Originally Published: 12/21/2013
Do Nothing Congress: The 113th Congress has broken the record for doing very little. According to McClatchy, this Congress makes the 1947 80th Congress “look like workaholics.” That Congress enacted only 395 bills into law. This Congress enacted only 57. They didn’t pass a single appropriations bill, a farm bill, immigration reform, “anything to change or improve health care or anything to curb the debt.” But they did do some things. “Lawmakers agreed to name a Mississippi bridge after St. Louis Cardinals slugger Stan Musial, rename a subsection of the tax code after former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and name a veterans affairs medical center after the late Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla.” A study by the Pew Research Center found that only 24 bills were “substantive,” meaning that they “weren’t measures to rename post offices, commemorative coin authorizations, or Congressional Gold Medal conferrals.” Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the House of Representatives doesn’t even bother to go to work. (TWW, House of Reps, 12/7/13)
NSA: U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon found that the bulk collection of metadata of U.S. phone calls was “almost Orwellian,” “indiscriminate,” and “arbitrary” and, therefore, in violation of the 4th Amendment. “He also said the Justice Department had failed to demonstrate that collecting the information had helped to head off terrorist attacks.” [Emphasis added.] He issued an injunction barring the NSA from continuing the program then immediately stayed the injunction to allow for an appeal. (Politico) In the meantime, Obama’s panel of outside advisers urged him to “impose major oversight and some restrictions . . . arguing that in the past dozen years its powers had been enhanced at the expense of personal privacy.” Ya think? They recommend changes in the way telephone data is collected, the way it spies on foreign leaders, and the way it prepares for cyber attacks abroad. “But the most significant recommendation of the panel of 5 intelligence and legal experts was that Mr. Obama restructure a program in which the NSA systematically collects logs of all American phone calls - so-called metadata - and a small group of agency officials have the power to authorize the searches of an individual’s telephone contacts. Instead, the panel said, the data should remain in the hands of telecommunications companies or a private consortium, and a court order should be necessary each time analysts want to access the information of any individual ‘for queries and data mining.’” (NY Times) Think Progress posted “6 Things You Need to Know About The White House Panel’s NSA Recommendations.”
New Revelations: New revelations from Snowden documents are exposing how bad it is. The Guardian reported that British and American intelligence agencies “had a comprehensive list of surveillance targets” that had nothing to do with terrorism or criminal activity. They targeted such organizations as the United Nations development program, UNICEF, Médecins du Monde, and the head of the Economic Community of West African States. They were also targeting an email address belonging to Ehud Olmert, at the time the Israeli prime minister. Add this to the earlier revelation that they had been tapping the mobile phone of German chancellor Angela Merkel and you have spy agencies that are out of control. “The disclosures reflect the breadth of targets sought by the agencies, which goes far beyond the desire to intercept the communications of potential terrorists and criminals, or diplomats and officials from hostile countries.”
Gitmo: The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (see below) changes some of the rules that have kept Obama from transferring detainees and closing Guantánamo Bay prison. They now will allow detainees to be transferred to other countries, including Yemen, “home to more than half” of the remaining population, “including many whom the Pentagon does not consider to be a security risk.” However, it still does not allow transfer to the United States. (Guardian) Also, 2 more people have been released. Saad Muhammed Husayn Qahtani and Hamood Abdulla Hamood are being transferred to Saudi Arabia. There are now 160 prisoners left. (AFP)
Britain: It’s going to join Australia, Canada, and “about 2 dozen other countries” with the use of plastic money. Yeah. No longer made of cotton paper, it’s going to be made of polymer. It “is slipperier but less grimy and harder to fold into origami cranes but more likely to survive washing machines.” It holds up better and is harder to counterfeit. (NY Times)
Canada: The Canada Supreme Court “struck down key portions of a law that effectively criminalized prostitution by banning brothels and solicitation on the streets, declaring this disproportionate.” But it stayed its decision to allow Parliament “to consider whether or not to impose other limits on where and how prostitution may be conducted.” (AFP) And a retired CEO in Canada who won a $37 million lottery, is creating a trust to give away all the money. He says he doesn’t need it. (AFP)
Israel: The American Studies Association, an “organization of professors,” announced they will boycott Israeli academic institutions “to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.” The intention is to join the movement to “isolate and pressure Israel” that is gaining momentum in Europe. (NY Times)
Colorado: Last summer the legislature passed some new gun laws which mandate background checks for private gun transfers and outlaws magazines over 15 rounds.” Sheriffs are refusing to enforce the laws. Sheriff John Cooke of Weld County says the laws are “too vague and violate Second Amendment rights.” Other sheriffs just say that enforcement is a “very low priority.” But the resistance is there. “All but 7 of the 62 elected sheriffs in Colorado signed on in May to a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statutes.” (NY Times)
Connecticut: It became the first state to require labeling of GMOs. (WFSB)
Florida: The state Supreme Court ruled that legislators and their staffs “must testify in a case that accuses Republicans of redrawing political boundaries for partisan advantage in violation of the state Constitution.” (Tampa Bay Times)
New Mexico: The state Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, said that it is unconstitutional to deny marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. (Washington Post)
South Carolina: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th District determined that Governor Nikki Haley can be sued by Occupy Columbia for violation of First Amendment rights. 19 protestors were arrested. (AP) It is assumed that she’ll appeal to the Supreme Court.
Texas: A teenager in Fort Worth, with a group of friends, stole alcohol from a Walmart. They got drunk, took valium, and, while driving his father’s company truck, killed 4 people, paralyzed one of his friends, severely injured 2 of his friends, and left the 4th friend with brain damage. His defense was that his family was dysfunctional; that he suffers from “affluenza.” Judge Jean Boyd agreed and sentenced him to 10 years probation. (Guardian)
Utah: U. S. District Judge Clark Waddoups ruled that part of Utah’s law against polygamy is unconstitutional because it’s discriminatory. In particular, he found that the law against cohabitation is a violation of the 1st and 14th Amendments. Waddoups wrote, however, that there is no “fundamental right” to practice polygamy. So, while the anti-bigamy statute is still in effect, it only is illegal in cases were someone acquires multiple marriage licenses. (Salt Lake Tribune) And U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ordered Utah to immediately cease enforcement of its laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman, saying that they violate the Constitution. The state is going to request a stay pending appeal. (NY Times)
Washington, D.C.: The city council approved raising the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour. (Reuters)
The Budget: The Senate passed the budget passed last week by the House. (TWW, The Budget, 12/14/13) It passed cloture with a 67 majority and the full Senate with a 64 majority. About half of the sequester cuts are restored with the notable exception of the unemployment insurance and food stamps. Since the budget is for the next 2 years, there won’t be another government shut-down. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, KY) said we’ll still have a showdown over raising the debt limit. (Guardian) The budget cuts include pension cuts for military members to take effect in 2 years. “The Military Officers Association of America estimates a typical enlisted member who retires are 20 years of service would lose about $83,000 during his lifetime because of the cut. The group says a typical officer retiring after 2 decades would lose about $124,000.” (WEAR-TV)
NDAA: The National Defense Authorization Act is a separate bill that, among other things, authorizes the defense budget. The Senate approved it 84-15. The House approved it last week. It’s $630 billion with $80 billion for the Afghanistan war. (Guardian)
Military Sexual Assault: The NDAA (above) also provides new laws regarding sexual assault which will “make it harder for commanders to override or unduly influence the military justice system.” But it “stopped short of a sweeping measure that would have removed commanders from the military justice system on sexual assault cases.” Victims of sexual assault will have the right to independent legal counsel. There is also a requirement for a dishonorable discharge for those convicted. If a military prosecutor decides not to bring criminal charges, there is a civilian review that can be instituted. And it adds “criminal measures for retaliating against service members who report their assault.” (Guardian)
Worldwide Military: According to the War Powers Act of 1973, the president must advise Congress of any ongoing military activities occurring without a declaration of war. Obama just sent his 5-page report describing such operations. They include a raid into Somalia and the capture of a suspected terrorist in Libya. Also included is a description of about 1,500 U.S. personnel in Jordan, about 200 U.S. personnel in Niger, about 5,000 military personnel in Kosovo, about 120 personnel in Central Africa, and about 700 personnel in Egypt. No wonder we don’t have any money for food stamps.
Welfare Queens: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics made a graph to go along with their latest statistics comparing yearly spending between families using public assistance programs and those who don’t. No welfare queens here. These people live pretty frugal lives. “On average, they spend $30,582 in a year, compared to $66,525 for families not on public assistance. Meanwhile, they spend a third less on food, half as much on housing, and 60% less on entertainment.” (The Atlantic)
Crack Cocaine: Obama commuted the sentences of 8 federal inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. “Each inmate has been imprisoned for at least 15 years, and 6 were sentenced to life in prison.” These people probably would have received “significantly shorter terms if they had been sentenced under current drug laws, sentencing rules, and charging policies.” (NY Times)
University Presidents: According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 42 presidents of private colleges were paid more than a million dollars in 2011. For the previous 2 years 36 were paid this much. (NY Times) In other words, these people are becoming major CEOs and, probably, staff and students are bearing the costs.
Obamacare: Another portion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been scaled back. “Millions of people facing the cancellation of health insurance policies will be allowed to buy catastrophic coverage and will be exempt from penalties if they go without insurance next year.” (NY Times)
Antibacterial Soaps: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will now require soap manufacturers to demonstrate that the substances used in antibacterial soaps are safe when used over a long time. They also claim that the substances are no more effective in preventing infection than plain soap and water. The substances are known as antimicrobials, and include triclosan which, experts believe, can disrupt reproductive development. Triclosan is used in mouthwash, laundry detergent, fabrics, baby pacifiers, and kitchen sponges. Manufacturers don’t have to take the items off the market immediately. They’ve got a year to show that the substances are safe and effective. (NY Times)
GlaxoSmithKline: They will be the first pharmaceutical company to stop paying doctors to promote their drugs and to stop tying sales representatives’ compensation to the number of prescriptions doctors write. This will end “2 common industry practices that critics have long assailed as troublesome conflicts of interest.” (NY Times)
Fukushima: 51 of the crew members of the USS Ronald Reagan, many of whom are in their 20s, are suffering from cancer “as a direct result of their involvement in Operation Tomodachi, a U.S. rescue mission . . . after the nuclear disaster in March 2011. The affected sailors are suing Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), alleging that the utility mishandled the crisis and did not adequately warn the crew of the risk of participating in the earthquake relief efforts.” (Al Jazeera America)
Keystone XL: The southern leg is set to open January 22nd. The Gulf Coast pipeline is a 485-mile stretch that blends “Alberta’s tar sands crude” with “oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin, to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas. This area has been coined a ‘sacrifice zone’ by investigative journalist Ted Genoways, describing the impacts on local communities as the tar sands crude is refined mainly for export markets.” But not all oil goes to Port Arthur. There’s a “fork” in the Gulf Coast Pipeline that TransCanada calls the Houston Lateral Project. Refineries are revamping for the “looming feast” in which nearby people will almost surely suffer health effects. (DeSmogBlog)
Deepwater Horizon: A new study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has linked “lung disease, hormonal abnormalities, and other health effects among dolphins” with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Guardian) And Kurt Mix, an engineer for BP, was found guilty in a New Orleans court for “destroying text messages in his smartphone” and “obstructing the investigation.” (AFP)
China: It has rejected our 5th cargo of corn since mid-November “after testing found a strain of genetically-modified (GMO) corn not yet approved for import. 3 more cargoes may also be refused.” (RT) So, we’re exporting very little but here’s something that is being exported and, because we cater to the likes of Monsanto, we’re going to lose another export.
Unemployment: First-time claims rose for the 2nd consecutive week “hitting a 9-month high.” (AFP)
Profits, Not Prosperity: The Economic Policy Institute analyzed 2012 data on corporate profitability and found that “despite excessive unemployment and stagnant wages for most workers,” the “historic share of income going to profits reflects historically high returns on investments, meaning more profit per dollar of assets. . . We now have an economy built to assure high corporate profitability even when it’s operating far below capacity and when most families and workers are faring poorly. This is further evidence that there is a remarkable disconnect between the fortunes of business and those best-off (high-income households) and the vast majority.” [Emphasis added.]
Housing: Housing starts in November “surged to their highest level in nearly 6 years.” (Reuters) This flies in the face of the other information about housing. (TWW, Another Housing Crash, 12/7/13) Of course, this is what happened in the last crash. Bundled mortgage securities were tanking while sales of previously-owned houses were slowing, but housing starts kept climbing.
The Fed: It’s going to phase out its stimulus program in 2014 “as its officials gain confidence that the economy is growing steadily.” (NY Times) Dubbed “QE Infinity” for its open-ended Quantitative Easing (TWW, Quantitative Easing, 11/20/10), the program of spending $85 billion each month buying U.S. bonds “has sparked a bull market in U.S. stocks that has lasted almost 5 years, and breathed life back into a U.S. housing market. It has also prompted loathing from critics on the left and the right.” According to the Financial Times, “U.S. companies have built their profits largely through widening margins (thanks to lower credit costs), while share prices have risen largely through expanding the multiples that investors pay for those earnings (because rival returns from bonds are so low). Meanwhile, those reliant on cash have seen their savings dwindle as interest rates are cut to zero. Thus leftwingers claim quantitative easing has stoked inequality.”