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Amid global energy crisis, advocates press need to ramp up oil, gas production

Bipartisan support in Congress for expansion of domestic oil and gas production is gaining traction.

Biden To Sign Executive Order Outlining Path Toward Crypto Governing Principles

President Biden is expected to sign an executive order Wednesday outlining a nationwide governing approach for cryptocurrency, suggesting potential for clarity in a profitable financial market that was designed to be difficult to regulate.

Lawmakers Scrutinize Bank And Brokerage Mandatory Arbitration Agreements

Senators are questioning the impact of forced arbitration agreements in financial contracts on consumers

Senators Probe Role Of Asset Giants In Warrior Met Coal Strike

A nearly year long coal miner strike in Alabama drew attention to a handful of the largest private equity and asset management companies in the world at a Senate hearing Thursday.

House Budget Committee Democrats Urge Abolition of Debt Limit

House Democrats are considering doing away with the federal debt ceiling. But GOP representatives worry that without a cap, unchecked spending and inflation will follow.

FTC to Congress: COVID-Related Fraud, Price Gouging “Skyrocketing”

WASHINGTON – Elderberries claiming to boost immune response. Empty storefronts posing as testing clinics. Contact tracing calls that are actually from identity fraudsters. Bootleg hand sanitizer from Mexico, fake KN95 masks from China and $60 rapid tests from profiteers all over.

Coronavirus-related scams are overwhelming the government agencies tasked with solving the problem.

In the first of two hearings on pandemic-era price gouging and coronavirus-related scams, senators questioned regulators about an ongoing surge of fraud and false advertising. The House will hold a similar hearing on Wednesday, where lawmakers on the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce will consider specific legislation on the matter.

Consumer protection experts from the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau described to the committee a rising tide of social media fraud and fake personal protective equipment like masks.

“An unprecedented amount of PPE is coming through our nation’s ports,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said, pointing the finger at China.

Teresa Murray, director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Consumer Watchdog Office, cited data confirming that a majority of imported N95 and KN95 masks do not meet standards.

“There is a glaring lack of enforcement at the federal level,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). As subcommittee chair, Blumenthal admonished the FTC for not doing enough, noting the agency had only brought three cases under the expanded authority afforded to them last year.

As for profiteers, Blumenthal implored the FTC to refer more cases to the Department of Justice and other prosecutors. “The only thing these companies understand is prison time and criminal charges,” he said.

In response, Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Samuel Levine stressed the agency’s will to act. “There are a lot of people using this pandemic as a basis to prey on American consumers,” he told the committee, “and we want to make sure they pay a price and know that they’ll pay a price if they persist in their wrongdoing.”

Pressed further by Blumenthal about the agency’s record, Levine put his position more starkly.

“We want to obtain permanent injunctions against these scammers, and put them under court order for the rest of their lives,” he said. “That’s what they deserve, and that’s what we’re gonna be seeking in court.”

A Meta Problem?

Levine called the scope of the fraud problem “staggering” in an article posted to the FTC’s website in November. He cited a marketer on Facebook Live who promised their beaded bracelets would cleanse lung tissue and alleviate COVID-related breathing issues; a clinic on Instagram with hokey vitamins, injections, and “concoction[s];” a doctor who pitched the anti-parasitic Ivermectin as both a COVID-19 prevention and treatment.

In another report published last week, The FTC called social media a “gold mine for scammers” with more than 95,000 people reporting a combined $770 million in losses in 2021. The figure is nearly triple the $258 million reported stolen in 2020.

The most lucrative scam, according to the report, is the “investment scam.” A bad actor encourages users to test their luck with a new cryptocurrency or some other investment and pockets the cash. The majority of these start on social media platforms.

“Romance scams” are the second most profitable. Scammers flirt with their target, most often on Facebook or Instagram, and then ask for money.

But the most common scam by number of reported incidents is bogus online shopping products, with almost 90% of these coming from Facebook and Instagram.

Blumenthal called social media platforms a “mega mall for snake oil salesmen,” but did not call out any particular platforms by name.

HRC: Corporate Support for LGBTQ+ Workplace Equality Continues to Rise

WASHINGTON — A record-number of corporations participated in the Human Rights Campaign’s 20th annual workplace equality survey, the organization announced on Thursday. 

“We are never going to reach a destination but will always be on a path of continuously improving workplaces and setting better benchmarks that capture the needs and the requirements for the whole community to feel included and safe at work,” said Keisha Williams, the director of the Workplace Equality Program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

The 2022 Corporate Equality Index report marks a record-breaking engagement from corporations with the participation of 1,271 companies, which includes 379 Fortune 500 companies. Of these participants, 66% received a score of 100% while only 1.73% received a 0%.

The same focus on protections for the LGBTQ community did not always take center stage, but there has been notable progress since the release of the initial report in 2002.

That year, 319 companies participated in the survey, including 208 Fortune 500 Companies. 4.07% of corporations received a 100% while 0.94% received a 0%. Then as now, the HRC receives information from corporations that is later verified or conducts research from corporations that did not participate in the survey process.

With time, as a growing number of corporations have shown tangible dedication to LGBTQ equality, the HRC has continued to raise the bar so as not to allow entities to become complacent.

“It’s harder to get a score of 100 now than it was 20 years ago,” said Karen Morgan, who serves on the HRC Board of Directors and Business Advisory Council as well as the CRM Operations Manager at GE.

There are seven companies that have maintained a score of 100% throughout the last two decades despite the increased difficulty in doing so. Some companies, however, took a bit longer to receive such high marks.

Originally, Accenture North America received 86% in 2002. Accenture worked to improve its score and consistently received a 100% for the last 15 years. 

“Accenture’s been involved with the Index since its very first year: 2002. And for us, it reinforced how we can all do the right thing,” said Jimmy Etheridge, the CEO of Accenture North America. “All along the way, we have benefited from the Human Rights Campaign’s support.”

During an event to unveil this year’s findings, HRC leaders expressed pride in the progress that it has made over the last 20 years and looks forward to continuing on its mission in the future.

“While we celebrate our successes, we also know that the work must continue,” said Joni Madison, the interim president of the Human Rights Campaign. “With your help, we look forward to driving workplace inclusion and LGBTQ+ equality in the years to come.”

Lawmakers Weigh Blockchain Promise Against Energy Use

WASHINGTON — Although the largest blockchain products have drawn investment toward renewable power sources, their energy footprint is massive — and growing — according to new data that lawmakers grappled with at a Thursday hearing.

“According to one estimate, 2021 carbon emissions from Bitcoin and Ethereum crypto mining were 78.8 million tons of carbon,” said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). “Roughly equivalent to the tailpipe emissions of more than 15.5 million gasoline cars on the road.”

At issue is a type of algorithm called “proof-of-work,” which many blockchain networks use to verify and log transactions. The algorithm is designed to process transactions at a set speed no matter how much computing power is spent, and does so by gradually making the underlying calculations more difficult and energy-intensive. 

Since rewards for “miners” who contribute computing power are so plentiful (equivalent to more than $250,000 every 10 minutes globally, just on the Bitcoin network) the amount of computing power devoted to mining has been racing steadily upwards, with no real value being added for people who use the currency.

Pallone added that as of 2022, the estimated energy required to process each Bitcoin transaction could power a typical American home for more than 70 days.

 

In Defense of Consumption

 

“The requirement of energy expenditure is one of the features that allow Bitcoin in particular to maintain a credible monetary policy,” Bitfury CEO Brian Brooks told members of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. 

Brooks rejected the idea that a more versatile “proof-of-stake” algorithm, which has been implemented successfully among other cryptocurrencies, would be worth the energy savings, on the grounds it may be less secure. Based in the Netherlands, Bitfury is one of the world’s largest crypto mining hardware manufacturers.

Ranking member of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) pointed out that there may be benefits to having energy-hungry electricity buyers like crypto miners to consume electricity during hours when surplus electricity is available, and switch off during peak demand times.

“For example, cryptocurrency mining companies in Texas are enrolling in programs with ERCOT to become a controllable-load resource,” Griffith said, referring to the Lone Star State’s non-government electric grid manager. “This can provide stability to a grid, as well as lower prices for other customers.”

 

Clogging the Grid

 

Steve Wright, former CEO of the Chelan County Public Utility District in Washington state, in 2014 noticed an influx of cryptocurrency miners coming to take advantage of his county’s high-speed internet and cheap electricity. 

In the years that followed, the practice put tremendous stress on Chelan’s power grid.

“In one instance overloaded distribution infrastructure led to a fire in a vacant lot bordered by residential dwellings,” Wright told the committee in an opening statement. 

He described a hazardous instance, one of several in the county, where someone had packed an apartment unit full of computers for Bitcoin mining and walked away, operating the machines remotely.

“Whether cryptocurrency’s value to society is sufficient for a community to want mining operations based in their area was debated in Chelan County and at best left many of our customer-owners perplexed,” Wright said.

Blockchain networks have come under increased scrutiny internationally. This Wednesday, a top EU regulatory official urged the bloc, now mired in an unfolding energy crisis, to ban proof-of-work mining, telling the Financial Times the practice may imperil goals set forth in the Paris Climate Accords. China banned cryptocurrency altogether in 2021, citing concerns of money laundering and energy inefficiency.

 

The U.S. Perspective

 

The scrutiny comes at an inopportune moment for decentralized finance (“DeFi”) enthusiasts, with cryptocurrencies valued at just shy of $2 trillion worldwide and Wall Street firms beginning to embrace cryptocurrencies as legitimate financial assets. Several large securities firms have begun marketing cryptocurrency index funds. The surge in popularity won crypto market Coinbase an $86 billion IPO last April, and the company is now exploring the idea of selling “crypto derivatives.”

Lawmakers on Thursday showed no appetite for crackdowns. 

“Blockchain and cryptocurrency technology bring enormous promise, and this hearing is not meant to stifle that promise or discourage innovation,” Pallone assured the room. “But we do want to examine the potential cost of the crypto mining industry, and what can be done to address those impacts.”

Facebook whistleblower urges Congress to hold Big Tech accountable

WASHINGTON — Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before Congress for the second time on Wednesday, warning lawmakers that getting caught up in partisan battles over legislation to hold digital platforms accountable for causing harm to users is just what Big Tech is hoping for. 

The hearing is the first of two this month aimed at holding Big Tech accountable for its content, for which there appears to be bipartisan support. But there is little consensus on how to do it. 

Haugen warned members of a House technology subcommittee that Facebook, which recently changed its corporate name to Meta, wants them to “get caught up in a long, drawn-out debate over the minutiae of different legislative approaches.” 

“Please don’t fall into that trap. Time is of the essence,” she said. Haugen disclosed thousands of pages of internal documents to the government revealing Facebook’s negative effects on users. 

But during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, lawmakers spent about six hours debating a variety of ideas on how to legislatively address issues ranging from misinformation, discrimination, hate speech, censorship and the harmful effects of social media on youth mental health. 

The bills discussed at the hearing — all introduced by Democratic House members — would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1934, which allows digital platforms to host and moderate their users’ content without the threat of lawsuits. 

The broad goal of reforming the courts’ interpretation of Section 230 to hold platforms accountable for the content they distribute has bipartisan support. But lawmakers differ on the how to achieve that goal. 

Committee Chair Frank Pallone, D-N.J., expressed disappointment that his Republican colleagues did not include drafts of their legislation for consideration at Wednesday’s hearing. 

“In order to actually pass legislation that will begin to hold these platforms accountable, we must work together, and I urge my colleagues not to close the door on bipartisanship for an issue that is so critical,” Pallone said.  

The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers from Washington, said tech companies are censoring political speech, especially conservative voices, on their platforms that should be constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. 

Rodgers said she is working on legislation that would remove protections for companies when they take down constitutionally protected speech. 

But Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, said freedom of speech does not mean freedom from the consequences of speech, especially if the information is untrue or harmful.  

Facebook redesigned its algorithm in 2018 to prioritize content that is most likely to be shared by others, Haugen said. While Facebook said the purpose was to prioritize “meaningful social interactions,” she said the platform’s algorithm ends up prioritizing the most provocative content that will get the most clicks and shares — often including hate speech and misinformation. 

Robinson said that Facebook’s algorithm disproportionately harms people of color by using personal information in targeting ads that limit information about voting, housing and job opportunities. He also said the algorithm subjects people of color to larger amounts of misinformation than white users. 

Two bills discussed during the hearing, the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act and the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act of 2021, would allow companies to be held liable when they use personalized algorithms to recommend harmful content. A third, the Civil Rights Modernization Act of 2021, would clarify that platforms are not shielded from lawsuits for civil rights violations from targeted advertising.  

Robinson called on Congress in his written testimony to take antitrust action against Big Tech companies and work toward ending their concentration of power and suppression of competition in the industry.  

He applauded the committee’s efforts to include funding in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act to create a Privacy Bureau at the Federal Trade Commission and to fund the FTC’s antitrust fights. 

Scott Wallsten, president and senior fellow of the Technology Policy Institute, said in an interview that people view Facebook as having such a large share of the market that there are overlapping motivations between Section 230 reform and antitrust reform. Still, he said the two issues should be addressed separately.  

At a panel event hosted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, Wallsten joined several other economists and lawyers in discussing how Congress can act more constructively on antitrust — including several pieces of legislation in both the House and Senate. 

Though the panelists had varying levels of support for the bills, they agreed that more funding for government agencies would create more effective antitrust efforts. In addition to funds allocated in the Build Back Better Act, the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act would authorize $252 million for the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice and $418 million for the FTC. 

Wallston said that agreeing on reforms to Section 230 is difficult because platforms can never make all of their users happy when they moderate content on a website. 

“There will always be people who want things down (on a site) that stay up and other people who want things that come down,” he said. “And because we have so many different preferences, there’s just not going to be stable equilibrium.” 

Black LGBTQ+ leaders call for elimination of economic barriers

WASHINGTON — Black members of the LGBTQ+ community Tuesday asked members of Congress to pass civil rights legislation and create greater visibility for LGBTQ+ people of color, saying they face greater barriers in banking, buying a home and other financial transactions than white LGBTQ+ Americans.

The hearing held by the House Financial Services’ Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion, centered around discrimination in the financial services industry in relation to banking, housing, employment and lending — barriers that are exacerbated for LGBTQ+ people of color.

Nearly half of LGBTQ+ workers in the U.S. report experiencing unfair treatment at work at some point in their lives, according to The Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law. In the banking industry, many LGBTQ+ individuals who want to use a preferred name for bank accounts and credit cards face lengthy procedures in comparison to those changing their last names for marriage, said advocates at the hearing.

For LGBTQ+ people of color trying to rent or purchase a home, 44% report facing discrimination, compared with 32% of white LGBTQ respondents, according to a 2020 Center for American Progress survey.

Though the Supreme Court ruled last summer in Bostock v. Clayton County that employers cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBTQ+ individuals are waiting on the passage of the Equality Act to enshrine LGBTQ+ protections in law.

While the Biden administration supports protections for the LGBTQ+ community, interpretation can change under new administrations or new court decisions, said David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, making passing the Equality Act even more vital.

Subcommittee Chair Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, said 27 states do not have explicit statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Equality Act, which passed the House in February but has yet to come to a vote in the Senate, would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to explicitly prohibit discrimination for the LGBTQ+ community in employment, housing, education, banking, federally funded programs and more.

LGBTQ+ advocates also asked Congress members to work with the Biden administration toward greater visibility in government survey data.

Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker, a transgender women’s support group facilitator, said that anytime federal agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development collect demographic data, they need to include data on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“If we are not counted, we don’t count,” she said in her written testimony.

Johns added that asking for detailed demographic data on surveys could allow government officials to filter the data based on intersecting identities, and better understand unique challenges in the LGBTQ+ community.

Naomi Goldberg, LGBTQ program director at the Movement Advancement Project, said in a phone interview that U.S.’s current civil rights laws do not effectively address discrimination concerns for people with multiple intersecting identities, like race and gender expression or race and sexual orientation.

“The challenge is that often people are asked, ‘Was the discrimination because of your race, or was it because you’re LGBTQ?’” she said. “People shouldn’t have to disentangle all of those things, but rather say, ‘It was both because of my race and because I’m gay, for example, that this discrimination happened to me.”


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Key House Democrat wants to ratchet up law aimed at Chinese companies listed on U.S. exchanges

WASHINGTON — Beijing’s refusal to allow U.S. government oversight of Chinese companies whose stocks are traded on American exchanges increases risks for investors, the chairman of a House Financial Services subcommittee said Tuesday as he backed changes to a new law that targets this matter.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who heads the investor protection subcommittee, said he has started drafting a bill that would require foreign companies to comply with the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board audit process within two years instead of the current three years. If they don’t comply, they would be delisted from the exchanges.

The existing three-year threshold stems from the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act. That’s a law that a divided Washington enacted last year, with Sherman among those championing the Beijing-focused measure.

Most China-based companies cannot accept investments that would lead to foreign ownership of the company due to Chinese governmental regulations. Therefore, many of those companies turned to a variable interest entity structure to raise capital in the U.S., according to a memo from the House Financial Services Committee’s staff.

The VIE structure prevents foreign ownership of China-based companies but offers economic benefits to foreign investors, the memo says. The original China-based operating company creates an offshore shell company and a new company in China owned by the offshore shell company to imitate equity ownership, although it would not be ownership for the foreign investors.

Sherman said people should understand that investors are not shareholders within the VIE structure. They might not have any right to elect the board, which could put the interests of the Chinese Communist Party above those of the people that elect the board.

“Even if the board seeks to deploy the assets of the company to further the interests of shareholders, the government is free to sanction, seize, redirect — all without the protections of a legal system designed to protect private property,” Sherman said during a hearing on Tuesday. “So we’ve got a lot to do to protect American investors who invest in China.”

Congress created the PCAOB in 2002, establishing a watchdog that conducts independent, external oversight of the auditors of public companies. However, Beijing blocks the PCAOB from inspecting audits of Chinese companies that trade on U.S. exchanges.

Eric Lorber, senior director of the Center on Economic and Financial Power at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told the subcommittee that transparency in the global financial system is crucial to protecting U.S. national security and the financial system, and many Chinese companies lack such transparency, impeding American investors from making informed decisions.

He said the U.S. government should “consider the use of narrowly targeted sanctions, which offer a well-established tool to ensure U.S. companies and U.S. national security are protected.”

The U.S. could use sanction tools to target specific Chinese companies whose activities present security risks to the country, Lorber said during Tuesday’s hearing. The sanctions could limit these companies’ access to U.S. markets.

Separately, Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Virginia Democrat, has introduced a bill that would require issuers of securities to disclose their activities related to China’s Xinjiang region. The measure was referred to the House Financial Services Committee. Beijing is accused of using forced labor in that region, as well as holding more than 1 million members of mostly Muslim ethnic groups in detention camps.


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Small Business owners urge Congress to fix labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, calling them a threat to expansion

WASHINGTON – Executives representing small businesses from home construction to candy manufacture told a House Small Business Subcommittee Wednesday that supply chain disruptions and labor shortages are hampering their efforts to grow their businesses.

John C. Fowke, owner of a home construction company in Florida, said he ordered windows last November but they didn’t arrive until June, stalling the next steps in his construction projects.

“Everybody that works in this industry is in dire need of added labor,” said Fowke, who was testifying on behalf of the National Association of Home Builders. “We’ve got to do something about the labor situation that will help us with the supply chain.”

House Small Business Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Regulations Chairman Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., said small businesses have limited inventories compared with big companies, meaning they cannot afford to wait months for supplies, and the higher shipping costs during the pandemic also hurt small businesses.

Christine Lahtinen, president of Maud Borup Inc. based in Plymouth, Michigan, said her 100-year-old candy manufacturing company currently has 200 employees, approximately 100 below the optimal number.

“My business faces a dire shortage of workers,” Lahtinen said. “Since December 2020, we have instituted a 36% hourly salary increase and we still have trouble recruiting workers.”

Subcommittee members on both sides of the aisle agreed that labor shortages contribute to supply chain disruptions, but Republicans and Democrats disagreed on governmental actions that would encourage more people to join the workforce.

Rep. Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn., suggested the government should stop putting money into the economy, saying it leads to inflation. Instead, he proposed Congress pass his legislation to help people get technical training in vocational colleges.

“I’m a proponent of transition wages, whatever we have to do in order to give people the incentive to get back to work. It’s much more compassionate than having people dependent on the government,” Hagedorn said.

But Phillips said the government should find solutions to make the supply chain more resilient and “look to existing measures that we can utilize to help small businesses with issues surrounding supply chain and foreign trade.”

The Biden administration launched the Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force in June to strengthen domestic supply chains. In October, the administration also announced commitments to move products faster by extending the operation hours at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle 40% of containers entering the U.S.

Phillips added the Small Business Administration’s State Trade Expansion Program (STEP) could help entrepreneurs market and sell their products overseas, which could stimulate the U.S. economy.

Kevin Loe, director of customer engagement at Redi-Rock International, a retaining wall manufacturer based in Michigan, said the company went from almost zero export sales to a global market leader in the industry thanks to STEP.

“STEP was a catalyst for us to invest our time and resources into international trade,” Loe said. “These exports have allowed us the freedom to get good-paying, hard-working jobs, diversify our sales, increase our market share.”

‘Retail redlining’ or small-business cost-saver? Lawmakers debate the impact of going cashless

Businesses should not be allowed to refuse to accept cash because it hurts vulnerable populations, Democrats on a House Financial Services subcommittee said Thursday, as Republicans said using cash increases operating costs for small retailers.

A bill co-sponsored by Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Texas Democrat and member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, would make it illegal for retailers to refuse to accept cash for in-person payments.

The U.S. is increasingly moving away from cash. A study by the Federal Reserve in October 2020 found that cash use accounted for 19% of payments, down seven percentage points from 2019. More and more retailers, meanwhile, are going cashless. The trend away from cash has been accelerated by the pandemic, with rapid growth of online and contactless payment methods, according to a study by Square SQ, +0.64%, an online payment company.

A 2019 survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, meanwhile, found that 5.4% of U.S. households don’t have a bank account, with low-income, Black and Hispanic households being more likely to be unaffiliated with a bank. Among the unbanked, the top reason cited was not having enough money to meet the minimum balance requirements.

For one subcommittee member, the issue was personal.

“I’m a congresswoman who’s been unbanked,” said Rep. Nikema Williams, a Georgia Democrat. “I’ve been that person who’s had to rely on cash to get by.”

Garcia said if the economy goes cashless, “there are poor people that are not going to be able to access those basic necessities of life.”

“I mean, even something as simple as handing the cash to a child to get their meal at the school, being able to pay a cash bond when one of their friends or loved ones is in jail, being able to even just put the cash in an offertory basket at church,” she said. “Those things cannot be done with a credit card.”

Beverly Brown Ruggia, the financial justice program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, said in testimony that businesses refusing to accept cash amounts to “retail redlining.”

“Instead of a red line around a neighborhood,” she told lawmakers, “there are millions of red lines around individual customers shopping on Main Street every day, which deny them access to goods and services despite having perfectly sufficient U.S. legal tender to spend.”

The National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the top Republican on the subcommittee, said having to hold cash increases costs for retailers and puts them at greater risk of robbery.

“My office has received calls from small businesses across the country that for the most part prefer not to hold cash, and would oppose any federal law that would require them to accept cash as a payment,” Emmer said.

Todd Zywicki, a George Mason University law professor and a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, testified that accepting cash payments increases labor and equipment costs for retailers. Zywicki said requiring businesses to accept cash would essentially constitute a tax on retailers, especially new ones that haven’t yet invested in the infrastructure necessary for handling cash payments.

“Rather than propping up cash,” Zywicki said, “it would be better to look at the factors that are excluding consumers and promote greater competition and innovation to open and expand electronic payments to other consumers.”


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Slain journalist’s father asks Facebook to take down videos of her murder

WASHINGTON — In August 2015, television reporter Alison Parker was live on air when a gunman approached her and killed her along with her cameraman Adam Ward. Despite multiple attempts from her father Andy Parker to take down videos of her final moments, people can still find these videos on Facebook and Instagram.

Andy Parker asked the Federal Trade Commission to “bring an enforcement action against Facebook” in a complaint, so that Facebook would remove the videos. Parker said he has never watched the videos himself.

“If I could have a sit-down meeting with (Mark Zuckerberg), I would say, you know, it’s time for you to do the right thing, stop being a sociopath, do the right thing,” Parker said.

 

Washington’s tourism industry faces shutdowns from COVID-19

WASHINGTON — Reading a map with her back to the Washington Monument, Anne Basanese, a grandmother on vacation from Massachusetts, prepared herself to respond to the novel coronavirus by cutting her trip a day short.

“We pushed our luck coming here and we’re fine, but I’m just not having fun anymore,” said Basanese, who is asthmatic and at increased health risk from the virus. “I’ve watched the numbers go up dramatically, and nobody knows what they’re doing.”

As COVID-19 has reached all 50 states and the District of Columbia on Tuesday, the Capitol and the Smithsonian museums have closed as have numerous other D.C. museums and nightclubs. The city’s restaurants are operating under severe restrictions.

As of Tuesday morning, there were 112 confirmed cases of the fatal respiratory virus in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, with 22 in Washington itself.

Starting Monday night, restaurants and bars were banned from table service to “slow the spread,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a news conference.

“When we slow the spread of COVID, we prevent our hospital and health care facilities from getting overwhelmed,” she said.

Washington restaurants already faced a 55% decrease in diners on Sunday compared to the same day last year, according to data from Open Table, a restaurant reservation website.

Landry’s, the company that owns fine dining restaurant The Palm, said in a statement it was following all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulations but wasn’t planning to close its restaurants because “such a decision would invoke a personal hardship to our employee base.”

In a letter to customers, OpenTable asked patrons to “please support your local restaurants during this turbulent time, as they are a vital part of our communities,” and suggested delivery or buying gift cards as an alternative to dining in. (The CDC has foundno evidence the virus can transmit through food; however, a risk comes with the potential human contact in delivery.)

After first announcing it would take additional precautionary measures such as more frequent cleaning and readily available hand sanitizer, according to a spokeswoman, the Smithsonian museums announced their indefinite closure last weekend. “The health and safety of our staff and visitors is of course a top priority,” the spokeswoman said.

However, she added, the museums did not see a noticeable decrease in tourists in the weeks leading into the closures. The International Spy Museum made similar adjustments before closing Monday, and the iconic National Cherry Blossom Festival also canceled or postponed most planned events for this spring, according to press releases for those organizations.

Peak tourism season, described by the Smithsonian spokeswoman as April to September, has also not yet been affected. However, President Donald Trump said in a news conference Monday the coronavirus crisis may last until July or August.

“We were very lucky we got to do a lot,” Basanese said of her own trip to Washington. “We did pretty much everything except some of the Smithsonians, but they’re going to always be here.”

She added her son asked her to drive, rather than fly, home, reflecting a dramatic downturn in airline passengers nationwide over the past week.

Industry group Airlines for America requested a $50 billion aid package from the federal government this week to allay the financial strain caused by travel restrictions. United Airlines, for example, cut its schedule by 50% and expects to lose $1.5 billion in the month of March, according to CNN Business.

The fact that people aren’t traveling affects the economy beyond just the travel industry, said Daniel Levine, an expert on global trends at the Avant-Guide Institute.

“Business travel is a huge part of travel, and that’s being just eviscerated,” Levine said. “This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. I’m not talking about the medical part of it, but I’m talking about people’s reactions to it… We’re digging in for the medium term.”

Economic challenges and opportunity: United States and India struggle to lockdown multibillion dollar trade deal

WASHINGTON – The economic relationship between the United States and India has grown under the leadership of President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, but the future of trade between the countries is uncertain.

The U.S. goods and services trade with India has grown steadily since the mid-1990s, with an estimated $142.6 billion in imports and exports in 2018. Earlier this year, Trump made his first presidential visit to India, the United States’ eighth biggest trading partner.

“A strong relationship is a must,” Sudhish Rambhotla, the chief spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which Modi leads said. “I don’t think there is another option.”

The two leaders have maintained a friendly relationship throughout their years in leadership. Last month, Modi tweeted, “During our first meeting at the White House, @realDonaldTrump told me that India has a friend in the White House. He was absolutely correct!”

Modi and Trump have emphasized the importance of fostering a relationship between their countries, yet have often disagreed on economic policies.

“Politically, you got two governments that are at loggerheads in their approach on trade in particular,” Richard Rossow, a senior adviser and U.S.-India policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. “But in terms of trade and investment, you got a relationship that seems to be kind of blooming.”

For over 18 months, the nations have discussed a multibillion dollar trade deal. On Trump’s visit last month, the two leaders a “strategic partnership” between the countries, but a trade deal has yet to be signed.

“Our teams have made tremendous progress on a comprehensive trade agreement, and I’m optimistic we can reach a deal that will be of great importance to both countries,” Trump said at a news conference in India.

A multibillion-dollar deal between the countries could include military equipment, medical device and agriculture. The deal could also resolve a slew of trade disagreements between the countries involving bilateral trade deficits, tariffs and the U.S.’s removal of India from the Generalized System of Preferences program that allows certain products to enter the United States duty-free.

Rossow said there is no clear timeline for a finalizing a trade deal, especially after India’s Minister for Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal announced Trump and Modi greenlighted negotiations for a much broader free trade agreement.

“I want to say it could be a week from now because they’re so close. It could never be, and right now it feels more like never,” Rossow said.

Nageshwar Rao, a political analyst and professor at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India, said he’s not surprised that a trade deal hasn’t been agreed to yet.

“A big trade deal is suddenly not so easy. There is a lot of resistance now from India. Trump believes in protectionism, and India cannot accept that,” Rao said.

Instead, Rao said Trump’s visit to India served two purposes: sales and optics.

At a welcoming rally in Ahmedabad, India, Trump and Modi announced a $3.5 billion arms deal that includes the sale to India of 24 Sikorsky MH-60R Sea Hawk multi-role helicopters and six Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters. Rao said the deal resembles a seller-to-customer relationship, rather than a country-to-country one.

“Unfortunately the government of India calls it a deal…it’s not a deal; it’s a sale,” Rao said.

The meeting’s purpose was to boost the personal image of Trump and Modi, Rao said.

But Rambholta, of Modi’s party, said the trip was substantively productive: “I cannot say that 100% of what was expected was achieved from his trip. But definitely this trip did achieve a lot in terms of declaring to the world and to both the countries that India and the US mean serious business.”

Trump hoped to sign a deal before the 2020 election, but the possibility is unlikely.

Rao said that appealing to the Indian-American voter base in the United States is especially important to Trump winning a second term. Currently, there are 4million Indian-Americans, and, according to the Pew Research Center, 65% of were Democrats or leaned toward the Democrats in 2012.

Trump made a play for their votes when he returned from India and released an online ad targeted toward Indian-Americans. “Your contributions have strengthened our culture and economy. I will always fight for you,” Trump said in the ad.

Modi is in a similar position, looking ahead to his reelection campaign in 2024. Modi is in his second term as prime minister, but his popularity has declined amid an economic slowdown and the passage of a religion-based citizenship law that drew nationwide protests.

Despite Modi and Trump’s external motivations and economic disagreements, Rao says the two nations need each other.

“There are challenges,” Rao said. “But, opportunity as well.”

Top government lawyer pushes to weaken consumer finance protect bureau

WASHINGTON –The federal government’s top lawyer argued Tuesday to reduce the power of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau in a case before the Supreme Court that could strike down the independent regulatory agency as unconstitutional.

Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Kannon Shanmugam, representing a California law firm that refused to comply with a CFPB request, argued against the agency’s leadership structure, saying the presence of a single agency head who can only be removed “for cause” –defined as “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office” –violated the president’s removal powers under Article II of the Constitution.

Shanmugam went further, making the case to the court to eliminate the CFPB by invalidating the section of the Dodd-Frank Act establishing the agency. Franciscomaintained the court should simply use the law’s severability clause to delete the “for cause” language.

In lower courts, the CFPB maintained its leadership structure did not violate the Constitution, a stance upheld by both a district court and the 9thCircuit Court of Appeals. However, when the case went before the Supreme Court, the solicitor general changed the government’s position from supporting the “for cause” language to opposing it. That cause the Supreme Court to appoint former solicitor general Paul Clement to defend the CFPB.

Clement said the problem is that the solicitor general and the opposing counsel are eager “to have the court decide the constitutional issue on which they agree.”

“Lack of adversity is distorting the court’s ability to do its job,” Clement said, comparing the case to a request for an advisory opinion, which the Court does not issue.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg voiced similar concerns to Clement, questioning Clement why, if the CFPB violated executive power, the president had not petitioned the Court.

However, when pressed by Justice Neil Gorsuch, Clement declined to say the court should dismiss the case outright.

Arguments centered around 1935 case Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, in which the Supreme Court upheld for-cause removal protection for the members of the Federal Trade Commission; it further upheld for-cause protection of the independent counsel from removal by the attorney general in 1988 of Morrison v. Olsen.

Shanmugam contended Morrison had improperly “disemboweled” the 1935 ruling and said the FTC’s for-cause protection was validated because a multi-member commission posed a “far lower threat to liberty.”

Justice Elena Kagan took issue with Shanmugam’s interpretation, asking whether a blanket rule based on the number of agency heads was too simplistic.

“There are a thousand things that go into whether a president has any influence over a particular agency, of which the question of one or multiple members is not so important,” she said.

 


 

Medill Today | March 3, 2022