The State Department has released a long-awaited environmental impact statement for the Keystone XL pipeline. Here’s the key section:
[A]pproval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States based on expected oil.
In other words, the State Department believes that oil from Alberta’s tar sands will be extracted, shipped and burnt regardless of whether the pipeline is built or not. That conclusion is disappointing for anyone hoping that the review would give President Obama clear justification to reject the pipeline. Last August, he declared that it would not be in the national interest to greenlight any project unless it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
Instead, the EIS leaves the administration considerable room to maneuver as the decision process enters the next stage: a more comprehensive assessment of whether the pipeline serves the national interest. That determination will consider climate change, foreign policy and energy security. “This is not a document that deals with approving and denying” the pipeline, Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones emphasized on a call with reporters. There is no timeline for a final decision on the project, although eight federal agencies have ninety days to weigh in, and a monthlong public comment period begins on February 5.
While the EIS does not lay out a clear reason to reject the pipeline, neither does it deny the environmental implications of the project completely. The report affirmed a previous finding that oil produced from tar sands produces about 17 percent more greenhouse gas pollution when burned, compared to traditional crude. Jones said it would be “a bit of an oversimplification” to conclude from the report that KXL would have no impact on climate change. Jones also acknowledged that the report’s assumptions about oil markets are “uncertain and changeable.”
One figure we’re likely to hear cited by proponents of the pipeline is 42,100. That’s the number of temporary jobs the pipeline is expected to generate, according to the report. However, the more significant number is fifty. According to the EIS, that’s how many people would still have a job once construction ends in a year or two.
The timing of the release is itself controversial. The State Department’s Inspector General has yet to complete a conflict of interest investigation into the contractor hired to conduct the EIS, a London-based company called Environmental Resource Management (ERM). The IG launched its investigation after Friends of the Earth and other groups obtained information indicating that ERM failed to disclose connections to TransCanada, the company backing the pipeline, and other industry groups.
In December, twenty-five Democrats in Congress sent a letter urging officials to delay the publication of the EIS until the allegations had been fully investigated. “It would be unwise and premature for the Department of State to release an EIS prepared by ERM while it remains under investigation for lying to federal officials about its ties to TransCanada and over a dozen oil companies with a direct stake in whether or not Keystone XL gets approved,” the letter reads.
Asked why the State Department did not wait for the IG report to publish the EIS, Jones said that the two studies were “completely separate processes,” and that the agency was confident in its conflict of interest procedures. “I feel that it’s important for us to move forward in our process,” she continued. “We wanted to get this document out and keep moving.”
The timing of the release infuriated some members of Congress. “This document will be seen by the entire environmental community—in which I certainly include myself—as a sham. The fact that the Canadian government and the oil industry were reportedly briefed on today’s news before Congress was given the courtesy of a heads-up speaks volumes,” Representative Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, said in a statement. “The only way to approve Keystone XL is to ignore the multiple lies TransCanada told the State Department in its application. I’m sorry to see the State Department is comfortable with that.”
The allegations against ERM appear serious. Furthermore, internal State Department documents obtained by the Sierra Club suggest that State did not verify ERM’s claim to be free of conflicts of interest. If it had done so, the agency would have found that ERM failed to disclose relationships with several companies that could benefit from tar sands development, including ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Conoco Phillips and Canadian Natural Resources. Several oil and gas industry associations that have advocated for the pipeline list ERM as a member, including the American Petroleum Institute, which has spent $22 million on KXL and tar sands lobbying, according to Friends of the Earth. A Mother Jones investigation found evidence that the State Department knew about, and tried to conceal, connections between TransCanada and one of the ERM employees leading the KXL review.
Now that the decision is in President Obama’s hands, expect new action from environmental groups. Vigils are planned around the country for Monday. Sixteen organizations have sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, complaining that the scope of the environmental review was too narrow and threatening legal action based on the National Environmental Policy Act.
Read Next: James Lawrence Powell on why Harvard and Brown should divest from fossil fuel companies
“The men and women of America’s intelligence agencies are overwhelmingly dedicated professionals,” Ron Wyden said on Wednesday, before proceeding to excoriate their bosses in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Addressing Director of Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey, Wyden continued,
“They deserve to have leadership that is trusted by the American people. Unfortunately, that trust has been seriously undermined by senior officials’ reckless reliance on secret interpretations of the law and battered by years of misleading and deceptive statements that senior officials made to the American people. These statements did not protect sources and methods that were useful in fighting terror. Instead, they hid bad policy choices and violation of the liberties of the American people.’
With the future of the surveillance programs disclosed by Edward Snowden still uncertain, the ball is very much in Congress’s court. Specifically, in the Intelligence And Judiciary Committees, which have critical oversight roles over the National Security Agency and others. The stakes are higher than the individual programs revealed by Snowden, however. In question is Congress’s ability to act as an effective watchdog over an expanding national security state.
Wednesday’s hearing nicely showcased the two major hurdles to congressional oversight. The first, as Wyden argued, is senior intelligence officials. The second is the congressional committees, which face an institutional mismatch with the intelligence community and whose members often seem more committed to protecting, rather than scrutinizing, the agencies they are tasked with overseeing.
First, a brief history. After revelations about abuses by the CIA and other agencies in the 1970s, Congress struck what Stephen Vladeck, a professor of law at American University, calls a “grand bargain,” to accommodate the paradoxical need to submit secret programs to democratic oversight. New legal constraints on intelligence activities would be enforced not in public but instead behind the veil by the intelligence committees and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (also known as the FISA court). As Colorado Senator Mark Udall said at the Intelligence Committee hearing, “This committee was created to address a severe breach of trust that developed when it was revealed that the CIA was conducting unlawful domestic searches.”
The Snowden leaks indicate the bargain has broken down. “In essence, the delicate balance Congress sought to strike thirty-five years ago now appears to be tipped, rather decisively, in favor of the intelligence community,” Vladeck explained in an e-mail.
Intelligence officials have done some of that tipping themselves, by withholding information from the public and lawmakers. On Wednesday, Wyden said the committee had been “stonewalled” by intelligence officials; indeed, none of his questions received direct answers, although Wyden did receive promises from officials to get back to him by specific deadlines. Wyden also cited several incidents in which officials had given inaccurate testimony in public hearings. Last March, for example, James Clapper told Wyden that the NSA did “not wittingly” collect data on American citizens, a claim we now know from the Snowden leaks to be false.
In some cases, officials may not be telling legislators anything at all. “There are certain things that the committees are simply not going to find out about unless they’re briefed,” said Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. According to law, the executive branch must keep the intelligence committees “fully and currently informed” of any intelligence activity, including significant anticipated activity. But recent history suggests that even committee chairs have not been kept abreast. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and has become one of the NSA’s closest congressional allies, has admitted that her committee “was not satisfactorily informed” about certain surveillance activities, in particular the tapping of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone.
The reauthorization of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which the NSA says provides legal grounds for collecting Americans’ phone records in bulk, presents another case in which Congress appears to have had insufficient information to determine whether intelligence activities were lawful. In a report released last Friday, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board explained that the FISC did not articulate the legal basis for bulk collection until last August—years after Congress extended Section 215 in 2010 and 2011. This indicates that lawmakers may not have been properly informed of how the statute was being applied when they extended it. Ultimately, the board argued that Section 215 is not written in a way that justifies bulk data collection at all, but it said that even if the language were ambiguous, some members of Congress “may have been prohibited from reading” critical documents before voting to maintain Section 215.
One explanation for these gaps is the institutional mismatch between the intelligence community and the congressional committees. “The intelligence committees are small, the staff is small, the agencies themselves are behemoth,” said Schiff. In the House, members are not permitted to have their own staff on the committee, and some have described feeling inadequately prepared to question intelligence officials. “You don’t have any idea what kind of things are going on. So you have to start just spitting off random questions: Does the government have a moon base? Does the government have a talking bear? Does the government have a cyborg army?” Representative Justin Amash said in October at a conference hosted by the Cato Institute.
The administration says Congress is duly informed, while other lawmakers have suggested it’s their colleagues’ own fault if they aren’t up to speed. Clapper reaffirmed promises of greater transparency on Wednesday, but critics remain skeptical. “I don’t think this culture of misinformation is going to be easily fixed,” Wyden warned. Representative Schiff told me that he expects the mismatch in resources to continue to impact the committees’ oversight ability. “I’d like to see our capacities augmented in the intelligence committee, but at a time of dwindling legislative budgets, I’m not sure whether that will take place,” he said.
Congress could reassert some of its own authority by including more members in the group briefed on significant intelligence activity, for example; by shortening the authorization period for laws like the Patriot Act to spur more frequent debate; by imposing a rule of lenity on the FISA court, so that the administration would have to receive congressional approval in ambiguous cases, thus preventing the FISA court from creating its own novel interpretations of law; and by making sure FISA judges hear adversarial opinions from civil liberties and technology experts. Whether Congress has the will to strengthen its own hand is the big question. The fact that the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, believes that “you can’t have your privacy violated if you don’t know your privacy is violated” does not exactly inspire confidence.
These questions about oversight can and should be separated from the debate about the legality and effectiveness of individual surveillance programs. “It may well be, at the end of the day, that the programs the committees are overseeing are legal, but meaningful oversight presupposes that the overseers will be the last, not the first, to reach that conclusion,” said Vladeck. The decision about whether the government or anyone else may continue to sweep up and search our phone records is important. Without addressing broader oversight issues, however, we may barely scratch the surface of a much-needed conversation about balance of power in the post-9/11 era.
Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on what Obama didn’t say in his speech on NSA spying
Women in Louisiana could lose all access to abortion services if the state succeeds in enacting a secretive overhaul of its clinic regulations. The requirements are so stringent that not one of the five clinics currently operating in Louisiana would meet them, according to a lawyer advising the clinics. The new regulatory framework would also impose a de facto thirty-day waiting period for many women—an exceptional requirement.
“What it amounts to is a back-door abortion ban,” said Ellie Schilling, a New Orleans attorney. “The way the [Department of Health and Hospitals] went about passing these regulations was in a secretive and undemocratic way. The public definitely doesn’t know what’s going on.”
DHH enacted the overhaul just before Thanksgiving, when it passed the rules as an emergency measure, effective immediately—exempting them from the normal comment period. None of the clinics were given notice; one heard about the declaration of emergency from an anti-abortion protester.
It isn’t clear what emergency the agency was responding to. There has been virtually no reporting on the new rules, and DHH did not respond to questions submitted Monday. The Declaration of Emergency states that the agency proposed the licensing standards in order to comply with two acts passed by the Louisiana legislature in 2013, but a complete overhaul goes well beyond their demands. DHH formally declared its intentions to make the emergency rules permanent in December.
According to Schilling, the law gives the agency the ability to shut down every existing clinic in Louisiana immediately by imposing new space requirements that none of the existing clinics meets. Providers would lose some of their rights to appeal noncompliance citations, while new and complex documentation and staffing requirements create more opportunities for DHH to cite clinics for deficiencies. “Deficiencies are used to create this impression of clinics being repeat offenders, and that’s a basis for revoking their license,” explained Schilling.
The regulatory overhaul would also give the state tools to prevent new clinics from getting a license. Proposed facilities—like a $4.2 million Planned Parenthood health center on South Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans—would have to prove to DHH that their services are needed; it’s unclear what criteria the agency would use to determine need. “It certainly seems that one intention is to prohibit Planned Parenthood from entering the market,” Schilling said. (Planned Parenthood clinics in Louisiana do not currently offer abortion services. “We are evaluating all our options” in light of the regulations, a spokesperson said.)
The new rules place a significant, unjustified burden on women by requiring that they undergo blood tests at least one month before an abortion procedure. That means that unless a patient happens to have gone to the doctor previously and had those tests done by chance, she will face a mandatory thirty-day waiting period.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s pretty outrageous,” said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a women’s health policy group.
Louisiana already has a twenty-week cutoff, and so the waiting period could dramatically shorten the window in which women are legally allowed to have abortions. There is no medical rationale for conducting those particular tests so far in advance; they are routinely conducted by providers prior to an abortion, and legislation passed in 2003 that tightened the laws governing Louisiana’s abortion providers stipulated that they had to be done within thirty days of the procedure. To the contrary, forcing women to delay the procedures increases their expense, and raise the risk of complications.
Dozens of other states have passed waiting periods or regulations, known as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP laws, which single out abortion providers with burdensome rules. But Nash said that a de facto thirty-day waiting period combined with requiring clinics to prove need for their services makes Louisiana’s law striking. “It’s a great way to eliminate access,” said Nash.
All that’s stopping the state from completing the overhaul, Schilling said, is going through the motions of a public hearing. One is scheduled for Wednesday morning in Baton Rouge, but bad weather threatens to cancel it. It isn’t clear if the state would hold another hearing, as it was already scheduled at the very end of the comment period. Legal challenges would surely follow, but as Nash warned, rolling back clinic regulations in the courts is challenging.
“As it is right now, you have to go to the major cities to have procedure done. If these clinics close, where will the patients go? Then what are we back to? Back street abortions?” said Missy Cuevas, who is fighting a legal battle with the state after her New Orleans clinic lost its license a little over a year ago. With more than two decades of work in women’s health, Cueva has seen the burden on Louisiana women grow as regulators clamp down. Five to ten women still call every day looking for services, even though she’s been closed for so long.
“If we make it any more difficult, where are the patients going to go—Houston? Atlanta? My patients can’t afford to go to Baton Rouge from New Orleans, much less to Houston or Atlanta. It’s going to force women to go back to what they used to do before, and women will die.”
UPDATE: On Monday night, DHH press secretary Olivia Watkins informed The Nation that the agency would rescind the language regarding the 30-day period for blood tests. Watkins also said the rule would be revised to clarify that square footage requirements apply only to new or rennovated faciltities. A public hearing regarding the rule changes will take place in February.
Read Next:Zoë Carpenter on the Republican Party’s unbending anti-abortion agenda
Turns out the Republican Party is not embracing a more moderate platform after all.
Consider this week’s case study, abortion. Anti-choice legislation “remains a top priority for me and my colleagues,” majority leader Eric Cantor announced to a frozen crowd of 25,000 at the March for Life, an annual rally on the National Mall. Cantor said he’ll rush to hold a vote next week on the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which would deny abortion coverage to women insured through Medicaid, and could require the IRS to audit rape victims.
Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, paused the RNC’s annual meeting on Wednesday and arranged for bus transportation so members could attend the rally. Meanwhile, fifteen RNC members introduced a resolution urging Republican candidates to make anti-choice policies a prominent part of the GOP’s platform.
“The Republican National Committee urges all Republican pro-life candidates, consultants, and other national Republican Political Action Committees to reject a strategy of silence on the abortion issue when candidates are attacked with ‘war on women’ rhetoric,” reads the resolution. Committee members will vote on that principle on Friday.
After voters punished anti-choice candidates in 2012 and 2013—most memorably Senate hopeful Todd Aiken, who said that in cases of “a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”—there was some reason to expect the GOP to talk less frequently and more quietly about abortion. Reince Priebus himself penned an autopsy of the 2012 elections in which he didn’t mention abortion explicitly but warned, “When it comes to social issues, the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming. If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.”
Republicans are now signaling that they will reinvigorate anti-abortion messaging in the midterms. In a one-two punch designed to fire up both the religious right and anti-government conservatives, Republicans are harnessing anti-Obamacare furor to reframe the abortion debate, arguing that the healthcare law appropriates billions of taxpayer dollars for federally funded abortions and infringes on religious freedom to boot. This message is directed at boosting turnout from the base, particularly in conservative states where Democratic senators are facing tough re-election campaigns. The GOP will look to female candidates, in particular, to press an anti-abortion platform more forcefully, according to party spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. Several outspoken abortion opponents have launched primary bids for Senate seats, including Karen Handel in Georgia, Joni Ernst in Iowa, Jo Rae Perkins in Oregon, and Nancy Mace, who is challenging Lindsey Graham for his seat in South Carolina.
Reproductive rights advocates welcome the fight. “I think politically, it’s a disaster for any politician to be trying to take away rights for women,” Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, told me. In the past three years, legislators have been astoundingly successful at rolling back those rights through a wave of restrictive clinic regulations, ultrasound requirements and other measures that make it more difficult for women to get abortions (NARAL Pro-Choice America recently gave the United States a D in its annual report card for reproductive freedom). But they haven’t necessarily trumpeted those efforts, and instead forced legislation through in special sessions or as riders on unrelated bills. As Richards pointed out, 80 percent of Texans opposed moves by Governor Rick Perry to push new abortion restrictions in a special session. “These politicians don’t represent the will of the people,” Richards said. “They’re feeling empowered to legislate on issues that the American people don’t support and I think at the end of the day, they’re gonna pay the price at the ballot box.”
NARAL president (and a blogger for TheNation.com) Ilyse Hogue told me last week that forcing these politicians to be upfront about and campaign on an anti-choice platform may in fact be the key to defeating them. In Virginia’s gubernatorial election last year, for example, Democrats and pro-choice groups attacked Republican Ken Cuccinelli for opposing abortion even in cases of rape and incest. He lost, with exit polling indicating that his anti-choice positions fueled the opposition.
The argument expressed in the RNC resolution—that an explicit anti-abortion platform is an asset, not a liability—gets to the heart of the broader conflict within the GOP as it considers its future in a country growing younger and more diverse: whether to rely on extreme messaging to whip up the party faithful, or to make softer gestures to a wider swathe of the electorate, and risk alienating the base.
“I don’t know that it’s something the Republican Party should be concerned with—‘Oh, we shouldn’t be pro-life because we want to get votes,’” said Eliot Schwer, a Republican who came from Omaha to the March for Life. “They should be following their own consciences, like, ‘What do I believe? What am I actually convinced of,’ you know?”
Pressure for the party to remain true to its principles has won out in the year since Priebus published his autopsy calling for a more forward-looking platform, from the government shutdown to the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which John Boehner refuses to bring up for a vote in the House. Recent overtures on poverty, as well as murmurs from House Republicans about piecemeal immigration reform have rekindled some hopes for conservative reform, but nothing concrete indicates that looming midterm fights have strengthened moderates. To the contrary, a report published Wednesday by Americans United for Change found that congressional Republicans facing competitive races this year voted with the Tea Party 81 percent of the time in 2013.
In explaining her calls for the GOP to “reject a strategy of silence on the abortion issue,” Republican committeewoman Ellen Barrosse told CNN, “Not talking about it has not worked well for us.” She continued, “It’s a conversation the party has to have.” Her point is valid: conservative candidates will be attacked (rightly) for pursuing an agenda to deny basic rights and healthcare to American women and families, and they’ll need to respond. There are structural reasons—gerrymandering, big money politics—why holding the hardline on abortion might not be the obvious political trap it seems given broad popular support for the rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade. Still, it should be a hard conversation to win.
Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on pro-choice advocates plan to focus at state level policy.
Andy Shallal, a restaurant owner and activist, has racked up a few high high-profile endorsements since he launched his bid for mayor of Washington, DC, less than two months ago. Lethal Weapon star Danny Glover, for one, who appeared at a community meeting in the Anacostia neighborhood with Shallal in early January. George Pelecanos, a local crime novelist who wrote parts of The Wire and Treme, is supporting Shallal, too.
But a better reflection of the kind of race that Shallal is running are the two dozen young people that he has hired to staff his campaign. They’re from DC’s Wards 7 and 8, where the official unemployment rate is about 14 and 22 percent, respectively; where only four in ten high school freshmen will graduate; and more than a third of the residents are poor. Some of Shallal’s youth staff are students. Some are working. Others have criminal records and are on probation. It’s an underdog alliance, with Shallal judged as likely to succeed as his young staffers.
“I just had to get with it. I think he’s gonna change things,” said James Wood, one of the youth squad leaders, about his decision to work for Shallal. “One thing that I was happy about hearing from him is when he said that ‘I’m not in it for the salary. I’m in it to help these people in Ward 8.’ Because it’s like everybody’s trying to push people from Ward 8, Ward 7, and 6 out. That ain’t gonna help nobody. You’re trying to change our city for the next people, when it’s supposed to be developed for us.”
Gentrification, jobs, failing schools, soaring income inequality, racial disenfranchisement—these are the issues animating the Democratic primary, which takes place April 1. Shallal is one of eight candidates in a field that includes the incumbent, Vincent Gray, as well as four current city council members.
With several of the establishment candidates weighed down by ethics inquiries, what most distinguishes Shallal is his outsider status. He is an antiwar activist, an Iraqi immigrant and the owner of Busboys and Poets, an expanding chain of restaurants that offer employees “exceptional” wage and benefit packages, and serve as community hubs for activists and artists. He serves on the board of the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank dedicated to progressive activism and inquiry. His activist bonafides include his being arrested for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House, and serving vegan bean soup to Occupy protestors.
It isn’t only Shallal’s background that’s unusual. In his vision for the city, Shallal differentiates himself by prioritizing the city’s most vulnerable—the working poor, teenage dropouts, citizens returning from prison.
“Our politicians like to count cranes, and high rises—how many cranes do you have now?” he asked the audience in Anacostia. “Forty-nine,” someone in the audience called back. “But they forget to count the things that really matter, and what really matters are the people. They’ve been left in the shadows of those cranes, and in the shadows of those high rises, and they’ve become invisible,” Shallal said, over a low chorus of that’s right and yes, sir and scattered applause. “This is Ralph Ellison time, folks!”
Shallal was speaking at a Baptist church, beneath a thirty-foot mural of the Last Supper that depicted the disciples as civil rights leaders, including Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. “Everything that happens in this city has a race overlay,” Shallal told the audience. “Whether you’re running for mayor, whether you’re talking about schools, whether you’re talking about gentrification, whether you’re talking about affordable housing, whether you’re talking about public safety, race is at the front and center.” Later, Shallal told me that he thought talking about race was an “essential” first step in taking on what he sees as the city’s most pressing issues, namely housing, education and economic development.
“There are too many people who are spending way too much of their income on their housing, and I think that’s where you have to begin,” Shall told me. He proposes to raise the percentage of housing units that developers must set aside for low to moderate earners under the city’s inclusionary zoning law when they build large residential buildings. He wants to reinvigorate public housing projects too. “I think we’ve given public housing really bad name by doing it very badly, and I think at some level you really need to have some foundational homes for people that are just coming out of poverty, or trying to get out of poverty,” he argued, adding that the shelter system has become “a warehouse for families.”
When it comes to education, the first thing on Shallal’s list is to halt school closures, which have disproportionately impacted low income and minority children in the District. Shallal was unsparing in his assessment of DC’s education system, noting that the city has some of the highest dropout and illiteracy rates in the country. But he doesn’t see school closures as the answer to the problem. “There’s no such thing as a failing school. It’s our responsibility to make it succeed,” he said at the community meeting. Instead of focusing on “choice,” Shallal wants to make sure there are good schools in every neighborhood. He has new curricular ideas too, like embedding a six-week life skills course into middle schools, and turning the final year of high school into a civics crash-course.
Shallal’s vision also includes free public transportation for seniors, marijuana decriminalization and a living wage standard. He proposed easing the property tax burden for elderly residents to help them keep their homes. He’d like the city to make more micro-grants available to small businesses to spur development. He’s said the city should encourage small-scale, local projects—community centers, arts collaboratives, start-up incubators—rather than big ticket items like sports stadiums.
I asked Shallal whether he drew any lessons from Bill de Blasio’s successful mayoral campaign in New York City. He was careful not to paint himself into a corner, and emphasized the success he’s had as a small businessman. “Yes, de Blasio’s progressive agenda would be very similar to mine, I would probably agree with that,” Shallal said. “But I think I would also bring a bit of Bloomberg into the picture, because I do have business acumen as well. It’s useful to see the perspective of how to run a city in a way that is fiscally responsible and fiscally sound, and at the same time make a city work for everybody.”
Shallal has his work cut out for him. His vision is distinct from candidates like Jack Evans, a twenty-two-year veteran of the city council who prioritizes big downtown developments and faces ethics questions related to his use of campaign funds, and Mayor Gray, himself subject of an ethics investigation and widely criticized by the left for continuing the Michelle Rhee–era education reforms. Several of the candidates have records that undercut their progressive rhetoric; for example, Gray and city council members Muriel Bowser and Tommy Well blocked a living wage increase last fall that would have affected large retailers like Walmart.
But Shallal is lesser-known, and with many candidates also talking about inequality, gentrification, affordable housing and wage increases, Shallal’s challenge is to convince voters that he has a record and policy agenda that renders his progressivism more than talk. In a poll taken in early January, Shallal finished with only 5 percent of the vote. He shrugged it off as too early to mean much. “I think for us, this is when the campaign really started,” he said. “Once people really hear the message, I think they’re hungry for it.”
Other politicians have noted that hunger, and with midterm campaigns underway nationwide, many are test driving the language of economic populism. But their policy prescriptions aren’t always ambitious, or even new. The mayoral race in DC will likely illuminate this tension between style and substance; between rhetorical support for the working poor and practical subservience to special interests.
“I always tell people: Look, you can vote for the same people over and over again, and expect different results, but that’s insanity, that’s not how things happen,” Shallal said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make a choice that’s different.”
Read Next: John Nichols on the new Socialist member of Seattle’s city council.
The most illuminating sentences of the speech on intelligence reform that President Obama delivered Friday morning were the first:
At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the ‘The Sons of Liberty’ was established in Boston. The group’s members included Paul Revere, and at night they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots. Throughout American history, intelligence has helped secure our country and our freedoms.
The choice to begin the speech with an homage to spying—however noble—reflects the practical decision that the president announced: to embrace much of the surveillance activity conducted in the name of national security, while accepting a series of modest reforms that civil liberties advocates greeted as but a first step to curbing the National Security Agency.
The reforms that will likely get the most attention affect the telephone metadata program, which is authorized under section 215 of the Patriot Act. The president said he will end this program “as it currently exists,” by giving the intelligence community two months to develop “alternative approaches” that nevertheless preserve the metadata dragnet. He ordered more immediate constraints on the call records program, too. The FISA court must now approve every query, and analysts will only be able to trace numbers two “hops” from an initial suspect, instead of three.
The really significant parts of Obama’s speech were the things he did not mention. He did not call for a full stop to the bulk collection of communication records, only a transfer of ownership. Instead, he endorsed the idea that data about millions of Americans should be stored and made available to intelligence analysts. Tellingly, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Mike Rogers, the NSA’s most ardent and prominent supporters in the Capitol, applauded the president for affirming that using metadata “is a capability that is ‘critical’ and must be ‘preserved.’”
Even given the new hurdles the government will face in querying the data, its collection alone poses serious privacy questions, as civil liberties advocates have been quick to point out. “The president’s decision not to end bulk collection and retention of all Americans’ data remains highly troubling,” the ACLU said in a statement. “The president should end—not mend—the government’s collection and retention of all law-abiding Americans’ data. When the government collects and stores every American’s phone call data, it is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the Constitution.”
The president did not articulate a specific reason why this information needs to be collected and stored. His own intelligence review panel found that it serves no essential counterterrorism purpose. On the other hand, the same panel (among others) emphasized the intrusiveness of bulk data collection. Quoting Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor the panel explained, “telephone data can reveal ‘a wealth of detail’ about an individual’s ‘familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.’”
Obama omitted much in the historical justifications he offered up, too. Explaining the genesis of the telephone metadata program, Obama said:
The program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 9/11. One of the 9/11 hijackers—Khalid al-Mihdhar—made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaeda safe-house in Yemen. NSA saw that call, but could not see that it was coming from an individual already in the United States. The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible.
In fact, we know that al-Mihdar could have been located well before 9/11. The problem wasn’t a lack of information—it was the fact that intelligence agencies failed to share information with one another.
Still, the phone records program is only one of the many disclosed by Edward Snowden. The president failed to say anything about other types of data collection carried out under Executive Order 12333, which the NSA uses to vacuum up data flowing from Internet servers and information from Americans’ digital address books. He did not address the NSA’s attempts to weaken encryption technologies, a practice that has deeply alarmed US Internet companies. Nor did the president announce substantive changes to dragnet surveillance programs conducted under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which contains a loophole allowing the NSA to search for information about US citizens through their international communications. There was no mention of Dishfire, the latest NSA program to be disclosed, which sweeps up “pretty much everything it can.”
Obama made a few important acknowledgements of the potential for abuse inherent in surveillance programs, but he painted a seriously misleading picture of the NSA’s recent history when he said that he’s learned nothing that “indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.” In 2009, the FISA court argued that the privacy protocols set for the phone records program had been “so frequently and systematically violated that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall…regime has never functioned effectively.” In 2011, the chief judge of the FISA court found that the NSA had, for three years, operated in violation of the Constitution by gathering and searching the contents of tens of thousands of Internet communications sent by Americans, and had repeatedly misled the court about its activities. NSA employees have used surveillance programs to spy on their spouses and exes.
It is not surprising that the president chose to defend rather than challenge the intelligence establishment. He has done so consistently since the first of the Snowden documents came out. Much of what he outlined today are not specific reforms, and instead directives for transparency; assurances to foreigners that they will not be spied on; and further reviews, notably a broad consideration of big data and privacy to be led by adviser John Podesta.
Obama did do something of potentially great significance today: open the door for others to make the big changes that he won’t.
That task now rests with Congress. Obama requested that lawmakers engage on several fronts, most critically in creating an independent panel of privacy and technology experts to inform decisions made by the FISA court, and to consider whether there should be judicial review before the FBI can issue National Security Letters to obtain communication and financial records from business. And many of the most vocal privacy advocates from both parties in Congress have made it clear that they will not stop there.
“In the wake of these announcements, Congress has important tasks ahead. The President has ordered some significant changes, but more are needed,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the Judiciary Committee and one of the sponsors of reform legislation. “Section 215 must still be amended, legislatively, to ensure it is not used for dragnet surveillance in the future, and we must fight to create an effective, institutional advocate at the FISA court.”
“We also believe that additional surveillance reforms are necessary, and we will continue to push for these reforms in the coming weeks and months,” Senators Udall, Wyden, and Heinrich said in a joint statement. “I intend to continue the fight to restore Americans rights,” said Rand Paul. “The American people should not expect the fox to guard the hen house.”
If Obama’s speech is a first step, it’s worth thinking about what forced him to make it, beyond the obvious (Edward Snowden). According to reports, it was not so much the programs revealed by Snowden that shocked the president but instead the public outcry that followed. It’s going take a lot more of the same to move the heavy feet of government further.
Read Next: Peter Van Buren debunks ten myths about the NSA.
A bid to slap Iran with a new round of economic sanctions appears to have stalled in the Senate, after leading Democrats amplified concern about the threat such a move poses to a fragile diplomatic process.
Early in the week, reports that a bill introduced by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez was within striking distance of a veto-proof majority cast a shadow over news that negotiators had finalized a temporary agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear program, beginning Monday. New sanctions would likely kill negotiations for a final deal, the White House warned lawmakers, and increase the chances of an armed conflict with Iran.
But Senate majority leader Harry Reid has given no indication that he will bring the bill up for a vote, and the pressure to do so is falling now that top Democrats have intensified opposition to the proposed legislation. The Kirk-Menendez bill gained no new endorsements this week, and even one supportive senator admitted Wednesday to a break in momentum.
Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Intelligence Committee, called the sanctions bill "a march towards war" on Tuesday in a floor speech that was remarkable in detail and force. “I deeply believe that a vote for this legislation will cause negotiations to collapse,” Feinstein said, after thoroughly rebutting many of the claims about the interim deal put forth by the bill’s supporters. “The United States, not Iran, then becomes the party that risks fracturing the international coalition that has enabled our sanctions to succeed in the first place.”
Ten committee chairs circulated a joint statement warning that “new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.” Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Tim Kaine of Virginia said they opposed the measure at this point. Even one of the co-sponsors of the Kirk-Menendez bill, Richard Blumenthal, indicated that the time wasn’t right for a vote. “I want to talk to some of my colleagues. I’m encouraged and heartened by the apparent progress and certainly the last thing I want to do is impede that progress,” he said on Monday.
Major newspapers condemned the bill, including theNew York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post, whose editorial board often betrays a neoconservative streak. More than sixty organizations including J Street, the National Iranian Council, American Baptist Churches, and CREDO delivered a letter to the Senate on Tuesday stating that the law “sets insurmountable demands for a comprehensive nuclear deal” and would “critically endanger the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff with Iran, increasing the likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran and an unnecessary and costly war.”
The Kirk-Menendez bill has 58 co-sponsors, and the very real chance that it would pass the Senate if given a vote remains concerning. But it’s important to note that rumors that the legislation has enough support to override a potential veto comes from its backers, and so warrant some skepticism. Although 16 Democratics co-sponsored the legislation, the sanctions push has grown increasingly partisan, with Republicans nearly unanimous in their support. Of the 25 senators who have signed on to the bill this year, only one is a Democrat.
The gorilla in the room is the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, which has been calling for new sanctions for months. Of the 16 Democrats who have endorsed the Kirk-Menendez legislation, several are up for re-election in closely contested states; Senator Kirk himself suggested Tuesday that a vote for new sanctions would be an opportunity for lawmakers to shore up support from the powerful lobby. “The great thing, since we represent a nationwide community — the pro-Israel community is going to be heavily present in most states — this is a chance for senators to go back and tell them, ‘I’m with you,’” Kirk said. Other Democrats pushing for the bill have close ties with the group, particularly Chuck Schumer and Cory Booker.
Tellingly, the Kirk-Menendez bill states that if Israel takes "military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapons program,” the US "should stand with Israel and provide…diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence." The language is nonbinding, but it raises flags about whose interests the legislation would truly serve.
Dianne Feinstein addressed this point more directly than perhaps any other politician so far. “While I recognize and share Israel’s concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the US goes to war,” she said. “By stating that the US should provide military support to Israel should it attack Iran, I fear that is exactly what this bill will do.”
Such outspokenness about the relationship between US policymaking in the Middle East and Israeli interests is remarkable. But other lawmakers are signalling that they too are shrugging off the lobby: Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, normally a high-profile ally for AIPAC, reportedly argued against the Kirk-Menendez bill at a White House meeting attended by several dozen of her colleagues on Wednesday night. How things play out in the next week, and in the duration of the talks with Iran, will be a good test of AIPAC’s influence, which seemed diminished when Congress considered military strikes in Syria last year. Progressives claimed a victory when diplomacy prevailed then; as Peter Beinart points out, the current debate presents a real opportunity for the anti-war left to reassert itself, not only to punish lawmakers who start wars, but to set new expectations for a diplomacy-first approach.
Feinstein asked a good question in the opening of her speech: “Can, in fact, a country like Iran change?” Congress is now weighing whether to double down on a fourth decade of economic screw-tightening when it comes to Iran, a tack that looks increasingly untenable. What’s really being asked is whether things can change at home.
Read Next: Robert Scheer on the 1953 CIA-supported coup in Iran.
Three years ago, when he was elected governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback promised to sign any anti-abortion bill that landed on his desk. He’s kept his word, signing a handful restrictive measures to force doctors to give medically unsound information to their patients, impose crippling licensing requirements on clinics and divert funds from health providers to crisis pregnancy centers, among other things.
Now, Brownback is facing a re-election campaign that looks decidedly tougher than most expected, and pro-choice activists are eyeing the race as they seek to reverse the momentum of anti-choice laws sweeping the states. Some early polls show Brownback trailing his Democratic challenger, a little-known state representative named Paul Davis who has voted against many of the anti-choice bills.
“Even if Governor Brownback is put on defense because of his abortion stance, that would matter significantly,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America (and a blogger for TheNation.com). “There’s a perception that because Kansas is deep red, he’s safe as an anti-choice politician.”
Instead, pro-choice advocates will try to make positions like Governor Brownback’s a liability this year. NARAL plans to prioritize gubernatorial and states races where control of the legislature is closely contested, a decision that reflects that the decisive battles over abortion are now fought largely outside Washington. Nationally, the legal right to abortion remains intact. But women in many states are rapidly losing access on a practical level as state lawmakers force clinics out of business and require patients to jump through increasingly burdensome hoops.
States passed fifty-three laws restricting abortion last year, according to the twenty-third edition of NARAL’s report “Who Decides? The Status of Women’s Reproductive Rights in the United States,” which was released Tuesday. They include outright bans on abortion after as little as six weeks of pregnancy, as well as measures to impose crippling restrictions on providers, defund family planning centers, prohibit insurers from covering abortion and force women to undergo biased counseling or delays. Since 1995, states have passed more than 800 anti-abortion measures.
In many recent cases, conservatives have concealed anti-choice provisions within unrelated bills, and then pushed them through at the last minute or in special sessions. In North Carolina, legislators cut insurance coverage for abortion and tightened rules on clinics by inserting the measures into a motorcycle safety bill on the final day of the legislative session. Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a slew of stringent provisions into law after they were attached to the state’s budget bill. Texas lawmakers needed multiple special sessions to pass a sweeping anti-abortion package that included a ban on abortions after twenty weeks and regulations that forced a third of the state’s clinics to close suddenly.
Concerted efforts to disguise anti-abortion measures partially accounts for their success even while Americans remain broadly supportive of the rights affirmed in Roe v. Wade, said Donna Crane, NARAL vice president for public policy, at a press conference this morning. “They’ve learned that their opinions are unpopular, so they obfuscate them,” said Crane.
Crance said the other key factor is how effectively conservatives have manipulated the levers of power, winning control of statehouses and governors’ seats across the country with the aid of outside money. Anti-choice governors now outnumber pro-choice governors twenty-nine to sixteen.
“When we see individual voters suppressed, the first thing that gets thrown under the bus is women’s rights,” said Crane. In Arkansas, for example, the GOP won full control of the legislature in 2012, propelled by a flood of cash from Americans for Prosperity, a Super PAC funded by the Koch brothers. Lawmakers proceeded to pass what was then the most restrictive abortion bill in the country, barring the procedure from twelve weeks onward. Seven other anti-abortion measures passed in the state last year, more than in any other.
States may have become the laboratory for advancing an anti-choice agenda, but Hogue said they also present the best opportunity for turning the tide. Although NARAL has yet to identify specific races to target Hogue expects to mount a full political program including media and field campaigns in as many as half a dozen states, and to be involved in dozens of others. Exposing anti-choice incumbents who try to repackage themselves in light of the GOP’s efforts to rebrand itself more women-friendly will likely be a key strategy. Nineteen anti-choice governors are up for re-election, including Sam Brownback.
“Would beating him be the holy grail? For sure, but part of the way we shift momentum is forcing these anti-choice extremist who hold political office to actually run on and defend anti-choice records,” Hogue told me. “Reversing this trend is a long-term game,” she said at the press conference. “It’s going to take several cycles to take hold.”
Republican Senator Marco Rubio has discovered “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty,” which he shared in a speech on Wednesday: “It’s called marriage.”
So much for the GOP’s much-hyped pivot to poverty backed by bold new policy specifics. Speaking at the Capitol, Rubio took the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty as an opportunity to assail the tyranny of the federal government, and to call for a dismantling of the safety net in exchange for a fuller embrace of “the American free enterprise system.”
“I am proposing that we turn Washington’s anti-poverty programs—and the trillions spent on them—over to the states,” Rubio said. It’s easy to guess how well that would work out by studying what happened after the Supreme Court ruled that states could decide whether to accept millions in federal funding to expand their Medicaid programs: states controlled by conservatives largely opted out, ensuring that 5 million low-income people would remain uninsured and vulnerable to catastrophic medical expenses.
Rubio criticized efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, saying that it is not a “solution” for economic inequality. True, but has anyone claimed it is? “The only solution that will achieve meaningful and lasting results is to provide those who are stuck in low-paying jobs the real opportunity to move up to better paying jobs,” Rubio said, an opportunity that could be created by giving states “flexibility” to “put in place programs that give those currently stuck in low-wage jobs access to a job training system.”
Job training is fine, but neither vocational schools nor Rubio’s one big new policy idea—replacing the earned income tax credit with subsidies to low-income workers—addresses the fundamental driver of the unemployment crisis: the fact that the economy is not producing jobs on par with the number of people looking for them. Still, income subsidies are a surprising idea coming from Rubio, given how frequently Republicans decry “handouts.” The subsidies, Rubio said, “would allow an unemployed individual to take a job that pays, say, $18,000 a year—which on its own is not enough to make ends meet—but then receive a federal enhancement to make the job a more enticing alternative to collecting unemployment insurance.”
To be fair, Rubio does have a proposal for job creation—it just isn’t new: gut regulations and the tax code, and crank up austerity measures. The fact that these ideas have been in play for years is helpful in assessing Rubio’s claim that he wants to “address the causes of opportunity inequality, not just the consequences.” A nice goal, but recent history suggests his proposals would do the opposite.
UPDATE: I spoke with Sharon Parrot, vice president for budget policy and economic opportunity at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, about Rubio’s proposal for replacing the Earned Income Tax Credit with wage subsidies. Parrot said that unless the transition to a wage subsidy program included a significant spending increase, the result of the swap would be an increase in child poverty. That’s because the EITC mainly benefits families and is very restricted for childless adults, whereas Rubio implied his wage subsidies would apply to everyone below a certain threshold. It’s certainly a problem that the EITC is so restricted for singles, but without more spending “the only way to make the math work is to shift large amounts of money from low-income families.” Preserving the credit for families (and increasing it for childless adults) is important, Parrot said, not only because it reduces poverty, but also because it’s been shown to provide the incentive to work that Rubio called for.
Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson announced a “War on Poverty,” a majority of Americans believe that persistent economic hardship is the result of a broken economy, not of personal or government failures. They broadly agree that the government has a responsibility to use its resources to fight poverty, and should pursue a target of reducing it by half over the next decade.
Those are the conclusions of a public opinion survey published Tuesday by the Center for American Progress. The report assessed perceptions of poverty in general, as well as opinions of the War on Poverty in retrospect and of policy proposals on the table now. As lawmakers move to cut benefits and refuse to consider serious investments in the economy, in education and in healthcare, the survey is another reminder that those are precisely the investments people want the government to make.
News of falling unemployment, a rising stock market and an end to the recession hasn’t shaken the public’s perception that a vast proportion of Americans can’t meet their basic needs. In fact, Americans see poverty as being far more widely spread than the government does. Asked what percentage of their fellow Americans were living in poverty, the average guess was 39 percent—a sharp rise from the official estimate of 15 percent. Poverty is also a common personal experience, with more than half of respondents reporting that they knew someone who was poor.
When it comes to equality of opportunity, a majority of Americans don’t believe that poor Americans face a level playing field. And when forced to choose between core arguments about the roots of American poverty—that it stems from a flawed economic system, or from personal failings—nearly two-thirds agreed with the structural argument.
At the heart of opposition to safety net programs is the idea that poor Americans are undeserving of assistance, and that they are poor because they are lazy. It turns out that very few Americans polled by CAP support this core principle. Nearly 80 percent agreed that “most people living in poverty are decent people who are working hard to make ends meet in a difficult economy,” including 66 percent of white conservatives and libertarians. The poll showed nearly equal agreement across race and party lines on the point that a shortage of jobs with good wages is the primary reason for poverty in America, and that the poor receive unfair criticism.
Still, the welfare-queen archetype endures: even while agreeing that laziness is not the cause of poverty, a majority of respondents said that poor Americans abuse government programs. And yet people appear to believe they’re worthwhile anyway. Several progressive policy proposals, including expansions of the safety net, received at least 80 percent total support: financial assistance for childcare, an expansion of nutrition assistance, universal pre-K, more publically funded scholarships, and increasing the minimum wage.
Similarly, more Americans reported a negative association with the term “War on Poverty” than positive, but the perception shifted after the programs made possible by President Johnson’s war were sketched out for them. Then, a whopping 86 percent agreed that the government should use its resources to fight poverty, and 61 percent said the War on Poverty has made at least some positive difference.
We’re sure to hear much this week about the disappointments of Johnson’s war, but that’s simply a convenient means of condemning any new investments in the economy, in education and in the safety net. As The Washington Post reported Tuesday, Republicans including Senators Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, who will speak separately on the subject on Wednesday, are struggling to put forward specific policies to back up their claims to care about the millions of Americans in economic distress. We’re likely to hear about school choice, “economic freedom zones,” and tax breaks for “job creators.” If some Republicans are distancing themselves from the old argument that personal failings cause poverty, it’s to assert that government failure is responsible instead.
But privatization is not a new policy, and it’s had countless failures of its own. When it comes to critical tests of their commitment to struggling Americans, Republicans fail again and again. Their refusal to back the expansion of Medicaid and an extension of unemployment benefits are pressing examples. Certainly Americans are concerned about the failings of government, but there are plenty of indications that such frustrations are more about what the government is not doing now than what it did fifty years ago. Even among Democrats, much of the economy talk remains focused the middle class, and lawmakers are loath to embrace any serious spending. But as the CAP poll suggests, many Americans have the appetite for an anti-poverty agenda driven by government investment. That lawmakers, both national and local, found the courage to fight for it could be the story of the year.