Somehow, with so much media focus on President Trump’s personality flaws and his administration’s drama the Democratic Party is missing its opportunity to sell itself as the more appealing of America’s two mainstream parties. Two bills supported by both parties in Congress have left a disappointing smudge on the Democrat’s recent voting record. These bills go against core values of modern American liberals, which include the enforcement of civil rights, social justice, and a mixed economy; where in the interest of the public the government regulates the private industry to ensure economic stability and economic inclusivity.
Bank Deregulation Bill
At the end of March, Congress passed with bipartisan support the misleadingly named Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (S.2155). Against the bill was Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has consistently spoken out against the deregulation of Wall Street and the big banking industry, even when it has meant disagreeing with prominent Democrats. Warren described her fellow Democratic Senators’ choice to support the deregulation bill as a “stab in the heart.”
S.2155 does several things. Most broadly, it exempts banks worth under $250 billion (over two dozen banks) from abiding by The Dodd-Frank Act’s regulatory oversight. The Dodd-Frank Act was passed in response to the 2008 recession to help stop the kind of systematic risk that led the last recession to snowball. One of its oversights is to require banks to take what are called “stress tests” that measure bank’s ability to withstand economic declines.
As a team, Democrats and Republicans have effectively voided the Dodd-Frank Act. By raising the threshold of banks subject to Dodd-Frank’s regulation to $250 billion, banks that historically and currently absolutely need regulatory oversight will be free from it. $210 billion, was what Countrywide Financial was worth when it failed right in the middle of the 2008 mortgage crisis. The Lehman Brothers were also worth under $250 billion when it filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Both at the time, and in retrospect, the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy was largely considered a major contributor to the financial crisis. Senator Elizabeth Warren said the bill, “would take the reins off of Wall Street’s most reckless actors and put a greater risk of another financial crisis.”
In addition to the economic risks that follow deregulation, Jamelle Bouie writes in Slate on the devastating civil rights and social justice consequences of S. 2155 that Democrats especially should be gravely concerned about. Because the bill will “exempt the large majority of mortgage lenders from key disclosure requirements that help the government identify racial discrimination and enforce fair housing laws,” it will open the door for community banks to discriminate against people of color. Bouie explains that there is a long and thorough history of mortgage lenders using various methods to create and perpetuate poverty and segregation for black communities while simultaneously assisting white communities to grow and thrive. With the passing of S. 2155, expect nothing new.
African-Americans have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party in elections across the country since the civil rights era. It is a betrayal for Democrats to support policy such as this that fails to protect the population against institutional racism from an industry that has such a comprehensive history of it. It is not just a betrayal to African-Americans who have been ever so loyal to the party, but also a betrayal to all liberal Democrats who expect their elected officials to uphold an equal and inclusive democracy.
10 Democratic Senators co-sponsored the bill among 16 total Democratic Senators who voted for it.
The Surveillance Bill
Barack Obama’s 180-degree reversal on the Patriot Act and domestic spying are well documented, with published timelines of his “evolution” on the issue and several popular YouTube videos displaying his contradictions. Edward Snowden’s leaked cache of documents on the NSA’s unchecked surveillance and information collection program not only revealed Obama’s true stance on domestic spying but the stances of other key Democrats within his administration such as Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of States Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Chair of Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein.
More recently, the Democratic Party continued its support for unaccountable domestic spying. In January of this year, 18 Democratic members of Congress voted for the reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, continuing the party’s disregard for civil liberties concerning privacy. Feinstein switched sides on the bill to end up voting in favor with other Democratic Senators Nancy Pelosi from San Francisco and Mark Warner of Virginia, who both advocated for the bill on the Senate floor. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill cast the deciding vote.
The bill is a renewal of President Bush’s 2007 legalization of warrantless wiretapping with slight adjustments. It still allows the NSA to continue to collect any and all data from Internet junctions passing in and out of the country (the Upstream program) as well as any and all data from international communications from U.S based companies like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Apple (the PRISM program). This communication includes phone records, emails, texts, chats, and more.
Because of the imprecision of this data collection, purely domestic communications are often added into the same collection database. The FBI can, and frequently does sift through this database consisting of profound amounts of data involving the communications of U.S citizens whenever it wants without a warrant.
The bill’s addition to prior surveillance policy is that it is now stated that if the FBI decides there is a “threat to life or serious bodily harm,” or if there is a national security issue then there is no need for the FBI to request a warrant. Previously, there was no law on the books for this and the FBI and NSA simply searched the database whenever they wanted in any case. The new “threat to life or serious bodily harm,” and national security requirements were either an attempt to narrow the scope and limit these agencies ability to arbitrarily use this database or just a way to explicitly legally allow the way these agencies were arbitrarily using this database already. No matter how the addition is interpreted, the power it gives Trump’s executive branch is ripe for abuse.
The ACLU explains that bill grants President Trump and the executive branch he controls more tools and power to spy on the exact groups Trump has a history of attacking and the exact groups Democrats claim to defend during campaign season: immigrants, journalists, and dissidents. Human Rights Watch and other organizations argue immigrants living in border towns and communities are especially vulnerable to this extensive government power. Furthermore, many progressive organizations and civil liberties activists argue expanding mass surveillance powers jeopardize free expression rights. This means Democrats managed to help the passing of a bill that damages the core liberal democratic values of inclusiveness for immigrants, freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
Glen Greenwald in The Intercept, Trevor Timm in NBC news and others have pointed out the Democrat’s flagrant hypocrisy of granting Trump’s executive branch this kind of power. Greenwald’s first example is California’s Democrats Adam Schiff, Eric Swalwell, and Nancy Pelosi, who have repeatedly stated over the past year on MSNBC, CNN and elsewhere that President Trump is a puppet of Putin and that Russian collusion is guaranteed to have happened. They continue to describe Trump as treasonous, authoritarian, anti-democratic, and a vengeful abuser of power. If they truly felt Trump was controlled or even influenced by Moscow, why would they advocate for a bill that allowed him such massive spying power? If you actually believe someone is treasonous, authoritarian, and anti-democratic, but then you advocate for and allow him to have unprecedented surveillance power, what does that make you?
Part III: The Next Test For Democrats
Adam Serwer has an excellent article in The Atlantic explaining how the Obama administration’s rejection of “all avenues for any form of accountability for torture” from the Bush era did not only undermine the rule of law but “helped entrench a standard of accountability that stretches from beat cops to CIA officials.” A standard maintained so despicably low that the 45th president in 2018 is nominating the very same Bush-era torturers for higher positions of influence and power.
Despite Obama’s failures to keep torturers accountable, current Democrats have a chance to represent their liberal constituents by making some noise at an upcoming Senate confirmation hearing. President Trump has appointed Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel, to Secretary of State and Head of CIA positions respectively.
Mike Pompeo does not appear opposed to the U.S use of torture. He described torturers who have been accused and criticized as “heroes, not pawns in some liberal game being played by the A.C.L.U. and Senator Feinstein.” He’s described those accused of torture as “patriots” and as Secretary of State, he will continue to normalize past and potential future uses of torture. Congress confirmed Pompeo with a 57-42 vote split mostly along party lines. However, “Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who joined Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota in committing their votes for Trump’s pick on the floor—virtually assuring his confirmation [of Pompeo] by the full Senate.”
While much of her career remains classified, Haspel’s role in CIA’s torture programs is far more defined. Her record on torture is grotesque enough to label her a war criminal (6) and to be arrested immediately. Haspel was the director of a CIA black site in Thailand where she oversaw the torture of an alleged Al Qaida member Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. al-Nashiri was water-boarded, a simulated drowning technique that has been classified as torture since the Spanish Inquisition and violates international human rights laws. The technique resulted in the permanent psychological scarring of al-Nashiri as well as several false confessions and false leads from him.
During her Senate confirmation hearing, Haspel refused to explicitly say that the torture methods used by the CIA were immoral.
John Kiriakou, former CIA analyst who was a whistleblower on the CIA’s use of torture (the only person to be jailed in connection with it) claims to have known Haspel personally and does not vouch for her to say the least. He explained on Democracy Now that Gina Haspel’s nickname among CIA officials who worked with her was “bloody Gina,” because she was “always quick and very willing to use force,” and even “tortured just for the sake of torture,” despite knowing torture didn’t result in correct and useful intelligence.
Years later, Haspel helped carry out an order or made the order herself (depending on who you ask) to destroy video evidence that the waterboarding took place. There is well-informed speculation that the videotapes were destroyed because they showed the CIA using torture techniques in an attempt to produce false intelligence justifying a war with Iraq (for example false connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida).
Leading up to Haspel’s confirmation hearing, the CIA is circulating a domestic propaganda campaign in her favor.
What should Democratic Senators do to represent their constituents during the upcoming May 9th hearing? Besides inquiring on the details of Haspel’s involvement in torture programs, Democratic Congress members should do everything they can to block her appointment as head of the CIA. Furthermore, they should demand the CIA release as much information as possible on its Bush-era torture programs.
In response to being asked what she will do, Senator Dianne Feinstein (who protested a promotion of Haspel in 2013) has been intentionally vague. “Since my concerns were raised over the torture situation, I have met with her extensively. Talked with her,” Feinstein said, “She has been, I believe, a good deputy director. She seems to have the confidence of the agency, which is good.” What will Democrats actually do? It appears they will flounder.
Liberals of America are disappointed when deregulatory policies similar to those that allowed irresponsible banks to spiral out of control into a recession in 2008 were passed with the support of Democrats in Congress. Especially considering this deregulation eliminates accountability for discrimination. Liberals of America are disappointed that Democrats in Congress have handed over Trump and his executive branch unprecedented spying power, infringing on privacy, freedom of speech, and leaving dissidents and immigrants vulnerable to oppression. It will be appalling if the party that still milks its role as the party of civil rights stands flatfooted as a CIA agent complicit in torture secures a powerful position as CIA Director.