News Law and Policy

Budget Deal Reached, Leaving Koch Brothers Seething

Adele M. Stan

The Koch brothers are pressuring members of Congress not to vote for the federal budget deal worked out by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan.

House and Senate negotiators reached a deal on the federal budget late Tuesday, one that leaves people who are out of work without an extension of their unemployment benefits, and that has right-wingers seething over the curtailment of about half the across-the-board sequester cuts to discretionary spending that were set to go into effect in January.

If there’s any consensus on the deal, it’s that there is nothing big about it—no new cuts to Social Security or Medicare, and no revision of the tax structure.

Tea Partiers and the Koch brothers are angry over the partial relief to be felt by government agencies from automatic spending cuts, and some Democrats are dismayed that sizable numbers of the long-term unemployed are to be left to fend for themselves in an economy that remains troubled.

Standing with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who chairs the House Committee on the Budget offered this bit of commentary: “You don’t always get what you want.”

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What the deal does accomplish is an end, for the time being, to the brinkmanship that has characterized the funding of the federal government through continuing resolutions, and which resulted in a government shutdown in October. It does not, however, raise the debt ceiling, meaning that another fight on whether or not the United States government will default on its debt is likely to ensue come March, if not before.

“I am very proud to stand here today with Chairman Ryan to say that we have broken through the partisanship and gridlock and reached a bipartisan budget compromise,” Murray said at a press conference announcing the deal.

The accord between Murray and Ryan, however, still needs to get through Congress, where some allied with the Tea Party are balking. It remains to be seen whether Ryan, once a darling of Americans for Prosperity, the influential Tea Party-allied group, will suffer the ire of its founders, the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

Other Republicans, however, may be placated by the fact that the deal’s reduction of the automatic cuts to discretionary spending under sequestration will go over well at the Pentagon, where anxiety over the round of cuts set to go into effect next month was throwing a wrench into operational planning. (Sequestration cuts to mandatory spending will remain in effect.)

The curtailment of those cuts will also benefit domestic programs such as Head Start.

Democrats had initially demanded that any budget deal include an extension of unemployment benefits for those who have exhausted their claims, but let go of their insistence for the sake of getting an agreement. Although Democrats have pledged to take up the matter in a separate piece of legislation, the Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery reports, “senior Democrats acknowledged that checks are likely to be cut off at the end of the month for more than a million people, potentially undercutting the strengthening economic recovery.”

The New York Times describes the overall deal this way:

Under the agreement, military and domestic spending for the current fiscal year that is under the annual discretion of Congress would rise to $1.012 trillion, from the $967 billion level it would hit if spending cuts known as sequestration were imposed next month. Spending would inch up to $1.014 trillion in the 2015 fiscal year.

The figure for this year is about halfway between the $1.058 trillion passed by the Senate this spring and the $967 billion approved by the House.

Even before the deal was announced, the Koch brothers and their allies were denouncing it, threatening Republicans who would dare to vote for the deal. Speaking with Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, Politico reported Phillips as saying, “We will absolutely hold them accountable if they break their word and go back on the sequester cuts.”

Not content to leave things in the hands of their own group, the Kochs also flexed their muscles in letters sent to members of Congress by Koch Industries, the privately owned conglomerate in which the brothers are principals. According to the Washington Post, the letters “call[ed] the deal ‘a dangerous retreat from the pledge to “live within our means”‘ made when the sequester was adopted in the summer of 2011.”

Reuters added that the letters “urged Congress in a letter to stick to the $967 billion spending cap set under the sequester,” reporting this quote:

“It is essential if our country is to achieve economic prosperity once again. It is also the right thing to do,” wrote Philip Ellender, the head of Koch Industries’ government and public affairs arm.

Americans for Prosperity can make life difficult for Republicans seeking re-election in 2014 by helping to launch primary challenges to sitting members of Congress. Other right-wing groups, including FreedomWorks and Heritage Action (now led by former Sen. Jim DeMint [R-SC]) have also denounced the deal, according to Politico.

For a breakdown of the budget deal, which also includes higher fees on airline tickets, an increased pension contribution from some federal workers, and a decrease in cost-of-living increases to military pensions, the Washington Post offers a bulleted list.

Roundups Politics

Presidential Candidates Finally Begin to Speak Up on Flint Water Crisis

Ally Boguhn

Flint, Michigan, has been in a state of emergency for more than a month as residents deal with highly lead-contaminated water, yet the field of presidential candidates didn’t start talking about the issue until recently.

Read more of our articles on Flint’s water emergency here.

Flint, Michigan, has been in a state of emergency for more than a month as residents deal with highly lead-contaminated water, yet the field of presidential candidates didn’t start talking about the issue until recently.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) apologized to residents of Flint in a State of the State address Tuesday evening, in which he promised to tackle the problems plaguing the community after state officials switched its water supply source to the Flint River in an effort to save money. When the state Department of Environmental Quality failed to properly treat the water, lead leached into it from pipes and fixtures.

Pointing to failures within his own administration to properly address the emergency, Snyder expressed regret that the government hadn’t done more.

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“No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe. Government failed you—federal, state and local leaders—by breaking the trust you place in us,” said Snyder. “I’m sorry most of all that I let you down. You deserve better. You deserve accountability. You deserve to know that the buck stops here with me.”

The governor’s comments came just after news broke that the EPA had blamed “failures and resistance at the state and local levels” for the lack of proper response to contaminated water in Flint.

For weeks, Snyder has faced growing criticism—and calls for his resignation—over charges that he and his administration are to blame for the public health emergency in Flint. Yet even as the National Guard arrived in Michigan to help distribute water to the 30,000 homes, many presidential candidates remained surprisingly silent on the situation.

As the seriousness of what is occurring in Flint became more apparent and garnered more national news, Democratic candidates began to express their outrage over the government’s failures.

Clinton offered one of the more robust responses to the crisis, having spent much of the last two weeks speaking out on the issue and directly criticizing Gov. Snyder’s failure to properly respond.

Last week, Clinton dispatched two of her aides to Flint to meet with Mayor Karen Weaver, a move that earned her the mayor’s endorsement for president.

Speaking on a conference call set up by the campaign, Weaver said that Clinton was the only candidate from either party that had directly reached out to the city.

“As far as what Hillary Clinton has done, she has actually been the only—the only—candidate, whether we’re talking Democratic or Republican, to reach out and talk with us about, ‘What can I do? What kind of help do you need?'” Weaver explained, according to the Huffington Post.

Clinton’s decision to send her aides directly to the area was preceded by a series of statements demanding action be taken to help Flint’s residents.

“There is no excuse for what’s happening in Flint. A city of 99,000 people—a majority of them African-American, 40% in poverty—spent nearly two years drinking and bathing in water that we now know contained dangerous amounts of lead,” Clinton said in one statement on the matter. “I’m calling on the state of Michigan to finance water purchases from Detroit until safe drinking water is fully restored in Flint.”

In Sunday’s Democratic debate, Clinton brought up Flint during her closing statement after the moderators failed to mention it. “I think every single American should be outraged,” Clinton said. “We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care.”

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, meanwhile, first addressed the crisis in a series of tweets on January 15, calling the matter heartbreaking and blaming elected officials who made “reckless decisions and “did nothing” to help the children of the city:

O’Malley took his criticism even further in a video posted Monday by NowThis News. When asked whether Gov. Snyder should resign, the Democratic candidate replied, “It would appear that somebody sure as hell should.”

“Lead poisoning is something that has plagued poor communities in cities and people of color, and the notion that … our own government or that a local municipal government would be knowingly trying to cover something like this up is really appalling,” O’Malley went on, asserting that whoever knew about the situation and failed to stop it should resign.

Bernie Sanders also pushed back against officials in Michigan over the weekend, releasing a statement on Saturday urging Gov. Snyder to step down.

“There are no excuses. The governor long ago knew about the lead in Flint’s water,” said Sanders. “He did nothing. As a result, hundreds of children were poisoned. Thousands may have been exposed to potential brain damage from lead. Gov. Snyder should resign.”

Sanders doubled down on his call the next day during the Democratic debate, telling viewers, “A man who acts that irresponsibly should not stay in power.”

In contrast, Republican presidential candidates have failed to address the issue at all until this week.

When asked for comment on Flint by a reporter at a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) claimed that it wasn’t something he knew enough about to speak on.

“It’s just not an issue we’ve been quite frankly fully briefed or apprised of in terms of the role the governor has played and that state has played in Michigan on these sorts of issues,” said Rubio, who also noted his belief that “the federal government’s role in some of these things [is] largely limited unless it involves a federal jurisdictional issue.”

Donald Trump similarly evaded addressing the crisis when confronted about it.

“It’s a shame what’s happening in Flint, Michigan. A thing like that shouldn’t happen,” Trump said Tuesday, according to the Wall Street Journal. “But again, I don’t want to comment on that.”

Ben Carson condemned local and federal officials for their response to Flint, but stopped short of casting any blame on Gov. Snyder or his administration.

“Unfortunately, the leaders of Flint have failed to place the well-being of their residents as a top priority,” Carson said in a Tuesday statement to the Huffington Post.

“The people deserve better from their local elected officials, but the federal bureaucracy is not innocent in this as well. Reports show that the Environmental Protection Agency knew well-beforehand about the lack of corrosion controls in the city’s water supply, but was either unwilling or unable to address the issue,” Carson continued.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich completely backed Snyder’s response to Flint on Tuesday, reportedly pointing out that Snyder had already moved in the National Guard and expressing confidence he “will manage this appropriately.”

Ted Cruz called the crisis “an absolute travesty,” demanding accountability for those poisoned by the water.  

“It is a failure at every level of government, a failure of the city officials, a failure of the county officials, and the men and women of Michigan have been betrayed,” Cruz said at a Tuesday press conference in New Hampshire.

“Every American is entitled to have access to clean water, and to all the children who have been poisoned by government officials, by their negligence, by their ineptitude, it’s heartbreaking,” Cruz said.

Although he didn’t specifically criticize the state’s response, Cruz called for officials to take responsibility for their mistakes, asserting, “There needs to be accountability as to why dirty water, poisoned water was given to a community that did not deserve this.”

Analysis Violence

Beyond the Hashtags: Nigerians Seek Lasting Solution to Boko Haram Insurgency

Samuel Okocha

Spaces for Change, a human rights advocacy group in Nigeria, recently organized a citizens' forum titled #BeyondTheHashtags "to generate a data bank of [citizens'] concerns" about the abduction of hundreds of the nation's girls as well as the "rising insurgency in the northern part of the country."

Advocacy groups are seeking short and long-term measures to end the insurgency that has left thousands of people dead in northern Nigeria.

More than 200 school girls have been held in captivity by Boko Haram soldiers since April 14. Their abduction has inspired an online campaign with hashtags, such as #BringBackOurGirls, gaining global attention.

The online campaign, along with street protests across the globe, forced Nigeria’s government to accept help from foreign countries to find and free the girls ranging in age from 12 to 15. But efforts to bring them back have not been successful.

Spaces for Change, a human rights advocacy group in Nigeria, recently organized a citizens’ forum titled #BeyondTheHashtags “to generate a data bank of [citizens’] concerns around the Chibok abductions and the rising insurgency in the northern part of the country,” the organization explained on its website

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“Beyond the Hashtag is a conversation that is looking at improving security consciousness among citizens beyond the street protests and online campaigns,” Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri of Spaces for Change told Rewire. “We ask ourselves: beyond the hashtags, what do we need to do to ensure these abductions do not occur again?”

At the forum in Lagos, advocacy groups, legal practitioners, and ordinary citizens gathered to track the gaps and progress in the Nigerian government’s fight against terrorism.

Spaces for Change has been collating citizens’ concerns and questions regarding the effectiveness of the government’s counter-insurgency operations.

Concerns Over Accountability in Spending on Defense

“Some of the questions that have come out relate to adequacy of military infrastructure,” Ibezim-Ohaeri said. “There is also the welfare of military personnel. There have been a lot of questions on whether these soldiers fighting the insurgents are adequately taken care of and well-motivated to engage and quell the insurgency.”

Last week, a military commander escaped death after a group of angry soldiers turned their guns at his vehicle and pulled the trigger. Some accounts claim the soldiers were expressing their unhappiness over their poor welfare.

In 2009, 27 soldiers that served in the United Nations Mission in Liberia were sentenced to life in jail by a military court martial.

The former UN peacekeepers were court martialed for demonstrating on the streets of Akure in southwestern Nigeria over unpaid allowances. The life sentence was later reduced to seven years.

Nigeria’s security budget has increased considerably in the last two years. But Ibezim-Ohaeri says citizens are asking whether the allocations have matched actual spending in the sector.

Building Citizens’ Capacity

Amy Oyekunle recently returned from Borno state, the hotbed of the Boko Haram insurgency.

“I am happy about the international publicity with the bring back our girls hashtag,” she said. “But beyond the hashtag, I think that Borno needs a very strong sense of strategy in terms of how they would recoup and deal with the insurgency.”

“We saw a lot of women who had lost their husbands. A lot of children have been killed. And then there’s the tendency that parents might not even send their children back to school because of the Boko Haram attacks on schools.”

“So there’s a strong need to build the capacity of the citizens themselves to deal with what they are experiencing,” she added.

Advocacy groups agreed on the need to empower citizens to be able to alert security institutions when they see any sign of security threat within their communities.

“In the U.S., a child knows what to do when he or she finds himself in a dangerous situation,” Ibezim-Ohaeri said. “But many here, including the enlightened Nigerians, do not know. We therefore need an effective awareness campaign to make people know how and when to dial the emergency line.”

Laila St. Matthew Daniels, a psychotherapist and social activist, called for trauma centers to deal with the psychological and emotional shock of affected parents and families.

“Another one is to put across that the benefits of education far outweighs the minuses of not having an education,” she pointed out. “And how we can bring education a little bit to the outskirts and let these kids come back to school because they are scared right now.”

The War on Poverty Meets the War on Terrorism

Oil-rich Nigeria officially became Africa’s largest economy in April. But Africa’s most populated nation remains one of the poorest countries in the world. And many of the those poor people are found in northern Nigeria.

“While we were in Borno we found that the poverty rate in the state was unacceptably high,” Ibezim-Ohaeri told Rewire. “It’s compounded by lack of access to education for most children between the ages of 6 and 16. So in a community where poverty is rife and citizens don’t have access to education, it creates a very conducive environment for terrorism to thrive.”

For the government to win the war against terror, Ibezim-Ohaeri suggests a combined military strategy with an economic strategy that lifts people out of poverty and encourages young school girls and boys to have access to education and realize their potential.

Without those two combined strategies, Ibezim-Ohaeri says it is very doubtful that the war against terrorism will be very successful.

The Rule of Law vs. Insurgency

At the #BeyondTheHashtags forum, human rights activist and legal practitioner Bamidele Aturu said, “Part of the problem we are having with Boko Haram was caused by the Nigerian police.”

Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf, who was arrested by the army and handed over to the police, died in police custody in 2009. That incident triggered a wave of Boko Haram attacks on police stations and government institutions. The sect has simply refused to stop carrying out its attacks after the death of Yusuf.

The group has been blamed for the Tuesday twin bomb explosions at a busy market in the north central city of Jos. More than 100 people died in that attack. A few days earlier, a suicide blast in a street full of bars and restaurants in the northern commercial city of Kano killed four people. The explosion was reportedly caused by a car bomb in the mainly Christian area of Sabon Gari.

“Up until now, the Nigerian state has not apologized for that extra judicial killing of Yusuf,” Aturu said.

Ayo Obe, a rights advocate and lawyer, agreed. She lamented the seeming inability of the Nigerian police to get convictions in court, especially when it involves sensitive cases. “Instead we have had extra judicial killings,” she said. “This is a problem. The police need to be equipped to present enough forensic evidence to ensure convictions in court.”

She talked of the need for Nigeria to uphold the rule of law and prevent a state of lawlessness.

Building Trust in Government

The #BeyondTheHashtags forum also raised the issue of inconsistency in communications among government agencies.

“You hear the ministry of information gives [a piece of] information that contrasts with what the defense headquarters gives, and another contrasts with the information that comes out of the presidency,” Ibezim-Ohaeri said. “So citizens do not know which agency to look up to to get security information.”

Spaces for Change will do a thorough analysis of the data gathered at the #BeyondTheHashtags forum and share that information with various agencies that must play specific roles in the fight against insurgencies in the nation.

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