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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Comments are due one week from today on the EPA’s proposal to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants, the Clean Power Plan. I’m writing a series of blog posts to share some of what will go in our comments to the agency. We’ll start with an issue most people aren’t talking about: Switching from coal to natural gas, a major element of the EPA plan, is a colossal waste of money because we’ll need to switch from natural gas to renewables soon anyway. In its proposal, the EPA ignores this hidden cost of natural gas.

One of the main ways EPA envisions curbing carbon emissions is by replacing coal-fired electricity plants with ones that burn natural gas. The proposal relies heavily on this strategy, so much that it would spur a good deal of additional natural gas extraction, including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” That’s a great reason not to rely on natural gas to solve our climate problem. We shouldn’t have to create a new set of environmental disasters to stop climate change – and we don’t.

There are two other major problems with EPA’s plan to increase the use of natural gas. The first, which is getting a lot of attention, is that switching from coal to natural gas may have little to no climate benefit. Natural gas releases a good deal of methane throughout its life cycle, and methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. On a twenty-year time horizon, it is 87 times as climate-disrupting as carbon. In 100 years, it’s 36 times more potent. As Joe Romm put it over at ClimateProgress, “by the time natural gas has a net benefit you’ll likely be dead and the climate ruined.”

Even setting aside the methane issue, burning natural gas also emits carbon – less carbon than burning coal, to be sure, but that’s not good enough. We don’t just need to reduce carbon emissions. According to the International Energy Agency’s most recent analysis, we should cut them to zero by 2040. What’s the point of switching to natural gas between now and 2030, the end date of the EPA’s proposed rule, if we’ll need to phase out natural gas by 2040? Why not just skip straight to renewables? We’re making these points in our comments – without the rhetorical questions, at least in the current draft – as are many other groups.

Here’s the second, less recognized point, which stems from our consumer perspective. These changes cost a significant amount of money, much of which will ultimately be paid by consumers through electricity bills (or through higher prices for goods and services from companies who paid the costs on their electricity bills). Overall, the Plan will save consumers money because it includes efficiency measures that will reduce electricity use, but it could be even better. Switching twice rather than once – from coal to natural gas, then natural gas – needlessly compounds the cost of responding to climate change. The EPA’s proposal ignores the additional costs of this double-switch. In essence, we’re telling the agency that it needs to use a more comprehensive, more accurate accounting of the cost of natural gas. The real cost is the price of switching from coal to natural gas, which is expensive in its own right, plus the cost of switching to renewables almost immediately thereafter.

Relying on natural gas to reduce carbon emissions just doesn’t make sense. Not only is the climate benefit of natural gas doubtful; it’s exorbitantly expensive compared to improving energy efficiency and switching directly to generating electricity sustainably from renewable sources.

 

By J. Thomas

November 15 marked the start of the open enrollment period for the nation’s health law which means millions of Americans once again have the opportunity to purchase private health plans on the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) health insurance marketplaces.

An op-ed in Salon by Public Citizen’s health care advocate, Vijay Das, reveals a glitch in the ACA that adds barriers to coverage for working families. The ACA’s “family glitch” is a drafting error with big effects. As it stands, employers must offer affordable coverage to their employees – but not their employees’ families. So, if an individual plan is “affordable” (i.e., it costs less than 9.5% of what the employee earns), the employee is ineligible for subsidies, even if the cost of family coverage is exorbitant and unaffordable.

Even worse, the ones who are most affected tend to be children from low income households– 460,000 of them, according to the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office. Meanwhile, parents are faced with a difficult choice – maintain their own too costly family insurance or drop it and enroll their kids in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). One more hitch during this post-election “lame-duck” Congress: CHIP expires next October. Nobody knows if Congress will reauthorize it by the end of year, and, if so, at what level the program will be funded.

The family glitch points to a larger problem in American health care. The U.S. stands as the only wealthy nation in the world with uninsured kids and no universal health care. The civil rights movement expanded rights on many fronts: for LGBT individuals, environmental protections and international human rights, to name a few. But when it comes to children’s health, our nation remains far behind the curve. The concept of “American exceptionalism” was meant to symbolize hopes and dreams, not sick kids.

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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.

Bankers committed massive fraud leading to the financial crash of 2008, which then caused cataclysmic job loss, foreclosures and more than a $12 trillion drain on the economy. Where were the law enforcers? Bankers captured them, metaphorically.

More than 10,000 member of Public Citizen petitioned Congress to hold hearings on regulatory capture following the September release of tapes made by a regulator named Carmen Segarra. She resisted following the instructions of apparently captured regulators who were her supervisors, and was fired for it. On Nov. 21, a Senate banking subcommittee will open those hearings. New York Federal Reserve Bank President William Dudley will testify. Segarra worked as an examiner for his agency.

Here are a few questions

Q. According to Carmen Segarra, she was fired for trying to do her job. She was told to tone down her criticism of banks, but declined. How many examiners are terminated each year by the New York Fed? Former counsel to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Bart Dzivi said Dianne Dobbeck, one of the most senior supervisors at the New York Fed, is “completely the wrong type” of person for the job. Is an examiner ever terminated for failing to detect a problem with a bank early enough? Does the New York Fed have a system to reward diligent examiners?

Q. The Segarra tapes cover an 8 month period three years after the crisis. If the crisis itself constituted a “teachable moment,” then must we assume that the problem of regulatory capture is only getting worse?

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