Apparently, only retired Republican politicians can talk about cooperating with Democrats for the good of the country. Former Sen. Dave Durenberger (R-Minn.) teamed with current Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to write an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (3/7) on Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider any of President Obama’s nominees to succeed the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

“As senators of opposing parties whose Senate experiences cover the last five decades, we may disagree on matters of Supreme Court jurisprudence. But we agree that we should measure Supreme Court nominees by their character, intellect, judgment and experience — not by their ideological or partisan allegiances. And when it comes to the facts on the process by which those nominees have been considered and confirmed throughout our history, there can be no honest disagreement at all,” Durenberger and Franken wrote.

Of Senate Republicans, they wrote, “there is no excuse for their outright refusal to fulfill the oath they each swore to uphold and defend the Constitution,” which states that “The President shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint” a replacement to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

“Senate Republicans say they will refuse to even consider a nominee until a new president takes office next January, which would leave the court short a justice well into next year. This would cripple the court not just for the remainder of the current term, but also for most of the next term, which runs through June 2017. And because the court decides which cases to hear in the months before a term begins, a vacancy that goes unfilled through the middle of 2017 could even affect the court’s ability to function in the 2017-18 term.

“This partisan gamesmanship threatens to harm more than the court’s day-to-day operations. The Supreme Court, as the final arbiter of enormously consequential issues that affect every American, must remain above politics in order to retain its credibility. But now Senate Republicans would reduce the highest court in the land to just another political spoil, an election-year talking point. That is no way to determine the makeup of the highest court in the land.

“We urge Senate Republicans to reconsider — and to do their job.”

Nancy LeTourneau noted at WashingtonMonthly.com (3/8), “To show how far current Republicans have strayed from that kind of reasonableness, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) basically telegraphed to President Obama’s nominee, ‘Nice career you got there. Wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to it.’

“The No. 2 Senate Republican warned that potential nominees to the Supreme Court should consider the battle they will be forced to endure if they are picked for the post, suggesting a high-stakes slugfest could damage their reputations in a fruitless pursuit of the top court. ‘I think they will bear some resemblance to a piñata,’ said [Cornyn].

To demonstrate how conservatives have completely politicized this nomination process, Dean Reuter, vice president of the right-wing Federalist Society, suggested that Republicans could leave this seat on the Supreme Court open indefinitely.

“There’s no time limit in the Constitution. And there’s nothing magical about there being nine justices. The country started out with six justices, we’ve had as many as ten at some point in time. And as recently as 2010, when Justice Elena Kagan came on the Court, she had been solicitor general so she recused herself in over a third of the cases … I don’t see a sense of urgency.”

But Senate Republicans might want to reconsider their plans to obstruct the President’s Supreme Court nominee, LeTourneau added, given what Stuart Rothenberg wrote about what is likely to happen if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz win this presidential primary.

“With Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz seemingly positioned to fight it out for the Republican presidential nomination, Democrats are now poised to take over the Senate in November,” Rothenberg wrote in Roll Call.

“As the Republican nominee, the uncompromising Cruz would end up defining his party’s positions on key issues, while the controversial Trump would inject himself into every race across the country. Either candidacy would make it very difficult for GOP Senate nominees to run their own races and establish their own brand.

“Part of the argument for both Trump and Cruz is that each man would turn out new voters on Election Day – populists for Trump and conservatives for Cruz – who would help down-ballot Republicans.  That might be true. But it is also very likely that both would lose more usually reliable Republican voters, who would vote Democratic or stay away from the polls because they find Cruz too conservative or unlikeable and Trump too crude and authoritarian.

“While Hillary Clinton’s personal favorable numbers are poor, sitting generally in the low 40s, Trump’s favorable ratings are usually in the 30s and Cruz’s are even a hair lower.

“Even with her obvious weaknesses, Clinton would be a solid favorite over Trump or Cruz to win the White House. That would mean that Democrats would need to net only four Senate seats instead of the five they would need if a Republican were elected president.

At least five incumbent GOP senators from Democratic-leaning or competitive states face difficult re-election races this year even under the most favorable circumstances – Mark Kirk (IL), Ron Johnson (WI), Pat Toomey (PA), Kelly Ayotte (NH) and Rob Portman (OH). A Republican open seat in Florida also looks at great risk, Rothenberg noted. In addition, states like North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri and Arizona look more interesting.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll (3/9) found that 55% of registered voters disapproved of the GOP obstruction, with some 45% registering strong disapproval. Among Republicans, 69% approve of leaving the seat vacant, while a smaller share, 55%, approved of not even considering a nominee. Some 79% of Democrats disapproved of the decision to shut down hearings. Among independents, 57% disapproved of the decision to block hearings this year, while 25% approved.

Democrats might even raise a sweat on six-term Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate Judiciary chairman who has backed the Supreme Court obstruction, wrongly claiming, “It’s been standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during a presidential election year.” Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, who serves on the Supreme Court today, was considered and confirmed by a Democratic Senate in 1988 — a presidential election year, and President Reagan’s last year in office.

Former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D) stepped up to run against Grassley, who’s never won re-election with less than 60% and is known for maintaining close ties with constituents. In her announcement, Judge cited Grassley’s refusal to even grant the president’s eventual nominee a hearing, saying that Grassley has “waited 36 years to become the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and now he’s refusing to do his job. That is not the Chuck Grassley that I knew 10 or 15 years ago and it’s not the thing Iowans want to see from their senator.” Judge will face at least two other Dems, state Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids and former state Sen. Tom Fiegen of Clarence, in a 6/7 Democratic primary.

A Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll (2/21-24) gave Grassley a strong 57-28 approval. But PPP, polling (3/1-2) on behalf of the liberal group Americans United for Change, gave Grassley a 47-44 score, and find that Iowans agree by a 56-40 margin that “[t]he vacant seat on the Supreme Court should be filled this year” instead of “left empty for the next year.”

IRAN: GOP TRIED TO STALL PRISONER EXCHANGE. How far will Republicans go to gain partisan advantage in an election year? According to a report of an Iranian news agency, a top Iranian official stated that Republicans attempted to stall the January prisoner exchange until after the 2016 election, in a move that recalls similar events in 1980.

Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Shamkhani said a prisoner exchange between Iran and the US went ahead as planned despite calls by unnamed Republicans for a delay until the US presidential elections. 

“In the course of the talks for exchanging prisoners, the Republican rivals of the current US administration who claim to be humanitarians and advocates of human rights sent a message telling us not to release these people (American prisoners) and continue this process (of talks) until the eve of US presidential elections,” Shamkhani said (2/11) in an address to a rally held in the central city of Yazd to mark the 37th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s victory.

“However” he said “we acted upon our independent resolve and moved the process forward.”

The prisoner swap Shamkhani referred to included Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and three other US citizens imprisoned in Iran, who were freed in exchange for the release of seven Iranians.

The swap was negotiated alongside the White House’s nuclear deal with Iran, and the prisoners were released just before the economic sanctions on Iran were set to lift as part of the nuclear deal.

Marc Belisle at ReverbPress.com noted that despite the shocking nature of the charge, it would fit squarely into a pattern of Republican attempts to sabotage American foreign policy in relation to Iran. “Nearly a year ago, Republicans invited Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress in a campaign to attack the US President, and did so without consulting the White House. Senate Republicans signed a treasonous letter, telling Iran not to trust the United States’ capacity to implement agreements with a foreign country, because the next president might decide to violate international law. A crop of freshman Republican senators were funded by the Israeli right wing, and the US banking, oil and weapons industries, apparently for the express purpose of attempting to torpedo diplomacy with Iran.”

And it’s nothing new. In 1980, Ronald Reagan reportedly made a deal with Ayatollah Khomeini to hold onto 52 hostages who had been seized at the US Embassy in Tehran by Iranian militants in 1979 until after Reagan was elected president. Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr wrote in a 3/5/13 commentary in the Christian Science Monitor that when he took office in February 1980 on a platform that included releasing the hostages, he discovered the clandestine deal between Khomeini and Reagan when he moved to resolve the crisis.

Robert Parry, who covered the Iran-Contra scandal as a reporter for the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s, noted in a wrapup on “October Surprise and Argo” at ConsortiumNews.com (3/7/13) that Bani-Sadr disclosed the Reagan-Khomeini deal to Congress in a letter dated 12/17/92 to the House Task Force examining the “October Surprise” controversy. “However, by the time the letter and the other evidence arrived, the leadership of the House Task Force had decided to simply declare the Reagan campaign innocent,” Parry wrote.

DEM CHAIR SEEKS TO RELAX CONSUMER PROTECTIONS ON PAYDAY LOANS. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chair of the Democratic National Committee, has joined the Republican assault on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Zach Carter reported at HuffingtonPost.com (3/1).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) helped create the bureau in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis in order to protect Americans from the malicious practices of the financial industry — particularly banks, toxic mortgage lenders, debt collectors and payday loan companies.

As the CFPB has moved closer to adopting new rules to shield families from predatory lending, the GOP has assailed the agency from every conceivable angle — going after its budget, attempting to tie its hands with new layers of red tape, fomenting conspiracy theories about rogue regulators illegally shutting down businesses and launching direct attacks on payday loan rules themselves.

The GOP blitz has resulted in a few close shaves for the young agency, but no actual defeats. But the industry has enlisted Wasserman Schultz and eight other Democrats to co-sponsor a new bill that would gut the CFPB’s forthcoming payday loan regulations.

The misleadingly titled Consumer Protection and Choice Act would delay the CFPB’s payday lending rules by two years, and nullify its rules in any state with a payday lending law like the one adopted in Florida. The memo being passed around by Wasserman Schultz staffers describes the Florida state law as a “model” for consumer laws on payday loans, and says the CFPB should “adjust their payday lending rules to take into account actions Florida has already taken.”

Consumer groups are appalled by the bill. The Consumer Federation of America, the NAACP, The National Consumer Law Center, The National Council of La Raza, The Southern Poverty Law Center and hundreds of others wrote a letter to every member of Congress in December urging them to oppose the legislation.

“The problem here is that Florida’s law is a sham,” says Gynnie Robnett, director of the Campaign to Stop the Debt Trap at Americans for Financial Reform. “It was backed by the industry.”

The CFPB has not formally issued its payday lending rules. But the agency’s proposed outline is designed to prohibit a cycle of debt in which borrowers take out a single payday loan expecting to pay a one-time fee, but end up taking out several more loans when they are unable to make ends meet at the end of the loan period.

Florida’s law has not ended this vicious cycle. According to AFR, about 76% of payday loans issued in the states are “turned” loans, meaning they are issued to help a borrower pay off a previous loan.

Data compiled by the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts is similarly dismal. A typical Florida payday loan customer ends up taking out nine payday loans a year and is stuck in debt for nearly half of that year, according to Pew. The average interest rate on Florida’s payday loans is 304% — only slightly better than the 390% annual average. Critically, the average payday loan amount of $389 is equal to 35% of average paychecks in the state — in line with national figures.

David Lazarus noted in the Los Angeles Times (3/8) that the bill was introduced last November by Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-FL), who has received $25,850 from payday lenders over the years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics database of campaign contributions. The same day Ross submitted the bill, five other Florida lawmakers — each one a recipient of payday-loan cash — piled on as co-sponsors. They included Rep. Alcee Hastings (D), who has received $107,500 in donations from payday lenders, and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D), who has received $46,000 (and is running against Rep. Alan Grayson [D] for the Senate seat being vacated by Marco Rubio). Wasserman Schultz has pocketed $63,000 from payday lenders, according to the database.

LOW-TAX STATES HAVE LOWEST ECONOMIC GROWTH. Republicans love to claim that low-tax states such as Texas enjoy a disproportionate amount of economic success, while higher-tax states like California are economic basket cases. Republican governors in several states are using that rationale to propose gutting their state income taxes (and, in many instances, replacing them with regressive sales taxes).

But a new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (itep.org) shows that so-called “high tax states” are actually experiencing more growth and less decline in income than states that are supposedly super-conducive to economic expansion, Pat Garofalo noted at ThinkProgress.org (2/28).

In reality, states that levy personal income taxes, including the states with the highest top rates, have seen more economic growth per capita and less decline in their median income level over the last ten years than the nine states that do not tax income. Unemployment rates have been nearly identical across states with and without income taxes.

Here’s the breakdown:

• Four of the nine states without income taxes are actually doing worse than the average state in regards to economic growth per capita: Texas, Tennessee, Florida, and Nevada.

• Five of the nine states without income taxes are doing worse than average in terms of median income growth: New Hampshire, Florida, Tennessee, Alaska, and Nevada.

• Six of the nine states without income taxes had higher than average annual unemployment rates over the last decade: Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Washington, Alaska, and Nevada.

In fact, it was the “high tax” states that did the best in terms of growth.

JINDAL’S ANTI-TAX FERVOR CRIPPLED LOUISIANA. Tax cuts pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal over the past eight years have left his Democratic successor with a $940 mln shortfall during the current year, which ends 6/30, and a $2 bln shortfall in the next budget year. The state also owes an estimated $50 mln to companies who agreed to economic development deals with Jindal, about $11 mln from the state construction budget and another $39 mln in direct cash from the general fund.

After Jindal took office in 2008, he pushed to reverse a tax deal that Louisiana voters approved in 2002 that cut sales taxes for the poor and boosted income tax rates for the well-off. The tax cuts for the haves left Louisiana with $800 mln less each year to fund services for the state’s have-nots, Alan Pyke noted at ThinkProgress.org (3/7).

Like Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), Jindal argued that more tax cuts would solve the tax-cut-induced deficits. He tried to fully repeal the state’s income tax in 2013, proposing to cover part of the cost through increased sales taxes. The plan only fell apart after independent analysts pointed out he was suggesting a $25,423 annual tax break for the state’s richest people and a tax hike for the bottom 80% of Louisiana’s income spectrum.

New Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) recommended $160 mln in spending cuts, along with tax hikes and the use of onetime dollars, to erase the shortfall, but Republican lawmakers told Edwards “we can cut our way out of this,” Will Sentell reported in the New Orleans Advocate (3/4). That would require budget cuts of 60% at many state agencies — and many agencies already have taken deep cuts.

The state Department of Children and Family Services staff is down to 3,400 total employees, or one-third fewer than in 2008 to respond to abuse reports and navigate the foster-care system. The state’s public defender program, which has been cut repeatedly since 2010, is bracing for a 63% cut to funding, meaning that many of Louisiana’s indigent criminal suspects are expected to do without constitutionally mandated legal representation.

Higher education funding is down 44% since 2008, as the cost burden for post-secondary education has flipped, with students now shouldering the majority of costs in a state that used to cover 70% of the price of a university degree.

Hospitals in the state also are in line for a massive hit. The best-case scenario administrators anticipate from the current crisis is a $64 mln drop in state health care spending. Such a cut would trigger reductions in federal matching funds, leaving the state’s medical providers to make do with $169 mln fewer than they were supposed to get for the fiscal year that ends in June. Some hospitals may simply close down rather than fighting to stay afloat amid such cuts, a Department of Health and Hospitals official told the Advocate.

The House approved a $100 mln spending cut bill (2/25) that cut spending for the state Department of Education by $44 mln, or 85% of its budget. Edwards said that provision of the bill was approved “without any thought, without any planning.” If that is all lawmakers who favor spending cuts without raising more revenue can do, he said, “they are part of the problem.”

BROWNBACK’S BUDGET PLAN FAILING. Six years into the era of massive tax cuts urged by Gov. Sam Brownback to encourage economic growth in Kansas, the Topeka Capital-Journal editorial board noted (3/5), “a massive decline in revenue makes it impossible to compose a stable budget. Public schools lack necessary funding. The state highway system has been robbed of funds to fix shortfalls. Public safety has even been affected with job reductions in the Kansas Highway Patrol.

“Those who believe the state has a vested interest in funding university and technical colleges now watch as those institutions face cuts. Those who believe people with mental illnesses or physical disabilities deserve compassionate help are appalled by limitations imposed on services.

“Yet Brownback won’t back down from his cornerstone policy, which eliminated state income taxes for 330,000 physicians, dentists, lawyers, farmers and other business owners, and also lowered the individual income tax rates on Kansans.

“‘This is an economic problem, not a tax policy problem,’ Brownback said defiantly after yet another revenue crash in February stemmed from surprisingly shallow tax receipts from corporations, individuals and general sales tax.”

The state borrowed $1 bln to play the stock market and skipped payments into the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. Last year, $400 mln was borrowed to divert more cash into keeping state government into keeping state government operations afloat. Two Kansas public school districts had to close down their schools early in 2015 after Brownback signed a bill cutting $51 bln in a school funding overhaul.

The governor’s budget proposals would make up a $170 mln shortfall in the $16 billion budget that begins 7/1 without more cuts to schools and without tax increases. The proposals would result in a general fund ending balance of $35.1 mln this fiscal year and $87.9 mln for fiscal year 2017, the Kansas City Star reported (1/13).

But as outlined by Brownback’s budget director, they include more multimillion-dollar diversions from the state highway fund, a practice coming under increasing fire.

“This isn’t the executive leadership Kansans expected when they voted for Brownback in 2010. He won with 63% of the vote then. In 2014, he won with 49%,” ,” editorialized the *Courier-Journal*, which endorsed Brownback’s re-election. “To Brownback, however, that was a mandate to punch the pedal on his fis

“Oh yeah, the plan was called an experiment.

“Whatever the terminology, it failed.

“Brownback, whose popularity rating is the worst of any governor in America, must realize this and reverse course before additional damage proves irreparable.”

DEMS KEEP CONTROL OF KY. HOUSE. Kentucky Democrats managed to keep control of the state House of Representatives as they won three out of four special elections (3/8), the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

Democrats called the resounding win a repudiation of Tea Party Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s policies, which they say are too extreme. Bevin had campaigned for the four Republicans and raised money for them.

Republican PACs spent heavily on mailers and some television and radio ads while labor unions canvassed for candidates and sent mail pieces into the districts.

The three Democratic victories mean the party will hold a 53-47 margin in the House and continue its 95-year hold on the chamber through at least the end of the year.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2016


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