Plan B: Ditch Help For Workers, Just Get Corporations What They Want

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) have hatched a plan to muscle through Fast Track for President Obama. But there is no guarantee their plan will work.

As a new GOP-led approach to approving Fast Track authority on behalf of the Obama administration materializes, the process itself signals just how noxious the contents of deals like the TPP must be

By Jon Queally

Legislative maneuvering around Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or Fast Track) continued late Tuesday, as GOP leaders in Congress, the Obama administration, and a handful of anti-democracy Democrats hatched a plan to hold a straight vote on Fast Track—handing the White House the authority it wants to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership and other pending corporate-friendly agreements—while separating out a provision offering assistance to workers displaced by future trade deals.

It’s not a simple or guaranteed path forward for Fast Track, but Politico explained the GOP leadership’s latest approach this way:

Under the emerging plan, the House would vote on a bill that would give Obama fast-track authority to negotiate a sweeping trade deal with Pacific Rim countries, sending it to the Senate for final approval. To alleviate Democratic concerns, the Senate then would amend a separate bill on trade preferences to include Trade Adjustment Assistance, a worker aid program that Republicans oppose but that House Democrats have blocked to gain leverage in the negotiations over fast-track.

The leaders’ behind-the-scenes machinations are an attempt to allow both bills — TAA and the fast-track measure known as Trade Promotion Authority — to move to Obama’s desk separately, sidestepping the objections of House Democrats that stalled the package last week. The idea, which has been discussed among top congressional leaders and the White House, would be tantamount to a dare to pro-trade Democrats in both chambers to vote it down.

The plans are fluid and could change. But multiple congressional leaders, speaking anonymously to candidly describe their strategy, said they felt this was the only hope to reverse the trade package’s flagging fortunes.

The big question in the House remains how many of the 28 House Democrats who voted for Fast Track when the worker assistance program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), was on the table would do so now that it’s been taken off. But even if the GOP-controlled House does pass a clean Fast Track bill, the path in the Senate is not likely to be smooth sailing. As The Hill notes, when the Senate approved Fast Track it included “both programs, and the support from 14 Democrats in the upper chamber hinged in part on that fact.”

And according to the Huffington Post:

As rumors swirled about Boehner being ready to move forward with a stand-alone TPA bill, House Democrats called for an emergency caucus meeting on Wednesday morning, where pro-TPA Democrats were expected to try to garner support for the Republican strategy. That meeting was abruptly canceled late Tuesday, after the House Rules Committee opted not to line up a floor vote on a clean fast-track bill. A committee aide said the panel had no plans to meet again this week to take up TPA.

Despite the committee’s punt on Tuesday, House Republican leaders appear ready to push through a clean TPA bill. Their latest strategy, according to Democratic and Republican aides, is to pass the clean bill and send it to the Senate, where lawmakers would then attach TAA to a separate trade bill for African countries, the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The strategy behind that approach would be to convince members of the Congressional Black Caucus to support TAA this time around, since the controversial funding would then be tied to AGOA.

If House Republicans do pursue a stand-alone TPA bill, it won’t necessarily make matters better for the president’s agenda. Passing a clean bill would be far more difficult in the Senate. Obama has vowed to veto a fast-track bill unless TAA is also passed or attached, and passing a clean bill would be far more difficult in the Senate.

Sen. McConnell, President Obama, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have been discussing their options since the defeat last Friday, but it was McConnell on Tuesday who expressed the most optimism that Fast Track could still become law in the coming weeks.

“The Speaker and I have spoken with the president about the way forward on trade,” McConnell told reporters. “It’s still my hope that we can achieve what we’ve set out to achieve together, which is to get a six-year trade promotion authority bill in place that will advantage the next occupant of the White House as well as this one.”

Critics of both the TPP and Fast Track point out that machinations necessary to get them passed through Congress bodes poorly for the contents of the corporate-friendly agreements themselves. As David Morris, executive director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, argued in a piece at Common Dreams on Tuesday, the whole process stinks of an anti-democratic culture in which the contents of so-called “free trade” deals are being actively kept secret from the people—even as lawmakers jump through procedural hoop after procedural hoop in order for multinational corporations to get what they want. Moving forward, hope opponents, Congress should consider how the process has eclipsed substantive debate over the trade agenda’s wide-ranging implications for public health, the environment, and workers’ rights. According to Morris:

We the people would like it to be as transparent and democratic as possible. Public opinion consistently favors trade but just as consistently solidly opposes fast track. We oppose the remarkable, indeed unprecedented secrecy in which the trade pact has been drafted and the inability of the average citizen, unlike giant corporations, to play a part in that drafting. We condemn the prohibition against changing the document in any way after submission.

And perhaps most of all we are furious about fast track’s foreclosure of extensive and intensive debate on a complex document of far reaching consequence.

Morris noted that the existing system ostensibly allows for such debate, explaining that Obama, as president, can always submit a trade agreement—which historically were considered treaties and required approval of the Senate for passage. “If fast track fails the President can still submit a trade bill,” Morris explained. “And we can then launch a much needed and long overdue national conversation about the benefits and limitations of trade and the dangers of ceding sovereignty to a new international constitution whose goal is to limit democracy and expand corpocracy.”

Though the White House, according to the Huffington Post, has been “coy about what efforts are being made behind the scenes to get the trade package passed,” previous reporting by Common Dreams makes it clear that the political “arm-twisting” is happening at the highest levels.

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Senate Report Calls for President Obama to Lift Crude Oil Export Ban

Senator Lisa Murkowski

Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., released a report on June 9 advocating for the end of the crude oil export ban. She is the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The report—titled “Rendering Vital Assistance: Allowing Oil Shipments to U.S. Allies“—called for President Barack Obama to end the ban as well as provide oil for allies, such as South Korea, Poland and Japan. As a result, these countries would not depend oil coming from Russia or Iran:

Many U.S. allies and trading partners are interested in purchasing American oil to diversify away from Russia, Iran and other problematic sources. Allowing such shipments would send a powerful signal of support and reliability at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions in much of the world. The mere option to purchase U.S. oil would enhance the energy security of countries such as Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, India, Japan, and South Korea, even if physical shipments did not occur.

The crude oil export ban was first implemented on Dec. 22, 1975, through the Energy Policy and Conservation Act in response to the 1973 OPEC oil shock. Then-President Gerald Ford signed the legislation into law and said “the long debate over national energy policy” was over.

Currently, the U.S. provides an exemption to Canada over crude oil exports and operates an exchange program with Mexico. It additionally exports crude oil to Israel, as part of an agreement, in case the latter suffers from a shortage.

As noted in the report, “the Obama administration renewed the agreement following a bipartisan letter led by Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Warner, D-Va., sent in April 2015, encouraging the Department of State to expedite its renewal.”

Murkowski, after taking over as leader of the Senate energy committee, immediately vowed to lift the crude oil export ban. She introduced, on May 12, S.1312 in the Senate energy committee, which intends to end the ban.

At the CERAWeek conference this year, which brings together oil and gas industry leaders and government officials in Houston, Murkowski told an audience it was “time to lift America’s ban on domestic oil exports.” She referred to the P5+1-Iran negotiations as a reason why the ban would need to be repealed.

“We should not lift sanctions on Iranian oil while keeping sanctions on American oil. It makes no sense,” Murkowski said.

Moreover, Murkowski co-authored a piece with Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., and Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., for Foreign Policy where they argued allies of the U.S. need crude oil for security:

The benefits to global security of allowing oil shipments to our trading partners are obvious and indisputable. Our friends in Asia, eager to comply with Western sanctions against Iran, would have a new alternative source for their energy needs.

Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who also sits on the energy committee, was cautious about an end to the ban. Cantwell wanted to know what impact such a change would have for U.S. consumers:

The information we have thus far is inconclusive to how lifting the ban on oil exports may impact consumers – especially those in the Pacific Northwest, who experience some of the highest gasoline prices in the nation,

Jesse Coleman, a researcher for Greenpeace, told Firedoglake the recent oversupply was a reason why such calls to lift the crude oil export ban are happening.

“These oil companies are being caught, as the industry have been caught many times in the past, with a massive oversupply. So they want to overturn the oil export ban,” Coleman said.

Coleman additionally criticized the rhetoric used against Russia despite firms working with the country.

“They say it will stop Vladimir Putin and these companies are working with Russian companies,” Coleman said.

In early 2014, the President Obama signed a series of executive orders barring companies from working with Russia including oil. Although, ExxonMobil, in the same year, was able to work with the Russian government to drill in the Arctic. Still, most companies are unable to work with the Russian government due to sanctions.

The call to end the crude oil export ban is not new. The American Petroleum Institute, a trade association representing more than 600 U.S. oil and gas companies, advocates an end to the ban.

John Felmy, API’s chief economist, cited restrictions to fossil fuel growth as stopping the U.S. from growing as an “energy leader:

Unfortunately, there’s a limit to how much we can grow as an energy superpower if U.S. oil and natural gas producers aren’t able to access the global market. We have every reason to protect and accelerate America’s growth by lifting outdated export restrictions,

Even Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said, in December 2013, there were issues “that deserve some new analysis and examination in the context of what is now an energy world that is no longer like the 1970s.”

Recently, a report by Bank of America-Merrill Lynch Global Research found a “surprising amount of support” from Congress to remove the export ban. In fact, the authors of the report believe there is a 50 percent chance the ban will be repealed in the next two years.

Jared Margolis, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Firedoglake, if such a law was passed, calls for more trains and pipelines to carry the crude oil would increase.

“There’s going to be a push for more crude oil trains, certainly. There’s going to be a push for more pipelines,” Margolis said.

A major concern, in regards to trains, is use of “bomb trains,” which can explode because of numerous factors including the volatility of the crude oil.

While crude oil is transported mostly through pipelines, trains are becoming a more cheaper, popular option. The New York Times highlighted last year how such “a business was nearly nonexistent” six years ago.

In recent years, there have been more accidents involving such trains and Margolis said it will grow if the crude oil export ban is lifted.

“[You’ll have] increased rail traffic and, as a result of that, you’ll have more rail accidents,” Margolis said.

Murkowski, in all of her speeches, reports and writings on crude oil, does not address the impacts of oil-by-trains. Although, in the Foreign Policy article, she noted, along with McCain and Corker, “any environmental impact [because of crude oil production] would also be negligible, as American oil is produced under some of the strictest safeguards on the planet.”

Coleman said to Firedoglake the amount of land sacrificed for crude oil was “mind-blowing.”

“You don’t have to look after 2010 with the BP oil spill to be aware of crude oil spills. That’s just one instance,” Coleman said.

BP released a report last week showing how the U.S. replacing Russia as the world leader in oil and gas exploration. Most of this is light, sweet crude oil.

Margolis authored a report in early February on the environmental consequences of oil trains and the lack of serious government effort to regulate “bomb trains.”

“Economics drives regulations a lot of time. The concern is that these agencies tend to be captured a lot of times,” Margolis said.

The report by Margolis also cites risks associated with light crude oil produced in Bakken region of North Dakota, where it is “generally more explosive, more toxic and can penetrate soils more quickly and deeply than traditional crude.”

As Margolis stressed, all fossil fuels like crude oil are best left alone because of climate change.

“From top of the bottom, these are what we call extreme fossil fuels. If we want to prevent climate change, we need to keep this stuff in the ground,” Margolis said.

Image from United States Congress and as such is in the public domain.

With Deadline in Sight, Senate Scrambles on Patriot Act

Sen. Dianne Feinstein pushes new legislation that would criminalize whistleblower activity on national security

By Nadia Prupis

As public outcry against government spying reaches a fever pitch, the U.S. Senate is scrambling to address the USA Patriot Act, key sections of which are currently speeding toward expiration.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday warned the Senate—which is on a weeklong Memorial Day recess—to pass legislation that would renew those provisions, such as Section 215, which are scheduled to sunset on June 1.

“The problem we have now is that those authorities run out at midnight on Sunday,” Obama said. “So I strongly urge the Senate to work through this recess and make sure that they identify a way to get this done.”

The Senate on Friday rejected the legislation, known as the USA Freedom Act, which would have ended the National Security Agency’s (NSA) authority to collect domestic phone records in bulk, but would have renewed Section 215 and other controversial provisions of the Patriot Act which are set to expire next week. The U.S. House passed the USA Freedom Act on May 14.

On Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s watch, lawmakers are set to reconvene on Sunday, May 31 to vote again on the USA Freedom Act, as well as on another deal proposed—and rejected—last week that would have temporarily extended the Patriot Act.

The Senate will also consider legislation introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which would prohibit “unauthorized disclosures” by an “officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States” or any “recipient of an order” issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), who “knowingly comes into possession of classified information or documents or materials containing classified information” of the U.S.

As Kevin Gosztola writes at Firedoglake, Feinstein’s bill—modeled after the Espionage Act—”would not only save spying powers but also codify into law a provision that would expressly enable the government to criminalize any national security whistleblower who may choose to follow the footsteps of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.”

Observers say that the chances are slim that the Senate will embrace any of those bills after overwhelmingly rejecting two of them so recently—and that’s just what privacy advocates are hoping for.

The USA Freedom Act has gotten a lukewarm reception by digital rights organizations like Fight for the Future and the Electronic Frontier Foundation over what they say are insufficient reforms of the NSA’s spying powers.

Fight for the Future called the Senate’s rejection of the bill on Friday a “historic tactical win against surveillance.”

“Sunsetting the Patriot Act is the biggest win for ending mass surveillance programs,” Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, a coalition of civil liberties and privacy rights organizations, said at the time. “We are seeing history in the making and it was because the public stood up for our rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association—and there’s no turning back now.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation explained the setup succinctly last week, with senior staff attorney Lee Tien writing in a blog post that the gridlock is “good news: if the Senate stalemate continues, the mass surveillance of everyone’s phone records will simply expire on June 1.”

“We commend every Senator who voted against reauthorizing the unconstitutional surveillance of millions of law-abiding Americans,” Tien wrote.

Congress should again reject renewing Section 215 on Sunday and instead “turn to addressing other surveillance abuses by the US government, including mass surveillance of the Internet, the secretive and one-sided FISA Court, and the problems of secrecy and over-classification that have created the environment that allowed such spying overreach to flourish,” he continued.

As ACLU legislative counsel Michelle Richardson wrote in an op-ed last Friday, “The question before Congress and the American people now is whether that provision should be renewed. The answer is a clear and resounding no.

“Voting for reauthorization of Section 215 now would not just be a missed opportunity for a serious debate about the role of government surveillance in our democracy; it would be an endorsement of the unconstitutional surveillance programs we already know exist, and a tacit endorsement of those we’re still in the dark about.”

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As Patriot Act Expiration Looms, Critics Hope for Sunset on Mass Surveillance

With a deadline for the USA Patriot Act fast approaching, Congress has little time to decide how to proceed—but the call to ‘sunset’ the law is growing. (Photo: Dan Cook/flickr/cc/with overlay)

‘Together we will end the Patriot Act, and the sun can rise on a new day filled with freedom and privacy for all.’

By Nadia Prupis and Deirdre Fulton

With the fate of the USA Patriot Act still hanging in the balance late afternoon Friday—and lawmakers eager to leave Washington, D.C., for Memorial Day barbecues and campaign stops in their home states—the chance to see the sun go down on the controversial spying bill is still on the table.

The debate over the Patriot Act is centered around one of its key provisions, Section 215, which is set to expire on June 1 absent congressional action. The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) previously relied on Section 215 to justify its mass phone data collection operation, but its expiration would force an end to that program.

With that “sunset” approaching, lawmakers have the chance to reform the Patriot Act, end it altogether, or pass a clean re-authorization that renews all the provisions set to expire in mere days.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is the most outspoken supporter of a clean re-authorization, arguing that the Patriot Act in its current form is a crucial tool in the so-called “War on Terror.” FBI director James Comey also said this week that it would be a “big problem” to lose the authority that the law bestows on the intelligence agencies.

Adding to the urgency is the Obama administration’s warning that Congress only has until Friday to act on the law, because the government will need time to scale down its phone data program if it is not re-authorized. The House of Representatives has already left for the Memorial Day weekend.

The White House, along with the U.S. House, supports reform legislation called the USA Freedom Act, and warned that “there is no Plan B, these are authorities Congress must legislate.”

Should the Senate fail to pass the reform bill, said White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Friday, there is nothing the president can do to stop the Patriot Act provisions from lapsing.

Of course, that would be just fine with privacy activists and advocacy groups who oppose intrusive government surveillance. At protests held in dozens of cities on Thursday, demonstrators called on Congress to oppose any re-authorization of the Patriot Act and instead let its spying provisions sunset as scheduled on June 1.

“It’s time we came together and let the sun go down on this dark age of government surveillance,” said Fight for the Future campaign director Evan Greer. “Together we will end the Patriot Act, and the sun can rise on a new day filled with freedom and privacy for all.”

Free Press Action Fund government relations manager Sandra Fulton added, “The nationwide sunset vigils have sent a signal to Washington: It’s time we closed this chapter on mass surveillance and restored everyone’s rights to connect and communicate in private.”

However, The Hill reported Friday that “momentum appeared to be on the side of reformers, whose hopes were buoyed by the near certainty that the Senate will either need to pass [the House version of] the USA Freedom Act, or allow three parts of the post-9/11 law to sunset.”

The report went on to say the USA Freedom Act “has the backing of the majority of the Senate—including all Democrats—but it remains unclear whether it has the 60 votes necessary to overcome procedural hurdles during what increasingly looks like a rare Memorial Day weekend session.”

The USA Freedom Act passed the House on May 14 with an overwhelming 338-88 vote. But according to advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the USA Freedom Act is a “small step instead of a giant leap,” particularly in comparison with previous iterations of the bill, introduced in 2013 and 2014, which offered stronger reforms but failed to progress through Congress.

The Act grants a five-year extension to Section 215.

After the bill passed the House, Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of Fight for the Future, warned that the USA Freedom Act would actually “expand the scope of surveillance” by the NSA and others.

“This is a fake privacy bill,” Cheng said. “Corrupt members of Congress and their funders in the defense industry are attempting to package up their surveillance-powers wishlist and misleadingly brand it as ‘USA Freedom.’ This is disappointing and offensive, and we will continue to work to kill this bill and any other attempt to legitimize unconstitutional surveillance systems.”

Opposition to the Patriot Act has grown steadily since whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed Section 215’s role in the NSA spying program. The call to let the provision expire only grew after a federal appeals court ruled earlier this month that the agency’s phone surveillance operation is illegal. And as Mike Masnick at Techdirt points out, a Justice Department investigation into the FBI’s use of Section 215, released Thursday, found that the provision has never been particularly useful in anti-terrorism efforts.

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Victory for Grassroots as Fast Track Goes Down in Crucial Senate Vote

‘We know the forces pushing the job-killing TPP won’t stop here, and they should know, neither will we,’ says Democracy for America

By Deirdre Fulton

Update (3 pm EDT):

In what was immediately heralded as a victory for the grassroots, Senate Democrats on Tuesday stymied President Barack Obama’s corporate-driven trade agenda by voting to prevent the chamber from taking up Fast Track legislation.

According to news reports, a cloture motion to cut off a filibuster and proceed to debate fell short of the 60 votes necessary to pass(52-45). Sen. Tom Carper, of Delaware, was the only Democrat to vote yes.

Civil society groups lauded Tuesday’s outcome and what it could mean for future trade votes.

“The Fast Track train went off the rails today,” cheered Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division. “The U.S. Senate vote was supposed to generate momentum for Fast Track in the U.S. House of Representatives, where it’s in deep trouble, with almost every House Democrats and a significant bloc of GOP opposing it.”

Still, now is not the time for the grassroots to become complacent, warned Democracy for America executive director Charles Chamberlain in a statement released just after the vote.

“While we celebrate today’s failed Fast Track vote for the job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership, the hundreds of thousands of grassroots activists who have united behind Senators Warren, Brown and Sanders to defeat the TPP will not rest until it’s dead, buried, and covered with six-inches of concrete,” Chamberlain said. “Today, the army of corporate executives and industry lobbyists who wrote the Trans-Pacific Partnership by and for themselves failed to secure support for the Fast Track legislation they know they need to ram their bad trade deal through Congress.”

However, he added, “We know the forces pushing the job-killing TPP won’t stop here, and they should know, neither will we.”

And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has been a vocal opponent of Fast Track and gave a stirring speech on the Senate floor prior to the vote on Tuesday, added: “The Senate vote today was an important first victory in what will be a long battle.”

“Today was a good step forward,” he said, “but much more needs to be done.”

Earlier… (more…)