News You May Have Missed: January 12, 2020

News You May Have Missed tries to help you keep multiple issues in your line of vision, especially difficult this week. If you focus on Iran, Puerto Rico, Austrailan fires and impeachment, then long-range issues around climate, the environment, and inhuman policy changes can fall out of view. “Radar” is our metaphor of the week–with its sorrowful echoes of the downed Ukrainian plane filled with Iranians and Iranian-Canadians: all we know to do is to systematically scan the horizon, rotating rather than fixating on one spot.

“Radar” by ASKYZ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Once again, Heather Cox Richardson gives it to us straight: “All current evidence suggests that Trump ordered the killing of General Qassem Soleimani either to please his base or to curry favor with key senators before the Senate impeachment trial.” We recommend her January 10 piece.

See our Resources section for many ways you can engage with events rather than letting them happen (to you). In particular, a number of pressing policy changes allow for public comment–and many have received very few comments, likely due to the problem of distraction we mention above.


1. Cambridge Analytica again

Cambridge Analytica–remember them?–apparently interfered not only in the US 2016 election but in the elections of 68 countries, Democracy Now reports. There has been a leak of tens of thousands of documents from Cambridge, according to the Guardian. Some of these are available on a Twitter feed linked to Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Brittany Kaiser, who has just come out with a memoir. @HindsightFiles, has already posted information pertinent to four countries, including Iran, and has a section of material on Bolton. The Guardian quotes Kaiser as saying that in the documents, “There are emails between these major Trump donors discussing ways of obscuring the source of their donations through a series of different financial vehicles. These documents expose the entire dark money machinery behind US politics.” RLS

2. Pelosi to forward articles of impeachment

Under pressure from members of her own party–including Dianne Feinstein–Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has agreed to forward the articles of impeachment to the Senate, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. She did so even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to provide any guarantees regarding the form of the upcoming Senate trial and has made clear his intention to ensure that the trial is conducted according to the wishes of the President and his advisors. It may be that she is seizing the moment while the U.S. is remarkably not at war to refocus the attention of the country. There is however, at least one good reason for Pelosi to delay acting while McConnell remains intransigent. Trump’s final State of the Union address to Congress will be given on February 4. If McConnell is able to engineer a “fake trial,” Trump will be able to spend a significant part of his address celebrating his “exoneration.” If the Senate trial is delayed, he will doubtless proclaim his own innocence, but will not be able to claim exoneration. RLS, S-HP

If you want to urge Speaker Pelosi to continue to be judicious about releasing articles of impeachment, you can write her at this address.

Puerto Rico denied aid again

Puerto Rico has been hit with a devastating series of earthquakes. The strongest of occurred on January 7 and measured 6.4 on the Richter scale. In the two days following that event, the Island had experienced at least 120 aftershocks, CNN reports. At this writing, the earthquakes continue, as the AP notes. As a result, almost the entire island lost power . Now reports indicate that it may take up to a year to repair the earthquake-damaged Costa Sur power plant, which provides one-quarter of the island’s electricity. And, as we’ve reported previously, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) continues to withhold hurricane relief funds from Puerto Rico (a territory of the United States), ignoring a statutory deadline to issue a Federal Register notice permitting Puerto Rico to use $8.2 billion in disaster relief aid appropriated by Congress, as NBC points out. And as Rep. Darren Soto pointed out in a press release, “Puerto Ricans continue to suffer from major hurricanes that made landfall more than two years ago while HUD illegally withholds this aid.” S-HP

You can ask the Inspector General of HUD and members of Congress to investigate the agency’s failure to process Congressionally approved funds in a timely manner.

3. Justice Department rules against the ERA

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” As basic as this language sounds, only 35 states of the required 38 had ratified the Equal Rights Amendment by the deadline of 1982. Nevada and Illinois ratified it after 2017 and the Virginia legislature was set to do so. However, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Dakota rescinded their ratifications and in December, Alabama, Louisiana and South Dakota sued to block it, according to NPR. And then last week, the Justice Department said that because the deadline had expired, the ratification vote by Virginia would not enable the amendment to be enacted, the Washington Post reported. Advocates argue that because the text of the amendment did not include a deadline, Congress’s deadline should not prevail. On January 7, the League of Women Voters sent a letter to Congressional leadership urging them to rescind the deadline. RLS

If you want to add your voice to that of the League of Women Voters, you can find your Congressmembers’ addresses here.

4. More barriers to asylum-seekers: speak up now

The Executive Office for Immigration Reform has proposed changes to asylum regulations that would create seven new mandatory bars to asylum eligibility and that would end automatic reconsideration of discretionary asylum denials, according the National Immigrant Justice Center. The new bars to eligibility would include illegal reentry (in other words, enter the U.S. a second time and you’re ineligible for asylum); alien smuggling or harboring (which might apply simply to helping other asylum seekers), and offenses related to false identification (which asylum seekers are sometimes forced to use to support themselves as they pursue their claim). The end to “automatic review of reconsideration of discretionary asylum denials” actually means an end to all automatic appeals of denials because asylum rulings are, by definition, discretionary. As of January 10, only 43 comments had been submitted regarding these proposed changes. The comment period for these rule changes closes on January 21.

If you want to add your voice to the 43 others who have raised concerns about these barriers to asylum, you can write to the people listed here.

5. Hundreds of billions in tax breaks for the health care industry, while additional billions would be subtracted from Medicare/Medicaid

Bi-partisan support made possible hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks for the health care industry, including pharmaceutical and insurance companies. At the same time, three taxes which fund the Affordable Care Act–taxes on expensive health-care plans, medical device manufacturers, and health insurance companies–were repealed, according to the Washington Post.

Simultaneously, the government is proposing new limits on the kind of money that can be used to secure Medicare/Medicaid funding beyond the standard federal payments. In regions with high medical costs, Medicare/Medicaid currently will match state funds spent to cover under-funded medical services. The source of funds to be matched is up to individual states. One solution a number of states have used is to place special taxes on healthcare providers. The monies collected are then used to pay for healthcare, which keeps the bottom line even for the state and makes additional matching federal funds available to healthcare providers. State governments generally see this as a practical way to manage health care spending. Billions of dollars are at stake here, according to Skilled Nursing News, the only publication to cover this issue. Our view is that healthcare costs significantly exceed the funding normally provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and so states are looking for mechanisms to put payments closer to actual costs, while the feds are trying to avoid paying any more than basic fees. The result, if the rule change is approved, will be decreased CMS payments to state governments, most of which are already struggling with healthcare costs, with likely cuts to care for patients. RLS/S-HP

If you’d like states to be able to continue to cover the cost of Medicare and Medicaid, rather than losing billions in federal funding, you can comment for the public record here.

6. Mapping the Arctic coast: promise and perils

The Coast Guard has proposed a study of the Alaskan Arctic coast with the goal of identifying possible port access locations. This survey will involve significant areas of largely untouched wildlands, putting them at greater risk of ecological catastrophe. One of the current written responses to this proposal was submitted by a coalition of Audubon Alaska, Friends of the Earth International, Oceana, the Ocean Conservancy, Pacific Environment, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund of the United States. These groups point out that “The PARS [Port Access Route Study] study area has great ecological significance and is vital for food security and subsistence hunting, which has been—and continues to be—carried out by Indigenous Peoples in the region for millennia. It is also a highly dynamic environment that changes dramatically with the seasons and is subject to sea ice and challenging weather and ocean conditions. What’s more, the Arctic region is experiencing rapid change and is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Vessel traffic in the region is increasing, a trend that is expected to continue in the years to come. Yet most areas of the U.S. Chukchi and Beaufort seas remain poorly charted. The remoteness of the region and lack of infrastructure means that the impacts of a serious vessel accident, especially an oil spill, could be devastating to the marine environment and the people whose lives and livelihoods depend on a healthy ocean.

” At the same time, vessels operating in the Arctic region provide vital services to communities and others in the region, including delivery of goods and fuel and support for search and rescue and spill response. For all these reasons, we appreciate the Coast Guard’s decision to carry out a study of current and predicted vessel traffic in the region and consider whether new mitigation measures could be adopted to enhance vessel safety, safeguard subsistence use, reduce user conflicts and protect the health of the marine environment.” The mitigations they ask for include the use of best available information about marine ecosystems; the seasonally and long-term dynamic nature of region, including changes in sea ice, marine wildlife migrations, and subsistence hunting patterns. S-HP

At this link, you can add your voice to the call for mitigations to prevent ecological disaster, mitigations that take into account sea ice, the dynamic nature of the area, and the current subsistence hunting practices.


7. “Too many dead and not enough shovels”: Revelations about the US attack on its own Afghan security forces

While we are thinking about the narrowly averted war with Iran and about mistakes and miscalculations, we should remember Afghanistan, and in particular the US raid on its own paid security forces in 2008. According to a USA Today investigation, published January 10, the U.S. announced in 2008 that in the Azizabad raid, called Operation Commando Riot, an important Taliban commander had been killed. This was completely false. He had escaped, and instead many civilians died, including about sixty children. Because there were not enough shovels, a local politician brought in heavy machinery and tried to bury mothers and children together. A doctor took pictures of the dead on his cell phone. Read the whole story to learn what happened, how it was covered up, and how USA Today discovered what really happened.

This story echoes the investigative series the Washington Post ran in December, based on 2,000 pages of interview transcripts, which reveal that American politicians and generals knew very early on that the now 18-year war was unwinnable–but continued it nonetheless. These stories seem to have fallen off the radar given everything else, but they are essential reading as our government considers war with Iran. RLS


8. Administration removing environmental protections, climate change considerations on big projects

Under new rules to be proposed by the Republican administration, designers of big projects would no longer have to take into account climate change considerations or the fifty-year old National Environmental Policy Act. This move is in addition to 95 other environmental policy rollbacks over the last three years, the New York Times reports, and 70 lawsuits have been filed challenging these changes. (As of last summer, many of these had prevailed, according to The State of the Planet.) These new rules would exempt significant infrastructure projects–such as pipelines–from clean air and water requirements, and would prevent communities from objecting to projects that would impact them, according to the Washington Post. Opportunities for public comment should open shortly. RLS

We’ll let you know when the comment period opens. Meanwhile, you can urge your members of Congress to fight these rollbacks.

9. Oil and gas industry to release more greenhouse gases

The oil and gas industry are on track to release 270 million more tons of greenhouse gases, according to Houston Public Media. According to Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project which gathered the data, “To put that in scale, that’s equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions that you’d get from more than 50 large coal plants.” They gathered their data from permits already issued as well as drilling proposals, all concentrated in the Houston area. RLS

You can demand action from the leadership of Congressional Committees charged with protecting the environment and monitoring the fossil fuel industry and from your own Congressmembers. Addresses are here.

10. Locust swarm threatens food security.

Desert locusts, a grasshopper species which travels in enormous swarms of millions of insects and moves quickly, consuming all vegetation in their path, have moved into Kenya after having inflicted massive crop damage in Somalia and Ethiopia. This has led to what has been described by the Food and Agricultural Organization as the worst crisis in 25 years in the Horn of Africa region, reports. The situation is exacerbated by the instability in Somalia; no organized response to the situation was provided. The insects are not expected to continue breeding within Kenya, a small mercy for an area known for widespread and devastating famines. JC

11. California considers entering the generic drug business.

California may soon become the first state to market its own brand of generic pharmaceuticals in response to a crisis of high prices for lifesaving drugs. The proposal is part of California governor Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal, released on January 10th. Under the plan, the state would contract out the manufacture of the drugs and sell them under its own label at a lower cost than is available in the market. Drug industry experts are divided about whether the plan will succeed or not, though it is not the first enterprise to try to tackle high drug prices; a consortium of hospitals started a company to manufacture vital drugs in chronic short supply and has achieved some success, Ars Technica reports. JC

12. Computer intelligence is breaking free of 2D

Artificial intelligence software can play chess, drive cars and even create (bad) original prose but until recently the architecture of the neural network it is based upon limited it to two dimensional extrapolations of three dimensional shapes. This is now changing with the advent of a new model called “gauge-equivariant convolutional neural networks,” which can allow artificial intelligences to find patterns in complex real world shapes, like spheres and asymmetrically curved surfaces. This is important because translating actual geometry to a 2d representation can result in distortions–similar to why maps often show Greenland far larger than it actually is. Wired notes that more accurate and detailed ability to describe real world objects should result in huge improvements in AI driven applications in climate and weather modeling, autonomous vehicle piloting and detecting patterns in the complicated surfaces of the human brain and heart. JC

13. Relaxed regulations on dumping coal ash proposed

Government agencies have a special gift for making potentially catastrophic proposals sound as boring (and, hence, harmless) as the text of a metropolitan phone book. Example: “Hazardous and Solid Waste Management System: Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities; A Holistic Approach to Closure Part A: Deadline to Initiate Closure.” In plain English, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to weaken the rules for disposing of the coal ash produced by coal-burning power plants. The focus here is “impoundments,” the fancy term for “pits we dump coal ash into.” The Obama administration had created new requirements intended to prevent coal-ash leaks or leaching into surrounding soil and water by ending the use of unlined impoundments and limiting the use of clay-lined impoundments. If the proposed rule change goes through, unlined impoundments can continue receiving coal ash unless they leak, which assures that even if leaking impoundments are closed, they will be allowed to leak for a certain period of time before closure is deemed justifiable. The rule change would also reclassify vulnerable and potentially permeable clay-lined impoundments as “lined,” allowing them to operate indefinitely. As of January 10, only six public comments had been received on this proposal. Comments are due by January 31. S-HP

With only six comments having been posted, your response to the deregulation of toxic coal ash could have a real impact. Here’s how to comment for the public record.


  • Got five minutes? The Americans of Conscience checklist gives you quick, focused actions you can take–objecting to the “Remain in Mexico” policy, supporting the census, pausing judicial confirmations during the impeachment process.
  • Emma Marris, writing in the New York Times, provides a clear, direct plan for how to live while engaging the climate crisis.
  • If you have a postcarding group, consider Sarah-Hope’s list–it has all the options to speak up that you see here–and more.
  • Don’t forget Rogan’s list, which explains how to call on Congress to restrain Trump from war-mongering, has election information, suggests launch parties for a Green New Deal–and much more.
  • In her list, Martha reminds us that the deadline to speak up about tariffs, drinking water (de)regulations and the “Remain in Mexico” policy is January 13, while the deadline to comment on new nursing home (de)regulations is January 17.
  • See why Crysostom hopes Pompeo tries out for Hamlet after all of this, and more in his most recent election round-up–he covers news and gossip around House, Senate and state races.