Bush and Warren lead new bill to protect renters nationwide from eviction

With millions of people across the United States facing lapsed eviction moratoria, joblessness, and expired unemployment benefits as the coronavirus pandemic drags on, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush and Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday unveiled a bill to help keep renters in their homes.

The pair led dozens of lawmakers in introducing the Keeping Renters Safe Act of 2021 (pdf), which would clarify that the head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has the statutory authority to implement an eviction moratorium in the interest of public health, and call on him to do so in response to the current emergency.

"Housing is a human right, not a bargaining chip to let fall between bureaucratic cracks."
—Rep. Cori Bush

The bill, if passed, would direct HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra to implement a national moratorium that automatically "applies to all residential eviction filings, hearings, judgments, and execution of judgments," and would remain in effect for at least 60 days after the end of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Housing is a human right, not a bargaining chip to let fall between bureaucratic cracks," declared Bush (D-Mo.), who was previously homeless and has led multiple legislative proposals to address housing insecurity, including the Unhoused Bill of Rights.

Noting that the virus has killed over 670,000 people nationwide and infected millions more Americans, leaving an unknown number "permanently disabled from its aftereffects," Bush argued that "as the Delta variant continues to force individuals to quarantine, close schools, and stifle businesses, we must do all we can to save lives."

"That starts with keeping every person safely housed," she added. "The Keeping Renters Safe of 2021 will save lives and give us more time: time for renters to receive financial assistance, time for the economy to fully recover, and time for the pandemic to finally come to an end."

As Warren (D-Mass.) put it: "This pandemic isn't over, and we have to do everything we can to protect renters from the harm and trauma of needless eviction, which upends the lives of those struggling to get back on their feet."

"Pushing hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes will only exacerbate this public health crisis, and cause economic harm to families, their communities, and our overall recovery," the former bankruptcy law professor warned. "Congress must pass the Keeping Renters Safe Act of 2021 to put the eviction moratorium back in place and clarify that HHS has the authority to protect renters throughout this public health crisis. Safe housing saves lives."

Their proposal comes after months of uncertainty over whether renters would be evicted during the public health crisis due to a series of actions by all three branches of the U.S. government.

In late July, just three days before the expiration of a national eviction moratorium that was in effect, President Joe Biden's White House called on lawmakers to extend it, claiming that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling prevented the administration from doing so directly.

After the Democrat-controlled Congress failed to act to prevent evictions—in spite of pressure from Bush and other progressives who slept on the steps of the U.S. Capitol—the Biden administration took a new approach to a moratorium, which was also blocked by the court.

Meanwhile, Congress and its state and local partners have struggled to rapidly distribute billions of dollars in pandemic-related federal rental assistance—an issue for which Bush has also proposed legislative fixes.

"With millions of vulnerable renters at risk of being unhoused as Covid-19 deaths spike nationwide, Congress must act with urgency to prevent the impending eviction crisis and the trauma that would accompany it," said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of the new bill. "Without collective action, Covid-19 will continue to spread, lives and homes will continue to be lost, and the hurt our communities are experiencing will only get worse."

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.)—another co-sponsor who joined Bush and Pressley on the Capitol steps last month—called out the Supreme Court's far-right majority for its "dangerous, partisan decision" striking down the administration's last-ditch effort to avert a national eviction crisis and emphasized Congress' responsibility to act now.

"In the world's richest nation, no one should have to experience housing insecurity—especially not during a deadly pandemic with the Delta variant ravaging our communities," Jones said Tuesday. "We have a moral obligation to ensure every person remains safe and housed for the duration of this pandemic and long after. That's exactly what our bill, the Keeping Renters Safe Act, would do."

In addition to five other progressive senators and dozens more House Democrats, the bill is supported by 82 organizations, including the National Coalition for the Homeless, National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), People's Action, Sunrise Movement, and Working Families Party.

Warning that the Supreme Court's latest decision "will have devastating and long-lasting consequences," NLIHC president and CEO Diane Yentel called on Congress to urgently pass Bush and Warren's bill.

"Without the moratorium in place," she said, "families will be pushed deeper into poverty, communities will struggle with increased spread of Covid-19, and our country will have a harder time containing the virus."

Architect of Texas abortion ban takes aim at LGBTQ+ rights while urging reversal of Roe v Wade

Advocates for reproductive freedom and LGTBQ+ equality on Saturday pointed to a legal brief filed in a U.S. Supreme Court case that could soon overturn Roe v. Wade as a crucial example of the broader goals of those fighting to end abortion rights across the United States.

"It's never just been about fetuses. It's about controlling sex," tweeted Muhlenberg College assistant professor Jacqueline Antonovich, a historian of health and medicine.

Both Antonovich and Elie Mystal, The Nation's justice correspondent, responded to a portion of the brief flagged by New York University School of Law professor Melissa Murray that challenges previous rulings from the country's highest court on not only abortion but also LGBTQ+ rights.

"Of course" the so-called "right to life" movement is also coming after cases that established key LGBTQ+ protections, said Mystal, "because it's never about 'life' and always about 'Christian fundamentalism.'"

The amicus brief (pdf) that Murray highlighted—co-authored by the architect of a new abortion ban in Texas—urges reversing Roe, the landmark 1973 ruling that affirmed the constitutional right to pre-viability abortions, and the related 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

The brief also takes aim at Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 case that overturned homophobic state sodomy laws, and the 2015 equal marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges, suggesting that the court should not "hesitate to write an opinion that leaves those decisions hanging by a thread. Lawrence and Obergefell, while far less hazardous to human life, are just as lawless as Roe."

Zack Ford of the progressive group Alliance for Justice said Saturday that "this is hardly surprising. Conservatives know they've got the Supreme Court in the palm of their hands and they'll ask for anything and everything, including the return of sodomy laws. Remember, ALL anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice views stem from the same desire to control bodies."

The alarm over the brief—submitted for Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, a case about a Mississippi abortion ban that the high court is set to hear this term—came exactly one year after the death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In the wake of Ginsburg's death, then-President Donald Trump nominated and the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate swiftly confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Trump's third appointee to the court—creating a supermajority of six right-wing justices.

The high court's majority sparked concerns about how justices will rule in the Mississippi case by letting a contested Texas law take effect earlier this month. Just one piece of a historic GOP assault on reproductive rights this year, Texas' Senate Bill 8 not only bans abortion at six weeks but also empowers anti-choice vigilantes to enforce it—which, as the U.S. Justice Department explained in its lawsuit challenging the measure, is an "unprecedented scheme" intended to make it harder to strike down in court.

The legal mind behind S.B. 8, Jonathan Mitchell, "has spent the last seven years honing a largely below-the-radar strategy of writing laws deliberately devised to make it much more difficult for the judicial system—particularly the Supreme Court—to thwart them," according to The New York Times.

A former Texas solicitor general and clerk to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Mitchell also co-authored the legal brief attacking Lawrence and Obergefell. His brief for the group Texas Right to Life—just one of several anti-choice filings submitted to the high court in late July—also states that "women can 'control their reproductive lives' without access to abortion; they can do so by refraining from sexual intercourse.'"

As The Guardian reports, the brief adds that "one can imagine a scenario in which a woman has chosen to engage in unprotected (or insufficiently protected) sexual intercourse on the assumption that an abortion will be available to her later. But when this court announces the overruling of Roe, that individual can simply change their behavior in response to the court's decision if she no longer wants to take the risk of an unwanted pregnancy."

While the Biden administration is taking on S.B. 8 in court and on Friday announced another series of actions intended to assist abortion seekers and providers in Texas, both the new ban and mounting concerns about the Mississippi case have provoked calls for the Democrat-controlled Congress to immediately expand the U.S. Supreme Court and codifying Roe.

Although congressional progressives in April introduced the Judiciary Act of 2021 (H.R. 2584/S. 1141), which would add four more justices to the Supreme Court, the measure has not advanced and its low co-sponsor numbers suggest that will not change during this session.

As for lawmakers reaffirming abortion rights nationwide, the U.S. House is set to vote on the Women's Health Protection Act (H.R. 3755/S. 1975) later this month. However, unless the evenly divided Senate abolishes the filibuster, it is unlikely to reach President Joe Biden.

Public health experts praise Biden's new vaccination efforts

With U.S. Covid-19 deaths rising and over a quarter of the eligible population still unvaccinated, President Joe Biden's sweeping new rules aimed at boosting vaccination rates have provoked predictable backlash from Republican lawmakers, right-wing voices, and anti-vaccine commentators but also widespread applause from public health experts and medical professionals.

The new policies come as the U.S. death toll from the pandemic—now largely driven by the ultra-contagious Delta variant—has topped 655,500 and some hospitals, particularly in regions with lower inoculation rates, are struggling to treat both Covid-19 patients and those with other ailments.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told the Boston Globe that the president "got it right" and his six-part national strategy to end the pandemic contains "the measures we need to get this pandemic under control."

Vaccinating the unvaccinated is one prong of Biden's plan. The president on Thursday signed a pair of executive orders requiring all federal workers and contractors who do business with the U.S. government to get vaccinated. He also directed the Labor Department to craft a rule requiring all employers with more than 100 workers to mandate inoculation against Covid-19 or weekly testing.

The administration is mandating vaccination for workers in most healthcare settings that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement. With children under age 12 still not eligible for any authorized Covid-19 vaccines, Biden is also requiring shots for staff in Head Start programs, Defense Department schools, and Bureau of Indian Education-operated schools, and calling on states to adopt such requirements for all employees of educational institutions.

"My message to unvaccinated Americans is this: What more is there to wait for?" Biden said in a speech Thursday evening outlining his administration's Covid-19 action plan. "We've been patient, but our patience is wearing thin and your refusal has cost all of us."

Jha predicted that "the vaccine mandate[s] themselves are going to substantially drive up vaccination," noting that such requirements aren't always popular but often obeyed.

Without vaccine mandates, "we would be looking at thousands of people dying every day for weeks and months on out," the doctor added. "We have all the tools to prevent it. I was happy to see the president deploy those tools."

Jha applauded requiring hospitals that get Medicaid or Medicare dollars to mandate vaccination for workers, as well as the new rule for major employers, saying that "it is not safe at this moment to return to a workplace where there is a large number of unvaccinated people."

While Biden's latest moves have been blasted by some right-wing and anti-vaccine commentators as attacks on personal freedom, Jha pointed out that "people also have a right to be able to go to work and not get infected and not get sick and not die."

That position was echoed by Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, New York, in comments to Newsday.

"Your freedom stops when you're impacting other people's freedoms and rights," Glatt said. People who remain unvaccinated "are going to cause Covid to spread and they're going to help invite [vaccine-]resistant strains and variant strains to occur. That's the problem. It's not like you're living in a vacuum."

"Anything that will spur people to get vaccinated," he added, "is a good idea."

Glatt also noted how misinformation and publicity of "breakthrough" infections—or cases of fully vaccinated people getting Covid-19—have fueled vaccine hesitancy.

A study published Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that as Delta drove rising case numbers around the country this spring and summer, people who were not fully vaccinated were over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized or die of Covid-19 than those who were fully inoculated.

"The vaccines are unbelievably good at preventing serious illness, ICU admissions, intubations, and death," said Glatt. "We haven't done a good enough job reminding everybody and showing them the statistics that unvaccinated people are 99% of the deaths in the United States right now of Covid, and hospitals are filled up with unvaccinated people."

The New York Times reported that alongside the praise, Biden's latest requirements drew warnings from experts that the rules may be "too little, too late" as well as "skepticism and outrage," including from Republicans such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who said her legal team "is standing by ready to file our lawsuit" against Biden's "unconstitutional rule."

GOP Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona also took to Twitter with vows to challenge the president's moves. In his speech Thursday, Biden addressed some state leaders' anti-science actions throughout the pandemic, promising that "if these governors won't help us beat the pandemic, I'll use my power as president to get them out of the way."

Asked about the threats of legal challenges while visiting a Washington, D.C. school on Friday, Biden declared: "Have at it."

"I am so disappointed that particularly some Republican governors have been so cavalier with the health of these kids, so cavalier with the health of their communities," he added. "We're playing for real here—this isn't a game—and I don't know of any scientist out there in this field that doesn't think it makes considerable sense to do the six things I've suggested."

Legal experts anticipate Biden's new rules will soon reach the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court.

Alabama's WHNT News 19 discussed the business requirements with Eric Artrip, a Huntsville attorney and partner of Mastando & Artrip, LLC.

"The federal government has decided to go through the Department of Labor for these mandates and that's the same department that regulates mandatory minimum wage, time, and a half for each hour work above 40 for overtime payment, and things like that. Generally speaking, the federal government has the ability to regulate private employers for certain things that are of the matter of public concern, certainly, a global pandemic would qualify," he said.

Artrip explained that the mandates could be upheld by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, "which allows Congress and by extension, the administrative branch, the opportunity or the obligation in some respects to regulate private industry."

"Much like the U.S. government mandated Ford Motor Company to make airplanes in World WII, basically seize the reins of industrial powers in order to affect the war effort," he said. "Right now, being that we are in a global pandemic, the government has exercised its emergency powers to mandate vaccinations for private companies.

Some companies and business leaders echoed public health experts' praise for Biden's plan.

"We know vaccines, coupled with widespread and convenient testing, serve as powerful tools to help slow the spread of Covid-19 in our communities, keeping the U.S. economy open, and protecting America's workforce," said Brian Huseman, vice president of public policy at Amazon, according to the Times.

Matt Cohen, president and chief executive of the umbrella group Long Island Association, told Newsday that "in March 2020, we could have never fathomed that Covid-19 would have such a long-lasting and devastating impact" on the region's business community.

"Vaccines are critical to finally put this pandemic behind us, especially now that we are confronted with the Delta variant," Cohen said. "Encouraging vaccinations or requiring testing for the virus by larger employers will help ensure our region's economic recovery, and some have implemented it already."

Despite the potential legal barriers for Biden's newly announced policies, some public health experts want the president to go even further. Brown's Jha told the Globe that he wished the mandates applied to higher education institutions and airline travel.

"There will not be a day when somebody will wave a flag and everyone will go celebrate. We're not going to eradicate SARS-CoV-2," Jha warned, using the name of the virus that causes Covid-19. The pandemic will be over, he added, when so many people are immune that "the virus becomes a nuisance and not a threat."

Experts warn NOAA plan might 'delay' right whales extinction, but not save them

Conservation advocacy groups on Tuesday responded with alarm and disappointment to the Biden administration's long-awaited new rule for protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whales from Maine to Florida.

"There's no time to waste—the rule must be strengthened immediately with expanded time/area management and effective monitoring if North Atlantic right whales are to survive."
—Whitney Webber, Oceana

"After four years of rule-making, it's disheartening that despite the legal obligation to be stewards of North Atlantic right whales and help them recover, the government has once again failed to take aggressive action," said Oceana campaign director Whitney Webber.

The U.S. government estimates there are fewer than 370 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. Webber highlighted that the species is "sliding closer toward extinction due to known, human-caused risks, including fishing gear entanglements."

"In February of this year, an 11-year-old male known as 'Cottontail' was found dead off South Carolina after being entangled in fishing gear for months," she said. "With only around 360 whales remaining, there is no room for shortsighted solutions. We can recover this species, but it will take meaningful, strong regulations to keep deaths below one per year—the level the National Marine Fisheries Service says is needed to support recovery."

The rule from the National Marine Fisheries Service—an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also known as NOAA Fisheries—amends the government's Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan.

The plan aims to reduce deaths and serious injuries to North Atlantic right whales, fin whales, and humpback whales "in northeast commercial lobster and crab trap/pot fisheries to meet the goals of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act."

Since 2010, 34 right whales have died and 16 have been seriously injured, principally due to getting entangled in fishing gear or struck by vessels, according to NOAA Fisheries.

In a statement Tuesday, NOAA Fisheries detailed its new regulations that the agency expects will reduce the risk of death and injuries resulting from entanglement by 69%:

  • Reducing the number of buoy lines (lines that link the fisherman's floating surface buoy to the pot or trap) in the water;
  • Weakening the remaining lines so that whales can break free before becoming seriously injured; and
  • Improving how fishing gear is marked so NOAA Fisheries and partners can better identify the type of fishing gear associated with entanglements when they do occur, thereby informing future risk reduction measures.

The required gear modifications will take effect May 1, 2022—the start of the American lobster and Jonah crab fishing year—and changes to seasonally restricted areas will go into effect 30 days after the rule's publication.

"This rule represents years of work and collaboration on the part of fishermen, scientists, conservationists, and state and federal officials to develop strategies to reduce the dangers faced by North Atlantic right whales," said Janet Coit, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, acting assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and deputy NOAA administrator.

Michael Pentony, regional administrator for NOAA's Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, said that "the new measures in this rule will allow the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries to continue to thrive, while significantly reducing the risk to critically endangered right whales of getting seriously injured or killed in commercial fishing gear."

However, both the fishing industry and conservation advocates are critical of the new rule—which, as the Portland Press Herald pointed out, "does not include measures to help prevent ship strikes or reduce mortality and serious injuries in Canadian waters, which together account for the majority of right whale deaths."

Noting that the new regulations will make a 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine "off-limits to traditional lobstering from October through January," the Press Herald reported Tuesday on officials' concerns that the changes will threaten the state's fishing industry.

Maine's congressional delegation and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills issued a joint statement criticizing the "burdensome regulations," saying in part that "we agree that we must protect the fragile right whale population, but we must do so without endangering human lives or livelihoods" and "there has not been a single right whale entanglement attributed to Maine lobster fisheries in nearly two decades."

Conservation groups, meanwhile, argued the regulations don't go far enough.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which has challenged NOAA Fisheries' failure to protect the species in court, noted the closures south of Nantucket—from February to April—and in the Gulf of Maine are seasonal, "despite evidence that right whales use the area year-round."

Offering a broader critique of the new rule, Kristen Monsell, the center's oceans legal director, declared that "we can't save this rapidly declining whale population from extinction with half-measures like this."

"This plan is better than nothing and a step in the right direction," she said. "But we've already waited far too long to protect North Atlantic right whales from deadly entanglements. It's time to get all vertical fishing lines out of important right whale habitat immediately and convert to on-demand ropeless fishing gear."

As Oceana's Webber explained:

The National Marine Fisheries Service's overreliance on weak rope, which is designed to break with the strength of an adult whale, is insufficient because it continues to put calves and juveniles directly in harm's way. Proven management tools that will reduce interactions with the roughly one million fishing lines are available, yet the government declined to consider these tools because they were "unpopular with stakeholders." Oceana and its members are stakeholders in this crisis as well. This disregard for public comment by the Biden administration is disappointing.
Oceana is committed to ensuring North Atlantic right whales have meaningful protection from all threats across their range, from Florida to eastern Canada. As it stands, this rule leaves the whales vulnerable and jeopardizes their future, as well as the future of the U.S. lobster and crab fisheries, which could be shut down if North Atlantic right whales are not protected. There's no time to waste—the rule must be strengthened immediately with expanded time/area management and effective monitoring if North Atlantic right whales are to survive.

Environment America's conservation program director Steve Blackledge also called on the Biden administration to go further in a statement Tuesday.

"It's good to see NOAA taking action to protect the endangered right whale, but unfortunately, the plan that was released today falls short," he said. "By our reading, the net effect will be to delay the extinction of this beautiful, massive creature. What we need is a plan to save it."

According to Blackledge, "The problem is that these rules would reduce the 'risk of death and serious injuries caused by entanglement' by 69%, and that's not enough to enable this species to rebound."

"We're calling on NOAA and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to respond to our petition and use emergency powers to close key right whale habitats to fishing—most are seasonal closures and one would be year-round," he added. "Let's be the generation that protected the right whale, not the one that watched it slowly disappear."

House Democrats demand repeal of fossil fuel subsidies in reconciliation bill

In a Monday letter to party leadership, dozens of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives called for repealing fossil fuel industry subsidies in the reconciliation bill that lawmakers are now working on after approving the budget blueprint last week.

"We support a deal that sufficiently enhances climate justice, especially in repealing fossil fuel subsidies."
—54 House Democrats

The demand for the evolving Build Back Better Act was spearheaded by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, and backed by 51 additional Democrats. Their letter (pdf) was addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) but also sent to other key committee leaders.

The message to Democratic leaders follows party infighting that preceded the House's passage of the Senate-approved budget resolution that enables members of Congress to begin crafting the $3.5 trillion package. The Hill reports that "business lobbyists are increasingly optimistic that they can water down tax hikes and other measures" in the final bill, which Democrats plan to pass without any GOP support.

The letter highlights that in his fiscal year 2022 budget, President Joe Biden "committed to the inclusion of $121 billion in revenue raised from repealing fossil fuel subsidies, which includes $86 billion from tax breaks for foreign oil and gas income."

"We are greatly appreciative of the president's focus on repealing these harmful and wasteful subsidies," the letter says. "We support a deal that sufficiently enhances climate justice, especially in repealing fossil fuel subsidies. Congress must follow through in implementing the president's vision."

Citing findings from the International Monetary Fund and the advocacy group Oil Change International, the letter points out that the U.S. ranks second in the world for supporting gas and oil companies, and "federal and state governments give the fossil fuel industry over $20.5 billion in support each year through the tax code, inadequate royalty rates, and direct funding."

The lawmakers argue that "fossil fuel subsidies should be repealed because, instead of enhancing American energy independence or creating jobs, they simply enhance the profits of fossil fuel companies," noting research (pdf) from the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Such subsidies "are a bad deal for American taxpayers," the Democrats assert, pointing to impacts on public health, infrastructure, and extreme weather exacerbated by global heating. They also emphasize warnings from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about the necessity of rapidly and dramatically reducing planet-heating emissions and ending government giveaways to polluters.

"Curbing subsidies for this industry would also advance racial justice. Black and Brown communities are disproportionately affected by fossil fuel pollution," the letter says. The lawmakers further note that despite claiming at least $8.2 billion in coronavirus pandemic relief funds last year, the industry laid off 16% of its workforce—and "fossil fuel jobs are dangerous."

"For these reasons," the House Democrats concluded, "we implore you to include the repeal of fossil fuel subsidies in the Build Back Better Act."

The letter comes after more than 500 groups made similar demands of Democratic leadership earlier this summer. In addition to sending a letter, the organizations rallied outside the U.S. Capitol—joined by multiple lawmakers, including Khanna and Omar.

Omar and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are the lead sponsors of the End Polluter Welfare Act (H.R. 2102/S. 1167). Reintroduced this spring, the bill aims to close tax loopholes and eliminate federal subsidies for fossil fuel companies.

"Providing corporate giveaways during a time of widespread suffering to fossil-fuel companies is unconscionable," Omar said at the time. "Our resources should go to helping the American people get through this crisis—not providing giveaways to the very people responsible for polluting our water and lands. We should be fighting for a greener, more equitable future for all instead of making the fossil fuel industry more profitable."

'Democracy for sale': Analysis ties corporate consolidation to increased lobbying

An analysis published Wednesday about corporate consolidation and political lobbying in the United States found that large mergers—particularly in Big Tech, the pharmaceutical industry, and the oil and gas sector—has increased corporate control of American democracy.

"Corporate concentration and antidemocratic political influence go hand in hand."
—Report

The new research paper from the American Economic Liberties—entitled Project Democracy for Sale: Examining the Effects of Concentration on Lobbying in the United States (pdf)—was authored by Reed Showalter, an attorney and a fellow at the anti-monopoly group.

"Concentrated markets are bad for consumers, bad for workers, and bad for innovation. But this research suggests that the concentration crisis in America is even more than a purely economic problem—it's also a democracy problem," Showalter said in a statement.

"We urgently need to understand and contain the power that monopolies have over the rest of us," he asserted. "Lawmakers, enforcers, and leaders cannot afford to ignore the widespread harms from concentration any longer."

The report emphasizes that "the bigger companies get, the more powerful they become. A large majority of Americans distrust concentrated economic power, and criticism of the world's largest companies is a regular part of discourse within America's political parties and around the world. Research has borne out the power of money in politics."

"Corporate lobbying works," the paper continues. "A number of studies show that the amount spent on lobbying positively impacts a firm's equity returns and market share. Firms that engage in lobbying also appear to have lower effective tax rates than those that do not."

Given those conditions, Showalter examined the U.S. internet, pharmaceutical, and fossil fuel sectors. The paper notes that the first case study "primarily includes digital platform companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix" and "does not extend, for example, to internet providers and other internet infrastructure companies."

The researcher found "a noteworthy relationship" between consolidation and political activity. Though the data is a bit limited—which the paper acknowledges, urging some degree of caution—it shows that "in all three industries, concentration appears to predict elevated lobbying spending."

According to Showalter:

In the oil and gas industry as well as among internet companies, the more market power a corporation acquires, the more it lobbies. In the pharmaceutical industry, the data is even more compelling. When pharmaceutical companies gained market power, they lobbied more, and when they lost market power, they lobbied less. One tentative conclusion from this analysis is that monopolies seek to acquire political power, whereas competitive businesses focus on competing with each other instead of dominating public rule-making bodies.

"In short, the results of this report suggest that not only is big business good at lobbying, but that bigger business leads to more lobbying," the paper says. "That means monopoly is a threat to representative democracy—and that protecting our democracy requires effective antitrust."

The report also addresses the political implications of Showalter's findings—specifically, the suggestion that the negative impacts of industry concentration "cannot be understood merely through the consumer welfare lens" and using that standard to govern antitrust "allows practitioners in the field to ignore non-price effects" of companies consolidating.

The new research "casts doubt on pure regulatory solutions that do not reduce concentration, since more lobbying can mitigate regulatory action or even turn regulatory choices into mechanisms to protect entrenched incumbents," the paper says. "If concentration begets political influence, then even a hypothetically economically efficient monopoly offering low consumer prices can still be an undemocratic usurper of political power."

In other words, according to the report, "stronger antitrust premised on reducing corporate concentration should be understood not just as a mechanism to address market power problems, but as an anti-corruption measure in itself."

Concluding that "corporate concentration and antidemocratic political influence go hand in hand," Showalter urges U.S. policymakers to recognize the limits of the consumer welfare standard when creating and implementing new regulations for major industries.

"The antitrust laws were a response to rising economic concentration, and the laws' framers recognized that concentrated economic power can poison our democracy," he writes. "This article is a starting point but hopefully also a reminder that antitrust is equipped and designed to grapple with the political ramifications of economic concentration. Those crafting and enforcing the doctrine should feel empowered to step into the shoes they were meant to fill."

The New York Times' "DealBook" newsletter noted Showalter's ties to President Joe Biden:

Showalter's report begins with an interesting acknowledgment, thanking Tim Wu, a former Columbia law professor who is now a technology and competition policy adviser at the White House. What's more, Showalter works at the law firm founded by Jonathan Kanter, whom President Biden recently nominated to lead the Justice Department's antitrust division. Showalter said that Kanter did not discuss the report with him and that his work as a fellow was separate from his day job. But he acknowledged more generally that the expansive approach to antitrust that his report advocated appeared to be ascendant in the halls of power.

The report comes as Congress is considering a package of antitrust bills advanced by the House Judiciary Committee in late June. Demand Progress executive director David Segal pointed out at the time that "many members are reciting Big Tech's talking points and pushing their amendments. This is why it is necessary that Congress act to break these companies up and diminish their power of speech, the economy, and our government."

"No matter what does or doesn't emerge from Congress in the coming weeks or months, it is vital that the Biden administration use existing tools to rein in the power of these monopolies," he added, calling Lina Khan, the president's pick to chair the Federal Trade Commission, "a tremendous step in this direction" and urging more similar actions that prioritize the public interest.

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A new state-by-state scorecard details GOP assault on voting access

As Texas Republicans sought the arrest of Democrats blocking voter suppression legislation and U.S. senators left Washington, D.C. without passing a major pro-democracy bill on Wednesday, a new state-by-state report detailed the GOP's ongoing assault on ballot access.

"Voting rights legislation must be passed urgently by Congress when they return from recess before more damage is done."
—Caleb Jackson, CLC

The Campaign Legal Center (CLC) released a scorecard (pdf) grading the 39 states whose legislative sessions ended on or before June 30, focusing on vote-by-mail and early voting laws.

The report also examines proposed federal legislation: the For the People Act—which the Senate GOP blocked again Wednesday—and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

"Federal intervention would have succeeded in preventing dozens of states from passing laws this year that severely curtail millions of Americans' freedom to vote," said Caleb Jackson, an attorney on CLC's voting rights team and co-author of the report. "Voting rights legislation must be passed urgently by Congress when they return from recess before more damage is done."

After Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) blocked an attempt by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to bring up the For the People Act for consideration on Wednesday, the Democrat vowed that voting rights legislation would be the top priority when senators return in September.

Meanwhile, many states have already enacted electoral laws this year that have both expanded and curtailed voting rights in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and following the 2020 presidential election—the results of which led former President Donald Trump and his GOP allies to spread lies about voter fraud and provoke the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

"The expansion of vote-by-mail and early voting opportunities were key to the 2020 election having the biggest election turnout in a century," said Jackson. "States should be working to expand these opportunities so that voter turnout can continue to improve. Our democracy works best when all voters are able to exercise the freedom to vote in safe and accessible elections."

CLC ranked states based on 10 factors, giving them a point for each:

  • All voters can vote by mail;
  • The state maintains a permanent mail voting list;
  • Election officials can send voters unsolicited mail ballot applications;
  • The state has a uniform mail ballot notice and cure process;
  • The state does not require a state-issued driver license or ID to vote by mail;
  • The state accepts mail ballots postmarked on or before Election Day and received up to 10 days after Election Day;
  • The state offers at least two weeks of early in-person voting;
  • The state offers online mail ballot tracking;
  • The state offers ballot drop boxes; and
  • The state allows voters to vote by mail without notary or enhanced witness requirements.

States with a score of eight or higher were labeled "green," meaning "least restrictive" in terms of vote-by-mail and early voting access. A score of six or seven earned a "yellow" label for "restrictive," and any state with five or fewer points was dubbed "red" for "most restrictive."

CLC

While none of the states received no points, only two—Illinois and Washington—got perfect scores.

The report highlights the impact of the pandemic, pointing out that "during the 2020 elections, 10 states changed their laws to allow all eligible voters to vote by mail either generally or because they feared contracting the coronavirus."

The group found that during the first half of 2021, "seven of the 39 states changed their vote-by-mail and early voting laws for the worse, while nine states changed their laws for the better."

Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Utah improved their policies for mail-in and early voting, though the report notes that many "still fall short of the suggested best practices."

Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, and Louisiana enacted restrictions. In all seven states, the legislatures are controlled by the GOP. All of their governors, other than Louisiana's, are also Republicans.

"With the exception of Maryland," the report notes, "the legislatures in states with the highest Black populations that changed their vote-by-mail and early voting policies each made changes for the worse: Alabama (27.5% Black), Georgia (33% Black), and Louisiana (33.4% Black)."

As for the potential impact of federal proposals, the report says:

At least four of the states that passed restrictive vote-by-mail and early voting laws in 2021— Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana—would have been subject to preclearance if the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was in effect. Preclearance would have required those four states to prove to the U.S. Department of Justice that their restrictive laws would not discriminate against voters of color. The report also explains how at least 37 of the 39 states analyzed currently have laws in place that would be preempted by S. 1, the For the People Act.

Though the scorecard covers much of the country, the report acknowledges that "several other states, including Texas, did not adjourn their legislative sessions by the year's halfway mark but plan to create deliberate barriers to vote by mail and early voting before the year ends."

Late Wednesday, after the Texas Supreme Court voided an order protecting quorum-breaking Democrats who fled to Washington, D.C. last month to stop GOP voter suppression legislation, state House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-21) signed civil arrest warrants for 52 of them.

Though CLC focused on vote-by-mail and early voting access, state lawmakers have also enacted other electoral reforms. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, legislators in 49 states introduced more than 400 bills with voting restrictions during the 2021 legislative sessions.

While, as of July 14, at least 18 states had enacted 30 laws with such restrictions, the center's president, Michael Waldman, noted in a blog post last month that "25 states have enacted 54 laws that make it easier to vote."

The CLC report says that "every eligible voter deserves the freedom to vote in the safe and secure manner of their choosing. The few states that used their 2021 legislative sessions to make that happen should be applauded."

"As other state legislatures continue to work tirelessly to pass anti-voter laws," the report adds, "the federal government must work even harder to stop these nefarious efforts in their tracks."

'Democrats should leave the state immediately': Texas Supreme court OKs lawmaker arrests

Democratic legislators were urged to leave Texas on Tuesday after the state's all-Republican Supreme Court voided a Travis County district judge's order preventing the arrest of quorum-busters who fled Austin last month to prevent GOP anti-voter legislation.

Following the high court's decision, present members of the GOP-controlled Texas House voted 80-12 to direct state authorities to track down absent members and return them to the state Capitol, "under warrant of arrest, if necessary."

Some of the dozens of Democrats have returned to the Lone Star State since leaving for the nation's capital in July. Just one Republican joined every present Democrat in opposing Tuesday's arrest motion.

According to The Dallas Morning News, "At least two dozen House Democrats have stayed in Washington, D.C., where 57 of them camped out for all or most of a month to run out the clock on [GOP Texas Gov. Greg] Abbott's first special session."

As Common Dreams reported last week, Abbott announced another special session—which began on Saturday—in a bid to force through Republicans' attacks on voting rights.

Over the weekend, a group of 19 Democrats filed a lawsuit in hopes of preventing arrests. After District Judge Brad Urrutia signed a temporary restraining order protecting them, Abbott and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-21), represented by GOP state Attorney General Ken Paxton, sought the high court's intervention.

"The state's highest civil court blocked enforcement of Urrutia's order while justices weighed the legal issues," the Austin American-Statesman reported. "The court's brief order gave no reason for its action, only giving House Democrats about six hours to file a response."

The Houston Chronicle highlighted that state troopers lack authority outside of Texas and the Democratic lawmakers would not be charged with a crime over their absence.

PolitiFact explained last month that "the word 'arrest' in the context of the House rules doesn't grant officers an automatic right to use restraints or unreasonable levels of force," citing Sandra Thompson, a University of Houston law professor and director of the Criminal Justice Institute.

"In a situation like this, they don't even have a warrant for a criminal arrest," Thompson told PolitiFact. "I think we really need to be thinking about this more in terms of an escort than trying to analogize it as a criminal situation."

Sawyer Hackett, executive director of People First Future—a political action committee launched by former Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro—responded to the Texas Supreme Court's ruling by calling on all Democratic lawmakers to "immediately" leave the state.

A coalition of voting rights, reproductive freedom, and other progressive organizations similarly encouraged Texas House Democrats to continue denying Republicans the quorum needed to carry out legislative business.

"In the face of an assault on voting rights unlike anything we've seen since Jim Crow, on transgender kids looking to participate in youth sports programs, on access to safe medication and abortion care, on teachers looking to teach an uncensored version of history, and so much more, Texas lawmakers cannot give in to Gov. Abbott's attempts at tyranny," the coalition said.

"To every pro-democracy Texas lawmaker: the only way to preserve our right to vote and the best way to fight is to stay off the House floor," added the groups, which include Communications Workers of America, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, Progress Texas, the state's Sierra Club chapter, and the Texas Organizing Project.

In a statement issued by the attorney for the 19 Democrats before the high court's ruling, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-116) said that "the men and women of the Texas House, many of whom are Black and Brown Democrats, are not animals or property to be corralled by law enforcement and cabined against our will. It is morally wrong to believe otherwise."

"We will not allow our democracy to devolve into dictatorship," he added. "We will use every tool necessary to defend the Constitution."

Texas is among the dozens of states where GOP lawmakers have tried to impose voting restrictions—and in some cases, succeeded—in the wake of the 2020 elections, fueling demands for the U.S. Senate to abolish the filibuster and pass the For the People Act.

'Long past time to fire DeJoy': Postmaster General's ex-company gets $120 million contract

U.S. lawmakers and ethics advocates on Friday reiterated calls for firing Postmaster General Louis DeJoy after The Washington Post revealed that the United States Postal Service awarded a $120 million contract to XPO Logistics, a company he helped run and "with which his family maintains financial ties."

"Louis DeJoy is a walking conflict of interest," declared Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). "He had no business being named postmaster general, and he has no business continuing to serve."

"It's long past time to #FireDeJoy," added Connolly, chair of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, which has legislative jurisdiction over the Postal Service.

Connolly was far from alone in responding to the report by calling for DeJoy's removal.

"How in the world is Louis DeJoy still the postmaster general?" asked Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.). "It is long past time to #FireDeJoy."

DeJoy's personal spokesperson referred most of the newspaper's questions to USPS—whose spokesperson "said that DeJoy did not participate in the procurement process for the XPO contract, which was competitively bid." The company's spokesperson noted that XPO was not awarded some other contracts it sought.

Under the contract that XPO got, it will take over two centers that organize and load mail. Dena Briscoe, president of the American Postal Workers Union branch for Washington and Southern Maryland, told the Post that the move felt like a "slap in the face" to workers.

"This is the work that they've been doing for years and years and years," Briscoe said, "and you're going to segregate it away from them, put in another building, give it to a company that previously had a [top executive] that is now our postmaster general. A lot of our members are taking offense to that."

As the Post detailed:

The new contract will deepen the Postal Service's relationship with XPO Logistics, where DeJoy served as supply chain chief executive from 2014 to 2015 after the company purchased New Breed Logistics, the trucking firm he owned for more than 30 years. Since he became postmaster general, DeJoy, DeJoy-controlled companies, and his family foundation have divested between $65.4 million and $155.3 million worth of XPO shares, according to financial disclosures, foundation tax documents, and securities filings.
But DeJoy's family businesses continue to lease four North Carolina office buildings to XPO, according to his financial disclosures and state property records.
The leases could generate up to $23.7 million in rent payments for the DeJoy businesses over the next decade.

Although the leases to XPO were cleared by government ethics officials before DeJoy took office last year, some experts are still critical—such as Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

"There's no question he's continuing to profit from a Postal Service contractor," Canter said. "He can comply with these technical legal requirements… but it does create an appearance issue about whether it's in his financial interest to continue to make policy that would benefit contractors like XPO."

Friday's calls for the USPS Board of Governors to fire DeJoy are just the latest from the past year. He has been accused of slowing down mail service before the 2020 election and now faces a criminal probe over GOP political donations; DeJoy has denied any wrongdoing on both fronts.

DeJoy's "14-month run as postmaster general has been a masterclass in cronyism and deception," Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) said in response to the Post reporting. "The amount of suspicion I had about him and his efforts to intentionally undermine delivery times at [USPS] could have filled the Grand Canyon. The Board of Governors should #FireDeJoy."

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), who led previous calls for the board to oust the postmaster general, said Friday that "Louis DeJoy should've been fired long ago for his sabotage of USPS. He is under federal criminal investigation and now may be using your post office to wet his beak. The postal governors protecting him need to be fired first. This is an outrage."

DeJoy is spearheading a controversial 10-year reform plan for USPS that would involve cutting hours, slowing first-class delivery, and raising prices—an approach that has also provoked demands for his immediate ouster.

The 10-year plan was a key focus of a Board of Governors meeting Friday—the first that included all three members appointed by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the Senate.

"Ronald Stroman, the former deputy postmaster general and one of Biden's nominees, took the most aggressive approach in criticizing DeJoy's plan, saying the delivery slowdowns would hinder the agency's ability to provide prompt and reliable service without federal funding," reported Government Executive.

According to the outlet:

He said the plan is "strategically-ill conceived, creates dangerous risks that are not justified by the relatively low financial return, and doesn't meet our responsibility as an essential part of America's critical infrastructure." USPS expects to save about $170 million annually from the changes, a small fraction of its operating budget.
"There is no compelling financial reason to make this change," Stroman said. "The relatively minor savings associated with changing service standards, even if achieved, will have no significant impact on the Postal Service's financial future."
Stroman accused DeJoy and the existing board members of abandoning the customers most loyal to and dependent on the Postal Service and said the plan would accelerate people and businesses turning away from the mailing system. He added that "rarely, if ever," has a USPS policy change received such widespread pushback.

DeJoy, for his part, acknowledged to the board that the plan involves some "uncomfortable changes," while doubling down on it: "We are confident we are headed in the right direction."

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) disagrees. In a March letter urging DeJoy's firing, she wrote that his "pathetic 10-year plan to weaken USPS demonstrates that he is a clear and present threat to the future of the Postal Service and the well-being of millions of Americans, particularly small business owners, seniors, and veterans, who depend on an effective and reliable USPS to conduct daily business, safely participate in democracy, and receive vital medication."

'Opening the floodgates': 228 Republicans blasted for Supreme Court brief

While praising the Democrat-led U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday for passing a spending bill without the Hyde Amendment for the first time in decades, reproductive rights and justice advocates sounded the alarm over 228 congressional Republicans urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

"Overturning Roe would open the floodgates to states banning abortion, put politicians in control of people's bodies, and force patients seeking healthcare across state lines."
—Planned Parenthood Action

Concerns about the fate of the landmark 1973 ruling—which affirmed the constitutional right to abortion before viability—have mounted since former President Donald Trump appointed three right-wing justices to the nation's highest court, giving conservatives a 6-3 supermajority.

The new GOP brief (pdf) comes in a case for the court's next session challenging Mississippi's ban on nearly all abortions after 15 weeks. Justices agreed to hear the case in May, a decision made in the midst of what experts called an "unprecedented" wave of attacks on reproductive rights at the state level.

"Every single politician who signed this amicus brief is actively working to strip away our fundamental freedoms and endanger pregnant people and families across the country," Christian LoBue, chief campaigns and advocacy officer at NARAL Pro-Choice America, told Bloomberg.

The filing backed by hundreds of right-wingers in Congress follows a similar brief earlier this week from Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Mo.), and Mike Lee (Utah). Several Republican governors and state attorneys general (pdf) have also filed briefs for the case.

Represented by the advocacy group Americans United for Life, the 44 senators and 184 House members—including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)—argue in their brief:

Mississippi's case provides the court a chance to release its vise grip on abortion politics, as Congress and the states have shown that they are ready and able to address the issue in ways that reflect Americans' varying viewpoints and are grounded in the science of fetal development and maternal health.

"If necessary to enable the people's representatives to further vital interests in public safety, equality, and the integrity of the medical profession," the new GOP brief states, Roe and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey "should be reconsidered and, if appropriate, wholly or partially overturned."

The court's 1992 opinion in Casey reaffirmed Roe but also upheld various anti-choice measures in Pennsylvania. Most notably, the case established the "undue burden" standard, determining that restrictions on abortion must not impose a "substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability."

Justices are expected to rule on Mississippi's 15-week ban, which does not include exceptions for rape or incest, by next June, just months before the midterm elections that could shift the makeup of the Democrat-controlled House and evenly divided Senate.

Responding to Thursday's brief in a pair of tweets, Planned Parenthood Action highlighted widespread support for "safe, legal abortion" across the country and warned that "overturning Roe would open the floodgates to states banning abortion."

Though it was widely expected that the high court would agree to hear an abortion restrictions case in the coming term, pro-choice advocates still warned in May that the Mississippi case could be the death knell for Roe and reiterated demands that the Democrat-led Congress and White House urgently take action on reproductive rights and healthcare, treating the 1973 standard as a floor rather than a ceiling.

Dr. Kristyn Brandi, an OB-GYN in New Jersey and board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, said at the time that "as a community of physicians who know that abortion is basic, essential, safe healthcare, we are extremely alarmed that the Supreme Court will review a clearly unconstitutional ban on abortion, a ban that violates 50 years of Supreme Court precedent."

The doctor continued:

As a provider of abortion care, I know that every person should have the resources and care they need to make decisions about their bodies, their families, and their futures. Mississippians already face some of the most restrictive laws preventing communities from getting the healthcare they need.
I am very concerned by this and other attacks on reproductive healthcare during a global pandemic. We should be making care more accessible, not limiting options. That is why federal legislation like Women's Health Protection Act and Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH) Act are so important. The evidence is clear—abortion is healthcare. We should not be questioning the validity of this fact.
I urge the Supreme Court to listen to people who have abortions and to people who provide abortion care. Restrictions on abortion fall most heavily on communities who are already inequitably impacted by barriers to healthcare: Black, Brown, and Indigenous women and people capable of pregnancy, people with low incomes, people in rural communities, and LGBTQIA people.

"Allowing even more unjustified restrictions on abortion will only hurt patients," Brandi warned. "We expect the Supreme Court to follow precedent and strike down unconstitutional laws like the Mississippi ban."

Oregon governor warns the consequences of inaction on climate are already here

With the massive Bootleg Fire less than half contained and having burned nearly 409,000 acres in Oregon, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown appeared on CNN Sunday to discuss current conditions in her state, the climate emergency, and what the future may look like across the U.S. West.

"The harsh reality is that we're going to see more of these wildfires," Brown told host Jake Tapper on "State of the Union."

"They're hotter, they're more fierce, and obviously much more challenging to tackle," Brown continued. "And they are a sign of the changing climate impacts."

The governor acknowledged other crises her state has endured over this past year—the Covid-19 pandemic, a regional heatwave tied to over 100 deaths in Oregon alone, ice storms in February, and historic wildfires last year for which recovery is ongoing.

"Climate change is here, it's real, and it's like a hammer hitting us in the head, and we have to take action," declared the governor, who noted her state's efforts on renewable energy and electric vehicles.


As for shorter-term action to address raging fires, Brown told Tapper she appreciates the "strong partnership with the Biden-Harris administration," pointing to forest management efforts that not only put Oregonians to work on federal lands but also reduce the impacts of wildfires.

Her comments come as U.S. senators are working to finalize a bipartisan infrastructure deal as early as Monday and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reiterated Sunday that she won't put the bipartisan plan up for a vote "until we have the rest of the initiative," referring to the reconciliation package that Democrats intend to pass without GOP support.

"We are rooting for the infrastructure bill to pass," Pelosi told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week," referencing the bipartisan deal, "but we all know that more needs to be done if we're going to build back better."

A key provision that progressive climate campaigners and lawmakers want to include in the reconciliation package is a fully funded Civilian Climate Corps (CCC). Inspired by a New Deal-era program, the new initiative would put millions of Americans to work in green jobs.

Earlier this week, 84 Democrats—including Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who proposed CCC legislation in April—sent a letter (pdf) to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) outlining what they want the program to look like.

Meanwhile, Pelosi's state is also enduring intense wildfires. The Dixie Fire, California's largest, destroyed multiple homes and properties on Saturday. By Sunday morning it was only 21% contained and had consumed over 190,000 acres.


There are 86 active large fires that have collectively burned 1,498,205 acres across 12 Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Experts and policymakers continue to point to the fires as proof of the necessity of ambitious policies and actions that meet the scale of the climate emergency.

"The climate crisis is here. We're living it," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) tweeted earlier this week, as the Bootleg Fire burned through his state. "And without immediate, meaningful action, it will get so much worse than we ever could have imagined."

In about three months, world leaders will come together for a United Nations climate summit in Glasgow to discuss governments' commitments to cutting planet-heating emissions in line with the Paris agreement goals—keeping global temperature rise this century below 2°C, and preferably limiting it to 1.5°C.


The Biden-Harris administration rejoined the Paris agreement and pledged to halve U.S. emissions by 2030, relative to 2005—but critics say that falls short of what science and justice demand, especially considering that the United States is the world's biggest historical emitter and wealthiest country.

Other rich countries are also under fire for inadequate climate commitments.

The Guardian reported Sunday that an analysis by the peer-reviewed group Paris Equity Check found that Australia, Brazil, China, and Russia all have energy policies associated with 5°C rises in atmospheric temperatures.

"The research underlines what many of us fear," said Yann Robiou du Pont, the lead researcher for the analysis. "Major economies are simply not doing enough to tackle the climate crisis and, in many cases, G20 countries are leaving us on track [for] a world of more heatwaves, flooding, and extreme weather events."

As UN Human Rights Chief urges stricter rules, Snowden calls for end to spyware trade

The United Nations human rights chief and American whistleblower Edward Snowden on Monday joined the wide range of public figures demanding urgent action after reporting that Pegasus hacking spyware, sold by the Israeli firm NSO Group, has been used to facilitate human rights violations worldwide, including to target activists, journalists, and politicians.

"If they find a way to hack one iPhone, they've found a way to hack all of them."
—Ed Snowden, whistleblower

Their comments came in response to the Pegasus Project. Over 80 journalists from 17 media organizations across 10 countries conducted an investigation into the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential targets of authoritarian governments. The effort was coordinated by Paris-based Forbidden Stories, with the technical support of Amnesty International.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, in a statement, said that the revelations "are extremely alarming, and seem to confirm some of the worst fears about the potential misuse of surveillance technology to illegally undermine people's human rights."

Bachelet highlighted that her office has previously raised concerns about the dangers of authorities using surveillance tools to hack phones and computers; emphasized the "indispensable role" that journalists and human rights defenders play in society; and pointed out that use of spyware has been linked to their arrest, intimidation, and even deaths.

"I would like to remind all states that surveillance measures can only be justified in narrowly defined circumstances, with a legitimate goal," Bachelet said. "And they must be both necessary and proportionate to that goal."

The use of tools like Pegasus "can only ever be justified in the context of investigations into serious crimes and grave security threats," she continued. "If the recent allegations about the use of Pegasus are even partly true, then that red line has been crossed again and again with total impunity."

Noting that governments have a responsibility to not only stop their own rights abuses but also to protect individuals from privacy violations, the U.N. official suggested that "one key step to effectively prevent abuse of surveillance technology is for states to require by law that the companies involved meet their human rights responsibilities, are much more transparent in relation to the design and use of their products, and put in place more effective accountability mechanisms."

"These reports also confirm the urgent need to better regulate the sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology and ensure strict oversight and authorization," Bachelet said. "Without human rights-compliant regulatory frameworks there are simply too many risks that these tools will be abused to intimidate critics and silence dissent."

"Governments should immediately cease their own use of surveillance technologies in ways that violate human rights," she added, "and should take concrete actions to protect against such invasions of privacy by regulating the distribution, use, and export of surveillance technology created by others."

Snowden went even further than Bachelet. In a video interview with The Guardian, the whistleblower—who has lived in Russia with asylum protections since leaking classified materials on U.S. government mass surveillance in 2013—called for outlawing for-profit malware developers.

"This is an industry that should not exist," Snowden told the newspaper, which is part of the consortium that conducted the investigation. "The NSO Group is only one company of many—and if one company smells this bad, what's happening with all the others?"

In a series of statements to The Guardian and other media outlets responding to the investigation, the NSO Group said that it "firmly denies false claims made in your report, many of which are uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability of your sources, as well as the basis of your story."

Snowden, meanwhile, said that "what the Pegasus Project reveals is the NSO Group is really representative of a new malware market, where this is a for-profit business… The only reason NSO is doing this is not to save the world, it's to make money."

Play

Pointing out that "if they find a way to hack one iPhone, they've found a way to hack all of them," Snowden warned that the danger will only grow as long as the international spyware trade is allowed to exist and encouraged collective action to impose a global ban.

"Inaction is no longer an option," he said. "If you don't do anything to stop the sale of this technology, it's not just going to be 50,000 targets. It's going to be 50 million targets, and it's going to happen much more quickly than any of us expect."

While thousands of iPhones and Google Android phones were listed as potential targets for Pegasus spyware, Amnesty International was only able to confirm that Apple products were infected, because of Android's operating system, the group explained in a statement Monday.

"Apple prides itself on its security and privacy features, but NSO Group has ripped these apart," said Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty Tech. "Our forensic analysis has uncovered irrefutable evidence that through iMessage zero-click attacks, NSO's spyware has successfully infected iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 models."

"Thousands of iPhones have potentially been compromised," she warned. "This is a global concern—anyone and everyone is at risk, and even technology giants like Apple are ill-equipped to deal with the massive scale of surveillance at hand."

According to Ingleton: "NSO Group can no longer hide behind the claim that its spyware is only used to fight crime. There is overwhelming evidence that NSO spyware is being systematically used for repression and other human rights violations. NSO Group must immediately stop selling its equipment to governments with a track record of abusing human rights."

"These findings show that the surveillance industry is out of control," she added. "States must immediately implement a global moratorium on the export, sale, and use of surveillance equipment until a human rights-compliant regulatory framework is in place."

Analysis reveals the profound damage wrought by GOP-packed Supreme Court

Confirming fears progressive critics shared ahead of the confirmations of all three U.S. Supreme Court Justices appointed by former President Donald Trump, an analysis published Friday details the devastating impact of having a GOP supermajority on the nation's highest court.

"The harmful rulings coming out of this court make it critical that Congress pass legislation to protect voting rights and shore up our democracy."
—Ben Jealous, PFAW

"The 2020-2021 term that just ended shows that our rights are not safe at the Supreme Court, and that we must work to change the makeup of the court," warns the progressive advocacy group People For the American Way (PFAW) in its latest annual report.

This is the first term that includes Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who Trump appointed after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last year. The other two Trump appointees are Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.

"This Supreme Court is dominated by Trump-appointed justices, with predictably disastrous results for voting rights as well as workers, consumers, and immigrants this term," said PFAW president Ben Jealous in a statement Friday.

"The harmful rulings coming out of this court make it critical that Congress pass legislation to protect voting rights and shore up our democracy," Jealous added. "We also have to build a strategy to reinforce the importance of fair courts and fair-minded judges, so we can counter the decadeslong efforts by the far right to pack our courts, including our Supreme Court, with ultraconservative judges."

PFAW's analysis came just a day after a pair of 6-3 SCOTUS rulings on Arizona's voting restrictions and California's dark money disclosure rules that led Senate Majority Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to dub Thursday "one of the darkest days in all of the Supreme Court's history."

As Paul Gordon, PFAW senior legislative counsel and the main author of the report, put it: "This Supreme Court term wrapped up with a one-two punch to voting rights and our democracy."

Those cases—Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee and Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta—are just two of several that PFAW highlights as examples of the six right-wing justices harming the American public and democracy.

According to PFAW:

In this term, the court in some cases bypassed controversial issues and reached surprising compromises. For instance, the justices avoided ruling on the merits of the challenge to the Affordable Care Act, and they issued a narrow ruling in a case that had threatened to let religious liberty be used as a license to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people.
Yet in other cases, the ultraconservatives are clearly taking full advantage of their ill-gained majority. They have continued to abet Republican efforts to make it harder for popular majorities to vote them out of office through free and fair elections; let racial injustice fester in the criminal justice system; continued to give special rights to religious organizations far beyond what the Constitution contemplates; made life harder for undocumented immigrants trying to exercise their legal rights; advanced their agenda to weaken Congress and undo the New Deal; and reinterpreted the Constitution to give corporations a new weapon to neutralize ordinary health and safety regulations.

The report's criminal justice section points out that in Edwards v. Vannoy, "the far-right justices made it easier for states to keep people in prison even when the procedures used to convict them are later deemed unconstitutional."

The 6-3 right-wing majority also "abandoned two recent precedents that protected minors from unconstitutionally excessive prison sentences" in Jones v. Mississippi.

In Johnson v. Guzman Chavez, Barrett, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh "cast deciding votes in a 6-3 decision to reverse a lower court and ruled that the government can indefinitely detain refugees, who are seeking through sometimes lengthy proceedings to avoid being returned to their home countries because of a reasonable fear of torture or persecution, without even a bond hearing."

The trio of Trump justices also "cast deciding votes to invalidate part of a congressional law that provides for the appointment of independent patent judges in cases concerning the reconsideration of patents." That case, United States v. Arthrex, was a 5-4 split.

TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez was another 5-4 decision enabled by the Trump justices. The court's majority "made it much harder for victims of corporate malfeasance to use class action lawsuits to hold companies accountable when they violate the rights of vast numbers of people."

That's not the only recent ruling favoring corporate interests. PFAW notes that in Cedar Point v. Hassid, "the far-right majority made possible by the Trump justices expanded the meaning of the Takings Clause in a way that limits organized labor in this particular case, and that threatens any number of government protections that affect monied interests."

"The court's rightward tilt is very pronounced and raises serious concerns about risks to our rights."
—Paul Gordon, PFAW

The analysis concludes by looking ahead to the next term, warning about the potential impact of the six right-wing justices weighing in on abortion restrictions, gun violence, and constitutional rights for Puerto Ricans. The court has already agreed to hear cases on all three.

"While there were some bright spots, including the failure of the right once again to destroy the Affordable Care Act," said Gordon, reflecting on the term that just ended, "the court's rightward tilt is very pronounced and raises serious concerns about risks to our rights."

"We believe that as Republican-appointed justices and judges do more and more harm to people and to the country, the long-term movement to improve our courts will only get stronger," the report author added.

One proposal is to expand the court. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) joined with Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), and Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) earlier this year to introduce the Judiciary Act of 2021, which would increase the number of justices from nine to 13.

"We must pass my Judiciary Act of 2021 to expand the Supreme Court and restore balance to our top court," Markey said Thursday. "If we fail to do so, it is a near-certainty that the court's conservative majority will continue to rule in favor of the far-right interests of those that orchestrated the theft of these seats."

'Bombshell' secret footage of ExxonMobil lobbyists sparks calls for action by Congress

While ExxonMobil's decades of sowing public doubt about climate science and the impact of fossil fuels have provoked various lawsuits, secretly recorded videos released Wednesday expose how the company continues to fight against U.S. efforts to tackle climate emergency.

Published by Unearthed, Greenpeace U.K.'s investigative journalism arm, and the British Channel 4 News, the footage of ExxonMobil lobbyists sparked new calls for congressional action to hold the oil and gas giant accountable.

The videos, obtained by Unearthed reporters posing as recruitment consultants, feature Keith McCoy, a senior director in ExxonMobil's Washington, D.C. government affairs team, and Dan Easley, who was a senior director for federal relations until leaving the company for a clean technologies firm earlier this year.

"In the midst of a deadly heatwave, the Exxon Tapes show how Exxon's climate lies have spanned from outright denial to puppeteering our government and economy," said Lindsay Meiman, 350.org's U.S. communications manager. "Exxon knew and lied about the climate crisis for decades, and our communities are bearing the costs."

"As the window for action quickly closes, this footage proves what we've known all along—Exxon continues to deliberately block necessary climate action to skirt accountability," Meiman added. "We demand Congress immediately investigate Exxon and fossil fuel companies' climate crimes, and make polluters pay for their destruction."

McCoy said on the Zoom call, secretly recorded in May, that ExxonMobil cast doubt on the scientific consensus about the climate crisis and targeted centrist lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—"I talk to his office every week," the lobbyist claimed—to scale back President Joe Biden's infrastructure package.

"Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. Did we hide our science? Absolutely not," he said. "Did we join some of these 'shadow groups' to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that's true. But there's nothing illegal about that. You know, we were looking out for our investments; we were looking out for our shareholders."

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McCoy also said that "we're playing defense, because President Biden is talking about this big infrastructure package and he's going to pay for it by increasing corporate taxes. So it's a delicate balance we're asking for help with taxes over here [lobbying for subsidies for a carbon capture project] and we're saying, don't increase our taxes over here."

He further suggested that ExxonMobil's public support for a carbon tax is just an "effective advocacy tool," saying: "Nobody is going to propose a tax on all Americans and the cynical side of me says, yeah, we kind of know that, but it gives us a talking point that we can say, well what is ExxonMobil for? Well, we're for a carbon tax."

Easley, who was ExxonMobil's chief White House lobbyist when former President Donald Trump was in office, "laughed when asked by an undercover reporter if the company had achieved many big policy wins under Trump, before outlining victories on fossil fuel permitting and the renegotiation of the NAFTA trade agreement," Unearthed reported.

"You should Google 'ExxonMobil announcement' and 'Donald Trump,'" Easley said. "So he live-Facebooked from the West Wing our big drill in the Gulf project, he mentioned us in two States of the Union, we were able to get investor state dispute settlement protection in NAFTA, we were able to rationalize the permit environment and you know, get ton of permits out."

"The wins are such that it would be difficult... to categorize them all," Easley added. "I mean, tax has to be the biggest one right, the reduction of the corporate rate was, you know, it was probably worth billions to Exxon, so yeah there were a lot of wins."

In a statement, ExxonMobil chairman and chief executive officer Darren Woods doubled down on past climate pledges and tried to distance the company from the footage:

Comments made by the individuals in no way represent the company's position on a variety of issues, including climate policy and our firm commitment that carbon pricing is important to addressing climate change. The individuals interviewed were never involved in developing the company's policy positions on the issues discussed.
We condemn the statements and are deeply apologetic for them, including comments regarding interactions with elected officials. They are entirely inconsistent with the way we expect our people to conduct themselves. We were shocked by these interviews and stand by our commitments to working on finding solutions to climate change.

However, climate experts and advocates pointed to the footage as confirmation of findings from previous investigations into the company.

Harvard University researcher Geoffrey Supran, who has published multiple scientific papers on the company's efforts to mislead the public, said the videos show that "ExxonMobil has been a bad-faith actor on climate change for 30 years, and it still is."

Since 2017, 26 U.S. state and local governments have filed lawsuits against major fossil fuel companies for deceiving the public about their products' role in the climate emergency, according to the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI).

CCI executive director Richard Wiles said Wednesday that "this bombshell recording confirms yet again that ExxonMobil simply cannot be trusted by policymakers."

"They lie about climate science and their products' role in the climate crisis," Wiles continued. "They lie about their commitment to climate solutions. And they lie to protect their bottom line, with no regard for the catastrophic damage their products continue to cause to our planet and everyone on it."

"It's time for members of Congress to stop doing the bidding of oil and gas lobbyists and executives who have no interest in solving the climate crisis," he added, "and instead hold them accountable."

Amid protests by climate advocates in Washington, D.C. this week, Democratic leaders are working out the details of a reconciliation package to pass alongside the bipartisan infrastructure bill Biden recently announced with centrist in Congress.

In his response to the ExxonMobil videos, Fossil Free Media director Jamie Henn focused on federal infrastructure legislation.

"The question for President Biden and members of Congress is: whose side are you on?"
—Jamie Henn, Fossil Free Media

"If you'd been wondering who was to blame for putting Biden's climate agenda on life support, we now know: ExxonMobil," Henn said. "The recordings help clarify the battle lines for the next round of infrastructure negotiations: This is going to be a showdown between Exxon and the American people."

According to Henn, "The question for President Biden and members of Congress is: whose side are you on?"

"It isn't a coincidence that many of Exxon's 'key senators' are the ones that supported the bipartisan infrastructure package, instead of an actual plan to tackle the climate crisis," he added. "They're doing exactly what Exxon asked: Protect the company's profits at all costs."

"President Biden needs to show us he's not Exxon's puppet," Henn concluded, "by putting climate back at the heart of his agenda."

Unearthed, meanwhile, promised that in the coming days, its journalists will also reveal "claims that Exxon covertly fought to prevent a ban on toxic chemicals" and "how Exxon is using its playbook on climate change to head-off regulations on plastic."

'This is bonkers': Internet reacts to bombshell right-wing 'spies' with deep pockets infiltrated Democratic Party

In a "bonkers" report that drew comparisons to a movie script or Tom Clancy novel, the New York Times on Friday exposed a sophisticated right-wing plot to infiltrate Democratic politics in three Western states using undercover operatives.

"The use of spies is an escalation of tactics by Wyoming's political far-right."
—Better Wyoming

"Using large campaign donations and cover stories, the operatives aimed to gather dirt that could sabotage the reputations of people and organizations considered threats to a hard-right agenda advanced by President Donald J. Trump," revealed journalists Adam Goldman and Mark Mazzetti.

Despite some "bumbling and amateurish" tactics, the now-married couple at the center of the report connected with political figures and groups in Arizona, Colorado, and Wyoming in an operation the reporters pieced together through a review of federal election records and over two dozen interviews.

The full scope of information that the spies may have gained access to is not clear, but they attended various events—including a fundraiser at which one of them was photographed with Tom Perez, then the chairman of the Democratic National Committee—and have now generated concerns about the possibility of other right-wing operatives and operations across the U.S. political system.



The exposé includes some characters from Goldman and Mazzetti's previous reporting on covert right-wing operations to "discredit" Trump's enemies and infiltrate groups "hostile" to the ex-president's agenda: war profiteer Erik Prince—founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater and brother of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—and former British spy Richard Seddon.

As the Times explains:

Mr. Prince had set Mr. Seddon's work in motion, recruiting him around the beginning of the Trump administration to hire former spies to train conservative activists in the basics of espionage, and send them on political sabotage missions.
By the end of 2018, Mr. Seddon secured funding from the Wyoming heiress, Susan Gore, according to people familiar with her role. He recruited several former operatives from the conservative group Project Veritas, where he had worked previously, to set up the political infiltration operation in the West.

The "spies" exposed in the report are Sofia LaRocca, 28, and Beau Maier, the 36-year-old nephew of conservative commentator Glenn Beck. Maier's mother worked at the Prince family ranch in Wyoming, where Seddon trained Project Veritas operatives in 2017, before leaving the group the next year.

Seddon, Maier, LaRocca, Gore, and the heiress's attorney did not respond to the newspaper's requests for comment, including questions about campaign contributions. "Straw donations" in which donors are reimbursed for contributing to a political campaign are illegal under federal law.



LaRocca secured a job at the Wyoming Investor Network (WIN), a consortium of rich liberal donors that quietly supported some moderate Republicans. Chris Bell, who worked as a political consultant for the consortium, told the Times that "getting the WIN stuff is really damaging" because "it's the entire strategy. Where the money is going. What we're doing long term."

Maier, an Army veteran who fought in Iraq, met with Democrats and Republicans—including Eric Barlow, who is now the Wyoming speaker of the house—about medicinal use of marijuana, "which he said was particularly valuable for war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder."

Barlow, who said he was open to medical marijuana and decriminalization, called himself a "practical Republican," and told the Times that "for some people, that's a RINO." Trump and other right-wingers use the term, which means "Republican in Name Only," to attack more centrist members of the GOP.

Maier and LaRocca also went on double dates with Karlee Provenza, a Democrat elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives last year, and her now-husband Nate Martin, executive director of the group Better Wyoming, which released a statement on the report Friday.



The statement highlighted the financing from Gore—who had been involved in the state's GOP politics since the 1990s and founded the Wyoming Liberty Group in 2008—and shared that Maier and LaRocca donated thousands of dollars to Better Wyoming.

"The use of spies is an escalation of tactics by Wyoming's political far-right, which already employs anonymous websites, purity tests, smear campaigns, and has secretly recorded Better Wyoming staff members in the past," the nonprofit said.

Martin, in the statement, said that "the use of spies is pretty far out there, but so are many of the Wyoming Liberty Group's ideas… Wyoming's far-right promotes tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories like Medicaid expansion causes abortion and cannabis is ruining the daycare industry. It makes sense that they would use spies to try to attack their opposition or uncover some imagined liberal plot."

The Better Wyoming leader also addressed the social relationship he formed with the spies.

"The whole time, they were lying to my wife and me about who they were and what they were up to, and they were actively trying to get us to say or do things that could ruin our careers and hurt us," Martin said. "Politics aside, that's just a disgusting thing to do to other people. But, again, the people who hired them support policies that defund public schools and block folks from getting healthcare, so it's pretty clear they don't care much about people to begin with."

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