As reported by Zach Carter and Ryan Grimm of the HuffingtonPost

 

WASHINGTON — In early February, Alabama Republican Spencer Bachus called for a meeting between two of the most quietly influential interest groups in the nation’s capital: credit unions and community banks.

Bachus, chairman of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, was looking to ensure the passage of a slew of federal favors benefiting both sides. All the lobbyists had to do was show up at a meeting and figure out how to work together.

It was too much to ask.

The Credit Union National Association and the Independent Community Bankers Association immediately agreed to the sit-down, but as the meeting approached the community bankers abruptly cancelled the event, according to lobbyists and congressional staffers familiar with the plans.

“There was supposed to be a couple of joint meetings with different congressional offices and with the leadership of Financial Services. And the banks decided that we had too many bills in play and they didn’t want to meet with us,” says Linda Armyn, a senior vice president for Bethpage Federal Credit Union.

It’s no small matter to cancel on a committee chairman. ICBA had performed the Capitol Hill equivalent of cussing out the boss at an office Christmas party. Still, the group has no regrets.

“There won’t be any meetings. There won’t be any compromise. There won’t be any deals. There won’t be any discussions,” says ICBA chief economist Paul Merski.

To most folks, community banks and credit unions are indistinguishable. Both are often viewed as good-guy alternatives to Wall Street banks, eschewing the too-big-to-fail crowd’s phantom, subprime profits in favor of safe, consumer-friendly products. After the 2008 financial crash, that strategy allowed them to reap financial rewards and reputational halos. The “Move Your Money” movement and Bank Transfer Day shifted billions of dollars worth of business from Wall Street to these small lenders.

But community banks and credit unions each operate under different government charters and regulatory regimes. They compete for the same good-guy customer base, and are openly hostile  with each other on Capitol Hill. Their mutual animosity is frequently unmoored from profit margins and bottom lines, a passionate conflict that at times seems like a Washington version of the Hatfields and McCoys.

“The credit unions have become the skunk at the garden party,” Merski says.

“The hypocrisy of the bank lobby appears to have no end,” Credit Union National Association (CUNA) CEO O. William Cheney said during a November hearing.

But while the dispute between the two groups goes back decades, their most recent clash serves as a window into the way American government works — or doesn’t work — in the 21st century. Legislative scuffles between entrenched interest groups occasionally gather enough momentum to attract public attention. Last year’s blowout over debit card swipe fees hijacked the Senate schedule for nearly six months, and the Stop Online Piracy Act sparked furious online protests.

Most of the time, the special interest stranglehold over Congress is exercised relatively quietly, in small-bore negotiations that never really get off the ground. Even if the bills go nowhere, they present lucrative fundraising opportunities for lawmakers, while devouring the time and attention that elected officials could be using to attend to the public good — say, solving the jobs crisis, ending homelessness or improving the standard of living for the one in four American children who currently live in poverty.

Instead, lawmakers expend tremendous amounts of energy trying to bridge emotional divides between favored interest groups that are accustomed to getting their way and have little interest in compromise — like, for example, credit unions and community banks.

Few fight harder in Washington than your cuddly local lenders.

“People always say it’s Wall Street, but the big banks aren’t the most potent lobbyists, because everybody hates them,” says Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). “It’s the credit unions and the community banks because of their grassroots networks.”

A big bank like Citigroup appears to have oceans of lobbying clout that a small community bank lacks. But every congressional district has a community bank and a local credit union. As united forces, the ICBA and CUNA can (sometimes) defeat even their Wall Street competitors on the Hill.

This week, they will flex that muscle. CUNA expects 4,000 members of the credit union community to fly in to Washington for the group’s annual lobbying convention — including at least one from every congressional district.

Like the credit unions, community banks will be making their annual descent on Capitol Hill later this year. Both groups have profitable requests pending in Congress.

The Communities First Act, introduced in April 2011, reads like ICBA’s wish-list for the entire year. During a November hearing on the bill, Georgetown University Law School professor Adam Levitin criticized the bill as a set of unearned giveaways for small financial firms — tax cuts, accounting gimmicks to hide losses, weaker capital requirements and even immunity from some forms of scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission. But whatever its impact on communities, the bill would undoubtedly help banks pad their profits.

“It does nothing for communities,” Levitin said, calling the bill “narrow, special-interest pleading.”

Credit unions, meanwhile, are seeking legislation that would allow them to expand their business lending operations. Credit unions are currently barred from issuing business loans in excess of 12.25 percent of their total assets, an arbitrary rule that banks were able to slip into a 1998 law over the objections of both credit unions and President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Over the past year, credit union lobbyists have amassed 121 co-sponsors — 46 Republicans and 75 Democrats — for the Small Business Lending Enhancement Act, a bill that would raise that business lending cap to 27 percent. Credit unions argue that allowing them to make more business loans will help small firms hire, claiming the bill will create 140,000 jobs.

Community banks and credit unions need each other. Neither the Communities First Act nor the Small Business Lending Enhancement Act is likely to pass on its own, prompting Rep. Bachus’ attempt to combine them. (Bachus’ office did not return requests for comment). The only trouble? The credit unions and community banks have been at each other’s throat for decades.

“It’s a very visceral reaction they have,” says Ryan Donovan, a top CUNA lobbyist, referring to community bankers. “The ICBA would rather have their entire legislative agenda burned than let our small bill pass.”

On the bill that would lift the lending cap on credit unions, ICBA’s Merski says,”We’ll fight this to the death because of the fundamental philosophical unfairness. It’s almost un-American, really.”

Banks have little to lose from the credit union bill, and large potential profits to gain from their own legislation. Credit unions do very little business lending. For the most part, they stick to simple, standardized consumer products like checking accounts, mortgages and credit cards. Credit unions are generally small, even compared to community banks, and account for just 1 percent of the commercial lending market nationwide, according to CUNA, with an average loan amount of only $220,000.

“We’re not talking shopping malls,” explains CUNA senior vice president for communications Mark Wolff. “We’re talking landscaping and bakeries.”

Even community banks that compete head-to-head with specific credit unions simply will not lose very much if the credit union bill passes. The credit union group only pegs the gains from their legislation at 140,000 jobs — a drop in the bucket relative to the jobs crisis. Yet the legislative arm-wrestling continues.

“If you look at the marketplace, the banks have 95 percent of the market share. There isn’t a whole lot of data that supports we’re taking their business,” says Armyn of the Bethpage Federal Credit Union. “I mean, we’re taking a piece of their business, but if you look at it on the grand scale, they still have 95 percent of the market share.”

But the battle isn’t really over balance sheets. It’s over those “philosophical” differences Merski cites. Talking to members of both groups, bankers essentially think credit unions are tax cheats, while credit unionists see bankers as greed-mongers.

Credit unions are nonprofits owned by their customers, a unique status among financial institutions which allows them to be exempt from income taxes. But a credit union charter comes with major drawbacks — they can’t pay dividends to shareholders, since they don’t have any shareholders, nor can their executives enjoy wild paydays in the form of stock options. They also only have one option for growth: profit. Banks can take on debt or issue stock to capitalize on profit opportunities, but credit unions have nothing but year-end earnings to draw on.

Bank executives do enjoy higher paydays. Among credit unions with at least $100 million in assets, the median CEO pay comes out to $211,558, according to CUNA. According to data compiled by SNL Financial, publicly traded banks with less than $10 billion in assets (a common threshold in regulation and legislation to define a “community bank”) pay out  median CEO compensation of $385,577.

As with most CEO pay in the financial industry, the bigger the bank, the better the potential payday, but community banks with less than $500 million in assets still paid a median of $248,437 — about 15 percent better than the median for all credit unions over $100 million in assets, according to the SNL Financial data. The largest credit union is Navy Federal, with $46 billion in assets.

But both sides use such relative metrics to criticize the other.

“They don’t pay taxes!” says ICBA’s Merski.

“They don’t get that we really are a different model,” counters CUNA’s Wolff.

Both sectors, of course, have always been free to change their charters whenever they wish. Credit unions file to become banks all the time, and there is no law barring banks from adopting a credit union model.

This year’s skirmish between community banks and credit unions will almost certainly dwindle into obscurity, a common fate for special interest legislation. Next year the two groups will undoubtedly concoct new slates of legislative demands, as is the nature of lobbying. But the public has still paid the opportunity cost for the lobbying push.

The dispute between credit unions and community banks is one of an endless array of Washington feuds that tend to not connect with the broader public interest. Even if the two groups had been able to put aside their differences and move their legislation forward, the tangible benefits for everyday Americans would have likely been minor. It doesn’t make much difference for most businesses whether they get their loan from a small bank or a credit union, so long as they get their loan. And the benefits that ICBA was seeking amount to a set of unhelpful deregulation.

Even if the uncounted hours of attention that were devoted to introducing the bills, garnering co-sponsors, holding hearings and briefing lawmakers had borne fruit, the public would still have been left out of the equation. Similar disputes take place every year between dozens of special interests, on every committee in Congress. And, in this case, the special interests groups themselves say the fuss has largely proved to be just that.

“We all just want to move forward and grow,” says Armyn, the Bethpage Federal Credit Union executive, frustrated with the political gridlock. “To me, it’s just silly.”

As reported in Huffington Post Laura Bassett

WASHINGTON — Faced with increasing pressure from religious groups and Catholic lawmakers in both parties over the new federal requirement for birth control coverage, the Obama administration is planning to announce an “accommodation” on Friday aimed at allaying some of the concerns of faith-driven employers. ABC News reported Friday morning that the announcement was “likely” to be made Friday. A source familiar with the deliberations told The Huffington Post the announcement was imminent.

Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett told members of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus in a phone call on Friday morning that the new compromise is the insurer — rather than the employer — would be required to provide the contraceptive coverage free of charge for women employed by the entities in question, a congressional staffer told HuffPost.

One idea that has been mentioned is the “Hawaii model,” by which an employer who morally objects to contraception could opt out and inform its female employees where they can get that coverage outside of the employee health plan. In Hawaii, women who decide to directly pay the insurer out of pocket for contraception coverage are not allowed to be charged more than they would pay for their company plan.

ABC News reports that President Barack Obama’s compromise would not go as far as the Hawaii plan, but would involve a third-party health company helping to provide contraception coverage. It actually makes financial sense for insurance companies to cover birth control, ABC’s Jake Tapper notes, because unwanted pregnancies and resulting complications cost more than contraception and sterilization.

Under the current rule, only churches and other houses of worship are exempt from having to cover contraception at no co-pay for the women they employ. Although the compromise does broaden the conscience clause to exempt any organization who opposes birth control based on religious beliefs, the Catholic bishops have already rejected the Hawaii model as a viable alternative because they don’t even want women to be referred to places that would provide them with contraception.

“All the Founding Fathers saw that, and how far are we removed when we’re sitting around talking about, well, maybe the Catholic church could make a referral to a service that it regards as intrinsically immoral,” Bishop William Lori, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, told the National Catholic Reporter. “We’re pretty far way from the genius that inspired the founding of this country.”

The Catholic bishops have called the new health coverage rule “an attack on religious freedom” and argue that all employers who object to contraception — not just faith-based organizations — should be exempt from having to provide it to their employees.

“That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether,” said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the USCCB, “not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers.”

He added, “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate.”

Supporters of the provision say the only conscience that matters ought to be the conscience of the woman in question, whose option to have affordable contraception should not be dictated by the religious beliefs of her employer. Some of them feel that the religious exemption is already too broad, because women who work for churches in any capacity are excluded from the option of coverage.

“Birth control is basic health care and women should have access to birth control, no matter where they work,” Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said on Thursday. “The Obama administration’s birth control benefit already includes an expansive refusal exemption, allowing approximately 335,000 churches and houses of worship to refuse to provide birth control for their employees.”

Pro-choice legislators were reacting cautiously to the news, waiting to see how broadly the White House defines who could assert the exemption. “If it’s what it looks like, then this is good,” said one Senate aide. “But if anyone can just say they’re anti-abortion for religious reasons, then it’s a giant carve-out.”

Another Democratic aide fumed that the administration had botched the entire roll-out of the policy, even when it came to the call held Friday morning to inform lawmakers. An email went out at 9:25 a.m. announcing the briefing, but it was sent so hastily, the message didn’t say when it would occur. Another note had to be sent at 9:27 a.m. to announce the call was at 9:30.

When Jarrett was done, she took no questions, further aggravating people, the aide said.

A majority of Americans said they support requiring health plans to include contraception coverage, according to a new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, and 58 percent of Catholic respondents said the same.

But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), along with a number of GOP lawmakers and a handful of Catholic Democrats in Congress, have criticized Obama for the mandate. Boehner said in a floor speech on Wednesday that if Obama didn’t reverse the rule, Congress would use legislation to do it.

White House spokesperson Jay Carney said on Wednesday that the president was not interested in backing down on the rule, but that he would “work with those who have concerns” to implement it in a way that pleases all parties.

UPDATE: 10:25 a.m. — In a separate conference call that started at 9:45 a.m Friday, Jarrett briefed a large number of women’s health groups about the administration’s proposed changes to the so-called contraception rule.

Under the new language, Jarrett said, religious institutions would still be required to cover contraception as part of any health care plan they offer to their employees. But they also will be offered a veritable opt-out clause. If they determine that the requirement violates their religious sensibilities, the burden would then fall on the insurance company to cover the cost.

That insurance company would be required to inform the recipient of their benefits package in addition to paying for the contraception. This, explained Jarrett, effectively removes religious institutions from any role in the process, which the White House hopes will mute the criticism it has received. Insurers will be fine picking up the slack, she added, because the cost saved in covering contraception outweighs the expenses made in covering procedures that result from not having contraception available.

The contents of the call were relayed to The Huffington Post by someone who took part in it. The groups that participated included NARAL Pro-Choice America, Catholics for Life, NOW, and Health Care for America Now.

“Women’s groups are okay with it if there is no change for the woman,” the source said.  “Some of the women’s groups were concerned about the Hawaii plan. But women don’t need to do anything proactively to opt in [to contraception coverage]. They have the same insurance companies that they would have anyway.”

UPDATE: 11:20 a.m. — Women’s advocacy groups were generally pleased with the Obama administration’s “accommodation” on Friday because it maintains birth control coverage with no co-pay for most women.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, praised the compromise, but warned that it would still not appease the policy’s staunchest opponents.

“Today’s announcement makes it clear that President Obama is firmly committed to protecting women’s health,” Keenan said. “Unfortunately, some opponents of contraception may not be satisfied. These groups and their allies in Congress want to take away contraceptive coverage from nurses, janitors, administrative staff, and college instructors — and that agenda is out of touch with our country’s values and priorities. We will continue to fight on every front to support women’s access to birth control as politicians in Washington, D.C. try to take it away.”

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, reacted with a similar level of caution.

“We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman’s ability to access these critical birth control benefits,” she said. “However we will be vigilant in holding the administration and the institutions accountable for a rigorous, fair and consistent implementation of the policy, which does not compromise the essential principles of access to care.”

A senior White House official told reporters on Friday that Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, also backed the decision. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not yet responded to the news.

Sam Stein and Michael McAuliff contributed reporting.

By JIM ABRAMS 02/ 8/12 10:00 AM ETAssociated Press AP

WASHINGTON — The Republican-led House is trying Wednesday to give President Barack Obama the line-item veto, a constitutionally questionable power over the purse that has been sought by both Republican and Democratic presidents.

The legislation, expected to pass, allows the president to pick out specific items in spending bills for elimination. Currently, the president must sign or veto spending bills in their entirety.

The president’s choices for removal would then have to be approved by Congress.

Congress has made several attempts in the past to enact line-item veto bills, saying that surgical cuts to spending bills are useful both in removing wasteful earmarks and in reducing spending. Most state governors have some kind of line-item veto power.

The House bill, offered by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and the top Democrat on the committee, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, stipulates that all savings from eliminated programs would go to deficit reduction. House Republicans have included the bill as part of a package of measures to overhaul the budget process so as to save money.

In 1996, a Republican-controlled Congress succeeded in giving line-item veto authority to another Democratic president, Bill Clinton. He exercised that authority 82 times, and although Congress overrode his veto on 38 instances, the moves saved the government almost $2 billion.

But in 1998, on a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, saying it violated the principle that Congress, and not the executive branch, holds the power of the purse.

Supporters say the bill has been written to meet constitutional standards. They say that while the president can propose items for rescission, or elimination, Congress must then vote on the revised spending package and then the president must sign what is in effect a new bill.

Under the proposal, the president has 45 days within the enactment of a spending bill to send a special message to Congress proposing cuts to any amount of discretionary, or non-entitlement, spending. Legislation to consider the proposed cuts would move quickly to the House and Senate floors for automatic up-or-down votes with no amendments.

The White House, in a statement, said it “strongly supports” passage of the bill, praising it for “helping to eliminate unnecessary spending and discouraging waste.” It said the bill was similar to a line-item veto proposal that Obama sent to Congress in May, 2010.

One top Democrat, minority whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, voiced opposition, saying that while he had supported line-item veto bills in the past, he thought the bill was too restrictive in requiring that money saved from a rescission go to deficit reduction and could not be used to fund other priorities.

The bill, if it passes the House, faces an unclear road ahead in the Senate. Four senators – Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Dan Coats of Indiana and Democrats Tom Carper of Delaware and Mark Udall of Colorado – pushed to have a line-item veto provision considered by the supercommittee which last year was unable to come up with a comprehensive plan to reduce the deficit.

But the Senate, traditionally more protective of its constitutional powers, has not always been receptive to the line-item veto idea. In 2007 former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., picked up 49 votes for a line-item proposal, well short of the 60 needed to break a Democratic-led filibuster.

Written by Alexander Eichler Reported in Huffington Post

 

What does it mean to be poor?

If it means living at or below the poverty line, then 15 percent of Americans — some 46 million people — qualify. But if it means living with a decent income and hardly any savings — so that one piece of bad luck, one major financial blow, could land you in serious, lasting trouble — then it’s a much larger number. In fact, it’s almost half the country.

“The resources that people have — they are using up those resources,” said Jennifer Brooks, director of state and local policy at the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. “They’re living off their savings. They’re at the end of their rope.”

The group issued a report today examining so-called liquid asset poverty households  — the people who aren’t living below the poverty line, but don’t have enough money saved to weather a significant emergency.

According to the report, 43 percent of households in America — some 127.5 million people — are liquid-asset poor. If one of these households experiences a sudden loss of income, caused, for example, by a layoff or a medical emergency, it will fall below the poverty line within three months. People in these households simply don’t have enough cash to make it for very long in a crisis.

The findings underscore the struggles of many Americans during what has often seemed like an economic recovery in name only. While the Great Recession officially ended more than two years ago, unemployment remains high and wages have barely budged for most workers. For more people, whether they draw a paycheck or not, a life free of deprivation and financial anxiety seems perpetually out of reach.

That’s not to say that everyone who is liquid-asset poor spends all their time fretting. On the contrary, because many have regular paychecks coming in, they may not grasp the precariousness of their situation.

“They don’t necessarily realize how close people can be to one interruption to income or one interruption to health benefits,” said David Rothstein, the project director for asset building at the non-profit Policy Matters Ohio. “They’re one paycheck away from being in debt.”

Rothstein, who also serves on a steering committee at the Corporation for Enterprise Development, told The Huffington Post that payday lenders — who loan money to desperate borrowers at high interest rates, drawing people into hard-to-escape cycles of debt — are “a huge problem” in Ohio, as in many other states. People often turn to payday lenders to cover one-time, unexpected expenses, but can end up in a long and costly relationship.

“People say things like, it’s just one mechanical problem with their car,” said Rothstein. Before they know it, he said, “every other week, they’re back at the payday lending shop.”

The Corporation for Enterprise Development findings echo other recent studies showing that many Americans are ill-prepared for financial emergencies. Analysts said the reasons include flat wages, the high cost of medical treatment and the nationwide drop in housing values leaving homeowners with less wealth than they believed they had.

Andrea Levere, the president of Corporation for Enterprise Development, told HuffPost that greater financial literacy might have helped prevent the current situation.

People can “graduate high school and not know how to write a check,” Levere said, adding that an increased emphasis on personal responsibility for budgeting and spending sould be an important part of any step forward.

At the same time, Corporation for Enterprise Development officials were quick to argue that public policy needs to address the scope of the problem. Levere cited the example of asset limits in public benefit programs, which restrict services like food assistance and public health insurance to households with few or no assets — a policy that critics say denies help to many people in need.

“In some cases,” said Levere, “it means they can’t even own a car that is in good enough shape to get them to work.”

Brooks agreed. “A family that loses its job, that was maybe solidly middle class, in a state where they have restrictive asset tests, is going to have to liquidate all their assets, all their savings for the future” in order to qualify for benefits.

The report maintains that there are a number of measures that could alleviate liquid asset poverty, from strengthening consumer protections against payday lenders to making greater assistance available to first-time homebuyers. Levere said even minor policy adjustments could have “revolutionary implications.”

“There’s a lot of ways forward. It doesn’t mean it’s not tough,” Levere said. “I’m a great believer in one step at a time.”

 

As reported in Huffington Post

Written by Jennifer Bendery

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans are cautiously embracing President Barack Obama’s proposal for shrinking the size of the federal government, although many are watching to see if his actions will match up with his words.

Obama announced Friday that he will ask Congress to give him new authority to consolidate government agencies. His first project would involve merging six major trade and business agencies into one and eliminating the Commerce Department. The reorganization would save $3 billion over 10 years and streamline services for businesses.

“Today, I’m calling on Congress to reinstate the authority that past presidents have had to streamline and reform the executive branch,” Obama said during remarks at the White House. “This is the same sort of authority that every business owner has to make sure that his or her company keeps pace with the times. And let me be clear: I will only use this authority for reforms that result in more efficiency, better service and a leaner government.”

Ronald Reagan was the last president who had such streamlining power. If Congress gives Obama the green light, he would gain fast-track authority — that is, the ability to bypass a Senate filibuster — for any number of government consolidation proposals aimed at saving taxpayer dollars and boosting efficiency. The House and Senate would have to hold an up-or-down vote within 90 days of receiving such a proposal.

Key Republicans tentatively lined up to support the president’s plan, which isn’t surprising given that the GOP is traditionally the party of smaller government. In fact, Obama is effectively forcing House and Senate Republicans to prove their support for paring down the federal workforce.

“I stand ready to work with President Obama on proposals to reorganize federal agencies,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“While I have been disappointed that the White House has not embraced earlier bipartisan congressional efforts seeking collaborative engagement on proposals to reorganize government, I hope this announcement represents the beginning of a sincere and dedicated effort to enact meaningful reforms,” Issa added.

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Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, praised Obama for choosing the Commerce Department as his first target. That agency is “a catch-all department of programs, ranging from weather to the census to trade,” she said, and in general, “there is no shortage of agencies and programs ripe for streamlining and eliminating duplication to save money and improve service.”

Aides to House and Senate Republican leaders also warmed to Obama’s plan, as long as he actually delivers on it.

“While we welcome the president’s reported efforts to reduce duplication [and] waste and simplify the federal bureaucracy, we hope that these strong words are followed by stronger action,” said Laena Fallon, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

“Given the president’s record of growing government, we’re interested to learn whether this proposal represents actual relief for American businesses or just the appearance of it,” noted Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Eliminating duplicative programs and making the federal government more simple, streamlined and business-friendly is always an idea worth exploring.”

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), knocked Obama for “presiding over one of the largest expansions of government in history,” but said Senate GOP leaders would take a look at what Obama wants to do. “It’s interesting to see the president finally acknowledge that Washington is out of control,” said Stewart.

Obama’s proposal aligns with the administration’s “We Can’t Wait” message, which will be invoked through Election Day. The president has been saying for weeks that he plans to use his executive authority to do whatever he can, regardless of partisan logjams in Congress, to boost the economy and bring down spending. Friday’s announcement was no different.

“With or without Congress, I’m going to keep at it,” Obama said. “But it would be a lot easier if Congress helped.”

Lawmakers won’t be back in town for another week and a half, so Obama will have to wait to see if Congress will grant this new authority.

The six agencies the president plans to target first are the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Trade and Development Agency, and the trade and business functions at the Commerce Department. Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters Friday that the plan would result in 1,000 to 2,000 jobs being lost. But those cuts would be made through attrition, not layoffs.

Obama is already meeting some resistance over this first proposal. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, issued a joint statement expressing concern about changes to the U.S. Trade Representative.

“Taking USTR, one of the most efficient agencies that is a model of how government can and should work, and making it just another corner of a new bureaucratic behemoth would hurt American exports and hinder American job creation,” said Baucus and Camp. “We certainly need to look for ways to reduce government and cut taxes, but not at the expense of programs that are helping businesses, ranchers and farmers create jobs and expand our economy.”

Some environmental groups are also dismayed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is currently under the Commerce Department, would be transferred to the Interior Department. “This is not merely some technical, bureaucratic shift,” Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “The move could erode the capabilities and mute the voice of the government’s primary agency for protecting our oceans and the ecosystems and economies that depend on them.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) questioned Obama’s sincerity in wanting to reform government at all since he didn’t consult with Congress before making his big announcement.

“What’s disconcerting is that the president has again chosen not to work with Congress — even after I specifically asked the Obama administration to fully brief Congress if it chose to reorganize our trade agencies,” Hatch said. “As the lead Republican on the Finance Committee, I will discuss this matter with my colleagues and will expect a full accounting by the administration in short order.”

As reported in Huffington Post

WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Tuesday rejected a Senate bill that would have prevented a payroll tax cut from expiring on New Year’s Day, saying they wanted a year-long extension or no extension at all.

House Republicans accomplished that with a convoluted motion to reject a Senate compromise that would have extended the 2 percent payroll tax break for two months, voting 229 to 193 to send the measure to a conference committee.

Seven Republicans voted with Democrats, and no Democrats crossed the aisle. They were Reps. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), Tim Johnson (R-Ill.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.).

Senate leaders also were hoping for a year-long deal, but sources told The Huffington Post that Republicans and Democrats could not agree on how to fund about half of the $200 billion needed to pay for the bill for a full year. The measure would also extend unemployment insurance benefits and would prevent a 27 percent cut to Medicare payments to doctors with a “doc fix” provision. Those also expire Jan. 1.

So instead, the Senate voted 89 to 10 on Saturday for a two-month extension to buy time to bridge the gap. The upper chamber then recessed, apparently confident that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had the go ahead from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to cut a deal.

But Boehner’s members rebelled against the bill, even with 39 Senate Republicans backing it, and scrambled to oppose it. At first, the GOP had set a vote on the bill, but late Monday changed it to an unusual motion to reject the Senate compromise. If they had held the first vote, and it had passed, the bill would have gone straight to President Obama.

But under the new version, House leaders accomplished their goal of sending the bill to a conference committee instead, even though Senate and House Democratic leaders insist they will not appoint members to the committee.

Democrats argued that the parliamentary gymnastics were just a way to prevent a clear vote on a bill that they believe would pass.

“The Republican majority in this House of Representatives is refusing — it is refusing to allow a vote in this House on the Senate bipartisan compromise,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “What are they so afraid of? It is very clear that the Republican leadership is afraid that the same bipartisanship that took place in the Senate will take place right here in the House… otherwise we’d have a vote on it.”

Republican leaders insisted they were preventing a vote to pass the Senate deal because approving a bill for just two months creates uncertainty. They cited a payroll business trade organization that said a two-month extension is problematic for electronically processed payrolls.

And they contended that the sides were “90 percent” of the way to a deal, even though $100 billion separated the GOP and Democrats in the Senate. The original version of the House bill also adds a string of “poison pill” riders on top of the differences over funding. Democrats initially wanted to tax the rich to pay for the bill, but dropped that surtax in the compromise.

“We need to come together in a responsible manner to find common ground,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Cantor and others argued that the Senate had only been interested in going on vacation.

“We stand ready to work over the holidays to get this done,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas). “That’s the question, are you willing to work over the holidays, or are you not willing to work over the holidays,” Hensarling said, suggesting that Democrats need to watch Schoolhouse Rock to figure out how Congress’ conference committees work.

Democrats didn’t buy it, and none budged to the GOP side, even though at least a handful usually do.

“If you’re so sure of your argument, why not vote on the Senate bill?” asked Rep, Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. “Because everything you said is a smokescreen,” he said.

The House could still hold a separate vote directly on the Senate bill if GOP leaders relent.

However, they seemed intent on trying to make the president or Democratic leaders blink on their position, and restart negotiations.

Democrats insisted they would not budge, leaving the Senate bill as the only standing proposal.

“It is unconscionable that Speaker Boehner is blocking a bipartisan compromise that would protect middle-class families from the tax hike looming on January 1st – a compromise that Senator McConnell and I negotiated at Speaker Boehner’s own request,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement just after the vote.

“I would implore Speaker Boehner to listen to the sensible Senate Republicans and courageous House Republicans who are calling on him take the responsible path, and pass the Senate’s bipartisan compromise,” Reid added. “I have been trying to negotiate a yearlong extension with Republicans for weeks, and I am happy to continue doing so as soon as the House of Representatives passes the bipartisan compromise to protect middle-class families, but not before then.”

 

As reported in Huffington Post 12/08/11 by Andrew Taylor

WASHINGTON — Conservative flashpoint issues from abortion and abstinence education to President Barack Obama’s health care law are the biggest obstacles to Congress completing a massive year-end spending bill next week that would keep the government running through next September.

Going into end-game negotiations this weekend on the $900-plus billion bill, Republicans expect to lose on most of the policy provisions, or “riders,” they added to House versions of the must-do spending measures. But the White House and Democrats are poised to make concessions on some environmental rules, wetlands regulations and, in all likelihood, on continuing a ban on government-funded abortions in the nation’s capital city.

“We’re meeting heavy resistance from the White House and Democrats in the Senate,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who is pressing for provisions to help the coal industry. “So, we’ll get as many as we possibly can.”

Among most popular targets for Republicans are environmental regulations they say hamper the economy, such as proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules on coal ash, large-scale discharges of hot water and greenhouse gases from electric power plants, and emissions from cement plants and oil refineries.

If past is prologue, most of the issues will end up on the chopping block. That’s what happened last spring during negotiations on a spending bill for the budget year that ended in September.

“There’s a lot of opposition to these and they know they need Democratic votes in the House to pass it,” said Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “So we have made this very clear to the other side. … If you expect our votes you’ve got to get rid of the controversial riders.”

But some riders will be needed to win GOP support for the measure in votes next week. And many of the provisions are important to powerful members of the appropriations panel in both parties.

“We don’t want to be wholly inflexible,” said Rep. James Moran of Virginia, top Democrat on the spending panel responsible for the EPA’s budget. That measure is studded with riders.

“Virtually every rule the EPA has come up with, they’re trying to come up with a rider to stop it,” said Scott Slesinger, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

// // The roster of environmental riders is indeed lengthy.

For coal interests, there is a rider to block clean water rules opposed by mining companies that blast the tops off mountains as well as a rider to block proposed labor rules to limit miners’ exposure to coal dust, which causes black-lung disease. Electric utilities would benefit from delays of rules on traditional air pollution and emissions of carbon dioxide. Painting contractors would benefit from a delay in a 2008 rule that requires them to be certified by the EPA in order to remove lead paint.

“We’re pretty clear that we find these riders as unacceptable,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. “We’re being very emphatic.”

On social issues, there are proposals to ban needle exchange programs that help stem the spread of HIV among drug users; cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading provider of abortions; and adopt an abstinence-only approach for grants to reduce teen pregnancy.

Those riders, in addition to GOP efforts to block implementation of the new health care law – a nonstarter with Democrats and the White House – are among the reasons the labor, health and education chapter of the omnibus spending measure is at risk of being left out of the final bill.

“It’s from soup to nuts,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. “They just designed an ideological agenda.”

In addition to proposing to eliminate federal family planning funding, Republicans would block the District of Columbia government from providing abortions to poor women, which is a top priority of anti-abortion activists.

The D.C. abortion rider was in place when Republicans controlled the White House but was lifted after Obama took office. He reluctantly agreed to reinstate the funding ban this year, prompting Washington’s mayor and city council members to march on Capitol Hill. Democrats continue to fight the rider, but GOP leaders are likely to insist on it.

At the same time, Republicans are trying to reverse a loss earlier this year when they tried to block taxpayer money from going to Washington’s needle exchange program.

Some of the riders aren’t contentious. For instance, even though the EPA has no interest in regulating methane emissions from cow burps and flatulence, there’s a rider to block the agency from doing so. That’s fine with Democrats.

Then there are riders that have no practical effect but set a precedent that agencies would prefer to avoid. One would block the EPA from officially delineating any new wetlands in counties affected by flooding this year. It turns out that the agency has no plans to do so, so this might be a rider Democrats and the White House would accept.

Another battle involves an attempt to block the Obama administration’s 2009 policy lifting restrictions on travel and money transfers by Cuban-Americans to families remaining in Cuba. That provision drew an explicit Obama veto threat earlier this year and will probably be dropped in end-stage negotiations.

The White House warned last week it’ll play a strong hand in trying to keep the final measure as free of riders as possible. “There should be no miscalculation about the intensity of (Obama’s) feelings,” White House budget director Jacob Lew told reporters.

 

Reported by Sam Stein

 

WASHINGTON — As the United States Senate considers yet another variation of the payroll tax cut, there appears to be little common ground over how the measure should be paid for. Democrats, along with one Republican, continue to argue for a small surtax on millionaires. Republicans either balk at that proposal or say they don’t support extending the payroll tax cut at all.

The impasse is unlikely to be bridged by the time the newest bill comes to the floor on Thursday, leading operatives to suggest that it would simply be easier to pass the payroll tax cut extension without paying for it.

Longtime anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist said he would prefer to see the tax cut accompanied by an equivalent reduction in spending to make up for the decrease in revenue. He and other conservatives said that if spending offsets do not accompany the tax cut, it would be harder for Democrats to argue against other such tax cuts, including a repatriation holiday on corporate taxes.

“No to a tax increase, yes to extending it without a quote, unquote ‘pay for,’ and the preference is to do it with spending cuts as the offset,” said Norquist. “The worst thing you can do would be to extend it with a permanent job-killing marginal tax increase. You would end up with permanent marginal tax rates in exchange for a temporary reduction in tax rates on Social Security.”

When the payroll tax cut was first introduced at the end of 2010, there was no talk about how it would be offset. Instead, it was passed as part of an agreement to extend the Bush tax cut for an additional two years. The estimated $860 billion price tag was simply put on the books.

So why not do the same now, when the price tag is significantly lower — $185 billion to reduce the employee’s share from 4.2 percent to 3.1 percent of wages, along with other tax policy changes — and Republicans have, as a matter of ideological principle, argued that tax cuts pay for themselves?

The question was posed to two senior Obama administration officials during a briefing with reporters yesterday. And while they continued to argue that there were easy ways to cover the payroll tax cut — while needling Republicans for suddenly insisting that tax cuts be offset — they never explicitly said it had to be paid for.

// // “So we still think that the payroll tax, unemployment insurance, any other jobs measures can be paid for in a responsible way,” one said. “The important thing here, though, is that this get done.”

Reminded that, at least as far as unemployment insurance is concerned, the president has consistently held that such emergency expenditures don’t need to be offset, the official replied: “I don’t think the president’s longstanding position on that has changed. But there is a way of paying for it that was put forward in the American Jobs Act.”

And therein lies the problem. While both Republicans and Democrats privately admit that they have been and would be comfortable with letting tax cuts continue without offsets, neither will say so publicly, lest their commitment to deficit reduction be questioned.

Top congressional Republican aides argue that a payroll tax cut extension without offsets isn’t necessarily easier to pass than one paid for by a millionaire’s surtax. But the reasoning behind that argument has more to do with timing than philosophical disputes.

Congress will be voting on major appropriations bills before the Christmas recess. To have them turn around and stack $185 billion on the deficit would be too much to ask, the logic goes.

“The president said in his speech to Congress and in speeches since, that ‘everything’ in the bill will be paid for,” Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said in an email. “I think it will be MUCH easier to pass it if they take out the poison pill of a tax hike on job creators; a tax hike, by the way, that has bipartisan opposition.”

A top House aide was more blunt. “I don’t think either would pass the House,” the aide explained, when asked about a payroll tax cut extension without offsets and one that was paid for with a millionaire’s surtax. “So it’s a ‘would you rather burn to death or drown’ type of question.”

What’s Going On

November 3, 2011

What’s going on?

 

That seems to be the big question…..

 

Everyone is asking

 

 

Marvin Gaye sang about it back in the 70’s

 

Yet we still are asking the same questions, today….

 

 

The economy almost collapsed

 

People started looking at….

 

How the government reacted…

 

 

Why did they not see it coming?

 

 

The stimulus failed…

 

 

And the people started saying…..

 

 

No More …….

 

 

The Teaparty came from a grass roots effort

 

And have grown to be a voice

 

 

They have endorsed……

 

Reducing government spending

 

Opposition to taxation in varying degress

 

Reduction of the national debt…

 

And the reduction of the Federal Budget Deficit

 

 

Their message resonated during the 2010 elections

 

As a result we saw a total shake up in Congress

 

 

Did we get any results???

 

 

The result was total gridlock!!!!!

 

 

I do not think that is what the Teaparty had in mind…

 

 

Closing down the government….

 

 

That will not resolve anything

 

 

 

Agreed…… the Government has grown too big

 

Agreed…… the Government must be held more accountable

 

 

The stimulus was needed…

 

 

But it was mismanaged

 

There was no accountability

 

It should not have been

 

 

Carte Blanche

 

 

 

All these events leading to the collapse

 

Did not happened overnight

 

 

We put faith in our elected officials

 

 

We too, turned a blind eye

 

 

Borrowing against inflated housing values

 

 

Margining accounts

 

We all allowed this to happen

 

 

We all drank the Kool-Aid

 

 

And must take responsibility

 

 

 

Now the voices are growing

 

We are the 99%

 

 

What started in New York City

 

Has grown not only throughout the US

 

But has seen its’ presence grow around the world

 

 

There is just not 1 message

 

 

They are saying enough is enough…

 

 

 

What happened to the American Dream?

 

The land of opportunity got up and went

 

 

Overseas….

 

 

 

They are calling for the end of corporate greed

 

 

Corruption and influence over Government

 

 

No more too big to fail

 

 

Where are the jobs

 

 

 

 

How long will this go on?

 

 

Is anybody listening?

 

 

 

I do not believe anybody is protesting

 

Against the successes of the few

 

 

In the past there was an unwritten law…

 

 

Let’s make this a win / win

 

 

The more you help us to become successful

 

We will work

 

To share those successes with you

 

 

That is how the American Dream grew

 

 

Each generation working to improve

 

The Quality of life

 

For the next generation

 

 

The United States was a beacon

 

Everybody wanted to come to America

 

 

 

 

We took our eye off the ball

 

After 911,

 

 

America was united

 

Patriotism was at an all-time high

 

 

Then we got involved in several wars

 

 

Without figuring out how to pay for them

 

 

There was no shared sacrifice

 

 

President Bush told everyone to go out and shop

 

 

The deficits started rising….

 

 

It took over 200 years to get to a $1 trillion dollars
deficit

 

 

Yet in less than 30years

 

It has ballooned to just under

 

$15 trillion dollars

 

 

 

There are hard and difficult decisions to be made

 

 

Not everyone is going to be happy

 

 

But are we all prepared to start sacrificing?

 

 

Are we going to commit ourselves to a worthy goal?

 

 

 

What will be the quality of life we pass on?

 

 

To our Children….

 

 

And our Grandchildren…..

 

 

 

Will we be known as the lost generation?

 

 

How did we ever….

 

 

 

Let it go so far?

 

 

 

We are the people

 

 

We must all take on a shared responsibility

 

 

Do what needs to be done

 

 

To right the ship

 

Steady the course

 

 

Fulfill the promise America

 

Has brought to all generations

 

 

 

Like our forefathers before us

 

 

 

When asked….

 

Is the quality of life we are passing on….

 

Better than that which we have experienced

 

 

Let us stand proud and say

 

 

YES!!!

As reported in Huffington Post 10/14/11

Written by Al Gore

For the past several weeks I have watched and read news about the Occupy Wall Street protests with both interest and admiration. I thought the New York Times hit the nail on the head in an editorialSunday:

“The message — and the solutions — should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention since the economy went into a recession that continues to sock the middle class while the rich have recovered and prospered. The problem is that no one in Washington has been listening.” 

“At this point, protest is the message: income inequality is grinding down that middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people. On one level, the protesters, most of them young, are giving voice to a generation of lost opportunity.”

 

From the economy to the climate crisis our leaders have pursued solutions that are not solving our problems, instead they propose policies that accomplish little. With democracy in crisis, a true grassroots movement pointing out the flaws in our system is the first step in the right direction. Count me among those supporting and cheering on the Occupy Wall Street movement.

You can support the protests by clicking here.