’t run our government.”

Read Next: John Nichols lays out what makes this a “cruel, irresponsible” budget deal.

A Cruel, Irresponsible and Dysfunctional Budget Deal

Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) at a Congressional Budget Conference. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

The trouble with making “functional” government the great aspiration of the American experiment – as so many pundits and politicians now do – is that a smoothly operating Congress is not necessarily moral, humane or even economically smart.

It is important to remember this disconnect as we consider the budget deal announced late Tuesday by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray, D-Washington.

“This agreement breaks through the recent dysfunction to prevent another government shutdown and roll back sequestration’s cuts to defense and domestic investments in a balanced way,” said Murray. “It’s a good step in the right direction that can hopefully rebuild some trust and serve as a foundation for continued bipartisan work.”

Ryan was equally self-congratulatory, declaring that – after a fall the saw a government shutdown, nasty wrangling over the historically uncontroversial task of raising the debt ceiling and general congressional dysfunction – he and Murray had achieved “a clear improvement on the status quo.”

“This agreement makes sure that we don't have a government shutdown scenario in January,” he added. “It makes sure we don't have another government shutdown scenario in October. It makes sure that we don't lurch from crisis to crisis."

Murray and Ryan are excited that they had stopped fighting for long enough to agree to $63 billion in “sequester relief” – as opposed to an actual end to sequestration – and $23 billion in net deficit reduction. They're also glad that they have set the discretionary spending level for fiscal year 2014 at $1.012 trillion, while setting the level at $1.014 trillion for fiscal year 2015. That apparently qualifies – in the eyes of the budget negotiators – as a sufficient alternative to lurching from crisis to crisis.

But the agreement does not address the crises that matter. “This plan won't create jobs, get the economy back on track, or meaningfully cut the deficit,” explains Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon.

And that's not the worst of it.

What of the 1.3 million jobless Americans who – with a fully Dickensian twist – now stand to lose Federal unemployment benefits three days after Christmas?

The budget agreement does not look like a “step in the right direction” for them. And unless Democrats succeed in renewing benefits in a distinct piece of legislation that apparently must pass this week – as Congress is moving rapidly toward recess – many of the most economically vulnerable Americans will be “lurching from crisis to crisis” very soon.

Their crisis is our crisis. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, extending benefits for the long-term unemployed would boost a still slow economy by two-tenths of a percent in the coming year – creating 200,000 needed jobs. As the CBO explains: “Recipients of the additional benefits would increase their spending on consumer goods and services. That increase in aggregate demand would encourage businesses to boost production and hire more workers than they otherwise would, particularly given the expected slack in the capital and labor markets.”

Without providing for the extension, something that easily and appropriately could have been done in the budget agreement, Ryan and Murray failed in their most basic humanitarian and economic duties.

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And what of the federal workers and members of the military who will be required to take what is effectively a pay cut in order to pay more for their retirement benefits?

“Federal workers have sacrificed over $113 billion for deficit reduction since 2011, including a three-year pay freeze and increased pension contributions for newly hired employees. This figure does not include the up to eight furlough days caused by sequestration this summer and a 16-day shutdown in October which resulted in financial hardship and profound anxiety for half the government’s workforce and their families,” noted unions that represent federal employees. “Given these contributions, we are dismayed to learn that increasing the pension contributions and/or changing the retirement formula for current federal employees is on the table. This is simply unacceptable.”

This is, also, absurd.

Despite Murray's prodding, the House and Senate budget chairs did not close a single tax loophole. But they did come up with a scheme to take money away from public employees and people serving in the military – effectively reducing what millions of Americans will have to spend on Main Street.

Members of House and Senate who are paid $174,000 annually, collect generous benefits and – thanks to redistricting and an incumbent-rewarding campaign finance system – enjoy no small measure of job security, can pat themselves on the back for breaking through “the recent dysfunction.” But forcing others to lurch from crisis to crisis so that you can tell yourself you have taken “a step in the right direction” is socially and economically dysfunctional. Not to mention cruel, and irresponsible.

 

Read Next: Jessica Weisberg explains how inequality has been woven into the fabric of American society.

Nelson Mandela’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela addresses crowd at a Port Elizabeth rally on April 1, 1990. (Reuters)

The South African Constitution minces no words regarding access to medical care.

“Everyone has the right to have access to health care services, including reproductive health care,” the document declares, adding that: “The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of each of these rights.”

At a time when the United States is engaged in an archaic debate over whether to even try and provide universal access to health care, most other countries well understand the absurdity of conditioning access to basic human needs—including access to healthcare, housing and education—on the ability to pay.

That understanding was championed by Nelson Mandela, whose life and legacy is being honored this week by President Obama, members of Congress and leaders from around the world. Fittingly, the memorials for Mandela will coincide with this week’s sixty-fifth anniversary of the adoption (on December 10, 1948) by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a document that the former South African president revered as a touchstone for nation building and governing.

Mandela, a lawyer by training and a student of constitutions, steered South Africa toward a broad understanding of human rights. When his country adopted its Constitution in 1996, he announced that “the new constitution obliges us to strive to improve the quality of life of the people. In this sense, our national consensus recognizes that there is nothing else that can justify the existence of government but to redress the centuries of unspeakable privations, by striving to eliminate poverty, illiteracy, homelessness and disease. It obliges us, too, to promote the development of independent civil society structures.”

There are many reasons to honor Mandela. And there is much to be borrowed from his legacy.

But it is absolutely vital, as we focus on this man, to recall his wise words with regard to human rights—and the role that government had in assuring access to those rights.

Mandela embraced the great vision of the twentieth-century idealists who, at the end of World War II, recognized a responsibility to address the inequality that fostered fear, hatred and totalitarianism. It was an American, Eleanor Roosevelt, who reminded Americans seventy years ago that “at all times, day by day, we have to continue fighting for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from fear, and freedom from want—for these are things that must be gained in peace as well as in war.”

President Franklin Roosevelt, with his 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, had begun to scope out the broader definition of human rights, speaking not just of First Amendment liberties but also of a “freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.”

After her husband’s death in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt carried the vision forward in her dynamic role as the first chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She oversaw the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that affirmed: “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”

The declaration also held out this promise: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

When the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was celebrated in 1998, Mandela addressed the UN General Assembly.

“Born in the aftermath of the defeat of the Nazi and fascist crime against humanity, this Declaration held high the hope that all our societies would, in future, be built on the foundations of the glorious vision spelt out in each of its clauses,” said Mandela, who had in the preceding decade made the transition from prisoner to president of South Africa. “For those who had to fight for their emancipation, such as ourselves who, with your help, had to free ourselves from the criminal apartheid system, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights served as the vindication of the justice of our cause. At the same time, it constituted a challenge to us that our freedom, once achieved, should be dedicated to the implementation of the perspectives contained in the Declaration.”

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Mandela accepted that challenge, and explained that it remained unmet in much of the world.

“The very right to be human is denied everyday to hundreds of millions of people as a result of poverty, the unavailability of basic necessities such as food, jobs, water and shelter, education, health care and a healthy environment,” he said. “The failure to achieve the vision contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights finds dramatic expression in the contrast between wealth and poverty which characterizes the divide between the countries of the North and the countries of the South and within individual countries in all hemispheres.”

The president of South Africa was explicit in his criticism of leaders who failed—by “acts of commission and omission”—to address civil and economic injustice.

“What I am trying to say is that all these social ills which constitute an offence against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not a pre-ordained result of the forces of nature or the product of a curse of the deities. They are the consequence of decisions which men and women take or refuse to take, all of whom will not hesitate to pledge their devoted support for the vision conveyed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he explained.

Looking to the future, Mandela concluded, “The challenge posed by the next 50 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by the next century whose character it must help to fashion, consists in whether humanity, and especially those who will occupy positions of leadership, will have the courage to ensure that, at last, we build a human world consistent with the provisions of that historic Declaration and other human rights instruments that have been adopted since 1948.”

Douglas Foster on the meaning of Mandela.

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