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House Committee Advances 3 Gun Control Bills

New gun control bills are headed to the House of Representatives this month. On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee approved three bills that advance key Democratic priorities on firearms.

 

The three bills passed by the Judiciary Committee tackle different aspects of federal and state gun laws:

 

H.R. 1186 – To ban the import, sale, manufacture, transfer, or possession of an ammunition device that holds more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Such devices that are already in the possession of an individual could be retained but could not be transferred to anyone else.

 

H.R. 1236 – To create a federal grant program for states to use to support activities concerning extreme protection orders. These orders, sometimes called "red flag" orders, allow law enforcement to seize someone's firearms if a court determines that a person poses a danger to himself or others. Such orders can be issued without conducting a hearing with the person in question under some circumstances.

 

H.R. 2708 – To prohibit anyone who has been convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime from possessing a firearm.

 

Each of the bills passed along a party-line vote. Republicans on the committee offered amendments that they said would approve the bills. Democrats rejected them, then passed the bills over Republican objections.

 

Gun control has become a hot topic in Congress and on the 2020 campaign trail. Democrats are pushing for stronger federal laws that they say will prevent gun crime, especially mass shootings. They argue that the federal government needs to strengthen its gun laws, which have gone decades without revision. Republicans, however, argue that these laws are ineffective to address the real causes of crime and mass shootings. They also say that the laws may infringe upon a individual's constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

 

With the Judiciary Committee's approval, all three of these bills are headed to the House floor for a vote. Speaker Pelosi will likely schedule them for consideration at some point in September. Given the Democratic majority in that chamber, they are almost certain to pass. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to schedule any of the bills for a vote in that chamber unless President Trump signals his support.

 

Do you think that the federal government should ban people from buying or owning gun magazines that hold more than 10 bullets?

Deep Dive: Judiciary Committee Impeachment Investigation

This week the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a resolution to begin an impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump. This is something that many Democrats have been pressing the committee to do. However, other Democrats, notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are cautious about impeachment, viewing it as politically risky. 

 

Impeachment is the bringing of charges against the president, vice president, or other “civil officials,” such as cabinet officers. Impeachment does not remove them from office, however. Instead, impeachment refers charges to the Senate, which then must vote to remove that person from office.

 

Impeachment and the Constitution

 

The Constitution establishes the impeachment and removal process, explaining it in a few key sections:

 

  • Article I, Section 2: The House of Representatives “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”

 

  • Article I, Section 3: “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present. Judgment in Cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”

 

  • Article II, Section 4: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

 

The U.S. impeachment and removal process is similar to the process that existed in Britain during the writing of the Constitution. However, the British Parliament impeaches and removes officials in one action. The framers of the U.S. Constitution made impeachment and removal two separate processes, thus weakening the ability of the legislative branch to remove executive branch officials.

 

How Impeachment and Removal Works

 

The House Judiciary Committee begins the impeachment process. Its members consider articles of impeachment, with approval coming with a majority vote. If approved, these articles of impeachment move to the full House of Representatives for a vote. The House then debates and votes on these articles. If a majority approves them, then that person has been impeached.

 

The Senate then begins its role. With the Chief Justice of the U.S. presiding, the Senate conducts a trial. The House of Representatives appoints members to manage the case before the Senate, laying out the charges contained in the articles of impeachment. The Senate then votes, with a two-thirds vote being necessary to remove that person from office.

 

Impeachment and removal may be for a public official’s criminal act, but they are not criminal proceedings. The only penalty, as the Constitution stipulates, is removal from office. The underlying crimes can be prosecuted by civil authorities, however, which may result in criminal conviction and penalties after impeachment and removal from office.

 

The History of Impeachment

 

The House of Representatives has considered over 60 impeachment cases, but most have failed. There have only been 8 instances where individuals have been impeached and removed from office. Fifteen judges have been impeached, as have 2 presidents:

 

  • Andrew Johnson: The House passed 11 articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson in 1868. The Senate came within one vote of removing him from office.

 

  • Bill Clinton: The House passed 2 articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton in 1998. The Senate vote to remove him from office failed.

 

In 1974, the House began the impeachment process against President Richard Nixon. The House Judiciary Committee approved 3 articles of impeachment against him, but Nixon resigned prior to a full House vote.

 

Federal Judge G. Thomas Porteous, Jr., was the last official impeached and removed from office. His impeachment and conviction occurred in 2010.

 

The Clinton Impeachment

 

The last presidential impeachment and trial took place over 20 years ago, when the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton. If there are proceedings initiated against President Trump, it would likely follow the pattern set during these proceedings.

 

In 1998, Independent Counsel Ken Starr provided a report to Congress that contained evidence gathered in the course of his investigation into various allegations against President Clinton. The House Judiciary Committee passed four articles of impeachment. Two were for perjury, one was for obstruction of justice, and one was for abuse of power. The full House of Representatives passed two of those articles of impeachment, one for perjury and one for obstruction of justice, on December 19, 1998.

 

The House of Representatives appointed thirteen managers to present their case to the Senate, which began its trial on January 7, 1999. Chief Justice William Rehnquist presided. The trial lasted a month, with the Senate beginning closed-door deliberations on February 9. The Senate took a vote on February 13 on the articles of impeachment. The Senate defeated the perjury charge by a vote of 45-55 and the obstruction of justice charge by 50-50. Sixty-seven votes would have been necessary to convict the president and remove him from office.

 

While both the votes in the House and Senate were largely along party lines, there were members of Congress who broke with their party leadership on impeachment or conviction. Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania (who later became a Democrat), voted “not proved.” Many observers saw these proceedings as an example of partisanship on both sides. This is in contrast with the impeachment proceedings that had begun against President Nixon, where a bipartisan consensus was forming to impeach and remove him from office prior to his resignation.

 

What This Means for You

 

The House Judiciary Committee vote means that this committee will begin investigating whether the president has committed the actions described in the Constitution that warrant impeachment. According to the resolution, "The Chairman may designate a full committee or subcommittee hearing as being for the purpose of the presentation of information in connection with the Committee's investigation to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to President Donald J. Trump."

 

Many Democrats accuse the president of obstructing justice and other crimes. They say that it is the House’s duty to impeach under these circumstances. The House Judiciary Committee's actions could add more clarity to these charges. However, Speaker Pelosi has cautioned members that such a move is politically risky, pointing out that Republicans lost popularity when they impeached President Clinton in the 1990s.

 

With Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, there is a possibility that the Judiciary Committee and then the full House could pass impeachment articles. However, it is unlikely that the Senate would follow suit, given Republican control of the chamber. If the Senate would convict the president and remove him from office under this situation, then the vice president would assume office.

Trump Administration Takes Aim at Homelessness

President Trump has long criticized how Democratic politicians in California treat homelessness. Now his administration is looking into how the federal government can intervene to treat what the president sees as a crisis in that state.

 

Members of the Trump White House staff and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are meeting with California officials this week to discuss the issue. President Trump has highlighted what he sees as a growing homeless population in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles and attacked the Democratic politicians that he says are failing to deal with it.

 

The Trump Administration is reportedly considering using the federal government to remove the homeless from the streets and house them in federal facilities. Dealing with homeless individuals has long been under the authority of local and state governments. It is unclear what authority the federal government has to intervene in a widespread way on this issue. Nevertheless, President Trump has said that he is considering what he could order done to reduce the number of people living on the street.

 

The homeless population of California is rising. Some state officials blame this on rising rent rates, and are embracing rent control as a potential solution. Others observers say that state regulatory barriers is driving up the cost to build housing, so the solution is to relax these restrictions. They also note that many homeless people have substance abuse issues or mental health problems, so their situation may not be related to the cost of housing.

 

Do you think the federal government should intervene in California to address the homeless issue?

Deep Dive: Finishing the Yearly Federal Spending Bills

With Congress returning from its August recess, there are now three weeks left until the next fiscal year begins on October 1. Congress has yet to pass any of the spending, or appropriations, bills that fund the federal government from year-to-year. This month will see this legislation take top priority in order to avoid a government shutdown.

  

A previous Deep Dive examined the budget process that talks about the overall spending blueprint for the federal government. This Deep Dive will discuss the specific part affecting spending – the appropriations process. 

 

 

The Appropriations Process

 

Article I, Section 9, of the U.S. Constitution states: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.”

 

Federal government spending is divided into two categories:

  • Mandatory: Programs authorized by Congress that operate outside the regular spending process are entitlement programs, and their spending is deemed “mandatory.” For Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, anyone who meets certain qualification is entitled to benefits. Funding for these programs does not have to be authorized yearly by Congress, although the eligibility and payment rules can be changed.
  • Discretionary: To pay for other government activities, ranging from military operations undertaken by the Defense Department to operating national parks to paying congressional staff, Congress must pass 12 appropriations, or spending, bills. These bills operate on a fiscal year basis. If they do not become law, funds cannot be drawn from the U.S. Treasury to pay for the government operations they cover.

 

Appropriations Bills

 

The 12 appropriations bills that should be passed by Congress every fiscal year (October 1 through September 30) are:

  • Agriculture
  • Commerce/Justice/Science
  • Defense
  • Energy and Water
  • Financial Services
  • Homeland Security
  • Interior and Environment
  • Labor/Health and Human Services/Education
  • Legislative Branch
  • Military/Veterans
  • State/Foreign Operations
  • Transportation/Urban Development

 

You can see the progress of the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations bills through Congress here.

 

The number and title of these bills can be changed by Congress. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress re-organized the appropriations process, which at that time had operated with 13 appropriations bills.

 

Consolidated Appropriations/Continuing Appropriations/Omnibus Appropriations

 

While the spending process is supposed to proceed with the 12 bills being passed separately and signed into law by October 1 of each year, this almost never happens. In fact, since 1977 (when the current spending system was put in place), Congress has passed all of the appropriations bills on time in only four years. The last time it did this was 1997. The usual pattern is that Congress passes some, but not all, of the bills to be signed into law by October 1.

 

When this happens, Congress can take a variety of steps to avoid a government shutdown. It can pass a resolution for continuing appropriations, which fund the government for a specified period of time at the level of the previous fiscal year. During this time, it can then pass a consolidated appropriations act, which combines two or more appropriations bills. An omnibus appropriations bill generally wraps all the outstanding appropriations bills into a single act for the rest of the fiscal year.

 

If special spending needs arise during the fiscal year, Congress can also pass a supplemental appropriations bill, which provides funding more money than what was contained in the original spending bill.

 

Fiscal Year 2020

 

To avoid a government shutdown in October, Congress must pass these 12 spending bills and the president must sign them. So far this year, the House of Representatives has passed 10 bills (with only Homeland Security and Legislative Branch still remaining to be approved). The Senate has passed none. 

 

The Senate leadership said that they would not consider spending bills until a budget deal had been approved by the president and Congress. That happened over the summer, so the Senate Appropriations Committee is now set to begin work on this legislation. The Senate version of the bills will likely be different from what the House of Representatives passed, so these bills will have to go through a conference committee to eliminate any differences. Then both Houses will have to pass identical versions of spending legislation.

 

It will be difficult to get this done with only three weeks remaining in the fiscal year. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that the likely outcome will be a short-term spending bill until November 22. That would give Congress enough time to complete the appropriations process and pass spending bills that the House, Senate, and president can agree upon. However, the Senate may include more funding for a border wall in its version of the spending bills, something that Democrats have resisted. If that happens, it could lead to another impasse over federal spending legislation and a possible government shutdown similar to what we saw earlier this year.

 

The 2018-2019 Government Shutdown

 

The last government shutdown occurred from December 2018 to January 2019. The beginnings of this shutdown began a year ago, with the failure of Congress to pass the necessary spending bills. Prior to the beginning of Fiscal Year 2019 (which began on October 1, 2018), Congress had only passed these appropriations bills:

  • Defense
  • Energy and Water
  • Labor/Health and Human Services/Education
  • Legislative Branch
  • Military/Veterans

 

Continuing resolutions funded the government agencies covered by the other appropriations bills through December 21. President Trump signaled his opposition to signing any spending bills that did not contain funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. As a consequence, the agencies not covered by the already-passed appropriations bills were shut down on that date.

 

The parts of the government that were covered by these spending bills could continue to operate as normal, however. Since the Legislative Branch appropriations bill was signed into law, congressional staffers could continue to be paid their salary. So could employees of the Energy Department, Defense Department, the Labor Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Education Department.

 

When President Trump signed House Joint Resolution 28 on January 25, this reopened the portions of the federal government that were shut down until February 15. The signing of House Joint Resolution 31 by President Trump funds the federal government through the end of Fiscal Year 2019.

 

What This Means for You

 

The two-year budget deal that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and President Donald Trump agreed to over the summer was designed to eliminate the possibility of a government shutdown this year or next year. However, there is still disagreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress over border funding. If the Senate and House cannot agree on spending bills that are acceptable to both bodies, as well as the president, there could be a repeat of the 2018-2019 partial government shutdown. The budget agreement makes this less likely, but it could still happen.

Sanford Targets Federal Debt in Run against Trump

Mark Sanford wants to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from Donald Trump. He thinks that focusing on rising federal spending and debt is the way to do this.

 

Sanford announced his candidacy on Fox News Sunday over the weekend. On Twitter, he wrote that he was running for president because of his concern over rising national spending and debt accumulation:

 

We have a storm coming that we are neither talking about nor preparing for given that we, as a country, are more financially vulnerable than we have ever been since our Nation’s start and the Civil War. We are on a collision course with financial reality. We need to act now.

 

As discussed in a VoteSpotter Deep Dive, federal spending, the deficit, and debt are all rising. Yearly deficits are likely to reach over $1 trillion per year for the next decade. Phil Swagel, head of the Congressional Budget Office, recently wrote:

 

The nation’s fiscal outlook is challenging. Federal debt, which is already high by historical standards, is on an unsustainable course, projected to rise even higher after 2029 because of the aging of the population, growth in per capita spending on health care, and rising interest costs.

 

According to Sanford, President Trump bears a large responsibility for what he sees as a looming fiscal crisis. He noted that the president embraces debt and has presided over a large expansion of federal spending.

 

A former South Carolina governor and member of Congress, Sanford lost his seat to a Trump-backed primary challenger last year. He had been a critic of the president during his time in Congress, focusing mainly on what he saw as unsustainable federal spending.

 

Do you think that rising federal spending and debt are problems?

Kamala Harris Backs Nationwide Plastic Straw Ban

Want a plastic straw with your drink in a restaurant? Sen. Kamala Harris doesn’t think that is a good idea.

 

During a CNN debate on climate change, Sen. Harris said that she supports a national ban on plastic straws. She did, however, acknowledge that paper straws do not work very well. Her campaign has said that she wants to see more innovation in straw production to make the elimination of plastic straws feasible. The debate was being held for the candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

 

California has a statewide ban on restaurants offering a plastic straw to a customer unless the customer requests one. A variety of cities have also enacted similar straw bans. Florida legislators passed a law that would prevent local governments from banning plastic straws, but Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed it.

 

Plastic straws have come under attack from critics who allege they contribute to pollution, especially in the ocean. These backers of straw bans contend that ocean wildlife are harmed by these straws. Opponents of a straw ban counter that plastic pollution in the ocean overwhelmingly comes from places other than the U.S. They say that banning plastic straws will do very little, if anything, to address pollution concerns and will only inconvenience American consumers.

 

Do you support banning plastic straws?

Terrorist Watch List Ruled Unconstitutional

A federal judge for the Eastern District of Virginia has ruled that the federal government cannot keep a watch list of suspected terrorists.

 

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga wrote:

 

An individual’s placement into the [list] does not require any evidence that the person engaged in criminal activity, committed a crime, or will commit a crime in the future and individuals who have been acquitted of a terrorism-related crime may still be listed.

 

The list is officially named the Terrorist Screening Database, and it contains over a million names of individuals that the Department of Homeland Security considers to have terrorist ties. This list is not the same as the “no-fly” list also compiled by the federal government (that list has also been ruled unconstitutional). Inclusion in this database triggers a higher level of scrutiny and government action. In recent years, some Democrats have pushed for legislation that would deny individuals on the list the right to purchase a firearm.

 

The 23 individuals who sued are all Muslim. They noted numerous instances of government actions that impeded their ability to travel, among other things. They alleged that they were not notified of their inclusion on the list nor were they given proper ways to challenge such an inclusion.

 

Judge Trenga agreed, noting that the list is based on subjective decisions and is error-prone. He concluded that the database violates the Constitution’s Due Process Clause and ordered the plaintiffs and the government to file briefs setting forward ways to remedy these problems.

 

Do you think the government should have a terrorist watch list? Should individuals on that list have special scrutiny when they travel or buy a gun?

 

House Committee Considers Gun Magazine Ban, Red Flag Laws

Today the House Judiciary Committee is meeting to consider three gun control bills:

 

H.R. 1186 – To ban the import, sale, manufacture, transfer, or possession of an ammunition device that holds more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Such devices that are already in the possession of an individual could be retained but could not be transferred to anyone else.

 

H.R. 1236 – To create a federal grant program for states to use to support activities concerning extreme protection orders. These orders, sometimes called "red flag" orders, allow law enforcement to seize someone's firearms if a court determines that a person poses a danger to himself or others. Such orders can be issued without conducting a hearing with the person in question under some circumstances.

 

H.R. 2708 – To prohibit anyone who has been convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime from possessing a firearm.

 

These bills are being advanced in the wake of two mass shootings in Texas. Congressional Democrats have been calling for stricter gun control since they took control of Congress earlier this year. The House of Representatives has passed legislation that extends the application of federal instant background check laws to private gun sales, but the Senate has failed to act on this legislation.

 

One of the most controversial proposals is H.R. 1236, which provides federal incentives for states to enact so-called “red flag” laws. These laws create a new class of protective order that allows law enforcement to seize someone’s guns without a court hearing in cases where there is an allegation that the person is a threat to himself or others. Supporters say this is a vital tool to prevent dangerous people from committing harm with firearms. Critics say it is a way for government to seize guns without due process.

 

If passed by the Judiciary Committee, these bills will likely come for a vote in the House of Representatives soon. However, there is little chance for action on them in the Senate.

 

Do you support laws that allow police to confiscate someone’s firearms if they believe the person poses a threat? Should these confiscations occur without a court hearing allowing the person to contest the confiscation?

 

O’Rourke Proposes Mandatory Gun Buyback

 

In the wake of recent mass shootings, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke thinks he has the answer – the government mandating that gun owners relinquish certain guns in return for a payment.

 

O’Rourke, a former member of Congress from Texas, proposed this buyback plan after two mass shootings in that state. He said that “weapons of war” should not be on the street, and that the owners of what he calls “assault weapons” should have to turn them over to the government. In return, the government will compensate gun owners.

 

Various cities have operated gun buyback programs for decades. However, these are voluntary operations, with individuals bringing in guns to receive cash or gift cards. There has never been a mandatory gun buyback program in the United States.

 

O’Rourke says that this is the only way to remove these guns from public use. He argues that this will reduce mass shootings. Critics counter that only law-abiding gun owners will comply, which would not affect crime. They also note that this plan would face legal challenges for violating the Second Amendment.

 

Various Democratic candidates have proposed stricter gun control laws as they jockey for the 2020 presidential nomination. High-profile events where a gunman has killed numerous people with a semi-automatic firearm has galvanized activists who are pushing for stricter limits on gun ownership. The House of Representatives has passed bills that would impose background checks on private gun sales, but the Senate has yet to act on this legislation.

 

Do you think that the government should force gun owners to give up “assault weapons” in return for compensation?

California Looking to Reclassify Independent Contractors as Employees

The “gig economy” – people who work for Uber, Lyft, in similar ways – depends on independent contractors. Now California legislators are looking to change state law to reclassify most of these independent contractors as employees. They say this will lead to greater worker protection. Critics argue that it will end their work completely.

 

Under federal law, companies can contract with individuals to do work under certain circumstances, such as not having direct control over how work is done. This has allowed the flourishing of occupations in the “gig economy,” which allows people to work at jobs without meeting the traditional definition of being an “employee.”

 

Many of those who work at these jobs like this status. They say it allows them to pick and choose what jobs they do and when they do them. They like the flexibility and the lack of red tape that comes with traditional employment situations. Others, however, complain that such jobs do not offer the security and benefits of traditional jobs. They say that employers take advantage of independent contractors.

 

California legislators have listened to organized labor and others who take the latter view. The Assembly has passed legislation that would tighten rules in California for when employers can use independent contractors. The bill would narrowly limit who could work as an independent contractor.

 

Supporters of the bill argue that it will mean that employers will have to offer health and other benefits to a wider set of workers. Opponents counter that by adding more cost to hiring these workers, it will end their employment. Instead of helping independent contractors, they say, this will leave these people without work.

 

Uber, Lyft, and other companies that use independent contractors have vowed to fight this bill if it becomes law. They are sponsoring a ballot initiative that will increase protection for independent contractors while still allowing them to work. This ballot would be on the 2020 ballot.

 

Do you think that states should restrict who can work as independent contractors for companies such as Uber and Lyft?

House to Consider Offshore Drilling Ban in September

The House of Representatives will take up the future of offshore drilling when it returns from its August recess.

 

In September, the House will be voting on two bills that would ban offshore drilling:

 

HR 205 – To permanently ban natural gas and oil exploration in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico.

 

HR 1941 – To prohibit issuing federal leases for oil and natural gas development in the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf or the Pacific Continental Shelf. This would effectively ban offshore drilling off of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

 

Currently there is a moratorium on offshore natural gas and oil production in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The Trump Administration is considering a five-year energy leasing plan that would allow oil and gas development in the Atlantic Ocean from New Jersey to Florida. President Obama considered allowing offshore drilling in the Atlantic, but reversed course after the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010.

 

Plans to allow oil and natural gas production in more offshore areas has been controversial. Supporters say it is a way to create jobs in coastal communities. They also note that there could be large amounts of gas and oil offshore that could be developed and reduce American reliance on foreign energy. Opponents fear accidents that would harm the environment and other coastal activities such as recreation and fishing.

 

There is bipartisan support for both the bills that will be considered by the House, and they are expected to pass. However, it is unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will schedule a vote on them.

 

Do you support permanently banning offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans?

Trump May Allow More Logging in Alaskan National Forest

Nearly 20 years ago, President Bill Clinton put in place a sweeping order that placed millions of acres of national forests off-limits to logging. Now President Donald Trump is considering reversing that move for a national forest in Alaska.

 

During his last days in office, President Clinton signed an executive order that banned road construction in 58.5 million acres of national forests. This “roadless rule” effectively prevents logging and other activity, such as using motorized vehicles. In Alaska, governors and members of Congress have fought to have the rule rolled back for the Tongass National Forest. President Trump is considering allowing this.

 

National forests are designated for multiple uses, such as logging, mining, conservation, and recreation. Congress can also designate wild areas as “wilderness,” which prevents any motorized uses of that area. Portions of the Tongass National Forest have been designated as wilderness, and other portions already have roads built on them. President Trump’s move would affect over 9 million acres that are still covered by the roadless rule.

 

Alaskan officials who want to remove this area from the roadless rule note that the national forest was always intended for uses that included logging. They say that Congress has protected vital areas of the forest from human uses. They argue that logging can create jobs and remove dead and dying trees that could fuel wildfires. Environmentalists, however, push back against attempts to allow logging in the Tongass. They say that this is a vital area for salmon and old-growth forests.

 

After President Clinton left office, President George W. Bush tried to reverse the roadless rule. These efforts were tied up in the courts. Any move by President Trump to withdraw the roadless rule from the Tongass National Forest will also likely end up in multiple lawsuits.

 

Do you support allowing more logging in the Tongass National Forest?

Judge Fines Drug Company in State Opioid Suit

An Oklahoma judge yesterday issued a first-in-the-nation ruling, holding that the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson is responsible for the opioid crisis in that state.

 

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter had sued the company, claiming that it had made a “public nuisance” by selling numerous pills in the state and pressuring physicians to prescribe them. He said that led to addiction and public health problems that the company should pay for. The judge agreed with this argument, ordering Johnson & Johnson’s parent company to pay $572 million to the state.

 

Johnson & Johnson plans to appeal the verdict. The company says that it followed all state and federal laws governing pharmaceuticals, which are a heavily regulated product. They note that very few overdose deaths were from the pills they made, and that their pills were only used by a small number of Oklahomans.

 

The role that pharmaceutical companies have played in the rising number of opioid addicts and overdoses is hotly debated. Elected officials around the country have joined with trial attorneys to sue the companies, looking for huge settlements based on the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.

 

Other states and local governments have filed similar suits against pharmaceutical companies. The Oklahoma verdict is the first one in the nation to find that a drug company bears the blame for the opioid crisis.

 

Do you support state lawsuits against drug companies that allege these companies fueled the opioid epidemic?

Advocacy Group Pushing Candidates to Back Net Neutrality

A coalition of liberal advocacy groups is pushing for Democratic presidential nominees to pledge a restoration of net neutrality regulations. This group is seeking to make technology policy a key pillar of the 2020 presidential race.

 

The effort is aimed at having presidential candidates sign a pledge that they will re-impose network neutrality rules that were put in place during the Obama Administration but repealed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year. The pledge also commits candidates to refuse political donations from telecom companies or executives.

 

In December 2017, the FCC voted 3-2 to repeal net neutrality regulations. The regulations in question date to 2015, when the FCC decided to regulate Internet service providers more stringently. In essence, the agency at that time classified the services they provide as a public utility, largely forcing providers not to discriminate in pricing, content, and the management of the network.

 

This rule change did not remove federal oversight from the Internet. In fact, the rule mandates transparency for network management practices. The Federal Trade Commission also regulates Internet service providers. But it did lessen the ability of the government to set rules proactively that constrain Internet service providers.

 

The imposition of net neutrality rules was an issue that many liberal and progressive groups long been advocating prior to 2015. They said that telecom companies had too much power to determine what consumers saw. They argued that federal regulations were necessary to protect consumers that could be victimized by telecom companies denying them access to certain websites. Opponents of net neutrality say that they will stifle innovation, preventing the internet from evolving and changing to meet consumer need. They say that companies should be able to price internet access in different ways to provide a higher level of service.

 

The FCC is an independent agency not directly under control of the president. To change FCC policy, the president can appoint new members to the commission with views more in line with the president’s opinion on technology policy.

 

Do you support net neutrality rules?

Court Says Homeless Have a Right to Sleep in Public

In the face of a rising number of homeless people camping out on city sidewalks, Boise city leaders passed a law banning this practice. A federal appeals court overruled the city, saying that such a ban was unconstitutional. Now the city is filing an appeal in a case that is drawing attention from other cities struggling with what to do about the homeless.

 

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that banning outdoor sleeping was a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” The judges said that since sleep was necessary to live, the city could not prohibit people from sleeping in public if there was not sufficient housing for them. City officials say that this eliminates their ability to take steps to curb homeless camps that may cause public health issues and be a nuisance.

 

Other cities are also grappling with this issue. Some, such as Austin, recently rescinded laws that criminalize public sleeping. Officials there said that individuals cited under the law would not show up to court, which led to criminal charges that made it even more difficult for that person to find housing and a job.

 

Loosening restrictions on homeless sleeping is often unpopular with the public. Business owners complain about homeless people deterring customers in downtown locations and city residents worry about the spread of diseases. This spring, voters in Denver overwhelmingly rejected a measure that would allow people to camp or sleep in their cars in public. Some politicians are seizing on this issue, promising to take steps that would remove the homeless from the streets by incarcerating them for minor crimes.

 

Do you think that cities should be able to ban sleeping on city streets? What measures should be taken to deal with the homeless?

Court Rules Electoral College Members aren’t Bound by Popular Vote

States that mandate their Electoral College members vote in line with the popular vote may find that these laws are void. A recent federal court ruling said that electors are free to vote their conscience, regardless of state law.

 

Most states bind electors to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in that state. During the 2016 election, the Colorado Secretary of State removed an elector who refused to cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton, the winner of that state's popular vote. That elector sued, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of the elector.

 

Within the past two decades, two presidential elections have gone to the candidate who won the electoral vote and not the popular vote – George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. During the presidential election, voters are not directly voting for candidates, but are instead voting for slates of electors who will then meet and select the president. Most of the time these electors are party regulars who can be counted to vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged. But in 2016, there were multiple electors who voted for candidates other than Clinton or Trump.

 

With these developments, the Electoral College has come under increasing criticism. Some states have passed bills that would create a compact wherein they would award their electoral votes to whomever won the national popular vote, regardless of who won their individual state’s popular vote. Some politicians are also advocating banning the Electoral College and relying exclusively on the popular vote.

 

The question of what power states possess to bind electors will likely be decided by the Supreme Court.

 

Do you think that states should be able to require that electors vote in line with that state’s popular vote? Do you think the Electoral College should be abolished?

Budget Deal Will Make Budget Deficit Worse, CBO Finds

A new report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) sounds the alarm on federal deficit spending.

 

President Trump and Congress recently negotiated a two-year budget package that increased spending. CBO looked at the implications for the next ten years and found that the budget deficits during this period will be $1.5 billion higher than they otherwise would have been.

 

As explained in a VoteSpotter Deep Dive, the budget deficit is the gap between how much revenue the government receives versus how much money it spends. Federal debt is money that the government has borrowed to finance these deficits.

 

The budget agency also looked at the overall deficit, finding that it will reach nearly $1 trillion this year. Here is what CBO concluded:

 

In CBO’s projections, the federal budget deficit is $960 billion in 2019 and averages $1.2 trillion between 2020 and 2029. Over the coming decade, deficits (after adjustments to exclude the effects of shifts in the timing of certain payments) fluctuate between 4.4 percent and 4.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), well above the average over the past 50 years…As a result of those deficits, federal debt held by the public is projected to grow steadily, from 79 percent of GDP in 2019 to 95 percent in 2029—its highest level since just after World War II.

 

Phill Swagel, CBO Director, sounded the alarm about this rising deficit spending in a statement accompanying the report:

 

Federal debt, which is already high by historical standards, is on an unsustainable course, projected to rise even higher after 2029 because of the aging of the population, growth in per capita spending on health care, and rising interest costs. To put it on a sustainable course, lawmakers will have to make significant changes to tax and spending policies—making revenues larger than they would be under current law, reducing spending below projected amounts, or adopting some combination of those approaches.

 

Are you worried about the growing budget deficit? If so, what steps do you think should be taken to shrink it?

Trump Administration May Push Payroll Tax Cut

With fears of a recession rising, the Trump Administration is downplaying any talk that an economic slowdown is imminent. However, some in the White House are considering a payroll tax cut as a way to help avert any decrease in economic growth.

 

The Trump Administration considers its previous tax cut an economic success, so another tax cut would, in the view of some officials, also spur the economy. This tax cut would center on a temporary reduction in the payroll tax. This tax funds Social Security. Unlike the income tax, which many lower-wage workers do not pay, all workers are hit by a payroll tax. Temporarily reducing this tax would be a broad-based tax cut.

 

A similar temporary tax cut was undertaken during the Obama Administration. A payroll tax cut is generally preferred by Democrats, because it targets lower-income workers. Supporters contend that it offers more immediate economic stimulus because these workers will spend the money quickly. Opponents of this type of tax cut point out that the revenue from a payroll tax funds Social Security. Reducing money to that program leads to a shorter time-frame in which it is fiscally solvent.

 

It is unclear if the Trump Administration will officially push for this type of tax cut or any other measure to stimulate the economy. The president has dismissed notions that there will be a recession, saying such talk is politically motivated.

 

Do you think that there should be a payroll tax cut to stimulate the economy?

Sanders Focusing on Criminal Justice Reform

Ideas to reform the criminal justice system have been embraced by both Democratic and Republican politicians. Now Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist running for the Democratic presidential nomination, is announcing a crime plan that pushes the limits of the bipartisan consensus for reform.

 

Here are some of the proposals that Sen. Sanders is championing:

  • Legalizing marijuana
  • Expunging records for those convicted of marijuana-related offenses
  • Prohibiting private prisons
  • Ending cash bail
  • Re-instating parole
  • Expanding youth diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration
  • Ending civil asset forfeiture
  • Legalizing safe injection sites for drug users

 

In addition, Sanders wants to create a “prisoner’s bill of rights” and require a federal investigation every time a prisoner dies in police custody.

 

These ideas would re-shape the federal prison system in ways that Sen. Sanders hopes would cut the prison population in half and address what he sees as institutional racism in the system. The proposal would only affect the federal prison system, however. States would still operate their own systems for non-federal crimes.

 

Sen. Sanders’s criminal justice proposal differentiates him from some of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor and California Attorney General, has come under attack for her tactics in those offices. Former Vice President Joe Biden has also faced criticism for his votes on criminal justice issues during his time as senator.

 

Do you think that marijuana should be legalized? Should cash bail be banned? Is it a good idea for the federal government to re-instate parole?

Afghanistan Troop Draw Down may be Imminent

It’s been 18 years since the U.S. war in Afghanistan began. Despite vows by President Trump to bring American troops home from that nation, there are now more U.S. soldiers there today than when he was inaugurated. But U.S. negotiators appear close to an agreement with the Taliban that may lead to significant troop withdrawals.

 

President Trump is meeting with officials today to be briefed on the talks between the U.S. and the Taliban on ending hostilities in Afghanistan. If successful, the Taliban would then begin negotiations with government in Afghanistan and renounce ties to Al-Qaeda. That would trigger the immediate withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops, to be followed by the withdrawal of thousands more after 18 months.

 

The presence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan is something that Donald Trump has denounced both during his campaign for the presidency and his time in office. He has long pushed to withdraw most military forces from that nation. However, officials from the armed forces and cabinet officers persuaded him to increase the military presence there two years ago.

 

An agreement that would lead to a negotiated cease-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan government along with the withdrawal of most U.S. troops would represent a significant change from the ongoing military actions that have lasted nearly two decades. NATO forces invaded Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks in 2001 to drive out the ruling Taliban government. The Taliban has been waging a war against the new government formed after the invasion.

 

Do you think that U.S. troops should withdraw from Afghanistan?

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