Friday, March 11, 2005

Just so you know what they think of you

First there was the typically-misnamed Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, which Shrub signed on February 18. That's the one that put massive roadblocks in the way of consumer suits against criminal corporations.
The truth is the Republican bill will not only federalize nearly all state class actions, it is loaded with special interest goodies that will help corporate wrongdoers and stop civil rights, labor and dangerous-drug cases dead in their tracks. That is why it was opposed by both state and federal judiciaries, consumer and public interest groups, environmental and health organizations, and civil rights and labor groups.
So said Rep. John Conyers (D-MI, 14), writing in Detroit's Metro Times on March 9, who went on to note that
You don't have to take my word for it, just ask big business. The nation's largest bank, Citicorp, admits "the practical effect [of the bill] may be that many cases will never be heard. Federal judges, facing overburdened dockets and ambiguities about applying state laws in a federal court, often refuse to grant standing to class action plaintiffs." Forbes magazine writes, "the legislation will ... make it more difficult for plaintiffs to prevail, since ... federal courts are ... less open to considering ... class action claims."
(It needs to be noted that while his rage is well-founded, Conyers' reference to it as a "Republican bill" is, let's say, inaccurate and partisan. It did not pass without some Democratic support: 18 Senate Dims, including some supposed "moderates" and "liberals," voted for it along with 50 in the House.)

Then there was the Senate's utterly contemptible rejection of a raise in the minimum wage, which was stood unchanged at the below-poverty level of $5.15 per hour since 1996. (The 2005 federal poverty level for an individual is $9570; for a family of four, it's $19,350. A person working full time, year-round, at minimum wage would gross $10,712. Account for FICA taxes, now 7.65% and assessed on the first dollar of wages, and even allowing for no other deductions, that drops to $9892.)

The Democrats proposed raising the hourly minimum to $7.25 over 26 months, which would have the virtue of bringing the minimum back up to close to - but still below - the value it had in 1968, when it was $7.18 in 2003 dollars. (Inflation between 2003 and 2007, when the proposed increase would be fully in effect, would more than outstrip that 7¢ difference.) Put another way, though, it would mean people working at minimum wage would be no better off than their similarly-employed parents were 40 years earlier.

The GOPpers, wanting to give themselves something to vote for, offered an increase about half as big in a bill well-salted with $4.2 billion in favors to business - mostly the restaurant industry, which is to a greater extent than most others populated with minimum-wage workers. Also included were
an option for employees to work up to 80 hours over two weeks without qualifying for overtime pay; a provision restricting the ability of states to raise the minimum wage for restaurant employees; and waiving wage and overtime rules for workers in some small businesses now covered.
It was so bad that even 17 GOPpers wouldn't go for it. (By the way, remember the bit about usurping state laws - it becomes important in a minute.)

The same phony arguments were trotted out, the same old bull. Rick Santorum (R-A Cave Somewhere) said the idea of the hour provision was to give workers "more flexibility in their work schedule." And John Sununu (R-The Nuclear Power Industry) claimed "When you raise the minimum wage you are pricing some workers out of the market. ... It is an economic fact."

But that is not a fact, it's a hoary canard, just like the equally false claim, always tossed out, that raising the minimum wage "hurts small businesses." The actual hurt comes from not enabling people to make a living wage, and it affects millions. And now, with chances of an increase during this Congress for practical purposes gone, we will go at least 10 years between increases in the minimum: the longest such gap in the history of the program.

One other note on this is that due to earlier shenanigans, passage of an increase in the minimum wage requires a so-called "supermajority" of 60 votes, not a simple majority. Enjoy working at Wal-Mart (oh, they come up again in a bit, too).

That debate took place on an amendment to the bill to change bankruptcy laws, which was passed by the Senate on Friday. (Again with the support of 18 "we're the party of working people" Dummycrats.) Praised by it's credit-card corporation bitches as preventing "abuse" by lazy good-for-nothing deadbeats, what the bill actually does is make it significantly harder for people devastated by job loss, illness (the source of half of all personal bankruptcies, according to a recent Harvard University study), and other personal catastrophes from getting out from under crushing debt. It does it by removing the discretion from judges over whether to allow a bankruptcy to proceed under Chapter 7 - in which some of the debtor's assets are seized and distributed to creditors but any remaining debts are wiped clean - and Chapter 13 - in which a repayment plan is created to pay off the debts. With the change, anyone who meets a rudimentary means test will have to go through Chapter 13.

Who is this bill actually directed against? Why even bother asking?
[Democrats] complained that it will not keep wealthy deadbeats who declare bankruptcy in five states - Florida, Texas, Iowa, South Dakota and Kansas - from keeping multimillion-dollar houses that they have lived in for at least 40 months, while at the same time millions of less-well-off Americans will lose homes worth more than $125,000.
It also raises the fees for filing and requires anyone who does file to pay for credit counseling; a proposed amendment that would have allowed those who can't afford such counseling to get it for free was rejected, as were all other attempts to soften the bill's impact. Note that those costs become more of a burden, more of a barrier, the further down the economic scale you are.

Another proposed amendment that failed was one that would set a ceiling on consumer interest rates at the shockingly high level of 30%. Why was it rejected? Because, said Orrin Hatchetman (R-UT), it
would pre-empt state laws, including those that fix an interest rate ceiling below 30 percent. "There's no reason to touch the state usury laws," he said.
Oh, so now suddenly there is much respect for the sanctity of state laws, something not much in evidence when, a few days later, the GOPpers wanted to block states from raising the minimum wage for restaurant workers.

In addition, this is monumental crap. First, fewer than half of the states even both to cap credit card rates - and those that do often find the exercise pointless.
Two court cases effectively invalidated state usury laws, Marquette vs. First Omaha Service Corp in 1978 and Smiley vs. Citibank in 1996.

Marquette held that national banks could charge credit card customers the highest interest rate allowed in the bank's home state, as opposed to the customer's. As a result, major banks moved to states like South Dakota and Delaware, where there were no usury ceilings on rates. Because the credit card market is dominated by national issuers, what few state usury laws remain are irrelevant.

In 1996, Smiley effected the same outcome for fees which, like interest rates, used to be regulated at the state level. Late fees averaged $16 before Smiley. Now, it's $32.
(There is a reason why your credit card bills almost always come from either Delaware or South Dakota. Now you know what it is.)

And if a state tries harder to limit rates, there are always ways around it. An amendment to the Arkansas constitution caps interest rates at 5% above the federal discount rate. That was too good a deal for consumers, so in 1999 as part of the Financial Modernization Act (another good example of labeling legerdemain), Congress declared that state-chartered banks can charge interest rates equal to those charged by any other banks operating in the same state. So if, for example, Citibank, which moved its credit card operations from New York to South Dakota in 1981 to take advantage of Marquette had a branch in Arkansas, Arkansas banks could charge the same rates that Citibank does. (Note again the touching devotion to state laws.)

There's more: Russ Feingold (D-WI) says that the means test is screwed against people struggling to get loose from the stranglehold of debt.
He said someone who was making $60,000 a year, lost his or her job and couldn't find a job paying more than $30,000 would be penalized because their debt repayment plan would be based on their prior higher income.
That would remain true even though it may well have been the reduction in income that caused the debt problems in the first place. And the Arizona Republic added on Thursday that
the new law does nothing to address the aggressive marketing of credit. It also contains a loophole for wealthy debtors to shield expensive assets from the bankruptcy court. Yet another exception allows the rich to set up a trust that is protected from creditors.
The bottom line here is expressed well by Charles Grassley (R-Duh), who said
[t]he sooner we finish work in the Senate and get the bill to the House, the sooner our bankruptcy system will be focused as it should be on helping those with real need....
Precisely - so long as you realize that those with "real need" in Grassley's mind are the credit card companies, whose profits, while already at record levels, are apparently not high enough.

(Sidebar: Want to get a lot of offers for credit cards, loans for buying used cars, and so on? Go bankrupt. Since you can only file once every seven years, they know that if they get their hooks into you now - at a time you might be extra vulnerable because of need and extra tempted because you think it's a way to re-establish your credit - they can bleed you without you having any recourse. Try it. You'll be deluged with offers.)

So let's see.... We've basically cut off your access to the courts for redress against corporations that cheat, poison, injure, or discriminate against you. We've kept your wages down and made it harder for you to escape a life of debt bondage. Not a bad month's work. Anything else we can do?

Oh, I know - we can make you work longer hours.
Washington (AP, March 8) - Wal-Mart and other retailers are lobbying Congress to extend the workday for truckers to 16 hours, something labor unions and safety advocates say would make roadways more dangerous for all drivers.

Rep. John Boozman, an Arkansas Republican whose district includes Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, is sponsoring a bill that would allow a 16-hour workday as long as the trucker took an unpaid two-hour break. The proposal is expected to be offered as an amendment during debate over the highway spending bill on Wednesday.
The idea, apparently, was to enable outfits like Wal-Mart to have drivers be off the clock, "resting," while their trucks are at the loading dock so that the time there is not counted toward the 14 hours a day (including 11 hours behind the wheel) that the truckers are now allowed to work.

The news isn't all bad, though: In the fact of intense opposition from safety and labor groups, Boozman (no need to try to make a joke of that name), who insisted that his only concern was for the needs of the drivers for rest and oh no no no, Wal-Mart had nothing to do with it at all, withdrew the amendment before it came up for a vote.

I guess it occurred to enough Dims and GOPs that they share the road with truckers, 15% of who, in a survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, admitted dozing off at the wheel at least once during the preceding month.

Footnote: Maybe it's my pathetic optimism, which while severely bruised never completely disappears, but I just wonder if one small passing reference might indicate a few-degree shift in the wind. In its coverage of the bankruptcy bill's passage, AP said it
would mark a second victory for Bush this year on pro-business legislation he had sought.
Not a victory for his "agenda" or his "social policies" or even his "economic" legislation, but for his "pro-business" legislation. Now, we hear that being "anti-business" is a political sin, but that doesn't confer grace on the opposite. The phrase "pro-business" clangs on the ears of a fair number of Americans. That's why the corporate lackeys in and out of government use terms like "pro-growth" or, as in this case, "curbing abuse." At a time when a fair part of the major media is falling all over itself trying to decide if the dismantling Shrub is proposing for Social Security is based on "private accounts" or "personal accounts," the casual use of the phrase "pro-business" as opposed to any handy alternatives is worth at least noting.

Maybe the real agenda has become so obvious that even the media - which also openly acknowledged Wal-Mart being behind the push for longer hours for drivers - can't help but acknowledge it. And maybe that in turn will open a few other eyes.

Dream on....

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