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?
Posted by 24 June 2020
Senate Democrats want to see the Department of Defense act on bases with Confederate names within the year.
Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and 35 other senators introduced legislation this week that will require the Department of Defense to remove any names, symbols, or monuments that are associated with the Confederate States of America within one year. Grave markers could remain. This is similar to a proposal that the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously adopted earlier this month, except that the new bill has a 1-year timeframe instead of a 3-year timeframe.
Those supporting Sen. Warren’s bill argue that U.S. military bases should not honor a cause that tried to destroy the union in order to protect slavery. Some of them call Confederate army officers traitors and say these people should not be honored by the federal government.
Republicans are split on this issue. Some, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are supportive. Others, such as President Donald Trump, are firmly opposed. There are also some in the Senate who want to explore different options. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) wants to establish a commission to study the issue of renaming military bases. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) would like to see all military bases renamed to honor Medal of Honor recipients.
The Senate is likely to consider the Defense Authorization bill this summer, and discussion about military base renaming will be part of these efforts.
Do you think that the Defense Department should remove any names, symbols, and monuments that honor the Confederacy?
Posted by 23 June 2020
Earlier this year, President Trump said that the coronavirus made it necessary to halt much of the immigration coming into the United States. This week, he extended and expanded that immigration ban.
This move affects a variety of visas that foreign workers use to come into the U.S. and fill jobs. In March, the President issued a temporary suspension of some of these work visas as a part of his coronavirus response policy. He said it was necessary to protect the U.S. from the coronavirus and to help American workers.
This week’s action extends this suspension until the end of the year. It also adds more worker categories to the suspension, including high-tech workers.
Even before being elected president, Trump was a critic of immigration. Since he has taken office, Trump has pursued policies to limit legal immigration and crack down on illegal immigration. The current restrictions fit within his broader framework of reducing the number of people coming into the U.S.
Critics of this action say it has nothing to do with helping American workers. They note that this are jobs that are filled by workers with specific skills, and that they require companies to attempt to hire U.S. workers prior to hiring any foreign employees. These critics allege that President Trump is using the coronavirus crisis to advance his anti-immigration agenda.
Do you support suspending some immigrant work visas for the rest of the year?
Posted by 22 June 2020
For the first time in 27 years, the House of Representatives will vote on whether the District of Columbia should become the 51st state.
This week, the House will consider HR 51, sponsored by DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. This bill would make most of the District of Columbia into a new state. Major federal buildings, such as the Capitol and White House, along with many federal monuments, would still be left in a federal district. The rest of the city, however, would become a state with two U.S. senators and a member of the House of Representatives. Currently, Del. Holmes Norton represents D.C. in the House, but she does not have full voting privileges.
The last time the House of Representatives voted on D.C. statehood was 1993. In that year, bipartisan opposition defeated the bill. There has long been reluctance by both Democrats and Republicans to granting the district the status of a state. But in the wake of the protests over the killing of George Floyd, House Democrats are now seeing this vote as one of racial justice.
Supporters of statehood argue that the residents of D.C. should not be deprived of a voice in Congress. They note that Wyoming has fewer people in it than does D.C., but that state has full representation. They say that it is racist that a majority-minority city like D.C. is being held under control by the federal government. Opponents of this move argue that it is just pure politics. They point out that the new state will be overwhelmingly Democratic, so this is just a way to get more Democrats in the Senate and House. They also say that there may be constitutional issues with a move towards statehood.
With its Democratic majority, the House will likely pass H.R. 51. The Senate, however, has no plans on considering the bill, and President Trump says he will veto it.
Do you support statehood for the District of Columbia?
Posted by 19 June 2020
In the wake of protests over law enforcement tactics, Colorado legislators have passed a bill that will overhaul how police in that state operate.
This week, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law SB 217, which both houses of the legislature quickly passed this month. Among other things, this new law will:
- Mandate the use of body cameras in many instances, and penalize officers who turn off cameras to obstruct justice
- Allow police to be sued and be personally liable if they violate someone’s civil rights or do not step in to prevent another officer from violating someone’s civil rights
- Ban police from firing rubber bullets at protestors
- Establish a use-of-force database
- Create an oversight board to monitor police actions
Supporters of this bill say that it will help address many of the troubling law enforcement practices that have led to the deaths and injury of suspects. They argue that these reforms will help ensure police protect the rights of people while also upholding the law. Opponents, however, contend that the bill was hastily written and will handicap efforts to protect the public.
Other states are considering similar reform legislation. Next week, the House of Representatives will vote on a bill that will enact some of these measures at a federal level.
Do you think that police officers should be personally liable if they violate someone’s civil rights? Should police be prohibited from firing rubber bullets at protestors?
Posted by 18 June 2020
Today the Supreme Court has ended the Trump Administration's efforts to strip legal protection from "Dreamers" -- children who were brought to the U.S. illegally.
In a 5-4 ruling, the high court said that the Trump Administration did not follow the proper procedures to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This program gave legal protection to some illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. Those in this program had to meet certain qualifications, such as having a clean criminal record.
President Trump had said that Congress should enact a law to protect these individuals, but that President Obama did not have the authority to protect them by executive action. He ordered the program to be phased out, which set up a legal fight that eventually ended up before the Supreme Court.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts said that this case was not about the merits of the president's actions. Instead, he said it concerned the procedure the Trump Administration followed to undo DACA. His opinion leaves open the possibility that the Trump Administration could once again try to end DACA.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the dissenting minority, arguing that the president's actions were indeed legal. He said that it is up to Congress, not the courts, to settle this issue.
Do you think the Trump Administration should continue trying to end legal protection for Dreamers?
Posted by 17 June 2020
This week congressional Republicans outlined police reform legislation in the wake of demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd. Democrats say it does not go far enough.
This bill would, among other things:
- Mandate federal reports on use-of-force incidents and no-knock raids
- Provide federal incentives for local and state police departments to ban the use of chokeholds and require the use of body cameras
- Develop use-of-force training by the Justice Department for local law enforcement
- Reauthorize federal law enforcement grant programs for five years
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) took the lead on developing this legislation, and there is a companion bill in the House of Representatives. He and other Republicans say these steps are good ways for the federal government to respond to calls for police reform. Democrats, however, say that this bill leaves out many important provisions.
Congressional Democrats introduced their version of reform legislation last week. It went much further than the Republican bill, imposing new rules on state and local law enforcement as well as removing legal immunity that protects police officers from many lawsuits. Republicans argue that the Democratic bill goes too far, and intrudes upon state and local government functions.
The Senate will consider the Republican police reform legislation next week.
How far do you think the federal government should go in forcing state and local police departments to change their practices?
Posted by 16 June 2020
Ten military installations in the United States are named after Confederate officers. A move in Congress to rename these installations is gaining support from both Democrats and Republicans.
A debate over how the U.S. should honor those who fought for the Confederacy has grown more intense due to the demonstrations resulting from the police killing of George Floyd. States and local governments are taking down statues honoring Confederates, saying that these men were traitors to the U.S. and fought to preserve slavery. Many activists are now calling on the federal government to rename those bases carrying the names of Confederate officers.
Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would create a commission to examine this issue. The panel did so by voice vote with no opposition. This week, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, John Thune of South Dakota, also said this is something the federal government should consider. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also said he would be open to this idea.
That view, however, does not have support in the White House. President Trump has taken to Twitter to denounce attempts to rename military bases. He said this would dishonor the millions of soldiers who have been stationed at these places. His spokesperson said he would veto any legislation that would lead to the removal of Confederate officers’ names from bases.
The Senate will consider the National Defense Authorization Act in the coming weeks. The issue of renaming military bases will likely be part of the debate.
Do you think that military bases should be named for Confederate officers?
Posted by 15 June 2020
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that federal anti-discrimination laws cover gay and transgender individuals.
The high court ruled that when the law uses the word “sex,” it also protects people from being fired for being gay or transgender. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch concluded that the plain reading of the text leads to the conclusion that sex discrimination is not limited to ensuring that men and women are treated equally in the workplace. Instead, he noted that if an employer fired a man for being in a relationship with a man, but did not fire a woman for being in a relationship with a man, then that is a clear case of an employer discriminating against someone based on sex.
In his decision, Gorsuch wrote, “an employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision…”
The three dissenting justices disagreed. Justice Samuel Alito pointed out that in the decades following the enactment of the federal anti-discrimination law, no one thought it covered gay or transgender individuals. He said that the majority was re-writing the law, not interpreting it. In his dissent, he wrote, “If every single living American had been surveyed in 1964, it would have been hard to find any who thought that discrimination because of sex meant discrimination because of sexual orientation — not to mention gender identity, a concept that was essentially unknown at the time.”
The case concerned three individuals who were fired for being either gay or transgender.
The justices joining Gorsuch in the majority were Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Ginsburg.
Do you support the Supreme Court ruling that federal law protects gay and transgender individuals from discrimination?
Posted by 13 June 2020
This week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) rewrote an Obama-era regulation that expanded the definition of “sex” under federal anti-discrimination law. The effect of this rule change is to remove protections for transgender individuals in health insurance purchases, but the Trump Administration says this is just a return to the original meaning of the law.
The regulation affects nondiscrimination protections in the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. This law prohibits insurance companies from discriminating against individuals on the basis of, among other things, “sex.” This language is similar to language in other federal anti-discrimination laws. In 2016, the Obama Administration issued a rule that expanded the protections under that law to include gender identity.
At the time, this move was controversial. Those opposed to it argued that it reversed the meaning of federal anti-discrimination rules. These critics pointed out that the protection of sex under federal law never protected individuals who went through a gender transition. However, the Obama Administration said that gender identity was an integral part of someone’s sex, so their expanded interpretation was legally valid.
The Trump Administration re-wrote the 2016 regulation to return its definition of “sex” to the earlier understanding of what the law meant. HHS officials argued that this was necessary to reverse the Obama Administration’s overreach. They argue that if Congress wants to protect transgender individuals from discrimination, Congress should write the law to reflect this, not use executive branch authority to change the law.
HHS action has come under fire from many people, however. They say the Trump Administration of reversing important protections for transgender individuals. They accuse the administration of anti-transgender bias, and have vowed to fight the rule change in court.
Do you think that federal laws banning sex discrimination also ban discrimination against transgender individuals?
Posted by 10 June 2020
This week, some West Virginia voters cast their ballots via computers and smartphones. Next month, Delaware voters will have the same opportunity. As the coronavirus disrupts elections across the nation, some states are looking at online voting. But experts warn this type of voting comes with big risks.
In West Virginia, anyone who requested an absentee ballot could vote online. Delaware officials will permit voters who are self-isolating due to the coronavirus epidemic cast their ballots via the Internet. These states say that this type of voting is a good way to allow people to exercise their right to vote while also taking into account the restrictions and protocols necessary to keep people safe.
Security experts, however, have pointed out security flaws with the software being used by these states. With the votes moving through the cloud, they are vulnerable to hackers, say the experts. West Virginia and Delaware point to the security measures they are taking. However, since voting is an anonymous and private activity, voters will have no way to check to see if their votes were accurately cast or counted.
Some people see Internet voting as the way most ballots will be cast in the future. They say that if the security is tight, then people should be free to cast their votes online. However, security experts say that right now widespread online voting has significant risks.
During the coronavirus epidemic, many states have expanded their vote-by-mail efforts, but only these two states have embraced online voting.
Do you support online voting?
Posted by 10 June 2020
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wants a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee removed from Richmond. A federal judge this week slowed down efforts to take the statue down.
In the wake of protests over the police killing of George Floyd, Gov. Northam has ordered the Richmond statue commemorating the Confederate general removed. This statue has long been controversial in the city, with activists and politicians calling for it to be taken down. This is part of a larger movement in Virginia to eliminate monuments and statues that some people see as celebrating the Confederacy and slavery.
A federal judge, however, has issued an injunction preventing the governor’s order from taking effect. The judge says that when the state annexed the land the statue was on, it promised to guard and protect the statue. This judge ordered a hearing to examine these issues, and the fate of the statue now depends on the courts.
Throughout the nation, there is increased pressure to re-examine the numerous public monuments to people and places connected with slavery and the Confederacy. Those pushing to remove them say that the nation should not celebrate people who fought to protect slavery or who were traitors to the nation. They argue that while we need to remember history, our nation should not put forward these individuals as people to be admired.
This campaign has prompted a strong backlash, however. Those opposing it counter that history is complicated, and trying to remove monuments to historical figures is imposing our views on the past. They accuse anti-monument activists and politicians of wanting to erase history.
An effort to remove a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, prompted widespread violence and one death in that city.
Do you think that Confederate monuments should be removed?
Posted by 09 June 2020
The protests over the George Floyd killing and other actions by the law enforcement often include a call to reform police departments. Some observers say that one obstacle to such reforms is police unions, which represent millions of law enforcement officers across the nation.
Many cities and counties allow collective bargaining for police officers. The unions that represent these officers bargain for pay, working conditions, and other contract provisions to govern their members. Some of these provisions concern the investigation, discipline, and dismissal of officers who have been accused of misconduct. Some are accusing these provisions of preventing bad officers from being fired and protecting officers from the consequences of unjustified violent action.
According to these critics, unions negotiate levels of protection that make it very expensive and difficult for bad police officers to be fired or otherwise disciplined. They point to the fact that the officer who killed George Floyd had numerous complaints filed against him, but he was still working for the Minneapolis police department. One way to improve policing, these critics argue, is to reduce the power of police unions to protect violent police officers.
Union leadership pushes back against these concerns, however. They contend that police officers face a uniquely difficult task, one that often results in complaints being filed against police. They argue that police need to have a process that gives them formal protections in order to ensure that they are not unfairly disciplined or fired.
Some police union officials have come under fire during recent disturbances resulting from George Floyd’s death. These officials have strongly supported police officials arrested for violence against protestors. Elected officials and marchers say these actions illustrate why police unions need reform, while union officials argue they are merely standing up for their membership who are being unjustly accused of crimes.
Do you think that police unions should be ended?