Sen. Sessions: Lessen Donor Influence, But Don’t Limit Contributions

At the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) struck a populist tone with remarks chiding the GOP for its focus on big money donors. Tying in immigration and trade as drivers of worsening economic conditions for working Americans, Sessions said the party should remember who its constituents are — average, working and middle class voters. He emphatically declared, “Votes trump money!”

However, when I asked Sessions what he would do to lessen the influence of donors, whether he would support contribution limits, the senator demurred…

Homeland Security Showdown Is An “American Snafu”

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Today, American Family Voices (an organization where I consult) released “American Snafu,” a parody of an “American Sniper” movie trailer themed around the current Department of Homeland Security funding debacle. AFV is calling on Congress to pass a clean funding bill, without the contentious Republican riders to defund President Obama’s executive orders on immigration.

Without resolution by Friday, DHS employees from Border Patrol to FEMA to the Secret Service to the TSA will be furloughed or forced to work without pay. Not only is this showdown irresponsible, but it’s also dangerous, especially in times of escalating terror threats from ISIS and increasingly extreme winter weather conditions that have triggered a State of Emergency across the country. This is neither fiscal nor defense conservatism — ideologies the Republican Party likes to preach, but not practice.

AFV and I agree with former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge — the debate over immigration should not be held on the backs of DHS employees, and Congress should not be playing political games with national security. The employees of DHS deserve better, Americans deserve better.

Watch “American Snafu” below…

House Dem: Trade Rep Said “Non-Negotiable” Climate Provisions Are Negotiable

Pocan TPP Climate

One of the few areas of common ground with Republicans and thus one of the few opportunities remaining to burnish his legacy in the waning days of his administration, the Trans Pacific Partnership is a major legislative priority for President Obama. But it’s one fraught with land mines. The major one is the Investor State Dispute Settlements clause, which allows corporations to sue countries for loss of profits due to regulations. In October of last year, The Guardian counted 568 such challenges since 1993.

Should the trade treaty pass, the ISDS provision has the ability to blow up Obama’s other initiatives as well, like his historic joint effort with China to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Washington tends to view trade and climate change as separate issues and largely negotiates them as such, although the issues are clearly interdependent — carbon consumption fuels consumer economies. (Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is a brilliant analysis of that relationship.) If Obama really wanted to be a game-changer, he would mandate strong environmental protections within the TPP, not as an afterthought, but as a driver of the discussion in creating a new model for global trade.

At Progressive Congress, the annual summit of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, I talked to Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI 2) about tying climate change negotiations into the Trans Pacific Partnership trade treaty. Pocan recounted a conversation with the U.S. Trade Representative, who is the chief negotiator and adviser to the president on trade policy:

Specifically, I’ve been in meetings with the U.S. Trade Representative, where I’ve asked about some of the major provisions that we’re concerned about to have strong environmental protections, and I was told each and every time that they were non-negotiable from a U.S. perspective. However, the very next person who asked a question said, “Does that mean you won’t bring us a trade deal if they’re not included?” And the answer was, “Well, I didn’t say that.”

Presumably the congressman was referring to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, though he did not mention him by name. Froman’s equivocation on environmental protections further underscores the shroud of secrecy around the TPP negotiations. Watch the interview here and subscribe to The Undercurrent for more on-the-ground reporting:

Dem Rep: Party Lost From Fear to Express Progressive Values

Taking control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House, Republicans swept the election, largely by tying Democrats to negative messaging around President Obama. Accepting the GOP message framework, Senate Democratic candidates like Alison Lundergan-Grimes, Mark Pryor, and Mark Udall took the bait. The Democratic Party failed to offer compelling economic alternatives — in many cases running as pseudo-conservatives — and suffered a drubbing as a result.

But there were progressive victories, in ballot initiatives for raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, and mandating paid sick leave, and in races where Democrats were not afraid to stand on populist principles. Chief among them were Senators Al Franken, Jeff Merkley, and Gary Peters, whose races had all been considered up-for-grabs and were won with double-digit margins. Franken defended healthcare and banking reforms; Merkley spoke of the “commonsense battle between the 1% and the 99%;” and Peters supported capping student loan interest rates and expanding the social safety net.

In Philadelphia at the Progressive Congress, the annual summit of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, I spoke with Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI 2) about the path forward for the Democratic Party in the wake of its historic losses last year, and the CPC’s role in spurring a turn-around.

This interview took place on Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015.

GOP Rep Will Vote to Let Homeland Security Funding Lapse

At the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention, I asked Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC 7) if he would vote for a clean appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security, that is one without the Republican riders defunding President Obama’s executive order on immigration. Chuckling, the South Carolina congressman said he would vote against a clean bill. Rice was hardly alone in that sentiment, although other legislators in attendance, such as Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), were not quite as concrete in what actions they would support. While Cruz said that he was pressing his colleagues to use the “power of the purse” to fight back against President Obama’s “unconstitutional amnesty,” he stopped short of saying whether or not he would let the department’s funding lapse.

On Sunday, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson told CNN that 30,000 workers, primarily administrative employees, would be furloughed if funding for the department is not approved by Congress by February 27. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) would be particularly hard hit, with approximately 80% of its staff subject to the cuts. This presents an ideological quandary for Republicans, who traditionally emphasize defense spending in their party platform.

A lapse in funding would not impact the critical operations of DHS, though. Workers with Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, and the TSA would still report to work, they just wouldn’t be receiving paychecks. So while the security threat may be low, the threat of backlash to the GOP from angry public employees is very high. Watch the video below to see Rep. Rice’s answer…

Gohmert to White House: Tear Down That Wall

Gohmert ReaganLouie Gohmert doesn’t like hypocrites, or something… Not really sure where he was going in response to my question to him regarding effective border security, at the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention. But he was sounding eerily like Ronald Reagan.

According to the Texas congressman:

Either fences work, and you need to build one on our Southern border — where it would work. Or fences don’t work, and we need to tear down the fence around the White House. You can’t have it both ways. Either fences help stop people coming in illegally, or they don’t. But if they don’t, then let’s don’t be hypocrites — let’s tear down the fence around the White House.

You can watch the video clip here:

Ben Carson Doesn’t Understand Bank Loans

Ben Carson Bank LoansGOP presidential aspirant and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson had an interesting idea about bank loans when asked about rising interest rates and the national debt, at a closed door gathering of Americans for Prosperity at the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention. He asserted that banks have no incentive to loan people money when the interest rates are near zero.

According to Carson:

And what about the banks? Why would they loan you anything? You want to start a business? Why are they going to loan you something with an interest rate of 1%? There’s no incentive for them to loan you anything.

Actually, the opposite is true — when interest rates are near zero, banks are able to get money from the Fed for nearly free, thus increasing their profit margins when they then loan that money to consumers or small businesses at a much higher rate. The more likely reasons banks are not lending to small businesses are tightened credit standards, reserve ratio requirements, and the opportunity cost to banks, which can make more profit off speculative bets. Add to that the rash of community bank failures during the 2008 financial crisis, causing a tightening of available credit in many areas.

In an interview from August of last year, Biz2Credit co-founder Rohit Arora told the Wall Street Journal, “The failure of so many small banks [in Georgia] has created a credit desert.”

It is indeed true that lending to small businesses has not recovered since the meltdown, but it’s not because interest rates are too low… Maybe Ben Carson should stick to medicine.

Ben Carson Supports Abolishing Income Tax & Instituting 15% Sales Tax

At the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention, GOP presidential aspirant and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson talked about instituting a flat tax of 10-15% at the point of sale, to a closed-door group organized by Americans for Prosperity, the political organizing arm of the Koch brothers. Carson would add an additional 5% to very expensive, luxury items to be paid by the rich, that would go exclusively towards paying off the national debt…

Jim DeMint Channels Elizabeth Warren

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At the Citizens United Iowa Freedom Summit, I asked Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint what issue would be his organization’s top policy priority in the race to 2016. Striking a populist tone, the former South Carolina senator replied that Heritage would be operating under the banner of “opportunity for all, favoritism for none,” in a fight against crony capitalism. The same theme has been taken up by billionaire oil baron Charles Koch, without irony.

Mind you that Heritage is a think tank funded largely by wealthy, right-wing foundations and corporations, including many with ties to the Koch brothers, whose political spending is projected to surpass that of either party in the 2016 race. The founding of Heritage was reportedly inspired by the Powell Memo, written by former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell and addressed to a friend at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It advocated for the business community to become much more politically active and is credited with jumpstarting the conservative movement.

The establishment right has been co-opting the populist messaging of the Tea Party and Occupy movements for some time now. Back in 2011, Frank Luntz, the GOP mastermind of messaging who was also in attendance in Iowa, admitted to a meeting of the Republican Governors Association, “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death. They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”

Luntz advised Republicans to avoid defending it:

The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.

Seen by many in the Occupy movement as its patron saint, Elizabeth Warren has firmly established herself as the populist crusader against Wall Street in Washington. And while Occupy may be gone, its legacy is alive within Warren, who is so popular with progressives that many are pressing her to run for president against the presumed Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. Have DeMint, Koch, and Luntz all cast their ideological lots in with Warren to fight cronyism, or is she such a great threat to their interests that are co-opting her message?