House Dems Actually Do Their Jobs, Push for Transparency/Disclosure of Overseas Surveillance

House Democrats want to expand congressional oversight and public disclosure of U.S. intelligence agencies conducting surveillance overseas.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, is pushing the White House and federal intelligence agencies to provide more information about the number of Americans whose communications are being monitored under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

“How do we make sure that FISA is not out of control? At this point we don’t have any way of knowing that,” Conyers said at a subcommittee hearing. “For goodness sake, just to ‘OK’ [FISA] again because we did it before, couldn’t we improve it a little bit?”

Conyers also said he was “disturbed by how little we know and how much more we need to know” but was looking forward to a closed door briefing with the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a representative from the Justice Department (DOJ), and other committee members.

Title VII of FISA, which is scheduled to expire at the end of the year, allows U.S. intelligence officials to obtain court orders to monitor phone calls, emails and other communications of suspected terrorists abroad.

Some Democrats have expressed their fear that Americans are having their Fourth Amendment rights violated.

In 2009, The New York Times reported that the National Security Agency had been intercepting private communications between American citizens, an issue which the Justice Department claims it has taken care of. It was also reported that U.S. intelligence officials attempted, unsuccessfully, to monitor a member of Congress who was abroad.

Democrats say that U.S. intelligence agencies have not provided Congress with the data it needs for appropriate oversight, such as the number of Americans who have been monitored by “accident”.

House Republicans are supporting the Obama administration’s push to extend its existing surveillance powers under the FISA provision past the end of the year, while House Democrats are opposed to extending them without strengthening their oversight and transparency of the surveillance tools.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the chairman of the subcommittee, said he was in favor of disclosure but worried about giving unnecessary information to terrorists.

“Say we release the actual number of people who were targeted, does that give the other side an indication as to the extent of the operational strength of our national security agencies?” Sensenbrenner asked.

Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said he didn’t think so.

Clapper, in a letter to Democratic Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) last year, said turning over data about the number of Americans monitored under FISA wasn’t feasible.

“It is not reasonably possible to identify the number of people located in the United States whose communications may have been reviewed under the authority,” Clapper wrote.

Udall and Wyden cast the only votes in the Senate Intelligence Committee last week against extending the measure, which was approved by a vote of 13-2. The two senators demanded that the White House turn over records that detail how many Americans have been tracked overseas.

The argument over FISA was one of the most contentious of 2008. At the time, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and then-Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, drew the ire of liberals by voting for the measure.

Pelosi and Obama said the bill contained necessary security enhancements while providing a check on then-President Bush’s power by putting surveillance approval authority in the hands of a FISA court.


Dems Seek to Ease Penalties for Federal Workers That Engage in Partisan Politics

The Hatch Act of 1939 places restrictions on federal workers engaging in political activities. The law came about after complaints that federal workers were helping collect votes for the Democratic Party.

If Democrats have their way, federal workers will have much more leeway to engage in partisan political action.

Democrats in the House and Senate proposed legislation that would ease some penalties that federal workers face for engaging in partisan political activities such as campaigns or other overt actions.

Under current law, employees who violate the Hatch Act are required to either be removed or suspended for at least 30 days without pay. Suspensions can only take place on a unanimous vote from the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Under legislation introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) in the Senate and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) in the House, the Board would have flexibility to choose from a longer list of penalties, some of which are not as harsh as removal or suspension. These include “reduction in grade, debarment from federal employment for a period not to exceed five years, suspension, reprimand or an assessment of a civil penalty not to exceed $1,000.”

Akaka argues that this change is needed to address what he said were “minor violations” of the law.

“Under the law, it is possible that a federal employee could lose his or her job for inadvertently sending an email at work containing improper political content or hanging a picture on his or her wall during a campaign season,” Akaka said. “My bill would amend these provisions of the Hatch Act to allow the Merit Systems Protection Board, which adjudicates Hatch Act complaints in the federal government, to impose a range of penalties, from termination to a reprimand, depending on the nature of the offense involved.”

Cummings agreed that there should be “punishments less severe than firing for minor violations.”

Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), the only Republican on either the House or Senate bill, said that the bill is needed to better protect federal employees.

“If we can update the Hatch Act to provide for greater flexibility for public workers while still ensuring the legitimacy of our politics, there should be no reason for anyone to oppose such a change,” Lee said.

The Hatch Modernization Act, S. 2170 and H.R. 4152, would give state and local employees the freedom to run for partisan elective office, something they are currently not entitled to do. It would also treat District of Columbia employees the same way that state and local workers are treated for purposes of enforcement; today, D.C. employees are treated as federal workers.

Sponsors of the Senate bill are Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), while the House bill is sponsored by Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Obama, Dems and Repubs Decline to Return Ponzi Scheme Donations

National fundraising committees for President Obama, the Democratic and Republican parties and other major politicians have declined to return $1.8 million in campaign donations from Houston financier R. Allen Stanford. Stanford is now on trial for allegedly masterminding a $7 billion Ponzi scheme.

Ralph Janvey, a court-appointed receiver has been placed in charge of returning the money to investors defrauded by Stanford. Janvey obtained a federal court order last June against five Democratic and Republican campaigns, but they have not as of yet returned the money.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee received $950,500; the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), $238,500; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $200,000; the Republican National Committee $128,500, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) $83,345.

The contributions to the campaign committees and candidates were given by Stanford himself, Stanford executives, and a political action committee associated with the financier.

Mr. Janvey, is also trying to get back money Stanford donated to individual politicians. The list of recipients includes President Obama – who received $4,600 from Stanford in his 2008 election campaign, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), the chairman of the NRCC, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Janvey is seeking these funds informally, and has not filed lawsuits.

Money has already been returned by House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. John McCain, among others. But the roughly $154,000 recovered from elected officials is a fraction of the $1.8 million still outstanding.

The $4,600 Janvey is seeking from the Obama campaign only reflects contributions that Stanford himself personally made. The actual total amount may be as high $31,000 when taking into account Stanford’s contributions to Obama’s other campaign committees, along with money from senior Stanford executives, and the Stanford Financial Group’s now defunct PAC, according to campaign finance records and an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. The Obama campaign donated the $4,600 to charity on February 18, 2009, just days after Stanford’s alleged fraud came to light.

The Obama campaign officially has no comment on the matter, but a source familiar with the campaign says that it does not intend to return the money to the receiver or Stanford investors.

Kevin Sadler, lead counsel for the Stanford receivership, condemned the failure by the Obama campaign to turn over the contributions to the receiver. He said “the money was never theirs to begin with,” so they have no more right to the money than an ordinary person who was given it from “a guy who goes into a Seven Eleven and robs the store.”

Ralph Janvey wrote to the Obama campaign five days after it gave the money to charity in 2009, asking that it instead be returned to investors.

“If you have already donated such amounts to charity, we request you consider donating an equal amount to the Receivership,” Janvey wrote back on February 23, 2009. “By returning such amounts to the Receivership Estate, you will help reduce the losses suffered by victims of the alleged fraud.”

This is not the first time the president’s campaign contributions have come under scrutiny. Just recently Obama’s reelection campaign returned more than $200,000 in contributions from the American brothers of a Mexican casino magnate who has been in trouble with the law. Juan Jose Rojas Cardona jumped bail in the U.S. in 1994 after being charged with drug trafficking and fraud, according to the New York Times. The campaign said it did not know the background of the Cardona brothers when it accepted the contribution.

According to former U.S. State Department and federal law enforcement officials, Stanford spent considerable sums of money on lobbying members of Congress with the goal of blocking legislation and regulations that would have strengthened money laundering laws relating to offshore banking.

As a U.S. Senator from Illinois, Obama was one of three senators who in February 2007, along with Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and then Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), sponsored their own version of offshore banking legislation.

Congress sees 25% increase in wealth since economic collapse

Members of Congress enjoyed a collective net worth of more than $2 billion dollars in 2010, a nearly 25 percent increase in two years, according to a Roll Call analysis of Members’ financial disclosure forms.

Roughly 90 percent of that increase sits in the pockets of the 50 richest Congressmen.

In 08 the minimum net worth of House Members was slightly more than $1 billion while Senators had a combined minimum worth of $651 million for a Congressional total of $1.65 billion. The minimum net worth in the House has jumped to $1.26 billion, and at least $784 million for the Senate, for a total of $2.04 billion this year.

These wealth totals do not include homes and other non-income-generating property, which is likely to tally hundreds of millions of uncounted dollars.

While wealth overall is scattered fairly evenly between the two parties Democrats hold about 80 percent of the wealth in the Senate with Republicans controling about 78 percent of the wealth in the House.

The 50 richest Members of Congress accounted for 78 percent of the net worth in the institution in 2008 ($1.29 billion of the $1.65 billion total); by 2010 the share of the 50 richest had risen to 80 percent ($1.63 billion of the $2.04 billion total). The pie of Congressional wealth got bigger, and the richest Members are getting a bigger slice.

If you were to divide the total wealth of Congress by the number of Members you would get an average net worth of about $3.8 million (excluding non-income-producing property such as personal residences) for each Congressman. By comparison, for the rest of the country, based on statistics released by the Federal Reserve, average household net worth is around $500,000 this year (including personal residences), according to David Rosnick, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Congress is also getting richer faster than the rest of the nation. According to Federal Reserve data, from the end of 2008 to end of 2010, aggregate household worth increased 12 percent.” which is about half the increase Congress achieved during the same time period.

Alan Ziobrowski, a professor of real estate at Georgia State University, has produced studies of Congressional investment patterns indicating that lawmakers in both chambers tend to fare better in their investment portfolios than the average American, in part because “[t]here is no doubt in my mind that they are trading in some way on information that is there.”

But he also points out that the Membership of Congress has turned over since 2008, making it difficult to compare wealth over time. “You’ve got different people,” he said.

In the aftermath of the 2010 elections that swept Republicans to power, about 20 percent of the Members included in the 2010 survey were not included in the 2008 survey.

Dylan Ratigan speaks truth to power…

Dylan Ratigan host of “The Dylan Ratigan” show on MSNBC went on the most epic truth telling rant on his show yesterday. Ratigan called out the President and both corrupt parties that make up our congress. He expressed the frustration and contempt most Americans have with our broken political system with the emotion and passion that is rarely heard in the echo chamber ditto head world that is 24 cable news.


Progressives being left out of budget talks?

Have you heard of “The People’s Budget“? If you only watch the “liberal” media for your political news chances are you haven’t. We all know about the ongoing budget talks between the Republicans and Democrats but one proposed budget that seems to be being completely ignored is the Progressive Caucus’s People’s Budget.

In response to President Obama’s statement “if you are a progressive, you should be concerned about debt and deficit just as much as if you’re a conservative.” CPC Co-Chair Raul Grijalva said the following:

“The Progressive Caucus has introduced the only budget that creates a surplus by 2021 because we take seriously the need for a strong economy and manageable debt. Our budget eliminates the deficit in 10 years and creates jobs while protecting the programs our constituents rely on. We stand ready to work with you, as we have throughout this process, to solve the budget impasse in a way that helps rather than punishes the American people. With the House under tea party control and the Senate held hostage by Mitch McConnell, it is up to you to fly the standard of the people who elected you. We feel our budget achieves your policy goals, and we look forward to producing a successful outcome for our economy and our constituents at home.”

The People’s Budget includes a stimulus package of public works and infrastructure funding to get people working immediately. It brings taxes back to the Clinton era level and makes them more progressive. It reduces military spending to a little less than the rest of the world combined on the military, rather than more than it. It taxes financial speculation and includes a public option in health care.In other words, the People’s Budget addresses every single root cause that President Obama said drove the deficit to the heights we see now.

Penalizing the environmentally conscious?

Washington Senate Bill 5251 will force residents of the state that own an electric vehicle to start paying a $100 registration fee every year. The bill passed the Senate in a 36-11 vote. The push for the legislation came from the loss of state gas tax revenues, which are used to maintain and build roads, bridges and ferries due to the growing number of electric car owners.

About 1,316 plug-in vehicles were registered in Washington in 2010, according to the state Office of Financial Management, that number is expected to reach around 17,202 by 2020. Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, the bill’s primary sponsor said “They’re going to drive on our highways, and this is a way for them to pay their fair share,”.

Under the Senate transportation budget, which assumes the electric-vehicle tax bill passes, the state would spend about $4.87 billion on highway-related projects between 2011 and 2013. The state’s gas tax brings in about $1.2 billion per year, but gas consumption has stayed flat in Washington since 2000. The bill, if passed by the House and approved by the governor, would raise $468,000 over the next two years and could generate about $1.7 million every two years by 2015, if the number of electric cars increase in the state.

Electric car advocates say that the state is missing an opportunity to adapt its transportation revenue system into something more compatible with modern, alternative fuels. Dan Davids, president of electric car advocacy group Plug-In America, says that fees for all vehicles should based on their odometer readings and that drivers should pay taxes for roads based on how much they actually use them. Owners could report odometer readings when they renew their vehicle registrations.

Sen. Haugen says that even with the fee proposed in her bill, electric car owners would still pay less in taxes than most car owners. According to 2008 data from WSDOT, a driver who travels 12,000 miles per year pays on average about $204 annually in state gas taxes. Also, there is no state sales tax on the purchase of an electric car and owners can get about $7,500 in federal tax credits.