Archive for the ‘Activism’ Category

For more than four decades, the landmark right-to-know law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), has given the public (and organizations like Public Citizen fighting on behalf of the public) an essential tool for prying open the veil of secrecy surrounding government activities. In the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” and FOIA is the beacon of light that’s bright enough to shine into the darkest recesses of the government.

But there are limits to the FOIA law’s reach. Nine official exemptions to the law prevent information from being released to the public concerning specific types of documents—for example classified information related to national security or information compiled for law enforcement purposes. Some of the exemptions are grossly overused; “Exemption 5,” for example, can indefinitely keep secret communications between and within agencies on issues like why one rule was enacted instead of a stronger safeguard.

From the start of his Presidency, Barak Obama has officially called for more openness by government agencies — including directing Attorney General Eric Holder to require agencies to disclose more information to the public, which Holder did in 2009. That policy, called “the presumption of openness,” directs agencies to disclose information to the public unless prohibited by law or if the agency can see a direct harm protected by one of the numbered exemptions.

But even though President Obama’s administration has a goal of being the most transparent ever, it’s imperative that his changes be reflected in the language of the FOIA law so that this presumption of openness remains in place after his adminstration.

Public Citizen and our partners in the open government community were very pleased when improvements to the FOIA law were passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives and even happier when U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a stronger bipartisan bill in the Senate. The FOIA Improvement Act (S. 2520) cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously earlier this month with more than 70 groups signing the letter of support drafted by Public Citizen and Openthegovernment.org.

Now, there are but a few short days to get this important legislation across the finish line before the end of the 113th Congress. Please let your senators know that you want to see critical improvements made to FOIA.

More can be done to increase the public’s right to know under FOIA, but S. 2520 is an excellent way to increase the amount of information “sunlight” shining on the workings of government.

Susan Harley is the deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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A new report from Demos details the dominance of individual big-money donors in the 2014 congressional elections. (Total 2014 election spending is estimated to have exceeded $3.67 billion.)

The report’s revelations are grim, but unsurprising. For instance:

Seven of every 10 individual contribution dollars to the federal candidates, parties, PACs and Super PACs that were active in the 2013-2014 election cycle came from donors who gave $200 or more.

The authors note that this statistic does not include the estimated $1 billion in spending by dark money groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, which exploit their dubious status as “social welfare” nonprofits to hide the identities of their funders.

A look at how these numbers play out in individual races is useful for illustrating just how much some candidates depend on funds from the wealthy. The report notes that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the onetime candidate for vice president and future chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, reported receiving more than $5 million from large donors – and nothing (actually, negative $360) from small donors. (How’s that for “makers” versus “takers”?)

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pnc-deliveryToday I delivered a petition signed by more than 67,000 consumers and activists to PNC Financial’s headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pa.

The petition calls on PNC to remove the forced arbitration clause from its customer terms. A member of PNC’s senior legal staff accepted the petition on behalf of the bank.

Forced arbitration clauses, buried in the fine print, prevent consumers who have been harmed or ripped off from holding their banks accountable in court and instead force them to plead their cases to private arbitration providers, picked by the banks. The result is that consumers cannot practically or fairly resolve disputes with these powerful financial institutions.

The petition, organized by national consumer and citizen groups including Public Citizen, Consumer Action, The Other 98%, Alliance for Justice, American Association for Justice, Americans for Financial Reform and National Association of Consumer Advocates, targeted the five biggest banks that use forced arbitration clauses: PNC, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and US Bancorp. (Read the press release.)

Joining me in Pittsburgh for the petition delivery were local activists Kristen Hochreiter, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, and Dawn Marie Smith, a student at Carlow University.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, Consumer Action delivered the same list of petition signers to the Wells Fargo bank headquarters. And coincidentally, 16 state attorneys general urged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to restrict bank use of forced arbitration.

These deliveries were the first of several actions planned to target these five big banks and urge them to remove the fine print that prevents customers from having their day in court if the banks rip them off.

To join this ongoing effort, add your name to the petition to make sure it’s included in the next round of deliveries.

Rick Claypool is the online director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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Now that the election and its tidal wave of dark money spending has passed, hopefully Congress will get to the process of governing. Granted, forging bipartisan alliances will be even more important as we usher in a new Congress, but holding Wall Street accountable for the financial crisis and reining in high speed trading is something leaders on both sides of the aisle should be able to get behind.

That’s why this fall Public Citizen and a diverse coalition of consumer, labor and economic policy groups hosted a congressional briefing outlining the benefits of a Wall Street Tax (sometimes called a Financial Transaction Tax or Robin Hood Tax) and explaining the great progress that’s taking place in Europe on this issue. But we’ve yet to gain even one Republican co-sponsor to this commonsense policy.

People — individual voices of constituents — are one of the best ways to get the attention of reluctant congressmembers. That’s where you come in. Public Citizen supporters like you have achieved some huge victories and reach very important milestones and we are calling on you to help us win another fight against Wall Street.

If you haven’t already done so, please send an email to your lawmaker in support of the tiny Wall Street Tax (three cents for every $100 traded) that would raise over $352 billion in less than a decade. Then take the next steps to help us win a Wall Street Tax: Watch and share the video below and share the image of Public Citizen President Robert Weissman calling for a Wall Street Tax.

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Today is Veterans Day.

Politicians are making speeches honoring the sacrifices made by servicemen and servicewomen. But being ripped off by predatory lenders — many of whom prey specifically on residents of military bases — should NOT be among our veterans’ sacrifices.

The Department of Defense has the authority to rein in the unpatriotic predators who gouge service members. Please join Public Citizen in urging the DoD to support the troops by cracking down on corporate predators.

Service members are targeted by “payday” lenders because military rules require them to maintain good finances, but the realities of service — such as sudden relocations to different parts of the country — often result in unanticipated expenses.

Meanwhile, forced arbitration clauses buried in the fine print of the terms for these high-interest (as in 500 percent) loans mean that our troops are denied their right to a day in court.

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