Tagged: Congress

Here’s what corporations paid US senators to fast-track the TPP bill

A decade in the making, the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is reaching its climax and as Congress hotly debates the biggest trade deal in a generation, its backers have turned on the cash spigot in the hopes of getting it passed…

That vote, to give Barack Obama the authority to speed the bill through Congress, comes as the president’s own supporters, senior economists and a host of activists have lobbied against a pact they argue will favor big business but harm US jobs, fail to secure better conditions for workers overseas and undermine free speech online…

Fast-tracking the TPP, meaning its passage through Congress without having its contents available for debate or amendments, was only possible after lots of corporate money exchanged hands with senators. The US Senate passed Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) – the fast-tracking bill – by a 65-33 margin on 14 May. Last Thursday, the Senate voted 62-38 to bring the debate on TPA to a close.

Those impressive majorities follow months of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing by the world’s most well-heeled multinational corporations with just a handful of holdouts…

Out of the total $1,148,971 given, an average of $17,676.48 was donated to each of the 65 “yea” votes.

The average Republican member received $19,673.28 from corporate TPP supporters.

The average Democrat received $9,689.23 from those same donors.

The amounts given rise dramatically when looking at how much each senator running for re-election received.

Two days before the fast-track vote, Obama was a few votes shy of having the filibuster-proof majority he needed. Ron Wyden and seven other Senate Democrats announced they were on the fence on 12 May, distinguishing themselves from the Senate’s 54 Republicans and handful of Democrats as the votes to sway.

In just 24 hours, Wyden and five of those Democratic holdouts – Michael Bennet of Colorado, Dianne Feinstein of California, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Patty Murray of Washington, and Bill Nelson of Florida – caved and voted for fast-track.

Bennet, Murray, and Wyden – all running for re-election in 2016 – received $105,900 between the three of them. Bennet, who comes from the more purple state of Colorado, got $53,700 in corporate campaign donations between January and March 2015, according to Taylor Channing’s research.

RTFA if you need the details on Republican payoffs. Since only 2 Republican votes were in doubt you can be certain that everyone up to and including former presidential candidate, John McCain, received an appropriate chunk of silver dollars.

Republican response to deadly Amtrak crash? Cut their budget!


Click to enlargeAssociated Press/Patrick Semansky

House Republicans voted Wednesday to chop about a fifth of Amtrak’s budget, less than a day after a deadly train crash that Democrats pointed to as a prime example of the dangers of shortchanging the nation’s transportation needs.

They also rebuffed Democrats’ attempts to provide money for an advanced speed-control technology that federal investigators later said would have prevented the crash.

“Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred,” National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt told reporters Wednesday evening. Sumwalt, who is leading the crash probe, spoke hours after the House Appropriations Committee voted down a Democratic amendment that would have offered $825 million for the technology known as positive train control.

The amendment was part of hours of action on a GOP-backed $55 billion transportation and housing bill that Democrats attacked as an example of badly misplaced priorities. New York Rep. Steve Israel directly tied the crash to Congress’ spending decisions, saying people expect lawmakers to look out for their safety — and “last night, we failed them.”

“It’s not just our trains,” Israel said during a contentious markup Wednesday, which occurred as the wreckage from the seven-fatality derailment in Philadelphia was dominating the news channels. “It is our bridges that are failing. It is our highways that are congested and riddled with potholes. It is our runways, our airports. … We are divesting from America.”…

Senator Menendez said in a floor speech Wednesday that the U.S. needs to “stop relying on patchwork upgrades to old, rusted 19th-century rail lines.”

“We in Congress are … failing to recognize the real world impacts,” he said. “We have a passenger rail bill that expired. We have a Highway Trust Fund on the brink of insolvency with no plans, no plans, to fix it sustainably. We have a crowded and outdated aviation system that we refuse to adequately fund. We have failed to upgrade with presently available technologies that can reduce the number of failures. We have appropriations bills aiming to cut already low funding levels of Amtrak in particular to meet an arbitrary budget cap. I can’t understand it…”

There is little vision and no leadership allowed in Congress. The Republican Party decided as a matter of policy to block any and all legislation starting with the first day of a non-white president of these United States.

Today’s Republican Party feels they owe nothing to the population of a nation that refuses to back up their bigotry, economics of myth and hubris, political policies that disown responsibility. The only tactic that feeds the emptiness where a heart belongs is to erect roadblocks to anything that might aid ordinary men and women.

They are beneath contempt.

Court rules NSA mass phone surveillance illegal

A U.S. spying program that systematically collects millions of Americans’ phone records is illegal, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday, putting pressure on Congress to quickly decide whether to replace or end a controversial program aimed at fighting terrorism.

Ruling on a program revealed in 2013 by former government security contractor Edward Snowden, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said the Patriot Act did not authorize the National Security Agency to collect Americans’ calling records in bulk.

Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch wrote for a three-judge panel that Section 215, which addresses the FBI’s ability to gather business records, could not be interpreted to have permitted the NSA to collect a “staggering” amount of phone records, contrary to claims by the Bush and Obama administrations…

The appeals court did not resolve the question of whether the surveillance was unconstitutional…It also declined to halt the program, noting that parts of the Patriot Act including Section 215 expire on June 1.

Lynch said it was “prudent” to give Congress a chance to decide what surveillance is permissible, given the national security interests at stake…I think he’s stupid to think Congress is capable of anything constructive much less Constitutional.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have introduced legislation to extend Section 215 and other parts of the Patriot Act through 2020.

The existing NSA program has repeatedly been approved in secret by a national security court established under a 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act…

ACLU lawyer Alex Abdo welcomed the decision.

Mass surveillance does not make us any safer, and it is fundamentally incompatible with the privacy necessary in a free society,” he said.

I agree. I believe most Americans with more than the equivalent of a sixth grade level of literacy and understanding of civics would agree. That just leaves miserable, corrupt and cowardly politicians to defend the Patriot act.

We continue to have to rely on a few courts uncorrupted by appointments as sleazy as the Republican Supreme Court to defend constitutional rights – when neither the White House nor Congress is willing to act on our behalf.

Pic of the day

Black Spring
Click to enlargeReuters/Eric Thayer

Demonstrators march in Baltimore, Maryland May 2, 2015. Thousands of people took to the streets of Baltimore on Saturday as anger over the death of young black man Freddie Gray turned to hopes for change following swift criminal charges against six police officers.

All of which points out the contradiction of American politicians and newspaper flunkies celebrating uprisings during the Arab Spring – but, when the same violence is visited upon communities in the United States controlled by racist police departments – shock and amazement fill the newspace.

No one recommends crime and arson as an antidote to racism, political and social repression. It still takes a special hypocrite to act surprised when violence is part of the response to decades of violence imposed by government.

Surviving Vietnam Vets straining the VA system

absent friends

The struggles veterans face in accessing healthcare are a harbinger for all American medicine, and the problem won’t be resolved without adequate funding, said Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald.

“VA is the canary in the coal mine. We learn about the problems in American medicine before American medicine,” McDonald told a roomful of reporters at the annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists…

McDonald joined the VA last summer in the wake of an exploding controversy. Earlier in 2014, staff at a Phoenix VA hospital were found to have falsified scheduling records in order to mask extended delays in appointments. Hundreds of veterans were waiting months for appointments and some deaths were blamed on the delays.

Since his confirmation, McDonald — formerly the CEO of Procter and Gamble — has tried to turn around the agency’s image as mired in bureaucracy and more responsive to administrative edicts than veterans’ economic and healthcare needs.

McDonald blamed last year’s failures in access primarily on the growth of the aging veteran population, specifically Vietnam veterans. He also cautioned that the agency hasn’t yet seen “peak demand” from the veterans of Middle Eastern wars.

“If we don’t get ready today for what could happen many years from now with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, we’re going to have another crisis.”

The key to avoiding future problems is adequate funding now, said McDonald…

This puts him in a difficult place, as the department must provide legislatively mandated benefits to all eligible veterans on a budget that isn’t necessarily tied to their numbers or needs

The number of veterans is declining but that population is also getting older, said McDonald. Since older people have more health issues, the number of claims and issues per claim has dramatically increased…

Other factors creating strain on veterans health centers include: the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan; new requirements to assess and treat exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War; the lack of limits on the appeals process; and increased survival on the battlefield that leaves more veterans with severe disabilities…

Like every “good” American War, the Clown Show in Congress ran everything through as an unfunded mandate. Little or no provision was made for the survivors of our wars – whether they are veterans of the US Military or [perish the thought] civilian survivors of our pacification.

The latest iteration of Know-Nothing Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats in DC talk a great game about caring for our veterans while doing as little as possible.

Obama’s drone program: our death squad in the sky – with no accountability

Of all the reactions to the deaths of two hostages from a missile fired from a US drone, Congressman Adam Schiff provided the deepest insight into the logic underpinning the endless, secret US campaign of global killing.

“To demand a higher standard of proof than they had here could be the end of these types of counter-terrorism operations,” said Schiff, a California Democrat and one of the most senior legislators overseeing those operations.

The standard of proof in the January strike in tribal Pakistan was outlined by the White House press secretary in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s admission about the deaths. An agency that went formally unnamed – likely the CIA, though the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) also conducts drone strikes – identified what Josh Earnest called an “al-Qaida compound” and marked the building, rather than particular terrorists, for destruction.

Thanks to Obama’s rare admission on Thursday, the realities of what are commonly known as “signature strikes” are belatedly and partially on display. Signature strikes, a key aspect for years of what the administration likes to call its “targeted killing” program, permit the CIA and JSOC to kill without requiring them to know who they kill

Civilian deaths in signature strikes, accordingly, are not accidental. They are, as Schiff framed it, more like a cost of doing business – only the real cost is shielded from the public.

RTFA. It is detailed, laying out the cogent points for the debate on questions of ethics and morality – if not legality. Questions not likely to be addressed by our Congress of Cowards.

As a legitimate military tactic, I see nothing wrong with the use of unmanned drones as weapons. In a legal war, in legal military action. Without reasoned automatic boundaries, without priorities of military responsibility already in place within treaty obligations, everything our government currently accomplishes with the UAV program is illegal.

Because it is “popular”, acceptable to most Americans filled with Fair and Balanced news-as-entertainment – is no reason to offer my personal acceptance. I’m reminded of the mill workers in England who walked out in illegal strikes against cranking out profits generated from spinning and weaving Confederate cotton – and thereby supporting the cause of slavery. Imperial Britain didn’t especially care where mill owners profits were coming from; but, the bravest workers in Europe did.

Until our government turns these questions into debate and rule of law, I cannot support those who continue secrecy, sanctification based on Bush’s Wars.

I nominate the Flying Mailman Doug Hughes for an Aerial Achievement Medal

Doug Hughes
Click to enlargeJames Borchuck/Tampa Bay Times

Perhaps nobody was more surprised by Doug Hughes’ gyrocopter stunt at the Capitol on Wednesday than his neighbors in Ruskin, Florida.

“It’s weird thinking somebody like that, you know, two doors down,” the U.S. mailman’s neighbor Ian Hopkins said.

“We were so surprised about it because you know he’s a good man… he’s a good neighbor,” another person said.

Hughes is a married father of four who’s been flying gyrocopters for more than a year. According to his website, the 61-year-old grew up in California, served in the Navy and became a mailman more than a decade ago. But Wednesday, he chose to veer off his regular route to draw attention to campaign finance reform…

Hughes’ so-called “freedom flight” had been in the works for some time…In fact, Hughes alerted the Tampa Bay Times last year — after the Secret Service interviewed him about his plans.

“Terrorists don’t announce their flights before they take off. Terrorists don’t broadcast their flight path,” Hughes told the Times…

According to the Times, Hughes’ act of civil disobedience began taking shape more than two years ago after his son committed suicide…His grief prompted him to take a bigger stand on political issues he felt were important.

“We were trying to think of ways to get attention, and it looks like he did that,” Hughes’ co-worker Michael Shanahan said…

Still, Shanahan insists his friend is more patriot than terrorist.

Ahead of his landing at the Capitol, Hughes took to his website writing: “I have no violent inclinations or intent… Let’s keep the discussion focused on reform — not me — I’m just delivering the mail.”

Hughes knew what was at stake in carrying out his mission. The Tampa Bay Times said he expected to lose his job and his freedom. Hughes said he didn’t tell his wife or four children about the plan because he didn’t want them to be implicated.

You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. You don’t need to belong to the Air Force to deliver the air mail. Just maybe – you should receive commendation for courage in the face of politicians afraid to do a damned thing for folks’ civil rights.

The Large Hadron Collider is switching back on – What do scientists hope to learn?

image
Click to enlarge

The Large Hadron Collider — the particle accelerator used to discover the Higgs boson in 2012 — is being fired back up after a two-year break.

The gigantic collider (which includes a 17-mile-long underground tunnel that runs between France and Switzerland) was shut down in February 2013 so engineers could make upgrades. Now, physicists are starting it back up for a new series of experiments intended to push the laws of physics to their limits…

In essence, these experiment involve shooting beams of particles around the ring, using enormous magnets to speed them up to 99.9999 percent of the speed of light (causing them to whip around the ring about 11,000 times per second), then crashing them together. Sophisticated sensors capture all sorts of data on the particles that result from these collisions.

The huge amount of energy present in these collisions leads the particles to break apart and recombine in some pretty exotic ways. And these conditions can reveal flaws in the standard model of physics — currently our best formula for predicting the behavior of all matter.

Physicists want to do this because, as accurate as the standard model seems to be, it’s still incomplete…

The LHC’s biggest finding so far was the July 2012 discovery of an elementary particle called the Higgs boson.

Since the 1960s, the Higgs boson was thought to exist as a part of the Higgs field: an invisible field that permeates all space and exerts a drag on every particle. This field, physicists theorized, is why we perceive particles to have mass…

On paper, the Higgs field and boson both made a lot of sense — all the equations of the standard model pointed toward their existence. But we had no direct physical evidence of them…

After several years of upgrading the LHC’s magnets (which speed up and control the flow of particles) and data sensors, it’ll begin…a new series of experiments that will involve crashing particles together with nearly twice as much energy as before.

These more powerful collisions will allow scientists to keep discovering new (and perhaps larger) particles, and also look more closely at the Higgs boson and observe how it behaves under different conditions…

Once upon a time, it looked like a truly gigantic accelerator would actually be built in the US. In 1989, Congress agreed to spend $6 billion to build the Superconducting Super Collider: a 54-mile-long underground ring in Waxahachie, Texas, that would have produced collisions with five times as much energy as the LHC’s. But in 1993, with the costs rising to a projected $11 billion, Congress killed the project — after $2 billion had already been spent on drilling nearly 15 miles of tunnel.

Just in case you thought stupid was a new definition of Congressional priorities.

Invading other countries because liars in the White House say we must; building new fleets of fighter jets and ships to protect landing craft for future invasions because liars in the military-industrial complex say we must; building bridges to nowhere instead of repairing and improving our nation’s infrastructure because powerful members of Congress say we must – are the kinds of commitments to increasing the national debt that our politIcians adore, the average American loves. The size of the “Boom” is sufficiently impressive to draw everyone’s attention away from the results of science and studies headquartered outside our borders.

And TV news-as-entertainment gets to fill the space where conversation used to get in the way with beaucoup footage of all the people around the world who love Americans more than ever.

Who needs science, anyway?

Addendum: Ursarodinia sent me this link this morning – before the LHC post; but, I didn’t get round to checking my email until late this afternoon.

Art meets the science of the Biggs Boson

WTF? Sensible bill on medical marijuana in the House of Representatives

The issue of federal marijuana reform took another step forward this week with the introduction of a proposal in the House of Representatives that aims to overturn Uncle Sam’s opinions on cannabis for medicinal purposes.

…Representatives Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Don Young of Alaska submitted the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act, which is a companion bill to a proposal submitted to Congress several weeks ago by Senators Cory Booker, Rand Paul and Kristen Gillibrand. The combined efforts of these legislative offerings serve as a blueprint to overhaul the policies of the federal government by unshackling the cannabis plant and giving it the opportunity to prove itself as viable and effective medicine.

Although 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized and established medical marijuana programs, the herb remains a dangerous Schedule I drug in the eyes of federal law, a conflict of interest that has created a lump in the throat of the medical marijuana community ever since California rolled the first stone down Capitol Hill nearly 20 years ago.

However, the CARERS Act would remedy this debacle between state and federal law to a certain extent. In addition to allowing states that have legalized medical marijuana to carry on with their operation without risking interference from the Drug Enforcement Administration, it would also downgrade marijuana’s current Schedule I classification to a Schedule II, which would allow it to be prescribed and researched more freely without violating any international drug treaties…

One of the most crucial aspects of the CARERS Act is that it would finally allow veterans to gain access to medical marijuana by permitting physicians working at the Department of Veterans Affairs to correlate treatment plans to include the participation in statewide programs. Marijuana has proven to be very effective in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, one of the most common psychological conditions suffered by soldiers returning home from combat…

Does the bill stand any chance of making it off Capitol Hill alive?

Well, John Boehner is Speaker of the House, Mitch McConnell is Majority Leader of the Senate, Republicans and obedient Blue Dog Democrats are in the majority – so, don’t hold your breath waiting for Congressional recognition of progressive popular will.

Kick some of the Sluggos out of office! That might make for a different story, positive outcome.