Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow US banks to get out of new financial regulations by operating through their overseas arms. Financial reformers say this is dangerous because markets are global, and a bad bet made by a US bank operating in another country could easily affect banks in the US and cause the US economy to crash again. Bad for America, but good for banks that want to avoid tough new rules. Perhaps that's why lawmakers who received more money from banks and the finance industry in recent years were more likely to vote in favor of the bill. House members who supported the bill received more than twice as much in contributions from the financial industry over the past two years as lawmakers who voted against it, according to a new analysis from the MapLight Foundation, an independent research group that tracks campaign finance.
Interest groups supporting the bill, including securities and investment companies, banks, and chambers of commerce, contributed an average of 102 percent more to House members who supported the bill than to those who voted no. Check it out:
Democratic House members who voted yes on the bill received 75 percent more money from from the financial services industry than Democrats who voted no.
In 2011 and 2012, groups that supported this bill gave five times more to House members than groups that opposed the bill did. The gap was even larger for donations to Democrats. Over those two years, House Democrats received less than $250,000 from interests that opposed this measure. During the same time period, groups in favor of allowing the banks to skirt regulation gave Dems 28 times as much—close to $7 million. Here's what that looks like:
What's remarkable is that some Democrats held firm. Although the bill passed the House last week by a vote of 301 to 124, most Democrats voted against it, which financial reformers say is a significant turn of events. "A majority of Democrats voted against a pro-Wall Street bill...even though it was co-sponsored by Democrats… that was heavily lobbied by Wall Street and everyone had predicted would win by a landslide," Marcus Stanley, policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, told Mother Jones after the vote last week. "I'm pretty psyched."
On Wednesday evening, the House passed a bipartisan bill that would allow US banks to avoid new financial regulations by operating overseas. But financial reformers are seizing on a silver lining: most Democrats voted against the bill—something one financial reformer calls a "miracle"—signaling a tougher-than-expected road ahead for similar efforts to scale back new rules on banks that crashed the economy a few years ago, and making the bill's passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate less likely.
"In our defeatist, Eeyore sort of way, we won today," says Bart Naylor, a financial policy advocate at the consumer group Public Citizen.
"I'm pretty psyched about [the vote]," says Marcus Stanley, policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, a group of national and state organizations that advocate for Main Street-friendly financial rules. "A majority of Democrats voted against a pro-Wall Street bill… even though it was co-sponsored by Democrats… that was heavily lobbied by Wall Street and everyone had predicted would win by a landslide."
The bill in question, the clunkily titled Swap Jurisdiction Certainty Act, was introduced earlier this year by Reps. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), Mike Conaway (R-Tex.), John Carney (D-Del.), and David Scott (D-Ga.). It would exempt foreign arms of US banks from the new regulations on derivatives (which are financial products with values derived from from underlying variables, such as crop prices or interest rates) that are required by the Dodd-Frank Act, the big post-crisis Wall Street reform law.
When Garrett introduced the bill, he described it as an effort to stem government overreach, saying, "Our job creators—millions being crushed by overly burdensome Washington rules and regulations—deserve to be on a fair, level playing field with the international community." But financial reformers say the legislation would just encourage banks to move risky activities to their less regulated overseas subsidiaries. And since the derivatives market is global, if, for example, JPMorgan Chase's London office made some bad bets, the trading loss would immediately poison JPMorgan's US-based offices, and the broader US economy could come tumbling down again.
The House financial services committee passed the bill a few weeks ago, with just 11 Democrats and no Republicans on the 61-member committee voting against it. But Wall Street reformers and their allies in Congress, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), rallied the troops, and changed some minds. On Wednesday, 122 out of 195 Democrats voted against the bill, while only 2 Republicans voted against. It passed 301 to 124.
This is a "huge comeback for Maxine Waters," and financial reformers, says Jeff Connaughton, former investment banker, lobbyist, and author of The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. Past moves to weaken financial regulation have often had strong bipartisan support. But it's now clear that "there is a large constituency in Congress who want to defend financial reform efforts," Stanley says. The fact that most of the Democratic caucus was willing to buck Wall Street's wishes and oppose this bill could help stiffen the spines of regulators, reformers argue. The vote "sends an important message that people are just not going to roll over for Wall Street trying to gut this stuff," Stanley adds.
Reformers hope that Democratic disapproval of this bill could imperil other attacks on rules governing US banks' foreign operations. Wall Street is currently lobbying regulators to weaken their rules governing how Dodd-Frank regulations would apply to US banks overseas (yes, the very rules Garrett's bill would gut); some worry that the financial industry is also trying to roll back regulations on foreign operations through a giant free trade deal now being negotiated; and Europe, too, is calling US regulators' proposed overseas rules too aggressive.
If US banks overseas are allowed to run wild and unregulated, they will concentrate business in less-regulated foreign markets, Naylor says. That's bad news: Almost every major financial scandal involving derivatives has involved trades conducted through a foreign entity. Sooner or later, Naylor says, "Either a spreadsheet error or a rogue trader will bring down an investment firm. American taxpayers then face the Hobson's Choiceof… bailing out the bank…or watching [the] destruction."
It's been 50 years since President John Fitzgerald Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, a law that called for equal pay for equal work. Today, women today still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. On Monday, in an op-ed in Massachusetts' Springfield Republican, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on Congress to end this once and for all by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill Warren and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) introduced in January.
Warren and Mikulski's Paycheck Fairness Act would amend the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to require employers that are sued for discrimination to demonstrate that wage differences between men and women doing the same work are the result of things like education, training, or experience, not gender. Right now, a woman who sues her employer has to prove she was discriminated against. If Warren's bill passes, employers would have to prove they didn't discriminate.The bill also strengthens penalties for pay discrimination, putting them on par with punishments imposed on employers who discriminate based on race or ethnicity; and increases protections against retaliation for workers who inquire about their employer's wage practices.
In the op-ed, the senator points out that the pay gulf between men and women adds up to "hundreds of thousands of dollars" over a lifetime, a gap our economy can't afford, especially as more women than ever are the primary breadwinners: "For middle class families, it takes two incomes to get by these days, and many families depend as much, if not more, on Mom's salary as they do on Dad's. And for single-parent households, lower salaries make it that much harder to stay afloat."
Paycheck inequality also makes America's student debt problem worse. Women and men borrow about the same amount to fund their educations, but a year after graduating, women only make 82 cents for every dollar men do. "This means that as a percentage of income, many young women bear a greater student loan debt burden than young men," Warren says.
Congress and the Obama administration have made steps toward greater pay equality in the past few years. The first bill that President Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which upholds the rights of victims of pay discrimination to seek legal recourse. Earlier this spring, the Senate passed a budget amendment supporting efforts to close the wage gap. On Monday, President Barack Obama also called for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was introduced in both chambers in the last Congress but never made it out of committee.
"There's still more work to be done," Warren says. "I want every little girl to grow up thinking about becoming a doctor or a scientist, a union leader or a small business owner. I don't want her to have to think about how she will get by on wages that are lower."
Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed details about two massive spying programs, initially holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong, a part of the world he chose apparently because of its "spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent." But it's not clear that Hong Kong officials are especially interested in sheltering him. And Snowden said when he went public this weekend that he might try to seek asylum in Iceland.
But Iceland is a long way from Hong Kong. At least 20 hours by air and easily a $3,000 ticket, the trip also would almost certainly require a stop in another European country that might be inclined to turn him over to the US during a layover. But could he try to follow the lead of Julian Assange and make his way to the Icelandic consulate in Hong Kong, where he could submit an application for asylum? The consulate is only about five miles from Snowden's last known whereabouts, the swanky Mira hotel in Kowloon.
A spokesman for the government of Iceland told USA Today this would not be possible because asylum seekers have to be in Iceland to start the application process:
"The main stipulation for seeking asylum in Iceland would be that the person must be in Iceland to start the process," said Johannes Tomasson, the chief spokesman for Iceland's Ministry of Interior in Reykjavik. "That would be the ground rule No. 1."
Snowden does have supporters in the country, namely Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of the Icelandic parliament, who released a statement this week saying, "We feel it is our duty to offer to assist and advise Mr. Snowden to the greatest of our ability." In an interview with Mother Jones, Jónsdóttir noted that Iceland's interior minister is a conservative "who has been saying [he wants] to strengthen ties with US, which means he will want to do everything that the US government tells him to do." But she explained that the parliament has the power to grant citizenship to people in special cases, which could spare Snowden from extradition because, she says, Iceland has never extradited an Icelandic citizen anywhere. This would still require Snowden to get from Hong Kong to Iceland. If he did, whether Jónsdóttir could rally enough of her colleagues to take action is anything but certain.
Jónsdóttir is the public face of the Pirate Party, a newly formed opposition party dedicated to media freedom and digital innovation. The party won only 3 out of 63 seats in the recently formed parliament and may not have much clout in the matter. Moreover, others in the government have not expressed a great desire to help Snowden. After all, the United States is one of Iceland's largest trading partners, and Iceland has a long-standing extradition treaty with the US, factors that even Jónsdóttir concedes could mean that Iceland is "not the best location" for Snowden to seek refuge.
If all else fails, Jónsdóttir says, "maybe we need to create like a whistleblower freedom boat somewhere to pick up refugees."
After last week's revelations extensive National Security Agency surveillance of phone and internet communications, President Barack Obama made it a point to assure Americans that, not to worry, there is plenty of oversight of his administration's snooping programs. "We've got congressional oversight and judicial oversight," he said Friday, referring in part to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which was created in 1979 to oversee Department of Justice requests for surveillance warrants against foreign agents suspected of espionage or terrorism in the United States. But the FISC has declined just 11 of the more than 33,900 surveillance requests made by the government in 33 years, the Wall Street Journalreported Sunday. That's a rate of .03 percent, which raises questions about just how much judicial oversight is actually being provided.
"The FISA system is broken," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Journal. "At the point that a FISA judge can compel the disclosure of millions of phone records of US citizens engaged in only domestic communications, unrelated to the collection of foreign intelligence…there is no longer meaningful judicial review."
But according to Timothy Edgar, a top privacy lawyer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council under Bush and Obama, it's not quite as simple as the FISC rubber stamping nearly every application the government puts in front of it.
The reason so many orders are approved, he said, is that the Justice Department office that manages the process vets the applications rigorously... [S]o getting the order approved by the Justice Department lawyers is perhaps the biggest hurdle to approval. "The culture of that office is very reluctant to get a denial," he [told the Journal].
Still, the entire process is closed. The FISC court hears evidence for surveillance applications presented solely by the Department of Justice. The court does not have to release its opinions or any information regarding such hearings.
In February, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), wrote a letter to the FISC asking the court to consider releasing portions of its opinions to the public by "writing summaries of its significant interpretations of the law in a manner that separates the classified facts of the application under review from the legal analysis, so as to enable declassification." After the revelations on the spying programs last week, Sen. Al Franken called the same thing.
In response to the senators' letter, the FISA court's presiding judge, Reggie B. Walton, said in March that it would be very difficult to release summaries of the court's opinions to the public, because the legal analysis in most opinions is "inextricably intertwined" with classified information.
This post has been corrected. A commenter pointed out that a previous version stated that the FISA court has rejected .0003 percent of all government surveillance requests. The correct percentage is .03. Apologies for the bad math.