It’s 2019, and that means it’s time for endless think-pieces about the 2020 presidential election, because our news media likes a horse race better than anything. So, let’s talk just for a moment about how we talk about 2020: remember that:
- when you see a politician criticized as unlikable, shrill, or bossy …often it just means she’s female;
- while mainstream news is good at a lot of things, it’s run by people largely unaffected by Trump’s policies, and reflects their bias;
- and, at this point, reporting about the 2020 elections is mostly-fact-free speculation and can be safely ignored.
The primaries will matter when they happen, but for now, let’s keep our focus on preventing our world from becoming an uninhabitable hellscape, and on preventing our government from killing people with lack of affordable health care, police brutality, and malign neglect. Opportunities for action are listed under our news round-up.
1. Some good news!
a. Medicare expansion in Maine.
Maine’s new Democratic governor, Janet Mills, started her tenure by signing an order to expand Medicaid in the state, retroactive to last July. Expansion was approved in 2017 by referendum, but the former Republican governor, Paul LePage, refused to implement it. An estimated extra 70,000 Mainers will be covered. [Bangor Daily News]
b. Minimum wage increases.
Adjusting for inflation, $7.25 in 2009 dollars is $8.65 now. The U.S. minimum wage was $1.25/hr in 1966, $2/hr in 1974, and $3.10/hr in 1980; if minimum wage had kept up with inflation at any of those starting points, it would currently be, respectively, $9.91, $10.82, or $10.04/hr.
c. No raises during shutdown.
Top Trump administration officials won’t be getting their raises in the middle of the shutdown after all. The raises—including Vice President Pence ($230,700 to $243,500), cabinet secretaries ($199,700 to $210,700), and deputy secretaries ($179,700 to $189,600)—were a consequence of the shutdown, as the budget deal that had frozen wages lapsed.
d. Congressfolk donating their salaries during shutdown.
White House staff and Congressional members continue to receive pay during the shutdown. Many members of Congress are donating their salaries during the shutdown to various causes to help those affected. (Roll Call has a list; so does The Hill).
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) calls these donations “gimmicky” and will keep his salary. Of course, members of Congress aren’t living hand-to-mouth, so these donations are symbolic, but they may make a huge difference to people helped by the charities receiving donations.
On Thursday, Rep. John Curtis (R-UT) introduced the “No Work, No Pay Act of 2019” to freeze pay to Congress during government shutdowns.
e. Cambodian immigrants to get 14-day pre-detention notice
US-to-Cambodia deportations increased by 279% in 2018. On Thursday, Judge Cormac J. Carney issued a temporary injunction barring ICE from unannounced raids on Cambodian immigrants. [Buzzfeed; court docs]
Also see item #12 below for another bit of good news!
2. Ultra-conservative judicial nominees stalled.
Foreign service nominees and 270 other nominees, including 70 judicial nominees, were sent back to the President to renominate at the opening of the 116th Congress on Thursday. Nominees will be re-considered by the new Senate under Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the new Judiciary Committee Chair. Even though leaving federal positions open is generally bad for government, some nominees are a nightmare. To keep our news round-up from bloating completely out of control, we’ve put our list of nominees to watch out for in a separate post.
3. More on the decline and fall of the American empire.
At the end of 2018, the U.S. (and Israel) officially left UNESCO, the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency which protects World Heritage sites, defends media freedom, improves education for girls, promotes scientific collaboration, and fights anti-Semitism. No comment from the U.S. State Department due to the government shutdown. According to the AP:
The withdrawals will not greatly impact UNESCO financially, since it has been dealing with a funding slash ever since 2011, when both Israel and the U.S. stopped paying dues after Palestine was voted in as a member state. Since then officials estimate that the U.S. — which accounted for around 22 percent of the total budget — has accrued $600 million in unpaid dues, which was one of the reasons for President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw. Israel owes an estimated $10 million.
4. Trump is hurting…
a. …federal workers,
Not only are federal government workers not getting paid during the shutdown (whether or not they are working), but they’re also not getting a raise in 2019. Trump signed an Executive Order to that effect on the Friday between Christmas and New Year’s, when people are at their most distracted. The cost of living adjustment was set at 2.8%, and the salary increase they’re no longer getting was set at 2.1%. Troops will still receive a 2.6% raise (which almost, but not quite, covers the rise in the cost of living).
Provisions negotiated by Obama’s administration for the benefit of American agriculture under the Trans-Pacific Partnership are benefiting countries like Australia and Canada, with American farmers shut out by Trump’s decision to pull out of the TPP. It went into effect without the US last week.
c. …and Indian Country.
The government shutdown is especially hard on Native American Nations who are owed services from the federal government via treaty agreements, but whose services are perversely not considered “essential” under the shutdown definitions that keep essential services open, such as an Agriculture Department program that helped feed 90,000 Native Americans last year. The New York Times notes:
The Interior Department’s Indian Affairs bureau provides basic services to about 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, often by funneling funds to the tribes to administer the services themselves or by employing federal workers to run the programs. This means that services from law enforcement to tribal courts, disaster relief and road maintenance are often completed by tribal employees whose salaries rely on federal funding — or by federal workers, some of whom are tribal citizens.
5. Introducing a profit motive unsurprisingly makes government services more expensive.
An analysis by ProPublica and PolitiFact of Veteran’s Administration claims data shows that increasing privatization of the VA through the Veterans Choice program has led to ballooning overhead costs (because of course it does, where else would the profit come from?) and longer wait times. The purpose of the Choice program was to address waits over 30 days, but the program takes longer than 30 days 41% of the time.
At 21-24% (depending on how it’s measured), overhead is so high that it wouldn’t be allowed in a private program. In contrast, the private sector aims for 10-12%, and the Department of Defense’s Tricare health benefits program has 8% overhead. In many cases, overhead exceeded doctors’ bills. Per the Pacific Standard:
“That’s just unacceptable,” Rick Weidman, the policy director of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in response to the figures. “There are people constantly banging on the VA, but this was the private sector that made a total muck of it.”
Trump’s promises to veterans were a central message of his campaign. But his plans to shift their health care to the private sector put him on a collision course with veterans groups, whose members generally support the VA’s medical system and don’t want to see it privatized. The controversy around privatization, and the outsize influence of three Trump associates at Mar-a-Lago, has sown turmoil at the VA, endangering critical services from paying student stipends to preventing suicides and upgrading electronic medical records.
One of the contractors, TriWest Healthcare Alliance, and another, Health Net (which no longer services Veterans Choice), are under federal investigation for overcharges. TriWest is under investigation in Arizona for misused government funds and wire fraud. In the mid-’90s, TriWest’s president and CEO David J. McIntyre Jr. was a senior aide to Sen. John McCain. In 2013, TriWest lost its TriCare contract. In 2014, McCain sponsored the bill that created the Choice program with Bernie Sanders. Despite numerous problems with TriWest detailed in a thoroughly-sourced story by Pacific Standard, their CEO, McIntyre, successfully lobbied to have a bill pass this past May to permanently replace the Choice program with a new program for which they are currently the sole contractor.
6. Yikes. If the Census Bureau is allowed to ask about citizenship, they’ll share that data with redistrictors.
The Census Bureau, currently engaged in litigation regarding the addition of a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census, is willing to provide citizenship data to states for redistricting, according to a federal registry notice published on 28 December, in which they say:
The Census Bureau intends to work with stakeholders, specifically “the officers or public bodies having initial responsibility for the legislative apportionment of each state,” to solicit feedback on the content of the prototype redistricting data file. If those stakeholders indicate a need for tabulations of citizenship data on the 2020 Census Public Law 94-171 Redistricting Data File, the Census Bureau will make a design change to include citizenship as part of that data.
New Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham was unanimously confirmed on January 2nd by the Senate, after a year and a half of leadership under acting director Ron Jarmin (who will become deputy director). Dillingham avoided taking a public position on the census citizenship question during his confirmation hearing. The question is controversial in part because it discourages participation, according to the Census Bureau’s own research.
The new Democratic chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will investigate the Trump administration’s decision to include the question.
7. Flint water emergency criminal cases
Michigan’s new Attorney General Dana Nessel requested this week that Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy take over the Flint Water Emergency criminal cases from Special Prosecutor Todd Flood. The Flint water crisis has been ongoing since 2014 when water was sourced from the Flint River which turned out to be 19 times more corrosive to the city’s lead pipes than Detroit water. Residents stopped receiving free bottled water in April 2018, with officials claiming water is safe and critics pointing out that many lead pipes are still in place.
8. The US fired tear gas across the Mexican border again.
For the second time (since November), just after midnight on New Year’s Day, the US fired tear gas into Mexico at migrants attempting to cross the border in Tijuana.
Accounts vary as what actually happened. According to the AP:
An Associated Press photographer saw at least three volleys of gas launched onto the Mexican side of the border near Tijuana’s beach that affected the migrants, including women and children, as well as journalists. The AP saw rocks thrown only after U.S. agents fired the tear gas.
Customs and Border Protection say migrants were passing “toddler sized children” across concertina wire (large coiled razor wire fencing) at the border, and that they couldn’t help the children because of the rock-throwing that the AP photographer says hadn’t started yet. CBP say they responded to rock-throwing with smoke, pepper spray and tear gas, whereas the AP journalist says they initiated the violence, and also fired plastic pellets.
Mexico wants an investigation.
9. Update on Ebola in Congo
Last week we reported on the ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Deaths have doubled (to over 600) amidst election-related violence, which also prompted the government to shut down the internet after “fictitious results” circulated online. Election result announcements have been postponed. The epicenter of the outbreak, North Kivu and Ituri provinces, borders Rwanda, South Sudan, and Uganda.
10. UN envoy expelled from Somalia
Nicholas Haysom, the UN secretary general’s special envoy to Somalia, was asked to leave the country after he asked the government to “exercise its authority in conformance with the law and provide explanation about the atrocities committed in Baidoa last month and the detention of Mukhtar Robow.”
SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE ENVIRONMENT
11. Cairo water supply in jeopardy
Egypt is one of the most “water-stressed” countries in the world, and the nearly-complete Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), upstream of Egypt, will exacerbate water shortages. They may run out of water by 2025 (pdf).
12. We might be able to save the coral reefs.
Dr. David Vaughan of the Florida Mote Marine Laboratory (which specializes in coral reef restoration) has discovered how to make coral grow forty times faster than it does in the wild. Watch a BBC video about the discovery here.
Coral reefs, like rainforests, are depositories of biodiversity; they support more species than any other comparably-sized marine environment [NOAA page – cached due to the shutdown] and a quarter of all fish depend on them for some part of their life cycle. They help protect coastlines from storms and waves and are essential to many marine food chains and marine organisms. They’re also a source of new medicines. They’re being killed by overfishing, global warming, and oceans becoming increasingly acidic and polluted, and will likely turn into “slimy mats of algae and bacteria” if they’re not saved. Half a billion people rely on them for food, jobs and recreation.
Up to 85% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean, which depend on coral reefs.
RESOURCES AND ACTIONS
- Postcards to Voters is still encouraging Florida voters to register for Vote by Mail. Text JOIN to 484-275-2229 if you’re not already signed up.
- Jennifer Hofmann’s Americans of Conscience Checklist recommends writing your state’s election officials about election security, calling your members of Congress to demand accountability from U.S. immigration agencies, and thanking Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario for donating their $10M corporate tax break, No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes for risking their personal freedom to save lives, and Samantha Bee for focusing attention on cruel border policies, and other actions at this week’s list.
- Sarah-Hope’s whatifknits list recommends a host of actions related to immigration and border policies and abuse, affordable housing (with a shout-out to this Nation article), calling your member of Congress to express support for a Green New Deal, congratulating incoming FEC Chair Democrat Ellen Weintraub on her new job and thanking her for plans to address the “threat of foreign money influencing U.S. elections” and more.
- Rogan’s List recommends calling our members of Congress about the lapsed Violence Against Women Act, to keep limits on the level of mercury emissions in place, to investigate GEO Group and CoreCivic‘s slave wages, and more.
- 5Calls has a script to ask your Member of Congress to only vote to confirm William Barr as the new U.S. Attorney General if he recuse himself on the Russia investigation.
- Martha’s list (google drive) offers ways to comment for the federal register despite the federal shutdown: you can address the continuing state of emergency (theirs, not ours), some significant environmental issues, the danger to marine mammals, the damage to Title IX, treatment of farm animals, and much more.