TIME language

Congress and Its Do-Nothing Code Words

Nothing doing—ever: House Speaker John Boehner, after meeting with his stalled caucus on border legislation
Nothing doing—ever: House Speaker John Boehner, after meeting with his stalled caucus on border legislation Alex Wong; Getty Images

Conditional phrasing is the red flag of uselessness. Congress no longer talks about the things it "will" do; only the things it "would" or "could do"

Time was, reading news stories about NASA was a thrilling experience. What helped make it that way was something most people didn’t even consider: the verbs. Even before the hardware had been built and the people had been launched, the space agency knew where it was going. And so the press releases and the reporters’ stories were filled with promises that “the Gemini program will allow astronauts to walk in space,” and “the Apollo program will achieve the first lunar landing before 1970.” In early 1969, NASA even issued a “Neil Armstrong to Be First Man on Moon” press release.

As history notes, the Gemini and Apollo programs did just as they promised and Neil Armstrong was indeed the first man on the moon, and the only reason NASA didn’t get called on its hubris was because — as baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, the subject of TIME’s April 15, 1935 cover, famously put it — it ain’t bragging if you can do it.

But then the Apollo program ended, the manned space program started to drift, and slowly the declaratives gave way to the conditionals. So reports trickled out about a new spaceplane NASA was building that would take off and land like a jet, and the new Mars program the agency was planning that could have humans on the Red Planet by 2019, and the return-to-the-moon Constellation program that should be ready to go by 2020. But the space plane never flew and the Mars and Constellation missions were scrapped and, in its defense, NASA could at least say, well, we never lied to you.

Now, as NASA finally, slowly rebounds, an entire branch of government — Congress — has descended to the land of the conditionals. Increasingly, lawmaking in Washington has been reduced to little more than a pantomime, with both parties retreating to their bicameral would-sheds, cranking out a lot of doomed, never-gonna-happen bills — base-pleasing legislation that could or would do a lot of things, but never actually will.

Google the phrase “the bill would,” along with the words “House” and “Senate” and you get 59.8 million hits. That’s an admittedly imprecise way to go about things, not least because it gathers in a lot of similarly partisan behavior in state legislatures — though all that may indicate is that the celebrated laboratories of democracy have begin working with the same inert chemicals the federal legislature has.

Still, there are more than enough examples of Congress taking the lead—introducing a river of proposed legislation that would defund Obamacare (50 times), or reform the immigration system, or turn Medicare into a voucher program, or raise taxes on the 1%, or lower taxes on the 1%, or require background checks for gun purchases, or streamline the tax code, or raise the minimum wage, but that never actually will do any of those things. On Friday, the GOP majority in the House moved toward approving a bill that would at last address the unfolding border crisis, but only at the cost of deporting the 500,000 so-called Dreamers, people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

The move faces a certain death in the Senate or White House veto but allows the legislators to go home to campaign, claiming that at least they tried something. President Obama — who has proposed plenty of his own dead-on-arrival legislation — dismissed the bill as “the most extreme and unworkable versions of a bill that they already know is going nowhere.”

Showpiece legislation designed more to make a point than anything else is a part of every parliamentary body, and in the U.S. it has always been a bipartisan form of mischief — even if in the 112th and current 113th Congresses, the Republicans have been guiltier than the Dems. Both parties learned a powerful lesson in the uses of legislative vaporware 20 years ago, with the Republicans’ sweep of the House and Senate in the 1994 midterms.

The GOP surfed to power that year thanks in part to New Gingrich’s and Dick Armey’s celebrated Contract With America, an ingenious campaign gimmick that promised House action within 100 days of a Republican takeover on 10 bills dear to party stalwarts, including a balanced budget amendment, term limits, and capital-gains tax cuts. Every one of the proposals did come to a vote and cleared the House. And virtually none of them went anywhere — nor were they expected to, given a balky Senate and a Democratic president with a veto pen. But the strategy worked — at least insofar as shifting the balance of power in Washington — and that did not go unnoticed by strategists in either party.

Nobody at this point expects a return to the dew-kissed days of Ronnie and Tip and Lyndon and Everett, when politicians would maul one another for show, then quietly worked out deals for real. Even then, members of both parties would often take care to describe their bills humbly, hedging with the conditional would. But the will was usually implicit, because passing legislation was what they’d been sent to Washington to do.

That, however, no longer seems possible. The members of the current Congress are increasingly content to produce only hollow bills that benefit no one but themselves—and why not? It’s easy, it costs nothing, and it gets them re-elected. Voters — eventually — will catch wise and punish them for that behavior. History, surely, will pillory them for it — and on that last point, there is nothing conditional at all.

TIME States

Another States Moves to Criminalize ‘Revenge Porn’

Annmarie Chiarini, Jon Cardin, Danielle Keats Citron
In this Oct. 30, 2013 photo (from left), anti-revenge-porn campaigner Annmarie Chiarini, University of Maryland law professor Danielle Keats Citron and state Rep. Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, are silhouetted during a news conference to announce a bill that would criminalize revenge porn in Baltimore. Chiarini got behind the cause after an ex-boyfriend took to the Internet to post nude images that she shared with him privately over the course of their relationship. After California and New Jersey passed laws outlawing revenge porn, an increasing number of states looking to follow suit. Patrick Semansky—ASSOCIATED PRESS

Colorado joins some two dozen other states working on legislation that would criminalize the nonconsensual online publication of sexual photos of a person specifically to humiliate or blackmail them

The ranks of states seeking to criminalize “revenge porn” has grown now that Colorado has embarked on the same path.

A bipartisan proposal from Colorado lawmakers sailed through the House Judiciary Committee with an 11-0 vote this week, setting the stage for a debate in front of the House, Reuters reports. Revenge porn refers to the posting of sexual images of a person online without their consent, in order to humiliate or blackmail that individual — often after a divorce or painful break-up. At least two dozen other states are currently working on legislation that would criminalize the practice.

In accordance with Colorado’s proposed law, publishing revenge porn would be categorized as a class-one misdemeanor.

“I’m pleased that Colorado is taking steps to protect victims of cyber crime,” said Republican Representative Amy Stephens, who sponsored the bill.

Last year, California became the first state to pass legislation that criminalizes revenge porn. New Jersey has since followed suit.

[Reuters]

TIME Pop Culture

“It May Be Possible to Have an Ethical Egg”: A Chat With Gene Baur

A farm animals' rights activists weighs in on the high price of cheap food — and the right way to eat eggs

+ READ ARTICLE

Farm Sanctuary founder Gene Baur is an ultra-mega-uber vegan: he won’t eat eggs or honey, or wear wool, and he gives his turkeys a Thanksgiving feast every November. In this interview, he explains how to eat eggs guilt-free (treat your chickens like family), why humans aren’t necessarily carnivores (we don’t salivate when we see blood) and why factory-farmed food might not be as cheap as we think it is.

Baur’s organization has been involved with legislation to increase the room poultry have in hatcheries, to ban gestation crates — where pregnant pigs have no room to stand up until they give birth — and farrowing pens, the fenced-in stalls the pigs feed the piglets in. What does a guy who eats no dairy or meat do when he wants to kick back at the end of a long day of fighting for the rights of farm animals ? Well, it involves cookies — and not the kind you find online.

A longer interview with Baur can be found in the magazine, in which he explain how it is that a guy like him ended up in a McDonalds commercial and how turkeys have become so huge and altered that they can’t make baby turkeys normally.

 

TIME Burma

Burma’s Muslims Are Facing Incredibly Harsh Curbs on Marriage, Childbirth and Religion

Buddhist monks protest against a visit to Myanmar by a high-level delegation from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in Yangon in November 2013. The clergy play a leading role in stoking anti-Muslim feeling. Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

Proposed discriminatory laws are the latest escalation in persecution of Muslims and a political ploy to secure Buddhist votes ahead of polls in 2015

Last March, sectarian riots roiled central Burma, and at least 48 people, mainly Muslims, were slaughtered by machete-wielding thugs. Buddhist monks spurred on frenzied mobs in an orgy of bloodshed that will be forever indelible in the minds of the Southeast Asian nation’s Muslim minority. The violence spread to a further 11 townships.

One year on, thousands remain homeless and animosity is entrenched. “It is not stable, and conditions are still very dangerous,” says Aung Thein, a 51-year-old Muslim lawyer in Meiktila, a central Burmese town of 100,000 people, where at least five mosques and more than 800 homes were razed to the ground. “Extremists use hate speech every day, and Muslims are not safe.”

Adding to this already fraught picture, new legislation threatens to isolate the Muslims further. Proposed regulations will restrict religious conversions, make it illegal for Buddhist women to marry Muslim men, place limits on the number of children Muslims can have and outlaw polygamy, which is permitted in Islam.

More than 1.3 million signatures have reportedly been gathered in support of this plan, which is spearheaded by a group of extremist Buddhist monks and their lay supporters. The proposals were forwarded by reformist President Thein Sein to lower-house speaker Shwe Mann late last month, and have now been submitted to relevant ministries to be drafted as bills. They have been dubbed an “intolerance package” by Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who says they would be a “recipe for disaster for a multicultural, multireligious country like Burma.”

As part of the marriage proposal, those of other religions must convert to Buddhism before marrying a Buddhist and seek written consent of the bride’s parents. (The consent of the groom’s parents is not required, for it is assumed the non-Buddhist party is always the groom.) Any non-Buddhist who ignores the regulations will be hit with a 10-year prison sentence and confiscation of property.

The proposals are merely the latest incarnation of spiraling religious extremism that has gripped Burma (officially known as Myanmar) since quasi-democratic rule was introduced in 2010. In June 2012, pogroms against the heavily persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority in the country’s far western Arakan state led to more than 280 deaths. Even today, some 140,000 Rohingya languish in squalid displacement camps, where they struggle to receive medical care or sufficient food.

The government maintains the fiction that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh — when, in fact, they have lived in Burma for generations — and so has painted the carnage as antimigrant in nature, with Buddhist Burmese merely resisting land grabs from Muslim interlopers. However, the violence that erupted in Meiktila last March — spreading to Shan state and even parts of Rangoon, the former capital and biggest city — did not involve the Rohingya, and therefore suggests that religion rather than supposed land scarcity is fostering this simmering acrimony.

An extremist Buddhist movement known as 969, led by the charismatic monk Wirathu, has been gathering steam in recent years, and portrays Burma’s Muslim population as intent on conquering the nation through rampant propagation. The group’s hate-filled rhetoric speaks of “protecting” Burmese women, and it has led to calls for the boycotting of Muslim businesses. Naturally, it enthusiastically champions the proposed discriminatory legislation.

“We found on the ground in almost every township that there are [Buddhist] women who were forced to convert to another religion,” Wirathu told the Irrawaddy in January. “We need to have an interfaith-marriage law to protect them.”

Ashin Gambira, a former monk who spent four years as a political prisoner after fronting the 2007 pro-democracy Saffron Revolution, believes Wirathu is being used as a political tool. “The Burmese government is always trying to cause unrest among the Burmese people,” he says. “The government supports and donates money to 969.”

Robertson says anti-Islamic feeling must be seen in light of elections in 2015, in the run-up to which various elements “are trying to whip up divisive sentiment to garner support, which is really dangerous and ill advised.”

Tellingly, when Thein Sein told the U.N. that the Rohingya would not be given citizenship and should be deported, his popularity soared and crowds waved banners extolling his steadfastness — adulation previously inconceivable for a former junta general. Presenting himself as the only feasible foil to Islamization would appear to be a naked political ploy on Thein Sein’s part, with his military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party preparing to face off at the ballot box with the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Compounding matters, a new national census is about to begin, run by the U.N. Population Fund and the Naypyidaw government at a cost of some $75 million. The last official census in 1983 put the Muslim population at 4% of the total, although the many mosques and madrasahs to be found in virtually every Burmese urban center indicate this is a significant underestimate. (Experts suggest 10%.)

Unfortunately, the sectarian turmoil “could intensify if the results of the 2014 census shows non-Buddhist populations have markedly expanded since the last national census was held in 1983,” writes professor emeritus of Asian Studies at Georgetown University David I. Steinberg in the Asia Times. Such evidence would naturally bolster extremist arguments that social and population curbs on Muslims are needed.

Unfortunately, not even Suu Kyi — a human-rights icon after spending 15 years as a political prisoner — appears brave enough to speak out against the proposed legislation or to confront extremist elements. To do so would be political suicide. Last month, the NLD canceled a party meeting at the behest of a group of monks. The reason? Two of the four speakers were Muslim.

 

TIME States

Arizona Pizzeria Protests Anti-Gay Bill By Refusing To Serve Lawmakers

Rocco's Little Chicago Pizzeria in Tucson reserved the right to "refuse service to Arizona legislators"

An Arizona eatery has taken a stand against a controversial new bill — one that allows business to deny service to gays in the name of religious freedom — by in turn exercising its right to deny service to lawmakers in the name of equality.

Rocco’s Little Chicago Pizzeria in Tucson posted a sign in its window that reads, “We reserve the right to refuse service to Arizona legislators.” The restaurant then posted a photo of the sign on its Facebook page, where it’s racked up more than 20,000 likes.

“I was appalled by the Senate passing the law,” the restaurant’s owner, Rocco DiGrazia, told the Arizona Daily Star. “The sentiment is that any expansion of discrimination is gonna hurt everybody and open the doors for more.”

DiGrazia said several of his regular customers are gay, along with some of his waitstaff. “Why discriminate against anybody?” he said. “I’m just trying to make some food.”

MONEY

Just How Big Is the Health Care Reform Law?

True to the cliche, it makes a pretty good doorstop:

Whenever big legislation that changes the tax code is passed, the nice folks at CCH send MONEYa bound copy of the new law, along with their explanation of how it will work. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is long enough to require two volumes, one for the law itself (plus a committee report) and another for CCH’s explanation.

The length of this bill became an argument against it. So for context, I’ve put a third volume in the picture: On the bottom is CCH’s copy (with explanations) of the 2008 bill that created the TARP. I used to also have copies of the volumes on each of the past two major tax-cut bills; if memory serves, they were about the same size as the TARP book. So there you go: The PPACA is really long and complicated, even for federal legislation. But federal legislation is routinely long and complicated.

How is a citizen supposed to make an informed decision about a bill this long? Well, you could rely on a journalist’s analysis, like the one I wrote with my colleagues Amanda Gengler and Michelle Andrews. But if you want something more unfiltered, go to a good plain-language summary, like this one from the Kaiser Family Foundation. I’ve read the law — to the extent that this is possible for a layman (more on that in a second) — and as far as I can tell, the folks at KFF play it perfectly straight. They haven’t left anything important out, and it takes a lot less time to read the KFF’s version than the actual law.

With any piece of legislation, reading the bill itself is usually as helpful in understanding the law as reading computer code is to learning how to use an iPhone app. Okay, that’s overstating it; the law is written in English, more or less. But like computer code, legislation is really just a detailed set of instructions, in this case for a machine made of lawyers and administrators. A lot of stuff you’d just take for granted (like, say, what a health insurance plan is) has to be spelled out explicitly, whereas a lot of the stuff you really want to know is dispatched with a quick reference to another section in the legislation or in another law. The results can be confusing. Reading the bill, I was shocked to discover that the “public option” government-run insurance plan, which had been dropped from the health care reform package, was actually still in the final legislation. I knew I couldn’t possibly have a scoop here — someone at The Washington Post, the Republican caucus or Joe Lieberman’s office would surely have noticed — but it sure was baffling. That section of the bill, it turns out, is dropped from the law by a single line that shows up about 2000 pages later.

The lesson: You can’t read most modern legislation in raw form without a trustworthy guide. But there are a lot of good people who do that kind of guidance for a living, and the web has made them easier to find.

Follow MONEY on Twitter at http://twitter.com/money.

MONEY

Investors Ill-Served by Financial Reform Amendment

Last month, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told Wall Street titans they needed to put their clients’ welfare above their own. But legislation introduced by Collins on Thursday looks as if it would gut the very safeguards Collins and other senators say they’re trying to enact.

At issue is what’s known as a fiduciary standard of care — the concept that a financial adviser (or any other professional, for that matter) should put clients’ interests ahead of his or her own. If, for example, a broker had the choice of offering you two different financial products, a fiduciary standard would compel the broker to sell you the one that is a better deal for you. The current standard for brokerages, however, is a less-stringent standard known as suitability: As long as the financial product is appropriate for you, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the best deal you can get. So if the broker has a choice of two similar mutual funds to put into your account, he’s free to sell you the one that’s twice as expensive as the other (and means more income for him).

The problem is, as a major Securities and Exchange Commission study has shown, everyday investors are completely confused by the issue. They don’t understand that some financial professionals (brokers) are covered by the suitability standard. They don’t understand that other professionals (registered investment advisers, as they’re known) are covered by the fiduciary standard. In fact, they don’t even understand the difference between the two standards.

Attempting to clean this all up, three senators — Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) have introduced an amendment to the financial-reform bill in the Senate that would require a broker to meet the fiduciary standard “when providing personalized investment advice about securities to a retail customer.”

The fiduciary issue, which may or may not end up being addressed in the financial reform that’s been kicking around Congress since last year, is “the single most important issue in the bill for average, retail investors,” says Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America.

Which is why she was heartened when Collins showed her support for the fiduciary standard by lacing into Goldman Sachs over the issue at a Senate hearing last month.

And which was also why Roper was disheartened Thursday when Collins introduced her own version of a fiduciary amendment. The Collins amendment also imposes a fiduciary standard. But it’s weaker than the one in the Akaka-Menendez-Durbin amendment. And worse, says Roper, it carves out a glaring exception for brokers who sell only mutual funds, variable annuities and certain closed-end funds.

“This amendment,” she writes, “removes the fiduciary duty precisely where it is needed most — where the conflicts of interest are greatest, the investors are least sophisticated, and the sales practices are most abusive. It paints a target on the backs of senior Americans who are most likely to be targeted with abusive variable annuity sales practices.”

Insurance brokers have fought hard against the fiduciary standard, with insurance-industry experts suggesting that it would make it difficult for insurance agents to make a living the way they traditionally have: by collecting commissions on product sales. Roper disagrees, pointing out the language in the Akaka-Menendez-Durbin legislation stating, “The receipt of compensation based on commission or other standard compensation for the sale of securities shall not, in and of itself, be considered a violation” of the fiduciary standard.

Amid the blizzard of amendments being proposed for the financial-reform bill, why is Roper so exercised about this one? Because Collins has taken so much interest in the fiduciary standard, says Roper, other legislators will be likely to defer to her judgment on this issue. “Given how vocal a champion Senator Collins has been about strengthening fiduciary duties on Wall Street,” says Roper, “this is a real disappointment.”

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MONEY

Congress May Regulate Financial Planning

For consumers seeking decent financial advice, Congress is making a step in the right direction. Whether it will reach that goal is another story.

As part of the financial-industry legislation making its way through Congress, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) last week proposed a measure that would establish an oversight board for financial-planning professionals. The hope is that people who call themselves financial planners will have to meet minimum standards in the areas of competency and ethics.

As things stand now, anyone can call himself or herself a financial planner.

In contrast, if you call yourself an investment adviser, you (or your employer) have to be registered with the SEC and fulfill a whole bunch of other requirements. If you operate as a stockbroker or insurance salesperson, you need a license. But right now, “financial planner” is a legally meaningless term along the lines of “financial adviser” or “financial consultant.”

The problem with that, say the people who have persuaded Kohl to introduce the legislation, is that unscrupulous, incompetent and/or lazy financial pros are free to use the “financial planning” label merely as a sales tool — one that misleads consumers into thinking that whatever product or service a pro recommends is part of a well-thought-out course of action for their financial life. Imagine a broker or investment adviser is talking with you about a possible investment you’re on the fence about. If he says, “I think you should buy this,” that won’t carry half as much weight as “I think you should buy this because it’s a critical part of the financial plan I’ve created for you.” So he has an incentive to tell you he’s developed a financial plan for you. But you have no idea whether that financial plan is any good — or any different from the one he offers every other potential customer he meets.

Under the terms of the proposed measure, a financial planning oversight board would establish standards in three general areas:

  • Competency, by means of educational and examination requirements;
  • Practices — that is, what a planner has to do to develop and execute a plan; and
  • Ethics — namely, that a planner should meet a fiduciary standard, putting clients’ interests ahead of his own (a standard of care that’s also an issue in other proposed financial-industry regulation).

The language of the legislation resembles the terminology used by the CFP Board of Standards, a group that bestows the designation of Certified Financial Planner on professionals who meet its requirements for education, experience, ethics and a qualifying exam. That group has teamed up with two associations of financial planners — the Financial Planning Association and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors — to push for legislation that would bring federal oversight to financial planning. Kohl’s proposal is the latest incarnation of that push. “Our profession currently has no regulation, unlike medicine or even hairdressing,” FPA president Tom Potts said in a conference call with reporters this week. “We believe it’s time that financial planning is regulated as a profession.”

To be sure, there’s some self-interest behind these planners’ quest to be regulated. They’d like to build respect for their profession, whose origins they trace back about 40 years but which still is hardly understood by most Americans. They’d like the public to place greater value on the planning work that they do. And they’d like to distinguish themselves from professionals who focus on one area of people’s finances, be it investments, insurance or something else, rather than comprehensively addressing several financial aspects of people’s lives, from taxation and savings to estate planning and risk management.

But Kohl’s proposal is pro-consumer, too. Americans are bewildered when it comes to the financial-advice industry; people don’t understand who the players are, what these professionals’ motivations are, and what they are (and aren’t) legally obligated to do. People can’t easily distinguish between someone who is offering them financial advice in their best interest and someone who is just trying to make a sale. This measure is a step toward clearing up the confusing landscape.

What will become of the proposed oversight board? That’s an unknown. The Senate Banking Committee, led by Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), is slated to release a revised draft version of its financial-industry-regulation-overhaul legislation this week. Will Kohl’s measure be an essential part of it? Will it be offered later as an amendment? Will it make it through Congress? A person can only hope.

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MONEY

Will Congress Back Down on Stricter Rules for Wall Street?

Will Congress blow a once-in-a-generation chance to help Americans get better financial advice? It looks increasingly likely.

One of the biggest problems people have when they receive financial advice is that they don’t always know where a financial professional’s motivation and self-interest really lie. When you show up at a new-car dealership, it’s pretty obvious what a salesman wants: If it’s a Ford lot, he wants to sell you a Ford. But you know that going in, so you can filter what he says with proper skepticism.

The world of stocks, bonds and other financial products, however, is a lot more mysterious.

Some professionals are obligated to put your interests above theirs, meeting what’s called a “fiduciary” standard. (Think of them as human versions of Consumer Reports, advising you to buy the best possible car at the best possible price.) Others are required only to pass a litmus test known as “suitability,” leaving them room to sell you financial products that are a great deal for them, but might not be the best for you. (Think of them as car salesmen steering you toward the model that reaps them the biggest commission but has the worst repair record on the lot.) Still others wear both hats: At certain times when they work with you, they have to meet fiduciary standards, but at other times their recommendations just have to be suitable. You might not even know how they’re being paid: Maybe it’s a fee you pay them, or maybe they earn a commission from the company whose product they’re selling you. Or maybe they make money both ways.

Is that confusing? Of course it is. A RAND Corporation study released by the Securities and Exchange Commission two years ago contains plentiful evidence that even well-educated investors have no idea what financial professionals’ obligations are, or where their self-interest lies. For example:

  • Ninety-six percent of surveyed investors understood that brokers receive commissions on a client’s purchases or trades. But only 34% believed that “financial advisers” or “financial consultants” receive such commissions. Problem is, brokers, advisers and consultants are often the same thing: A “financial consultant” is simply a broker with a new business card.
  • Fifty-eight percent of investors thought that brokers were legally obligated to disclose any conflicts of interest. For the most part, they aren’t.
  • The legal distinction between “fiduciary duty” and “suitability” in the investment world has been around for 70 years, but the American public, after all this time, still has no clue what the terms mean. “Even though we made attempts to explain fiduciary duty and suitability in plain language,” explained woeful RAND researchers, “focus-group participants struggled to understand the differences….”

So what does this have to do with Congress? Everything. The financial-protection legislation that’s been kicking around Washington contains measures that may change how financial professionals dispense financial advice. But in recent days, reports have circulated that vigorous pro-consumer measures in this area that were proposed last fall are being weakened in back-room negotiations. Most relevantly, the trade journal InvestmentNews and other sources have reported that the Senate Banking Committee, headed by Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), is backing away from a prior proposal to impose the strict, best-interest-of-clients fiduciary standard on brokers who give investment advice. Instead, apparently, the committee will propose that the SEC conduct an 18-month study of regulations for financial advisers and then report back with possible measures.

Supporters of the fiduciary standard hate that scenario. “That’s certainly not good for the consumer,” says Bob Glovsky, chairman of the CFP Board of Standards, an organization that certifies financial planners and which has teamed with two other industry groups, the FPA and NAPFA, to lobby Congress on the subject of financial planning services. There’s already plenty of evidence — including the 204-page RAND study — that consumers would benefit from a fiduciary rule imposed on brokers, he says. “We know the consumer is confused,” says Glovsky. Replacing the mandate with a study, he says, is “really just punting it down the road.”

Unfortunately, Congress is looking awfully weak in the knees when it comes to protecting the public’s personal finances. Other reports indicate, for example, that Dodd and the Senate Banking Committee are thinking about making the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency not an independent watchdog, as originally envisioned, but an office inside the Federal Reserve — an institution which over the past few years proved to be spectacularly terrible at protecting individuals from financial-industry excesses. Let’s hope that, before Americans’ resolve to shore up financial protection fades away, Congress doesn’t lose its nerve.

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