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WEEKLY WONK

Originally Published: 5/25/2013

Drones:  Obama has announced a “shift” in policy - to limit drone strikes. (NY Times) I’d like to see them limited to zero, but I guess that won’t happen. Of course, the announcement came just after AG Eric Holder sent a letter to Congress acknowledging that we had killed 4 Americans in overseas drone strikes since 2009. (Washington Post) You notice no one has admitted how many innocent victims have died in overseas drone strikes. Probably because they don’t know. But McClatchy noted that Obama “also appeared to be laying groundwork for an expansion of the controversial targeting killings.” So, which is it? Obama gave quite a speech on the issue. You can read it at Slate. Another thing he set out was taking the CIA back to their original mission - spying. As you know, the CiA has been in charge of the drone killing. That’s not going to be easy. More than half of the CIA’s staff joined since 2001 “and many of those new officers have spent the years since almost exclusively on the work of man-hunting and killing.” (NY Times)

 

Gitmo:  Obama lifted the moratorium on transferring detainees to Yemen. (NY Times) Now he has to get Congress to agree. Anyone taking bets?

 

Benghazi-gate:  Remember I blamed most of this mess on the CIA? (TWW, Benghazi-gate, 5/11/13) Well, it looks like the NY Times editorial board agrees with me.

 

Iran:  The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program has been leaked (as usual) and it shows that the program is progressing. The report says that Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium is now 182kg, up from 15kg in the last quarter’s report. There are 2 interesting things about this. First, 20% enriched uranium is considered “medium enriched” and cannot make nuclear weapons. It must be much higher than that. Still, it’s higher than what’s needed for nuclear power. Second, in order to arm a warhead, they would need 240-250kg of the highly enriched uranium. “The Iranians have made a total of 324kg of this medium enriched uranium, but continue to process much of what it makes into oxide fuel, which is less of a proliferation concern, so it is not counted as being part of the critical stockpile.” However, the rest of the IAEA report “makes clear that there is plenty more to worry about,” particularly the heavy water reactor under construction. (Guardian) I still don’t see that it’s a big problem if they do have a nuclear weapon. The U.S. has thousands of nuclear warheads. So does Russia, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and now North Korea. (Wikipedia) While unacknowledged, it’s widely believed that Israel also has nuclear weapons. (Wikipedia) So what’s the problem with Iran? Anybody really think that they’re going to use them? Does anybody really think that anybody’s going to use them?

 

Arizona I:  It’s new abortion law banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy has been struck down by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Their decision stated that a fetus’s viability “varies from pregnancy to pregnancy,” which should be determined by doctors, not legislators. The decision can be appealed either to the full Circuit Court or to the Supreme Court but indications have been that it will be appealed to the Supreme Court. (NY Times)

 

Arizona II:  U.S. District Judge Murray Snow issued a length ruling finding that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio had been engaging in racial profiling of Latinos. The finding “could bring significant changes to the agency’s controversial approach to immigration enforcement.” (Arizona Republic)

 

Vermont:  It passed a law allowing physician-assisted suicide. (CBS)

 

Debt Ceiling:  We hit it again last Sunday, “forcing the Treasury Department to employ ‘extraordinary measures’ to make sure the government keeps paying its bills.” On Friday the Treasury stopped issuing securities and there are other things they can stop funding until Congress extends the limit. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sent a letter to Congress telling them that they had until Labor Day to raise the debt ceiling. At that time, we’ll crash and burn. (The Hill)

 

Tax Code:  You probably heard about Apple CEO Tim Cook’s testimony this week about Apple’s sheltering billions and billions of dollars from U.S. taxes. I debated trying to explain what they did and finally decided it wasn’t worth my time writing or your time reading. It’s shameful; it’s appalling; and it’s our own fault. So, I decided to let Jon Stewart explain it to you. What this means is that revenues from corporations have been drying up. Check out the chart at Huffington Post.

 

IRS-gate:  As I told you last week, the real IRS scandal is the fact that, since the 1950s, the IRS has interpreted the law, which states that 501(c)(4) organizations must be exclusively involved in social welfare, to mean that they must be primarily involved in social welfare. The Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for money into these types of organizations because their donors remain anonymous. Apparently the influx of applications for 501(c)(4) status since Citizens United, prompted Senator Max Baucus (D, MT) to write a letter in 2010 asking Douglas Shulman, the Bush-appointed IRS Commissioner in charge when the reviews were going on, to “survey major 501(c)(4), (c)(5), and (c)(6) organizations involved in political campaign activity to examine whether they are operated for the organization’s intended tax exempt purpose and to ensure that political campaign activity is not the organization’s primary activity.”

 

Inequality:  The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has issued an update of its report “Divided We Stand,” published in December 2011. That report showed that by 2008, industrialized nations had the worst situation with inequality in 3 decades. The update says that the gap between rich and poor in most of its 34 member countries has been getting wider since the 2008 financial crisis and that inequality grew between 2007 and 2010 more than it did in the 12 preceding years. Among the OECD countries “the top 10% has done better than the poorest 10% in 21 countries” with the widest gaps seen in the United States, Turkey, Chile, and Mexico. The report blames austerity programs for the gap increase in Europe. Across all OECD countries children have fared the worst. What’s really striking is that cash injections into the financial sector have only helped the top 10% multiply their wealth. The report also points out that it wasn’t just the 2008 crisis, it’s the process of exploiting workers across the globe. (See Plutonomy)

 

Immigration Reform:  Senators Charles Schumer (D, NY) and Orrin Hatch (R, UT) have made a deal to sweeten the pot in an attempt to get Republicans to vote for the immigration bill. The provision would be to let U.S. technology firms skip having to offer jobs to U.S. workers first before bringing workers in from other countries. (USA Today) Of course, the provision was suggested by the technology industry which is pushing for the bill since it would increase the number of foreign workers they could hire. (TWW, Immigration Reform, 5/18/13) With this provision, they can just give U.S. workers a kick to the roadside. Great public policy, wouldn’t you say? And what will it do for our kids coming out of college? Just look at this chart from the Economic Policy Institute about what it’s done already.

 

Abortion Hearings:  Remember when a congressional hearing was held on birth control and no women were allowed to testify? And the whole congressional panel was made up of men? (TWW, Birth Control, 2/18/12) Well, it’s happened again. After Tuesday’s Court of Appeals decision that 20-week bans on abortion were unconstitutional (see Arizona I above), Trent Franks (R, AZ) re-introduced a prior bill (that couldn’t get to the floor before) called the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Congress has jurisdiction over the District of Columbia. As chair of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, Franks held hearings on the issue. (Huffington Post) Take a look at the picture, folks. No women. Again. Just the old guys handing down their infinite wisdom on women’s bodies and health. If you don’t have a uterus, shut up.

 

Infrastructure:  Another bridge collapsed. The 4-lane interstate 5 bridge about halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia fell apart after a truck hit it, dumping several vehicles - and the people inside - into the Skagit River. (McClatchy) This is just one of many bad bridges. A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that, as of 2003, there were about 160,570 bridges that were deemed “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.” (TWW, Minnesota’s Bridge, 8/4/07) To make things worse, there’s a bill working its way through Congress to enlarge the size and weight of trucks. (Land Line)

 

Monsanto Protection Act:  Remember this? It’s a provision that was inserted into the Agricultural Appropriations Bill that protects genetically modified (GM) seeds from litigation. (TWW, Monsanto Protection Act, 3/30/13) Senator Jeff Merkley (D, OR) wants to get rid of it. “The Monsanto Protection Act is an outrageous example of a special interest loophole. This provision nullifies the actions of a court that is enforcing the law to protect farmers, the environment, and public health. That is unacceptable.” Merkley proposed an amendment that would repeal the law. (RT) The amendment was blocked by Republicans. (Albany Tribune)

 

GMO Labeling:  As the Senate worked on its version of the farm bill, Senator Bernie Sanders (I, VT) offered an amendment that would allow states to require labels on genetically engineered food. The Senate shot it down, 71-27. (Raw Story)

 

Protest:  “Fed up with health concerns, environmental threats, and political corruption, a Utah mom organizes a global movement against the biotech giant.” For a list of the issues and what you can do, see AlterNet.

 

Keystone Pipeline:  The southern route of the Keystone Pipeline will be completed this summer. Obama approved the construction in 2012, shown on this map (Wikipedia) as Phase 3. (TWW, Tar Sands Pipeline, 3/3/12) If the Keystone XL Pipeline is approved - shown as Phase 4 and known as the northern route - it will be even more profitable and deliver much more of the carbon dioxide-rich oil to be dumped into the atmosphere. So, while everyone is still focused on the approval of the northern route, the damage has already been done by the completion of the southern route. It’s not good enough for House Republicans, though. They want that northern route. So they passed a bill, 241-175, which takes the decision out of the hands of the president and “claimed the authority to approve the project.” According to the Guardian, it was “pure political theater. The measure would dispense with additional environmental reviews of the pipeline and would allow only 60 days for legal challenges.”

 

Petroleum Coke:  This is the by-product of tar sands and no one knows what to do with it except Koch Carbon, a company owned by Charles and David Koch, who sell it to markets overseas where it is burned for fuel - the most carbon dioxide-rich fuel there is. The picture here is from a mound produced by the Marathon Petroleum refinery in Detroit, which refines the tar sands coming in from the existing Keystone pipeline. But piles like this will be found all over the place as bitumen refining increases. (NY Times)

 

Fracking:  The Interior Department (DOI) is proposing new rules that would relax regulations on fracking. The new rules include “the use of an expanded set of cement evaluation tools to help ensure that usable water zones have been isolated and protected from contamination” and “more detailed guidance on how trade secrets claims will be handled, modeled on the procedures promulgated by the State of Colorado.” (Bureau of Land Management Memo) Remember, Ken Salazar, Interior Secretary, is from Colorado. According to EcoWatch, the proposed rules don’t include “an evaluation of the integrity of cement barriers” and do not include requiring fracking companies to disclose the chemicals before they are pumped into the ground.

 

Financial Regulations:  Wall Street lobbyists haven’t lost their influence in Congress. “The lobbying campaign shows how, 3 years after Congress passed the most comprehensive overhaul of regulation since the Depression, Wall Street is finding Washington a friendlier place.” They’ve been writing legislation that would roll back Dodd-Frank, a weak piece of legislation to begin with. Their latest is a bill that would exempt a lot of trades from new regulation. They’re still lobbying the regulators, too. (TWW, Relaxing the Rules, 5/18/13) And, of course, fundraising for congress critters is ongoing, which is increasingly including Democrats. (NY Times)

 

Great Gatsby:  The Economic Policy Institute asked if we were nostalgic for the Gatsby era. Then surprised us with the answer - we’re living in it. Remember, this was just before the 1929 Stock Market Crash and more than a decade of a Great Depression. But, here we are again. Today’s economy shares many things in common with the 1920s: “increasing financialization, low socioeconomic mobility, and gross wealth and income inequality such that a privileged few live astonishingly well while a large portion of Americans are struggling just to get by.” Here’s a great chart that shows that at the beginning of the Great Depression, earnings per worker in the financial industry peaked at nearly 1.8 times the earnings per worker of all other private sector workers. After legislation like Glass-Steagall, earnings per worker in finance fell back roughly in line with the rest of the private sector. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, earnings per worker in finance again began climbing and by the start of the 2008 Great Recession, they were again 1.8 times the earnings per worker of all other private sector workers.

 

CEO Pay:  Once again, CEO pay has gone up. It reached an average of $9.7 million in 2012, a 6.5% increase over 2011. As I’ve told you before, their compensation dropped during the recession - while everyone else was losing their jobs - but started climbing again in 2010, making up for the losses with a 24% increase. 2011 found a 6% increase. (AP) How’re you doing?

 

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