Saturday, January 19, 2019

“There simply is no more loathsome creature walking the political landscape than the Majority Leader of the United States Senate”




“As its first act in the new Congress, the equally new Democratic majority passed something called House Resolution 1. It was a massive anti-corruption measure aimed at restoring the credibility of American elections and safeguarding the franchises for those whose right to vote had been assaulted by 30 years of conservative mischief, both in Washington and in the states.

“It advocated a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. It proposed making federal Election Day a federal holiday, and it forbade both partisan gerrymandering and voter purges. It also mandated that the president and vice president reveal the previous ten years of tax returns. (Can't imagine what gave them that idea.) All in all, it was a clear declaration of support for the right of all eligible citizens to vote, and for their votes to have meaning.

“On the op-ed page of the Washington PostJesus, Hiatt. Really?—Mitch McConnell called it ‘a power grab’:

“‘It would also empower that newly partisan FEC to track and catalogue more of what you say. It would broaden the type of speech the commission can define as ‘campaign-related’ and thus regulate. Many more Americans would have to notify the feds when spending even small amounts of money on speech or else be penalized. That partisan FEC would also get wide latitude to determine when a nonprofit’s speech has crossed that fuzzy ‘campaign-related’ line and then forcibly publicize the group’s private supporters.

“‘Apparently the Democrats define ‘democracy’ as giving Washington a clearer view of whom to intimidate and leaving citizens more vulnerable to public harassment over private views. Under this bill, you’d keep your right to free association as long as your private associations were broadcast to everyone. You’d keep your right to speak freely so long as you notified a distant bureaucracy likely run by the same people you criticized. The bill goes so far as to suggest that the Constitution needs an amendment to override First Amendment protections.

“That's bad enough, but here comes the line that, if the WaPo opinion editors had any guts, they would have either cut from the piece, or killed it entirely.

“‘I’m as firm a supporter as anyone of vigorous debate and a vibrant political discourse — but I don’t think Americans see an urgent need for their tax dollars to be used to bankroll robocalls and attack ads, including for candidates they dislike.

“Jesus, Hiatt. Seriously? Let's ask Elizabeth Warren how firm McConnell's support for vigorous debate is. Hell, let's ask Merrick Garland how much he enjoyed Mitch McConnell's vibrant political discourse.

“There simply is no more loathsome creature walking the political landscape than the Majority Leader of the United States Senate. You have to go back to McCarthy or McCarran to find a Senate leader who did so much damage to democratic norms and principles than this yokel from Kentucky. Trump is bad enough, but he's just a jumped-up real-estate crook who's in over his head. McConnell is a career politician who knows full well what he's doing to democratic government and is doing it anyway because it gives him power, and it gives the rest of us a wingnut federal judiciary for the next 30 years. There is nothing that this president* can do that threatens McConnell's power as much as it threatens the survival of the republic, and that's where we are.

“McConnell declared himself in opposition to Barack Obama right from the first day in office. There's even video. Most noxiously, in reference to our present moment, when Obama came to him and asked him to present a united front against the Russian ratfcking that was enabling El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago, McConnell turned him down, flat. Moreover, he told Obama that, if Obama went public, McConnell would use it as a political hammer on Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Obama should have done it anyway, god knows.) McConnell issued a watery denial of these charges, but there's no good goddamn reason to believe him.

“He doesn't have the essential patriotism god gave a snail. He pledges allegiance to his donors, and they get what they want. He's selling out his country, and he's doing it in real-time and out in the open. This is worse than McCarthy or McCarran ever were. Mitch McConnell is the thief of the nation's soul” (There Is No More Loathsome Creature Walking Our Political Landscape Than Mitch McConnell (Yes, that includes the jumped-up real-estate crook in the White House))by Charles P. Pierce.



Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A New Study Compares the Investment Expenses Paid by Large Public Pension Funds




“A new study, [Public Pension Management and Asset Investment Review Commission],… compares the investment expenses paid by large public pension funds. Although such comparisons are difficult because of vast reporting discrepancies, the study still raises important questions about investment expenses of these funds—including some in Illinois…
“Among 84 funds with assets over $10 billion… by far the most expensive on the list was Illinois’ largest fund, the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS), at 1.58%, or $778.6 million…
“[T]he State Universities Retirement System (SURS), ranked 42nd with an expense ratio of 0.34% and expenses of $63.3 million, and the Illinois State Employees’ Retirement System (Illinois SERS), ranked 67th at 0.17% with expenses of $28.9 million. The average expense ratio for the 84 funds was 0.37%.
“Caution should be used in interpreting this information. As noted in the Pennsylvania report, it is difficult to precisely compare investment expenses among public funds because they are not reported consistently. This is particularly true for expenses related to so-called alternative investments that are not publicly traded, such as real estate, private equity and hedge funds.
“Illinois TRS’ ranking is partly attributable to a reporting change in FY2016 that more than doubled investment expenses, according to a spokesperson. Before FY2016, TRS subtracted real estate investment expenses from real estate income and showed only net real estate income in its Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs); the fund subsequently reported real estate expenses and income separately. Although the change made TRS’ investment expenses appear higher, it did not have any financial impact, the spokesperson said. Without the additional expenses related to real estate and other alternative investments, TRS’ investment expenses in FY2017 would have been $349.6 million instead of $778.6 million and its expense ratio would have been 0.70% instead of 1.58%...
“Besides reporting differences, funds’ investment expenses can vary due to the mix of investments. Over the past decade, public pension funds across the country have increasingly turned to higher-fee alternative investments to meet their investment return targets, but the use of alternative investments varies widely. In FY2017 TRS had 40.3% of its portfolio in alternative investments, 35.5% in stocks and 21.5% in bonds; for the 81 funds with assets over $10 billion that report allocations, the average mix was 26.2% alternative investments, 48.9% stocks and 22.4% bonds, according to Public Plans Data. (These numbers don’t sum to 100% because of a small percentage of assets in cash and other investments.)
“Investment expenses also depend on whether a fund’s investment approach emphasizes high-fee active management or low-fee indexing. As explained in the Pennsylvania study, active investing involves managing a portfolio to outperform the returns of a given market index, while index or passive investing involves investing in a set of securities to replicate the performance of a market index. TRS uses indexing for 33.5% of its stock portfolio. Illinois SERS, whose assets are managed by the Illinois State Board of Investment, has 65.9% of its total portfolio in index-type investments. In 2016 the Board of Investment revised its investment strategy to focus on indexing and reduce its exposure to hedge funds…
“Of course, even high investment expense is justified if it results in a higher return. However, the study concluded after subtracting fees and adjusting for the risk of various asset classes that low-cost investments usually outperform most managers.
“The Illinois General Assembly should consider requiring a similar study of its public pension funds. While the recent change in reporting by TRS is a step in the right direction, the public would benefit from uniform, comprehensive reporting of fees across all systems. Moreover, a systematic examination of asset allocation, investment approach and manager selection would help ensure that investment expenses are warranted.
“Although investment costs are important, neither increasing investment returns nor reducing investment costs will solve Illinois’ pension problems. At the end of FY2018, the State’s five retirement systems—including TRS, SURS, Illinois SERS and the Judges’ and General Assembly Retirement Systems—had a total unfunded liability of $133.5 billion and only 40.2% of the estimated assets needed to pay future benefits.
“Illinois is expected to spend $7.1 billion, or 18.2% of its general operating expenses, on pension contributions in FY2019. Even so, statutorily required State contributions are not expected to be sufficient to keep the unfunded liability from growing until FY2029.  
Under Illinois law, the State’s FY2020 contribution to TRS is $4.8 billion. The fund’s actuaries estimate that full funding would be 63.7% higher at $7.9 billion(Public Pension Management and Asset Investment Review Commission). These excerpts are from the Civic Federation, January 11, 2019.



Monday, January 14, 2019

"From Russia with Love"




President Donald Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House Monday [January 14] that suggestions he was some sort of Russian agent were totally ridiculous, and insisted that the entire special counsel investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election is a ‘whole big fat hoax.’
“It's in keeping with his broader approach to the question of Russia's election meddling efforts and ties between those close to his campaign and actors for foreign powers: This is all a sham. Special counsel Robert Mueller is out to get him -- as is the entire FBI. They've got nothing. (The 192 criminal counts, 36 people and entities charged, seven people who have pleaded guilty, the four people sentenced to prison and the one person convicted at trial as a result of the Mueller probe make clear, of course, that Trump is wrong.)

“But even if you ignore all of those facts about the Mueller investigation, there's still one question I keep coming back to over the last 48 hours: Why did Trump go out of his way to ensure that no records of his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin exist? These two paragraphs, from The Washington Post's Greg Miller, are staggering stuff:

“‘President Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former U.S. officials said....

“‘The constraints that Trump imposed are part of a broader pattern by the president of shielding his communications with Putin from public scrutiny and preventing even high-ranking officials in his own administration from fully knowing what he has told one of the United States' main adversaries…’

“WHAT!

“Think of that decision for a minute. The dark cloud of Russia's involvement in the 2016 election has followed Trump since almost his first day in office. The US intelligence community concluded unanimously almost two years ago that the Russians actively sought to interfere in the election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. Any number of his past associates on the campaign -- and some within his administration -- have pleaded guilty to lying to Mueller about the nature and breadth of their interactions with the Russians. His top three campaign advisers -- Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner -- met with Russians at Trump Tower in June 2016 under the promise that the Russians had dirt on Clinton. At a news conference following their summit in Helsinki, Trump sheltered Putin and Russia from blame in the election interference operations, insisting that the Russian president said he didn't do it and there was enough blame to go around on all sides.

“There's more, but you get the idea. In a vacuum, the President of the United States going above and beyond to shield his communications with the Russian president would be concerning. Given what we know about the Trump campaign and Russia, it's downright alarming.

“Now, back to my unanswered question: Why, if you are Trump, would you purposely shield your conversations with Putin even from your own aides? Why would you take notes from a translator at one encounter and urge that person not to reveal what transpired -- even to your senior aides? Why would you, as Miller notes in his story, ensure that ‘there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump's face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years.’

“That's doubly true given Trump's recounting Monday morning of the meeting in Helsinki with Putin. Said Trump:

“‘That was a very good meeting. It was actually a very successful meeting and I have those meetings with everything. I just know nothing about it. ... It was a very, very successful meeting. We talked about Israel, we talked about the pipeline that Germany is paying Russia a lot of money -- I don't think it's appropriate. We talked about that. We talked about many subjects, but I have those meetings one-on-one with all leaders including the president of China, including prime minister of Japan, Abe. We have those meetings all the time. No big deal.’

“So, the meeting was: a) great; b) no big deal.

“Even without all of the water under the Russia bridge, that would seem to suggest Trump would be totally fine with sharing every bit of his (highly unusual) one-on-one summit with Putin. And even if he wasn't comfortable sharing it with the general public, he would certainly be willing to have some record of that meeting (and others) that he and his senior staff could go over at a later date. Right? And he certainly wouldn't go out of his way to get rid of any ability by anyone other than him and Putin to know what went on in those meetings, right? RIGHT?

“Here's the thing: I don't know what Putin and Trump talked about in Helsinki or any of the other times they have huddled over the past two years. What I do know is that Russia ran an elaborate operation to interfere in the 2016 election to help Trump and hurt Clinton because, at a minimum, they believed Trump would be better for their interests. And that A WHOLE HELL OF A LOT of people in Trump's orbit lied to federal investigators about their contacts with Russia.

“Add it up and you get this: If Trump really didn't do ANYTHING wrong in relation to Russia, the dumbest thing he could possibly do is what he did -- actively work to scotch the official record of any evidence of what he and Putin have talked about over the past two years. It's literally the most guilty looking thing he could do.

“Which brings me, again, to this: If he did absolutely nothing wrong and this whole Russia investigation is a total hoax, why did Trump try to keep the contents of his meetings quiet? Why would he do that?

“To me, that's the question the press has to ask and ask and ask. Because the answer that seems obvious is one that would deeply endanger Trump's presidency. And if he is truly innocent of any and all allegations, then why lead people to believe you might not be?” (The One Giant Question Donald Trump Still Hasn’t Answered on Russia by Chris Cillizza, Editor-at-large, CNN). 




Please support House Resolution 1, introduced by House Democrats on January 3, 2019, by calling your senator and representative




“VOTING AND ELECTIONS LAWS: Voter registration would be made easier. Citizens could register online or get registered automatically, via data from driver's licenses or other government sources. For federal elections, states would have to provide same-day registration and at least 15 days of early voting. Election Day would be a federal holiday.
“The bill would crack down on efforts to take voters off the rolls or prevent them from casting ballots. Felons could regain their voting rights after finishing their sentences.
“Federal elections would require paper ballots to prevent computer tampering. State chief election officials couldn't get involved in federal campaigns.
“The bill would declare an intent to revive core anti-discrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were effectively shut down by the Supreme Court six years ago. It would also state that failing to vote isn't grounds for taking away a person's voter registration.
“CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM: Provisions from the Disclose Act would expand the prohibition on foreign political money and mandate the disclosure of the big donors behind politically active 501(c) (4) social welfare organizations.
“Digital companies, like Facebook and Google, would have to set up public databases cataloging political ad purchase requests of $500 or more and create new measures to block ad buys by foreign nationals.
“Presidential inaugural committees would have to disclose expenditures, in addition to the existing requirement for donor disclosure. This is a response to reports of unexplained spending by Trump's inaugural committee.
“A new matching-fund program would support House candidates who agree to raise only small-dollar contributions. (Similar provisions for Senate candidates would have to come from the Senate.) The public financing system for presidential candidates, largely irrelevant since 2012, would be updated.
The bill would quash "sidecar" super PACs that support individual candidates.
“ETHICS: Presidents and vice presidents would have to release their tax returns, something that happened routinely in past administrations but not in this one.
“Presidents-elect would need ethics plans for their transition teams and would have to file financial disclosures within 30 days of taking office. The bill would tell presidents and vice presidents they should act as if they are covered by the conflict-of-interest law, which actually exempts them. Again, this wasn't an issue in previous administrations because past presidents did not have the volume of business entanglements that Trump has.
“House members would be barred from serving on corporate boards. Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., is under indictment for allegedly using inside information he gained as a corporate board member.
“House members would be forbidden to use taxpayer money to pay penalties for employment discrimination. Former Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, used $84,000 in federal funds to settle a sexual harassment claim by a former staffer, said he would repay it, but changed his mind after leaving office. Congress passed a bipartisan measure in December requiring members to pay out of their own pocket for some settlements and court judgments in sexual misconduct cases.
“The Supreme Court would have to establish a code of ethics, something it has never had. The laws regulating foreign and domestic lobbying would be expanded” (NPR). 

Pass this on to your friends. Thank you.
To read more about HR 1, click here. 


Saturday, January 12, 2019

An Important Message You Can't Miss

  There are people in charge who don’t believe in science. Please join Conservation International and the fight to protect nature. WeNeedNature conservation.org/