Commentary & Community

Criminal Justice Reform May Pass During Lame Duck

Congress is meeting in a “lame duck” session this week, completing work on some unfinished work. While there are partisan differences on many proposals being considered, there is one area where members of both parties agree: criminal justice reform. The bipartisan support for reform legislation may produce the most significant change in federal criminal law in years.


The bill being considered is called the First Step Act, which passed 360 to 59 in the House of Representatives on May 22. Here is how Votespotter described that legislation:


To give some federal prisoners time out of prison if they participate in vocational or rehabilitation programs, increase the amount of credits that can be used to get out of prison early for federal prisoners who have no disciplinary problems, prohibit the use of shackles for federal prisoners giving childbirth, and authorize more federal funding for prison rehabilitation programs.

While this bill passed by a large margin in the House, it has stalled in the Senate. There is bipartisan support for it in the Senate, but there is also strong opposition.


The lead senator who is working to defeat the First Step Act is Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas. However, the bill has the backing of President Trump, the national Fraternal Order of Police, the Koch brothers’ network, and many other conservative groups. The legislation also has the backing of many groups that are on the liberal side of the spectrum.


Senator Cotton has stated he thinks this legislation is dangerous because it would put more criminals on the streets. He argues that tough sentences reduced crime rates, so weakening these sentences will endanger the public. Those supporting this bill counter that many people are locked up for non-violent crimes, so it makes no sense to spend money on expensive incarceration. They argue that it is more humane and cost-effective to focus on less restrictive punishment as well as incarceration for these non-violent offenders.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has given some indications that despite Sen. Cotton’s opposition, the First Step Act may be presented to the Senate in modified form.


Should the Senate pass federal criminal justice reform? Do you support wider access to rehabilitation programs for federal prisoners? Should sentences be lightened for prisoners with no disciplinary problems?

Trump Investigations May be Top Priority for Speaker Pelosi

In the wake of yesterday’s election, Democrats now control the House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi is likely to be elected Speaker of the House, giving her control over that body’s agenda. With Republicans still controlling the Senate and the White House, it is unlikely that much Democratic legislation will be enacted into law. Where Speaker Pelosi can have an impact is with investigations into the Trump Administration.


Democrats, especially those in the more liberal “progressive” wing of the party, have an ambitious legislative agenda. From health care to tax increases on higher-income earners to immigration reform, many of the new Democrats coming into the House of Representatives have ideas for bills that will reshape federal policies. The nature of divided government make many, if not all, of these legislative proposals unworkable for the next two years. But committee investigations and oversight hearings do not require Senate or presidential approval. They are controlled by the members who chair the relevant committees.


These new committee chairs include:

  • Adam Schiff – This California Democrat will take over the House Intelligence Committee. Within that committee’s jurisdiction falls a host of issues that involve President Trump, including whether or not Russia colluded with his campaign to influence the 2016 election.
  • Elijah Cummings – The House Oversight Committee will be helmed by this Maryland Democrat. He will have wide authority to look into how the Trump Administration operates.
  • Jerry Nadler – With many Democrats calling for the impeachment of President Trump, this New York Democrat will play a key role as chair of the Judiciary Committee.


The investigations that these committee chairs and others launch could target cabinet secretaries, White House employees, and even the President himself. The committees have subpoena powers, so they can compel the Trump Administration to produce documents. These can include not only official papers, but the president’s tax returns.


For Democrats who believe that there is widespread corruption in the White House and executive branch, these investigations will be an avenue to bring wrongdoing to light. For Republicans, these committees will be the scene of partisan witch hunts designed to distract the president from implementing his agenda.


Do you think that the Democrats should use their new House majority to investigate President Trump and members of his administration?

Cory Booker: Raise Estate Tax to Fund Opportunity Accounts for Kids


New Jersey Senator Cory Booker thinks that he has a way to address inequality in the U.S. He recently proposed a bill that would establish savings accounts for every child born in the U.S. To pay for these “Opportunity Accounts,” booker would increase a variety of taxes, including the estate tax.


Under Sen. Booker’s plan, every child would receive an “Opportunity Account” at birth, but after that the federal government would provide payments into that account depending on family income. Those with the lowest incomes would receive $2,000 a year. Those with higher incomes would receive a lesser amount. Children in families with incomes over 500% of the federal poverty level would not receive yearly payments. The money in these accounts could not be used until the child turns 18, and then it could only be spent on certain things such as college tuition or a home down payment.


To pay for the estimated $60 billion price tag, Senator Booker’s plan calls on the federal estate tax rate to be set between 45% and 65%. He would also increase the capital gains tax rate.


The idea behind these accounts is to provide low-income Americans with a nest egg that is similar to what wealthier Americans already enjoy. Senator Booker argues that this would allow wealth creation by these lower-income families, especially minorities. Supporters of the accounts contend that past government policies prevented minority families from taking actions that would have allowed them to accrue wealth, so this is a way to help right those wrongs.


Those opposed to Senator Booker’s plan argue that the high estate and capital gains tax will hurt the economy by taxing productive economic activity. They note that people will take action to avoid the very high estate tax rates, so his plan will likely need other sources of revenue to fund it.


Senator Booker’s plan is unlikely to be considered by the Senate. However, if Senator Booker runs for president in 2020, it may provide the basis for a national discussion on what government should do to help low-income families accumulate wealth.


Do you think the federal government should provide tens of thousands of dollars in an “Opportunity Account” for low-income children? Should the estate tax be increase to fund these accounts?

Kavanaugh Approval Leads Some to Consider Court Packing

Brett Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court Justice via an acrimonious nomination process that enraged many liberals. Coming on top of Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the high court, some of these liberals are floating ideas to reform the Supreme Court. One of the most prominent is adding new justices to the court, or “court packing.”


The idea of expanding the Supreme Court’s membership in response to a disagreement over its ideological makeup was prominently championed by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. Upset by court decisions invalidating part of his New Deal legislation, President Roosevelt suggested expanding the number of Supreme Court justices. There was an uproar in opposition to that idea, and Congress never acted on it.


Some liberals are now resurrecting a similar “court packing” plan. They contend that Senate Republicans’ played bare knuckle politics with their refusal to allow a vote on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland and to approve Brett Kavanaugh in light of sexual assault allegations. They argue that these two actions were illegitimate, so it would be only right to counter them by expanding the court’s membership when Democrats regain the White House and Congress. Having one or two new justices appointed by Democrats would balance the court in response.


Opponents of court packing argue that once this process starts, it will lead to an ever-larger number of justices appointed for purely political reasons. They note that if Democrats expand the court’s membership when they control the presidency and Congress, then Republicans will do so when they regain both branches of government.


There are currently nine Supreme Court justices. This number is not set by the Constitution, so Congress and the president could pass legislation to alter it.


Do you think that the number of Supreme Court justices should be expanded? Should Democrats enlarge the court’s membership if they regain control of the presidency and Congress?

Senate Confirms Brett Kavanaugh to Supreme Court

After perhaps the most contentious Supreme Court nomination battle in U.S. history, Brett Kavanaugh is poised to take a seat on the nation's highest court.


By a vote of 50-48, the Senate today confirmed Kavanaugh. All the Republican senators except Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted in favor of Kavanaugh. All the Democratic senators except Joe Manchin of West Virginia voted against him.


The Supreme Court seat became open when Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement in June. Because Kavanaugh would replace Kennedy, who was seen as a swing vote for many important issues, this nomination was especially ideological from the beginning. Liberals viewed it as threat to court precedents that protected gay marriage, privacy rights, and abortion. Conservatives saw this as a chance to solidify a court majority that would adhere to the text of the Constitution.


During his first round of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, Kavanaugh faced questions about his judiical philosophy and his views on adhering to precedent. Democratic senators had a litany of complaints about the process, saying that they had not received enough information and accusing the Republican majority of rushing the process. Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley countered that Democrats were simply using any means necessary, regardless of whether they were fair or not, to sink the nomination.


This dispute was overshadowed when Dr. Christine Blassey Ford came forward with accusations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her during high school. Kavanaugh denied the allegations. The Judiciary Committee held a meeting to hear from the two as other accusations about misconduct came to light. Republican senators defended Kavanaugh, arguing that this was a smear campaign, while Democratic senators said that Americans should believe Dr. Blassey Ford. Republican Senator Jeff Flake brokered a deal to delay the full Senate's consideration of the nomination by a week so the FBI could investigate the assault claims.


The FBI completed its report and presented it to senators on Thursday. Yesterday, the Senate voted to proceed to 30-hours of debate.


The Supreme Court's term began on October 1. Kavanaugh will likely take the oath of office within days and join the court so he can begin hearing cases.


Do you support the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court?

Kavanaugh Nomination Advances to the Senate

Brett Kavanaugh moved one step closer to a seat on the Supreme Court today.


By a vote of 11-10, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to recommend his nomination to the full Senate. All the Republicans on the committee voted in favor of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, while all the Democrats opposed it. Kavanaugh is currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.


This action came on the heels of a dramatic day of testimoney yesterday from Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused the judge of sexual assault when he was a teenager. These accustions, and others which have come recently, has disrupted the normal nomination process. Democrats and women's groups have called for Judge Kavanaugh to withdraw his name from consideration, a suggestion he has repeatedly rejected. Judge Kavanaugh proclaims his innocence on these matters, saying he has never sexually assaulted anyone.


This sharply divided committee reflects the partisan divisions in the Senate over the Kavanaugh nomination. It is likely that all Republicans will vote in favor of this nomination, although Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have yet to announce their position. Republicans are targeting one or two Democrats for a "yes" vote, but Judge Kavanaugh may be confirmed with no Democratic support. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) supported the nomination during the committee vote, but he indicated he may not support the nomination on the Senate floor until after the FBI further investigates the allegations.


Like all Supreme Court nominees in recent decades, Judge Kavanaugh avoided taking stances during his initial confirmation hearings on issues that may come before the high court. While senators tried to pin him down on what he thought about the constitutionality of abortion rights or the contraceptive mandate, Judge Kavanaugh refused to take any firm stance. He mainly discussed his constitutional philosophy and answered questions about rulings he had made.


Republican senators defended Judge Kavanaugh from Democratic attacks at those hearings, pointing out that he had a long record of service that makes him extremely qualified for the court. Prior to his tenure as a circuit court judge, Kavanaugh worked for Independent Counsel Ken Starr and in the White House counsel’s office under President George W. Bush.


During the follow-up hearing yesterday, the questions from Democratic senators were not about judicial philosophy. Instead, they focused on Judge Kavanaugh's actions during high school and college. From his alcohol consumption to what he wrote in his high school yearbook, Judge Kavanaugh was grilled for hours about his youthful actions.


The full Senate will now consider Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination. It is likely the final vote on his nomination could take place early next week, depending on what type of investigation occurs. The new Supreme Court term begins on October 1.


Do you think that the Senate should confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court?

Senators Mull Regulation of Social Media

Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have become an important force in American public discourse. Some politicians and commentators think they are too powerful. They want to see the federal government impose new rules on these sites. One Senate Democrat even says there may be strong bipartisan support to do just that.


Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey faced members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in early September to answer questions about how foreign governments may have meddled in U.S. elections. Google CEO Sundar Pichai was invited but did not attend the hearing.


This Senate scrutiny of social media comes on the heels of criticism by President Trump and prominent conservatives. The president tweeted in late August, “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!” Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham echoed that thought a few days later on her Fox News show, saying, “There’s a thought that, given the enormity of these corporations, could there be a movement to treat [Twitter and Facebook] more like public utilities so they have some quasi-government oversight of these entities?”


As indicated by Ingraham’s idea, among the proposals to regulate social media sites is to have the government treat them as something like a public utility. This would recognize them as private entities but ones that are operated with a public purpose. The government would set rules that would prevent social media sites from denying a platform to users based on certain factors, such as political ideology.


Supporters of this level of regulation say that Facebook and Twitter operate much as the town square used to do, giving a space for people to speak and persuade others. As a virtual town square, the argument goes, these sites should allow everyone to speak. Big business has too much power to censor individuals, so the government must step in, according to those who are pushing for more federal oversight.


Opponents of this government regulations point to the dangers of government controlling media platforms. They argue that past federal rules on media content stifled debate about public policy. They say that social media companies should have the power to exclude speech that they deem offensive, such as that from the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, without fear of government reprisals.


While President Trump may be pushing for the federal government to have tighter control over social media companies, it is unclear if there is much support in Congress for such a proposal. Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said there is likely strong bipartisan support for legislation aimed at protecting privacy and cracking down on violent posts. He said that details of such a bill have not been finalized, however.


Should the government impose more regulations on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter? Do you think social media sites discriminate against conservative voices?

Trump, Senate Exploring Russian Sanctions


Punishing Russia is the hot topic under consideration at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.


President Donald Trump is considering signing a new Russian sanctions order while the Senate Banking Committee is looking at the effectiveness of sanctions. As evidence of Russian misdeeds continues to emerge, both the president and Congress face pressure to increase U.S. punishment on this nation.


Through legislation and executive orders, Russia already faces a variety of sanctions. President Trump may sign an order today aimed at punishing individuals or companies that interfere in U.S. elections. Intelligence agencies would be empowered by this order to act if they determined that Russians or other foreigners were attempting to influence the electoral process.


In the Senate, the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee held a hearing to assess the various tools used by the federal government are working to counter Russian activities. Experts testified about how sanctions should be shaped to exert maximum pressure on Vladimir Putin or other officials responsible for anti-U.S. actions.


These actions come on the heels of increasing amounts of information from U.S. intelligence agencies about Russian activities attempting to influence the 2016 U.S. election. With the 2018 mid-term elections approaching, there is a strong desire among some government officials to ensure that such meddling cannot occur once again.


Do you think that the U.S. should impose stronger sanctions on Russia for trying to influence the 2016 election? Are you worried that Russian or other foreign entities will attempt to meddle in this year’s election?



Defense Bill Targets China


Since 2001, the main priority for the Department of Defense has been stopping terrorism. Under the new Defense Authorization bill passed by Congress, however, our nation’s military will focus much more on China.


This legislation authorizes $716 billion in military spending over the next fiscal year while also making a variety of changes in how our nation approaches defense policy. Many of the biggest changes involve China.


Among other things, the bill imposes more government scrutiny on American technology sales to China and Chinese investment in the U.S. Under this bill, U.S. universities that host the Confucius Institutes, a Chinese funded center that is accused of spreading propaganda, would face limits on Defense Department funds. The bill also requires an annual report on how the Chinese government is influencing U.S. media, business, academic, and cultural institutions.


Notably, the bill did not prohibit American companies from selling technology to Chinese telecom firm ZTE. That is something that some conservative Republicans had pushed for but President Trump had publicly opposed.


Beyond these provisions, the bill also calls for adding 15,600 new members of the armed forces and 13 new ships for the navy.


President Trump is expected to sign this legislation soon.


Do you think that the U.S. military priorities should have a greater focus on China?


Study Finds “Medicare for All” Would be Costly


Single-payer health care, or “Medicare for All,” is becoming a popular campaign issue for many candidates. Ben Jealous, running for Maryland governor, supports it. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, candidate for the House of Representatives from New York, does, too. Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill that would implement it.


So how much would this new health care system cost?


According to a new report by the Mercatus Center, federal spending would rise by $32.6 trillion during the first 10 years of a single-payer system. This amount would be equal to 10.7% of the national gross domestic product in 2022. In 2031, the amount would increase to 12.7% of GDP and go up after that.


The study lays out a variety of reasons for this large price tag. A single-payer system would require that the federal government pay for all current state and private health care spending. It would also provide coverage for the uninsured and would drive greater use of health care services. The report’s authors caution that their estimate may be low, given that they assume that members of Congress would have the political will to reduce payments to health care providers and decrease the prices the federal government pays for drugs.


To find the money for single-payer, this report concluded: “A doubling of all currently projected federal individual and corporate income tax collections would be insufficient to finance the added federal costs of the plan.”


Supporters of “Medicare for All” dispute these numbers, saying that a federally-run health care system would find efficiencies through lower administrative costs. They also note that although the federal government would take on these costs, average Americans would no longer be paying for health insurance premiums. Some critics of the Mercatus Center report have also pointed out that this think tank has a libertarian ideology, so it would not be inclined to support a government-run health care system.


Do you think that a single-payer health care system would be too expensive for taxpayers?


Connecticut Senator Calls on Tech Companies to “Do More” to Combat Hate Speech


Alex Jones and Infowars had long pushed the boundaries of acceptable political speech, pushing false conspiracy theories about numerous events, ranging from the September 11th attacks to the Sandy Hook shootings. Social media companies had long faced calls to remove him from their platforms, and finally did so in early August. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy applauded the move, but urged these companies to go even further in policing their content. That prompted some to accuse Sen. Murphy of advocating censorship.


The discredited conspiracy theories advocated by Alex Jones have been condemned by people across the political spectrum. In response to his repeated false assertion that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax, families of the victims recently sued Jones. Facebook, YouTube, Apple, and Spotify then removed Infowars content in early August.


For Sen. Murphy, this was a good first step. The Sandy Hook shooting took place in his state, and he had long been critical of the Jones. After his removal from social media, Sen. Murphy tweeted, “Infowars is the tip of a giant iceberg of hate and lies that uses sites like Facebook and YouTube to tear our nation apart. These companies must do more than take down one website. The survival of our democracy depends on it.”


While many people supported Sen. Murphy’s words, others questioned whether a government official should be asking private companies to remove content. To these critics, it appeared that Sen. Murphy was edging close to using government pressure to police speech.


Reacting to criticism, Sen. Murphy followed up the next day with this tweet: “Private companies deciding not to let their platforms be used to spread hate and lies is not the same as government censorship. If it feels the same, then we need to ask why a small handful of companies have so much control over the content Americans see.”


Social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have terms of services that lay out what is acceptable content by their users. As private companies, they can remove speech that violates these terms of use. Even though there was no First Amendment violation with their actions, some observers are wary of these companies policing political content. They say that this could lead to more mainstream voices being silenced if they upset politicians like Sen. Murphy.


Do you think that Facebook and Twitter were right to remove Alex Jones and Infowars? Should senators be calling on private companies to police their content?


Congress Votes to Block DC’s Obamacare Law


Elected officials in Washington, D.C., are looking to copy the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. Republicans in Congress are taking steps to stop them.


The D.C. City Council recently passed the Health Insurance Requirement Act of 2018, which would mandate that district residents be covered by health insurance or pay a fine. That is similar to the mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which imposes a tax penalty on the uninsured. The 2017 tax legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Trump effectively ends this penalty. In response, two states and the District have passed their own individual mandate law.


States are free to pass such a mandate. In D.C., however, things are more complicated. While D.C. has an elected city council and mayor, under the Constitution the ultimate authority for governing the District lies with Congress. The city’s laws can be disapproved by congressional action. Every year, the city’s spending is also subject to the congressional appropriations process. During the debate over the D.C. spending bill, members of Congress can insert provisions to block the enforcement of laws they don’t like.


That is what has happened with the city’s individual mandate. Rep. Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania sponsored an amendment to the spending bill that would prohibit the city government from collecting the penalty imposed on someone who is uninsured. That amendment passed by a vote of 231-184. If that provision survives in the Senate and the bill is signed into law by President Trump, then D.C. will have an individual mandate but cannot penalize anyone who violates it.


District officials decry this amendment as meddling in the internal issues of the city. They say that without such a mandate, the city’s health insurance market will be skewed and prices will be more expensive for residents who purchase insurance. Supporters of the amendment counter that no one should be penalized because they don’t purchase insurance. They point out that the Constitution gives Congress authority over D.C. and they are merely exercising their power to protect the city’s residents.


Do you think that Congress should stop Washington, D.C. from enforcing its mandate that city residents must purchase health insurance?


Congress Considers Easing Marijuana Law


States across the nation are legalizing the use of marijuana for either medicinal or recreational purposes. While users and growers may face no threat of arrest or prosecution by state authorities in these areas, they are still breaking federal law. Now a bipartisan group of senators wants to change that.


Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) have introduced a bill, called the “Strengthening the Tenth Amendment through Entrusting States Act,” or STATES Act, that would end federal marijuana penalties for someone who is following state law. If someone lived in a state where it is legal to operate a retail marijuana operation, they would no longer be breaking federal law as long as they followed their state’s laws.


This bill is cosponsored by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Catherine Cortez Mastro (D-NV). President Trump has also signaled his support for the legislation, although it is unclear if either House or Senate leadership will advance it.


Supporters of the bill contend that it is necessary to remove any conflict between state and federal laws regarding marijuana. They say it is unfair for people to obey state law but still be under threat of federal prosecution. They contend that this legislation would recognize the constitutional guarantee of federalism where the federal government does not interfere in strictly state-level matters.


Opponents of the law say that if there is a federal law against marijuana growing or use, then that law should apply nationwide. Federal law is supreme to state law, they point out, so there is no reason to suspend the application of federal law just because some states have differing laws.


There are also two other bills in the Senate, one introduced by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and one introduced by Sen. Booker, that would completely end the federal ban on marijuana.


Do you think that the federal government should stop enforcing marijuana laws in states that legalize its use for either recreational or medicinal purposes? Should federal marijuana prohibition be ended?


Increasing Calls to Abolish ICE


In the dispute over America’s immigration laws – and the Trump Administration’s enforcement of them – a new rallying cry from some progressive activists is gaining strength: “abolish ICE!” Some high-profile candidates and elected officials have begun to embrace this cause, something that is leading to pushback even from some staunch liberals.


The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is responsible for enforcing immigration laws and investigating illegal immigration. It does not police the border; that function is handled by the Customs and Border Patrol agency. ICE agents raid worksites and other places to arrest illegal immigrants. They also detain these immigrants in detention centers.


For months, progressive activists have been calling for the end to ICE. Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez embraced this issue and used it, in part, to upset Rep. Joe Crowley in a New York Democratic primary. Soon after, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York also joined the movement to abolish ICE. Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan said he would introduce legislation to do this.


It is unclear what would change if ICE is abolished. ICE is only fifteen years old, dating to a federal reshuffling that occurred in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Its predecessor agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, handled immigration law enforcement prior to that time. If Congress did abolish ICE, then its functions would need to be performed by either a new agency or an existing agency would take them over.


Those who want to end ICE say that it is too militaristic and that its focus is wrong. They point to a number of abuses that have occurred by agency personnel. Those who want to keep the agency intact say that while some reforms may be necessary, the federal government must enforce the nation’s immigration laws.


While there are some elected Democrats who support ICE’s abolition, others merely call for reforms. This includes Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate. Without the support of congressional leadership, it is likely that the campaign against ICE will produce any legislative results.


Do you think that ICE should be abolished?


Senator Jeff Flake Tries to Take Down Trump’s Tariffs


It is no secret that Arizona Senator Jeff Flake and President Donald Trump have their differences. Among the long list of things that divides them is trade policy. The latest skirmish between the two involves actions by the Republican senator to seek a vote on an amendment to strip the president’s power to impose sanctions unilaterally. He is using his power to block the president’s judicial nominees to get it.


After President Trump imposed steel and aluminum tariffs, many U.S. businesses have announced how this would hurt them. In response, a group of senators, including Sen. Flake, have said they want to force a vote on an amendment that would prevent a president from imposing tariffs on national security grounds without congressional approval, which current law allows.


Two of Sen. Flake’s colleagues, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Bob Corker of Tennessee, have been stymied in their attempts to offer such an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill. Senator Flake, however, has decided to use his power as a member of the Judiciary Committee to force a vote. That committee is divided 11-10 in favor of Republicans. If Sen. Flake votes with the Democrats against the president’s circuit court nominees, he will assure that these nominations will not proceed.


Some of Sen. Flake’s Republican colleagues do not agree with the move. They say that these nominees are too important to be held up over a dispute over tariffs. Others say that they do not want to undercut the president on this issue.


Sen. Flake argues that the tariffs are hurting U.S. businesses, so Congress should act. He says that if the Senate wants to move forward on moving the president’s judicial nominees out of committee, all the GOP leadership has to do is promise him a vote on his amendment.


Do you think that the Senate should vote on an amendment that will prevent the president from unilaterally imposing tariffs? Is Senator Flake right to hold up judicial nominees to get a vote on his trade amendment?


Congress Acts to Rescind $15 Billion in Spending


In Washington, Congress appropriates or authorizes money and the president has the authority to spend it. Or that is how it generally works. President Trump, however, has decided to exercise a little-used presidential power and ask Congress to reverse itself on spending.


In early May, President Trump’s budget director sent a letter to Congress asking it to rescind $15.4 billion in spending that the legislative branch had appropriated or authorized. This funding includes:

  • $5.1 billion from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that was never requested by states before the authorization to spend it expired on September 30, 2017
  • $4.3 billion from the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, a loan program that is no longer being used
  • $523 million from a loan program that was authorized under the Obama Administration stimulus package
  • $133 million from the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Extended Benefits program, which expired in 2012


The authority to request these rescissions is authorized under the 1974 budget law that governs the federal spending process. Under this law any member of Congress can introduce a bill to enact the president’s proposal, and Congress has 45 days to act. If it does not act, then the president’s proposal dies. The last time a president requested a rescission was President Bill Clinton in 2000.


On June 7, the House of Representatives passed HR 3, the Spending Cuts to Expired and Unnecessary Programs Act, by a vote of 210-206. This bill contains the rescission requests made by President Trump. The Senate Appropriations Committee is now considering this bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he supports the president’s rescission request. Even with the slim Republican majority in the Senate, this bill is likely to pass if it is acted upon within the 45-day limit.


Do you support President Trump’s proposal to rescind $15 billion in federal spending? Or is the president being unfair in rescinding funding for children’s health insurance?


Nevada Faces the Opening of Yucca Mountain


It has been three decades since Congress approved Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the nation’s permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel. Over that time, a generation of Nevada’s politicians have fought the opening of this site. Legislation advancing in Congress may finally put this issue to a rest, leaving Nevadans with the prospect of Yucca Mountain finally opening.


In early May, the House of Representatives approved legislation that would re-start the process of moving the nation’s nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain. This site was first approved by legislation in 1987, but funding for this project was stopped during the Obama Administration. Currently, spent fuel from nuclear power plants is stored at temporary facilities across the U.S. Yucca Mountain is envisioned as a permanent place to store this waste, buried underground in a geologic formation that is designed to prevent leakage.


Senator Harry Reid was a leading figure in fighting the opening of Yucca Mountain. He not only represented Nevada in the Senate, he also spent many years in Democratic leadership positions in that body. He used this influence to thwart efforts to finalize plans to use Yucca Mountain.


Supporters of Yucca Mountain say that it is a remote facility that has an ideal geologic composition to store nuclear waste safely for millennia. Opponents contend that it will poses huge risks to move nuclear waste from across the U.S. to Nevada, and that this facility is dangerously close to Las Vegas.


Even though Nevada’s House members opposed the recent legislation to move forward with Yucca Mountain’s planning process, the bill passed by a vote of 340-72. The bill garnered the support of both Democrats and Republicans. Nevada’s senators have vowed to do all they can to stop this legislation in the Senate, but it is unclear if they have enough votes to sustain a filibuster.


Do you support opening Yucca Mountain as a permanent storage facility for nuclear waste?


Congress Gives Terminal Patients Wider Access to Drugs


For some people who are dying, the ability to try any treatment option – even if it hasn’t been approved as effective by the FDA – provides hope for their future. Under new legislation passed by Congress, these patients may find it a little easier to access drugs that are experimental but promising.


Under this “right to try” legislation, the Food and Drug Administration would no longer have the authority to stop certain patients from having access to experimental treatments. These patients must have a terminal illness with a prognosis to die within months, have no other treatment options, and not have access to other clinical trials.


People who meet that criteria can work with their doctors to devise a treatment plan that includes drugs that have been proven safe by the FDA, but have not been proven effective. Drug companies would have to agree to provide the drugs, and the patients would bear the cost of those drugs.


The FDA had a program in place where terminal patients could request experimental drugs, but the agency retained the ability to approve or deny these requests.


Supporters of this legislation say that someone facing death should be able to try any drug that may be useful. They contend that the federal government should not be a gatekeeper between patients and potentially life-saving treatments. Opponents of the bill say that it short-circuits necessary safeguards. They also claim that very few people will be eligible for the program, and that those who are will face very high costs for drugs.


The Senate approved this legislation by unanimous consent on August 3, 2017, and the House of Representatives approved it by a vote of 250-169 on May 22. 


Do you support terminally ill patients having access to experimental medication? Or should the Food and Drug Administration still be able to oversee the process of providing experimental drugs to patients who are dying?


Senate Ramping Up Court Confirmations


Donald Trump made the appointment of federal judges a key part of his appeal to Republican voters when he ran in 2016. He has not ignored this issue since taking office, and neither has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In recent weeks, much of the Senate’s time has been devoted to confirming these judges – something that pleases the president’s conservative base but worries liberals.


So far this year, the Senate has confirmed the following circuit court nominees:


David Ryan Stras, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Eighth Circuit: 56-42

Elizabeth L. Branch, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Eleventh Circuit: 73-23

Stuart Kyle Duncan, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Fifth Circuit: 50-47

Kurt D. Engelhardt, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Fifth Circuit: 62-34

Michael B. Brennan, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Seventh Circuit: 49-46

Michael Y. Scudder, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Seventh Circuit: 90-0

Amy J. St. Eve, of Illinois, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Seventh Circuit: 91-0

Joel M. Carson III, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Tenth Circuit: 77-21

John B. Nalbandian, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Sixth Circuit: 53-45


These judges, who can serve for life, will sit on circuit courts that are one level below the Supreme Court in terms of jurisdiction. The U.S. is divided into twelve judicial circuits, with a panel of judges serving on each court.


The appointees to these circuit courts has become increasingly contentious over the past two decades. Members of both parties began to use the filibuster to block appointments to these courts, forcing the president’s party to come up with 60 votes to confirm a judge. In 2013, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid ended the filibuster for circuit court nominees. That allowed some of President Obama’s circuit court picks to advance over the objection of Republicans, but also paved the way for relatively easy confirmation of President Trump’s nominees.


While two of President Trump’s nominees received unanimous votes (those of Amy St. Eve and Michael Scudder), the Senate was closely divided on many of the others. This has been the pattern for many of the president’s nominees, whether for judicial posts or for executive branch positions.


Are you happy that the Senate has confirmed so many of President Trump’s judicial nominees? Or do you think that President Trump’s judge picks will reshape the federal judiciary in a way that you disagree with?


Can the Government Mandate Honest Online Ads?


In the wake of allegations over Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Congress is looking at regulating advertising on Facebook, Twitter, and other online platforms. This month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent two days testifying before members of the House of Representatives and the Senate on this and other topics. But some are asking if federal rules for online ads will be an effective way of bringing transparency to the electoral process.


Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, has introduced the “Honest Ads Act,” to expand federal regulation of election ads to cover those placed on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. If passed, that act would express the sense of Congress that “the dramatic increase in digital political advertisements, and the growing centrality of online platforms in the lives of Americans, requires the Congress and the Federal Election Commission to take meaningful action to ensure that laws and regulations provide the accountability and transparency that is fundamental to our democracy.”


For its enforcement provisions, the Honest Ads Act would expand the current federal rules governing electioneering to apply to ads that are being run online. This would require these ads to have some indication of who paid for them. The bill would also mandate that companies with more than 50 million monthly online visitors must maintain a database that has information on anyone who bought more than $500 in political ads, a copy of the ads, the rate charged, and the audience targeted.


Senator Klobuchar’s bill is cosponsored by 22 other Democratic senators and a lone Republican, John McCain of Arizona. There is also a companion bill in the House sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington.


Supporters of this legislation say that it is a way to stop Russians and others from using Facebook and Twitter to influence American voters. They contend that mandatory disclosure on ads will help to prevent these activities from taking place in the future. Opponents of the bill say that anyone wishing to use online ads to meddle in U.S. elections can easily evade these reporting requirements. They also point out that maintaining the database as required in the bill will impose significant costs for online companies.


Both Facebook and Twitter have endorsed the bill, although Twitter said it would work with lawmakers to refine and revise it. The companies have also said that they would voluntarily work to provide more transparent information to the public about political ads.


Do you support expanding federal election regulations to cover online political advertisements? Or will these new rules be easily evaded by those looking to influence U.S. elections?



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