As the final week of September is before us, we present a snapshot of the week that was with thoughts courtesy Crooked Media, The Economist, Goldman Sachs, The Financial Times, Politico and Heather Cox Richardson:
BY JULIA CLAIRE & CROOKED MEDIA
- Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) when asked how much sympathy he has for the current “predicament” of GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy
Editor's note:Crooked Media’s fearless Editor-in-Chief Brian Beutler is sadly (for me!) leaving us and embarking on his own venture, Off Message. Give it a look-see and subscribe. Many thanks to Brian for being a great boss, catching all of my errors, and reining me in when I was going too wild in the Google Doc (most days). Thank you for building this newsletter where I get to call Mitch McConnell a dumb bitch five days a week. - Julia
It’s Friday so you know what that means: Bipartisan acts of corruption!
No bipartisan corruption news roundup would be complete without—you know where this is going—Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Each year, some of the wealthiest people in America descend on Palm Springs to attend the Koch network donor summit for a long weekend of big-ticket fundraising for the political organization founded by far-right billionaires Charles and David Koch. According to a new investigation from ProPublica, in 2018, a key fundraising draw for these elite donors was a private audience with conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas has had a yearslong, personal relationship with the Koch brothers, concealed from public view. The brothers were introduced to Thomas at Bohemian Grove, a secretive all-men’s retreat in Northern California. A spokesperson for the Koch network denied that Thomas was present for fundraising conversations.
Regardless, the Koch network, called Stand Together, and its subsidiaries have had multiple cases come before the Supreme Court during Thomas’s tenure. John E. Jones III, a retired federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush, had this to say: “I can’t imagine — it takes my breath away, frankly — that he would go to a Koch network event for donors,” and that if he as a district court judge had even attended such an event “I’d have gotten a letter that would’ve commenced a disciplinary proceeding.” The Supreme Court will hear a case this coming term brought by the Koch network to limit federal regulatory powers over issues spanning from the environment, labor rights, to consumer protections. Thomas used to support the precedent, but—you’re not gonna believe this—he flipped his position in the past few years.
Thus far, no congressional Republicans have called on Clarence Thomas to resign, despite the past six months of ProPublica investigations having unearthed huge, intentional omissions in his financial disclosure forms. Democrats are already calling on Bob Menendez to resign, and his scandal has barely been public for 24 hours. Interesting how each party treats corruption and wrongdoing among its own ranks! Just something to consider!
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the administration has made no decision about supplying Kyiv with the American tactical missiles, known as ATACMS, which Zelenskyy has been requesting for months. (If I can editorialize: you gotta come up with a better name for those missiles, fellas.) White House National Security adviser Jake Sullivan announced on Thursday that the Biden administration will announce a new military-assistance package for Ukraine which will include “significant air-defense capabilities.”
Let’s check in with the absolute clown car that is congressional Republicans, who seem to be driving that car right over a cliff.
Continuing their streak of abject, cartoonish failures, House Republicans were unable to advance a Defense Department appropriations bill on Thursday. It was the second time in one week that Republicans couldn’t even pass a procedural vote to advance their own legislation. The failed vote capped off a three-hour meeting on Wednesday focusing on both long-term spending bills and the more pressing issue of, ahem, avoiding a government shutdown. The House GOP conference reported progress on a short-term spending bill to keep the government open, but still has no credible plan to fund the government. Cool, thanks for your continued, invaluable contributions, House Republicans!
McCarthy can’t even get a bill out of committee, which isn’t a particularly inspiring sign for a legislative leader of the world’s most powerful government. Meanwhile, in the Senate, there’s been a bit more progress with Pentagon-related decisions thanks to the slim Democratic majority. The upper chamber voted on Thursday to confirm General Randy A. George as the next Army chief of staff and General Eric M. Smith as the next commandant of the Marine Corps, filling historica vacancies caused by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL). Tuberville, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been holding up over 300 military promotions for months in “protest” of the Pentagon’s long-standing policy to treat abortion as health care (because it is…) when it reimburses servicemembers for health-care related travel. Unlike many other members of the committee from both parties, Tuberville has never served. Of course.
Congressional Republicans have no governing vision, and are actively running the government into the ground due to a deadly combination of utter incompetence and spite. It should surprise no one that the party of obstructionism is combusting under pressure.
Elections in the two central European countries will test support for Ukraine and measure the appeal of illiberalism
SEPTEMBER 23, 2023by Tony Barber
Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez is expected to surrender his gavel, at least until the federal indictment against him released Friday is resolved. | Jose Luis Magana/AP
The details of the today’s indictment against Sen. BOB MENENDEZ read like a white-collar crime movie: Wads of cash stuffed in a Senate jacket! A new Mercedes-Benz convertible! Literal gold bars! And just as in a thriller, he’s got a nemesis or two likely celebrating his potential downfall.
After all — Menendez is expected to step down from his position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he’s made enemies of some foreign governments.
“They’ll pop some champagne!” ALPER COŞKUN, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Europe Program, predicted to NatSec Daily when asked about Turkey’s response.
Menendez has been a persistent headache for Turkish President RECEP TAYYIP ERDOĞAN, who has long sought to buy new F-16s and upgrade his existing fleet. Biden can’t sell the planes without buy-in from the top Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees, and Menendez hasn’t budged, citing concerns that Turkey could use them in a “belligerent way” against NATO allies.
It’s safe to say Erdoğan will be crossing his fingers for a friendlier replacement.
The New Jersey Democrat has denied the charges and called them a “smear campaign.” But according to Senate Caucus rules, if a lawmaker is under indictment for a felony, they can’t chair a committee. Lawmakers can resume their post if charges are dropped or reduced to less than a felony.
Menendez has also been a steadfast supporter of Armenia, something that has rankled Ankara and its close ally Azerbaijan. The SFRC chair was one of the most fervent supporters of U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide and has devoted considerable legislative attention to the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Just Thursday, Menendez led a bipartisan group of lawmakers in introducing a bill that would strip Azerbaijan of military assistance in light of Azerbaijan’s “ethnic cleansing” in the region.
Closer to home, Menendez has long used his perch to limit U.S. engagement with Cuba’s government and block efforts to lift the decadeslong embargo against the island. As one of the most powerful and hawkish Democrats in Congress, some observers believe that with Menendez sidelined, a new opportunity exists to return to U.S.-Cuba rapprochement.
But it’s unlikely that the Biden administration will rapidly scale up its entreaties with Cuba in Menendez’s absence. Embracing Havana would give credence to Republican claims in an election year that President JOE BIDEN and Democrats are “soft on socialism.” Cuba also has a stronger negotiating hand and its continued closeness with Russia, China and Iran make the prospect of mending fences less simple.
In June, CALLA WALSH, co-chair of the National Network on Cuba, a coalition of left-wing organizations working to end the embargo, and two other activists were arrested in Menendez’s office after demanding to speak with him about ending the embargo.
Asked for comment on the matter, Walsh had a simple answer: “lfg!” she wrote over text (we’ll let you Google what that’s short for).
In a statement, the National Network on Cuba told NatSec Daily that they hope Biden uses the leadership change to make his Cuba policy “pro-diplomacy, pro-engagement … as he promised to during his campaign.”
Other countries Menendez has been tough on, including Iran, China and Russia, probably aren’t likely to miss him too much either.
House Republicans appear to be barreling toward a government shutdown, unable to agree even to debate a bill to fund the military. That rejection made Republican leadership pull from the floor a continuing resolution to fund the government into October. Extremist members simply refuse to agree to any bill that doesn’t cave to their demands. And, as NBC News reporters note, “The House [Republican] chaos is worse than it may appear.” The bills over which they are currently fighting cannot possibly pass the Senate. Government funding ends on September 30.
And so a small minority of extremists are threatening to shut down our government. Such a shutdown would have global as well as domestic repercussions: the Pentagon warned that a government shutdown would disrupt U.S. military aid to Ukraine, including training for military forces. Hamstringing our ability to help Ukraine stand against Russia, refusing to fund the Pentagon, and Alabama senator Tommy Tuberville’s hold on military promotions that has left more than 300 top military positions vacant all undermine our national security. This is an astonishing position for Republicans, who used to pride themselves on their support for the military.
That such a small number of extremists can shut down our country speaks to the power of voting. Four days ago, Vice President Kamala Harris kicked off a month-long tour of college campuses to mobilize younger voters to “fight for our freedoms.” Today is National Voter Registration Day, and in Reading, Pennsylvania, she noted that young people have spent their whole lives in the climate crisis, have seen the Supreme Court stop recognizing the constitutional right to abortion, and have spent their earlier years practicing active shooter drills. They are now stepping up to lead the country toward solutions.
Harris told a cheering, overflow audience at the Reading Area Community College that voting “determines whether the person who is holding elected office is going to fight for your freedoms and rights or not. Whether that be the freedom that you should have to just be free from attack, free from hate, free from gun violence, free from bias, free to love who you love and be open about it, free to have access to the ballot box without people obstructing your ability to exercise your civic right to vote, in terms of who will be the people holding elected office and leading your country.”
The political power of young voters will be important in determining the outcome of the 2024 elections. In Pennsylvania today, Democratic governor Josh Shapiro announced automatic voter registration when people are getting or renewing a driver’s license. The governor tweeted: “We got traffic moving on I-95 in just 12 days. We delivered universal free breakfast for 1.7 million students. And today, we implemented automatic voter registration. There’s more to do, but we’re getting stuff done in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
In Congress today, the Democrats, led by Representative Terri Sewell (D-AL) reintroduced the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which passed the House in 2021 but was stopped by a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
This measure would restore and modernize the 1965 Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision gutted it. Until that decision, Congress had regularly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act on a bipartisan basis, but as soon as the decision was handed down, Republican-dominated state legislatures passed voter suppression laws, gerrymandered their states, and closed polling sites, measures that made it more difficult for Black Americans, many of whom backed Democrats, to vote. In the decade since the decision, Sewell noted, at least 29 states have passed a total of almost 100 laws restricting voting.
Sewell represents Selma, Alabama, where civil rights activist and, later, Georgia representative John R. Lewis was beaten by law enforcement officers when he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge with other civil rights activists marching for the right to vote. She noted, “Generations of Americans—many in my hometown of Selma, Alabama—marched, fought, and even died for the equal right of all Americans to vote. But today, their legacy and our very democracy are under attack as MAGA extremists target voters with new laws to restrict voting access. Ten years after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the fight for voting rights has never been more urgent.”
The reason for voter suppression was made clear again today when, in a pattern that has continued since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, no longer recognizing the constitutional right to abortion, Democrats won two elections. In New Hampshire, Democrat Hal Rafter flipped a state House seat formerly held by a Republican. And in Pennsylvania, Democrat Lindsay Powell won a special election in Pittsburgh, enabling Democrats to hold control of the Pennsylvania House.
Headlines this morning said that “Congress” is in crisis. But that construction obscures the true story: the Republicans are in crisis, and they are taking the country down with them.
The most immediate issue is that funding for the government ends on September 30. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, is moving forward on a strongly bipartisan basis with 12 appropriations bills that reflect the deal President Biden hammered out with Speaker Kevin McCarthy in May to get House Republicans to agree not to default on the United States debt. That deal, the Washington Post editorial board pointed out today, was a comprehensive compromise that should have been a blueprint for the budget.
But extremist House Republicans reject it, and there is no sign that House Republicans can even agree among themselves on a replacement, let alone on one that can make it through the Senate and past the president’s desk. Extremists in the Freedom Caucus insist they will not agree to any budget that accepts the deal McCarthy cut with Biden. In addition, although appropriations bills are traditionally kept clean of volatile issues, the extremists have loaded up this year’s appropriations bills with so-called poison pills: rules that advance their attempt to impose their ideology on the country but are unacceptable to Democrats. McCarthy had to pull back the Pentagon spending bill on Thursday before the House went home for the weekend, leaving without any plan in place for funding the government.
Over the weekend, six Republicans from five different party factions offered a plan for a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government and avoid a shutdown. Designed to appeal to the extremists, the plan goes back on the deal McCarthy struck with Biden. It proposes a 1% cut to the federal budget, but that 1% is not applied evenly: the defense budget and the budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs would not take any cuts—Republicans have learned how voters react to hurting veterans—requiring an 8% cut to everything else. It includes the border measures the extremists want, and provides no money either for Ukraine or for disaster assistance.
It’s not clear that Republican House members will vote for the bill, and if they do, the bill is unlikely, encumbered as it is, to make it through the Senate.
What the House Republicans have managed to do recently is to try to appease the extremists by launching an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, claiming that he enriched himself through his son Hunter’s business dealings when he was vice president. McCarthy had to open the inquiry himself, without a House vote, because lacking any evidence, he didn’t have the votes to set such an inquiry in motion. On the Fox News Channel on Sunday, Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX) said McCarthy has given him the role of assisting in the inquiry, but admitted: “We don't have the evidence now, but we may find it later."
To try to get at the president, the Republicans have hammered at his son Hunter, who has begun to push back, today filing a lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service for failing to keep his tax information private as the law requires. He is referring to the two men who testified before House committees trying to find dirt on Hunter Biden and who made the rounds of reporters with their allegations that the IRS did not adequately pursue charges against him.
Meanwhile, video has emerged of the conditions under which extremist Representative Lauren Boebert (R-CO) was kicked out of a kid-friendly Beetlejuice concert last weekend. Boebert has repeatedly accused those protecting LGBTQ civil rights of “grooming” children for sexual activity. Not only was she vaping, she and her date were groping each other quite intensely. Boebert is in the process of getting a divorce, and her date, it turns out, is co-owner of a gay-friendly bar that has hosted drag shows.
Things are not all ducky with Republicans in the Senate, either. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) refuses to lift his hold on more than 300 military promotions until the Pentagon changes its policy of allowing service members leave time and travel expenses to obtain abortion care. While he insists he is doing no damage to the military, actual military officers, as well as members of his own party, disagree. They say the holds are hollowing out our military leadership and that the damage will take years to repair, since the promotion holds also stop junior officers from moving up. Those holds mean lower pay and retirement, tempting junior officers to move out of the military to higher-paying private sector jobs.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) today wrote a public letter to Tuberville asking him to remove his hold and warning that “harming American service members as leverage in Washington political battles” set a “very dangerous precedent.” They also noted that in a survey of VFW members, including those in Alabama, “VFW members strongly conveyed that politicians should not be able to harm the troops over political disputes and that political decisions that harm the troops would affect the way they would vote in upcoming elections.”
And now Trump, who leads the extremists, has suddenly changed course on abortion, the leading issue for most of his base, in order to weaken his rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Florida governor Ron DeSantis. After packing the Supreme Court with three extremists who helped to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by which the Supreme Court recognized the constitutional right to an abortion, Trump yesterday said the six-week abortion ban DeSantis signed, which would ban abortion before most women know they’re pregnant, was “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” although he also appeared to endorse abortion bans in general. Trump’s vice president Mike Pence, in contrast, is calling for a federal ban on abortion.
Republicans have finally recognized that about 63% of Americans think abortion should be legal in “all or most circumstances,” according to a new poll by 19th News jand SurveyMonkey. But only 9% believe it should be illegal in all cases, although 14 states have enacted such extensive bans. The survey also found that support for abortion rights has increased since the June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.
Trump has suddenly also become more problematic for the Republicans. On Sunday night, Trump doubled down on his past antisemitism by sharing a Rosh Hashanah message that celebrated the Jewish New Year by accusing “liberal Jews” of voting to “destroy” America and Israel.
Then, today, Katherine Faulders, Mike Levine, and Alexander Mallin of ABC News reported that long-time Trump assistant Molly Michael told agents investigating Trump’s mishandling of classified documents that he wrote to-do lists for her on the back of documents with classified markings.
Meanwhile, the administration continues to go about the daily work of governance.
On Sunday, U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan met in Malta with China’s top diplomat to keep communications between the two countries open. Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Vice President Han Zheng of China on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. "The world expects us to responsibly manage our
relationship," Blinken said. "The United States is committed to doing just that.”
Also on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly today, 32 coastal Atlantic countries from Africa, Europe, North America, South America, and the Caribbean launched the Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation. This new multilateral forum echoes regional organizations the administration has backed elsewhere and seeks to establish a mechanism for implementing “a set of shared principles for the Atlantic region, such as a commitment to an open Atlantic free from interference, coercion, or aggressive action,” as well as coordinated plans for addressing issues including climate change.
Finally, five Americans who have been imprisoned in Iran are home tonight, along with two of their spouses. In exchange, the U.S. freed five Iranian citizens who were imprisoned or were about to stand trial, although three of them declined to return to Iran (two have chosen to stay in the U.S., and another went to a third country). The Republic of Korea has released $6 billion of Iran’s money to Qatar for use for humanitarian aid to Iranian citizens suffering under the sanctions that prevent medicines and food from coming into the country.
Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, told the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian that the funds had not previously been frozen; they were held up in South Korea because of that country’s own regulations. Under Trump, Iran spent heavily from similar accounts in China, Turkey, and India. Now that they are released, the funds will have more legal restrictions than they did when they were in South Korea.
The Biden administration has prioritized bringing home wrongfully detained Americans. Today’s events bring the number of those the administration has brought home to 35.
The fight over how we conceive of our federal government was on full display today.
The Biden administration announced the creation of the American Climate Corps. This will be a group of more than 20,000 young Americans who will learn to work in clean energy, conservation, and climate resilience while also earning good wages and addressing climate change.
This ACC looks a great deal like the Civilian Conservation Corps established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democrats in 1933, during the New Deal. The CCC was designed to provide jobs for unemployed young men (prompting critics to ask, “Where’s the She, She, She?”) while they worked to build fire towers, bridges, and foot trails, plant trees to stop soil erosion, stock fish, dig ditches, build dams, and so on.
While the CCC was segregated, the ACC will prioritize hiring within communities traditionally left behind, as well as addressing the needs of those communities that have borne the brunt of climate change. If the administration’s rules for it become finalized, the corps will also create a streamlined pathway into federal service for those who participated in the program.
In January, a poll showed that a climate corps is popular. Data for Progress found that voters supported such a corps by a margin of 39 points. Voters under 45 supported it by a margin of 51 points.
While the Biden administration is establishing a modern version of a popular New Deal program, extremists in the Republican Party are shutting down the government to try to stop it from precisely this sort of action. They want to roll the government back to the days before the New Deal, ending government regulation, provision of a basic social safety net, investment in infrastructure, and protection of civil rights.
Extremists in the House Republican conference are refusing to acknowledge the deal worked out for the budget last spring by President Biden and Republican speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Instead, in order to pass even a continuing resolution that would buy time for Congress to pass an actual budget, they are insisting on cuts of up to 8% on discretionary spending that Senate Democrats, as well as Biden himself, are certain to oppose.
The White House has noted that the cuts the Republicans demand would mean 800 fewer Customs and Border Protection agents and officers (which, in turn, would mean more drugs entering the United States); more than 2 million women and children waitlisted for the WIC food assistance program; more than 4,000 fewer rail inspection days; up to 40,000 fewer teachers, aides, and key education staff, affecting 26 million students; and so on.
House speaker McCarthy cannot corral the extremists to agree to anything unless they get such cuts, which even other Republicans recognize are nonstarters (those cuts are so unpopular that Jake Sherman of Punchbowl News reported today that Republicans are somewhat bizarrely considering changing their messaging about their refusal to fund the government from concerns about spending to concerns about border security).
Meanwhile, the extremists are threatening to throw McCarthy out of the speakership. There are rumors that Republican moderates are considering working with Democrats to save McCarthy’s job, but Democrats are not keen on helping him when he has just agreed to open a baseless impeachment inquiry into the president in order to appease the extremists.
“If you’d asked about two months ago I would have said absolutely,” Representative Dean Phillips (D-MN) told Manu Raju, Lauren Fox, and Melanie Zanona of CNN. “But I think sadly his behavior is unprincipled, it’s unhelpful to the country,” he said.
As a shutdown appears more and more likely, even Republicans acknowledge that the problem is on their side of the House. Until the 1980s, funding gaps did not lead to government shutdowns. Government agencies continued to work, with the understanding that Congress would eventually work out funding disputes. But in 1980 a fight over funding the 1,600-employee Federal Trade Commission led President Jimmy Carter to ask Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti if the agency could continue to operate when its funding ran out. Civiletti surprised participants by saying no.
Four years ago, Civiletti told Ian Shapira of the Washington Post that his decision was about a specific and limited issue, and that he never imagined that politicians would use shutdowns for long periods of time as a political weapon. And yet, shutdowns have become more frequent and longer since the 1990s, usually as Republicans demand that Congress adopt policies they cannot pass through regular procedures (like the 34-day shutdown in 2019 over funding for the border wall former president Trump wanted).
Many observers note that “governing by crisis,” as President Barack Obama put it, is terribly damaging and that Civiletti’s decision should be revisited. Next month’s possible shutdown has the potential to be particularly problematic because there is no obvious solution. After all, it’s hardly a surprise that this budget deadline was coming up and that the extremists were angry over the deal McCarthy cut with Biden back in May, and yet McCarthy has been unable in all those months to bring his conference to an agreement.
Republicans appear resigned that voters will blame them for the crisis, which, honestly, seems fair. “We always get the blame,” Representative Mike Simpson (R-ID), a senior appropriator, told Katherine Tully-McManus and Adam Cancryn of Politico. “Name one time that we’ve shut the government down and we haven’t got the blame.”
Meanwhile, the House extremists continue to push their vision for the nation by undermining the institutions of the government. The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), today held what normally would have been a routine oversight hearing focused on policy, law enforcement, and so on. Instead of that business, though, Jordan and the hard-right Republicans on the committee worked to construct a false reality in right-wing media by attacking Attorney General Merrick Garland over his role in the investigation of President Biden’s son Hunter, begun five years ago under Trump.
Glenn Thrush of the New York Times noted drily that “[m]any of the claims and insinuations they leveled against Mr. Garland—that he is part of a coordinated Democratic effort to shield the Bidens and persecute Mr. Trump—were not supported by fact. And much of the specific evidence presented, particularly the testimony of an investigator who questioned key decisions in the Hunter Biden investigation, was given without context or acknowledgment of contradictory information.”
Instead, Jordan and his extremist colleagues shouted at Garland and over his answers, producing sound bites for right-wing media. Those included the statement from Representative Victoria Spartz (R-IN) that the rioters at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, were actually “good Americans” who brought “strollers and the kids.” Even as both Biden and Garland have prioritized restoring faith in the Justice Department after Trump’s use of it for his own ends, the extremist Republicans are working to undermine that faith by constructing the false image that the Department of Justice is persecuting Trump and his allies.
Their position was not unchallenged on the committee, even within their own party. Representative Ken Buck (R-CO) defended Garland from their attacks, while Democrats on the committee went after the Republicans themselves. Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) accused Jordan of making the Judiciary Committee into a “criminal defense firm for the former president.”
Garland, who is usually soft-spoken, pushed back too. “Our job is not to take orders from the president, from Congress, or from anyone else, about who or what to criminally investigate,” he told the committee. “I am not the president’s lawyer. I will add I am not Congress’s prosecutor. The Justice Department works for the American people.”
“We will not be intimidated,” he added. “We will do our jobs free from outside influence. And we will not back down from defending our democracy.”
Two major stories today seem to bring together both the past and the future of the country to chart a way forward.
The first involves a historic workers’ strike. A week ago, on Friday, September 15, after workers’ four-year contracts expired, the United Auto Workers union declared a limited and targeted work stoppage in which about 13,000 workers walked off the job at three Midwestern auto plants. For the first time in history, those walkouts included all three major automakers: workers left a General Motors plant in Missouri, a Stellantis (which includes Chrysler) plant in Ohio, and a Ford plant in Michigan.
Workers accepted major concessions in 2007, when it appeared that auto manufacturers would go under. They agreed to accept a two-tier pay system in which workers hired after 2007 would have lower pay and worse benefits than those hired before 2007. But then the industry recovered, and automakers’ profits skyrocketed: Ford, for example, made more than $10 billion in profits in 2022.
Automakers’ chief executive officers’ pay has soared—GM CEO Mary Barra made almost $29 million in 2022—but workers’ wages and benefits have not. Barra, for example, makes 362 times the median GM employee’s paycheck, while autoworkers’ pay has fallen behind inflation by 19%.
The new UAW president, Shawn Fain, ran on a promise to demand a rollback of the 2007 concessions in this summer’s contract negotiations. He wants a cap on temporary workers, pay increases of more than 40% to match the salary increases of the CEOs, a 32-hour workweek, cost of living adjustments, and an elimination of the tier system.
But his position is not just about autoworkers; it is about all U.S. workers. “Our fight is not just for ourselves but for every worker who is being undervalued, for every retiree who’s given their all and feels forgotten, and for every future worker who deserves a fair chance at a prosperous life,” Fain said. “[W]e are all fed up of living in a world that values profits over people. We’re all fed up with seeing the rich get richer while the rest of us continue to just scrape by. We’re all fed up with corporate greed. And together, we’re going to fight to change it.”
Fain has withheld an endorsement for President Biden out of concern that the transition to electric vehicles, which are easier to build than gas-powered vehicles, will hurt union jobs, and out of anger that the administration has offered incentives to non-union plants. That criticism created an opening for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to announce he would visit Detroit next week to show autoworkers that he has “always had their back,” in hopes of winning back the support of Rust Belt states.
But for all his talk of being pro-worker, Trump recently attacked Fain, saying “The autoworkers are being sold down the river by their leadership, and their leadership should endorse Trump.” Autoworkers note that Trump and the justices he put on the Supreme Court have been anti-union, and that he packed the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees labor laws and union elections, with officials who reduced the power of workers to organize. Before he left office, Trump tried to burrow ten anti-labor activists into the Federal Service Impasses Panel, the panel in charge of resolving disputes between unions and federal agencies when they cannot resolve issues in negotiations.
Fain recently said: “Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers.”
President Biden prides himself on his pro-union credentials, and as soon as he took office, he fired Trump’s burrowed employees, prompting the head of the union representing 700,000 federal employees to thank Biden for his attempt to “restore basic fairness for federal workers.” He said, “The outgoing panel, appointed by the previous administration and stacked with transparently biased union-busters, was notorious for ignoring the law to gut workplace rights and further an extreme political agenda.”
Today, in the absence of a deal, the UAW expanded the strike to dozens more plants, and in a Facebook live stream, Fain invited “everyone who supports our cause to join us on the picket line from our friends and families all the way up to the president of the United States.” Biden has generally expressed support for the UAW, saying that the automakers should share their record profits with their workers, but Fain rebuffed the president’s offer to send Labor Secretary Julie Su and White House senior advisor Gene Sperling to help with negotiations.
Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and John Fetterman (D-PA) have both visited Michigan to meet with UAW workers, but it was nonetheless a surprise when the White House announced that the president will travel on Tuesday to Michigan, where he will, as he posted on X, “join the picket line and stand in solidarity with the men and women of UAW as they fight for a fair share of the value they helped create. It’s time for a win-win agreement that keeps American auto manufacturing thriving with well-paid UAW jobs."
If President Biden is showing his support for the strong unions of the past, Vice President Kamala Harris is in charge of the future. The White House today announced the establishment of a National Office of Gun Violence Prevention, to be overseen by the vice president.
Lately, Harris has been taking the lead in embracing change and appealing to younger voters. On September 9 she hosted a celebration honoring the 50th anniversary of hip hop, and she is currently in the midst of a tour of college campuses to urge young people to vote. She has been the administration’s leading voice on issues of reproductive rights and equality before the law, issues at the top of concerns of young Americans. Now adding gun safety to that list, she is picking up yet another issue crucially important to young people.
When 26-year-old Representative Maxwell Frost (D-FL) introduced the president today, he said that he got involved in politics because he "didn't want to get shot in school."
If the president and the vice president today seemed to represent the past and the future to carry the country forward, the present was also in the news today, and that story was about corruption and the parties’ different approaches to it.
ProPublica has published yet another piece about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s connections to wealthy donors. Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski reported that Thomas attended at least two donor summits hosted by the Koch family, acting as a fundraising draw for the Koch network, but did not disclose the flights he accepted, which should have been considered gifts, or the hospitality associated with the trips. His appearances were coordinated with the help of Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, who has been behind the court’s rightward swing.
The Koch family network funds a wide range of right-wing political causes. It has had interests in a number of cases before the Supreme Court during Thomas’s term, including an upcoming challenge to the government’s ability to regulate businesses—a principle the Koch enterprises oppose.
Republicans have been defending Thomas’s behavior since these stories began to surface.
Also in the corruption file today is Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who, along with his wife, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on three counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and conspiracy to commit extortion in connection with using his influence to advance the interests of Egypt.
This is Menendez’s second legal go-round: in 2015 he was indicted on unrelated charges of bribery, trading political help for expensive plane flights and luxury vacations. Ten of the twelve members of the jury did not agree with the other two that he was guilty and after the hung jury meant a mistrial, the Department of Justice declined to retry the case.
That the DOJ has indicted Menendez again on new charges undercuts Republicans’ insistence that the department has been weaponized to operate against them alone. And while Menendez insists he will fight the charges, he has lost his position at the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the rules of the Democratic Conference, and New Jersey Democratic leaders have already called on him to resign.
“So a Democratic Senator is indicted on serious charges, and no Democrats attacking the Justice Department, no Democrats attacking the prosecutors, no Democrats calling for an investigation of the prosecution, and no Democrats calling to defund the Justice Department,” wrote former Republican representative from Illinois and now anti-Trump activist Joe Walsh.
Forecast change: Oil to reach $100 per barrel
Brent crude oil is expected to reach $100 per barrel in the next 12 months (up from an earlier forecast of $93 per barrel), according to Goldman Sachs Research. That's because reduced supply from OPEC and rising demand are expected to more than offset an increase in oil supply coming from the US. OPEC will probably be able to keep Brent prices in a range of $80-$105 next year, Goldman Sachs Head of Oil Research Daan Struyven writes in the team's report.
“Lower for longer” supply from Saudi Arabia and its OPEC+ partners is the main reason for the forecast change. Saudi Arabia's recent production announcement signals its “strong determination to drive down inventories and push up prices,” according to Goldman Sachs Research.
At the same time, there's scope for Saudi Arabia to boost profits in 2024 depending on which supply cuts are expended, as the increase in oil prices can compensate for the decline in Saudi production.
OPEC is likely to reduce its oil production for longer because of more supply coming from outside the organization — most notably from the US. Supply constraints for parts, rigs, and workers have eased in the US, and producers are drilling and completing wells more quickly with more powerful rigs with less downtime.
There will likely be more global demand for oil in 2024 led by Asia, as the slowdown in China's economy shows signs of “bottoming out.” India and the Middle East are also expected to have large increases in demand.
The rise in energy prices isn't expected to derail a soft economic landing for the US economy, according to Goldman Sachs Research. Most of the oil rally has probably taken place, measures of inflation expectations appear well anchored, and the Federal Reserve is focused on core inflation (which doesn't include energy). In addition, the hit to growth from oil in the US and Europe is expected to be moderate, and natural gas prices remain low.
After a period of cost cutting and layoffs — buoyed by generative AI tailwinds — software and internet companies are starting to invest for growth.
There's “definitely a narrative shift to ‘now is the time to invest for growth in a responsible way,'” says Eric Sheridan, US internet analyst for Goldman Sachs Research, referring to the sentiment from 2,400 senior leaders across the technology, media, and telecommunication sectors who presented at Goldman Sachs' Communacopia + Technology Conference earlier this month. “You're going to see this mix of growth into next year that's married with rising margins but maybe not the outsized improvement in margins driven by efficiencies that we've seen over the last six to nine months,” he says on an episode of Goldman Sachs Exchanges.
New business activity in the software sector is also starting to stabilize, adds Kash Rangan, who covers the software industry for Goldman Sachs Research. If interest rates fall in 2024 — as many market participants expect — that will help lower the cost of capital, he says, and help “unfreeze the backlog of projects” put on hold.
Meanwhile, more time and cloud computing power will be needed to bring generative AI's promised efficiencies to market, say Rangan and Sheridan. Software companies' generative AI products will only begin to ship starting in the fourth quarter of this year and into 2024, Rangan says. And consumers have yet to change their daily patterns based on the early generative AI tools available today. “We're still searching on the internet,” Sheridan says. “We're still opening mobile applications. We're still going to browsers,” he says, comparing the AI transition to the shift from desktop computing to mobile, which played out over a longer period than investors had expected.
And while tech companies' stocks have already risen sharply, so have their earnings estimates since December 2022, Sheridan adds. In fact, multiples like price-to-earnings ratios have only risen a small amount, leaving room for some equities to climb higher.
Why the yield curve isn't signaling recession
The yield curve — the difference between yields of 10- and two-year US Treasuries — has long been seen as a recession predictor: When investors are fearful, they tend to buy up 10-year Treasuries, causing the yield to fall below the interest rate of shorter-term securities.
But that's not happening now. Longer-term Treasury yields have risen, as financial markets price in a lower chance of recession, says Ashok Varadhan, co-head of Global Banking & Markets at Goldman Sachs, in The Markets podcast. “Unbelievably resilient is the way I would characterize the US economy,” Varadhan says, noting that Goldman Sachs Research recently lowered its probability for a downturn.
Bond investors, meanwhile, likely expect the central bank's policy rate to eventually go back to a more neutral, long-term rate of around 3.5% as inflation cools in the coming years. “People believe that will mean revert over time,” Varadhan says. “That's what's driving the inversion.”