When José Valdez talks about his son Jaime, his eyes shine.
“He is one of the sweetest young men you’ll ever meet,” José said on Wednesday through an interpreter. “I don’t say that just because I’m his father. He’s a young man who likes to help people. He thinks about humanity. Anytime he sees something that’s uncomfortable he sees a way to try to help. He’s dedicated to study.”
It was a frigid morning in Washington, and José was shivering. He looked across Lafayette Park towards the White House. “I came to DC to ask that my son be let go from detention,” he said. For five days José fasted on President Obama’s doorstep, protesting his son’s treatment and the deportation of millions of other undocumented immigrants under Obama’s tenure.
With House Republicans refusing to move on immigration reform, activists have asked the president to use his executive authority to change the country’s deportation procedures. Of all the effects the broken immigration system on families, deportation gauges the deepest wounds, taking husbands from wives, sons from fathers, and often without due process. It’s also the area over which the president has the most power. But Obama has been reluctant to move before Congress, despite mounting pressure not only from activists but also from prominent members of his own party. On Tuesday, religious leaders who’d met with the Obama at the White House reported that he made it clear to them that he was still not planning executive action.
Though small, the ongoing hunger strike in front of the White House—part of the Not1More Deportation campaign organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network—reflects a swell of frustration within the immigrant community at the administration’s apparent unwillingness to act. It also illustrates the desperate stakes for the thousands of families at the mercy of Washington.
This hunger strike was not José’s first. In February he refused to eat for fifteen days in solidarity with Jaime, who had been detained during a traffic stop in Maricopa County and held for months at the Eloy Detention Center after his lawyer told him to plead guilty to a DUI charge he has said was inaccurate. Jaime was in the midst of his own hunger strike when, in the middle of the night on February 25, he was deported to Mexico. On April 1 he returned through the legal port at Nogales, Arizona, and asked for humanitarian parole; now he’s once again in limbo, at the Florence Correctional Facility. “It makes us sad, but it gives us the will to fight,” José said.
Jaime is not José’s only son. His two older brothers were deported, and one of them still lives in Mexico. When I asked José about the other, the light in his eyes spilled over. “The other is also in Mexico,” he said. “But he is not with us.” This middle son was murdered shortly after returning to Michoacán, a state on Mexico’s west coast wrecked by the drug wars.
“My first two sons, there was nothing I could do for them,” said José. “But my third, I’m going to make sure that he’s not deported again, and that he gets to come home.”
* * *
Ernestina Hernadez describes her husband as “a normal man,” committed to his tech work for General Plastics in Houston, Texas, where he worked for eighteen years. He rode bicycles and shared a sense of humor with their 13-year-old daughter, Melanie. In May of 2013, Manuel was asked for his ID after being pulled over. He was deported on his 50th birthday and now lives in Durango, not far from a tree where recently, he told Ernestina, the body of an 8-year-old boy was found hanging, his organs removed.
“That’s the country President Obama wants me to take my daughter to,” said Ernestina, referring to the impossible choice that deportation leaves with families: separate indefinitely, or reassemble a life together in country made bloody in no small part by America’s appetite for illegal drugs. “I would ask him, do I keep fighting? Or do I stop?”
Like Jaime, Ernestina’s husband was in the midst of a hunger strike when he was deported from the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, Texas. Ernestina and José Valdez both believe the sudden deportations of their husband and son, respectively, were retaliation for their civil disobedience within the detention centers. Across the country in recent months hundreds of detainees have refused meals to protest their treatment within the detention facilities— many of them operated by private contractors like GEO Group, which runs Joe Corley— as well as within the immigration system more broadly. Hundreds of detainees on hunger strike in a GEO Group facility in Washington State were threatened with force-feeding last month. More than twenty were then moved into solitary confinement. Five busloads of detainees, including several of the strikers, left the center early Monday morning, activists say.
Ernestina said that Melanie’s schoolwork, her social life and her emotional health all suffered after her father was deported. “She gets really sad, and tells me that she wants to see him,” Ernestina said. “The day that my husband was deported she was shaking. She cried a lot. I was worried that she would get sick.” She continued, “When it happened, everything stopped. There isn’t anything left—it doesn’t seem like we have a future.”
But not having anything to lose has also emboldened Ernestina. Normally a quiet person, she says that by fighting for her husband and others like him, she’s “learned to talk. Staying quiet, nothing is going to be fixed.” She was one day into her fast in front of the White House when we spoke, and seemed calm and determined. She’d originally planned to leave on Saturday, but news of Obama’s comments to religious leaders had so angered her that she now planned to remain indefinitely, until she received a response from the White House.
“Breaking up a family isn’t going to stop us from fighting. It’s going to make us stronger, and we’re not going to stop until the president takes action,” she said.
* * *
On a Saturday morning in May 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided Cynthia Diaz’s home in Phoenix and arrested her mother, Maria. Maria, who’d immigrated to the United States at 14, graduated from high school and community college and then started a small tailoring business, called the following afternoon from Mexico to tell her family she’d been deported.
Cynthia was 15. She learned how to cook and to clean, and took on her mother’s role for her younger brother while keeping up with schoolwork at an honors high school. Now she’s a student at the University of Arizona. The hole left by her mother lingers at the house where her father and her brother still live; when Cynthia goes home, she finds the kitchen littered with pizza boxes, the fridge empty. “We’ve been really unhealthy,” she said. Cynthia became active with immigration rights groups at the end of high school, and has been fighting for her mother ever since.
In March, Maria crossed back into the US as part of a campaign called “Bring Them Home,” in which several immigrants who’d been deported returned to request asylum. Two weeks ago she had her eligibility interview. With her mother’s fate uncertain, Cynthia came to Washington for the strike, against the wishes of her father who worried that her petite body couldn’t handle the stress. She hoped that somehow her mother might make it home in time for Mother’s Day.
The hunger strike was hard, Cynthia admitted. The spring weather swung between hot, sunny days and frigid nights. She was fatigued and had headaches. Speaking to her mother on the phone helped.
On Tuesday, after Cynthia had ended her strike, she received a call from her mother. She’d gotten the results of her interview.
“She passed,” Cynthia told me, as if she could not yet allow herself to believe it.
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ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, hauled in a $32.6 billion profit last year. Chief executive Rex Tillerson got a 3 percent bump in his pay package, sending it above $28 million. And today the company gets its annual boost from the federal government: an estimated $600 million in tax breaks.
All told, the government gifts as much as $4.8 billion to the oil industry each year, more than any other country. Much of that comes not as direct handouts but instead via loopholes in the tax code; deductions for depleting oil reserves, for example, and write-offs for the expense of drilling a new well. These reflect a long-past era in which oil exploration was financially risky, and prices were low. Now oil prices and profits are high, and the government is losing revenue while promoting the continued exploitation of carbon-intensive fuels. In the face of a changing climate and a constrained domestic budget, the lunacy of such preferential treatment is hard to overstate.
“Perverse” is the word the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found for such policies in its latest report, which was released in full on Tuesday. Globally, subsidies for fossil fuel production—amounting to $1.9 trillion in 2011, or 8 percent of government revenues, according to the International Monetary Fund—“prove to increase emissions and put heavy burdens on public budgets,” reads the report.
On the other hand, rolling them back could be a key part of a serious climate agenda. The IMF estimates that eliminating fossil fuel subsidies could lower emissions by 13 percent. That general principle, if not the exact figure, is supported by the IPCC, which wrote, “Lowering or removing such subsidies would contribute to global mitigation, but this has proved difficult.”
“Difficult” may be an understatement in the United States. As a recent article at Mother Jones lays out, the energy industry wields considerable influence in Washington. In the last fifteen years oil and gas companies spent more than $1.4 billion on lobbying, employing nearly 800 lobbyists, many of them culled from congressional offices. That expense is actually a shrewd investment: every dollar the five largest oil companies spend on lobbying reflects $53 in tax breaks. The industry also leverages millions in donations to candidates and political ads during each election cycle, discouraging politicians from taking a hard line on tax breaks.
Government support for fossil fuels goes beyond the tax code. Another de facto subsidy comes from the Interior Department’s failure to collect proper royalties on domestic oil and coal. The government has lost as much as $14.7 million because royalties are not collected on offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico. In Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, below-market sale prices and an uncompetitive bidding process for coal reserves has cost taxpayers as much as $30 billion over the past two decades, while helping to prop up a collapsing industry. There’s also evidence that the federal coal program is failing to properly collect royalties on coal sold overseas. While President Obama may not be able to do much about the tax code unilaterally, his Interior Department certainly has the authority—in fact, the obligation—to reform its coal-leasing program.
Finally, there is a more deeply hidden giveaway to the fossil fuel industry, the most critical of oversights: the fact that companies don’t pay for the damages caused by their products—their external costs. While every citizen will pay for climate change, as those living near extraction and refining sites have long borne the burden of local pollution, companies get a free pass on their carbon emissions. This imbalance is what a carbon tax is designed to remedy.
Closing loopholes in the tax code would be only a small part of an aggressive climate agenda—particularly since it’s unlikely that eliminating those subsidies would affect global oil prices significantly. Still, those tax breaks represent billions that could be spent elsewhere, such as investment in renewables. The IPCC report concluded that subsidies, directed properly, can be an effective tool for slowing down global warming by helping low-carbon technologies and products overcome their competitive disadvantage in relationship to fossil fuels. Federal support for renewables now outstrips benefits for fossil fuels, but it’s still not comparable to the help that the government gave the oil industry in its early days. Important incentives, like the wind energy tax credit, have been allowed to expire. Furthermore, our national infrastructure is designed for the age of cheap fossil fuels, making it even more difficult for alternative energy to compete.
The best chance for closing the loopholes—and, perhaps, for imposing a carbon tax—is if Congress overhauls the tax code, something both parties have indicated an interest in. But even the best chance is a slim one given the cabal of climate deniers in the House, and a broader reluctance to challenge energy interests. If climate change seems like a problem too big to to approach, perhaps start here: elections matter.
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Two prominent public health organizations are pressing the State Department to study the public health implications of the Keystone XL pipeline before reaching a decision on its approval.
“There is an increasing recognition that the environments in which people live, work, learn and play have a tremendous impact on their health,” reads a letter sent Friday to Secretary of State John Kerry by the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the National Association of County and City Health (NACCHO). “The administration will certainly benefit by having a clear understanding of how the proposed Keystone XL pipeline could impact the public’s health, including the health of our most vulnerable citizens.”
The letter asks for a “comprehensive” assessment to include a review of scientific studies regarding the health effects of processing tar sands. Those could include increases in respiratory conditions like asthma, exposure to heavy metals, cancer and occupational health and safety risks affecting workers involved in tar sands production, said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of APHA. APHA is the oldest organization of health professionals in the country, representing providers, officials, educators and policy makers. NACCHO represents 2,700 local health departments.
“It raised our concern,” Benjamin said of the pipeline proposal. “We’re not saying don’t build it, and we’re not saying do build it. We want to make sure the decision is data-driven and has a health component to it. At the end of the day, they’re going to make a decision based on a complicated set of metrics, but we think health ought to be one.”
Whom the pipeline might put at greatest risk is a question that “absolutely needs to be though about,” Benjamin added. “If they put it through communities already economically and physically, from a health perspective, devastated, there is going to be a disparate impact when something bad happens, like a pipeline leak.”
NACCHO’s associate executive director David Dyjack said health risks could arise at each step of production, from extraction to transportation to consumer use, but that how the local effects of tar sands differed from other fossil fuels production cycles is not well understood. “We are advocating for smart and informed decision making,” Dyjack said. “The uncertainty around the tar sands led us to submit the letter—why don’t we get some clarity?”
“Everybody’s looking at every other issue but public health,” Boxer said on a conference call with reporters on Friday . “It’s crucial that these groups be listened to.”
Supporters of the pipeline have criticized Boxer and Whitehouse’s calls for a public health study as a delay tactic. Boxer said she wasn’t sure how long an assessment would take, but that a review of existing peer-reviewed research should be relatively simple. Whitehouse argued there is “no urgency” to bring Alberta’s tar sands oil through the United States. “The tar sands are not going anywhere,” he said. “We don’t want to be in situation where we rush now in order to regret later.”
Meanwhile, KXL’s proponent are asking the administration to speed up its decision making process. Eleven Democratic Senators sent a letter to the White House on Thursday asking the administration to approve the pipeline by May 31. The signees include Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, John Walsh of Montana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, all facing challenging re-election races in conservative states with significant fossil fuel interests.
Asked about the political implications of the pipeline decision, Boxer said her colleagues will “do what they have to do to represent their states well and follow their conscience. What we’re doing is just saying that, when it comes to public health and the survival of the planet, you need to pay attention to that, whether it’s an election year or an off-election year.”
“We’re already seeing misery,” Boxer said, referring to reports of high rates of cancer near production regions in Alberta, Canada, and pollution from the piles of petroleum coke, a tar sands byproduct, in several cities in the American Midwest. “There’s a lot of money and a lot of power behind [the pipeline], but I do believe at end of day people want to make sure that their kids are healthy.”
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On Wednesday morning, in a small room at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the climate change skeptic Craig Idso pointed to a PowerPoint slide showing three young pea plants, each grown under varying levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The plant that experienced the lowest concentration of carbon dioxide looked shriveled and sickly; the most robust-looking plant grew under the highest test concentration. “Now,” Idso said, “you could put on your Sigmund Freud hat, and you could ask yourself in a psychiatric manner, which plant would you rather be?”
Idso is one of the lead authors of a new report from the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), a project of the right-wing think tank the Heartland Institute that essentially serves to rebut the United Nations–sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). On Wednesday, NIPCC authors along with Heartland president Joseph Bast did their best to convince a room of less than ten people that scientific consensus on the human role in climate change does not exist, and that carbon emissions and rising global temperatures will have a net positive effect on the world. In other words, we are all pea shoots.
There were other absurdities at the press conference, including Idso’s prophecies of “vegetative prowess.” There were repeated references to the “scores” of scientists who contributed to the report, when in fact the total number of authors, editors and reviewers amounts to thirty-seven. Many of the people behind the NIPCC, including Bast and Fred Singer of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, have built careers around undercutting scientific research that threatens corporate profits, most notably the tobacco industry. Unlike the hundreds of scientists who contribute to IPCC reports voluntarily, the “independent” authors and editors involved with the NIPCC are paid; how much and by whom Heartland refused to say, although a staffer cited three family foundations as the source of funds for the study.
The most interesting part of the event was that the scientists and Bast couldn’t seem to decide whether man-made climate change is a hoax, or whether it’s something to embrace. Bast offered a painful display of rhetorical acrobatics when asked to clarify. He agreed there has been a gradual warming trend as well as a corresponding increase in carbon emissions. Bast declared, “The human presence is responsible for rising carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere,” but then clarified that in regards to temperature, “the human impact is very small, probably less than natural variability…the bigger impact is the increase in carbon dioxide, which Doctor Idso shows is positive, unambiguously positive.” If the increase in carbon dioxide is the “bigger impact” and it’s due to “the human presence,” that seems to be tacit endorsement of the link between human activity and climate change.
This is what the climate movement is up against—plant analogies, thirty-seven scientists and an all-but-empty pressroom? (There was a similar briefing earlier in the morning, reportedly with comparable attendance.) The event only emphasized what a lonely occupation climate skepticism in the Heartland model has become, as even Exxon Mobil says “the risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action.”
But the dwindling community of skeptics has a disproportionately large audience thanks to Fox News, which featured the NIPCC report several times in the past week on air and online. “Deepening divide over climate change sparks fierce debate,” reads the headline of a story by correspondent Doug McKelway, who told viewers of the Fox Special Report with Bret Baier on Wednesday night that the NIPCC authors “point to observable data, not computer modeling, to prove their point.” McKelway concluded, “All of this is leading congressional doubters to further question an array of EPA regulations the president has unleashed to maneuver around congressional resistance to cap and trade and other carbon-mitigating legislation.”
Fox’s treatment of the NIPCC report isn’t surprising, considering that 72 percent of its climate change coverage last year was misleading, according to a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Fox pulls in some 1.76 million viewers, compared with the 640,000 who watch MSNBC, which covered climate accurately 92 percent of the time. The NIPCC may be speaking into an echo chamber, but it’s one that surrounds a sizable chunk of America and the majority of lawmakers in the House, who are well protected by rigged districts and corporate patrons. There’s no excusing the special interests, politicians and journalists who deliberately promote shoddy science to justify environmental destruction. At the same time, one can understand the popular appeal of the NIPCC, as a comforting alternative the desperate scenario portrayed by the IPCC. Things would be so much simpler, if only we were pea shoots.
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When Congress considered the Equal Pay Act in the spring of 1963, few objected to the values motivating the legislation. “The principle of equal pay for equal work is one which almost any citizen would strongly support,” wrote the National Retail Merchant Association in prepared testimony for the US Senate that April. Nevertheless, the NRMA opposed the bill “on the grounds that Federal legislation is not needed, that the added cost to administer such a law is unnecessary, and that an equitable law would be complex, confusing and difficult to enforce.”
Fifty-one years later, the conservative, anti-feminist Independent Women’s Forum has this to say about the Paycheck Fairness Act, which expands on the 1963 legislation and will likely succumb this week to a Republican filibuster in the Senate: “Clearly, sex-based wage discrimination is wrong. Furthermore, it’s already illegal…This latest legislation—the Paycheck Fairness Act—won’t lead to more fairness or better pay. It will lead to more lawsuits, more red tape and fewer job opportunities for women and men.”
Not as much has changed since 1963 as one might have hoped, either in the workplace or in politics. Back then opponents of the Equal Pay Act said states were adequately addressing the issue of of equal pay. Others made excuses for the fact that women made fifty-nine cents for every dollar their male colleagues earned, arguing, as Council of Economic Advisers chair Walter Heller did, that the “added costs” of hiring women were to blame. Skepticism about labor protection for women wasn’t strictly partisan; the Democratic chairman of the House subcommittee on labor reportedly kept documents related to the Equal Pay Act filed under B, for “Broads.”
No one says now that the 1963 law was unnecessary or insignificant, though as its supporters acknowledged at the time of its passage, it was only a first step. Today, women make seventy-seven cents to a man’s dollar—or just sixty-four cents and fifty-five cents for black and Hispanic women, respectively—and Republicans are dusting off arguments from last century to block updated legislation, claiming that while they still support its underlying principles, today’s pay really is equal, or else the work is not. (Whether filing methods have changed in the new millennium is unclear.)
Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, for example, called the concern about equal pay a “meme,” and Texas governor Rick Perry dismissed it as “nonsense.” Conservatives who do acknowledge the existence of a gender gap often attribute it to the concentration of women in lower-wage jobs. Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and traditionally female industries—like education, nursing and domestic work—usually pay less than industries dominated by men, like engineering and IT. The fact that women are funneled into lower-paying fields is certainly a problem. But it’s also true that in almost every single occupation for which data is available, women earn less than male co-workers. That’s true within low-wage industries and in those traditionally dominated by women. For example, women make up nearly 90 percent of the nursing workforce, and they collect $1,086 in median weekly earnings. Male nurses take home an extra $150 each week, according to Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Although the Paycheck Fairness Act is unlikely to pass the Senate, President Obama will sign two executive orders today regarding fair pay for women. One prevents federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their wages; the other requires contractors to share information about compensation, broken down by race and gender, with the government. The orders won’t accomplish as much as the PFA, which extends those two provisions to private employers, as well as putting the burden on employers to prove that unequal pay is job-related and allowing workers to sue for damages based on gender discrimination, as they can for racial, disability and age discrimination. Still, joint White House and Senate campaigns on equal pay could have symbolic power as Democrats leverage the GOP’s resistance to bread and butter economic measures to spur turnout in the midterms, particularly among women.
Smartly, the GOP has given opposition to the PFA a new face—a female one, telling women to use their own bootstraps to scale the pay gap. “I would encourage women, instead of pursuing the courts for action, to become better negotiators,” said Texas GOP Beth Cubriel, explaining her party’s opposition to fair pay legislation. Targeting legislation at working women is “making us look like whiners,” Minnesota state Represenative Andrea Kieffer said in March. “All Republicans support equal pay for equal work,” wrote Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski, communications director Andrea Bozek and NRSC press secretary Brook Hougesen in a memo. “And while we all know workplace discrimination still exists, we need real solutions that focus on job creation and opportunity for women.”
Conservatives have been pushing back against claims that the GOP is anti-women with the argument that it’s Democrats who demean women by focusing on structural disadvantages. The Independent Women’s Forum, for example, says the PFA “perpetuates the myth that all women are workplace victims.” The idea that government action turns women into victims, or makes them dependent, flows through conservative messaging around the Affordable Care Act, the social safety net, really any program that would help the people whose bootstraps have been stolen. “The fact is the Republicans don’t have a war on women, they have a war for women, to empower them to be something other than victims of their gender,” Mike Huckabee said at the Republican National Committee winter meeting in January.
The basic point here is that government can’t do anything good for women, or for people in general. Only individuals themselves, and an unfettered private sector, can. “Not every problem in America can be fixed by Washington,” Katie Packer Gage, Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager, wrote in opposition to the PFA. This anti-government agenda has nothing to do with women’s equality. It is, however, one of the oldest lines in the book.
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Ivan Lopez, the man military officials say opened fire yesterday at Fort Hood, Texas, killing three and wounding sixteen, reportedly suffered from depression and anxiety, and had trouble sleeping. Doctors prescribed him a number of drugs, and evaluated him for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to Secretary of the Army John McHugh, who spoke to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, nothing on his record or in a psychiatric evaluation last month indicated he would harm himself or others.
If the shooting shocks and discomforts, the fact that more than half of all service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan say their mental or physical health is worse after their deployment should, too. Lopez’s act of mass violence distinguishes him from his fellow service members; still, he appears to have shared with many others the experience of coming home to a country unprepared to meet his needs. Of the 2.6 million men and women sent to Iraq and Afghanistan or to supporting operations overseas, more than half report that the government is failing to meet theirs. Nearly 60 percent say the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing only a fair or poor job. And one in two know another service member who, like Lopez, committed or attempted suicide.
Since at least 2008, more American soldiers have killed themselves at home than have died abroad. The VA has responded by expanding its mental health funding and adding thousands of people to its mental health staff. But less than a quarter of veterans are enrolled in the agency’s healthcare system, and more than a third of enrolled veterans who sought psychiatric appointments in 2013 faced at least a two-week wait.
“Frankly, we have got to do more,” Vermont Senator and Veterans Affairs committee chair Bernie Sanders said Thursday on MSNBC. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of men and women. So if we’re serious about reaching out and helping those people, we’ve got to provide the resources to do that.”
Doing “more” doesn’t only mean boosting the VA budget. Veterans experience poverty, homelessness, unemployment and improper foreclosures more acutely than Americans overall, meaning that slashing the safety net, failing to extend unemployment insurance and other moves towards austerity create extra challenges for veterans grappling with the aftershocks of service and navigating re-entry to civilian life.
Congress had an opportunity in February to act on one of the largest legislative packages for veterans in decades, which Sanders sponsored. But Senate Republicans killed the measure, saying it was too expensive, never mind that the $21 billion price tag would have been paid for largely by the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan. For perspective, $21 billion represents about .6 percent of government spending in 2013.
Montana Senator John Walsh, a Democrat and combat Veteran, introduced legislation last week with a variety of measures directed at preventing veteran suicide. The bill would give service members leaving active duty fifteen years to receive care from the VA, significantly extending the current window that, at five years, is sometimes shorter than the onset of PTSD or other mental illnesses. The legislation also creates incentives for mental health care professionals to work within the VA system, streamlines electronic health records and prescription protocols, and requires the Defense Department and VA to review mental health care programs annually. When asked about the cost of his legislation, as Republicans surely will, Walsh told CNN, “That is the cost of war.”
Lopez’s mental health issues may have had nothing to do with his military service, and it would be a mistake to project his crimes onto other soldiers seeking treatment. The point remains that lawmakers spent trillions taking violence abroad. It’s hard to deny that some of it is coming home again, in the form of suicide and domestic abuse, and in the daily violence of homelessness and unemployment. It’s simple enough to tally what price Congress thought worthy for the armored vehicles and the aircraft carriers and the missiles used for our recent wars. What about the people?
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While questions about transparency have of late focused on the government’s surveillance programs, some members of Congress would like to direct some of that scrutiny towards another aspect of the national security state: the targeted killing program.
On Wednesday, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff and Republican Walter Jones introduced a bill that would compel the Obama administration to report annually how many people are killed or injured in US drone strikes—and, critically, to make a clearer distinction between combatants and civilians.
How many people the US is killing via drones, and who those people are, has been difficult to determine because of official secrecy. Last year, facing criticism for a lack of transparency and accountability, President Obama announced new guidelines for strikes designed to minimize casualties. The question the reporting requirements seek to answer is whether the government really is “meeting the standard that we’ve set of not striking unless to a near certainty we’re sure that there are going to be no civilian casualties,” Schiff told The Nation.
Administration officials and lawmakers sympathetic to the intelligence agencies have argued that drone strikes result in a low number of civilian casualties— “typically…in the single digits,” Dianne Feinstein claimed in 2013. It’s fair to ask whether we can really draw a meaningful line between nine dead innocents and ten. There’s also evidence that the administration has crafted a definition of civilian so as to artificially lower the casualty count. Reportedly, the administration considers all adult males within the strike zone as combatants—effectively, assuming guilt by location.
“It’s important that we understand how the administration will be defining ‘combatants’ to be able to evaluate the numbers that we ultimately get,” Schiff said. “Are we defining combatants in a way that we clearly know who they are, that they’re fighting against us? Or do we have a more amorphous definition where it’s difficult to tell?”
The requirement would cover all strikes outside “theatres of conflict,” which at the moment refers only to Afghanistan. Schiff emphasized that the public report would not provide any information that would be damaging to national security and thus worthy of classification; it would be a bulk annual tally, with no information about particular strikes, their location or the department involved. Significantly, the legislation compels the administration to provide a count for the deaths and injuries from drone strikes dating back to 2008. That would open the door for critical evaluation of claims made by officials and lawmakers like Feinstein about the number of civilians killed.
A coalition of human rights organizations including Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights hailed the bill as a “modest yet crucial step toward ending excessive secrecy about US drone strikes.” Their statement went further in probing the civilian-military distinction, arguing that pre-emptive, targeted killing in the absence of a direct threat is unlawful regardless of how one defines militant. “Outside the narrow and exceptional circumstances of armed conflict, where international human rights law applies, the United States can only target an individual if he poses an imminent threat to life and lethal force is the last resort. For this and other reasons, we do not necessarily agree that the terms ‘combatant’ and ‘civilian’ apply,” reads the statement.
Schiff said the greatest challenge is getting the bill out of the House intelligence committee, which last year rejected a similar measure, rather than passing it through the full chamber. Still, he judged it “likely” that a coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans similar to the one that drove congressional opposition to the NSA’s surveillance programs will unite to call for transparency in the drone program.
“We’re taking a very small step here because even small steps, in this area, are difficult,” Schiff said. He was clear, however, about its implications. “It’s a way of building support for, ultimately, a change in policy.” Reporting the dead as a statistic may be only a first step, but it’s a necessary one on the way to a conversation about the very real people killed in our name.
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In the April 11, 1959 issue of The Nation, a young attorney named Ralph Nader took auto manufacturers to task for “glacier-like movement” in availing themselves of engineering solutions to minimize the deadly effects of car crashes. “Automobiles are so designed as to be dangerous at any speed,” he warned, testing out the line that evolved into the title of his groundbreaking 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed.
Fifty-five years later, Congress is investigating a new car safety scandal involving corporate malfeasance, regulatory ineptitude, and at least thirteen deaths. For more than a decade, General Motors was aware of an ignition switch defect that caused some cars to shut off, seemingly at random, disabling the power steering, the airbags, and other safety features. Not until February did GM begin to recall the affected models. The company has recalled more than 2.6 million vehicles so far, and is facing a congressional inquiry and a criminal probe. For it’s part, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, one of the most significant legacies of Nader’s campaign for consumer safety, appears to have failed to perform its oversight and enforcement duties, twice declining to investigate reports of the defects.
As GM CEO Mary Barra and NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman prepare to testify before Congress on Wednesday and Thursday, I spoke with Nader about the scandal, regulatory lapses, and the relationship between lawmakers and the auto industry.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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Zoë Carpenter: What do you think the GM scandal says about how far we’ve come to balance corporate power and consumer rights?
Ralph Nader: GM has done a lot of worse things and got away with it over the years. They blocked fuel efficiency standards with Michigan Representative John Dingell and others, they've blocked safety standards from NHTSA. However, this one has all the elements of a criminal cover-up. Criminal negligence at least, if not a pure criminal cover-up. As a result there is great potential for legislative reform to strengthen the antiquated motor vehicle and highways safety laws, bring them up to date, improve the recall authority, enlarge the fines, and increase the budget of NHTSA, which is absurdly low—deliberately low.
That's the problem with all of these regulatory agencies: almost nobody pays attention in the press to the tiny budgets. It's like having a street crime spree in New York City--arsons, burglary, assaults, and there's one hundred police. People would say, "You need more police!" Well, you need more federal cops in the corporate crime beat and that's true for all agencies. The corporate lawyers are very good about going up on Capitol Hill and making sure those budgets do not increase, even though they pay for themselves many times over with fines and penalties.
Is part of the problem the relationship between lawmakers and the auto industry?
Yeah! It's always been that way, and Dingell of course has undermined the Democrats. So you take the Republicans and John Dingell, you can't beat 'em. Dingell will bring in the United Auto Workers on fuel efficiency, for example. You can't beat a combination of GM, UAW, and John Dingell. He blocked the air bag for years. He was on the back of NHTSA all the time!
One problem is the trivial budgets [for regulatory agencies]. If you don't have investigators, prosecutors, other lawyers, engineers, you can't do justice to the safety laws. You just cannot keep up. Especially when the auto companies are expert at stonewalling you, giving money to lawmakers on the hill, hiring corporate law firms.
NHTSA is culpable in this GM ignition switch problem, for sure. They weren't alert enough, and there's a culture of timidity. It's a product of being browbeaten by Dingell, by the White House, by the lobbyists day after day, year after year, decade after decade. They get very squeamish about ordering recalls. Detroit has Washington pretty greased. They pick timid regulators who are engaged in on-the-job training and represent the auto industry after they leave the agencies.
Is this part of a larger problem with the revolving door in Washington?
Yeah, it's part of a larger problem.
You mentioned earlier that the GM case has the elements of a cover-up. What are some of the signs indicating that?
The first is they knew years ago about a deadly defect that could cause death and injury. Then they got reports of the deaths and injuries, and did nothing. Under law they were supposed to inform the government about it, and they did not do so. Then more deaths and injuries occurred, and they still did nothing. [General Motors CEO] Mary Barra says that she didn't learn about it until January 31! And she's the CEO. So the best view of what happened inside GM is bureaucracy—committees passing the buck to one another, nobody responsible, stifling whistleblowers.
This may well lead to an reorganization internally within GM. GM should put an independent ombudsman in place who can receive complaints from conscientious engineers early on, protect the anonymity of the engineer, and have direct access to the top executives of GM.
It's a great opportunity, actually. The only time the traffic and auto safety laws are strengthened is when there's a scandal. You've got the big enchilada here with GM.
And there's another thing: that GM might have released false information during this bankruptcy. They may unravel the bankruptcy again, and what we're pushing for is to reinstate all those liability suits by injured and dead people in GM cars. The bankruptcy created a new GM and an old GM. Old GM had no assets. New GM was filled with billions in taxpayer dollars and they immunized it from dozens and dozens of product liability lawsuits by families, which is really gross and unprecedented. And now that could be re-opened.
Here's what I think is going to happen: no auto company can continually be exposed day after day in the newspapers, because they're going to start losing credibility and start losing sales. So GM may enter into a grand settlement: they pay a huge fine to get the Justice Department and the Department of Transportation off their back, they recall all the cars, they allow the reinstatement of the liability suits, and they pledge that they'll reorganize inside GM, so that it doesn't happen again.
GM doesn’t want a criminal investigation. That would be devastating. Companies will do anything to avoid a trial. There are very few trials in the corporate crime area—shockingly few trials.
Notice that the auto safety law itself has no criminal penalty. We lost that battle in a huge struggle in the Senate back in 1966. Even for willful violation of NHTSA regulations, there is no criminal penalty. Where the criminal penalty comes in is in Title 18; if you lie to the government or do not report information as required to the government. So in one sense, GM is shielded by the absence of a criminal penalty under NHTSA. On the other hand, they are vulnerable under Title 18, because they didn’t report to NHTSA as they were required to, and they misled the agency.
A grand settlement along the lines you described, would that solve the problems with the regulatory agencies?
That’s a bigger challenge and that’s very important. It’s one thing to strengthen NHTSA, but if NHTSA is under a lot of political pressure from Dingell types and White House types it’s not going to mean that much. But it will mean something. No matter who’s president, no matter who’s on the Hill, if you doubled the recall authority of NHTSA, you’d get more recalls. You’ll still have political influence, but you’ll get more recalls, because there’d be more engineers and scientists.
Why all the attention now?
I think Mary Barra is a factor. They’re fascinated by this new woman, and how she’s going to handle it. That’s part of it. The second is that it’s such a simple thing to understand: don’t put anything on your keychain, otherwise you may lose your engine and your airbag will not deploy when you crash. It isn’t like it’s a complex handling problem or an engine problem or something like that.
The reason Congress is so interested in this is because of the media. Did you see The New York Times article saying the Cobalt was a “lemon?” GM can’t take that. It’s like a spilling sewer pipe. Once all this is in the press, other whistleblowers might start to emerge because they can get protective cover.
The media is racing on this. It’s just marvelous, after ten years of a news desert. Those of us in auto safety advocacy, we have to take advantage of this for reform—reform in NHTSA, and reform in the auto companies.
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For months now, as congressional Republicans have blocked repeated attempts to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed, as they’ve fought to deny low-income Americans access to health insurance, as they’ve advocated to cut tens of billions from the food stamp program, as they’ve resisted proposals to raise the minimum wage, they have simultaneously professed their commitment to American workers and the poor.
Senator Patty Murray put forth a new test of that commitment on Wednesday, by introducing legislation to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC is already one of the largest and most effective anti-poverty programs, rewarding low-wage earners for their work and lightening their tax burden. It’s also one of the very few specific anti-poverty policies Republicans have praised in recent months.
Murray’s bill, the “21st Century Worker Tax Cut Act,” would increase the maximum credit for childless adults and create a new tax deduction for families with two working parents. It's intended to complement the Democrats’ campaign for a higher minimum wage, and to force Republicans to take a real stand on help for American workers. Given their recent nods towards the EITC, one might reasonably expect Republicans to consider Murray's proposal seriously. (President Obama also proposed an EITC expansion in his budget for 2015.) Even the tax loopholes Murray proposes closing in order to pay for the expansion have already been singled out for elimination by the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Robert Camp. But these are not reasonable times.
The Republican’s recent expressions of support for expanding the EITC have always seemed more opportunistic than sincere. Rather than actively working to extend the credit to more Americans, the GOP instead uses the EITC as “a protective shield against populist attacks,” as Jonathan Chait put it; specifically, as a counterpoint to calls from the left to raise the minimum wage.
“The minimum wage makes it more expensive for employers to hire low-skilled workers, but the EITC, on the other hand, gives workers a boost—without hurting their prospects,” Representative Paul Ryan said of the EITC in a January speech at the Brookings Institution. “It gives families flexibility—it helps them take ownership of their lives.”
Conservative pundits and academics have taken a similar line. Two economists at the American Enterprise Institute argued last year that “expanding the earned income tax credit is a much more efficient way to fight poverty than increasing the minimum wage.” Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation argued in favor of a higher EITC in January, as did former Bush advisor Glenn Hubbard. Another former Bush advisor, Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw, wrote recently that the EITC was “distinctly better” than raising the minimum wage because the costs are born by taxpayers rather than employers.
In his own much-hyped poverty speech in January, Senator Marco Rubio advocated for replacing the EITC with a “federal wage enhancement” subsidy. The vague contours of the alternative he proposed suggested that what he had in mind was nearly identical to the EITC, but with more support for people without kids.
Rubio was right to point out that one of the major shortcomings of the current EITC is that it offers minimal assistance to childless workers. As the program operates now, people without children who are under 25 are ineligible, and the maximum credit for those between 25 and 64 is $487. Families with children receive more substantial benefits. In 2011, their average credit was $2,905.
Murray’s bill addresses Rubio’s professed concern for childless workers by lowering the eligibility age to 21 and raising the maximum credit for childless workers to about $1,400. Those changes would benefit thirteen million people, according to a Treasury Department estimate. The legislation also increases support for families with two working parents by allowing a secondary earner to deduct twenty percent of their income from their federal taxes. This could offset childcare, transportation, and other costs associated with entering the workforce, thus encouraging more stay-at-home parents to find jobs. More than seven million families would benefit from this new deduction, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.
The bill also doubles the penalties for tax payers who fail to comply with the Internal Revenue Service’s “due diligence” requirement, a reform that addresses Republican concerns about the costs of improper claims.
If Republicans really wanted to use the EITC as a vehicle for boosting low wages, this legislation provides an excellent starting point for negotiation. But they’re unlikely to engage with it seriously, because their lauding of the EITC was never serious to begin with. For example, Rubio’s proposal to expand the credit for childless workers would have been accomplished by taking money away from workers with kids, instead of by increasing the size of the program overall.
Republicans will face a tricky situation if Harry Reid brings Murray's bill up for a vote in the Senate. “If Republicans aren’t interested in supporting this bill, they’ll need to explain why they are rejecting the alternative that they have often pointed to in order to justify opposing raising the minimum wage," a senior Democratic aide told The Nation.
If recent votes on unemployment insurance are any indication, Republicans are far more likely to risk hypocrisy and find reasons to kill the bill than do any real governing, even on policies they profess to support. If a vote doesn’t accomplish much for low-wage workers, it may at least blow away some of the smoke from the GOP’s show.
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The post of the surgeon general has been vacant since July, and it looks likely to remain that way for some time thanks to a strident campaign led by the National Rifle Association and libertarian Senator Rand Paul against President Obama’s nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy.
Murthy has medical and business degrees from Yale, works as an attending physician and instructor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School and has founded several health businesses and nonprofits. He has also expressed support for limited gun safety measures like a ban on assault weapons, mandatory safety training and limits on ammunition, and so the NRA has declared it will “score” his confirmation vote, putting pressure on Senate Democrats running tight re-election races in red states to block Murthy’s confirmation. As The New York Times reported on Saturday, the White House is “recalibrating” its strategy towards Murthy’s nomination, meaning the Senate vote will either be delayed or never happen.
This isn’t the first time the NRA has held up a nominee: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went without a director for seven years because of opposition from the gun lobby. But never before has the group set itself so strongly against a surgeon general nominee. So why now? The NRA said Murthy’s “blatant activism on behalf of gun control” attracted their attention.
But the gun lobby’s campaign against Murthy isn’t really about his record, or him at all. His positions on guns are hardly radical or even activist, and his views are consistent with those of the majority of Americans. Polling indicates that the public is far more supportive of new gun control laws than members of Congress or, certainly, the NRA.
Furthermore, Murthy’s views represent a consensus among medical professionals that gun violence is a major public health issue. Gun violence, including suicide, kills some 30,000 Americans every year, about the same number as car accidents. Cars are highly regulated for health and safety; guns, barely. Accordingly, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among many others, have called for stronger gun safety laws. It would be surprising if, as a doctor, Murthy did not have concerns about gun violence and the strength of current regulations.
With public health professionals engaging more forcefully on the gun issue, the NRA has a pressing interest in muting their calls for stronger policy. Really, the campaign against Murthy is the continuation of a longstanding effort to make discussion of gun violence taboo. For years the NRA has worked to bury information about gun violence and its public health implications. The NRA has campaigned successfully to ban registries that collect data on guns used in crimes, and in 1996 the group fought for and won legislation that froze federal funding for research on gun violence. Although Obama lifted the restriction last year in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, there’s still very little money—federal and private—for gun research and not enough data, said David Hemenway, an expert on injury at the Harvard School of Public Health.
On the local level, the NRA has tried to bar pediatricians from counseling parents about the risks of keeping guns at home. The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that doctors begin to talk to parents about gun safety even before their baby is born, and continue the conversation yearly, just as doctors talk to parents about the dangers of swimming pools and the importance of bicycle helmets. Florida passed a gag law in 2011; crafted by an NRA lobbyist, the bill forbids doctors from “making written inquiry or asking questions concerning the ownership of a firearm or ammunition by the patient or by a family member of the patient.” A district court ruled the following year that the law restricted physicians’ rights to free speech, and the case is now in the appeals process. Murthy’s opposition to pediatrician gag laws was one of the reasons cited by the NRA and Rand Paul in their attempt to disqualify him.
When she ordered a permanent injunction against the Florida law in 2012, District Judge Marcia Cooke wrote that the law “in no way affects [Second Ammendment] rights” and instead “aims to restrict a practitioner’s ability to provide truthful, non-misleading information to a patient.” The same can be said of the NRA’s objection to the Surgeon General nominee, who won’t be involved in crafting gun policy. The threat to the NRA is that the surgeon general will merely talk about gun violence, in fulfilling his or her duty to provide the public with “the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce their risk of illness and injury.”
While the NRA’s political clout comes from its individual members, the group serves the agenda of gun industry. What’s really going on with Murthy’s confirmation is that an industry group is trying to keep the government from regulating its products. This isn’t a new battle: the tobacco industry fought it, as have many other industries with financial interests in evading health and safety regulations.
“Most industries try to protect themselves—the less regulation the better, the less oversight the better. They want to pursue their sales,” said Hemenway. “I think it’s almost time for a surgeon general statement about guns, like we had with cigarettes and cancer, particularly about guns and suicide.”
While the industry’s goals aren’t exceptional, its success at evading regulation is, said Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center. “Guns are a consumer product. We’ve taken a public health approach to reducing product-related injury for every other product, from automobiles, to toys, to airplanes. Every product is regulated from a health and safety perspective with the goal of reducing accident and injury. The only exception is guns,” Rand said.
Murthy’s assurance that he does not intend to use the surgeon general’s office “as a bully pulpit on gun control” failed to appease the NRA. Perhaps appeasement is the wrong tack. The only way to curb the gun industry’s outsized influence is if people like the surgeon general do talk about gun violence, and advocate for more research and data, not less.
“The surgeon general’s role is to educate the public about how to live healthier, safer lives and one of biggest injury-producing mechanisms in America today are guns. It’s obviously an area where he should be involved,” said Rand. “What the NRA fears is having someone with a bully pulpit who has solid information and is giving people the facts. The NRA fears information.”
Democrats also need to stand up for freedom of speech and information. The midterm map presents a real challenge, as the Senate races most important to Democrats are in deep red states—Louisiana, Arkansas, Montana, Alaska—where public opinion on gun control is far more conservative than it is nationally. Still, it’s far from clear that the NRA’s endorsement is worth groveling for. The NRA can easily whip up hundreds of gun owners to flood Senate offices with calls expressing outrage over Murthy’s nomination, but there is some evidence that the group’s electoral influence is much less significant than its effect on policymaking and nominations. According to a statistical analysis conducted by Paul Waldman in 2012, “The NRA has virtually no impact on congressional elections. The NRA endorsement, so coveted by so many politicians, is almost meaningless. Nor does the money the organization spends have any demonstrable impact on the outcome of races.” [Emphasis his.]
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