As Republicans stonewall President Obama's initiative to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2016, some state lawmakers have taken the matter into their own hands, passing legislation that increases the salaries for America's most vulnerable workers. But there's one group that is still largely left out of the minimum wage battle: people who work for tips.
As it stands, only seven states require employers to pay tipped workers the same minimum wage as nontipped workers. The federal minimum wage for the latter is $7.25, but the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has remained stagnate at $2.13 since 1991, with no adjustment for inflation. Employers are supposed to make up the difference if tipped workers aren't earning the regular minimum wage through their tips, but it doesn't always happen. The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, found in 2011 that tipped workers are more than twice as likely as other workers to fall under the federal poverty line.
The Minimum Wage Fairness Act, which Obama endorsed, would have gradually raised tipped workers' minimum wage to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage. But the bill has faced steep opposition from Republicans and the restaurant lobby. According to Open Secrets, the National Restaurant Association, which opposed the minimum-wage hike, spent more than $2.2 million on lobbying last year.
Like millions of Americans across the United States, 23-year-old Anna Hovland worked a waitressing job earlier this year to make ends meet. Her restaurant in Washington, DC, paid her the local minimum wage for tipped workers, $2.77 an hour, which meant that after taxes, her paycheck was usually zero. Her tips, never dependable, ranged from $20 to $200 a shift. "In a city as expensive as DC, I've been able to make ends meet by the skin of my teeth," Hovland says. "Sometimes it will only be in the last week or two of a month that I'll realize I've made enough to pay all my bills."
In December, Washington's city council voted to raise the city's minimum wage from $8.50 to $11.50 an hour by 2016. But the bill didn't raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, like Hovland, on the basis that restaurants in Washington are supposed to make up the difference if tips don't meet the equivalent of $11.50 an hour. That's how the federal law works, as well. US companies are allowed to pay tipped employees pittance because customers are expected to tip well enough to surpass at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25, and, if they don't, companies have to chip in the rest.
But that's not how things always work in the real world. "The servers who make 'good money' are in the minority," says Maria Myotte, a spokesperson for Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which aims to improve conditions for workers in the industry. She notes that tipped workers are hit especially hard by "wage theft," whereby restaurants don't make up the difference when the tips aren't rolling in. Between 2010 and 2012, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor conducted nearly 9,000 investigations in the restaurant industry, and discovered that 83.8 percent had some kind of wage and hour violation.
Hovland tells Mother Jones that before she got in touch with the Restaurant Opportunities Center last fall—to find out why she was getting zero-dollar paychecks—she had no idea that her employer was supposed to make up the difference in tips. "We never logged our tips or reported them to our employers," she says, unless they were on credit cards. She adds, "Even after I shared information about the minimum wage difference with coworkers, nobody felt comfortable asking employers about it."
On Thursday, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) introduced a bill that would require a federally appointed commission to study the use of solitary confinement in US and state prisons and juvenile detention facilities and recommend national standards to reform the practice and ensure it is only "used infrequently and only under extreme circumstances." The attorney general would be tasked with implementing these standards. The legislation has six cosponsors, all Democrats, and comes on the heels of a number of states, including Maine, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas passing their own bills to study the practice.
Tens of thousands of Americans are held in solitary confinement each year. Some have been in solitary for decades. "Our approach to solitary confinement in this country needs immediate reform," Richmond said in a statement Thursday. "Do we feel comfortable putting a man or woman in a dark hole for decades on end with no additional due process? Is this practice consistent with our values? I don’t think so. I know we are better than that."
Richmond's bill says that the federal commission must recommend standards so that the use of solitary confinement is limited to fewer than 30 days in any 45-day period, unless the head of a corrections facility determines that prolonged solitary confinement is necessary for the security of the institution, or if the prisoner requests it. The proposal would require that prisoners receive "a meaningful hearing" with access to legal counsel before being placed in long-term solitary confinement, and entitle them to have their cases reviewed every 30 days.
The national standards required by the bill would include a number of other reforms, including limiting the use of involuntary solitary confinement to "protect" vulnerable individuals—for example, prisoners who are transgender—and improving access to mental health treatment for prisoners placed in solitary. The legislation also mandates that correction officials avoid placing juveniles in solitary for any duration, "except under extreme emergency circumstances." (Between April and September of last year, four juvenile correctional facilities in Ohio imposed almost 60,000 hours of solitary confinement on 229 boys with mental-health needs.) The bill requires the attorney general to publish a final rule adopting the national standards, and would reduce federal grant funds given to states for their prison programs by 15 percent each year until the states comply with the new standards.
A United Nations torture expert said in 2011 that solitary confinement should not be used for more than 15 days. Richmond's bill does not embrace that recommendation. But human rights groups say the bill is a great first step, and recommend its passage. "The introduction of this legislation will help us take a step toward more humane prison practices and shine a light on the tens of thousands of human beings condemned to suffer in prolonged solitary confinement," said Jasmine Heiss, senior campaigner at Amnesty International USA, in a statement.
If this were a Hardy Boys book, it would be The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of the Porn Stars' Disappearing Bank Accounts.
Last month, porn star Teagan Presley told Vice that JPMorgan Chase & Co. closed her account because the bank considered her "high-risk." Then, on Wednesday, porn director David Lord told the Daily Beast that Chase sent him a letter notifying him that the bank was going to close his account on May 11. The Beast and Vice suggested that a secretive Justice Department program, "Operation Choke Point," was behind the account closures. But a Chase insider familiar with the matter says that the initiative has nothing to do with the termination of these accounts.
"This has nothing to do with Operation Choke Point," the source told Mother Jones. "There's not a targeted effort to exit consumers' accounts because of an affiliation with an industry [and] we have no policy that would prohibit a consumer from having a checking account because of an affiliation with this industry. We routinely exit consumers for a variety of reasons. For privacy reasons we can't get into why."
The porn stars' allegations play into a narrative—pushed by banks and congressional Republicans—that the Obama administration is overstretching its authority by forcing banks to police the free market. Here's the real story:
What is Operation Choke Point? Operation Choke Point is a federal initiative that aims to crack down on fraud by honing in on banks and payment processors—the companies that serve as middlemen between merchants and banks on credit card transactions. Financial institutions are not supposed to do business with companies they believe might be breaking the law. But Justice Department officials suspect that some payment processors ignore signs of fraud—like high percentages of transactions being rejected as unauthorized—in transactions they process, and banks go along for the ride, earning massive profits.
The Justice Department has already filed one lawsuit under the program. In January, the government sued Four Oaks Bank in North Carolina, charging that it "knew or was deliberately ignorant" that it was working with a company that processed payments for merchants who were breaking the law. According to the lawsuit, Four Oaks worked with a Texas-based payment processor that processed about $2.4 billion in transactions on behalf of fraudulent payday lenders, internet gambling entities, and a Ponzi fraud scheme. The processor then allegedly paid Four Oaks more than $850,000 in fees. (In April, Four Oaks reached a $1.2 million settlement with the government, but did not admit wrongdoing.)
President Obama's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, headed by the Department of Justice, is behind the program. Michael Bresnick, who runs the task force, made the program public last March. He says that the aim is to "close the access to the banking system that mass marketing fraudsters enjoy—effectively putting a chokehold on it."
Is this the first time that feds have asked banks to keep an eye on their customers? No. The Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 requires financial institutions to assist the feds in preventing money laundering, which includes scrutinizing customers. However, banks argue that Operation Choke Point goes further than that law.
Does Operation Choke Point include a "blacklist" of businesses or individuals the government is requiring banks to target? Not exactly. Last September, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation issued updated regulatory guidelines noting that "facilitating payment processing for merchant customers engaged in higher-risk activities can pose risks to financial institutions." A footnote in the guidelines linked to a list of products and services, published in 2011, that the feds say have been associated with high-risk activity, including get-rich products, drug paraphernalia, escort services, firearm sales, pornography, and racist materials. But the September guidance makes clear that financial institutions that "properly manage these relationships and risks are neither prohibited nor discouraged from providing payment processing services to customers operating in compliance with applicable law." In other words, the guidance requires banks to perform due diligence to prevent fraud, but does not require banks to go on a porn-star witch hunt.
Why are some people saying Operation Choke Point discriminates against low-income Americans? As part of the program, the feds are scrutinizing payday lenders, which offer short-term loans at high interest rates.Critics of these lenders say they take advantage of low-income Americans, while defenders note that they're often the only option for Americans unable to get loans elsewhere. Some states restrict or ban payday loans. But as payday lenders move online, they've been able to skirt state rules, according to the Justice Department. The feds hope to crack down on payday lenders that are not complying with state and federal regulations. "This effort is focusing on ensuring that lenders are not using electronic payment networks to commit fraud or offer products that would not otherwise be permitted," says Tom Feltner, director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America, a national association of nonprofit consumer advocacy groups.
Who opposes the program? Banks, payday lenders, gun owners, conservatives, and some Democrats have expressed opposition to the program. Frank Keating, president and CEO of the American Bankers Association, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last month accusing the Justice Department of "forcing banks to make judgments about criminal behavior and then holding them accountable for the possible wrongdoing of others." Jason Oxman, chief executive of the Electronic Transaction Association, which recently released guidelines for payment processors, told the Washington Postthat Operation Choke Point shouldn't target entire industries, and should instead focus on specific bad actors. A new lobbying group, the Third Party Payment Processors Association, opposes Operation Choke Point, and an activist group called "StopTheChoke.com" is running an online campaign against the program. The NRA, after receiving concerns from gun owners that the DOJ is using the program to take away their guns, said last week that "it will continue to monitor developments concerning Operation Choke Point."
On January 8, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sent a letter to the Justice Department arguing that "the extraordinary breadth of the Department's dragnet prompts concerns that the true goal of Operation Choke Point is not to cut off actual fraudsters' access to the financial system, but rather to eliminate legal financial services to which the Department objects."
Who supports it? Quite a few Democrats support the program. On February 26, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent a letter to the Justice Department recommending that the program continue. The letter, cosigned by 11 other Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said: "The Department plays a critical role in ensuring system-wide compliance with anti-fraud, anti-money-laundering, and related laws, especially as they apply to the unique risks associated with our payments system, and we urge the Department to continue its vigorous oversight."
Diane Standaert, senior legislative counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending, notes that eradicating fraud is also a win for consumers. "Banks should have a vested interest in making sure their own customers accounts aren't being abused or unnecessarily drained," she says. "By complying with this existing guidance, it's a win-win."
Last week, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) subpoenaed Secretary of State John Kerry to testify about Benghazi, and House Speaker John Boehner created a select committee to mount yet another investigation of the 2012 attack on the US facility in Libya. It's the latest effort by House Republicans to squeeze a scandal out of the tragedy. While the GOP's relentless Benghazi crusade continues, there has been an outpouring of rhetorical excesses, with some conservatives going as far as likening the Obama administration's response to the attack to the Nixon administration's Watergate scandal.
Appearing Sunday on CNN, Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter who joined with Bob Woodward to break the Watergate story, said there's no comparison: "This is not Watergate, or anything resembling Watergate. Watergate was a massive criminal conspiracy led by a criminal president of the United States for almost the whole of his administration. We're talking total apples and oranges here." He added, "This is about an ideological scorched-earth politics that prevails in Washington."
Frank Rich at New York magazine wrote last year that Republicans are pushing the Watergate analogy because they believe Benghazi could be a "gateway both to the president's impeachment and to a GOP victory over Hillary in 2016." But they're running into a problem, Rich noted, namely that "no one to the left of Sean Hannity seriously believes that the Obama White House was trying to cover up a terrorist attack." The Huffington Post observes that Benghazi is hardly the first Obama administration affair that has driven Republicans to reference Watergate. They've wielded this analogy to decry Fast and Furious, the Solyndra controversy, the so-called IRS scandal, and the Department of Homeland Security's handling of Freedom of Information Act requests. And Republicans have dredged up the Watergate metaphor repeatedly since 2012.
Here are 13 conservatives who have compared Benghazi to Watergate, in chronological order:
1. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.): "I think this is an issue—Benghazi-gate is the right term for this. This is very, very serious, probably more serious than Watergate." —Fox News, October 1, 2012
2. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.):
No one died at watergate! The Obama lies about Benghazi and Biden's deliberate lies Thursday night should be a bigger scandal than Nixon
3. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh: "What we're watching here today is the equivalent of Woodward and Bernstein helping Nixon cover up Watergate. The mainstream media is Woodward and Bernstein. Watergate is Benghazi." The Rush Limbaugh Show, October 24, 2012
4. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): "You know what, somebody the other day said to me that this is as bad as Watergate. Well, nobody died in Watergate. But this is either a massive cover-up or an incompetence that is not acceptable service to the American people." —CBS's Face the Nation, October 28, 2012
5. Fox News contributor Bill O'Reilly: "Richard Nixon denied he had anything to do with a low-level political break-in. If the press had not been aggressive, Nixon would have gotten away with it. And certainly the break-in at the Watergate Hotel was not nearly as important as failing to define a terrorist attack that killed four Americans. President Obama…should have given us the facts weeks ago. He chose not to." —Fox News, November 15, 2012
6. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa): "I believe that it's a lot bigger than Watergate, and if you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you're going to get in the zone where Benghazi is." —The Washington Times, December 12, 2012
7. Former Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee: "This is not minor. It wasn't minor when Richard Nixon lied to the American people and worked with those in his administration to cover up what really happened in Watergate. But, I remind you—as bad as Watergate was, because it broke the trust between the president and the people, no one died. This is more serious because four Americans did in fact die." —The Mike Huckabee Show, May 6, 2013
8. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.): "I want to keep pushing because the bond that has been broken between those who serve us in harm's way and the government they serve is huge—and to me every bit as damaging as Watergate." —The Mike HuckabeeShow, May 6, 2013
9. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas):
You could call #Benghazi Obama's Watergate, except no one died.
10. Former Nixon adviser Pat Buchanan: "The break in at Watergate was a stupid burglary, political burglary, nobody got killed. This is a horrible atrocity. Killing an American ambassador; killing another diplomat; two Navy SEALs; destroying and burning that compound. Driving us out of a part of a country we have liberated. But you are right, the real thing here is the cover-up." —Fox News, May 9, 2013
11. Rep. Louie Gohmert, (R-Texas): "This administration is engaged in a Watergate-style cover-up, and once we get to the bottom, people in this administration need to know once they've been part of doing this kind of cover-up, they just need to know that people went to prison for participating in the cover-up." —WND Radio, August 3, 2013
12. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.): "I will say this to my dying day, I know people don’t realize it now, but that's going to go down in history as the greatest cover-up. And I'm talking about compared to the Pentagon Papers, Iran-Contra, Watergate, and the rest of them. This was a cover-up in order for people right before the election to think that there was no longer a problem with terrorism in the Middle East." —KFAQ, February 3, 2014
13. Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer: "[The email is] to me the equivalent of what was discovered with the Nixon tapes." —Fox News, May 1, 2014
Libyans are seen during fighting outside the office of the Libya Shield pro-government militia in Benghazi, Libya in June 2013.
The Obama administration is considering lifting the decades-old ban barring Libyans from coming to the United States to train as pilots and nuclear scientists. But House Republicans are voicing fierce opposition to the proposal, citing one particular reason: Benghazi.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began the process to rescind the ban last year, following requests from the Defense Department and the Department of State. Rebuilding Libya's military and police forces is critical to promoting democracy and combating extremism in the country, some security experts say, and the ban makes it harder for the US government to aid Libya's military.
But House Republicans don't see it that way. At a hearing earlier this month, they equated lifting the ban to aiding terrorists in the region, repeatedly citing the 2012 attack against the US consulate in Benghazi. "Given the desire of radical regimes and terrorists to obtain or build nuclear weapons or dirty bombs, do we want to possibly train Libyan terrorists in nuclear engineering?...It does not appear that national security has been adequately considered in the effort to end the prohibition," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) noted that "a teacher named Ronnie Smith was murdered in Benghazi. There've been no arrests. I've heard nothing about it." When Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) took the floor, he asked nine consecutive questions related to security in Benghazi.
The hearing came in the wake of a letter Goodlatte, Gowdy, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sent to DHS on March 19, calling the proposal "dangerous and irresponsible." In that letter, House Republicans criticized DHS for continuing to move forward with the proposal without taking their concerns into account.
"The United States supports the aspirations of the Libyan people as they participate in their democratic transition after 42 years of dictatorship," a DHS official tells Mother Jones. "As part of this effort, we are reviewing US policies that have been in place since before the Libyan revolution to see how they might be updated to better align with US interests." The official noted that the review is not yet final.
The Reagan Administration implemented the ban in 1983 following a series of terrorist attacks involving Libyan nationals in the late 1970s. The ban, which applies to Libyans who wish to come to the United States for aviation and nuclear training, harkens back to a time when dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s nuclear program was still active. In the years following, Libya dismantled its nuclear program, the US lifted its ban on Americans traveling to Libya, and in 2011, Qaddafi met a bloody end following political uprising. The US has now committed to training and equipping the new Libyan national army, with training taking place in Bulgaria, but proposals to train pilots in the US and update the country's fleet have been stalled by the visa restrictions.
Security experts say that updating Libya's military is critical to promoting stability in the country. (Earlier this month, the interim prime minister stepped down after there was an armed attack on him and his family.) Frederic Wehrey, a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force Reserve who served as a military attache in Libya in 2009 and 2011, tells Mother Jones that while the US should proceed carefully in vetting and training Libyan forces, "the notion that they're going to come here surreptitiously and use the pilot program to wage attacks is vastly exaggerated." He adds, "It's quite surprising that the opposition [to lifting the ban] hinges on this notion that Libya is a country of all extremists, whereas the military that the US is engaging with is one of the more pro-US, pro-Western elements in the country."
Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for International Affairs Alan Bersin emphasized at the hearing that there are "extra layers of security and vetting" for people who come to the US to work in flight maintenance and nuclear-related fields. He also noted that helping Libyan nuclear scientists get employment that is not hostile to the United States is "in our interest."
Lawmakers who support lifting the ban say that House Republicans are fixating on Benghazi, without taking into account the complex security concerns in the rest of the country. "When my colleagues on the other side of the aisle nevertheless raise the Benghazi attack as well as other terrorist incidents within Libya as grounds for keeping the visa restriction in place, we must keep in mind that there is a difference between the extremist forces behind these incidents and the pro-Western Libyan military that's trying to defeat them, and that's the point of lifting the visa restriction," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said at the hearing.
"The potential lifting of this Qaddafi-era ban would increase our ability to provide security support to the Libyan government and support its border control and counterterrorism efforts—exactly the work we need to do more of post-Benghazi," an Obama administration official says. "Using what happened in Benghazi to prevent an action that would increase our national security is short sighted and unfortunate."