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On July 24, the White House faced a massive demonstration of activists protesting one of the most deeply distressing aspects of today’s society—the failure of policy makers, politicians, and businesses throughout the world to join the fight to eradicate HIV/AIDS.  The protest brought together a diverse mix of people against the backdrop of the International AIDS conference that is in town this week.

The march began from five separate areas, each dedicated to a different demand, and converged on the White House where protestors attached red ribbons, condoms, money, and clean syringes (the tools to combat AIDS) to the White House.  All the while hundreds of protestors chanted that the “world is watching,” and “tax the rich,” among other slogans.

Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines showed up in force along the People Over PhRma Profits route—advocating for lower costs to generic drugs, dropping the Novartis case in India, and fighting against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).   Public Citizen, the American Medical Students Association and other activists marched to the headquarters of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), the executive agency responsible for the secret negotiations over the TPP.  Beneath an oversized pharma- fat cat pulling the strings of an actor dressed Ambassador Ron Kirk, Obama’s United States Trade Representative (USTR), activists demanded Kirk’s resignation.

Since Kirk was appointed by President Obama as the United States Trade Representative in 2009, he is currently responsible for negotiating the TPP, a free-trade agreement that threatens to increase the breadth of patentable drugs in the Pacific Rim countries and impose harsh intellectual property regimes. If countries fail to fall in line with Kirk’s draconian IP regime, politicians, individuals and businesses of all sizes will be denied access to the world’s largest market of goods—the U.S.  Facing the strong economic and political pressure of the United States, many countries compromise on the IP portion.  To make matters worse, American businesses are also complicit in efforts outside the TPP to prevent access to medicine.

The protestors next targeted the headquarters of Novartis, a large pharmaceutical company that is suing India on the basis that their patent laws fail to meet international obligations, are unconstitutionally vague, and unfairly let generic drug manufacturers produce cheap drugs.  Although the patent that Novartis is wrangling over in the courts is not an AIDS drug, the fallout from the case will lead to higher prices for 2nd and 3rd line antiretroviral drugs, necessary for AIDS treatment if 1st line treatment prove fail.  Activists cried “shame” and lied down in front of the Novartis office to symbolize the lives Novartis is taking through prohibitive drug prices.

All five branches of the movement united at Lafayette Square, where they marched to the White House together.  Many called on President Obama to fire Kirk, but keep in mind that Kirk is executing a policy the President has put in place.  Obama can easily alleviate the access to medicines issue by endorsing various policy proposals, saving thousands of lives.   Specifically, policies such as federal funding for drug research, government purchase plans, advocating the use of compulsory licenses by emerging countries, or removing the unnecessarily harsh IP provisions in U.S. FTAs would increase access to medicine.  Hopefully, he realizes the prices for these policies are not too expensive.

On July 24, the White House faced a massive demonstration of activists protesting one of the most deeply distressing aspects of today’s society—the failure of policy makers, politicians, and businesses throughout the world to join the fight to eradicate HIV/AIDS.  The protest brought together a diverse mix of people against the backdrop of the International AIDS conference that is in town this week.

The march began from five separate areas, each dedicated to a different demand, and converged on the White House where protestors attached red ribbons, condoms, money, and clean syringes (the tools to combat AIDS) to the White House.  All the while hundreds of protestors chanted that the “world is watching,” and “tax the rich,” among other slogans.

Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines showed up in force along the People Over PhRma Profits route—advocating for lower costs to generic drugs, dropping the Novartis case in India, and fighting against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).   Public Citizen, the American Medical Students Association and other activists marched to the headquarters of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), the executive agency responsible for the secret negotiations over the TPP.  Beneath an oversized pharma- fat cat pulling the strings of an actor dressed Ambassador Ron Kirk, Obama’s United States Trade Representative (USTR), activists demanded Kirk’s resignation.

Since Kirk was appointed by President Obama as the United States Trade Representative in 2009, he is currently responsible for negotiating the TPP, a free-trade agreement that threatens to increase the breadth of patentable drugs in the Pacific Rim countries and impose harsh intellectual property regimes. If countries fail to fall in line with Kirk’s draconian IP regime, politicians, individuals and businesses of all sizes will be denied access to the world’s largest market of goods—the U.S.  Facing the strong economic and political pressure of the United States, many countries compromise on the IP portion.  To make matters worse, American businesses are also complicit in efforts outside the TPP to prevent access to medicine.

The protesters next targeted the headquarters of Novartis, a large pharmaceutical company that is suing India on the basis that their patent laws fail to meet international obligations, are unconstitutionally vague, and unfairly let generic drug manufacturers produce cheap drugs.  Although the patent that Novartis is wrangling over in the courts is not an AIDS drug, the fallout from the case will lead to higher prices for 2nd and 3rd line antiretroviral drugs, necessary for AIDS treatment if 1st line treatment prove fail.  Activists cried “shame” and lied down in front of the Novartis office to symbolize the lives Novartis is taking through prohibitive drug prices.

All five branches of the movement united at Lafayette Square, where they marched to the White House together.  Many called on President Obama to fire Kirk, but keep in mind that Kirk is executing a policy the President has put in place.  Obama can easily alleviate the access to medicines issue by endorsing various policy proposals, saving thousands of lives.   Specifically, policies such as federal funding for drug research, government purchase plans, advocating the use of compulsory licenses by emerging countries, or removing the unnecessarily harsh IP provisions in U.S. FTAs would increase access to medicine.  Hopefully, he realizes the prices for these policies are not too expensive.

 

Founders, family, directors and staff gathered at Public Citizen’s headquarters on Tuesday to honor one of their own.  Aileen Walsh, winner of Public Citizen’s ninth annual Phyllis McCarthy Public Interest Award, received praise from speaker after speaker including Ralph Nader, Sydney Wolfe, President Robert Weissman, former President Joan Claybrook, Jackie Gillan and Judy Stone, both of whom are from the organization Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The common theme among the speakers was Aileen’s perpetual
good mood and multitude of roles that she functioned as within the organization
– therapist, social director, event planner (the staff couldn’t keep her away
from setting up for her own event), successful fundraiser, and her and her willingness to do any job – as long as it was done right.

Public Citizen created the award after Phyllis McCarthy passed away in November 2002. McCarthy began her career in 1978 with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, and helped pioneer the development of every health publication now produced by Public Citizen.  The award recognizes individuals who have worked for a public interest group for many years, performing critical functions as did McCarthy, but who have not received public credit for their contributions.

Aileen Walsh (maiden name Coyne), a Pittsburgh native, is the first award-winner who has worked with McCarthy. She joined Public Citizen in July 1993 as the executive assistant to then-President Joan Claybrook and continues to take on many roles at the organization.

Walsh assists the president, board members and the directors in scheduling conferences calls, making travel arrangements and setting up meetings.  Her success at dialing for dollars is legendary, as nearly every speaker mentioned he ability to get a donation out of anyone she calls.

Around the organization,
her nickname is “queen mother.”

“With her high energy, good spirit, sense of humor, experience, wisdom, commitment, passion, insight, intelligence, wit, common sense and sense of fun, Aileen Walsh keeps a very intense staff functioning, effective and happy,” Weissman said. “There’s no royalty at Public Citizen, but we make an exception for our Queen, Aileen Walsh.”

“It was so great to see such a big turnout – and seeing all my friends from over the years was so nice, and Jackie and Judy showing up was such a wonderful surprise,” said Walsh.  “I didn’t expect this award and I am still in shock from Tuesday night.”

They’re in! The financial industry’s comments have been submitted and collected on one of the biggest rulemakings concerning Wall Street pay—Section 956 of The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act—Incentive-Based Compensation Arrangements.

The comments echo a familiar theme from the financial reform legislative fight of last year: whatever you do, just don’t involve the financial services industry in your new regulations.

The financial industry seems to believe that it should be the exception to the rule.

And since the main purpose of the rule is to curb Wall Street’s excessive pay practices– clearly it needs to cover the bulk of the financial industry. The Dodd-Frank legislation intended this rule to prohibit executives from repeating the inappropriate risks that prevailed before the 2008 financial crisis and led to the crash.

When implemented, the proposed rule will require financial institutions to disclose their incentive-based compensation arrangements to federal agencies and, at larger companies, require a mandatory deferral of at least 50 percent of executives’ incentivized pay for three or more years.

In response to the proposed rule more than 10,000 public commenters flooded the websites of the seven federal agencies responsible for drafting the rule to give their two cents on how federal agencies should curb Wall Street’s excessive pay.

Photo by Darren Hester

Public Citizen sifted through these comments and identified 30 industry organizations attempting to weaken the rule, 24 of which submitted written comments and 6 that met with federal staff.

Upon examination, it is crystal clear that these commenters have the potential for undue influence. The 31 groups spent nearly $243 million lobbying on financial services issues and $46.7 million contributing to campaigns in 2010 election cycles. In part, that money has paid for at least 712 lobbyists, including 454 who have reported contacting at least one of the seven agencies responsible for drafting the rule.

Here’s some of what the 24 commenting companies and industry representatives suggested to federal agencies on Incentive-Based Compensation Arrangements in their comments:

17 out of 24 plead that their company or industry should simply not be included in the rule. Some proposed legal challenges to the rule, while others assumed the inclusion of their company to be “an unintended consequence.” A few others asked for special carve outs for whole classes of job titles or exclusions of certain types of incentive-based pay.

15 out of 24 explain that the rule is too “burdensome,” “prescriptive” or “one-size-fits-all.”

13 out of 24 believe that the rule is essentially necessary because the private sector inherently accounts for good decisions and safeguards in conducting business. (If it did, Section 956 would be neither here nor there.)

11 out of 24 companies called for the total elimination of the mandatory deferral requirement.

8 out of 24 point out that the industry’s inability to attract and retain top talent with competitive compensation plans will create a brain drain that’s “as devastating as excessive risk.”

4 out of 24 commenters demanded that the regulation be downgraded from a clear rule to a “guideline” so that companies have the option of voluntarily abiding.

Representatives of the financial services industry clearly seek to render Section 956 irrelevant by limiting the scope of its coverage and by gutting its enforceability. Their comments serve as a window into the types of messages being funneled to government officials by the commentators’ 712 lobbyists and $243 million in lobbying expenditures.

Without a doubt, Wall Street is flexing its financial muscle to rebut the 10,000 or more public comments supporting and bolstering the pay incentives proposed rule.

However the public’s voices should be deemed more important than industry dollars; and it’s time for federal agencies to acknowledge that Main Street’s two cents should weigh more than Wall Street’s $243 million.

We urge them to make the rule to rein in Wall Street pay as comprehensive as possible.

Money plays too large of a role in elections. To compete in an increasingly money-driven system, candidates spend their days “dialing for dollars” and meeting with interests that can bankroll their campaigns. The recent Supreme Court case Citizens United only makes matters worse, allowing organizations to spend vast sums of money in the dark of night. The public is losing faith in our campaign finance system and rightfully so.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights took a step in the right direction Tuesday morning. Led by Senator Durbin, the subcommittee held a hearing on The Fair Elections Now Act, which would offer a new system for financing campaigns. The Fair Elections Now Act would allow candidates who value grassroots rather than corporate support, to accept matching public funds with small private donations. As a result, there would be increased transparency and accountability for our elected officials, who would respond to voters’ interests instead of deep-pocketed donors’.

Much of the hearing focused on the impact Citizens United has had on elections. Public Citizen’s recent report, “12 Months After” confirms that the damage is clear. Corporate expenditures are at an all-time high, corporate lobbyists wield influence like none other, and transparency is on the decline.

Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, the Brennan’s Center Monica Youn, and Tea-Party election attorney Cleta Mitchell testified before the subcommittee.

Simpson presented a real-world view of electioneering to the committee. He offered a grim picture of the current system, as our elected representatives spend too much of their time “begging” for money. He said legislators hate this aspect of their job, but they continue to do it because it’s necessary to win. However, as a result, America suffers. Simpson ardently voiced his support for changing the current scheme so our elected officials can do what really matters: meeting with other legislators, debating bills on the floor, and offering solutions to our nation’s problems.

Youn spoke of how our campaign finance system allows for “Godiva Chocolate” organizations to thrive. They are “Godiva Chocolate” because they are rich, dark, and we have no idea what’s inside them. Under the current regime, sophisticated and shadowy organizations commit what amounts to legal money laundering. They direct vast amounts of money for their political causes, with no accountability. What Youn was referring to is becoming clearer with every election cycle. We’ve all seen the commercials, “Paid for by Americans for mom and apple pie,” but we don’t know who “mom and apple pie” really are.

Mitchell didn’t see an issue with any of this. She believes our election system works just fine. She even said that it was part of elected officials’ jobs to fundraise, just like it’s her job as an attorney to seek clients. However, unlike attorneys, our elected officials should not spend their time selling out to the highest bidder.

Senator Franken, who was nonplussed at her testimony, asked her how it’s acceptable that corporations can spend large amounts of money in campaigns, without disclosing it to their shareholders. She dodged the question, saying Franken was “confused.” They tussled for a few minutes when Mitchell, seemingly triumphant said, “We just had a confuse-off.” To which Franken retorted, “Yes, and I won.”

Just as Durbin and Franken challenged the status quo in the hearing today, we must continue to demand that our elected officials are responsive to the people, not other interests. The Fair Elections Now Act is a good start.

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