Jake Johnson

New York Times op-ed highlights US physician's criticism of the 'lucrative system of for-profit medicine

A U.S. physician took to the op-ed pages of The New York Times on Sunday to offer a scathing condemnation of the country's for-profit healthcare system and his profession's historical complicity in campaigns against universal coverage.

"Doctors have long diagnosed many of our sickest patients with 'demoralization syndrome,' a condition commonly associated with terminal illness that's characterized by a sense of helplessness and loss of purpose," wrote Eric Reinhart, a physician at Northwestern University. "American physicians are now increasingly suffering from a similar condition, except our demoralization is not a reaction to a medical condition, but rather to the diseased systems for which we work."

"The United States is the only large high-income nation that doesn't provide universal healthcare to its citizens," Reinhart continued "Instead, it maintains a lucrative system of for-profit medicine. For decades, at least tens of thousands of preventable deaths have occurred each year because healthcare here is so expensive."

The coronavirus pandemic accelerated that trend and spotlighted the fatal dysfunction of the nation's healthcare system, which is dominated by a handful of massive corporations whose primary goal is profit, not the delivery of care.

According to one peer-reviewed study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a universal single-payer healthcare system could have prevented more than 338,000 Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. from the beginning of the crisis through mid-March 2022.

"In the wake of this generational catastrophe, many healthcare workers have been left shaken," Reinhart wrote Sunday. "One report estimated that in 2021 alone, about 117,000 physicians left the workforce, while fewer than 40,000 joined it. This has worsened a chronic physician shortage, leaving many hospitals and clinics struggling. And the situation is set to get worse. One in five doctors says he or she plans to leave practice in the coming years."

"To try to explain this phenomenon, many people have leaned on a term from pop psychology for the consequences of overwork: burnout. Nearly two-thirds of physicians report they are experiencing its symptoms," he added.

But for Reinhart, the explanation lies more in "our dwindling faith in the systems for which we work" than in the "grueling conditions we practice under."

He explained:

What has been identified as occupational burnout is a symptom of a deeper collapse. We are witnessing the slow death of American medical ideology.

It's revealing to look at the crisis among healthcare workers as at least in part a crisis of ideology—that is, a belief system made up of interlinking political, moral, and cultural narratives upon which we depend to make sense of our social world. Faith in the traditional stories American medicine has told about itself, stories that have long sustained what should have been an unsustainable system, is now dissolving.

During the pandemic, physicians have witnessed our hospitals nearly fall apart as a result of underinvestment in public health systems and uneven distribution of medical infrastructure. Long-ignored inequalities in the standard of care available to rich and poor Americans became front-page news as bodies were stacked in empty hospital rooms and makeshift morgues. Many healthcare workers have been traumatized by the futility of their attempts to stem recurrent waves of death, with nearly one-fifth of physicians reporting they knew a colleague who had considered, attempted, or died by suicide during the first year of the pandemic alone.

Although deaths from Covid have slowed, the disillusionment among health workers has only increased. Recent exposés have further laid bare the structural perversity of our institutions. For instance, according to an investigation in The New York Times, ostensibly nonprofit charity hospitals have illegally saddled poor patients with debt for receiving care to which they were entitled without cost and have exploited tax incentives meant to promote care for poor communities to turn large profits. Hospitals are deliberately understaffing themselves and undercutting patient care while sitting on billions of dollars in cash reserves.

Acknowledging that "little of this is new," Reinhart wrote that "doctors' sense of our complicity in putting profits over people has grown more difficult to ignore."

"From at least the 1930s through today, doctors have organized efforts to ward off the specter of 'socialized medicine,'" he wrote. "We have repeatedly defended health care as a business venture against the threat that it might become a public institution oriented around rights rather than revenue."

Confronting and beginning to solve the myriad crises of the U.S. healthcare system will "require uncomfortable reflection and bold action," Reinhart argued, and "any illusion that medicine and politics are, or should be, separate spheres has been crushed under the weight of over 1.1 million Americans killed by a pandemic that was in many ways a preventable disaster."

"Doctors can no longer be passive witnesses to these harms," he concluded. "We have a responsibility to use our collective power to insist on changes: for universal healthcare and paid sick leave but also investments in community health worker programs and essential housing and social welfare systems... Regardless of whether we act through unions or other means, the fact remains that until doctors join together to call for a fundamental reorganization of our medical system, our work won’t do what we promised it would do, nor will it prioritize the people we claim to prioritize."

Reinhart's op-ed came as the prospects for legislative action to transform the U.S. healthcare system appear as distant as ever, despite broad public support for a government guarantee of universal coverage.

With the for-profit status quo deeply entrenched—preserved by armies of industry lobbyists and members of Congress who do their bidding—the consequences are becoming increasingly dire, with tens of millions uninsured or underinsured and one health crisis away from financial ruin.

In a study released last month, the Commonwealth Fund found that "the U.S. has the lowest life expectancy at birth, the highest death rates for avoidable or treatable conditions, the highest maternal and infant mortality, and among the highest suicide rates" among rich countries, even as it spends far more on healthcare than comparable nations both on a per-person basis and as a share of gross domestic product.

"Not only is the U.S. the only country we studied that does not have universal health coverage," the study added, "but its health system can seem designed to discourage people from using services."

White House says GOP bill would force 'one of the biggest Medicare benefit cuts' in history

The White House on Saturday condemned a newly introduced Republican bill that would repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, a law that includes a number of changes aimed at lowering costs for Medicare recipients.

Unveiled Thursday by freshman Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.), the bill has 20 original co-sponsors and is endorsed by several right-wing groups, including the Koch-funded organization Americans for Prosperity.

The Biden White House argued that rolling back the Inflation Reduction Act, which also contains major climate investments, would represent "one of the biggest Medicare benefit cuts in American history" as well as a "handout to Big Pharma." According to Politico, which first reported the White House's response to the GOP bill, the administration is planning to release "state-by-state data indicating how this would affect constituents in different areas."

"House Republicans are trying to slash lifelines for middle-class families on behalf of rich special interests," White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement. "Who on earth thinks that welfare for Big Pharma is worth selling out over a million seniors in their home state?”

The Inflation Reduction Act authorized a $35-per-month cap on insulin copayments for Medicare recipients, as well as an annual $2,000 total limit on out-of-pocket drug costs.

The bill will also, among other long-overdue changes, allow Medicare to begin negotiating the prices of a subset of the most expensive prescription drugs directly with pharmaceutical companies, which fiercely opposed the law and are working with Republicans to sabotage it. The newly negotiated prices are set to take effect in 2026.

Ogles, whose two-page bill would eliminate the above reforms, repeatedly attacked Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal programs and protections during his 2022 campaign for the U.S. House.

The White House's critique of Ogles' bill comes as Biden is facing pressure from advocates and physicians to cancel a Medicare privatization scheme that his administration inherited from its right-wing predecessor and rebranded.

It also comes as the White House is locked in a standoff with House Republicans over the debt ceiling. Republican lawmakers have pushed for deeply unpopular cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and other critical federal programs as a necessary condition for any deal to raise the country's borrowing limit and avert a catastrophic default.

"In less than a month, MAGA extremists have threatened to drive the economy into a recession by defaulting on our debt, promised to bring up a bill to impose a 30% national sales tax, and now have introduced legislation to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act," Patrick Gaspard, president and CEO of the Democratic Party-aligned Center for American Progress said in a statement. "This will cut taxes for corporations who earn billions in profit while empowering Big Pharma and Big Oil to continue ripping off the American people."

"It is vital that all Americans understand what is at risk if MAGA extremists succeed in passing their latest dangerous idea: millions of lost jobs, millions more without health insurance, and higher costs for lifesaving insulin, utilities, and more," Gaspard added.

'We will keep fighting': Nevada Democratic chair 'disappointed' after DNC axes dark money ban

Nevada Democratic Party Chair Judith Whitmer said Friday that progressives won't stop working to stem the flow of untraceable cash into national primary contests after the DNC Resolutions Committee blocked a vote on her proposed dark money ban for the second time.

Whitmer, a DNC member, told Common Dreams that "time and time again, we've watched 'dark money' used to silence the voices our party most needs to hear."

"Our party and our country need strong Democratic candidates willing to speak truth to power, but when their messages can be drowned out in a flood of untraceable expenditures, many candidates are questioning why they should even run," Whitmer said. "Restoring faith in our democracy has never been more urgent, and that all-important work should start in our own primary elections."

Whitmer sponsored the proposed dark money ban alongside fellow DNC member James Zogby, who previously served as chair of the resolutions panel. If approved, the resolution would have prohibited dark money donations in Democratic primary contests and established guidelines for investigating any violations of the ban.

On Thursday, members of the DNC Resolutions Committee—who likely faced pressure from DNC leadership—stayed quiet when the proposed ban was put up for consideration, so the measure did not receive a vote. Had the committee approved the proposal, which was backed by dozens of DNC members, it would have gone to the full DNC for a vote this weekend. (The DNC doesn't publicize membership lists for its standing committees.)

"Although we were disappointed that the Resolutions Committee once again chose not to move our resolution forward, we will keep fighting to make our primaries a fair and level playing field for all candidates," Whitmer told Common Dreams.

Democratic leaders, including President Joe Biden, have repeatedly railed against the scourge of dark money, decried its corrupting influence, and pledged to rein it in—only to balk at pressure for substantive action.

The party's platform, adopted in 2020, states that "we will bring an end to 'dark money' by requiring full disclosure of contributors to any group that advocates for or against candidates."

Yet as the DNC leadership, headed by Chair Jaime Harrison, refuses to act on its rhetoric—and as congressional Republicans block broader legislative efforts to curtail dark money—Democratic incumbents continue to benefit from untraceable donations, which are frequently used to undercut progressive challengers.

Last year, the newly formed dark money group Opportunity for All Action Fund spent around $600,000 to bolster Reps. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.), Dina Titus (D-Nev.), and Danny Davis (D–Ill.).

All three went on to defeat their progressive primary opponents and win reelection. That pattern played out across the country, though some candidates—including Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.), who was aggressively targeted by AIPAC's super PAC—were able to overcome torrents of opposition spending and prevail in November.

According to an August 2022 study by the Wesleyan Media Project, nearly 70% of pro-Democratic Senate ads up to that point in last year's election cycle were funded by groups that don't disclose any of their donors.

"Letting our primaries devolve into auctions, rather than elections, has done more than simply create an unequal and unfair playing field," Whitmer said during the DNC Resolutions Committee's last gathering in September. "In races around the nation, we've seen these underhanded tactics used to silence debate on critical issues, with competing views buried under an avalanche of dark money-funded messaging."

At this weekend's DNC meeting in Philadelphia, members are expected to approve a presidential primary calendar that would bump South Carolina up to the first-in-the-nation primary slot—a plan that has drawn criticism from some progressives.

But the issue of dark money is likely to be brushed aside once again.

While Democrats in Congress continue to push legislation to curb dark money across the board in federal elections, progress will be virtually impossible with a closely divided Senate and a Republican-controlled House, leaving internal party rule changes one of the only viable paths toward genuine campaign finance reform in the near future.

Larry Cohen, a DNC member and the board chair of Our Revolution, wrote in an email Friday that the DNC and state-level Democratic parties "have extensive rules relating to the nominating process, which provide many opportunities to block dark and dirty money."

"What happens inside the Democratic Party and inside party caucuses of elected Democrats is frequently ignored by progressives, who are generally more comfortable protesting and working solely outside the party. Of course, protest is essential, and new party-building is fine," Cohen wrote. "But for those of us who believe we must fight in every possible way to advance progressive issues and win real power, we ignore party reform at our peril, even as we demand broader electoral reforms, such as fusion and ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and more."

'Irreparable and downright shameful environmental destruction': Groups demand Biden scrap Arctic drilling

The Biden administration's Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday published an environmental assessment that recommends partial approval of a major drilling project on Alaska's North Slope, prompting a flurry of calls for the Interior Department to reject the plan outright and prevent any additional fossil fuel extraction in the region.

"Greenlighting the Willow project would banish President Biden's climate legacy to one of irreparable and downright shameful environmental destruction," said Raena Garcia, fossil fuels and lands campaigner for Friends of the Earth. "Big Oil's exploitation of the rapidly warming Arctic has already thrust local communities onto the frontlines of the climate crisis, jeopardizing public health and polluting critical ecosystems."

Kristen Miller, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, implored Biden to "reverse course on this massive climate disaster."

"Our window to act is rapidly closing to avert catastrophic climate change," Miller added, "and this plan only takes us one giant step closer to the edge."

The BLM's newly released supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) suggests a "preferred alternative" to the originally planned Willow Project, a ConocoPhillips initiative that has been the subject of years of court battles between environmentalists and the federal government under the Trump and Biden administrations.

The SEIS recommends the approval of three drilling locations instead of the original five and proposes limiting pipeline mileage. ConocoPhillips executives have said that any fewer than three drilling sites would make the project unviable as it would prevent Willow from turning a profit for the company.

The Biden administration's assessment acknowledges that "any North Slope oil and gas development, including the Willow [Master Development Plan], would likely incur spills" even if significant preventative measures are taken.

Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic warned in a statement that "if approved, this project would be the largest on public lands and would set back our national climate goals tremendously."

"Willow would lock us into extraction for another 30 years and could potentially be the catalyst for future oil expansion in the Arctic," the grassroots group said. "In 2021, a federal judge rejected the Interior Department's 2020 approvals of Willow for lack of adequate consideration of the impact of the surrounding environment. Regardless of the precautions put in place, there is no denying that fossil fuels are single-handedly the most damaging contributor to the global climate emergency, especially the Arctic."

"The Interior Department must reject the Willow proposal and live up to this administration's promises to take meaningful climate action and protect biodiversity by leveraging natural climate solutions," the group added. "The only reasonable solution to the climate emergency is to deny new fossil fuel projects like Willow and invest in a just transition."

The Interior Department—headed by Deb Haaland, who criticized the Willow Project as a member of Congress—now has a month to make a final decision on the project.

In a statement, the department made clear that it could further curtail the project or block it entirely—a step climate groups said would be consistent with the administration's climate pledges.

"The department has substantial concerns about the Willow project and the preferred alternative as presented in the final SEIS, including direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and impacts to wildlife and Alaska Native subsistence," the agency said. "Consistent with the law, a decision will be finalized by the department no sooner than 30 days after publication of the final SEIS. That decision may select a different alternative, including no action, or the deferral of additional drill pads beyond the single deferral described under the preferred alternative."

While the scaled-back alternative plan for Willow would have a smaller climate impact than the originally proposed project, it would still emit around 9.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, the BLM estimated.

Earthjustice, which has fought the Willow Project in court, noted that the revised plan would "bring at least 219 wells, 267 miles of pipelines, and 35 miles of roads to a vast public lands area in Alaska's Western Arctic, permanently altering a globally significant and ecologically rich landscape."

As The New York Times reported, ConocoPhillips "has said it was hoping for a fast decision from the Biden administration that would allow construction to begin this winter," fearing that "if spring sets in and warmer temperatures begin to melt the frozen roads, it could make it more difficult for crews to pass and construction would have to be shelved for another year."

"Therein lies one of the Willow project's ironies," the Times continued. "Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States and the region is expected to continue to warm by an average of 4°F over the 30-year life of the Willow project, thawing the frozen Arctic tundra around the drilling rigs and shortening the winter season during which ice roads and bridges remain frozen. The proposed solution: ConocoPhillips plans to eventually install 'chillers' into the thawing permafrost to keep it solid enough to support the equipment to drill for oil—the burning of which will release carbon dioxide emissions that will worsen the ice melt."

Dyani Chapman, state director of the Alaska Environment Research and Policy Center, said Wednesday that "it's absurd that as our tundra is melting because of climate change, ConocoPhillips plans to use 'chillers' to re-freeze tundra so it can drill for oil that will, in turn, make climate change even worse."

"The Willow project is bad for Alaskans," said Chapman. "ConocoPhillips' activities, which bring gas leaks and harmful development into the region, have already done a lot of damage to local communities. The community of Nuiqsut is already surrounded by planned and active oil wells and people there have seen a rise in respiratory illnesses. They do not need more oil wells and drilling."

'End the scam': Democrats unveil bill to change name of Medicare Advantage

In an effort to crack down on the misleading practices of Medicare Advantage providers, Democratic Reps. Mark Pocan, Ro Khanna, and Jan Schakowsky reintroduced legislation Tuesday that would ban private insurers from using the "Medicare" label in the names of their health plans.

The legislation, titled the Save Medicare Act, would formally change the name of the Medicare Advantage program to the Alternative Private Health Plan, an attempt to make clear to seniors that the plans are run by private entities such as Anthem, Humana, Cigna, and UnitedHealthcare.

"Only Medicare is Medicare," Pocan (D-Wis.) said in a statement. "It is one of the most popular and important services the government provides. These non-Medicare plans run by private insurers undermine traditional Medicare. They often leave patients without the benefits they need while overcharging the federal government for corporate profit."

Khanna (D-Calif.) declared that "it's time to call out 'Medicare Advantage' for what it is: private insurance that profits by denying coverage and the name is being used to trick seniors into enrolling."

"That's not right," he added. "This bill will end the scam by preventing private insurers from profiting off the Medicare brand. Our focus should be on strengthening and expanding real Medicare."

The bill, which faces long odds in the Republican-controlled House, was introduced as GOP lawmakers push for cuts to traditional Medicare as part of their broader austerity campaign.

It also comes as the Biden administration is moving ahead with a Medicare privatization scheme known as ACO REACH, a pilot program that critics warn could fully engulf traditional Medicare in a matter of years.

The Democratic trio's legislation does not specifically address ACO REACH, opting to zero in on Medicare Advantage plans that are notorious for denying necessary care to vulnerable seniors and overbilling the federal government.

The measure would impose a $100,000 penalty each time a private insurer uses the Medicare name in the title of one of their plans.

Earlier this week, the Biden administration proposed a new rule that would strengthen audits of Medicare Advantage plans, which are paid an annual per-person rate by the federal government. Recent investigations have exposed how Medicare Advantage plans frequently overcharge the government by making patients appear sicker than they are, resulting in a higher payment.

The federal government currently expects to pay Medicare Advantage providers more than $6 trillion over the next eight years.

"Medicare reimburses Medicare Advantage plans using a complex formula called a risk score that computes higher rates for sicker patients and lower ones for healthier people," Kaiser Health Newsreported in December. "But federal officials rarely demand documentation to verify that patients have these conditions, or that they are as serious as claimed. Only about 5% of Medicare Advantage plans are audited yearly."

Medicare Advantage has grown rapidly over the past decade, with more than 28 million people in the U.S. enrolled in such plans as of 2022. MA plans often provide coverage for hearing, vision, and dental—benefits not offered by traditional Medicare, despite the efforts of progressive lawmakers to expand the program.

Some Democratic lawmakers have warned that part of the massive growth rate of Medicare Advantage plans could be due to their deceptive advertising practices.

In November, Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) released an investigative report laying out evidence of a range of "predatory actions" by private insurance companies that offer Medicare Advantage plans.

"Agents were found to sign up beneficiaries for plans under false pretenses, such as telling a beneficiary that coverage networks include preferred providers even when they do not," the investigation found. "Of particular concern to the committee were reports across states of agents changing vulnerable seniors' and people with disabilities' health plans without their consent."

Wendell Potter, president of the Center for Health and Democracy, said Tuesday that "so-called Medicare Advantage is neither Medicare nor an advantage."

"It is simply another scheme by the insurance companies to line their pockets at the expense of consumers," said Potter, a former health insurance executive with first-hand experience of the industry's misleading practices. "I applaud Congressman Pocan and Congressman Khanna for introducing this vital legislation. The healthcare market is confusing for consumers and misleading branding like so-called Medicare Advantage just makes it worse."

'Plundered health systems for profit': Pfizer reports staggering $100 billion in revenue in 2022

The U.S.-based pharmaceutical giant Pfizer reported Tuesday that it brought in a record-breaking $100.3 billion in revenue in 2022 and $31.4 billion in profit, sums that campaigners decried as "sickening" in the face of an ongoing pandemic and persistent inequities in coronavirus vaccine access.

"In one year alone, Pfizer's revenue has exceeded the total health expenditures of more than 100 countries combined," Julia Kosgei, policy co-lead for the People's Vaccine Alliance, said in a statement. "If it were a country, Pfizer would sit in the wealthiest third of nation-states. And it has amassed this fortune while jacking up prices on Covid-19 vaccines amid a pandemic that has devastated people’s livelihoods. Put simply, Pfizer has plundered health systems for profit."

Pfizer, led by CEO Albert Bourla, is the manufacturer of one of the two available mRNA vaccines for Covid-19, as well as the oral coronavirus treatment Paxlovid. The company reported $56 billion in sales of its Covid-19 vaccine and Paxlovid, though it said it expects sales to drop in the coming year as it moves to hike prices significantly on its vaccine—a plan that has drawn international alarm and outrage.

Globally, more than 2,600 people are dying from Covid-19 each day on average. According to Our World in Data, just over 26% of people in low-income nations have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose as Pfizer and other pharmaceutical giants refuse to make their vaccine technology available to all—even though it was developed with the help of government funding and scientific advancements.

"Billions of people in developing countries still cannot access affordable Covid-19 medicines," said Kosgei. "Companies like Pfizer are gobbling up ever-greater proportions of health budgets and handing the spoils to wealthy shareholders—all while treating access for developing countries as little more than a PR initiative. We cannot go on like this."

The U.K.-based advocacy group Global Justice Now called Pfizer's record earnings report "sickening."

"With this latest 'all-time high' announcement, Pfizer now has revenues higher than the GDP of 133 countries, including 8 E.U. member states, and is the first pharma company ever to make $100 billion in a year," noted Tim Bierley, the group's pharma campaigner. "But not content with doubling its revenues with a pandemic windfall, they are now still moving to aggressively hike the price of Covid-19 booster doses, putting even more pressure on already struggling public health systems."

"Their latest record-breaking revenues are further proof that the company treated the pandemic as an opportunity to enrich its shareholders," Bierley added. "We can't allow Big Pharma companies to hold us to ransom in this way. We need the government to be bold and break with the monopoly patent model that fails people everywhere. It's time to put people's lives above corporate profit."

Both Pfizer and Moderna have signaled plans to raise the prices of their vaccines to somewhere between $110 to $130 per dose in the U.S. as the Biden administration moves ahead with the commercialization of coronavirus inoculations, tests, and treatments—shifting costs onto patients and insurers and leaving the uninsured to shoulder significant payments.

The U.S. government has previously paid around $30 per dose for Pfizer's vaccine.

In recent days, the Biden administration has faced growing calls to use the federal government's ownership of key patents and other leverage to force Moderna and Pfizer to make their vaccines affordable and readily available to all who want them.

"The Biden administration should not allow Moderna to more than quadruple the price of the Covid vaccine to $130 when it costs just $2.85 to produce," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted on Sunday. "The Covid vaccine must be used to save lives, not to further enrich the billionaire owners of Moderna."

Moderna and Pfizer are also facing backlash from lawmakers overseas over their planned price increases.

In a letter to Bourla and Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel on Tuesday, British MP Caroline Lucas of the Green Party and three other lawmakers wrote that with the National Health Service "already under significant pressure and the costs of medicines increasing year on year, we are extremely concerned about the multiple impacts of a possible price hike."

"Throughout its development, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine received huge amounts of public money and support internationally," the lawmakers wrote. "Even the mRNA technology that Pfizer/BioNTech employed in the Covid-19 vaccine is rooted in decades of publicly funded research. A people-funded vaccine should be cheap and freely available."

Coalition of progressive advocacy groups aim to fight off GOP threats to Social Security and Medicare

A coalition of progressive advocacy groups on Monday launched a campaign urging every member of Congress to pledge to "never vote to cut Social Security or Medicare under any circumstances," an effort that comes as House Republicans are weighing attacks on the two programs as part of their sweeping austerity spree.

Led by Social Security Works and More Perfect Union, the new campaign highlights the massive stakes of the ongoing showdown over the U.S. debt ceiling, which House Republicans have said they will refuse to raise unless congressional Democrats and the Biden White House agree to major federal spending cuts—including damaging changes to Social Security and Medicare.

"To be clear, the debt ceiling legislation is not about new spending; it's about paying our bills," the progressive groups said Monday. "Failure to raise the debt limit will not only wreck the nation's economy; it will wreck the economy of the whole world."

In a launch video for their campaign, the progressive coalition includes footage of Republican lawmakers expressing support for raising the retirement age—a move that would cut Social Security spending across the board—and falsely blaming "entitlements" for the ballooning national debt as Congress hurtles toward another round of debt ceiling brinkmanship.

"Democrats were elected on the promise that they would defend Social Security against Republican attacks," said Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works. "Now is the moment of the truth. Democrats must refuse to cut Social Security. And they must refuse to create a mechanism—such as a closed-door commission—to cut Social Security down the road."

The campaign was launched ahead of President Joe Biden's planned Wednesday meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has joined the far-right flank of his caucus in pushing for federal spending cuts as a condition for raising the borrowing limit.

In a Sunday appearance on "Face the Nation," McCarthy suggested that he won't insist on cuts to Social Security or Medicare in talks with the president, saying, "Let's take those off the table."

But the Republican leader went on to say that while Biden has expressed opposition to including Social Security or Medicare changes in any debt ceiling legislation, "we've got to make sure we strengthen those." When pressed, McCarthy declined to elaborate on what he meant by "strengthen."

In response to McCarthy's comments, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said that McCarthy's "slip—and his evasiveness after—is the latest giveaway that House Republicans have been telling the truth over the last year as they reiterate time and again that they want to cut Medicare and Social Security."

"For years, congressional Republicans have advocated for slashing earned benefits using Washington code words like 'strengthen,' when their policies would privatize Medicare and Social Security, raise the retirement age, or cut benefits," Bates added. "It's like saying, 'You're not being laid off—we just want to make a change.' House Republicans refuse to raise revenue from the wealthy, but insist they will 'strengthen' earned benefits programs. You do the math. They have—they just won't show you."

While many congressional Democrats have publicly said they would join the White House in opposing any proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare, at least one lawmaker—Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—has floated the possibility of cutting a deal with the GOP on the programs, an idea adamantly rejected by the progressive groups behind the new pressure campaign.

"It is critical for the Democrats to stay united and stand their ground against this latest effort to gut Social Security and Medicare," said Faiz Shakir, executive editor at More Perfect Union.

On their new website, the progressive groups will keep a running tally of the lawmakers who have taken the pledge to oppose Social Security and Medicare cuts, as well as those who are "equivocating" or outright "refusing" to make the promise.

"The only way that Democrats can win this game of chicken is if they stay united and do not blink," the groups said. "Standing with the overwhelming majority of the American people against all cuts to Social Security and Medicare should be the easiest promise any politician can make, so let's make them promise."

Massachusetts newspaper urges Joe Biden to 'play hardball' against Moderna COVID vaccine price hikes

The largest daily newspaper in Moderna's home state of Massachusetts published an editorial on Sunday urging the Biden administration to "play hardball" with the pharmaceutical giant over its plan to raise the price of its Covid-19 vaccine by up to 4,000% over the cost of production, a proposal that has drawn backlash from vaccine equity campaigners and members of Congress.

The Boston Globe noted in its editorial that Moderna's reported plan to charge between $110 and $130 per dose for its mRNA vaccine—which was developed with the critical aid of U.S. government funding and scientific advances—would mean "more than quadrupling" the price compared to what the federal government paid in its latest contract with the company.

The coronavirus vaccine is Moderna's only product on the market, and stock price appreciation resulting from the development of the shot helped make CEO Stéphane Bancel a billionaire.

"In 2021, Moderna made over $12 billion in profits, the first year it turned a profit since it was founded in 2010," the Globe's editorial board observed. "While Moderna's proposed sticker price mirrors Pfizer's commercial plans for the Covid vaccine that it developed with BioNTech, Moderna is in a worse position to defend such a drastic increase. Unlike Pfizer's vaccine, the clinical development of Moderna's mRNA vaccine was almost exclusively funded by the US government and included collaboration with scientists at the National Institutes of Health."

While the White House has voiced concerns over Moderna's planned price hike, with Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre telling reporters earlier this month that it is hard to "understand or to justify," the Globe noted that "the Biden administration has not taken any serious steps to ensure that Moderna's vaccine will be reasonably priced—let alone accessible to anyone who wants it."

Citing public health advocates, the Globe argued that "the administration should be willing to play hardball" with Moderna, which has rebuffed pressure from governments and global institutions such as the World Health Organization to make its vaccine technology widely available, particularly for developing nations that have struggled to access a sufficient quantity of doses.

The editorial continued:

As Asia Russell, the executive director of the public health advocacy organization Health GAP, pointed out to the Globe editorial board, there is precedent for doing so.

In the midst of the 2001 anthrax attacks that targeted media and government offices, the U.S. government sought to boost its stockpile of Cipro, a drug that treats anthrax. Bayer, which produced the drug under a patent, balked at the George W. Bush administration's request for a discount. So Tommy Thompson, then secretary of Health and Human Services, threatened to bypass Bayer's patent and allow both production and purchase of generic alternatives. He didn't have to follow through on his threat; Bayer quickly agreed to dramatically reduce the drug's price.

The administration can also take—or deter Moderna's price hike by simply threatening to take—steps to slash the company's share of the market overseas.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the first member of Congress to publicly denounce Moderna's coming price hike, welcomed the Globe's editorial.

"The Boston Globe is right," Sanders wrote on Twitter. "The Biden administration should not allow Moderna to more than quadruple the price of the Covid vaccine to $130 when it costs just $2.85 to produce. The Covid vaccine must be used to save lives, not to further enrich the billionaire owners of Moderna."

Moderna's plans to raise the price of its coronavirus vaccine come as the Biden administration is shifting away from purchasing the shots and Covid-19 treatments and toward commercialization. As White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha put it in August, Covid-19 vaccines and treatments will be moved "into the regular healthcare system"—a hotbed of dysfunction, price gouging, and deadly denial of care.

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently noted that "while most consumers with public and private insurance will be protected from having to pay directly for vaccine costs, those who are uninsured and underinsured may face cost barriers when the federally-purchased vaccine doses are depleted."

In a letter to Moderna's CEO last week, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) warned that the firm's proposed price hike "threatens to reduce access to a lifesaving vaccine while boosting your company's profits."

"Thanks to billions of federal dollars used to support production and delivery of Moderna's vaccine product, Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine is currently free for patients in the United States," the senators wrote. "Over 665 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have been administered in the U.S., and many million more worldwide, and more than 80% of the total U.S. population has received at least one dose."

"This is a landmark public health achievement," they continued. "But this progress may be put at risk because of Moderna's greed, which has the potential to increase vaccination costs for millions of un- and underinsured Americans."

Labor expert denounces GOP tax plan 'one of the most regressive proposals in a generation'

A House GOP proposal to repeal all federal income taxes—including levies on corporations and the rich—and replace them with a whopping 30% national sales tax is drawing increasingly vocal backlash from economists, tax policy experts, and Democratic lawmakers who say the plan is yet another Republican ploy to reward the wealthy at everyone else's expense

Unveiled earlier this month by Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), the Fair Tax Act is hardly a novel piece of legislation. As Steve Wamhoff of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy noted in a recent blog post, the bill has its origins in a proposal "initially pitched by an organization created by the Church of Scientology during its dispute with the IRS over whether it constituted a church and was thus tax-exempt."

"The Church of Scientology's only goal in the matter was to eliminate the agency causing it trouble, and lost interest once the IRS threw in the towel and allowed it to present itself as a church," Wamhoff explained. "But by then several politicians had bought into the idea and introduced it as legislation, which has been reintroduced in each Congress since as the Fair Tax."

Carter's legislation, which currently has nearly two dozen House GOP co-sponsors, would abolish the IRS—a major gift to wealthy tax cheats—and eliminate the payroll taxes that finance Medicare and Social Security. The bill would also nix the individual income tax, the corporate income tax, the estate tax, and other taxes, establishing in their place a sales tax of 30% for calendar year 2023.

"The GOP's so-called 'Fair Tax' proposal is one of the most regressive proposals in a generation, imposing a 30% federal sales tax on everything Americans buy from gas to food," said former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. "There's nothing 'fair' about it. It would punish the poor and middle class while helping the rich."

In an attempt to offset the inherent regressivity of the sales tax, Carter's bill would send most U.S. households a monthly "prebate" to help families cover the costs of basic necessities—effectively replacing the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and other existing tax benefits that the measure would eliminate.

But Wamhoff argued the prebates would not be "nearly enough to offset the financial hit most Americans would face from the new national sales tax."

"Back in 2004, ITEP estimated that if the Fair Tax was enacted and the national sales tax rate was set at 45%, the poorest 80% of Americans would face net tax hikes from the proposal while most of those among the richest 20% would enjoy net tax cuts," Wamhoff wrote. "ITEP plans to re-estimate the proposal because a great deal has changed since 2004."

In a detailed video analysis of the "Fair Tax" plan, Matt Bruenig of the People's Policy Project estimated that the poorest 20% of the U.S. public would pay roughly 70% of their income in taxes as a result of the bill's levy on consumption.

Democratic lawmakers and President Joe Biden have wasted no time seizing on the tax proposal as further evidence of the Republican Party's commitment to delivering huge windfalls to the rich.

"The GOP wants to scrap the income tax and replace it with a 30% sales tax," tweeted Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "In WA State, where we have no income tax and rely on sales and excise taxes, the poorest families spend 17% of their income on taxes. The wealthiest spend 3%. This effort is a tax cut for the rich, period."

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) quipped on Wednesday that "it really must be Opposite Day if Republicans are claiming that a national 30% sales tax is 'fair.'"

"In what world is it fair to slam working families with huge tax increases, while giving tax breaks to the mega-rich?" Merkley asked.

On Thursday afternoon, Biden is expected to attack the GOP tax proposal as well as the Republican push to cut Social Security and Medicare in a speech at a steamfitters union hall in Springfield, Virginia.

"The president will outline the biggest threat to our economic progress: House Republicans' MAGA economic plan," an unnamed White House official toldReuters ahead of the address.

With Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House, the Fair Tax Act has no chance of becoming law, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) only agreed to allow hearings on the legislation as part of the speakership deal he struck with far-right GOP holdouts.

But progressives argued the proposal offers a telling glimpse into the Republican Party's extreme economic priorities at a time of skyrocketing inequality, large-scale corporate tax avoidance, and economic hardship for poor and middle-class households.

"MAGA extremists are testing the waters to see how far they can go in their backwards economic agenda written by and for wealthy special interests—starting with a staggering 30% tax hike on the middle class with a national sales tax that would immediately make necessities unaffordable while letting greedy corporations off scot-free from any tax responsibility," Liz Zelnick, director of the Economic Security and Corporate Power program at Accountable.US, said in a statement Thursday.

“That's only the beginning," Zelnick continued. “A growing chorus in the Republican House caucus is scheming to sabotage the economy and the U.S. government's full faith and credit unless they get deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits that keep millions of Americans out of poverty and in better health."

"When MAGA extremists openly threaten to push the economy off the cliff unless they can further enrich billionaires and big corporations at the expense of everyone else," she added, "believe them."

'The rich and the powerful don't need any more advocates': Ruben Gallego to primary Kyrsten Sinema

Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego on Monday formally launched his 2024 campaign for the seat held by right-wing Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who officially registered as an Independent in December after months of derailing the Biden administration's policy agenda and preserving tax loopholes for her corporate allies.

"The problem isn't that Senator Sinema abandoned the Democratic Party—it's that she's abandoned Arizona," said Gallego, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who represents Arizona's 3rd District. "She's repeatedly broken her promises, and fought for the interests of Big Pharma and Wall Street at our expense."

"I'm running for the U.S. Senate because the rich and the powerful don't need any more advocates in Washington—but families who can’t afford groceries do," Gallego added.

Sinema has not yet publicly said whether she plans to run for reelection in 2024.

If she does, as The Washington Post noted Monday, "Gallego's bid sets up a dilemma for national Democrats, who must choose whether to pour their considerable resources into backing a Democratic nominee for the seat or to support an independent incumbent."

Several Republicans—including failed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and failed U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters—are also weighing 2024 runs for the seat.

A recent memo by the Democratic Party-aligned firm Public Policy Polling found that Gallego is "considerably more popular" in Arizona than Sinema and "would be a top-tier Senate candidate regardless of what she decides to do in 2024."

Other polling, including a January 2022 survey by Data for Progress, has suggested that Sinema would lose in a landslide if she runs for a second term.

Sacha Haworth, a spokeswoman for the Replace Sinema campaign at the Change for Arizona 2024 PAC, said in a statement that
"we are thrilled that there's now a Democratic candidate in this race ready to take on Kyrsten Sinema and win."

"Ruben Gallego has never backed down from fighting for Arizona, and he has what it takes to win," said Haworth. "As she jet sets with the international elite and does favors for her Wall Street donors at the expense of working Arizona taxpayers, Kyrsten Sinema shows us daily that she is only out for herself, and it's time for new leadership. We will continue to make the case as to why Arizona deserves better than Kyrsten Sinema, and do everything in our power to help Democrats win this seat."

Advocates say 'hell no' as Manchin pitches social security deal with GOP

Sen. Joe Manchin provoked outrage Wednesday by suggesting congressional Democrats should agree to pursue changes to Social Security as part of a debt ceiling agreement with Republicans, an idea one advocacy group condemned as "negotiating with legislative terrorists."

In an interview on Fox Business—conducted at the annual gathering of corporate and political elites in Davos, Switzerland—the West Virginia Democrat said that "we have a debt problem" and argued members of both parties should "work together" on solutions. The senator singled out Social Security, even though the program can't by law add to long-term deficits.

While Manchin voiced opposition to GOP calls to privatize Social Security, saying such proposals "scare the bejesus out of people," he said Congress "should be able to solidify it, so the people who have worked and earned it know they're going to get it."

The problem, from the perspective of Social Security defenders, is Manchin's suggested avenue for reforms: Bipartisan congressional committees that critics have denounced as "a Trojan horse to cut seniors' benefits."

"Hell no to even a single penny of cuts to Social Security's earned benefits," the progressive group Social Security Works tweeted Wednesday in response to Manchin's comments. "Hell no to fast-track commissions designed to cut benefits behind closed doors."

Under legislation that Manchin has introduced alongside Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Congress would establish bipartisan "rescue" committees for the nation's trust fund programs—including Social Security and Medicare—and give the panels 180 days to devise "legislation that restores solvency and otherwise improves each." (Analysts and advocates reject the notion that Social Security is in financial crisis and needs "rescuing.")

The bills produced by the bipartisan committees would then be placed on an expedited path to floor votes in both chambers of Congress, with no amendments allowed.

Manchin and Romney's legislation, known as the TRUST Act, is explicitly modeled after the infamous Simpson-Bowles Commission that recommended deep cuts to Social Security in 2011. Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson (Wyo.) and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the Obama-appointed chairs of the commission, both endorsed the TRUST Act in 2021, calling the bill "important and vital."

In his Fox Business interview on Wednesday, Manchin said his legislation could be used to secure a debt ceiling agreement with House Republicans, who have threatened repeatedly to use the borrowing limit as leverage to push for Social Security cuts.

Manchin told host Maria Bartiromo that he has spoken "briefly" with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about the TRUST Act. Asked about the White House's stand against attaching any conditions to a debt ceiling agreement, Manchin said he "really" thinks the administration will reverse course and negotiate with Republicans.

Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, told Common Dreams that President Joe Biden should "reiterate his commitment to only signing a clean debt limit increase, and specifically rule out a closed-door commission designed to cut Social Security," in response to the West Virginia Democrat's comments.

"Manchin is providing cover for Republican attacks on Social Security and Medicare," Lawson said. "Democrats must stand with President Biden in his calls for a clean debt ceiling [increase] and an end to Republican attacks on our earned benefits."

Manchin's interview came hours before the federal government officially hit the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling on Thursday, prompting the Treasury Department to begin implementing "extraordinary measures" to ensure it can continue meeting its obligations as it awaits congressional action.

"The period of time that extraordinary measures may last is subject to considerable uncertainty, including the challenges of forecasting the payments and receipts of the U.S. government months into the future," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote in a letter to congressional leaders on Thursday. "I respectfully urge Congress to act promptly to protect the full faith and credit of the United States."

Lindsay Owens, executive director of the progressive Groundwork Collaborative, said it is "economically, fiscally, and morally irresponsible" for House Republicans to be playing games with the debt ceiling and "there's absolutely no reason for Sen. Manchin or anyone else to play along."

"We saw this movie in 2011 when politicians negotiated over the debt limit and ended up strangling the economy with years of devastating cuts for workers and families," Owens added. "We can't let that happen again.”

Failure to raise the debt limit—an arbitrary and arguably unconstitutional figure set by Congress—could result in the first-ever U.S. default and a devastating financial crisis, potentially wiping out millions of jobs.

Liz Zelnick, director of the Economic Security and Corporate Power program at Accountable.US, said in a statement Thursday that "whether or not the nation suffers a default crisis that could crush jobs is entirely up to MAGA extremists in Congress."

"The MAGA majority could vote today to meet the nation's prior debt obligations but instead a growing number want to manufacture a crisis to cut apart social safety nets for the most vulnerable Americans," said Zelnick. "Make no mistake: MAGA extremists plan to use national debt they exacerbated with tax breaks for billionaires and profiteering corporations as an excuse to gut Social Security and Medicare benefits for America's seniors and working people. They're dusting off an old conservative playbook: Make everyone else pay for their reckless giveaways to wealthy special interests."

Scholars and lawmakers are outraged over DeSantis’ rejection of AP African-American curriculum

Academics and Democratic lawmakers reacted angrily Thursday after the administration of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis rejected a new high school Advanced Placement African-American studies course—without even seeing its syllabus—claiming it violates the state's ban on "woke" education and "lacks educational value."

Some Republican Florida officials said they believe the African-American studies course offered by the College Board—which approves AP courses and runs SAT testing—violates the state's Stop WOKE Act by promoting critical race theory (CRT), a graduate-level academic framework positing that systemic racism is inherent in U.S. society.

DeSantis said the Stop WOKE Act, which applies to schools from the primary through university level and businesses, is meant to combat "wokeness as a form of cultural Marxism."

The law was partially blocked last year by a federal judge who rejected the state's "authority to muzzle its professors in the name of 'freedom.'"

Marvin Dunn, a prolific author and former Florida International University professor who has dedicated his career to preserving and sharing Florida's Black history, told the Daily Beast that the state's rejection of the AP African-American studies course "means an insult to me, it means an injury to me."

"Florida is doing its best to shut down discussions about race, slavery, anything having to do with a challenge to the idea that racism is still a real factor in American life today," he added.

New York University historian Diane Ravitch wrote:

Just in case there was any doubt about what Gov. DeSantis and Florida Legislature banned when they outlawed any discussion of "critical race theory," that doubt has been resolved. They do not want schools and teachers to acknowledge race, racism, or the very existence of people of color in the United States. Sight unseen, the [Florida Department of Education] has banned an AP course on African-American studies. The department claimed that the content of the course is historically inaccurate and violates state law, even though the department has never seen the course syllabus.

DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, has backed dozens of right-wing school board candidates while purging education officials who promote or enforce Covid-19 mandates. Last year, he outraged LGBTQ+ advocates by signing into law the so-called "Don't Say Gay or Trans" bill, falsely claiming that schools were promoting "pornographic" material.

Cassandra Quick, a Seattle-area attorney who is Black and transgender, told Common Dreams that Republicans like DeSantis "seek to silence the stories and histories of Black and Brown people, and of queer people, in a bid to maintain the cultural, economic, and political hegemony they've enjoyed since the inception of the United States and which is threatened by current efforts to shine the light on the realities of those they have suppressed and marginalized."

"Diversity and equity are offensive to the conservative worldview, and they will use whatever tools available to continue enforcing a hierarchy which keeps those they consider the in-group at the top, and the rest of us at the bottom, if they must abide our existence at all," Quick added.

In its brief letter explaining why it rejected the AP African-American studies course, the Florida Department of Education (DOE) said that "as presented, the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value."

The letter was issued on January 12, just days before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and days after the 100th anniversary of the Rosewood Massacre, in which white supremacists destroyed the eponymous Black town in Levy County, Florida in a murderous rampage.

Florida DOE spokesperson Cassie Pelelis told the Daily Beast that "if the course comes into compliance and incorporates historically accurate content, the department will reopen the discussion."

In response to Florida's move, the College Board told the Daily Beast that "we look forward to publicly releasing the updated course framework as soon as it is completed and well before this class is widely available in American high schools."

In a separate statement, the College Board said that "like all new AP courses, AP African-American Studies is undergoing a rigorous, multiyear pilot phase, collecting feedback from teachers, students, scholars, and policymakers. The process of piloting and revising course frameworks is a standard part of any new AP course, and frameworks often change significantly as a result."

Reacting to the course's rejection, political analyst Ameshia Cross tweeted: "Black history is American history. Striking it from [the] curriculum does students a grave disservice, and makes America weaker for it."

Corporate prosecutions hit record low in 2022 under Biden: analysis

Despite the Biden administration's pledge to crack down on corporate crime, a new analysis of Justice Department data shows that business prosecutions fell to a record low in fiscal year 2022 even as there appeared to be no shortage of wrongdoing—from healthcare fraud to large-scale price gouging.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a nonprofit data-gathering outfit, noted Thursday that out of the more than 4,000 federal white-collar prosecutions last year, "under 1% or only 31 of these defendants were businesses or corporate entities."

"This is the lowest number of criminal prosecutions of business entities for white-collar offenses since federal prosecutor tracking began for these in FY 2004," TRAC observed. "The decision to criminally charge a business in contrast to an individual for engaging in white-collar criminal activity is exceedingly rare (just 1%)."

TRAC also found that "the prosecution of white-collar offenders in FY 2022 reached a new all-time low since tracking began during the Reagan administration."

While vowing to break with its predecessor and take a tougher stand against corporate crime, the Biden Justice Department has made explicit that its "top priority for corporate criminal enforcement" is "going after individuals" rather than institutions, pointing to the high-profile convictions of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes and former JPMorgan traders.

Corporate prosecutions have been plummeting for years under both Republican and Democratic presidents, a trend that experts have attributed in part to the rise of deferred and non-prosecution agreements.

The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen pointed out in a report last year that "over the past two decades, such agreements have become the DOJ's routine method for resolving criminal cases against big corporations."

"Because of the simultaneous trends of declining corporate prosecutions and the DOJ's increased reliance on corporate leniency agreements, the agreements made up over a quarter (26%) of the cases in 2021," the group added. "While this is a decline from 2020's record-high percentage of corporate leniency agreements (32%), it remains extraordinarily high, especially in comparison with two decades ago, when prosecutors entered leniency agreements with corporate criminals only about 1% of the time."

In a separate report published in 2021, Public Citizen identified a number of major U.S. corporations bound by DOJ leniency deals that allowed them to escape criminal prosecution in exchange for reforming their practices. Corporations have often violated such agreements—and faced no consequences for doing so.

Among the corporations currently under DOJ leniency deals that are set to expire this year, according to Public Citizen's report, are Chipotle, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Ticketmaster, the last of which is currently facing a Justice Department antitrust probe.

In a September speech, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco acknowledged the sharp decline in corporate criminal prosecutions in recent years and said the DOJ needs to "do more and move faster."

But critics said the policy changes that Monaco outlined during her address—from incentives for companies to self-report misconduct to a shift away from successive non-prosecution agreements with the same company—are woefully inadequate in the face of widespread corporate abuses.

“Corporate crime—in the form of illegal pollution, fraud, reckless endangerment of consumers and workers, cartels, systematic rip-offs, and more—remains rampant, but corporate criminal prosecutions are at historically low levels," Public Citizen president Robert Weissman said at the time. "It's time to end leniency deals for corporate wrongdoers. Corporations are the ultimate rational actors: If they know the costs of breaking the law are worth it for expected monetary gain, then they will break the law—irrespective of the societal damage."

Khanna warns House GOP wants to 'hijack the entire US economy' to cut Social Security

Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California said Tuesday that House Republicans are threatening to "hijack the entire U.S. economy" and "subject it to collapse" in pursuit of cuts to Social Security and other right-wing policy goals, a warning that came as the Treasury Department prepared to take emergency measures to prevent the U.S. from breaching the debt ceiling.

"This is what the Freedom Caucus wants," Khanna said in an appearance on Democracy Now!, referring to the far-right faction of House Republicans pushing to use the debt ceiling as leverage to enact deep cuts to federal spending—a strategy that Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has embraced.

"The consequence of that is also a massive default of the U.S. economy and higher interest rates, probably a severe recession, and jolting the global economy," added Khanna, who stressed his support for expanding rather than cutting Social Security. "But they don't care. They don't care about breaking the institutions, breaking the economy."


Khanna's remarks came days after Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced her agency will begin taking certain "extraordinary measures" this week to prevent the U.S. from breaking through the debt ceiling, an arbitrary—and arguably unconstitutional—borrowing limit set by Congress that dictates how much the federal government can borrow to meet its obligations, which include Social Security and Medicare benefits.

If lawmakers fail to raise the borrowing limit due to GOP obstruction and the Biden administration refuses to take unilateral action, the U.S. could default on its debt, an unprecedented outcome that would carry far-reaching and devastating economic consequences such as the potential loss of millions of jobs.

The Washington Postreported Friday that House Republicans—who have repeatedly pledged to exploit a coming debt ceiling fight to secure Social Security cuts—are already "preparing a plan telling the Treasury Department what to do if Congress and the White House don't agree to lift the nation's debt limit later this year."

"The plan, which was previously unreported, was part of the private deal reached this month to resolve the standoff between House conservatives and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) over the election of a House speaker," the newspaper continued. "Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a leading conservative who helped broker the deal, told The Washington Post that McCarthy agreed to pass a payment prioritization plan by the end of the first quarter of the year."

"The emerging contingency plan shows how Republicans are preparing to threaten to not lift the nation’s debt ceiling without major spending cuts from the Biden administration," the Post added. "Congress must pass a law raising the current limit of $31.4 trillion or the Treasury Department can't borrow anymore, even to pay for spending lawmakers have already authorized."

In a blog post on Tuesday, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich argued that the GOP agreement outlined by the Post "could be the most economically irresponsible backroom deal in Republican history (even conservative economists are warning that the consequences could include a stock-market spiral and significant job losses)."

"Congress could defuse this bomb by simply raising the debt limit, as it has dozens of times under presidents of both parties for decades," Reich wrote. "But the MAGA radicals now in control of the House of Representatives are refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless President Biden agrees to devastating cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and other key programs."

President Joe Biden has said he would not accept any cuts to Social Security or Medicare, a promise the White House reiterated on Friday.

"This should be done without conditions," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said of lifting the debt ceiling—something Republicans readily did when Donald Trump was president.

"There's going to be no negotiation over it," Jean-Pierre added. "This is something that must get done."

Biden previously indicated that he—unlike Yellen—would not support a complete elimination of the debt ceiling, raising questions about what executive steps the White House would be willing to take in the case of a perilous impasse in Congress.

The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner wrote in a column Tuesday that it is time for the White House to "call a halt to this whole game."

"As a number of legal scholars, led by Garrett Epps, have pointed out, the 14th Amendment explicitly dispenses with the need for a separate vote on increasing the debt. Section 4 provides that 'the validity of the public debt of the United States... shall not be questioned,'" Kuttner noted. "Biden could announce that he is not going to play the Republicans' game and relitigate spending that has already been approved by Congress. The Republicans would contend that this breaching of the legislated debt ceiling is illegal, and appeal it to the high court."

"By refusing to play," Kuttner added. "Biden would signal that if Kevin McCarthy wants to tank the world economy by allowing the U.S. to default on Treasury bonds, that's on him.

"While acknowledging that such a "hardball" strategy would come with risks, Kuttner argued that "allowing McCarthy to call the tune, forcing disabling budget cuts and humiliating Biden's presidency, has even greater risks."

House Republican claims people 'want to work longer' to justify attack on Social Security

Republican Rep. Rick Allen of Georgia suggested last week that he would support raising the Social Security retirement age—a policy change that would slash benefits across the board—because people have approached him and said they "actually want to work longer."

Confronted by an advocate in the Capitol Building and asked how the GOP plans to cut Social Security, the congressman responded, "We're not going to cut Social Security."

But seconds later, Allen contradicted himself by expressing support for raising the retirement age, saying the move would "solve every one of these problems"—not specifying what the "problems" are from his perspective.


Allen is a member of the Republican Study Committee, a House GOP panel that released a policy agenda last year calling for gradually raising the "full retirement age" from 67 to 70, partially privatizing the New Deal program, and mean-testing benefits.

As Matt Bruenig of the People's Policy Project, a left-wing think tank, has explained, raising the Social Security retirement age is "just a straightforward benefit reduction being expressed in an opaque way."

"Social Security does not have one retirement age. It has 96 retirement ages, one for each month between age 62 and 70," Bruenig wrote in October. "What people call the 'full retirement age' (FRA) is just a placeholder in a formula that determines the benefit level at all 96 retirement ages."

"When someone proposes increasing the retirement age to 68," he continued, "all they are really proposing is to cut monthly Social Security benefits by around 7% at all 96 retirement ages. A proposal to raise the retirement age to 70 is just a proposal to cut monthly benefits by around 23% at all 96 retirement ages."

House Republicans have repeatedly signaled in recent months that they will exploit every point of leverage they have—including a fast-approaching showdown over the debt ceiling—to pursue long-sought cuts to Social Security under the guise of "saving" the program from a non-existent financial crisis.

During a House Republican conference meeting last week, a slide presentation indicated that the GOP intends to use its narrow majority in the lower chamber to push for "reforms" to "mandatory spending programs"—a category that includes Social Security and Medicare.

"Republicans want you to work until you die," the progressive advocacy group Social Security Works tweeted Sunday. "Shameful."

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, wrote in an op-ed for The Hill last week that "America's seniors cannot afford benefit cuts, including raising the eligibility ages for future Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries."

"Of course, the public is not demanding that Social Security and Medicare be cut. Quite the opposite: both programs remain overwhelmingly popular. A large majority of voters (83 percent) across party lines say they want to see Social Security expanded, not slashed, with the wealthy contributing their fair share in payroll taxes," Richtman continued. "Nevertheless, McCarthy has empowered a handful of ultra-MAGA members to dictate policy for the new House majority."

'You must end these activities': Nearly 700,000 sign letter demanding oil executives stop new projects

A group of climate leaders from across the globe issued a "cease and desist notice" on Monday directed at fossil fuel CEOs attending this week's World Economic Forum, which environmentalists warn will likely be used by oil and gas interests as another PR opportunity for their planet-wrecking business.

The open letter—penned by Vanessa Nakate of Uganda, Greta Thunberg of Sweden, Helena Gualinga of Ecuador, and Luisa Neubauer of Germany—demands that fossil fuel companies "immediately stop opening any new oil, gas, or coal extraction sites, and stop blocking the clean energy transition we all so urgently need."

At present, the fossil fuel industry is doing the opposite, ramping up oil and gas extraction plans even as scientists call for a rapid phase-out to prevent more catastrophic warming.

The letter, which has been signed by more than 693,000 people as of this writing, continues:

We know that Big Oil:
KNEW for decades that fossil fuels cause catastrophic climate change.
MISLED the public about climate science and risks.
DECEIVED politicians with disinformation sowing doubt and causing delay.
You must end these activities as they are in direct violation of our human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, your duties of care, as well as the rights of Indigenous people.

"If you fail to act immediately, be advised that citizens around the world will consider taking any and all legal action to hold you accountable. And we will keep protesting in the streets in huge numbers," concludes the letter.

Chevron CEO Mike Wirth and BP chief executive Bernard Looney will be among the Wall Street executives and other corporate elites gathered in Davos, Switzerland for this week's forum, an overview of which acknowledges that the climate crisis is "spiraling out of control"—though it doesn't specify that the oil and gas industry is primarily responsible.

The presence of fossil fuel giants in Davos spurred local protests over the weekend, with demonstrators accusing the industry of "hijacking the climate debate."

Speaking to journalists last week, Nakate said that "it's not hard to be cynical about the prospects for climate justice after spending a week there."

"Oil and gas CEOs are invited into the forum to greenwash their businesses," she said.

'Every billionaire is a policy failure': Oxfam blasts gathering of world's rich in Davos

As the world's corporate and political elite convened in Davos, Switzerland for the first winter World Economic Forum in three years, an analysis published Monday by Oxfam International found that the global rich have captured nearly two-thirds of all wealth generated since 2020—a period marked by a devastating pandemic, worsening costs of living crises, and continued fallout from the climate emergency.

In a new report titled Survival of the Richest, Oxfam shows that the top 1% worldwide grabbed $26 trillion of the $42 trillion in new wealth created, close to twice as much as the bottom 99% of the global population.

Billionaires, in particular, have seen their wealth explode since 2020, adding around $1.7 million to their net worth for every $1 in wealth gained by a person in the bottom 90% of the global income distribution. According to Oxfam, billionaires' fortunes have grown by an average of $2.7 billion per day since 2020.

Meanwhile, nearly 2 billion workers across the globe likely saw inflation rise at a faster pace than their wages, resulting in a real pay cut that has increased poverty, hunger, and other hardships.

"While ordinary people are making daily sacrifices on essentials like food, the super-rich have outdone even their wildest dreams," said Gabriela Bucher, executive director of Oxfam International. "Just two years in, this decade is shaping up to be the best yet for billionaires—a roaring ‘20s boom for the world's richest."

Oxfam's report also spotlights how corporations have taken advantage of crises such as pandemic-induced supply chain woes and Russia's war on Ukraine to drive up prices for consumers around the world, making it more difficult for billions of people to afford basic necessities.

The analysis finds that at least 95 food and energy corporations more than doubled their profits in 2022, bringing in $306 billion in windfall profits and dishing out 84% of it to their shareholders.

"The Walton dynasty, which owns half of Walmart, received $8.5 billion over the last year," Oxfam notes. "Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, owner of major energy corporations, has seen this wealth soar by $42 billion (46%) in 2022 alone. Excess corporate profits have driven at least half of inflation in Australia, the U.S., and the U.K."

To combat skyrocketing inequality produced by excess corporate profits and the disproportionate wealth gains of the ultra-rich—who also contribute far more to the climate crisis than the rest of humanity—Oxfam argues that governments around the world should institute "a systemic and wide-ranging increase in taxation" targeting billionaires who often pay astonishingly low tax rates.

The new report cites the example of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who—according to Internal Revenue Service documents obtained by ProPublica—paid a true tax rate of just over 3% between 2014 and 2018.

By comparison, Oxfam observes, "Aber Christine, a flour vendor in Uganda, makes $80 a month and pays a tax rate of 40%."

The aid group's report makes clear that Musk is hardly alone among billionaires in reaping massive wealth gains—much of it unrealized stock appreciation—while paying little tax.

"Every billionaire is a policy failure," the report says. "The very existence of booming billionaires and record profits, while most people face austerity, rising poverty, and a cost-of-living crisis, is evidence of an economic system that fails to deliver for humanity. For too long, governments, international financial institutions, and elites have misled the world with a fictional story about trickle-down economics, in which low tax and high gains for a few would ultimately benefit us all. It is a story without any basis in truth."

It's unclear whether the Davos summit—dominated by individuals and corporations committed to preserving and growing their wealth—will feature discussion of anything close to the tax policy that Oxfam recommends. Specifically, the group calls on policymakers to "permanently increase taxes on the richest 1%... to a minimum of 60% of their income from both labor and capital, with higher rates for multi-millionaires and billionaires."

Oxfam also urges governments to "tax the wealth of the richest 1% at rates high enough to significantly reduce the numbers and wealth of the richest people, and redistribute these resources. This includes implementing inheritance, property, and land taxes, as well as net wealth taxes."

Taxation is not mentioned in an overview of the World Economic Forum's central topics.

In a statement, Bucher said that "taxing the super-rich and big corporations is the door out of today's overlapping crises."

"It's time we demolish the convenient myth that tax cuts for the richest result in their wealth somehow 'trickling down' to everyone else," said Bucher. "Forty years of tax cuts for the super-rich have shown that a rising tide doesn't lift all ships—just the superyachts."

Corporate Democrats go to bat for bloated Pentagon budget

A group of corporate Democrats led by Rep. Jared Golden of Maine sent a letter Wednesday defending the out-of-control U.S. military budget and expressing concerns about looming attempts by House Republicans to cut it, even as several GOP lawmakers insisted the Pentagon would be safe from their coming austerity spree.

In their letter to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Golden, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), and other members of the right-wing Blue Dog Coalition celebrated the bipartisan vote last month to add $45 billion to the latest military budget proposed by President Joe Biden, claiming the extra money is necessary for "the procurement of additional naval ships at a time in which China has developed the world's largest navy" and for "strengthening the defense industrial base."

But the lawmakers voiced alarm over the House GOP majority's expressed support for capping federal outlays across the board at Fiscal Year 2022 levels—a move that would, in theory, cut tens of billions off the military budget in addition to slashing spending on education, healthcare, and other key areas.

The 12 Democratic signatories of the new letter focused their attention solely on the supposed national security implications of a spending cap, declaring "such a drastic cut in defense spending would not only undo this bipartisan consensus in support of our national defense, but would also endanger our long-term national security by injecting substantial uncertainty into the long-term defense budgetary planning necessary to ensure timely investments in personnel, procurement, readiness, and research and development."

The White House, too, weighed in on the side of maintaining the current military budget this week, calling any push for cuts "senseless and out of line with our national security needs."

But analysts have argued in recent days that such reflexive defenses of U.S. military spending don't stand up to scrutiny.

Far from a "drastic cut," $75 billion is less than 10% of the current military budget, which stands at $858 billion—much of which is likely to wind up in the coffers of defense contractors.

Progressive lawmakers, led by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), argued last year that $100 billion could and should be cut from the Pentagon budget—which has long been rife with waste, abuse, and profitable giveaways to private industry—and redirected toward pressing needs, from healthcare to poverty reduction to climate programs.

Their proposed amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act was voted down in July by an overwhelming bipartisan margin.

William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, wrote in a blog post Tuesday that "the idea that dictators worldwide are basing their decisions on whether the Pentagon budget is an enormous $750 billion or an obscenely enormous $850-plus billion is ludicrous."

Hartung acknowledged that the kinds of across-the-board cuts floated by House Republicans "are never the best way to reduce government spending" because "they mean cutting effective and wasteful programs in the same proportions instead of making smart choices about what works and what doesn't."

"By all means we should debate how the federal budget should be crafted at this chaotic political moment," Hartung added. "But we should not assume that there is no room to trim the Pentagon budget. Doing it correctly would not only make us safer, it would free up funds to address other urgent national priorities."

Global watchdog says social media giants 'directly aided' fascist insurrection in Brazil

The fascist attack on Brazil's main government complex was "directly aided" by major social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, and Telegram, the global watchdog group SumOfUs said Monday as the country's authorities continued their cleanup efforts, investigation, and arrests of suspects involved in the anti-democratic assault.

The insurrection, carried out by supporters of far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro, "can come as no surprise to social media executives, who were warned time and again that their platforms, tools, and algorithms were directly aiding a violent uprising in Brazil," said Flora Rebello Arduini, campaign director at SumOfUs, a nonprofit that has been monitoring the proliferation of election lies on social media in the South American country.

Referencing the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, which was also abetted by social media giants, Arduini added that "we've now seen this happen in two of the world's major democracies—if governments fail to respond, more will inevitably pay the price."

In late October, on the eve of Brazil's presidential runoff, SumOfUs released a report detailing how TikTok and Meta—the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp—were putting the "integrity of the election on the line through their disastrous recommendation systems."

"Far-right extremists, who are openly agitating for a military coup, are operating freely on Meta's platforms, and Meta is not only allowing them to spread their message and recruit new members, but the platform's algorithms are prioritizing anti-democratic groups, accounts, and posts," the report found.

SumOfUs estimated that Facebook ads sowing doubt about the Brazilian election and agitating for a military coup accumulated at least 615,000 impressions.

"Despite TikTok's recent doubling down on election disinformation in wake of an embarrassing exposé of the election disinformation epidemic unfolding on its platform," the October report continued, "this research shows TikTok influencers freely pushing election lies on the platform, racking up hundreds of thousands of views."

Fears of far-right violence have been high in Brazil since Bolsonaro's defeat at the hands of leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In the wake of Sunday's attack—for which at least 1,500 people have been arrested thus far—Lula accused Bolsonaro of "encouraging this via social media."

Meta said Monday that it has deemed the attack on Brazil's government buildings a "violating event" and has begun removing "content that supports or praises these actions."

But critics say Meta and other major social media companies ignored or brushed off warnings that their platforms were being used as crucial organizing hubs for the insurrection.

The Washington Postreported Monday that "in the weeks leading up to Sunday's violent attacks on Brazil's Congress and other government buildings, the country's social media channels surged with calls to attack gas stations, refineries, and other infrastructure, as well as for people to come to a 'war cry party' in the capital, according to Brazilian social media researchers."

Pointing to SumOfUs' research, the Post noted that "Facebook and Instagram directed thousands of users who plugged in basic search terms about the election toward groups questioning the integrity of the vote."

The newspaper added that "researchers in Brazil said Twitter in particular was a place to watch because it is heavily used by a circle of right-wing influencers—Bolsonaro allies who continue to promote election fraud narratives."

"Billionaire Elon Musk, who completed his acquisition of Twitter in late October, fired the company's entire staff in Brazil except for a few salespeople," the Post reported. "Among those fired in early November included eight people, based in São Paulo, who moderated content on the platform to catch posts that broke its rules against incitement to violence and misinformation."

In a statement on Monday, SumOfUs called for "a rigorous investigation into yesterday's actions, including into the role of social media platforms in facilitating the attack on Brazilian democracy."

'Should not be given refuge': Lawmakers demand Jair Bolsonaro be sent back to Brazil

Prominent U.S. lawmakers said Sunday that Jair Bolsonaro should not be given safe harbor in Florida after his supporters—animated by the far-right former president's election lies—launched a massive attack on Brazil's main government buildings, an assault that came a week after leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was inaugurated.

"Two years ago our Capitol was attacked by fanatics, now we are watching it happen in Brazil," Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said Sunday evening after thousands of Bolsonaro supporters stormed and ransacked Brazil's presidential palace, Congress, and Supreme Court.

"Solidarity with Lula and the Brazilian people," Omar continued. "Democracies around the world must stand united to condemn this attack on democracy. Bolsonaro should not be given refuge in Florida."

Just two days before his term ended and he was set to relinquish power to Lula following his failed bid to overturn the October election results, Bolsonaro flew to Orlando, Florida "with plans to stay for at least a month," The New York Times reported.

According to the Times, Bolsonaro—an ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump—has been "living in a rented house owned by a professional mixed martial arts fighter a few miles from Disney World." The Washington Post reported last month that "days after Bolsonaro's loss, allies met with Trump aides in the United States to discuss next steps. His son Eduardo, a Brazilian congressman, met Trump at Mar-a-Lago [in November] in Palm Beach, Florida."

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said Sunday that "the U.S. must cease granting refuge to Bolsonaro in Florida."

"We must stand in solidarity with Lula's democratically elected government," the New York Democrat added.

In an appearance on CNN, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) joined his colleagues in arguing that "Bolsonaro should not be in Florida."

"The United States should not be a refuge for this authoritarian who has inspired domestic terrorism in Brazil," said Castro. "He should be sent back to Brazil."

Citing current and former U.S. officials, Reuters reported late Sunday that "the most immediate threat to Bolsonaro would come if his U.S. visa were revoked."

"A U.S. consular official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bolsonaro had almost certainly entered on an A-1 visa, which are reserved for heads of state. A second source, a senior former U.S. diplomat, also believed it was almost certain that Bolsonaro had entered on an A-1," the outlet noted. "Normally the A-1 is canceled after the recipient leaves office. But with Bolsonaro having left Brazil and entered the United States before his term ended, the official suspected his A-1 is still active."

In a Twitter post, U.S. President Joe Biden condemned the attack and pledged that "Brazil's democratic institutions have our full support."

"The will of the Brazilian people must not be undermined. I look forward to continuing to work with Lula," the president added, not mentioning Bolsonaro's presence in the U.S.

Tensions in Brazil have been elevated since Lula's victory over Bolsonaro, who once declared that "only God" will oust him from the presidency.

"I have three alternatives for my future: being arrested, killed, or victory," the former president said in August.

Since Bolsonaro's defeat, his loyalists have rallied in support of a military coup, attempted to storm police headquarters in the nation's capital, and plotted to plant explosives near Lula's inauguration site with the goal of preventing the peaceful transfer of power.

Brazilian authorities ultimately secured the government buildings late Sunday and arrested around 400 Bolsonaro supporters, but not before they were able to inflict significant damage and spark international alarm over the fate of Brazil's democracy.

Lula, who was in São Paulo at the time of the attack, blamed Bolsonaro for inciting the riot, accusing the former president of "encouraging this via social media."

"Everybody knows there are various speeches of the ex-president encouraging this," said Lula, who also lambasted the "incompetence, bad faith, or malice" of the security forces tasked with protecting the government complex from the "vandals and fascists."

"We are going to find out who the financiers of these vandals who went to Brasília are," Lula vowed, "and they will all pay with the force of law."

Flávio Dino, Brazil's justice minister, wrote on Twitter that "we have all the plates of the buses that brought criminals to Brasília."

"Many were seized," he added, "and others will be."

Raskin says Electoral College is a 'danger' to democracy and should be abandoned

Rep. Jamie Raskin, soon to be the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said Sunday that the Electoral College is a "danger" to U.S. democracy and should be abandoned in favor of presidential elections decided by the popular vote.

"The Electoral College now, which has given us five popular vote losers as president in our history, twice in this century alone, has become a danger, not just to democracy, but to the American people," Raskin (D-Md.) said in an appearance on "Face the Nation" Sunday. "It was a danger on January 6. There are so many curving byways and nooks and crannies in the Electoral College that there are opportunities for a lot of strategic mischief."

"We should elect the president the way we elect governors, senators, mayors, representatives, everybody else: Whoever gets the most votes wins," added Raskin, who served on the House select committee that investigated the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Axiosreported earlier this year that some members of the January 6 panel wanted "big changes on voting rights—and even to abolish the Electoral College—while others are resisting proposals to overhaul the U.S. election system."

In its final report, the House committee stopped short of calling for the abolition of the Electoral College, something progressives have demanded for years.

The Maryland Democrat's comments came days after Congress approved reforms to the Electoral Count Act, an obscure 1887 law that governs the tallying of Electoral College votes.

"For years, legal scholars have worried the law was poorly written and in need of clarification, and former President Donald Trump and his allies targeted the law's ambiguities in their attempts to overturn the 2020 election," NPR noted last week. "In the time after voting ended in 2020and results were certified, Trump and his team argued that then-Vice President Mike Pence had the power to interfere with the counting of electoral votes because the law as it currently stands names the vice president as the presiding officer over the joint session of Congress where those votes are counted."

"The update passed by the Senate would clarify that the vice president's role in the proceedings is purely ceremonial," the outlet explained. "Importantly, the measure also would raise the bar for objecting to a state's slate of electors. As it stands now, it takes just one member of the House and one senator to challenge a state's electors and send both chambers into a potentially days-long debate period, even without legitimate concerns."

While welcoming the newly passed reforms, Raskin said Sunday that they won't "solve the fundamental problem."

"We know that the Electoral College doesn't fit anymore, which is why I'm a big supporter of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, where it's bubbling up from below," Raskin continued. "There are now 15 or 16 states and the District of Columbia who've said, 'We're going to cast our electors for the winner of the national vote once we get 270 electors in our coalition.'"

The compact—which has the goal of guaranteeing the presidency to "the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia"—has thus far been backed by 16 U.S. jurisdictions with a total of 195 electoral votes.

Last week, Florida State Rep. Michael Gottlieb—a Democrat—filed legislation that would make the Sunshine State the latest to join the compact. The bill is expected to face opposition from Republicans in the state, including Gov. Ron DeSantis—a possible 2024 presidential candidate.

Exxon sues to block windfall tax as third-quarter profits approach $20 billion

Fresh off posting the highest quarterly profit in its history, the U.S.-based fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil sued the European Union on Wednesday in an attempt to stop the bloc from imposing its recently approved windfall tax targeting major oil and gas companies.

The Financial Times, which first reported the new lawsuit, noted that the challenge takes aim at the European Council's "legal authority to impose the new tax—a power historically reserved for sovereign countries—and its use of emergency powers to secure member states' approval for the measure."

"The new tax is due to take effect from December 31 and will apply a levy of at least 33% on any taxable profits in 2022-23 that are 20% or more above average profits between 2018 and 2021," the newspaper explained.

In a statement, Exxon spokesperson Casey Norton insisted the company recognizes that sky-high energy costs are "weighing heavily on families and businesses" but claimed the tax would "undermine investor confidence, discourage investment and increase reliance on imported energy."

Reuters reported Wednesday that Exxon's chief financial officer has estimated the E.U.'s windfall tax could cost the corporation around $2 billion through the end of next year—a fraction of the company's 2022 profits.

Approved in late September amid a mounting cost-of-living crisis across Europe, the windfall tax was presented as an effort to generate additional revenue to "provide financial support to households and companies" struggling with high energy costs. Oil and gas companies like Exxon have been accused of exploiting global energy market chaos spurred by Russia's war on Ukraine to hike prices and pad their bottom lines.

In late October, Exxon announced it brought in $19.7 billion in profits from July to September, its largest-ever quarterly haul. The company also announced it would raise its dividend and expand its share buyback program, rewarding wealthy investors as consumers continue to face elevated prices at the pump.

According to a recent filing, Exxon has also been rewarding its top executives, boosting the annual salary of CEO Darren Woods from $1.70 million to $1.88 million for the coming year.

More calls for postmaster general to be fired as USPS expands electric fleet

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's widely praised announcement last week that the Postal Service will buy tens of thousands of electric vehicles in the coming years to help replace its aging delivery fleet should not be enough to save the scandal-plagued USPS chief's job, advocates said, pointing to his refusal to support a more ambitious electrification plan and his ongoing efforts to slash jobs, consolidate mail facilities, and hike prices for consumers.

"The bottom line is that any increase in E.V. acquisition at USPS is in spite of DeJoy, not because of him," Vishal Narayanaswamy of the Revolving Door Project, toldThe New Republic's Kate Aronoff. "Electrification would be proceeding much faster if we had a board that could fire him."

DeJoy, a Trump and GOP megadonor, was selected to serve as postmaster general in May 2020, and even news last year that he was facing an FBI investigation for potentially unlawful campaign finance activity during his time as a private logistics executive wasn't enough to harm his job security.

The postmaster general is chosen by—and can only be removed by—the USPS Board of Governors, a body composed of nine officials nominated by the president.

In the face of massive pressure to force out DeJoy, Biden has nominated and the narrowly Democratic Senate has confirmed five board governors, giving the president's picks a majority on the postal board and enough votes to remove the postmaster general, who does not serve a fixed term.

While Biden's nominees have raised questions and concerns about DeJoy's 10-year plan to overhaul USPS operations, calling it "strategically ill-conceived" and "dangerous," they have yet to mount a serious push for his removal.

Narayanaswamy lamented that the White House, too, appears uninterested in ousting DeJoy. The Biden administration "does not seem to care about replacing DeJoy and has more or less dropped it as a priority," Narayanaswamy told Aronoff, who argued in a column last week that "the potential of the USPS to propel an energy transition will continue to go untapped" as long as DeJoy is at the helm.

Though the new electric vehicle plan is a significant improvement over DeJoy's earlier proposal—which called for the purchase of 90% gas-guzzling trucks—"the USPS only plans to electrify 40% of its fleet" in total, Aronoff noted.

"The newly announced purchases also only represent about 10% of the existing federal fleet of cars, SUVs, and trucks, which is the largest in the world," Aronoff continued. "That means the majority of the fleet will still run on gasoline for the foreseeable future. What's more, the internal combustion engine–powered versions of the USPS's 'Next Generation Delivery Vehicles,' or NGDVs, get just 8.6 miles per gallon."

"The potential for the USPS to act as an engine of decarbonization and set industry-wide standards for electrification is vast. But DeJoy—who's talked repeatedly about downsizing and privatizing the USPS and has lucrative ties to private logistics firms—is unlikely to see things that way," she added. "It's still possible for Biden to replace pro-DeJoy members of the USPS Board of Governors, paving the way for them to replace DeJoy himself."

Two Trump-nominated board members who have defended DeJoy—Donald Moak and William Zollars—are currently in holdover years after their terms expired earlier this month, but Biden has yet to announce any new board picks despite grassroots pressure.

In late October, the Save the Post Office Coalition—a network of more than 300 public interest groups—urged Biden to replace Moak and Zollars with retiring Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) and policy expert Sarah Anderson.

Before her election to Congress, Lawrence worked for the Postal Service for three decades. Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, has written about and researched the USPS for years, and her grandfather was a Postal Service employee.

"Congresswoman Lawrence and Ms. Anderson are public servants who would bring needed perspectives and expertise to the USPS Board of Governors at a time when the nation is looking to the board to start asking the tough questions of Louis DeJoy," said Porter McConnell, co-founder of the Save the Post Office Coalition.

'Christmas truce': More than 1,000 faith leaders call for holiday ceasefire in Ukraine

Taking inspiration from the storied holiday fighting pause in the early months of the First World War, more than 1,000 faith leaders in the United States have signed onto a statement calling for a Christmas truce and ceasefire in Ukraine in the hopes that such a gesture would open the door to substantive diplomatic negotiations.

"As people of faith and conscience, believing in the sanctity of all life on this planet, we call for a Christmas Truce in Ukraine," reads the statement, which was signed by Bishop William J. Barber II, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Cornel West, Rev. Liz Theoharis, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Sikh leader Valarie Kaur, and hundreds of other religious leaders representing believers from every major tradition.

The growing list of signatories also includes Bishop John Bērziņš of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Caracas, and South America as well as Archbishop Gabriel Chemodakoff of the Canadian Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

"In the spirit of the truce that occurred in 1914 during the First World War, we urge our government to take a leadership role in bringing the war in Ukraine to an end through supporting calls for a ceasefire and negotiated settlement, before the conflict results in a nuclear war that could devastate the world’s ecosystems and annihilate all of God’s creation," the statement continues, echoing a recent call from a coalition of U.S. veterans.

The faith leaders' demand came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy prepared to arrive in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday for his first trip outside of his country since Russia invaded in February. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, a senior Biden administration official said the U.S. president would not use Zelenskyy's visit to push for a diplomatic settlement to the fighting in Ukraine, where thousands of civilians have been killed.

"He is not going to pressure or push Zelenskyy to the negotiating table, but rather, he is going to work with Congress and with our allies to put Ukraine in the best possible position on the battlefield so that when the time is ripe, they are in the best possible position at the negotiating table," the unnamed official said.

The Biden administration is expected to announce a $2 billion military aid package for Ukraine on Wednesday as Congress gears up to pass an additional $45 billion in assistance as part of a year-end omnibus bill.

Earlier this month, Zelenskyy called on Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine by Christmas—a demand that Moscow promptly rejected as "out of the question."

But the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA, the oldest interfaith peace group in the country and one of the organizers of the new statement, argued in a press release Wednesday that "the fact that such discussion is taking place reflects how palpable the world’s desire for a ceasefire is."

Christmas Truce for Ukraine (1 min statement)youtu.be

"As the war in Ukraine drags into its 10th month, with 14 million displaced, hundreds of thousands killed, humanitarian impacts being felt across the globe, and the risk of nuclear annihilation, there no time more urgent than the present," Ariel Gold, executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation USA, said in a statement Wednesday.

"As my family and I, whose ancestors are from the region, are kindling our Hanukkah lights this week, we are recalling a miracle of past days and praying that the land which in 1941 experienced the Baba Yar massacre of more than 33,000 Jews, may experience a reprieve from the violence over this holiday season," said Gold, one of the statement's signatories.

Zoharah Simmons of the National Council of Elders, another statement signatory, added that "whether it's Christians around the world preparing for Christmas or Jews getting ready to celebrate the commemoration of the miracle of Hanukkah, all of the Abrahamic faiths embrace the prophetic voice of Isaiah who exhorted us to transform swords into plowshares."

"As we enter this winter holiday filled with prayers for peace and liberation," said Simmons, "we are praying and acting for the same kind of miracle that over a century ago compelled the soldiers of WWI to put down their weapons and celebrate peace."

Schumer accused of caving to 'his Big Tech donors' as antitrust bills languish

In May, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promised an early-summer vote on bipartisan antitrust legislation that, while relatively modest, would take concrete steps to curb the vast power of Big Tech.

But with the end of the year approaching, Schumer has yet to deliver on his pledge, angering supporters of the bills who say the Democratic leader is caving to Apple, Google, Amazon, and Meta—corporate behemoths that have been lobbying aggressively against the antitrust measures.

According to a report released Friday by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, opponents of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) "spent nearly $277 million on lobbying on all issues, giving them a six-to-one advantage over supporters, which have spent about $45 million."

Furthermore, the report found that "lobbyists opposing AICOA contributed $2.3 million to members of Congress during the 2022 cycle, three times more than supporters."

AICOA, sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), is one of three antitrust bills that have been languishing in the Senate for months despite attracting support from Republicans and Democrats.

If passed, AICOA would prevent tech platforms such as Amazon from unfairly elevating their own products, an anti-competitive practice known as self-preferencing.

The Open App Markets Act (OAMA), a bill led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), aims to rein in Apple and Google's dominance of the mobile app ecosystem, a duopolistic position the companies have used to crush competition and give their own products special treatment.

Antimonopoly campaigners have long feared that Schumer's ties to Big Tech—one of his daughters is a registered lobbyist for Amazon while the other works for Meta—and torrents of campaign cash could imperil the bills' prospects in the Senate.

Donald Shaw and David Moore of the investigative outlet Sludgereported Thursday that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Senate Democrats' campaign arm, "has received bundles of campaign checks from Google lobbyist Michael D. Smith, Amazon lobbyist Brian Griffin, the PAC of Amazon lobbying firm Akin Gump, co-founder of Apple lobbying firm Invariant Heather Podesta, and co-founder of Amazon lobbying Subject Matter James A. Ryan."

"Some of the bundled donations were delivered in the third quarter of this year as the bills' sponsors called on Schumer to bring them up for a vote, including donations from Google lobbyist Smith, a member of the DSCC's 'Majority Trust Legacy Circle,' a special category of V.I.P. donors," Shaw and Moore added.

HuffPostnoted Friday that "Big Tech executives specifically targeted [Schumer] over the spring and summer in their successful efforts to delay a floor vote on the bills."

"He fielded phone calls from the CEOs of Google and Amazon in June," the outlet continued. "And in August, Bloomberg reported that Schumer had received $30,000 in donations from top lobbyists for Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet after receiving no comparable sums in the two preceding election cycles."

Time is running out for the Senate to move the antitrust bills during the lame-duck congressional session.

One possible vehicle for the measures, and likely lawmakers' last chance to pass them this session, is the sprawling omnibus spending package that Congress must approve by the end of next week to prevent a government shutdown.

Bloomberg's Emily Birnbaum reported Friday that "there's a very serious eleventh-hour push to get OAMA, the app store bill, in the omnibus."

"Both Senate Judiciary leaders have signed off on it," Birnbaum wrote on Twitter. "But it still needs Schumer and [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell's support."

Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, said in a statement Friday that "Senator Schumer's legacy as majority leader will be defined by whether he succeeds in putting the well-being of working people, honest businesses, and American democracy over the corrupting influence of Big Tech and other corporate monopolies."

"Dozens of bipartisan hearings over the last two years have detailed the broad range of harms Big Tech and monopoly power cause: the systematic abuse of working people and small businesses, the collapse of independent local journalism, the manipulation and surveillance of children, the unfair barriers to innovation and upward mobility, and the erosion of democracies around the world," said Miller. "With support from the White House and extensive bipartisan cooperation to advance important bills that would reassert Congress' authority over monopolies like Google and Amazon, Senator Schumer's legacy as majority leader is on the line.”

Fight for the Future, a digital rights group, tweeted Saturday that "these bills should pass."

"They have overwhelming bipartisan support," the group added. "If they don't pass, it will be because Joe Biden sat on his hands and Sen. Schumer did a favor for his Big Tech donors/buddies/lobbyist family members."

Dozens of climate leaders demand Democrats ditch Joe Manchin's zombie 'dirty deal' in spending bill

It hasn't been called a "zombie bill" for nothing.

After Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) fossil fuel industry-friendly permitting reform legislation was defeated for the third time on Thursday, climate campaigners voiced concern that Democratic leaders could try to cram the bill into a must-pass omnibus spending package that's being negotiated in private on Capitol Hill.

On Saturday, the heads of 49 climate and Indigenous rights groups sent a letter warning President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) not to attempt such a maneuver.

"As leaders of environmental and environmental justice organizations representing millions of members and supporters from across the country, we oppose attaching any version of the Building American Energy Security Act of 2022 to the end-of-year government funding package," the letter reads. "This deal prioritizes the interests of the fossil fuel industry at the expense of the environment and health of frontline communities, which are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, communities of color, and low-wealth communities—a move that is not in line with President Biden’s commitments to climate and environmental justice."

"Congress should instead be advancing efforts that ensure robust public engagement early in project development and strengthen the requirements for agencies to evaluate cumulative health and climate impacts," continued the letter, which was signed by the leaders of Bold Alliance, Earthworks, Honor the Earth, the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, and dozens of other organizations.

The letter was sent days after Manchin's "dirty deal"—which would fast-track fossil fuel projects and authorize completion of the massively polluting Mountain Valley Pipeline—failed to receive enough Senate votes to be added as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.

Forty-seven senators voted in favor of the amendment, well short of the 60 votes needed.

According to a recent analysis by Oil Change International, "the total annual emissions from the Mountain Valley Pipeline and currently proposed LNG terminals in pending federal permitting processes—whose construction could be facilitated by Sen. Manchin's 'dirty deal'—is 665 million metric tons of CO2e."

"This figure is over five times the potential emissions reductions resulting from the construction of 22 transmission line projects that proponents have suggested the bill is supposed to facilitate (119 million metric tons)," the group found. "The Mountain Valley Pipeline alone, at 89 million metric tons of CO2e per year, would negate 75% of that."

Ahead of Thursday's failed amendment vote, Manchin signaled that he wouldn't stop pushing for his legislation, suggesting it could be attached to the year-end government funding measure. The Biden White House supports and has gone to bat for Manchin's bill, having agreed to back it in exchange for the West Virginia Democrat's vote for the Inflation Reduction Act.

"We're still trying," Manchin, the top recipient of oil and gas industry donations in Congress, told reporters when asked about using the must-pass omnibus as a vehicle for his permitting legislation. "Every vehicle's a vehicle."

Even if Manchin's attack on bedrock environmental regulations isn't ultimately included in the omnibus, which is expected to receive a vote in the coming week, that still might not spell the end of the bill.

As the Associated Pressreported Friday, "the permitting plan is likely to reemerge in January as Republicans take control of the House."

'This is abhorrent': Climate groups fume as Schumer plans to force vote on Manchin’s dirty deal

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that he intends to force a floor vote as soon as this week in a bid to ram through Sen. Joe Manchin's fossil fuel industry-friendly permitting bill, a ploy that climate groups and progressive lawmakers condemned and vowed to defeat.

Schumer's (D-N.Y.) planned maneuver, which he confirmed to reporters Tuesday, amounts to a last-ditch attempt to salvage legislation that has thus far failed to garner sufficient support to pass Congress. The permitting bill has also drawn sustained and furious protests from environmentalists, who warn the measure would expedite climate-wrecking fossil fuel projects—including Manchin's favored Mountain Valley Pipeline—and weaken bedrock environmental laws.

"This is abhorrent," the People vs. Fossil Fuels coalition wrote on Twitter in response to Schumer's plan. "We've stopped this TWICE now because it sells our communities and planet out for fossil fuel profits. If you haven't already, please take a min to call your senator and ask them to vote against this: 888-997-5380. We cannot afford any more fossil fuel projects."

Schumer said Tuesday that Manchin's proposal—which climate advocates have labeled a "dirty deal" and a "fossil fuel wish list"—will receive a floor vote as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), sprawling legislation that is set to authorize nearly $860 billion in military spending.

Schumer and Manchin have received large donations from a major utility giant and pipeline firms that would benefit from passage of the West Virginia Democrat's plan, which critics say uses the cover of permitting reform to advance regulatory changes long sought by the fossil fuel industry.

"We're gonna vote on that amendment," the Democratic leader told reporters Tuesday. "As you know, Republicans have blocked it in the House, even though permitting reform is something that they've always supported in the past. So I hope they'll help us."

What Schumer didn't mention is the significant opposition from Democratic lawmakers in both the House and Senate. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who chairs an environmental justice and regulatory oversight subcommittee, made clear he would vote against the latest effort to revive Manchin's proposal.

"I cannot vote for a deal that cuts community non-profits out of the environmental reviews, further burdens frontline communities with toxic fossil projects, runs a fossil gas pipeline over every existing environmental law, and rigs the court system to boot," Merkley said Tuesday, referring to a provision in the bill that legal experts say would likely result in more favorable rulings for pipeline developers.

"We need improved permitting for renewable energy projects," Merkley added, "but this is not the way to do it."

It's unclear whether Manchin's bill stands a chance in the upcoming Senate floor vote, with key Republicans including Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) pledging to vote no.

In September, Manchin—who has enlisted the help of oil and gas CEOs—was forced to withdraw his permitting legislation after it became obvious it would crash and burn in a vote on the Senate floor.

Manchin, the top recipient of fossil fuel industry campaign donations in Congress, suffered another defeat earlier this month when Democratic leaders dropped their initial plans to attach his legislation to the NDAA.

"The zombie dirty deal to fast track fossil fuel projects—like the destructive Mountain Valley Pipeline—is raising its ugly head again," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, tweeted Tuesday in response to Schumer's comments. "100+ [environmental justice] orgs have spoken. The House has spoken. No one wants this deal."

"It's time to let it go for good," Grijalva added.

'Corporate greed at its worst': Utility giants report $14 billion in profits while millions of families struggle

With colder winter weather looming, a new analysis released Tuesday shows that the nine largest energy utility companies in the U.S. raked in nearly $14 billion in combined profits during the first three quarters of this year—and dished out roughly $11 billion to their wealthy shareholders—as tens of millions of U.S. households struggled to pay their utility bills due to soaring costs.

The watchdog group Accountable.US found that NextEra Energy, Duke Energy, Southern Company, Dominion Energy, Constellation Energy, Eversource Energy, Entergy Corporation, DTE Energy, and CMS Energy Corporation brought in $13.8 billion in the first nine months of this fiscal year. The firms, the nine largest in the U.S. by market capitalization, returned over $11.2 billion to shareholders during that period in the form of dividends and stock buybacks.

The utility giants' massive profits have come at a cost to U.S. households, roughly 20 million of which are behind on their utility payments as providers continue to raise rates across the U.S., pushing home energy costs to unaffordable levels and prompting warnings of a "tsunami of shutoffs."

The Center for Biological Diversity recently estimated that utilities have shut off households' power 440,000 times across 15 states that have made their rates publicly available, a large increase from last year.

"Well-heeled utility company CEOs are holding consumers' feet to the fire with exorbitant energy prices," Liz Zelnick, director of Accountable.US' Economic Security and Corporate Power program, said in a statement Tuesday. "Not because they have to, judging by their own high profits and generous giveaways to wealthy investors—but because they can with colder weather on the horizon."

"To prey on families who use a necessary service with unreasonable and unjustified rate hikes is corporate greed at its worst," Zelnick added.

The Accountable.US analysis shows that the same large utility companies raking in huge profits and paying their executives massive compensation packages are driving price increases nationwide.

Southern Company's Georgia subsidiary, for instance, "had a near-12% rate hike approved in June 2022—and in August 2022, its Tennessee subsidiary was granted a rate hike that would result in typical monthly home heating bills rising by about 25%," the analysis notes.

NBC Newsreported in October that "nationwide, investor-owned utilities have requested rate increases amounting to nearly $12 billion from the beginning of the year through the end of August."

Zelnick argued that utility giants' price hikes are part of a broader trend of corporate price-gouging, a practice that companies frequently excuse by pointing to higher overall inflation throughout the economy.

"Like so many other industries during the pandemic, utility companies have chased higher and higher profits and enriched investors rather than keep prices stable for working families," said Zelnick. "While the economy is seeing signs of slowing inflation, it is clear corporate greed continues to be a primary driver of high costs on everything from groceries to heating bills—a problem that won't be solved by the Fed's one-track-minded policy of excessive interest rate hikes that threaten millions of jobs."

Utility firms' greedy behavior throughout the coronavirus pandemic has drawn the attention of progressive lawmakers such as Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who in September introduced a resolution that would recognize access to utilities such as electricity and heating as a basic human right.

The Resolution Recognizing the Human Rights to Utilities has not yet received a vote.

"Utilities are the foundation we build our lives upon," Tlaib said in a statement upon introduction of the measure. "In the richest country the world has ever known, it is an outrage that millions of Americans struggle with utility insecurity, substandard and dangerous services, and inhumane shutoffs."

"It's time to change the conversation around what we all deserve, take the profit motive out of providing the basics of a good life, and give every American the opportunity to thrive," Tlaib added.

'The importance of this news cannot be overstated': Scientists achieve 'breakthrough' in fusion technology

After decades of experimentation and billions of dollars in public investment, U.S. government scientists have reportedly achieved a major "breakthrough" in fusion energy technology, a potential game-changer in the critical pursuit of clean, reliable, and low-cost alternatives to fossil fuels and conventional nuclear power.

Citing unnamed sources with knowledge of the results, the Financial Timesreported Sunday that scientists at a federal laboratory in California successfully produced "a net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the first time," a milestone that the Biden administration is expected to announce publicly on Tuesday.

"Physicists have since the 1950s sought to harness the fusion reaction that powers the sun, but no group had been able to produce more energy from the reaction than it consumes," the newspaper observed. "The federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, which uses a process called inertial confinement fusion that involves bombarding a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with the world's biggest laser, had achieved net energy gain in a fusion experiment in the past two weeks."

The experiment, according to people aware of the outcome, produced more energy than expected, damaging some of the facility's equipment.

Arthur Turrell, a plasma physicist and author, wrote on Twitter that "if this is true, we are witnessing a moment of history: controlling the power source of the stars is the greatest technological challenge humanity has ever undertaken."

"Scientists have struggled to show that fusion can release more energy out than is put in since the 1950s, and the researchers at Lawrence Livermore seem to have finally and absolutely smashed this decades-old goal," Turrell continued. "This experimental result will electrify efforts to eventually power the planet with nuclear fusion—at a time when we've never needed a plentiful source of carbon-free energy more!"

Leah Stokes, a political scientist and energy policy expert, added that "the importance of this news cannot be overstated."

"I've been hearing for a few months now (to say nothing of a few decades) that a fusion breakthrough was imminent," Stokes wrote. "It seems U.S. scientists have finally done it."

The world-changing potential of fusion power—touted by proponents as "the holy grail of clean energy"—has spurred an intensifying global push among governments and private interests to accelerate progress in the field, particularly as greenhouse gas emissions continue to shatter records while policymakers refuse to phase out fossil fuel development and use.

Scientists have repeatedly warned that world governments are running out of time to prevent the worst of the climate emergency, adding further urgency to fusion research and development initiatives.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), fusion can generate nearly four million times more energy than the burning of oil and coal. Sehila Maria Gonzalez de Vicente, a nuclear fusion physicist with the IAEA, said last year that "there is new confidence that fusion as a source of energy is becoming a reality, and one clear indication of this is the flow of private capital into it."

"This is happening not only in USA or U.K., but also in Europe, China, Japan, Australia," she noted. "Similarly to the speedy development of the Covid-19 vaccine, when a technology is urgently needed and attracts investment and international collaboration, it can happen much sooner than predicted."

In addition to promoting proven clean-energy solutions such as wind and solar, the Biden administration has prioritized fusion energy technology as a key tool in the fight against climate change. The Washington Postnotes that fusion energy projects "are among the front of the line for the tens of billions of dollars in subsidies and grants authorized through the major climate package Biden signed over the summer, called the Inflation Reduction Act."

While welcoming the apparent scientific breakthrough in fusion energy—which does not emit planet-warming greenhouse gases—some expert observers warned that widespread and commercial use of the technology is likely still decades away, appending a cautious note to celebrations of the historic achievement at the federal lab in California.

"This is a breakthrough in an experimental government fusion facility—using giant lasers in a lab originally designed to simulate nuclear explosions. But this is nowhere near being a practical breakthrough in any real-world setting," argued climate scientist Jonathan Foley, executive director of the advocacy organization Project Drawdown, offering an assessment of the news that others echoed.

"Every so often—for decades—we hear about a big breakthrough in fusion. But then we hear it's still 'decades away' from any practical application," Foley added. "It's been 'decades away' since the 1960s and still is."

Rail workers furious over Biden move to preempt strike

Rank-and-file rail workers voiced frustration and anger late Monday after Joe Biden—a self-described "pro-labor president"—urged Congress to pass legislation forcing unions to accept a contract agreement without any paid sick days, a step that would avert a looming nationwide strike and deliver a win for the profitable railroad industry.

"By forcing workers into an agreement which doesn't address basic needs like healthcare and sick time, President Joe Biden is choosing railroads over workers and the economy," said Ross Grooters, an engineer and co-chair of Railroad Workers United, an inter-union alliance that supports public ownership of the national rail system.

Another worker was more blunt in a text message to labor reporter Jonah Furman: "Words cannot express how fucking livid I am at this administration... people in power, LIKE HIM, would rather screw workers than stand up to fucking robber barons."

While Congress could put forth legislation that would improve the tentative White House-brokered contract deal announced in September, Biden made clear he wants lawmakers "to pass legislation immediately to adopt the tentative agreement between railroad workers and operators—without any modifications or delay—to avert a potentially crippling national rail shutdown."

That agreement, which has been rejected by more than half of the country's unionized rail workforce, does not include a single day of paid sick leave and would only allow three penalty-free days off per year for medical visits. But even that time off is heavily constrained: It's unpaid; can only be taken on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday; and must be scheduled at least 30 days in advance.

"These agreements were rejected because the quality of life rail workers and their families have today is abysmal," Ash Anderson, a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED)—one of the unions that voted against ratifying the tentative deal—wrote on Facebook. "There were no provisions to improve the quality of life for rail workers, who continue to be exploited by companies that are earning record-breaking profits while their service suffers and they cut their workforce to the bone."

Anderson continued:

I just want Americans to see the stories of these men and women, the stories of their families. I want Americans to recognize that these workers are being driven out of their chosen profession by the continued harsh conditions, callous discipline, long hours far from home, and basic lack of respect and dignity in the work that President Biden just stated was too important to allow to stop, regardless the cost.

The railroads' record profit margins are safe, their exorbitant stock buybacks and shareholder returns are secured. Americans will have all the conveniences available this busy shopping season. Rail workers will work sick to make sure it's all done, because that's what they have to do.

Shortly following Biden's statement, outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced her chamber will move this week to take up legislation requiring rail workers to accept the tentative deal and denying them their right to strike. Without a contract deal or congressional action, a strike could begin early next month.

Echoing Biden, Pelosi insisted that lawmakers are "reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process" and declared that "we must recognize that railroads have been selling out to Wall Street to boost their bottom lines, making obscene profits while demanding more and more from railroad workers."

"But," the Democratic leader added, "we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike, which would grind our economy to a halt."

The White House's intervention answers the call of rail giants and corporate lobbying groups—including the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce—that have been pushing for and banking on congressional action as contract talks remain at a standstill, with rail companies refusing to drop their opposition to workers' basic sick leave demands.

Rail unions had originally pushed for 15 days of paid sick leave, a policy that rail companies estimated would cost around $688 million a year—less than what billionaire Warren Buffett, the CEO of BNSF Railway's parent company, added to his net worth in a single day last week.

The unions have since moved down to asking for four paid sick days, but rail companies remain opposed even as they rake in huge profits and enrich their executives and shareholders. The Lever reported in September that "the CEOs of five of the largest railroad conglomerates have been paid more than $200 million in the last three years, and company shareholders have been boosted by nearly $200 billion in stock buybacks and dividends over the last dozen years."

Matthew Weaver, a carpenter with BMWED, toldThe New York Times that Biden's decision to step in and force workers to accept a contract agreement opposed by a majority of rail union members "seems to cater to the oligarchs."

"All of rail labor is going to suffer because of this," said Weaver.

Grooters of Railroad Workers United argued that Congress "should ignore White House shortsightedness and introduce the labor-friendly version of a railroad bill"—but it's not yet clear whether progressive lawmakers in the House or Senate will attempt to force amendments to the tentative agreement.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an outspoken supporter of rail workers, told reporters Monday that any legislation preventing a strike must guarantee workers sick leave.

Citing unnamed sources, CNNreported late Monday that "following House passage, Senate action could occur later this week or next."

"The Senate is expected to have the votes to break a filibuster on the bill to avert a potential railway strike, according to those sources," the outlet noted. "There are likely to be at least 10 Republicans who will vote with most Senate Democrats to overcome a 60-vote threshold. The only question is how quickly the bill can come to the floor since any senator can object, dragging out the process and delaying a quick vote."

"Sources are watching Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders closely to see if he upends an effort to get a quick vote," CNN added. "A Sanders spokesman declined to comment."

5 major newspapers push US to drop Assange charges: 'Publishing is not a crime'

The five major media outlets that collaborated with WikiLeaks in 2010 to publish explosive stories based on confidential diplomatic cables from the U.S. State Department sent a letter Monday calling on the Biden administration to drop all charges against Julian Assange, who has been languishing in a high-security London prison for more than three years in connection with his publication of classified documents.

"Twelve years after the publication of 'Cablegate,' it is time for the U.S. government to end its prosecution of Julian Assange for publishing secrets," reads the letter signed by the editors and publishers of The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País. "Publishing is not a crime."

The letter comes as Assange, the founder and publisher of WikiLeaks, is fighting the U.S. government's attempt to extradite him to face charges of violating the draconian Espionage Act of 1917. If found guilty on all counts, Assange would face a prison sentence of up to 175 years for publishing classified information—a common journalistic practice.

Press freedom organizations have vocally warned that Assange's prosecution would pose a threat to journalists the world over, a message that the five newspapers echoed in their letter Monday.

"This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America's First Amendment and the freedom of the press," the letter reads. "Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists. If that work is criminalized, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker."

The "Cablegate" leak consisted of more than 250,000 confidential U.S. diplomatic cables that offered what the Times characterized as "an unprecedented look at back-room bargaining by embassies around the world."

Among other revelations, the documents confirmed that the U.S. carried out a 2009 airstrike in Yemen that killed dozens of civilians. Cables released by WikiLeaks showed that then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh assured U.S. Central Command Gen. David Petraeus that the Yemeni government would "continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."

The media outlets' letter notes that "the Obama-Biden administration, in office during the WikiLeaks publication in 2010, refrained from indicting Assange, explaining that they would have had to indict journalists from major news outlets too."

"Their position placed a premium on press freedom, despite its uncomfortable consequences," the letter continues. "Under Donald Trump, however, the position changed. The [Department of Justice] relied on an old law, the Espionage Act of 1917 (designed to prosecute potential spies during World War One), which has never been used to prosecute a publisher or broadcaster."

Despite dire warnings from rights groups, the Biden administration has decided to continue pursuing Assange's extradition and prosecution.

In June, the United Kingdom formally approved the U.S. extradition request even after a judge warned extradition would threaten Assange's life.

Assange's legal team filed an appeal in August, alleging that the WikiLeaks founder is "being prosecuted and punished for his political opinions."

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