Archive for the ‘Congress’ Category

Public Citizen members and supporters like YOU are making a real difference in helping grow the momentum around the call for a tax on Wall Street transactions.

Last month, we joined in the Million Strong petition push as part of a worldwide action to make sure the eleven European nations that are negotiating a collaborative financial transaction tax stay strong and come out with a good proposal.

Here in the states, the campaign to achieve a tax on Wall Street trades captured an important win when the media last week began asking candidates if they will stand with Main Street or Wall Street when it comes to tamping down high-speed trading and market speculation by instituting a tiny fee on stock, bond, and derivative trades.

And, just last week, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) got a ton of much-deserved press for his proposal to fund free public college tuition by instituting a Wall Street speculation fee. At the same time, Sen. Sanders also introduced a Senate companion bill to U.S. Rep. Ellison’s Inclusive Prosperity Act, the first time the bill has been offered in that chamber. It’s clear that Sen. Sanders’ proposal will do a lot to push the public debate leading up to the 2016 elections toward looking at solutions like a Wall Street tax.

In addition to creating hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue, a tiny tax on trades on financial products could make a huge difference in taming Wall Street’s volatility.

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By Emily Myers

On April 22, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va) introduced H.R. 1927, a bill that would severely limit the ability of citizens who have been harmed or ripped off to band together in a class-action lawsuit. The bill stipulates that in order to be certified as a class, each individual member must prove they have suffered an injury identical in type and extent to the proposed class representative(s). This would create unnecessary red tape for people who have suffered harm at the hands of corporations and institutions and effectively ban them from forming class actions. Historically, class actions have been an efficient and economical way for consumers and citizens to reconcile their disputes with employers and companies. Below are five of the most important class-action lawsuits that would have been threatened by Rep. Goodlatte’s bill.

Anderson v. Pacific Gas & Electric Company

Immortalized in the film Erin Brockovich, Anderson v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. allowed the residents of Hinkley, California, to be compensated for the medical costs of PG&E’s negligence. PG&E had been knowingly dumping hexavalent chromium, a recognized poison since 1925, into the town’s groundwater. In 1996, the lawsuit was settled for $333 million, the largest civil action settlement at the time. This case would have been virtually impossible to win had the residents of Hinkley been prohibited from banding together. Unless we want to encourage corporations to freely pump carcinogens through our water, we need to protect the right to class-action lawsuits and oppose Rep. Goodlatte’s bill.

Brown v. Board of Education

A class-action lawsuit was behind one of the most important civil rights cases of all times, ensuring that the quality of one’s education would no longer be decided by the color of one’s skin. After the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, decided to maintain its racially segregated elementary school system, African-American children of elementary school age brought a class action lawsuit challenging the system in a federal court in Kansas. The case ultimately was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court together with similar class actions filed on behalf of children in South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. Those fighting for social justice argued that “separate but equal” was a myth because as long as black and white schools remained segregated they would never be equal. On May 17, 1954, The court agreed, and a major milestone in the civil rights movement was reached. If we want to keep moving our society forward to achieve better civil rights protections, we cannot restrict class-action lawsuits.

Anderson et al., v. Cryovac Inc. et al.

You may know this case from the John Travolta movie, A Civil Action, but outside the world of cinema, it had major impact on the lives of Woburn, Massachusetts, residents. The named plaintiff, Anne Anderson, and six other Woburn families sued Beatrice Foods, the John L. Riley Tannery, and W.R. Grace & Company, a New York company that owned and operated the Cryovac Division manufacturing plant, for polluting the town’s drinking water with trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene and other toxic chemicals. Woburn families had suffered immensely at the hands of these companies’ actions. In addition to health problems like skin rashes, vision difficulties, miscarriages and headaches, 12 Woburn children, eight of them living within a half-mile radius, had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. The plaintiff class ultimately was rewarded a settlement of approximately $8 million. The expense of proving companies are responsible for causing an illness is very high since experts are required to help draw the connection to who caused the harm. It’s only efficient to bring such cases as class actions, where multiple persons have suffered some harm caused by the same entity or entities. The fact is, a class action was the best hope for Woburn families, as it is for many people.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Litigation

In March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. Until the BP Oil spill in 2010, the Exxon Valdez spill was considered to be the worst environmental disaster in the United States. In addition to the appalling environmental degradation, the livelihoods of local people plummeted as a result of the spill. A class action was filed on behalf of 32,000 fishermen, Alaska natives, landowners, and others. U.S. District Court Judge H. Russell Holland stated that, “Exxon officials knew that carrying huge volumes of crude oil through Prince William Sound was a dangerous business, yet they knowingly permitted a relapsed alcoholic to direct the operation of the Exxon Valdez through Prince William Sound.” After years of appeals and renegotiations, the plaintiff class was awarded $1.515 billion. The negligence of Exxon Mobil leading up to the spill was staggering, and the harm the corporation did needed to be reconciled. Rep. Goodlatte’s bill would prevent people affected by corporate wrongdoing from banding together and seeking justice, as those harmed by the Exxon Valdez spill did.

Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company

Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., depicted in the film North Country, was the first sexual harassment class-action lawsuit. Filed on behalf of Lois E. Jenson and 14 other female workers in the EVTAC mine in Eveleth, Minnesota, in 1988, the conclusion of the case changed worker protection laws on both the state and federal levels and set a precedent for other class actions aiming to end workplace harassment and discrimination. The women involved in the class-action lawsuit were subjected to extreme harassment in the form of stalking, abusive language, threats and intimidation. Since 1984, Lois E. Jenson had repeatedly tried to bring attention to the problem but was met with additional hostile behavior and eventual dismissal. A class-action suit allowed her and 14 other women to be compensated for the traumatizing harassment they endured. In 1994, the case ended with an out-of-court settlement after years of delay by the judges and jury. The 15 women received a monetary settlement from the EVTAC mine of $3.5 million. It’s extremely important that we keep Rep. Goodlatte from turning back the clock on women’s ability to challenge harmful behavior in the workplace like sexual harassment.

Emily Myers is an intern with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division

By Robert Craycraft

Asbestos was once used as a flame-retardant and for electrical insulation in buildings, ships and homes. Before it was discovered to cause cancer, millions of American workers and veterans handled and were otherwise exposed to deadly asbestos fibers.

An unknown amount of the hazardous material is still present in our communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that roughly 3,000 people continue to die from mesothelioma and asbestosis every year; some experts estimate the death toll is as high as 10,000 annually when other types of asbestos-linked diseases and cancers are included.

In early February, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial, and Antitrust Law held a hearing on H.R. 526, the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act (or FACT Act). Generally speaking, the more transparency the better. However, in this case, the asbestos industry is using the guise of “transparency” to push the FACT Act as a way to delay compensation to asbestos victims and their families. The bill would require the trusts that manage victim compensation to retroactively compile information on all claims they’ve paid and to require the trusts to answer any and all information requests by asbestos company defendants.

These paperwork requirements could have the effect of slowing or even stopping the important work of the trusts to compensate victims that have developed deadly diseases like mesothelioma due to exposure to asbestos. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) called the FACT Act a “Trojan horse” which “guarantees that the insurance companies pay as little as possible.”

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The congressional leaders who negotiated $1.1 trillion federal spending bill – dubbed the “CRomnibus” – must not have known they were in for a fight.

But when Public Citizen and other public interest allies got hold of the 1,600-page bill and saw that it contained a bevy of atrocious policy riders that had nothing to do with funding the government, the fight was coming.

The take-it-or-leave-it budget – including the poison pill provisions that Public Citizen opposed – did ultimately pass. The fight for its passage is instructive for how public interest advocates can wield power in the coming years, even as majorities in Congress seem determined to deliver a return on Corporate America’s Citizens United-enabled election investments.

The worst that could have happened would have been if the giveaways to corporations and the super rich had been accepted without a fight.

Thankfully, that’s not what happened.

We called on grassroots activists like you to act – to email and call your members of Congress – and you acted.

Tens of thousands of outraged citizens made it known that they would not accept a budget bill that allows millionaires and billionaires to have more influence in our elections and that puts taxpayers on the hook for Wall Street’s recklessness.

And then – hearing the outrage of tens of thousands of constituents across the country – principled members of Congress (of both major parties) fought the bipartisan backroom deal.

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We’ve just seen the worst that Washington has to offer with the “cromnibus” government spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last night.

Instead of Congress passing a clean funding bill along lines that were previously agreed to and had bipartisan acceptance, Big Business exercised its insider influence and took advantage of an artificially rushed and secretive process to cut deals to enhance the political influence of the super-rich, put taxpayers on the hook – again – for Wall Street recklessness and make our roads less safe.

Moneyed interests maneuvered to eviscerate campaign spending rules, so that a super-rich couple may now contribute up to $3 million to a national political party in a single (two-year) election cycle. It’s a certainty that this move will be followed up by calls to “level the playing field” and permit the same monstrous contributions to candidates and political committees.

Wall Street called on its friends to include a Citigroup-drafted provision that would roll back a key Dodd-Frank measure that was designed to prevent Big Banks from using taxpayer-insured money to bet in the derivatives markets. With the top four banks responsible for 93 percent of derivatives activities in the United States, there is zero question about which entities will benefit. Nor who will pay; when the next financial crisis comes – as it will, as certainly as the calendar changes – taxpayers will be forced to pay for Wall Street gambling on derivatives.

At the behest of the trucking industry, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins included in the spending bill a provision to override rules to reduce truck driver fatigue, which risks the lives of truckers and other drivers.

These are only some of the known giveaways in the spending bill. It will probably take many weeks, or longer, before all of the industry deals are discovered.

As serious and troubling as are these measures, there is reason to fear worse is to come. Even though it opposed many of these harmful provisions, the White House pushed for approval of the overall spending deal, which had to overcome substantial opposition from members of Congress in both parties. If this is the kind of “bipartisanship” we’re going to see in the coming two years, the country is facing dire prospects indeed.

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