Political MoJo

Elizabeth Warren Launches New Battle Against the Fed

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 7:02 PM EST

While speaking before the Senate's Banking Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) hit Fed Chair Janet Yellen with a string of harsh questions over the performance of Scott Alvarez, the Fed's general counsel, who is at the helm of an investigation of a Fed leak from September 2012.

Warren has expressed frustrations over the investigation's lack of public information. 

"Wall Street banks could profit handsomely if they knew about the Fed’s plans before the rest of the market found out, and that’s why any leak of confidential information from the Fed results in serious penalties for the people who are responsible," Warren said on Tuesday. "But apparently there have been no consequences for the most recent leak."

The Massachusetts senator specifically pointed to Alvarez's Wall Street-friendly reputation, mainly referring to his past criticisms of Dodd-Frank, when she asked Yellen whether the Fed's views aligned with those of its top lawyer.

Pressed for a strict yes or no response, Yellen eventually said she is "not seeking to alter Dodd-Frank in any way at this time."

"Do you think that it is appropriate that Mr. Alvarez took public positions that do not evidently reflect the public position of the Fed’s board, especially before an audience that has a direct financial interest in how the Fed enforces its rules?" Warren responded.

Yellen appeared slightly irritated:

 

 

 

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The FCC Just Approved Net Neutrality

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 2:40 PM EST

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to categorize the internet as a public utility and thereby uphold strong net neutrality regulations.

Advocates applauded the passage as a victory for internet consumers, blocking what had been described as the creation of internet "fast lanes" for companies willing to pay more for high-speed service.

The vote came down to a 3-2 margin, with dissents from Republicans Michael O'Reilly and Ajut Pai. 

"The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free open access to the internet," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said prior to the vote.

"The internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules," he added.

In recent months, net neutrality has emerged as a divisive political issue, with fierce opposition against regulations coming from Republicans and broadband providers alike. President Obama's announcement back in November fully supporting net neutrality's preservation prompted members of the GOP to denounce the potential move.

 

Obama Just Vetoed the GOP's Keystone Bill, and This Democratic Presidential Hopeful Is Pissed

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 6:12 PM EST

Jim Webb is sounding increasingly serious about running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Last week, National Journal's Bob Moser wrote a cover story wondering whether the former Virginia senator could "spark an anti-Hillary uprising," in which Webb explained that his absence from the campaign trail this winter was, in part, the result of major knee surgery to fix problems leftover from his days in the Vietnam War.

Webb struck his first blow against his fellow Democrats on Wednesday. But rather than targeting Clinton, his likely presidential opposition, he struck out against the party's incumbent, President Barack Obama. In a series of tweets, Webb lashed out at the president for vetoing a bill that would have approved construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Webb's tweetstorm doesn't tell the whole story. A letter from the EPA released earlier this month argued that, thanks to recent drops in oil prices, Keystone XL could prove disastrous for carbon emissions.

As I detailed in December, Jim Webb had an atrocious record on climate change and environmental issues while he served in the Senate. Standing up for Virginia's roots as a coal state, Webb tried to thwart Obama's efforts to regulate greenhouse gasses through EPA regulation, and he helped block Democratic attempts to pass a cap-and-trade law.

Clinton, for her part, has regularly sidestepped addressing whether she wants to see the pipeline constructed, though she has generally been supportive of other environmental efforts made by the Obama administration.

While Webb objected to Obama's decision to veto this specific bill, it's still unclear whether the two Democrats disagree on the underlying issue. Obama has strenuously rejected attempts by congressional Republicans to force immediate approval of the pipeline, but his administration has not yet said definitely if it intends to let the project go forward eventually.

We Have Some Good News For You About Marijuana

| Tue Feb. 24, 2015 5:26 PM EST

When comparing seven commonly used recreational drugs, marijuana clocks in as by far the least dangerous, nearly 114 times safer than the most dangerous drug concluded in a new study—alcohol.

This is according to research recently published in Scientific Reports, which examined the exposure risks of heroin, meth, alcohol, cocaine, ecstasy,  tobacco, and marijuana, by individuals. While previous studies have long suggested marijuana use poses a lesser mortality risk than alcohol—a point commonly cited in calls to increase legalization in more states—such a wide margin was not previously known.

In the new study, researchers also concluded that the deadly risks of alcohol have most likely been severely underestimated. Alcohol and tobacco (the fourth deadliest drug) are the only two substances in the study that are generally legal for adult use in the United States.

The findings come as more states appear to be coming around to the idea of marijuana legalization. Earlier this week, Alaska became the first red state to legalize pot, and Washington D.C. is preparing to do the same in just a few days. The recent passage of the $1.1 trillion federal spending bill marked a huge step towards ending the war on medical marijuana with the inclusion of an amendment preventing the Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries.

Researchers behind the study said their results should encourage lawmakers to move away from the "current prohibition approach" under federal law, and opt for a more "strict regulatory approach" instead. The study also suggested a "risk management prioritization" that emphasizes a focus on alcohol and tobacco, rather than illicit drugs.

Walmart Is Finally Raising Its Minimum Wage

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 4:19 PM EST

On Thursday, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon announced the company would be raising its baseline pay to at least $9 an hour beginning this spring and then up to $10 an hour by February 2016, a move that will affect an estimated 500,000 employees.

The decision, announced in both a press release and during a quarterly earnings call Thursday morning, follows years of mounting public pressure from both outside and within Walmart to boost its notoriously low wages and improve labor practices. The company has repeatedly responded to such criticism by pointing out that it pays more than the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour; of course, 29 states require a higher minimum wage. (An estimated 6,000 Walmart employees currently make the federal minimum.)

While McMillon described the move as a moral decision to do "the right thing," Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder said the move is more an indication of an improving economy than anything else. 

"While the economy isn't exactly booming right now, it is doing very well, with labor markets tightening and the unemployment rate continuing to fall," Vedder said. "That means it's becoming increasingly difficult for Walmart to attract good, dependable workers than it was two to three years ago. Right now, they are thinking the economy will continue to boom, and they need to stay competitive."

"Could they afford to go further and still remain hugely profitable? Probably, but would that be good policy is another question," Vedder added, referring to the reaction by Walmart stockholders today:

The nation's largest private retailer, Walmart recently admitted that 825,000 of its 1.4 million employees earn only $25,000 annually, with 600,000 part-time workers on Medicaid and other food assistance programs. Walmart employees have staged strikes protesting their low wages, with advocacy groups demanding the retailer raise its minimum wage to $15. The company says that with the new increase, the average hourly wage will rise to $13 from $12.85.

While welcoming the move on Thursday, some say it is still not enough. "When compared to the $16 billion in profit that the company rakes in annually, Walmart's promise of $10 an hour, which even for a full-time worker is not enough to keep a family of four out of poverty, is meager," Christine Owens, director of the National Employment Law Project, told the New York Times.

A more substantial change could come from McMillon's announcement, also on Thursday, pledging to bring scheduling enhancements for part-time workers currently struggling under unpredictable work hours. Last August, Starbucks announced the company would be improving scheduling policies to address such concerns.

"Walmart has been attacked over the years as being uncaring and tactless," Vedder said. "This is a chance to win some points with the American public. By waging their raises they can appear more compassionate than previously viewed, especially when they aren't put under the gun by federal law to do so."

Eric Holder Wants All Executions Put on Hold

| Wed Feb. 18, 2015 5:00 PM EST

Attorney General Eric Holder has called for a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty until the Supreme Court makes a decision on the constitutionality of certain lethal injection methods later this year, saying on Tuesday that he opposes capital punishment because he believes the odds of eventually making a mistake and executing an innocent individual are "inevitable."

Here's some of what Holder had to say at a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington:

It is one thing to put somebody in jail for an extended period of time, have some new test that you can do and determine that person was, in fact, innocent. There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed. And that is, from my perspective, the ultimate nightmare…I think fundamental questions about the death penalty need to be asked. And among them, the Supreme Court's determination as to whether or not lethal injection is consistent with our Constitution is one that ought to occur.

Holder, who stressed that he was speaking personally and not for the Obama administration, has voiced his opposition to the death penalty before. In November, the attorney general told the Marshall Project that there is always the possibility that a jury will sentence the wrong person to death. "We have the greatest judicial system in the world," he said, "but at the end of the day it's made up of men and women making decisions, tough decisions. Men and women who are dedicated, but dedicated men and women can make mistakes."

The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear an appeal by death row inmates in Oklahoma who say the state's lethal injection methods violate the Constitution. In April, the state botched the execution of 38-year-old Clayton Lockett, who reportedly writhed in pain after receiving a three-drug combination and died 43 minutes later. The court is expected to rule by the end of June.

As my colleague Stephanie Mencimer has reported, states are searching for new capital punishment methods after losing access to sodium thiopental, an anesthetic traditionally used in lethal injections. The only US manufacturer of the drug stopped producing it in 2011, while suppliers in Europe who object to the death penalty will no longer export it to the United States. In a bid to find other options, some states have used untested combinations or bought from unregulated compounding pharmacies, while lawmakers in Utah have even voted to bring back the firing squad for executions. In Ohio, lawmakers passed a "secret execution" law that exempts from public records searches the names of suppliers of lethal injection drugs.

Meanwhile, also on Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court stayed the execution—scheduled for next week—of a death row inmate convicted of killing four people in Orlando in 1985, pending a decision from the high court.

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Clinton Courts Warren

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 7:00 PM EST

Back in December, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) reportedly met in private for what is being described as a "cordial and productive" conversation inside Clinton's Washington D.C. residence. The New York Times' Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin have the scoop, published Tuesday, which makes clear Clinton did not ask for Warren's endorsement, but instead sought the senator's thoughts on a number of policy issues.

News of the one-on-one conversation comes not only as Clinton continues to build a formidable 2016 campaign team—most recently with the hire of Mandy Grunwald, a longtime Clinton confidant who had lately been advising Warren—but also as liberal activist groups urge the Massachusetts senator to challenge her for the Democratic nomination. While Clinton, who has yet to formally announce her candidacy, is widely viewed as the party's frontrunner, a possible run by Warren and her trademark populist message would certainly complicate her campaign.

Despite calls for her to run, however, Warren has repeatedly said she will not be seeking the nomination. But a sit-down at Clinton's home, sans political aides and initiated by Clinton, is the most clear signal Clinton is well aware she will be needing Warren's deeply popular economic liberalism in order to be successful come 2016, especially at a time when even Republicans appear to be freely borrowing from the senator's populist platform.

Why Is This US Attorney So Gung-Ho on Prosecuting a Respected Medical-Pot Dispensary?

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 5:29 PM EST
Melinda Haag, US Attorney for Northern California.

Several California congressional representatives issued a statement Friday accusing the Department of Justice of "not acting within the spirit or letter of the law" in its pursuit of a three-year-old legal case aimed at shutting down Harborside Health Center, one of the country's largest and most respected pot dispensaries.

"As Members of Congress we have watched the public acceptance of medical marijuana develop and grow while the Federal policy on it stagnates," wrote Reps. Sam Farr, Dana Rohrabacher, and Barbara Lee.

In 2012, US Attorney Melinda Haag initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against Harborside, which does $25 million a year in sales, on the grounds that it had grown too big. The move came as shock to many in California's medical marijuana industry; Harborside was widely viewed as one of the state's most ethical and legally compliant dispensaries. A few months later, the City of Oakland sued to block Haag's case, arguing that shutting down Harborside would create a public health crisis.

"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo.

The following year, the Justice Department issued a memo laying out a more permissive federal policy on pot, and federal prosecutors dropped similar civil forfeiture proceedings against several dispensaries in Los Angeles. But in Northern California, Haag pressed on with her case against Harborside and the Berkeley Patients Group, another large, well-respected dispensary.

Motivated in part by Haag's prosecutions, Reps. Farr and Rohrabacher won a provision in December's federal appropriations bill that blocks the DOJ from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients that abide by state laws. The move was expected to be the nail in the coffin for Haag's pot cases. But on February 3, she appeared before 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to push the case forward, arguing that the City of Oakland shouldn't be allowed to challenge the proceedings.

"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal in the Harborside case," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo. Haag's office could not immediately be reached for comment.

The DOJ's ongoing pursuit of the case has led to much debate about Haag's motivations. Some observers wonder if she's simply a dyed-in-the-wool drug warrior. Others speculate that the DOJ sees the case as a way to continue to discourage the expansion of marijuana businesses in California, where pot laws are notoriously loose and decentralized.

"It can be dismaying to me as a businessperson to have these persistent attacks keep coming at Harborside and see most of the rest of the industry not similarly targeted," DeAngelo says. "But I did not get into this industry to make lots of money, I got into this to make cannabis legal. And I think we are gong to win."

5 States Where Republicans Are Getting Serious About Criminal Justice Reform

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 3:04 PM EST

A growing group of conservatives are stepping back from their traditional "tough on crime" stance and taking a lead on reforming the criminal justice system. There's even talk that congressional Republicans and Democrats could come together on the issue: Earlier this week, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced a bipartisan prison reform bill. (Though it seems to have considerable flaws.)

At the state level, Republicans have already been taking on the issue. Here are five states where Republican governors and their fellow GOP lawmakers are taking on broken prison systems and the harsh laws that have fueled the incarceration boom:

Nebraska: Members of Nebraska's legislature have introduced several bills that address the state's overcrowded prisons. These include two bills introduced Wednesday, which would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for a slew of crimes (including distributing cocaine and heroin) and limit Nebraska's "three-strikes" law to violent crimes. While the Cornhusker State's legislature is nonpartisan, a majority of bills' cosponsors are affiliated with the Republican Party, including Sen. Jim Smith, the head of the state branch of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Republican Governor Pete Ricketts reportedly supports the push for prison reform, as does the Omaha-based Platte Institute, a conservative think tank that recently released recommendations for decreasing incarceration that have drawn support from the Nebraska ACLU.

Utah: Republican state Representative Eric Hutchings is sponsoring legislation that aims to reduce Utah's prison population and decrease recidivism. The bill, which has yet to be publicly released, would decrease the charge for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Governor Gary Herbert, also a Republican, has put aside $10.5 million for recidivism reform.

Illinois: Governor Bruce Rauner's agenda includes a plan to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison by instead sending them to community programs. Earlier this week, he created a commission of lawmakers, cops, and activists to recommend reforms to the state's criminal justice system. More details about his plan will come out when he releases his 2016 budget recommendations next week.

Alabama: The legislature-appointed Alabama Prison Reform Task Force is gearing up to propose a new bill for the next legislative session, which begins in March. Led by Republican state Senator Cam Ward, an outspoken Second Amendment defender, the task force is seeking ways to cut down the state's prison population, which is more twice its intended size. One of Ward's ideas? Making re-entry easier by throwing out draconian laws for ex-felons, like those preventing them from getting driver's licenses.

Georgia: A similar task force, the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, has been recommending reforms to lawmakers. Formed in 2011 by Republican Governor Nathan Deal, the group has pushed the state to stop imprisoning juveniles and reform sentencing for nonviolent offenders, which slashed $20 million off the cost to house inmates in Georgia. The council's current agenda includes initiatives to improve reentry for ex-felons.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: "I Wasn't 100 Percent Sober" During SOTU Address

| Fri Feb. 13, 2015 1:21 PM EST

Contrary to earlier speculation that she had power-napped through last month's State of the Union Address because it was just so damn dull, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg revealed on Thursday it was actually due to the fact she wasn't exactly "100 percent sober."

The 81-year-old justice told a crowd of George Washington University students:

The audience for the most part is awake, because they're bobbing up and down, and we sit there, stone-faced, sober judges. But we're not, at least I wasn't, 100 percent sober. Because before we went to the State of the Union, we had dinner together... Justice Kennedy brought in... it was an Opus something or other, very fine California wine, and I vowed this year, just sparkling water, stay away from the wine, but in the end, the dinner was so delicious, it needed wine.

According to Ginsburg, she was thankfully flanked by colleagues, who, like any good friends, casually nudged her awake when they noticed her dozing off. Watch below: