After months of quiet lobbying, civil rights groups and progressive organizations are now coming out publicly against the Obama administration for failing to enforce a voting rights law that applies to the Obamacare health insurance exchanges.
The 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), commonly known as the "Motor Voter" law, requires DMVs and other state agencies that provide public assistance to also help voters register. The Obama administration has acknowledgedthat Obamacare exchanges are covered by the law. But the federally-run exchange, which serves residents of states whose Republican governors refused to establish their own insurance marketplaces, isn't doing much to fulfill its Motor Voter obligations, beyond embedding a link to the federal voter registration site in the online insurance application.
The law requires covered agencies to go much further and treat voter registration the same as the application process for other services. In the case of Obamacare, this means the navigators hired by HHS to walk uninsured Americans through the insurance sign-up process should also offer to guide applicants through the voter registration process. But Republicans have decried plans to apply the Motor Voter law to exchanges, saying it would create a "permanent, undefeatable, always-funded Democrat majority," since the uninsured are disproportionately low-income people and minorities—groups that tend to vote Democratic. Following the outcry by the GOP, the Obama administration decided last year to hold off on full implementation of the Motor Voter provision. But now 32 progressive organizations and unions—including the NAACP, United Auto Workers, and the National Council of La Raza—are calling on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to start requiring navigators to help register voters immediately.
"There is no question that the ACA [the Affordable Care Act] must meet the requirements of the NVRA, as your administration has acknowledged," the groups said in a letter to the HHS last week. "As staunch supporters of voting rights, we believe that it is critical for the ACA to meet these legal requirements now and offer voter registration to the millions of Americans who will be shopping for insurance on the exchanges in the coming months and years."
The letter comes on the heels of a public campaign in January led by the voting rights organizations Demos and Project Vote to get HHS to fall in line with Motor Voter.
The 24 million mostly low-income and minority Americans who are expected to buy insurance through the exchanges by 2017 are far less likely than other citizens to be registered to vote, although Motor Voter has helped lessen the disparity. Some 140 million people have registered to vote through the program since it was enacted. Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, told Mother Jones in January that the reason HHS "has really dropped the ball" on the Motor Voter issue is likely quite simple. "This looks like [the administration is] running from a political fight," he says.
I just returned from a reporting trip to Nigeria, where I was traveling around the country talking to terrorism experts, nomadic cattle herders, and government officials about how global warming affects conflict in the country. I lucked out with an amazing fixer. As a newswire reporter focused on the terrorist group Boko Haram, he was able to provide crucial context for my story. But Michael* also grew up a "street boy," meaning he was able to make fast friends in the slum villages and farming communities we visited. He put himself through college, and after working as a Nigerian soap opera actor and door-to-door men's clothing salesman, he clawed his way into journalism. Before that, he used to hang out with nomadic cow-herding kids, children who sell bottled water by the roadside, and budding scam artists. Yes, Nigerian scam artists, like the ones who send you emails purporting to be from an African prince who will pay you to help him move $3 million into your country, and all you have to do is give him your bank account number. I told Michael I wanted to interview his scammer friends. He said there was no way that his dudes would talk for less than $600. Shocker. Of course, at Mother Jones we don't pay for interviews. But I figured I'd be doing a public service by distracting the scammers from conning old folks for a couple hours. So I offered $100 for a rare glimpse at the human faces behind the syntax-challenged spam. We settled on $130, and off we went.
I sat down with Sheye and Danjuma* on the back patio of a fancy duplex in an upscale neighborhood in one of the country's main cities, and the two dished on their craft, constantly interrupting each other as they downed bottles of Nigerian Star lager and chain-smoked. Though they lie for a living, Sheye insisted, "We are telling you the fact and the truth."
Sheye and Danjuma have a name for the advance-fee email scams, in which victims agree to to send money to a stranger, banking on the promise of love or fast money. They called these cons "Yahoo" jobs, pronounced Ya-OO.
A scam email I received recently.
"We go on the internet…We start making friend with you," Danjuma says, explaining that they trawl Facebook and dating websites incessantly, looking for lonely women with money to spare. He knows if he meets "a Saudi Arabia person," he's in luck. "They don't know what to do with money."
Last summer, Solace, a community group that helps oversee immigrant detention, warned US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about alleged sexual assault, harassment, and neglect at the agency's Otay detention facility in San Diego. But instead of working with the organization to address its concerns, ICE is now blocking its access to the center.
In August, ICE told Solace that it would no longer be able to continue its visitation program at the facility unless its volunteers agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement. The confidentiality agreement is "extremely confusing," says Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project. "It's vague enough that it could be used as a cover for inappropriate termination of visitation rights based on advocacy or other free-speech activities." The form also requires volunteers to "defend" and "indemnify" ICE and Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the detention facility, from any liability "arising" out of the volunteers' work, meaning that if a volunteer tells a detainee she has the right to sue Otay for sexual abuse, the volunteer would be required to defend Otay if the detainee were to bring a lawsuit against the facility. Takei says that this type of language would "chill" volunteers from raising concerns about detention conditions.
For six months, Solace tried unsuccessfully to persuade ICE's San Diego field office to reinstate the visitation program and to modify the language in the confidentiality form to comply with ICE's national detention standards, which merely require volunteers to sign an acknowledgment that they understand the rules of the facility and a waiver that releases ICE from responsibility in case of volunteer injury.
Civic, an umbrella network of visitation programs that includes Solace, sent a formal request to ICE's national office last week requesting that the agency force its San Diego field office to modify the application form and reinstate Solace's visitation rights. Civic asked for a response by Monday but has not received one. On Tuesday, when Civic told ICE it was going to publicize the issue, the agency said it was willing to meet with the immigrant visitation organization. "We hope to have a collaborative resolution," says Kristen Kuriga, who helps run Solace. "But it has already taken six months." ICE did not return a request for comment. Neither did the Department of Homeland Security.
This is not the first time that ICE has suspended visitation after volunteers criticized the agency. Last July, in response to an editorial penned by Civic's co-executive director, Christina Fialho, which slammed the lack of oversight at immigrant detention facilities, ICE suspended Civic-affiliated visitation programs at three ICE detention centers in California. Fialho says that there have been other instances around the country in which individual Civic volunteers have participated in vigils outside of detention facilities and then been denied visiting privileges.
ICE detains about 34,000 people every day. It's a big system and there is "very, very little oversight," says Grisel Ruiz, a law fellow at the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Oversight of ICE detention facilities, which are often run by counties or private prison companies, has improved over the past half decade, Takei says. But unlike the federal prison system run by the Bureau of Prisons, there is no third-party overseer built into the ICE immigrant detention system, which is housed within the Department of Homeland Security. Most oversight of immigrant detention comes from civil-society groups, including groups like Solace.
Now, ICE "is asking us to choose between our First Amendment rights and visiting our friends in detention," Fialho says. "This is not a choice any democracy should ask its people to make."
After we published this article, ICE sent this response:
"US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is committed to an immigration detention system that prioritizes the health and welfare of detainees. The agency welcomes visits to its facilities by members of community groups and encourages constructive feedback for improving conditions of immigration detention. In the interest of ensuring the safety of facility staff and detainees, ICE policy [as detailed in the agency’s 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards] requires that members of community service organizations seeking to participate in voluntary detainee visitation programs undergo background checks prior to being admitted to these secure facilities."
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the watchdog agency conceived of and established by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the wake of the financial crisis, had a hard time getting on its feet. The GOP tried everythingit could to hobble the bureau, but to no avail. Over the past couple of years, the CFPB has issued dozens of protections shielding consumers from shady practices by mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and credit card companies. Here are ten things the CFPB, which was created in 2011, has done to protect the little guy:
1. Mortgage lenders can no longer push you into a high-priced loan: Until recently, lenders were allowed to direct borrowers toward high-interest loans, which are more profitable for lenders, even if they qualified for a lower-cost mortgage—a practice that helped lead to the financial crisis. In early 2013, the CFPB issued a rule that effectively ends this conflict of interest.
2. New homeowners are less likely to be hit by foreclosure: In the lead-up to the financial crisis, lenders also sold Americans "no doc" mortgages that didn't require borrowers to provide proof of income, assets, or employment. Last May, the bureau clamped down on this type of irresponsible lending, forcing mortgage lenders to verify borrowers' ability to repay.
3. If you are are delinquent on your mortgage payments, loan servicers have to try harder to help you avoid foreclosure: During the housing crisis, loan servicers—companies that collect payments from borrowers—were permitted to simultaneously offer a delinquent borrower options to avoid foreclosure while moving to complete that foreclosure. New CFPB rules force servicers to make a good faith effort to keep you out of foreclosure. That's not all: Loan servicers will now face civil penalties if they don't provide live customer service, maintain accurate mortgage records, and promptly inform borrowers whose loan modification applications are incomplete.
5. Borrowers with high-cost mortgages get an outside eye: Lenders who sell mortgages with high interest rates are now required to have an outside appraiser determine the worth of the house for the borrower. If a borrower is going to be paying sky-high prices for a fixer-upper, at least she'll know it beforehand.
6. Fly-by-night financial players will be held accountable: Part of the CFPB's mandate is to oversee debt collectors, payday lenders, and other under-regulated financial institutions that profit off low-income Americans. The bureau is preparing new restrictions on debt collectors, and considering new regs on payday loan industry. In the meantime, the bureau is cracking down on bad actors individually.
7. Folks scammed by credit card companies get refunds: In October 2012, the CFPB ordered three American Express subsidiaries to pay 250,000 customers $85 million for illegal practices including misleading credit card offerings, age discrimination, and excessive late fees. This past September, the CFPB ordered JPMorgan Chase to refund $309 million to more than 2.1 million Americans for charging them for identity theft and fraud monitoring services they didn't ask for.
8. Student lenders face scrutiny: The CFPB oversees private student loan servicing at big banks to ensure compliance with fair lending laws. In December, the agency announced that it will also start supervising non-bank student loan servicers, which are companies that manage borrowers' accounts. Many of these servicers have been accused of levying unfair penalty fees and making it hard for borrowers to negotiate an affordable repayment plan.
9. Service members get extra protection: In June, the CFPB ordered US Bank and its non-bank partner Dealers' Financial Services to refund $6.5 million to service members for failing to disclose fees associated with a military auto loan program. In November, the CFPB ordered the payday lender Cash America to pay up to $14 million for illegally overcharging members of the military.
10. Consumers get a help center: If your bank or lender does anything you think is unfair, the bureau has a division dedicated to fielding consumer complaints. The agency promises to work with companies to try to fix consumers' problems.
Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen at a House hearing in February.
Between 2007 and 2009, the Federal Reserve—the US central bank tasked with regulating unemployment and inflation—handed out an unprecedented $20 trillion in super-low interest loans to failing Wall Street banks. The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law required the Fed to restrict its emergency lending powers so that too-big-to-fail banks don't expect the central bank to dole out easy money again in the event of another financial crisis. The Fed waited overthree years to craft regulations to comply with the Dodd-Frank provision, and now it has finally drafted rules to limit its bailout powers, financial reform advocates say the restrictions are far too weak.
"The rule mostly reiterates the language of [Dodd-Frank]," Stanley says. "And the drafters take advantage of every opportunity to interpret the statute in ways that minimize limits on emergency lending authority."
Instead of limiting the Fed's emergency lending powers to temporary cash assistance as it is supposed to, the draft rule imposes no clear time limit on how long a big bank may remain dependent on Fed largesse. And the draft regulation defines "solvency" with far too broad a brush, according to AFR. The proposed rule does not require the Fed to assess if a potential borrower's liabilities exceed the value of its assets.
While the emergency lending rule would ban loans to a single institution, it would still allow the creation of loan programs that lend to, say, three or four of the largest banks, while allowing smaller banks to flounder.
The Fed's draft emergency lending rule does not even set an interest rate at which loans will be extended, a provision that would help to limit the "moral hazard" of easy money, AFR notes. And the rule is unclear as to how it would value borrowers' collateral.
The Fed declined to comment. But last year, former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke dismissed concerns that the central bank had not yet drafted a rule limiting its emergency lending powers, insisting that the language in the Dodd-Frank law was sufficient. "I think that [Dodd-Frank] is very clear about what we can and cannot do. And I don't think that the absence of a formal rule would allow us to do something which the law prohibits," including bailing out an individual firm, or lending to an insolvent bank, he said at a House hearing in July.
The Fed is currently accepting public comment on its emergency lending rule, so it is possible that reformers may win some victories before a final rule is put in place. Though the lobbying clout of the financial industry vastly outweighs that of pro-reform groups.
Before the Fed finally drafted its emergency lending rules, financial reformers said the central bank was likely dragging its feet because it didn't want to cede some of its authority over the financial world. This latest lukewarm effort to rein in its bailout abilities makes it seem like that may be the case.
"There are two ways to keep the economy on an even keel," AFR's Stanley told me last July. "Through clear, transparent rules that treat everyone the same—which is pretty challenging, and involves taking on a lot of interests." Or, he says, "you get to create a whole bunch of money out of nothing and you can hand it out wherever the problem is… It's easier to have this magic power."