On Thursday morning, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on President Barack Obama to nominate more judges to the federal bench who have backgrounds serving the public interest instead of corporate America.
Of Obama's judicial nominations so far, just ten—fewer than four percent—have worked as lawyers at public interest organizations, according to a report released Thursday by the Alliance for Justice, a network of civil rights organizations. Only 10 nominees have had experience representing workers in labor disputes. Eighty-five percent have been either corporate attorneys or prosecutors. At an event Thursday sponsored by several civil rights organizations, including the Brennan Center for Justice and the Alliance for Justice, Warren called for more balance in the system.
"Power is becoming more and more concentrated on one side," she said. "Well-financed corporate interests line up to fight for their own privileges and resist any change that would limit corporate excess… We have an opportunity to…fight for something that balances the playing field in the other direction."
Warren noted that now is the perfect time to take up that fight. Obstruction by Senate Republicans has stalled the confirmation of many of the president's judicial nominees over the years. More federal judgeships remained vacant during Obama's first term than during President George W. Bush's, and there are still more than 50 vacancies on the federal bench that need to be filled. "So it's unsurprising that the president and a majority of the Senate gravitated to nominating corporate lawyers…that most conservative senators could not object to," Warren said. In November, however, the Senate voted to put an end to GOP obstruction by ending the filibuster for judicial nominations. Now it only takes a simple majority of the Senate to confirm nominees to the federal bench. Theoretically, that means that Obama can nominate progressive candidates with experience representing the average American, and Democrats will be able to confirm those nominees without any Republican votes.
On Jan 16, the president nominated four lawyers with public interest backgrounds to fill district court vacancies in Illinois, Washington, Nevada, and Missouri. Two of those nominees have significant trial experience representing plaintiffs in corporate wrongdoing cases, one is a former public defender, and one comes from criminal defense.
But there are still roadblocks that may prevent the president from nominating progressive candidates. The GOP can still use something called the "blue-slip process" as a de facto filibuster on nominations. Here's how: When the president is considering a potential judicial nomination, the senators from the state where the judge would serve are given a blue slip of paper. If both senators do not return their blue slips, the nominee is not allowed to move on to a vote in the Senate judiciary committee.
It is because of the blue-slip process, for example, that Obama recently nominated two candidates to serve on the federal bench in Georgia who raised the hackles of liberals: Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs and Atlanta attorney Mark Howard Cohen. Boggs voted to keep the Confederate battle emblem as a prominent part of Georgia's state flag when he was a Georgia legislator in the early 2000s. Cohen helped defend Georgia's voter ID law, which voting rights advocates say makes it harder for poor people and minorities to vote.
This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation along with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that would protect elderly veterans from financial scams and sketchy financial advisers.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) funds an assisted living program for certain low-income veterans, and for years scammers and faux investment consultants have preyed on elderly vets enrolled in it. Warren and Rubio's bill, introduced Tuesday, would require the VA to crack down on these shady dealers.
"For thousands of our oldest veterans who need help with basic daily activities, the…program is a critical lifeline," Warren said. "Unfortunately, scams are turning the program into something that can actually undermine the financial security of our older veterans and waste federal funds."
Swindlers calling themselves "veteran's advisers" often charge vets fees to help them obtain assisted living benefits, even though the application is free, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). "Investment advisers" also profit off the assisted living program. These advisers will counsel veterans who have too many assets to qualify for the program to stow some of their money in a trust or account that cannot be accessed for years, so that it appears the vets are poor enough to qualify. The result is that vets cannot access their savings, and investment advisers earn a healthy commission for their "advice."
Warren and Rubio initially proposed the legislation in November as an amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The amendment did not make it into the final annual defense bill, prompting Warren and her Republican colleague to introduce a stand-alone bill.
"This bipartisan proposal will help put an end to these financial scams and ensure that we honor our veterans' commitment, sacrifice, and service to the nation," Warren said.
"Unemployment insurance is a critical lifeline for people who are trying their hardest and need a little help—a recognition that Wall Street and Washington caused the financial crisis, but Main Street is still paying the price," Warren said in a speech on the Senate floor.
She added that it's hypocritical for Republicans to push for an extension of a package of mostly corporate tax breaks called "tax extenders" without offsetting the cost, but are demanding that aid for the unemployed be paid for. "Republicans line up to protect billions in tax breaks and subsidies for big corporations with armies of lobbyists," the senator said, "but they can’t find a way to help struggling families trying get back on their feet."
Each year since the onset of the recession in 2008, Congress has re-authorized federal emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, which kick in after state unemployment benefits run out—usually after 26 weeks. The number of extra weeks of federal unemployment insurance has varied over the years, but last stood at 47 weeks.
The long-term unemployment rate—the percentage of those without a job for 27 weeks or longer—remains at record high levels, but Republicans in the House and Senate don't want to extend federal unemployment benefits unless they are offset by savings elsewhere. A Senate plan to renew the benefits failed a couple of weeks ago, because Republicans said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wouldn't allow them to amend the legislation to their liking. The upper chamber is now working on a new proposal that would pay for the $6-billion extension by temporarily increasing taxes on employers. But even if the Senate passes the measure, it is unclear whether House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will bring the bill up for a vote, according to Democratic House aides.
UPDATE, February 6, 2014: On Thursday, Senate Republicans successfully filibustered a Democratic bill that would have extended unemployment benefits for 3 months. The vote was 55-42, but Democrats needed 60 votes to advance the legislation.
Last week, billionaire investor Tom Perkins of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers sent a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal likening criticism of the 1 percent to Nazi attacks on the Jews. He's not an outlier. As Paul Krugman pointed out on Sunday, the rich have been lamenting the "demonizing" and "vilifying" of the 1 percent for years. "I…suspect that today’s Masters of the Universe are insecure about the nature of their success," Krugman wrote. But the wealthy are not just afraid of losing their money to an angry middle class. Class warfare also makes the rich uncomfortable because they worry the non-rich are judging their character and personality by how much money they have, according to therapists who counsel the rich.
In 2012, Mother Jones reported on how banks, including Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley, are increasingly hiring psychotherapists like Traeger-Muney to help their extremely wealthy clients deal with the complications that come with being extremely wealthy. Here's a bit more of what wealth therapists can tell us about how the rich may be feeling right now:
Although wealth counseling has existed for years, the 2008 financial crisis really sent the aristocracy sprinting for the therapist's chair. The 2010 Capgemini/Merrill Lynch World Wealth Report, a survey that takes the pulse of zillionaires around the world, found that after the crisis, spooked clients were demanding "specialized advice." Financial advisers must "truly understand the emotional aspects of client behavior," the report warned…
"Any time there's an outside focus on wealth," it's not fun for the wealthy, [Traeger-Muney] says. Heirs, she adds, have it the worst: "They feel like they're in this 1 percent position. They get bad press from people who make fun of them. It feels like their worst nightmare coming true: the idea that they're now responsible for other people's unhappiness and lack of wealth, when they didn't ask for [their millions]."
Ultimately, having lots of money shouldn't be cause for alarm. "There's a difference between money causing problems and a lack of ability to explore feelings around money," Traeger-Muney says. "That's what leads to psychological issues." She just tries to get her clients to acknowledge the fact that they're rolling in dough and learn how to enjoy it. "What would life be like if they didn't have any restraints and could really create what they wanted?"
On Wednesday morning, Republicans won a years-long battle over whether to slash or spare food stamps when the House passed the farm bill, a $500 billion piece of legislation that funds nutrition and agriculture programs for the next five years.
The farm bill has been delayed for more than two years because of a fight over cuts to the food stamp program, which is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Last June, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) forced a vote on a bill that would have cut $20 billion from SNAP. But conservatives said the cuts were not deep enough, Democrats said they were far too deep, and the bill failed, 234-195. That September, House Republicans drafted new legislation slashing $40 billion from the food stamp program. That bill passed the House with Republican votes only. After months of negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate, which wanted much lower cuts of around $4 billion, the House finally passed a farm bill 251-166 Wednesday that contains a "compromise" $9 billion in reductions to the food stamp program.
And yet, despite the $5 billion in cuts that already happened and the guarantee of $6 billion more, Republicans succeeded in getting their Democratic peers to cut food stamps further. This is the first time in history that a Democratic Senate has even proposed cutting the program. Now the upper chamber is expected to pass cuts twice the level it approved last year.
"It's a net loss for Democrats," Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tells Mother Jones. "It's absolutely a GOP win," agrees a House Democratic aide.
How did the GOP do it? In November, Dems said that Boehner was interfering with House-Senate negotiations on the farm bill, rejecting proposed legislation that contained shallower food stamps cuts. (Boehner's office denies this.)
But Dems deserve much of the blame, the Democratic aide says. Last year, House liberals were scheming to get progressives to vote against any farm bill that contained SNAP cuts. The idea was that if enough progressives voted no along with the House conservatives who think the cuts are too low, Democrats could defeat the bill. In that case, food stamp funding would be preserved at current levels. A "$9 billion [cut] is too much…It hits in the gut," Rep. Gwen Moore (R-Wis.) told Mother Jones earlier this month.
When the final bill came up for a vote in the House, the Congressional Progressive Caucus advised its 76 members to vote against the bill. But not enough Dems voted to block the cuts. One hundred three Democrats voted against the farm bill, but 89 voted in favor. If 43 more Democrats had voted no, the farm bill would have failed. "Dems are…complicit in changing [the] law, when they could just [block the bill] and let that status quo continue," the Democratic aide says.
Democrats in the House and Senate agreed to cut nutrition aid for poor Americans because they "have shifted to the right on SNAP politically," the staffer adds. "If Dems were as absolutist as the tea party, this bill would be dead on arrival and SNAP would continue as is."
But the assault on the food stamp program "could have been much, much worse," argues Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. Stacy Dean, the vice president for food assistance policy at the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), agrees. Democrats succeeded in stripping many draconian GOP provisions from the bill. Republicans wanted to impose new work requirements on food stamp recipients; allow states to require drug testing for food stamps beneficiaries; ban ex-felons from ever receiving nutrition aid; and award states financial incentives to kick people off the program. None of those measures were in the final legislation, Dean notes.
The cuts to the food stamp program come from closing a loophole that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed needed to be addressed. A household's level of monthly food stamps benefits is determined by how much disposable income a family has after rent, utilities, and other expenses are deducted. Some states allow beneficiaries to deduct a standard utility charge from their income if they qualify for a federal heating aid program called the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, even if they only receive a few dollars per year in heating aid. The arrangement results in about 850,000 households getting a utility deduction that is much larger than their actual utility bill. Because the deduction makes these families' disposable income appear to be lower than it actually is, they get more food stamp money each month. The farm bill that passed the House on Wednesday saves $9 billion by closing that loophole.
The savings from closing the heating aid loophole could have been returned to the food stamp program. Instead, Republicans succeeded in prodding Dems to accept $9 billion in new cuts on top of the $11 billion in expiring stimulus funds. That extra $9 billion in cuts means that close to a million households will see their benefits slashed by about $90 a month—enough to pay for a week's worth of cheap groceries for a family of four.