Politics

Former Rep. Maurice Hinchey Dies at 79

By Niels Lesniewski
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In early 1989, with the inauguration of George Bush, John Tower’s failed confirmation fight for secretary of Defense riveted Washington.

A diminutive former four-term Texas Republican senator who had served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Tower seemed, on paper, as a noncontroversial choice.

But his former Senate colleagues remembered him as arrogant and pugnacious. That was why Tower proved vulnerable to a three-pronged attack on charges of conflict of interest, alcoholism and (as it was quaintly known in those days) womanizing.

With the Cold War not quite over, the alcoholism was the most serious issue. Sam Nunn, the Democratic chairman of Armed Services, questioned whether a heavy drinker like Tower could “carry out his military command responsibilities 24 hours a day.”

The sexual aspects of the Tower confirmation fight included both public charges of philandering arising out of a contentious divorce and accusations of sexual harassment. Buried in Pentagon files were accusations that, while a top arms negotiator for Ronald Reagan in Geneva, Tower lavished “special attention on the secretaries” and chased one of them around his desk.

What gave the Geneva stories credibility was Tower’s reputation on Capitol Hill as a senator with whom no woman under the age of 90 could safely share an elevator.

Tower’s defeat on the Senate floor (more than two years before Anita Hill’s accusations failed to derail Clarence Thomas’ confirmation) marked one of the first times that nonconsensual sexual activity played a significant role in a Washington scandal.

Prior to Tower, the archetype was Wilbur Mills, then the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who was found by the Park Police at 2 a.m. drunkenly cavorting with a stripper named Fanne Foxe (a.k.a. “The Argentine Firecracker”) near the Tidal Basin. Or Wayne Hays, who chaired the House Administration Committee, putting his mistress on the public payroll as a secretary even though she admitted she couldn’t type.

What seems surprising in hindsight is that the spotlight thrown on sexual harassment by both the Tower and Thomas confirmation fights had such little lasting influence.

The retro mood on Capitol Hill in Washington in those days was aptly expressed by Sidney Yudain, the founder of Roll Call. Asked by the New York Times about Tower, Yudain said dismissively, “Everybody up there had an eye for the ladies.”

But there was also an unfortunate sense, evident in 20th-century press coverage, that sexual accusations were primarily a partisan weapon brandished when other lines of attack had failed.

Anita Hill only made headlines when it looked like liberals had failed to derail Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination as it headed to the Senate floor. Many early sexual charges swirling around Bill Clinton were spread by Republicans irate that the GOP had lost control of the White House to a parvenu from Arkansas.

As a male journalist of a certain age, I have spent the last few weeks thinking about my own coverage and attitudes over the years. By chance, I know as acquaintances many of the male journalists accused of sexual harassment and I attended a small book party for Al Franken over the summer.

Part of my reaction is the human one to feel more scorn toward those men whom I disliked in other contexts. Regarding those with whom I have had friendly encounters (from writer Leon Wiesltier and publisher Hamilton Fish to Franken), I find myself searching for extenuating factors.

But, in truth, there is so much that we don’t know about the sexual demons lurking beneath respectable male public facades. I do not doubt the honesty and the courage of the women who have come forward both publicly and anonymously.

Yet I will confess a concern with the lynch mob atmosphere that likens all male offenses — such as drunken late-night passes — with the compulsive, ugly, predatory behavior of Harvey Weinstein.

As a liberal columnist, I went back and re-examined how I treated Bill Clinton during the impeachment saga. I wanted to make sure that I was not guilty of hypocrisy before I commented on Franken. For if your guiding light in sexual scandals is partisan advantage, then you don’t have principles — only talking points.

In The New Republic in late January 1999, I wrote, “Months of legal wrangling over impeachment have blinded liberals to the ironclad case for reviling Clinton. The proper penalty is not toothless censure but perpetual scorn.” In the same Clinton piece, I added, “There is something that smacks of Bonapartism in the Democrats’ confusion of personal fealty with political principle.”

That tendency to excuse all sins of the Great Leader now afflicts the Republicans with Donald Trump in the White House. With the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape filled with Trump’s crude sexual boasting about grabbing women, the only proper response should have been “perpetual scorn.”

Based on everything we currently know, nothing that Franken has done or been accused of comes close to matching the sins of Clinton, Trump and Weinstein — or, for that matter, the allegations that led CBS to fire Charlie Rose.

As a result, I hope that Franken stays in the Senate and gives Minnesota voters a chance to offer their own verdict in 2020.

Recovering from a scandal takes patience and courage. It requires a politician like Franken to temper future ambitions and to instead concentrate on doing good works within the Senate with humility and quiet dignity.

More important than Franken’s fate is that in 2017 America has belatedly reached a moment of reckoning about sexual harassment. This Great Reckoning means that hopefully never again will male politicians make a habit of chasing secretaries around desks.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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Deaths linked to alcohol are significantly more common than drug overdose deaths, but lawmakers may promote more drinking through a two-year tax break for producers of beer, wine and spirits as part of the Senate’s tax code overhaul.

The tax break, for 2018 and 2019, would save alcohol producers $4.2 billion, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. The provisions in the Senate Finance Committee’s tax plan were requested by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, but are based on a bill from Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the committee’s top Democrat.

Supporters of the tax break emphasize its benefits for small brewers, whom they tout as job creators. But public health experts who study the link between taxes and alcohol consumption think the economic impacts are overstated, especially since the underlying idea is for people to buy more alcohol.

Portman touted the job growth potential during the Finance markup last week.

Watch: House GOP Giddy After Tax Bill Win — But Will Senate Kill the Mood?

“The industry now supports about 15,000 jobs. Sixty-one new breweries have opened just last year alone in Ohio,” Portman said. “This legislation is only going to promote the expansion and the jobs that come with these entrepreneurial small businesses.”

But all alcohol producers — including giant brewers, wineries and distilleries — would benefit from the changes. The Beer Institute, which lobbies on behalf of all brewers, estimates that it would save the beer industry $130 million a year. Large brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev, the global conglomerate that makes Budweiser and produces more than 100 million barrels of beer in the United States, would get a modest tax break, around $12 million.

Smaller brewers would get a steeper cut for the first 60,000 barrels they produce. A brewery that makes 10,000 barrels a year would save about $35,000 annually. The Brewers Association, which represents the smaller producers, thinks that these relatively minuscule amounts would go a long way for their members.

“All of those breweries would take that savings and reinvest in their physical plant,” Bob Pease, the Brewers Association’s president, said in an email. “That reinvestment would allow those breweries to make more beer. When small and independent breweries produce more beer, they create more jobs and hire more workers.”

The Brewers Association has not taken a formal position on the broad tax overhaul despite its support for the alcohol-related provisions.

But public health experts cited potential harm from greater alcohol use and cast doubt on the economic effects.

“If the purpose of the bill is to generate more jobs, more economic activity, the only way that’s going to happen is if they generate more business,” said David H. Jernigan, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The tax changes would come as per capita alcohol consumption is climbing after dramatic decreases in the 1990s, which followed record consumption rates in the preceding decades. On average, every American age 14 and over consumed the equivalent of 2.32 gallons of ethanol in 2015. That’s 258 beers, 104 glasses of wine and 168 shots per person in a year.

Drink consumption-01

That is down slightly from its recent peak in 2012, when it was the equivalent of 2.34 gallons of ethanol per person. That compares to the equivalent of 2.25 gallons in 2005 and 2.14 gallons in 1997. Increased consumption of wine and spirits are fueling the rise, while beer consumption has dropped slightly.

Excessive drinking is concentrated among a relatively small number of drinkers, since only 56 percent of the population reported having a drink in the past month in 2015, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. On the other hand, 26.9 percent of adults reported binge drinking — 4 or 5 drinks within two hours — and 7 percent reported “heavy” use, defined as binge drinking five or more days in the past month.

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on alcohol-related deaths come from 2006 to 2010, when each year on average there were 88,000 deaths from alcohol poisoning, traffic accidents or consumption-related chronic conditions. By comparison, drug overdose deaths are likely to be around 65,000 for 2016. The CDC estimates that in 2010, excessive drinking resulted in economic losses of $249 billion from lost workplace productivity and health care expenses.

There has not been extensive research into how a tax cut could impact consumption. But Philip J. Cook, a Duke University professor of public policy, has examined the result of the original 1991 excise tax that the industry is now seeking to reduce.

“What we know is that a higher tax reduces drinking. That’s perfectly clear compared to what it would be otherwise,” he said. “With reduced drinking comes reduced mortality both due to drunkenness and to chronic alcoholism.”

In a 2012 study, Cook and a colleague argued that the 1991 tax saved more than 6,000 lives in the first year it was imposed. Another 2012 study found that a hypothetical tax increase would mostly have the greatest economic effect on the heaviest drinkers, and would result in an 11.4 percent reduction in heavy drinking and a 9.2 percent reduction in drinking overall.

Interest groups representing the wine and spirits industries did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But the two beer industry lobbying groups pushed back against the idea that it would result in more consumption.

“Because the tax savings is limited for the larger players and spread among 5700+ smaller players, we don’t believe it will affect the price of beer or consumption,” Pease of the Brewers Association said in his email.

Lawmakers behind the legislation don’t believe it would have negative health implications.

“While alcohol misuse and addiction is always a health concern, Senator Wyden’s legislation focuses on revamping antiquated regulations that unfairly punish small craft beverage companies that are growing America’s economy,” said a spokeswoman for Wyden, who noted that he supports access to substance abuse treatment and fought to preserve protections under the 2010 health care law.

Despite the inclusion of Wyden’s provision, he and most other Senate Democrats are likely to oppose the tax overhaul. Throughout the Finance markup, Democrats were insistent that the GOP tax plan would benefit the wealthy at the expense of middle-class taxpayers.

While the industry and its supporters frame the tax cuts as a job-creation tool, researchers point out that the opposite may be true.

A study by Jernigan and several colleagues, published in July in the journal Preventive Medicine, modeled the effect of new hypothetical excise taxes and sales taxes for alcoholic drinks. They found that while those taxes would result in job losses for the beverage manufacturers and related industries, they would result in net increases as consumers would choose to spend their money elsewhere and the government would have more tax revenue to spend.

The public health arguments against an alcohol tax cut are unlikely to gain traction in Congress, where a majority of both chambers support cuts, especially to smaller craft beverage producers.

Jody L. Sindelar, a professor of public health and economics at Yale University, said that it’s harder to make a case for alcohol taxes than for other harmful products like tobacco.

“Most people consume with no problem,” she said. “It’s easy to undermine a desire for higher taxes because you can’t definitively say that it’s bad for you.”

She and others also noted the influence of alcohol lobbyists. Alcohol manufacturers and their trade associations have spent $22.5 million lobbying Congress so far in 2017, and last year spent $26.9 million. They spent $12.3 million supporting candidates for Congress of both parties in the 2016 election cycle, and have so far spent $3.9 million for 2018.

Correction 1:21 p.m. | The headline of this article originally misstated the amount alcohol producers stand to save under a proposed tax break. It is $4.2 billion.

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The FBI is combing through Pennsylvania Rep. Robert A. Brady’s emails to see if he led a conspiracy to pay off a challenger to drop out of the Democratic primary in his district in 2012.

The bureau has accused the longtime lawmaker of leading a scheme to conceal a $90,000 payment to Jimmie Moore, a former Philadelphia Municipal Court judge. Moore has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with authorities. The email search marks the first time Brady himself has been personally investigated.

The claim against the congressman was contained in a Nov. 1 search warrant affidavit released Friday that allowed investigators to sift through evidence on Brady’s campaign email, bobcongress@aol.com.

Brady could be charged with wire fraud, lying to the FBI and making an illegal campaign contribution, according to the affidavit.

Two of Brady’s aides, Ken Smukler and Donald “D.A.” Jones, were charged last month with making illegal campaign contributions on his behalf. The two were also charged with conspiring to hide money in Moore’s campaign finance reports. The $90,000 was allegedly funneled from Brady’s campaign fund, through a third party polling firm, to Moore’s campaign.

“The investigation has uncovered evidence which indicates that Brady, Smukler and Jones utilized Smukler’s and D.A. Jones’ corporations to conceal payments from Brady’s campaign … for Moore to withdraw from the 2012 Democratic primary race,” FBI Special Agent Jonathan R. Szeliga wrote in the affidavit.

Brady has adamantly denied through lawyers and spokespeople that he did anything wrong. His camp maintains he paid the polling firm $90,000 for exclusive rights to its data, a claim the FBI has called false.

Brady’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

It remains unclear why the congressman may have felt he needed Moore to drop from the 2012 race.

At the time of the alleged transaction, Moore had less than $5,000 in his war chest, while Brady, a long-tenured incumbent, sat on a mound upward of $750,000.

Brady is in his 10th term in the House and is the ranking member on the Administration Committee, which oversees settlement payments in Congress, including for sexual assault.

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