Erika Eichelberger

Erika Eichelberger


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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Dems Who Once Supported Gutting Investor Protections Bail on Wall Street

| Wed Oct. 30, 2013 2:11 PM EDT

In August, Mother Jones broke the news that a letter signed by 32 progressive House Democrats that pushed to weaken protections for millions of Americans' retirement accounts had been written by a financial industry lobbyist.

Since then, those Dems must have had a change of heart. On Tuesday, nearly all of them flip-flopped, and voted against a House bill that would have undermined the same safeguards the letter opposed.

Here's some background, which was covered in our August report: The Department of Labor, which oversees the law that sets minimum standards for many retirement plans, is considering a rule that would simply require retirement investment advisers to act in the best interest of their customers. The letter, which was signed by 28 out of the 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)—a group of lawmakers that advocates for low-income people and minorities—and four other Democratic lawmakers, sought to delay and weaken the rule. Consumer advocates and government officials argued the rule could provide much need protection for small investors:

The current law doesn't do enough to prevent unscrupulous investment brokers from parking Americans' hard-earned cash in high-fee investments that benefit themselves, even if it's not in their customers' best interests, argues Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America...

"This rule is about protecting people from conflicts of interest," says Phyllis Borzi, the Department of Labor's assistant secretary for employee benefits security, who is spearheading the push for a stronger investment adviser rule. "Those conflicts harm everyone who is doing the right thing and trying to save."

The bill that passed the House on Tuesday by a largely party-line vote would, just as the letter urged, also have delayed and weakened the rule. But negative attention to the lobbyist's letter (our scoop was noted by MSNBC's Chris Hayes, among others) may have helped change some of the Democrats' minds.

Only two of the letter-signers voted with Wall Street: Reps. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.). A short time ago, the letter and other sources suggested at least 60 Democrats would support the bill; in the final tally, only 30 supported it. This was a "shockingly bad vote for Wall Street," one House staffer said.

Even though the vast majority of its signatories voted against the bill, the lobbyist-written letter was still being used to win over Democrats in the last hours. According to an email reviewed by Mother Jones, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Florida), who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), circulated it to Democratic staffers just before the vote Tuesday, as evidence of Democratic support for the bill.

Despite the House bill's passage, the investment industry's chances of delaying the rule through legislative action are slim: the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass the measure, and the White House is also opposed. And on Tuesday, Wall Street found out that its influence among House Democrats wasn't as strong as they'd once thought.

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Economists to Congress: It's Time for a "Robin Hood Tax" on the Rich

| Wed Oct. 30, 2013 1:07 PM EDT

Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Congress resolved the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis (for now) by agreeing to hash out a budget agreement by mid-December. Already, hopes are dim. Budget experts say that if any deal at all is worked out to replace the deep budget cuts that went into effect in March, the most likely outcome will be a short-term plan involving slightly less severe spending cuts—but with no new revenue, a big Democratic priority. Now, several prominent economists, along with a coalition of labor, health, and community groups are pushing progressive lawmakers to aim higher, calling for what they term a "Robin Hood tax" on the rich.

On Wednesday, economist Jeffrey Sachs briefed members of Congress on the Robin Hood tax, also known as a financial transaction tax, which would charge Wall Street investors a fraction of a penny on the dollar value of each trade they make. Given the mind-boggling number of trades that occur each day, the tax could rake in as much as $700 billion a year. That would increase federal revenues by about 24 percent.

"We are calling on Congress and the White House to refocus on a human needs budget, not just an endless cycle of more austerity and more cuts," says Karen Higgins, RN, co-president of National Nurses United, one of the groups backing the tax. "We need the Robin Hood tax."

4 Ways the Hearing Was Not About

| Thu Oct. 24, 2013 4:36 PM EDT

On Thursday morning, Republicans on the House energy and commerce committee held a hearing about what is wrong with the federal health insurance exchange site, who is responsible, and what needs to be done to fix it. In attendance was Cheryl Campbell, the senior vice president at CGI Federal, the main contractor building the website, as well as three other top executives from smaller contractors working on the federal insurance site. Although members of Congress managed to pry some key information out of the witnesses—the contractors, predictably enough, pinned blame on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for failing to adequately test the whole system early enough—a good part of the hearing was devoted to partisan bickering, sometimes only tangentially related to the problem-plagued website.

Here are four topics addressed in Thursday's hearing that had nothing to do with fixing

1. Delay Obamacare, because why not: The GOP failed in its effort to delay Obamacare by shutting down the government and threatening default. But Republicans are not dissuaded. Some, like Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-Florida), have suggested delaying the individual mandate for six months because of the problems with the website. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Penn.) and other Republicans at Thursday's hearing echoed this proposal. (The White House already announced Wednesday night that it will compensate for the delays caused by the website by giving Americans up to six extra weeks to sign up for insurance.)

2. Obamacare Could Steal Your Data: Both Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) used the hearing to heap another healthy dose of Obamacare fear-mongering on Americans. Barton said that Obamacare violates the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the law that protects Americans' personal medical information, because requires applicants to enter personal information into site. "Do you think that should be a requirement to sign up for Obamacare?" Barton demanded of the contractors. "You know [that's] not HIPAA compliant… It's a direct contradiction of privacy and you know it!"

Except that the health insurance website only asks for very basic personal data, not medical information. "There is no health information in the process," Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) snapped in response. "You're asked about your address, your date of birth. You are not asked health information. So why are we going down this path? Because you are trying to scare people so they don’t apply, and so therefore the legislation gets delayed, or the Affordable Care Act gets defunded, or it’s repealed. That’s all it is, hoping people won’t apply."

Blackburn raised the HIPAA issue, too, asking if all the contractors had been trained in HIPPA compliance, if they have physical access to HHS's databases, and how many separate servers were being used to store Americans' medical information.

3. Remember the Government Shutdown?:  Toward the end of the four-and-a half hour hearing, Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), expressed annoyance that he had not yet heard an apology from any of the contractors for screwing up uninsured Americans' ability to finally get health coverage. "I've not heard the word I'm sorry," he said. "I know men have a hard time saying that, but the whole panel." Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the committee, jumped at the opportunity to skewer Republicans over the government shutdown. "Can we get an apology for shutting down the government because people didn’t like the health care bill?" he asked.

4. What About Climate Change?: Campbell of CGI and the representatives for the other website contractors divulged as little information as they possibly could about the missteps and confusions that contributed to a barely functioning health exchange website. Committee members asked how many total applicants had registered so far through the site, what kind of hacking protections each contractor uses, and who exactly at HHS was in charge of ensuring that the website was adequately tested before the launch date. Each time Republicans received an "I don't know" from the contractors, they demanded the information be furnished by "9 a.m. tomorrow."

In response, Waxman noted that he and fellow energy and commerce committee member Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) have asked Republicans on the committee numerous times to hold climate change hearings, and said it would be nice if GOP committee members would respond to their requests by "9 a.m. tomorrow," too. In the last Congress, Waxman and Rush sent 21 letters to Chairmen Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) requesting that the committee hold hearings on climate change, and received no response. In the current Congress, Waxman and Rush have sent seven letters requesting hearings on this topic, and the committee has held one hearing.

Judicial Races Now Look Like Regular Old Political Campaigns. Thanks, Citizens United!

| Thu Oct. 24, 2013 1:09 PM EDT

Justice is blind, except when it's backed by millions in political spending. In the wake of Citizens United, the Supreme Court case allowing unlimited spending on elections by outside groups, judicial races in the thirty-eight states that conduct elections for their high courts have become indistinguishable from ordinary political campaigns, according to a new report released Thursday by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake, which analyzed the 2011-2012 judicial election cycle. Check it out:

The last election cycle saw record spending: Special interest groups and political parties spent an unprecedented $24.1 million on state court races in the last election period, a jump of more than $11 million since 2007-08. The most expensive high court elections were in the four states where courts most closely divided by either judicial philosophy or political party: Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina.

Top funders were mostly conservative: Business and conservative groups accounted for 7 of the top 10 spenders in 2011–2012.

Special interest group donations escalated: The independent groups empowered by Citizens United spent a record $15.4 million to persuade voters in high court races in the last election period, accounting for more than 27 percent of total spending on high court races. The previous record was $11.8 million in 2003–2004.

Koch-type national groups invaded judicial races: Big spenders in judicial races in the last election cycle included the Koch brothers' group Americans for Prosperity in Florida and North Carolina, the NRA-affiliated group Law Enforcement Alliance of America in Mississippi, the Republican State Leadership Committee in North Carolina, and the progressive advocacy group America Votes in Florida.

Super spenders dominated: Thirty-five percent of all funds spent on state high court races, or $19.6 million, came from only 10 special-interest groups and political parties. That's compared with 21 percent in 2007-2008.

TV ad spending jumped: During the 2011-2012 cycle, a record $33.7 million was spent on television ads for state high court races, far more than the previous record of $28.5 million in 2007-2008. Negative advertisements aired in at least ten states. The Ohio Republican party said that Ohio Supreme Court justice candidate Bill O'Neill "expressed sympathy for rapists." In Wisconsin, an incumbent justice was accused of protecting a priest accused of molestation. And in Michigan, one candidate was described as having "volunteer[ed] to help free a terrorist."

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