Unless Congress acts by the end of the year, 1.3 mln people will lose access to an emergency program providing additional weeks of jobless benefits. A further 850,000 will be denied benefits in the first quarter of 2014.

“Congressional Democrats and the White House, pointing to the sluggish recovery and the still-high jobless rate, are pushing once again to extend the period covered by the unemployment insurance program,” Annie Lowrey reported in the New York Times (11/18). “But with Congress still far from a budget deal and still struggling to find alternatives to the $1 tln in long-term cuts known as sequestration, lawmakers say the chances of an extension before Congress adjourns in two weeks are slim.

“As a result, one of the largest stimulus measures passed during the recession is likely to come to an end, and jobless workers in many states are likely to receive considerably fewer weeks of benefits,” Lowrey wrote.

As many as 4.8 mln Americans could be affected by expiring unemployment benefits through 2014, estimated Gene Sperling, President Obama’s top economic adviser. “Historically, there has not been a time where the unemployment rate has been this high where you have not extended it,” Mr. Sperling told the Times. “Why would you not extend now, when you’re dealing with the nearly unprecedented levels of long-term unemployment coming off such a historic recession? This would be the wrong time to do it.”

Democrats are pushing for extension of the emergency insurance program as part of the broader budget talks designed to avert a repeat of the government shutdown in October. But negotiators in the House and Senate are discussing a relatively small deal focused on replacing or altering the sequestration cuts, which would probably not include an extension of the jobless program. And both Republicans and Democrats are skeptical that even such a small deal is possible given how divided the parties are, Lowrey noted.

House Republicans also want to drastically cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) by $39 bln over the next decade, which would cut 3.8 mln Americans from food assistance in 2014. That’s nearly 10 times the $4 bln cut (making relatively minor changes) that Senate Democrats agreed to last summer when they thought they had a budget deal.

REPUBS LOVE BATKID, BUT THEY’D DENY HIM HEALTH COVERAGE. Much of America, including Republicans, fell in love with Batkid after the Make-a-Wish Foundation helped 5-year-old leukemia survivor Miles Scott don superhero garb and “fight crime” on the streets of San Francisco (11/15) but, as Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson points out, “Ironically, these same elected officials — in particular Sen. Ted Cruz [R-Texas] and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor [R-Va.] — have been crusading for Obamacare’s repeal, which would again make it legal for insurers to deny coverage to children like Batkid with preexisting conditions.”

Laura Clawson noted at DailyKos.com (11/19), “Before insurers were prohibited from denying coverage to kids with pre-existing conditions, it was common for them to do just that. Not only that, treatment for a disease like leukemia could have taken a child to a lifetime insurance cap—caps that have now been lifted by Obamacare. Those facts are a particularly poignant and outrageous contrast with the support Republicans expressed for Batkid.”

POSTAL SERVICE BACK IN BLACK, WITH ASTERISK. The US Postal Service reported an operating profit of $600 mln for the 2013 fiscal year (11/15), though the $5.5 bln that the Postal Service is required to pay to the Treasury annually put the agency in a technical loss.

Operating revenue was $66 bln, up from $65.2 bln in 2012, mainly due to an 8% increase in package revenue, which overcame a 2.4% drop in first-class revenue.

“Despite all the rhetoric about how the Postal Service is ‘going broke,’ I was very pleased that, during the last 12 months, the United States Postal Service made a profit of $600 million picking up and delivering mail and packages to every community in America,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “And they did that without receiving one dime from the taxpayers of this country. This is great news for the American people and makes me optimistic that, with modest changes, we can protect the jobs and quality services that the Postal Service is providing today.”

Sanders said the Postal Service balance sheet showed a $5 bln “loss” for the year only because of an unprecedented and onerous requirement imposed by Congress that it pre-fund 75 years of future retiree health benefits in just 10 years. “No other business or government agency is burdened with this mandate,” the senator said of the payments to a fund that already has accumulated more than enough to cover the future health care costs.

Sanders in February introduced legislation, which has 28 cosponsors, to modernize the Postal Service, save Saturday mail and repeal the crippling law responsible for about 90% of the mail system’s funding woes. Similar legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has 168 co-sponsors.

“It’s time to end this outrageous pre-funding requirement once and for all. My legislation would also give the Postal Service the tools it needs to succeed in the 21st century by allowing it to offer new products and services on the internet, ship wine and beer, and issue hunting and fishing licenses,” Sanders said.

The legislation by Sanders and DeFazio also would let the Postal Service look for innovative ways to attract more customers by taking advantage of email and Internet services, for example. A commission made up of successful business innovators, small business and labor leaders would make additional recommendations on ways the Postal Service could generate new revenue. The bill also would prevent shutdowns of mail sorting centers and safeguards would be put in place to protect rural post offices.

A “bipartisan” bill by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) would allow an end to Saturday mail, largely eliminate home delivery and make other cuts in services.

VOTERS WANT SOCIAL SECURITY EXPANDED, NOT CUT. By overwhelming margins, voters in key states want Social Security expanded — not cut, a new poll by Public Policy Polling and MoveOn.org found. The poll, conducted 11/8-10, asked voters in five House districts and five states whether they wanted Social Security expanded or cut. The districts were in Arizona, California, Massachusetts and New York, while the states were Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina and Washington.

On the question of whether to cut Social Security, respondents answered in the negative by more than 70% in nine out of 10 instances (the lone outlier still opposed cuts by 66%). When it came to expanding Social Security, the responses were similarly one-sided: an average of 65% supported the proposition.

Notably, almost 70% of respondents said they’d be less likely to support a candidate who backed Social Security cuts.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recently joined the push to increase Social Security benefits, saying the program can be kept solvent for many years with “some modest adjustments.”

“The suggestion that we have become a country where those living in poverty fight each other for a handful of crumbs tossed off the tables of the very wealthy is fundamentally wrong,” Warren said in a Senate floor speech (8/18). “This is about our values, and our values tell us that we don’t build a future by first deciding who among our most vulnerable will be left to starve.”

She added, “We don’t build a future for our children by cutting basic retirement benefits for their grandparents.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, is sponsoring the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013 (S.567) with co-sponsors including Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Mark Begich (D-AK) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH). It would stabilize the Social Security Trust Fund for the foreseeable future and raise benefits by $70 per month, and pay for the increase by phasing out the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax, which is currently $113,700.

The Kentucky poll also found 74% of respondents were less likely to vote for their senator if he votes to reduce Social Security, which could be a problem for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), who supports the so-called Chained CPI that would reduce the cost of living adjustment for Social Security. He has been in a dead heat with Alison Lundergran Grimes (D).

COCAINE CONGRESSMAN VOTED FOR DRUG TESTS FOR FOOD STAMPS. Wouldn’t you know that freshman Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.), who was busted for cocaine possession in Washington, D.C. (10/29), has voted to require food stamp recipients to pass a drug test before receiving benefits. He also co-sponsored a bill to lower mandatory minimum sentencing for some drug offenders.

Radel pled guilty to the misdemeanor charge of possessing 3.5 grams of cocaine and was sentenced to a year’s probation and $250 fine. If Radel had been arrested in Florida with the same amount of cocaine it would have been a third-degree felony punishable by five years in prison.

Drug-testing requirements for food stamps, unemployment insurance, or welfare are one of the big Republican pushes of the last few years, Laura Clawson noted at DailyKos.com (11/20). “At the state level, where many of those bills have come up, Democrats have responded by offering amendments requiring legislators to be tested themselves. Considering the Radel example, it seems like it might be time for Democrats in the United States House to take up a similar push themselves,” Clawson wrote.

CANADIAN MINING CO. SUES COSTA RICA OVER REGS. A Canadian mining company has served notice that it intends to sue Costa Rica for $1 bln in lost profits if the Central American nation continues its ban on open-pit mining. Infinito Gold of Calgary, Alberta, said Costa Rica is violating its trade agreements with Canada, GlobalNews.ca reported.

Infinito Gold said it spent $92 mln on the project before Costa Rica rejected the application and banned open pit mining in 2011, GlobalNews.ca reported. The company plans to take Costa Rica to international arbitration.

International arbitration expert Gus Van Harten, an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, told GlobalNews.ca Infinito Gold may have a case. Through international trade agreements signed between countries, international arbitrators have the power to override court and government decisions of sovereign countries, he noted.

Charles Pierce noted at Esquire.com (11/20) that Canadian companies are running amok all over the hemisphere. “They are running amok in Colombia. They are running amok in this country, with our old friend, the Keystone XL pipeline. Hey, Canada. Can we talk?)

“When people talk about free trade — and, god knows, we ought to be talking about it more than we are — this is the system they’re talking about — giving multinational corporations the freedom to grind up local populations, ignore local laws, poison local water supplies, and render the national governments who are supposed to represent the local populations impotent in the face of their depredations. What happens then? The local populations lose faith in their governments, which then in turn become weaker and less able to protect the local populations, and the very idea of a nation in the public mind comes crashing down. Which, of course, is the whole point.”

(The Obama administration and multinational corporations are even now secretly negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that, if approved by Congress, could trump local, state and federal regulations. See Wenonah Hauter's column on page 14 and Mark Weisbrot’s column on page 17.)

DOCTORS COMPLAIN ABOUT HEALTH CARE COST SAVINGS. Many doctors are disturbed they will be paid less — often a lot less — to care for the millions of patients projected to buy coverage through the health law’s new insurance marketplaces, Kaiser Health News reported (11/19). Some have complained to medical associations, including those in New York, California, Connecticut, Texas and Georgia, saying the discounted rates could lead to a two-tiered system in which fewer doctors participate, potentially making it harder for consumers to get the care they need.

Insurance officials acknowledge they have reduced rates in some plans, saying they are under enormous pressure to keep premiums affordable. They say physicians will make up for the lower pay by seeing more patients, since the plans tend to have smaller networks of doctors. But many primary care doctors say they barely have time to take care of the patients they have now.

Matt Yglesias of Slate.com is unsympathetic. He wrote (11/20) that American doctors are very well paid and should quit griping. “If we ever reach the point where American doctors have been squeezed so badly that they start fleeing north of the border to get higher pay in Canada, then we’ve squeezed too hard. Until that happens, forget about it.”

Kevin Drum noted at MotherJones.com (11/20) that, according to 2009 figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the US has relatively few doctors per capita — 2.4 physicians per 1,000 inhabitants, the same as Canada and Slovenia — compared with EU countries — all of whom pay doctors considerably less than we do in the US. The difference, Yglesias and Drum say, is that US physicians operate as a cartel.

“They artificially limit their own ranks, which drives up their compensation,” Drum wrote. “What we really ought to be doing is working to further pressure the incomes of doctors through supply-side reforms. That means letting nurse-practitioners treat patients without kicking a slice upstairs to an M.D., letting more doctors immigrate to the United States, and it means opening more medical schools. Common sense says that since the population both grows and ages over time, there should be more people admitted to medical school today than were thirty years ago. But that’s not the case. Instead we produce roughly the same number of new doctors, admissions standards have gotten tougher, and doctors have become scarcer.”

NLRB TARGETS WALMART LABOR PRACTICES. The National Labor Relations Board, fully functioning with all its members for the first time since August 2003, announced (11/18) that an investigation had found that Walmart unlawfully threatened employees with reprisal if they engaged in strikes on Black Friday last year, unlawfully disciplined workers who did engage in those strikes and unlawfully treated employees in other stores in anticipation of them participating in strikes or other labor activities, the Los Angeles Times reported. The Black Friday protests last year spread to 100 cities in 13 states, with 600 people turning out to a Walmart in Paramount, Calif., to support workers.

The findings, which will become complaints if Walmart does not settle with workers, were considered a victory for labor across the board, the Times reported. Wal-Mart could be forced to award workers back pay and reinstate certain workers.

“The Board’s decision confirms what Walmart workers have long known: the company is illegally trying to silence employees who speak out for better jobs,” said Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice and American Rights at Work, in a release.

After Republicans blocked President Obama’s appointees to the labor board, Obama appoint two board members during recess, though an appeals court later blocked those appointments, saying the Senate was not technically in recess. In a deal in July, the Senate confirmed all five members of the NLRB. In exchange, Obama withdrew the nomination of his two recess appointees. One of those appointees, Richard Griffin, was appointed the next month to be NLRB general counsel. Griffin’s office investigated the complaints against Walmart.

MIDDLE CLASS DISAPPEARING DESPITE ECONOMIC RECOVERY. There were nearly 700,000 fewer middle-income households than during the economic crisis, according to new Census Bureau data. The economy has grown more top- and bottom-heavy in 2010 through 2012 as compared to 2007-2009, the data show.

Most erosion came at the bottom end of the middle-income range. At the same time, tranks of both upper- and lower-income people swelled by hundreds of thousands, Alan Pyke noted at ThinkProgress.org (11/18).

The decline of the middle class and increasingly extreme distribution of income and wealth in America is a long-standing pattern that helped define the economic policy debate between the two presidential candidates in 2012. The new Census data shows that the steady, slow economic recovery of the past three years didn’t arrest that slide.

But middle-class shrinkage has dangerous implications for the country’s future success. A smaller middle class reduces future generations’ economic mobility — the process of moving up the economic ladder compared to one’s parents — according to research by the Center for American Progress. Furthermore, the most effective policies for spurring economic growth and broad prosperity tend to be those that focus public resources on boosting the middle class.

While the recovery’s failure to staunch the middle-class bleeding is worrisome, it should not be surprising. The strength of the middle class is closely tied to the strength of working people — states with larger and stronger unions have larger and stronger middle-class populations — and working people’s rights have been under concerted attack by conservative organizations and lawmakers in recent years. The gains from the recovery have mostly accrued to the rich, who regained their lost wealth relatively quickly even as working people saw their wages decline despite ever-rising productivity.

WISCONSIN GOP PUSHES END TO WEEKEND VOTING. Wisconsin Republicans are working to end early voting on the weekend. The State Assembly passed a bill (11/14) that would require county clerks to limit early voting to 40 hours per week, between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m Monday through Friday, the Washington Post reported. Democrats say the move is nothing more than an attempt to cut turnout in urban areas.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) is sponsoring a Senate version of the bill, and said anyone who can’t find time to vote has “really got a problem,” according to MSNBC.

“Between [early voting], mail absentee, and voting the day of election, you know, I mean anybody who can’t vote with all those options, they’ve really got a problem,” Grothman said, according to MSNBC. “I really don’t think they care that much about voting in the first place, right?”

The Wisconsin Assembly also recently voted 53-39 to approve a Republican proposed constitutional amendment to restrict recall elections so that they can only target state officials who have been charged with a crime punishable by at least one year in prison or if there is probably cause that they have violated the state’s code of ethics. After Republicans gained control of the legislature in 2010 and ran roughshod over the Democratic minority, Democrats and organized labor targeted four Republican senators and Gov. Scott Walker for recall. Walker and three of the four Republican senators survived the recalls in a 6/5/12 election, but the Democratic win in the fourth race gave Democrats control of the Senate until Republicans regained the majority in the general election.

SANDERS EYES PREZ RUN. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants to make sure that there is a strong progressive voice in the 2016 presidential field, and he’s willing to jump in if no one else does.

In an interview with his hometown Burlington Free Press, Sanders said there needs to be a 2016 candidate who will go after Wall Street, focus on poverty and the collapse of the middle class, address global warming and oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare — all issues that Sanders has taken on while in the Senate.

According to the Free Press, “Sanders says he is willing to consider making a run if no one else with progressive views similar to his ends up taking the plunge.”

“Under normal times, it’s fine, you have a moderate Democrat running, a moderate Republican running,” Sanders said. “These are not normal times. The United States right now is in the middle of a severe crisis and you have to call it what it is.”

Sanders said if he runs, it probably would be as an independent. He added, “I’m not going to get any money from Wall Street or corporate America ... it’s one thing to talk about raising money for a Senate campaign in a small state, another thing running for president of the United States.”

Sanders hasn’t opened the door to a presidential run very wide. In an interview with Playboy in October, Sanders said he was 99% sure he wasn’t going to run.

“I care a lot about working families,” he said. “I care a lot about the collapse of the American middle class. I care a lot about the enormous wealth and income disparity in our country. I care a lot that poverty in America is near an all-time high but hardly anyone talks about it. I realize running for president would be a way to shine a spotlight on these issues that are too often in the shadows today. [pauses] But I am at least 99% sure I won’t.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been mentioned as a possible 2016 contender, a populist progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton. Sanders said he would be happy with a Warren candidacy. “I like Elizabeth Warren very much,” he said. “Her beauty is that she is very smart. She speaks English. She can explain economics in a way that everybody can understand.”

However, Warren’s former national finance chair, Paul Egerman, has told inquiring donors that, despite the runaway speculation, the freshman senator won’t run for president in 2016, Ruby Cramer reported at BuzzFeed.com (11/18).

Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) also reportedly is mulling a presidential race. Real Clear Politics reported (10/18) that Schweitzer indicated “he may launch a White House bid, even if front-runner Hillary Clinton also enters the race.” Schweitzer was quoted saying he still holds the people of Iowa and New Hampshire “in high regard.” Those states, of course, have the nation’s first presidential caucus and primary, respectively.

In an interview with the Billings Gazette (10/28), “Schweitzer didn’t sound like someone gearing up to run for president in 2016, but, then again, he didn’t rule it out.”

Schweitzer, 58, is chairman of the board of Stillwater Mining Co. and is a rotating host of CNN’s “Crossfire” show.

FEW COUNTIES CONDEMN MORE DEFENDANTS WRONGFULLY. Just 2% of counties in America are responsible for more than half the nation’s executions, and those same counties have been responsible for a disproportionate share of high-profile prosecutorial misconduct and exonerations following wrongful convictions, the Death Penalty Information Center reported in October. That 2% of counties, as well as being responsible for a majority of executions, can also claim credit for 56% of the current death row population. What’s more, just 15% of US counties account for all of the executions since 1976, according to the DPIC.

Radley Balko notes at HuffingtonPost.com (11/19) that there seems to be a strong correlation between counties that frequently send people to death row, and counties with high rates of wrongful conviction, forensics scandals and prosecutorial misconduct, as found by appeals courts.

“The Death Penalty Information Center report touches on this a bit. For example, the report notes that in Orleans Parish, La., which leads the state in executions, there’s a long, sordid history of prosecutorial misconduct. Orleans Parish has even been rebuked by the Supreme Court, though the Court refuses to hold the county liable. ... Four men from New Orleans who once awaited execution have since been freed. Philadelphia County, Pa., leads the state of Pennsylvania in executions, yet also ranks last in the state when it comes to paying the attorneys appointed to represent defendants in capital cases. Florida leads the country in number of people sent to death row over the last two years. The state also leads the country in number of people exonerated from death row. Incredibly, despite these figures, Florida lawmakers are still trying to limit appeals, so that executions can be carried out more quickly. That’s one way to prevent exonerations before executions,” Balko wrote.

Harris County (Houston) remains the most execution-friendly county in America, sending more people to death row (more than 200 under District Attorney Johnny B. Holmes from 1979 until he retired as district attorney in 2000) than all 49 states other than Texas (115 were executed through 2012). When reform-minded District Attorney Pat Lykos (a pro-death penalty Republican, by the way) took over in 2008, she set out to look for innocent people convicted under the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach of her predecessors. Since 2008, there have been 11 exonerations for felony convictions in Harris County.

Dallas County, which is responsible for 50 executions from 1976 to 2012, presided over for decades by legendary law-and-order District Attorney Henry Wade, has had 49 exonerations for felonies since 2001, second only to 85 in Cook County (Chicago), according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In fact, there have been more exonerations in Dallas County than in nearly every other state. That’s mostly because in 2006, former defense attorney Craig Watkins was elected as the county’s top prosecutor, and Watkins has since made finding and correcting wrongful convictions a high priority.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2013


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