Is it responsible government spending? GOP tax plan gives billions back to billionaires, adds trillions to the deficit

From today’s New York Times:

A Republican requirement that Congress consider the full cost of major legislation threatened to derail the party’s $1.5 trillion tax rewrite last week. So lawmakers went on the offensive to discredit the agency performing the analysis.

In 2015, Republicans changed the budget rules in Congress so that official scorekeepers would be required to analyze the potential economic impact of major legislation when determining how it would affect federal revenues.

But on Thursday, hours before they were set to vote on the largest tax cut Congress has considered in years, Senate Republicans opened an assault on that scorekeeper, the Joint Committee on Taxation, and its analysis, which showed the Senate plan would not, as lawmakers contended, pay for itself but would add $1 trillion to the federal budget deficit.

Public statements and messaging documents obtained by The New York Times show a concerted push by Republican lawmakers to discredit a nonpartisan agency they had long praised. Party leaders circulated two pages of “response points” that declared “the substance, timing and growth assumptions of J.C.T.’s ‘dynamic’ score are suspect.” Among their arguments was that the joint committee was using “consistently wrong” growth models to assess the effect the tax cuts would have on hiring, wages and investment.

The Republican response points go after revenue analyses by the committee and by the Congressional Budget Office, which scores other legislation, saying their findings “can be off to the tune of more than $1.5 trillion over ten years.”

The swift backlash helped defuse concerns about the deficit impact long enough for the bill to pass by a vote of 51 to 49. Some deficit hawks in the Senate caucus were sufficiently concerned about the report on Thursday night to delay the tax vote by a day, but the only Republican lawmaker to vote no was Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, whose last-minute efforts to cut the size of the package or otherwise offset the deficit impact were unsuccessful.

Instead, Senate Republicans questioned the timing of the analysis’ release on Thursday, and a spokeswoman for the Senate Finance Committee released a statement saying the findings are “curious and deserve further scrutiny.”

That sentiment was repeated over and over, before and after the vote. “We think they lowballed it,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the majority whip, told reporters on Thursday. On Sunday, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said on CNN that “there’s no doubt that the J.C.T. has been consistently underestimating the activity in our economy.”

In the final hours before and after the bill passed, party leaders insisted that the tax plan would produce enough economic growth to pay for themselves with additional tax revenue from growing businesses and higher-paid workers. “I’m totally confident this is a revenue-neutral bill,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, told reporters early Saturday morning after the vote. “Actually a revenue producer.”

Yet there was no data to support those claims, despite promises by the Trump administration that such an analysis would be forthcoming. The Treasury, whose secretary, Steven Mnuchin, has said repeatedly that his department was working on an analysis to show how the tax cuts would not add to the deficit, has not produced any studies that back up those claims. Last week, the Treasury’s inspector general said it was opening an inquiry into the department’s analysis of the tax plan.

The attack on the joint committee and its analysis is a change from the praise Republicans have long heaped on the body, which is staffed with economists and other career bureaucrats who analyze legislation in depth.

“The people who prepare our cost estimates are the best in the business,” Republicans on the House Budget Committee said on a page that has since been removed from their website, “and they’ve been working on this issue for years.”

The critique is the latest example of Republican lawmakers muddying the waters on empirical research in an effort to boost their policy agendas. During the debate over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers lashed out preemptively at the Congressional Budget Office over how many people would lose health insurance.

Read the entire article here.

Trump says Flynn’s actions during presidential transition were lawful

From today’s Reuter’s News Service:

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday that actions by his disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn during the presidential transition were lawful and said that there was no collusion between his 2016 White House campaign and Russia.

Flynn was the first member of Trump’s administration to plead guilty to a crime uncovered by special counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion by Trump aides.

Flynn, a former Defense Intelligence Agency director, held his position as Trump’s national security adviser only for 24 days. He was forced to resign after he was found to have misled Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak..

“What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion,“ Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for the New York trip. ”There’s been absolutely no collusion, so we’re very happy.”

As part of his plea on Friday, Flynn agreed to cooperate with the investigation.

The retired U.S. Army lieutenant general admitted in a Washington court that he lied to FBI investigators about his discussions last December with Kislyak.

In what appeared to be moves undermining the policies of outgoing President Barack Obama, the pair discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia, and Flynn asked Kislyak to help delay a United Nations vote seen as damaging to Israel, according to prosecutors.

Flynn was also told by a “very senior member” of Trump’s transition team to contact Russia and other foreign governments to try to influence them ahead of the vote, the prosecutors said.

Sources told Reuters the “very senior” transition official was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor. Kushner’s lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Watch the video here.

We’re With Stupid: On Fake News and the Literacy of America’s Electorate

From New York Times by Timothy Egan (Nov. 17, 2017):

It would be much easier to sleep at night if you could believe that we’re in such a mess of misinformation simply because Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million people on Facebook.

The Russians also uploaded a thousand videos to YouTube and published more than 130,000 messages on Twitter about last year’s election. As recent congressional hearings showed, the arteries of our democracy were clogged with toxins from a hostile foreign power.

But the problem is not the Russians — it’s us. We’re getting played because too many Americans are ill equipped to perform the basic functions of citizenship. If the point of the Russian campaign, aided domestically by right-wing media, was to get people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, the bad guys have won.

As we crossed the 300-day mark of Donald Trump’s presidency on Thursday, fact-checkers noted that he has made more than 1,600 false or misleading claims. Good God. At least five times a day, on average, this president says something that isn’t true.

We have a White House of lies because a huge percentage of the population can’t tell fact from fiction. But a huge percentage is also clueless about the basic laws of the land. In a democracy, we the people are supposed to understand our role in this power-sharing thing.

Nearly one in three Americans cannot name a single branch of government. When NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson’s fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda.

Fake news is a real thing produced by active disseminators of falsehoods. Trump uses the term to describe anything he doesn’t like, a habit now picked up by political liars everywhere.

But Trump is a symptom; the breakdown in this democracy goes beyond the liar in chief. For that you have to blame all of us: we have allowed the educational system to become negligent in teaching the owner’s manual of citizenship.

Read the entire article here.

Bad news for American consumer rights, as CFPB director announces departure

Richard Cordray, the head of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is stepping down at the end of the month. The bureau was created in the wake of the financial crisis and has recovered $12 billion from financial firms on behalf of consumers, but Republicans have fought Cordray and the bureau, claiming its very existence is illegal and that it has harmed consumers by stifling lending.

Listen to the NPR Roundtable discussion about his announcement, and what it means for American consumers here.

Trump appointees, this time in USDA, continue to violate federal ethics laws

From today’s New York Times by Danielle Ivory and Robert Faturechi:

At a private meeting in September, congressional aides asked Rebeckah Adcock, a top official at the Department of Agriculture, to reveal the identities of the people serving on the deregulation team she leads at the agency.

Teams like Ms. Adcock’s, created under an executive order by President Trump, had been taking heat from Democratic lawmakers over their secrecy. What little was publicly known suggested that some of the groups’ members had deep ties to the industries being regulated.

Ms. Adcock, a former pesticide industry executive, brushed off the request, according to House aides familiar with the exchange, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly. Making the names public, they recalled her saying, would trigger a deluge of lobbyists.

In fact, interviews and visitor logs at the Agriculture Department showed that Ms. Adcock had already been meeting with lobbyists, including those from her former employer, the pesticide industry’s main trade group, CropLife America, and its members. CropLife pushes the agenda of pesticide makers in Washington, including easing rules related to safety standards and clean water.

Ms. Adcock, who left the trade group in April, maintained contact with her former industry allies despite a signed ethics agreement promising to avoid for one year issues involving CropLife as well as matters that she had lobbied about in the two years before joining the government.

In one meeting, Ms. Adcock discussed issues banned by the ethics agreement with an executive who had been her lobbying partner weeks earlier at CropLife, according to the accounts of participants and the visitor logs, obtained through a public records request by The New York Times and ProPublica.

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the U.S.D.A. who also spoke on behalf of Ms. Adcock, said she had not violated her ethics agreement by meeting with her former industry allies. He also denied that Ms. Adcock had discussed issues related to her previous lobbying at the meeting, or that she had suggested that her deregulation team would be swamped by lobbyists if names of its members were released.

“The career ethics officers at U.S.D.A. agree that this is not a violation of the ethics agreement that Rebeckah Adcock signed,” said Mr. Murtaugh, citing a 2009 memo by the Office of Government Ethics.

Others dispute that interpretation of the memo; the ethics office declined to say whether the memo applied to the meeting, citing its policy not to discuss individual cases.

Read entire article here.

Takeaways From Tuesday’s Elections

From today’s New York Times Election Review:

By any measure, Tuesday was a big night for Democrats, especially in Virginia, where they swept the top offices, including governor, and made strong gains in the General Assembly. Here are some key takeaways from the biggest election night since President Trump’s victory a year ago.

Susan Johnston helping coordinate canvassing efforts at the Mainers for Health Care headquarters in Portland on Tuesday. Maine became the first state to vote to expand Medicaid. 

A suburban rebellion propels Democrats. It was largely a suburban rebellion, where more moderate voters rejected Mr. Trump and embraced Democrats. Be it New Jersey, Virginia or Charlotte, N.C., Democrats rode a miniwave of victories that will give them energy for candidate recruitment and fund-raising heading into the midterm elections next year.

In addition to winning the top races, for governor of New Jersey and Virginia, Democrats also captured the mayoral post in Manchester, N.H., the State Senate in Washington, along with other important victories in statehouse elections. Maine also became the first state to vote to expand Medicaid, the 32nd in all under President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.

It’s hard to have Trumpism if you don’t have Trump. Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, tried his best to sound the call of Mr. Trump’s followers in stoking the nation’s culture wars. He was harsh on immigration, supportive of Confederate monuments and opposed to those N.F.L. players who have taken a knee. But his public record before, as a national party chairman, White House counselor and Washington lobbyist, had few of those harsh edges. And like a lot of Republicans, he only grudgingly supported Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Most notably, Mr. Gillespie did not seek to campaign with the president in Virginia, settling for support via Twitter. That left him with almost all of Mr. Trump’s baggage and few potential benefits.
Read the entire review article here.

ParadisePapers show Trump Commerce Secretary Has Ties to Putin Cronies

From today’s Slate Magazine by Daniel Politi:

Looks like it’s Panama Papers Part Two. The non-profit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists began publishing on Sunday what it is calling the Paradise Papers. More than a year after the organization’s network of journalists around the world shook up politicians in several countries with leaked data on offshore havens, another trove of documents taken from a Bahamas-based firm promises to expose how companies and the wealthy use complicated structures to skirt taxes. Most of the more than 13.4 million documents, which were analyzed by a group of more than 380 journalists in 67 countries, are from Bermudan law firm Appleby.

Among the most explosive revelations so far involves news that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross shares business interests with close allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which he failed to fully disclose during confirmation hearings. The documents show Ross continues to have a significant interest in a shipping firm that has a Russian energy company as one of its main clients. The owners of that company include Putin’s son-in-law and an oligarch under U.S. sanctions. The stake in the firm is held in Cayman Islands, just like much of the commerce secretary’s massive wealth that has been estimated at more than $2 billion.

The Commerce Department is not disputing the allegations. Ross “recuses himself from any matters focused on transoceanic shipping vessels, but has been generally supportive of the administration’s sanctions of Russian and Venezuelan entities,” a spokesman said. “He works closely with Commerce Department ethics officials to ensure the highest ethical standards.”

Lawmakers who were part of Ross’ confirmation hearings say they feel duped. During the process, Ross was asked about his ties to Russia and his investment in another shipping company, but Navigator never came up. Sen. Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut told NBC News that the general impression was that Ross had gotten rid of his stakes in Navigator, and they didn’t know about the firm’s ties to Russia. “I am astonished and appalled because I feel misled,” Blumenthal said. “Our committee was misled, the American people were misled by the concealment of those companies.” Ethics experts say that even if there is nothing illegal about the arrangement, it still raises several ethical questions because one of the lead voices in the administration’s trade policy could make money from business with Russia.

Read the entire article here.

Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos pleads guilty to lying to the FBI agents in Mueller probe

From today’s LA Times Update on #RussiaGate :

A former foreign policy advisor to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians who claimed to have “thousands of emails” on Hillary Clinton, in the latest charges filed in the investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

George Papadopoulos, 30, of Chicago, has agreed to cooperate with the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, according to a plea agreement unsealed on Monday.

He pleaded guilty on Oct. 5 to making false statements to disguise his contacts with Russians whom he thought had “dirt” on Clinton, according to court papers. He was arrested in July as he got off a plane at Dulles International Airport.

After he was contacted by an unnamed Russian professor in March, Papadopoulos exchanged emails with an official in the Russian foreign ministry, court papers say. Among the topics he discussed was a possible visit by Trump to Russia.

“As mentioned we are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” one Russian emailed him.

In April, after he had become an advisor to the campaign, Papadopoulos met with the Russian professor at a London hotel. The professor said he had just returned from a trip to Moscow, where he was told “the Russians had emails of Clinton.”

Papadopoulos told other leaders in the Trump campaign that he was in contact with Russians, and said there were some “interesting messages coming in from Moscow about a trip.”

Read more about the collusion of Trump’s campaign with the Russian government here.

Pence casts deciding vote in Senate to deny consumers rights to sue banks

From today’s Washington Post by Ken Sweet:

Call it a win for “the swamp.”

President Trump and Republicans in Congress handed Wall Street banks a big victory by effectively killing off a politically popular rule that would have allowed consumers to band together to sue their banks.

The 51-50 vote in the Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote, means bank customers will still be subject to what are known as mandatory arbitration clauses. These clauses are buried in the fine print of nearly every checking account, credit card, payday loan, auto loan or other financial services contract and require customers to use arbitration to resolve any dispute with his or her bank. They effectively waive the customer’s right to sue.

The banking industry lobbied hard to roll back a proposed regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that would have largely restricted mandatory arbitration clauses by 2019. Consumers would have been allowed to sue their bank as a group in a class-action lawsuit. Individual consumers with individual complaints would still have to use arbitration under the rules.

President Trump is expected to sign the Senate resolution into law, overturning yet another Obama-administration initiative. Trump spent months of the 2016 campaign accusing his opponent Hillary Clinton of being in the pocket of the big banks and therefore unwilling to take on Wall Street.

At least among voters, the CFPB’s regulations had bipartisan support. A poll done by the GOP-leaning American Future Fund found that 67 percent of those surveyed were in favor of the rules, including 64 percent of Republicans. Other polls on the subject show similar levels of support.

The overturn marks a significant victory for Wall Street. After the financial crisis, Congress and the Obama administration put substantial new regulations on how banks operated and fined them tens of billions of dollars for the damage they caused to the housing market. But since Trump’s victory last year, banking lobbyists have felt emboldened to get some of the rules repealed or replaced altogether. Top or near the top of the list was the CFPB’s arbitration rules.

“(The) vote is a giant setback for every consumer in this country. Wall Street won and ordinary people lost. This vote means the courtroom doors will remain closed for groups of people seeking justice and relief when they are wronged by a company,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, in a statement.

The big banks and its lobbyist groups are calling this a victory for U.S. consumers, saying that arbitration is faster and the rules would have been an economic stimulus package for class-action trial lawyers. They also cite statistics from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s own 2015 study that show that the average award from a class-action lawsuit is roughly $32 while an award from arbitration is $5,389.

But reality is more complicated. At best, the banking industry’s arguments twist the truth.

The reason why the award for most class-action suits is small is because people don’t typically sue individually his or her bank over a small sum of money, like an overdraft charge or account service fee, because it’s not worth the financial effort to recover a $10, $25, or $35 fee. Arbitration cases are less common, and usually involve more substantial disputes, hence the larger awards. Also the majority of consumers resolve their dispute with their banks in person, typically at a branch or over the phone.

If the CFPB’s rules had gone into effect, companies like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Equifax would have been exposed to billions of dollars in lawsuits for future bad behavior. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates the U.S. banking customers paid $14 billion dollars in overdraft fee last year, and the industry has gotten in trouble in the past for shady tactics like transaction reordering, where a bank would reorder a day’s debits and withdrawals to extract the most overdraft fee income from its customers that day.

To overturn the CFPB’s rule, Congress used the Congressional Review Act. The CRA allows Congress to overturn any executive agency’s rules or regulations with a bare majority vote, but more importantly, the law prohibits that agency from issuing any “substantially similar” regulations without Congressional authorization. That means that until Congress passes a law to restrict arbitration, the CFPB’s hands are now permanently bound on this issue.

The political winds are in Wall Street’s favor going forward. Cordray’s term at the CFPB will end in mid-2018 but he is expected to step down before then to make a run for Governor of Ohio. Trump will be able to choose his own appointee and will likely pick someone more likely to favor the banks.

The CFPB was created after the financial crisis as part of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform law that passed in 2010. The bureau was crafted to be independent and powerful, funded by the Federal Reserve instead of through the traditional Congressional appropriations process. Its director has considerable authority to pursue issues he or she considers important and generally cannot be removed from office.

There’s another major financial consumer protection now pending in front of Congress focused on the payday lending industry. The CFPB finalized new regulations weeks ago that would severely restrict the ability for payday lenders to make loans that its customers, often the poor and financially desperate, cannot afford. The payday lending industry is pushing hard to overturn these rules using the same process that was used to overturn the arbitration rules.

N.F.L. Players May Have an Ally in Their Protests: Labor Law

From today’s New York Times by Noam Scheiber:As National Football League team owners consider President Trump’s call to fire players who refuse to stand for the national anthem, they have stumbled into one of the most consequential debates in today’s workplace: How far can workers go in banding together to address problems related to their employment?

In principle, the answer in the N.F.L. and elsewhere may be: Quite far.

To the extent that most people think about the reach of federal labor law, they probably imagine a union context — like organizing workers, or bargaining as a group across the table from management.

As it happens, the law is much more expansive, protecting any “concerted activities” that employees engage in to support one another in the workplace, whether or not a union is involved. The National Labor Relations Board and the courts have defined such activity to include everything from airing complaints about one’s boss through social media to publicly supporting political causes that have some bearing on one’s work life.

The league’s operations manual says players must be on the sidelines during the anthem and should stand. While the law might not bear on whether an individual player can kneel during the anthem, many experts say it could protect players from repercussions for making such a gesture together — or taking other action — to show solidarity on the job.

And as unionization continues its decades-long decline, some believe that these alternative forms of taking collective action may be crucial to enabling workers to speak up.

Read the entire article here.