From Greg Kaufmann:
This week Congress finished — finally — some leftover business from the Bush era. After fights over earmarks, automatic pay raises, and anything else Republicans thought they could score points with, the Senate finally approved the $410 billion FY09 omnibus spending package and President Obama signed it. There were indeed more than 8,500 earmarks costing over $7.7 billion — $4.6B sponsored by Dems and $3.1B by Republicans. Obama said that moving forward earmarks should be disclosed on the web and those for private, for-profit companies should be open to competitive bidding. Sen. Russ Feingold and two Republicans — Sen. John McCain and Rep. Paul Ryan — went further than that. They introduced legislation to give Obama a limited line-item veto for a new War on Earmarks.
Sadly, another piece of legislation from the Bush Days remains in limbo. A federal lands package — combining 166 bills — would set aside more than 2 million acres as protected wilderness and 100 miles of wild and scenic rivers. Last year Sen. Tom Coburn — the Grim Reaper of Senate legislation — stalled it. The Senate approved it this year but in a parliamentary twist this week the House fell just two votes shy of the 2/3 majority it needed (under suspension of rules which allow a vote without amendments). According to CongressDaily, Democratic leaders are now working on a strategy that would allow the bill to pass the House with a simple majority.
The much anticipated Employee Free Choice Act was introduced in the House by Rep. George Miller and in the Senate by Tom Harkin. The Senate doesn’t have the 60 votes it needs yet to beat a Republican filibuster, and the House won’t take it up until it passes the Senate. Harkin said he would like to see the bill on the floor as early as late April but Sen. Harry Reid has said it won’t come up until the summer.
This week was packed with efforts at rebuilding our financial regulatory architecture. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin introduced legislation to create a consumer protection agency for financial products such as predatory loans. The idea was first conceived by Elizabeth Warren, Harvard Professor and Chair of the Congressional Oversight Board for TARP.
A House Financial Services subcommittee instructed the SEC to come up with “new guidance” within three weeks on revising “mark-to-market” accounting rules, which require banks to report the current market value of assets. The banks would like to replace that with fictitious market value.
Frank is very clear on restoring another rule — the “uptick rule.” This regulation was adopted after the market crashed in 1929 and eliminated by the SEC in 2007. It only permitted short-sales when the the last movement of the price of the security was up, thereby eliminating the ability of shorts to single-handedly drive down a stock price. Although Frank was hopeful the change could be made within a month, according to The Boston Globe the SEC said it could be “months away.” (In other Frank news, it’s worth checking out this fun, intelligent and tough press release he sent out this week.It looks back at the causes of the financial meltdown and defends against recent Republican attacks on him.)
Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced legislation that would cap credit card interest rates at 15 percent. He noted that banks receiving taxpayer money with one hand are slapping consumers with the other — charging heavy fees and usury rates as high as 30 percent. “What Wall Street and these credit card companies today are doing,” he said in a floor statement. “is really not anything different than what gangsters and loan shark artists do who break people’s kneecaps when they don’t pay back — except these bankers have three-piece suits….”
The House-approved bill allowing bankruptcy judges to reduce mortgage principals seems to be stalled in the Senate. According to CongressDaily, “11 Democrats have major concerns… and Senate GOP leaders feel confident about stopping the measure.” Sens. Durbin and Schumer have moved on from negotiating with the big banks like Citigroup and are now looking for support from the credit unions to gain their colleagues’ endorsement.
In other Obama Administration news, the announcement of the new drug czar-nominee — Seattle Police Chief R. Gil Kerlikowske — signaled a shift towards treatment rather than incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. Vice President Biden also spoke of an “emphasis on alternative drug courts,” according to the Washington Post. Greg Berman, Director of the Center for Court Innovation, told me: “I think it is another sign that the Obama Administration intends to chart a very different course when it comes to the administration of justice…. All of the signs… seem to point in generally the same direction: that the years ahead will see a renewed investment in innovation and rethinking business as usual.”
Another nominee — Charles Freeman for head of the National Intelligence Council — withdrew from consideration amidst much controversy. Opponents questioned financial ties to China and Saudi Arabia as well as his positions on Israel-Palestine issues. Freeman himself blamed “the Israel lobby” and its “utter disregard for the truth.”
Finally, the EPA proposed a new reporting system for 13,000 facilities that are responsible for 85-90 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions.