House Panel Cuts Food Stamps, Renews Farm Subsidies

A bitterly divided House panel Wednesday approved new work and job training requirements for food stamps as part of a five-year renewal of federal farm and nutrition policy.

The GOP-run Agriculture Committee approved the measure strictly along party lines after a contentious, five-hour hearing in which Democrats blasted the legislation, charging it would toss up to 2 million people off food stamps and warning that it will never pass Congress.

The hard-fought food stamp provisions would tighten existing work requirements and expand funding for state training programs, though not by enough to cover everybody subject to the new work and training requirements.

Agriculture panel chair Michael Conaway said the provisions would offer food stamp beneficiaries “the hope of a job and a skill and a better future for themselves and their families.”

Food stamps

At issue is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides food aid for more than 40 million people, with benefits averaging about $450 a month for a family of four.

The food stamp cuts are part of a “workforce development” agenda promised by GOP leaders such as Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., though other elements of the agenda have been slow to develop.

“The timing is just perfect, given the fact that we have more than 5 million jobs that are open and available,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., who said the GOP provisions would cement “a pathway to opportunity” for the poor and “give them better access to skills-based education.”

But Democrats said the provisions would drive up to 2 million people off the program, force food stamp recipients to keep up with extensive record keeping rules, and create bulky state bureaucracies to keep track of it all, while not providing enough money to provide job training to all those who would require it.

“This legislation would create giant, untested bureaucracies at the state level. It cuts more than $9 billion in benefits and rolls those savings into state slush funds where they can use the money to operate other aspects of SNAP,” said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, top Democrat on the panel. “Let me be clear: this bill, as currently written, kicks people off the SNAP program.”

Currently, adults ages 18-59 are required to work part-time or agree to accept a job if they’re offered one. Stricter rules apply to able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49, who are subject to a three-month limit of benefits unless they meet a work requirement of 80 hours per month.

Under the new bill, that requirement would be expanded to apply to all work-capable adults, mandating that they either work or participate in work training for 20 hours per week with the exception of seniors, pregnant women, caretakers of children younger than 6, or people with disabilities.

Farm safety net

In addition to food stamps, the measure would renew farm safety-net programs such as subsidies for crop insurance, farm credit, and land conservation. Those subsidies for farm country traditionally form the backbone of support for the measure among Republicans, while urban Democrats support food aid for the poor.

The legislation has traditionally been bipartisan, blending support from urban Democrats supporting nutrition programs with farm state lawmakers supporting farm programs.

The measure mostly tinkers with those programs, adding provisions aimed at helping rural America obtain high-speed internet access, assist beginning farmers, and ease regulations on producers.

“When you step away from the social nutrition policy, much of this is a refinement of the 2014 farm bill. So we’re not reinventing the wheel. That makes it dramatically simpler,” said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., a former chairman of the committee. “Most folks are generally satisfied with the fundamentals of the farm safety net.”

That satisfaction has helped fuel speculation that this year’s renewal of food and farm programs will fail because just a short-term renewal of current policies would satisfy many lawmakers. The Senate is taking a more traditional bipartisan approach that’s sure to avoid big changes to food stamps.

The House measure also would cut funding for land conservation programs long championed by Democrats, prompting criticism from environmental groups. At the same time, it contains a proposal backed by pesticide manufacturers such as the Dow Chemical Company that would streamline the process for approving pesticides by allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to skip reviews required under the Endangered Species Act.

The panel adopted by voice vote a proposal by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., to prohibit the slaughter, trade or import or export of dogs and cats for human consumption in the United States.


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SunPower Buys US Rival SolarWorld to Head Off Trump Tariffs

SunPower Corp. on Wednesday said it would buy U.S. solar panel maker SolarWorld Americas, expanding its domestic manufacturing as it seeks to stem the impact of Trump administration tariffs on panel imports.

The White House cheered the deal, saying it was proof that Trump’s trade policies were stimulating U.S. investment.

Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

The news sent SunPower’s shares up 12 percent on the Nasdaq to their highest level since before President Donald Trump imposed 30 percent tariffs on imported solar panels in January.

“The time is right for SunPower to invest in U.S. manufacturing,” chief executive Tom Werner said in a statement.

SunPower is based in San Jose, California, but most of its manufacturing is in the Philippines and Mexico. The company had lobbied heavily against the solar trade case brought last year by U.S. manufacturers, including SolarWorld, which said they could not compete with a flood of cheap imports.

‘This is great news’

The deal is a win for the Trump administration’s efforts to revive U.S. solar manufacturing through the tariffs. SunPower will manufacture its cheaper “P-series” panels, which more directly compete with Chinese products, at the SolarWorld factory in Hillsboro, Oregon, it said. It will also make SolarWorld’s legacy products.

“This is great news for the hundreds of Americans working at SolarWorld’s factory in Oregon and is further proof that the president’s trade policies are bringing investment back to the United States,” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said in an emailed statement.

The announcement comes as SunPower is seeking an exemption from tariffs on its higher-priced, more efficient panels manufactured overseas. It has argued to the U.S. trade representative, which will make a decision on exemptions in the coming weeks, that those products should be excluded because there is no U.S. competitor that makes a similar product.

In a note to clients, Baird analyst Ben Kallo said the SolarWorld deal would enable the company to compete against Chinese imports should SunPower’s products not receive an exemption. But he added that skeptics “may question the company’s ability to generate profits with U.S. manufacturing.”

Capital injection

The deal will inject much-needed capital into SolarWorld’s long-suffering manufacturing plant and give it the support of a major market player. SunPower is one of the largest solar companies in the world and is majority owned by France’s deep-pocketed oil giant Total SA.

The U.S. arm of Germany’s SolarWorld AG opened the Hillsboro factory in 2008 as it sought to capitalize on surging solar demand in the United States. But its start coincided with a dramatic increase in the production of cheaper solar products in Asia, and SolarWorld struggled to compete.

Twice, in 2012 and 2014, trade cases brought by SolarWorld prompted the U.S. Commerce Department to slap import duties on solar products from China and Taiwan. Yet prices on solar panels continued their free fall, and in 2017, the company joined rival Suniva in asking for new tariffs.

SolarWorld called the outcome “ideal” for its hundreds of employees in Hillsboro.

Suniva’s future in doubt

During the trade case and after the tariffs were announced, the solar  industry’s trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, argued that the tariffs would not be enough to keep SolarWorld and Suniva afloat.

Indeed, Suniva’s future remains uncertain after a U.S. bankruptcy court judge this week granted a request by its biggest creditor that will allow it to sell a portion of the company’s solar manufacturing equipment through a public

auction.


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US Manufacturers Seek Relief From Steel, Aluminum Tariffs

President Donald Trump’s tariffs on imported aluminum and steel are disrupting business for hundreds of American companies that buy those metals, and many are pressing for relief.

Nearly 2,200 companies are asking the Commerce Department to exempt them from the 25 percent steel tariff, and more than 200 other companies are asking to be spared the 10 percent aluminum tariff.

Other companies are weighing their options. Jody Fledderman, chief executive of Batesville Tool & Die in Indiana, said American steelmakers have already raised their prices since Trump’s tariffs were announced last month. Fledderman said he might have to shift production to a plant in Mexico, where he can buy cheaper steel.

A group of small- and medium-size manufacturers are gathering in Washington to announce a coalition to fight the steel tariff.


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Zuckerberg Under Pressure to Face EU Lawmakers Over Data Scandal

Facebook Inc’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg came under pressure from EU lawmakers on Wednesday to come to Europe and shed light on the data breach involving Cambridge Analytica that affected nearly three million Europeans.

The world’s largest social network is under fire worldwide after information about nearly 87 million users wrongly ended up in the hands of the British political consultancy, a firm hired by Donald Trump for his 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani last week repeated his request to Zuckerberg to appear before the assembly, saying that sending a junior executive would not suffice.

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova, who recently spoke to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, said Zuckerberg should heed the lawmakers’ call.

“This case is too important to treat as business as usual,” Jourova told an assembly of lawmakers.

“I advised Sheryl Sandberg that Zuckerberg should accept the invitation from the European Parliament. (EU digital chief Andrius) Ansip refers to the invitation as a measure of rebuilding trust,” she said.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. Zuckerberg fielded 10 hours of questions over two days from nearly 100 U.S. lawmakers last week and emerged largely unscathed. He will meet Ansip in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Another European lawmaker Sophia in’t Veld echoed the call from her colleagues, saying that the Facebook CEO should do them the same courtesy.

“I think Zuckerberg would be well advised to appear at the Parliament out of respect for Europeans,” she said.

Lawmaker Viviane Reding, the architect of the EU’s landmark privacy law which will come into effect on May 25, giving Europeans more control over their online data, said the right laws would bring back trust among users.

 


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Merkel Wants European Monetary Fund With National Oversight: Sources

German Chancellor Angela Merkel backs the idea of a European Monetary Fund, provided national governments have sufficient oversight, sources close to her said before a visit by the French president.

President Emmanuel Macron, who will meet Merkel in Berlin on Thursday, is pushing hard for bold euro zone reforms to defend the 19-member currency bloc against any repeat of the financial crisis that took hold in 2009 and threatened to tear it apart.

His vision includes turning Europe’s existing ESM bailout fund into a European Monetary Fund (EMF). At one point, Macron also suggested the zone should have its own budget worth hundreds of billions of euros, an idea that does not sit well with Germany.

Merkel told lawmakers from her conservative bloc on Tuesday that she favored the EMF concept as long as member states retain scrutiny over the body, participants at the meeting said.

“It’s not that one side is putting the brakes on and the other pushing ahead,” one of the participants at Tuesday’s meeting said. “We want to find a good reform path together.”

German conservatives worry that an EMF could fall under the purview of the European Commission and could use German taxpayers’ money to fund profligate states. They also fear the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, would lose its ability to veto euro zone aid packages.

Merkel told the meeting that an EMF should be incorporated into European law via a change in the EU treaty, though she did not make this a stipulation for creating it, participants said.

European treaty change is a tricky feat that could take time to achieve, but by not categorically insisting on it Merkel leaves wiggle room for her talks with Macron.

The chancellor’s remarks to her parliamentary bloc tread a careful line between Macron’s drive for bold euro zone reform and her conservatives’ push to retain scrutiny of any EMF.

A succession of bailouts for Greece aroused stiff opposition in Germany. The Bundestag approved them all, but the rise of the anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) – now the main opposition party – has since heightened the conservatives’ wariness of going too far with euro zone reforms.

“Angela Merkel must not become Macron’s assistant,” the AfD’s leader in parliament, Alexander Gauland, said in a statement, urging her to distance the government from the French leader’s plans.

Reform road map

One participant at Tuesday’s meeting of lawmakers with Merkel said she wanted an EMF to act with conditionality – the same approach taken by the International Monetary Fund, which attaches strict reform conditions to aid.

In line with leading members of her conservatives in parliament, she also rejected plans floated by the European Commission to make use of a specific EU legal provision to develop the existing euro zone bailout fund into an EMF.

Merkel’s coalition partners, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), sympathize with Macron and want him to be rewarded for his efforts to reform the French economy, well aware that a large chunk of French voters remains susceptible to far-right and far-left populists skeptical about the EU.

France and Germany, which account for around 50 percent of euro zone output, are essential to the reform drive. But while they often put on a strong show of political unity and shared intent, the devil is often in the detail.

On Tuesday, Merkel said creating a euro zone banking union was a priority for her, but she also broadened out the reform question to include a European asylum system, as well as foreign, defense and research policy.

Framing reform as such a broad issue risks diluting Macron’s drive to beef up the euro zone with extra funding fire power.

In Brussels, senior EU officials are playing down expectations for rapid and substantial progress. They hope the next couple of months can lay the groundwork for what will be agreed over the coming years.

“We hope to get an early harvest in June and a road map for the rest,” said one senior official, describing the Commission’s hopes for a Franco-German deal to conclude some euro zone reforms at a summit on June 28-29 and agree a schedule for further moves.

 


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Iran Bans Government Bodies from Using Foreign Message Apps

Iran’s presidency has banned all government bodies from using foreign-based messaging apps to communicate with citizens, state media reported Wednesday, after economic protests organized through such apps shook the country earlier this year.

Chief among those apps is Telegram, used by over 40 million Iranians for everything from benign conversations to commerce and political campaigning. Iranians using Telegram, which describes itself as an encrypted message service, helped spread the word about the protests in December and January.

Telegram channels run on behalf of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri were already shut down Wednesday.

A report on the website of Iran’s state television broadcaster said the ban affected all public institutions. It was not clear if the ban applied to civil servants outside of work hours. The report did not elaborate on penalties for violating the ban.

Last month, officials said Iran would block Telegram for reasons of national security in response to the protests, which saw 25 people killed and nearly 5,000 reportedly arrested.

Authorities temporarily shut down Telegram during the protests, though many continued to access it through proxies and virtual private networks.

The move against Telegram suggests Iran may try to introduce its own government-approved, or “halal,” version of the messaging app, something long demanded by hard-liners. Already, Iran heavily restricts internet access and blocks social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.

Iran has said foreign messaging apps can get licenses from authorities to operate if they transfer their databases into the country. Privacy experts worry that could more easily expose users’ private communications to government spying.

Khamenei, however, has stressed that invading people’s privacy is religiously forbidden.

Iran’s move also comes after a Russian court on Friday ordered Telegram to be blocked after the company refused to share its encryption data with authorities.

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov responded to the ruling by writing on Twitter: “Privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.”


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Russia Admits to Blocking Millions of IP Addresses

The chief of the Russian communications watchdog acknowledged Wednesday that millions of unrelated IP addresses have been frozen in a so-far futile attempt to block a popular messaging app.

Telegram, the messaging app that was ordered to be blocked last week, was still available to users in Russia despite authorities’ frantic attempts to hit it by blocking other services.

The row erupted after Telegram, which was developed by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, refused to hand its encryption keys to the intelligence agencies. The Russian government insists it needs them to pre-empt extremist attacks but Telegram dismissed the request as a breach of privacy.

Alexander Zharov, chief of the Federal Communications Agency, said in an interview with the Izvestia daily published Wednesday that Russia is blocking 18 networks that are used by Amazon and Google and which host sites that they believe Telegram is using to circumvent the ban.

Countless Russian businesses – from online language schools to car dealerships – reported that their web services were down because of the communication watchdog’s moves to bloc networks.

Internet experts estimate that Russian authorities have blocked about 16 million IP addresses since Monday, affecting millions of Russian users and businesses.

In the interview, Zharov admitted that the authorities have been helplessly trying to block Telegram and had to shut down entire networks, some of which have over half a million IP addresses that are used by unrelated, “law-abiding companies,” he said.

Russia’s leading daily Vedomosti in Wednesday’s editorial likened the communications watchdog’s battle against Telegram, affecting millions of users of other web-services, to warfare.

“The large-scale indiscriminate blocking of foreign IP addresses in Russia in order to close the access to the messaging app Telegram is unprecedented and bears resemblance to carpet bombings,” the editorial said.

Zharov also indicated that Facebook could be the next target for the government if it refuses to comply with Russian law.

Authorities previously insisted that Facebook store its Russian users’ data in Russia but has not gone through with its threats to block Facebook if it refuses to comply.

Zharov said authorities will check before the end of the year if the company is complying with its demands and warned that if it does not, “then, obviously, the issue of blocking will arise.”

Elsewhere in Moscow, a court on Wednesday sentenced a member of the punk collective Pussy Riot, who spent nearly two years in prison for a protest in Russia’s main cathedral, to 100 hours of community work for a protest against the Telegram blocking. Maria Alekhina and a dozen activists were throwing paper planes outside the communications watchdog’s office on Monday.


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Training Surgeons to Perform Robotic Surgery

Since 2000, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave approval to the world’s first robotic surgical system, almost 4,000 of these sophisticated machines have been deployed in operating suites around the world. Recognizing that the proficiency of the surgeons who use them can be subjective, a group of surgeons at the University of Southern California, in cooperation with the manufacturer Intuitive Research, is developing a system for more objective evaluation. VOA’s George Putic reports.


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EU Pushes to Approve Japan Trade Deal

The European Commission will put forward a proposed free-trade agreement with Japan for fast-track approval Wednesday, hoping to avoid a repeat of the public protests that nearly derailed a trade pact with Canada two years ago.

The European Union and Japan concluded negotiations to create the world’s largest economic area in December, signaling their rejection of the protectionist stance of U.S. President Donald Trump. Now they want to see it go into force.

The agreement would remove EU tariffs of 10 percent on Japanese cars and the 3 percent rate for most car parts. It would also scrap Japanese duties of some 30 percent on EU cheese and 15 percent on wines, and secure access to large public tenders in Japan.

Canada deal memories

The commission, which negotiates trade agreements for the EU, will present its proposals to the 28 EU members, along with another planned trade agreement with Singapore. EU countries, the European Parliament, and the Japanese parliament will have to give their assent before the trade pact can start.

The EU is mindful of protests against and criticism of the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in 2016, which culminated in a region of Belgium threatening to destroy the deal. It provisionally entered force last September.

Both Brussels and Tokyo want to ensure the agreement can enter force early in 2019, ideally before Britain leaves the EU at the end of March. If it does, it could apply automatically to Britain during a transition period until the end of 2020.

Otherwise, it might not.

Before Brexit

Many of Japan’s carmakers serve the EU from British bases, and it has said having a deal in force during the transition would buy it more time to establish a separate trade agreement with Britain.

One reason the Japan deal may get rapid approval is that it does not deal with investment protection, which critics say allows multinational companies to influence public policy with the threat of legal action.

The agreement could then enter force after approval by the national governments and the European Parliament, rather than also having to secure clearance from national and even regional parliaments.

In fact, EU and Japanese negotiators have not agreed on the way in which foreign investors should be protected.


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Chinese City Turns to Wind Power Lottery

The city of Yanan, a major wind power base in northwest China’s Shaanxi province, has introduced a lottery system to decide which wind projects will go ahead this year, a sign that grid constraints are forcing local governments to restrict capacity.

China has been aggressively developing alternative power as part of its efforts to cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Grid-connected wind power reached 163.7 gigawatts (GW) last year, up 10.1 percent on the year and amounting to 9.2 percent of total generating capacity.

But capacity expansion has outpaced grid construction, and large numbers of wind, solar and hydropower plants are unable to deliver all their power to consumers as a result of transmission deficiencies, a problem known as curtailment.

Grid constraints

According to a Yanan planning agency notice seen by Reuters, the city was given permission to build 900 megawatts of wind capacity this year, but 1,300 megawatts (or 1.3 GW) have already been declared eligible for construction, forcing authorities to whittle the total number of projects.

“After study it was decided that the lottery method should be used to determine what plans will be submitted (for approval) to the provincial development and reform commission,” it said.

The authenticity of the document was confirmed by a local municipal government official. He declined to give his name or provide details.

China aims to raise the share of non-fossil fuels in its total energy mix to around 15 percent by the end of the decade, up from 12 percent in 2015.

​Renewable power grows

But while renewable power has grown rapidly, around 80 GW of wind capacity was still unable to transmit electricity to consumers in 2015. Wasted wind power amounted to around 12 percent of total generation in 2017, according to the energy regulator.

An environmental group is suing grid companies in the northwest for failing to fulfill its legal obligation to maximize purchases of local renewable power.

To try to prevent waste, China has drawn up guidelines aimed at preventing new plant construction in regions suffering from surplus capacity.

It also released draft guidelines last month for a new renewable energy certificate system that will force regions to meet mandatory clean electricity utilization targets. The plan is expected to help alleviate curtailment.


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