On Tuesday, five federal agencies approved a key financial reform intended to keep banks from making risky bets for their own profit. Known as the Volcker rule, the regulation took three years to finalize and withstood a concentrated lobbying front from Wall Street and business groups.
As recently as last month financial reformers expressed concern that the final rule would leave critical loopholes open and fail to stop banks from engaging in speculative trading, with taxpayers vulnerable to big losses. But after seventy-one pages of official guidelines were unveiled yesterday, reform advocates appear to have won their campaign for a stronger law. But because of critical gray areas in the rule, how much stability it restores to the financial system depends on implementation and enforcement.
“Today’s finalization of the Volcker Rule ban on proprietary trading is a major defeat for Wall Street and a direct attack on the high-risk ‘quick-buck’ culture of Wall Street,” said Dennis Kelleher, the president of the advocacy group Better Markets, in a statement. “Regulators have resisted much of the heavy Wall Street pressure to weaken an earlier proposal. In fact, they seem to have strengthened the rule in several significant ways,” wrote Americans for Financial Reform, another advocacy coalition.
The ultimate goal of the Volcker rule is to make banking boring again by rebuilding a wall between commercial banking activity and the kind of risky trading done by investment firms. The rule bans commercial banks from making bets for their own profit rather than for their customers, a practice known as “proprietary trading.” Banks suffered about $230 billion in proprietary trading losses during the first year of the financial crisis, and taxpayers were on the hook for the massive bailouts required to keep the banks afloat. More recently, proprietary trading disguised as risk hedging caused JP Morgan’s “London Whale” scandal, a loss of $6.2 billion in 2012.
Whether the Volcker rule will truly stop proprietary trading depends in large part how strictly regulators enforce it. Under the rule, banks will establish their own compliance programs, and officials from several agencies will be responsible for policing their activity. There’s plenty of gray areas in the rules, and supervisors from agencies with different perspectives will have to decide when banks are engaged in allowed activities, like risk-hedging and market making, and when they’re cheating.
“Given the absence of a lot of ‘bright-line’ distinctions, I think supervisors are going to bear going forward an important responsibility to make sure that this rule really works as intended,” said Janet Yellen, vice chair of the Federal Reserve board of governors and Obama’s nominee to head the agency. The board voted unanimously to approve the final rule, with several other board members noting that the real strength of the rule depends on implementation.
Sarah Bloom Raskin, long an advocate for a strong Volcker rule, said one of the priorities should be setting guidelines for the examiners who will evaluate banks’ compliance with the rule. “This emphasis on compliance within firm-chosen limits rather than absolute thresholds means that the role of supervisors and examiners…becomes critical,” she said.
Raskin also argued for a deeper consideration of pay schemes at financial institutions, in light of a compensation provision in the Volcker rule that forbids banks from rewarding proprietary trading. “It seems to me that if we’re serious about minimizing financial instability in the context of the Volcker Rule, then we have to engage in some scrutiny of the design of compensation plans and ask ourselves if various pay arrangements are thwarting the rule’s goals,” Raskin said. “As long as compensation arrangements are unconstrained, the Volcker Rule would need to be more restrictive. We need to stay vigilant to the possibility that the compensation arrangements at particular institutions will not be conducive to the minimizing of the potential for financial instability.”
Raskin will soon leave the Fed to serve as the deputy Treasury secretary. In that position she is likely to play key watchdog role in the enforcement of the Volcker rule and other financial reforms.
Members of Congress will scrutinize how the rule is implemented, too. Senators Carl Levin and Jeff Merkley, who amended Dodd-Frank to include the Volcker rule, called its finalization “a big step” toward the goal of separating banks and high-risk trading. “No regulation is ever perfect, and we will carefully monitor implementation and hold regulators and firms accountable,” they said in a statement.
Banks could lose billions if the Volcker rule is strictly enforced, and financial reformers don’t expect Wall Street to stop trying to weaken it now that it’s final. “Public engagement was crucial in pushing the rulemaking process, and it will need to be sustained in the implementation process,” said Americans for Financial Reform, which also warned that more transparency is needed. “The Volcker rule cannot be allowed to disappear into a private conversation between Wall Street and its supervisors.”
Wall Street is also weighing legal challenges to the law. If they proceed, a business group like the Chamber of Commerce or the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association is likely to front the lawsuit, with funds donated by some of the largest banks and legal representation from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s son Eugene Scalia. “We will now have to carefully examine the final rule to consider the impact on liquidity and market-making, and take all options into account as we decide how best to proceed,” the Chamber of Commerce said in a statement. Opponents could challenge the rule on procedural grounds, or argue that it improperly considers costs and benefits or contradicts other directives in Dodd-Frank.
The Volcker rule is not the final act of financial reform, as Erika Eichelberger notes at Mother Jones. Federal agencies still have to write or complete hundreds of rules mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act, including requirements for how much capital banks have to hold in reserve and regulations governing credit-rating firms and derivatives trading.
Read Next: Gary Rivlin on the army of Wall Street lobbyists working to weaken the Dodd-Frank finance reform act.
Miami. Baton Rouge. Jacksonville. Columbia, South Carolina: these are not the places that immediately come to mind when considering America’s HIV epidemic. But in the ranking of US cities with the highest HIV rates, they are numbers one, two, three and six, respectively.
On Thursday The New York Times ran an important story by Donald McNeil Jr. about the “new face” of HIV— young, poor black and Hispanic men who have sex with men. One thing not mentioned in the article—which focuses on New York City—is the geography of the epidemic, which is now concentrated and most deadly in the Southern states. While only 37 percent of Americans live in the South, half of new HIV infections originate there. Eight of the ten states with the highest rate of infection are in the South, as are nine of the ten states with the highest AIDS fatalities rates.
McNeil focuses mostly on the scarcity of resources available to fund targeted messaging in black and Hispanic communities, and that’s certainly a problem. But the regional dynamics of HIV, and the fact that young men of color who have sex with men actually engage in less high-risk behavior than their white cohorts suggest that messaging isn’t the only thing needed. McNeil’s conclusion is that when it comes the spread of HIV among young men of color, “the prospects for change look grim” because “the national response is fragmented and hesitant.”
There are two policies on the table that could have a profound effect on the rate of new infections in the United States, which has hovered near 50,000 new cases a year for a decade: the expansion of Medicaid, and comprehensive immigration reform. The implications of these policies for HIV are magnified by the fact that their impact would be particularly strong in the South.
Medicaid and immigration reform won’t change the social conservatism of the Bible Belt, which expresses itself in a lack of comprehensive sex education, stigma, absence of needle exchange programs and a general “sweeping under the rug” of conversations about sexual health and risk reduction, explained Susan Reif, a researcher at Duke University’s Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research. But those policies can change some of the material circumstances that have made the Deep South the locus of the HIV epidemic, namely the higher rates of poverty, higher proportions of uninsured people and more limited access to care.
“Right now, Medicaid expansion is really one of the most important things that we need,” said Rainey Copps, executive director of the Southern Aids Coalition. Eligibility criteria are more stringent in Southern states than in other regions, leaving many of the people who are at highest risk for HIV uninsured, limiting their access to preventive care, testing and treatment. The Affordable Care Act was designed to close this coverage gap by expanding eligibility to all adults with incomes below 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Every state in the Deep South except Arkansas has opted out of the expansion.
Because of the South’s stringent eligibility requirements, Medicaid programs in those states cover far fewer HIV-positive individuals than others do. Nationally, Medicaid is the primary form of insurance coverage for people with HIV/AIDs, and still a quarter of HIV-positive Americans are uninsured. In the Deep South, HIV-positive patients below the poverty line have to be so sick with AIDS that they reach disability status before they qualify for coverage.
“With the Medicaid expansion we could have included a lot more people who are HIV-positive in Medicaid, and therefore they would more readily be able to access medication and medical care. It’s very disappointing that that’s not going to happen,” said Reif. She noted that increasing access to treatment isn’t important only for people who are already sick. It also helps to slow transmission of the virus.
Because of the significant economic benefits that the expansion offers states, it’s likely that Southern lawmakers will eventually come around on Medicaid. But that will still leave out one group at high risk for HIV: undocumented immigrants, who don’t qualify for any coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Without legal protections, undocumented immigrants are less likely to seek out testing and treatment, and they’re harder to reach with public health campaigns. Accordingly, immigration reform that offers a path to citizenship, as well as access to care for people in the process of legalization, should be a priority.
“The nationwide, government-led effort to increase HIV testing and awareness and to incorporate HIV-positive individuals into the care system as quickly as possible will flounder [sic] if any sectors of the population are excluded due to a short-sighted reluctance to extend benefits based on immigration status,” warns the Deep South Project and the Latino Commission on AIDS.
It may not be a coincidence that the region with the worst HIV rates also has the fastest-growing Hispanic population, one increasingly subject to discrimination. “We have an area where the epidemic is high, an area where we know that there is a community that has lived in the shadows for years, and where access to information, care, prevention, testing and treatment is limited,” said Robin Lewy, director of education at the Florida-based Rural Women’s Health Center. She doesn’t believe that lack of awareness or stigma within Hispanic communities necessarily accounts for their vulnerability to HIV. The problem, Lewy said, is that “immigrants in general cannot prioritize HIV. Their priorities are survival, economic realties, problems of acculturation and xenophobia.”
Of course, not all Hispanics are immigrants, and Lewy believes that demographic research that goes beyond race is needed in order to understand how HIV really plays out between groups. “You have to distinguish a Mexican-American third generation man from a Guatemalan man who crossed the border three months ago,” she said. “We have to respond to great inequalities within the epidemic, and one of the ways to do that is to recognize and celebrate the uniqueness of our different communities.”
Why is a Senate Democrat agreeing to $8 billion in food stamp cuts?
On Wednesday morning, President Obama left the White House and made a six-mile drive from the center of the richest city in America to the east side of the Anacostia River, where nearly half of the children are poor. It was an appropriate location for a speech on the American economy, and in particular for Obama’s announcement that he would devote the remaining three years of his presidency to income inequality and declining social mobility, which he called “the defining challenge of our time.”
“The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough,” the president said. “But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care or a community that views her future as their own—that should offend all of us. And it should compel us to action.”
The actions Obama laid out included several progressive policies (although none of them new), including an increase in the minimum wage. The speech was another indicator that inequality will be the issue that animates Democratic Party politics in coming election cycles.
Contrary to what John Cowan and Jim Kessler of the dubiously Democratic think tank Third Way say, there are many signs that economic populism is the right message. However, it’s one thing to assume the language; it’s another to live up to its demands. As many others have pointed out in recent weeks, confronting economic inequality exposes the dilemmas of a party that has grown close to business interests.
To really reverse the cycle of economic and social stratification, to significantly increase investment in schools, infrastructure and institutions, means big changes to the tax code—way bigger than closing loopholes in exchange for lower corporate tax rates, as Obama proposed in his speech. It means taking on Wall Street, not promoting bills written by banks to undercut financial reform. It means reconciling the lip service Democrats pay to labor and education with attacks on teachers and, broadly, the undermining of the public education system. It means a firmer rejection of austerity. It means, in effect, stabbing the Big Money that all politicians have come to rely on in the post—Citizens United era in the back.
Obama’s speech exemplified some of the quandaries within his party. He called for several specific progressive policies that have broad Democratic support, including a raise in federal minimum wage, universal pre-K, the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, extending long-term unemployment insurance and ensuring that women are paid equal wages for equal work. He called for stronger collective bargaining laws “so unions have a level playing field to organize…for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class.” All of these policies are needed, and overdue. They’re also popular among voters, and the fact that congressional Republicans are likely to prevent them from being enacted is fodder for Democratic candidates.
But in an apparent pitch for the middle, Obama gets a lot wrong. Closing loopholes in the tax code is great, but there is little evidence that swapping them for a lower corporate tax rate will trickle down in the form of many well-paying, middle-class jobs. Obama himself said as much earlier in the speech when he outlined the history of policy decisions that have steadily widened the gap between rich and poor: “As the trickle-down ideology became more prominent, taxes were slashed for the wealthiest while investments in things that make us all richer, like schools and infrastructure, were allowed to wither,” he said. “So the basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed.”
Obama also mentioned his “trade agenda that grows exports and works for the middle class,” although so far the free-trade agreement he brokered with South Korea has cost 40,000 American jobs, many in manufacturing. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Obama is seeking fast-track authority for could be even worse. And while some Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are calling for an expansion of Social Security benefits to support seniors still reeling from the dissolution of their retirement savings during the financial crisis, Obama spoke vaguely of “reforms that actually strengthen these programs and make them more responsive to a twenty-first-century economy,” which sounds a lot like conservative euphemisms for cuts.
Still, in a time when faith in government is ultra-low and deficit hand-wringing high, Obama did offer an important defense of government spending. “These programs are not typically hammocks for people to just lie back and relax. These programs are almost always temporary means for hardworking people to stay afloat while they try to find a new job, or going to school to retrain themselves for the jobs that are out there, or sometimes just to cope with a bout of bad luck,” he said. “A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.”
He also took on the racial undertones of the attacks on the social safety net, rejecting the “false notion” that the economic inequality “is an issue exclusively of minority concern.” He asked viewers to “reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.”
And Obama offered a strong challenge to the GOP, one that bears repetition, again and again: “If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, provide moral ladders of opportunity to the poor, let’s hear them,” he said, and went on to address conservatives directly: “You owe it to the American people to tell us what you are for, not just what you’re against.”
So Obama delivered another great speech, rhetorically. There’s momentum for a few of the policies he called for, particularly raising the minimum wage. But what remains, immediately, are millions of people who don’t have jobs to begin with, a “post-policy” GOP in control of the House and a Democratic party split between the people and its patrons.
Fast-food employees in 100 cities are striking for higher wages this week. Allison Kilkenny reports.
Last spring, news that the Internal Revenue Service used keywords like “Tea Party” and “Occupy” to select groups applying for nonprofit status for extra scrutiny prompted media outrage, resignations, internal investigations and a series of congressional hearings. There was comparatively little fury about the fact that many of these “social welfare” organizations were getting tax breaks in exchange for flooding elections with anonymous cash.
The power these dark money groups wield in future elections could be undercut by a new proposal from the IRS, which would put clearer boundaries around the political activities of 501(c)(4) nonprofits. Released just before Thanksgiving, the guidelines lay out some specific definitions of “political activity,” that social welfare groups would have to limit in order to retain their tax-exempt status, such as expressing an opinion about a particular candidate.
Watchdogs are encouraged that the Obama administration has affirmed the need for clarity on the laws governing social welfare groups and their influence in elections. But the rules as written are broad, limiting activities like voter registration drives, get out the vote campaigns and candidate debates. Many groups see these as critical civic engagement programs, and essentially nonpartisan.
“Though the new definitions attempt to clarify existing rules, they also create a danger to citizen participation in our democracy,” a progressive coalition called Alliance for Justice warned in a statement. “These regulations will not run 501(c)(4)s out of politics. Rather, the big players will hire lawyers and accountants to help them avoid the rules. Small players can’t afford this kind of assistance.”
Dark money groups are the legacy of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, which permitted unlimited campaign spending by corporations and nonprofits. The latter may advertise for or against candidates without disclosing their donors, making them perfect fronts for individuals wanting to peddle influence anonymously. Crossroads GPS, a 501(c)4 founded by conservative Karl Rove, spent more than $74 million in 2012, exceeding all but two Super PACs.
To keep its tax-exempt status, a group like Crossroads GPS has to prove that “it is primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.” Lacking firm criteria, tax lawyers have interpreted that to mean that no more than 49 percent of their budget can support political activities.
The problem is, until now the IRS hasn’t defined political activity, leaving agency employees to evaluate “all the facts and circumstance” of an organization’s actions to determine which are political or for the social good. The murkiness of facts and circumstances has made it easier for groups whose main purpose is really to influence elections to get tax exemptions, and the cover of anonymity for their donors. With so many loopholes, it’s no wonder a flood of applications for 501(c)(4) status followed Citizens United.
“What this [rule] is attempting to do is to say, ‘if you see this type of activity it’s political, or it’s not,’ ” said Public Citizen’s Lisa Gilbert. However, the IRS’s proposal doesn’t lay out a new benchmark for how much of a nonprofit’s activities can be political. The agency asked for suggestions on that point during the public comment period. “It’s hard to talk about how much you can do of anything, if you don’t know what that anything is,” Gilbert explained. In her opinion, a nonprofit’s political activities should be closer to 5 or 10 percent of its operations than to 49 percent.
The key to a successful final rule from the IRS will be in balancing competing objectives: promoting participation in the political system in general, while stamping out abuses of “social welfare” status for the purpose of manipulating elections. “We certainly welcome this as an important first step,” said Gilbert. “We just have a series of concerns about how to do this in such a way that it doesn’t cut off legitimate, nonpartisan nonprofit activity.” The rules would also create different standards for 501(c)(4)’s and other nonprofits, particularly trade organizations, which are also allowed to spend money in elections. How well the IRS will enforce the final rules is another significant question.
A project called Bright Lines, which is sponsored by Public Citizen and staffed by nine tax lawyers, has laid out a proposal for defining nonprofit political activity that is more nuanced than the IRS’s initial guidelines. Under the Bright Lines proposal, social welfare groups would be limited in their ability to endorse or contribute to a candidate, party or PAC, while education campaigns around specific policy positions held by candidates would not count as political activity.
Conservative organizations accounted for 85 percent of the spending by social welfare groups in 2012, so it’s no surprise that they objected most strongly to the IRS’s proposal. “We are all going to spend a tremendous amount of time and energy fighting back against this,” Dan Backer, a lawyer who represents several conservative nonprofits, told The Washington Post. “These proposed new regulations put the First Amendment rights of Americans at even greater risk,” said Jay Sekulow, a lawyer with the right-wing American Center for Law and Justice and one of the authors of the Defense of Marriage Act.
It’s important to note that new rules won’t ban social welfare groups from doing any of the political activities defined by the IRS. They will simply add clarity to limits on political activity that already exist in theory but are poorly understood, unevenly applied and much abused.
They also won’t do anything about the “dark” part of dark money—the fact that groups engaged in political spending are not required to reveal the source of their funds. The Securities and Exchange Commission was expected to consider a proposal that would expose some of that secret cash at its source, by requiring corporations to disclose political donations to their stockholders. But the agency recently decided to remove the item from its agenda, putting its prospects in limbo.
Lee Fang obtained tax returns that shed light on the role of dark money in the 2012 election.
For the first time in three decades, Iran and the United States appear to have established a meaningful diplomatic relationship that disrupts the cycle of escalation towards armed conflict. The interim agreement reached in Geneva on Saturday freezes much of Iran’s nuclear program and exposes the country to extensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency in exchange for modest relief from some economic sanctions. Ultimately, the deal opens the door for a long-term resolution to derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
This may be the last, best shot for a diplomatic alternative to a nuclear Iran. Before the deal, Iran could have produced weapons-grade fuel in as little as a month. If Iran upholds its end of the bargain it will lose its stocks of uranium enriched above 5 percent, setting its capabilities back. The chance that Iran will renege on the agreement is real—but so is the risk that US lawmakers will undermine it by passing new sanctions.
On Monday, majority leader Harry Reid said the Senate would consider new economic penalties after the Thanksgiving recess. Leading the process will be Senator Tim Johnson, who chairs the Banking Committee with jurisdiction over sanctions, and Senator Bob Menendez, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. “They will study this, they will hold hearings if necessary, and if we need work on this, if we need stronger sanctions, I am sure we will do that,” Reid told NPR, adding that the agreement was an “important first step.” Johnson said his committee would hold off from writing new sanctions until after a briefing with Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials.
Likely, the sanctions the Senate will consider would go into effect only after the interim agreement expires, should the negotiating parties fail to reach a long-term resolution. “I expect that the forthcoming sanctions legislation to be considered by the Senate will provide for a six-month window to reach a final agreement before imposing new sanctions on Iran,” Menendez said in a statement. That seems consistent with what President Obama has said. “If Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure,” he said Sunday.
Sanctions that allow time for diplomatic negotiations to play out are certainly preferable to the immediate punitive measures that lawmakers were calling for last week, and that hawks like Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Kevin McCarthy are still pushing. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessary, or that they won’t hamstring diplomatic negotiations.
First, is Congress’s appetite for a new round of economic punishment really in doubt? Even without new legislation Iranian leaders can easily suppose what Washington’s response will be if a final deal falls through. Meanwhile, most sanctions remain in place and continue to put crippling pressure not only on Iran’s political class but also on its citizens.
On the other hand, new sanctions could ruin the prospects of a long-term accord, even if their practical effects are delayed. There’s a risk that Congress will demand concessions in the short term beyond the scope of the interim agreement, or use new legislation to try to set the terms of a final deal, which could bind negotiators to unobtainable standards. Perceived as belligerence, and a signal that President Obama cannot obtain Congress’s support for dismantling the sanctions regime in a final deal, such moves will likely undermine Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s ability to sell a long-term agreement to Iran’s political elites.
Rather than doubting that new sanctions will follow a broken agreement, Iran’s leaders fear that the United States won’t allow meaningful economic relief even if Iran scales back its enrichment program. What Rouhani and other moderates need to secure domestic support is evidence that negotiating with the United States will deliver real benefits. Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council, said that new sanctions “will be seen as an indication that actually the US is going to back out of this or is going to attempt to take advantage of the offer of compromise.”
Abdi explained that the perception that the United States is committed to keeping Iran weak, if not to overthrowing the ayatollahs completely, has been the prevailing narrative among Iran’s political elite for decades. In selling a long-term halt to the nuclear program, Rouhani must prove the opposite: “That Iran can negotiate with the West on equitable terms, that compromise can beget reciprocal compromise and that Iran’s isolation is harmful,” said Abdi. Any new sanctions, on the other hand, would be easily “spun by hardliners eager to find ways to undercut this victory.”
Abdi believes new sanctions could not only derail negotiations with Iran but could cause the existing sanctions regime to collapse. The simple reason is that there’s little left to sanction. Tom Cotton, a Republican Representative from Arkansas, made that clear in May when he proposed going after the relatives of sanctions violators. Besides grandmothers and nephews, policymakers can only increase the pressure on other countries who do business with Iran, and it isn’t clear that they can do so without alienating the governments whose cooperation is needed to enforce punishments already in place. “If there’s a perception that it’s the US that is unwilling to negotiate and is committed to piling on sanctions endlessly, the main rationale for imposing sanctions is going to evaporate,” said Abdi.
Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes summed all of these arguments up on Monday. “I have no doubt that Congress could pass these sanctions very quickly, so we don’t see the need to do it now during the length of this agreement, because, frankly, that could cause divisions within our P5+1 coalition,” Rhodes said, referring to the five countries on the UN Security Council, plus Germany, that signed onto the deal. “It could complicate this diplomacy.”
With little economic slack left to ratchet in on the Iranian regime, that leaves two options for rolling back Iran’s nuclear program, one being the resolution of current negotiations into a long-term deal. The other option is military action. As Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, told Ezra Klein yesterday, “If you don’t like negotiating with Iran, what you’re really saying is you want to go to war.”
How lawmakers proceed will be an interesting test of the American Isreali Public Affair Committee’s power, which appeared diminished when its aggressive lobbying failed to provoke military action in Syria, which the American public firmly opposed. Now 64 percent of Americans support softening sanctions in exchange for a restriction of Iran’s nuclear program, which the interim agreement achieves. For its part, AIPAC said there would be “no pause, delay or moratorium in our efforts” to ram through additional sanctions. If Congress resists these calls, it could pave the way for a monumental shift in the relationship not only between Iran and the West but also between lawmakers and the Israel lobby.
Bob Dreyfuss has more on the nuclear deal with Iran.
Only a few miles separate the Baltimore neighborhoods of Roland Park and Upton Druid Heights. But residents of the two areas can measure the distance between them in years—twenty years, to be exact. That’s the difference in life expectancy between Roland Park, where people live to be 83 on average, and Upton Druid Heights, where they can expect to die at 63.
Underlying these gaps in life expectancy are vast economic disparities. Roland Park is an affluent neighborhood with an unemployment rate of 3.4 percent, and a median household income above $90,000. More than 17 percent of people in Upton Druid Heights are unemployed, and the median household income is just $13,388.
It’s no secret that this sort of economic inequality is increasing nationwide; the disparity between America’s richest and poorest is the widest it’s been since the Roaring Twenties. Less discussed are the gaps in life expectancy that have widened over the past twenty-five years between America’s counties, cities and neighborhoods. While the country as a whole has gotten richer and healthier, the poor have gotten poorer, the middle class has shrunk and Americans without high school diplomas have seen their life expectancy slide back to what it was in the 1950s. Economic inequalities manifest not in numbers, but in sick and dying bodies.
On Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders convened a hearing before the Primary Health and Aging subcommittee to examine the connections between material and physiological well-being, and the policy implications. With Congress fixed on historic reforms to the healthcare delivery system, the doctors and public health professionals who testified this morning made it clear that policies outside of the healthcare domain are equally vital for keeping people healthy—namely, those that target poverty and inequality.
“The lower people’s income, the earlier they die and the sicker they live,” testified Dr. Steven Woolf, who directs the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. In America, people in the top 5 percent of the income gradient live about nine years longer than those in the bottom 10 percent. It isn’t just access to care that poor Americans lack: first, they are more likely to get sick. Poor Americans are at greater risk for virtually every major cause of death, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. As Woolf put it, “Economic policy is not just economic policy—it’s health policy.”
Tracing health disparities back to their socioeconomic roots adds context to growing calls for pro-worker policies like raising the minimum wage and providing paid sick leave. Lisa Berkman, director of Harvard’s Center for Population and Development Studies, presented a range of evidence indicating that policies supporting men and women in the labor force—particularly low-wage and female workers—lead to better health for themselves and their families.
The experts also identified education as a “key lever” for improving health outcomes, as education is closely linked with economic mobility and in turn, health. The mortality risk has risen for less educated women in recent years, while diabetes death rates are three times higher among Americans without a high school diploma than those who graduated. With 22 percent of American children living in poverty, several witnesses pointed to the expansion of early childhood education as policy that would have a profound effect on the nation’s health.
Witnesses also highlighted the importance of the social safety net to shield families from the adverse health effects of poverty. As Republicans and Democrats alike contemplate billions of dollars of cuts to the food stamp program, nearly 50 million people, or nearly one in six Americans, face “food insufficiency.” Hunger has particularly severe health effects for children, leading to a higher risk of learning disabilities, conditions like anemia and asthma, and increased hospitalization.
Many other wealthy countries have a more robust buffer for poor families, which helps to explain why America’s health statistics are so much worse. (The fact that the United States has higher poverty rates and greater inequality than our peers has a lot to do with it, too.) “Our relative investment in those social programs, social services, is striking,” said Woolf. “We are an outlier in the proportion of our dollars we spend on healthcare relative to those social programs, whereas the countries who spend much more on social programs than on health care are the ones that are living longer.”
“And presumably saving money on healthcare as well,” interjected Sanders, raising another important point: the social and economic programs that promote individual health could have profound effects on healthcare spending and the economy overall. “When you hear statistics about low-income people having much higher incidences of diabetes, which is costing this country hundreds millions of dollars, then to my mind the answer is to invest to prevent diabetes, to prevent other illnesses, rather than just spending more than any country on earth trying to treat these illnesses,” Sanders told me after the hearing.
Woolf noted that it is chronic diseases like diabetes, which are correlated with socioeconomic inequality, that are driving up the cost to the government of programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Overall, policymakers underestimate the costs of not prioritizing preventative care, and underestimate the long-term benefits of social spending programs.
“The social and economic policies that the government has developed over the years that may be health-promoting, aren’t counted as being health-promoting,” explained Berkman. “We don’t think about that in the benefits side of the equation. We only think about them in terms of short-term economic turnaround or employment or labor when in fact the spillover to health may be enormous.”
Once it becomes clear that the determinants of health and illness are in neighborhoods, schools and worksites, Berkman pointed out, a wealth of policy solutions present themselves. The problem is in the politics.
“With the Republicans controlling the House and wanting to cut virtually every program that advances human health in this country and well-being, it’s going to be a very tough struggle,” Sanders told me when I asked him about the prospects for advancing policies discussed in the hearing.
“What you heard today was the apex of a great philosophical divide, in that what we are saying is that if you invest in the children, if you invest in the environment, if you invest in education, if you invest in decent housing, not only do you create people who are healthier and happier, but you end up saving money.” The House, he noted, would prefer to cut nutrition and education. “We’re living on different planets in terms of what the debate is about.”
In states with mandatory minimum sentencing, a nonviolent offense—like stealing candy—can land you in prison for life. Liliana Segura reports.
With budget negotiations on the horizon, a buzz is building around Social Security, from Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats calling for an expansion of benefits to The Washington Post arguing that seniors must be sacrificed for the good of the “poor young.”
Two of the biggest players in the debate are largely behind the scenes: Business Roundtable and Fix the Debt, corporate lobbies that use deficit fear-mongering to sell benefit cuts. These groups are made up of CEOs of America’s largest corporations—people with retirement accounts that are more than 1,000 times as large as those of the average Social Security beneficiary.
Each of the 200 executives of Business Roundtable has retirement savings averaging $14.5 million, according to a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Effective Government. That’s compared to the $12,000 that the median US worker near retirement age has managed to put away. Once Business Roundtable CEOs start drawing Social Security themselves, they’ll be cashing a monthly check that is sixty-eight times larger than an ordinary retiree’s, ensuring that they’ll never bear the burden of the cuts they’re advocating.
“I find it hypocritical to see CEOs sitting on massive retirement fortunes of their own saying that the solution to the country’s fiscal challenge is to put an even greater burden on retirees, many of whom already struggling,” said Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at IPS and one of the report’s authors.
One of those CEOs is David Cote, the vice-chair of Business Roundtable and a member of the steering committee for Fix the Debt. After eleven years at Honeywell where he’s now the chief executive, his retirement assets are worth $134.5 million. That means that as a retiree he’ll draw a monthly pension of nearly $800,000.
Cote is a deficit hawk, and claims to be worried about the long-term stability of Social Security. A member of the Bowles-Simpson commission and President Obama’s debt committee, Cote has called for $3 to $4 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, “especially when it comes to entitlements.”
To make some of those reductions via cuts to Social Security, Business Roundtable has proposed raising the retirement age to 70, restricting benefit growth and changing the way inflation is calculated in a way that amounts to a benefit cut for seniors. (Read George Zornick on why this change, called Chained CPI, is a bad deal.) At the same time, Business Roundtable and Fix the Debt are calling for more corporate tax breaks.
“If Congress approves of proposals like ones that Business Roundtable are pushing, we could see severe cuts that could mean the difference between any kind of dignified retirement and absolute poverty,” Anderson said. Two-thirds of retired Americans rely on Social Security for the majority of their income, and more than 40 percent would be in poverty without those benefits.
These CEOs aren’t just trying to short the average American retiree; they’re throwing their own under the bus. While raising alarm about the federal debt, Business Roundtable CEOs have run up massive deficits in their employees’ pension funds. According to the report, ten companies led by members of Business Roundtable have shortfalls in their employee pension funds of between $4.9 and $22.6 billion. The largest of those belongs to General Electric, run by Business Roundtable and Fix the Debt member Jeffrey Immelt, the prospective beneficiary of a $59.3 million retirement fund.
GE stopped offering traditional pension plans for new employees in 2011, forcing workers to switch to 401(k) plans. Many other companies have shifted the burden of retirement savings to their employees in this way in recent years, and that’s been a significant driver of the retirement crisis. Just 18 percent of workers can expect traditional pensions today, compared with 38 percent in 1985. Instead of getting a fixed check, retirees are at the mercy of the market—making the assurance of Social Security benefits even more essential. But Business Roundtable continues to put the responsibility for the retirement crisis on retirees themselves. “[T]rue retirement security will be achieved only if Americans save more,” reads the group’s 2013 CEO Growth Agenda.
Saving more is an increasingly unworkable solution for the millions of workers whose wages and benefits are being undercut by some of the same CEOs directing them to do so. As the report lays out, many of the most effective ways to strengthen Social Security involve asking more of executives, not employees. Eliminating the cap on wages subject to Social Security taxes (currently set at $113,700) would eliminate 95 percent of the projected shortfall for seventy-five years, according to the Congressional Research Service. That’s three times the deficit reduction achieved by raising the retirement age to 70. Subjecting stock-based compensation to Social Security taxes would raise billions more.
Don’t expect to hear about those proposals from Business Roundtable, however. “I do think that it is a real weakness of these corporate lobby groups, that they’re making the public face of the agenda to cut Social Security these CEOs that are sitting on massive nest eggs of their own,” said Anderson. “It undercuts their credibility and influence in these debates, and I’m hoping it will make it difficult to achieve the cuts they’re proposing.”
Allison Kilkenny on how Walmart is holding a food drive for the employees it refuses to pay a living wage.
As Congress debates an overhaul of the military justice system to stem an epidemic of sexual assault, the armed forces are struggling to conceal their own internal divisions over the scope of reform. According to a senior officer who spoke with The Nation, the military is actively encouraging service members to lobby against legislation that would curb commanders’ authority over the prosecution of sexual assault cases, while suppressing pro-reform voices within the ranks.
Asked what would happen if he advocated publicly for limiting the power of commanders, the officer, a high-level Air Force lawyer (known as a Judge Advocate General, or JAG) with decades of experience with sexual assault and other criminal cases said, “It would kill my chances of ever having a good job again… I would be ostracized.” He concluded, “It would be the end of my career.”
At issue is a proposed change to the military justice system to give military lawyers, rather than commanding officers, the power to determine whether accusations of a serious crime warrant a trial. The Senate is divided over the proposal (introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and known as the Military Justice Improvement Act, or MJIA), one of several reforms being considered. Survivors’ advocates say MJIA is critical to shield victims from retaliation, but it has elicited total opposition from the top brass, who argue that commanders’ authority to convene a court-martial is essential to their ability to maintain good order and discipline.
The JAG’s account raises the question of whether Congress has heard a representative range of military opinions as it considers historic reforms. According to the JAG, perspectives on taking prosecutions out of the chain of command are decidedly more mixed within the ranks than the brass’ testimony would suggest. As a result, he believes, the debate in Congress has been skewed.
“The people who are opposed to the Gillibrand amendment don’t understand that there is a different view within the DOD,” he told The Nation. “There is not this monolithic view that they want Congress to believe that all commanders support [preserving convening authority], at all.” But because of the strict hierarchy within the military, officers who support MJIA have not been able to make the case for reform to Congress. (At press time, the Department of Defense had not responded to inquiries from The Nation.)
Other active-duty service members are beginning to speak privately to lawmakers about the importance of MJIA, said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine Corps captain. “The First Amendment is an interesting gray area when it comes to wearing a uniform,” she told The Nation. Another prominent survivors’ advocate told The Nation that “behind the scenes, many commanders support this reform.”
Already, a number of retired generals, veterans groups and the DOD’s own advisory committee on women in the services have recommended removing the decision to prosecute serious crimes from the chain of command. That has left the top brass scrambling to maintain the impression of unified opposition.
“The reason we have so many generals is not to fight a war but to keep Congress off balance,” said Brig. Gen. David L. McGinnis (retired), who sent a letter of support to Senator Gillibrand, the New York Democrat working to add MJIA to the Defense Authorization Act, which will receive a vote in the Senate sometime before Thanksgiving. McGinnis, who is in contact with active-duty commanders, told The Nation that he agrees with the JAG that opposition to MJIA is not uniform throughout the ranks. “I believe there is a lot of angst at mid-level leadership, at least in the Army,” he said. He accounts the pushback from the top to “a hidden law among the military cultures: Don’t let Congress change anything. If they find out they can change one thing, they’ll be willing to change a lot more.”
As Congress debates MJIA, commanders have encouraged service members to weigh in against the measure. In October, Air Force Lt. General Richard C. Harding, the Air Force’s legal adviser, and Col. Jeffrey Rockwell sent a letter to fellow Air Force lawyers explaining the importance of the chain of command in the military justice system. “[M]any of us have engaged with members of Congress, their staffs and members of the media to teach, implore and explain the reasons, or the ‘why’ behind commanders’ authority and the current set-up of the military justice system,” Harding wrote. “Please read, absorb and share with your commanders and media types wherever you are located. This will truly make a difference.”
Susan Burke, a lawyer who has worked with several survivors of military sexual assault, asked the Air Force inspector general to investigate the letter’s authors. “General Harding and Colonel Rockwell improperly seek to use their influence as leaders in the Air Force to rally support against the political movement attempting to remove sexual assault claims from the military chain of command,” she wrote. Burke cited Air Force rules requiring members to “remain politically neutral and divorced from partisan politics” and prohibiting them from using “official authority or influence to…solicit votes for a particular candidate or issue.”
An Air Force spokesperson denied any impropriety, and said in a statement that the intent of the letter “is to ensure AF [Air Force] leaders and commanders are current on the issue and communicate it properly and clearly to interested publics, nothing more.”
The Air Force JAG who spoke to The Nation confirmed that he also had been encouraged by superiors to write editorials and otherwise argue publicly in favor of preserving commanders’ convening authority. “We’re constantly told in staff meetings and other meetings that we need to fight this, that if Gillibrand’s proposal is passed it will destroy the system,” he said. “There’s never an opportunity to give a contrary opinion.”
All of the active-duty military personnel who have testified before Congress and before the independent panel charged with recommending reforms have expressed opposition to MJIA. According to the Air Force JAG, this reflects deliberate decisions about who is sent to the Capitol. “When they send people to Congress to talk to staffers…they will only send people who support commanders in charge. They will not send anybody who disagrees with that position.”
That leaves only outside advocates and retired officers to challenge statements made by top brass, many of which have been misleading, the JAG believes. He pointed to the claim, made repeatedly by the Pentagon and Gillibrand’s opponents in the Senate, that convening authority is critical to a commander’s ability to enforce good order and discipline within the ranks. But convening authority is not always a function of command; although all commanders are responsible for good order and discipline, many already lack the power to take serious criminal cases to court martial.
“This idea that ‘oh, gosh, I can’t do my job unless I’m a convening authority,’ is laughable,” the JAG said. Brig. Gen. McGinnis agreed. “Don’t talk to me about readiness,” he said. “Once you violate the dignity of individuals in your command, your whole readiness equation starts to deteriorate. It’s like rotten apples.”
Commanders’ lack of legal experience also leaves victims and anyone falsely accused of a crime vulnerable. “We would never expect somebody who is getting medical treatment to ask your commander what kind of treatment they should get, or give commanders the authority to tell them what kind of medical treatment they get, because it’s just ludicrous. Yet when it comes to our area of expertise, the justice system, we defer to commanders in making these decisions. It makes no sense,” the JAG said.
He also pushed back against a claim made by Senator Claire McCaskill, a former civilian prosecutor, that military lawyers would shy away from tough cases out of concerns for their win-loss ratio. “In the world [McCaskill] dealt with, where these prosecutors were elected and their win-loss records are something they trumpet in the campaign, yeah, I suppose that happens,” he said. “Military prosecutors have no political motivation to avoid difficult cases [because] they don’t have to worry about elections.”
McCaskill is one of the most prominent opponents of MJIA, along with fellow Democrat and Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, and Republicans Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham. Gillibrand’s amendment is likely to draw a filibuster, meaning she’ll need fifty-nine supporters. So far forty-seven of her colleague have committed, including eight Republicans. Both sides are engaged in an intense campaign to win over some thirty undecided senators.
McCaskill and Ayotte have argued that “the victim community is not monolithic” in its support for MJIA. That may be true, but it appears neither is the military in its opposition.
“You know they always talk about how, you know, look how great we did with the end of segregation—yeah, because you were forced to do it,” the Air Force JAG said. “The same with this. They just resist change.”
Zoë Carpenter on how the VA is discriminating against thousands of victims of military sexual trauma.
It’s been more then five years since the financial sector collapsed, triggering a deep recession that many Americans are still struggling to shake off. Not so the big banks. They’re larger, more powerful and more dangerous than ever before, Senator Elizabeth Warren warned Tuesday at an event examining the state of financial reform since the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010.
Warren’s speech was an indictment not only of the financial institutions that “have fought to delay and hamstring the implementation of financial reform,” after “exploiting consumers, larding their books with excessive risk, and making bad bets,” but also of the regulators and lawmakers—many from her own party—who are refusing to hold the financial sector to account.
“Who would have thought five years ago, after we witnessed firsthand the dangers of an overly concentrated financial system, that the ‘too big to fail’ problem would only have gotten worse?” Warren said.
After the crash, there was widespread—if late—recognition that allowing a handful of institutions to become so large that their failure could bring down the economy encourages risk-taking and makes it difficult for smaller firms to compete. But instead of being forced to shrink, the biggest banks have become more concentrated and more complex. As Warren noted, the four largest banks are now 30 percent larger than they were at the onset of the crisis, and more than half of the nation’s banking assets are held by just five banks.
According to Warren, Wall Street behemoths still threaten to sink the system because regulators have failed to set the rules. The agencies responsible for implementing the reforms outlined in Dodd-Frank have missed more than 60 percent of their deadlines. Fewer than half of the regulations mandated under the law have been finalized, and more than quarter have not even been written. While missing deadlines, regulators have been busy meeting with the big banks—2,118 times since Dodd-Frank passed, fourteen times as many meetings as they’ve held with advocates of financial reform.
“Since when does Congress set deadlines, watch regulators miss most of them and then take that failure as a reason not to act?” Warren asked. “I thought that if the regulators failed, it was time for Congress to step in. That’s what oversight means.”
But lawmakers have been keener to dismantle, rather than enforce, financial reform legislation. In July, several Wall Street–friendly Democrats urged the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to delay rules for American banks engaged in derivatives trading overseas, a practice that has been unregulated. Last month, the House passed two bills delaying provisions in Dodd-Frank by a bipartisan vote. One was written by Citigroup lobbyists. Those votes brought the tally of bills passed in the House recently to undercut financial reform to ten.
Warren is trying to push her colleagues in the opposite direction. In July, Warren and Senators John McCain, Maria Cantwell and Angus King introduced a new version of the Glass-Steagall Act, which would force financial institutions to separate consumer banking activities like checking and savings deposits from the kinds of risky practices that sparked the crash in ’08, like credit swaps. The bill “would reduce failures of the big banks by making banking boring, protecting deposits and providing stability to the system even in bad times,” Warren said. “Big banks would still be big—but not too big to fail or, for that matter, too big to manage, too big to regulate, too big for trial or too big for jail.”
Not all reforms have failed. As Warren pointed out, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has met all of its deadlines. A 125-page report by the Roosevelt Institute and Americans for Financial Reform unveiled ahead of Warren’s keynote concluded that Dodd-Frank has had other modest successes. But on balance, the report suggests, Dodd-Frank has not altered the balance of power between financial giants and regulators, and other problems, like shadow banking, exceed the scope of the legislation. That’s not to say there aren’t solutions: the report details many ways to limit risk and constrain mega-banks. The barrier to effective regulation is not a dearth of policy ideas but political will too weak to enact them.
“Congress must act to protect our economy and prevent future crises,” Warren said. “What we need is a system…that recognizes we don’t grow this country from the financial sector; we grow this country from the middle class.” Invoking the middle class is hardly radical. But the kind of deep reform Warren advocates for is, considering how much lawmakers’ war chests have profited from turning a blind eye to Wall Street. Any legislative efforts to confront inequality will run up against that fact—that the people who determine policy and the institutions perpetuating the imbalances in the economy are locked in mutually beneficial relationship.
John Nichols: Elizabeth Warren might not be running for president in 2016, but her economic agenda resonates with Americans.
According to Ruth Moore, she was 18, just months out of Navy boot camp when an officer raped her, twice. Although Moore reported the crimes to a chaplain, her attacker was never prosecuted. After a suicide attempt and a stay in a psychiatric facility, Moore was repeatedly denied disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, because the VA said she could not prove the rape.
The VA discriminates against thousands of military sexual trauma (MST) survivors like Moore each year, alleges a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Service Women’s Action Network and the Veterans Legal Service Clinic at Yale Law School. In trying to obtain compensation for the impact of sexual trauma on their mental health, survivors face bureaucratic hurdles and long delays. Ultimately, a disproportionate number of their claims are rejected.
The report is based on previously withheld data that the VA released to settle Freedom of Information Act lawsuits brought by the Yale clinic. The numbers reveal that the VA grants disability claims for PTSD related to sexual assault at significantly lower rates than for PTSD caused by other types of trauma. In 2011, for example, the VA granted benefits to 74.2 percent of veterans who submitted non-MST-related trauma claims, but only to 44.6 percent of those with MST-related PTSD, a gap of nearly 30 percent.
“Under the current regulations, survivors of military sexual trauma have to provide a decent amount of documentation in order to get a compensation pension exam, as part of the benefits process,” explained Rose Carmen Goldberg, one of the authors of the report. Because of widespread retaliation, only a fraction of those who are sexually assaulted while in service report the crimes against them. Without a paper trail it is difficult for them to meet the VA’s evidentiary standards. Even with it, the report found, “claims adjudicators often fail to give adequate weight to the evidence that MST survivors do produce.”
Veterans with PTSD linked to combat or other sources of trauma, on the other hand, don’t bear the same burden of proof: their own testimony is sufficient to prove that their trauma is connected to their military service. “We think that very obvious and overt discrimination in the regulations is definitely an underlying factor, but there are probably many factors at work,” Golberg said. For example, until 2011 the Defense Department destroyed all restricted reports of sexual assault that were more than five years old.
As incidences of sexual assault in the military have risen, so have associated claims of PTSD, which increased by more than half between 2010 and 2011. Women who suffered a sexual assault in the military are nine times more likely to develop PTSD than other female veterans. More than 15,800 veterans filed claims for PTSD related to sexual trauma in the five years spanning 2008 and 2012. About two-thirds of the applicants were women.
The VA’s ruling determines whether they have access to an essential lifeline. Female veterans are the fastest growing sector of the homeless population, according to The New York Times, and more than half of female veterans living on the street were sexually assaulted in the service. “The mental health effects of PTSD related to sexual trauma can make it very difficult if not impossible to work, so in many cases [disability benefits] will be their only source of income,” said Goldberg.
Overall, men are 10 percent more likely to be granted benefits for PTSD than women. That’s because so many women with PTSD link it to sexual trauma, while men are more likely to suffer PTSD related to combat and other traumas, which the VA grants benefits for at much higher rates. However, male survivors of sexual assault are even less likely to receive PTSD benefits than female MST survivors.
A veteran’s chance of receiving benefits for MST-related PTSD also varies by location. For example, the VA regional office in St. Paul, Minnesota, granted only a quarter of PTSD benefit claims related to sexual trauma. Compared with non-MST claims, the discrepancy was 35 percent.
Congress is considering several bills aimed at ending the discrimination detailed in the report. One, named for Ruth Moore, who was eventually granted full benefits after twenty-three years, would allow an assessment from a mental health professional to serve as corroborating evidence, and shift the burden of proof to put “every reasonable doubt in favor of the veteran.” That bill passed the House in June, but has languished in the Senate. Two other bills to reform the claims process are pending in the House.
“The reforms that are needed are very urgent,” said Golberg. “We’re hoping the data will speak strongly for the changes that are needed.”
Anu Bhagwati, the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine Corps captain whose disability claim related to sexual harassment was initially denied, pointed out that a rejection from the VA is a veteran’s second betrayal. “VA’s claims process often serves as a brutal and extended retriggering of veterans’ most horrific experiences, when no one believed them, when no one supported them and they were made to feel as though they did something to deserve being raped, assaulted or harassed in uniform,” she said.
The Senate is now debating reforms to the military justice system responsible for that first betrayal. The Defense Authorization Act, expected to pass before Thanksgiving, includes measures preventing commanders from overturning jury convictions and criminalizes retaliation against victims who report crimes. Several senators are expected to offer amendments that would institute even greater reform. The most contentious is a proposal from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would give military lawyers, rather than commanding officers, the authority to decide whether an alleged crime warrants prosecution.
Since many perpetrators are within the victim’s chain of command, the measure is intended to limit retaliation and improve reporting, which would make it easier for survivors who develop PTSD to obtain benefits as veterans. The Pentagon and top Democrats on the Armed Services Committee, however, are fighting to maintain commanders’ authority. The authorization bill could hit the Senate floor as early as this week, and opponents are likely to use procedural rules to make sure Gillibrand’s amendment cannot pass with less than sixty votes. So far, forty-seven senators have pledged their support.
Mychal Denzel Smith: misogyny has no place in progressive politics.