Senate confirms Brian Benczkowski, justice official who worked for Russian bank

by Associated Press / Jul.11.2018 / 7:39 PM ET / Updated Jul.11.2018 / 7:45 PM ET
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday approved President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Justice Department’s criminal division following a yearlong confirmation process.

Brian Benczkowski was narrowly confirmed as an assistant attorney general with a 51-48 vote. Democrats strongly opposed the nomination, partly because of his work while in private practice for a leading Russian bank. Democrats said his Russian ties could complicate special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.

Brian Benczkowski, then Republican staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sits behind the committee’s then ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in Washington, on June 18, 2009.Harry Hamburg / AP file
Democrats also contended that Benczkowski did not have enough experience in federal courtrooms to run the criminal division. The position is one of the most significant in the Justice Department, with the assistant attorney general having oversight of criminal cases involving public corruption, financial fraud, computer hacking, drug trafficking and other major crimes.  Continue reading “Senate confirms Brian Benczkowski, justice official who worked for Russian bank”

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Two Democrats challenge the payday-loan industry

With a small tweak to a federal tax credit, Democrats want to offer cash-strapped borrowers an alternative to high-priced loans. Would it work?


09/13/2017 12:00 PM EDT

Could a small change in a federal tax credit significantly reduce people’s need for predatory payday loans?

That’s the hope of a new tax bill introduced Wednesday by Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Ro Khanna. Their topline idea is to massively expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which gives low- and moderate-income Americans a subsidy for working. Most attention will focus on the cost of the legislation, which could run near $1 trillion over 10 years, although an exact estimate isn’t available. But buried within the bill is a small change that could have big ramifications for the payday loan industry, which covers short-term financial needs by charging very high interest rates.

The idea is to let people who qualify for the EITC take up to $500 as an advance on their annual payment. Normally, the EITC is a cash benefit that arrives all at once, after tax time—a kind of windfall that’s nice when it happens, but doesn’t help cash-strapped workers cover costs during the year, when they actually arise. The so-called “Early EITC,” which Brown first proposed in 2015 and built off a proposal from the Center of American Progress in 2014, would fix that by allowing workers to request an advance, an amount that would later be deducted from their lump-sum EITC benefit. In effect, the advance is a no-interest, no-fee federal loan that could help cover short-term expenses or a gap in income.

The EITC is the rare government program with support across the political spectrum: It’s a mechanism for providing benefits to low-income Americans while encouraging work, since it increases as a person’s income rises. But the way it’s paid out, as a lump sum in the form of a tax refund, has attracted critics. “Why do we have a credit that is geared towards households making between $10,000 and $25,000 a year where they are getting between $2,000 to $6,000 in one payment?” said David Marzahl, president of the Center for Economic Progress, which has proposed reforms to the EITC. “In reality, their needs are spread across the year.”

Would an advance actually work, and help relieve the burden of high-interest payday loans? In theory, the idea makes a lot of sense. Most payday borrowers have jobs and bank accounts, and they make an average of $30,000 a year, making them prime candidates to receive the EITC. (This would be especially true if the entire Brown-Khanna bill was enacted, because nearly every person earning $30,000 a year—even those without kids—would receive more than $500 in EITC benefits each year.) The average payday loan is around $375—within the $500 cap in the Early EITC—and is used to meet an unexpected expense, like a surprise medical bill, or because they worked fewer hours.

But consumer-finance advocates, who have long hoped for ways to reduce people’s reliance on payday loans, are still somewhat skeptical. Though they’re expensive, payday loans have become a big business because they fill a hole in the financial system: They get money to cash-strapped workers quickly, easily and with certainty. If the Early EITC wants to replace payday loans, said Alex Horowitz, an expert on small-dollar loans at the Pew Charitable Trusts, it needs to be just as fast, easy and certain.

“This is a group that borrows primarily when they are distressed, so they aren’t very price-sensitive,” he said. “The fact is that a no-cost advance is not sufficient to make it work. If it’s going to be successful, it’s going to have to compete on speed and certainty.” In addition, he added, borrowers must actually know that the Early EITC exists, which can be an insurmountable challenge for many government programs.

There’s reason to be skeptical that Washington could deliver Early EITC benefits quickly, easily and with certainty. The federal government is not known as the quickest of institutions, and it will have to move especially fast to compete with payday loans. To do so, Brown has designed the bill to work through the employment system; the employer would fund the money up front and later be reimbursed by the federal government. It’s an interesting fix, but workers wouldn’t get the additional money until their next paycheck, which still leaves a gap that payday loans are designed to fill. Said Horowitz, “If it takes three days or five days to receive funds, for the most part, people will pass.” In addition, it isn’t available to workers who are unemployed or who were hired in the last six months, a problem for workers whose incomes fluctuate due to job loss.

For some advocates, the Early EITC is a step in the right direction, but not the bigger reform the tax credit needs. In 2014, Marzahl’s organization experimented with spreading EITC benefits across the year, giving 229 low-income Chicagoans half their money in quarterly payments. (The other half of benefits was delivered as a normal annual payment.) Participants who received quarterly EITC benefits, the study found, cut their payday loan usage by 45 percent compared with those who continued receiving their EITC benefits annually. Ninety percent said they preferred the periodic payments over the lump-sum approach. Such periodic payments, Marzahl argued, would be a big help for recipients, but they’re a long way from anything now being proposed in Congress.

Right now, with Congress fully in GOP hands, the Brown-Khanna bill doesn’t stand a chance of becoming law, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio, have shown interest in reforming and expanding the EITC. At some point in the next few years, Congress could take a real shot a restructuring it—and the Early EITC could serve as model for an improved tax credit.

“At the end of the day what all these reforms are getting at is that at certain times of the year, American households are very hard-pressed financially to meet their day-to-day needs,” said Marzahl. “Payday loans end up becoming a way to stop the gap on a very short-term basis. Ultimately, we need something more than that.”

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Trump Is Just Six Senate Votes Away From Impeachment

Elaine C. Kamarck
NewsweekAugust 17, 2017

This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution site.

At some point in 2019 (if not sooner) a Republican Senator may walk into the Oval Office and say to President Trump: “Mr. President, we don’t have the votes,” at which point the Trump presidency will end in a resignation or a conviction in the Senate.

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This scenario actually occurred forty-three years ago this summer when Republican Senator Barry Goldwater walked into the Oval Office and told Republican President Richard Nixon that they didn’t have the votes in the Senate to save his presidency.

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Following impeachment in the House, a trial takes place in the Senate. Conviction requires two-thirds of the Senate and by my count there are already twelve senators who have shown a willingness to take on the president when they believe he is in the wrong.

If you add that to the forty-eight Democrats in the Senate (who have shown no inclination to work with this President), Donald Trump could be six votes away from conviction in the Senate.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) listen on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, 06 December, 2012. Alex Wong/Getty

Of course this assumes that the forces now in motion continue on their same trajectory and result in an impeachment vote. They are: the investigations into the Trump campaign; evidence of weakness in the Republican base ; historical trends indicating a possible Democratic takeover in the House; and, last but not least, defiance in the Senate. [1]

This last trend should be particularly worrisome for the president. Article I of the Constitution gives them the last word on the presidency. And yet instead of making friends in the Senate, Trump has done exactly the opposite.

After the Senate failed to pass his Obamacare replacement, Trump took to Twitter to denounce them as “fools” and “total quitters.” That could not have gone over well with the senators who opposed him along the way. One of them, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), arrived home to an impromptu gathering of supporters at the Portland airport who applauded her vote against the president’s replacement of Obamacare.

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Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was defiant after being called out by the president, saying “ No second thoughts at all. None,” after her vote against the president on health care. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) has been none too pleased with the efforts to repeal Obamacare, insisting that it “ does not go far enough in lowering premiums for middle-class families.”

But perhaps the most high profile opposition to the president came from Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who returned to Washington from his hospital bed to cast the dramatic and final vote killing the Republican replacement for Obamacare. After Trump, during the presidential campaign, ridiculed McCain’s seven years in a prison camp in Hanoi, the Arizona senator showed he is clearly not afraid to take on the president.

Another Republican senator from the west, Dean Heller (R-Nev.) also felt free to criticize the President and vote against him on several key issues. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) have been vocal in their opposition to the president’s budget—especially the proposed cuts in drug treatment programs.

Capito threatened to lead “a bipartisan group of my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee and in the Senate to reject those proposed cuts.” They are part of the 18 Republican senators who voted against the Trump budget.

A second major setback for the president in the Senate was passage of a Russia sanctions bill that curtailed the president’s freedom of action in adjusting sanctions—a clear signal that an overwhelming number of senators don’t trust the president on Russia issues.

As a further reflection of that inter-branch distrust, there are two bipartisan bills in the Senate which would check the president’s ability to fire the special prosecutor Robert Mueller looking into the Russia issue.

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One is sponsored by Senator Thom Tillis (R. N.C.) and Senator Christopher Coons, (D-Del.) and the other by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Senator Graham has gone so far as to warn the president that firing Mueller would mark “the beginning of the end of the Trump Administration.”

And then there is the man who used to be the president’s closest friend in the Senate, Jeff Sessions, who endorsed Trump when no one else would and became his Attorney General only to suffer weeks of embarrassing insults from the President.

Senators such as Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have defended Sessions against the president, warning that if Sessions is fired there will not be a confirmation hearing for another attorney general this year.

Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been a consistent thorn in President Trump’s side, repeatedly questioning his foreign policy appointments and insisting in an op-ed, “Make no mistake, no matter who is president or what their party is, it is my firm belief that the president needs congressional authorization for military action, as required by the Constitution.”

Finally, Senator Jeff Flake, (R-Ariz.) wrote an entire book accusing President Trump of abandoning conservative Republican principles. Flake is facing a tough re-election race, and his book Conscience of a Conservative (the same title used by his hero Senator Barry Goldwater 57 years ago), is either a Hail Mary play, a genuine attack on what Trump has done to his party, or both. In it he writes, “Never has a party so quickly or easily abandoned its core principles as my party did in the course of the 2016 campaign.”

These 12 Republicans have no fear of the president. You could probably add Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is up for re-election in 2020 and whose state also voted for Clinton in 2016. The president needs to start making friends in the United States Senate.

[1] On average, since the Truman Era, a president’s party loses more than 28 House seats in his first midterm election. (In 2018, Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to win back the House.)

Elaine C. Kamarck is a Senior Fellow in the Governance Studies program as well as the Director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. She is the author of “ Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates ,” “ Why Presidents Fail And How They Can Succeed Again ,” “ How Change Happens—or Doesn’t: The Politics of US Public Policy ” and “ The End of Government–As We Know It: Making Public Policy Work.”

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Senate’s Dirty Energy Bill Would Lock U.S. Into Fossil-Fuel Dependency for Decades

By Christian Detisch and Seth Gladstone

In the wake of Senate Republicans’ ever-deepening debacle over their flailing attempts to strip health insurance from 22 million people, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is desperate to do something—anything—to show that he can get legislation passed. To this end, he’s bypassing the standard committee review process to push a complex 850+ page energy bill straight to the full Senate floor. Perhaps not surprisingly, this legislation, the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017, would be a disaster for public health and our climate.

Despite its benign-sounding name, the bill would be a catastrophe, effectively locking the U.S. into fossil-fuel dependency for decades. This dirty energy legislation would allocate millions of dollars for the discovery and extraction of fossil fuels off U.S. coastal waters, speed up the review period required for fracked gas terminals and instruct the Bureau of Land Management to create a program to expedite drilling and fracking permits. These are shameful giveaways to the oil and gas industry—directly in line with Trump’s pro-fossil fuel agenda.

Even worse, the bill gives no mention of clean wind and solar power—precisely at a moment in our history when we need to transition to 100 percent renewable energy now. The science is clear: If we’re going to have a chance of avoiding the worst of climate catastrophes and public health crises in coming years, we need to get off fossil fuels immediately.

Thankfully, the Trump/McConnell dirty energy bill could be shelved indefinitely. After all, the Republicans are looking for an easy win, and any significant opposition from Democrats to this bill would deter them from proceeding. As of this publication, only Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, has publicly opposed the legislation.

Senate Democrats need to hear from all of us urgently—tell them to oppose the Trump/McConnell Dirty Energy Bill now.

We know who Trump and McConnell are really looking out for: their deep-pocketed Big Oil and Gas donors. But we have a chance to stop this bill and move immediately on the path to the clean energy revolution. We must each tell our senators to stand up to this dangerous bill, and publicly oppose it. Our health and the future of our planet depend on it.

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