The final days of the 113th Congress -- coming just days before Christmas and the new year -- brought with it the end of a turbulent month -- and year -- of American politics. It also led many of us to think ahead to the coming years as Republicans assume control of the House and Senate in January and a presidential election looms on the horizon in 2016.
The final significant act of this Congress was the passage of the "Cromnibus" budget bill, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 (H.R. 83), which authorizes spending $1.1 trillion to fund the government until next September. With little time given to debate this bill -- or, likely, even to read all of its 1,695 pages -- H.R. 83 was narrowly passed with the support of 57 Democrats joining 162 Republicans in the House, and 31 Dems joining 24 Republicans voting "yea" in the Senate. Of course, at the last minute -- and behind closed doors -- lobbyists for Citigroup added a little something extra to the bill to ensure that they will be bailed out by taxpayers yet again if their continuing risk-taking with derivatives and other such shady gambles fail and tank the economy, as it did in 2008. We may also be sure that no one will be held responsible or see jail time this time, either. This add-on further weakens the Dodd-Frank Act, which was meant to in some small measure control financial institutions on Wall Street and their casino-style gambling, all the while remaining insured by the FDIC -- and guess who pays for that?
This little boondoggle sent an outraged Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to the floor of the Senate delivering an historic speech that must have shaken that Chamber to its rafters as she attacked Citigroup and the lobbyists who wrote that piece of legislation. Senator Warren in no uncertain terms proclaimed that Citigroup and banks should be broken up into pieces, and she has authored a 21st-century version of the Glass-Steagall Act that would do just that.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the proverbial coin, support for this giveaway was led by Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who worked the Hill to secure the needed votes from Democrats, while being aided and abetted by the likes of Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD 5) -- Nancy Pelosi's number one man and caucus whip -- and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the third-ranking Dem in the Senate with close ties to Wall Street. The president and his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough also worked the Hill to secure Democratic votes. It certainly did not take long after the elections in November for those millionaires and billionaires to start reaping the rewards from their campaign investments, with the assistance of Democratic enablers.
The Citigroup scam was just one of the outrageous capitulations to big business and the 1% in this bill, among several others that will continue to chip away and remove protections and benefits from those hardworking Americans who continue to see their standard of living erode every day. Other such takeaways included cutting benefits in multi-employee pension plans under the guise of "solvency" and avoiding depletion in 10 to 20 years. The promise for four decades by trustees of these plans that pensions would not be cut is now up in smoke. Ten million workers in 1,400 plans could be affected, according to the Pension Rights Center. Struggling college students will also see their Pell Grants cut, increasing school costs.
But the icing on this cake has to be the increase by tenfold of the amount of donations that can be made to political parties, rising for individuals from $32,400 to $324,800 in an election cycle, while the cap for couples could rise from $648,000 to $1.3 million. Meanwhile -- surprise, surprise -- the I.R.S. will see its budget cut by $346 million, which will seriously hamper its ability to go after tax cheats and those so-called "non-profit" organizations that feign social welfare work while engaging in more political activities than they are allowed. Yet somehow, in all of these supposed "cost-saving" measures cooked up by the GOP-controlled House, there was still no room for a cut to defense spending. A small positive note was that funding for efforts to reduce the threat of Ebola spreading will be increased to $2.7 billion, but mainly this bill provides a good example of what we should expect to see coming out of a Republican and Tea Party dominated Capitol Hill over the next two years, at least.
During the Savings and Loan disasters of the early '80s and '90s -- which mainly involved fraud and insider abuses -- around 1,000 bankers eventually went to jail following prosecutions by the Justice Department. On the other hand, following the '08 economic collapse -- from which we are still digging out and which left 8.8 million jobless despite a $700 billion bailout -- not one "bankster" has seen the inside of a prison. And still our so-called leaders in DC still can't seem to figure out that more "get out of jail free card" provisions like those included in this budget bill are a bad idea? But there they are, added to the bill by the GOP controlled House without even a whimper from our president, all so we could avoid another government shutdown that the Republicans will now threaten to pull anytime they want something in the next two years. One would have thought that our president and the Democrats would have learned something by now about not caving in the face of such threats. One might also note that there is no mention of cutting funding of Obamacare or any mention of immigration reform in this bill. It would seem that those points were left untouched to forge a deal that Dems could accept with this bill and all of its right-wing friendly warts included.
It can also be certain that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and its passage will head the GOP's to-do list in the very near future. This is a trade bill that actually out-NAFTA's NAFTA and was written by 600 special interest and lobbyists behind closed doors with no transparency or even media access over a five year period, involving eleven Pacific rim countries that are responsible for 40% of global trade. Clearly, there must be plenty to hide, which the dribs and drabs of leaked information we have seen so far have made clear.
While all of this played out on the Hill, there was a great deal more going on around the country that kept the focus on national issues unaddressed by Congress. Protests against the non-indictment of the police officer that shot and killed an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and another officer that killed Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold in Staten Island, New York have continued for months, highlighting both the continued racial bias in police policies and practices and the militarization of our police departments around the country. The resounding call of "Black Lives Matter" was heard nationwide, including in New York City and on the Mall in DC, where 25,000 protestors were led by the Reverend Al Sharpton in a rally to end police violence against African-American men. So where is the intervention by the Justice Department when grand juries fail to act? If there is no Civil Rights Era-styled change driven from DC, the wholesale killing of young, unarmed African-Americans will only continue. This shames our nation.
At the same time and with little media coverage, massive rallies were held in close to 200 cities by low-wage earners, which have now brought together workers from the fast food, home healthcare and airport services industries. This movement continues to grow.
Another continuing source of frustration has to be those 51 million eligible Americans that aren't even registered to vote. It speaks volumes of the failure of our political process to engage all Americans -- many of whom rightfully feel they have no voice in how our government runs and represents them -- that such a state of apathy toward our electoral process exists. Only by public involvement and pressure did we see the release of the CIA "Torture Papers" by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Torture is banned internationally and was also banned here in the US by President Obama, and even earlier by Ronald Reagan, no less, and yet it clearly remains part of our nation's intelligence gathering methods. Now Congress must end it once and for all so that future presidents cannot use such inhumane acts to extract information that is often of dubious value. We cannot parrot the likes of Hitler and Stalin by using torture, even if we choose to call it "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques." And despite the damning information included in this report, apparently there will be no legal consequences for Cheney and Bush and the two psychologists who were paid multimillions of dollars for devising the torture program and its experiments -- pretty chilling stuff for this "nation of laws," as our president has referred to us.
Despite all this, there have been a few wins for Progressives in DC and beyond recently, due in part to the rising visibility of the newly minted Warren Progressive Wing of the Democratic Party:
- With persistence for well over a year, the other day Dr. Vivek Murthy was confirmed as our next Surgeon General. His position on guns certainly did not endear him to the NRA, and the fear created by the NRA kept Democrats from confirming the good doctor until now.
- More progress came in the form of 134 judges that were confirmed during the 113th Congress, with twelve of those confirmations coming just last week, thanks in no small part to Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) employing the "nuclear option" to thwart the efforts of obstructionist Senate Republicans to gum up the works.
- A long, hard victory was also just won in New York State, when Governor Cuomo finally banned fracking. The evidence in reports from the Health Department and scientific community about the dangers to our health and climate finally convinced the Governor, whom anti-fracking advocates had dogged for over four years on this issue whenever he appeared in public. This is a very good win that shows the power of the People coming out in numbers to achieve great things while taking on the powerful oil and gas industry. This success should ignite other states to seek the same results.
- And lastly, the opening up of relations with Cuba after almost fifty-five years was an out-of-the-blue achievement that knocked many for a loop. Of course, the details of just how this will benefit the Cuban people will be of great concern, but it is at last a beginning at normalizing relationships. And just how long will Guantanamo Bay remain open? We shall see.
On January 27, the president will deliver his penultimate State of The Union address to the nation. He said in his last press conference of the year that he "felt energized." Will we see a more aggressive, populist fighting spirit in him during his last two years in office? After all, he has nothing to lose now. Go for it, Mr. President, and while you're at it, bring some of the leading Progressive voices to the White House and hear what they may have to offer in the way of solutions. Many -- of not all -- of your advisers from Wall Street need to go, as they continue to offer only bad messaging and stale advice. It is time for you to bring in voices like former Labor Secretary, author and University of California professor Robert Reich; economist and UMass economics professor Gerald Friedman; economist and radio host Rick Wolff -- who also serves as a visiting professor at the New School in New York City; Harvard Law professor and activist Lawrence Lessig; Fordham University constitutional law professor and former Democratic candidate for New York State Governor Zephyr Teachout -- who is also an expert on political corruption; and former New York Lieutenant Governor candidate Tim Wu, who brought us the term "net neutrality" among his other accomplishments. Such shining lights as these will help you do the real work necessary to help us hardworking, struggling Americans get back on our feet and reverse the tides of diminishing wages and a falling standard of living.
On January 21 we will reach the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. This terrible ruling has had a direct bearing on all of the above issues remaining unresolved by a compliant and bought out Congress, with ample help from corporatist "Republicrats" who continue to fracture the Democratic party and tarnish its brand. We must move to eliminate this scourge by amending our Constitution to overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon to stop this outright bribery and coercion of our government officials and go to 100% public funding of campaigns. It is the only way we can truly clean up our political system.
Over the next two years we can be sure what the Republicans and Tea Partiers in Congress will be seeking to achieve now that they have strangleholds on both the Senate and the House. Their agenda is clear, and they must surely feel that their opportunity has come to tear down the progress of the past eighty years and move us back to the times of robber barons and capitalism run-amok that they long for so much. We know where they want to go, but what about the rest of us? They and their 1% masters -- despite the untold millions they can spend to influence our politics -- are still the real minority in this country, and a true democracy is meant to serve the interests of the many, not the few. So, once again, where to from here, America? It is up to us, after all.
- with Jonathan Stone