Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked her colleagues Wednesday to oppose Michael Froman, President Barack Obama's pick for US Trade Representative, charging that he is not committed to giving the American public information about a sweeping trade deal now being negotiated between the US and 11 other countries.
The massive free trade agreement, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, would affect everything from intellectual property rights, to product safety standards, to financial regulations. Many lawmakers criticized the previous trade representative, Ron Kirk, for the secrecy surrounding the deal; certain members of Congress can see the proposed text of the deal, but the public cannot. Warren has called on the office of the US Trade Representative to release the full text of the TPP deal to the public. But in a floor speech Wednesday, she said Froman has made clear he would not release the text of the deal and is not interested in making the negotiations more transparent:
I asked the President's nominee to be Trade Representative—Michael Froman—three questions: First, would he commit to releasing the composite bracketed text [the full text of the TPP as it currently stands]? Or second, if not, would he commit to releasing just a scrubbed version of the bracketed text that made anonymous which country proposed which provision...
Third, I asked Mr. Froman if he would provide more transparency behind what information is made [available] to the trade office's outside advisors. Currently, there are about 600 outside advisors that have access to sensitive information, and the roster includes a wide diversity of industry representatives and some labor and NGO representatives too. But there is no transparency around who gets what information and whether they all see the same things, and I think that's a real problem.
Mr. Froman's response was clear: No, no, no.
Warren has raised concerns that Wall Street is trying to weaken financial regulations through the TPP. Rep. Darrell Issa (D-Calif.) is worried that the deal could imperil an open internet. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) says the trade agreement could move jobs overseas. The TPP is not final yet, so no one can say for sure what will be in it. But Warren says the American public deserves to be a part of the discussion.
"The American people have the right to know more about the negotiations that will have dramatic impact on the future of the American economy," Warren said. "I believe in transparency and democracy, and I think the U.S. Trade Representative should too." A vote is expected Wednesday afternoon.
A new study to be released Tuesday by a federal agency called the Corporation for National and Community Service found that jobless Americans can increase their chances of finding work by 27 percent if they volunteer first. People without a high school diploma and people in rural areas can increase their chances by more than 50 percent, the Washington Post reports.
Volunteering is useful for people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, Christopher Spera, the lead author of the study, explained to the Post, because they don't have the same opportunities as better-off Americans:"Folks with lower levels of education tend not to have the networks and social capital enjoyed by folks with higher levels of education," he says. Here's the Post on how volunteering can help:
The report builds on other research that has found that volunteering helps people learn skills, be presented with leadership opportunities, enhance their résumés and—perhaps most crucially—develop a network of contacts that can help them find work...
The link between volunteering and reducing joblessness was endorsed by former labor secretary Hilda L. Solis, who last year issued a guidance to state workforce agencies emphasizing that volunteering may be one strategy that can help put the unemployed—particularly the 4.4 million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months—back to work.
"In a complex 21st-century economy that demands new skills of American workers, volunteerism is not a substitute for job training," Solis said. "But it can be an important complement."
Now we know that poor, less-educated people can benefit from unpaid work in the same way that their more well-heeled, highly-educated counterparts can. After all, unpaid internships have exploded in recent years; over half of the class of 2012 had an internship during college, and half of those were unpaid. The only difference is that when poor people work for free, their parents probably won't be able to help them get by.
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."