It’s Tax Day again, when we all come together to chip in our fair share toward the cost of government. That is—except for the tax cheats and corporations so adept at wiggling out of their tax bills they pay $0, or worse, get a refund check from Uncle Sam. Big name companies like Netflix, Amazon, IBM, and GM are just tip of the iceberg when it comes to large, profitable corporations that paid no taxes or got money back from the government last year.
The need for a real tax code overhaul has never been greater, especially since the partisan tax giveaway package that was rushed through the process without hearings or proper input from the public. It was the product of K Street lobbying, with Public Citizen research showing that more than 60 percent of the D.C. lobby corps tried to influence the tax package—more than 7,000 individual lobbyists.
President Trump and the GOP made a lot of false promises about the 2017 tax giveaway package—which voters rightly saw as a scam, and it remains very unpopular to this day. It’s no surprise since the tax cut legislation has done much to enrich wealthy shareholders, corporate CEOs and Wall Street bankers and while average Americans have felt little assistance from the changes. And, the hole in the budget these tax cuts are already leaving will lead to declining services for families that are suffering and fewer health care dollars for seniors and others who need care.
Before we get to next year’s Tax Day, we need to do three things: release Trump’s tax returns, repeal the provisions of the 2017 tax giveaway bill that enriched the wealthy and corporations, and redesign the tax code in a way the will create new revenues to reinvest in American communities.
Release the Returns
Public Citizen’s members and supporters, have been clamoring for the release of Trump’s tax returns since he first announced his candidacy for office, including countless activists participating in Tax March events across the country two years ago. Yet, Trump has refused to disclose his tax information. This, despite decades of precedent set by his predecessors.
That’s why we were so pleased that the text of H.R. 1, the For the People Act –the sweeping ethics, campaign finance and voting rights reform package made it clear that future presidential and vice-presidential candidates and office holders will be required by law to disclose tax information moving forward, including business and individual income tax returns. Even though HR 1 passed with overwhelming support in the House last month, we must not be made to wait until the For the People Act is signed into law to determine how his tax policy maneuvers have personally benefited the president.
The Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) recently, after much deliberation, used the power granted to the committee under Sec. 6103(f)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code to request the past six years of President Trump’s personal and some of his business tax returns from the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department. The letter of the law is clear: It says that the Treasury Secretary shall furnish the returns to the Committee upon written request. There is no wiggle room.
Yet the first deadline set by Chairman Neal came and went without Sec. Mnuchin having provided the returns. That is inexcusable. Now Chairman Neal has more than generously provided a new deadline of April 23. However, it’s outrageous Treasury did not meet the first deadline– so Public Citizen is joining allies for a rally today at 5pm outside of the IRS to demand that they not take any additional time but that they release the returns now!
The Ways and Means Committee needs Trump’s tax return information to perform proper oversight into exactly how much he personally financially gained by pushing for specific tax changes and signing the 2017 bill into law. Most of Trump’s hundreds of businesses are organized as limited liability companies (LLCs) and those types of entities received an extremely generous new deduction. Not to mention the need for oversight into the many questions about the president’s possible financial connections to Russia and other foreign powers that may have influenced policy decisions. Also, with oversight authority over the Internal Revenue Service, the Ways and Means Committee must investigate whether the agency has been properly auditing the president.
As much as Trump and his administration appear to be digging their heels in on not releasing the returns,
To quote @AOC – Congress didn’t ask you.
Congress: “We’re going to need a copy of the President’s tax returns from 2013-2018.”
45: “No, I’m ‘under audit.’ ”
Congress: “We didn’t ask you.”
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) April 3, 2019
Repeal Tax Giveaways to the Rich and Corporations
As a basic matter, we must repeal the 2017 tax cut legislation that showered millionaires and billionaires with ridiculous handouts, while adding nearly $2 trillion to the deficit. The legislation included huge giveaways for corporations and also worsened the unfair tax advantages that multinational companies have over Main Street businesses by giving provisions like an extra 50% off coupon to multinational corporations that book profits to offshore subsidiaries. And, Big Banks got huge tax windfalls at the same time that they are raking in record profits.
Yet, how did these companies use that extra money? By spending more than 140 times as much on buying back their own stock than on increasing wages for workers. We need to fix that by increasing the tax rate for corporations and closing loopholes that benefit Wall Street investors and high-paid CEOs over average Americans. We should also discourage outsourcing of jobs and investment by taxing profits at least at the same rate when they are earned by foreign subsidiaries, while making sure they don’t “invert” and re-incorporate in low tax countries.
Reinvest in American Communities
Public Education, health care for seniors and low income individuals, aid for the less physically and mentally able, providing nutrition assistance to the hungry, rebuilding roads and water pipes, tackling climate change and growing green jobs– the list of communities’ needed investments is endless. As time goes by, these needs are only going to increase. Corporations and banks used to pull more of their weight when it comes to taxes, they must pick up the slack. And, by asking the very wealthy to pay more of their fair share, we will have more money to give a hand up to those who need it most.
We can do this by taxing the wealth of millionaires and billionaires, by strengthening the estate tax, and increasing the marginal tax rates for the richest among us. At the same time, a small tax on Wall Street trades of 10 cents per $100 traded could create $777 billion in new revenues over the next decade, repaying America for crashing the economy while calming the markets by tamping down risky high-speed trading. Combined, new tax progressive policies could create trillions in new revenues that could be reinvested in our communities. Instead of turning our back on hard-hit areas, we need to create equal opportunity and provide a level playing field for all Americans.
But, once we fill all of the loopholes and otherwise strengthen the code, we will need equally strong enforcement. Right now, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is an over-politicized and under-resourced agency, and it is focused in the wrong direction. We also need to make paying taxes as easy as possible by having IRS have its own free-file program and by using return-free filing, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has proposed. Also, audits and other enforcement by the IRS should concentrate more on big-money taxpayers and corporations to maximize the agency’s bang for the buck. And, the job of the IRS also has an impact on our democracy since it oversees tax status of nonprofits, and it must provide clear rules regarding political activity. That’s a lot of work on an agency that has seen steep cuts to its budget over recent years.
The first step toward a fairer tax code is getting Trump’s tax returns so Congress has all of the information it needs for accountability including investigations into who benefited the most from the 2017 tax changes, specifically one supposedly wealthy owner of real estate businesses. Then, Congress needs to go back to square one so that the American people can properly weigh in as our nation’s leaders take the time needed to properly craft a more progressive tax code that benefits everyone not just a privileged few
By Lekhya Kintada
In August of 2017, the Malaysian Cabinet decided to make available affordable generic versions of the hepatitis C cure sofosbuvir (Sovaldi). The U.S. government and the patent-based pharmaceutical industry are placing some pressure on Malaysia for this decision, but it is an important one to protect public health.
Approximately 500,000 people in Malaysia are living with hepatitis C (HCV). Sofosbuvir, as a direct-acting antiviral medicine, has cure rates of over 90% and far fewer side effects than previous treatments, representing a breakthrough for people with chronic HCV. However, the cost of treatment is exorbitantly expensive, making the treatment less accessible to patients. The list price of Sovaldi in the U.S. is $84,000 and RM 300,000 ($71,300 USD) in Malaysia. The Malaysian household income per capita is a small fraction of this price: $4,571.17. As of 2017, only 500-550 patients per year had received treatment.
Since sofosbuvir is patented, a government-use license is needed to waive the monopoly right and enable the sale of generic drugs at affordable prices. In other words, the Malaysian government granted the U.S.-based corporation Gilead Sciences a patent covering sofosbuvir. In exchange, Malaysia retains the right to make use of the patented invention to serve the public interest. This government use is a core feature of patent systems everywhere.
The Health Ministry of Malaysia, in cooperation with Geneva-based Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), is hoping to procure a generic sofosbuvir, priced at RM 1,000, for use in public hospitals throughout the country.
Gilead had announced earlier in 2017 that Malaysia would be included in the company’s own licensing plan – allowing some generic versions to be sold locally. Gilead Sciences signed non-exclusive licensing agreements with seven India-based generic pharmaceutical manufacturers to produce and sell sofosbuvir in 91 least developed countries. Most of the middle-income countries where the vast majority of hepatitis C patients live were excluded from the licenses. Malaysia was one of those 41 middle-income countries.
Gilead also failed to register the drug in many of the 105 countries within the licenses territory. This obstructed access to hepatitis C treatment.
The Malaysian government engaged in negotiations with Gilead to be included in the licenses and reduce the price. Negotiations failed in 2016.
Malaysia’s decision to license government-use is believed to be the pivotal reason Gilead is now including Malaysia in its licensing plans. Gilead may have hoped that the Malaysian government would reverse its government use decision, or at least that Gilead would be able to control the terms of licensing and generic competition. However, relinquishing the government use license would limit what Malaysia can import or produce. Gilead’s licenses are dependent on conditions set by the company, and Gilead could also alter or terminate them.
Currently, the Malaysian government continues to face pressure from the U.S. pharmaceutical industry and potentially the U.S. government to undo an action taken to make a key hepatitis C medicine more affordable in Malaysia. However, according to TRIPS Article 31, usage of patented drugs in a non-commercial sector does not require prior negotiation with the patent holder. A government agency or a third party (e.g. a generics company) can be authorized to import or manufacture a generic version of a patented drug limited to use in public programs and hospitals. Government use does not override a patent. Rather, the government has the right to make use of an invention which is embedded in this initial grant of every patent.
In the 2018 Special 301 Report, the USTR announced that it will conduct an Out-of-Cycle Review of Malaysia to “consider the extent to which Malaysia is providing adequate and effective IP protection and enforcement, including with respect to patents.” The WTO Ministerial Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health not only recognized the legality but also the desirability of countries taking pro-public health measures and not letting patents come in the way of people’s health interests. The U.S. government should not criticize Malaysia for making use of an invention to protect public health. It is consistent with Malaysia’s international obligations and long-established U.S. policy.
In this way, Malaysia is making strides in the public health sector. For example, Malaysia became the first country to issue a compulsory license on a medicine to treat HIV, following the adoption of the Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health in 2003. In 2017, it was again the first country to issue a government-use license for HCV treatment. These decisions showcase the Malaysian government’s commitment to provide lifesaving medicines to its people. Thus, the decision to issue a government-use license for sofosbuvir is an admirable example of a country exercising its right to make medicines available to save thousands of people from serious ailment and potentially death.
The “Return to Prudent Banking Act” Will Help Protect Us From Another Financial Crash
We need strong rules for Wall Street.
When we don’t have them, Americans suffer. It happened with savings and loan association deregulation, which led to a real estate collapse; it happened with the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999, which led to the 2008 financial crash.
Now, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-9), has introduced the “Return to Prudent Banking Act.” The bill would restore the “wall” that previously existed under Glass-Steagall, preventing FDIC-insured commercial banks from participating in investment activity.
The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 was designed to keep commercial banks, which traditionally make relatively safe decisions in pursuit of long-term profits, from taking on short-term speculative behavior that carries high risks. For decades, Glass-Steagall worked, and it worked well.
But then in 1999, the statute was repealed. During an era of aggressive deregulation, the commercial bank Citicorp and the insurance company Travelers Group had merged the year before, forming the first “megabank,” known as Citigroup. Since that merger was considered a violation of Glass-Steagall, the law was changed to effectively repeal Glass-Steagall and allow Citigroup’s merger to go through. Effectively, megabanks formed on Citigroup’s model, now able to become supersized through mergers, were also then able to gamble with taxpayer-backed deposits. The results were calamitous.
Within a decade, the 2008 financial crash brought our economy to shambles and cost Main Street heavily. Foreclosure rates skyrocketed and home values plummeted. Many prudent savers saw their long-term retirement savings vanish into thin air. Already marginalized communities like people of color and people with disabilities were hit particularly hard, and many communities have still not completely recovered from the Great Recession. And of course, taxpayers paid trillions to bail out the failed megabanks. Had Glass-Steagall not been repealed, perhaps the crash would not have happened at all, because banks would not have been allowed to take massive risks that inflated a housing bubble whose rupture collapsed the economy.
Even industry veterans, like John Reed and Sanford Weill, who founded Citigroup and in doing so effectively helped repeal Glass-Steagall, now recognize that doing away with Glass-Steagall’s protections was a mistake.
Reed has written about the “culture clash” that developed at banks and how investment and traditional bankers tend not to mix well. In this clash of views that happened post-Glass-Steagall, investment bankers won out and steered the banking industry toward a riskier, short-term oriented culture.
Unfortunately, the Volcker Rule put in place through the Dodd-Frank Act didn’t solve this problem. That rule prohibited banks from doing proprietary investment trading—trading on their own behalf—but allowed banks to still do it on behalf of clients. The Volcker Rule didn’t solve this issue partly because of the loopholes in the law, but also because of its complexity and lack of transparency. Many financial industry professionals including Reed and Weill now call for a return to Glass-Steagall’s clear rules.
We cannot let a financial crash happen again. For the health of our economy and the security of our savings, we must prevent greedy investors from gambling with the fate of our financial system to make a quick buck. Without stronger rules on Wall Street like the Return to Prudent Banking Act, it could happen again.
Tell your members of Congress to cosponsor the Return to Prudent Banking Act and send a clear signal that if banks are “too big to fail,” then they’re too big to exist.
Photo Credit: David Shankbone [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]
The White House agency in charge of reviewing regulations, the U.S. Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), conspired with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to circumvent important rulemaking requirements – and ram through a deregulatory giveaway to “glider” trucks, which are super-polluting diesel freight trucks created by dropping old, dirty truck engines into new truck bodies. If allowed to go forward, this loophole for the trucking industry will pollute our air and harm children’s health.
The story begins several years ago when, under the Obama administration, the EPA applied its new, cleaner emissions standards to glider trucks. When the Trump administration took power, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt attempted to exempt glider trucks from the Obama era emission standards as a handout to the industry that makes them. The EPA’s Inspector General (IG) is already investigating the EPA’s role in this tawdry tale, but new reporting makes clear that the White House’s role in this incident needs to be investigated as well.
When Public Citizen examined the glider truck carve-out, we discovered potential manipulation of the EPA’s rulemaking process, as outlined in testimony to the EPA’s scientific advisory board in 2018, before the IG investigation was requested. From documents publicly available at the time, we found that the EPA intentionally avoided conducting certain analyses to conceal the harmful health impacts of allowing dirtier emissions from glider trucks, especially on children.
U.S. Senate Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee reached a similar conclusion in December 2018 and requested that the EPA’s IG investigate the agency’s process for repealing cleaner emissions standards for glider trucks.
Now, newly released documents show that EPA’s IG is almost certain to confirm our suspicions: that the agency knowingly refused to do numerous analyses on the harmful impacts of its carve-out for glider trucks that normally are required when taking this type of regulatory action.
Usually, an agency’s attempt to skirt analytical requirements runs into problems when the regulation is sent to OIRA, the small office in the White House that is tasked with reviewing and approving certain regulations and their accompanying analyses.
But the new documents show that OIRA acted as an accomplice, helping the EPA flout the analytical requirements. In fact, it looks like OIRA deliberately fast-tracked the glider trucks carve-out by allowing the EPA to bypass analyses that are required for exemptions from new emissions standards.
A few weeks ago, a Bloomberg Law reporter broke the story that former EPA head Pruitt received a handwritten letter from a former Republican congresswoman from Tennessee asking for the glider carve-out. One of the largest glider truck manufacturers is based in her district.
The story, based on EPA documents obtained by the reporter through a Freedom of Information Act request, confirmed strong suspicions that the EPA was lowering the emissions standards for glider trucks as a political favor to the congresswoman and the glider manufacturer.
Buried within the hundreds of pages of documents were emails from staff at both the EPA and OIRA showing both agencies colluding to rush through the glider truck carve-out by skipping the required analyses.
OIRA was created under President Ronald Reagan to review and approve the most important and impactful regulations from federal agencies. But since its founding, OIRA generally has opposed strong regulations that protect the public while favoring deregulation.
This incident is just the latest example.
The reason the EPA sent its glider trucks carve-out to OIRA in the first place is because the regulation was classified as an “economically significant” regulation. In other words, the EPA (correctly) believed that the regulation would have major economic impacts. Such rules have to be reviewed by OIRA.
When a rulemaking is classified as “economically significant,” in addition to putting it under OIRA review, it also normally triggers a requirement to assess its potential costs and benefits. And when it’s a rulemaking from the EPA, this designation also triggers the requirement to look at the public health impacts on children and minorities. All of these analyses ultimately would need to be reviewed by OIRA as it does its review of a rule.
Yet the EPA sent OIRA the glider truck rulemaking without any of the required analyses. In fact, the regulation had virtually no evidence to support it. Moreover, the EPA did nothing to refute its earlier findings from the Obama administration that exempting glider trucks from clean air standards would lead to enormous amounts of harmful pollution that would negatively impact vulnerable populations.
Normally, OIRA would have rejected the regulation and told the EPA to do the supporting analyses before allowing the EPA even to propose the rulemaking. Under the Obama administration, OIRA never hesitated to hold up regulations, often for years, while it insisted agencies provide more information and analyses to justify regulations.
As emails between the EPA and OIRA show, OIRA allowed the EPA to change the designation of the glider truck regulation from “economically significant” to merely “significant” to let the EPA propose the carve-out without having to do the various analyses required of “economically significant” rules.
This was the very last change the EPA made to the regulation before OIRA ended its review of the regulation and approved EPA to propose it publicly. OIRA wanted the change in order to cover its tracks, since leaving the regulation as “economically significant” would have led to questions as to why the typical analyses that accompany “economically significant” regulations had not been done by EPA.
One of the email subject lines from an EPA staffer reads, “RE: last minute significance change request from OMB.” While the content of the email is redacted, the subject line clearly indicates that OIRA (housed within OMB) requested that the EPA change the significance designation of the regulation.
Subsequent emails dispel any doubt that this occurred.
One email from an EPA staffer to other high-level EPA political appointees reads, “we just received word from OMB that they have cleared the Glider NPRM (with the change from “economically significant” to “significant”).” In other words, OMB cleared the change in the rulemaking’s designation from “economically significant” to “significant.”
Another internal EPA email makes clear that OMB requested the change, “…given that OMB was the one proposing the change be made from ‘economically significant’ to ‘significant…’”
Interestingly, this email chain also contained an email from an EPA career staffer with the subject line, “Why the draft glider repeal NPRM is Economically Significant.” This indicates that the EPA’s career staff believed the proper classification for the glider truck exemption would be an “economically significant” regulation.
These emails should lead the EPA’s IG to conclude that agency violated basic requirements in the regulatory process in trying to exempt glider trucks from pollution standards. With OIRA’s help, the EPA deliberately mischaracterized its carve-out for glider trucks to make it look like it was complying with requirements in the rulemaking process, when in fact it was not.
This raises profound concerns about the integrity of both the EPA’s rulemaking process, which already has come under close scrutiny due to numerous lapses under the Trump administration, as well as the integrity of OIRA’s regulatory review process.
A top to bottom audit of the EPA’s rulemaking process and OIRA’s regulatory review process might reveal that this incident is just the tip of the iceberg.
One of the defining qualities of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interreference in the 2016 presidential election was the absence of internal leaks. (Mueller’s team primarily communicated their case by releasing unusually detailed indictments and charging documents.)
So when news came out that the report was finished, anticipation was exceptionally high. Last Sunday, Attorney General William Barr released a 4 page “summary” of the over 400-page report. President Donald Trump and his defenders instantly began describing it as a “total exoneration”, despite the fact that the summary and report specifically state that it “does not exonerate him.” This bit of cognitive dissonance was followed by Barr claiming this his “summary” was not a “summary.” All of this was too much for some members of the Mueller team and stories began emerging that Mueller had already provided his own written summary that was bypassed for Barr’s version which was they said gave a deceptive impression.
The public deserves to see the full report for a number of reasons and the Trump administration’s absurd handling of it so far only adds to the arguments. This was the background for the 330 rallies nationwide that Public Citizen, MoveOn, Indivisible and others in the Trump is Not Above the Law coalition organized on Thursday demanding the full release of the report.
At the flagship event in front of the White House, Public Citizen’s Lisa Gilbert was joined by a number of speakers, including U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal and U.S. House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler. Nadler’s played a key role in the proceedings, including recently receiving authorization for a subpoena for the report. Nadler was received as a folk hero at the event, best captured by the spontaneous chant of “thank you” that broke out while he was on stage. You can watch a full video of the event here.
Activist pressure has already proved very consequential in this process. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that Mueller was able to finish his investigation even though Trump threatened its very existence innumerable times. The pressure of the massive number of people that got involved in the Trump is Not Above the Law effort clearly played a significant part in the calculation.
We must keep up the pressure until we have the full report. You can help by calling Ranking Member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Doug Collins at 202 225-9893. Tell him that the public paid for the Mueller investigation and we deserve the full story about Russian interference in our election.
The scandal over cutting Special Olympics funding and the subsequent walk back has been trending in the news for good reason: it shows the depths that the administration will shamelessly sink to in harming marginalized communities. President Trump may have since walked back the originally planned cuts, but that the proposal made it into the budget in the first place is telling. That’s far from the only example of abject cruelty in the Trump budget, however; for additional examples, look no further than the other provisions of the president’s proposed budget for FY2020. The proposed budget would make deep cuts to the social safety net and earned benefits, while funding a wasteful and racist wall at the border and slashing funds for environmental protections and other measures that protect Americans.
Here are some of the worst features of the Trump Budget:
- Hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to Americans’ earned benefits—chiefly, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security disability insurance—which millions of Americans rely on for their basic health and well-being;
- Massive cuts in the student loan program, despite the crisis levels of debt students and recent graduates already face;
- Deep decreases in funding for social programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Section 8 housing vouchers, Head Start, and other crucial services;
- $8.6 billion in funding for the construction of a racist southern border wall that will imperil the natural habitat along the Rio Grande river and cost long-time families their homes, in addition to the billions of dollars the president recently chose to appropriate for the wall under the guise of a sham National Emergency, which Public Citizen is fighting in court on behalf of the Frontera Audubon Society and three plaintiffs among our members from Texas.
It is often said that a president’s budget is a “statement of priorities.” Frequently, the administration’s proposed budget is little more than a wish-list that will bear little resemblance to the ultimate funding package upon which Trump and Congress will (hopefully) agree in order to avoid another shutdown. Congress still needs to pass the actual appropriations bills, and in addition to advocating to oppose these types of dangerous proposed cuts to agency funding, we also need to ensure that the budget process is not hijacked for partisan purposes.
All too often in recent years, Congress’ role in the budget process has been abused to enact dangerous, unpopular policies that harm the public. By inserting “poison pill” policy riders into must-pass appropriations bills, some members of Congress routinely push forward policies that would damage Americans’ health, wealth, and environment.
That’s why the Clean Budget Coalition is calling on Congress to pass a budget that does not abuse the budget process to roll back public protections. The Coalition’s demand is simple: no appropriations measures should move forward if they contain poison pill riders that go against the public interest.
Poison pill riders are unpopular and dangerous. The American people support policies that ensure social and economic justice, protect workplaces and the environment, promote access to justice and fair housing, protect consumers from corporate wrongdoing, protect human and civil rights including the rights of immigrants, and guarantee access to vital health care services including comprehensive reproductive healthcare. Our budget should reflect these priorities, and should certainly not include any measures that go against them. The Clean Budget Coalition calls for Congress to remove any poison pill riders that would undo any of these protections.
What the American people need is not a government budget filled with deep cuts to healthcare, badly needed social programs and retirement benefits. It’s not a racist, environmentally destructive wall. It’s also not a budget that is used to sneak bad policies through the congressional backdoor—policies that would never pass on their own due to their harmful nature. What Americans do need is a budget that recognizes and affirms the people’s right to a clean environment, comprehensive healthcare, and economic, civil, and social justice. Congress must act to ensure that, and not the cruel and shameful document put forth by the administration, is the kind of appropriations package that is ultimately agreed upon. And, they must stand strong with the American people to demand a clean budget, free from poison pill riders that harm the public interest.
Tomorrow, MSNBC host Chris Hayes is hosting an hour-long primetime special about the urgent need to meet the climate crisis head on.
This is welcome, but not unprecedented.
Meet the Press devoted its final program of 2018 to climate. That episode came nearly five months after The New York Times Magazine’s Twitter handle teased out this message, “On August 1, our entire magazine will contain one single story: Thirty years ago we had a chance to save the planet. We could have fixed climate change. We failed to act.”
These moments of climate immersion by media influencers like Meet the Press and The New York Times – and now Chris Hayes – are significant, but the public also needs a steady diet of climate news and commentary to grapple with the magnitude of this crisis and learn about the solutions.
Chris Hayes has been stepping up his climate coverage. We are calling on him to take an even bigger step: cover the climate crisis every week.
All in on Climate?
On July 24, Chris Hayes, in response to a tweet calling out news networks’ failure to connect climate and extreme weather events, tweeted that climate change is a “palpable ratings killer” for news shows.
The comment ignited a flurry of retorts and challenges, including from climate journalist Eric Holthaus, who pointed out that a climate piece he wrote for Rolling Stone “was the most-shared in its history.”
In response, and to Hayes’ credit, his show, All in with Chris Hayes, has featured more segments on climate and mentions of climate since then.
He even dedicated an entire podcast episode to the “ratings killer” challenge:
In the past 24 months, climate change has been mentioned or featured on 80 episodes of All In. Thirty-eight, or nearly half, of those instances have occurred in the last eight months (since the end of July).
In March 2019 alone, Hayes has mentioned or featured climate change in seven episodes, including in lengthy discussions about the climate crisis and solutions with author David Wallace-Wells, presidential candidate and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and Senator Ed Markey.
Hayes is the only MSNBC host to have connected the recent, tragic flooding in the Midwest U.S. to the climate crisis:
[E]normous swaths of the Midwest are underwater after massive flooding…snapshots of our new normal in the era of climate change, which most models show will produce more and more extreme weather events.
Among his peers on MSNBC, he ranks first on mentioning climate change on his programing during that same 24-month period.
It’s clear that Hayes is covering key climate moments and connecting extreme weather to our increasingly warming world. No doubt.
But when looking just at segments on climate or significant discussion on climate, the numbers drop by almost half to just 45 segments in the past two years.
Looked at another way, although Hayes has rightly called climate change “the single most important issue we face, probably the most important issue in the history of civilization,” he has featured a segment on climate during just 32 of the past 106 weeks. Seventy-four of the past 106 weeks have gone by without Hayes focusing any segment on climate.
An issue of this magnitude – on which civilization hinges – merits more consistent coverage.
The BBC thinks so.
In late September, BBC editor Jo Floto announced that the network’s flagship programs, The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 and Newshour on BBC World Service, would begin covering climate change every week.
MSNBC and Chris Hayes are well positioned to be the first network and anchor in the US to make that pledge: Cover climate change every week.
Chris Hayes cares about this issue. He gets it. He is covering it better than most and, on top of that, he’s also been improving recently. We want him to go further. We want him to go all in on climate.
Tune in tomorrow for the “All In with Chris Hayes” climate special at 8 p.m. Eastern on MSNBC.
Over the past seven years D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans spent close to $163,000 on professional sports tickets. He has paid more than $14,000 to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., in annual membership dues. Evans also spent thousands on print advertisements that largely promoted himself.
To make all these purchases, Evans did not use his own money, campaign funds, or taxpayer dollars. He used funds from his constituent service program or what is commonly referred to as a constituent service fund (CSF).
Under current D.C. campaign finance law, the mayor and members of the D.C. Council can establish constituent service funds for purposes such as “emergency housing,” “funeral arrangements,” “utility payments” and “other necessities of life.” The funds can also be used for food and refreshments and community events. All expenditures made must be done for the “primary benefit of residents of the District of Columbia.” Those who support the CSFs argue that they are needed to address constituents’ needs quickly when traditional programs might not be as easy to access.
But a look at the CSF expenditures of the District’s elected officials over the last seven years suggests that for many elected officials, meeting the emergency needs of constituents is not the primary use of those funds. D.C’s elected officials have spent tens of thousands of dollars from the funds on calendars and holiday cards, as well as campaign-style t-shirts, banners and print advertisements that do far more to publicize the elected officials than provide any constituent services. Councilmember Jack Evans, who has spent by far the most from such funds, has spent $162,816 on professional sports tickets.
Further, those elected officials who raise and spend the bulk of constituent services funds represent D.C.’s wards where residents have higher incomes. While elected officials representing the lowest income wards spend significantly less. Jack Evans represents a ward with a median household income of $104,504. Councilmember Trayon White represents a ward in which the median household income is $31,954. In 2018, Evans spent close to $58,000 in constituent service funds. In 2018, White spent about $10,000 in constituent service funds. Evans spent more on just Washington Wizards tickets in 2018 than White spent on all of his constituent services.
Washington, D.C., has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the country. In a city with so many residents struggling to make ends meet in the midst of enormous wealth and privilege, calling the distribution of D.C.’s CSFs inequitable would be an understatement.
The constituent service funds in D.C. have long been controversial and have been the subject of multiple scandals. The editorial board of The Washington Post has at least twice – first in 2011 and again in 2015 – called for the funds to be eliminated. The Post described the funds as “private slush funds” and “second campaign accounts that can be used with broad discretion.” The Washington City Paper called the funds “a joke.”
Currently, nine of D.C.’s elected officials operate a constituent service fund: Mayor Muriel Bowser, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie, Anita Bonds, Jack Evans, Mary Cheh, Brandon Todd, Vincent Gray and Trayon White. Five D.C. Council members choose not to operate CSFs.
Public Citizen examined more than 3,800 CSF itemized expenditures and close to $1.1 million in spending from January 2012 through December 2018. Elected officials categorize the same types of purchases in different ways – sometimes writing just one word, other times writing a short sentence. To make comparisons, Public Citizen coded the expenditures using 14 different categories. Many of the categorizations used by Public Citizen map closely with what elected officials listed on their disclosures. Further details about how Public Citizen categorized CSF expenditures appear in Appendix I.
Public Citizen analyzed constituent service fund data from 2012 through 2018 and found:
Only About a Quarter of CSF Money was Spent on Immediate Constituent Needs & Gifts
Overall, just 13 percent of the expenditures were for utility payments, rental assistance, funeral support and flowers, and other constituent assistance. Public Citizen defined the foregoing as “immediate constituent needs.” Other expenditures that plausibly fit in the broad category of assisting constituents with unmet needs are gift cards and other gifts (coats, turkeys, toys, etc.). If one combines the necessity-based expenditure categories described above – immediate constituent needs plus gift cards and other gifts – the total spending on plausible constituent needs still would only account for 24 percent of all the spending.
Councilmember Vincent Gray spent 72 percent of his CSF funds on immediate constituent needs, gift cards and gifts, the most of any elected official in this analysis. Gray is followed by Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who spent 43 percent of the CSF funds on immediate constituent needs, gift cards and gifts. At the other end of the spectrum, Councilmember Evans spent just 3 percent of his constituent service funds on immediate constituent needs, gift cards and other gifts from 2012 through 2018.
The vast majority of constituent service expenditures were on donations (which includes fundraisers, sponsorships and dues), catering and refreshments, professional sports tickets, community events, or advertising and outreach.
- Evans spent $162,816 on professional sports tickets – amounting to 52 percent of all the money spent from his constituent service fund over the total period studied. Evans spent more on professional sports tickets in 2018 ($26,400) than every other D.C. elected official individually spent in total constituent service funds in 2018. Evans spent more on just Washington Wizards tickets in 2018 ($11,050) than Vincent Gray, Trayon White, Anita Bonds and Mary Cheh each spent on all constituent services in 2018.
- D.C. elected officials reported spending $100,679 on various advertising and outreach (based on Public Citizen’s analysis). This total includes thousands of dollars spent on holiday cards, t-shirts, banners and print advertising. Many of these expenditures did far more to publicize the elected officials than to assist their constituents.
- Vincent Gray and Phil Mendelson purchased large banners that dedicated the vast majority of space to their names. Mary Cheh, Gray and Mendelson all used constituent service funds to buy t-shirts that do not appear to be much different than campaign t-shirts.
D.C. elected officials also spent tens of thousands of dollars helping their constituents, but these expenditures only accounted for about a quarter of the constituent service expenditures from 2012 through 2018. Phil Mendelson spent tens of thousands of dollars on rental and utility assistance. Muriel Bowser gave away hundreds of coats. Brandon Todd has done the same. Vincent Gray and Trayon White have given away hundreds of Thanksgiving turkeys. Kenyan McDuffie and Bowser have given away thousands of dollars’ worth of grocery store gift cards. And Mendelson, Gray, Mary Cheh and others have given away Christmas toys.
CSF Money is Not Distributed Equitably; More Money is Spent in Higher Income Wards
D.C.’s Ward 8 has the lowest median household income, the highest unemployment rate, and the largest share of families in poverty. But Councilmember Trayon White, who represents Ward 8, spends approximately $32,000 less in constituent service funds each year than Jack Evans, who represents a ward with a median income more than triple that of White’s Ward 8.
- On average, Jack Evans annually spends three and a half times as much as Trayon White in total constituent service funds. But Trayon White actually spends $881 more than Evans on immediate constituent needs, gifts and gift cards each year.
- While current law prohibits elected officials from raising any more than $40,000 in aggregate each calendar year for their CSFs, elected officials may transfer leftover money from their campaign accounts to their CSFs. Trayon White has been able to win his elections raising relatively small amounts of money, putting him at a huge disadvantage in terms of access to funds to help his constituents.
- Unless changes are made, the vast majority of CSF money will continue to be spent in the higher income wards. Evans’ most recent CSF financial statement (as of January 1, 2019) reports $143,152 in cash on hand. Trayon White’s CSF has just $1,088. It would take Evans 2.4 years just to spend his cash on hand, under the $60,000 per year expenditure level.
Maxed Out Campaign Contributors, Government Contractors and Lobbyists Contribute to CSFs
D.C. constituent service funds covered in this analysis accrued $1.2 million from 2012 through 2018. Close to half of the money has come from the campaign account of the elected official. The bulk of the remaining funds were raised from corporations and individuals.
- Contributions to CSFs are counted separately from campaign contributions, meaning an individual can contribute the maximum amount to both a CSF and a campaign account. Public Citizen analyzed a hypothetical scenario in which contributions to CSFs would count towards campaign contribution limits. If that were the case, there would have been 189 excessive contributions totaling $84,655 during the time period we studied. Jack Evans would have received the most excessive contributions by far – 118 contributions totaling $54,200.
- D.C. government contractors like Blue Skye Construction, Fort Myer Construction and EastBanc Technologies contributed thousands to the constituent service funds of D.C. elected officials from 2012 through 2018. These companies also received millions in D.C. government contracts. Some of these contributions will be banned in the future with the recent passage of legislation.
- Prominent D.C. lobbying firms like Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, and powerful D.C. lobbyists including Kerry Pearson, Thorn Pozen and David Wilmot have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to D.C.’s CSFs.
While it is Public Citizen’s belief that these funds should be abolished, currently there appears to be little appetite among the D.C. Council to do so. A provision that would have abolished the funds was removed from the Campaign Finance Reform Amendment Act of 2018 to ensure the bill’s passage. If the CSFs are to continue, serious reforms are needed. Some suggested reforms are listed below:
- Ban private contributions to CSFs. Budget – using taxpayer funds – $10,000 to $20,000 per calendar year for each elected official to use to help constituents with immediate needs. This would give all elected officials equal opportunity to help constituents. Under the current system, the fundraising prowess, political power and connections of each elected official largely dictates how much help constituents receive.
- Create tighter restrictions on how the money can be spent. Advertisements and outreach using constituent service funds should be strictly limited to alerting constituents that help is available through these funds. References to elected officials should be prohibited in advertisements. Sports tickets, are not a good use of constituent service funds and should be prohibited.
- Ensure that when CSF financial disclosures are submitted each expenditure is described in enough detail to ensure that one can gain an understanding of how the money was spent by reading the disclosures, without additional follow up.
On average, from 2012 through 2018, the D.C. elected officials with CSFs spent about $160,000 per year in total in CSF money. Mayor Bowser recently proposed a $15.5 billion annual budget for fiscal year 2020. If it is decided that $160,000 or $200,000 more a year is needed to help D.C. residents afford their rent or utilities, it won’t bust the budget, and it can be targeted towards those who need it most.
Currently, what constituent service funds are spent on largely depends on whatever the elected official deems to be reasonable (within the bounds of the regulations). It’s clear that Jack Evans has a much different view of what constitutes a reasonable expenditure than Anita Bonds or Kenyan McDuffie.
If constituent service funds are going to continue to exist, serious reform is needed and safeguards need to be put in place. Hoping elected officials use the money wisely is not good policy. Requiring them to do so is.
The death of 157 people on an Ethiopian Airlines flight earlier this month was an awful human tragedy.
It’s also a cautionary tale about what happens if we allow corporations to regulate themselves.
The public is starting to learn more about the circumstances behind the crash of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet in Ethiopia as well as in a similar lethal crash in Indonesia last fall. Both crashes of a brand-new new model of airplane may be connected to the failure of an automated system designed to prevent the plane from stalling. Federal prosecutors and the U.S. Department of Transportation are investigating the development of the 737 MAX, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
The roots of the problem go back to well before Donald Trump became president. Over the past decade, the FAA has pushed to delegate responsibility for assessing risk to airplane manufacturers themselves.
The Seattle Times reported that managers at the Federal Aviation Administration in 2015 pressed safety engineers at the agency to delegate assessments of safety to Boeing and pushed for approval. A former FAA safety engineer told the newspaper that “there was constant pressure to re-evaluate our initial decisions” and “there was continued discussion by management about delegating even more items down to the Boeing Company.”
These troubling revelations are raising serious concerns among aviation experts. “It raises for me the question of whether the agency is properly funded, properly staffed and whether there has been enough independent oversight,” Jim Hall, an aviation-safety consultant and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board told Bloomberg News.
The FAA’s sluggishness is consistent with the agency’s reputation for regulatory lethargy. The Transportation Department’s former inspector general, Mary Schaivo, has criticized the agency for more than two decades, saying it exhibits a pattern of failing to act until lives are lost. “Our safety agency is called the tombstone agency … because they wait for major loss of life before they make a safety change,” she told lawmakers in 1997, after the crash of ValueJet flight in the Florida Everglades killed 110 people.
It may take or months to get to the bottom of what happened in the two tragic crashes. But it is clear that Boeing, a defense contractor and airplane maker, has long had a cozy relationship with politicians of both parties.
Former President Barack Obama lavished praise on Boeing, calling it an “iconic company,” and touted his administration’s record in selling Boeing’s planes. “Other than maybe the CEO of Boeing, I don’t know anybody who’s done more to sell Boeing planes around the world than me and this administration,” Obama said. While in Vietnam last month, President Donald Trump praised two Vietnamese airlines for purchasing more than 100 Boeing jets. Even after the Ethiopia crash, Trump called Boeing a “a great, great company with a track record that is so phenomenal.” Boeing contributed $1 million toward Trump’s inauguration and contributed the same amount to President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Federal law prohibits government contractors from making campaign contributions to candidates, parties and political committees. The law is intended to prevent companies from bribing officials to win lucrative contracts and to prevent lawmakers from extorting money from companies with business pending before the government
However, the absence of strict rules requiring major public companies and federal contractors to disclose their political activity to shareholders and the public means that companies can funnel money through a web of untraceable dark money entities.
Unfortunately, another major loophole in the law defeats this purpose: contractors may establish PACs to make these same campaign contributions. Boeing takes full advantage of this loophole, laundering millions of dollars of campaign contributions directly to lawmakers and even to dark money groups. As a result, Boeing has well-endeared itself to those responsible for issuing defense contracts. Boeing shareholders have filed a resolution up for a vote at the company’s annual meeting in April calling on the company to disclose the full extent of its lobbying activities.
Since 1990, Boeing’s political action committees and individual company employees have contributed $32.6 million to federal candidates, with 52 percent going to Republicans and 46 percent going to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The company has spent nearly $170 million on federal lobbying over the past 10 years.
Boeing has received more than $100 billion in unclassified defense contracts between 2014 and 2018, according to Reuters, and received $64 billion in federal loans and loan guarantees and $457 million in federal grants from 2000 to 2014, according to a study by Good Jobs First.
As of last year, 98 lobbyists represented Boeing, with 71 having previously worked for Congress or the executive branch, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Of these 98 lobbyists, 31 work for Boeing directly, with the remainder working for outside firms. The revolving door between Boeing and Congress swings both ways; CNN reported that a former Boeing lobbyist, John Keast, is staff director of a key Senate committee overseeing aviation issues.
The small army of lobbyists advocating for Boeing include dozens of former congressional and federal agency staffers as well as one former congressman, retired Rep. Norm Dicks, a Democrat from Boeing’s former home state of Washington.
Dicks had the moniker “Mr. Boeing” and helped the company win a $35 billion air tanker refueling contract. When the contract was announced in 2011, Dicks said it was “the happiest day in my professional life.”
Boeing also has employed 51 people who either currently serve as federal officials or have done so in the past. Those include Patrick Shanahan, the current acting secretary of defense, who spent more than 30 years as a Boeing executive before joining the Trump administration.
Though Shahahan is required to recuse himself from decisions involving Boeing, the Pentagon has faced criticism over several multibillion–dollar contracts awarded to Boeing, as well as an ethics complaint calling for an investigation into whether Shanahan promoted Boeing and disparaged competitors. The complaint came after a report by Bloomberg said that a Pentagon request for $1.2 billion for 12 Boeing F-15X fighter aircraft was made “with some prodding” by Shanahan. Defense News reported that the purchase of the aircraft “ was essentially forced upon the Air Force.”
Politico reported that Shanahan’s loyalty to Boeing continued into his government service. Shanahan reportedly excoriated Boeing rival Lockheed Martin over its $1 trillion F-35 fighter jet, calling it “f—ed up” and claiming that if the contract for this jet “had gone to Boeing, it would be done much better.”
The Justice Department’s national security division is led by John Demers, a former Boeing vice president and assistant general counsel. Another former Boeing executive, Mira Ricardel, worked as deputy national security adviser, but was fired after a dispute with Melania Trump.
After the Ethiopia crash, Trump spoke on the phone to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who argued that the planes should not be grounded. It wasn’t until a day later that both Trump and Boeing reversed course in the face of public pressure and grounded the planes – after Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany and the European Union had already done so. Muilenburg has said he developed a personal relationship with Trump, telling a radio interviewer in February that Trump “cares about business” and “creates open communication lines.”
We need elected officials and regulators who will stick up for the safety of the flying public rather than the profits of airplane makers.
This Sunshine Week, whistleblowers within the scientific community deserve special recognition. The Trump administration has been relentless with its attacks on scientific integrity, from efforts to censor climate change research and the stonewalling of scientific advisory boards, to the appointment of industry representatives to lead environmental agencies, and attempts to silence the brave employees who challenge government misconduct. Whistleblowers, the eyes and ears to abuses of power that betray the public trust, risk their professional and personal security to shed light on these matters. Regardless of who is in power, we have always relied on courageous civil servants as the lifeline to warn the public about illegal government actions. Several events throughout this week magnified this truth.
Working with Whistleblowers to Safely Blow the Whistle
The 2019 Sunshine Week event Science and Transparency in the Trump Era, organized by several of our allies from the Make It Safe Coalition, was an instructive discussion on the ways in which science and science professionals have been under relentless assault by the current administration, obstructing both the public’s right to know and Congress’s duty to conduct effective oversight. It provided practical tips and resources to help public interest organizations, employees, policymakers and journalists “promote accountability, protect scientific integrity, and restore public trust in government.”
In the spirit of last year’s Sunshine week event that Public Citizen cosponsored, Working with Whistleblowers: A Sunshine Week Training for Public Interest Advocates, the Government Accountability Project provided highlights from updated whistleblower guides, including “Speaking up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees and Contractors,” which provides a roadmap of available whistleblower protections and survival tips for reporting wrongdoing safely and effectively. For instance, the Whistleblower Protection Act – the primary federal whistleblower law that was strengthened unanimously by Congress in 2012 – prohibits retaliation against government scientists who challenge censorship or make disclosures related to the integrity of the scientific process.
This year’s event recognized several scientific truth-tellers spanning several administrations. Joel Clement, a top-level Policy Advisory to the Secretary of the Interior Department, blew the whistle on the dangers of climate change impacts on Alaskan native communities. After resigning from the Trump administration, Clement now works as a Senior Fellow for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Larry Criscione, an engineer and risk analyst with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, disclosed to Congress in 2012 that his agency was failing to heed warnings that nearly a quarter of the nation’s nuclear plants could not withstand an upstream dam break. Clement and Criscione were both recipients of the Joe A. Calloway Award for Civic Courage.
Exposing Toxic Chemicals in the Workplace
During Sunshine Week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee held a hearing on “Mismanaging Chemical Risks: EPA’s Failure to Protect Workers.” The hearing developed a powerful record on how the EPA is systematically ignoring worker risks in its implementation of the 2016 Frank. R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act, which provided much needed updates to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) but is not being applied effectively. Witnesses detailed the ways in which their employers knowingly exposed them and other workers to dangerous chemicals and known carcinogens – from asbestos to chlorinated solvents, flame retardants and pesticides – while misleading them about the associated health risks, and the EPA’s failure to use its newfound authority under TSCA to protect workers and others.
Public Citizen submitted written testimony that examines worker health impacts from exposure to the chemical dispersant Corexit used during the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster response. A whistleblower investigation exposed that when this product is mixed with oil, a deadly synergy occurs that poses greater threats than oil alone. The only so-‐called advantage of Corexit is the false impression that the oil disappears – in reality, the more toxic chemical mixture spreads throughout the environment, exposing workers and communities, or settles on the seafloor.
The whistleblowers involved in the dispersant investigation provided clear warnings and practical solutions that could have greatly reduced the negative impact caused by the disaster “clean-up” from the toxic dispersant brew. They began by warning not to treat chemicals with chemicals, a premise that was ignored. As we approach the 9th anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, the Trump administration has aggressively worked to expand offshore drilling while simultaneously rolling back related safety regulations. It is both unfortunate and inevitable that future major offshore oil disasters will occur, triggering bipartisan opposition to the current efforts to expand of offshore drilling. Congress should be equally alarmed about the continued use of dispersants. This hearing began to lay the groundwork needed to end the use of Corexit and other dangerous chemicals.
Just as we cannot afford to take clean air, lifesaving medicines and safe workplaces for granted, we must honor the whistleblowers who take great personal risks to uphold scientific integrity. We thank these brave individuals for pulling back the curtain and shining light on dangerous practices.