Admin Proposes New Authority to Seize Non-Bank Firms

The Obama administration is seeking congressional approval for the authority to seize troubled non-banking firms. The proposal would grant regulators powers similar to those of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation over banks. The government could cancel contracts, including bonuses, as well as sell off company assets or debts. Speaking before the House Financial Services Committee Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke said the proposed new authority could have prevented the government bailout of AIG had it been in place. The House Financial Services Committee is expected to vote on the proposal next week.

Obama Defends AIG Response, Pushes Budget

President Obama, meanwhile, appeared in the second White House news conference of his presidency. Obama was asked about his slow response to news of the AIG bonuses.

CNN Correspondent Ed Henry: "Why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage? It seems like the action is coming out of New York and the attorney general’s office. It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, 'Look, we're outraged.’ Why did it take so long?"

President Obama: "It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak."

Meanwhile, Obama tempered his previous criticism of Wall Street, saying executives shouldn’t be "demonized."

President Obama: "Bankers and executives on Wall Street need to realize that enriching themselves on the taxpayers’ dime is inexcusable, that the days of outsized rewards and reckless speculation that puts us all at risk have to be over. At the same time, the rest of us can’t afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit. That drive is what has always fueled our prosperity, and it is what will ultimately get these banks lending and our economy moving once more."

Obama focused his appearance on touting his $3.6 trillion budget as it heads toward a House and Senate vote. Democratic leaders say they’ve cut hundreds of millions of dollars in spending during committee talks. A vote could come as early as next week. Obama meanwhile offered his first comments on Russia and China’s proposal for a new global currency, saying he’s against the idea.

Bailed-Out J.P. Morgan to Buy Luxury Jets

The bailed-out financial giant J.P. Morgan says it’s going ahead with with a $138 million plan on two luxury jets and a deluxe aircraft hanger. The firm has received $25 billion under the taxpayer-funded bailout.

EPA Halts Mountaintop Removal Projects

The Environmental Protection Agency has delayed hundreds of mountaintop coal-mining projects for a new review of their environmental impact. Mountaintop removal has been widely criticized for endangering waters and streams in the Appalachian Valley. The review effectively overrides last month’s federal appeals court ruling that backed the Army Corps of Engineers’ authority to oversee mountaintop removals. Environmentalists had previously won court judgments affirming that the Army Corps violated the Clean Water Act. In a related action, the EPA also announced it will block two projects that had won Army Corps approval. The EPA says the mountaintop removals would have endangered streams in West Virginia and Kentucky with thousands of feet of mining waste.

Probe: Labor Dept. Fails to Safeguard Worker Rights

A new congressional probe says the government agency for enforcing labor laws has failed to protect workers. In a report set for release today, the Government Accountability Office says the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division hasn’t adequately enforced violations of minimum wage, overtime and other labor rights. The study says agency officials mishandled nine out of ten cases brought by undercover agents posing as workers. Some investigators dropped cases simply because the accused employers didn’t return their calls. Others waited months to respond to worker complaints and then said it would take another several months to act on them. The report says, "Labor has left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn. Unfortunately, far too often the result is unscrupulous employers’ taking advantage of our country’s low-wage workers."

Specter Withdraws Support for Employee Free Choice Act

Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has dealt a blow to organized labor, announcing he won’t support the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill would stop employers from demanding secret-ballot elections and require them to recognize unions if a majority of workers consented. It’s been fiercely opposed by the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups who’ve launched a multi-million-dollar lobbying and ad campaign to stop it. Specter had previously signaled support for the bill, and its sponsors had been counting on his backing.

Health Insurers Offer to Drop Overcharging for Illness

The nation’s private healthcare industry has made a new concession in its effort to stave off proposals for a government-run healthcare program. On Tuesday, the two main health insurance trade groups said they would be willing to stop charging sick people higher fees if all Americans were required to buy insurance. The proposal doesn’t completely rule out continuing charging varying premiums and would only apply to individual customers, not small businesses.

State Rep.: "What’s Medicaid?"

A veteran Republican state representative is coming under criticism for admitting he doesn’t know what Medicaid is. Speaking before a hearing of the Texas State Health and Human Services Committee, Gary Elkins said, "What’s Medicaid? I know I hear it... I really don’t know what it is."

Obama Admin Backs Ban on Foreign Scholar

The Obama administration has apparently decided to continue the former President George W. Bush’s policy of banning foreign scholars under anti-terror laws. In a federal appeals court hearing Tuesday, a government lawyer argued in favor of maintaining a ban on a prominent Muslim intellectual barred from a teaching job in the United States. The scholar, Tariq Ramadan, was offered a position at the University of Notre Dame in Ohio in 2004. The Bush administration initially barred his entry without explanation and then said it was because he once gave money to a Palestinian charity. The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the ban on Ramadan’s behalf.

Pentagon Memo: Drop "War on Terror"

The Washington Post is reporting the Obama administration appears to be dropping the phrase "the global war on terror." In a memo sent to staffers this week, a Pentagon security official writes, "This administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror.' Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.'" An Obama administration official said there has been no official policy change and that the memo solely reflects the opinion of the author. But its directives conform to recent public testimony from senior officials.

Labor Joins Incoming Israeli Government

In Israel, the Labor Party has overcome internal opposition to join incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right Likud government. Both the Labor and Likud parties agree on maintaining the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, but Likud has more forcefully rejected peace talks. Labor leader Ehud Barak had earlier pledged to stay in opposition if Labor won less than twenty seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Labor only won thirteen seats in last month’s election.

Clashes Follow Far-Right Israeli March in Arab Town

In other news from Israel, dozens of far-right Israeli activists marched in Israel’s largest Arab town on Tuesday, setting off a protest from residents that ended in clashes with Israeli police. Mohammed Baraka, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, condemned the march.

Mohammed Baraka: "This attack on the citizens has no other explanation but that the police are used to hit and fire toward the Arabs, wherever they are. On the other hand, when an extremist group demonstrates against our existence, under the name of freedom, they give them the chance to walk in the streets, protected by 2,500 soldiers and policemen. But the people who came to defend their houses and their existence are suppressed by the police in a very horrible way."

South Africa Cancels Peace Conference Following Dalai Lama Ban

South Africa has canceled a global peace conference following an uproar over its ban on the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama from attending. The South African government has been accusing of caving in to China, one of its largest trading partners. On Tuesday, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla, condemned the move.

Mandla Mandela: "It’s a sad day for South Africa. It’s a sad for Africa. And we are a nation that’s striving to be a leader in the African continent, to also be advanced as far as our peace initiatives we have in Burundi and the Sudan. I am very saddened today to see that someone like the Dalai Lama, who all our laureates hold highly, has been turned down on their visa application."

UN Warns on Darfur Aid

The UN is warning of dire consequences for the millions of people who rely on foreign aid groups in Darfur. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir expelled thirteen aid groups from Darfur after the International Criminal Court indicted him on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. On Tuesday, Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said the remaining aid groups are inadequate.

Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes: "While a significant effort is being made by the government, by the UN, by the NGOs which are left, to plug some of the immediate gaps in these areas, these are at the same time band-aid solutions, if I can put it that way, not long-term solutions."

10 Die in Afghan Bombing

And in Afghanistan, at least ten civilians have been killed and another six wounded in a roadside bombing. The attack targeted a road used by foreign soldiers in eastern Afghanistan.

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