Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

How Tom Perez Embodies the Democrats’ TPP Rift

When it comes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Tom Perez is stuck between a rock and a hard place—or rather, between his current boss, President Barack Obama, and his potential future boss, Hillary Clinton.

In his role as the U.S. labor secretary, Perez has gone to the mat for Obama as a prominent supporter of the trade agreement. He’s quick to admit that past trade deals like NAFTA have been disasters for working people, but he’s even quicker to insist that the TPP is different—that it addresses past shortcomings with real, enforceable labor standards.

He’s long been in an awkward position on his support for the deal, given that his allies at the labor unions vehemently oppose the deal. Still, labor leaders have largely given Perez a pass on his TPP support, as they understand the position he’s in and are huge fans of everything else he’s done as labor secretary.

However, with vice-presidential speculation swirling around him; a renewed focus on the Democratic Party’s position on the TPP; and increased pressure from both progressives and Trump on Clinton’s own position, Perez is in a trickier spot than ever before.

In an interview on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd on Sunday, Perez said that his work constructing labor protections and promoting the deal was part of his job. “This is what the president tasked me with doing, Chuck, and I was proud to do it,” he said.

The rift, he says, is regarding whether the deal ensures "the strongest protections for the workers that we've ever had." 

“The president and Clinton have a disagreement on whether TPP has gone that far. This is not the first time in the history of the Democratic Party that there have been differences of opinion," Perez said.

But he evaded a direct answer on whether he, as a “political citizen” and not as a member of Obama’s cabinet, personally supported the agreement. The evasion is indicative of a future pivot that Perez would have to soon make should he be tapped for the vice presidential slot or another position in a Clinton administration. That’s a stark change from when he said just over a year ago that “[t]rade agreements like the TPP are critical to our 21st century competitiveness."

Perez’s current political quandary, however, is a product of the larger rift within the Democratic Party. The TPP remains a powder keg, just waiting to blow up the party as unity on the issue remains elusive.

Last week, when the Democratic National Committee released a draft of its party platform, it declined to explicitly condemn the TPP, citing “the diversity of views” on the matter. Given the fact that 85 percent of House Democrats voted against fast-tracking the deal last year, it was clear that the “diversity of views” was a polite way of saying that there was no way the DNC would officially snub a major hallmark of Obama’s presidency.

And that’s precisely where the dividing line is in the Democratic Party. On one side is Obama and those who support the deal as is. On the other side, the full spectrum of opposition runs from Clinton, who has sharpened her position to calling for stronger trade prosecution against China and protections for the U.S. auto industry, to Bernie Sanders, who thinks the deal should be thrown out altogether and is lobbying DNC delegates to support a platform amendment explicitly opposing the TPP.

Perez will be forced to continue the political straddling—acknowledging the disagreement between Clinton and Obama without expounding on it—throughout the campaign. That is unless the political cosmos aligns and he is tapped as vice president, or Obama tacitly agrees to back off on pushing for a lame-duck vote, or the DNC changes its platform.

In any case, Perez will be an important bellwether in monitoring how the party ultimately handles an Obama-to-Clinton TPP transition.

 

Report: Warnings about Encryption ‘Back Doors’ Vindicated

The House Homeland Security Committee released a report Wednesday acknowledging what the technology industry has been telling the federal government for more than a year: It’s impossible to give law enforcement a “back door” to encryption technologies without giving bad actors the same access to people’s phones and other devices. The “Going Dark, Going Forward: A Primer on the Encryption Debate” report is the product of more than 100 meetings and briefings that the committee held over the past year with privacy and civil liberties experts, the technology, computer science, and cryptology industries, as well as law enforcement and the intelligence community.

“As a result of our robust investigation, the Committee staff has come to understand that there is no silver bullet regarding encryption and ‘going dark,’” said the report’s authors.

The report covers “end-to-end” encryption technologies: Encryption transmits messages by scrambling them into a series of digits, which are then unscrambled by the use of a key. End-to-end encryption means no one but the people communicating have access to this key, not even the company that owns the communication tool. In other words, only those people can read the messages, which the FBI fears will result in “going dark”—that is, law enforcement will be unable to collect crucial information about potential terrorists.

The report reframes the problems surrounding encryption. Rather than “privacy versus security”—that is, encryption pits law enforcement’s need to access electronic data against individuals’ right to have their personal matters free from being surveyed by the state—the real issue is “security versus security,” according to the report. Creating a means to law enforcement to get access to the data stored in Google or Apple phones “would naturally be exploited by the bad guys—and not just benefit the good guys,” the authors said.

The report contradicts what Obama administration and law enforcement officials have been telling the public for years. Spurred on by a number of recent high-profile terrorist attacks here and abroad, FBI Director James Comey wants technology companies to insert special “back doors”—or security flaws—into encryption software that would allow only law enforcement officials to bypass the encryption and access the data. In March, President Obama chided the industry for its defiant response to Comey’s demands, adding that critics of the government’s views were “fetishizing our phones above every other value.”

The debate leaves technology experts frustrated. They believe that federal government officials do not understand the problems involved in letting law enforcement bypass encryption. Susan Landau, a cyber security expert, has called the idea of a back door “magical thinking,” while Guardian technology reporter Cory Doctorow wrote that “any politician caught spouting off about back doors is unfit for office anywhere but Hogwarts.” Creating a back door for the “good guys” would create that same door for “bad guys”—hackers, identity thieves, foreign governments, and others, just as the House report now acknowledges.

Encryption may not be as great of a security threat as law enforcement officials believe. Although the November 2015 Paris terror attacks were initially reported to have been planned using encrypted apps, it turned out the attackers used burners—prepaid and quickly disposable cell phones that are difficult to track. After turning the San Bernardino shooting and the FBI’s inability to access one of the shooter’s iPhones into a case for weakening encryption, the FBI found another way into the phone and found nothing of value.

Federal officials’ claims are also undercut by a report released on Thursday by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts that found that the number of government wiretaps that ran up against encryption fell from 22 in 2014 to seven in 2015, even though the number of wiretaps increased.

Union Conducts Nationwide Anti-VHA Privatization Protests

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest labor union representing federal and District of Columbia government workers, announced Tuesday that about 40 anti-VHA privatization rallies will be held nationwide. The move comes as the VA Commission on Care, the congressionally-mandated body tasked with making recommendations about the future of Veterans Health Administration, closes in on an early July release date for a report on the agency’s future.

The Veterans Council of the AFL-CIO and the Roosevelt Institute, a New York-based think tank, held a conference, “Keeping the Promise: What’s Next for the VA” in Washington last week. National health-care experts, VHA officials, and the directors of five veterans service organizations (VSOs), outlined what veterans stand to lose, if the VHA is privatized, which is precisely what one group of commission members (the so-called Strawmen), who represent the hospital industry and the Koch Brothers-funded Concerned Veterans for America, has proposed.

VA Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin and top VHA research, teaching, and clinical services officials described the VHA’s progress in improving access to VHA services. The VHA’s Million Veteran Program, which amasses health care and genetic information on hundreds of thousands of veterans, will be making significant contributions in efforts to individualize treatments for a variety of medical problems facing Americans. The VHA is a global leader in telehealth services, which allow providers to connect with patients who live miles away from a clinic or hospital. This type of care brings much-needed services to underserved areas, particularly in the 55 percent of rural counties that lack a single psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker, according a recent HRSA report.

Terri Tanielian, a senior social research analyst who served as director of the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research for more than a decade, delivered a key message. She debunked the idea that private sector mental health providers can adequately care for the nation’s veterans.  

Tanielian explained that a recent RAND study, “Ready to Serve,” found that only 13 percent of the nation’s mental health providers have an understanding of military culture or an awareness of the appropriate kinds therapies for civilian patients with specific mental health concerns. If mental health providers cannot provide suitable therapy regimes for civilians, how can they care for veterans with complex, military-related problems?

The VHA’s Marsden McGuire, the VA’s deputy chief consultant for mental health care, explained that the agency provides “wraparound services that other health care systems cannot.” In 2014, The American Journal of Public Health devoted an entire issue to VA programs like the national system of Veterans Courts that help veterans avoid or shorten jail or prison terms through housing, employment, and substance abuse programs. These measures go a long way to explain why, when surveyed, veterans overwhelmingly support the VHA, according to Joshua E. Ulibarri of Lake Research Partners Veterans.

According to Garry Augustine of the Disabled Veterans of America and other groups, veterans fear that a fragmented private-sector system will deliver inadequate care. They believe that private-sector providers have little or no understanding of their specific problems and are too often motivated by profit rather than interest in individual veterans.

Sherman G. Gillums, executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America and Marine Corp veteran who was paralyzed when a vehicle rolled on top of him, told The American Prospect that many of the VHA’s current problems stem from congressional underfunding and inaction. “It is Congress’s job to fund the VA and provide oversight of its functions,” he said. “The Independent Budget [a group of VSOs that submit recommended funding levels for and policy recommendations about the VA to Congress every year] have lamented the shortfalls in VA construction, information technology, staffing budgets year after year.” 

Capitol Hill also came in for criticism from Kenneth W. Kizer, a former Clinton administration VA undersecretary, who warned that relentless attacks on the VHA over the past decade have exacerbated the agency’s insularity. “You don’t create organizational excellence by focusing on how many people you’ve fired, which [is] driven by Congress, and is too much of a focus of current VA leadership,” he said.

Representative Tom MacArthur, a New Jersey Republican, has sponsored a bill that could eventually privatize VHA mental health; Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, supports a bill that would make the Choice Act permanent and eliminate its restrictions; and new legislation from Representative Cathy McMorris Rogers, a Washington state Republican, who chairs the House Republican Conference would also speed up privatization of VHA services. Twenty-six VSOs sent a letter Tuesday to McMorris Rodgers protesting her proposal.

The AFGE and veterans groups are counting on the organized protests to force Congress and the commission to reassess its positions. If efforts to privatize the VHA persist, protests will likely continue throughout the summer. 

Vermont Law Delivers Overlooked Victory for Privacy Rights

Recent foreign and domestic terrorist attacks have tilted the advantage on surveillance toward law enforcement and security agencies, which are using these incidents to push for broader powers. Civil liberties advocates can take heart, however, in a privacy victory that has largely gone unnoticed.

In early June, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a sweeping privacy bill into law that curtails the ability of state law enforcement agencies to collect residents’ personal data. The law is modeled on a broad privacy protection bill that California state lawmakers passed last September.

The Green Mountain State forbids the use of “stingrays,” or simulated cell phone towers, except in cases where a fugitive is on the run. Stingrays, whose use by law enforcement agencies only came to light in 2013 after a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU of Northern California, are controversial because they can be used to indiscriminately sweep up all cell phone calls, texts, tracking data, and other electronic information within a given radius.

In restricting their use, Vermont follows the lead of Washington state and Virginia. The Old Dominion was the first jurisdiction to require a warrant to use stingrays to obtain personal data.

Additionally, if Vermont law enforcement agencies want to obtain residents’ electronic communications and records, such as phone calls, emails, location data, or bank records, they can now only do so with a warrant, subpoena, court order, or the consent of the individual. Previously in Vermont, such records were obtained through the use of “inquests,” secret court hearings that only police and prosecutors attend.

“Because the hearings are secret, it’s been hard to find out whether a judge was present in all cases,” explains ACLU Vermont Executive Director Allen Gilbert. “Some people said yes, others no. There are no publicly available records of these proceedings.”

The law also requires Vermont law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before using drones for investigations or other purposes, such as monitoring protesters. At least other 20 states have passed laws regulating drone use in the past 18 months.

In recent years, the domestic use of drones has gradually spread. The Pentagon has admitted to deploying spy drones on U.S. territory in a “rare and lawful” way over the last decade. In 2015, the Justice Department acknowledged the FBI, DEA, and other federal agencies have used drones for domestic surveillance purposes. In 2013, the federal government gave seven local law enforcement agencies and nonprofit organizations $1.2 million to purchase drones. Still, there has been little public debate about their use in the United States, and state and federal lawmakers have been slow to enact regulations.

Although the Vermont bill restricts the actions of state law enforcement officials, state law does not apply to federal agencies like the NSA or FBI, which might choose to conduct surveillance on Vermont residents. For that, privacy advocates must continue to look to federal law.

Despite its limitations, the Vermont measure is an important milestone for privacy rights.

“For a first go-round, I thought it was adequate,” says Vermont Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, a Republican who was one of the bill’s sponsors. “There’s always the possibility of improving things, but we were starting from scratch. We’re trying to get ahead of technology.”

Indeed, as the pace of technological change continues to ramp up, state officials have to stay vigilant. “Vermont or any other state can always go further, as electronic issues are constantly evolving,” says Gilbert. 

SCOTUS Abortion Ruling Benefits Women of Color, Low-Income Women

The Supreme Court’s 5-3 ruling on Monday to throw out restrictive Texas abortion laws in the landmark case known as Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt is a major victory for reproductive rights advocates, who have been fighting a wave of what they call “clinic shutdown” laws nationwide.

First enacted in 2013, the Texas laws rejected by the Court Monday had imposed numerous medical requirements on abortion providers, and had the effect of reducing the number of abortion clinics in the state from 40 to approximately 19. The law had required that doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals, and that clinics meet hospital-like standards. Referred to as Targeted Regulations Against Providers (TRAP) laws, such restrictions have been proliferating in states around the country.

The resulting drop in abortion clinics has had “a disproportionate effect on women of color, young women, and rural women,” said Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, during a press call earlier this month. Northrup’s group represented the Texas women’s clinic Whole Woman’s Health in its Supreme Court challenge.

“There have been higher costs to women who seek the care,” Northup said on the call. “They have to take multiple days off work, travel up to in some cases 200-300 miles to get to a clinic, obtain child care, experience a delay up to 20 days just to get an appointment.”

The ruling has far-reaching implications for other states that have enacted TRAP regulations. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about 24 states have laws or policies that regulate abortion providers and go beyond what is necessary to ensure patients’ safety; all apply to clinics that perform surgical abortion.

Proponents of the Texas law had argued that it was enacted for the protection, health, and safety of women and their families. Not so, argued reproductive rights and justice advocates before the Court, who cited a tremendous economic and emotional strain on women of limited means seeking reproductive health care in Texas. The state’s clinic mandates had been compounded by such additional abortion restrictions as mandatory waiting periods and mandated ultrasounds.

“There was a woman who drove her RV, camped in parking lot of the Austin clinic with her husband and two children to accommodate the mandatory waiting period in order to have the abortion procedure,” recounted Northrup in this month’s conference call. “And it was the only way they could afford lodging and transportation to get the procedure done.

It was stories like this that motivated Whole Woman’s Health staff members to fight the Texas law all the way to the the Supreme Court.

“It has been a long and arduous journey for Texans,” Andrea Ferrigno, the clinic’s corporate vice president, told the Prospect. “We embarked on this journey because we wanted to protect their rights and provide services in their communities.”

Nevertheless, having closed half its clinics and laid off half its staff, Ferringo acknowledged, Whole Woman’s Health will need some time to reach capacity again.  “It’s not a simple process to re-open clinics,” Ferringo says. Nevertheless, she adds, the ruling means that “clinics that are open will remain open.

American Intelligence Agencies Lag Behind in Diversity

For decades, intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA that have been tarred with accusations of sexism and racial profiling have worked hard to clean up their images and present a friendlier, more inclusive face to the world. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, similar scandals continue to hound the intelligence community, from the CIA’s hand in helping the NYPD monitor “ancestries of interest” to a culture within the NSA that condones violations of women’s privacy.

A recently released report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence may help to explain why: American intelligence agencies remain disproportionately white and male.

This the first time that a National Intelligence diversity report been declassified and publicly released since the department began producing the reviews in 2005. The report, which covers the period between October 2014 and September 2015, shows that while the numbers of minorities working in the intelligence community has increased in the past five years, minority groups are still underrepresented.

Minorities make up just under one quarter of the intelligence workforce, despite making up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, according to the report. Diversity is much higher in other sectors: Minorities comprise about 30 percent of the civilian labor force and roughly 35 percent of all federal employees. Promotions and honorary awards also tend to go to whites in higher numbers.   

African Americans make up 12 percent of the intelligence community workforce. Hispanics comprise 6.6 of all intelligence community employees. Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders are 4.4 percent of the workforce; multiracial people, 1.8 percent; and American Indians/Native Alaskans, 0.6 percent.

It’s a similar, though better, story when it comes to women in the intelligence community. Women make up a little less than half of the population, and about 46 percent of the civilian labor force. They comprise 40 percent of all intelligence employees, but sometimes outdo men when it comes to promotions and honorary awards.

Minorities and women are also underrepresented as managers. Less than 25 percent of managers are minorities; 34 percent are women. Intelligence community hiring has shown some progress. Minority hiring increased from almost 21 percent in 2011 to nearly 25 percent in 2015. During that same period, the minority share of the workforce increased from about 23 percent to roughly 25 percent.

National Intelligence agencies have attempted to increase female and minority representation by launching a number of initiatives, such as the Intelligence Community Centers of Academic Excellence program, which provides grants to select higher education institutions to fund programs and courses that are designed to ultimately attract more diverse groups of potential employees.

Past scandals illustrate how the intelligence community’s lack of diversity has affected its surveillance activities. Historically, intelligence agencies have targeted minority groups. In the 1960s and 1970s, the CIA and the National Security Agency spied on civil rights organizations, Puerto Rican independence groups, black radicals, and others, all of which they viewed as threats to domestic security.

Documents obtained through a FOIA request by The Intercept last year revealed that the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have monitored Black Lives Matter protesters around the country. Meanwhile, during the Bush years, the NSA spied on a number of prominent Muslim American leaders, while the CIA sent one of its officers to work with the NYPD in setting up its “Demographics Unit,” which spied on “ethnic communities,” often Muslim, in order to root out terrorist threats.

In recent years, the NSA has also been in hot water after reports surfaced of employees eavesdropping on overseas military personnel having intimate conversations with their wives and girlfriends back home. Employees also spied on women they were involved with or romantically interested in. According to whistleblower Edward Snowden, NSA employees also regularly passed around nude photographs of women that they happened to come across while gathering other data.  

National Intelligence Director James Clapper said he hoped that the report would persuade future intelligence leaders to work to increase diversity in the intelligence community. Earlier this month, Clapper ordered intelligence agencies to produce plans for increasing diversity within 90 days.

Farewell to ‘Darling Corey’ Lewandowski

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File

Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Palm Beach, Florida, as campaign manager Corey Lewandowski listens at left. 

 

Donald Trump just said, “you're fired” to his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.

This was predictable. In fact, it was predicted years ago in a traditional bluegrass folk song called “Darling Corey.”

The Corey in the song is a woman, but otherwise it fits the tragedy of Corey Lewandowski to a tee. Her fate was sealed when she got involved with what the song describes as a “gamblin' man,” clearly a reference to Trump's casino empire. The song is also prescient about Trump's tax problems (“the revenue officers are coming”). Corey's partner was a con man engaged in selling moonshine liquor made in a local “still house.” Is this not an obvious reference to Trump's effort to enter the booze business through Trump Vodka, which the Donald marketed under the slogan “Success Distilled,” but which quickly failed?

The “meadow” and the “graveyard” in the song no doubt refer to Trump's burial site. Some folks recently erected a tombstone to the presumptive GOP presidential candidate in the Sheep's Meadow section of Central Park. Since Trump just killed Lewandowski's job, perhaps he'll be generous enough to bequeath his “lonesome graveyard ground” to his former campaign manager.

Questions about the size of Trump's wealth are clearly anticipated in the first verse, which is found in the earliest published version of the song, “The Gambling Man,” collected from oral tradition by folklorist Cecil Sharp, as sung by Mrs. Clercy Deeton, at Mine Fork, Burnsville, North Carolina, on September 19, 1918. Versions of “Darling Corey” were recorded by The Weavers, Buell Kazee, Doc Watson, the Monroe Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Jean Ritchie, the Kingston Trio, and Pete Seeger, among others.

 

My pocketbook full of money,
My friends are all standing around.
My pocketbook are empty
And I ain't got a friend to be found

 

Wake up wake up darling Corey
What makes you sleep so sound?
The revenue officers are coming
They're gonna tear your still house down

 

Dig a hole dig a hole in the meadow
Dig a hole in the cold cold ground
Dig a hole dig a hole in the meadow
Gonna lay darling Corey down

 

Can't you hear those bluebirds a singing
Don't you hear that mournful sound
They're preaching darling Corey's funeral
In some lonesome graveyard ground

 

Oh yes, oh yes, my darlin'
I'll do the best I can
But I'll never take my pleasure
With another gamblin' man

 

Throughout its many versions, the basic theme of the song has remained the same: Don't mess around with people involved in shady and illegal activities.

American Dream Fading Fast, Study Finds

When the American economy crashed in 2008, economists took care to use the term “Great Recession” to distinguish the severity of the first major downturn of the 21st century from the 1929 stock market crash that ended up in the history books as the Great Depression. But there’s one byproduct of the recession that has Depression-era overtones: income inequality.

Today income inequality is pervasive. Since 2009, income gains have accrued almost exclusively to the country’s highest income earners, according to a new study by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute. In 2013, the top 1 percent of American families acquired 25 times as much income as those in the bottom 99 percent. The average income for the top 1 percent was $1.2 million, while the average income of the bottom 99 percent was $45,567. 

“These trends in income concentration can’t go on,” says Mark Price, labor economist for the Keystone Research Center based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who is a co-author of the report. “We’re on this conveyor belt that is spinning off greater and greater amounts of income to a tiny group of people,” he says. “It threatens to undermine the engine of our economic growth, which is our people.”

The researchers examined the period from 1917 to 2013, using Internal Revenue Service data for states, counties, and metropolitan areas.

They found that in 15 states all income growth went to the top 1 percent in the four years leading up to 2013. 

Florida, which has fifth greatest rate of income inequality, claimed four of the top seven most unequal metropolitan areas in the country—Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, Sebastian-Vero Beach, Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, and Key West. Franklin County, located on the coast of the Florida panhandle, is the most unequal county in the state. The county’s top 1 percent of income-earners averaged $1.8 million in income; the average income for the remaining 99 percent a little is more than $25,000.

Income inequality became a hot topic when the Occupy Wall Street movement hit the streets in 2011, but these unnerving developments have been building since 1979. In 1978, income inequality reached a nadir between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, with the top 1 percent earning 9 percent of all the country’s income. 

Income inequality had peaked in 1928 when 24 percent of income in the country went to the top 1 percent. In 2012, that figure had reached 23 percent. It dipped a few points in 2013 (only because of savvy tax planning by the wealthiest Americans, who shifted income from 2013 to 2012 to avoid a higher tax rate in the later year.) But according to a 2015 update of a 2003 study conducted by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, which uses the same methodology, income inequality rose again in 2014.

“We haven’t quite passed that previous peak [of 1928], says Price, but that’s where we’re headed.”

For Price, the most frightening aspect of this increase in inequality is the reversal of an ideal that is ingrained in the American identity—upward mobility. “Because ability is distributed randomly rather than according to the income of your parents, the great danger is that the next brain surgeon or inventor of apps for things that will fundamentally improve human health and capacity might be born to poor parents and not get the education they need to realize their full potential,” Price says. “That doesn’t just hurt them, it hurts us all.”

A 2008 Pew Charitable Trust report came to a similar conclusion. “Americans are more optimistic than others about their chances of getting ahead,” the report’s authors noted. But “the earnings of American men are more closely tied to the earnings of their fathers than are those of men in other countries.”

The Economic Policy Institute study offered a number of recommendations to stem rising inequality, including encouraging greater unionization, which is currently at a historic low particularly in the private sector, raising the minimum wage, and addressing the problems created by a business culture that condones top corporate executives earning salaries that vastly outpace the ones earned by their employees.

Democrats Ramp Up Calls for Garland Confirmation Hearing

Senators Charles Schumer and Sheldon Whitehouse took to the steps of the Supreme Court Wednesday to demand that the Senate give Merrick Garland, President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, a fair confirmation hearing. League of Conservation Voters (LCV) activists joined them, carrying boxes containing petitions with more than 200,000 signatures gathered nationwide calling on Republican senators to act.

“For nearly four months, Senate Republicans have sat on their hands and refused to do their jobs,” said Schumer, a New York Democrat. “Environmental cases are now winding their way through the courts, and they’re going to determine how clean our air and water are. … So it’s imperative … that we get a decent Supreme Court.”

In March, Obama nominated Garland, the chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February. Garland’s strong reputation among conservatives as well as liberals seemed to suggest a quick confirmation. Yet even before Garland was tapped, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the GOP-controlled Senate would refuse to confirm any replacement nominated by Obama.

Senate Republican leaders have honored that pledge. In an early morning meeting Wednesday, key staffers in the office of Senator Chuck Grassley, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told LCV organizers that under no circumstances would Garland get a hearing. “We asked, what if there were different nominees, if he withdrew, if they added someone else, and basically what circumstances would have to happen?” Seth Stein, LCVs’ national press secretary, told The American Prospect. “It was a very strong ‘It’s not going to happen.’”

It has been 84 days since Obama tapped Garland, the longest a Supreme Court nominee has waited for a Senate hearing in U.S. history (the previous record was 83 days). “They’re playing partisan politics at its very worst and have really sunk to a new low with this unprecedented and extreme obstruction,” said Tiernen Sittenfeld, LCV’s senior vice president.

For environmental advocates, the stakes could not be higher. In February, three days before Scalia’s death, the high court blocked the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s signature climate change initiative. The unprecedented stay order, which halts the plan’s implementation while a GOP-led lawsuit works its way through the courts, seemed to confirm fears that the high court would soon kill the measure. Although Scalia’s death made such a ruling less likely, the stay order still puts the plan’s future in uncertain territory.

Senator Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, also pointed to the high court’s attack on campaign-finance rules, which has given certain industries, like the oil and coal sectors, a blank check to influence policymaking in Washington. “This should not be complicated,” Whitehouse said. “Protect Citizens United with a vacancy and use Citizens United to buy a polluter-funded Congress, and protect the fossil fuel industry from any progress on climate change.” Not surprisingly, McConnell has long been one of the top recipients of oil and coal money in Congress.

“Our Republican colleagues have a choice to make,” Schumer added. “They can continue to keep the seat vacant so Donald Trump can fill it. Or they can do their jobs and give Judge Garland a hearing and a vote.”

Poverty, Not Gentrification, Is the Biggest Barrier to Affordable Housing

When the mainstream media cover housing affordability issues, journalists often hone in on gentrification. Young, mostly white, college educated people are moving into urban cities, they say, followed by yoga studios, coffee shops, and luxury apartments. This influx of affluent individuals allegedly fuels the displacement of the poor.

These narratives may be popular, but research studies have shown that gentrification is rare and, in some cases, beneficial. The biggest housing problems facing America’s low-income residents have little to do with wealthier people moving in and everything to do with low-income residents falling even further behind.

Last month, a new Pew Charitable Trusts report found that just 15 of Philadelphia’s 372 residential census tracts gentrified between 2000 and 2014. Neighborhoods that experienced gentrification had at least a 10 percent increase in the median income during this period, according to the study. All but one of these gentrifying tracts are located in or adjacent to downtown Philadelphia. Pew also found that over 160 Philadelphia neighborhoods saw a significant decline in the median income during this same period.

In the Pew report, Beth McConnell, policy director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations noted, “This gentrification stuff is happening in very few places, affecting a small number of people.” She added, “We have many more poor neighborhoods where there is no change.”

Researchers have found that even in New York, where high housing prices have crept into once less desirable neighborhoods, gentrification does not fully explain why affordable housing is so scarce. The Community Service Society of New York, an anti-poverty research and advocacy organization, recently released a report that found rents increased well above the rate of inflation even in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

One reason for this development is that landlords have been using loopholes in housing regulations to increase their rents, a problem that tenant advocates are fighting to fix. But crucially, the report states that poorer New Yorkers with stagnant incomes and inadequate safety nets have seen declines in their living standards “whether they live in gentrifying neighborhoods or not.”

Tom Waters, one of the report’s co-authors, tells The American Prospect that although gentrification is not the only housing problem facing New York, it has been “very productive from a tenant advocacy point of view” because it has helped the public understand that lower Manhattan is not the only area that needs rent regulation.

These gentrification discussions have sparked broader conversations about housing affordability. When Waters first began working on housing issues, New York landlords told state and local legislators that rent regulations only benefited high-income white people living on the Upper East Side. According to Waters, now people understand that rent regulations are important tools for diverse groups of New Yorkers.

For low-income families, the housing issues associated with concentrated poverty and economic segregation are far more pressing than those associated with gentrification. City Observatory, an urban policy think tank, found that between 1970 and 2010, high-poverty communities that didn’t gentrify fell even further into poverty, and lost, on average, 40 percent of their population.

Daniel Kay Hertz, City Observatory senior fellow, has noted, “If our concern is displacement, then that number ought to be a major concern. It represents the movement of countless households away from their homes, not because of rising rents but because high-poverty neighborhoods don’t provide the residents with enough of the necessities of a good life: strong schools, safe streets, access to jobs, and so on.”

Last year, journalist John Buntin suggested that one reason we see so many myths about gentrification in the news media may be because much of the gentrification that does exist has occurred in New York and Washington D.C., the two major East Coast hubs for journalists. Another reason may be that gentrification is a proxy for middle-class concerns about steadily rising housing prices, according to Buntin.

Nevertheless, housing affordability problems and solutions vary from region to region, and they cannot be properly addressed by blaming poverty on gentrification. In his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, sociologist Matthew Desmond argues that weak housing regulations are not merely a function of poverty, they actually create it. Many Americans care about growing income inequality and want to figure out ways to reduce the gaps between the haves and have-nots. If we are serious about changing these dynamics, then a more nuanced focus on housing simply has to be on the agenda. 

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