Erika Eichelberger

Erika Eichelberger

Reporter

Erika Eichelberger is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She has also written for The NationThe Brooklyn Rail, and TomDispatch. Email her at eeichelberger [at] motherjones [dot] com. 

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Elizabeth Warren: Big Banks Should Reveal Their Donations to Influential Think Tanks

| Wed Dec. 4, 2013 7:25 PM EST

On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on the biggest US banks to disclose their donations to think tanks, which influence laws that affect them.

Under current law, banks and other corporations are not required to publicly report their contributions to think tanks. That means that lawmakers who use think tank data and analysis to shape laws and regulations designed to police banks do not know how much bank money influences that research. "A lot of the power of big banks over DC comes from donations to think tanks, who then put out 'studies' favorable to certain ways of doing business," says one Democratic aide. In a letter to the CEOs of the nation's six largest financial institutions—JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley—Warren called on the companies to start voluntarily reporting their donations to these policy shops.

"To prevent future [economic] crises," Warren says in the letter, "policymakers need access to objective, high-quality research, data, and analysis about our consumer and financial markets…[P]rivate think tanks are extremely well-suited to provide this research and analysis, but for it to be valuable, such research and analysis must be truly independent."

Corporations are required to tell the public when they lobby members of Congress or government agencies, Warren says, so "the same transparency should exist for any indirect efforts [banks] make to influence policymaking through financial contributions to think tanks."

Warren's demand for think tank money transparency is yet another approach to curbing too-big-to-fail—the problem of the biggest Wall Street banks being so large and loosely regulated that their failure would endanger the entire financial system. One of the reasons too-big-to-fail is still a problem, five years after the financial crisis, is that banks are good at weakening the laws and regulations meant to rein them in.

One way to do that is through think tanks. The Roosevelt Institute, for example, recently published a report on the successes and failures of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act. If the institute had received loads of Wall Street cash, it might have been motivated to minimize the failures of the law, and thus further regulation.

Warren's letter comes a few days after the president and vice president of the centrist think tank Third Way wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed warning Democrats against following Warren over a "populist cliff."  The Nation reported this week that Third Way employs a Washington consulting firm that represents financial institutions including MasterCard and Deutsche Bank.

The letter also comes on the heels of a recent defeat for corporate contribution transparency advocates. The Securities and Exchange Commission, a Wall Street regulator, considered forcing corporations to disclose the money they spend on campaigns and elections. But just this week, the agency announced it had dropped that issue from its 2014 priority list.

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Dems Say Boehner Blocking Farm Bill, Wants More Food Stamp Cuts

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 2:13 PM EST

Over the past month, the House and Senate have been working to come up with a compromise farm bill—the five-year piece of legislation that funds agriculture and nutrition programs. The main sticking point is the level of cuts to the food stamp program. House Republicans want to cut $40 billion from the program, while the Senate wants to trim $4 billion. Last week, the talks fell apart, and the two sides are fighting over why.

A Democratic aide tells Mother Jones that House Speaker John Boehner shot down several informal compromise farm bill proposals because the food stamps cuts were not deep enough. Boehner's spokesman denies this.

The Democratic aide says the joint House-Senate panel that is trying to work out a deal presented Boehner with a few proposals that contained food stamps levels close to what the Senate wants. Even though Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)—the chairman of the House agriculture committee and a top member of the compromise panel—was willing to give a lot of ground to the Senate on food stamps, he says, Boehner rejected the proposals. "Boehner is playing spoiler," he adds. "That's why [negotiations] fell apart."

Another source familiar with the negotiations echoes the Dem aide's claim, saying that the House leadership has Lucas on a tight leash. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who is on the compromise committee, told Congressional Quarterly the same thing last week. "I'm hearing that the speaker still keeps inserting his people into the process," and that House members on the farm bill compromise panel "have to go and check with the speaker’s people [who] say they want this and this and this. I hear that's one of our major problems."

But a spokesman for Boehner says the assertion that Boehner shot down the food stamps proposals "is absurd." He adds that "the Speaker has full confidence" in Lucas and the rest of the House GOP team that is working out a compromise farm bill. On Friday, Lucas said negotiations stalled because of differences over the crop subsidy provisions in the legislation.

If Boehner did reject the compromise committee's food-stamp proposals, he adhered to something called the Hastert rule—an informal measure used to limit the power of the minority—which says that a "majority of the majority" party must support a bill before it is brought up for a vote. It was first used by former House speaker Dennis Hastert in the mid-90s.

Boehner may not use the Hastert rule on the farm bill, but time is running out to reach an agreement. The two sides were supposed to have a final compromise bill on the House floor by December 13. A Senate agriculture committee aide says that negotiations are technically still ongoing, but the deadline may be pushed into next year. The farm bill is already more than a year behind schedule.

If fruitless negotiations end up delaying a farm bill for another year, Democrats may be the unlikley winners. Some Dems have been considering voting against any compromise farm bill in order to kill the bill. If that happens, food stamps would continue to be funded at current levels.

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