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Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

The Moral and Political Case for Reforming the Criminal Justice System

criminal justice

(Reuters/Joshua Lott)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

There isn’t much room for optimism among progressives these days. The president’s avenues to legislative achievement in his final two years are narrow and seem mostly to lead to the right — toward a corporate tax reform in one instance, and a NAFTA-style trade deal with the Asia-Pacific region in another.

But in these dark days, there is, as we are already witnessing, reason for hope — in the form of a landmark climate change deal with China last week and an expected executive action on deportations very soon. And today, increasingly, there are signs that the United States could make greater strides on criminal justice reform than at any time in a generation or more.

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From a moral standpoint, the need to reform the justice system is clear. During the past four decades, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled even as the crime rate has dropped. We have some 2.4 million people behind bars, far more than any other country, costing about $80 billion a year to maintain. Worse yet, as result of racial disparities in sentencing, more than half of U.S. prisoners are minorities. These staggering statistics stem from the failure of the “war on drugs,” the true impact of which can only be measured in destroyed lives and devastated communities, especially among the most marginalized segments of society.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

When Mega Corporations Get Mega Tax Breaks, We All Pay

Boeing

(Reuters/Robert Sorbo)

Is corporate CEO pay really out of control? Well, consider Fleecing Uncle Sam, a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Effective Government. Of the 100 highest-paid CEOs in the US, the study finds, twenty-nine of them received more compensation than their companies paid in federal income tax.

Take American Airlines, for example. CEO W. Douglas Parker took home $17.7 million in total compensation in 2013, while his company received a $22 million tax refund. It makes you wonder. After all, American didn’t have a lot of income on which to pay taxes—the company’s pre-tax income in 2013 was negative $2 billion—so is AA sending us a message that tax avoidance, and not air transport, is their real business? Parker certainly piloted his company to be more success at the former than he did the latter.

Scott Klinger, Director of Revenue and Spending Policies at the Center for Effective Government, co-authored of the report. “Our corporate tax system is so broken,” he says, “that large, profitable firms can get away without paying their fair share and instead funnel massive funds into the pockets of top executives.”

But the heavyweight champion of corporate tax refunds is JPMorgan Chase, which earned more than $17 billion in 2013 in pre-tax income. Their tax “payment” took the form of a $1.3 billion refund. How did this happen? How can this all be above-board tax avoidance, not unlawful tax evasion? When it comes to avoiding taxes, American corporations have a veritable salad bar of helpful (and legal) techniques, including inversions and tax havens. But perhaps most galling are “extenders,” subsidies and tax-breaks handed to them by Congress. Every year or two, with little or no debate, Congress votes to extend fifty-five of these tax breaks, with 80 percent of them benefitting corporations.

“Rather than handing out more perks through the ‘tax extenders,’ Congress should focus on cracking down on tax havens, eliminating wasteful corporate subsidies, and closing loopholes that encourage excessive CEO pay,” says Sarah Anderson, IPS Global Economy director and another report co-author.

And then there’s Boeing. CEO W. James McNerney Jr. took home $23.3 million last year—well deserved, if the standard was wrapping Uncle Sam around his finger. Boeing received a tax refund of $82 million in 2013, while at the same time winning $20 billion in government contracts. Between 2008 and 2012, the company received $603 million in research-and-development subsidies. This largesse is outrageous, perhaps only ending when Boeing and its corporate brethren pay so little in taxes that Uncle Sam doesn’t have enough cash to allot their customary refunds, subsidies, and contracts.

When the federal government pays, we all pay. This is, of course, a government of the people, and these are our elected officials; when Congress engages in such epic bootlicking, we all get stuck with the bad taste in our mouth.

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We’re also stuck with the opportunity costs. The study reports that if seven giant corporations—Boeing, Chevron, Citigroup, Ford, General Motors, JPMorgan Chase and Verizon—had paid the statutory corporate tax rate of 35 percent, they would have owed $25.9 billion. Instead, the seven companies received a combined $1.9 billion in tax refunds, a difference of $27.8 billion. What might have been? What could we do with that lost tax income? How about running the VA for two entire months, the study asks. Or resurfacing 22,240 miles of four-lane roads. Or Universal pre-K for every four-year-old in the country. Three hundred and seventy-seven thousand more public school teachers. The list goes on and on.

Congress can fix this. A handful reform bills have been introduced, including Sen. Carl Levin’s (D-MI) Cut Unjustified Tax (CUT) Loopholes Act, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Jan Schakowsky’s Corporate Tax Fairness Act, as well as several bills to stop corporate inversions. As the report says, “The American people increasingly understand that what’s good for General Motors and its CEO is not necessarily best for them.” We need to convince Congress that it's not best for them either.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the Republicans' reckoning

The Republicans’ Reckoning

Congressional Republicans

Congressional Republicans (Reuters/Jim Young)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

In the early third century BC, after King Pyrrhus of Epirus again took brutal casualties in defeating the Romans, he told one person who offered congratulations, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” In his more sober moments, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), about to achieve his lifelong ambition of becoming Senate majority leader, may wonder whether he, too, has achieved a pyrrhic victory.

Republicans are still crowing about the sweeping victories in 2014 that give them control of both houses of Congress. They will set the agenda, deciding what gets considered, investigated and voted on. Their ideas will drive the debate.

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But Republicans have no mandate because they offered no agenda. Republicans reaped the rewards of McConnell’s scorched-earth strategy, obstructing President Obama relentlessly, helping to create the failure that voters would pin on the party in power. But the collateral damage is that the “party of ‘no’ ” has no agreement on what is yes. Instead of using the years in the wilderness to develop new ideas and a clear vision, Republicans have used them only to sharpen their tongues, grow their claws and practice their backhands.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

The Democrats Lost Big Tonight. Why Obama Should Double Down

President Obama

(Reuters)

If I were advising the White House right now, I would encourage President Obama to take advantage of the end of this year’s election cycle—the next fifty or so days—to immediately try to change the subject, in a big way.

The Obama administration should act right away to use its executive powers to take steps to deal with long-ignored issues that need to be dealt with for the good of the nation.

This cannot be done quietly. To change the media narrative, issues acted upon will have to be controversial enough to dominate the news. President Obama should embrace good progressive public policy while expecting—indeed, hoping for—a massive outcry from the wing-nut section of the GOP.

Controversy is not the enemy here. And issue clarity—or issue polarization—can be helpful, if the administration seizes the initiative and chooses public policy issues on which to fight.

The president should go big right now, undertaking a quick series of high-profile executive actions on issues that the Republican House has not acted upon, and will never pass. President Obama should be very visible, with photo ops and speeches and social media and grassroots backup and appearances on Between Two Ferns, moving hard and fast from one executive action to the next.

Here are a few suggestions. (And I’m sure people as smart as John Podesta and David Axelrod can think of a couple more.) Whatever is decided, act big—and act fast.

Why not draw the line in the sand this week?

1. Start with serious immigration reform. Announce a serious executive action, to make up for the fact that Beltway Republicans will not act on this critical issue.

Go to the South Valley of Texas and/or the Arizona border, and make appearances with some of the little girls and boys who are trying to come to the United States to avoid their dangerous, hard-scrabble lives in Honduras and Guatemala.

Pick a fight with Rick Perry and/or Jan Brewer, if need be, and be glad that you’re in a high-profile fight with them. Let the right-wing come unglued—which they will!—and don’t back down when Steve King and Louie Gohmert and Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin start calling for impeachment. Not only will the wing nuts threaten impeachment over perfectly legal executive actions, and their actions dominate the airwaves, it will turn off independents and moderates, and create a no-win situation that leaves most of the Republican presidential candidates twisting in the wind. (Remember: they can’t get sixty-seven pro-impeachment votes in the Senate, any more than they could when Bill Clinton was impeached—and the foolish, overwrought attacks on Clinton helped clarify to most Americans that the GOP was the big problem in DC.)

2. For the next two years, do everything you can to create a climate legacy that will stand the test of time—a legacy that will look better and better as the decades go by, and the atmosphere heats up more and more.

Cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline before the right wing can draw a breath after your immigration actions. Then, Mr. President, elevate climate change as an issue, the way you took on healthcare reform (only without bothering to try to pass anything through John Boehner’s House).

Meet with China and India on climate issues, before the next round of global climate meetings. Set aside big chunks of public land and ocean, and hold photo ops in spectacular natural settings as you do so—very few executive acts are so popular with most of the public.

Host a national teach-in with real climate scientists, on C-Span, and use it to drive a nail in the coffin of the fake, corporate-funded, “climate denial” science.

Pull together a meeting of coastal mayors to talk about what “resilience” steps to take to prepare for the next Superstorm Sandy—this is not only necessary, it’s a good way to raise the issue of needed infrastructure spending.

Take the climate disruption issue head-on, and make it part of the Obama legacy. No previous leaders have met the challenge of global warming, a threat that affects both national and world security. President Obama could be the first to take it on. Future generations will thank him.

4. Go up to the edge of normalizing relations with Cuba. Send Attorney General Eric Holder down to Havana to work out the details.

I understand that current law prevents a president from fully normalizing relations with Cuba, but there are a series of executive actions that a president could take that would weaken the embargo, increase American prestige in this hemisphere, and help stabilize working relationships with Cuba on a series of bilateral issues.

Even better, President Obama can take these executive actions just before the entire hemisphere meets at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in May, actions that will enhance his reputation—and America’s reputation—across Latin America.

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5. Use changing national attitudes on marijuana to weaken the wasteful and ineffective war on drugs. Better yet, use presidential executive power to weaken our harsh and racist criminal injustice system.

Reclassify marijuana as a less-dangerous drug. Commute sentences of nonviolent pot prisoners (a disproportionate number of them young African-Americans!).

Appoint a blue-ribbon presidential commission on drug reform and criminal justice reform, with a mandate to report back quickly on issues from marijuana legalization to curbing police brutality to eliminating three-strikes-and-you’re-out policies to reforming harsh sentencing to ending the militarization and weaponization of local and state police departments to stop and frisk to racial profiling.

6. Nominate Tom Harkin to the Federal Reserve Board.

7. In the proud tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, issue a Good Jobs Executive Order that would reward companies that pay their workers a living wage, allow them a voice at the workplace without having to go on strike, adhere to federal workplace safety and fair labor standards and limit the pay of their chief executives to some reasonable ratio to that of their average workers.

8. Nominate a diverse set of progressives to fill every judicial vacancy at every level, and then make this a huge national throwdown fight when they are not approved. Given the poor public view of the runaway, activist, Citizens United–tainted Supreme Court, judges could become one of the big issues of the 2016 campaign.

Be the change you want to see. Sí, se puede.

 

Read Next: Michelle Chen on whether the foodie trend can help food workers

Will the Midterms Create a Mandate for Minimum Wage Hikes?

minimum wage

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

For the national Democratic Party, there are only two possible outcomes in today’s elections: bad and worse. Even in the best-case scenario, Democrats will barely hang onto a narrow Senate majority that is virtually powerless in the face of Republican obstruction. However, while the headlines tomorrow are likely to be grim, progressives can take heart in tangible policy victories in four states, all solid red in the last election, where voters are set to give the working poor a much-needed raise.

Perhaps no issue has been a bigger political winner this year than raising the minimum wage. Indeed, after Seattle raised its minimum wage to a record $15 an hour and fast-food workers nationwide united to demand higher pay, the undeniable resonance of this issue with mostly apathetic midterm voters demonstrates the power of social movements to transcend partisan politics and drive the electoral agenda. Furthermore, it is a clear signal that these elections, whatever their outcome, should not be thought of as a triumph of right-wing politics over progressive Democratic ideas. To the contrary, if Republicans prevail, it will be in spite of their support for right-wing policies.

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In Alaska, Senator Mark Begich (D) has been fighting for his political life, but his chances of survival have received a boost from a ballot initiative to increase the state’s minimum wage to $9.75 per hour by 2016. In a recent poll, 61 percent of voters said they support the measure. Enthusiasm is so strong that Begich’s Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan, now publicly supports the initiative despite previously claiming that raising the minimum wage would “shackle Alaska’s potential to grow jobs.”

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the need for justice for Edward Snowden

Justice for Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden (AP Photo)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

It is time for President Obama to offer clemency to Edward Snowden, the courageous US citizen who revealed the Orwellian reach of the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance of Americans. His actions may have broken the law, but his act, as The New York Times editorialized, did the nation “a great service.”

In an interview that The Nation magazine is publishing this week, Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen and I asked Snowden his definition of patriotism. He sensibly argues patriotism is not “acting to benefit the government,” but to “act on behalf of one’s country…. You’re not patriotic just because you back whoever’s in power today…. You’re patriotic when you work to improve the lives of the people of your country,” including protecting their rights.

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That requires hard choices. When a government is trampling the rights of the people in secrecy, patriots have a duty to speak out. Snowden notes that there is no “oath of secrecy” for people who work for the government. Contract employees like Snowden sign a form, a civil agreement, agreeing not to release classified information, opening themselves to civil or criminal prosecution if they do. “But you are also asked to take an oath, and that’s the oath of service. The oath of service is not to secrecy, but to the Constitution—to protect it against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That’s the oath that I kept.”

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

In North Carolina, Populist Mobilization Buoys Democrat Kay Hagan

Hagan Tillis

Senator Kay Hagan, left, D-NC, and North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, Pool)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

If Democrats hold onto their Senate majority this year, the North Carolina Senate race may be their life raft. Incumbent Senator Kay Hagan (D) has managed to maintain a small lead over Republican Thom Tillis in all of the five most recent polls.

Hagan was considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats. She was first elected in 2008, when President Obama drove massive turnout and carried the state. Since then Obama’s approval has plummeted. In 2012, conservatives—fueled by massive contributions from multimillionaire Art Pope—took over the governor’s mansion as well as both chambers of the legislature. One of their first acts was to push through restrictions on voting, including ending same-day voter registration and curtailing early voting, in an effort clearly designed to suppress the votes of poor and minority voters. (The Supreme Court just overruled the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which had stayed implementation of the measures under the Civil Rights Act.)

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Almost two-thirds of US voters surveyed think the country is on the wrong track. Mitt Romney won North Carolina in 2012 by a small margin. And the state hasn’t re-elected a Democratic senator since Sam Ervin in 1968.

Not surprisingly, Hagan was targeted early by the deep-pocket right-wing PACs. Americans for Prosperity dumped a staggering $7 million in adsagainst Hagan by March of this year. Karl Rove’s fronts—American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS—plan to spend $1 million a week in the last month of the campaign. (Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, was Rove’s candidate in the Republican primary.)

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Eric Schneiderman Is Still Seeking Justice for the Financial Crisis

Eric Schneiderman

Eric Schneiderman (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

After six years in office, departing Attorney General Eric Holder will leave behind a strong legacy of defending civil rights. As the first black American to lead the Justice Department, Holder fought to stop voter suppression, to change unfair sentencing policies, and—by refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act—to end discrimination against LGBT couples. Holder’s resignation announcement last month, understandably, has prompted a wave of speculation about who will replace him. That’s an important conversation, but we should be paying equal attention to the states, where attorneys general are elected and have significant influence over the application of the law.

For instance, while progressives were rightly disappointed by Holder’s failure to punish Wall Street for financial crimes leading up to the economic crisis, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been almost single-handedly fighting an uphill battle to hold the banks accountable. Now running for reelection, Schneiderman has devoted much of the past four years to delivering some measure of justice to millions of Americans, in New York and across the country, who suffered as a result of Wall Street’s destructive behavior.

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Upon taking office in 2011, Schneiderman took a principled stand in the negotiations between 50 state attorneys general and the banks over their illegal use of “robo-signing,” a loathsome practice that accelerated the foreclosure process by falsifying signatures on paperwork that bank employees had not read. With the parties nearing a settlement that would have cost the banks a paltry $20 billion, Schneiderman refused to give his consent to any deal that released the banks from liability for their misdeeds prior to the 2008 crash. Resisting pressure from his fellow attorneys general and the Obama administration, Schneiderman held firm, while also demanding a sweeping investigation of the banks’ actions. “I said you can’t release the banks from claims that haven’t been investigated,” he later explained.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Read Next: Congress’s Sorry Dereliction of its War Powers Duty

Congress’s Sorry Dereliction of Its War Powers Duty

Capitol

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

In a Washington paralyzed by partisan division, there is apparently one area of bipartisan agreement: Congress should ignore its constitutional mandate to vote on war with the Islamic State, a conflict that President Obama admits will take years.

The president says he’d “welcome” congressional support but doesn’t need it. Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi (CA) and Sen. Harry Reid (NV) agree. Republican House Speaker John Boehner (OH) argues Congress should postpone any debate until next year. He allows it might be in the “nation’s interest” for members of Congress to weigh in, but it certainly isn’t an imperative. The leaders of Congress treat their own body as vestigial, offering little beyond symbolic gesture on the vital question of war and peace.

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This bipartisan consensus about expanding the executive’s war-making powers directly contradicts the Constitution of the United States. The founders gave Congress, not the president, the power to declare war. Their purpose was clear. War was the instrument by which kings and dictators consolidated power and impoverished nations. They feared that the executive by its nature was more given to war. James Wilson, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, summarized the consensus: Giving the power to Congress “will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress.”

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

 

Read Next: We cannot win in Iraq

New Deal Liberalism Lives On

FDR

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

In the age of trickle-down economics and unrelenting attacks on the social safety net, there have been few greater champions of progressive values than Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who hosted his final Steak Fry this year as the senior senator from Iowa. Throughout his storied career, Harkin has remained a “prairie populist.” From his landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, to his principled vote against Clinton-era financial deregulation, to his recent sponsorship of the Fair Minimum Wage Act, Harkin has always been unapologetically loyal to the fundamental belief that government can—and should—play a role in improving people’s lives. And for Harkin, who proudly displayed his father’s Works Progress Administration card on his office wall, this brand of progressivism was deeply rooted in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal philosophy.

Indeed, as Ken Burns’s remarkable fourteen-hour PBS documentary The Roosevelts reminds us, we are, in so many ways, living in a country shaped by FDR. “Maybe you know somebody who went to college on the GI Bill. Maybe you’ve flown out of LaGuardia Airport or through the Lincoln Tunnel. Or you can turn on a light switch and have power and build planes at Boeing,” Burns said recently. “That’s all Franklin Roosevelt.” Our modern debate on inequality mirrors “the central questions of Roosevelt’s day,” the filmmaker said in another interview. Burns also noted that Eleanor Roosevelt’s vital legacy of fighting for social justice remains especially relevant now. “She understood the issues of the day about health, about race, about women, about poverty, about immigration, all of the issues that we still grapple with today.”

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Our current political battles, as they have been for the past seventy years, are largely defined by the right’s bitter desire to roll back the gains of the New Deal and the Great Society. And as Harkin prepares to retire next year, many have been writing obituaries for his brand of progressive politics. “Today he is seen as one of a dying breed of Democrats,” the Post’s Dan Balz observed. “[H]e remains an unabashedly and old-fashioned liberal.”

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Read Next: PBS Loves Its ‘Roosevelts’—and Its Kochs, Too

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