TIME Congress

How Congress’ Spending Bill Will Keep School Lunches Salty

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School cafeterias were supposed to cut sodium in half by 2022

A massive spending bill is heading to the President’s desk this week, and along with it comes a stab at the healthy school food policies championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.

The 2010 healthy food guidelines that call for more fresh fruit and whole grains and fewer French fries and sugary treats on the lunch trays of America’s students have sparked ire in cafeterias for the past couple of years. Hashtags were spawned (#ThanksMichelle). Congress was petitioned. Op-eds were penned. And, on Saturday, those calling for a rollback of some provisions of the Hunger Free Healthy Kids Act got their wish.

Though the program remains in tact and schools cannot opt out of it as some Republicans had hoped, 2015 spending bill includes language that curbs any further reduction of sodium in school lunches “until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children.” By the 2022 school year, schools were required to serve meals with less than 740 mg of sodium—roughly equivalent to a six-piece chicken nugget kid’s meal with a side of fries at Burger King and about half of the levels currently allowed under the current guidelines.

The spending bill also allows states to get exemptions a requirement to serve 100% whole grains (though half of grains served must be whole) they show they’re facing “hardship” in efforts to implement it.

School Nutrition Association communications director Diane Pratt-Heavner says the association, which represents 55,000 school lunch providers, appreciates Congress for recognizing the challenges districts have faced in efforts to implement all of the rules.

“A few of the rules are so inflexible,” says Pratt-Heavner, who notes that over 50% of school lunch providers expect to spend more on healthy meals than they’ll make this year. “They’re driving kids away from healthy school meals and threatening the stability of the programs.”

It’s been nearly a year since the Government Accountability Office found that over 1 million students opted out of the school lunch program under the government’s changes to school meals. Without the starchy snacks like pizza and French fries dominating lunch trays, 1.6 million students who pay full price for lunch decided not to. The new changes, Pratt-Heavner says, will allow school lunchrooms to have the same flexibility as households.

“Schools, just like families, should be able to occasionally serve white rice or white tortillas,” she says.

The White House has not cried wolf over the changes, either. The Hill reports Sam Kass, who will soon leave his position as White House chef, called the changes a “minor adjustment” they consider a “real win for kids and parents” in light of other efforts to roll back the standards.

Health advocates including the American Heart Association, however, have blasted the sodium changes, which it says, “threatens the future health of our children, ”while citing a 2010 Institute of Medicine report that recommended incremental changes to high-salt school meals in order to reduce health risks like high blood pressure.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 90% of American kids ages 6 to 18 eat too much salt, and 1 in 6 kids currently have elevated blood pressure.

“It’s important to note that the average school lunch provides nearly enough sodium for the entire day, the American Heart Association said in a statement. “Without this reduction, more of our children will develop high blood pressure that could lead to heart disease and stroke before they reach adulthood.”

Either way it goes, the changes introduced via the spending bill are just a first step. Next year, the Hunger-Free Healthy Kids Act will need to be reauthorized, providing an opportunity for the implementation of more stringent rollbacks.

TIME Congress

Congress Approves Trillion-Dollar Spending Bill

House Speaker Boehner Holds Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony For WWII Era Civil Air Patrol
Drew Angerer—Getty Images From Left: Speaker of the House John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gather onstage prior to the start of a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony for World War II era Civil Air Patrol members on Dec. 10, 2014 in Washington D.C.

Everyone on Capitol Hill won a little and lost a little

The Senate passed a $1.1 trillion government funding bill on Saturday night after days of fiery speeches on the chamber floors from both liberal firebrand Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz. But despite some pushed back deadlines and last-minute drama, the plan provided by the parties’ leadership earlier in the week prevailed.

The top appropriators—Kentucky Republican Rep. Hal Rogers and Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski—and the party leaders—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner—can claim that they did what’s best for the country, averting a government shutdown in a bipartisan way. Indeed the bill was a compromise: Republicans continued to whack away on domestic discretionary funding, while Democrats won concessions on potential riders to the Environmental Protection Agency and secured billions in funding to combat Ebola and hundreds of millions more to fight ISIS, two key requests from the Administration.

“This bill puts the Affordable Care Act on secure financial footing for the first time in a long time,” said Reid in a statement Saturday night. “It gives our military the tools it needs to combat ISIS. It addresses the rape kit backlog, helping police and prosecutors prevent sexual assault. It increases funding for student loans. It ensures that President Obama’s executive action protecting families can move forward. And it provides funding to fight the Ebola epidemic.”

Neither conservatives nor liberals got what they wanted, but they got what they needed: a message to send back home. Those conservatives in deep red districts who oppose the President’s executive actions on immigration—deferring deportations for up to five million immigrants who came to the country illegally—now have a vote to draw a contrast between themselves and an unpopular president. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell left the Capitol Friday night, Texas Senator Ted Cruz stayed to throw up legislative hurdles, nabbing headlines after some had claimed his influence had been tamed by establishment figures like House Speaker John Boehner, who led the chamber to avert a government shutdown Thursday night on a close, but bipartisan vote. Even though Cruz’s strategy left his Republican colleagues furious—Reid got to push through more of Obama’s nominations with the extra time spent in the Capitol this weekend—Cruz once again raised his profile through an anti-Obama position. He has already made the choice that, as a first-term senator, his influence lies more on C-SPAN than in the party cloakroom.

“This is what voters demanded in November,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for the conservative Heritage Action, of Cruz’s weekend pushback. “The election was a referendum on Obama and his planned executive amnesty.”

Liberals, who have a tighter hold on the Democratic Party after the midterms thinned out their conservative counterparts, can now prove their bona fides sticking up for the little guy as they voted against provisions raising the amount donors can donate to the parties and another that facilitates Wall Street derivatives trading. Warren and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi found that despite losing those battles, their core supporters were pleased simply with drawing attention to their issues.

“It’s not just about wins and losses, it’s about if they’re willing to fight for it, not just talk about it,” said Josh Goldstein, an AFL-CIO spokesman. “Senator Warren and Leader Pelosi—they’re proven leaders willing to fight for it. They stand with workers, that’s why we stand with them.”

In essence, the wings of both parties, which draw their strength from picking fights, found good ones.

“Democrats won,” said Holler. “It is curious that some Republicans are unwilling to pursue the mandate they were given. Cruz, [Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff] Sessions, [Utah Republican Senator Mike] Lee and others are though. Guess which side is more popular with the base of the party?”

“They’ve done damage to Dodd-Frank but they haven’t done irreversible damage,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Warren ally and future top Democrat on the Banking Committee, referring to the 2010 landmark financial reform law. “And that’s Wall Street’s game and it’s our job to make sure they don’t win all the time and to protect the public…The battle continues.”

 

TIME Senate

Senate in Rare Saturday Session as Shutdown Threat Looms Again

Senator Sherrod Brown Holds Hearing On "Regulatory Capture" With New York Fed's Dudley
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images From Left: Senator Elizabeth Warren a Democrat from Massachusetts speaks with Senator Joe Manchin a Democrat from West Virginia during a Senate Banking Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 21, 2014.

The House passed a bandaid spending bill Friday but the Senate is locked in a showdown

For its grand finale before it concludes early next year, the 113th Congress is staging yet another procedural showdown in a rare Saturday session, as lawmakers work to pass a bill to fund the federal government before it runs out of money at midnight.

The House of Representatives Friday averted a government shutdown with a temporary spending bill to fund the government for five days, but the Senate must still approve the bill. The Hill has been locked in debate over a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government through September of next year.

The Senate had hoped to close up shop for the year Friday, but lawmakers could not come to agreement after some Republican senators demanded a vote on a measure protesting President Obama’s controversial immigration order issued in November, which shields some four million undocumented immigrants in the United States from deportation.

“Before the United States Senate is a bill that does nothing, absolutely nothing to stop President Obama’s illegal and unconstitutional amnesty,” said Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

Some Democrats, however, are worried about changes to financial regulatory laws included in that measure, McClatchy reports. “A vote for this bill is a vote for future taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street,”Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D—Mass.), a longtime advocate for financial regulation reform, said Thursday.

If lawmakers cannot come to an agreement on a temporary spending bill by midnight Saturday the federal government will run out of money. A final vote on the full $1.1 trillion spending bill could come on Monday.

[McClatchy]

TIME financial regulation

Why It Matters That Congress Just Swapped The Bank Swap Rule

US-ECONOMY-FINANCE-BANKING-BOFA
NICHOLAS KAMM—AFP/Getty Images

A controversial change to the Dodd-Frank financial reforms trades more risk for taxpayers to get more profits for banks and their corporate clients

Banks may be officially allowed to get back in the casino business again soon.

Hidden as a rider in the $1.1 trillion continuing resolution omnibus bill—the hulking “Cromnibus”—that passed the U.S. House last night are a few, measly pages that pack a whole lot of punch. They repeal what’s known as the Lincoln Amendment in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

The Lincoln Amendment, which you’ll also see referred to in other articles as “Section 716″ or the “the swaps push-out rule,” was, if not Dodd-Frank’s heart and soul, than at least one of its vital organs. It says, basically, that banks can make risky bets on behalf of paying clients, but if they screw up and get into trouble like they did in 2008, then taxpayers aren’t responsible for bailing them out.

It did that by requiring that banks set up two big buckets: one that was backed by taxpayers (FDIC-insured), and one that was not. The idea was that banks would keep all of their normal, plain-vanilla banking activities in the FDIC-insured bucket, and then “push out” swaps and other risky contracts, like exotic, customized, and non-cleared derivatives, into the other bucket. (Swaps are contracts that allow banks to hedge their risks or speculate on everything from interest rates to currency prices. Credit default swaps contributed to blowing up the economy in 2008. Warren Buffet once called these sorts of derivatives “financial weapons of mass destruction.”)

If the Cromnibus passes the Senate in the form that it passed the House last night, the Lincoln Amendment will be officially repealed. Dead. Kaput. Gonzo. The swap casino will again operate with the tacit backing of taxpayers. If markets go haywire, as they did in the last financial crises, taxpayers may again find themselves forced with a choice between bailing out the casino owners and a systemic financial collapse.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, which is generally in favor of financial regulation, says people shouldn’t overreact to that news. It released a statement yesterday saying, in essence, “Relax, we still have the Volcker rule,” a reference to a different provision of Dodd-Frank that bans banks from using taxpayer-backed accounts to make their own bets on the future movement of markets.

But as the folks at the Roosevelt Institute point out, that argument doesn’t really make sense. It’s like saying that because you’re wearing a t-shirt, you don’t need a sweater. It’s true that the Lincoln Amendment and the Volcker rule overlap in some ways, but their coverage is different.

The heart of the Volcker rule is all about proprietary trading, which is when banks trade for their own profits and not on behalf of their customers. It’s similar to the Lincoln Amendment in that it doesn’t specifically outlaw anything; it says that banks can proprietary trade all they want, but if they get into trouble, taxpayers aren’t bailing them out. Lots of people in the financial world think that the Volcker rule is the most important part of Dodd-Frank, but it doesn’t cover everything.

The Volcker rule, for example, doesn’t apply to all risky financial products, like exotic and uncleared credit default swaps. That’s where other regulations, including the Lincoln Amendment, took up some of the slack. Unlike the Volcker rule, the Lincoln Amendment did apply to exotic and uncleared credit default swaps, and required that banks “push out” swaps into a bucket that was not backed by the taxpayers.

The best argument for not freaking out about the repeal of the Lincoln Amendment is that it wasn’t nearly as strong as its drafters intended it to be. The final version had loopholes the size of Montana. For example, while the Lincoln Amendment was intended to lasso all risky instruments, by the time all was said and done, it really only applied to about 5% of the derivatives activity of banks like Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo, according to a 2012 Fitch report.

In other words, the banks are in the casino business whether or not the Lincoln Amendment is repealed. But liberal Democrats, including Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as well as a handful of conservative Republicans, like Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, say 5% of protection is better than none at all. They oppose the Cromnibus so long as that rider is in it.

House Republicans, for their part, say eliminating the Lincoln Amendment would streamline regulation, boost the economy, and “protect farmers and other commodity producers from having to put down excessive collateral to get a loan,” according to a summary statement. The bill is expected to pass the Senate, rider and all.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 12

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Eel drones are the future of undersea warfare.

By Patrick Tucker in Defense One

2. This interactive map points the way to breaking gridlock in Washington and reconnecting Americans to the policy conversation.

By the Hewlett Foundation Madison Initiative

3. Fear of terrorism has radically changed America’s public spaces.

By Susan Silberberg in The Conversation

4. By dividing Muslims, ISIS might be sowing the seeds of its own destruction.

By Mark Mardell in BBC

5. Yesterday, the FCC boosted access to free, high-quality internet at America’s public libraries, opening the door to digital opportunity for all.

By Reed Hundt in the Aspen Idea

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: December 12

Capitol
Mark Wilson—Getty Images The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

Gorbachev Wary of ‘New Cold War’

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tells TIME that the U.S. is to blame for starting a “new Cold War” with Russia and that President Vladimir Putin shouldn’t back down. “I learned that you can listen to the Americans, but you cannot trust them”

Congress Avoids Shutdown

Congress narrowly averted a government shutdown on Thursday night, squeaking through a $1.1 trillion spending bill with only hours to spare

CIA Chief Defends Agency

CIA Director John Brennan defended his agency from a sharply critical Senate report into its post-9/11 detention and interrogations

How Ridley Scott’s Exodus Strays From the Bible

The Biblical story of Exodus hits the big screen on Friday with the release of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Like any retelling of a classic, Scott’s blockbuster invites questions about the tale’s origin and meaning

Storm Hitting California May Be Worst in 5 Years

A storm described as perhaps the strongest to hit California in five years barreled in from the Pacific Ocean on Thursday and hammered the state with all manner of weather misery — hurricane-force winds, sheets of rain and heavy snow in the mountains

DOJ Allows Native American Tribes to Grow, Sell Marijuana

The U.S. Justice Department announced that Native American tribes would be allowed to grow and sell marijuana on their sovereign lands if they abide by the federal statutes laid out for the states that have already legalized the drug

Pope Francis Says There’s a Place for Pets in Paradise

Pope Francis confirmed during his weekly address in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square that canines, along with “all of God’s creatures,” can make it to heaven. “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ,” he said

Drug-Resistant Superbugs Could Kill 10 Million By 2050

Rising rates of drug-resistant infections could lead to the death of some 10 million people and cost some $100 trillion in 2050, according to a new report which called for “coherent international action” to regulate antibiotic use in humans, animals and the environment

Shonda Rhimes Slams ‘Racist’ Leaked Sony Emails

Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, took to Twitter on Thursday to condemn an email exchange between a Sony Pictures executive and an Oscar-winning producer that was leaked during the recent hack

Keira Knightley Is Expecting Her First Child

Just a day after Keira Knightley nabbed two big acting nominations, the star has more happy news: she is about three months pregnant. Knightley, 29, is expecting her first child with husband James Righton, of the Klaxons, whom she married last year

No Casualties in Ukraine Truce

A tentative truce between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine has resulted in the first 24 hours free from deaths and injuries since a civil conflict began in February, the Ukrainian President said on Friday

NYC Cops Want More Tasers

Law-enforcement experts are skeptical that a move to get 450 more Tasers on the street will address use-of-force concerns that have buffeted the NYPD. The talk of Tasers comes amid incidents that have put city cops under scrutiny for their use of force

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TIME brazil

Brazilian Politician Tells Congresswoman She’s ‘Not Worthy’ of Sexual Assault

Rogério Tomaz Jr./CDHM—Flickr Creative Commons Brazilian Congressman Jair Bolsonaro seen in 2011

He said it on the floor of the legislature

A Brazilian Congressman apparently told a female colleague who had allegedly called him a rapist that he wouldn’t sexually assault her but because she’s “not worthy” of it.

Representative Jair Bolsonaro reportedly made the comments on the floor of the national legislature Tuesday after lawmaker Maria do Rosário gave a speech condemning the human rights abuses of the U.S.-backed military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, a regime Bolsonaro defends, according to a translation from the Huffington Post. “Stay here, Maria do Rosário. A few days ago you called me a rapist, in the Green Room,” he said. “And I said I wouldn’t rape you because you’re not worthy of it.” The Green Room is a private room in the capitol building.

“I was attacked as a woman, as a Congress member, as a mother,” do Rosário told the Brazilian news agency O Globo. “When I go home, I have to explain this to my daughter… I’m going to press criminal charges against him.”

[Huffington Post]

TIME intelligence

The Twitter Debate Between the CIA and the Senator Behind the Torture Report

Sen. Dianne Feinstein oversaw the compilation of the 6,700 page report — and has a license to fact-check

While CIA Director John Brennan defended his agency from a sharply critical Senate report into its post-9/11 detention and interrogations on Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein took to Twitter to fact-check his assertions. Feinstein, the chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, led the compilation of the 6,700 page report.

Here are statements Brennan made during the press conference, and what Feinstein tweeted about their accuracy:

Brennan: “The cause and effect relationship between the use of EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable.”

Brennan: “Another key point with which we take issue is the study’s characterization of how CIA briefed the program to the Congress, the media and within the executive branch, including at the White House. The record simply does not support the study’s inference that the agency repeatedly, systematically and intentionally misled others on the effectiveness of the program.”

Brennan: “[CIA professionals] are a testament to our history and our spirit, and a consistent reminder of the women and men who make sacrifices daily so that they can help keep their fellow Americans safe and our country strong.”

Brennan: “There was information obtained subsequent to the application of EITs from detainees that was useful in the bin Laden operation.”

Brennan: “But as I think we have acknowledged over the years, we have brought those mistakes, shortcomings and excesses to the attention of the appropriate authorities, whether it be to our inspector general, to the Department of Justice and others. As you well know, the Department of Justice looked at this for many years and decided that there was no prosecutable crimes there.”

Finally, Sen. Feinstein concluded with advice to Brennan:

 

TIME Congress

Congress Narrowly Avoids Government Shutdown

Congress averted a short-term shutdown by passing a spending bill before midnight

The House squeaked through a $1.1 trillion bill Thursday night with only hours to spare before a midnight deadline that would have shut down the government.

On the House floor, the vote tally—219 to 206—was watched as closely as the scoreboard in the final minutes of a hard-fought game after the initial scheduled vote was postponed for seven hours of arm-twisting, including a plea from White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to House Democrats. Congressmen ordered Armand’s and Papa John’s pizza when it became clear they would have to stay for dinner.

“Merry Christmas,” said Ohio Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi with more than a trace of faux enthusiasm after Washington’s worst holiday tradition was over.

There was a significant chance that the bill wouldn’t have passed, forcing a short-term, months-long patch. As it became clear that the Republican-controlled House was short of the votes, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden began calling wavering House Democrats. At the same time, House GOP leaders whipped the rank-and-file members they needed.

If the two sides couldn’t cobble together a majority by midnight, the government would have temporarily run out of funding. “I don’t think there’s going to be a government shutdown,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told MSNBC as the sun set on the Capitol with no agreement in sight.

The last-minute scramble to pass a spending measure called up unpleasant memories of the past several years, when Congress has repeatedly edged right up to deadlines to pass stopgap legislation. In each case, the legislative branch managed to skirt disaster—until last fall, when the Republican Tea Party faction forced a shutdown in an effort to gut the Affordable Care Act. That 16-day shutdown damaged the GOP brand badly, and its leaders promised to sidestep a sequel.

But members of both parties found things in the omnibus bill to hate. Liberal Democrats, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, oppose provisions that would raise the maximum donation that wealthy individuals can give to political parties, as well as another that would provide government backing to some derivative trading measures like credit-default swaps. On the right, some conservative Republicans oppose the bill because it doesn’t defund Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

As a result, Thursday’s logjam caught many in the capital by surprise. Should a shutdown occur, it would have almost surely been short-lived. But the lack of support forced Republicans leaders to delay a planned vote.

“I’m not sure we have the votes,” said Rep. Robert Pittenger, a North Carolina Republican mere hours before the vote. “I do wish that President Obama and Nancy Pelosi would read off the same page.”

The White House urged Democrats to back the bill. “Democrats should be on board,” Earnest said, arguing a short-term spending resolution would leave the party with “even less leverage.” That message was reiterated in the McDonough meeting, which took place for over an hour in the basement of a Capitol annex.

Rep. Eliot Engel of New York said Thursday afternoon that he had been urged by the White House to support the measure. “Do you throw the baby out with the bath water or don’t you?” he said. “I think that’s what we’re all grappling with.”

The Office of Management and Budget held a call with executive agencies Thursday to discuss preparations for a possible shutdown, which officials believed was unlikely. But Congress still had to pass a short-term bill to push back the government shutdown deadline two days so the Senate would have enough time to pass the bill, as expected.

 

TIME Congress

See Congressional Staffers Stage a Powerful Walkout Over Grand Jury Decisions

African-American Congressional staff and others hold their hands up during a walk-out outside the House on Capitol Hill on Dec. 11, 2014 in Washington D.C.
Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images African-American Congressional staff and others hold their hands up during a walk-out outside the House on Capitol Hill on Dec. 11, 2014 in Washington D.C.

Staffers protest the recent grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases

Dozens of congressional staffers walked out of their offices in Washington, D.C., on Thursday afternoon to gather on the steps of the Capitol in a show of protest against two recent grand jury decisions in the police-invovled deaths of unarmed black men.

The staffers posed in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” position that has been used in demonstrations across the country in response to the death of Michael Brown, the Ferguson, Mo., teenager shot and killed in August by a white police officer, who was not indicted by a grand jury.

Senate Chaplain Dr. Barry Black also led the demonstrators in a prayer. “Forgive us when we have failed to lit our voices for those who could not speak or breathe themselves,” he said, invoking the last words “I can’t breathe” by Eric Garner before his chokehold-related death on Staten Island in July. A grand jury in New York recently declined to indict the police officer in the incident.

 

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