'Millionaire tax cheats have run wild' in the last 7 years -- but there's something Biden's DOJ can do to stop it

Following the leak of IRS documents that shed additional light on the prevalence of tax dodging among the wealthiest Americans, a group of House Democrats on Thursday said President Joe Biden must swiftly appoint a new Assistant Attorney General for the Tax Division if he hopes to crack down on unlawful evasion tactics.

"Americans increasingly believe that their tax system is rigged against them. This belief has credence given the government's repeated inability to vigorously pursue and deter rich tax scofflaws."
—Letter

In a letter to Biden, the lawmakers note that it has been more than seven years since there was a Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General of the Tax Division at the Justice Department—a leadership void that, according to Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), is "helping let millionaire tax cheats run wild."

"We share your goal of creating greater tax fairness in America by improving tax enforcement, particularly against wealthy tax cheats," reads the letter, which was led by Pascrell and signed by four other Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, the chamber's tax-writing panel.

The Justice Department's Tax Division is currently headed by David Hubbert, a longtime DOJ official who Biden appointed to serve in an acting capacity in late January. But the Democratic lawmakers warned in their letter Thursday that "continued reliance on an Acting Attorney General hinders the division's ability to promote voluntary compliance with the tax laws, enforce the nation's tax laws, and perhaps most importantly, maintain public confidence in the integrity of the tax system—the very prerequisites of the division's mission."

"That deterioration is evident in the enduring existence of America's two-tier tax system, documented in a seemingly endless litany of media stories and statistics highlighting the ability of our richest citizens to cheat on their taxes with impunity," the lawmakers continued, referencing a recent ProPublica report showing that the richest 25 billionaires in the U.S. paid a true federal tax rate of just 3.4% between 2014 and 2018.

The Democrats' letter comes as Biden is looking to close the so-called tax gap—the difference between taxes owed and taxes actually paid to the federal government—by increasing the IRS budget, which Republicans have cut repeatedly over the past decade. As the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, talks over a White House-backed bipartisan infrastructure package have stalled amid Republican opposition to a provision that would boost the IRS budget by $40 billion over the next decade.

"Lawmakers and aides said the [bipartisan] group may abandon an effort to raise revenue through enhanced enforcement at the IRS after some Republicans said they were concerned about granting the tax agency new power," the Journal noted.

Insufficient funding has left the IRS without the staffing and resources necessary to audit the tax returns of wealthy Americans, who often use complex strategies to dodge their obligations. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, IRS audit rates for the biggest U.S. corporations and American millionaires fell by 51% and 61%, respectively, between 2010 and 2018.

Earlier this week, a Washington Post analysis of business filings found that the federal government now audits just half of all large company tax returns, leaving a huge opening for corporations to claim unwarranted tax breaks.

In their letter, the House Democrats wrote that "there can be little question that the underfunding and understaffing of the IRS jeopardizes our federal tax system."

"Americans increasingly believe that their tax system is rigged against them," the lawmakers noted. "This belief has credence given the government's repeated inability to vigorously pursue and deter rich tax scofflaws. It is impossible for the American people to have confidence in their tax system if the government itself does not demonstrate a sustained commitment to engage the machinery of that system and make it fair for all citizens."

"More broadly, the institutional atrophy that festered under your predecessor, particularly within the Department of Justice, must be reversed lest our nation become accustomed to decaying government capacity and outright corruption," the letter continued. "Consequently, we call on you to move with urgency to name an Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Tax Division."

Read the full letter:

Dear President Biden:
As members of Congress's tax-writing committee, we share your goal of creating greater tax fairness in America by improving tax enforcement, particularly against wealthy tax cheats. But, as of today, it has been 2,597 days—seven years and one month—since there was a Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General of the Tax Division at the Department of Justice. A fair tax system demands a full-time enforcement officer. So, as you enter the 176th day of your presidency, we write to urge you to nominate an official for this position as soon as possible.
The Tax Division is "responsible for handling or supervising most federal criminal tax prosecutions." The continued reliance on an Acting Attorney General hinders the division's ability to promote voluntary compliance with the tax laws, enforce the nation's tax laws, and perhaps most importantly, maintain public confidence in the integrity of the tax system—the very prerequisites of the division's mission.
That deterioration is evident in the enduring existence of America's two-tier tax system, documented in a seemingly endless litany of media stories and statistics highlighting the ability of our richest citizens to cheat on their taxes with impunity. The Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recently estimated that the yearly tax gap may exceed a trillion dollars while openly acknowledging that his agency more readily pursues audits of the working poor than of wealthy tax cheats. We believe that your deliberation and selection of a respected and qualified candidate for Assistant Attorney General of the Tax Division is needed now.
Better enforcement of the tax system starts with providing the IRS with real support after years of deliberate underfunding. To that end, your proposal to increase the IRS budget by $80 billion over 10 years is a watershed measure that can lay the foundation for a truly fair tax system. But the IRS cannot do its job best without a completely engaged partner at the Justice Department.
There can be little question that the underfunding and understaffing of the IRS jeopardizes our federal tax system. Americans increasingly believe that their tax system is rigged against them. This belief has credence given the government's repeated inability to vigorously pursue and deter rich tax scofflaws. It is impossible for the American people to have confidence in their tax system if the government itself does not demonstrate a sustained commitment to engage the machinery of that system and make it fair for all citizens. More broadly, the institutional atrophy that festered under your predecessor, particularly within the Department of Justice, must be reversed lest our nation become accustomed to decaying government capacity and outright corruption. Consequently, we call on you to move with urgency to name an Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Tax Division.
Our window to act is narrow and, each day, closing further. We look forward to working with you in making the American tax system truly fair.

'We are living on borrowed time': Calls for a bolder Congress follow Texas Dems' exodus

As Texas state Democratic lawmakers on Monday undertook a daring effort to deny their Republican colleagues the quorum needed to ram through a sweeping voter suppression package, progressive advocates and observers implored congressional Democrats to act boldly to protect U.S. democracy from the GOP onslaught.

According to the Texas Tribune:

Upping the ante in both the legislative fight at home and the national debate over voting rights, most House Democrats boarded two planes out of Austin headed for the U.S. capital without a set return date. At least 51 of the 67 Democratic representatives—the number needed to break quorum—were in the process of leaving Monday afternoon, most arriving at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport Monday to board chartered flights that departed around 3:10 pm.

As the Tribune notes, "ultimately, Democrats lack the votes to keep the Republican-controlled Legislature from passing new voting restrictions, along with the other conservative priorities on Gov. Greg Abbott's 11-item agenda for the special session," which is set to reconvene Tuesday.

"We need Congress to act now to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect Texans—and all Americans—from the Trump Republicans' nationwide war on democracy."
—Texas state House Democrats

A pair of GOP bills supported by the Republican governor would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting, restrict mail-in voting, increase penalties for voting mistakes, and further empower partisan poll watchers. This, in a state where high-profile arrests and imprisonment of Black people for what they say were honest voting mistakes were already drawing condemnation from across the nation.

"Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led Legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans' freedom to vote," a statement from state House Democratic leaders said.

"We are now taking the fight to our nation's Capitol," it continued. "We are living on borrowed time in Texas. We need Congress to act now to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect Texans—and all Americans—from the Trump Republicans' nationwide war on democracy."

U.S. Senate Republicans blocked debate on the For the People Act, a popular pro-democracy bill, last month—bolstering demands that Democrats end the filibuster.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement that:

Today, by breaking quorum to block Abbott's attacks on voters, Texas Democrats are making history. After Abbott dragged lawmakers back to the [state] Capitol for his suppression session, Democrats are fighting back with everything we've got. We will not stand by and watch Republicans slash our right to vote, silence the voices of Texans of color, and destroy our democracy—all to preserve their own power.
Our lawmakers have refused to be complicit in Republicans' destructive attacks—and they're doing what Texans need them to do: Hold the line so that not one more anti-voter law can be passed in Texas. There's no democracy without the right to vote. Once again, Democrats are standing strong and united to defend the right of every eligible Texas voter to make their voice heard.

"Republicans are attacking our voting rights for one reason: They know their days in power are numbered, so they're trying to cling to power the only way they can—by stopping us from voting," asserted Hinojosa. "Texas Democrats have stood strong in the face of these attacks all year, and we will not let up. We will keep holding the line for our democracy and the voice of every single Texan."

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-116), who organized the effort to leave Texas, told the New York Times that "we have to decide if we are going to stand for democracy. We want the nation to join us and we want the U.S. Senate to hear us and act."

Numerous left-leaning activists and observers echoed Martinez Fischer's call to action directed at Democrats in the U.S. Congress.

"Voters cannot afford to wait any longer for Congress to take action," Common Cause Texas executive director Anthony Gutierrez said in a statement. "If we believe in free and fair elections, then we have to fight for them. Texas Democrats have led by example, doing whatever it takes to preserve our democracy. Now it's time for Congress to do the same."

Morris Pearl, former managing director at the asset management firm BlackRock, Inc., and chair of the Patriotic Millionaires, said in a statement that "this evening, Texas Democrats are setting a bold example for lawmakers in the dozens of other states where voting rights are under attack and in the U.S. Capitol, where legislation to protect voting rights has yet again stalled."

"In Austin and all across the country, our democracy is being systematically and strategically undermined, and it's time for lawmakers to treat this assault on our democracy as the emergency it is," Pearl added. "Democrats in the U.S. Senate could learn a lot from these Texas Democrats—sometimes you have to pull out all the stops to protect democracy."

Trump roundly ridiculed for 'dumb and frivolous' Big Tech lawsuit

Critics of Donald Trump reacted with derision and disdain Wednesday after the former president announced a lawsuit against three tech firms and their CEOs that banned him for violating company policies against false and hateful posts.

The Associated Press reports Trump announced his class-action suit against Facebook, Twitter, and Google-owned YouTube, as well as respective CEOs Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai, in Bedminster, New Jersey Wednesday afternoon.

"We're asking the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida to order an immediate halt to social media companies' illegal, shameful censorship of the American people," Trump said. "We're going to hold Big Tech very accountable."

Trump—who is widely expected to run for president again in 2024—has been banned from the social media platforms since January, when a mob consisting mostly of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., resulting in five deaths.

According to the AP:

Twitter, Facebook, and Google are all private companies, and users must agree to their terms of service to use their products. Under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, social media platforms are allowed to moderate their services by removing posts that, for instance, are obscene or violate the services' own standards, so long as they are acting in "good faith." The law also generally exempts internet companies from liability for the material that users post.

Twitter permanently banned Trump, while Facebook has barred the former president indefinitely and YouTube says it will lift the suspension on his channel when the risk of incitement to violence subsides.

Critics of Trump were quick to note that the president is already fundraising off the lawsuit, which some said is perhaps meant to distract from the indictment last week of longtime Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg.

Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, said in a statement that "this is not a lawsuit. It's a fundraising grift."

She continued:

While it's silly to pretend that the moderation decisions of Big Tech don't have a significant impact on free expression, the First Amendment enables private platforms to make exactly the kind of moderation decisions they wish to make as nongovernment entities. From a legal perspective, this lawsuit is likely to go nowhere. Moreover, its disingenuous attack on Section 230 reveals a laughable misunderstanding. Without 230, platforms would likely have removed controversial figures like Trump long ago.

"Trump's legal showboating will fan the flames of unhelpful back and forth over whether platforms should or shouldn't deplatform a specific account," Greer asserted.

"His bogus claims only create confusion and downplay legitimate concerns about how haphazard or overzealous content moderation leads to removal of content, often disproportionately impacting marginalized communities," she added.

Summing up the sentiments of many legal observers, prominent legal scholar Lawrence Tribe tweeted: "If I were on the receiving end of this obviously bogus lawsuit, I'd yawn. Then yawn again."

'Nature and physics will not fall for it': Greta Thunberg rips Into climate theatrics of world leaders

In the wake of the latest failure by the G7 nations to take meaningful steps to combat the climate emergency and record-breaking heatwaves on multiple continents, Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg on Friday accused world leaders of hypocrisy for persecuting climate activists while "pretending" to take the threat seriously.

"Young people all over this planet are no longer falling for your lies."
—Greta Thunberg to world leaders

Addressing the Austrian World Summit virtually, the 18-year-old Thunberg noted that "more and more people around the world have woken up to the climate and ecological crisis, putting more and more pressure on you, the people in power."

"Eventually the public pressure was too much," said the Fridays for Future founder. "You have the world's eyes on you, so you started to act. Not acting as in taking climate action, but acting as in role-playing. Playing politics, playing with words, and playing with our future. Pretending to take responsibility; acting as saviors as you try to convince us that things are being taken seriously."

"Meanwhile the gap between your rhetoric and reality keeps growing wider and wider," Thunberg continued. "And since the level of awareness is so low you almost get away with it."

"But let's be clear," she stressed, "what you are doing is not about climate action or responding to an emergency. It never was. This is communications tactics dressed as politics."

Thunberg accused leaders of high-income nations of "pretending to change and listen to young people," and in a thinly veiled criticism of U.S. President Joe Biden, by "pretending to take science seriously by saying 'science is back' while holding climate summits without even inviting one single climate scientist as speaker."

She also accused leaders of "pretending to wage war against fossil fuels, while opening up brand-new coal mines, oil fields, and pipelines."

"You don't only continue business as usual," said Thunberg, "in many cases you're even speeding up and scaling up the process, pretending to have the most ambitious climate policies while granting new oil licenses [and] exploring future oil fields."

In another swipe at Biden, Thunberg decried "pretending to 'build back better' after the pandemic even though astronomical sums of money have already been locked in, and not in green projects."

"And when your empty words are not enough, when the protests grow too loud, you respond by making the protests illegal."
—Thunberg

"The G7, as an example, is spending billions more on fossil fuels and fossil fuel infrastructure than on clean energy," she noted.

"And when your empty words are not enough, when the protests grow too loud, you respond by making the protests illegal," Thunberg charged. Her remarks came amid a wave of arrests of climate activists, including members of the youth-led Sunrise Movement in Washington, D.C. and Indigenous-led water protectors protesting the Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota and elsewhere in recent days and weeks.

"But as your acts continue, more and more of us are seeing through... your role-playing," Thunberg said. "The gap between your actions and words is becoming more impossible to ignore, while more and more extreme weather events are raging all around us. And as a result, young people all over this planet are no longer falling for your lies."

"You say we need to move slowly to bring the public along," Thunberg continued. "However, how do you honestly expect to bring the people along if you don't treat this crisis like a crisis? The climate crisis is today at best being treated only as a business opportunity to create new green jobs, new green businesses and technologies."

"Perhaps playing a role helps you sleep at night," Thunberg speculated. "But while you are busy working the stage, you seem to forget that the climate crisis is not something distant in the future. It is already taking so much from the most affected people in the most affected areas."

"This might just be a game to you, a game to win votes, popularity, points on the stock market, or your next highly paid position in a company or a lobbying firm," she said. "You can and will continue to pretend, but nature and physics will not fall for it."

Advocates denounce 'horrifying' SCOTUS ruling upholding indefinite immigrant detention

In a decision called "horrifying" by human rights advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the government may indefinitely detain previously deported immigrants who claim they will be tortured or persecuted if returned to their countries of origin.

"Why would Congress want to deny a bond hearing to individuals who reasonably fear persecution or torture, and who, as a result, face proceedings that may last for many months or years?"
—Justice Stephen Breyer, dissenting

The court ruled 6-3 along ideological lines in Johnson v. Guzman Chavez that a group of previously removed immigrants who were apprehended again after reentering the United States could not be released on bond while the government evaluates their claims of "reasonable fear" of torture or persecution. The decision reverses a U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the immigrants' favor.

Writing for the court's right-wing majority, Justice Samuel Alito noted that "Congress has created an expedited process" for the removal of "aliens" caught reentering the U.S. following a deportation.

"Those aliens are not entitled to a bond hearing while they pursue withholding of removal," Alito declared.

Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas rounded out the majority.

Justice Stephen Breyer penned a dissent that was joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

"Why would Congress want to deny a bond hearing to individuals who reasonably fear persecution or torture, and who, as a result, face proceedings that may last for many months or years?" wrote Breyer. "I can find no satisfactory answer to this question."

Human rights advocates blasted the ruling. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, called the decision a "horrifying outcome" that was "written by the worst possible justice you could want to write an immigration case."

Sarah Paoletti, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School's Practice Professor of Law, and director of the Transnational Legal Clinic, wrote:

Just a day after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a hearing on egregious rights violations committed against individuals held in immigrant detention, and questioned the legitimacy of a system of detention that criminalizes individuals seeking refuge in the United States, the 6-3 conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, in Johnson v. Guzman Chavez, has dismissed U.S. obligations under international human rights law and ruled that persons seeking refuge in the United States after a prior order of removal must be held in detention without the right to a bond hearing while they pursue legal avenues for immigration relief.

"Today, six Supreme Court justices determined that the clear text of the Immigration and Nationality Act—provisions introduced into the law in 1996—gives individuals fleeing persecution no opportunity to challenge their detention," added Paoletti, "and in doing so have sanctioned the United States' use of punitive, prolonged, and arbitrary detention as a means of immigration enforcement and deterrence."

'Bolsonaro out!': Massive protests as Brazil's COVID-19 death toll tops 500,000

As Brazil's Covid-19 death toll surpassed 500,000 on Saturday, at least hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of more than 400 cities across the nation and around the world to blame President Jair Bolsonaro for the grim pandemic milestone and demand his ouster.

"There are half a million people dead due to the negligence and denial of Bolsonaro."
—Benedita da Silva, PT

Chanting and holding signs with slogans including "Bolsonaro Out," "500,000 Deaths, It's His Fault," and "Vaccines Now," protesters called for the resignation or impeachment of the far-right president. Demonstrators also implored the government to ramp up vaccination efforts.

On São Paulo's famed Avenida Paulista, protester Dona Neuza held a sign reading: "Bolsonaro Killed My Brother."

"He took every precaution, but he died of Covid because he wasn't vaccinated," Neuza told Rede Brasil Atual. "Last August Bolsonaro rejected batches of immunizations that could have already been applied to millions of Brazilians."

According to Folha de São Paulo, only 15% of Brazilians are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, a sore point in a nation that prides itself on its historically successful vaccination drives.

At a massive protest in Rio de Janeiro, federal lawmaker Benedita da Silva of the left-wing Workers' Party (PT) told Brasil de Fato that "there are half a million people dead due to the negligence and denial of Bolsonaro."

"Thousands of people are no longer getting a plate of food, thousands are unemployed, without oxygen in hospitals, without assistance," said da Silva. "We are on the street to defend our country, our people, our lives, our culture, our education, our economy. We can no longer die of Covid or starvation."

In addition to #ForaBolsonaro protests across Brazil, solidarity demonstrations were also held Saturday in cities around the world, including Barcelona, Berlin, Helsinki, London, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, and Vienna.

Dubbed "Trump of the Tropics" by some of his opponents, Bolsonaro has dismissed Covid-19 as a "little flu" while refusing to follow or promote mask-wearing, quarantines, and social distancing, despite having contracted the virus last year. Bolsonaro has also encouraged large gatherings and disparaged vaccines.

Last month, lawmakers launched a probe of the president and his former Cabinet ministers to determine who is responsible for the country's botched pandemic response. At Saturday's demonstrations, former Health Minister General Eduardo Pazuello and Former Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo were blasted for delaying negotiations for the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines.

Economy Minister Paulo Guedes was also condemned by protesters, some of whom demanded emergency aid payments of R$600 (about $118 U.S.) for the duration of the pandemic.

With about 100,000 new daily infections and around 2,000 people dying each day from Covid-19, Brazil is currently suffering the world's second-deadliest outbreak after India. The Ministry of Health reported 2,301 new deaths on Saturday.

Bolsonaro—a former army captain who has waxed nostalgic for the country's former U.S.-backed military dictatorship—has been beset by political, public health, and environmental crises amid an emerging progressive consensus for his impeachment.

On Sunday, Jornal do Brasil reported leftist parties and former allies of Bolsonaro are preparing to file a "super request" for impeachment that combines all 121 previous impeachment filings against him.

The "super request" accuses Bolsonaro of 21 different crimes, including offenses against the nation's political existence; hostility against foreign nations; obstruction and threats against lawmakers; subversion of political and social order; incitement of the armed forces to illegal acts; and failure to protect Brazilians, including Indigenous peoples, during the pandemic.

According to a PoderData poll published on May 27, 57% of Brazilians support Bolsonaro's impeachment.

Advocates elated over DOJ reversal of Trump's policy denying asylum to victims of violence

Immigrant rights advocates hailed the Wednesday reversal by U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland of a Trump-era rule denying asylum in the United States to victims of domestic or gang violence as a "critically important" step toward restoring the right of refuge to migrants fleeing countries where their lives are often in danger.

In a pair of decisions, Garland vacated a 2018 guidance from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that declared migrants would no longer automatically qualify for asylum if they presented concerns of domestic abuse or gang violence in their home countries.

Later that year, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. struck down much of the contentious Justice Department guidance, calling it "arbitrary, capricious," and unlawful.

According to the New York Times, Wednesday's decision involves the cases of two asylum-seeking Salvadoran women known as A-B- and L-E-A-. In 2016 and 2017, the Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that the women qualified for asylum since the government of El Salvador did not adequately protect people suffering domestic abuse.

A 2020 Human Rights Watch investigation found that at least 138 people deported from the United States to El Salvador since 2013 were killed, and that at least 70 others were kidnapped, sexually assaulted, or tortured. Many of the victims were murdered or harmed by the gangs they originally fled.

However, Sessions overruled the board's decision regarding A-B; his successor, William Barr, responded similarly to the board's finding in L-E-A-'s case.

"These decisions involve important questions about the meaning of our nation's asylum laws, which reflect America's commitment to providing refuge to some of the world's most vulnerable people," Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta wrote on Wednesday in a memo to the Justice Department's Civil Division.

Migrant advocates hailed news of the DOJ policy reversal.

"This was the right move. We are thrilled for our client and for the many deserving individuals fleeing persecution who will have a fair chance to seek refuge in the United States," Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) and co-counsel in Matter of A-B-, said in a statement.

"Now it's time to build on this progress," she added. "We're ready to work with the administration to create an asylum system that provides every person a fair opportunity to apply for protection, in line with our human rights obligations."


Bradley Jenkins, federal litigation attorney at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) and one of the lawyers representing L-E-A-, said that "families facing persecution qualify for asylum under any reasonable interpretation of the law, and it is encouraging to see Attorney General Garland take this step toward restoring the asylum system."

"We hope that the rule-making process will result in further progress toward a fair and humane asylum policy," he added.

Labor advocates rebuke Amazon for latest 'smoke and mirrors' on worker safety

Labor advocates on Thursday responded with disdain and derision to news that Amazon and the National Safety Council are partnering to find "innovative solutions" to prevent the workplace injuries that disproportionately plague the retail giant's warehouse employees.

"The root cause of this issue is Amazon's business model of expecting workers to perform like robots at an unbearable and often unattainable pace of work." —Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU

Amazon said it plans to contribute $12 million to National Safety Council (NSC) research on musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), which the NSC says are the most common U.S. workplace injuries. Amazon's contribution will also help fund new technology to reduce MSDs.

Thursday's announcement follows a report published earlier this month by the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC) that accused Amazon of having an "abysmal health and safety record" as a result of its obsession with production speed. The report revealed there were 5.9 serious injuries per 100 Amazon workers last year—a rate that's about 80% higher than those of other warehousing industry employers.

In addition to rampant injuries, numerous worker deaths at Amazon warehouses in recent years have repeatedly landed the company in the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health's annual "Dirty Dozen" reports of the worst corporate workplace safety violators. The company has also come under fire and faces a New York state lawsuit for failing to adequately protect warehouse workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We know we have work to do," Amazon vice president of worldwide workplace health and safety Heather MacDougall said during a Wednesday news conference in Seattle.

Numerous critics of Amazon's labor practices dismissed the NSC partnership as a "public relations stunt." Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called it "more smoke and mirrors from Amazon."

"This isn't a pledge—it's a PR stunt," she tweeted.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), said in a statement that, "After spending years pushing warehouse workers to work beyond their physical limits, Amazon's announcement today appears to be just another public relations stunt. Instead, Amazon can and must be doing more to protect its workers."

"This partnership will be meaningless unless Amazon acknowledges and is transparent about workers' injuries and illness due to ergonomic issues at their facilities—something they have consistently failed to do," he added. "The root cause of this issue is Amazon's business model of expecting workers to perform like robots at an unbearable and often unattainable pace of work."

In a statement, SOC alleged that "Amazon executives have known about the company's serious injury problem for years, and have done nothing to fix it, allowing tens of thousands of additional workers to be injured. Now, after getting some bad press last week, the company wants us to believe that it has seen the light and will change its ways."

"No one should trust a corporation with such a terrible track record to reform itself," SOC added.

The Switzerland-based UNI Global Union tweeted that "all the wellness pods in the world won't change the fact that Amazon puts profits over health," a reference to the AmaZen "mindful practice rooms" the company is introducing in warehouses so that stressed-out workers to "recharge and re-energize."

UNI Global Union highlighted an article published in the Seattle Times Thursday that reported Amazon will not relax productivity targets for warehouse workers despite state regulators recently finding a "direct connection" between the rate of on-the-job injuries and the company's requirement that employees "maintain a very high pace of work."

Atmospheric carbon dioxide hits highest level in over 4 million years

New data released Monday showed atmospheric carbon dioxide reached a monthly average level of 419 parts per million in May, which is not only the maximum reading ever recorded since accurate measurements began 63 years ago but also the highest level the planet has experienced in over four million years.

"The solution is right before our eyes. Solar energy and wind are already cheaper than fossil fuels and they work at the scales that are required. If we take real action soon, we might still be able to avoid catastrophic climate change." —Pieter Tans, NOAA

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego working at NOAA's Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory in Hawaii said the May measurements—an increase from 417 parts per million (ppm) in May 2020—mean that "the atmospheric burden of CO2 is now comparable to where it was during the Pliocene Climatic Optimum, between 4.1 and 4.5 million years ago, when CO2 was close to, or above 400 ppm."

"During that time, sea level was about 78 feet higher than today, the average temperature was 7°F higher than in pre-industrial times, and studies indicate large forests occupied areas of the Arctic that are now tundra," they said.

The scientists noted that while the worldwide economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic led to a significant but temporary decrease in global greenhouse gas emissions, the drop had no discernible impact on the rate of atmospheric CO2 accumulation.

As Common Dreams reported, atmospheric CO2 concentrations surged past 420 ppm for the first time in recorded history in April.

Ralph Keeling, the geochemist in charge of Scripps' Mauna Loa program, said that "the ultimate control knob on atmospheric CO2 is fossil-fuel emissions" and that "we still have a long way to go to halt the rise, as each year more CO2 piles up in the atmosphere."

"We ultimately need cuts that are much larger and sustained longer than the Covid-related shutdowns of 2020," he added.

Pieter Tans, a senior scientist at NOAA's Global Monitoring Laboratory, noted that CO2 is stored in the Earth's oceans and atmosphere for thousands of years after it is emitted.

"We are adding roughly 40 billion metric tons of CO2 pollution to the atmosphere per year," Tans said in a statement announcing the new figures. "That is a mountain of carbon that we dig up out of the Earth, burn, and release into the atmosphere as CO2—year after year."

"If we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, the highest priority must be to reduce CO2 pollution to zero at the earliest possible date," stressed Tans.

Such a reduction would require a dramatic shift human activity—especially by the world's wealthiest 1%, who according to a September 2020 study by Oxfam emit more than twice as much CO2 as the poorest 50% of humanity.

"The solution is right before our eyes," said Tans. "Solar energy and wind are already cheaper than fossil fuels and they work at the scales that are required. If we take real action soon, we might still be able to avoid catastrophic climate change."

The new figures come as world leaders and policymakers prepare for the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference—also known as COP26—which will be held in Glasgow, Scotland this November.

Biden hailed for 'historic' exclusion of anti-choice Hyde Amendment from proposed budget

Reproductive rights advocates on Friday hailed President Joe Biden's omission of funding for the Hyde Amendment—which prohibits most federal abortion spending—in his $6 trillion 2022 budget proposal.

"Budgets are a statement of values. President Biden's budget proposes to end the harmful Hyde Amendment—making clear that federal law should support everyone's ability to access healthcare, including safe, legal abortion, in this country."
—Planned Parenthood Action

While campaigning for president, Biden promised he would try to end the Hyde Amendment, which has been in effect since 1977 and bars Medicare and the Indian Health Service from covering abortions except in cases of incest, rape, or when the life of the pregnant person is endangered.

"If I believe healthcare is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone's ZIP code," candidate Biden said in June 2019 in an about-face following intense criticism from reproductive rights advocates over his erstwhile support for the amendment.

"I can't justify leaving millions of women without the access to care they need, and the ability to exercise their constitutionally protected right," he added.

Reproductive rights campaigners cheered the news that, for the first time in decades, a president did not include the Hyde Amendment in a proposed budget.

"Today's presidential budget is the latest example of the Biden-Harris administration fulfilling its commitments and campaign promises to advance reproductive freedom," NARAL Pro-Choice America chief campaigns and advocacy officer Christian LoBue said in a statement.

"Discriminatory abortion coverage bans disproportionately harm people working to make ends meet, especially women of color, young people, and transgender and nonbinary people," LoBue added. "At a time when reproductive freedom is under unprecedented attack, and the legal right to abortion is hanging on by a tenuous thread, this critical step from the Biden administration is more important than ever."

In Congress, progressive lawmakers led praise for the president's move, with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) calling it "great news."

Georgeanne Usova, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU, also hailed Biden's move.

"Today's budget marks a historic step toward finally ending the coverage bans that have pushed abortion care out of reach and perpetuated inequality for decades," Usova said in a statement.

"With abortion access under unprecedented attack around the country, lifting discriminatory barriers to care is a matter of racial and economic justice that cannot wait," she added. "No one should be denied abortion care because of where they live, how much money they have, or how they get insurance."

'An absolute nightmare': Video shows Tennessee officers taunted hogtied man before he died

Justice advocates on Friday condemned officers at a Tennessee county jail for taunting a hogtied man moments before his death after a local news station published video of the incident.

"There's approximately a three-minute, 43-second period after officers have applied handcuffs where they keep the individual in the prone position, and that's not acceptable."
—Seth Stoughton,
use-of-force expert

William Jennette—a 48-year-old white father of five—died on May 6, 2020 at the Marshall County Jail in Lewisburg, Tennessee after a group of officers from multiple law enforcement agencies restrained him and kneeled on his back for several minutes while he screamed for help, WTVF reports.

Video obtained by the Nashville station shows Jennette—who was arrested for alleged public intoxication, indecent exposure, and resisting arrest—yelling, "Help, they're going to kill me!"

One officer is heard commanding Jennette to "stay down, you stupid son of a bitch."

The video also shows Jennette repeatedly pleading with officers that he could not breathe.

"You shouldn't be able to breathe, you stupid bastard," an officer identified in a lawsuit as Kendra Burton replies.

At least two officers in the video say that Jennette bit them.

At one point in the video an officer sounds a note of caution, telling his colleagues: "Easy, easy—remember asphyxiation, guys."

To which another officer responds, "That's why I'm not on his lungs."

Jennette's last words were, "I'm good."

"No, you ain't good," an officer replies.

An autopsy (pdf) performed by the Marshall County Medical Examiner's Office ruled Jennette's death a homicide, listing the cause as "acute combined drug intoxication"—he had methamphetamine in his system—with asphyxia as a "contributory cause of death."

Despite that finding, a grand jury decided not to indict any of the officers.

Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund called the video "an absolute nightmare," tweeting: "Grand jury refuses to indict any. That's how it usually happens."

Chris Vanderveen, director of reporting at KUSA in Denver, tweeted that this is the 121st prone police restraint death he has logged.

One of Jennette's daughters, Dominque Jennette, filed a lawsuit (pdf) this February against Marshall County, the city of Lewisburg, and several of the officers involved. The suit alleges the officers' "savage beating" and "suffocation" of Jennette caused his death, and constitute a "deprivation of civil rights" under the Fourteenth Amendment.

"That just breaks my heart because he was someone worth knowing," his daughter told WTVF. "That's just something that really sticks with me, how scared he must have been and how alone he must have felt."

Dominique Jennette said she believes the officers "should have been more aware."

"They should have been trained properly, and they weren't," she added.

Seth Stoughton, a law professor and former police officer, told WTVF that the video shows "the exact opposite of what generally accepted training has taught officers for the last 25 years."

"When the handcuffs came on, they should have rotated the guy to his side," asserted Stoughton. "There's approximately a three-minute, 43-second period after officers have applied handcuffs where they keep the individual in the prone position, and that's not acceptable."

The video's release came one day after the Associated Press published footage it obtained of Louisiana state troopers stunning, punching, kicking, choking, and dragging 49-year-old Ronald Greene, who died during a May 2019 arrest following a high-speed chase.

'You lie': Katie Porter wields 'Whiteboard of Justice' while grilling pharma CEO on price hikes

U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday took the CEO of the maker of the world's bestselling drug to task for high product prices, with Rep. Katie Porter using her famed "Whiteboard of Justice" to demonstrate what she called "the Big Pharma fairy tale" that pharmaceutical research and development costs justify perpetual price hikes.

"The Big Pharma fairy tale is one of groundbreaking R&D that justifies astronomical prices. But the pharma reality is that you spend most of your company's money making money for yourself and your shareholders."
—Rep. Katie Porter

Members of the House Oversight Committee grilled AbbVie CEO Richard Gonzalez—whose total compensation topped $24 million last year (pdf)—about the reasons for increasing the price of its top-selling drug Humira to $77,000 for a year's supply.

Humira (adalimumab) is an immunosuppressant used to treat a wide range of inflammatory conditions including arthritis, Crohn's disease, psoriasis, and ulcerative colitis. Last year, Humira sales neared $20 billion, making it by far the world's bestselling pharmaceutical drug.

In January, Fortune reported AbbVie would raise the price of Humira by 7.4%. Why the increase? Drugmakers often claim higher prices are needed to fund research and development. AbbVie spent a total of $2.45 billion on R&D from 2013 to 2018.

Porter (D-Calif.) pointed out that the company spends nearly double that—$4.7 billion—annually on advertising.

When Porter asked Gonzalez how much the company compensates its executives, the CEO said, "About $60 million a year."

"Try $334 [million] on for size," Porter shot back.

Noting that AbbVie spent around $50 billion on cumulative stock buybacks and dividends from 2013 to 2018, Porter then told Gonzalez: "You're spending all this money to make sure you make money rather than spending money to invest in [and] develop drugs and help patients with affordable, lifesaving drugs."

"You lie to patients when you charge them twice as much for an unimproved drug, and then you lie to policymakers when you tell us that R&D justifies those price increases," Porter asserted.

"The Big Pharma fairy tale is one of groundbreaking R&D that justifies astronomical prices," she said. "But the pharma reality is that you spend most of your company's money making money for yourself and your shareholders."

"The fact [is] that you're not honest about that with patients and policymakers—that you're feeding us lies that we must pay astronomical prices to get 'innovative' treatments," added Porter. "The American people, the patients, deserve so much better."

GOP ouster of 'xenophobic extremist' Liz Cheney called 'flashing red danger sign' for democracy

As Republican lawmakers expelled Rep. Liz Cheney from her House leadership post on Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers and progressive observers—who stand staunchly opposed to her policy positions—sounded the alarm over what they say is the grave threat to U.S. democracy posed by a party in thrall to former President Donald Trump's "Big Lie."

"What we are witnessing on the right when it comes to not acknowledging the outcome of the 2020 election is a symptom of mass psychosis, a collective delusion hinged on a Big Lie that is incompatible with democracy."
—Sen. Alex Padilla

Cheney (R-Wyo.) was ousted from her position as chair of the House Republican Conference by voice vote during a closed-door session Wednesday morning for what many of her GOP colleagues consider the cardinal offense of vocally opposing Trump's efforts to undermine the 2020 election.

Describing Trump's actions as "a threat America has never seen before," Cheney said Tuesday that the former president "provoked a violent attack on this Capitol in an effort to steal the election."

"Remaining silent and ignoring the lie only emboldens the liar," she added. "I will not participate in that."

While there is no love lost between Cheney and progressives—who have called her a "xenophobic extremist," a "warmonger," and worse—some left-leaning observers noted the larger significance and ominous implications of her purge.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted following Wednesday's GOP House vote that while "Cheney and I disagree on nearly every major issue, she deserves credit for saying, 'I will not sit back and watch in silence as others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president's crusade to undermine our democracy.'"

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that "what we are witnessing on the right when it comes to not acknowledging the outcome of the 2020 election is a symptom of mass psychosis, a collective delusion hinged on a Big Lie that is incompatible with democracy."

"We must treat this threat with the seriousness it deserves," he added.

As GOP officials move to fill the now-vacant leadership post in the coming weeks, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) remains widely considered as a front-runner for the seat, despite serious conservative concerns about a voting record that earned her a 37% score from the right-wing advocacy group FreedomWorks.

Cheney, on the other hand, almost always cast votes in line with Trump's policy positions. And despite her defiant denunciation of lies and liars, she remained tight-lipped amid the unending deluge of deception by Trump, who New Yorker staff writer Susan B. Glasser called "the most mendacious president in U.S. history."

In a post decrying Cheney's "fraudulent martyrdom," Discourse Blog co-founder Paul Blest lamented how the archconservative congresswoman "has been rapidly turned into the Joan of Arc of American democracy, burned at the stake for the heresy of believing in our beloved institutions."

Other progressives also weighed in on the danger of the Cheney martyrdom narrative:

While discussing Cheney's impending removal on Tuesday, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) insisted the move is "not about right or wrong," but rather "about the focus of our conference." Critics pointed to Scalise's remarks as evidence that the congresswoman's ignominious ouster proves that to many Republicans, Trump loyalty trumps not only truth, but also policy.

Progressives also questioned the GOP leadership's priorities:

Meanwhile, purveyors of Trump's "Big Lie" crowed triumphantly over Cheney's demotion, while making sweeping statements about the future of the Republican Party that some Democratic critics wryly refuted.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said of Wednesday's GOP House vote that "the dangerous evolution of the Republican Party into an anti-truth, autocratic cult has never been more clear, or our need to defeat it."

As for Cheney's future, some progressives speculated that the congresswoman—who now faces a primary challenge in next year's midterm election—may have her sights set on a bigger prize down the road.

"Cheney's a hyper-partisan, ideologically-inflexible political strategist who is playing the long game, just as her father did over the course of a political career that began in the Nixon White House during the Vietnam War," wrote John Nichols for The Capital Times.

DOJ warns GOP-led Arizona election audit may violate civil rights law

Warning of the possible "significant intimidating effect" of private recounts like the ongoing GOP-run audit of an Arizona county's 2020 election ballots, a senior official at the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division on Thursday advised the Republican president of the southwestern state's Senate that such efforts may violate federal voting and civil rights laws.

"Such investigative efforts can have a significant intimidating effect on qualified voters that can deter them from seeking to vote in the future."
—Pamela S. Karlan, DOJ

In a letter (pdf) to Sen. Karen Fann (R-1), Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela S. Karlan wrote that plans by Cyber Ninjas—the online security firm hired by the Arizona Legislature to perform a hand recount of nearly 2.1 million Maricopa County ballots—to directly contact voters potentially constitutes intimidation.

"The information of which we are aware raises concerns regarding at least two issues of potential noncompliance with federal laws," the letter states.

"The first issue relates to a number of reports suggesting that the ballots, elections systems, and election materials that are the subject of the Maricopa County audit are no longer under the ultimate control of state and local elections officials, are not being adequately safeguarded by contractors at an insecure facility, and are at risk of being lost, stolen, altered, compromised, or destroyed," it continues.

"The second issue," the letter says, "relates to the Cyber Ninjas' statement of work for this audit," which "indicates that the contractor has been working 'with a number of individuals' to 'identify voter registrations that did not make sense, and then knock on doors to confirm if valid voters actually lived at the stated address.'"

"This description of the proposed work of the audit raises concerns regarding potential intimidation of voters," it warns. "Past experience with similar investigative efforts around the country has raised concerns that they can be directed at minority voters, which potentially can implicate the anti-intimidation prohibitions of the Voting Rights Act."

"Such investigative efforts can have a significant intimidating effect on qualified voters that can deter them from seeking to vote in the future," the letter concludes.

The Arizona Legislature is paying the Florida-based Cyber Ninjas—which has no elections experience and whose CEO Doug Logan is an advocate of the "Stop the Steal" movement claiming former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election—$150,000 to conduct the Maricopa County audit.

President Joe Biden won the county, which includes Phoenix and surrounding cities, by over 45,000 votes. In the race for the U.S. Senate, Democrat Mark Kelly defeated Republican Martha McSally by more than 80,000 votes in Maricopa County.

In addition to its CEO's affinity for Trump, Cyber Ninjas has also raised eyebrows and ire by allowing former Arizona GOP state lawmaker Anthony Kern, a rampant pro-Trump conspiracy theorist and participant in the deadly January 6 attack on the United States Capitol, to help conduct the audit.

The auditors—who have fallen far behind schedule—have investigated conspiracy theories during the course of their work, including one that 40,000 bamboo-laced Biden ballots were smuggled into the county from China.

The Justice Department letter follows an April request (pdf) by the Brennan Center for Justice—which said it is "very concerned that the auditors are engaged in ongoing and imminent violations of federal voting and election law"—for the DOJ to send federal monitors to oversee the Maricopa recount.

Biden raises refugee cap to 62,500—while admitting US will fall short

Following intense pushback from migrant rights campaigners and progressive politicians after President Joe Biden said last month that he would continue his predecessor's historically low refugee cap, the White House on Monday officially announced it would more than quadruple the number of refugees allowed into the United States this year—while also acknowledging that the actual number of people admitted would fall short of the ceiling.

"Welcoming refugees is not only a moral imperative, but also promotes U.S. national security, bolsters our economy, enriches our communities, and demonstrates that we're willing to work together with other governments."
—Eric P. Schwartz,
Refugees International

"I am revising the United States' annual refugee admissions cap to 62,500 for this fiscal year," Biden said in an executive memorandum. "This erases the historically low number set by the previous administration of 15,000, which did not reflect America's values as a nation that welcomes and supports refugees."

In a separate statement, Biden said that "we are going to rebuild what has been broken and push hard to complete the rigorous screening process for those refugees already in the pipeline for admission."

However, the president warned that while his administration is "working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years" under former President Donald Trump, "the sad truth is that we will not achieve 62,500 admissions this year."

Biden reiterated his "commitment to the goal of 125,000 refugee admissions" in the first fiscal year of his presidency. Although that figure is more than 10 times the number of refugess actually admitted into the U.S. last year and represents the highest ceiling since 1993, it is still much lower than the inaugural cap of 231,700 set for 1980, the final full year of Jimmy Carter's presidency and the height of the migrant crisis that followed the end of the Vietnam War and the Cambodian genocide.

The new ceiling will open the door to more refugees from Africa, Central America, and the Middle East, a stark departure from Trump's frequent disparagement of Global South nations, some of which he once called "shithole countries."

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) lamented that the Biden administration had so far only resettled 2,050 refugees in the United States this year. However, the New York-based nonprofit welcomed Monday's White House announcement, calling it "a step towards rebuilding America's welcome."

Other advocacy groups and progressive politicians also praised the administration's move. Eric P. Schwartz, president of Refugees International, called Biden's move "a profoundly important step" that will "pave the way for the administration to make good on its commitment to rebuild the U.S. refugee admissions program and restore U.S. leadership on this critical issue."

"This is a proud and historic moment," added Schwartz. "At a time of great humanitarian need, welcoming refugees is not only a moral imperative, but also promotes U.S. national security, bolsters our economy, enriches our communities, and demonstrates that we're willing to work together with other governments on some of the world's most complex problems."

Andrew Albertson, executive director at Foreign Policy America, said in a statement that "the most powerful thing we can do as a country is to lead by example."

Obama-era Housing and Urban Development secretary and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro tweeted that "the U.S. has always been a place of refuge and opportunity for those escaping violence and persecution. Trump tried to end that legacy. I'm glad the Biden-Harris administration is working to reverse the damage he's done."

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