PEOPLE FOR BLOG

House Committee Shills for Fracking, Despite the Risks

This Friday, Darrel Issa’s House Oversight & Government Reform Committee will be holding a field hearing in Bakersfield, California, where several lobbyists who have made substantial contributions to members of the committee will argue against regulating “fracking,” or Hydraulic Fracturing. This technique for harvesting natural gas from deep within the Earth’s crust requires millions of gallons of water and thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical mixture—the contents of which the industry refuses to disclose.

PFAW has put together a fact sheet which details the dangers of fracking as well as the vast web of corporate cash that is influencing the committee’s actions—with potentially serious consequences to our health and the environment. You can view the fact sheet here.

PFAW

Religious Right Groups And Chamber of Commerce Fail To Block District Court Nominee

Cross-posted on Right Wing Watch

Religious Right and pro-corporate groups failed today to block President Obama’s nominee for U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, John McConnell, from receiving an up-or-down vote in the Senate. The Senate invoked cloture on McConnell’s nomination in a 63-33 vote, defeating the filibuster against McConnell. Filibusters against district court judges are extremely rare—only a handful of District Court nominees have ever faced cloture votes, and none have ever been blocked—and many Republicans previously vowed they would never filibuster a judicial nominee.

Today’s vote came after a long wait for McConnell: according to The Providence Journal, the delay caused by the concerted right-wing effort to block McConnell forced Rhode Island’s chief federal judge to “take the unusual step of reassigning more than two dozen civil cases to judges in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.”

Why the tough fight? McConnell faced virulent opposition from the Chamber of Commerce over his role fighting big tobacco companies and lead paint manufacturers. The Chamber and other groups that oppose corporate accountability found allies in the Religious Right groups that decided to fight McConnell as well.

The Conservative Action Project made McConnell a top target of their efforts. The group includes pro-corporate organizations like the 60 Plus Association, National Taxpayers Union, Americans for Limited Government, Citizens United, and American Tax Reform, along with social conservatives such as the Family Research Council, Traditional Values Coalition, Heritage Action, American Values, Liberty Counsel Action, and Eagle Forum. The Conservative Action Project’s Memo to the Movement [PDF] claimed McConnell was unqualified to serve in the judiciary because he was a trial lawyer with a history of challenging big business.

Eagle Forum derided him as a “pro-choice, anti-business, pro-judicial activism nominee” who “has made numerous anti-business statements.” The Family Research Council slammed McConnell for his ties to the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the country’s most prominent civil rights organizations, and Phillip Jauregui’s Judicial Action Group said that his link to the SPLC and the American Constitution Society shows he “supports organizations who support homosexual marriage and oppose conservative politicians.”

While the Corporate Right and the Religious Right filibuster of the McConnell nomination failed, many of these organizations will continue to work together to block other qualified judicial nominees and aggravate the country’s burgeoning judicial vacancy crisis.

PFAW

Attorney General Disappoints on Faith-Based Issue

Question: When does a law saying "do not discriminate" really mean "discrimination is allowed"? Answer: Now, since Attorney General Holder yesterday refused to repudiate the Bush Administration’s seemingly deliberate misreading of federal law in the context of grants to faith-based organizations.

One of the gravest flaws of the Faith-Based Initiative that President Obama inherited and has since made his own is that it permits federally funded employment discrimination on the basis of religion. Numerous federal statutes creating grant programs specifically prohibit those receiving funds from engaging in employment discrimination. However, the Bush Administration’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) adopted a policy memo turning those provisions on their head.

According to the memo, requiring compliance with anti-discrimination laws as a condition of receiving federal funds can impose a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of faith-based grant recipients. Therefore, it reasoned, such a requirement may be impermissible under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening religious exercise unless that burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. According to this harshly criticized legal memorandum, RFRA can be interpreted to let religious grantees ignore very specific nondiscrimination provisions within a federal grant program.

At a hearing before the House Oversight Committee yesterday, upon questioning by Rep. Bobby Scott, Attorney General Holder testified that the OLC memo is not being reconsidered. Even worse, when asked the Obama Administration has adopted that interpretation as its policy, Holder gave a meaningless and evasive answer. According to Congressional Quarterly (subscription required):

SCOTT: So if you're running a Head Start Program, they're running the Head Start Program they can discriminate, even though there's a statutory provision prohibiting discrimination? They can discriminate anyway?

HOLDER: What I'm saying is that in terms of -- with regard to that specific OLC opinion, we are not in the process of reconsidering it. That is not something that, as I understand ...

SCOTT: Well I'm not talking about the memo. I'm talking about the policy. Can they discriminate notwithstanding a specific statutory prohibition against discrimination; they can discriminate anyway based on that interpretation?

HOLDER: Obviously discrimination cannot occur, that is, that contravenes federal law.

Since whether an act of employment discrimination violates federal law is the focus of the debate, Holder’s response is not enlightening.

It is hard to believe that less than three years ago, candidate Barack Obama told an audience in Zanesville, Ohio that "if you get a federal grant, you can't use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can't discriminate against them—or against the people you hire—on the basis of their religion."

PFAW

Issa Suddenly Concerned About Capturing Presidential Records (Created After 1/20/2009 Only)

Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, waving an iPad in front of senior White House technology officials earlier today, demanded to know whether administration staffers were flouting the Presidential Records Act by conducting work-related business on their personal email systems instead of on the official server. Issa said his purpose was to address so-called “transparency setbacks” in the administration’s record keeping. Presumably, as Issa noted in the hearing, White House staffers could be communicating with the DNC on their personal property, free from public scrutiny.

But in 2008, that very same scenario seemed preposterous to Issa, who raised this point in a similar hearing about possible improper email use in the Bush Administration:

 

"Are we simply going on a fishing expedition at $40,000 to $50,000 a month?" Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked National Archives and White House officials at the hearing. "Do any of you know of a single document, because this committee doesn't, that should've been in the archives but in fact was done at the RNC?"

 

As it turns out, that is quite possibly what happened. Of the 22 million Bush Administration email messages that went missing due to a faulty archiving system, it was widely suspected that Karl Rove and other senior advisors used RNC email systems to conduct official White House business.

Interestingly, Issa defended the loss of the Bush Administration emails because they were using old software. This is just another example of how Issa’s priorities change as quickly as administrations do.

PFAW

The GOP’s Not-So-Awesome Spring Break

Last month, just before adjourning for spring recess, the House passed Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget proposal. The budget, which was supported by all but four Republican House members, decimates Medicare and Medicaid, makes deep cuts to education programs and preserves every single tax cut and loophole currently enjoyed by corporations and the wealthy.

It turns out that a lot of people that voted for these GOP representatives aren’t so happy about having to sacrifice their own retirement security to make sure that the wealthiest Americans can keep on amassing wealth. Think Progress put together this video of GOP congressmen across the country spending their spring breaks trying to defend their votes to peeved constituents at town hall meetings:

 

PFAW

At Smithsonian Forum, Hide/Seek Curators Fiercely Defend Controversial Exhibit

On Tuesday night, I sat in on the first session of the Smithsonian’s two-day forum on what it called “Flashpoints and Faultlines: Museum Curation and Controversy.” The forum, despite its somewhat vague title, centered on the particular controversy of curation that it was organized to respond to: the decision by Smithsonian top brass to remove a work of art from a National Portrait Gallery exhibit after the exhibit came under fire from right-wing culture warriors.

Tuesday night’s panels didn’t do much to reconcile those who opposed the Smithsonian’s decision to cut David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from the Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibit and those who thought it was a necessary step to tamp down a damaging controversy. But it did provide an outlet those who had been caught up in the controversy to air their grievances – albeit too late to change any decisions.

The most passionate and interesting remarks came from the two co-curators of the Hide/Seek show, whose close-up view of the mechanics of a right-wing smear was fascinating, and led them to be unapologetically clear about what had happened to lead to the Smithsonian’s censorship of its own groundbreaking exhibit.

David Ward and Jeff Katz started working on the Hide/Seek exhibit in 2006, when Ward, as part of an exhibit on Walt Whitman, posted a photo of Whitman and his lover of eight years, labeling it as such. Katz approached ward and told him that his was the first major museum exhibit to mention Whitman’s long-term relationship with a man. Ward said he was “gobsmacked” by this revelation, and the two curators started working on an exhibition that would bring together the themes of sexual difference that had been “hiding in plain sight” in American art.

Both emphasized how remarkable it that their exhibit had been accepted by the Smithsonian at. “The rich museums with extraordinarily powerful boards were scared to take this exhibit,” Katz said, “That it was a national museum with the most to lose that took the exhibit should not be forgotten.”

In fact, Katz added, the very existence of the Hide/Seek exhibit broke a decades-long pattern of prominent museums refusing to take on exhibits dealing with gay and lesbian themes. The Robert Mapplethorpe scandals of the 1980’s and 90’s, Katz said, “set a pattern of blacklisting gay and lesbian themes in art exhibitions, which with the exception of Hide/Seek continues in the museum world today.” The Smithsonian’s censorship was remarkable in part because the museum had an exhibition to censor in the first place, Katz said, while “The passive acts of censorship have been the norm in the museum world for 24 years.”

While the curators praised the Smithsonian’s decision to take the Hide/Seek exhibit, they were unswerving in their criticism of Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough’s decision to remove the work that had become a lightning rod for right-wing critics. Katz said, “This scandal was ostensibly about religion. It was not. It was about politics.”

The Smithsonian, Katz said, had by giving in to the Catholic League-manufactured controversy about Hide/Seek had confirmed the legitimacy of anti-gay critics. Removing the Wojnarowicz work from the exhibit, he said, “didn’t extricate the museum from [the culture war attacks], it implicated it.” Katz spoke of the hate mail he received after the Catholic League had distributed his personal contact information. He said he at first tried to respond personally to each of thousands of emails, but was invariably met with more hate. “I realized this is not a discussion, this is not a conversation,” he said.

Secretary Clough had opened the forum with a speech on explaining his decision to censor one work from Hide/Seek because, he said, “Above all, I wanted to keep the exhibition open.” I asked Katz and his co-panelists – a museum director and a Smithsonian curator– if it was ever appropriate or effective to remove one work of art from a show in order to save an exhibit or a museum or an entire institution. All answered “no.”

Thom Collins, a museum director who spoke of the numerous funding threats he had received in his work at publicly funded museums, said “As in any situation when you want to negotiate effectively, you have to be willing to walk away from the table.”

Katz added that removing a work from an exhibit in response to criticism “inherently aligns you with the censorious voices, and that’s a position a museum should never be in.” He added that in reacting so quickly to congressional Republicans’ threats of withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars of Smithsonian funding, the Smithsonian was “selling itself short” – that if our national museums were stripped of their funding “the American people would not stand for it.”

Earlier this month, PFAW held a panel discussion in New York to discuss censorship of the Smithsonian's Hide/Seek exhibit, featuring President Michael Keegan, artist AA Bronson, PFAW founder Norman Lear, critic Blake Gopnik, journalist Katrina Vanden Heuvel, and art museum director Dennis Barrie.

Michael Keegan's suggestions of ten questions for the Smithsonian panelists can be viewed here.

PFAW

Lear, Vanden Heuvel, Gopnik, Bronson, Barrie and Keegan Discuss the Smithonian Censorship and the “New Culture Wars”

Earlier this month, PFAW held a panel discussion in New York to discuss the censorship of the Smithsonian’s Hide/Seek exhibit. PFAW founder Norman Lear, art critic Blake Gopnik, artist AA Bronson, PFAW president Michael Keegan, art museum director Dennis Barrie and journalist Katrina vanden Heuvel discussed the Smithsonian scandal and the return of the Right’s “culture wars.” You can watch videos of the discussion here:











PFAW

Issa Deregulates While the Troops Get Evicted

“Support our troops!” rings the familiar battle cry of many Republicans in Congress. However, a new post by Courage Campaign calls attention to how, when talking about supporting the troops, they sometimes do not (literally) put their money where their mouths are.

Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, says he supports helping America’s soldiers obtain a good loan for housing:

In the 110th Congress, I supported H.R. 551, the “Home Ownership for America’s Veterans Act of 2007.” This bill will allow veterans entering the military after 1977 to participate in the Cal-Vet home loan program. The Cal-Vet program offers below market interest rate and little to no money down on home loans for qualified veterans purchasing a home in California. Currently, military before 1977 are afforded this opportunity. This benefit should be extended to our many members of the armed forces entering after this date.

 Unfortunately, the economic recession caused by Wall Street recklessness has hit military families disproportionately hard, and thousands of military families are losing their homes. If there was ever an appropriate target for an investigation, these bigwig bankers would be it.

The trouble is that the financial sector supplies plenty of campaign cash to Mr. Issa, so it is unlikely that we will see any meaningful oversight or reform in this arena any time soon, at least not while the Chairman prioritizes deregulation for the benefit of his corporate backers over all else.

Meanwhile, the troops are losing their homes.

PFAW

Tea Party Bemoans “Government-Corporate Cronyism” … Really???

Tea Party groups have been busy protesting companies that support eco-friendly and other progressive policies or help Democrats … they’ve even been protesting GE, NOT because the company exploits loopholes and tax credits to avoid paying any U.S. taxes, but because GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt works with the Obama administration chairing its Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

“Jeff Immelt is the face of government-corporate cronyism in America today,” commented Russ Walker, vice president of political and grassroots campaigns for the Tea Party “astroturf” group FreedomWorks.

The Tea Party needs to look in the mirror.

Overwhelmingly, it’s Tea Party Republicans who push the tax policies that allow GE to not pay its fair share of taxes … it’s Tea Party Republicans who want to bust up labor unions at the behest of the Koch brothers … it’s Tea Party Republicans who want to continue billions in subsidies for oil companies … and it’s Tea Party Republicans who oppose all regulation of corporate polluters, Big Insurance, Wall Street and every other sector of corporate America.

Now, there are certainly too many corporate-friendly Democrats … too many Blue Dogs and so-called moderates who are willing to put the interests of corporations over the interests of We the People. But let’s not be fooled by the Tea Party’s co-opting of rhetoric aimed at holding corporations accountable. The only accountability the Right wants for corporations is for when the occasional executive strays from the pack and is caught making nice with Democrats.

PFAW

ALEC to Hold Summit in Cincinnati

ALEC, a little known but enormously influential shadow right-wing policy organization, will be holding a summit in Cincinnati, Ohio today. Don’t be surprised that you didn’t know about it—unless you’re a top representative of a deep-pocketed corporation, you probably weren’t invited.

ALEC’s primary function is to ghostwrite bills for state legislators. Corporations pay a pretty penny for the access ALEC provides to elected officials, making this organization the epitome of pay-to-pay backroom politics.

It’s no wonder that Ohio policymakers are pursuing such an extreme pro-corporate agenda. If it requires millions of dollars to buy a ticket to the smoke-filled backroom, there’s just no way the middle class can compete.

PFAW

The Corporate Court Strikes Again: By 5-4, Supreme Court Undermines Class Action Consumer Protection Suits

Yesterday at the Supreme Court, the five conservative Justices on the Corporate Court handed corporate interests even greater control than before over Americans' daily lives. In AT&T v. Concepcion, a narrow 5-4 majority used a federal arbitration law in a way wholly alien to its intent: to undermine state consumer protection laws across the country. Even worse, under yesterday’s precedent, employers may now be able to easily cut off anti-discrimination enforcement through class action lawsuits – often the only way to address employment discrimination – by simply refusing to hire anyone who does not agree to resolve future conflicts through arbitration clauses that contain a ban on class action.

This case started when AT&T allegedly scammed thousands of customers by offering a "free" second phone, then charging them for the taxes on the undiscounted price of the phone. One of its victims brought a class action suit against the company. However, AT&T had a service contract where consumers had to agree to resolve any future claims against the cell phone company through arbitration, rather than the courts. In addition, customers had to agree not to participate in any class action against the telecommunications giant. So AT&T asked the court to enforce the agreement it had imposed upon the Concepcions by throwing out the class action suit and forcing them into arbitration, one lone family against AT&T suing for a few dollars without the protections of courts of law or neutral judges.

Under California law, the contractual prohibition against class action is so outrageous as to be illegal. California recognizes that such provisions effectively protect companies from being held liable for their transgressions and that they are able to force them upon consumers only because of the corporations’ vastly superior bargaining position.

But the Roberts Court said this state protection of consumers is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act, which generally encourages courts to compel arbitration in accordance with the terms of arbitration agreements.

Many of us have gotten incomprehensible bills from giant telecom companies with relatively small charges for services never ordered, or mysterious taxes or fees that the company should not be charging. Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers who are cheated in these situations don't even realize it. Moreover, because the amounts at issue are relatively small, there is little incentive for consumers to undertake the significant expenses of recovering their loss. Even when the company pays out to the tiny percentage of defrauded customers who go to the trouble to engage in lone arbitration against the company, the overall scheme remains profitable.

That is why class actions are so important. They allow the entire universe of cheated consumers to recoup their losses, making possible the deterrent effect of a potentially significant financial loss to the deceptive corporation. In ruling for AT&T, the Roberts Court has devastated state-level consumer protections like California’s and essentially given corporations an instruction manual on how to commit rampant fraud against consumers. Beyond that, using the same interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act, employers may be able to evade class-action discrimination lawsuits as well, putting all workers at risk.

Fortunately, unlike Citizens United, this Corporate Court gift to Big Business rests on an interpretation of a statute, not the Constitution. In other words, Congress can fix this problem with a simple bill. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has already called on Congress to do just that.

PFAW

Issa Not a Fan of Disclosure if it Means His Actions Must Be Disclosed

The Obama Administration is floating a proposal that would bring a little more transparency to the political process by requiring government contractors to disclose their campaign contributions over $5,000. Rep. Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee is strongly opposed to the proposed rule, since improved disclosure can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, improved disclosure would make the committee’s job easier, since more information would be readily available to investigate unethical pay-to-play contracts. But on the other hand, disclosure would be a bit awkward if it’s your political contributors wasting billions of taxpayer dollars or if you may have personally benefit from the nearly $1 million in earmarks you secured.

Issa isn’t totally against the idea of disclosure and record keeping—as long as it only applies to other people, such as Democrats. Could it be that the chairman of the committee charged with protecting the American people’s resources from waste and abuse might really just be interested in deciding who gets to waste and abuse?

See Common Cause's call for the executive order here.

PFAW

GOP Attempt To “Defund The Left” Paying Dividends

The Republican drive to eliminate workers’ rights and bust unions has always been a partisan campaign to “defund the left” cloaked in language of ‘fiscal responsibility.’ Wisconsin State Senate Leader Scott Fitzgerald, one of the champions of his state’s anti-union law, even admitted that the plan to dismantle unions for public employees was to undercut progressive political activities and weaken Obama’s state reelection campaign, saying: “If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.”

Now, the International Association of Fire Fighters has decided that it can’t afford to contribute to pro-union candidates on a federal scale because it needs to use its resources to fight back against the mushrooming threats to worker’s rights in GOP-controlled states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Alabama. Politico reports:

As newly elected Republican state legislatures aggressively push a slew of anti-union measures, the International Association of Fire Fighters is freezing its federal political spending and shifting all resources toward its beleaguered state and local colleagues.

“With the survival of our union and the ability to preserve and protect the rights, wages, and benefits our members deserve in jeopardy in the states, we have re-evaluated how to get the best results from our political dollars,” IAFF President Harold A. Schaitberger said Tuesday in an email blast to members that was obtained by POLITICO.



The move by the union is just the latest – and most dramatic – adjustment labor leaders are scrambling to make after Republicans across the nation in January tried to quickly push through new laws that would weaken the movement and its political influence.

In Wisconsin and Ohio, new laws would undermine the collective bargaining rights of most or all public employees. In Missouri, bills have been introduced to loosen wage and child labor laws. In Indiana, lawmakers sought to essentially ban public employee unions by becoming a right-to-work state. In Alabama, lawmakers have eliminated automatic union dues deductions from workers’ paychecks.
PFAW

Executive Order to Slightly Lessen Citizen's United Damage

An executive order is in the works that would alleviate, albeit very slightly, the severe damage caused by the Supreme Court's decision in Citizen’s United . The Obama Administration plans to require government contractors to disclose their political donations in an effort to improve transparency by showing taxpayers where their money is ultimately being spent, and to eliminate any illusion of contractors engaging in pay-to-play politics.

Republicans are crying foul in an effort to maintain the considerable fundraising advantage they've developed in a system dominated by shadowy interest groups  who can now spend freely on campaign ads. But considering that federal agencies spent about $535 billion of taxpayer money on contractors last year alone, it is reasonable to wonder how much of that money is spent on helping to elect the people who make the decisions about who gets government contracts.

Polls have shown that at least three-quarters of Americans are in favor of correcting the Citizen’s United decision and limiting the staggering influence of corporate interests in elections. This executive order may be a small step in the right direction, but it highlights the urgent need for Congress to revisit the DISCLOSE Act and other legislative remedies as well as a constitutional amendment to ensure our right to fair and transparent elections.

PFAW

Boehner to Consider Ending Subsidies to Big Oil

House Speaker John Boehner has finally acknowledged what Americans have known for a long time yet Congressional Republicans don’t seem to understand: the immensely profitable energy industry really doesn’t need federal subsidies, particularly when eliminating these needless giveaways would save our cash-strapped treasury up to $45 billion over the next decade.

“It’s certainly something we should be looking at,” Mr. Boehner said in an interview with ABC World News. “We’re in a time when the federal government’s short on revenues. They ought to be paying their fair share.”

Boehner goes on to say that President Obama is to blame for high gas prices, so voters will register their frustrations by voting against him in 2012. However, it’s more likely that Americans will feel similarly frustrated with the knowledge that while they are writing their check to the IRS each year and watching Congress cut the programs that matter most, huge companies are receiving enormous subsidies while raking in record profits. We would all be better off if Congress redirected these favors to big business toward creating jobs for the middle class.

Also, while we're at it, requiring the country’s biggest companies to pay more than $0 in taxes would make sense too.

PFAW