How the South Really Operates | The Globalist

This piece is a research essay, co-authored by Carl Bindenagel and Bill. for The Globalist. It is Part II of The Globalist’s American Mezzogiorno series. Part I, by Stephan Richter and Carl Bindenagel, is The American Mezzogiorno: A Thanksgiving Reflection. Part III (“Take the Money and Run”) can be found here.

The American South’s political power manifests itself in the following four dimensions:

1. Congressional Power
2. Agricultural handouts
3. Defense spending as a welcome stimulus
4. Antiquated thinking

Exhibit 1: Congressional Power

Prior to the 2014 mid-term elections, representatives from the American South chaired or represented a majority of members on important permanent committees and subcommittees in the U.S. House of Representatives. At the state level, Republican governors led unified government in 26 states.

American Mezzogiorno

Part I: A Thanksgiving Reflection

Part II: How The South Really Operates

Part III: Take the Money and Run (Friday)

How have these lawmakers used influential policy-positions to affect the welfare and livelihoods of their constituents? Mainly they enriched themselves, protected the powerful, and deliberately harmed the vulnerable in their jurisdictions and states.

They directed federal funding to themselves and to contractors with powerful lobbies and fought against programs to assist the poor, the abused and common citizens. Often, this included children, who are among the impoverished in America and who lack resources, including access to education.

Lawmakers’ self-serving behavior at the expense of their constituents can most clearly be seen on the defense-spending related committees in the U.S. Congress.

Southerners account for 53% of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and 55% of the House Appropriations Committee on Homeland Security (compared to nationwide population share of 38%).

Most tellingly, the membership of the House Subcommittee on Military Construction/Veterans Affairs is now 63% southern. The Chair of the full House Appropriations Committee is a southern Republican as well.

All of this matters greatly: Under the U.S. Constitution, all spending bills must originate in the House and ultimately from its Appropriations Committee. The Republican-dominated House (and the Southern-dominated House Majority) therefore has great control over how and where federal money will be spent.

Exhibit 2: Agricultural handouts

In addition to the defense sector, in rural communities, farmers are frequently subsidized – even in the event of crop-failure or natural disasters (such as floods or droughts).

Historically, this was crucial to prevent small-family farms from collapsing. But today, with the rise of consolidated agribusiness, the picture looks very different.

Many Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House support this type of subsidy, not only for their constituents, but also to enrich themselves.

In September 2013, several of the same House members who voted to cut almost $40 billion out of food stamps over the next decade personally received hundreds of thousands or even millions of federal dollars in farm subsidies.

Take the case of Rep. Stephen Fincher. He cited a passage from the Bible as justification for his vote against providing food stamps, presuming that a needy person was just lazy.

“He who does not work will not eat,” said Fincher. But from 1999 to 2012, the gentleman himself (not his state) received more than $3.4 million in federal farm subsidies.

Fincher’s is not the only case of faulting needy working people while claiming personal privilege from the government:
Read more

Amending the Constitution: The National Convention Option?

This new essay by Lawrence Lessig partially answers a question I had recently been pondering. That question was about whether it would be feasible (on paper) to do a constitutional convention through Article V (the one about how to amend the U.S. Constitution). It’s permissible but hasn’t ever been tried. Here’s the relevant part of that provision:

Article V: The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress…

Lessig points out that this alternative route, which has never been used, isn’t actually all that special or worrisome. It’s not like a free-for-all that can just junk the whole document. A Constitutional Convention could only be convened by the formal request of 2/3rds of the U.S. states (34 now) and it could only propose amendments to the existing Constitution, which would then be sent back — just like Congressional amendments! — for approval by 3/4ths of the U.S. states (38 now). That last part is always the hardest, and this doesn’t change that.

That’s consistent with the interpretation posted on the U.S. Senate website’s page explaining different parts of the U.S. Constitution:

The Constitution also authorizes a national convention, when two-thirds of the states petition Congress for such a convention, to propose amendments, which would also have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

So, the national convention route is actually probably even more complicated to get it rolling, in that it requires all the cat-herding of more than 30 states be done twice over (once going in and once coming out), and then once it’s rolling it’s no easier or more dangerous than the usual amendment process.

The advantage it (potentially) has is that it circumvents the need to have members of Congress vote on specific amendments that might affect them or the special interests they favor. It would also be within the much stronger state-level tradition of public interest reform by direct democracy.

Interestingly, Lessig doesn’t address Article V’s provision for allowing states to create special conventions for ratification. He specifically — intentionally I assume — uses the more generic term “states” when discussing the ratification side, although he mentions legislative party control in passing. The likeliest format would be for the legislatures to vote up or down on the convention’s proposed amendments, just as they would for amendments from Congress, but it’s not required.

Let’s take a second look at Article V: Read more

Infographic: Iraq War vote vs. VA scandal critiques

The Iraq War sent a lot more Americans to the VA for serious long-term care issues. Where did current U.S. Senators stand on George W. Bush’s Iraq War in 2002? Have they publicly criticized the Democratic successor to George W. Bush for the Veterans Affairs scandal? Find out from these graphics on both the Republican and Democratic U.S. Senators in 2014:
Note: Senators who were elected to Congress significantly later than the 2002 Iraq War Resolution or the 2007 surge and were not involved in the Bush Administration’s war effort have been omitted from this list.

As an additional reminder, although President Obama famously opposed the Iraq War in 2002, the past and present Obama Administration prominently includes four ex-Senators who voted in favor of the Iraq War Resolution: Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel.

Corrections/Clarifications: 1) The Republican chart was corrected to reflect Cornyn’s election was November 2002, not October 2002 as initially stated. 2) The short-form social media version of the charts did not indicate clearly that Sen. Blunt was a U.S. Congressman in 2002.

Pfizer: Screw America, we want tax havens!

I just read NYT DealBook’s new article from Monday on the awful attempted Pfizer takeover of AstraZeneca: “Pfizer Proposes a Marriage With AstraZeneca, Easing Taxes in a Move to Britain”

On Monday, Pfizer proposed a $99 billion acquisition of its British rival AstraZeneca that would allow it to reincorporate in Britain. Doing so would allow Pfizer to escape the United States corporate tax rate and tap into a mountain of cash trapped overseas, saving it billions of dollars each year and making the company more competitive with other global drug makers.

A deal — which would be the biggest in the drug industry in more than a decade — may ultimately not be done. AstraZeneca said on Monday that it had rebuffed Pfizer, after first turning down the company in January.

This is disgusting. Pfizer, founded in the United States in 1849, is trying to buy one of its biggest global rivals, solely so it can reincorporate in the United Kingdom… with its half a dozen or so offshore tax evasion center crown dependencies and British Overseas Territories. Excuse me, I should say tax “avoidance,” because it’s not evasion if it’s legal.

(And while they’re at it, they would probably jack up global drug prices further through anti-competitive price-fixing by forming a cartel with AstraZeneca.)

5000-dollar-bill-madison-200Predictably, Congressional Republicans are already telling everyone that the problem is U.S. corporate tax rates aren’t low enough, when in reality, we’re trying to compete with literal tropical islands for tax evaders that are nominally outside of UK control. That’s a losing battle. We need to put pressure on the UK to stop stealing revenue from the rest of the developed world, not lower our already low effective corporate tax rate.

According to The Globalist Research Center and

In terms of the effective corporate tax rate, the United States is actually below the average of the big industrial countries, at about 26%, [while] the [advanced economies] OECD’s 2012 GDP-weighted average was 32%.

And here’s an eye-popping fact from DealBook:

At least 50 American companies have completed mergers that allowed them to reincorporate in another country, and nearly half of those deals have taken place in the last two years.

Put another way, that’s almost 25 tax avoidance deals in the past two years. Again, that says little about the U.S. corporate tax structure which hasn’t really changed much — and certainly not adversely to corporate America under a Republican House Majority — and everything about the total lack of civic pride our country’s corporations have right now, even though their revenues to the government are what helped build the country into such a good corporate environment for so long.

We definitely do need tax reform in some respects, but mainly to reduce tax avoidance and loopholes, unnecessary corporate tax credits and subsidies, and code inconsistency that arbitrarily allows some industries pay less than others. What we don’t need to do is to chop our tax code down to stay competitive with Guernsey, Jersey, the Isle of Man, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands, and the British Virgin Islands.

NASA comes out swinging at Russia, US Congress

It appears I spoke too soon in lauding ongoing US-Russian space cooperation amidst the political crisis. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) issued a startlingly aggressive statement tonight against both the Russian government and the American Congress (Congressional Republicans, really, though they didn’t spell it out). My emphasis added:

Statement regarding suspension of some NASA activities with Russian Government representatives.

Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.

naga-logoI think it’s been a while since we heard the typically staid and politically sedate post-Cold War NASA rip this hard into anyone, let alone Russia. The phrase “continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians” is about as undiplomatic as one can get.

I did notice that they chose to say “reliance on Russia” rather than “dependence on Russia” (which would be more accurate) and I’m sure that was a PR word choice.

Must be pretty tense right about now on the Space Station.

Related Reading: Watching the USSR break up, from Space

The U.S. Congress has a Team Russia?

New York Times: “Kremlin Finds a Defender in Congress”

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, is speaking up for Moscow with pride.

Dana-RohrabacherWow, there is so much to unpack in that article.

Now, for a start, Rep. Rohrabacher has always been a bit “unique” in his views and behavior — and the article spends some time on that. But he’s particularly delusional about the freedoms of the current, post-Communist version of the Russian Federation, as well as newly Russian-occupied Crimea:

“There have been dramatic reforms in Russia that are not being recognized by my colleagues,” he said. “The churches are full. There are opposition papers being distributed on every newsstand in Russia. You’ve got people demonstrating in the parks. You’ve got a much different Russia than it was under Communism, but you’ve got a lot of people who still can’t get over that Communism has fallen.”

What about Pussy Riot, the Russian protest group? Its members were jailed for criticizing Mr. Putin, released, then publicly flogged when they showed up at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

“Well, I don’t think that happens often,” Mr. Rohrabacher said with a shrug. “There are lots of people demonstrating in the streets of Russia who are perfectly free to do so.”

Yet, this isn’t limited to one foolish Republican: as the article notes, progressive Florida Democrat Alan Grayson is similarly eager to endorse the Crimea referendum as “a virtually bloodless transfer of power establishes self-determination for two million people…”

Which is such a laughable fiction that it makes me question everything I know about Rep. Grayson. (Is he just trying to be contrarian for the sake of it at this point?)

But I also strongly suspect Rohrabacher’s love of Putin’s Russia and support for the Crimea annexation is partially grounded in Vladimir Putin’s violent and militarized opposition to “Islamic terrorism” (in the form of Chechen persecution and other state terror campaigns in the predominantly Muslim northern Caucuses):

By last year, Mr. Rohrabacher was accompanying the action star Steven Seagal to Russia in search of a broader Islamist plot behind the Boston Marathon bombing. The actor and the congressman had often discussed “thwarting radical Islamic terrorism,” he explained.

One cold night in 1987

This month in history — twenty seven years ago: In March 1987, an HIV-positive Congressman slept outside the Capitol to protest inaction on homelessness. It was 20 degrees outside. He contracted fatal pneumonia, likely in part from his immuno-compromised state being exacerbated in the cold. But before it claimed his life, he managed to convince his colleagues to pass legislation with over a billion dollars in funding for over a dozen new programs to help the homeless. This past week, Think Progress commemorated the sacrifice of Rep. Stewart McKinney of Connecticut.