In the April 11, 1959 issue of The Nation, a young attorney named Ralph Nader took auto manufacturers to task for “glacier-like movement” in availing themselves of engineering solutions to minimize the deadly effects of car crashes. “Automobiles are so designed as to be dangerous at any speed,” he warned, testing out the line that evolved into the title of his groundbreaking 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed.
Fifty-five years later, Congress is investigating a new car safety scandal involving corporate malfeasance, regulatory ineptitude, and at least thirteen deaths. For more than a decade, General Motors was aware of an ignition switch defect that caused some cars to shut off, seemingly at random, disabling the power steering, the airbags, and other safety features. Not until February did GM begin to recall the affected models. The company has recalled more than 2.6 million vehicles so far, and is facing a congressional inquiry and a criminal probe. For it’s part, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, one of the most significant legacies of Nader’s campaign for consumer safety, appears to have failed to perform its oversight and enforcement duties, twice declining to investigate reports of the defects.
As GM CEO Mary Barra and NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman prepare to testify before Congress on Wednesday and Thursday, I spoke with Nader about the scandal, regulatory lapses, and the relationship between lawmakers and the auto industry.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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Zoë Carpenter: What do you think the GM scandal says about how far we’ve come to balance corporate power and consumer rights?
Ralph Nader: GM has done a lot of worse things and got away with it over the years. They blocked fuel efficiency standards with Michigan Representative John Dingell and others, they've blocked safety standards from NHTSA. However, this one has all the elements of a criminal cover-up. Criminal negligence at least, if not a pure criminal cover-up. As a result there is great potential for legislative reform to strengthen the antiquated motor vehicle and highways safety laws, bring them up to date, improve the recall authority, enlarge the fines, and increase the budget of NHTSA, which is absurdly low—deliberately low.
That's the problem with all of these regulatory agencies: almost nobody pays attention in the press to the tiny budgets. It's like having a street crime spree in New York City--arsons, burglary, assaults, and there's one hundred police. People would say, "You need more police!" Well, you need more federal cops in the corporate crime beat and that's true for all agencies. The corporate lawyers are very good about going up on Capitol Hill and making sure those budgets do not increase, even though they pay for themselves many times over with fines and penalties.
Is part of the problem the relationship between lawmakers and the auto industry?
Yeah! It's always been that way, and Dingell of course has undermined the Democrats. So you take the Republicans and John Dingell, you can't beat 'em. Dingell will bring in the United Auto Workers on fuel efficiency, for example. You can't beat a combination of GM, UAW, and John Dingell. He blocked the air bag for years. He was on the back of NHTSA all the time!
One problem is the trivial budgets [for regulatory agencies]. If you don't have investigators, prosecutors, other lawyers, engineers, you can't do justice to the safety laws. You just cannot keep up. Especially when the auto companies are expert at stonewalling you, giving money to lawmakers on the hill, hiring corporate law firms.
NHTSA is culpable in this GM ignition switch problem, for sure. They weren't alert enough, and there's a culture of timidity. It's a product of being browbeaten by Dingell, by the White House, by the lobbyists day after day, year after year, decade after decade. They get very squeamish about ordering recalls. Detroit has Washington pretty greased. They pick timid regulators who are engaged in on-the-job training and represent the auto industry after they leave the agencies.
Is this part of a larger problem with the revolving door in Washington?
Yeah, it's part of a larger problem.
You mentioned earlier that the GM case has the elements of a cover-up. What are some of the signs indicating that?
The first is they knew years ago about a deadly defect that could cause death and injury. Then they got reports of the deaths and injuries, and did nothing. Under law they were supposed to inform the government about it, and they did not do so. Then more deaths and injuries occurred, and they still did nothing. [General Motors CEO] Mary Barra says that she didn't learn about it until January 31! And she's the CEO. So the best view of what happened inside GM is bureaucracy—committees passing the buck to one another, nobody responsible, stifling whistleblowers.
This may well lead to an reorganization internally within GM. GM should put an independent ombudsman in place who can receive complaints from conscientious engineers early on, protect the anonymity of the engineer, and have direct access to the top executives of GM.
It's a great opportunity, actually. The only time the traffic and auto safety laws are strengthened is when there's a scandal. You've got the big enchilada here with GM.
And there's another thing: that GM might have released false information during this bankruptcy. They may unravel the bankruptcy again, and what we're pushing for is to reinstate all those liability suits by injured and dead people in GM cars. The bankruptcy created a new GM and an old GM. Old GM had no assets. New GM was filled with billions in taxpayer dollars and they immunized it from dozens and dozens of product liability lawsuits by families, which is really gross and unprecedented. And now that could be re-opened.
Here's what I think is going to happen: no auto company can continually be exposed day after day in the newspapers, because they're going to start losing credibility and start losing sales. So GM may enter into a grand settlement: they pay a huge fine to get the Justice Department and the Department of Transportation off their back, they recall all the cars, they allow the reinstatement of the liability suits, and they pledge that they'll reorganize inside GM, so that it doesn't happen again.
GM doesn’t want a criminal investigation. That would be devastating. Companies will do anything to avoid a trial. There are very few trials in the corporate crime area—shockingly few trials.
Notice that the auto safety law itself has no criminal penalty. We lost that battle in a huge struggle in the Senate back in 1966. Even for willful violation of NHTSA regulations, there is no criminal penalty. Where the criminal penalty comes in is in Title 18; if you lie to the government or do not report information as required to the government. So in one sense, GM is shielded by the absence of a criminal penalty under NHTSA. On the other hand, they are vulnerable under Title 18, because they didn’t report to NHTSA as they were required to, and they misled the agency.
A grand settlement along the lines you described, would that solve the problems with the regulatory agencies?
That’s a bigger challenge and that’s very important. It’s one thing to strengthen NHTSA, but if NHTSA is under a lot of political pressure from Dingell types and White House types it’s not going to mean that much. But it will mean something. No matter who’s president, no matter who’s on the Hill, if you doubled the recall authority of NHTSA, you’d get more recalls. You’ll still have political influence, but you’ll get more recalls, because there’d be more engineers and scientists.
Why all the attention now?
I think Mary Barra is a factor. They’re fascinated by this new woman, and how she’s going to handle it. That’s part of it. The second is that it’s such a simple thing to understand: don’t put anything on your keychain, otherwise you may lose your engine and your airbag will not deploy when you crash. It isn’t like it’s a complex handling problem or an engine problem or something like that.
The reason Congress is so interested in this is because of the media. Did you see The New York Times article saying the Cobalt was a “lemon?” GM can’t take that. It’s like a spilling sewer pipe. Once all this is in the press, other whistleblowers might start to emerge because they can get protective cover.
The media is racing on this. It’s just marvelous, after ten years of a news desert. Those of us in auto safety advocacy, we have to take advantage of this for reform—reform in NHTSA, and reform in the auto companies.
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For months now, as congressional Republicans have blocked repeated attempts to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed, as they’ve fought to deny low-income Americans access to health insurance, as they’ve advocated to cut tens of billions from the food stamp program, as they’ve resisted proposals to raise the minimum wage, they have simultaneously professed their commitment to American workers and the poor.
Senator Patty Murray put forth a new test of that commitment on Wednesday, by introducing legislation to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC is already one of the largest and most effective anti-poverty programs, rewarding low-wage earners for their work and lightening their tax burden. It’s also one of the very few specific anti-poverty policies Republicans have praised in recent months.
Murray’s bill, the “21st Century Worker Tax Cut Act,” would increase the maximum credit for childless adults and create a new tax deduction for families with two working parents. It's intended to complement the Democrats’ campaign for a higher minimum wage, and to force Republicans to take a real stand on help for American workers. Given their recent nods towards the EITC, one might reasonably expect Republicans to consider Murray's proposal seriously. (President Obama also proposed an EITC expansion in his budget for 2015.) Even the tax loopholes Murray proposes closing in order to pay for the expansion have already been singled out for elimination by the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Robert Camp. But these are not reasonable times.
The Republican’s recent expressions of support for expanding the EITC have always seemed more opportunistic than sincere. Rather than actively working to extend the credit to more Americans, the GOP instead uses the EITC as “a protective shield against populist attacks,” as Jonathan Chait put it; specifically, as a counterpoint to calls from the left to raise the minimum wage.
“The minimum wage makes it more expensive for employers to hire low-skilled workers, but the EITC, on the other hand, gives workers a boost—without hurting their prospects,” Representative Paul Ryan said of the EITC in a January speech at the Brookings Institution. “It gives families flexibility—it helps them take ownership of their lives.”
Conservative pundits and academics have taken a similar line. Two economists at the American Enterprise Institute argued last year that “expanding the earned income tax credit is a much more efficient way to fight poverty than increasing the minimum wage.” Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation argued in favor of a higher EITC in January, as did former Bush advisor Glenn Hubbard. Another former Bush advisor, Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw, wrote recently that the EITC was “distinctly better” than raising the minimum wage because the costs are born by taxpayers rather than employers.
In his own much-hyped poverty speech in January, Senator Marco Rubio advocated for replacing the EITC with a “federal wage enhancement” subsidy. The vague contours of the alternative he proposed suggested that what he had in mind was nearly identical to the EITC, but with more support for people without kids.
Rubio was right to point out that one of the major shortcomings of the current EITC is that it offers minimal assistance to childless workers. As the program operates now, people without children who are under 25 are ineligible, and the maximum credit for those between 25 and 64 is $487. Families with children receive more substantial benefits. In 2011, their average credit was $2,905.
Murray’s bill addresses Rubio’s professed concern for childless workers by lowering the eligibility age to 21 and raising the maximum credit for childless workers to about $1,400. Those changes would benefit thirteen million people, according to a Treasury Department estimate. The legislation also increases support for families with two working parents by allowing a secondary earner to deduct twenty percent of their income from their federal taxes. This could offset childcare, transportation, and other costs associated with entering the workforce, thus encouraging more stay-at-home parents to find jobs. More than seven million families would benefit from this new deduction, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.
The bill also doubles the penalties for tax payers who fail to comply with the Internal Revenue Service’s “due diligence” requirement, a reform that addresses Republican concerns about the costs of improper claims.
If Republicans really wanted to use the EITC as a vehicle for boosting low wages, this legislation provides an excellent starting point for negotiation. But they’re unlikely to engage with it seriously, because their lauding of the EITC was never serious to begin with. For example, Rubio’s proposal to expand the credit for childless workers would have been accomplished by taking money away from workers with kids, instead of by increasing the size of the program overall.
Republicans will face a tricky situation if Harry Reid brings Murray's bill up for a vote in the Senate. “If Republicans aren’t interested in supporting this bill, they’ll need to explain why they are rejecting the alternative that they have often pointed to in order to justify opposing raising the minimum wage," a senior Democratic aide told The Nation.
If recent votes on unemployment insurance are any indication, Republicans are far more likely to risk hypocrisy and find reasons to kill the bill than do any real governing, even on policies they profess to support. If a vote doesn’t accomplish much for low-wage workers, it may at least blow away some of the smoke from the GOP’s show.
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The post of the surgeon general has been vacant since July, and it looks likely to remain that way for some time thanks to a strident campaign led by the National Rifle Association and libertarian Senator Rand Paul against President Obama’s nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy.
Murthy has medical and business degrees from Yale, works as an attending physician and instructor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School and has founded several health businesses and nonprofits. He has also expressed support for limited gun safety measures like a ban on assault weapons, mandatory safety training and limits on ammunition, and so the NRA has declared it will “score” his confirmation vote, putting pressure on Senate Democrats running tight re-election races in red states to block Murthy’s confirmation. As The New York Times reported on Saturday, the White House is “recalibrating” its strategy towards Murthy’s nomination, meaning the Senate vote will either be delayed or never happen.
This isn’t the first time the NRA has held up a nominee: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went without a director for seven years because of opposition from the gun lobby. But never before has the group set itself so strongly against a surgeon general nominee. So why now? The NRA said Murthy’s “blatant activism on behalf of gun control” attracted their attention.
But the gun lobby’s campaign against Murthy isn’t really about his record, or him at all. His positions on guns are hardly radical or even activist, and his views are consistent with those of the majority of Americans. Polling indicates that the public is far more supportive of new gun control laws than members of Congress or, certainly, the NRA.
Furthermore, Murthy’s views represent a consensus among medical professionals that gun violence is a major public health issue. Gun violence, including suicide, kills some 30,000 Americans every year, about the same number as car accidents. Cars are highly regulated for health and safety; guns, barely. Accordingly, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among many others, have called for stronger gun safety laws. It would be surprising if, as a doctor, Murthy did not have concerns about gun violence and the strength of current regulations.
With public health professionals engaging more forcefully on the gun issue, the NRA has a pressing interest in muting their calls for stronger policy. Really, the campaign against Murthy is the continuation of a longstanding effort to make discussion of gun violence taboo. For years the NRA has worked to bury information about gun violence and its public health implications. The NRA has campaigned successfully to ban registries that collect data on guns used in crimes, and in 1996 the group fought for and won legislation that froze federal funding for research on gun violence. Although Obama lifted the restriction last year in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, there’s still very little money—federal and private—for gun research and not enough data, said David Hemenway, an expert on injury at the Harvard School of Public Health.
On the local level, the NRA has tried to bar pediatricians from counseling parents about the risks of keeping guns at home. The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that doctors begin to talk to parents about gun safety even before their baby is born, and continue the conversation yearly, just as doctors talk to parents about the dangers of swimming pools and the importance of bicycle helmets. Florida passed a gag law in 2011; crafted by an NRA lobbyist, the bill forbids doctors from “making written inquiry or asking questions concerning the ownership of a firearm or ammunition by the patient or by a family member of the patient.” A district court ruled the following year that the law restricted physicians’ rights to free speech, and the case is now in the appeals process. Murthy’s opposition to pediatrician gag laws was one of the reasons cited by the NRA and Rand Paul in their attempt to disqualify him.
When she ordered a permanent injunction against the Florida law in 2012, District Judge Marcia Cooke wrote that the law “in no way affects [Second Ammendment] rights” and instead “aims to restrict a practitioner’s ability to provide truthful, non-misleading information to a patient.” The same can be said of the NRA’s objection to the Surgeon General nominee, who won’t be involved in crafting gun policy. The threat to the NRA is that the surgeon general will merely talk about gun violence, in fulfilling his or her duty to provide the public with “the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce their risk of illness and injury.”
While the NRA’s political clout comes from its individual members, the group serves the agenda of gun industry. What’s really going on with Murthy’s confirmation is that an industry group is trying to keep the government from regulating its products. This isn’t a new battle: the tobacco industry fought it, as have many other industries with financial interests in evading health and safety regulations.
“Most industries try to protect themselves—the less regulation the better, the less oversight the better. They want to pursue their sales,” said Hemenway. “I think it’s almost time for a surgeon general statement about guns, like we had with cigarettes and cancer, particularly about guns and suicide.”
While the industry’s goals aren’t exceptional, its success at evading regulation is, said Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center. “Guns are a consumer product. We’ve taken a public health approach to reducing product-related injury for every other product, from automobiles, to toys, to airplanes. Every product is regulated from a health and safety perspective with the goal of reducing accident and injury. The only exception is guns,” Rand said.
Murthy’s assurance that he does not intend to use the surgeon general’s office “as a bully pulpit on gun control” failed to appease the NRA. Perhaps appeasement is the wrong tack. The only way to curb the gun industry’s outsized influence is if people like the surgeon general do talk about gun violence, and advocate for more research and data, not less.
“The surgeon general’s role is to educate the public about how to live healthier, safer lives and one of biggest injury-producing mechanisms in America today are guns. It’s obviously an area where he should be involved,” said Rand. “What the NRA fears is having someone with a bully pulpit who has solid information and is giving people the facts. The NRA fears information.”
Democrats also need to stand up for freedom of speech and information. The midterm map presents a real challenge, as the Senate races most important to Democrats are in deep red states—Louisiana, Arkansas, Montana, Alaska—where public opinion on gun control is far more conservative than it is nationally. Still, it’s far from clear that the NRA’s endorsement is worth groveling for. The NRA can easily whip up hundreds of gun owners to flood Senate offices with calls expressing outrage over Murthy’s nomination, but there is some evidence that the group’s electoral influence is much less significant than its effect on policymaking and nominations. According to a statistical analysis conducted by Paul Waldman in 2012, “The NRA has virtually no impact on congressional elections. The NRA endorsement, so coveted by so many politicians, is almost meaningless. Nor does the money the organization spends have any demonstrable impact on the outcome of races.” [Emphasis his.]
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On the first Tuesday in March, thousands of students, parents and teachers rallied at the New York state capitol in Albany to protest what the media quickly dubbed New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “war” on charter schools and minority students. Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Success Academy charter network and one of the mayor’s fiercest critics, closed all twenty-two of her schools so that students and staff could participate in what she called “the largest civic field trip in history.”
But it wasn’t merely a field trip; the rally was a political event, in protest of de Blasio’s decision not to approve plans for three Success Academies to co-locate with traditional public schools, and more broadly his proposal to charge rent to charters occupying city school buildings. (The mayor approved forty-five other co-location proposals, five of them put forward by Success Academy.) Moskowitz has been the most vocal opponent of the new mayor’s education policies, though few have been enacted. As the debate intensifies, staff and students at Success Academy are being increasingly drawn into the political battle—or pushed into it, according to several employees who spoke to The Nation on condition of anonymity.
“I don’t want to say it’s hostile, or abusive, but definitely I feel that coercive measures are taken,” said a staff member who works in the school’s administration. “The rally really demonstrated this lack of boundaries.”
The teachers and staffers who spoke to The Nation said that although they were never told they would lose their jobs if they did not attend the rally, they didn’t think they had much choice and were afraid to ask for an exception. “An option was not presented. The schools assigned everyone with a job, so you were either going to be an instructional coach or a bus captain,” one teacher explained. “They weren’t really asking us if that’s what we wanted to do. They were telling us that that’s what we were going to do instead of teaching for the day.” Many charter schools like Success are nonunionized, and celebrate the fact that they can fire teachers more easily than schools with teachers’ unions can; many charter teachers have described a culture of fear resulting from job insecurity.
Because all of the schools in the Success network were closed, parents who did not want their children to attend would have had to keep them home or find alternate childcare, with a week’s notice. The schools sent home fliers and put stickers on the jackets and backpacks of students asking families to accompany their children to Albany. “[De Blasio’s] threats to overturn approved school co-locations and to assess rent to public charter schools are placing our schools, and your scholars, at risk,” reads a letter sent to parents. Although civics lesson plans were prepared for the bus ride, one teacher said that some students watched movies instead, including The Lottery, a documentary about a Success Academy in Harlem.
“It feels a little exploitative,” another teacher said about taking students to Albany. “They’re five. They’ll hold whatever sign you hand them and believe whatever you tell them.” The teacher acknowledged that parents had the choice to keep their children home from the rally but added, “I did wonder what parents would do if they couldn’t come on the march—how they would arrange for child care.”
Success Academy declined to answer several specific questions about the staff members’ claims, but offered the following statement:
Last week, 11,000 charter school families and educators voluntarily showed up to a rally in Albany despite frigid temperatures and a long bus ride. They did so because their children’s right to a high quality public education is under attack, and they wanted State lawmakers to know how much their schools mean to them. It was an inspiring and emotional event filled with people who care deeply about the power of public education to change lives.
City councilman and education committee chair Daniel Dromm said he will hold an oversight hearing about whether Moskowitz violated any state education regulations. “It’s shocking to me that a CEO thinks they can close a whole set of schools and then bus those children up to Albany for totally political rally. I have deep questions about the appropriateness of that,” Dromm told The Nation. “She’s using children as pawns in a political war, and that’s very problematic.” Dromm also said he has concerns about the source of funding for Success’s political activity; the organization receives public funding and is a c(3) nonprofit, which may devote only a limited portion of their activities to lobbying. According to Dromm the hearing, tentatively slated for April, will also focus on other aspects of charter school finances, including compensation for executives like Moskowitz, who made $475,244 in 2012.
While students are the face of Moskowitz’s campaign, the financial muscle comes from Wall Street. The trip to Albany was paid for by Families for Excellent Schools, a nonprofit chaired by a venture capitalist named Paul Applebaum. Although the group’s mission is to “grow a movement of families and schools that drives grassroots demand for legislative and electoral change,” four of the five founding board members, including Applebaum, work in the financial sector. Families for Excellent Schools is also behind a multimillion dollar ad campaign and a website, charterswork.org, which is currently promoting the hashtag #SaveThe194, referring to the 194 students who attend a Success Academy in Harlem whose application for co-location was one of the three denied by the de Blasio administration. (Read Jarrett Murphy’s blog post herefor more background on the co-location decisions.)
Co-location is a controversial practice in which a charter school moves into a building already occupied by a traditional public school. De Blasio has promised to break from Bloomberg’s education policies on co-location as well as on the practice of allowing charters to operate on public property without paying rent. The free rent charters enjoyed under Bloomberg allowed them to use their money—from taxpayers, as well as federal grants and donors—for classroom resources, glossy public relations campaigns, and aggressive expansion. During his campaign de Blasio said he would charge rent to charters, which would put $92 million per year into city coffers, according to the Independent Budget Office. Charter advocates say paying rent would disadvantage their students and could put many schools out of business, although a majority of public schools across the country pay to use public facilities.
Moskowitz emphasized this sense of existential crisis in communications with families and faculty ahead of the trip to Albany. “We will close our schools for one day to keep the mayor from closing them forever,” reads one letter to parents, urging them to attend the rally, where governor Andrew Cuomo promised protestors that “we will save charter schools.” Multiple employees who spoke to The Nation characterized this rhetoric as alarmist and misleading. “Our parents have been led to believe that we are the answer for their children,” one said. “We’re definitely capitalizing on that whole notion.”
Another said that she didn’t believe all parents were fully aware of what they are participating in. “I don’t mean that in a condescending way. I mean that the info presented is not necessarily accurate and it’s entirely one sided. This is being framed as a second or third civil rights movement, and I think that’s a racially charged power play—considering our demographics—to manipulate people.”
Teachers at Success are told they have a dual mission: to teach the children in their class as well as advocate for children everywhere to have access to high-quality education. The rally in Albany wasn’t the first time Moskowitz has closed schools for a political event; she did so in October for a pro-charter demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge in anticipation of de Blasio’s election. Asked why they worked at Success if they disagreed with the school’s advocacy activities, the staff members told The Nation the two rallies marked a real turning point in how much pressure they felt to engage politically and in public, rather than simply as teachers in the classroom. “Since the Brooklyn Bridge rally I find myself in fundamental opposition to what they’re doing,” said one teacher, who has been looking for work elsewhere. “Frankly, I need the health insurance and I need to pay rent.”
“It’s never been as political as it been now. If this continues going this way it will be very hard for me to stay,” said another, who has worked at Success for several years and spoke admiringly of the network for providing her with “unparalleled” resources in the classroom, and of her students and colleagues. The atmosphere is particularly difficult for teachers who believe their students are getting a good education at Success and want that to continue, but are simultaneously uncomfortable with the administration’s political tactics. “We’re a very, very young organization, and the only way that this could work is if young people in their first jobs are fearful to ever speak up and say anything. If they say ‘jump’ we ask ‘how high.’” She continued, “It makes me really sad. I’m a public school teacher. I should not be fearful of my job.”
The political battle isn’t likely to fade any time soon. The state Senate is reportedly considering a budget that would pre-emptively bar the city from charging rent or rescinding co-location permits, and the rally in Albany seems to have been successful in setting Governor Cuomo more firmly against de Blasio’s education platform. Success Academy and a group of parents have filed separate lawsuits over the co-location reversals, while public advocate Letitia James is suing de Blasio over the forty-five co-locations he did approve. Some charter schools are distancing themselves from Moskowitz’s aggressive tactics; thirty boycotted the trip to Albany because it was scheduled to coincide with another rally at the capitol in support of de Blasio’s proposal to expand access to prekindergarten. Meanwhile, de Blasio has only just begun trying to implement the education policies that New York City voters implicitly yet resoundingly endorsed when he won in a landslide last fall.
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Usually when lawmakers stage all-night filibusters, they do so to protest a piece of legislation. Senator Ted Cruz, for example, spoke for twenty-one hours last September in opposition to a resolution intended to avert a government shutdown. Texas State Senator Wendy Davis spoke through the night in August to protest an anti-abortion bill.
The senators planning to take the floor Monday evening, however, are doing so to raise alarm about an absence of legislation. More than two dozen Democrats and two Independents intend to speak from the end of voting Monday afternoon until approximately 9 am Tuesday to call for congressional action to counter climate change.
“The cost of Congress’ inaction on climate change is too high for our communities, our kids and grandkids, and our economy,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said in a statement. “On Monday we’ll be sending a clear message: it’s time for Congress to wake up and get serious about addressing this issue.”
Whitehouse has given floor speeches about climate change some sixty times over the past two years, speaking weekly when the Senate is in session. On Monday he’ll be joined by Hawaii’s Brian Schatz, who helped to organize the event; majority leader Harry Reid; Environment and Public Works committee chairwoman Barbara Boxer; and about twenty-four other senators, including independents Angus King and Bernie Sanders.
Congress has not considered any serious climate legislation since the summer of 2010, when a fragile bipartisan coalition supporting a cap-and-trade bill collapsed. Since then, Republicans have grown more entrenched in climate denialism, and have made it clear that any attempt to regulate carbon pollution would fail. Just last Friday, minority leader Mitch McConnell told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he didn’t believe in man-made climate change. “For everybody who thinks it’s warming, I can find somebody who thinks it isn’t,” McConnell said.
Monday’s all-nighter—it’s not technically a filibuster, since no bill is on the table—is part of long-term campaign by the newly launched Senate Climate Action Task Force to heighten the sense of urgency about climate change, and pressure lawmakers to take a more aggressive stance on carbon regulation. The group is playing defense, too, trying to fend off attempts to undermine President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, most significantly the new Environmental Protection Agency rules for carbon emissions from power plants. Without any legislation on the horizon, the initial task for the group is to shift the political climate so that denialism and inaction becomes a liability.
That challenge is evident in the midterm elections. Many of the Democratic incumbents in tight races come from conservative energy states: Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, Mark Begich from Alaska, Mark Pryor from Arkansas, Kay Hagan from North Carolina and Mark Warner from Virginia. They’ve distanced themselves from their colleagues’ climate fight, criticized the EPA’s efforts to regulate carbon pollution, and publically support the Keystone XL pipeline. None are expected to be present Monday night.
But if they want to hold on to the Senate, Democrats have to defend those seats in the midterms. Rather than start an intraparty war as the Tea Party has done within the GOP, the Democratic climate push is focused largely on the right’s refusal to acknowledge man-made climate change, with an eye towards making it a major issue in 2016. Tom Steyer, the billionaire behind climate-focused super PAC Next Gen, said last month that his group is not planning to attack oil-friendly Democrats in the midterms, although it won’t give money to them either. Next week, Senator Whitehouse will bring his climate speech to Iowa, which hosts the first major voting for the presidential nominees.
“Climate change threatens Rhode Island coasts and Iowa farmlands alike, and I look forward to this opportunity to talk to rural Americans about the threats they face,” Whitehouse said in a statement. “I also realize that in order to advance serious climate change legislation in Congress, we need to make climate change a major topic in the 2016 presidential race.”
You can watch the floor dicussion here, and join in on Twitter with the hashtag #Up4Climate.
The Obama administration recommended on Thursday that private companies begin searching for oil and gas reserves off the Atlantic Coast, an area that has been closed to drilling for decades. More than 3 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 312 trillion cubic feet of natural gas may lie in the area, which extends from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Oil and gas companies have lobbied administrations since the 1980s to lease ocean tracts in the Atlantic, to little effect. The release of an environmental impact study by the Interior Department that concluded undersea seismic testing could commence is a step toward doing so, although it can’t happen before 2017; the current five-year plan for the Outer Continental Shelf keeps the Atlantic out of bounds. Oil industry groups, along with a coalition of governors from coastal states, are hoping to influence the next five-year plan as it develops, a staffer who has worked on offshore issues for Alaskan governor Sean Parnell told me on background. Practically, they’re hoping to find new reserves: nine companies have already applied for surveying permits, according to The New York Times.
“It would be really ironic if the Obama administration, which supposedly understands climate change and thus the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, was the one to open these areas,” said Steve Kretzman, the executive director of Oil Change International. The president previously green-lighted exploratory activity in the Atlantic three years ago, but scuttled the plans after the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April of 2010.
The prospect of new activity in the Atlantic, even if years or decades away, raises a question that environmentalists have found themselves asking often lately: How does the administration reconcile its commitment to fighting climate change with its long standing support for expanded oil production? Obama’s approach to climate is largely focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels, by promoting investment in renewables and tightening emissions standards for power plants and motor vehicles. (If Congress could ever put a price on carbon, that also would affect demand.) The implicit assumption of Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy is that policies intended to discourage consumption will be effective even if fossil fuels become more readily available.
By this logic, the United States might as well reap the profits from our fossil fuel reserves so long as demand exists—until people don’t need oil and coal, someone will continue to supply it. Some of the profits from domestic oil production could even help power the transition to cleaner energy if they were funneled into a research and development fund for renewables.
So why have climate hawks focused lately on cutting off the flow of carbon-intensive fuels? For example, the major environmental fight right now, over Keystone XL, is about keeping tar sands oil in the ground. Part of the answer is that policymaking and activism have different goals, as David Roberts has argued. Even if the most effective practical way to lower carbon emissions is to stop consuming so many fossil fuels, effective activism may depend on picking different fights.
Furthermore, ramping up production, even while we know 80 percent of known reserves (meaning, not including whatever is off the coast of the Atlantic, since those are unproven) have to stay in the ground if we’re serious about staying below two degrees Celsius, has political consequences that directly undermine the demand-side policies the administration is counting on. After I spoke with Kretzman he sent me a longer response to the question of why supply matters, and his argument is worth reading in full:
It’s not either/or. We have to work on both the supply and demand sides of the oil and gas equation. As the supply of oil and gas goes up, the cost the market perceives for it is going down, thus encouraging more consumption—which is exactly the signal the climate demands that we do not send. If we had a perfect market for energy, working on the demand side alone might do it. But we’re not remotely close to that. Oil is controlled globally by a cartel, heavily subsidized by taxpayers around the world, and insulated from paying various substantial costs such as health, pollution clean-up, military support, and of course the social cost of carbon.
Importantly, stopping greater supply is the best way to stand in the way of Big Oil’s power. You give them access to more oil and gas, they’ll make more profits, and spend more money both looking for even more oil and gas as well as bribing politicians and throwing armies of lawyers at regulations. [Emphasis added]
These industries are based on, and profit from, finding more and more of something that science says we have more than enough of. Every additional field is a step in the wrong direction. It has to start stopping somewhere.
What’s particularly important here is the connection drawn between increased production and the political power of the petrochemical industry. This is an industry that has every interest in blocking climate change legislation; to that end, it has poured millions into shoddy research in an attempt to discredit climate science, and its political donations prop up the lawmakers who trot out the same hack work to justify obstructing legislative action. It’s true that Obama can’t do anything unilaterally that truly meets the scale of the crisis. In order for comprehensive policies aimed at cutting consumption to pass, we need a different political climate, one that’s not dominated by fossil fuel interests. Giving those interests greater access to public resources is a poor way to change the status quo.
Read Next: Zoe Carpenter discusses health concerns linked to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
It’s hard to pinpoint the pinnacle of Republican depravity, but GOP senators came close Thursday afternoon when they blocked a bill extending healthcare, education and job training to hundreds of thousands of veterans, largely because they were unable to use the bill as a vehicle for new sanctions on Iran.
“Today, the Senate had a chance to put aside partisan politics and do what was right for the men and women who have sacrificed so much while wearing our nation’s uniform,” said Daniel Dellinger, national commander of the National Legion, a prominent veterans organization with a conservative reputation. “I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote.”
Republicans used a procedural move to kill the legislation, which was the largest veterans bill in decades and had the support of all of the major veterans groups. The bill would have funded twenty-seven new clinics and medical centers, and made VA healthcare more accessible for veterans without service-related injuries. It would have strengthened dental, chiropractic, fertility and sexual trauma care. It would have extended a job training program and given veterans better access to higher education by making more of them eligible for in-state tuition. Spouses of deceased service members and families caring for wounded veterans would have received better support.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans said the $21 billion package was too expensive. “This bill creates new veterans’ programs and it’s not paid for—it’s all borrowed money,” Senator Jeff Sessions said before raising a budget point of order that effectively killed the legislation by requiring sixty votes to proceed. Only two Republicans, Dean Heller of Nevada and Jerry Moran of Kansas, voted with the Democrats, leaving the motion to waive the point of order a few votes shy of passage.
“If you can’t afford to take care of your veterans, then don’t go to war,” Senator Bernie Sanders, the chairman of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, said on CNN shortly before the vote. Sanders proposed paying for the bill with savings from the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan; the expenditures amounted to less than 2 percent of those savings, and would have directly benefitted the soldiers who fought those wars. (Which, incidentally, themselves added $2 trillion to the debt.) Furthermore, according to an updated score from the Congressional Budget Office, the bill would actually have decreased the deficit by $1.34 billion over the next decade.
“I think we should be very, very clear that the cost of war does not end once the last shots are fired and the last battles are fought. When members of the military lose arms, legs, eyesight, come back with PTSD or TBI, after fighting in wars that Congress authorizes, we have a moral obligation to make sure that those veterans receive all of the benefits that they have earned and deserve,” Sanders said on the floor.
Besides cost, Republicans had an even pettier reason for opposing the bill: they were furious that they weren’t able to tack new Iran sanctions onto it. Democrats have backed away from the issue, and Republicans inserted the sanctions language in their version of the veterans legislation in an attempt to keep it alive. Veterans groups sharply criticized Republicans on Wednesday for such a political move. “Iran is a serious issue that Congress needs to address, but it cannot be tied to S. 1982, which is extremely important as our nation prepares to welcome millions of U.S. military servicemen and women home from war,” Dellinger said.
Sanders promised to keep fighting for a comprehensive veterans package, and said he would work to round up the handful of Republican votes needed to pass the legislation.
The media has already declared the veterans bill a “victim of election year gridlock.” But let’s be clear: the bill was a victim of Republican legislators, many of whom trot out their support for the troops to great rhetorical effect during election years.
Read Next: Mary Bottari on why pro-austerity groups lost the deficit wars.
Ever since President Obama announced that the Keystone XL pipeline would be in the national interest only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” the project has been scrutinized primarily on those terms. But there are other concerns to factor into an analysis of the project’s costs and benefits, particularly the local effects on communities along the pipeline route, from the tar sands in Alberta to refineries in Texas.
“I believe the health impacts of tar sands oil are being ignored,” Senator Barbara Boxer warned at a press conference Wednesday, where she and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse called on the Obama administration to conduct a thorough review of potential public health implications of extracting, transporting and refining oil from the tar sands before making a decision about the pipeline. Although the State Department finalized the environmental assessment of the project last month, Boxer said the report “was woefully inadequate when it came to exploring human impacts of the pipeline.” (The State Department had not responded to a request for comment at press time.)
Those impacts include rising cancer rates in places like Fort Chipewyan, a First Nations community downstream from a major tar sands site in Alberta; air pollutants and carcinogens in neighborhoods where refineries will process the oil, like Port Arthur and Manchester in Texas; immediate safety risks from transporting corrosive crude; and mountains of pet coke, an oil sands’ byproduct, which are growing throughout the Midwest. Much of this risk would be born—and is already being born—by poor people of color. Port Arthur, for example, has a 26 percent poverty rate, compared to 17 percent in the rest of Texas; three-quarters of the residents are of color. Manchester, a predominantly Latino community, is already one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the country.
“Health miseries follow tar sands—from extraction to transport to refining to waste disposal,” said Boxer. “Children and families in the US have a right to know now—before any decision to approve the Keystone tar sands pipeline—how it would affect their health.”
The State Department has been criticized before by lawmakers and the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to properly assess the health threats posed by KXL. “We’re at a point where health issues are often glossed over,” said Danielle Droitsch, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and co-author of a report on the health effects of tar sands crude. Part of the problem is that there isn’t a substantial body of research into whether oil from the tar sands impacts health differently than traditional crude. “At a minimum we’re going to have to study this a little bit further. Frankly, there’s enough out there to suggest this stuff is actually worse, and that what we really need to do is transition away to cleaner sources,” Droitsch said.
The public health blindspot extends beyond KXL. The Obama administration has embraced the North American oil and gas boom without really acknowledging that extracting and refining more fossil fuels at home means increasing the immediate health risks associated. Like Keystone, an “all of the above” energy strategy should be examined for its potential climate impact, which is itself a public health threat. But there are also questions to address about environmental justice and accountability for the petrochemical corporations powering the domestic boom. Many communities—in southern Louisiana, for example—have been sacrificed for the oil economy already. Whether more are ruined is a matter of deliberate policy making, not an inevitability.
Democrats in the House are also hammering the State Department for deficiencies in its environmental review. On Tuesday, Representative Raúl Grijalva asked the Government Accountability Office to audit the conflict-of-interest procedures the State Department used when it selected a contractor to conduct the Environmental Impact Statement. Several reports suggest that Environmental Resources Management, the London-based company hired to do the study, failed to disclose relationships with TransCanada and other corporations that would benefits from tar sands development.“If this is going to be a scientific basis for a decision on the pipeline…then the credibility of that information must be without any doubt. And at this point, that doubt exists,” Grijalva said at a press conference on Tuesday. The GAO told reporters it had not yet decided whether to conduct the review, but Grijalva said he’d been told the office would pursue an inquiry.
The State Department’s inspector general announced Wednesday that its own review found no violations, but Grijalva still wants a third-party review. “The inspector general was only asked to examine whether the State Department followed its own flawed process for selecting a third-party contractor. The fact that the answer is ‘yes’ doesn’t address any outstanding concerns about the integrity of ERM’s work, the State Department’s in-house ability to evaluate its quality, or whether the process itself needs to be reformed,” Grijalva said in a statement.
Read Next: Young activists are risking arrest as they protest against Keystone XL.
When Brenda Hoster publicly accused the sergeant major of the Army of sexually assaulting her, it nearly destroyed her life. She thought it would be worth it.
“I felt like what I did was the right thing, the ethical thing, not just for me but for all military men and women,” Hoster, a retired sergeant major and public affairs specialist, said in one of two phone conversations. Her complaints against the Army’s top enlisted soldier were part of a wave of sex scandals that rocked the military in the 1990s. Today, Congress is still debating how to best reform the military justice system.
“Nothing’s changed. Why is that?” asked Hoster. “I feel like my journey was for nothing.”
It’s been nearly two decades since Hoster spoke out against Sergeant Major Gene McKinney, who was her boss. She’d stayed quiet for months after the alleged assault, which she said occurred in a Honolulu hotel room in 1996. Hoster said her superiors at the Pentagon told her to resolve her issues with McKinney (who was later acquitted) on her own, and later refused her requests to transfer. Feeling powerless and alone, Hoster chose to end her twenty-two-year career. “There was very little confidence back then about being a whistleblower,” she said. “It was fight or flight, and I flew.”
Around the same time a sex scandal at an Army training base in Aberdeen, Maryland, in which twelve officers were accused of assaulting female trainees, sparked public concern about assault in the military. Aberdeen came on the heels of the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, in which more than 100 officers were accused of assault or harassment. In response to the Aberdeen incident, the Army commissioned a panel to investigate its sexual harassment policies.
One of the appointees was McKinney. “I said, ‘Oh, hell no,’” remembered Hoster. In February of 1997 she decided to go public and filed a formal complaint with the Army. Five other women came forward to accuse McKinney for separate incidents. “It was about the ethics of it—nobody would do anything to help me, and now this guy was going to be on this panel investigating sexual harassment. To me, it was like nobody cared. I cared, and I spoke. And I paid dearly for it,” said Hoster.
After decades of scandals, investigatory panels and trials, the military still has not stemmed the sexual assault epidemic. Nor has it found a way to assure service members like Hoster that they will be heard and protected if they report crimes against them. Only two in ten service members who suffered “unwanted sexual contact” in 2012 reported the incidents. As the system is set up now they must do so through their commanding officer, who then decides whether the accusations warrant a trial by court martial.
“I think nothing’s changed because of the way that these things are brought to justice—or not to justice. I think a lot of it has to do with antiquated, non-functioning military justice system,” Hoster said.
Congress reached a similar conclusion last year after a series of hearings, and passed a number of reforms to the military justice system along with the annual defense spending bill. The new legislation bars commanders from overturning jury convictions, criminalizes retaliation against people who report sexual assault, mandates dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of sex crimes, and removes the statute of limitations for such cases.
But Congress has not yet voted on the most significant and controversial reform proposed—Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act, which would put military lawyers, rather than commanding officers, in charge of sexual assault prosecutions. Victims’ advocates, veterans and some active duty officers argue that forcing victims to report to commanders exposes them to conflicts of interest and retaliation, and disadvantages accused and accuser alike by putting legal decisions in the hands of officers without legal training. Fifty-four senators—including nine Republicans—support Gillibrand’s bill, which the chamber will take up some time in March. The military’s top brass and two key Democrats on the Armed Services Committee, chairman Carl Levin and Claire McCaskill, oppose the measure, saying it would undermine commanders’ ability to enforce order and discipline in the ranks.
“From my experience, victims—and I hate that word, but can’t think of anything else—the victims don’t have someone they can trust to go to,” Hoster said. “How the hell would they have confidence in the chain of command right now? How could anyone have confidence, with all this stuff happening for years?”
In 1997, after what Hoster described as a “nasty” trial, McKinney was acquitted of all but one count of obstructing justice. Hoster struggled to keep her life together in El Paso, Texas, where she lived “like a recluse.” She had devoted her life to the Army: it gave her a ticket out of small-town Pennsylvania, and she loved the culture of discipline. Without it, she drifted. It took about ten years for the alienation and defensiveness to fade. Now she works for the Veterans Administration in San Antonio, which she considers an extension of her service in the Army. She describes her life largely in positive terms, but acknowledged that occasionally something rekindles her memory of the assault and its drawn-out aftermath.
‘I am a lot better after all these years, but when I start talking about it…” Hoster began to cry, softly. “It never goes away. You just need to learn how to deal with it better. It will always feel bad.”
What makes Hoster angry now is not what she says happened to her; it’s that speaking out didn’t make more of a difference for others in the military. In her work Hoster frequently encounters other veterans struggling with military sexual trauma. “It just disgusts me that it’s still happening,” Hoster said.
Gillibrand’s bill is likely to draw a filibuster, and both sides are contending for a handful of undecided votes. Opponents say the reforms that passed in December are sufficient correctives, and they should be given time to work before imposing deeper change.
Hoster is tired of the military asking for more time. “I fell on my sword for something back then,” she said when asked why the debate still mattered to her. “I’m not gonna turn my back on it.”
Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on how the military is trying to stifle further sexual assault reforms
When an American drone fired four Hellfire missiles at a convoy of cars travelling from a wedding in Yemen last December, who died?
According to their relatives, the twelve men killed in the attack were shepherds, farmers or migrants who worked across the border in Saudi Arabia. They were fathers and sons. Shaif Abdullah Mohsen Mabkhut al-’Amri was the youngest, at 22; in a photo belonging to his uncle he looks slightly perplexed, eyes fixed on the camera over a sparse mustache and a half smile. Hussein Muhammad al-Tomil al-Tisi, 65, was the oldest killed. Twenty-eight-year-old ’Aref Ahmed al-Tisi’s youngest child, his seventh, had been born less than two weeks earlier. Ali Abdullah, 36, had been a soldier. His father watched as the missile that killed him hit. “I found him tossed to the side. I turned him over and he was dead,” the father remembered later. “My son, Ali!”
These details were collected by Human Rights Watch and published Thursday in a report that suggests that some, if not all of the victims of the December strike were civilians. The report concluded that the attack violated policies for targeted killings that President Obama laid out in May.
The story told by the report is one of disputed identity. Anonymous US officials have said all of the twelve men killed were militants traveling with Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, allegedly a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the primary target of the strike. Officials say al-Badani was wounded, and escaped. Relatives of the dead say they didn’t know him.
The Yemeni government appears less sure of the details. The day after the strike, an official news agency reported the convoy carried “many terrorist members and leaders who were involved in plotting attacks.” But the following day, the general who commands the military zone in which the strike took place and the governor of the region called the attack a “mistake,” and distributed cash and Kalashnikovs to the families of the dead and wounded as a gesture of apology. Although two Yemeni officials who spoke to HRW affirmed the Americans’ story that al-Badani was in the convoy, multiple sources acknowledged to HRW that at least some of the men were civilians. Three suggested members of AQAP had used the wedding convoy as “camouflage.” One said he’d been told the men were “guys for hire—shady.” A Yemeni security analyst said he was convinced that all twelve were civilians.
We’re unlikely to find out exactly who these men were or what sort of threat they might have posed. The administration has refused to release details of the two internal investigations of the attack that US officials told the Associated Press they’d carried out, although they said both inquiries confirmed that all of the men killed were members of AQAP. It’s unclear how that determination was made, although one detail reportedly arousing suspicion was the fact that the convoy was made up of men with rifles. To segregate wedding processions by gender is common practice in Yemen’s tribal areas, HRW pointed out, as is traveling with assault weapons.
“The US refusal to explain a deadly attack on a marriage procession raises critical questions about the administration’s compliance with its own targeted killing policy,” wrote Letta Taylor, the report’s author. The report concludes that the United States has an obligation to investigate the strike futher, and provide a public accounting.
The questions raised by the wedding attack go beyond identity, beyond compliance. Another debate to be had is about the existence of the killing program—its legal basis, its strategic benefits, its moral implications—not just adherence to its rules. This is a conversation the administration has tried to avoid. Although Obama has proposed shifting the CIA’s drone program to the Pentagon to increase transparency, the White House has brushed off Congress’s attempt to broaden its oversight. Last week, the administration forbade CIA officers from attending a hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee, and refused to grant security clearances to committee members so they could be briefed.
We may not know whom we’re killing, but the people left behind know who is responsible for their losses. “We have nothing, not even tractors or other machinery. We work with our hands. Why did the United States do this to us?” the groom asked in a video shown to HRW researchers. No one, so far, has a real answer for him.
Abdu Rabu Abdullah al-Tisi told HRW he lost four relatives in the strike. “Our tribe is very big,” he said. “It will not forget the blood of our sons; it will not let this blood flow in vain.”
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on a one woman play about America’s drone warfare program