GOP Blocks Voting Rights Bill Requiring Candidates to Disclose Tax Returns

From today’s Newsweek Online:

Republican senators have blocked an effort by Democrats to vote on a voting rights and election ethics bill.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) blocked a request that the For the People Act of 2019 be voted on Wednesday. Democratic Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) launched the latest attempt to bring the bill to the senate floor.

“The For the People Act repairs our broken campaign finance system, opens up the ballot box to all Americans, and lays waste to the corruption in Washington,” said Udall. “These are all reforms that the American people support. Why won’t the Senate Majority Leader let us vote on them?”

The bill was introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) in January. It passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 234–193 in March. The bill has been repeatedly blocked by Senate Republicans since then.

One of the bill’s many provisions attempts to increase voter participation by making Election Day a federal holiday. Another provision is aimed at eliminating so-called “dark money” from campaign funds by requiring that super PACs and other organizations disclose the identity of their donors.

Merkley claimed that the failure to pass the bill was symptomatic of a “corrupt system” and that the senate was controlled by “powerful special interests.” After blocking the bill, Blunt countered that the bill represents an overreach of power that would allow the federal government to take control away from states.

One of the bill’s major hurdles for Republicans is an ethics provision that would require candidates for president and vice president to disclose the last 10 years of their income tax returns. President Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to disclose his tax returns, and is currently embroiled in a legal fight to keep the information secret.

Read the complete article here.

McConnell maintains that Senate won’t take up election reform bill because GOP doesn’t want Americans to vote

From The Hill Online News:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) maintained Wednesday that the upper chamber wouldn’t take up a House election reform bill.

McConnell reiterated his position when pressed about why he has only pledged to bring the progressive Green New Deal to the floor for a vote and not the election reform bill.

“Because I get to decide what we vote on,” McConnell quipped.

The Kentucky senator said earlier this week that House Democrats’ sweeping anticorruption bill, known as H.R. 1, would never become law.

“This sprawling 622-page doorstop is never going to become law. I certainly don’t plan to even bring it to the floor here in the Senate,” McConnell said of the legislation Monday.

The legislation aims to expand voting rights by creating automatic voter registration and making Election Day a national holiday for federal workers.

Read the complete article here.

Senate approves measure assuring airline passengers of consumer rights

From today’s ABC News Online:

The Senate passed a measure Wednesday that would give airline passengers new rights and should help make an often frustrating experience easier.

But the bill, which authorizes funding for the Federal Aviation Administration for the next five years, doesn’t tackle those pesky airline baggage fees — a big win for the airlines.

No bumping passengers who have already boarded

This is a direct result of the April 2017 incident when United Airlines passenger David Dao was bloodied and dragged off an aircraft after refusing to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. Shortly after the highly-publicized incident, domestic carriers put an end to the practice of asking already-seated passengers to give up their seats. This bill would make that policy change federal law.

No mid-flight cell phone calls

Just because the flight has Wi-Fi, doesn’t mean passengers are allowed to make that business call. The bill would order the Department of Transportation to prohibit customers from making voice calls between takeoff and landing.

Accommodations for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers

Gate agents have long allowed pregnant women to board early along with families with small children, but this bill orders DOT to make that the law. In addition, it requires large and medium-sized airports to provide clean, accessible private rooms for nursing mothers. Changing tables will also have to be in both men’s and women’s bathrooms. The Department of Transportation will provide grants to help airport make the changes.

Orders seat size minimums

The measure, which now goes to the president for his signature, orders the FAA to establish minimum seat standards in pitch (the distance between rows of seats) and width within of year of the president’s signature. Consumer advocates have long argued that shrinking seats create a safety issue, but the FAA presented evidence that evacuating passengers end up waiting in the aisle anyway and current seat sizes have no effect on whether a plane can be emptied in 90 seconds as regulations require.

Read the complete article here.

Al Franken will resign from Senate after more allegations of sexual improprieties

From today’s LA Times:

Al Franken announced Thursday he will resign his Senate seat, falling to a whirlwind of sexual misconduct allegations like those that have enmeshed other politicians, business leaders and media figures across the country in recent months.

The Minnesota Democrat, a second-term senator once seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2020 or beyond, earlier had said he would not leave office but would submit to a Senate ethics investigation into his behavior. He had acknowledged some misconduct, but denied other allegations.

His fate appeared sealed, however, on Wednesday, when more than half of Senate Democrats issued calls for his resignation in an uprising led by female senators. The choreographed move came as yet another woman came forward to accuse Franken of unwanted advances before he was elected to the Senate, and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York privately met with Franken to tell him the time had come to quit.

Franken’s announcement marked the second departure this week of a once-heralded Democrat caught in unsavory accusations. On Tuesday, the senior member of the House, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, quit after multiple complaints by aides that he had sexually harassed them.

The departure marks the end of the legislative career that began when Franken squeaked into office on an exceptionally narrow win, was reelected more easily and had emerged as a well-regarded member of the party’s growing liberal wing.

Franken’s resignation will not change the balance of power in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority with 52 seats. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a fellow Democrat, will appoint a replacement to serve until a special election can be held in November 2018. The winner of that election will hold the seat until what would have been the end of Franken’s second term, in January 2021.

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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.

U.S. Senate votes to block California-led effort on retirement security for low-income workers

From today’s LA Times by Evan Halper

A pioneering, California-led effort to create retirement security for low-income workers has been thrown into jeopardy after the U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to block states from starting programs to automatically enroll millions of people in IRA-type savings plans.

The measure, aimed at stopping the fledgling state retirement programs, now goes to President Trump, who has vowed to sign it.

That leaves lawmakers in California, Illinois and other states who only months ago were celebrating the success of their long-planned initiative scrambling to regroup. The Senate voted 50 to 49 to stop the state plans.

The retirement programs that were about to launch in seven states and are under consideration in many more were targeted by Wall Street firms and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The vote reflected the renewed influence of the business lobby in Washington since the 2016 election, with lawmakers defying the 38-million member AARP, a vocal supporter of the auto-IRA program. The seniors group had warned senators that its members would hold them accountable for their votes.

“Nobody had a problem with this except for the big Wall Street companies who invented in their mind that they would be losing business to these state innovations,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), whose state was moving to implement an auto-IRA program. “This is a terrible, terrible thing we are doing,” he said of the Senate’s vote to undermine the state programs.

The California Secure Choice program and similar retirement laws generally require employers with no retirement plans to automatically invest a small percentage of each worker’s pay in a state-sponsored retirement account. Employers can opt out of the program if they choose.

The money is managed by private investment firms that partner with the states. The accounts are intended to help build financial security for some 55 million workers nationwide whose employers do not offer a retirement plan.

The push to implement the programs was delayed for years by complicated federal Labor Department rules governing such investment pools. In its final months, the Obama administration gave states the green light to pursue their vision. But Congress has now voted to revoke that authority, leaving the programs in limbo. Opponents of the state programs say they became too risky for consumers after the federal rules were changed.

Read the entire article here.