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Eshoo, senators urge FTC probe of outlet stores

Rep. Anna Eshoo and three other members of Congress want a federal investigation of whether outlet stores are engaging in misleading marketing practices.

In a letter sent Thursday to Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; and Ed Markey, D-Mass., urged a probe into whether companies sell lower-quality items produced specifically for outlet stores without properly informing consumers about the difference between those items and the higher-quality products found in regular retail stores.

“Historically, outlets offered excess inventory and slightly damaged goods that retailers were unable to sell at regular retail stores,” the lawmakers wrote. “Today, however, some analysts estimate that upwards of 85 percent of the merchandise sold in outlet stores was manufactured exclusively for these stores. Outlet-specific merchandise is often of lower quality than goods sold at non-outlet retail locations. While some retailers use different brand names and labels to distinguish merchandise produced exclusively for outlets, others do not. This leaves consumers at a loss to determine the quality of outlet-store merchandise carrying brand-name labels.”

The lawmakers cite news reports estimating the nation’s more than 300 outlet malls were expected to generate $25 billion in sales last year.

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TV commercial volumes get turned down today

No, you’re not going deaf – a new law taking effect today turns down the volume on television commercials.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., held a news conference this morning on Capitol Hill to highlight the implementation today of the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act, which requires broadcast, cable, satellite and other video providers to keep the volume of commercials at a level consistent with the rest of their programming.

“Earsplitting television ads have jolted and annoyed viewers for decades,” Eshoo, the law’s original author, said in a news release. “With this new law, loud TV commercials that make consumers run for the mute button or change the channel altogether will be a thing of the past.”

National Association of Broadcasters President and CEO Gordon Smith said broadcasters have taken the lead in addressing the issue’s technical challenges, and National Cable and Telecommunications Association President and CEO Michael Powell thanked Eshoo and Whitehouse “for enacting sensible legislation that will improve the consumer TV experience. Our industry will continue to work closely with the FCC and the entire TV ecosystem to prevent loud commercials from being a disruption.”

Loud commercials have been a top consumer complaint to the Federal Communications Commission for decades and were listed as such in 21 of the FCC’s 25 quarterly reports between 2002 and 2009. According to a 2009 Harris poll, almost 90 percent of TV viewers are bothered by high commercial volumes, prompting 41 percent of viewers to turn down the volume, 22 percent to mute the TV, and 17 percent to change the channel altogether. Before this law, the official FCC policy recommended that consumers mute commercials if they found them to be excessively strident.

President Obama signed Eshoo’s legislation into law in December 2010, and the FCC passed its final rules implementing the law in December 2011. An FCC consumer guide to the new provisions of the CALM Act can be found here.

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Senators urge dropping barriers to refinance

Both of California’s U.S. Senators are among more than a dozen from both sides of the aisle who urged the Obama Administration today to make administrative reforms to help millions of responsible homeowners refinance and take advantage of today’s record-low interest rates.

The lawmakers – writing to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and Federal Housing Finance Agency Acting Director Edward DeMarco – said that with interest rates at 3.94 percent, it’s time to lower barriers that keep borrowers trapped in higher-interest loans and to address other hurdles that limit existing refinancing programs.

Specifically, they called for removing loan-to-value limits, which they said would provide the most at-risk borrowers an alternative to simply walking away from their mortgage; eliminating loan level price adjustments, which they say make a refinance less affordable, reduce the benefit to the borrower, and can’t be justified on loans on which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac already bear the risk; and ensuring that second lien holders don’t stand in the way of a refinance.

“Time is of the essence and we urge you to act quickly and aggressively to ensure that responsible homeowners receive the full benefit of these lower rates,” they wrote.

In addition to U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the letter was signed by Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; Mark Begich, D-Alaska; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I; Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; Scott Brown, R-Mass.; Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa.; Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.; John Kerry, D-Mass.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Read the full text of the letter, after the jump…
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Congress votes to ban waterboarding, etc.

This just in from the office of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.:

Congress today approved legislation by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that would require the CIA to follow the Army Field Manual’s rules on interrogations.

The legislation, which now goes to the President, will establish uniform standards on interrogation of detainees for all parts of the U.S. government. It prohibits waterboarding and other forms of coercive interrogation techniques.

“Today, the Senate stood tall and declared in a strong voice that the United States will not engage in torture,” Senator Feinstein said. “This is an historic moment, and I strongly urge the President to sign it into law. This legislation will require the CIA to follow the Army Field Manual’s protocols on interrogations. It will help restore America’s credibility abroad by establishing a single, uniform standard for the interrogation of detainees in our custody. No longer will the United States allow actions by its intelligence services which clash so sharply with the very ideals upon which this nation was founded. This legislation ensures that the United States will follow the law – the Geneva Conventions, the Conventions Against Torture, and the Detainee Treatment Act. Only by living up to our principles can we regain credibility in the eyes of the world. The President should sign this bill into law.”

[snip]

The measure was included as an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization bill, which was approved today by the Senate.

The provision reads:

“No individual in the custody or under the effective control of an element of the intelligence community or instrumentality thereof, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by the United States Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations.”

It specifically requires the CIA and all other U.S. intelligence agencies to follow the Army Field Manual’s protocols on interrogations.

The Army Field Manual specifically prohibits eight interrogation techniques:
· Forcing a detainee to be naked, perform sexual acts, pose in sexual manner;
· Placing hoods or sacks over the head of a detainee, duct tape over the eyes;
· Beatings, electric shock, burns or other forms of physical pain;
· Waterboarding;
· Use of military working dogs;
· Introducing hypothermia or heat injury;
· Conducting mock executions; and
· Depriving detainee of necessary food, water, or medical care.

The Army Field Manual allows 19 interrogation approaches, mainly based on psychological techniques, such as making a detainee believe that cooperation will shorten the length of a war and therefore save his country.

Just yesterday at the Berkeley protests regarding U.S. Marine Corps recruiting in Berkeley, I heard Rabbi Michael Lerner — founder of the Tikkun community and cofounder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives — list Feinstein among lawmakers who enable the war by failing to stand up to the Bush Administration, in her case by voting to confirm Michael Mukasey as Attorney General despite his refusal to explicitly characterize waterboarding as torture. (Go see here how some protestors heckled Feinstein for this back in November.)

But it seems Feinstein found a way to act on the issue, after all.