Posted by 28 July 2020
As the Democrats prepare their party platform for the 2020 election, advocates for marijuana legalization suffered a blow. Their efforts to obtain support from the Democratic Party for full legalization of marijuana failed by a vote of 50-106 this week.
As marijuana legalization becomes more popular with the public, advocates had been pressing for the Democratic party to embrace this position, too. The Democratic National Committee is meeting this week to prepare the party’s platform, and some members put forward a proposal to amend the platform to back full legalization. That vote failed, however.
Instead, the platform will continue to have language in it that supports marijuana decriminalization and federal recognition of state laws that relax marijuana penalties. This is in line with what presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden supports.
That stance, while significantly different from the GOP platform, does not go far enough for many of the Democratic Party’s base voters. They argue that marijuana laws are used to harm people of color and minority communities. They say that marijuana legalization is a necessary part of criminal justice reform.
The issue of marijuana’s legal status has been a growing concern in recent years. States across the nation have legalized it for recreational use, joining many states that also allow it for medicinal use. However, the drug is still on the federal controlled substances list. So while states may not recognize marijuana as being illegal, the federal government still does. That puts marijuana businesses and users in a legal limbo that will only change with changes in federal marijuana law.
Do you think that marijuana should be legalized?
Posted by 27 July 2020
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to Nevada’s coronavirus shutdown that affects in-person church services.
In Nevada, the governor has ordered that churches must limit in-person attendance at services to 50 people. This differs from the standard the governor set for other businesses, such as casinos, which can allow people inside their premises at 50% capacity. Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley wanted to hold services with 90 attendees while observing social distancing rules. When the state refused permission, the church sued.
In its suit, the church alleged that Nevada was infringing up its First Amendment rights by denying it the ability to hold in-person services. It noted that since the state held other businesses to different standards, it should give more accommodation to churches that wished to allow more people inside. The state, however, argued that its rules are necessary in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The church had asked the Supreme Court to take up the case, but five justices declined to do so. They did not offer an opinion, which is customary in cases where the only issue is whether or not the high court will consider arguments in the case. But Justice Gorsuch did write a dissent, where he noted the inconsistency of allowing entertainment facilities to have looser standards than churches.
Do you think that states should give more leeway to churches that want to hold in-person services?
Posted by 24 July 2020
The Senate passed the Department of Defense authorization bill this week, but defeated a bipartisan amendment to ban the transfer of some surplus military equipment to state and local police.
Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hi) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) sponsored an amendment that would place new limits on a controversial program where the Department of Defense provides surplus military items to police department around the country. This program has come under increasing scrutiny with the police response to protests over the murder of George Floyd.
Under the Schatz amendment, the Department of Defense could not transfer these items to state or local police departments:
- Bayonets, grenade launchers, grenades (excluding stun and flash-bang), explosives, and firearms of .50 caliber or higher and ammunition of 0.5 caliber or higher.
- Tracked combat vehicles.
- Weaponized drones.
- Asphyxiating gases, including those comprised of lachrymatory agents, and analogous liquids, materials or devices.
Critics argue that these items are inappropriate for local police departments. They say that military hardware that is designed to kill a foreign enemy should not be deployed by domestic police departments. Supporters of the program contend that it is a vital way for police departments to obtain law enforcement tools at no cost. They say that many of these items are necessary to protect people and property.
While a majority of senators agreed by a vote of 51-49, the amendment needed 60 votes to be approved. Instead, the Senate voted 90-10 for an amendment by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) that bans a much narrower category of military equipment from being transferred and imposes new training requirements.
Do you think the federal program to provide military equipment to police departments should be ended?
Posted by 23 July 2020
This week, two more states enacted a mask mandate as coronavirus cases continue growing across the nation.
On Wednesday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz mandated that anyone eating indoors at a restaurant or in a business must wear a mask. He said it was the cheapest and most efficient way to stop the spread of the coronavirus and that it would help lead to a situation where schools could re-open.
That same day, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb also issued a mask order. His requires that anyone in public indoor spaces, on public transportation, or outdoors while not socially distanced must be wearing a mask. It covers anyone who is 8 or older. Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine issued a similar order on Wednesday, too.
There are now 31 states where face masks are mandatory. Governors from both parties have issued such mandates, seeing them as part of a public health strategy to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Critics of the mandate argue that this is an infringement of individual liberty. They say that businesses should be free to require masks, but that government should not mandate their use. Some also say the science is not strong enough to warrant such a mandate.
While President Trump has lately encouraged the wearing of masks, he has said he does not support a federal mask mandate.
Do you think state government should mandate the wearing of masks?
Posted by 22 July 2020
On July 31, the extra $600 per week in federal unemployment insurance authorized by coronavirus relief legislation ends. Democrats are fighting to extend it, saying it is necessary to help the unemployed. Republicans are vowing to block it, arguing that it is only helping prolong economic difficulties.
Congress included the additional unemployment money in the CARES Act when it passed in March. The rationale was that in a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty when many businesses are closing down, people who were unemployed needed extra help. Many Republicans were skeptical at the time of the additional payment, arguing that it would lead to many people earning more on unemployment than in a job. But it was included as part of the overall relief package, but with an expiration date of July 31.
With Congressional leadership considering what is going into a new coronavirus aid bill, the expanded unemployment benefits is a hot topic. Democrats say it would be cruel to end payments for people who are still out of work. Some economists also say that stopping the expanded benefits would hurt the economy. Republicans, however, point out that traditional unemployment benefits will continue. They also say that it's time to end government payments that give people an incentive not to seek out new jobs.
Previous coronavirus aid bills have been largely bipartisan. Differences between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as differences between Congress and the president, are currently hampering efforts to craft new legislation. The expanded unemployment benefit is a big area of disagreement.
If congressional leaders can work out their differences, Congress is likely to pass another round of coronavirus aid in early August.
Do you support extending the extra payment of $600 a week in unemployment benefits?
Posted by 21 July 2020
Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden this week outlined a $775 billion proposal that would expand federal spending on child care and elder care.
The Biden plan would:
- Provide universal preschool for 3- and 4-year old children
- Create a federal program to build child care facilities
- Fund child and elder care jobs
- Expand the use of community health care workers
- Create a $5,000 tax credit for caregivers
The Biden campaign says this initiative will help millions of Americans who are caring for their children or elderly relatives. They argue that it will also create 5 million new jobs. The need for greater federal involvement in child care is something that has been a theme for Biden, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the initiative also has critics, which call it too costly. They also argue that expanding federal efforts in these areas constitute government intrusion on family activities.
If elected president, Biden would need to convince Congress to pass this package for it to go into effect.
Do you think the federal government should spend more on child care and elder care?
Posted by 20 July 2020
This week, the House of Representatives will vote on a bill that would result in the removal of 14 statues and a bust of individuals linked to the Confederacy or racist ideology.
HR 7573 would direct the Architect of the Capitol to remove the statues of 11 men who served the Confederacy, 3 men who advocated for white supremacy when in office, and a bust of former Chief Justice Robert Taney. Advocates of this change argue that the U.S. Capitol should not house statues or busts of individuals who fought against the government or who celebrated racism.
Each state can send two statues to be placed in the Capitol. Some states have selected statues of men who served the Confederacy. These include Gen. Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. One of the statues being targeted is that of John C. Calhoun, who served as senator and vice president. He was a strong advocate of slavery, arguing that it was a positive good for both the slaves and their masters. Chief Justice Taney authored the Dred Scott decision, which said that no one who had African ancestry could be a citizen of the U.S.
Those opposed to removing these statues say that such removal would be erasing history. They also contend that it is up to states to decide what statues they send to be placed in the Capitol, not Congress.
If the House passes this legislation, it will go to the Senate to be considered. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not been supportive of efforts to remove statues from the Capitol.
Do you support removing statues of Confederate officials from the U.S. Capitol?
Posted by 17 July 2020
With another coronavirus relief bill likely to move through the House and Senate in August, members of Congress are considering what should be in such legislation. President Trump wants it to have a payroll tax cut.
The desire for a payroll tax cut has been a consistent theme with President Trump. When the initial economic effects of the coronavirus began to become apparent in March, he suggested the same thing. Congress has not included it, however.
In a statement this week, a White House spokesman said:
As he has done since the beginning of this pandemic, President Trump wants to provide relief to hardworking Americans who have been impacted by this virus and one way of doing that is with a payroll tax holiday. He’s called on Congress to pass this before and he believes it must be part of any phase four package.
Payroll taxes are levied on income to pay for Medicare and Social Security. Cutting these taxes would affect every worker, especially those with lower incomes. An income tax cut mainly benefits higher-income workers, since lower incomes are not subject to the tax. Payroll taxes, on the other hand, are levied on the first dollar of income, and are capped for higher-income workers.
Since 2009, there have been other payroll tax cuts that have been aimed at stimulating the economy. Some economists argue that since they affect lower-income workers, they provide money to go back into the economy more quickly. Others argue that there are more effective ways to stimulate the economy, such as direct payments to individuals. Some critics are also concerned about the long-term effect of cutting payroll taxes on Medicare and Social Security.
Do you think the new coronavirus relief bill should include a payroll tax cut?
Posted by 16 July 2020
President Trump has long complained that federal regulations make it difficult to build big infrastructure projects in a timely manner. This week, his administration is taking steps to revise federal environmental rules to speed up infrastructure construction.
The changes concern the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which mandates an environmental review for large infrastructure projects. Critics say this process is often too complex and costly, and that it takes far too long. They have urged the federal government to streamline environmental reviews and assessments in order to make it easier to construct infrastructure.
The Trump Administration has finalized revisions to NEPA that will exclude some projects from mandatory reviews, narrow the scope of the reviews in ways that will likely end consideration of climate change, and place a time limit on these reviews.
Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers blasted the rule change as a giveaway to industry at the expense of the environment. They also claimed that this will hurt minorities, since they are disproportionately affected by construction of large infrastructure projects.
Do you support streamlining the environmental reviews required for major construction projects?
Posted by 15 July 2020
This week, the Trump Administration filed a brief with the Supreme Court urging it to support an Arkansas program requiring some able-bodied Medicaid recipients to work.
Under the Arkansas Works program, individuals newly eligible for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, must meet certain work requirements. These include engaging in work or work-related activities for 80 hours a month. Only those in the Medicaid expansion population – able-bodied adults without children who are between 18 and 62 – face this requirement. There are also exceptions for people who are unable to work.
While the Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama had not approved Arkansas’s work requirement (or similar requirements in other states), the Trump Administration did. However, federal judges have blocked many of these requirements from going into effect. The Trump Administration’s legal filing urges the Supreme Court to overturn these rulings.
The legal issues center on whether federal law permits states to add a work requirement to Medicaid recipients. Medicaid is funded in part by the federal government, but states opt into it and have some leeway to design their programs. The Trump Administration and states say that states have the authority to require work for some able-bodied recipients, but courts have ruled that Congress must amend the program to allow this.
Supporters of work requirements argue that they are helping Medicaid recipients by giving them an incentive to go to work, where they may be able to obtain private health insurance eventually. They also argue that childless, able-bodied adults -- the group covered by the work requirement -- should be working. Opponents, however, see these requirements as a way to limit participating in Medicaid, noting that 18,000 people lost eligibility once Arkansas put its requirement in place. They also contend that the work verification rules under Arkansas Works are too difficult for many to comply with.
Do you support requiring able-bodied Medicaid recipients to work or seek work?
Posted by 14 July 2020
Lawmakers in two states passed strict abortion laws, but federal judges put them both on hold this week.
In Georgia, a judge issued a permanent injunction against a law that would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat was detectable. This law, passed last year, has been the center of legal squabbles. And in Tennessee, another judge issued a temporary injunction against enforcing a law that would have the effect of banning nearly every abortion in the state.
These two laws are similar to other states’ laws that are aimed at curbing abortions. Sponsors of these bills say they are necessary to protect the lives of unborn children. They argue that once a heartbeat is present, a fetus should be considered a viable human. Opponents, however, say these laws infringe upon a woman’s constitutional right to privacy.
Federal judges have largely agreed with those who are fighting these laws. These judges have concluded that the laws do indeed go further than Supreme Court decisions, such as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey, allow. The judges in these two cases point to other successful challenges of similar laws in their injunctions.
Some supporters of these stricter abortion laws also admit to a strategy of passing laws they know will set up a judicial showdown over whether the laws are constitutional or not. Their hope is to use the court fights over the new abortion laws as an avenue to have the Supreme Court get involved an issue a ruling that is more favorable to abortion opponents.
Do you support stricter abortion laws?
Posted by 13 July 2020
The Trump Administration’s movement to resume federal executions has once again been put on hold by a federal judge.
On Monday, the federal government planned to execute Daniel Lewis Lee, who was convicted of three murders in 1996. There have been ongoing legal challenges to his execution, but an appeals court had ruled on Sunday that it could proceed. However, hours after this ruling, another federal judge placed an injunction on any federal executions.
That judge, Tanya Chutkan, said that the courts still needed to sort out the legal challenges from four inmates on death row. These cases concern whether federal execution protocols are cruel and unusual, and are therefore banned by the Constitution. Some analysts argue that the drugs used for lethal injection cause significant pain and distress to those being executed.
Chutkan’s ruling contends that there is sufficient evidence that these drugs do indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment, so there should be a definitive ruling by federal courts before executions resume. The Trump Administration has aggressively fought to begin using the death penalty again.
The last person executed by the federal government was Louis Jones in 2003.
Do you support the federal government resuming use of the death penalty?
Posted by 09 July 2020
President Trump has claimed that he has absolute immunity from criminal investigation while in office. Today, the Supreme Court said that was not the case.
In a 7-2 decision, the high court ruled that the president could not block subpoenas for his financial information. New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance is seeking his tax records to look into whether Trump violated New York law when paying money to two women who claim he had sex with them. Vance wants to present this evidence to a grand jury to consider criminal charges against Trump.
The president and his lawyers argued that these records should not turned over to the district attorney while Trump is in office. Their claim was that the president has a broad grant of immunity to criminal investigations, and violating this would open him up to politically-motivated prosecution.
Seven Supreme Court justices disagreed, however. They pointed out that no one is above the law, including the president, and shielding him from investigation would go against centuries of precedent. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
President Trump said that this decision was political and that he was being unfairly targeted. District Attorney Vance called it a victory for justice.
Do you think the president should be immune from criminal investigations?
Posted by 07 July 2020
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that states have the power to punish or remove electors who break their pledges to support specific candidates.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote for 7 fellow justices, saying that the Constitution’s text and the history of the Electoral College demonstrate that states have latitude to punish or replace faithless electors. Justice Clarence Thomas came to the same conclusion, although he said that the Tenth Amendment protects states’ power to set limits on electors.
When voters cast their ballot for president, they vote for electors who then make the binding vote for president. Electors take a pledge to support a certain candidate for office. Occasionally, electors vote for different candidates than the ones they are pledged to support. In 2016, there were more faithless electors than in any previous election, with ten electors in five states. Two more electors tried to vote for someone other than their pledged candidate, but were replaced.
The Supreme Court concerned three of these electors from Washington and one in Colorado. After they cast their votes for someone other than Hillary Clinton, who won their states’ popular vote, the Washington electors were fined and the Colorado elector was replaced. The justices ruled in the case concerning the Colorado elector, but the reasoning applies to the Washington case, too.
While not directly affecting other efforts to change the way the Electoral College works, this ruling does appear to confirm that states can reform how they assign electoral votes. Some states want to require electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote, for instance.
What do you think about the Electoral College?
Posted by 03 July 2020
With little Republican support, the House of Representatives passed an infrastructure bill with a price tag of $1.5 trillion.
By a vote of 233-188, House members approved H.R. 2, which reauthorizes federal transportation and infrastructure programs through Fiscal Year 2025. The bill deals with traditional transportation issues, such as highway funding and public transit, but it also contains a number of measures related to renewable energy and climate change.
Initially, the House of Representatives was considering an infrastructure bill that would cost roughly $500 billion. However, under pressure from some in the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party, House leadership instead put forward a much more expensive bill that contained many environmental priorities.
Those who supported H.R. 2 said that it is necessary for the federal government to concentrate on moving America towards a greener energy structure. They say that doing so will both combat climate change and give the U.S. an economic advantage over other nations. To make this happen, H.R. 2 contained items such as providing federal money to electric vehicle charging stations and setting up a grant fund for local initiatives to fight greenhouse gases.
Republicans opposed the bill on the grounds that it was too expensive and contained a wish list of ineffective ideas from the Green New Deal. They argued that the bill should be focused on transportation, not liberal environmental ideas. Only three members of the GOP caucus supported the legislation.
There is broad agreement with Democrats and Republicans in Congress and with President Trump that they should advance an infrastructure bill this year. The current transportation authorization expires in September. However, the Senate is unlikely to consider the infrastructure bill passed by the House this week.
Do you support spending $1.5 trillion on transportation infrastructure and projects to fight climate change?
Posted by 02 July 2020
Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Tom Udall (D-NM) want to see American troops gone from Afghanistan within a year. A majority of their Senate colleagues do not agree.
By a vote of 60-33, the Senate voted to table the Paul-Udall amendment to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Tabling a measure effectively kills it. The amendment would have also paid those troops a $2,500 bonus and repealed the 2001 use of force authorization that began the Afghanistan war.
Senators Paul and Udall argued that a 19-year war was long enough. They said it was time to end the unpopular military activities in Afghanistan and bring the troops home. Senators in opposition, though, said that military action should end when certain objectives are met, not on a specific date.
The Trump Administration has negotiated with the Taliban to reduce U.S. troop strength in the country. Under a deal struck earlier this year, the U.S. will draw down its number of military personnel to 8,600 in mid-July.
The support and opposition for this amendment crossed party lines. Republican Senate leadership joined with Democrats to table it, while Democrats, Republicans, and independent Senator Bernie Sanders voted against tabling it.
This amendment was part of a larger defense authorization bill currently being considered by the Senate.
Do you think that the U.S. should remove troops from Afghanistan within a year?
Posted by 01 July 2020
Voters in Oklahoma cast their ballots yesterday, and by a very narrow margin approved an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program.
With a 1% margin of victory, voters supported State Question 802. This ballot measure amends the Oklahoma constitution to provide Medicaid coverage for more lower-income state residents. Medicaid is a joint federal-state health coverage program. Under the Affordable Care Act, states could provide coverage for lower-income adults without disabilities who did not have children.
Medicaid expansion has been a controversial topic in many states, especially ones where Republicans have the majority in the legislature. These states have largely been reluctant to expand the program, fearing long-run costs. Skeptics of expansion note that while the federal government funds 90% of the new enrollees, it still leaves state with a financial burden that will grow over time. They argue that health policy should be focused on placing people on private insurance, not enrolling them in a government program.
Backers of expansion counter that Medicaid expansion is an effective way of helping those who cannot afford insurance. They say that it will save lives and reduce the use of emergency rooms. In some states where legislators refuse to vote in favor of expanding Medicaid, these advocates have gone directly to voters through ballot initiatives.
These ballot initiatives have been successful in Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, and Utah. Oklahoma’s expansion is different, however, since the initiative amends the state constitution, while the other states have only amended statutes. A constitutional amendment change prevents legislators from reversing the outcome or changing the program eligibility.
Do you support extending Medicaid coverage to able-bodied adults who have no children?
Posted by 30 June 2020
On a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that if states pay private school tuition, they cannot refuse to pay tuition at religious private schools.
In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a Montana parent who was using a state-funded scholarship program to pay for tuition at a private religious school. However, this arrangement ended when the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the program violated a constitutional ban on state money going to religious schools. The parent sued, saying that this ruling violated the First Amendment by singling out religious schools for discrimination.
The Supreme Court agreed that Montana’s prohibition on state aid to private schools did indeed amount to religious discrimination. Many states have similar prohibitions, known as “Blaine Amendments.” They originated in the late 1900s, when there was growing concern about Catholic private schools. The high court held that Montana is not obligated to pay for private school tuition, but if it does it cannot allow funding to go to some private schools but not religious schools.
The four dissenting justices pointed out that the Montana Supreme Court had ended that state’s program, so it was treating all schools equally. Some also said that the court’s majority was overturning hundreds of years of precedent by allowing state money to go to religious education.
Thirty-seven states had constitutional prohibitions on government money going towards religious education that could potentially be affected by this decision.
Do you think it is constitutional for states to fund secular private schools but not religious private schools?
Posted by 25 June 2020
With minimal GOP support, the House of Representatives this week passed legislation that would mandate changes to how state and local police operate.
By a vote of 236-181, the House passed HR 7120, legislation named after the late George Floyd. Among the things this bill would do are:
- Banning the use of police chokeholds
- Removing immunity from lawsuits for police officers
- Requiring the use of body cameras
- Prohibiting the use of military-style weapons and equipment in police work
- Establishing a national database for officers who have a record of abuse complaints
House Democrats argued these measures were necessary to stop law enforcement abuses that led to the death of George Floyd and other people in police custody. They contended that systemic racism is plaguing police departments nationwide, and their reforms can help alleviate some of the negative effects of heavy-handed law enforcement. No Democrats voted against the bill.
Republicans were not buying these arguments, however. Only three GOP House members supported HR 7120. They noted that this was a huge federal imposition on what is typically a state or local issue. They noted that the federal government has no constitutional role to mandate how non-federal law enforcement operates. They also said that at a time of rioting and looting, it was counterproductive to impose new restrictions on police.
The Senate is unlikely to consider this legislation, but Senate Republicans have introduced their own police reform bill.
Do you think Congress should pass a federal law to change the way state and local police departments operate?
Posted by 25 June 2020
From Washington to Florida, governments across the nation are mandating that residents wear masks in public to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
As governors ease shutdown requirements that were aimed at stopping coronavirus cases from climbing, they are considering other ways to stop the pandemic. In some states and counties with cases that are climbing, the answer they are settling on is mandatory mask wearing in public. With rising coronavirus infections in Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee this week mandated mask use statewide. Those refusing to wear masks in public could face a misdemeanor charge.
Officials say that as people return to more densely-packed places, social distancing and mask-wearing can help prevent the coronavirus’s spread. They point to studies indicating that widespread use of masks help keeps coronavirus cases at bay. While medical experts were mixed on the efficacy of masks early in the coronavirus crisis, most now embrace them as a useful way to be safe in public.
These mask mandates have met with opposition, however. Critics contend that it is government overreach to require masks. They say that people should be free to wear them, but not forced to do so by the government.
Some governors have considered a mask mandate but are so far refusing calls to impose one. Idaho has a lower coronavirus rate than many states, but with the relaxation of a shutdown imposed by Gov. Brad Little, cases are rising. Gov. Little is urging state residents to wear masks, but told reporters that he is unlikely to require their use.
Do you think wearing face masks in public should be mandatory?