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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GOP Plan to Split Up Farm Bill Could Doom Food Stamps

| Thu Jul. 11, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), House Agricultural Committee Chairman

Update (4:30pm 7/11/2013): On Thursday afternoon, the House approved the food stamp-less version of the farm bill.

Update (7/11/2013): Late Wednesday, top House Republicans dropped the section of the farm bill pertaining to food stamps from a new version of the legislation. The bill could come up for a vote as early as Thursday.

On June 20, the farm bill, a huge, five-year bill that provides funding for farm and nutrition programs, failed to pass the House by a vote of 234-195. That's because conservative Republicans thought that the bill's $21 billion in cuts from the food stamp program over 10 years wasn't nearly enough, and Democrats thought it was way too much. Now the GOP is proposing to try and pass the farm bill by splitting it into two separate pieces of legislation, which would allow separate votes on farm provisions and nutrition programs. The problem is that this kind of move could mean even deeper cuts to the food stamp program.

On Tuesday, Republicans discussed the strategy with House agriculture committee chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.); the idea is that splitting the bill up would give the farm provisions a better chance of passage since they wouldn't be attached to the controversial food stamp provisions. At the same, time, the GOP would be able to garner more conservative votes for the nutrition bill by making further cuts to the food stamp program. The plan "would take the SNAP bill farther to the right and make bigger cuts," Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) told the National Journal.

But a House food stamp bill with, say, $30 billion in cuts wouldn't be the main problem. The problem is that this kind of draconian bill wouldn't pass the Senate, which passed a farm bill with a mere $4 billion in nutrition cuts. That means the food stamp program would end up hanging around unauthorized (meaning it would continue to be funded at current levels through appropriations bills). That leaves the program vulnerable to other pieces of legislation, says Dottie Rosenbaum, an expert on food assistance at CBPP. There is a "lot of mega-legislation coming up," she adds, including a debt ceiling bill in September, and it's dangerous if "cuts are on the table."

"I worry that it sets the [food stamp] program up for a ceaseless attack over time because it is unauthorized," Greenstein told the National Journal. Especially since the GOP's ultimate goal, as laid out by Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) most recent budget, is to cut food stamps by $135 billion over 10 years.

Top Dems on both the Senate and House ag committees slam the idea. Senate agriculture committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) told the Associated Press that cutting the bill up would be a "major mistake." Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the top Democrat on the House ag committee, has said the idea is "stupid."

The breakup may very well not happen, because it's not only anti-hunger groups who are opposed to the splitting up of the farm bill; farm groups are, too. The Hill reported Wednesday that the proposal is currently short on votes.

Anti-hunger advocates hope that the motley coalition wins out over slash-happy conservatives, and that food stamps will be saved for the time being. After all, "there is a history of food stamps and the farm bill being together. That process has resulted in a bipartisan moderate result," Rosenbaum says.

A farm bill that remains intact would in all likelihood still mean food stamp cuts. Just not Paul Ryan-sized cuts.

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Wall Street Dodges Financial Reform Again

| Fri Jul. 5, 2013 2:01 PM PDT

The Dodd-Frank financial reform act, the law designed to clean up the abuses that led to the financial crisis, celebrates its third birthday this month. But only about a third of the rules required by the legislation have been finalized so far, and even those are not going into effect as scheduled. This week provided a perfect example of why that is: The Federal Reserve granted Goldman Sachs a two-year extension to implement a key Dodd-Frank rule that would require banks to move risky trading into separate affiliates that are not backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Several other of the nation's biggest banks won the same exemption last month.

Financial reformers are not shocked. "Quelle surprise!" quips Bart Naylor, a policy advocate at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. "The Federal Reserve decides to heed the crush of Wall Street lobbyists."

The Dodd-Frank rule, which Goldman Sachs was supposed to implement by July 16, requires FDIC-insured banks to move most of their derivatives trades into separate firms so that when a trade goes bad the bank will have to handle the fallout, not taxpayers. (Derivatives are financial products with values derived from underlying variables, like crop prices or interest rates; they were a major catalyst in the economic meltdown of 2008.) In its request for an extension, Goldman told the Federal Reserve—the main overseer of derivatives dealers—that complying with the deadline would mean the firm would need to either divest or stop a big portion of its swaps trading; a transition period, Goldman said, would be needed to ensure that the rest of the economy is not damaged by the shift. On Tuesday, the Fed agreed.

Economy Adds 195,000 Jobs, But Experts Say Fed Shouldn't Curb Stimulus Yet

| Fri Jul. 5, 2013 8:31 AM PDT

The economy added 195,000 jobs in June, according to jobs numbers released Friday by the Labor Department, and the unemployment rate held at 7.6 percent. The news was better than expected, and continues several months of generally positive employment news. But economists say that the joblessness situation in the country is not nearly sunny enough to justify the Federal Reserve reigning in the stimulus measures it has deployed since the recession, a move the Fed has hinted it may make in the coming months.

Employment growth in June was in line with the average monthly gain in jobs over the past year, and numbers for the past few months have been revised upwards—in April from 149,000 to 199,000, and in May from 175,000 to 195,000. More than 62 percent of the job increases last month were in leisure and hospitality, which picked up 75,000 jobs; retail, which gained 37,000; and temp services, which added 10,000. Low-wage service sector jobs have been a hallmark of this recovery; occupations paying less than $13.83 have accounted for 58 percent of the job gains since 2010. This follows a longer-term pattern of middle-income jobs being hollowed out by low- and high-wage jobs after recessions. Here's what that has looked like since the 2001 recession, via the National Employment Law Project:

And here's more grim news in June's report: The number of people working part-time because their hours had been cut back or were unable to find full-time work increased by 322,000 people to 8.2 million between May and June. Last month, there were 1 million discouraged workers—meaning people not looking for work because they believe there are no jobs available for them. That's an increase of 206,000 from a year ago. When you include these workers, you get an alternative June unemployment rate (which the Labor Department terms the U6 unemployment rate) of 14.3 percent. That's a significant uptick from May (13.8 percent), and the highest level since February.

In other bad news, the unemployment rate for adult women edged up to 6.8 percent, and the ongoing sequester accounted for a loss of 7,000 government jobs.

A total of 11.8 million Americans remain unemployed, and the proportion of people in the workforce remains at its lowest level since 1979.

For these reasons, economists are saying this is no time for the Federal Reserve to cut back on stimulus measures. In May, Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke hinted the Fed may begin increasing interest rates from their current near-zero levels, and cut back on its purchasing of tens of billions of dollars per month in government bonds. Dean Baker, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, says that the proportion of people in the workforce should drive the Fed's stimulus policies, not the unemployment rate. Here's Baker:

Ironically Bernanke made this exact point about declining [employment-to-population ratio (EPOPs)] back in January 2004 when he was justifying the Fed’s decision to keep the [interest] rate at what was then considered an extraordinarily low 1.0 percent. Bernanke noted that the unemployment rate at the time was not terribly high, but pointed to a sharp decline in the EPOP from the pre-recession level. Since it was implausible that so many people had suddenly lost the desire or ability to work, Bernanke argued that the falling EPOP was strong evidence of continuing slack in the labor market.

Apparently Bernanke views the recent fall in the EPOP differently than the drop following the last recession.

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