PEOPLE FOR BLOG

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:











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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

Prop 8 Supporters Seek to Vacate Case They Lost

Proponents of California's Proposition 8 are making another assault against the trial court decision they lost and have appealed. This time, instead of addressing the merits of the case, they are attacking the judge who wrote the opinion. As reported in SCOTUSBlog:

Arguing that the judge who struck down California's ban on same-sex marriage was not impartial, because of his failure to disclose his own long-term gay relationship, the sponsors of Proposition 8 asked a federal judge in San Francisco on Monday to throw out all parts of the ruling and any earlier orders in the famous case. The motion to vacate the ruling by now-retired U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker can be read here.

Since Walker retired, the case has been taken over for any further action in U.S. District Court in San Francisco by the chief judge there, James Ware. The new filing by the Proposition 8 backers said they would seek permission from the Ninth Circuit Court — where Walker's ruling is now under review — for Judge Ware to rule on their new challenge. With the case pending in the Circuit Court, that judge may not have the authority to act without permission. ...

The motion asserted that the opponents were "not suggesting that a gay or lesbian judge could not sit on his case." Rather, they argued that Judge Walker had a personal interest in the outcome of the case, because he may wish to marry his partner if Proposition 8 no longer exists. At a minimum, the motion argued, he should have disclosed that relationship and whether he has any interest in marriage so that the parties in the case could evaluate whether to formally demand that he step aside under federal laws governing such disqualifications.

Right Wing Watch reported last week on The National Review’s Ed Whalen making this same argument.

The claim that Judge Walker had a personal stake in the case that warrants throwing his decision out adds yet another illogical inconsistency to the far right’s arguments against marriage equality. Under this reasoning, since traditional marriage is designed to show societal favor toward monogamous opposite-sex couples, any judge in an opposite-sex relationship has a personal stake in the case that warrants disqualification.

And if same-sex marriage genuinely threatens opposite-sex marriage as the far right claims, then married heterosexual judges (or ones in long-term relationships who might want to marry someday) have a personal stake in the Prop 8 case that could disqualify them from hearing the case.

If anti-equality advocates actually believe the legal principles they espouse, they should apply them across the board, not only when it suits their political agenda. Otherwise, one might be forgiven for thinking that their real goal is to hurt gay people, rather than to protect the integrity of the law.

PFAW

10 Ways to Talk About Censorship

Tonight, the Smithsonian will begin a two-day forum on censorship in public museums. The forum comes as a (belated) response to the controversy that erupted after the Smithsonian removed a work of art from a National Portrait Gallery exhibition celebrating the gay and lesbian experience in American portraiture as a result of pressure from the religious right.

Here at PFAW, we’re thrilled that the Smithsonian is holding this sort of public forum, but we want to make sure that the Smithonian’s leaders are made to answer some tough questions. At the Huffington Post, PFAW’s Michael Keegan has come up with a few ideas to get the conversation started. Read them here.

And here’s the information on the forum if you’re in the DC area and want to ask some questions in person.

 

PFAW

Firm Hired to Defend DOMA Drops the House

King & Spalding, the top-tier law firm hired by the House of Representatives to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), has backed out of the agreement. Although a statement on behalf of the firm declined to specify exactly why they changed their minds and are no longer interested in a cool $500,000 of taxpayer money, Speaker Boehner will likely have to explain to the American people why he is once again leading the effort to enforce an unjust, discriminatory and now unpopular law instead of leading the effort to repeal it.

As PFAW’s Marge Baker told Roll Call last week, Americans might wonder why House Republicans wish to focus government resources on denying equal rights to gay and lesbian citizens rather than on creating jobs.

Whatever the motivation behind King & Spalding’s decision, the firm has at least provided the House with yet another opportunity to change course and do the right thing.

PFAW

Big Pharma, Little Regulation

Congress may be in recess this week, but that doesn’t mean policymakers are taking a break from cozying up to corporate campaign contributors. Today at a field hearing in California, the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform is inviting top pharmaceutical executives to testify about how government regulations intended to prevent drug companies from selling poison to the general public are hindering their ability to make money.

Committee Chairman Darrell Issa’s habit of providing Republican financiers with the opportunity to requests favors from his committee is nothing new, but a report from Public Campaign gives the details on how Big Pharma earned its day on the witness stand.

According to the report, the pharmaceutical industry is Issa’s #1 contributor, giving him nearly $300,000 throughout his time in Congress—including a haul of $72,000 in 2010 alone. 83 percent of the industry’s contributions to Issa's campaign committee have come from the PACs of 25 different companies, led by giants such as Allergen, Pfizer, Amgen and GlaxoSmithKline. Even the hearing’s witnesses have personally made substantial donations: Duane Roth, Chairman of Alliance Pharmeceutical Corporation, has donated $5,500 to Issa. Alexander Lukianov, CEO, Nuvasive, Inc., has donated nearly $10,000 to the Republican National Committee.

I’m holding my breath to see how many “federal policies affecting job growth in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries” will be slashed at the “suggestion” of the industry.

PFAW

Citizens United Freed Corporations to Politically Pressure Employees

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on politicking, has caused ripples of sometimes unexpected consequences – from the toppling of long-established state laws to the rise of secretive corporate spending groups that operate outside the reach of disclosure laws. Now The Nation has uncovered another destructive consequence of the decision:

On the eve of the November midterm elections, Koch Industries sent an urgent letter to most of its 50,000 employees advising them on whom to vote for and warning them about the dire consequences to their families, their jobs and their country should they choose to vote otherwise.

The Nation obtained the Koch Industries election packet for Washington State [1]—which included a cover letter from its president and COO, David Robertson; a list of Koch-endorsed state and federal candidates; and an issue of the company newsletter, Discovery, full of alarmist right-wing propaganda.

Legal experts interviewed for this story called the blatant corporate politicking highly unusual, although no longer skirting the edge of legality, thanks to last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which granted free speech rights to corporations.

“Before Citizens United, federal election law allowed a company like Koch Industries to talk to officers and shareholders about whom to vote for, but not to talk with employees about whom to vote for,” explains Paul M. Secunda, associate professor of law at Marquette University. But according to Secunda, who recently wrote in The Yale Law Journal Online about the effects of Citizens United on political coercion in the workplace, the decision knocked down those regulations. “Now, companies like Koch Industries are free to send out newsletters persuading their employees how to vote. They can even intimidate their employees into voting for their candidates.” Secunda adds, “It’s a very troubling situation.”

The Kochs were major supporters of the Citizens United case; they were also chief sponsors of the Tea Party and major backers of the anti-“Obamacare” campaign. Through their network of libertarian think tanks and policy institutes, they have been major drivers of unionbusting campaigns in Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere.

“This sort of election propaganda seems like a new development,” says UCLA law professor Katherine Stone, who specializes in labor law and who reviewed the Koch Industries election packet for The Nation. “Until Citizens United, this sort of political propaganda was probably not permitted. But after the Citizens United decision, I can imagine it’ll be a lot more common, with restrictions on corporations now lifted.”

PFAW

From Wisconsin: Palin Echoes the Right's Lies in Madison Speech

On Saturday in Madison, some of the right wing’s favorite puppets rallied along with an estimated 1,000 Americans for Prosperity “Patriots” and 5,500 counter protesters at the Capitol.

As the former Governor of Alaska took the stage to chants and drums and counter protesters respectfully turning their backs, sleet turned to snow, the wind from Lake Mendota whipped through the crowd and the protesters’ chants and drums grew so loud that it was impossible to hear the loudspeakers.

Palin called for the crowd to support Governor Walker’s strong armed maneuvering, saying “...you saw these violent rent-a-mobs trash your capitol and vandalize businesses. You held your ground. Your governor did the same thing. And you won.” It isn’t clear what violent mobs or vandalized businesses she was referring to. Fox News and fringe right-wing websites have tried to make similar claims about the protesters in Wisconsin, even resorting to using misleading video footage from unrelated protests in other states. But as anyone without a dishonest, far-right agenda who has been following the events of the last 62+ days can tell you, the protests -- and the protesters -- have been peaceful.

While Palin spent the majority of her speech blasting President Obama for energy saving and job creating programs such as consumer solar panels and high speed rail, Andrew Breitbart cut right to the point at hand, leading a chant of “go to hell” aimed at the thousands of counter protesters.

Despite the miserable weather, PFAW members and a whole host of progressive and labor allies were out in force in support of collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin’s public workers, not only at the Tea Party’s rally but on the other side of the Capitol, where thousands gathered for songs, slam poetry and speeches by those leading the fight.

After 62+ days of protests in Madison transitioning into weeks of recall efforts across the state, it’s clear this is truly what democracy looks like.

Wisconsin PFAW Supporters were out to greet Ms. Palin on Saturday:

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