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“No Conflicts Here”: How Lawmakers Skirt The Law To Keep Their Next Jobs Secret

When then-Sen. Jim DeMint said he would leave Congress to head the Heritage Foundation 13 months ago, he waited until just 24 hours before the announcement to file an official notice with the Senate that he was negotiating for the new job.

But at least DeMint gave some public notice before accepting the post.

On the day Rep. Dennis Cardoza’s midterm resignation took effect in 2012, Washington law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips announced it had already hired him—and the job negotiations were never made public. Nor were any official disclosures regarding job negotiations released prior to the announcement that Rep. Health Shuler accepted a job at Duke Energy when his term expired, or when Rep. Mike Ross was hired by the Southwest Power Pool.

That is not how it was supposed to work. A law designed to prevent conflicts of interest and shed light on lawmakers who negotiate for post-Capitol Hill work while still in office has failed, worn thin by a series of administrative rulings and narrow interpretations.

The result is that lawmakers themselves now determine when a potential conflict exists and when disclosures should be released publicly. Moreover, because the law has yielded almost none of the public information it was designed to provide, it remains largely unknown whom lawmakers negotiate with—and whether their official duties present any conflicts with those employers.

The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act required lawmakers to file public disclosures when they negotiate for work and when conflicts arise. Yet only seven disclosures have been made public in the House since the law was passed in 2007—even though more than 200 lawmakers during that time have resigned, were defeated in a primary, or announced their retirement. Only six disclosures have been made public in the Senate, despite 39 lawmakers leaving between 2008 and 2012.

In this midterm-election year, many more lawmakers will be making decisions about jobs and disclosure in coming months. It is still early, but no public filings have been made by any of the 16 sitting House members who have announced they are leaving Congress at the end of 2014.

In addition to those 16, three other House members have already resigned this session, and all three had outside jobs waiting. But only one of them filed a notice of job negotiations before leaving. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican, officially resigned on Jan. 22 of last year to become CEO and president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Her disclosure of her job talks is dated Nov. 23, 2012, and reports that negotiations for that job commenced four days earlier.

The two other lawmakers were not required to make their employment negotiations public because of yet another wrinkle in the law that exempts those seeking new jobs in the public sector. Former Rep. Jo Bonner left Congress to take a job in the University of Alabama system, and former Rep. Rodney Alexander left to accept an appointment as secretary of the Louisiana Veterans Affairs Department.

Ethics Issues

There is nothing illegal or unethical about departing lawmakers looking for work while they serve out their terms. But the law was put in place as a transparency measure after former Rep. Billy Tauzin caused a stir by leaving the House in 2003 to take a $2-million-a-year job in the pharmaceutical industry, just months after playing a lead role in drafting legislation to introduce a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

But the law’s rules apply differently today than they did when was it was passed. For example, in the House, the government panel in charge of the filings was changed from the Clerk’s Office to the Ethics Committee, which is extremely selective about what it makes public. In the Senate, the secretary of the Senate, rather than the Ethics Committee, handles most of these filings, with far different results. A higher percentage of lawmakers there have filed disclosures, and those forms were swiftly made public.

Staffers and lawmakers with direct knowledge of how the House Ethics Committee oversees the law say it is being interpreted so narrowly by officials and lawmakers as to render it ineffective.

They say lawmakers are essentially told they must file notices only when they have an actual job offer and compensation is discussed. And those notices do not have to be made public—they can be kept private by the Ethics Committee—unless lawmakers themselves determine there is a specific conflict and decide they must file a follow-up disclosure or notice recusing themselves.

The upshot is that when lawmakers do file disclosures, those filings often do not go beyond the Ethics Committee. Such apparently was the case for Cardoza, Shuler, and Ross, whose disclosures have never been released. Even the committee itself is sometimes taken by surprise by word that a lawmaker has landed a job.

“I saw a newspaper account that a lawmaker had taken a job—and my jaw dropped, and I wondered, ‘How is it that even I did not know that?’ ” said one former House Ethics official, speaking on the condition of not being identified by name.

Former Rep. John Shadegg took a job as a partner with Steptoe & Johnson in March 2011 but says he had some preliminary contact with the firm before he officially left office. Shadegg said he never filed a notice of negotiations, because the guidance he received from the Ethics Committee did not indicate he had to do so until he was on the verge of being hired, talking details about salary.

Another former lawmaker, who asked not to be identified by name, explained the Ethics Committee guidance he received this way: “I was told that, for instance, if IBM wants to hire you for $1 million, you are not required to report that legally. But the minute I say, ‘I want $1 million and one dollar,’ the law kicks in.”

Asked if he thought it odd that so few disclosures of subsequent potential conflicts have been made public, Cardoza said, “The rules are in place. I am sure there are people who have violated them; and I am sure there are people who have complied with them, and I am one.”

But he also said that there are good reasons that talks that do not result in a job should be kept private. “If you do not take an offer, it hurts your political career—it telegraphs to people you are leaving,” Cardoza said.

Questions of Conflict

Still, the current system can leave lingering questions. Take, for instance, Ross, the Arkansas Democrat who announced in July 2011 that he would not seek reelection in 2012. Ross later announced he would take a job after Congress as Senior Vice President for Government Affairs and Public Relations for the Southwest Power Pool, a non-profit which represented several coal-driven power companies.

That announcement prompted at least one publication, the nonprofit Republic Report, to raise questions about Ross’s earlier cosponsorship of an amendment to delay the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing the Cross State Air Pollution rule, a rule the Power Pool had pushed to have relaxed.

Republic Report wrote that the situation “raises the possibility that Ross’s legislative activity had been unduly influenced by the prospect of a high-paying job.”

In response, a Ross spokesman told the publication that the lawmaker had begun job negotiations months after his EPA rule-delaying legislation passed the House, and that he would be recusing himself on any issues that provide targeted benefits to his future employer.

The spokesman went on to tell Republic Report, “He properly filed all forms required by the House Ethics Committee. And while the Ethics Committee does not make the form available to the public, in an effort to be transparent, Congressman Ross went above and beyond in announcing who he would be working for when his term in Congress ends.”

Today, Ross is running for governor of Arkansas—and his disclosures still remain unavailable for public viewing.

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, says the ethics law is being interpreted so narrowly that “it is simply not meaningful.”

“Swiss cheese,” is how McGehee described the current system, while Craig Holman, a legislative representative for the government watchdog group Public Citizen, said the intent of the law was to “let the public know.”

“That was the entire intent,” Holman said.

 

By: Billy House, The National Journal, January 21, 2014

January 24, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Lawmakers | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Raising The Minimum Is The Bare Minimum”: What America Needs Is To Shift Income From Capital To Labor

In 1995, when John Sweeney ran the first and as-yet-only insurgent campaign for the presidency of the AFL-CIO, his platform took the form of a book entitled America Needs a Raise. If that title rang true in 1995, it clangs with deafening authority today.

Which leads us to the only problem with the current campaigns to raise the minimum wage: It’s not just workers at the low end of the wage scale who need a raise. It’s not just the work of the bottom 9 percent of labor force that is undervalued. It’s the work of the bottom 90 percent.

Conservatives who oppose raising the minimum wage argue that we need to address the decline of the family and the failure of the schools if we are to arrest the income decline at the bottom of the economic ladder. But how then to explain the income stagnation of those who are, say, on the 85th rung of a 100-rung ladder? How does the decline of the family explain why all gains in productivity now go to the richest 10 percent of Americans only? And are teachers unions really to blame for the fact that wages now constitute the lowest share of Gross Domestic Product since the government started measuring shares, and that corporate profits now constitute the highest share?

We need to raise the minimum wage, but that’s only the start. Even more fundamentally, we must reverse the deeper and more profound redistribution of wealth that has now plagued the nation for several decades: that from capital to labor.

For as income from work declines for the nation as a whole—inflation-adjusted median hourly wages are now more than $1.50 lower than they were in 1972—income from investment soars. The stock markets are hitting record highs, and major corporations are using the $1.5 trillion they have lying around to raise not wages but dividends. They are also using some of that cash to buy back their own stock, which raises the value of the outstanding shares, to which, happily, most CEO’s compensation packages are linked.

The institutions that once ensured that American workers actually got their share of the pie—unions—have been so thoroughly battered down that they can no longer effectively bargain for raises. That leaves that other instrument of the popular will— the state—as the sole remaining institution that can bargain for workers. That’s why the minimum wage, the living wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit have taken on a greater significance than they previously held: They not only raise the incomes of the poor, but are the last remaining vehicles for raising wages.

That’s why just stopping with raising the minimum, important though that be to the nation’s economic and moral health, is nowhere near enough. Making it safe again for workers to try to join unions is a necessity, too, but that’s a fight that labor has been waging for half-a-century with nothing to show for it. The left needs to battle on other fronts as well.

We could begin by shifting the tax burden from labor to capital—after all, income in America has long been shifted from labor to capital.  We could abolish the payroll tax on the first $25,000 that people make, substituting for it a higher threshold on taxable income. We could raise the tax rates on capital gains and dividends not just to the same levels as income derived from work but higher still. And we could explicitly designate some of the revenue from capital income to go to a much expanded Earned Income Tax Credit—expanded not just by making the payments more generous, but also by raising the criterion for eligibility well above the government’s poverty threshold.

By explicitly taking back from capital some of the wealth it has taken from labor, government would begin to address the root causes of economic inequality. Not all of them, to be sure: The stratospheric salaries that top corporate executives and Wall Street traders command aren’t capital income as such. One way to rein in executive pay might be to set corporate tax rates by the size of the gap between top executives’ and median workers’ pay, the data on which the Securities and Exchange Commission is supposed to make public under the terms of Dodd-Frank. Or it might be to set corporate tax rates based whether the corporation has a stakeholder or a shareholder board. In Germany, corporations are required to have equal numbers of employee and management representatives on their boards, which has effectively reduced CEO pay at most German companies to a multiple of 10 or 12 times that of its median employee, not the 200 or 300 times that’s the norm in the U.S.

If we want to address economic equality, we need to follow the money. In recent decades, as a result not just of globalization and technology but also of the decline of unions and the rising political power of the rich, the money has almost entirely gone to the rich—in the current recovery, fully 95 percent of income growth to the top 1 percent. So by all means, raise the minimum wage. But don’t stop there.

 

By: Harold Meyerson, The American Prospect, January 22, 2014

January 24, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Minimum Wage | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Rebranding Mirage”: The GOP Mirage Isn’t Radical Grassroots Power But Elite Control And “Pragmatism”

Anyone who reads a lot of political commentary is aware there’s a broad division in opinion about what’s going on in the Republican Party these days. One camp holds that all the radicalism and restlessness associated with the Tea Party Movement (and before that, the Christian Right) is ultimately insignificant because the GOP is an elite-driven, business-dominated enterprise that’s willing to let conservative activists and their rank-and-file foot soldiers have the keys for a joy-ride now and then, but is ultimately in charge and is ultimately pragmatic and “centrist” in its outlook. The other camp holds that the mirage isn’t radical grassroots power but elite control and “pragmatism.”

I’m firmly in the second camp. So is Salon‘s Brian Beutler, who has a long essay today disputing the President’s relatively benign view of the direction of the GOP, as expressed in that gazillion-word interview-based profile by David Remnick in the latest New Yorker.

The most interesting thing in Beutler’s argument is his discussion of how immediately after the 2012 elections GOP elites decided on comprehensive immigration reform as their “rebranding” vehicle:

Republican leaders settled on immigration reform as their one big overture precisely because they thought it would be the easiest gesture to make to the voters who rejected them without antagonizing the ones who didn’t. The GOP donor class hates taxing wealthy people to subsidize takers, but supports immigration reform uniquely among social issues for opportunistic reasons; and of all the Republican Party’s potential growth constituencies, working immigrants are the most sympathetic to conservative voters who oppose abortion and marriage equality out of religious principle.

So immigration reform is the greatest common factor — and it has been on a breathing machine for half a year and counting.

This should be kept carefully in mind when more difficult issue-position maneuvers–i.e., over entitlements, poverty programs, abortion, foreign policy, same-sex marriage, taxes–are put out there as potential image-changers for the GOP. If GOP elites, with the full backing of the business community and many conservative religious leaders in tow, can’t succeed in convincing “the base” and its ideological shock troops to pursue the ripe, low-hanging fruit of a bigger share of the Latino vote with immigration policies accepted by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, why does anyone imagine the tougher cases are going to go well? Beats me, beyond an intensely held belief in the power of elites and their determination to follow the median voter theory in a “move to the center” whenever an election is lost.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, January 22, 2014

January 24, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Immigration Reform | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“When Conservative Isn’t Conservative Enough”: A Signal To The GOP Base That Even The Radicals Aren’t Radical Enough

With Sen. Tom Coburn (R) retiring at the end of the year, well ahead of the scheduled end of his term, there will be a Senate special election in Oklahoma in 2014. Given the fact that the Sooner State is one of the “reddest” in the nation, it’s very likely the seat will remain in Republican hands. The question is which Republican.

Rep. Tom Cole (R) and state Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) quickly withdrew from consideration, but Rep. James Lankford (R) launched his campaign yesterday, vowing in his announcement speech to “continue Dr. Coburn’s conservative legacy.”

In theory, the right-wing congressman, elected in the 2010 GOP wave, would appear to be exactly the kind of candidate far-right activists would hope for. Conservative groups don’t quite see it that way.

[T]he Senate Conservatives Fund, a key pressure group, took the stark step Monday morning of saying – even before Mr. Lankford’s official announcement – that he will not be getting their support.

“We won’t support Congressman Lankford’s bid for the Senate because of his past votes to increase the debt limit, raise taxes and fund Obamacare,” said Matt Hoskins, the group’s executive director. […]

The Madison Project, another group that directs attention and money to the campaigns of anti-Washington candidates, said Mr. Lankford is the wrong candidate for the party. In a blog post, the group said Mr. Lankford isn’t a “purely liberal Republican,” but said he is “a quintessential status quo Republican.”

This isn’t an intra-party dynamic in which the Republican base rejects an electable, mainstream candidate, boosting Democratic chances of picking up a competitive seat.

Rather, this is the latest evidence that for GOP-affiliated organizations hoping to influence elections, being conservative is no longer conservative enough.

To hear the Senate Conservatives Fund and its allies tell it, Lankford is some kind of RINO. I poked around the ThinkProgress archive this morning to get a sense of some of the congressman’s greatest hits and found a few gems:

* Lankford believes sexual orientation is a “choice,” so employment discrimination against gay Americans should be legal.

* He believes climate change is a “myth,” pushed by those seeking to “control” people.

* He blamed “welfare moms” for gun violence.

* He wants the United States to defund and abandon the United Nations.

The Senate Conservatives Fund and its allies think this guy just isn’t conservative enough. Perhaps some folks are just tough to please.

In the larger context, though, the organizations’ dissatisfaction with James Lankford does help explain the growing tensions between the Republican Party and these extremist outside groups. When this congressman can’t meet the activist groups’ standards for conservatism, it signals to GOP leaders that there’s simply no point in trying to cater to their demands – even radicals won’t be seen as radical enough.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 21, 2014

January 24, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Right Wing | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“You Don’t Need To Be A Scientist”: West Virginia Can’t Get Its Story Straight On The Chemical Spill

Over the weekend, West Virginia authorities lifted the last remaining tap-water ban in effect since a January 9 chemical spill at the Freedom Industries plant in Charleston contaminated the water supply of 300,000 people. But in a press conference Monday, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin hardly inspired confidence that the water was safe to drink, saying, “It’s your decision” to choose to drink the water and “I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe.” Tomblin, a Democrat, later added, “It’s a very complicated issue. I’m not a scientist, you know.”

There’s the problem. Scientists don’t know much, either, about the leaked chemical, “crude MCHM,” and on Tuesday a Tomblin spokeswoman confirmed that a second chemical, a modified form of PPH, also leaked into the water during the spill. The Center for Disease Control insists that 1-part-per-millon or less of crude MCHM isn’t harmful, but adds, “Due to limited availability of data, and out of an abundance of caution, pregnant women may wish to consider an alternative drinking water source until the chemical is at non-detectable levels in the water distribution system…. Few studies on this specialized chemical exist and most have been conducted on animals.” The CDC reported that toxicologic information on PPH is also limited but does “not suggest any new health concerns.”

This is little comfort to #aquapocalypse victims whose tap water still smells like licorice, despite following a U.S. Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Register (ATSDR) recommendation that they flush their plumbing systems until the odor goes away. Dr. Paul F. Ziemkiewicz of the West Virginia Water Research Institute explained to me that crude MCHM is a surfactant that lowers the surface tension between a liquid and a solid—in this case, water and coal. It’s a detergent of sorts, cleaning coal by separating it from non-burnable (and thus non-usable) mined substances such as shale. Because crude MCHM is only slightly soluble in—and lighter than—water, it is possible that traces of the chemical could settle at the top of water tanks in homes, continuing to contaminate its contents even after households have flushed their plumbing system. Little is known, too, about PPH, which made up five percent of the leaked tank’s total capacity. According to the Charleston Gazette, “A Freedom Industries data sheet on the chemical says it can irritate the eyes and skin and is harmful if swallowed. The sheet lists the material as less lethal than Crude MCHM but also says no data are available on its long-term health effects.”

With the state sending mixed messages, West Virginians affected by the spill are hoping scientists can provide more clarity on the chemicals. “The governor has closed the book on this disaster,” said Rob Goodwin, an activist in Charleston, “and it’s unfortunate because the disaster relief aid as it was, especially in rural areas, is going to stop because the state is no longer seeing this as an emergency anymore.” Goodwin thinks that in the absence of a regulatory standard, the least the state and the water supplier, West Virginia American Water, could do is clarify and expand the flushing instructions. (Goodwin advises draining hot water heaters completely and minimizing exposure by leaving the home during the process.) But the state has confused even this relatively simple matter. West Virginia authorities rejected ATSDR’s flushing advice, and when asked about it Monday, Tomblin said, “I’m not aware that we did. I have not seen that.”

No wonder there’s still “a big demand” for the bottled water being trucked in by FEMA—a supply that, according to the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security, is only expected to last through the weekend.

 

By: Claire Carusillo, The New Republic, January 22, 2014

January 24, 2014 Posted by | Environment, Public Health | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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