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Sanders in Congress: He arrived in Washington an activist

Bernie Sanders arrived in Washington as an activist, not a legislator.

The Democratic presidential candidate has preferred rabble-rousing to the schmoozing required to get bills passed. So it’s not surprising that his 25-year congressional career is defined by what he’s opposed — big banks, the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, tax cuts for the wealthy — rather than what he’s accomplished.

But Sanders has chalked up his share of victories as a congressman and senator. His successes in shepherding legislation into law involve less sexy stuff such as emergency funding for veterans’ health care, help for dairy farmers and securing money for community health centers after giving up on his “single payer” health care plan.

A Vermont Independent who says he’s a democratic socialist, Sanders often has found himself on the outside looking in. Republicans controlling the House set the agenda for 12 of his 16 years there. He did, however, display a knack for prevailing, albeit temporarily, on floor votes despite the odds.

Sanders has had a greater impact in the Senate, where Democrats were in control for eight of his nine years.

A look at his legislative record:

VETERANS

Probably Sanders’ biggest accomplishment in Congress came in 2014 while chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He worked with his House counterpart, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., on legislation to improve a veterans’ health care system scandalized by long wait times for patients and by falsified records that covered up those delays.

Sanders, Miller and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., hammered out a $16 billion agreement after weeks of sometimes testy talks. At one point, Sanders and other senators refused to attend a public bargaining session called by Miller.

Eventually, the mismatched pair of Sanders and Miller, who represents Florida’s GOP-leaning Panhandle, agreed on a compromise that required the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who could not get prompt appointments at VA facilities, or who lived far from those centers.

Sanders and Miller had their disagreements, but they had little choice but to find common ground. The VA crisis was generating headlines in every congressional district as problems emerged at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide. In an election year, doing nothing was not an option.

Both men acknowledged that the bill was not what each would have written on his own. Miller wanted the VA to be able to fire senior executives without an appeal to ensure greater accountability. Sanders was wary of allowing private doctors to treat veterans, fearing it could be the first step to privatizing the VA.

Republicans say their concerns about the appeals process negotiated by Sanders have come true with the reversal of several high-profile firings and demotions by VA leaders.

The Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency that handles appeals by federal workers, reversed demotions of two VA executives accused of gaming the department’s hiring system for personal gain and the firing of an Albany, New York, medical director over patient safety concerns.

HEALTH CARE

Sanders was, and still is, a proponent of a government-run, single-payer health care system patterned after Medicare. He proposed the idea in 2009 as an alternative to the health care measure developed by President Barack Obama with Democratic leaders.

Sanders was forced to abandon the effort for lack of support. He regularly complained during the writing of the president’s health overhaul that it wasn’t progressive enough.

Instead, with his support needed to pass the measure, Sanders turned his sights upon procuring money for community health centers that provide primary care to millions of people for free or at a reduced cost. In the end, he played a major role in getting more than $12 billion for community health centers, particularly in rural areas.

DAIRY FARMERS

Sanders was instrumental in the 2009 fight to deliver money to dairy farmers struggling because of low milk prices. As the Senate considered a routine agriculture spending bill, Sanders offered an amendment to provide $350 million in emergency aid. He won a surprising 60-37 vote with help from four Republicans. Other dairy state Democrats embraced the proposal and Obama signed the measure into law.

AMENDMENTS

In the House, despite a GOP stranglehold, Sanders displayed skill in winning votes on amendments to legislation, often spending bills. These included increased funds for low-income heating assistance, weatherization help for the poor and funds for rural schools.

In most instances, however, they were temporary victories; GOP leaders reversed the outcome later in the legislative process. One exception was an amendment Sanders authored with Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., to prohibit the Pentagon from reimbursing defense contractors for costs and job cuts associated with mergers. The proposal was accepted and signed into law as part of a Pentagon spending bill.

“At a time when people are scared to death about whether or not they are going to have their decent paying jobs, they do not want to see their tax dollars going to large multibillion-dollar corporations so that these companies can then merge and lay off American workers,” Sanders said. 

Big gulp: GOP advances water privatization

“Aqua America” sounds like a water park on the shore of a great lake.

Rather, Aqua America is the second-largest publicly traded water utility company in the United States, and some day the company — or Veolia or Suez — could take control of municipal water systems in Wisconsin. 

Republican lawmakers fast-tracked AB 554/SB 432, legislation that would diminish public influence and make it easier to privatize local water supplies.

Environmentalists in the state call the measure the “Water Privatization Bill.” The Assembly approved AB 554 on Jan. 12. A Senate floor vote had not been held as WiG went to press on Feb. 10.

Current state law allows for the privatization of systems provided citizens have a say.

The process currently works like this: A municipality must adopt an ordinance authorizing privatization, then secure approval from the state Public Service Commission and then put the proposal to the voters in a referendum.

In 2008 and 2009, Milwaukee officials considered privatizing the city’s water. A coalition of community leaders, environmental groups and unions — KPOW/Keep Public Our Water — fought the plan, which would have privatized Milwaukee’s water system for up to a century.

The new privatization bill puts the burden of bringing a referendum on citizens. A municipality would adopt an ordinance but a referendum wouldn’t be held unless citizens wage a successful petition drive. And, with no referendum, the PSC would approve privatization.

Democratic lawmakers worked through January to counter the measure and try to improve the bill. In a Senate committee vote in January, Sens. Chris Larson and Julie Lassa offered several unsuccessful amendments that would have reserved some control for local citizens.

Larson, in early February, also was working with Reps. Amanda Stuck, D-Appleton, and Jonathan Brostoff, D-Milwaukee, to advance a measure — LRB 4602/1 — intended to keep water and sewer utilities under local control.

“I am appalled that my colleagues across the aisle are trying to take Wisconsin down the dangerous path of privatizing water,” Brostoff said. “A one-time privatization scheme payoff pales in comparison to risking our public safety.”

Pushing privatization

Most Americans get their household water from publicly owned and operated service. 

The polls show most Americans want to keep these services and, in Wisconsin, there’s been no public outcry from city and county officials for legislative change.

“As a member of the Assembly Committee on Energy Utilities, I did not hear testimony from any municipal leader asking for expanding the ability of corporations to take over their water,” Stuck said. “Instead, what we heard was a desire to keep control of these vital utilities local, so that decisions about how to keep a cost-effective and safe water supply are made by the local community and not by the profit-seeking shareholders of private companies.”

So, what’s driving a legislative push for privatization?

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported in late January that AB 554, authored by Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, and SB 432, written by Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, is akin to draft legislation — the Water/Wastewater Utility Public-Private Partnership Act — circulated by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

ALEC is a special interest group of businesses and politicians that has advanced a series of anti-immigrant, anti-voter, anti-choice and anti-environment measures. Much of ALEC’s funding comes from trade groups, corporations such as Exxon Mobil and right-wing organizations like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.

Proponents argue privatization is a solution for municipalities burdened by capital improvements to systems that have been under-funded due to years of deflated rates.

They also maintain that water utilities are businesses and companies can serve consumers better than government.

Some proponents of privatization illustrate their arguments by pointing to the water crisis in Michigan, where officials at nearly every level of government failed the people of Flint.

Those arguments, however, unleash a flood of opposing positions from those who see the cost-cutting profit motive as the underlying cause of the Flint crisis.

“The residents of Flint were stripped of their democratically elected authority and, in the name of saving a few dollars, have been forced to sacrifice their health in the process,” said the Rev. Allen Overton of Concerned Pastors for Social Action, part of a coalition seeking federal court intervention to secure safe water in Flint. “The community deserves accountability, transparency and justice, in addition to water that is safe to drink.”

Opposing privatization

“Government has a level of accountability to citizens that private companies do not,” stated Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. 

She continued, “Think about when you have a problem with your phone service. You typically spend hours being passed from faceless person to computer system and back to another faceless person who could be anywhere in the world. Sometimes it takes days, weeks or more to solve the problem.

“Now imagine that water starts coming out of your tap brown, your family starts getting sick and you have to attempt to get help from a faceless, out-of-state private corporation that has no accountability to you or other voters living in the community. It’s bad enough running into this lack of responsiveness when you’re talking about a phone plan. The health of your family is certainly more important than phone service, and we should treat it that way.”

The league is on record as opposing the privatization bill, as are other leading environmental, consumer and good-government groups in the state. Opponents include the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, Clean Wisconsin, the state Sierra Club, Midwest Environmental Advocates and Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

“Not just across the country, but across the entire globe, water privatization has failed to increase the access to or quality of water supplies for communities time and time again,” read a statement from Milwaukee Riverkeeper intended to motivate members to urge their senators to reject the privatization bill. 

These groups take the position that access to water is a right and water should not be a source of windfall profits. They, and national watchdog organizations, such as Food and Water Watch and Public Citizen, offer these arguments against privatization:

• Privatization leads to rate increases because corporations seek to maximize profits for investors.

Investor-owned utilities typically charge 33 percent more for water, according to Food and Water Watch.

After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, with an average increase of 18 percent every other year.

• Privatization undermines water quality, because the motivation for companies is profit, not public good. Aqua America, headquartered in Pennsylvania, took in $769 million in revenues in 2013 for a $221 million profit. The company’s CEO received $3.2 million in compensation that year.

• Privatization reduces public rights and allows the local government to abdicate control over a public resource.

• Private financing costs more than public financing.

• Privatization leads to job losses as companies minimize costs to increase profits. Food and Water Watch, which opposes any commodification of water, said privatization typically leads to a loss of one in three water jobs.

• Privatization contributes to corruption because companies can restrict public access to information.

• Privatization can contribute to sprawl because companies are motivated to expand infrastructure and extend services.

• Privatization could lead to bulk water exports or changes in water use, including sales to the oil and gas industry for hydraulic fracturing.

• Privatization is difficult to reverse.

The crisis in Flint prompted people across the nation to focus on the quality of the water that comes out of their tap and the management of their utility.

There’s also a global big-picture to consider: The World Bank predicts that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will run short of fresh drinking water. 

Wisconsin will not run short of drinking water by 2025, but who or what will control how much water costs — or where it goes?

Subcommittee defeats Tennessee bill to reject Supreme Court ruling, eliminate marriage equality

The Tennessee House Civil Justice Subcommittee this week voted down a measure that would have eliminated marriage equality in the state and required the state to defend marriage as “between one man and one woman” — even if that mean foregoing federal funding.

“As the first vote this year on the nearly 100 anti-LGBT bills being considered across 24 states, this is certainly encouraging news from Tennessee,” said Sarah Warbelow of the Human Rights Campaign. “We will remain vigilant in case this legislation should resurface in any other form, and continue to work with our local partners to fight other anti-LGBT legislation in the Tennessee Legislature.”

Chris Sanders of Tennessee Equality Project, a statewide LGBT civil rights group, added, “We are grateful that this bill will not be moving this session and remain watchful of any attempts to discriminate against LGBT Tennesseans.”

An analysis by the Tennessee General Assembly’s Fiscal Review Committee determined that passage of the bill would have cost the state upwards of $8 billion annually.

The legislation voted down today is part of an onslaught of anti-LGBT bills being pushed in 2016 by anti-equality activists around the country. At least 100 Anti-LGBT bills are pending in 24 states, including in Wisconsin.

State to state activists campaign against ex-gay therapy

Advocates for LGBT youth succeeded in March in thwarting a campaign in Oklahoma to give statutory protection to those who practice so-called “ex-gay” therapy on minors. 

No major medical or mental health associations endorse the therapy, which is dangerous and characterized by some leading health professionals as child abuse.

Republican state Rep. Sally Kern introduced the Oklahoma bill, intending to legitimize conversion therapy and provide state sanction for the practice denounced by the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association. Kern’s bill was the first of its kind and a direct response to the movement to outlaw “ex-gay” therapy for minors in other states.

“It’s not often that we can say defeating a piece of legislation actually saved lives, but with HB 1598, that is exactly what happened,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, a statewide LGBT civil rights group.

The bill died without reaching a vote in the House.

Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, said, “Stopping this bill was an incredibly important victory for LGBT youth in Oklahoma. So-called ‘conversion therapy’ uses fear and shame, telling young people that the only way to find love or acceptance is to change the very nature of why they are. Psychological abuse has no place in therapy, no matter the intention.”

HRC and the National Center for Lesbian Rights are working with state LGBT civil rights groups to advance legislation banning “ex-gay” therapy for minors. California was the first state to enact such legislation, followed by New Jersey and the District of Columbia, where a ban went into effect this year.

This year, efforts to pass legislation against “ex-gay” therapy are underway in the states surrounding Wisconsin — Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois — and also Virginia, Colorado and Texas.

“Time and again we see the psychological wreckage of so-called conversion therapy and it has to stop,” said Chuck Smith of the statewide group Equality Texas. “Even one-time champions of this dangerous technique have changed their minds as the evidence piles up that such ‘therapy’ doesn’t work and, worse, is dangerous.”

#BornPerfect

The National Center for Lesbian Rights based in San Francisco is campaigning to end conversion therapy — so-called “ex-gay” therapy — with a strategy that includes advancing legislation and public education.

The campaign is called #BornPerfect.

To get involved, go online to nclrights.org.

— Lisa Neff

Legislation would curb plastic pollution in Great Lakes

Wisconsin lawmakers may consider this legislative session bills to curb the amount of plastic pollution affecting area waters.

Evidence shows plastic microbeads getting into the Great Lakes, according to the Clean Wisconsin environmental group. The microbeads are small pieces of plastic added to products like body scrubs and toothpastes. Because of their small size, they can work through water treatment systems and into waterways and aquatic life, as well as human bodies. Once there, the microbeads keep adding up, because they don’t easily break down in the environment.

“It’s great to see these legislators proactively tackling this emerging environmental issue,” Tyson Cook, director of science and research at Clean Wisconsin, said in a news release. “Legislation like this is critical to protecting our water, our wildlife and our health, here and around the nation.”

The bills from state Sen. Rob Cowles and state Rep. Mary Czaja are based on Illinois’s 2014 law to ban microbeads. The bills would require that manufacturers phase out the use of microbeads in their products in the next few years and ultimately off store shelves. The bills are currently being circulated for co-sponsorship.

Clean Wisconsin cited recent research showing that the Great Lakes are teeming with microbeads. An average of 17,000 tiny pieces of plastic per square kilometer has been found in Lake Michigan. In addition to polluting the water, this plastic gets into fish, where it can harm their digestive systems. Chemicals in the plastic also can cause other abnormalities, and the microbeads can kickstart the process of biomagnification, which causes much greater concentrations of chemicals in animals higher up the food chain.

“While some major companies have agreed to eventually phase out microbeads, it’s imperative that we do all we can to protect our waters and reduce the use of unnecessary microbeads,” stated Cook. “Having focused on keeping pollution out of our waterways for over four decades, Clean Wisconsin is happy to see these among the first bills of the new session and help move them forward.”

Bah … Congress finishes up, members still grumbling

The 113th Congress began its turbulent life two years ago battling over whether to help Superstorm Sandy victims. They did, eventually.

By the time Congress limped out of town last week, one of its last acts was to honor the 100th anniversary of the extinction of passenger pigeons.

In between were mostly modest achievements overshadowed by partisan gridlock, investigations and sharp clashes capped by a government shutdown.

If productivity is measured by laws enacted, this Congress one was near the bottom.

Congressional and White House data showed that President Barack Obama signed 296 bills into law as of Dec. 19, the second lowest total, by just 13 measures, for any two-year Congress in records dating to the 1940s.

The session that President Harry S. Truman dubbed the “do-nothing Congress” of 1947 and 1948? It enacted over 900 laws.

Each party accused the other of scuttling bills for political purposes ahead of November’s elections, which gave Republicans firm control of the House and Senate in 2015.

Leaving the Capitol last week, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., lamented that lawmakers should have achieved more, “but that’s what we got.”

Republicans contended that Democrats forced blatantly political votes on issues from the minimum wage to pay equity that had no chance of passing.

Such tactics were “designed to make us walk the plank. It had nothing to do with getting a legislative outcome,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in an interview with The Associated Press last week.

Revamping the immigration system, tightening gun buyers’ background checks, forcing work to begin on the Keystone XL oil pipeline – they all foundered as the Republican-run House and Democratic-led Senate checkmated each other’s priorities.

Across-the-board spending cuts designed to be so painful that they would force the two parties to negotiate deficit reduction took effect anyway, attempts to overhaul the tax code went nowhere, and each chamber passed a budget that the other ignored.

The partisan impasse was complicated by conservative tea party lawmakers whom GOP leaders often found unmanageable. That helped lead to a 16-day partial government shutdown that voters hated.

It became one of this Congress’ hallmarks.

On the last day, the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed a dozen of Obama’s judicial appointees and sent the White House legislation extending tax breaks for working-class people and special interests alike.

But an 11th-hour attempt to renew a federal program helping cover the cost of losses from terrorism was derailed by retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who called it a giveaway to the insurance industry.

While Obama signed scores of bills into law last week, they were mostly minor. One honored golfer Jack Nicklaus with a Congressional Gold Medal for his “excellence and good sportsmanship.”

Through two years, the bar for accomplishments dipped so low that routine functions such as averting a federal default and keeping government agencies open seemed like crowning achievements.

As if to underscore the turmoil around him, Senate Chaplain Barry Black opened one session last year by praying, “Rise up, O God, and save us from ourselves.”

Republicans led investigations of the Internal Revenue Service’s mistreatment of conservative groups and the deadly 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Both parties decried poor medical care by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Democrats unilaterally weakened filibusters, the Senate’s century-old rule that helps the minority party block action it opposes. Unimpeded, Democrats then confirmed a pile of Obama’s stalled judiciary and executive branch nominees.

Before leaving, Congress approved legislation financing federal agencies through September, but not without revolts in both parties. Conservatives bolted because the bill did not halt Obama’s executive actions deferring deportations of millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally. Liberals rebelled against its eased restrictions on banks and big political donors.

Other accomplishments included a modest budget deal that capped spending and rolled back some government-wide cuts. Lawmakers provided $60 billion for victims of Superstorm Sandy, passed a farm bill and eased flood insurance costs for homeowners.

They provided billions to improve veterans’ medical care, linked student loan interest rates to market prices and voted to arm and train Syrian rebels.

The House voted more than 50 times to kill or weaken Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul, a law that is perhaps his proudest achievement. It voted to block the administration from curbing carbon emissions from coal-fired plants and protecting streams and wetlands from pollution, to deport many immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally and to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

None of these bills cleared the Senate.

The Senate voted on bills raising the federal minimum wage, pressing employers to pay women the same as men, letting students refinance college loans and extending jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed.

All died.

Sometimes, disputes within parties proved decisive.

Reid snubbed Obama’s bid for legislation speeding Congress’ work on trade treaties, refusing to bring it up in the face of union opposition.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, never staged debate on a sweeping tax overhaul by retiring Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., because it would have erased popular tax breaks to pay for lower rates.

“Blah, blah, blah, blah,” Boehner told reporters questioning him on the issue.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was a repeated source of headaches for GOP leaders.

The tea party freshman kept the Senate in session overnight in September 2013, saying Republicans should demand repeal of Obama’s health care law as the price for averting a government shutdown.

GOP leaders opposed that ultimatum but conservatives agreed with Cruz, and most federal agencies closed. It took 16 days for Republicans to relent.

In Congress’ final days, Cruz rebelled again, forcing a vote opposing Obama’s immigrant actions. Cruz lost this one, in a gambit that gave Senate Democrats time to confirm more Obama nominees.

Legislative scorecard: Mixed bag for conservation in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters on July 1 released its Conservation Scorecard 2013-14. About 50 percent of the pro-conservation bills supported by group were signed into law.

Of the biggest defensive measures, conservation interests were successful 75 percent of the time, according to a news release from the league.

“More than anything, this year’s Conservation Scorecard tells the story of the power of individuals to successfully protect their air, land, and water. It’s their efforts that prevented the terrible groundwater bill and both frac sand mining bills from ever seeing the light of day,” said Anne Sayers, program director for Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.

The organization said highlights from the session included bills to improve water quality and prevent toxins like lead and prescription drugs from contaminating our drinking water, all of which passed with strong bipartisan support. The biggest attack on natural resources was passage of the open-pit mining bill, which exempted iron mines from having to meet most environmental laws. The measure passed despite huge citizen opposition.

A look at the scorecard:

• Average senate score: 65 percent.

• Average assembly score: 74 percent.

• Number of “senate conservation champions,” who scored 100 percent: 10.

• Number of “assembly conservation champions,” who scored 100 percent: 35.

• Number of senators with 75 percent and higher: 15.

• Number of representatives with 75 percent and higher: 41.

• Number of anti-conservation senators, who received a zero: 0.

• Number of anti-conservation representatives, who received a zero: 0.

• Number of pro-conservation bills: 5.

• Number of pro-conservation laws: 4.

Sayers, in a news release, said, “We were happy to see glimmers of Wisconsin’s nonpartisan conservation legacy this session. And we applaud the thousands of citizens whose engagement helped to make that happen.”

She continued, “However, the reality is that we just don’t see Wisconsin decision makers stepping up to the plate to pro-actively tackle the most important issues, like groundwater management, protections against frac sand mining, and renewable energy development. Wisconsin voters are eager for true conservation leadership.”

For details on rankings, go to www.conservationvoters.org.

Report: Trend shifts to expand voting access

Hundreds of bills to improve access to voting have been introduced in the lead up to the 2014 mid election, according to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.

In just the first five weeks of the new year, 190 bills to expand voting access have been introduced in 31 states compared with 49 restrictive measures in 19 states. In 2013, lawmakers in 46 states introduced 237 bills to improve voting. Ten states ultimately passed 13 bills to expand access and eight states passed nine restrictive laws last year.

The analysis shows a reversal from before the 2012 election, when 41 states introduced 180 restrictive voting bills. Overall, 19 states passed 27 measures making it harder to vote.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act has been introduced in Congress and a presidential commission has issued a report recommending reforms to shorten long lines at the polls, expand early voting and modernize registration.

“For years, partisans have moved swiftly to restrict the right to vote. Now, given new momentum, there is a key opportunity to transform voting in America,” said Myrna Pérez of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “We will continue to monitor efforts that make it harder to vote. But it is encouraging to see so many important leaders embrace the need to fix voting.”