The GOP May Not Eliminate the Filibuster, But It Can Still Pass Its Reactionary Agenda. Here’s How.

According to The Hill on Monday, a number of GOP senators are hesitant about, if not outright opposed to, eliminating the filibuster. The article names seven of them, more defections than a likely caucus of 52 could withstand on a vote. For anyone who doesn’t want to see them be able to ram through their anti-worker, anti-environment, anti-consumer, anti-democracy (etc.) agenda, this is great news.

But don’t get too excited. Because in addition to budget reconciliation — a tool Paul Ryan has already hinted at using, and which reduces the required Senate votes for passage to a simple majority — House Republicans have at their disposal a strategy that has succeeded quite well for them over the past few years: policy riders in must-pass bills.

Time after time, Republicans have attached a host of toxic policy riders to government spending bills (whether continuing resolutions or omnibus bills)—and Democrats still vote for them.

Take, for example, the Continuing Resolution (CR) that passed this September. As I noted earlier this week, it contained a provision blocking the SEC from developing, proposing, issuing, finalizing, or implementing a rule requiring public companies to disclose political spending to their own shareholders. Only 12 Senate Democrats and 10 House Democrats voted against it—and some of that opposition was more a result of how the CR punted on Flint funding (a punt that was condemnable in and of itself).

Last year’s end-of-year omnibus bill included a grab-bag of horrible policy riders (“a basket of deplorable” riders, if you will), including, among other things:

  • A lift of the 40-year ban on domestic oil exports
  • A ban on the SEC’s crafting a rule to require corporations to disclose political spending (a rider that re-appeared this September, as noted above)
  • An elimination of country-of-origin labeling requirements for meat and poultry
  • The “surveillance-masquerading-as-cybersecurity” bill CISA
  • Exemptions from Dodd-Frank for certain derivative swap trades
  • Changes to the “visa waiver” program derided as rank discrimination by the ACLU

But only 18 House Democrats and 9 Senate Democrats voted against it.

In 2014, the “CRomnibus,” the combination Continuing Resolution (CR) and appropriations bill (omnibus), offered a holiday feast to lobbyists with its range of policy riders:

  • A provision to weaken campaign finance regulations by increasing the amount that an individual can donate to a party committee in a year from $32,400 to $324,000
  • A provision—written by Citigroup lobbyists—to weaken regulation of credit default swaps under Dodd-Frank and allow banks like Citigroup to do more high-risk trading with taxpayer-backed money
  • A provision allowing trustees of multi-employer pension plans to cut pension benefits to current retirees
  • An override of DC’s recent vote legalizing recreational marijuana
  • A provision to extend the length of time that truckers can be required to work without breaks
  • The elimination of a bipartisan measure to end “backdoor” searches by the NSA of Americans’ private communications
  • A provision to block the EPA from regulating certain water sources
  • A reduction of nutrition standards in school lunches and the Women, Infant and Children food aid program in order to benefit potato farmers
  • A halt on the listing of several species on the Endangered Species List (in accord with the oil industry’s wishes)
  • A prohibition on the regulation of lead in hunting ammunition or fishing equipment

And that’s really only the half of it.

And how did it fare? The Senate Democratic caucus voted for it 31-22 (although if one looks at the cloture vote–the vote teeing up the vote for passage–that should be 47 to 6) House Democrats were less keen on the bill and only voted for it 57-139. As the minority party, they were not deemed responsible for providing the lion’s share of the votes. Even though she ultimately voted against the bill herself, Nancy Pelosi did, however, help make sure the bill had enough Democratic votes for passage. (It narrowly passed 219-206).

Government spending bills aren’t the only ones that serve as conduits for deregulatory riders. Take, for example, the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) in 2015. Setting aside the many problems with TRIA itself, it was also used as a vehicle to pass a weakening of Dodd-Frank–never mind the fact that collateral and margin requirements for derivative trades have little to do with terrorism risk insurance. The bill passed by a whopping 93-4, with 3 out of the 4 dissenting votes coming from the Democratic caucus (Sanders, Warren, and Cantwell).

It’s important not to pretend that Republicans are the only ones who shove policy riders into unrelated bills. Congressional Democrats did, of course, use the FY 2010 National Defense Authorization Act as a vehicle to pass a hate crimes bill. But the GOP is the one pushing riders that are socially, environmentally, and economically harmful.

How many toxic riders can the GOP attach to a bill before the Democrats balk? And are Democrats willing to shut down the government over any of these disputes–despite deriding the GOP for using that as a leverage point in the past (although, of course, for harmful ends)? Over the next four years, we will be able to learn what is and is not a deal-breaker for Congressional Democrats.

Russell Simmons’ RushCard leaves vulnerable flat broke

Guest essay by Heather R. Andrews: Broken promises as a prepaid debit card pitched, with hip-hop cred, to poor consumers breaks down.

Def Jam co-founder and RushCard promoter Russell Simmons.

Def Jam co-founder and RushCard promoter Russell Simmons.

October 12th, 2015 marked the beginning of what can only be described as a nightmare for customers of a prepaid debit card service called “RushCard,” which has been heavily promoted by early hip-hop mogul Russell “Uncle Rush” Simmons.

Customers often arrange for their paychecks to be deposited directly to the card accounts. Now, due to a “software upgrade in the transaction processing system” – also described as a “glitch” or a “conversion” – customers have been experiencing a $0 balance on their cards or had no access to their funds.

For many of this particular card’s customers, being locked out of their account for days means they are not able to pay bills or buy essentials such as diapers, medicine, or food. Some customers are left with no other options and have resorted to crowdfunding.

Slowly the story has been percolating into mainstream media, but only minimally and very late. Lack of coverage, along with form letter style responses from Russell Simmons and RushCard employees, have only added to customers’ desperate frustration.

Customers have been instructed to send Simmons himself direct messages via Twitter to resolve their issues. Many customers created Twitter accounts to voice their concerns, receive assistance from any source available, and to DM Russell Simmons — as directed.

I have been tracking and boosting these messages for several days on Twitter. Card holders are tweeting about late fees, repossessions, utility disconnections. Along with the stories came pleas for Russell Simmons to do something. As of yet, no one is reporting that they have been assisted by Simmons or anyone on his team.

Simmons did issue an apology last Wednesday. In part:

“I want to personally reassure you that your funds are safe and that we are addressing every issue as quickly as possible. I deeply apologize for the hardship this is causing and give you my solemn commitment that we will fix these problems.”

As of yesterday, on day 9, customers were still waiting for Russell Simmons to fix those problems. Meanwhile, those funds remained unavailable for immediate use on bills and necessities.

So where did this problem come from? Not the technical problem, but rather the problem of a service with such a vulnerable consumer base that could ill afford a “glitch.”

RushCard/UniRush, a financial services company and one of the first providers of prepaid debit cards, was founded in 2003 by Russell Simmons, one of the co-founders of Def Jam Recordings and numerous other business ventures. By 2011, on the strength of claims that the card would financially empower its customers and promote financial literacy, UniRush had amassed a reported 1.5 million customers.

UniRush’s success has not been without its issues already. Even before this most recent problem, RushCard has come under fire for its high fees, bad customer service, and predatory marketing strategies.

Moreover, Simmons used his image and influence to appeal to the Black community. His target market specifically was “underbanked Americans.” The underbanked are low-income individuals and families with limited access to banking services by geographic location, credit history, discrimination, or other factors. These consumers were drawn in by UniRush promising no credit checks, $5.00 credits, designer logos, and the ability to receive direct deposits up to 2 days earlier. For the poorest Americans, already saddled with consumer debt and struggling to make ends meet, these little things could make a difference, however briefly. Read more

Transatlantic regulators lay fines for foreign exchange cheats

Big fines Wednesday morning on five big investment banks from US and UK financial regulators for transatlantic currency trading collusion:

It’s another dark day for the banking sector, with several of the world’s biggest financial institutions being fined for their role in rigging the global foreign exchange market.

…regulators on both sides of the Atlantic have announced fines totalling around £2bn, or $3.1bn, against HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS, JP Morgan and Citigroup.

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority [FCA] has imposed fines totalling £1.1bn, and America’s [Commodity Futures Trading Commission] CFTC has imposed fines of an additional $1.4bn, (£900m).

All five banks have been penalised because their staff colluded to fix the official rates at which currencies were trading against each other in the international markets.

I’m sure they still probably made a lot more money off the collusion and manipulations than they’re being fined, but at least there’s a bit of justice.

But the real takeaway? Good lord, even Britain’s financial regulators at the FCA produce better videos (watch below) than Americans do. It’s like a dry BBC comedy but for white collar crime. Somehow they manage to make an incredibly dull description of illegal transaction activities into a gripping and funny set of infographics and deadpan reading of curse-filled chat transcripts by bankers.


Treasury Dept acts to discourage tax avoidance mergers

Fantastic. The Treasury Department last month began establishing rules to make it significantly harder for U.S. companies to re-locate offshore for tax purposes by taking over foreign companies and registering out-of-country under the smaller entity with access to tax havens or lower corporate taxes. Earlier this year, both on this site and in The Globalist, I criticized Pfizer’s efforts to initiate a tax avoidance merger like that.

This practice, known as an “inversion” (or sometimes “offshore reincorporation”), had rapidly accelerated recently, to the point where the overall number of all such mergers ever attempted by American companies doubled in the past two or so years. While the new rules are just a small step forward — the much bigger problem of European-controlled tax havens, allowing such mergers to make sense in the first place, remains unchanged — it’s a step much more in the right direction than the constant Republican calls to slash corporate taxes to compete with the tax havens, when sensible reforms and regulations are really what’s needed.

There was also another sign that this Treasury Department action was having the intended deterrence effect. A bunch of companies who were in talks or seen as potentially likely to pursue such mergers took a pummeling in the stock market on September 23rd in response to these regulations being announced the day before, since the companies were less likely to make gains than expected.

That’s well deserved punishment, in my opinion, and more still needs to be done. As I argued in my oped in The Globalist in May of this year:

As a matter of fact, U.S. corporations — as profitable as they are — have taken their home nation for a nearly tax free ride for too long. The U.S. tradition of the rule of law that allowed business to flourish cannot be permitted to devolve into a “rule of loopholes” system that just barely stays inside the lines.

Tax avoidance is a cancer on democratic societies. It both undermines confidence in the fairness of the taxation system and erodes the government’s ability to invest in infrastructure and provides services. In the end, that reduces any government’s credibility with its people.

Without the U.S. government’s help, big American corporations would never have been so successful in the first place. We cannot let them get away with chipping away at the country’s tax base even further.

And the corporations should tread lightly for their own good. If such mergers as the one Pfizer proposes are the future of globalization, the American people will continue to feel very abused. Such schemes may eventually produce a backlash strong enough to erase any of the positives.


September 3, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 98


Topics: Big Idea – Low-Income Banking Reform; 2018 and 2022 World Cups controversies revisited; Guest interview on the Ebola outbreak – Sara Laskowski, US Peace Corps, Guinea. People: Bill, Nate. Produced: August 29, 2014.

Discussion Points:

– Big Idea: How could the U.S. reform and expand consumer banking services for local income Americans to reduce predatory lending and other bad practices?
– Will sanctions on Russia and Qatar’s sponsorship of terrorism, among other problems, force the FIFA World Cup to change locations or schedules in 2018 and 2022?
– Guest Interview: UD Alum and Peace Corps member Sara Laskowski discusses being evacuated from Guinea due to the Ebola outbreak.

Part 1 – Consumer Banking Reform:
Part 1 – Consumer Banking Reform – AFD 98
Part 2 – Future World Cup Controversies:
Part 2 – Russian and Qatari World Cups – AFD 98
Part 3 – Sara Laskowski on Guinea and Ebola:
Part 3 – Sara Laskowski – AFD 98

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.

Related links
Segment 1

The Globalist: “The Democratization of Banking” by Robert J. Shiller
NYT Editorial Board: Reining in Payday Lenders

Segment 2

Moscow Times: Putin Hopes Russia Won’t Lose Right to Host World Cup 2018
Washington Post: New study says 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be too hot to even sit and watch
James Dorsey/Al Jazeera: The stakes are high in Qatar’s World Cup drama
James Dorsey/The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer: Gulf states and their US critics seek to shape US perceptions on the soccer pitch
James Dorsey/The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer: Amnesty International report undermines Qatar’s soft power defense strategy

Segment 3

Sara Laskowski / Guinean Dreams: On Being Evacuated: It’s Every Volunteer’s Worst Nightmare
AFD: Ebola outbreak causes Peace Corps pullout


RSS Feed: Arsenal for Democracy Feedburner
iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

Pennsylvania gov’t admits fracking contamination

Nice to finally have some confirmation that it wasn’t all imagined (as some have insisted to me and others many times):

For the first time, Pennsylvania has made public 243 cases of contamination of private drinking wells from oil and gas drilling operations.

As the AP reports, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection posted details about the contamination cases online on Thursday. The cases occurred in 22 counties, with Susquehanna, Tioga, Lycoming, and Bradford counties having the most incidences of contamination.

In some cases, one drilling operation contaminated the water of multiple wells, with water issues resulting from methane gas contamination, wastewater spills, and wells that simply went dry or undrinkable. The move to release the contamination information comes after years of the AP and other news outlets filing lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests from the DEP on water issues related to oil and gas drilling and fracking.

One wonders if there will be any consequences, though, given that the industry has spent massively on the campaigns of favorable state reps and state senators in Pennsylvania to open the way to fracking operations all over the state.

The industry lobby’s response to the disclosure, as reported by the AP/Wall Street Journal, was to fault Pennsylvania rocks for being difficult to work with and to blame the state government for lax regulation on drilling well construction and design (a statement which takes a lot of chutzpah).

August 27, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 97


Topics: Big Idea – How to regulate the Ubers and Airbnbs of the world; US, ISIS, and Syria; Interview with freelance writer and Ferguson protest eyewitness Jamie Nesbitt Golden. People: Bill, Persephone. Produced: August 24, 2014.

Discussion Points:

– Big Idea: Are “sharing economy” services like Uber and Airbnb helping people avoid important safety regulations and local taxes?
– What would be the consequences if the U.S. intervenes militarily against ISIS inside Syria?
– How much focus should be on Ferguson versus the wider problem nationwide?

Part 1 – Sharing Economy:
Part 1 – Sharing Economy – AFD 97
Part 2 – US, ISIS, Syria:
Part 2 – US, ISIS, Syria – AFD 97
Part 3 – Jamie Nesbitt Golden:
Part 3 – Jamie Nesbitt Golden on Ferguson – AFD 97

To get one file for the whole episode, we recommend using one of the subscribe links at the bottom of the post.

Related links

Read more