Posted by 24 May 2019
The Senate has been busy casting numerous votes in recent weeks. But the overwhelming majority of these votes are not on legislation. Instead, senators are concentrating on confirming a host of President Trump’s nominees to executive branch posts and the federal judiciary.
Since the Senate returned from its two-week recess on April 29, there have been 51 roll call votes. Of those, only 4 concern legislative matters. The rest are either votes to cut off debate over President Trump’s nominees or votes on these nominees.
Some of these nominations pass easily. For instance, Clarke Cooper’s nomination to be Assistant Secretary of State received a lopsided vote of 90-8 in favor. The nomination of Raul M. Arias-Marxuach to be U.S. District Judge for the District of Puerto Rico also passed easily, 95-3.
Most nomination votes are much closer, however. The president’s nomination of Michael J. Truncale to be U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Texas only prevailed by 3 votes, 49-46. Wendy Vitter’s nomination to be U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana passed the Senate 52-45.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made no secret of his desire to see as many of President Trump’s nominees confirmed as possible. He continued the process started under then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, in weakening and then eliminating senators’ ability to filibuster judicial nominees. He also engineered a rule change that reduced the time for consideration of these nominees after Democrats began insisting on lengthy debate over them.
There has been some criticism that the Senate should be working on legislative matters, not just on confirmations. But with the House of Representatives in Democratic control, and with Democratic senators still able to filibuster legislation, it is unlikely that there are many bills that could receive enough bipartisan support to emerge from Congress. It appears that Senator McConnell will continue to prioritize confirmation throughout this year.
Do you think that the Senate should do more work on legislation and less on confirming the president’s nominees? Or is it important for the Senate to concentrate on putting the president's nominees in office?
Posted by 23 May 2019
States across the nation are increasing the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21. Now the U.S. Senate may act to prohibit anyone under 21 from buying tobacco nationwide.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, and Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, have teamed up on legislation that would raise the federal tobacco purchase age from 18 to 21. Both senators are from major tobacco-producing states, but they say that public health concerns are foremost in their mind.
The bill, if enacted, would make it a crime for a retailer to sell tobacco products or vaping products to anyone under 21. It would also cut off some federal funds to states that do not set their tobacco purchasing age at 21.
These senators, and others who want to see the age increased, argue that it is a vital way to stop teenagers from starting smoking. They point out that most smokers start in their teen years, so this would prevent older teens from supplying cigarettes to younger teens. Backers of the proposal also contend it is necessary to combat the rise in teen vaping. Critics say that the law establishes adulthood at 18, so the tobacco purchase age should not be higher.
Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., have laws setting the tobacco purchase age at 21. Some of these state laws exempt military personnel from the higher purchase age, but the federal legislation would not.
With the majority leader’s backing, this bill is likely to receive consideration by the full Senate.
Do you think that the federal government should prohibit anyone under 21 from buying tobacco or vaping products?
Posted by 22 May 2019
The Trump Administration stopped federal funding for California’s high-speed rail project. Now the state is suing to get that money back.
Earlier this decade, California voters approved $10 billion in funding for a statewide high-speed rail system. In the intervening years, the price tag for this system has skyrocketed to over $75 billion. The Obama Administration had promised $3.5 billion in federal stimulus funding for this project. Last week, the Trump Administration revoked over $900 million that has been unspent, citing what it called mismanagement by the state.
Today California filed suit, seeking an injunction to prevent the federal government from revoking these funds. The state says it is being punished by the Trump Administration because state officials have taken stances opposing the president on issues such as immigration. Critics of the state say, however, that there is clear evidence that California has indeed mismanaged these funds and that the rail project is a boondoggle.
Should the government build high-speed rail projects? Do you think the Trump Administration removed high-speed rail funds to punish California officials for opposing the president on other issues?
Posted by 21 May 2019
Sen. Kamala Harris has a plan for what she perceives as the gender pay gap – big fines for corporations. And if she’s elected president, she says she will implement these fines with or without legislation from Congress.
Under Sen. Harris’s plan, companies must receive an “Equal Pay Certification” from the federal government or face fines. This certification would come only after these companies submit data to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission proving that they are paying male and female employees comparable pay for comparable work. The Harris plan would also force companies to provide information about how they hire workers and the racial and gender diversity of their workplaces.
If companies do not receive “Equal Pay Certification,” Sen. Harris would like to see them fined 1% of their profits for every 1% of the wage gap. Sen. Harris said she would seek legislation from Congress to authorize such a program, but would implement it regardless of whether Congress acts.
Current federal law already prohibits paying men and women different wages for doing the same work. Senator Harris’s legislation would go further by targeting different pay for what she calls “comparable” work, which would be determined by the federal government. She says that her proposal would stop discrimination. Critics contend that the pay gap she cites is not caused by discrimination but can be explained by differing education and experience levels as well as individual choices made by workers.
This proposal is one of the many laid out by the freshman senator from California in an attempt to distinguish her from the rest of the candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Do you think that companies should be fined if they are not certified by the federal government as paying men and women the same for comparable work? What do you think about the gender pay gap?
Posted by 20 May 2019
Legislators in North Carolina are advancing a bill that would prohibit sanctuary city policies in that state. This may set up another veto fight with Gov. Roy Cooper, as the Democratic governor faces protests urging him to reject this bill.
Under House Bill 370, local law enforcement officers in North Carolina would be required to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts. The bill would specifically prohibit law enforcement personnel from refusing to comply with federal immigration detainer request. These requests come from immigration agents looking to detain illegal immigrants who are in local law enforcement custody.
In cities with sanctuary policies, local law enforcement does not cooperate with the federal government in enforcing federal immigration laws or comply with detention requests. These local officials are not breaking federal law by refusing to do so; the federal government can only request, not command, cooperation of local police or sheriffs in enforcing federal law. But some states are enacting statewide policies that require such cooperation.
The North Carolina House passed HB 370 by a vote of 63-51, and now it is being considered by the Senate. This weekend, protestors urged Gov. Roy Cooper to veto the bill if it emerges from the General Assembly.
Do you think that states should prohibit sanctuary cities? Should local law enforcement cooperate with the federal government to enforce federal immigration laws?
Posted by 17 May 2019
It’s no secret that the Trump Administration is not enthusiastic about the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The Democrats in the House of Representatives have noticed this, and they recently passed a bill to force the federal government to do more to promote this law.
On Thursday, the House passed H.R. 987, the Marketing and Outreach Restoration to Empower (MORE) Health Education Act of 2019. Here’s how VoteSpotter describes it:
To require the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct marketing for the health insurance exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act that are operated by the federal government. The bill mandates that such outreach must be in “culturally and linguistically appropriate formats.”
The vote was 234-183, with 5 Republicans joining the Democrats in supporting it.
Under the ACA, states can set up their own health insurance exchanges or, if they don’t, the federal government will operate one in the state. This legislation concerns those federally-operated exchanges. Supporters of this legislation say it is necessary to counteract efforts by the Trump Administration to reduce outreach and education for these exchanges. Opponents of the bill counter that this is just an effort to prop up a failing health care law.
The legislation now advances to the Senate, which is unlikely to bring it up for a vote.
Do you think that the Trump Administration should be doing more education and outreach for Obamacare insurance?
Posted by 16 May 2019
Immigration has been one of the defining issues of President Trump’s time in office. Today the president unveiled a proposal that would reshape the nation’s immigration laws, bringing them more in line with the president’s views.
Under the Trump plan, overall immigration numbers would not change. Instead, policies would shift from family-based immigration to skills-based immigration. The president’s proposal would limit the immediate family members whom a U.S. resident could sponsor for entry into the nation. It would also prioritize immigration for individuals with certain skills.
Other aspects of the plan include making it tougher for individuals to seek asylum, modernizing ports of entry in an attempt to stop more drug trafficking, and finishing the border wall. There is no proposal to deal with the millions of “Dreamers,” or individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, already in the nation.
The president has outlined an immigration plan, but has not prepared legislation to move this plan through Congress. Any such proposal would likely face Democratic opposition. There are also some grumblings of opposition from the president’s base, with some immigration restrictionists upset that the president is not calling for a reduction in immigration numbers.
Should U.S. immigration policy focus more on family reunification or economic skills? Do you support placing more restrictions on who can seek asylum here? Should overall immigration numbers be reduced, kept the same, or increased?
Posted by 15 May 2019
Abortion may soon be illegal in Alabama under legislation passed this week. The bill, if signed by the governor, would outlaw abortion in almost all circumstances.
Under the bill that has made it through both houses of the Alabama legislature, no woman could obtain an abortion unless her physical or mental health is threatened by the pregnancy. There is no exception for pregnancies that were the result of rape or incest. Doctors performign abortions could be charged with a felony.
This law conflicts with the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade. In that case, the high court held that there was a constitutional right to an abortion. Such a right is subject to restrictions, but the court has held in subsequent cases that it cannot be prohibited.
Supporters of this bill acknowledged that it does indeed defy the Supreme Court’s decision. However, they were also frank that they wanted to pass the bill in order to raise another challenge to Roe. They view this as a way to give the Supreme Court an opportunity to reverse that decision. If that happened, abortion would not be illegal nationwide, but states could regulate it or even ban it.
This legislation now heads to Gov. Kay Ivey to sign or veto.
Do you think that abortion should be illegal in all cases except when the mother’s health is in jeopardy? Should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade and allow states to restrict abortion?
Posted by 14 May 2019
Florida legislators do not like local officials banning straws. So they passed a law prohibiting local straw bans. But Florida’s governor sided with local governments over state legislators, vetoing the bill and preserving local straw bans.
Ten municipal governments in Florida have passed plastic straw bans or laws prohibiting business owners from providing straws if patrons do not request them. This legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill that would have pre-empted such bans, enacting a uniform rule in the state that municipal governments cannot enact these types of laws.
A Republican majority in the legislature passed this pre-emption law, and many expected the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, to support it. However, he vetoed it, saying that there was no state interest in stopping such local bans. He said that local voters could elect officials who would overturn straw bans if that was what local residents wanted.
Those pushing for straw bans argue that they will help prevent plastic from going into the ocean, harming wildlife. Opponents of the ban counter that straws make up a miniscule proportion of ocean waste, and point out that many people, such as those with disabilities, need straws.
Do you support banning the use of plastic straws?
Posted by 13 May 2019
Earlier this year, President Trump declared a national emergency in order to build a border wall without congressional authorization. Now the White House is releasing details on how he wants to pay for part of it – with $1.5 billion being re-directed from the Department of Defense.
While President Trump wants a border wall, Congress has not allocated funding to pay for it. The president’s emergency order allows him to shift funding from other sources to build the wall, but he has to identify those sources. Last week, the Pentagon announced that $1.5 billion would be moved from other defense areas and be used for roughly 80 miles of border wall construction.
Among those areas losing money to pay for the wall are an intercontinental ballistic missile system, a surveillance plane, the Afghan Security Force Fund, chemical weapons destruction, and military retirement. The money from these accounts will be re-programmed for construction of the wall.
The Pentagon says that removing funding from these areas will not affect military readiness. Opponents of this move argue that the president is prioritizing an ineffective all over military programs that have already been approved by Congress.
This funding will not pay for the entire wall. To do so the president must find other areas of federal spending where he can move money to wall construction.
Do you think that money should be taken from military programs to pay for a border wall?
Posted by 10 May 2019
If the police want to search your trash in Oregon, they are going to need a warrant.
The State Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the state constitution protects individuals’ expectation of privacy, and that individuals expect their garbage to remain private. It was a 6-1 decision.
The case concerned a couple from Lebanon, Oregon, who were convicted of drug crimes resulting from police searching their trash. The police had worked with the couple’s trash collector to divert the trash and search it, where they found evidence of drug activity.
Oregonians may be free from the fear of warrantless trash searches, but this decision does not extend nationwide. The state court ruled that the state constitution has this level of privacy protection. The U.S. Supreme Court has found differently for the U.S. Constitution. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution’s ban on warrantless search and seizure does not apply to trash left outside the home. In that decision, California v. Greenwood, a 6-2 majority ruled that if someone leaves garbage outside to be picked up for removal, then that person has relinquished all expectations of privacy for the contents of the trash.
Do you think that the police should be able to search someone’s garbage without a warrant?
Posted by 09 May 2019
Yesterday Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation allowing school districts to arm teachers. In a state where the Parkland school shooting took place last year, this legislation has both strong supporters and detractors.
I the wake of the Parkland shooting, Florida enacted a law that allowed some school personnel to be armed. These personnel would undergo a background check and training. School boards would have to authorize this program in their district. Classroom teachers were excluded from this law.
Under this bill, school teachers would also be authorized to carry guns in the classroom. They must pass a psychological evaluation and a background check, then take training with the police.
The bill was controversial, with Republicans in the legislature pushing for it and Democrats opposing it. Those in favor of the bill noted that it was voluntary, so no teacher would be forced to carry a gun. They also pointed out that in many rural areas, it could take the police a long time to get to a school. Opponents of the bill said that it would make schools less safe with the potential for accidents.
Of the state’s 67 school districts, 25 have authorized some of their personnel to be armed. It is unclear how many will now permit teachers to do so, too.
Do you think that school teachers should be armed?
Posted by 08 May 2019
New York legislators are considering a bill that would allow sports betting in the state. Now some lawmakers are pushing to allow New Yorkers to place those bets online.
Governor Cuomo is supporting a bill that would allow casinos operating in the state to take bets on sports events. Casino operators and tribes with casino compact deals are supportive of this effort, but are not enthusiastic. With many casinos located far away from the state’s population centers, this new betting opportunity may not lure new gamblers.
Online sports betting, however, has big potential in New York. Residents anywhere in the state could use an online app or website to place a bet through a service operated by a casino ore one of the tribes who have a casino compact with the state.
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal ban on sports wagering was illegal. New York passed a law in 2013 permitting tribal casinos. This law allows sports betting, contingent upon federal legalization. Now legislators are considering how to implement such a system.
Some in the state have pushed to allow off-track-betting operations to offer wagers on sporting events, but the Cuomo Administration has resisted this. Under the plan currently being considered, only casinos would be allowed to have such betting operations.
Do you think that states should allow casinos to offer online sports betting?
Posted by 07 May 2019
President Trump is escalating his trade war with China, threatening to increase tariffs to 25% on thousands of that nation’s products.
The U.S. and China are in the midst of trade negotiations, but there have been disagreements over intellectual property and technology transfers. There have been some signals that a trade agreement could be reached by Friday. If it isn’t, then the president is saying he may react by a dramatic tariff hike.
The president’s proposal would affect nearly 6,000 products. These are used by consumers and businesses in the U.S., which would face higher prices for the imported goods. Economists worry that such a large and sudden spike in tariffs would disrupt the U.S. economy and cost jobs. The president says that is necessary to combat unfair trade practices from China.
Both before and after his election as president, Donald Trump has complained about the U.S. trade deficit and what he perceives as unfair trade deals. He has used his time as president to push for renegotiation of trade deals and impose news tariffs. Economists say that free trade, not restrictions such as those supported by the president, lead to job creation and economic growth. The president, however, sees the trade deficit as a bigger threat.
Do you support higher tariffs on Chinese goods? Will higher tariffs hurt American consumers and workers?
Posted by 06 May 2019
Cory Booker wants to move from the Senate to the White House. The New Jersey senator is one in a crowded field of Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination. Today he released a gun control plan that aims to separate him from his rivals.
Under the Booker plan, the federal government would impose these new restrictions on gun ownership and purchasing:
- Individuals must purchase a license before being able to buy a gun. This license would last for five years, and would only be able to be purchased by someone who has completed a gun safety course and passed a background course.
- Private firearms sales would be subject to background checks.
- Gun buyers could only purchase one handgun a month.
- There would be a federal ban on “assault weapons,” high-capacity magazines, and bump stocks.
- Firearms would be subject safety regulations under the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
- Work to repeal he federal law prohibiting lawsuits against gun manufacturers for the misuse of their products.
- Mandate that new handguns must have microstamp technology.
- Public health studies on gun violence would receive funding.
- States would receive incentives to pass legislation institution extreme risk prevention orders, which allow police to seize the firearms of people suspected of causing imminent harm.
- The IRS would investigate the National Rifle Association’s tax exempt status.
Sen. Booker says that these things are necessary to fight gun violence. In announcing this agenda, he said he would work from his first day in office to enact it.
Critics, however, say that this is a huge expansion of federal power over the purchase and possession of firearms. They argue that many of these proposals would be ineffective, merely infringing up on lawful firearms owners’ rights without doing much to stop violence.
As president, Booker could enact some of these items through executive action. Most of the proposals require legislation, however. It remains to be seen if Booker would have a Congress friendly to these ideas if he were elected president.
Do you think that all gun sales or transfers should go through a background check? Should the federal government ban “assault weapons”? Should the government prohibit people from purchasing more than one handgun a month?
Posted by 03 May 2019
President Trump is not a big fan of the Paris climate change agreement, which requires countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. He has pledged to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement. This week the House of Representatives passed a bill that would prevent him from doing so.
HR 9 would require the president to develop a plan that would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26%-28%, based on 2005 levels. It would also prohibit the use of federal funding to withdraw from the Paris agreement. This bill passed 231-190, with 3 Republicans voting for it and no Democrats opposing it. An amendment by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) that would have stripped the prohibition from withdrawing from the Paris agreement failed by a vote of 189-234.
President Obama signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, but did not submit it to the Senate for ratification. He argued that it was not a treaty that required ratification. President Trump has pledged to withdraw from the treaty by 2020.
The treaty, signed by more than 190 countries, requires the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and commit money to assist climate change efforts in developing countries.
Supporters say such an agreement is necessary to stop climate change. They say that if the U.S. does not participate it will hurt efforts to slow down global warming. Critics say that it would kill jobs and hurt U.S. economic growth.
HR 9 now goes to the Senate, where it is unlikely to be brought for a vote.
Should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? What do you think should be done about climate change, if anything?
Posted by 02 May 2019
Senator Kirstin Gillibrand wants to be president. The junior senator from New York is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, hoping that ideas like “Democracy Dollars” will propel her to the front of the pack.
Sen. Gillibrand has proposed that the federal government give ever voter $600 to donate to federal candidates. Under her plan, this money could be given in $200 increments to candidates for president, the House of Representatives, or the Senate.
According to Sen. Gillibrand, this will help remove the influence of the wealthy and corporations on the political process. To pay for this plan, Sen. Gillibrand has proposed increasing taxes on CEOs who earn high salaries.
While Sen. Gillibrand argues that this plan would help reduce what she calls the corrupting influence on elections, opponents counter that it will not do much. They point to a similar program in Seattle that does not have large public participation nor does it seem to have much of an impact on election results.
Do you think that the federal government should provide voters with money to contribute to candidates?
Posted by 01 May 2019
Congress sent the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the states for ratification in 1972. Yesterday, a House of Representatives subcommittee held a hearing on the ERA for the first time in 36 years, as advocates continue to push for it.
The ERA states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” When it was initially sent to the states, Congress placed a deadline for ratification. That deadline expired in 1982 without approval from the necessary 38 states to be added to the Constitution.
Rep. Jackie Speier has introduced House Joint Resolution 38, which would eliminate the deadline for state ratification of the ERA. If both houses of Congress pass this resolution, it would ensure that when 38 states ratify it. Some observers say that this resolution is not necessary, since the initial deadline placed for ratification is invalid.
Thirty-seven states have taken such action so far. Most of these occurred in the 1970s, but two states (Illinois and Nevada) ratified it since 2017. However, 4 states have rescinded their ratification. The legality of whether states can rescind ratification is an open question. If a 38th state does ratify the ERA, there will be legal wrangling about whether Congress had the power to limit the time for ratification and whether states can rescind ratification.
During yesterday’s hearing, actresses Alyssa Milano and Patricia Arquette joined scholars and other experts in testifying before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Supporters said that the ERA is necessary to ensure that women are protected from discrimination. Opponents say the amendment would be a way to strike down restrictions on abortion.
Do you support adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution?
Posted by 30 April 2019
Officials in Charlotte, Virginia, want that city’s monuments to the Confederacy gone. Those efforts do not look likely to succeed, however, as a judge rules that state law prevents the city from removing war monuments.
In 2017, the city council voted to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The city also wants to remove the statue of General Stonewall Jackson, too. State law, however, bars municipal governments from taking down war statues without permission of the state.
The city had argued that these statues are not war monuments, but a state judge did not buy that argument. He said that the law did indeed protect those statues from removal, and so Charlottesville had no choice but to keep them.
The proposal to remove these statues sparked the August 2017 alt-right march in Charlottesville. At this incident, a white supremacist ran over a counter-protestor, killing her.
Do you think that cities should take down monuments to Confederate generals?
Posted by 23 April 2019
How far should the 1964 Civil Rights Act go to cover discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity? That is a question that has split the Obama and Trump Administrations, and now the Supreme Court is taking up the issue.
Earlier this month, the court agreed to hear three cases that involve the interpretation of this fifty-five year old law, which prohibits discrimination based on sex. The cases involve two individuals who were fired from jobs because they were gay and one individual who was fired from a job because she is transgender.
The Obama Administration and some courts have held that discriminating against someone because of their sexual orientation or because of their gender identity, that is a violation of the law. The Obama Administration embraced that view, reversing what the Justice Department’s traditional interpretation of the law. The Trump Administration contends that when the 1964 law bars discrimination based on sex, it means discrimination based on one’s biological sex.
Some states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There is a federal law that would enact the same protections nationally, but it has yet to pass Congress.
Do you think that federal law should be interpreted to prohibit discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or their gender identity?