Why Environmental Groups Are Urging Congress to Vote Against Trump’s North American Trade Deal

Originally published in In These Times on December 16, 2019.
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While Congressional Democrats made clear that they would not bring the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) to a vote until it had the backing of the AFL-CIO, support they finally secured last week, Democrats appear comfortable voting on the replacement trade deal that has virtually no support from leading environmental groups.

A House vote could come in the next few days and on Friday December 13, ten environmental organizations, representing 12 million members, sent a letter urging Congressional representatives to vote against the proposed deal, which will replace the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

“This final deal poses very real threats to our climate and communities and ignores nearly all of the fundamental environmental fixes consistently outlined by the environmental community,” the letter stated. The groups—which include the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and 350.org—noted that “the deal does not even mention climate change, fails to adequately address toxic pollution, includes weak environmental standards and an even weaker enforcement mechanism, supports fossil fuels, and allows oil and gas corporations to challenge climate and environmental protections.” The groups link to a two-page analysis produced by the Sierra Club that goes into greater detail about what the group sees as the deal’s environmental shortcomings.

House Democrats, meanwhile, have been touting the environmental provisions negotiated in USMCA, insisting they’re both strong and the best they could have feasibly achieved.

According to the environmental news organization E&E News, at a Politico event last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the USMCA as “substantially better” than NAFTA and said “we are very pleased with the environment [provisions].” While she conceded “we want more,” she stressed, “but we don’t have to do it all in that bill” and praised it for “talk[ing] about the environment in a very strong way.”

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), who co-led the House working group focused on environmental trade issues, told reporters at a press conference last week that “this is going to be the best trade agreement for the environment” and cheered its monitoring and enforcement provisions. Rep. Bonamici did not return In These Times’s request for comment.

Back in May, every Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), sent a letter to President Trump criticizing the draft agreement for its language around the environment, including its lack of “any apparent provisions directed at mitigating the effects of climate change.” Now the Committee is championing its work to shape the final text, saying the “revised version will serve as a model for future U.S. trade agreements.”

Having so many members of Congress support this agreement is especially frustrating for climate advocates because, in September, more than 110 House Democrats, including 18 full committee chairs, sent a letter to the president urging the new trade deal to “meaningfully address climate change” and to “include binding climate standards and be paired with a decision for the United States to remain in the Paris Climate Agreement.”

“While Democrats claim this deal improves on some environmental provisions, they have yet to explain how it meaningfully addresses climate change,” said Jake Schmidt, the managing director for the International Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Climate advocates point to the growing problem of “outsourced” pollution—where wealthier countries like the United States and Japan take credit for improving their own domestic environmental standards, while then importing more goods from heavy-polluting countries. Critics say the current draft of USMCA does nothing meaningful to address this problem.

The trade agreement is being hailed for rolling back the Investor-State Dispute Settlement, controversial private tribunals that have enabled corporations to extract huge payments for government policies that may infringe on their profits. But Ben Beachy, a trade expert with the Sierra Club, says the agreement includes a major loophole for Mexico, where oil and gas companies will still be able to sue in those private tribunals.

“The approach the NAFTA 2.0 deal takes is recognizing there’s a problem but then allowing some of the worst offenders to perpetuate it,” he told In These Times. “It’s an unabashed handout to Exxon and Chevron: It’s like saying we’ll protect the hen house by keeping all animals out, except for foxes.”

Beachy says the deal overall “dramatically undercuts” the ability of the U.S. to tackle the climate crisis. “By failing to even mention climate change, it’ll help more corporations move to Mexico, and this is not a hypothetical concern,” he said. “We cannot simultaneously claim to fight climate change on one hand and enact climate-denying trade deals on the other. Do we really want to lock ourselves into a trade deal for another 25 years that encourages corporations to shift their pollution from one country to another?”

Karen Hansen-Kuhn, the program director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, told In These Times the final agreement represents an even worse situation for farmers than under NAFTA. “On food and farm issues it’s definitely several steps back,” she said, pointing as an example to how USMCA will make it easier for companies to limit the information they provide to consumers about health and nutrition.

Emily Samsel, a spokesperson with the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), told In These Times that her organization informed members of Congress “that [they] are strongly considering scoring their USMCA vote when it comes to the House floor on LCV’s Congressional scorecard.” LCV was one of the ten environmental groups to sign the letter opposing the trade deal last week.

USMCA does include language requiring parties to adopt and implement seven multilateral environmental agreements, but the 2015 Paris Agreement is not among them. Getting the president to agree to putting anything about climate change or the Paris Agreement was always going to be a tough sell, considering Trump has promised to withdraw from the landmark climate pact. Still, environmental advocates insist House Democrats have real leverage that they should use more aggressively, particularly since getting the trade deal through Congress is Trump’s top legislative priority for 2019.

Democratic supporters of USMCA say the existing language is good enough for now, and that it will position the government well for when Trump is out of office. A spokesperson for Nancy Pelosi told The Washington Post that “the changes Democrats secured in USMCA put us on a firm footing for action when we have a President who brings us back into the Paris accord.” Earlier this year 228 House Democrats voted for a bill to keep the U.S. in the Paris Agreement.

U.S. labor groups have thus far remained mostly silent on the concerns raised by environmental organizations.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which opposes the deal on labor grounds, did not return request for comment on the USMCA’s environmental provisions. The Communications Workers of America released a statement on Friday saying the deal includes some “modest improvements” for workers over NAFTA, but a spokesperson for the union told In These Times, “We don’t have any comment on the environmental provisions.” The BlueGreen Alliance, a national coalition which includes eight large labor unions and six influential environmental groups, has issued no statement on the trade deal, and did not return request for comment.

And the AFL-CIO issued a statement last week praising the deal, though noted “it alone is not a solution for outsourcing, inequality or climate change.” A spokesperson for the labor federation did not return request for comment.

Goodbye Public Housing?

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 12, 2015.
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In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program—a far-reaching effort to preserve the government’s affordable units by transferring them into the private sector. Rather than have Congress directly fund local housing authorities to support the program, RAD allows private companies to rehab and manage public housing units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. The contracts, which are set to continually renew every 15-20 years, require developers to keep units affordable for low-income tenants.

While Congress initially authorized just 65,000 units to be transferred—roughly five percent of the nation’s 1.2 million public housing stock—it later upped the RAD cap to 185,000 units, under pressure from the Obama administration and a coalition of public housing authorities, real estate developers, and other stakeholders. In August 2014, I took a deep look at the RAD program, and explored the concerns that tenants and housing advocates shared about its risks.

Last week I spoke with Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at The New School, who has been researching some preliminary RAD data. He presented his unpublished findings at the International Sociological Association RC43 Conference this past September.

One key assumption behind RAD is that public housing was never that politically popular to begin with, and that it’s unlikely it’ll become more popular in the near future. Due to its low level of political support, (despite residents who live there being relatively satisfied), Congress has financially starved the program for decades; HUD estimates that nearly $30 billion would be required to repair and rehab the units at this point. And the longer it takes to make such repairs, the more unsafe and uninhabitable the units will become. Each year, roughly 10,000 units are permanently removed from the public housing program, through demolition or dispositions.

Through RAD, public housing units are “converted” into Project-Based Section 8 rentals, thereby becoming eligible for debt financing, tax credits, and other private funding sources that can be used to help cover rehab and maintenance costs.

While Congress has decreased federal funding for public housing over the past two decades, it has increased funding for project-based rental assistance during this time. Between fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2015, appropriations for project-based rental assistance increased by 82 percent, and appropriations for public housing’s Capital Fund decreased by 27 percent.

In other words, by transferring the affordable units out of the public housing program into one that has received more political and financial support, RAD proponents feel they will be better able to preserve the physical units over the long haul, even if they become less “public” as a result.

In his paper, Schwartz explains that:

Historically, because project-based rental assistance is largely used to support low-income properties with subsidy contracts involving private owners, Congress has been reluctant to undermine these contracts by failing to appropriate adequate sums for the program. If appropriations for project-based rental assistance falls short of the need required by the subsidy contracts, the properties would be at risk of foreclosure. At times Congress has delayed its appropriations for this program, and sometimes it has provided funding for less than a full year, but it has seldom cut back support for project-based rental assistance by a substantial amount.

The biggest takeaway, for me, is that there’s a great possibility that public housing will ultimately end in the United States. While RAD is often framed as a way to “save public housing”—that’s not quite accurate. RAD is designed to help fund much-needed capital repairs, and provide financing options to keep the units habitable and affordable in the future. But the only way it works is by transferring the properties out of the public housing program, and into the Project-Based Section 8 world.

Schwartz thinks there are some units that are in such bad shape, located mostly in high-poverty neighborhoods, that not even tax credits, mortgage financing, and other RAD funding streams will be sufficient to attract private developers to fix them up. In light of this, the Obama administration requested that Congress appropriate $10 million to the RAD program, to help repair those units with particularly challenging needs. But Congress was adamant that RAD remain a “revenue-neutral” program, and refused to do so.

What this means is that if RAD expands, which it likely will, then we’ll see most affordable units transferred out of the public housing program, and those that remain will be the ones in the most abysmal shape.

“If people had a bad image of public housing before, it’ll just get even worse,” said Schwartz in an interview. “It’s analogous to the health insurance pool—where all the healthy people leave, and then you’re just left with just those who have the most expensive health needs.” Ultimately Schwartz thinks that whatever properties remain in the program will be left to decay until they are eventually demolished once and for all.

How to Sabotage Iran Negotiations in the Name of Avoiding War

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 4th, 2015.
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As multilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear program continue with the U.S. leading the negotiations, Congress seems to be doing its best to complicate things. And both Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are doing their part to help.

Earlier this week, as 16,000 people convened in Washington, D.C., to attend AIPAC’s annual conference, the powerful pro-Israel lobby made it clear that the organization would push not only for increased sanctions on Iran—through the passage of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act—but also for the ability to make it more difficult to lift sanctions later, via a new bill, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

This latest bill, introduced on Friday by Republican Senator Bob Corker and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, would give Congress a 60-day period to review any negotiated nuclear deal, and if Congress were to reject the deal, then the president would be barred from lifting sanctions.

Josh Rogin reported in Bloomberg View that top members of the Obama administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry, pressured Democrats to oppose the Corker-Menendez bill, lest it complicate the already fragile negotiations with Iran. Nevertheless, some Senate Democrats signed on, because there is, as Rogin puts it, “broad Congressional desire not to be totally shut out of the [negotiating] process.”

AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

After AIPAC’s annual conference, it is evident that the pro-Israel lobby plans to capitalize on this congressional “desire” and to escalate its fight with the White House. While the Obama administration and AIPAC both declare that a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option, AIPAC and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have set a considerably higher bar for what a “good deal” with Iran would look like.

For AIPAC and Netanyahu, a “good deal” would mean allowing for zero enrichment of uranium for any purposes—a non-starter for the Iranians. They also seek a “permanent” deal that locks Iran under restrictions indefinitely. But as Lara Friedman, from the pro-Israel policy organization Americans for Peace Now, has explained:

Iran is in trouble right now because it has repeatedly violated the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), resulting in sanctions. Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are grounded in the understanding that by demonstrating compliance with all of its NPT obligations, Iran will no longer be in violation of the NPT and Iran’s tenure in the international doghouse—at least with respect to its nuclear program—can come to a close (at least so long as Iran remains in compliance). An Iran nuclear agreement—whether its provisions are in place for 10 years, or 15 years, or however many years are agreed on—would dramatically mitigate the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Just like the “zero enrichment” idea, Iran would never be able to sell a “permanent” deal to its people. The six world powers leading the diplomatic efforts with Iran (Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, and the U.S.) understand this and are working to come up with a reasonable compromise that still ensures Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon. If AIPAC and Netanyahu are serious about pursuing a diplomatic resolution to this conflict—and avoiding war—then their adamant opposition to both of these ideas raises serious questions.

At the AIPAC conference, speakers spelled out how they could use Congress to thwart the president from passing a deal they deem “bad.” On the gigantic screens in the convention center’s large plenary hall, AIPAC instructed attendees to “insist on a congressional role” when they lobby on Capitol Hill, because “on such a critical issue to U.S. national security, Congress must assert its historic role in foreign policy and review any agreement.”

Passing the Corker-Menendez bill might be an easier sell in Congress than imposing additional sanctions, because it is easier to argue that Congress should have “a voice” in the negotiating process. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday night that he wants to fast-track the bill, which might complicate its ability to garner enough Democratic support in time. Menendez has threatened to vote against his own bill, “outraged” at McConnell’s political move.

Edward Levine, an advisory board member for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to international peace and security, argues that the bill is more harmful than helpful:

Do [Senators] really want to send a message to Tehran that the President may be unable to fulfill his commitments? Do they really want to move the goalposts by adding support for terrorism to the list of reasons for reinstating sanctions? The Corker bill will endanger both the negotiations and the sanctions regime; it does not merit support.

AIPAC is also trying to bolster Congress’s role in the negotiations by minimizing the fact that there has always been significant presidential authority built into U.S. sanctions legislation. The authority comes through various mechanisms, such as “waivers,” special rules, and legislative exemptions, which allow a president to decide, often unilaterally, whether and to what degree to lift or implement sanctions. He can make these choices if he believes doing so is in the national security interest of the United States.

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, AIPAC’s legions of supporters pressured Congress to impose more sanctions and to reduce the executive branch’s power to lift sanctions. Let’s just hope that the Iranians do not take this as a signal that the negotiators’ commitment to ease sanctions in exchange for good behavior is feeble. Because if the negotiations fail, the war that everyone is trying to avoid is that much more likely.

Congress Seeks To Strip Waiver From Law On Moving Israel Embassy

Originally published in the Daily Beast on June 10, 2013.

Last week, President Obama granted a six month extension to a waiver on the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, a law mandating the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For almost a decade, events around the propsed move have been repeating themselves endlessly like a broken record. It has become an uneventful, unchanging story—one that reflects the peace process it arguably aims to protect.

And yet, given settlement growth, recent timetables set by Secretary of State John Kerry and renewed efforts in Congress to circumvent the anticipated Presidential waivers (more on that in a bit), it seems naive to assume that these political maneuvers could go on forever.

When Congress passed The Jerusalem Embassy Act on October 23, 1995, it called to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999. The law also notably called for Jerusalem to remain an “undivided city” and for the U.S. to recognize it as Israel’s capital. This law sailed through Congress with wide margins, passing the Senate 93 to 5 and the House 374 to 37.

So what happened? Despite the vast majority of presidential candidates on the campaign trail, both Republican and Democrat, promising to move the embassy and to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, once elected into power, they all wisely avoided making their words into deeds. This is not because they were incapable, but because they recognized that the U.S. Congress should not make decisions regarding final status issues outside of bilateral peace negotiations, let alone for such a decision to be one that no other country in the world would accept or recognize.

Every President since 1995 has used the Presidential waiver, arguing that it breaches the executive branch’s constitutional authority over foreign policy. They understand that such a move would shrink the United States’ already thin credibility in the Middle East.

In the words of Jerusalem expert, Danny Seidemann, “Many recite the Jerusalem-The-Undivided-Capital-Of-Israel mantra because doing so is electorally expeditious, and inconsequential. But moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem outside of the context of a permanent status agreement would be HUGELY consequential. It would drive the U.S. into abject, unprecedented isolation, put it on a collision course with much of the rest of the world, and not contribute one bit to ‘uniting Jerusalem.’”

Some in Congress are looking to push back against the waiver power. In January, Representative Scott Garrett (R-NJ) authored a new bill: The Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2013. While the likelihood of such a bill passing in the near future is extremely low, it would seem that as statements from John Kerry increase about various shrinking timetables for already tenuous peace prospects, the Obama Administration’s need to define its policy moving forward on Israel and Palestine will become more pressing. 

These policy shifts could have an impact on the enactment of the Jerusalem Embassy Act.One notable difference between the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 and the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act of 2013 is the attempt to remove the executive waiver authority granted by Section 7 of the law. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) introduced a similar piece of legislation in the Senate, which also strikes the section allowing for the use of the Presidential waiver.

Garrett’s House bill has 23 co-sponsors right now, picking up its latest this past Monday with Representative Gene Green (D-TX). 19 Republicans and four Democrats represent the makeup of the House bill’s co-sponsors. Heller’s Senate version currently has a mere five co-sponsors, all Republican.

It is good news that Obama extended the Presidential waiver on the Jerusalem Embassy Act. Responsible leaders have recognized that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would be a mistake. Given the changing factors in the region, the question is how much longer will the United States be able to waive the law in the name of holding out for direct bilateral peace negotiations?

We’ve just passed the 46th anniversary of the Six Day War, whereby Israel took control of East Jerusalem, among other territories. If there is ever to be a two-state solution, then the Palestinian capital will be there. President Obama rightly passed another six month waiver this time. With the peace process in a shambles and Congress seeking to remove the presidential waiver, it would be a mistake to get complacent, and assume that this can go on forever.

Measure to Limit Solitary Confinement Advances in Senate Immigration Bill

Originally published in Solitary Watch on May 29, 2013.

The immigration reform bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week includes an amendment that would curtail the use of solitary confinement on immigrant detainees. While the measure’s reach is limited, its passage by the Committee nonetheless represents a significant step for human rights activists working to help shape the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, which will be debated by the full Senate in June.

The amendment, Blumenthal 2, was drafted by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). It sets limits on the use of solitary confinement for adults–in most cases, 15 days–and bans it for all children under 18 years old. The measure also explicitly prohibits the use of solitary confinement to “protect” detainees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

While the amendment does make it more difficult, it falls short of banning solitary confinement for detainees with mental illness. Detention centers that opt to isolate mentally ill individuals are required to have a medical professional visit with the immigrant at least three times each week as well as weekly visits by a mental health clinician for regular evaluations.

Lastly, the amendment has an oversight component so that detention facilities must submit both the reason for and the duration of all solitary confinement sentences to Congress annually for review.

The Senate’s attention to solitary confinement is relatively historic. Last June the first-ever congressional hearing, led by Richard Durbin (D-IL) was held to discuss the legal, economic and psychological costs of solitary confinement. While a host of local groups have cropped up to fight solitary confinement on the state level, Congress has largely avoided the issue.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national organizations, sent a letter in support of Blumenthal 2 to Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively. The letter said, “The amendment balances the operational needs of facilities that hold immigration detainees with basic respect for the health and human rights of detainees subject to solitary confinement.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also gave vocal support to the passage of the amendment and said, “The adoption of the amendment takes positive steps forward in fixing a serious injustice the extent of which has only recently come to light.”

Due to increased enforcement measures put in place by the Obama administration, the immigration detention population has dramatically increased. There are 85 percent more immigrants detained today than there were in 2005, and these detentions are usually indefinite sentences. Individuals are held, often for months at a time, until either they voluntarily sign deportation documents or until immigration authorities decide whether to deport the immigrants or let them stay.

Observers argue that while placing U.S. prisoners in solitary confinement is problematic, placing alledgedly undocumented immigrants in solitary confinement is even worse because these individuals are not even serving criminal sentences, but are simply waiting for civil deportation hearings. Beyond that, critics argue that solitary confinement hurts detainees’ ability to fight their cases due to highly restricted access to telephones and other means of communication.

In March, Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano said that she believes “solitary confinement should be the exception, not the rule.” She asked federal immigration officials to report back with greater detail about the usage and implementation of solitary confinement in federal facilities.

March 2013 article by the New York Times and The Investigative Reporting Workshop found that on any given day, U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials hold approximately 300 immigrants in solitary confinement at the 50 largest detention facilities across the country. Their research showed that nearly 50 percent of these individuals are kept in solitary confinement for 15 days or more–a point that psychiatric experts say detainees are at risk for severe mental harm. The study found that about 35 detainees are kept for more than 75 days.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on immigration, responded to the report by sending a letter to John Morton, director of ICE urging him to change their use of solitary confinement. “This report suggests an overreliance by the ICE on the harshest forms of incarceration,” Schumer wrote.

In 2012, the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center and Physicians for Human Rights, surveyed conditions in many detention centers and county jails that work in conjunction with the ICE. This was the first comprehensive study on the effects of solitary confinement on immigration detainees. The research showed that solitary confinement is often arbitrarily and punitively applied, inadequately monitored and damaging to detainees’ health; investigators also found that most immigrants are denied any meaningful avenues of appeal. Additionally, they found that ICE failed to hold detention centers and jails accountable for their use and abuse of solitary confinement.

Blumenthal 2 would be first federal legislation to place limitations on the duration and circumstances under which detained immigrants can be placed in solitary confinement.  It is unclear at this point whether the amendment will pass the full Senate or the House.

The measure would apply only to those held in immigrant detention, and not to all federal prisoners. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons is estimated to hold at least 10,000 individuals in isolation in prisons across the country, and is not subject to any laws that that regulate, monitor, and restrict the use and abuse of solitary confinement in federal prisons.