The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus

As the Capitol Hill’s correspondent for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, a locally-owned daily in Vermont’s capital, Montpelier, I covered the Vermont delegation in Congress. Its sister newspaper, the Rutland Herald, covers the southern quarters of the state. Both papers reach nearly two-thirds of the state every day of the year.

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Members of Mass. delegation mostly mum on possible bids to succeed Kerry - By Corey Kane and Mounira Al Hmoud/BU Washington News Serivce. Dec. 21, 2012.

WASHINGTON—Members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation Friday heaped praise on President Obama’s nomination of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as the next secretary of state – even as they largely remained mum on whether they would run in a special election to fill the seat once Kerry’s nomination is confirmed.

Outgoing Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass. – who lost a re-election bid last month to Democrat Elizabeth Warren – did not respond to requests for comment. Brown, who won a 2010 special election for the seat of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has been dodging questions for weeks over whether he might again run in a special election if Kerry’s seat opened up.

If he does run, Brown would be the front-runner, if not the only candidate, for the his party’s nomination. He has nearly $465,000 left in his campaign treasury from his losing bid to Warren.

A spokesman for Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Somerville, praised Kerry’s nomination, saying Kerry “has served the Commonwealth with great distinction and the congressman knows he will be an excellent secretary of state.” But Capuano’s office also did not respond to requests for comment on whether he has an interest in Kerry’s seat.

Capuano ran in the special Senate Democratic primary following Kennedy’s 2009 death, losing to Attorney General Martha Coakley by 47-28 percent. Coakley went on to lose to  Brown.

Capuano has nearly $500,000 in his campaign treasury – a fraction of the more than $3.15 million that Rep. Edward Markey, D-Malden, is now sitting on. Markey, a House member since 1976, is  dean of the state’s congressional delegation.

He has been interested in a Senate run in the past; he considered running in the 2009 special election, but ultimately decided against it. At the time, the House was in Democratic control and Markey held a couple of committee and subcommittee chairmanships; with the House now in Republicans hands and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future, he may be more interested this time around.

Markey released a statement praising Kerry’s experience without discussing his own political future.

“He is the quintessential diplomat, serving on critical missions around the world during his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. America will be greatly served here at home and abroad when he is confirmed to serve as our envoy to the world,” Markey said.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-South Boston, joined Bay State Democrats in praising Kerry’s nomination, but acknowledged that he is thinking about a Senate run. Lynch also considered and took a pass on running in 2009..

“As for my own plans, right now I am focused on the few days left for Congress to avoid the fiscal cliff. After that, I will have some big decisions to make,” Lynch said in a statement.

Lynch has nearly $750,000 in his campaign treasury, and as a former iron worker, would enjoy strong union support. But some of his more conservative social views – he is anti-abortion – could be a liability in a statewide Democratic primary.

Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, did make not comment about running but was effusive in praise of Kerry. Her husband, the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., once held the seat that Kerry will be relinquishing.

Another House member mentioned as a possible candidate, Rep. Bill Keating, D-Bourne, did not respond to requests for comment. Keating has just under $275,000 in his campaign treasury, while Tsongas has a little over $166,000.

Of course, there are Democrats outside of Congress who are being mentioned as possible contenders – notably Edward Kennedy Jr., the oldest son of the late senator. Kennedy, 51, is currently a Connecticut resident who would have to move into the state to run.

But at least one member of the Massachusetts House delegation made clear he isn’t interested.

“I think I’d rather stick needles in my eye than run for Senate,”  Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, said this week.

As the second ranking Democrat on the powerful House Rules Committee,  McGovern said his dream is to one day be chairman – a position once held by the late Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., for whom McGovern was an aide before being elected to Congress.

“Joe Moakley told me two things — ‘Good waiters get good tips’ which means if you’re patient, you’ll be chairman,” he said. “The other was ‘Don’t do something stupid like run for Senate.’”

In Surprise, Sen. Leahy takes a pass on chairing powerful Appropriations Panel – The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Dec. 19, 2012

WASHINGTON– In something of a surprise, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced late Wednesday that he will remain as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee rather than relinquishing it to take over the chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

The chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee was left vacant Monday night by the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. Leahy, as the next senior member of that committee, had first call on its gavel.

“Chairing the Judiciary Committee and maintaining my seniority on the Appropriations Committee will allow me to protect both the Constitution andVermont,” said Leahy in a brief statement.

The Appropriations Committee derives its considerable influence from its jurisdiction over the annual spending levels of federal departments and agencies. Inouye – along with other recent Appropriations chairmen, such as the late Sens. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska — used their power to billions in federal funding to boost local economies in their sparsely populated states.

But Leahy, a one-time local prosecutor who has chaired the Judiciary Committee for a total of nearly eight years, is said to enjoy his work on that panel.

In a statement Wednesday, Leahy’s junior colleague, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said: “Senator Leahy has devoted his career to making sure that our legal system promotes the best possible judiciary, protects our civil liberties and provides vigorous law enforcement.”

Added Sanders, “While the choice he faced was difficult, it should come as no surprise that he decided to stay at the helm of a committee he has chaired so well for so long.”

The next in line in seniority on the Appropriations Committee was Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who has chaired the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee since the September 2009 death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

But Harkin apparently decided to remain at the helm of that panel, and the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee will go to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., making her the first woman ever to chair that committee. Both Leahy and Mikulski confirmed the latter’s ascension to the Appropriations  chairmanship in Twitter messages Wednesday night.

Mikulski, first elected to the U.S. House in 1976 and to the Senate in 1986, last year became the longest-serving woman legislator in congressional history.

Following Inouye’s death from, from respiratory complications, Leahy, now the longest serving senator, was sworn in as president pro tempore of the Senate. As president pro tempore, the 72-year old Leahy – first elected to the Senate in 1974 – becomes third in line of succession to the presidency, after Vice President Biden and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Sen. Leahy, Sworn In as President Pro Temp, Coy on Taking Over Powerful Panel – The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Dec. 18, 2012

WASHINGTON– Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who became the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate with the death late Monday of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, was sworn in Tuesday to succeed Inouye as the Senate’s president pro tempore.

Under a 1947 statute, Leahy’s assumption of the largely honorific president pro tempore post makes him third in line to the U.S. presidency, after Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

More significantly for Leahy’s Vermont constituents, Inouye’s passing puts Leahy in line to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee – one of that chamber’s most influential posts. Inouye also chaired the Appropriations Committee, of which Leahy is now the longest serving member.

For the moment, Leahy isn’t talking about the possibility of assuming the top job at Appropriations. If he opts to chair that panel, he would have to give up the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee – which he has headed for the past six years, and which he is said to enjoy.

David Carle, Leahy’s communications director, said the senator would not comment Tuesday on a possible switch in committee chairmanships.

The Appropriations Committee controls the annual budgets of federal departments and agencies. Like Leahy, recent chairmen of the Appropriations Committee — Inouye, and the late Sens. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, before him – represented sparsely populated states. And they used their power to funnel significant amounts of federal funds to boost the local economies of their home constituencies.

Meanwhile, Leahy, 72, was sworn in as president pro tempore by Biden, a former senator who was a colleague of Leahy’s for more than three decades. It followed unanimous passage of a Senate resolution electing Leahy to the post.

“I can’t tell you how much it pains me,” Leahy said of Inouye’s passing prior to being sworn in. “He was one of the greatest members of this body ever to have served, and a dear friend to so many of us.”

After swearing in, Biden told Leahy, “It’s kind of a bittersweet moment.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who stood behind Leahy during the swearing-in along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Inouye, who died of respiratory ailments at 88, a “giant among senators who treated everyone with respect and dignity.”

Officially, Leahy is now tasked with presiding over the Senate when Biden – who, as vice president of the United States, serves as president of the Senate – is absent. In fact, neither the vice president or the president pro tempore preside over many Senate sessions; that often monotonous task is usually delegated to junior senators of the majority party..

Leahy’s new job does come with a pay increase: According to the Secretary of the Senate’s office, Leahy’s salary will increase from $174,000 – the same paid to most senators and House members — to $193,400.

Leahy becomes the first Vermonter to serve as Senate president pro tempore  in almost 150 years – since Sen. Solomon Foot held the job from 1861 to 1864. Another Vermonter, Sen. Stephen Bradley, was in the post from 1802-1803.

Sanders setting priorities as head of veterans committee - The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Dec. 17, 2012

WASHINGTON — As he takes over the chairmanship of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Sen. Bernard Sanders says his immediate concerns are to fight a proposal that would reduce benefits for veterans and their families and to expedite disability claims.

The appointment marks his first full committee chairmanship since first being elected to that chamber in 2006.

“It is a great honor to be named chairman of the committee, but it is an even greater responsibility,” Sanders said. “We owe it to the over 22 million brave veterans living in the United States today to provide the benefits that they have earned and deserve.”

As chairman, he succeeds Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is leaving to lead the Senate Budget Committee.

In an interview, Sanders, a Vermont independent, said he is still working on establishing his priorities as chairman.

Since being appointed to the panel six years ago, he noted, he has tackled economic and social issues facing veterans in his home state and nationwide.

“In the last few years, we have made significant progress in Vermont in terms of health care facilities and health care access,” Sanders said, adding. “We opened two brand new facilities and a women’s comprehensive care center.”

At first blush, Sanders bears an unusual profile for the chairmanship of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He is not a veteran and has a long history of involvement in left-wing causes: In 1990, he became only the third person in history elected to the U.S. House as a socialist, although he has caucused with the Democrats in both the House and Senate.

But his elevation to the chairmanship has so far met with a positive reaction from the committee’s constituency.

Charles “Trip” Willis, a Vietnam War veteran who is a past district commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Sanders had brought a number of veterans issues to light.

“Sanders has been really dedicated to veterans in Vermont,” said Willis, a Vermonter who has served on Sanders’ veterans advisory committee. “He increased allowances to veterans, secured funding for Vermont National Guard, and helped homeless veterans and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things.”

One of Sanders’ major achievements, Willis said, is the creation of Veterans Affairs Department community outreach clinics to streamline veterans’ access to treatment. Willis said Sanders has assisted an estimated 2,000 Vermont veterans after their service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Vermonters are very fortunate to have a senator that is going to take care of our guys and gals,” added John Miner, the New England regional director for Vietnam Veterans of America.

“As a Vermonter, I am proud of the job that Sanders has done for veterans not only in Vermont but all over the country,” added Miner. “I met Bernie when I was state president of VVA and introduced him to issues. He got interested, and we did some town meetings. He has been a leader ever since.”

Besides his chairmanship of Veterans’ Affairs, Sanders continues to sit on four other Senate committees: Budget; Environment and Public Works; Energy and Natural Resources; and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Leahy, Sanders urge FCC not to loosen restrictions on media consolidation – The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Dec. 8, 2012

WASHINGTON – Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Thursday expressed opposition to a pending Federal Communications Commission proposal to alter current restrictions on media ownership, charging that it could both increase concentration and threaten diversity in the communications marketplace.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski late last week, Leahy and Sanders joined seven other senators – all Democrats – in urging the FCC not to consider eliminating current rules that bar a single company from owning both newspapers and TV stations in the same market.

The senators pointed to newly released FCC data showing that women own less than 7 percent of full power commercial radio and TV stations, “while racial and ethnic minorities control only 5 percent of these TV stations and 8 percent of these radio stations.”

“Despite the extremely low levels of female and minority ownership, we understand the FCC is again considering relaxation of its cross-ownership rules, which include limits on ownership of television stations and newspapers in the same market,” the letter continued. “The changes appear to be very similar to the rules changes that former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin proposed in 2007 and that the public, the Senate, and a federal appeals court resoundingly rejected.”

The reference was to a 2008 Senate resolution and a 2011 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

In a statement Thursday, Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, “Admitting local voices to the conversation and promoting diverse viewpoints is an American value, a Vermont value and a cornerstone of democracy.”

He added: “While the Internet is an important alternative to traditional broadcast media, it is not yet a sufficient replacement, particularly in rural areas like Vermont where Internet access is not universal. I have long opposed efforts to loosen media ownership rules, and I continue to believe that weaker rules would lead to greater consolidation and less diversity and local content.”

During a Thursday press conference with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., at the Capitol, Sanders charged the FCC’s proposed move constituted a threat to democracy and freedom of speech.

“Here in America, where we pride ourselves on how robustly we exercise our freedom of speech, control over the discussions in the public square has been drastically concentrated in the past thirty years,” he said, adding. “In 1983, 90 percent of American media was owned by 50 companies. Today, that same 90 percent of media is controlled by six giant companies.”

He specifically mentioned General Electric Co., Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, CBS, and NewsCorp – the latter of which is controlled by media baron Rupert Murdoch.

According to published reports, the FCC has been considering a draft order that would lift the ban on one company owning both a newspaper and TV station in the top 20 markets. Bans on the same company owning both a newspaper and radio station or a TV and radio station would reportedly be lifted in all markets.

However, in a statement issued earlier this week, Bill Lake, chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau, asserted that “reports that the order would make it easier to own a top TV station and a major newspaper in a market are wrong.”

Said Lake: “In fact, the order would strengthen the current rule by creating an express presumption against a waiver of the cross-ownership ban to allow such a combination. In addition, the proposed order preserves the existing TV duopoly rule, which forbids ownership of more than one of the top four TV stations in any market.”

Lake also announced this week that the FCC was extending the comment period on this matter for another 30 days, putting off any decision by the five-member commission until January 2013 at the earliest. Every four years the FCC is required to review its ownership rules and determine whether they are in the public interest as the result of competition.

11th hour effort mounted for bill allowing states to collect taxes on online sales – The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Dec. 7, 2012

WASHINGTON – Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., is pushing for Congress to pass legislation that could require large out-of-state and online retailers to collect state sales taxes, closing a loophole now estimated to cost states about $23 billion annually.

Welch is among the sponsors of two similar bills that would allow states to force out-of-state Internet and catalog retailers to collect sales taxes and then remit them to those states where they are doing business. While the debate over this issue in recent years has pitted brick-and-mortar retailers against their online competitors, Welch sees it as a question of how to spur revitalization of downtowns.

“Online retail is getting bigger and is extremely popular, it is an important part of the economy,” said Welch, “but our downtowns and brick and mortar retailers are also extremely important…Downtowns are vital in Vermont to the sense of community and one of the pressures they are under is that they have an enormous competitive disadvantage.”

Proponents argue the legislation does not involve imposing a new tax, but that brick-and-mortar retail operations are now at a disadvantage by having to collect an existing tax that online retailers do not.

“It’s not a new tax, it’s a due tax,” Welch declared Wednesday at a rally on Capitol Hill on behalf of the legislation, held in conjunction with the National Conference of State Legislatures’ fall forum.

This year, Vermont could lose an estimated of $44.8 million through the inability to collect sales taxes on online and catalog purchases, according to the NCSL.

In the Senate, Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill, has introduced similar legislation along with two Republicans: Sens. Michael Enzi of Wyoming and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. According to a spokeswoman, Durbin is “is keeping all of his options open to move the bill before the end of the year as a stand-alone bill or as an amendment to a larger piece of legislation.”

Said Enzi, “This bill empowers states to make the decision themselves. If they choose to collect already existing sales taxes on all purchases, regardless of whether the sale was online or in store, they can. If they want to keep things the way they are, it’s a state’s choice.”

Tasha Wallis, executive director of the Vermont Retail Association, noted that the state is already at a disadvantage in terms of retail competition.

“Vermont is a small state and [neighboring] New Hampshire [doesn’t have] a sales tax so we’re very familiar with the competition of sellers who don’t charge sales tax,” said Wallis. “Sales tax exemption for out-of-state Internet sellers is a form of unfair competition for our members.”

Welch and Wallis said buyers now often use stores as show rooms, coming in to browse products, but opting to buy them online to save money.  “That’s not a fair situation for out retailers,” said Welch.

While one large online retailer, Amazon, has swung its support behind the legislation, several other large online businesses remain opposed. And the bills also have encountered opposition from states that do not currently collect sales taxes.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who has led Senate opposition to the online sales tax legislation along with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in an email: “This issue is about state sovereignty, especially for a non-sales tax state like ours. I will continue to fight any effort that forces New Hampshire’s online businesses to collect sales taxes for other states,”

Wyden’s home state of Oregon also does not have a sales tax, along with Alaska, Delaware, and Montana.

Technically, businesses in the latter states would not be directly affected since the legislation concerns only states with sales tax. However, if a New Hampshire business with an online presence sells to a customer in a state with sales tax, customers in that state could be charged the sales tax of their home jurisdiction.

The debate over collecting Internet sales taxes is not new. Two past Supreme Court cases have ruled that compelling a merchant to collect sales tax for a state in which it does not have a physical presence is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. In the most recent one, Quill v. North Dakota in 1992, the high court held that the more than 7,500 local sales tax systems across the nation were too complicated for a retailer to know how much tax to collect.

 In response, 24 states established the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement in 2005 to simplify and modernize their sales and use tax collection systems. The agreement included an amnesty program in which states would forgive past sales taxes owed by companies if they voluntarily register to collect sales taxes going forward.

Companies that do not agree to this arrangement would run the risk of being compelled to pay back sales taxes when and if Congress passes the bills now pending. So far, Vermont is the only state in New England that has signed on to the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement.

The bills include a small business exemption. “They are a lot of individuals who have a small portion of their sales online and we do not want to burden them with a lot of software expenses that will really hurt their businesses,” Welch said. One of the bills defines a small business as taking in less than $1 million annually, while another sets the threshold at $500,000.

Welch is optimistic that the legislation has a chance of being enacted during the current lame duck session, particularly given the current debate over avoiding the “fiscal cliff.” Noted Welch, “…It is relevant in current discussion on budget revenue and there is growing support among my Republican colleagues.”

Leahy seeks renewal of federal grants for bullet-proof vests for local law officers - The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Nov. 27, 2012

WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., accompanied by law enforcement representatives, Tuesday commemorated the one-millionth vest funded by bullet-proof vest partnership grant program – which is waiting to be reauthorized by Congress.

The legislation, authored in 1998 by Leahy and then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse-Campbell, R-Colo.,  requires that state and local jurisdictions receive at least 50 percent to the total amount of federal funds appropriated each year to buy bulletproof vests. Since its enactment ,Leahy said the Vest Partnership Grant Program has awarded Vermont law enforcement officers almost $840,000 in federal grants for the purchase of nearly 3,900 bulletproof vests

“Today there are at least a million reasons for Americans to feel good about what they have done to help protect our law enforcers,” Leahy said. “This is a milestone that speaks to the success of this program, and the strength of the law enforcement partnership between the states and the federal government.”

Last May, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to pass a new Bulletproof Vest Partnership reauthorization and extend the program for another five years. However, “the legislation continues to be held up for no good reason,” Leahy charged, adding “I hope we can get past the roadblocks and keep this important partnership going.  The safety of our nation’s law enforcement officers is far too important to play games with.”

The House version of the bill, introduced by Rep. Frank LoBiondo, D-N.J., last May, remains pending, in the House Judiciary Committee.

Even though funding for the federal grant program dipped from more than $24 million in fiscal year 2011 to a little less than $19 million during fiscal year 2012, the amount Vermont received actually increased. during that time, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

During fiscal year 2012, the Justice Department awarded more than $71,500 in grants to 25 law enforcement departments across Vermont to aid in the purchase of 310 bulletproof vests for state and local officers. The Vermont state police were awarded more than $7,000, a nearly 20 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, according to Leahy.

Two senators push for alternative to Leahy trafficking bill – The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Nov. 15, 2012

WASHINGTON — Launching the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking Wednesday, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, and Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, joined forces across the political aisle to address a cause for which Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has long been fighting: an end to human trafficking.

At the same time, Blumenthal suggested his bill has a better chance of passing before the end of the current Congress than legislation being pushed by Leahy, a Democrat from Middlesex.

Blumenthal and Portman last March introduced legislation that seeks to end human trafficking by government contractors. “Human trafficking is modern day slavery,” declared Blumenthal, who was joined at a news conference by actress/singer Jada Pinkett Smith, founder of the organization “Don’t Sell Bodies.”

While human trafficking by government contractors generally occurs abroad, “this problem has a dimension at home,” Blumenthal said. “Out of all the cases of human trafficking the Department of Justice dealt with between 2008 until 2010, 83 percent of them involved U.S. citizens. It is our problem. It is an American problem as much as it is an international problem.”

Leahy, meanwhile, has sponsored a broader measure on the subject: the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which Leahy has made a top priority in the “lame duck” session of Congress that convened this week.

The law was first enacted in 2000 and has been reauthorized three times since, although the latest reauthorization expired 14 months ago. While renewing the measure has the support of 52 senators, including 14 Republicans, the Senate has yet to vote on it because of the need to strike a deal with the House, according to Leahy aides.

Although Blumenthal is among the co-sponsors of Leahy’s legislation, which he termed “very important,” he noted: “Senator Leahy’s bill is broader. It imposes penalties for human trafficking generally; it provides more funds for state and local programs to end human trafficking.”

By comparison, “the bill to end human trafficking in government contracting provides penalties for government contractors, principally abroad, who involve human trafficking to provide labor for their projects,” Blumenthal explained in an interview following the press conference. “Contractors, who are working, for example, on some kind of construction in a base in Afghanistan, may use slave labor to lower their cost and this bill would impose penalties on them and stop them from doing that.”

According to Blumenthal, “The bill that Sen. Portman and I have advanced, since it’s much more limited and discreet, could be attached to the defense authorization bill, which will be almost certainly voted on before the end of the year.” The latter refers to the legislation that annually authorizes funds for the Defense Department.

Said Blumenthal: “His — Leahy’s — bill is broader, I don’t know whether it will pass before the end of the year in this session, but I am very confident that it will be approved early in the next session.”

Asked for comment, Leahy’s spokesman, David Carle, said: “Senator Leahy is working hard to get the Trafficking Victims Protection Act reauthorized this year and has built strong bipartisan support for his bill… He welcomes the support from Sens. Portman and Blumenthal on this effort.”

The Polaris Project, an organization seeking an end to human trafficking, estimates 27 million people, most of them young, are captives as a result of this practice. About 17,000 of them cross the border into the United States each year, according to the organization.

Leahy seeks action on two upcoming bills – The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Nov. 12, 2012

WASHINGTON — While efforts to head off the so-called “fiscal cliff” — a double whammy of tax increases and automatic spending cuts — will dominate the agenda when Congress returns to work next week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said he is hoping to find time for action on other key legislation.

Two bills — aimed at curtailing violence against women as well as trafficking in human beings — need to pass Congress before the end of the year, the Democratic senator said. But one of these pieces of legislation, a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, remains mired in a contentious battle between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-dominated House.

The other bill, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, was first enacted in 2000 and has been reauthorized three times since. Designed to combat human trafficking both worldwide and domestically, it authorizes assistance to foreign countries while also allowing for action against nations that do not meet certain minimum standards, and protects minors seeking asylum.

The latest reauthorization of the human trafficking law expired in September 2011, and, while Leahy’s committee acted at the time to renew it, the full Senate has yet to vote on the matter.

Although the pending bill has the support of 52 senators, including 14 Republicans, Leahy aides attributed the delay to the need to strike a deal with the House that would send the legislation to President Obama for his signature. The House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., has been referred to five different committees since it was introduced almost 15 months ago.

“Trafficking is an affront to human dignity and a generator of human suffering that we cannot ignore,” Leahy said. “We cannot further delay action while this injustice continues not only elsewhere in the world, but also here at home.”

According to a report by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2,500 of alleged incidents of human trafficking were reported between Jan. 1, 2008 and June 30, 2010 in the United States. Most — 82 percent — involved allegations of sex trafficking, including more than 1,200 reported incidents of adult sex trafficking and more than 1,000 reported incidents of child sexual exploitation.

Meanwhile, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) was first enacted in 1994, with bipartisan support, to combat domestic and sexual violence. But it is now being challenged by some House Republicans over three new provisions in the Senate bill that would protect illegal immigrants, same-sex couples, and American Indians.

The Senate version of VAWA, including these three provisions, passed last April with the bipartisan support of 68 votes. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Sandy Adams, a Florida Republican, was adopted last May on a largely party-line vote of 222-205. It does not include the three Senate bill provisions, which, Adams’ chief of staff, Charlie Keller, characterized as “discriminatory against women.”

“(Rep.) Adams specifically included language in her bill to guarantee the VAWA funds would be available for all victims and not carved out for special interest groups,” Keller said in a telephone interview.

Keller contended that, under the Senate bill, a heterosexual woman victimized by sexual violence would not be eligible for funding set aside for a specific group of people.

But Leahy suggested it is the House bill that is discriminatory. “Let’s not pick and chose who is a victim,” he said. “I was a prosecutor for eight years, and when I went to a crime scene at 2 a.m., we never asked ourselves whether the victim was an immigrant, it was just a victim.”

Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, backed an alternative version of the VAWA bill in the House, and characterized the current standoff as an example of “congressional dysfunction.”

Declared Welch, “The bill has bipartisan support in Senate, but it has been changed in the House as an anti-immigration and anti-lesbian bill. They literally rewrote the bill to deny these women protection.”

Leahy acknowledged that in “the last couple of years, it has been difficult to pass anything in a bipartisan manner. But every woman, Republican or Democrat, voted for it — VAWA — in the Senate.”

Even though the latest authorization of VAWA expired in November 2011, funding to carry out many of its provisions is continuing under a stopgap measure that Congress passed earlier this fall. Ultimately, the differences over the legislation may fall to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve, although time is running short for action before the 112th Congress adjourns for the last time in December.

The Senate-passed measure would expand efforts to reach Indian tribes, who face rates of domestic violence higher than those of the general population; allow more battered illegal immigrants to claim temporary visas; and include same-sex couples in programs serving people affected by domestic violence. It would also expand free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence and extend the definition of violence against women to include stalking.

Since the law was first enacted the annual incidence of domestic violence has dropped by more than 50 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. However, domestic violence remains among the most underreported crimes.

According to the Vermont Network Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence, between 2010 and 2011 the incidence of sexual violence dropped by almost 20 percent in the state. But the rate of domestic violence increased by 4 percent.

In 2011, a total of 1,025 victims of sexual assault and 7,317 victims of domestic violence sought services from the member programs of the Vermont Network. In addition, 747 people were sheltered with a total of 22,392 shelter nights provided.

HHS Inspector General to focus on fraud – The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Oct. 27, 2012

By Mounira Al Hmoud/BUWashingtonNews Service

WASHINGTON – Estimating waste, fraud and abuse in federal health and human services programs at approximately $65 billion during the 2011 fiscal year, Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General Dan Levinson said Wednesday that his office’s top priority in the coming year is to prevent fraud in Medicare and Medicaid programs through the use of new technology.

“Change in health care is more dynamic than ever; electronic medical records can improve quality of care and efficiency and help us uncover cases of fraud and abuses,” Levinson said during a teleconference.

But he also cautioned this is a double-edged sword, adding, “At the same time we must guard against the use of electronic records to cover up crimes; we must also be alert to cyber-security threats.”

With health care expenditures now accounting for about 25 percent of the federal budget, Larry Goldberg, principal deputy director of the HHS Office of Inspector General, said his job is to evaluate risks of fraud to Medicare and Medicaid programs and see where the IG’s office can be most effective.

“Medicare and Medicaid serve one out of every four Americans,” said Goldberg. “We spend about 80 percent of our work focusing on Medicare and Medicaid issues.” Goldberg said his office welcomes information from law enforcement officials, health care providers and the general public.

According to Gloria Jarmon, HHS deputy inspector general for audit services, Medicaid assists about 62 million low income individuals, which makes it vulnerable to fraud and abuse.

“In fiscal year 2011, the estimated improper payments in the federal government were $115.3 billion,” said Jarmon. “The Department of Health and Human Services made up over half of the estimated improper payments, over $65 billion.”

HHS Deputy Inspector General Stuart Wright, who oversees the IG’s Office of Evaluation and Inspection, cited three particular problem areas for Medicare: contractors, prescription drugs, and quality of care.

“Recently we raised many concerns associated with the use of antipsychotic drugs in the nursing home population,” said Wright. “In addition, we found that 13 percent of Medicare beneficiaries received care that…resulted in permanent harm. In addition to those 13 percent, we found another 13 percent that had care that resulted in temporary harm.”

Gary Cantrell, HHS deputy inspector general for investigations, said his work is also to bring international fugitives back to theUnited Statesworking with partners such as Interpol.

“The OIG most wanted fugitive web site is great for us in alerting the public to the issues related to health care fraud,” said Cantrell, adding, “We’re having a great impact, for every dollar invested in our anti-fraud efforts along with our partners, seven dollars are returned to the Medicare Trust Fund.”

Bill Stenger’s Profile (contributed) - The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Oct. 7, 2012

Fear Chills LIHEAP concerns - The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Oct. 7, 2012

By Mounira Al Hmoud/BUWashingtonNews Service

WASHINGTON – As more families receive home heating assistance in Vermont, some fear the federal funding in the coming 2013 fiscal year may not be sufficient to balance rising natural gas costs and bad economic times.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, provides heating and cooling assistance to low-income households across the nation. During the past 2012 fiscal year, 47,669 applications for home heating assistance were received from Vermont residents, with roughly 38,940 households getting aid.

That compares with 36,540 during the prior fiscal year, according to the Vermont Agency of Human Services.

Before recessing last month until after the November election, Congress passed a six-month stopgap budget measure – known as a continuing resolution – that renews last year’s funding level, $3.47 billion, for LIHEAP nationwide. This means that Vermont should be receiving the same amount as last year, $19.5 million, in LIHEAP funding

Richard Moffi, chief of the Vermont Fuel Assistance Program, said his office receives a 3 to 4 percent increase in applications for LIHEAP funding each year. He said he is waiting for state officials to figure out how much more they will be able to inject on top of the federal $19.5 million.

“In 2011-2012 the average household received $900 in benefits. But this year, as of right now and based on the federal money available, this number will drop to $543,” said Moffi. However, he added that if the state provides additional funding, “which I expect they will, that average will increase.”

Moffi also said that the LIHEAP funding for Vermont was not adequate because of high fuel costs. “The Northeast relies heavily on home heating oil and propane, which prices have gone up considerably from a couple of years ago,” said Moffi.

According to the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, a Washington-based non-profit group that tracks LIHEAP, Vermont families receiving assistance have incomes below 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The majority falls well below that cap.

In Vermont, LIHEAP, which is administered by the Agency of Human Services, which allocates almost 38 percent of its LIHEAP funds to the disabled, 31 percent to the elderly, and 18 percent to children under five.

According to Brandon Avila, a spokesman for the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, the level of funding just approved by Congress is higher than what President Barack Obama requested the 2013 fiscal year, $3.02 billion. But the $3.47 billion approved nationwide for the coming fiscal year is well below the $5.1 billion high point for LIHEAP funding in fiscal year 2010.

During this period, Vermont’s LIHEAP allocation decreased from $28 million to the projected $19.5 million.

The U.S. Energy Department has estimated that home heating oil prices will drop by 2 percent in 2013 over 2012, after having soared 28 percent from 2010. However, natural gas price is predicted to rise by 9 percent. Avila said his group is worried about the impact on low-income families.

“We are very concerned about the rise of energy cost and heating oil combined with the bad economy. More folks are coming for assistance and it puts a burden on communities,” said Avila.

He added that the so-called sequestration – which would mandate automatic across-the-board budget cuts if Congress fails to act by January to reduce the federal deficit – threatens to cut the current $3.47 billion nationwide funding for LIHEAP by 8 percent.

However, Moffi said that he was not worried about sequestration. Because the weather gets cold early, money is distributed as soon as it arrives, which is well before sequestration would kick in.

“This is what happened in the late 2011 fiscal year when Congress decided to sequester a small amount of funds,” he said. “But they could not get it from the LIHEAP because it has no retroactive effect.”

Farm Bill expiration leave Vt in lurch – The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Oct. 4, 2012

By Mounira Al Hmoud/BUWashingtonNews Service

WASHINGTON – With the failure of Congress to renew legislation that governs the nation’s farm programs, the so-called farm bill expired with the end of the 2012 fiscal year this past weekend – leaving hundreds of Vermont dairy farmers without a safety net, and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., hoping that the House will act on the legislation when it reconvenes after Election Day

Among the provisions of the farm bill that expired as of Sept. 30 – this past Sunday – was the Milk Income Loss Contract Program, or MILC. State Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross said that the lapse in this program “will be the single most negative impact for Vermont.”

“The MILC [program] is significant for Vermont,” Ross added in an interview. “Dairy price vs. feed cost [is] very difficult to predict, and profitability is low… because of the high feed cost. It is very hard to run a business in this environment.”

The farm bill that expired this weekend was adopted by Congress in 2008. While the Democratic-controlled Senate this year voted to renew the farm bill for five years, the Republican-controlled House has yet to act – with GOP leaders squeezed between Democrats opposed to deep cuts in the food stamp program and some rank-and-file Republican legislators seeking deeper cuts in farm subsidies.

Welch said he was outraged that the House had not acted on the farm bill extension.

“Vermont dairy farmers lost their MILC safety net program, and if the price of feed and energy continue to rise, it could be devastating,” said Welch, while noting that he had sponsored an amendment to restore $16 billion that the Republicans sought to cut from the food stamp program – now formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Some lawmakers wanted to pass a short-term extension of the 2008 farm bill, but others were concerned that it would remove the political pressure on Congress to act on a new long-term bill. And Welch said that a short-term extension “would not have done much” with regard to the MILC program.

Both the Senate-passed farm bill and a version of the legislation that cleared the House Agriculture Committee includes the Dairy Security Act, or DSA. The latter calls for three current dairy programs to be terminated and replaced with a new program. The latter seeks to manage dairy producer risk while reducing the volatility of the margins between the price of milk and the cost of feed.

Jerry Kozac, president of the National Milk Producers Federation, said the DSA is the best option for future farm policy.

“DSA is an overall comprehensive program, which would be much more effective and cost less to the government,” Kozac said in an interview.

Kozac cited the recent finding by the Congressional Research Service that “the DSA’s combination of margin insurance and market stabilization ‘appears to substantially mitigate the dairy operating margin volatility’; provides ‘a stronger safety net in extremely low margin events’; and may help ‘net milk exports actually expand’.”

Participation in the program would be voluntary. Proponents say that dairy farmers would benefit from a basic level of protection, with the option to purchase complementary insurance at an affordable price – and have the ability to adjust their production according to market demand.

Robert Paquin, executive director of Vermont Farm Agency – whose jurisdiction includes farm income stabilization, including dairy programs  – said the DSA has broad support.

“What we want is to see more stability in the industry. Fluctuation has been our big problem,” said Paquin. “Drought has caused the price of feed to increase. Believe it or not, we are still paying for the [Hurricane] Irene disaster.”

In addition to the expiration of the MILC program this past Sunday, two other provisions benefiting dairy farmers — the Dairy Product Price Support Program and the Dairy Export Incentive Program – are set to expire in December.

The MILC program compensates dairy producers when domestic milk prices fall below a specified level. Despite its feed cost adjustment provision, critics say it has not adequately offset high feed costs, and that its price target does not track national farm milk prices.

According to Ross, who said that the current count of Vermont dairy farmers is just above 960, the MILC program has worked – but did not solve the whole problem.

“The MILC program provides some relief, but it is not a full blown policy change. It’s an addendum to the existing dairy pricing system in the U.S,” said Ross, contrasting MILC with the DSA proposal.

Leahy praises Obama’s call to end human trafficking - The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Sept. 29, 2012

By Mounira Al Hmoud/BUWashingtonNews Service

WASHINGTON – Serving as member of the U.S. delegation during this week’s United Nations meetings in New York, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., praised President Obama’s call to end human trafficking, while urging Congress to take action on the issue.

During his address to the Clinton Global Initiative while attending U.N. meetings, Obama announced new steps to end human trafficking, while endorsing Leahy’s bill to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act – legislation first enacted in 2000, but which Congress allowed to let lapse a year ago. Among other things, the law authorized assistance to foreign countries to help combat human trafficking, while allowing for action against nations that did not meet certain minimum standards.

“One vital step that Congress can take is reauthorizing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which expired a year ago this month,” Leahy said in a statement. “This targeted legislation, which President Obama rightly said sparked a global movement, seeks to cut off human trafficking at its roots by supporting international and domestic efforts to fight the cause and punish the perpetrators of trafficking.”

Having gained the sponsorship of half the Senate, including 14 Republicans, Leahy said he hopes to build a “momentum and pass this life-saving legislation swiftly.”

According to a Justice’s Department Bureau of Statistics Special Report, 2,515 alleged incidents of human trafficking were reported between Jan. 1, 2008 and June 30, 2010 in the United States. Most – 82 percent – involved allegations of sex trafficking, including more than 1,200 reported incidents of adult sex trafficking and more than 1,000 reported incidents of child sexual exploitation.

“The United States is a beacon of hope for so many who face human rights abuses abroad. We cannot further delay action while this injustice continues not only elsewhere in the world, but also here at home,” said Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and is also a member of that panel’s subcommittee with jurisdiction over human rights.

Focusing most of this week’s speech to the United Nations on the “Arab Spring,” Obama urged post-dictatorship nations to work towards democracy, adding that America will stand with leaders willing to moving forward and respect their people’s right to freedom and self-determination.

Leahy, who also chairs the Senate Appropriations State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, said he thought the president’s speech hit the right notes, especially on Egypt.

“The reality is that we, and the Egyptians share many interests, and the new Egyptian government has taken several important and positive steps, including reaffirming a desire for strong relations with the United States,” said Leahy in an email responding to questions. “But it is still early. As we heard from [Egyptian] President Morsi in his U.N. address, we also have fundamental differences, including their more limited concept of freedom of expression.”

Leahy did express regret over the lack of broad international support to put a halt to the violence in Syria, which has resulted in the widespread killing of civilians.

“I discussed the deteriorating situation with the [U.N.] Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon], and my frustration with Russia’s and China’s resistance to stronger steps to stop the violence and end the Assad regime’s assaults on the Syrian people.  It is an especially tragic and difficult situation,” Leahy said. “Unlike in Libya, where we had broad support, including among Arab countries, for collective military action against Qaddafi, that does not exist in the case of Syria.  The United States will continue to be by far the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees and other victims of the violence.”

Senators say ‘Hands Off Social Security’ – The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Sept. 22, 2012

By Mounira Al Hmoud/BUWashingtonNews Service

WASHINGTON – Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Thursday joined a group of 28 other senators in circulating a letter opposing cuts to Social Security as part of a deficit reduction package, with Sanders describing the program as vital for many of the most vulnerable Americans.

At a news conference at the Capitol, Sanders – founder of the Senate Defending Social Security Caucus – vowed that he, along with the other signers of the letter, would do everything in their power to prevent cuts to Social Security recipients. Besides Sanders, the other 28 signers are all Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sanders’ Vermont colleague, Sen. Patrick Leahy.

The letter notes that Social Security operates under a separate budget, while contending that the program has its own long-term challenges and should be considered separately from the current debate over deficit reduction.

Sanders – joined at Thursday’s news conference by Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska,  Al Franken, D-Minn., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. – argued that Social Security has not contributed to increasing the federal budget deficit. Sanders also rejected the proposed move towards a so-called “chained-CPI”, which would alter how cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security as well as veterans’ benefits are calculated.

Sanders’ comments came at a time when many members of Congress are calling for deficit reduction alternatives to head off so-called sequestration – the regimen of across-the-board, automatic federal budget cuts that is scheduled to take place on Jan. 2.

While Social Security is exempt from sequestration, the latter process would cut nearly $110 billion from the federal budget in 2013 and about $1.2 trillion over the next decade, with the cuts evenly divided between defense and non-defense programs.

“When I speak to seniors in Vermont or elsewhere in this country about how their cost of living adjustments are ‘too generous,’ they respond either with laughter or disbelief,” said Sanders, “because they know that in the last three years, despite rapidly rising costs in health care and prescription drugs, they received only one COLA increase.”

Franken told the audience about how his wife’s mother had depended on Social Security survivor benefits after his wife’s father had died.

“Social Security is not welfare. Seniors earned their benefits by working hard and paying into the system,” said the letter circulated by Sanders and the other senators. “Meanwhile, the average monthly Social Security benefit is only about $1,200, quite low by international standards.”

Sanders noted that more than 120,000 people in Vermont receive Social Security, “providing retirement security and enabling people with disabilities and widows, widowers and children to live in dignity and security.”

Leahy Launches Online Conviction Database - The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Sept. 21, 2012

On Vermont Today

By Mounira Al Hmoud/BUWashingtonNews Service

WASHINGTON – In an effort to provide greater insight into the impact of the  U.S. criminal justice system, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Wednesday helped to launch the first online database designed to compile the collateral consequences of criminal convictions in each of the 50 states.

Leahy, who was a local prosecutor prior to his election to the Senate, said that while there needs to be serious consequences for criminal activity, steps must also be taken to give those convicted of a crime the skills and opportunities to reintegrate into their respective communities.

“To promote successful reentry, it is important that prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges understand the full consequences of convictions, so they can make the best possible decisions,” declared Leahy, while adding: “More to the point, it is crucial that policy makers understand the full set of collateral consequences already in the law, so that they know whether new sanctions are truly necessary or appropriate — and so they can think about removing sanctions that undermine the ability to re-enter society without making the public safer.”

Prompted by the 2007 Court Security Act that Leahy – chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee – sponsored, the Web-based project is spearheaded by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Justice Department and the American Bar Association. It involves a study of all collateral consequences triggered by a particular category of offenses.

More than half of such collateral sanctions affect employment or occupational licensing opportunities for those convicted of a crime. The balance of these sanctions affects housing and residency options, business and educational opportunities, public assistance benefits, family relationships, motor vehicle licensing and civic participation.

So far, the Web site contains information on the impact of federal statutes and regulations, as well as for those of nine states — including Vermont.

Margaret Love, a project director at the ABA, said those putting together the Web site are seeking data first from the most populous states, and that additional information will be available over the next 18 months.

In Vermont, where those convicted of a crime do not lose the right to vote, the database lists 345 laws and regulations imposing other types of collateral consequences. By comparison, there are 1100 collateral consequences imposed by those convicted of violating federal law.

Richard  Cassidy, Vermont’s member on the federal Uniform Law Commission, said Vermont could greatly benefit from the new online inventory — even though it has one of the lower totals among the states in terms of collateral consequences of conviction.

“We did the Uniform Act in the previous legislative session, but it did not pass the [Vermont] Senate because of one member’s objection — who asked ‘Who is going to do the inventory for Vermont?’,” said Cassidy. “Now that it is done, we have a really good chance that it passes.”

Cassidy spearheaded the development of the Uniform Collateral Consequences of Conviction Act, which seeks to improve public and individual understanding of the indirect consequences of criminal convictions. The Uniform Law Commission is seeking passage of the act by state legislatures across the country.

Delegation Condemns Middle East Violence – The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Sept. 18, 2012

By Mounira Al Hmoud/BUWashingtonNews Service

WASHINGTON – Members of Vermont’s congressional delegation are joining in the condemnation of last week’s killing of four American officials in Libya – while Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy cautioned that it is at times impossible to guarantee the safety of Americans working in some parts of the world.

Leahy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that determines funding levels for State Department operations, noted that the annual legislation produced by his panel has included more funding for U.S. embassy security than recent counterpart measures in the Republican-controlled House.

“Every year the U.S. government spends hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain and secure our embassies and to protect our civilian personnel stationed overseas.  I support President Obama’s directive to increase security at diplomatic posts,” declared Leahy, while also warning: “We must also recognize that U.S. diplomats and foreign aid workers serve in many places where it is impossible to completely guarantee their safety, and that they cannot carry out their work behind the walls of fortresses.”

Last Tuesday, Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American consular personnel were killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The attack was part of a massive uprising in the Middle East following the posting online of an anti-Islamic video – allegedly produced by an American citizen — mocking the Prophet Mohammad.

Leahy, who authored several provisions in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring — including conditions on U.S. military aid to Egypt requiring that country’s government to support a transition to democracy and abide by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel – declared:

“The shocking and senseless murders of Ambassador Stevens and other U.S. Embassy personnel in Libya should be universally condemned. It is outrageous that religious intolerance has reached such extremes that our diplomats – or any diplomats – are targeted.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he was deeply disturbed and saddened by the deaths of the four Americans.

“I join President Obama in condemning the senseless acts of violence at our diplomatic post in Benghazi. The families of the four Americans who were serving our country are in our thoughts and in our prayers.”

Democratic Rep. Peter Welch, the state’s at-large member of the U.S. House, said the United States must maintain its commitment to help build strong democratic institutions in the region.

“These are trying times in the Middle East and elsewhere. The United States must take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of our diplomatic personnel and civilians,” Welch said.

“I strongly urge our allies to help quell the violence. We must remain clear-eyed in the face of this turmoil and focused on our long-term strategic interests. A stable and democratic Middle East is extremely important for America and the world.”

Sanders Presses Economic Message - The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Sept. 17, 2012

By Mounira Al Hmoud/BUWashingtonNews Service

WASHINGTON – Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Thursday lined up behind preserving the current tax exemption for credit unions – but encountered some disagreement over his broader economic message during an appearance before the National Association of Federal Credit Unions.

At one point during a 15-minute speech to the group, Sanders – a member of the Senate Budget Committee as well as Congress’ Joint Economic Committee – criticized tax breaks and budget cuts proposed by Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, prompting one member of the audience to boo the Vermont senator.

Sanders appeared undeterred.

“Count me as somebody who does not agree that you give tax breaks to millionaires and you decimate Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” Sanders told his audience. “The middle class in America is disappearing. We have the highest rate of poverty that we have had for a very long time…The people on top are doing phenomenally well.”

Sanders then challenged the audience to guess how much the bottom 60 percent of the American people own, while reminding them that the top 1 percent owns about 41 percent of the wealth in the United States. The answer: 2.3 percent, Sanders said.

“We have the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on Earth,” Sanders continued. “We have one family, which is worth more than a $100 billion dollars, the Walton family of Wal-Mart, that owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people”

Sanders did praise the work of credit unions, noting that he was a member of three of them — two in Vermont and one in Washington D.C. As of this past June, there were nearly 7,000 credit unions nationwide serving 93 million customers, according to the National Association of Federal Credit Unions.

“The big banks are lending less money to people who need it and credit unions are lending more money to people who need it,” Sanders declared. “Credit unions should be allowed to lend even more money to small businesses.”

Credit unions are organized as not-for-profit, member-owned cooperatives. They are exempt from income taxes under the 1934 Federal Credit Union Act, although they are subject to sales, payroll and property taxes.

With so-called “sequestration” – automatic, across-the-board budget cuts – looming early next year if Congress cannot reach an accord on an alternative for reducing the federal deficit, credit union lobbyists are fearful that the current tax exemption could be eroded amid efforts to identify new sources of revenue.

While the banking industry has long criticized the tax exemption granted to credit unions, NAFCU contends that, if credit unions were to be taxed, they would lose their identity – forcing them to seek increased profits, a cost of higher borrowing rates and fees.

Responding to the banking industry’s past arguments regarding the tax exemption for credit unions, Sanders pointedly reminded his audience of the legislation designed to prop up banking and investment firms during the 2008 financial crisis.

“Anytime anybody [on] Wall Street comes to you and says ‘You credit unions have an unfair advantage over us because we have to pay taxes and you don’t,’ you might want to remind them of the $800 billion that the taxpayers paid.” Sanders declared.

Welch Pushes for House vote on Farm Bill - The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Sept. 15, 2012

By Mounira Al Hmoud/BUWashingtonNews Service

WASHINGTON – Citing the potential impact on both dairy farmers, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has teamed up with a Republican colleague from the nation’s heartland to push for vote on legislation reauthorizing the nation’s farm programs before the current “farm bill” expires at the end of this month.

In the wake of Senate passage of a five-year farm bill reauthorization earlier this summer,  Welch has joined with Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., in seeking a farm bill vote in the Republican-controlled House. But House GOP leaders have so far resisted bringing the measure to the floor, in part because a number of their member are pushing for even greater cuts than those approved earlier this year by the House Agriculture Committee.

“The worst outcome would be to have no vote at all,” Welch said of the farm bill. “We need to do our work so that farmers can do theirs.”

With barely two weeks until the Sept. 30 expiration of the Milk Income Loss Contract, or MILC, on Sept. 30, Welch said voting on the farm bill is urgent especially for Vermont. The MILC is considered by its advocates to be a safety net for dairy farmers in Vermont and elsewhere, providing them with security when milk prices drop or costs associated with dairy farming increase.

“The total amount of MILC payment to Vermont through June was $7.4 million and [it] was very helpful to Vermont farmers to be able to purchase needed fertilizer and seeds in the spring and feed during the summer,” said Diane Bothfield, deputy secretary of Vermont’s Department of Agriculture, Foods and Markets.

According to a 2011 report from the New England office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vermont had 134,000 milk cows and produced a total of 2.538 million pounds of milk.

Bothfield added that, in addition to the MILC program, there are other provisions in the farm bill that benefit Vermont farmers – such as programs involving conservation, growth of organic foods, and promotion of farmers markets.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, noted that the Senate passed a bipartisan farm bill months ago, and that House leaders have no good excuse for blocking it.

“Dairy farmers may take the first hit, which is why I am pushing so hard to extend the MILC program,” Leahy said. “In the meantime, programs like [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and conservation may be able to continue, but only for a while.”

SNAP, the current name for what was formerly known as the food stamps program, has also complicated passage of the farm bill in the House – as many Democrats oppose the more than $16 billion in food stamp cuts contained in the bill that passed out of committee.

Marissa Parisi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, an advocacy group, said tens of thousands of Vermonters would be affected if the House version of the bill and its food stamp cuts were enacted

According to Parisi, the Senate version of the bill would have a lesser impact on the Vermont food stamp program, but would still reduce monthly aid by about $90 per person.

“Over 97,000 people in Vermont, or 1 in 6, are in this program,” said Parisi. “Seniors and person with disabilities are the ones who would be the most impacted.”

New Hampshire

Heroes and Villains, Environmental Groups say New Hampshire has both - Sept. 2012

By MouniraAl Hmoud/BUWashingtonNews Service

WASHINGTON–A newly released clean air report by two environmental groups targets two members of the New Hampshire congressional delegation – labeling Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen as a “clean air hero” and GOP Rep. Frank Guinta as a “dirty air villain.”.

To compile the report, the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund and Environment America analyzed members of Congress’ records on 13 votes in the House and four votes in the Senate on air pollution-related issues, along with campaign contributions received from what the environmental groups regard as “dirty” industries. Also taken into account was the air quality in various states and congressional districts, according to Heather Taylor, director of the NRDC Action Fund.

“Some members, especially in the Tea Party-influenced House, do not miss a single opportunity to side with the dirty industry, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves,” Taylor told a telephone press conferenc..

Guinta could not immediately be reached for comment on the analysis. According to the report, Guinta voted incorrectly on all 13 votes analyzed, with the environmental groups charging that he had repeatedly voted to prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from limiting stationary sources of greenhouse gases emissions.

The environmental groups said that, since joining Congress at the beginning of 2011, Guinta had received $51,750 contributions from industries it considers to be major contributors to air pollution, including the oil and gas, electric utility and coal mining sectors.

Guinta is among 193 members of the House – all Republicans – to make the groups’ list of “dirty air villains.”

The other New Hampshire House member, GOP Rep. Charles Bass, is not on the list. According to the report, Bass voted against the environmental groups’ position on six of the 13 votes on air issues, and has received $353,890 in campaign contributions from industries considered to be major polluters. (Bass previously served a 1994-2006 stint in the House prior to winning back his seat in 2010.).

On average, a House member who took received more than  $100,000 in career campaign contributions from such industries voted against clean air measures nearly twice as many times as those who accepted less than $100,000 from these industries.

On the Senate side of the Capitol, 39 senators — including 37 Republicans and two Democrats – ae dubbed “dirty air villains. On the other hand, 43 senators – Shaheen and 40 other Democrats, as well as two independents – are named “clean air heroes,” as are 99 House members, all Democrats.

The report praised Shaheen for supporting clean air legislation on all votes taken in this area. at every opportunity.

“Our state has a long, bipartisan tradition of supporting policies that ensure we have clean air to breathe,” said Shaheen in an e-mail statement. “I’ve been proud to support the Clean Air Act and will continue to promote common sense, balanced environmental protections that strengthen our economy and protect our citizens.”

As a governor, Shaheen signed into law the Clean Power Act, making New Hampshire the first state in the nation to require through legislation that fossil fuel plants reduce emissions of four key pollutants: carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides and mercury.

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