May 20, 2012

WORLD LEADERS URGE GROWTH, NOT AUSTERITY

[It is by no means the final word in the growth-versus-austerity fight that has been under way for two years. Even with the future of the European currency union in doubt, Germany has insisted that Europe’s ailing economies tackle their financial problems through spending cuts, a policy that critics say has caused higher unemployment, brought Greece to the edge of bankruptcy and worsened the crises in Spain and Italy. ]
By Helene Cooper
CAMP DAVID, Md. — Leaders of the world’s richest countries banded together on Saturday to press Germany to back more pro-growth policies to halt the deepening debt crisis in Europe, as President Obama for the first time gained widespread support for his argument that Europe, and the United States by extension, cannot afford Chancellor Angela Merkel’s one-size-fits-all approach emphasizing austerity.

Pointedly recognizing “that the right measures are not the same for each of us,” the leaders of the Group of 8 nations, at a meeting hosted by Mr. Obama at Camp David, committed to “take all necessary steps” to strengthen their economies. They said they wanted to keep Greece in the euro zone and vowed to work to promote growth in Europe, though behind the scenes distinct differences remained over what kinds of stimulus policies to pursue.

“Our imperative,” the leaders said in their statement, “is to promote growth and jobs.”

It is by no means the final word in the growth-versus-austerity fight that has been under way for two years. Even with the future of the European currency union in doubt, Germany has insisted that Europe’s ailing economies tackle their financial problems through spending cuts, a policy that critics say has caused higher unemployment, brought Greece to the edge of bankruptcy and worsened the crises in Spain and Italy
The leaders did concede somewhat to Ms. Merkel’s position on austerity, acknowledging that national budget deficits had to be addressed. But they added that spending cuts must “take into account countries’ evolving economic conditions and underpin confidence and economy recovery,” a recognition of how much the austerity packages have dampened consumer and political confidence in Europe.
Also, in a warning to Iran, the leaders pledged to take steps to guarantee continued oil supplies after an oil embargo against Iran begins on July 1.While Greece is not part of the Group of 8 — the club is made up of the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia — the political and economic crisis facing Athens hovered over the meeting. Greece has been unable to form a government after voters, angry over austerity measures, brought down the last government, and there is now talk of bringing back the drachma and abandoning the euro.
Ms. Merkel and Mr. Obama met privately after the meeting ended. In her public remarks, the German chancellor said that growth and deficit-cutting reinforced each other, and that “we have to work on both paths, and the participants have made that clear, and I think that is great progress.”
With his own re-election bid tied to a fragile American economic recovery that could easily reverse if Europe’s economy takes another turn for the worse, Mr. Obama was pushing hard on Saturday for a euro-zone growth package. American officials said they hoped that after the full-court press this weekend at Camp David, Ms. Merkel would be more amenable to the pro-growth argument when she meets with European leaders this week at a summit to come up with specific steps to fight rising debt while spurring the economy.
The last time world leaders met to discuss the European debt crisis, in Cannes last November, the French president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, joined with Ms. Merkel to push Italy to stick to an austerity package. But the tone was different this time. Mr. Sarkozy lost his re-election bid to Fran├žois Hollande, who came into office last week promising to focus on growth. And even before they showed up at Camp David to gang up on Ms. Merkel, Mr. Hollande and Mr. Obama had forged a new alliance at a prearranged meeting at the White House to focus on growth. 
In comments to reporters afterward, Mr. Obama said that the group needed to discuss “a responsible approach to fiscal consolidation that is coupled with a strong growth agenda.”
“If a company is forced to cut back in Paris or Madrid, that might mean less business for workers in Pittsburgh or Milwaukee,” Mr. Obama said to explain why the European crisis matters to the United States. He said that while Europe’s predicament is “more complicated” since it requires coordination among multiple governments, steps his own government took to blunt the impact of the American financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, including the stimulus, can stand as an example for Europe.
In a tense meeting here at this storied presidential retreat, it seemed at times as if it was Ms. Merkel — who faces stiff opposition at home to more bailouts of its neighbors by German taxpayers — against the world. Things did not seem to get off to a good start either on Friday night, as Mr. Obama greeted his guests for dinner in a rustic wood cabin.
“How’ve you been?” Mr. Obama asked Ms. Merkel.
She shrugged and pursed her lips.
“Well, you have a few things on your mind,” Mr. Obama said consolingly.
Mike Froman, Mr. Obama’s top adviser on international economic affairs, was careful not to publicly single out Ms. Merkel and Germany when talking to reporters after the meeting. The debate over austerity vs. growth, he said, “has been going on for some time, and we welcome the evolution on that debate.”
But it remains unclear how far Ms. Merkel will go, despite the pressure from other leaders. Ms. Merkel on Saturday was fresh from a war of words with Greece over that country’s continued membership in the euro, with Greek politicians complaining that Ms. Merkel had suggested a referendum asking Greece whether it wanted to stay in the euro, a claim that a spokesman for Ms. Merkel has denied.
Separately, the leaders also said they “stand ready” to call on the International Energy Agency to take appropriate action to guarantee oil supplies if prices spike. “There have been increasing disruptions in the supply of oil to the global market over the past several months, which pose a substantial risk to global economic growth,” the group said in a statement.
The oil statement was meant to reassure oil markets that nations will consider tapping into their oil reserves if there is a supply shortage. It is particularly meant to send a warning to Iran — which is the target of an oil embargo to begin July 1 as part of the western effort to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions — that the West will work to counteract high oil prices once the sanctions go into effect. Finally, it is meant to reassure countries like India and China that they will not be hurt by higher prices once the sanctions begin.
Still, American officials expressed optimism that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, which are set to reopen at the end of the month in Baghdad, might be productive.
The intimate setting of the meeting — in secluded Camp David, where the leaders slept in cabins and their attendants shared rooms — allowed for a more relaxed atmosphere, White House officials said.
Mr. Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain were on treadmills early Saturday morning discussing ways to help ease the debt crisis.
“Nobody felt defensive or put on the defense,” Mr. Froman said, disputing reports that Ms. Merkel was isolated.
Annie Lowrey contributed reporting from Washington.


[But just last Wednesday, Mr. Boehner refuted his own argument by ramming through the House a bill that seriously weakens the Violence Against Women Act. That followed the Republican push in Virginia and elsewhere to require medically unnecessary and physically invasive sonograms before an abortion, and Senate Republicans’ persistent blocking of a measure to better address the entrenched problem of sex-based wage discrimination.]

Despite the persistent gender gap in opinion polls and mounting criticism of their hostility to women’s rights, Republicans are not backing off their assault on women’s equality and well-being. New laws in some states could mean a death sentence for a pregnant woman who suffers a life-threatening condition. But the attack goes well beyond abortion, into birth control, access to health care, equal pay and domestic violence.

Republicans seem immune to criticism. In an angry speech last month, John Boehner, the House speaker, said claims that his party was damaging the welfare of women were “entirely created” by Democrats. Earlier, the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, sneered that any suggestion of a G.O.P. “war on women” was as big a fiction as a “war on caterpillars.”

But just last Wednesday, Mr. Boehner refuted his own argument by ramming through the House a bill that seriously weakens the Violence Against Women Act. That followed the Republican push in Virginia and elsewhere to require medically unnecessary and physically invasive sonograms before an abortion, and Senate Republicans’ persistent blocking of a measure to better address the entrenched problem of sex-based wage discrimination.

On Capitol Hill and in state legislatures, Republicans are attacking women’s rights in four broad areas.

ABORTION 

On Thursday, a House subcommittee denied the District of Columbia’s Democratic delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, a chance to testify at a hearing called to promote a proposed federal ban on nearly all abortions in the District 20 weeks after fertilization. The bill flouts the Roe v. Wade standard of fetal viability.

Seven states have enacted similar measures. In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law that bans most abortions two weeks earlier. Each measure will create real hardships for women who will have to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy before learning of major fetal abnormalities or risks to their own health.

These laws go a cruel step further than the familiar Republican attacks on Roe v. Wade. They omit reasonable exceptions for a woman’s health or cases of rape, incest or grievous fetal impairment. These laws would require a woman seeking an abortion to be near death, a standard that could easily delay medical treatment until it is too late.

All contain intimidating criminal penalties, fines and reporting requirements designed to scare doctors away. Last year, the House passed a measure that would have allowed hospitals receiving federal money to refuse to perform an emergency abortion even when a woman’s life was at stake. The Senate has not taken up that bill, fortunately.

ACCESS TO HEALTH CARE 

Governor Brewer also recently signed a bill eliminating public funding for Planned Parenthood. Arizona law already barred spending public money on abortions, which are in any case a small part of the services that Planned Parenthood provides. The new bill denies the organization public money for nonabortion services, like cancer screening and family planning, often the only services of that kind available to poor women.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature tried a similar thing in 2011, and were sued in federal court by a group of clinics. The state argues that it is trying to deny money to organizations that “promote” abortions. That is nonsense. Texas already did not give taxpayer money for abortions, and the clinics that sued do not perform abortions.

Last year, the newly installed House Republican majority rushed to pass bills (stopped by the Democratic-led Senate) to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and Title X. That federal program provides millions of women with birth control, lifesaving screening for breast and cervical cancer, and other preventive care. It is a highly effective way of preventing the unintended pregnancies and abortions that Republicans claim to be so worried about.

EQUAL PAY 

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, the epicenter of all kinds of punitive and regressive legislation, signed the repeal of a 2009 law that allowed women and others to bring lawsuits in state courts against pay discrimination, instead of requiring them to be heard as slower and more costly federal cases. It also stiffened penalties for employers found guilty of discrimination.

He defended that bad decision by saying he did not want those suits to “clog up the legal system.” He turned that power over to his government, which has a record of hostility toward workers’ rights.

President Obama has been trying for three years to update and bolster the 1963 Equal Pay Act to enhance remedies for victims of gender-based wage discrimination, shield employees from retaliation for sharing salary information with co-workers, and mandate that employers show that wage differences are job-related, not sex-based, and driven by business necessity.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE 

Last month, the Senate approved a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, designed to protect victims of domestic and sexual abuse and bring their abusers to justice. The disappointing House bill omits new protections for gay, Indian, student and immigrant abuse victims that are contained in the bipartisan Senate bill. It also rolls back protections for immigrant women whose status is dependent on a spouse, making it more likely that they will stay with their abusers, at real personal risk, and ends existing protections for undocumented immigrants who report abuse and cooperate with law enforcement to pursue the abuser.

Whether this pattern of disturbing developments constitutes a war on women is a political argument. That women’s rights and health are casualties of Republican policy is indisputable.