Republicans are making hay over Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who stepped down as chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee after the House Ethics Committee admonished Rangel for traveling to a junket funded by corporations.

While Republicans and their media allies celebrated Rangel’s downfall, and they anticipate more crowing as the ethics committee digests other complaints about Rangel’s conduct, Joe Conason noted at Salon.com (3/4) that five years ago, when Tom DeLay, who was then House Majority Leader, was under intense pressure from prosecutors, the press and watchdog groups for transgressions that included taking foreign trips funded by outside groups, the National Review urged conservative to rally around him. Indeed, in November 2004, Senate Republicans voted to change the rules so that DeLay’s expected indictment on felony charges for illegally funding corporate donations to Texas legislators would not automatically oust him. A few months later the Republican majority restored the old rule when public outrage became overwhelming. But the GOP in February 2005 purged three of its own members from the ethics committee — including Chairman Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) — after the Republicans joined Dems in admonishing DeLay for involving a federal agency in a Texas partisan matter, staging a fundraising event in a way that appeared to link access to political donations and saying he would support the campaign of a retiring congressman’s son to succeed his father if the congressman voted for legislation adding a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.

“When did the Republicans start to worry so much about ethical purity?” Conason wondered. “Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who replaced Hefley as ethics chairman, was notable for stalling probes into the truly repugnant misconduct of Mark Foley (R-Fla.), Randy Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), as well as his sponsor DeLay. Foley narrowly escaped criminal indictment, while the other two went to prison (where Cunningham will remain for the rest of his life).

“The rule that Rangel violated when he took those now-infamous Caribbean trips was instituted by the Democratic majority as part of its ethics reorganization. This was a rules change that Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) vocally opposed — and it is a rule that Boehner would have violated more than once had it been in effect a year or two earlier.” Back in July 2006, the New York Times reported that Boehner flew to a golf resort in Boca Raton, Fla., for a convention of commodities traders, who had contributed more than $100,000 to his campaigns and were lobbying against a proposed federal tax on futures transactions. During the trip, the Times noted, Boehner assured his hosts that Congress would most likely not approve a tax they opposed. His leadership committee, the Freedom Project, which has enlisted the use of corporate planes from Federal Express, Aflac and the Florida Power and Light Company, later reimbursed the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for the cost of the Boca Raton trip.

“Naturally Boehner’s leadership PAC is funded heavily by corporate interests — so he was ‘reimbursing’ one corporation with money donated to him by others,” Conason noted. “Boehner has always been known as an obsequious servant of business lobbyists, dating back to the moment in 1995 when he was observed handing out checks from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company political action committee on the House floor. (Confronted by a few naive GOP freshmen, he conceded that such brazen grifting ‘didn’t look good’ and was sorry that he had been caught.)

“At this point it is clear that Rangel is guilty of hubris and sloppiness, and perhaps worse. It isn’t easy to understand why he should be branded irredeemably “corrupt,” however, while someone like Boehner is considered an honorable public servant. The notion that he and his cronies would restore ethical standards if they regain the majority must be a joke.”

The Ethics Committee also is investigating charges that include improperly raising funds for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York, his alma mater, but Joe Conason noted that leaders on both sides of the Capitol have engaged in questionable fundraising for academic institutions that bear their names, including former Senate Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and his successor, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has named both Rangel and McConnell to its annual lists of the “most corrupt” legislators, the list of donors to the McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville was kept hidden by university administrators. When the Louisville Courier-Journal sued to obtain the names of those donors, the Kentucky Supreme Court handed down a curious decision. Future donors to the center would have to be revealed, the court ruled in August 2008, but 62 past donors could remain anonymous.

But thanks to the newspaper’s diligent reporting, Conason noted, names of several of the bigger donors have emerged over the past several years. They include Toyota, which gave $833,000 to the McConnell Center and  considers the Kentucky senator among its main Washington assets during its current crisis; RJ Reynolds and Phillip Morris, which gave $150,000 and $450,000, respectively, and which know they can count on him as a staunch backer of tobacco interests; and Yum Inc., the huge KFC/Pizza Hut/Taco Bell franchiser and a $250,000 donor, whose management was surely pleased when McConnell sponsored a special-interest bill protecting the fast-food industry against lawsuits alleging that their products cause obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

“Yet of all the dubious donors to the McConnell Center, the worst smell emanates from BAE Systems, the British-based defense firm that just settled a years-long, transatlantic bribery investigation last month by paying a record $450 million fine negotiated by prosecutors in London and Washington,” Conason wrote. “BAE subsidiary United Defense Industries gave $500,000 to the McConnell Center because, as a spokesman proudly explained to the Courier-Journal, ‘We have a very good relationship with Senator McConnell. We appreciate all he’s done for our company and our employees in Louisville.’

“What has he done for BAE? In the fall of 2007, to cite just one notorious instance, he secured three earmarks worth $25 million for the firm in the defense appropriations bill for programs that the Pentagon had not requested. By then, everyone knew that BAE was crooked and under investigation by the Justice Department, but McConnell continued to perform favors for the company and accept donations from its political action committee,” Conason wrote.

Mike Madden also noted at Salon.com (3/5) that you probably won’t hear the GOP talking about these colleagues as they discuss Rangel in the months before the November elections:

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), National Republican Congressional Committee chair, faced questions last year about a $1.6 mln earmark he won for an Illinois company to make blimps, even though the company had no experience in the blimp-making business. A former Sessions aide had been paid nearly $500,000 to lobby for the firm. He also appears to have closer ties to disgraced banker Allen Stanford than he’s interested in discussing.

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) is still in Congress, even though he has been the subject of at least two recent federal criminal investigations. One involved a $10 mln earmark for a Florida company Young dropped into a 2006 bill just before it passed; another dealt with a broad investigation into political corruption in Alaska, tied to the (ultimately flawed) case that led to former Sen. Ted Stevens’s defeat.

Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) is leaving Congress to run for governor of Georgia. But even conservatives have pointed out that he’s also the subject of a House ethics investigation into contracts between a business he owns and the state government.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) admitted to federal election officials in 2008 she had failed to report $286,278 in campaign expenditures over her time in Congress, as well as $102,044 in contributions she had never disclosed. Some of the unreported expenditures were payments to her daughter and her son-in-law.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) was investigated by federal agents four years ago as part of the same investigation that led Cunningham to plead guilty to taking bribes. He’s also been investigated for his relationship with a lobbying firm, the clients of which Lewis helped obtain millions of dollars in earmarks.

BANKS PROFIT FROM STATES’ FISCAL CRISES. The same large banks whose unregulated actions were primary contributors to the economic downturn have also been manipulating state and local governments to profit from budget deficits for years, Altaf Rahamatulla reported at ProgressiveStates.org (3/4). “Essentially, banks are alluring states with the promise of a means to cut borrowing costs and increase returns through the use of an interest rate swap.  The mechanism is a derivative that allows cash-strapped municipalities and states to exchange interest payments on a variable bond deal for an allocation of funds from a bank. So, the bank would establish a fixed rate on the bond and swap for the variable ‘interest rate of the bond that was set by larger macroeconomic forces, such as the Federal Reserve.’ Unfortunately, the results have been disastrous.”

These type of deals are losing propositions for states and municipalities.  Under unfavorable marketing conditions, interest payments and fees associated with these deals can jump dramatically. Since the federal government decreased interest rates to shore up financial institutions, the banks were able to profit tremendously while budget gaps at the local and state level continue to grow. As Mike Elk from the Campaign for America’s Future explains:

“While banks are still collecting fixed rates of from 4% to 6%, they are now regularly paying state and local governments as a little as a tenth of 1% on the outstanding bonds ... Banks and states were supposed to be paying equal rates. However, with the Fed lowering interest rates, which was anticipated, now states and local governments are paying about 50 times what the banks are paying ... To make matters worse, these state and local governments have no way of getting out these deals. Banks are demanding that state and local governments pay tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in fees to exit these deals.”

The deals have cost state governments and taxpayers almost $28 bln in interest and fees at a time when states are already collectively facing billion dollar deficits and considering huge cuts to essential public services.

Some areas in the country have amassed massive debt as a result of similar deals. For instance, Detroit, with an unemployment rate of almost 15%, entered a derivatives deal with UBS and other banks that supposedly permitted $2 mln in annual interest savings on $800 mln worth of bonds. In order to protect against losses, the deal carried a stipulation that if Detroit’s credit rating dropped, the banks could negate on its obligations and charge a breakup fee. As the city’s credit rating plummeted during the recession, it found itself in a position of owing over $400 mln. Now, the city is using casino revenue to pay $4.2 mln in monthly payments to the banks. The city must pay the banks before considering funding other services.

Some states are considering the creation of state-owned banks to protect against the abuses of private banks, foster public accountability and fiscal integrity, increase local economic development investments, promote competition, and expand lending to small businesses. North Dakota, with a 4.4% unemployment rate and a $700 mln budget surplus last year, is home to the country’s only state-owned bank.

• Legislative and gubernatorial candidates in Florida, Oregon, Idaho Illinois, and California have floated the idea of creating a state bank.

• Massachusetts Sen. President Therese Murray and Virginia Del. Bob Marshall each advanced initiatives in their respective states to study the creation of a state bank.

• Washington Rep. Bob Hasegawa introduced HB 3162 this year, a bill that would create a state-owned bank.

ANTI-UNION R’S HOLD AVIATION FUNDING. Republican senators are blocking passage of a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and devoting $70 bln to airport infrastructure because it also would make it easier for FedEx employees to unionize. FedEx, which claims it is an airline, operates under the Railway Labor Act, which makes it more difficult to organize than the National Labor Relations Act, under which unionized UPS operates. Last year, when the House approved the FAA reauthorization bill, it included a provision that changed the inequity in labor law. The Senate bill doesn’t actually include the change but Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has placed a hold on the bill until he is assured that the FedEx provision won’t be included in the final legislation. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) also opposes the provision that would treat FedEx the same as UPS. FedEx not only has kept its drivers from unionizing; it also categorizes 15,000 of them as independent contractors, which allows them to avoid paying payroll taxes, benefits and workers compensation claims for on-the-job injuries. Corker and Alexander call the House provision a “UPS bailout.” As in the case of the extension of unemployment benefits and the Department of Transportation, a hold can be overcome with 60 Senate votes, but a single senator can still put up procedural roadblocks that can delay passage by days or weeks.

LINCOLN DRAWS POPULIST DEM CHALLENGE. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), who helped to kill the popular public option in the Senate health reform bill, has drawn a populist challenger from the left as Lt. Gov. Bill Halter jumped into the 5/18 Dem primary race. Halter worked in President Clinton’s budget office, went on to lead the Social Security Administration and was elected lieutenant governor in 2006 with 57% of the vote. In his announcement he bashed GOP and Wall Street schemes to privatize Social Security.

The Democratic establishment, including President Obama, is expected to back Lincoln, but the AFL-CIO is among progressive groups supporting Halter after Lincoln has opposed the public option on health care, the card-check bill to make it easier to unionize and one of Obama’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board. Four unions — AFSCME, Communications Workers, Steelworkers and Service Employees — have each pledged $1 mln to Halter’s campaign. Progressive MoveOn.org also raised $1.2 mln for Halter. Karen Ackerman, the labor federation’s political director, told the New York Times some candidates, whom unions endorsed and campaigned for in 2006 and 2008, would not be endorsed this year or might be endorsed without receiving campaign troops because their record was not strong enough. “We’ll work very hard to get warriors for working people elected,” Ackerman said. “Those who haven’t proven themselves will not get the support of the labor movement.”

Ellen Malcolm, chair of EMILY’s List, which helped Lincoln win election to the Senate in 1998, noted that Lincoln reneged on her promise to oppose a bill to ban “partial birth” abortions without exceptions to protect the woman’s health.

CITIES SUE WEED-KILLER MAKER FOR WATER CONTAMINATION. A coalition of communities in six Midwestern states filed a federal lawsuit seeking to force the manufacturer of a widely-used herbicide to pay for its removal from drinking water, Danielle Ivory reported at HuffingtonPost.com (3/8). Atrazine, a weed-killer sprayed primarily on cornfields, can run off into rivers and streams that supply municipal water systems, but the EPA failed to notify the public that atrazine had been found at levels above the federal safety limit in at least four states. The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in the Southern District of Illinois by 16 cities in Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri and Iowa, alleges that Swiss corporation Syngenta AG and its Delaware counterpart Syngenta Crop Protection Inc. reaped billions of dollars from the sale of atrazine while local taxpayers were left with the financial burden of filtering the chemical from drinking water.

The European Union in 2004 banned the use of atrazine and the EPA recently announced it would re-evaluate the herbicide’s ability to cause cancer and birth defects, as well as its potential to disrupt hormone and reproductive systems.

R’S OPPOSE SCHOOL LUNCH. A House resolution expressing support for the goals and ideals of the National School Lunch Program and “recognizes that our pupils deserve access to high-quality, safe, and nutritious meals in school,” passed 403-13, with every Democrat and 155 Republicans, including the entire GOP congressional leadership voting in favor. But 13 Republicans voted against the resolution: Reps. Todd Akin (MO-02), Paul Broun (GA-10), Jason Chaffetz (UT-03), Jeff Flake (AZ-06), Virginia Foxx (NC-05), Scott Garrett (NJ-05), Lamborn (CO-05), Cynthia Lummis (WY-AL), Tom McClintock (CA-04), Ron Paul (TX-14), Ted Poe (TX-02), James Sensenbrenner (WI-05), and John Shadegg (AZ-03).

COMMODITY REGULATORS EYE LIMITS. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC.gov) should act immediately to limit excessive speculation by Wall Street firms on energy derivatives trades, a move that will help address extreme volatility in both energy and agricultural markets, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP.org) said. The CFTC is accepting comments until 4/26 on a proposed rule that would establish position limits on energy derivative contracts, which include specified crude oil, natural gas, heating oil and gasoline contracts. Position limits reduce speculation by limiting the number of derivative contracts that any one entity can hold for a contract period. Because other commodities are position-limited, the energy position exemption is colloquially known as the “Enron Loophole.” Trading energy contracts with no position limits has brought on unwarranted price increases and volatility in heating oil, gasoline and other retail and wholesale energy products. Several loopholes, combined with a lack of effective enforcement, allowed excessive speculation to be a major factor in steep food price increases in late 2007 to early 2008. Commodity prices collapsed an aggregate of 60% between June and November 2008 as the insolvency of major investors, including index fund dealers, led to US bailouts of Wall Street firms. The financial services industry is lobbying for the CFTC to hold off implementing the new rule until Congress passes financial reform legislation that the industry is fighting. See iatp.org.

LITTLE LOVE FOR SENATORS. Nationwide discontent with politics and politicians isn’t unique to Democrats. Public Policy Polling found that only four of the 38 senators PPP has recently polled have approval ratings above 50%. “To be fair, three of those four are Republicans, and all six of the Senators with disapprovals above 50% are Democrats,” Nathan Empsall noted at MyDD.com (3/8). “All six, however, are tainted or conservative Democrats, expressing the progressive base’s frustration with inaction as much as the nation’s frustration with politics.”

The average approval rating of the 38 senators polled on in the last six months was 40%, with the average disapproval standing at 41%, Tom Jensen noted at PublicPolicyPolling.blogspot.com (3/8). The four senators over 50% since September include John Thune (R-S.D.) at 57%, Mark Warner (D-Va.) at 53%, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) at 52%, and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) at 51%. Six senators with disapproval over 50% include Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) at 67%, Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) at 62%, Roland Burris (D-Ill.) at 60%, Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at 58%, Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) at 57%, and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) at 51%.

TEXAS TALIBAN TARGETS AMARILLO SINNERS. Amarillo residents are having too much fun, and Repent Amarillo, a militant evangelical group that advertises itself as “the Special Forces of spiritual warfare,” means to put an end to sin in this Panhandle city of 200,000. The group has targeted a wide range of community members it deems offensive to its theology: gays, liberal Christians, Muslims, environmentalists, breast cancer events (because of a presumed link between abortion and breast cancer), Halloween, “spring break events,” pornography shops and Houston, for electing a gay mayor, ThinkProgress.org noted (3/4).

Calling Repent an “American Taliban,” blogger Charles Johnson at littlegreenfootballs.com notes (3/3) that the group’s moniker “Army of God” is a rough translation of “Hezbollah.” Led by David Grisham, a security guard at the Pantex nuclear-bomb facility, Repent is associated with Raven Ministries and collaborates with other right-wing Christian groups.

Forrest Wilder reported in The Texas Observer (2/24) that Repent got its start a year ago, in an attempt to break up a discreet group of “swingers” at a members-only club on Route 66. Repent members, almost exclusively young men, showed up in military fatigues and bullhorns, blaring Christian music at the club building. “We’re here to shine the light on this darkness,” Grisham told the Amarillo Globe-News. “I don’t think Amarillo knew about this place. This is adultery. This is wrong. There’s no telling how many venereal diseases get spread, how many abortions.”

Since then the swingers, made up of “regulars” of middle aged, working-class couples, have been photographed, license plates noted, identities traced and trash dug through. Neighbors, coworkers and employers were informed of the swingers’ private activities. Some have lost their jobs. The club was shut down for five months after complaints of city code violations forced $20,000 in repairs.

On the 60-some hours of surveillance footage the owners of the swinger club have, Wilder reported, a swinger can be heard telling a Repent member that the swingers haven’t done anything to bother them. “You’re going to hell, and it bothers me,” Grisham responds. “What bothers me is you’re going to hell.”

Repent also helped to shut down a community theater’s attempt to open Bent, a play about the persecution of homosexuals during Nazi Germany, after complaints that the theater lacked the proper permits. Staffers at a nature preserve were forced to defend themselves against Repent accusations that their site is used for witchcraft. Also targeted are the 806 coffeehouse (a hangout for artists and counterculture types), the Islamic Center of Amarillo (“Allah is a false god”), and “compromised churches” like Polk Street Methodist (gay-friendly). Elected officials are loathe to take on Repent, but grassroots opposition is building, ThinkProgress notes. A group called “Angel Action” has mobilized against Repent, and blogs and Amarillo-based Facebook groups are springing up to protest Repent’s hate.

MICHELE BACHMANN: POLITICAL CENTRIST? National Journal has unveiled its annual list of the most liberal and most conservative members of Congress in February. The most liberal Senate Democrats were identified as Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Most conservative Senate Repubs include Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho).

David Jarman noted at Salon.com (3/5) that once again each category is headlined primarily by nobodies. “This may be the most consistent quirk of National Journal’s scoring system: The members of Congress who are typically portrayed in the media as the most extreme and polarizing ideologues often fall somewhere in the middle of the list,” Jarman noted.

“Consider Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who is generally regarded as one of the most liberal politicians in the nation, let alone Congress. And yet he finished in 160th place in the ‘most liberal’ rankings. Or there’s netroots heroes Alan Grayson (170th place in the House) and Russ Feingold (55th most liberal in the Senate).

“The same holds on the other end of the spectrum. Rep. Ron Paul, who finished first in the Conservative Political Action Conference’s 2012 presidential straw poll just a few weeks ago, is rated as the 140th most conservative member of the House. And bomb-thrower Michele Bachmann is stuck in 28th place.

“There’s a logical explanation for this. The lists tend to highlight the workhorses and backbenchers who most reliably hew to the party line. So low-profile senators like Ben Cardin and Sheldon Whitehouse top the liberal list, while the most conservative House members include no-names like Trent Franks and Doug Lamborn.

“This shouldn’t call the validity of National Journal’s rankings into doubt, but it does point to a glitch in its formula: It doesn’t ask why a congressman or -woman votes the way he or she does. It only records whether it’s a party-line vote.

“So when Kucinich votes against healthcare reform for not being single-payer, it’s notched as a conservative vote rather than a lefty one. And when Paul votes against military adventurism, it’s recorded as a liberal vote rather than modern-day isolationism. In other words, because they break with their party on principle, National Journal ends up classifying ideologues as centrists.”

OBAMA STEPS UP FINAL PUSH FOR HEALTH REFORM. President Obama took his campaign for health care reform on the road March 8 with a speech at Arcadia University outside Philadelphia where he stressed that much of the reforms would have immediate impact.

“Within the first year of signing health care reform, thousands of uninsured Americans with preexisting conditions would suddenly be able to purchase health insurance for the very first time in their lives ...

“This year, insurance companies will be banned forever from denying coverage to children with preexisting conditions.

“This year, they will be banned from dropping your coverage when you get sick. And they will no longer able to arbitrarily and massively hike your premiums. ... Those practices will end.

“If this reform becomes law, all the new insurance plans will be required to offer free preventive care to customers starting this year — free checkups so we can catch preventable diseases.

“Starting this year, there will be no more lifetime restrictive annual limits on the amount of care you can receive from your insurance companies …

“It would change fast: Insurance companies would finally be held accountable to the American people.”

Also, he noted that for the first time, uninsured individuals and small business owners would have the same kind of choice of private health insurance that members of Congress get for themselves. Individuals would get tax credits to buy insurance.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2010


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