Sunday, June 27, 2010

How Big Foundations and Wall Street Elites are Legitimating Their Plans to Balance the Budget

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This Saturday tens of thousands of Americans, from all walks of life, men and women of all races, immigrants and citizens, young and old, from all regions of the country, will gather in hundreds of town hall meetings. There they will "weigh in on strategies for a sustainable fiscal future." This series of coordinated gatherings is called America Speaks, and its goals are to "educate the American public about the challenges facing our nation, provide Americans with a neutral space to explore the issues and weigh the trade offs, and deliver to political leaders in Washington a clear message about the shared priorities of a large, demographically representative group of Americans."

At least this is how the foundation funders and political operatives organizing America Speaks describe their well-funded exercise in hegemony. A more honest appraisal it deserves though. Following up a highly exclusive budget summit in Washington D.C. last month that featured the likes of Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin, America Speaks is more for those of us who BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg recently identified as the "small people." The town hall meetings being organized by America Speaks are in fact the latest and one of the largest and most sophisticated operations in securing consent to rule that the U.S. elite has ever attempted. Like the D.C. budget summit organized by Peter G. Peterson, the town hall meetings are intended to make an impression on President Obama's official commission which has been tasked with putting all options on the table in order to reduce the federal deficit.

Bankrolled by a strange cast of institutional and individual characters, the guiding force behind America Speaks' town hall meetings on the national budget is Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire founder of the Blackstone Group. In the 1970s Peterson left his post as CEO of Bell and Howell Corporation to begin his forays into public policy through official appointments and foundation initiatives. He served as President Nixon's Secretary of Commerce in 1972, and then naturally was appointed Chairman of Lehmen Brothers. It was at Lehmen where Peterson spent the majority of his business career making fistfuls of cash. In 1985 he set out with other captains of the financial industry to create the Blackstone Group which became the world's largest private equity firm.

Two years later Gordon Gekko, the fictive embodiment of Peterson's cohort, would tell America;

"The richest one percent of this country owns half our country's wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons, and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It's bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy, are you buddy? It's the free market."

On Wall Street Peterson became known for his fiscal conservatism and free market faith which initially translated into strong support for the Republican Party. But Peterson has been more than a partisan. Democrats have also solicited his energies to rationalize cuts in welfare spending alongside federal policies to grease the wheels of wealth accumulation to the benefit of the elite. Throughout his career as a philanthropist Peterson has seemed equally displeased with both Republican and Democratic Party failures to structurally adjust the U.S. economy by balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. His lament is shared by many financial elites.

While one function of the U.S. government (perhaps the main function in recent decades) is to facilitate capitalist accumulation on ever-greater scales, another function, more a necessity growing out of the pain and dislocation that wealth accumulation creates, is to legitimate rule, oftentimes by stabilizing an otherwise brutal socioeconomic structure. This means placating the working poor with minimum wages, food stamps, and public housing, while rewarding the more politically powerful, if complacent, middle class with huge social welfare programs like Social Security or federally backed mortgages. Congress and the White House have essentially lost all sense of balance in this act, due in no small part to the nation's imperial overstretch as well as the power of corporations and the wealthy to insulate their fortunes from the grasp of the tax man.

During George H.W. Bush's term in office Peterson was moved to found the Concord Coalition which sounded alarms over the U.S. deficit, focusing a lot of attention on health care spending, social security, and other entitlements that stood in the way of greater sums of speculative profit and private wealth accumulation. A close observer and panderer to the needs of the financial elite, President Clinton appointed Peterson to the Bi-Partisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform which built support for the "end to welfare as we know it." Clinton and the Republican controlled Congress brought some of the Commission's findings down like a bludgeon on tens of millions of low-income Americans with the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

With Peterson as its prime backer you can see where the America Speaks budget town halls are likely to be steered. Up for discussion: cutting welfare spending, health care, education. Not up for discussion? The backers of America Speaks have so far kept military spending off the table. They've also been conspicuously silent about one of the simplest solutions to the fiscal crisis, taxing corporate wealth and private equity.

Peterson is by no means alone in funding the America Speaks budget town hall meetings. Other powerful financial elites are bankrolling this exercise in legitimation. There's South Carolinian Roger Milliken, heir to an enormous private textile fortune. Milliken's contempt for social welfare programs is well-known, as is his support for ever greater levels of militarism. Milliken helped bankroll the Peace Through Strength PAC, and Freedom's Defense Fund. The former helped Cold War era politicians win elections and funnel the national treasury into pie-in-the-sky weapons systems. The latter has carried on this work while condemning welfare in most forms. According to their web site, Freedom's Defense Fund is "dedicated to the principles of limited government, as the Founders understood them," and works to liberate America from "the shackles of the nanny state."

Other anti-"nanny state" parties behind America Speaks include a cluster of Wyoming-based groups with roots in the oil, gas, and coal industries. This is due no doubt to Alan Simpson's influence. The former Senator from Wyoming is co-chair of President Obama's budget commission. The Wyoming Business Alliance, Casper Area Economic Development Alliance, Casper Community Foundation, Casper Events Center, City of Casper, Casper Rotary Foundation, along with two oil and gas businesses, Goolsby-Finley and Associates, and Gene George and Associates, are providing funding and in-kind support for the budget town halls.

Rounding out America Speaks are a few of the Democratic Party's Daddy Warbucks, including real estate investor Robert Monks, Rockefeller Brothers Fund trustee Richard G. Rockefeller, and hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman.

What this seemingly bi-partisan caste holds in common is their fear over the U.S. deficit, but also their fear that the budget will be balanced to the detriment of the top 5 percent's ability to further accumulate wealth. And so on Saturday these AstroTurf town hall meetings, occurring in 19 major cities and dozens of other locations, will provide cover for what is otherwise a foregone set of conclusions that include recommendations that the Congress and White House cut and privatize many social programs.

There is an illustrative precedent to this exercise in fiscal hegemony. After Hurricane Katrina the Rockefeller Foundation financed an initiative called the Unified New Orleans Plan, or UNOP. UNOP's supposed function was to create a democratic process for the planning of the disaster-stricken city's future. In practice UNOP was an exercise in legitimating plans already in the works. UNOP town hall meetings, called "charrettes," a buzzword in planning and architecture circles, were filled with middle class white residents of the city. Displaced citizens had no voice, but still the campaign's organizers, ever-sensitive to creating the appearance of sensitivity and democracy, claimed to hold planning sessions in distant cities where black and working class residents were struggling to survive.

UNOP was mostly a failure. Multiple and competing plans were hatched by the Mayor, City Council, and foundations like Rockefeller, and disorganization consumed most everyone. Even so, parts of the foundation funded plan have purportedly been used as a base for the new city master plan (still in the works). Furthermore, the main goal from the start wasn't to actually plan the city's future. It was instead to create the appearance of inclusion and participation, and to give New Orleanians a sense that the future of their city, economy, and public sector was being democratically determined. All the while it was not.

Decisions to demolish tens of thousands of housing units were made behind closed doors, in concert with developers seeking to privatize them. Health care facilities like Charity Hospital were shuttered in the name of building newer and more profitable facilities, and also to create a base for the newest economic development scheme of the city's elite: a biomedical district. Public schools were closed down and replaced with a virtually all charter system. Public transport was drastically scaled back. All of these cuts were made possible by foundations and NGOs which provided a mask of pluralism and inclusion. Resistance to austerity measures was undermined with faux democracy and inclusion.

While "greed is good" may be the most quoted line from Wall Street, it's a different Gekkoism that provides deep insight into the dynamics of capitalism and the strategic thinking of its agents whose base of operations is the world of large foundations. At one point Gekko explains, "it's a zero sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred from one person to another. Like magic." Transferred. Money is transferred.

In some respects the national budget question is a zero sum game. It's a pie that can split various ways. Military spending is currently the biggest "discretionary" slice. Welfare programs and tax rebates that aid the poorest citizens of the United States —such as TANF or EITC— are but a mere fraction of what is spent every year supplying the Pentagon and waging its wars. Who will win and who will lose if the pie shrinks? As it shrinks, and it has been shrinking, how will it be redistributed? So far it has been redistributed increasingly into the hands of the upper 5 percent of wealth holders. And how will the loss and sacrifice imposed upon the nation's most vulnerable be legitimated and explained? America Speaks is one answer to that question.

In another respect the federal budget isn't a zero sum game. The budget can grow if the vast deposits of wealth held by the top 5 percent are taxed more progressively. But America Speaks is being set up to keep this off the table too.

Fox News is BP oil spill misinformation clearinghouse

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Media Matters for America has compiled a list of myths and falsehoods about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, all of which have been pushed by Fox News.
Fox News' staunch defense of BP

Myth: Obama waited weeks before responding to the oil spill

Myth: Moratorium is not needed because oil companies are equipped to handle spill

Myth: BP was only drilling "out there" because environmentalists and the federal government "made them" do it

Myth: Obama, unlike Bush, "was off on vacation" during crisis

Myth: "Ridiculous" and "offensive" to blame Bush for spills

Myth: Obama is the "single largest recipient of BP's cash"

Myth: Obama admin turning away foreign aid by refusing to waive union-supported Jones Act

Myth: Obama admin defied Constitution when they "told" BP to create escrow account

Myth: Obama admin unreasonably delayed purchase of Maine company's oil boom

Myth: Obama unnecessarily delayed berm plan

Myth: Coast Guard docked oil-collecting barges for no good reason

Fox News' staunch defense of BP
Media Matters has identified numerous instances of media conservatives defending BP on Fox News Channel, Fox Business, the Fox Nation, or the radio shows of Fox News hosts. For example:

•BP was victim of a "shakedown." On at least 10 occasions, Fox figures criticized BP's escrow account as an Obama "shakedown" or "slush fund." For example, on the June 21 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, contributor Andrea Tantaros stated that BP had been the victim of a "political shakedown" and a "stickup" to force the company to fund the $20 billion "slush fund."
•Investigations of BP are McCarthyist "witch trials." Fox figures criticized congressional and criminal investigations into BP on at least nine occasions. For example, Glenn Beck compared the congressional BP hearings to the McCarthy hearings, the Salem witch trials, and the Romans feeding Christians to lions.
•Obama administration has "demonized" BP. On at least nine instances, Fox figures attacked Obama for "demonizing" BP. For example, appearing on Hannity, Fox Business host Stuart Varney stated: "The administration's response can be summed up as follows: Demonize BP, seize its assets, raise taxes on energy, and therefore raise prices, pile on regulation, appoint a commission, all to gloss over the failure to deal promptly with the oil spill. And then give us pipe dreams about a green future."
•Conspiracy theories about the oil spill. Media Matters identified at least four instances in which conspiracy theories about the oil spill were raised on Fox's networks. For example, on the May 27 edition of Fox Business' Happy Hour, host Eric Bolling asked guest Alan Colmes, "Are you sure they didn't let [the oil spill] leak so he could renege on his promise to allow some offshore drilling?"
Myth: Obama waited weeks before responding to the oil spill
CLAIM: Obama "waited 50 days, 55 days to really begin" responding to Gulf oil spill. On the June 17 edition of Fox & Friends, Rudy Giuliani said of the federal government's response to the oil spill: "The government has played a big role in letting us down here as well. And who the heck is -- you know, criticizing President Obama, President Obama's response? I mean, the president waited 50 days, 55 days to really begin a resp- -- he told us in his speech that the federal government was in charge from the very beginning."

REALITY: Timeline of events indicates Obama administration responded almost immediately to the spill. The Coast Guard began responding to the spill hours after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded at 10 p.m. on April 20. Obama was briefed on the incident and dispatched officials to the region the next day.

Gov. Barbour: "The federal government's done more right than wrong" on BP cleanup. On the June 20 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, asked for his "assessment of how well coordinated the federal, state, and local officials are," former RNC chairman and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said that while "nothing's satisfactory until the well's shut" he thinks "the federal government's done more right than wrong," and "appointing Ken Feinberg, who's got a great reputation that's well deserved, is good for BP and good for the government."

Myth: Moratorium is not needed because oil companies are equipped to handle spills
CLAIM: No need for moratorium to "ensure ... safety," Obama should "undo the harm that he's already done" and lift it. On the June 12 edition of Fox & Friends Saturday, anchor Alisyn Camerota asked Palin: "[T]he administration has called for a moratorium on deep-sea drilling until that safety can be ensured. Given all of the problems that we now know, how BP overlooked safety measures, do you support a moratorium until we can ensure the safety?" Palin replied, "No, but we do need to ramp up the oversight" of offshore drilling." Likewise, on the June 15 edition of Fox News' Special Report, Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes urged Obama to "undo the harm that he's already done and lift the moratorium on the existing drilling that was going on in the Gulf."

REALITY: All five major oil companies reportedly share similar spill response plans written by same company, and admit aspects of their plans are an "embarrassment." According to The Washington Post, "the same tiny Texas subcontractor" authored the Gulf spill response plans for BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Shell Oil, and Exxon Mobil. Additionally, execs for both Exxon Mobil and Conoco Phillips called an error in both plans embarrassing.

FACT: All five companies reportedly rely on the same companies to draft their response plans and provide containment equipment. According to a June 16 Washington Post report, "the same tiny Texas subcontractor" authored the Gulf spill response plans for BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Shell Oil, and Exxon Mobil:

The spill response plans for all five companies were written by the same firm, the Response Group. Although it has operations in at least seven cities nationwide, the Houston-based firm's Web site says the company has about 35 employees. (One current assignment: calling 50,000 people who have visited BP offices and getting their e-mail addresses and emergency contact information.)

Additionally, the Post reported that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) stated that oil companies all rely on one company, Marine Spill Response, to provide containment equipment.

FACT: Three spill plans reportedly listed the phone number of a deceased marine science expert. According the same Post report, three of the five major oil companies operating in the Gulf "listed the phone number for the same University of Miami marine science expert, Peter Lutz, who died in 2005" in their spill response plans.

FACT: Exxon Mobil CEO: "We are not well-equipped to handle" major oil spills. In testimony before the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee on June 15, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson stated repeatedly that his company is "not well-equipped to handle" major oil spills.

FACT: Responding to criticism of having a dead expert's info in his company's oil spill response, Tillerson admitted "we need expertise." When Markey questioned Tillerson on the Exxon Mobil plan's inclusion of contact information for a "technical support person" who had been dead for four years, Tillerson acknowledged that it was an "embarrassment" and stated that "we admit that we need expertise." He further stated that just because "Dr. Lutz died in 2005 does not mean his work and the importance of his work died with him."

FACT: ConocoPhillips CEO: "Obviously it is embarrassing" that Lutz's contact information is in the report. At the same hearing, ConocoPhillips CEO, James Mulva, said of the response plan's obvious flaws: "Obviously it is embarrassing." He further acknowledged that "the plans need to be updated more frequently."

Myth: BP was only drilling "out there" because environmentalists and the federal government "made them" do it
CLAIM: BP's deepwater drilling due to environmentalists, federal government "pushed us out there." Several Fox News figures, including Sarah Palin, Charles Krauthammer, Steve Doocy, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly, have claimed that, as Hannity put it, BP "should have been in ANWR and shallower waters, and environmentalists pushed us out there." Similarly, Fox News contributors Andrew Napolitano and Bill Kristol, and Fox guest and editor-in-chief Mike Flynn have blamed the federal government for, in Flynn's words, "ma[king] them drill in water that deep."

REALITY: Deep-water regions feature vast oil reserves that make such drilling potentially lucrative. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service, the "best source of new domestic energy resources lies in the deep water." The deepwater region of the Gulf has also been identified as "probably the most promising area in United States-controlled territory."

FACT: MMS said "remarkable increase" in deep-water drilling due in part to "finding of reservoirs with high production wells." According to the MMS: "The deepwater portion of Gulf of Mexico has shown a remarkable increase in oil and gas exploration, development and production. In part this is due to the development of new technologies reducing operational costs and risks, as well as the finding of reservoirs with high production wells."

FACT: Bush MMS reported that the "best source of new domestic energy resources lies in the deep water Gulf of Mexico." In a 2004 report -- titled Deep Water: Where the Energy Is -- the MMS stated that "our best source of new domestic energy resources lies in the deep water Gulf of Mexico and other frontier areas." MMS reported that due to "declining production" in "near-shore, shallow waters" in the Gulf of Mexico, "energy companies have focused their attention on oil and gas resources in water depths of 1,000 feet and beyond." MMS estimated that "the deep water regions of the Gulf of Mexico may contain 56 billion barrels of oil equivalent, or enough to meet U.S. demand for 7-1/2 years at current rates."

FACT: Bush MMS reported deepwater drilling is "America's Offshore Energy Future," "significant proved reserves" discovered in recent years. In a 2008 report titled "Deepwater Gulf of Mexico 2008: America's Offshore Energy Future, MMS reported:

The deepwater GOM has contributed major additions to the total reserves in the GOM. Figure 40 shows the proved reserves added each year by water-depth category. Additions from the shallow waters of the GOM declined in recent years but, beginning in 1975, the deepwater area started contributing significant new reserves. Between 1975 and 1983, the majority of these additions were from discoveries in slightly more than 1,000 ft (305 m) of water. It was not until 1985 that major additions came from water depths greater than 1,500 ft (457 m). From 1998 to 2001, significant proved reserves were added in the 5,000- to 7,499-ft (1,524- to 2,286-m) water depth range. The year 2002 saw the first substantial addition from water depths greater than 7,500 ft (2,286 m).

FACT: NY Times reported BP discovery of "giant oil field" in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico indicated area was "probably the most promising area in United States-controlled territory." A September 2, 2009, New York Times article reported that "BP announced on Wednesday the discovery of what it characterized as a giant oil field several miles under the Gulf of Mexico," which the Times stated "was another indication that the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico are probably the most promising area in United States-controlled territory to bolster domestic oil production." The Times further credited BP's deep-water rigs with having "stabilized domestic production after almost two decades of yearly decline."

Myth: Obama, unlike Bush, "was off on vacation" during crisis
CLAIM: Obama "was off on vacation twice" during oil spill, but Bush did not go on vacation "in the middle of a crisis." On the June 17 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Giuliani asserted that he didn't think the spill was Obama's "job number one" because Obama was "off on vacation twice" during the cleanup. Giuliani contrasted Obama's vacations with President Bush's and Giuliani's own purported refusal to take vacations during times of crisis. Giuliani made similar arguments on the June 17 edition of Fox & Friends.

REALITY: Bush vacationed during the aftermath of Katrina; Giuliani reportedly spent more time at Yankees games than at WTC after 9-11. Despite Giuliani's suggestion, Bush reportedly made at least three trips to Camp David in the two months after Katrina, and Giuliani himself reportedly spent "roughly twice as long" at, or flying to, Yankees games than at ground zero between September 17, 2001, and December 16, 2001. The Obamas visited Asheville, North Carolina, the weekend of April 23. During that trip, Obama eulogized the 29 workers killed in the West Virginia mine explosion and "met with the workers' families privately before the ceremony," according to CNN. During Memorial Day weekend, Obama traveled to Chicago and was scheduled to deliver his Memorial Day address at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. Due to a thunderstorm, he spoke at Andrews Air Force Base instead.

FACT: Bush vacationed during aftermath of Katrina. In the two months after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, Bush reportedly made at least three separate weekend trips to the presidential retreat at Camp David. Bush visited the Camp David retreat in September 2005 and again during two weekends in October 2005. Three months after the hurricane, news outlets reported that hundreds of thousands of people were "still at loose ends in provisional housing -- many in isolated trailer parks"; "thousands of people were "still unaccounted for"; and "[m]ore than 80 percent of New Orleans's population has not been able to return home."

FACT: Giuliani reportedly spent more time at Yankees games than at ground zero following 9-11. In an August 18, 2007, article, Alex Koppelman examined Giuliani's schedule in the 90 days following the attacks and found: "By our count, Giuliani spent about 58 hours at Yankees games or flying to them in the 40 days between Sept. 25 and Nov. 4, roughly twice as long as he spent at ground zero in the 90 days between Sept. 17 and Dec. 16."

Myth: "Ridiculous" and "offensive" to blame Bush for spill
CLAIM: "Outrageous" to blame Bush for MMS mismanagement leading to oil spill. Fox News figures, including Dana Perino, Dick Morris and Mike Huckabee, have claimed that it is "ridiculous" and "offensive," as Perino put it, to say that the Bush administration's regulatory failures led to the oil spill.

REALITY: Under Bush, MMS relaxed oversight of drilling, ignored safety warnings, downplayed oil spill concerns. The Department of Interior's Office of Inspector General (OIG) "found a culture where the acceptance of gifts from oil and gas companies were widespread" in Bush's MMS. In addition, under Bush, MMS loosened rules requiring a blowout plan, dismissed the risk of a massive oil spill in a BP assessment, and failed to report a warning about a vital piece of blowout preventer. Moreover, Bush promoted and sought to expand offshore drilling.

FACT: Bush MMS adopted regulations stating drillers are "in the best position to determine the environmental effects of its proposed activity." The Washington Post reported on May 25 that the actions taken by MMS "are shaped in part by a 2005 regulation it adopted that assumes oil and gas companies can best evaluate the environmental effects of their operations." The article stated that "[t]he rule governing which information the MMS should receive and review before signing off on drilling plans states: 'The lessee or operator is in the best position to determine the environmental effects of its proposed activity based on whether the operation is routine or non-routine.'" Rolling Stone magazine reported that these "new rules pre-qualified deep-sea drillers" to receive an "exemption from environmental review," even though such exemptions were "originally intended to prevent minor projects, like outhouses on hiking trails, from being tied up in red tape."

FACT: In April 2008, Bush MMS loosened rules requiring blowout plan. The Associated Press reported on May 5 that a "rule change two years ago by the federal agency that regulates offshore oil rigs allowed BP to avoid filing a plan specifically for handling a major spill from an uncontrolled blowout at its Deepwater Horizon project." AP further reported: "The MMS rule change, made in April 2008, says that Gulf rig operators are required to file a blowout scenario only if one of five conditions applies. For example, an operator must provide a blowout scenario when it proposes to install a 'surface facility' in water deeper than 1,312 feet. While Deepwater Horizon was operating almost 5,000 feet below the surface, [BP spokesman William] Salvin said the project did not meet the definition of a surface facility. The MMS official agreed."

FACT: Bush MMS 2007 environmental impact assessment for BP lease dismissed risk of massive oil spill. The Post reported on May 5: "While the MMS assessed the environmental impact of drilling in the central and western Gulf of Mexico on three occasions in 2007 -- including a specific evaluation of BP's Lease 206 at Deepwater Horizon -- in each case it played down the prospect of a major blowout." The Post stated that "In one assessment, the agency estimated that 'a large oil spill' from a platform would not exceed a total of 1,500 barrels and that a 'deepwater spill,' occurring 'offshore of the inner Continental shelf,' would not reach the coast. In another assessment, it defined the most likely large spill as totaling 4,600 barrels and forecast that it would largely dissipate within 10 days and would be unlikely to make landfall." According to the Times-Picayune, these assessments "paved the way for BP to assert that its plans for drilling in Lease Sale 206 posed no real dangers."

FACT: Bush MMS failed to respond to 2004 warning about vital piece of blowout preventer. The Wall Street Journal reported on May 3 that "[f]ederal regulators learned in a 2004 study that a vital piece of oil-drilling safety equipment may not function in deep-water seas but did nothing to bolster industry requirements. The equipment, called shear rams, is supposed to seal off out-of-control oil and gas wells by pinching the pipe closed and cutting it." The Journal further reported that "[e]xperts theorize the rams may have failed to work as expected in the Deepwater Horizon disaster."

FACT: Bush MMS ignored warnings about faulty cementing in wells. AP reported on May 24 that numerous MMS reports identified a "poor cement job" as the cause of many offshore accidents, including incidents that took place in 2005 and 2007, "[y]et federal regulators give drillers a free hand in this crucial safety step." AP noted that rig owner Transocean and "independent experts" have pointed to "faulty cement work" as a possible cause of the blowout, and that new rules "in the works long before the Deepwater Horizon" took effect June 3, which "take a conservative watch-and-wait approach and demand only routines already carried out around the industry: a management program with monitoring and diagnostic testing."

FACT: WSJ reported that in 2003, Bush MMS decided not to require last-resort shut-off device. ABC News reported on April 30 that in 2000, MMS "issued a safety alert that called added layers of backup 'an essential component of a deepwater drilling system'." However, according to the Journal, "The industry argued against" mandating a remote-control shut-off switch that serves as "last-resort protection against underwater spills," and "[b]y 2003, U.S. regulators decided remote-controlled safeguards needed more study. A report commissioned by the Minerals Management Service said 'acoustic systems are not recommended because they tend to be very costly'." The Journal noted that the Deepwater Horizon rig did not have a remote-control device, which is required "in two major oil-producing countries, Norway and Brazil," and that "[i]ndustry consultants and petroleum engineers said that an acoustic remote-control may have been able to stop the well, but too much is still unknown about the accident to say that with certainty."

NPR similarly reported that Michael Saucier, MMS regional director in New Orleans, said at a hearing, "I think it was around 2001, there were some draft rules concerning secondary control systems for BOP stacks, and those rules were then sent up to headquarters to continue through the process." The NPR report goes on to state, "But what came back from headquarters were not rules, he said, just notices that 'highly encouraged' companies to use the backup systems. 'There is no enforcement on it,' he said."

FACT: Bush MMS reportedly suppressed scientists' concerns about environmental impact of spills in Alaska. A June 6 Denver Post article reported that an MMS office in Alaska rejected a 2006 analysis conducted by a biologist, which stated that a large oil spill could significantly harm fish populations. The analysis, which would have "required MMS to conduct a more detailed environmental impact statement before auctioning leases in the Beaufort Sea," was rewritten after a supervisor told the biologist that his analysis would cause a "delay in sale 202. That would, as you can imagine, not go over well with HQ and others." The Denver Post further reported, "[c]oncerns raised by another MMS biologist, James Wilder, that the impact on polar bears was not adequately addressed in Shell's Alaska exploration plan, also were rebuffed, according to e-mails."

Myth: Obama is the "single largest recipient of BP cash"
CLAIM: "Largest single donation" "from BP" has gone to Obama. After Palin suggested a connection between "contributions made to President Obama and his administration and the support by the oil companies to the administration," Doocy said that "when it comes down to the single largest recipient of BP cash, [Palin is] absolutely right ... it was Barack Obama."

FACT: Obama presidential campaign took no money from BP's PAC. Obama received $71,051 in contributions from BP employees during his presidential campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama's presidential campaign received no funds from BP's PAC or from the company itself. A CRP spokesman confirmed that "the $71,051 that Obama received during the 2008 election cycle was entirely from BP employees." The spokesman also stated that "Obama did not accept contributions from political action committees, so none of this money is from BP's PAC."

FACT: Donations from BP's PAC and its employees represent 0.01 percent of Obama's total presidential fundraising. Obama raised more than $744 million for his presidential campaign. The $71,051 he received from BP's employees accounts for less than .01 percent of Obama's total presidential campaign contributions.

Scherer: "People who run for President raise much more money, and received much more money from BP interests -- and just about every other interest." In a May 5 Swampland post, Time's Michael Scherer cited CRP's data and noted that "[i]t is true that ... Obama received slightly more money from BP's PAC and employees since 1990 than anyone else." Scherer went on to explain:

But there is a major a reason for that, which the story fails to mention: People who run for President raise much more money, and received much more money from BP interests -- and just about every other interest. The fourth highest recipient of BP money in the same time period is George W. Bush. The fifth highest recipient is John McCain. In the 2000 and 2004 cycles, Bush got the most money, albeit less than Obama received in 2008. But then one could adjust these numbers for campaign inflation: campaigns overall raised much less money in the 2000 and 2004 cycles than the record-smashing 2008 cycle.

FACT: Obama took only $1,000 of PAC money from BP during his 2004 Senate campaign. Obama received $1,000 from BP's PAC during his 2004 Senate campaign. Twenty-one Senate candidates received more from BP's PAC during that election cycle alone.

Myth: Obama admin turned down foreign assistance in dealing with oil cleanup
CLAIM: Obama's refusal to waive Jones Act has prevented international assistance. Fox News' Dick Morris, Bill O'Reilly and Oliver North have similarly asserted that Obama's purported refusal to waive the Jones Act has prevented the United States from accepting aid from foreign ships.

REALITY: International assistance is part of Gulf spill response. In an interview on the June 15 edition of Fox & Friends, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs stated that "foreign entities are operating within the Gulf that help us respond" to the oil spill. Further, in a June 15 press release, the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center stated, "Currently, 15 foreign-flagged vessels are involved in the largest response to an oil spill in U.S. history." The Center further explained, "No Jones Act waivers have been granted because none of these vessels have required such a waiver to conduct their operations in the Gulf of Mexico." The administration has further stated that they would waive the Jones Act if waivers were requested, but that "there are no pending requests for foreign vessels to come into the Gulf."

Myth: Obama admin defied Constitution because it "told" BP to create escrow account
CLAIM: Obama's actions on escrow fund were "not constitutional." On the June 18 edition of Fox & Friends, talking about Rep. Joe Barton's (R-TX) criticism of the $20 billion escrow account, co-host Brian Kilmeade said: "You know, [Barton's] upset that they set up this -- that they told BP, 'I need $20 billion into this fund.' ... He felt as though that was out of the administration's realm. They shouldn't be allowed to do that. That's not constitutional, and they shouldn't go ahead -- go forward with that."

REALITY: BP volunteered to establish account after "negotiation session" with White House in which "[b]oth sides got what they wanted." BP agreed on its own to establish the account as a "voluntary gesture" after negotiations with the White House in which both sides reportedly got what they wanted. Additionally, Dan Farber, director of Berkeley Law's environmental law program, wrote that "the answer isn't very clear" but that the Oil Pollution Act "does require BP to establish a process for 'the payment or settlement of claims for interim, short-term damages' that might encompass an escrow and independent decision-makers."

FACT: Wash. Post: "Both sides got what they wanted out of the encounter." The Post reported that in the meeting between the White House and BP, "[b]oth sides got what they wanted out of the encounter," noting that "BP, though poorer on paper in the short run, got some much-needed clarity on its long-term liability, plus an explicit statement from Obama that the administration doesn't want to see BP driven into bankruptcy."

FACT: BP announced $100 million to support unemployed oil industry workers as a "voluntary gesture." The Post also reported on June 17 that Obama asked BP "for a voluntary contribution to a foundation that will support unemployed oil industry employees" and that "BP agreed, offering $100 million." The Post quoted BP adviser Jamie Gorelick as saying, "We made clear that we do not think this is a liability for the company. The president said he's concerned about those workers. He asked if there was something we could do as a voluntary gesture."

FACT: Expert said law "does require BP to establish a process for 'the payment or settlement of claims for interim, short-term damages,' " which could include escrow account. In his June 15 post on the blog Legal Planet titled, "Can Obama Require BP to Form an Escrow Fund?" Farber wrote that "the answer isn't very clear" but that the Oil Pollution Act "does require BP to establish a process for 'the payment or settlement of claims for interim, short-term damages' that might encompass an escrow and independent decision-makers." Indeed, Section 1005 of the Oil Pollution Act states:


(a) GENERAL RULE. -- The responsible party or the responsible party's guarantor is liable to a claimant for interest on the amount paid in satisfaction of a claim under this Act for the period described in subsection (b). The responsible party shall establish a procedure for the payment or settlement of claims for interim, short-term damages. Payment or settlement of a claim for interim, short-term damages representing less than the full amount of damages to which the claimant ultimately may be entitled shall not preclude recovery by the claimant for damages not reflected in the paid or settled partial claim.

Myth: Obama admin unreasonably delayed purchase of Maine company's oil boom
CLAIM: "Red tape puts hold on company's boom making." On June 10, Fox & Friends ran a story criticizing the administration for possibly being "in the dark about" Packgen, a Maine company who's oil containment boom had yet to be approved by BP for use in the Gulf. During the segment, on-screen text read: "Red tape puts hold on company's boom making."

REALITY: Packgen had not previously manufactured boom, reportedly failed "initial quality control test." The Maine company had reportedly not produced boom before and their boom reportedly "differs from other designs being used." BP ordered a trial run of the product before committing to purchase it. The boom later reportedly failed "an initial quality control test."

FACT: Packgen reportedly began manufacturing boom after spill. The Lewiston, Maine, Sun Journal reported on May 19 that Packgen, a Maine company that "makes composite packaging used to contain environmental and hazardous waste," hoped to "capitalize on the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico by churning out a much-sought-after oil containment tool known as a boom." The article quoted Packgen's president as saying they were "still pitching (to buyers)" and reported that BP had "sent up a company auditor to check out" the company.

FACT: WCSH6 reported that BP "ordered a trial run" of the product, which "differs from other designs being used." Maine news station WCSH6 reported on June 3 that BP "has ordered a trial run of the product but there is no word of when or if the design will be approved." The article also reported: "It differs from other designs being used because, according to company officials, it creates a tighter seal between pieces preventing oil from leaking past the barrier."

FACT: Boom reportedly failed "an initial quality test." On June 11, ABC News' Jake Tapper tweeted that according to the Coast Guard, the "boom manufactured by Packgen did not pass an initial quality control test." On June 16, Tapper reported that an engineering professor who was hired by Packgen to inspect the boom stated his belief that " 'it certainly will work' in coastal areas in coastal areas, though he 'wouldn't deploy it deepwater'."

Myth: Obama unnecessarily delayed berm plan
CLAIM: Obama did not "respond immediately" to spill because he did not approve the berm plan "right away" On the June 9 edition of Fox & Friends, Perino responded to the statement that "[Obama's] officials responded immediately" to the spill by claiming, "I think Governor [Bobby] Jindal would disagree with the berms that weren't built right away."

REALITY: Army Corps of Engineers studied plan as required by law and expressed concerns over proposal. AP reported on May 24 that "the Corps said it is working as quickly as possible on the emergency permit request -- but still has to follow various steps required by federal law."

FACT: Army Corps reportedly raised concerns that barriers "could instead funnel oil into more unprotected areas and into neighboring Mississippi." AP reported on May 26 that the Army Corps released documents that day that "signaled support for parts of the state plan, including berms that would be built onto existing barrier islands," but stated that parts of the plan "could inadvertently alter tides and end up driving oil east -- into Mississippi Sound, the Biloxi Marshes and Lake Borgne."

FACT: Army Corps approved portions of the plan "after careful consideration of the available information." On May 27, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they approved portions of the plan to create sand berms between barrier islands off the coast of Louisiana. The White House approved additional portions of Lousiana's berm plan on June 2.

FACT: Adm. Allen reportedly continued to express concerns about proposal but said "the prudent thing ... was to start a pilot project and keep asking questions." On May 28, AP reported that Adm. Thad Allen "approved portions of Louisiana's $350 million plan to ring its coastline with a wall of sand meant to keep out the Gulf of Mexico oil spill." The article noted that the Army Corps had objected to portions of the plan due to concerns about oil being diverted to Mississippi and that Allen also "said some sections of the berm system would not have kept out oil," as well as potentially "interfer[ing] with cleanup."

Myth: Coast Guard docked oil-collecting barges for no good reason
CLAIM: Shutting down oil-collecting barges was an "amazing screw-up." On the June 18 edition of his Fox News show, O'Reilly asserted that there had been an "insane," "amazing screw-up in the Gulf cleanup," because the Coast Guard sent several oil-collecting barges back to shore due to questions about safety measures (including life vests and fire extinguishers) on the ships.

REALITY: The ships reportedly did lack the required equipment, and there were also concerns about their stability. The Daily Caller's Jonathan Strong reported on June 18:

Sixteen crude-sucking barges are back in the Gulf of Mexico working to clean up oil, but the Coast Guard is defending its decision to ground the vessels because it couldn't verify whether there were fire extinguishers and life vests on board.

"The Coast Guard is not going to compromise safety ... that's our No. 1 priority," Coast Guard spokesman Robert Brassel told The Daily Caller.


Brassel said the barges are now "back in operating order."

On Thursday night, the Incident Commander in Houma, Roger Laferriere, decided with the captain of the port in New Orleans to inspect the barges when they realized the ships did not have a certificate of inspection to demonstrate safety equipment on board. Thursday morning, the ships were inspected and grounded because they did not have the proper fire-fighting and life-saving equipment. There were also concerns about the stability of the barges. During the day Thursday, the problems were fixed, and the barges are back out on the water today.

A June 17 statement from the Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Information Center stated that the "vacuum barges were temporarily removed from service after safety concerns occurred including stability and the lack of lifesaving and firefighting equipment." A June 19 statement said that "the owner/operator of the barges asked the Coast Guard to inspect the vessels, some under construction, to ensure they were safe" and that "The Coast Guard inspectors made recommendations to the owner/operator regarding lifesaving and firefighting equipment, vessel stability and egress issues, leaving the decision to continue construction and operations with the owner/operator."

You Can't See the Boarded-Up Schools From the Mansions

by Paul Buchheit

The long-term effect of shutting down schools, going to a 4-day school week, and cramming 40 students in a classroom is too unpleasant to imagine. But easy to ignore if you can afford enough acreage to block the view.

Everyone's feeling the pain, they say. Really? Consider these facts:

(1) In 1980 the richest 1% of America took one of every fifteen income dollars. Now they take THREE of every fifteen income dollars. They've TRIPLED their cut of America's income pie. That's a TRILLION extra dollars a year. That's 1/7 of the whole pie, in addition to what they had before.

(2) One man (hedge fund manager David Tepper) made $4 billion last year, enough money to pay the salaries of every public school teacher in New York City. Based on income figures, he is 50,000 times more valuable than the police officer or firefighter who comes rushing to your house in an emergency.

(3) If the bottom 90% of America had shared in our country's prosperity at a level consistent with 1980 incomes, the average family would be making $45,000 a year instead of $35,000.

These are well-documented facts, taken from the Internal Revenue Service, the Census Bureau, and the Congressional Budget Office.

Our children will be paying the price of a free-market philosophy that doesn't have the sense to regulate greed. Plenty of studies show the adverse effects of inequality on the stability and health of a society. And our children don't have to wait to feel the effects. Many of them come to school on Monday mornings anxious for their first full meal in three days.

And it's not just the schools. Essential police and firefighting forces are being reduced. Low-income people traveling to their jobs on off-hours take the brunt of transit cutbacks. We're seeing cutbacks in after-school programs in low-income areas and reductions in library hours and park services. Plus, of course, increases in state income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, gas taxes, cigarette taxes, utility costs, license fees, parking meter rates.

The usual response is that the wealthy deserve what they earn. But while they tripled their cut of the pie, they didn't work three times harder than everyone else. They benefited from financial deregulation and tax cuts, opportunities way beyond the lives of the families with kids in public school.

Supporters also say the rich will re-invest in industry, providing benefits for all. They said this in 1980. The current level of inequality is equivalent to that of the Great Depression.

Or they say the "wealth tax" and the "death tax" is unfairly targeting the rich. The new tax proving for health care is a relative slap on the wrist. The estate tax affects about 5,000 previously untaxed estates, owned by the richest 1/100 of 1% of American families.

Or they say the rich are suffering, too. But a 2010 Merrill Lynch-Capgemini world wealth report states that the rich (millionaires and above) in North America increased their wealth 18 percent to $10.7 trillion.

We're letting this happen to our society because people don't know the truth. Many of those arguing against government regulation are poor themselves. In many ways, big government IS a problem. And capitalism may be the best economic system. But we've failed to find a compromise. Extreme inequality shows that.

Several states have implemented more progressive tax systems. Oregon recently passed Measures 66 and 67, which impose modest income tax increases on the wealthiest residents and raise the corporate minimum tax for the first time in 80 years. A 2008 study by Princeton University determined that "the 'half-millionaire tax,' at least in New Jersey, appears to be an effective and efficient revenue-generation mechanism, having little impact on migration patterns among half-millionaire households." Similarly, little adverse effect of higher taxes was found in Maryland or Oregon. And a study by the California Budget Project revealed that the number of high-income households actually grew during periods of higher income tax rates for top earners.

Progressive taxes worked from the 1950s through the 1970s. And a fair approach now would mean that 90% of us should not be taxed. We just need to get back our piece of the pie.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Chamber of Commerce Grows Into a Political Force

Original Link:

By Tom Hamburger

Reporting from Washington — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is building a large-scale grass-roots political operation that has begun to rival those of the major political parties, funded by record-setting amounts of money raised from corporations and wealthy individuals.

The chamber has signed up some 6 million individuals who are not chamber members and has begun asking them to help with lobbying and, soon, with get-out-the-vote efforts in upcoming congressional campaigns.

The chamber's expansion into grass-roots organizing -- coupled with a large and growing fundraising apparatus that got a lift from Supreme Court rulings -- is part of a trend in which the traditional parties are losing ground to well-financed and increasingly assertive outside groups. The chamber is certainly better positioned than ever to be a major force on the issues and elections it focuses on each year, analysts think.

The new grass-roots program, the brainchild of chamber political director Bill Miller, is concentrating on 22 states. Among them are Colorado, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet is vulnerable; Arkansas, where Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln faces an uphill reelection battle; and Ohio, where the chamber sees opportunities in numerous House races and an open Senate seat.

The network, called Friends of the U.S. Chamber, has been used to generate more than a million letters and e-mails to members of Congress, 700,000 of them in opposition to the Democratic healthcare plan. That is an increase from 40,000 congressional contacts generated in 2008.

What makes the initiative possible is a swelling tide of money. The chamber spent more than $144 million on lobbying and grass-roots organizing last year, a 60% increase over 2008, and well beyond the spending of individual labor unions or the Democratic or Republican national committees.

The chamber is expected to substantially exceed that spending level in 2010.

The chamber's expanding influence is worrisome to top officials in the White House -- including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who has expressed concern about the chamber in the past, and senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, who tried to build direct contacts with company executives last fall when the chamber was fighting the administration's legislation to regulate carbon emissions.

Several companies, including Pacific Gas & Electric and Apple, left the chamber over its stance on climate policies, but since then many more firms have joined and made substantial contributions, chamber President Tom Donohue said.

Amassing cash

Two major factors are driving the chamber's growing success in fundraising.

First, President Obama and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress have alarmed a widening circle of business leaders with their calls for greater government involvement in healthcare, tighter federal regulation of the financial industry and legislation to help unions organize workers, among other issues.

Second, the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations have a free-speech right to spend money to help elect or defeat candidates not only struck down a century of laws limiting such spending, but it also made many business executives feel more comfortable about using corporate money for political purposes.

Industries that are the most directly affected by Washington policies and regulations -- pharmaceuticals, for example -- have always spent lavishly on lobbying and politics. But many others have held back, deterred by concern over violating the complex laws on campaign spending and by a general sense that putting money into politics might open companies to criticism.

The Supreme Court decision appears to have allayed those concerns, according to corporate lawyers and others involved in the process.

"In the past a lot of companies and wealthy individuals stood on the sidelines," said Robert Kelner, who heads the Election and Political Law Practice Group at Covington & Burling, one of Washington's most influential corporate law firms.

"In just the last election, we had the spectacle of John McCain threatening to prosecute his own supporters if they spent their money on outside groups that ran advertising in the presidential race.

As ominous music played in the background of one of the ads, a moderator intoned: "Washington politicians continue to fail us. More spending and fewer jobs. Scott Brown . . . supports measures that hold spending and cut taxes. . . . Call Scott Brown. Thank him."

Powerful as the effect of such advertising could be, the chamber and its allies expect the next big expansion of influence will come in street-level organizing and voter turnout operations.

Miller, a former chief of staff to a GOP lawmaker and co-owner of a restaurant in Washington's tony Georgetown section, built up the chamber's grass-roots organization in 2008 and expanded it in 2009 with the help of consulting firms.

Studying magazine subscriptions, voter registration and consumer buying habits, the consultants built a list of potential allies in 122 key congressional districts.

Individuals were invited to join the Friends of the U.S. Chamber initiative and were promised updates and special insights on Washington. They were then "activated," asked to write letters or call Congress on a particular issue or get involved in events in the districts.

Miller said the so-called activation rate was "roughly equivalent" to the rate claimed by Organizing for America, the network known as Obama for America during the presidential campaign, which has twice as many members.

The chamber has also given its staff, especially senior leaders, incentives to push fundraising. They are now working, in effect, on a commission system: the more money they bring in, the more they are compensated.

Leaning right

Officially, the chamber is a bipartisan nonprofit organization, but over the last decade it has tilted decidedly toward the Republicans. During 2008, 86% of the spending by the chamber's political action committee went to Republicans. Far more was spent on issue ads, most supporting GOP candidates.

The chamber says it represents 3 million companies that pay dues to the national chamber or a local affiliate, though internal documents suggest the organization's treasury is filled in substantial part by contributions from a couple dozen major corporations most affected by Washington policymakers.

Tax records from 2008 show that 19 companies or individuals paid between $1 million and $15.3 million, providing a third of the chamber's total revenue that year. Because the chamber is a nonprofit, it must disclose donations, but not necessarily the identity of the donors.

The chamber insists that those donors remain anonymous.

Some labor-backed organizations, such as Working America, which has 3 million nonunion members nationwide, have also declined to release details of its donors, which suggests a rocky road for legislation to require more transparency.

"That cloud has been lifted," he said.


Using trade associations such as the chamber as the vehicle for spending corporate money on politics has an extra appeal: These groups can take large contributions from companies and wealthy individuals in ways that will probably avoid public disclosure requirements.

The chamber has developed that into something of a specialty: Under a system pioneered by Donohue, corporations have contributed money to the chamber, which then produced issue ads targeting individual candidates without revealing the names of the businesses underwriting the ads.

At the chamber, officials contend that rising donations are less the result of the recent Supreme Court ruling than they are of a 5-4 decision in 2007 in which the court ruled it was unconstitutional to ban issue-related advertising close to an election.

As a result of that ruling, the chamber was able to spend $1 million on so-called issue ads in the final days of the Massachusetts Senate race in January to help elect Scott Brown, the state's first Republican senator in decades.

The dangers of embracing invisible corporate power

Original Link:

By John Steel

Let’s face it: Large corporations have our country, and us, in a death grip. Some of their bad behavior makes big headlines: the BP oil disaster, Goldman Sachs’ financial shenanigans, Enron’s book-cooking. However, equally dangerous corporate activity happens every day, far from public view.

Corporations have seeped almost invisibly into nearly every government agency and too many congressional offices. And they’re as poisonous as carbon monoxide. In the past 20 years, protective legislation and regulation, carefully constructed from the days of President Coolidge and vastly strengthened due to the Depression, have seriously deteriorated.

There’s nothing inherently evil, or even bad, about corporations. Indeed, the combination of capital and management under one roof is efficient and essential in a global, competitive world. So much of our standard of living and our worldwide leadership are directly traceable to our corporate and entrepreneurial culture. But even good things, when they get out of control, turn destructive. Cancer, after all, is just growth gone wild.

There has always been tension between good government and free enterprise. It hurts the bottom line to scrub emissions from coal-burning power generators, ensure meat is sanitary, clean up toxic waste and disclose the full risks of financial products.

But once corporations realized that instead of fighting government they could actually buy it through lobbying and political contributions, the base of our democracy eroded. Their “invisible power” got a grip. The stealthy hunt for corporate profits metastasized from the marketplace and entered the halls of Congress and the executive branch.

The fight over reforming Wall Street is just the latest example. The need for regulation is hardly theoretical here. We’re still reeling from a crisis caused by the absence of it. Congress doesn’t even need to reinvent the wheel, a favorite task. There were laws and regulations that had worked for so long, such as those to keep banks and investment brokers separate; require diligent lending; prohibit betting against your own borrowers; require full disclosure to borrowers; and, above all, keep the risk with the lenders to insure they make prudent loans.

So why has the debate on reform dragged on for nearly a year? The public wants Wall Street reined in. So why would any legislator, much less an entire political party, get in the way of financial reform? It can’t just be a coincidence that the financial sector happens to be the biggest contributor to 2010 congressional campaigns, with more than $129 million doled out already. Financial firms have also spent well more than a half-billion dollars on lobbying since early 2009.

To reverse this situation we must change who gets elected to Congress. And that is the one thing we can do, and perhaps the only thing, to neutralize corporate control of our government. Only real people have the vote — corporations don’t.

To regain our democracy, we must:

* Identify and make public those elected representatives who owe their jobs to corporate largess and cast their votes accordingly.
* Insulate the election process from corporate funding. Bills in both the Senate and House that would forbid campaign spending by contractors who receive more than $50,000 in taxpayer funds would be a good start.
* Prohibit lawmakers and lobbyists from interacting with each other, except to exchange ideas on legislation, and require them to publish a record of their contacts.

It may take several election cycles to scrub corporate influence and control from our political system, but once it starts it will gain momentum. And once we’ve accomplished this feat, appropriate regulation and control will follow. The horse will be before the cart, and the driver will be a person.

Chamber Of Commerce Says Taxpayers Should Help Pay For BP Spill Cleanup; GOP Leader Agrees, Then Recants

Original Link:

By Jason Linkins

Hey there, Americans! I'm sure, by now, many of you have had some time to reflect on the massive, unfolding Deepwater Horizon oil disaster and thought to yourselves, "My, that really is a terrible, apocalyptic cock-up!" But have you gone so far as to think to yourself, "My, that really is a terrible, apocalyptic cock-up, the costs of which I should logically be burdened with, because I am responsible for everything that happened?" No? Well, you should maybe start thinking that way, because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce thinks you should!

You know, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce typically doesn't put itself out there as a big fan of socialism. But that all changes when we're talking about risk and liability. In those cases, they love socialism to death! And that's basically how Chamber President Tom Donohue is framing his call to put a greater share of the oil spill price tag on you and me:

"It is generally not the practice of this country to change the laws after the game," said Tom Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. ". . . Everybody is going to contribute to this clean up. We are all going to have to do it. We are going to have to get the money from the government and from the companies and we will figure out a way to do that."
Yes, now is the time for America to come together and demonstrate some communitarian pluck in response to the time that all of us collectively decided that BP should cut corners, blow up their oil rig, and cause a massive disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

House Minority Leader John Boehner cosigns this call for collective responsibility:

In response to a question from TPMDC, House Minority Leader John Boehner said he believes taxpayers should help pick up the tab for the clean up.

"I think the people responsible in the oil spill--BP and the federal government--should take full responsibility for what's happening there," Boehner said at his weekly press conference this morning.

That's from TPM's Brian Beutler, who very helpfully points out that this is one of those times when the words "federal government" is used as a euphemism for "American taxpayers."

HuffPost asked Boehner's office to confirm his support of the Chamber's position, and Boehner spokesman Michael Steel seemed to recant: "Boehner made a general statement about who is responsible for the spill, and the federal government oversight was clearly lacking, but he has said repeatedly that BP is responsible for the cost of the cleanup."

But it's worth noting that Boehner's "general statement" came in response to a very specific question from Beutler: "Do you agree with Tom Donohue of the Chamber that the government and taxpayers should pitch in to clean up the oil spill?"

In any case -- wow, it seems like only a couple of years ago that then Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden was pretty roundly mocked for suggesting that paying taxes in support of the common weal was an act of patriotism. I guess a lot has changed since then!

The Supreme Court Says No to the People - Again

Original Link:

By Michael Winship

At a dinner party, an ever-so-proper aristocrat who had been at the British evacuation of Dunkirk, sixty years ago, remained tightlipped despite intense questioning from the other guests about what he had seen there.

Finally, he shuddered at the memory and exclaimed, "The noise, my dear, and the people!"

An apocryphal story, perhaps, but the high-falutin' Supreme Court of the United States has the same attitude toward America -- this would be such a great country if it wasn't for all the noise and people.

Bad enough that last week the court narrowly redefined Miranda rights in such a way that seems to say that if one of those aforementioned people is arrested and remains silent about their right to remain silent, anything you do say, if you say something, can and will be held against you. An interpretation as worthy of Lewis Carroll as it is George Orwell.

But of course such reasoning is not surprising from a court that ruled earlier this year that corporations are people, too -- really big people -- whether you're a major banking entity bilking the little guy for billions or a petrochemical giant obscenely filling the Gulf of Mexico with crude, like Rabelais' Gargantua, relieving himself from the towers of Notre Dame and drowning the city of Paris.

The Supreme Court's infamous Citizens United ruling cited free speech as its reason, giving corporate America the right to pour unlimited money into political and issues campaigns, lavishing cash on whichever candidates run fastest to do their bidding. This week, the Supremes went even further, proving once again that when it comes to American politics and government, money talks, and it does so with the biggest, loudest megaphone dollars can buy.

On Tuesday, the court issued an unsigned, emergency order halting an essential part of Arizona's model campaign finance system. It grants matching funds to candidates who accept public financing limits but find themselves running against wealthy candidates whose pockets are so deep, money is no object.

As the New York Times reported, the stay "will probably remain in effect through both the primary in August and the general election in November. The court instructed the candidates challenging the matching fund law to file a prompt appeal. If the court agrees to hear the case, as is likely, it is unlikely to be argued and decided before the November election." By then, of course, the damage will be done.

In the long run, the ruling could have an impact on similar finance campaign laws in other states, including Connecticut and Maine, but it immediately impacts 133 candidates running for state office in Arizona, including incumbent Governor Jan Brewer, whose recent signing of the state's notorious illegal immigration bill has made her the favorite for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

But she is a publicly funded candidate who was due to receive more than $2.1 million under the current Arizona system. Without the matching funds, according to the state's Clean Elections Institute, "That amount will drop by 66 percent to $707,447." One of her opponents, businessman Buz Mills, already has spent $2.3 million, much of it his own money. Not surprisingly, he hailed the Supreme Court's order as "a tremendous victory for Arizona taxpayers and the First Amendment."

The New York Times quoted Richard Hasen, a professor at Los Angeles' Loyola Law School: "The developments in Arizona show just what a tough litigation environment it is right now for those in the lower courts seeking to defend reasonable campaign finance regulations. Without matching funds provisions, public financing programs are unlikely to attract substantial participation from serious candidates, who fear being vastly outmatched by self-financed opponents or major independent spending campaigns."

The ruling came down the same day that California voters rejected Proposition 15, which would have experimented with a publicly financed campaign system similar to Arizona's -- starting with the next two elections for California's secretary of state.

Ironically, that defeat and the Supreme Court's action in Arizona occurred on a primary election day that saw Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina emerge victorious as California's Republican Party candidates for governor and senator respectively. Each of them spent millions and millions of their own money to win.

Whitman says she's ready to spend $150 million of her eBay fortune to defeat Democratic candidate Jerry Brown. No matter who comes out on top, that kind of cash will generate a lot of smoke. Ordinary people may once again be outshouted by monied interests that wield their financial power like an authoritarian, plutocratic cudgel.

We need a constitutional amendment rejecting the anti-democratic course this Supreme Court has chosen. An amendment that establishes an equitable, public campaign financing system that levels the playing field for anyone who wants to run for office, no matter what their income or bankrolling connections. And we need it now.