Weekly Audit: Government Shutdown Averted, But At What Cost?

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Congressional leaders and President Barack Obama reached an eleventh hour budget deal on Friday night, to fund the government for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year and avert a government shutdown for the time being.

The deal would cut about $38 billion, Amy Goodman reports for Democracy Now!, including $13 billion in cuts to the Department of Health, Labor, and Human Services.

John Nichols describes the nuts and bolts of the stopgap plan in The Nation:

The arrangement worked out Friday night averted the threatened shutdown with a two-step process. First, the House and Senate passed a one-week spending bill that addressed the immediate threat. That should give Congress and the White House time to finalize a fiscal 2011 spending deal—on which they have agreed in principle—before an April 15 deadline.

The Republicans will not be allowed to zero out Planned Parenthood. Instead they were allowed a separate, largely symbolic vote, which passed the House, but which is expected to die in the Senate.

Planned Parenthood and ACORN

Nick Baumann of Mother Jones argues that the deal is a case study in the priorities of the Democratic Party. At the last minute, congressional Democrats rallied to save Planned Parenthood. The venerable family planning organization was under fire because of an undercover video sting by Lila Rose, a onetime protegee of conservative propagandist James O’Keefe, who himself pulled a similar stunt against the anti-poverty, pro-voter registration group ACORN in 2009.

O’Keefe’s videos created a media firestorm and Congress rushed to de-fund ACORN with little protest from Democrats. Subsequent independent investigations revealed that the tapes had been deceptively edited. Vindication came too late for ACORN, which was forced to close its doors.

Baumann argues that Democrats spared Planned Parenthood and sacrificed ACORN because ACORN didn’t have friends in the right places:

Abortion rights affect everyone. But to put it bluntly, big Dem donors care a lot more about abortion rights than they do about community organizers in inner cities.

Specious “victory”

In the days leading up to the deal, the media created the expectation that the budget was a game that one party would “win.” Paul Waldman of The American Prospect argues that in his eagerness to declare “victory” in the budget showdown, President Obama is undermining his own political agenda.

It would have been nice if when announcing the budget deal, President Obama had set aside the politician’s natural inclination to declare victory and his own preference for casting himself as the adult who settles things between the squabbling children. He could have said something like this: “The deal we just made is preferable to a government shutdown, which would have been truly disastrous. But nobody should mistake it for anything but the tragedy it is. As a result of the cuts Republicans have forced, people who rely on government services will suffer, and the economy will lose jobs. The Republicans held the government hostage, and we had no choice but to pay the ransom.”

By rushing to champion the spending cuts, Obama may be saving face, but he’s also setting a precedent that will make the next round of cuts even easier. The truth is that Democrats conceded under duress, they didn’t volunteer to cut spending because they thought it would help the country.

Indeed, Democrats agreed to far more cuts than the Republicans initially asked for. Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks argues that the Tea Party and the ostensibly more mainstream Republicans set up a very effective good cop/bad cop negotiating strategy in which the Democrats would offer cuts and the mainstream Republicans would say, “I’d like to help you, really I would, but you know my partner isn’t going to like that.”

Corporate taxes

Joshua Holland of AlterNet explains how corporate American has successfully lobbied to shift an ever-increasing share of its tax burden onto the backs of individual citizens:

Well, consider this: in the 1940s, corporations paid 43 percent of all the federal income taxes collected in this country. In the 1950s, they picked up the tab for 39 percent. But by the time the 1990s rolled around, corporations were paying just 18.9 percent of federal income taxes, and they forked over the same figure in the first decade of this century. We – working people – paid the difference.

Something to think about as we prepare to file our income tax returns.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The MulchThe Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Massive Protest In Wisconsin Shows Walker’s Overreach

 

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

About 100,000 people gathered in Madison, Wisconsin to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s new anti-collective bargaining law. The state Senate hurriedly past the bill without a quorum last Wednesday. Roger Bybee of Working In These Times reports:

The rally featured 50 farmers on tractors roaring around the Capitol to show their support for public workers and union representatives from across the nation, stressing the importance of the Wisconsin struggle. Protesters were addressed by a lineup of fiery speakers including fillmaker Michael Moore, the Texas populist radio broadcaster Jim Hightower, TV host Laura Flanders, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, and The Progressive editor Matt Rothschild, among others.

The bill is law, but the fight is far from over. The Wisconsin Democratic Party says it already has 45% of the signatures it needs to recall 8 Republican state senators. So far, canvassers have collected 56,000 signatures, up from 14,000 last weekend. The surge in signature gathering is another sign that the Walker government’s abrupt push to pass the bill has energized the opposition.

Polling bolsters the impression that Walker overreached by forcing the bill through with a dubious procedural trick. Simeon Talley of Campus Progress notes that, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, Americans oppose efforts to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees.

Jamelle Bouie of TAPPED notes that the enthusiasm gap that helped elect Scott Walker last year has disappeared. In June 2o10, 58% of Democrats said they were certain to vote compared to 67% of Republicans. In March 2011, 86% of Democrats and 85% of Republicans surveyed said they would certainly vote.

Firefighters shut down bank

Wisconsin firefighters found a way to get back at one of Scott Walker’s most generous donors, Madison’s M&I Bank, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd reports in AlterNet. Firefighters Local 311 President Joe Conway put a call out to his members who banked with M&I to “Move Your Money.” Firefighters withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars of savings in cashiers checks. The beleaguered bank closed its doors at 3pm on March 10.

John Nichols of the Nation reports that other unions got in on the act. He quotes a pamphlet distributed by Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 565:

“M&I execs gave more money than even the Koch Brothers to Governor Walker and the Wisconsin GOP,” the message goes. “M&I got a $1.7 billion bailout while its CEO gets an $18 million golden parachute. Tell M&I Bank: Back Politicians Who Take Away Our Rights (and) We Take Away Your Business.”

Nichols explains that the next big step in the fight to overturn the bill will be the Wisconsin Supreme Court election, set for April 5. Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg is challenging conservative state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser. Legal analysts have raised serious questions about the bill and the process by which it was passed. A court challenge to Walker’s law might stand a better chance if a liberal justice replaces the conservative pro-corporate Prosser.

Guess what? We’re not broke

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly takes on a GOP talking point, the myth that the United States is broke. It’s a convenient claim for those who wish to make massive cuts to popular programs without having to justify taking them away. If we don’t have the money, we don’t have the money. If it’s a choice between cuts and bankruptcy, cuts suddenly seem not only acceptable, but inevitable.

But the United States has a $15 trillion economy, immense natural resources, a highly educated workforce, and countless other economic advantages. The problem isn’t a lack of resources, it’s extreme inequality of distribution. Over the last 20 years, 56% of income growth has been funneled to the top 1% of the population, with fully one third of that money going to the richest one-tenth of one percent.

Benen notes that the Republicans didn’t think we were broke when they were advocating for a $538 billion tax-cut package, which wasn’t offset by a dime of cuts.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Campaign Cash: Tea Party Vows to Block Campaign Finance Reform

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Welcome to the final edition of Campaign Cash, which tracked political spending during this year’s midterm elections. Stay tuned for more reporting on money in politics from members of The Media Consortium. To see more stories on campaign funding, follow the Twitter hashtag #campaigncash.

Anonymous millionaires just helped elect dozens of ultraconservative congressional candidates, by pumping millions of dollars into national Tea Party organizations. And guess what’s at the top of the legislative to-do list for those same Tea Party groups? Blocking campaign finance reform legislation.

As Stephanie Mencimer explains for Mother Jones, one of the nation’s largest Tea Party organizations, the Tea Party Patriots, is already coming out guns-a-blazing against any lame duck effort to crack down on secret corporate spending in elections.

And with good cause. The Tea Party’s appeal, after all, is based on its populist, grassroots image. If anybody knew that secret right-wing millionaires were bankrolling the entire operation, the “movement” would lose its luster.

But whether reformers are able to force front-groups to disclose their donors or not, the broader effort to eliminate undue corporate influence from the political process will take years.

Welcome to the plutocracy

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission allowed corporations and deep-pocketed elites to spend unlimited amounts electing politicians of their choosing. So long as those expenditures are funneled through a front-group, nobody has to know who is buying an ugly attack ad or why. Instead ads are sponsored by groups with a innocuous-sounding names like “Americans for Prosperity” or “Americans for Job Security.” Nobody knows who ultimately foots the bill.

In organized crime, this process is called “money laundering.” And everyone is getting in on the game, from the Tea Party to Karl Rove to U.S. Chamber of Commerce. As Bill Moyers explains in this Boston University lecture carried by Truthout, it’s ravaging American democracy.

Rove, other conservative groups and the Chamber of Commerce have in fact created a “shadow party” … We have reached what … former Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls “the perfect storm that threatens American democracy: An unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top; a record amount of secret money flooding our democracy; and a public becoming increasingly angry and cynical about a government that’s raising its taxes, reducing its services, and unable to get it back to work. We’re losing our democracy to a different system. It’s called plutocracy.”

That, ultimately, is what is at stake with campaign finance reform. Can democracy continue to serve as a check on elite power? Or will America simply dance to the tune played by the super-rich. Citizens United made an undemocratic mess of this year’s election—but the influence of corporate cash is not going to simply melt away. Without serious reforms, the very concept of American elections will become a quaint, naive relic of the past.

Wall Street wins big

And while the plutocracy plainly organized itself against Democrats in this election, democrats have not exactly been strangers to corporate largesse. As Laura Flanders emphasizes for GRITtv, while President Barack Obama occasionally offered rhetorical rebukes against the Wall Street establishment, so far as public policy was concerned, he rarely did anything to ruffle their feathers. Obama continued the Bush bailouts, praised the executives of firms would eventually be investigated for fraud as “savvy,” and aimed pretty low on financial reform. But as Flanders notes, all those favors didn’t end up helping either Obama or his party on Nov. 2:

Having soaked up the government’s largesse, those banksters repaid Obama by pouring millions of anonymous dollars into defeating Democrats.

It worked. The most vocal Wall Street critics in the House and Senate—Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) were bombarded with attack ads courtesy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Now they’re gone, along with the Democratic majority in the House.

Last-ditch effort on campaign finance reform

As Jesse Zwick emphasizes for The Washington Independent, Congress can still limit the damage in the coming months before the officials elected last night take office. A modest law that would require corporations to disclose their political expenditures and force front-groups to publicly identify their donors would help limit the damage.

After that, as Moyers emphasizes, it’s a long, hard fight.

But wait! There’s more.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the mid-term elections and campaign financing by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit The Media Consortium for more articles on these issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Wall Street Goes to the Movies

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Last week, the U.S. Senate rejected a plan that would have broken up the nation’s six largest banks firms into firms that could fail without wreaking havoc on the economy. Even though the defeat reinforces Wall Street’s political dominance, there is still room for a handful of other useful reforms, like banning banks from gambling with taxpayer money and protecting consumers from banker abuses. After looting our houses, banks are now pushing for the ability to bet on movie box-office receipts, and will keep trying to financialize anything they can unless Congress acts.

Wall Street calls the shots

Writing for The Nation, John Nichols details last week’s Capitol Hill damage. Today’s financial oligarchy, in which a handful of bigwig bankers and their lobbyists are able to write regulations and evade rules they don’t like, will still be in place after the Wall Street reform bill is passed. The lesson is clear, as Nichols notes:

Whatever the final form of federal financial services reform legislation, one thing is now certain: The biggest of the big banks will still be calling the shots.

Still worth fighting for

As I emphasize for AlterNet, Congress has made a terrible mistake here, but there is still room for reform. It took President Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven years to enact his New Deal banking laws. It took even longer to reshape public opinion of monopolies when President Theodore Roosevelt took on Corporate America in the early 1900s.

What’s still worth fighting for? We have to curb the derivatives market—the multi-trillion-dollar casino that destroyed AIG. We have to impose a strong version of the Volcker Rule, which would ban banks from engaging in speculative trading for their own accounts. We have to change the way the Federal Reserve does business and force the government’s most secretive bailout engine to operate in the open. And we have to establish a strong, independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency to ensure that the horrific subprime mortgage abuses are not repeated.

As Nomi Prins details for The American Prospect, the current reform bill will not effectively deal with the dangers posed by hedge funds and private equity firms—companies that partnered with banks to blow up the economy through investments in subprime mortgages. That means that whatever happens with the current bill, Congress must again take action next year to rein in other financial sector excesses.

The derivatives casino at the movies

As Nick Baumann demonstrates for Mother Jones, banks are doing everything they can to gobble up other productive elements of the economy. The economy crashed in 2008 in large part because banks had used the derivatives market to place trillions of dollars in speculative bets on the housing market. This wasn’t lending, it was pure gambling: Instead of using poker chips, bankers placed their bets with derivatives. But, as Baumann emphasizes, banks are now looking to expand the sort of thing they can make derivatives gambles with. The latest proposal is to allow banks to bet on the box office success of movies. That’s right, banks would be gambling on movies.

Hollywood may be shallow, but it isn’t stupid. It doesn’t want to see the banking industry repeat its destructive looting of the housing industry on the movie business, and is pushing hard to ban banks from betting on movies. But we can’t count on every industry having a powerful lobby group to counter every assault from the banking system.

Taking stock in schools

Consider the unsettling report by Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now!. Gonzales details how big banks gamed the charter school system to score huge profits while simultaneously saddling taxpayers with massive debts that make teaching kids supremely difficult. By exploiting multiple federal tax credits, banks that invest in charter schools have been able to double their money in seven years—no small feat in the investing world—while schools have seen their rents skyrocket. One school in Albany, N.Y. saw its rent jump from $170,000 to $500,000 in a single year.

About that unemployment rate…

It’s not like public schools are flush with cash right now. The $330,000 increase in rent could pay the salaries of more than a few teachers. As the recession sparked by big bank excess grinds on, even the good news is pretty hard to swallow. As David Moberg emphasizes for Working In These Times, the economy added 290,000 jobs in April, but the unemployment rate actually climbed from 9.7 percent to 9.9 percent in March. That’s because the unemployment rate only counts workers who are actively seeking a job—if you want a job but haven’t found one for so long that you give up, you’re not technically “unemployed.” All of those “new” workers are driving the official figures up.

In other words, it’s still rough out there. And likely to stay rough as state governments try to deal with the lost tax revenue from plunging home values and mass layoffs. Nearly half of all unemployed people in the U.S. have been out of a job for six months or more. And while we’d be much worse off without Obama’s economic stimulus package, that percentage is likely to grow this year, Moberg notes.

This is what unrestrained banking behemoths do. They book big profits and bonuses for themselves, regardless of the consequences for the rest of the economy. Congress absolutely must impose serious financial reform this year. After the November election, breaking up the banks must once again be on the agenda when Congress considers the future fate of hedge funds, private equity firms, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. If we don’t rein in Wall Street, banks will continue to wreak havoc on our homes, our jobs and even our schools. Congress must act.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Audit: Time to Audit the Fed

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Two key lawmakers on the House Financial Services Committee, Reps. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Ron Paul (R-TX), are pushing to authorize a full, comprehensive audit of the Federal Reserve. The plan has sparked fury from both the Fed and the corporate banking industry, but the proposal is so appealing that the controversy is almost laughable.

The Federal Reserve is one of the most powerful economic institutions in the world, but most of its operations are conducted in total secrecy. The Fed's rescue activities have dwarfed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, but without any public accounting. Some of these efforts may have been entirely appropriate, but we don't even know who the Fed is helping. That fact is a major barrier to establishing effective and fair economic policy.

As Glenn Greenwald observes for Salon:

"The Fed is a typical Washington institution that operates un-democratically and in virtually total secrecy, and a Congressionally-mandated audit that they (and much of the DC establishment) desperately oppose would be a serious step towards changing the dynamic of how things function. At the very least, it would provide an important template for defeating the interests which, in Washington, almost never lose."

Under the Grayson-Paul plan, which is offered as an amendment to the Financial Stability Improvement Act of 2009, the Government Accountability Office would be given the authority to audit all of the Federal Reserve's activities, just as it can audit other public programs and institutions.

Last week, the House Financial Services Committee approved the audit-the-fed bill, despite opposition from panel Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA), who tried to gut the plan. Even on the Financial Services Committee, where the banks concentrate their campaign contributions, Grayson was able to convince 14 other Democrats to stand up to the financial establishment.

The vote of approval scarcely registered on mainstream media's radar, and even then, the Grayson-Paul legislation was portrayed as an assault on the Fed's "political independence." As Dean Baker notes for Talking Points Memo, it's hard to see how a simple, public accounting can be construed as a political hit on the Fed's policy-making.

By setting interest rates, the Fed has enormous power to do almost anything under the economic sun, from fueling quick growth to destroying jobs. All of these powers have useful functions under the right circumstances, and we really don't want Congress to make decisions about the economy based on the interests of powerful lobby groups. The Grayson-Paul bill wouldn't do anything of the sort. As John Nichols explains for The Nation, audits of sensitive economic policy decisions would be subject to a six-month lag before they could be publicly released. If the Fed needs to act fast, Congress won't be able to get in its way. The public will eventually know how its own money is being spent, however, and learn how a public institution is conducting itself.

"In other words, this is about simple transparency, which everyone should favor," Nichols writes.

The White House and the Congressional Democratic leadership need to support a full and comprehensive audit of the Federal Reserve. It's an issue of basic democratic accountability. There is no good reason why economic policy should be conducted in secret.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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