News You May Have Missed February 16, 2020

Heather Cox Richardson’s column for February 16 recounts the history of the Democrat and Republican parties: It is intriguing to see the echoes into the present. Previous columns look at Trump’s efforts, directly and via Barr, to undermine the DOJ; threaten New York (see Martha’s list); and make an argument (February 9) for the power of stories to make change. The Constitution is a rather remarkable story about change; cryptic as it is, it–along with the Bill of Rights, and the evolving commentaries in the form of judicial decisions–is what we have.

“We the People” by StevenANichols is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


1. Trump’s cruel budget

On February 10, Trump released a 4.8 trillion dollar budget with a laundry list of cuts to social services, according to the Wall Street Journal. The budget would provide two billion for the wall and would cut Social Security disability by 71 billion. It would eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, Artforum reports, given them only enough money to shut down, Artnet noted. His budget would eliminate the student loan forgiveness program for public sector workers, CNN reports; the program is already deeply flawed, with very few people actually receiving loan forgiveness, according to an ongoing suit by the American Federation of Teachers. The budget would also eliminate subsidized loans for low-income students. The Washington Post offers a useful chart of how the budget process works. RLS

If you want to weigh in on how Trump’s budget affects the issues that concern you, you can find your elected representatives’ addresses here. If you are especially interested in how the budget would cut funds related to environmental issues and climate change, see the post from EcoWatch.

2. Good news on work requirements for Medicaid, food stamps

One of the moves that the Trump administration has repeatedly made is adding work requirements to safety net programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps. We can report two positive developments in efforts to ensure such benefits are available to those who need them. First, on Valentine’s Day, appropriately enough, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration had violated federal law by allowing states to impose work requirements on Medicaid programs, according to Axios. The ruling went on to state that the administration had not satisfactorily justified the change which was not in line with Medicaid’s statutory goals. Second, H.R.5349, the Protect SNAP Act, would prohibit rules changes adding work requirements to SNAP benefits (Supplemental Food Assistance Program, or food stamps). This legislation is currently with the House Agriculture Committee. S-HP

If you want to urge the chair of the House Agriculture Committee to take quick, positive action on H. R. 5349 and to tell your elected representatives that you do not want to see work requirements added to safety-net programs, the addresses are here.

3. Who (else) has your cellphone data?

It’s not just corporations buying up data on cell phone users’ apps, purchases, teams and the like—apps and sites to which consumers may unthinkingly grant location tracking. The Department of Homeland Security is also buying cell phone data, according to the Wall Street Journal. Since 2017, DHS has been buying information from Venntel, a “pioneer in mobile location information.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has reportedly spent $190,000 on Venntel data. Customs and Border Protection has spent over $1 million. Originally, this data was used in anti-human trafficking operations, but it is now being used to track immigrants in order to arrest them.

As Vice points out, a Supreme Court ruling requires a warrant to collect wireless data from wireless providers, but the ruling does not cover the large data-mining and data-selling businesses that have sprung up in tandem with increased cellphone use. What was once creepy commercial surveillance is now becoming a government means for avoiding the kinds of documentation and processes involved in obtaining an electronic collection warrant. While government representatives claim tracking information is only being used in the case of “illegal” immigrants, the data being purchased by DHS agencies includes vast numbers of cellphone users in the U.S., regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. This kind of data collection is possible because of Congress’s failure to enact meaningful online privacy legislation. As the New York Times observes, “The use of location data to aid in deportations also demonstrates how out of date the notion of informed consent has become.” Representative Carolyn Maloney, Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has announced that the committee will be holding hearings on this issue. S-HP

You can urge Venntel to stop potentially illegal searches and seizures by ending sales to government organizations, thank Maloney for the promised hearings and ask your Congressmembers to educate themselves on electronic privacy, which is an issue that merits bipartisan support. Addresses are here.

4. How voter rights are—and aren’t—being protected

Remember when Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, was elected governor of Georgia after purging 700,000 voters from the state’s rolls between 2016 and 2018? As Governor, Kemp has fought to prevent the release of specifics about those purges—whom they affected and how they were directed. Now, thanks to a suit brought by journalist Greg Palast, federal judge Eleanor Ross ruled “sua sponte” that the state of Georgia must release this information without a trial, a move not requested by Palast’s attorneys, because Kemp’s defense was so weak that no trial was warranted, according a Georgia newspaper, Valdosta Today.


In early February, Senate Democrats attempted to pass three pieces of election security legislation by consent, the Hill reports. Two would have required campaigns to alert the FBI and the Federal Elections Commission about offers of foreign assistance. The third would have provided additional election funding and prohibited voting machines from being connected to the internet. Consent passage is used for noncontroversial legislation of bipartisan interest—like, say, election security. A single Senator can block consent, making the affected legislation’s path to the Senate floor much more complicated and uncertain. One Senate Republican, Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), objected, sidelining these basic efforts to protect our electoral system. S-HP

You can point out the desperate need for improved election security and voting rights protection to your Congressmembers and let Blackburn know how you feel about her decision to block consent. Addresses are here.

5. Honor among thieves?

Historian Heather Cox Richardson puts it succinctly: “Trump, and evidently Barr, see the Department of Justice as a tool for Trump to reward friends and take revenge on enemies.” As the New York Times explains, Trump has been looking for an attorney general who was an advocate for him in all things, as Roy Cohn was for him in the 70s–and in many ways, Barr has obliged (Roy Cohn was Joe McCarthy’s right-hand man in the 1950s). He intervened in the Justice Department’s sentencing  of Roger Stone for lying to Congress, leading to the resignation of four Justice Department prosecutors. He has assigned a special prosecutor to reconsider Michael Flynn’s case–another Trump ally who lied to Congress in the Mueller investigation, the Times reports, and hired prosecutors to handle other cases of interest to Trump, interrogating prosecutors about the decisions. Barr has also declared that only he, not the FBI, can open investigations into presidential and vice-presidential candidates, according to CNN. He has in addition, according to Cox Richardson, arranged to accept “information about the Bidens in Ukraine from Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.” He is, in short, undermining prosecutorial independence and the authority of federal agencies.

At the same time, he said that Trump’s tweets made it impossible for him to do his work, the Times revealed in another story. And without notifying Trump, Barr declined to prosecute Andrew McCabe, former director of the FBI, who investigated Russia’s interference into the 2016 election. It is not clear whether Barr’s actions are intended to create an appearance of independence or whether he is actually trying to distance himself, however marginally, from Trump. Wherever the truth is, Barr’s hoarding of power is alarming. (Slate has an excellent round-up of his outrageous decisions and the Washington Post has an explanation of the re-investigating that Barr is doing and the effects of it.) RLS

1,100 former Justice Department employees have sent a letter recommending Barr’s removal. You can write to him suggesting that he resign and ask the Judiciary Committees of both houses of Congress to investigate Barr’s multiple ethics violations and his failure to fulfill his responsibilities as outlined in the Constitution.

6. Hookers for Jesus

The business of federal grants generally operates as follows. A call for proposals is released. Groups apply. The applications are read blindly by a group of experts who score each proposal on a number of criteria, giving each a final score. Then, the score range is looked at (again blindly) and the scores are sorted into tiers: Tier 1, Tier 2, etc. Grants in the Tier 1 category are prioritized for funding, although there is no guarantee there will be sufficient funding for all Tier 1 proposals. Tier 2 and lower proposals are very rarely funded.

However, as alleged in a whistleblower complaint filed by the Justice Department’s employee union, things did not play out this way in a recent series of Department of Justice grants to aid victims of human trafficking. Two long-established nonprofits, the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Palm Beach and Chicanos Por La Causa of Phoenix, were originally given Tier 1 status and slated to receive grants. Both organizations were later removed from the list and additional grants were awarded to a pair of Tier 2 proposals: Hookers for Jesus and the Lincoln Tubman Foundation. Hookers for Jesus provides a safehouse for trafficking survivors. In manuals published by Hookers in 2010 and 2018, the organization required participation in Christian services and had rules that included a ban on reading “secular magazines with articles, pictures, etc. that portray worldly views/advice on living, sex, clothing, makeup tips”; they said that homosexuality is immoral and abusing drugs for pleasure is “witchcraft.” The Lincoln Tubman Foundation was launched by the daughter of a prominent Republican who supported President Donald Trump as a delegate at the 2016 convention and is close to South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott. Reuters noted that the grant reviewers described the Foundation as still in its “infancy” with “little to no experience.” The Washington Post explains how the substitution of grant recipients is part of a pattern. S-HP

You can ask the Inspector General for the Department of Justice to fully and carefully investigate the activities highlighted in the whistleblower complaint and ask the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on the process by which these changes were made. Addresses are here.

7. Native American burial sites blown up for Trump’s wall

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona’s Sonora Desert has been home to endangered species and Native American burial sites. Now, however, blasting has begun to make way for the border wall, according to CBS and confirmed by Snopes. Saguaro cactus are being destroyed, a rare aquifer is being drained, and human remains have been disturbed, the Intercept reports, noting that the Real ID Act permits the waiving of environmental regulations by the Department of Homeland Security. (Snopes notes that a cemetery in Texas where US veterans are buried which was originally in the pathway of the wall seems to be being protected from border wall construction.) There has been no consultation with the Tohono O’odham nation whose ancestral lands those are, according Congressman Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and who represents the area. “This administration is basically trampling on the tribe’s history — and to put it poignantly, its ancestry,” Grijalva told CBS. RLS

You can thank Representative Raúl Grijalva for speaking up and let your members of Congress know how you feel about the wall. Addresses are here.

8. Department of Justice sends tactical units to cities, sues states over sanctuary laws

The Republican administration has declared war on sanctuary cities where police have been directed to decline to work with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). CBP has begun to send elite tactical units to apprehend immigrants in sanctuary cities, according to the New York Times, among them Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, Boston, New Orleans, Detroit and Newark. The Times also reports that the Department of Homeland Security will prohibit residents of New York from buying or renewing  Global Entry passes or participating in other programs which make it easier for those who frequently travel among Canada, Mexico and the U.S. to do so. And the Republican administration has again sued California, New Jersey and Washington State, arguing that their sanctuary laws are unconstitutional, according to the Times. RLS

If you want to urge mayors of these sanctuary cities to stand firm in upholding the values of their cities’ residents in the face of administration harassment, their addresses are here.

9. White nationalists in the armed forces

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Lecia Brooks recently testified before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Personnel to warn of the presence of white supremacist individuals in the armed forces and to make recommendations on how to stop this problem. Brooks testified that “the white supremacist movement in the United States is surging and presents a distinct and present danger to this country and its institutions, including the U.S. Armed Forces. Recent investigations have revealed dozens of veterans and active-duty servicemembers who are affiliated with white supremacist activity.” She cited a 2019 poll by The Military Times, finding that 36% of active-duty servicemembers who were surveyed reported seeing signs of white nationalism or racist ideology in the U.S. Armed Forces—a significant rise from the year before, when 22% reported witnessing these extremist views. In the same survey, more than half of servicemembers of color reported experiencing incidents of racism or racist ideology, up from 42% in 2017.

Brooks argued that the issue has not been treated with appropriate seriousness, noting that the most recent National Defense Authorization Act was altered in the U.S. Senate to remove mention of “white nationalists” in the screening process for military enlistees, leaving “extremist and gang-related activity” as the focus of screening processes. Supremacist groups like Atomwaffen, the Base, and Identity Evropa view the U.S. military as a valuable source of weapons training and a productive ground for recruiting new members. Brooks called for implementation of a true zero-tolerance for white supremacist activity and ideology in the U.S. military. She concluded her prepared remarks by urging “this Subcommittee and this Congress to exercise its oversight responsibilities and to use its powers to ensure that every branch of the military take the strongest action possible to prevent the infiltration of white supremacists and to weed out those who are already active. They represent a serious and ongoing threat not only to military order and the values that servicemembers are sworn to uphold but to the safety of every American.” S-HP

You can write to the chair of the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel and the chair of the House Armed Services Committee to raise the issue of white supremacists in the military.

10. Rule proposed to permit all breeds of service dogs on planes

One of the challenges faced by people with disabilities when travelling is that many commercial airlines have blanket policies prohibiting certain breeds of dogs from traveling in the passenger area of planes. However well intended, this policy results in either separating disabled individuals from their service dogs or in severely reducing travel options for disabled individuals—despite the fact that service animals go through extensive training and certification. The Department of Transportation has proposed a federal rule change that would exempt certified service dogs from these blanket prohibitions. S-HP

If you want to comment for the public record on this rule change, the instructions are here.


11. Ruthless bombing of Idlib province in Syria

800,000 Syrians have fled Idlib province and another 500,000 are trying to escape, as the Syrian army continues its relentless bombing campaign. The last sanctuary for rebel forces opposed to President Bashar Al-Assad, Idlib had been where Syrians fled from other parts of the country. The E.U. has called for an end to the bombing and a “humanitarian corridor,” according to Al Jazeera, essential as the border with Turkey is closed. The circumstances for refugees are dire, as it is almost impossible to get aid to them and the weather is freezing, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. See the New York Times for an intensely vivid photo essay on those fleeing.

The International Rescue Committee says that hospitals and ambulances have been deliberately targeted, and that they have had to move 30 staff people from the line of fire; the Inquirer reported that “In 2019 alone, there were 85 attacks on health-care facilities in Northern Syria,” according to the head of CARE USA. A doctor who works in Idlib described conditions there in a piece for Al Jazeera. RLS

If you want to donate to help refugees from Idlib, two links are here. In addition, it might be worth explaining to your Congressmembers that the only kind of involvement the U.S. should have in Syria is humanitarian.

12. Alarming turn of events in El Salvador

El Salvador is facing a constitutional crisis as President Nayib Bukele attempts to force passage of an international loan to fund “his Territorial Control national security plan, which intends to ‘modernize’ the police and armed forces with advanced weapons, tactical gear, aircraft, drones, surveillance equipment including facial recognition, and other materials,” as explained by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. Taking a move from the Trump playbook, on Friday, February 7, Bukele issued an order via tweet to the Salvadoran legislature calling for a special Sunday night legislative session that would have to sole purpose of approving this loan. Bukele also tweeted a call for popular insurrection if the legislature did not comply. The military issued tweets confirming its oath of loyalty to President Bukele [as opposed to the nation of El Salvador].

On February 8, legislature security personnel were removed and National Civilian Police and Armed Forces members surrounded, then entered the Assembly, the nation’s legislative building. Far-right and far-left political parties found themselves agreeing on the illegality of this move by Bukele. On Sunday, February 9, only 28 legislators, less than a quorum, appeared for the meeting. That same day the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, issued an international call (also via tweet) for dialogue and respect for democratic institutions in El Salvador. On Monday, February 10, El Salvador’s Supreme Court issued a blanket suspension of any acts resulting from the underattended Sunday legislative meeting. In an op ed in the New York Times, Human Rights Watch Director José Miguel Vivanco called U.S. and E.U. responses to Bukele’s actions inadequate “mild rebukes,” noting that “It’s going to take more than that to cow a man who shows absolute disregard for the balance of democratic powers.” World Politics Review called Bukele’s actions “the most serious constitutional crisis in El Salvador in nearly three decades.” The situation in El Salvador mirrors the way that the military’s role in Latin American countries is intensifying, as the Washington Post explains. S-HP

You might want to ask your Congressmembers to monitor the situation in El Salvador and urge that, in its position as a member of the Organization of American States, the United States respect and support Salvadoran democracy. Addresses are here.


Two million tons of radioactive waste dumped in Oregon

Oregon law prohibits improper disposal of radioactive waste. Nonetheless, between 2016 and 2019, Chemical Waste Management, a landfill in Arlington, Oregon near the Columbia River Gorge, accepted and buried over two million tons of radioactive fracking waste, which registered radium levels up to three hundred times higher than allowed under state law. Oregon law limits landfill waste to no more than five picocuries of radium per gram; the average reading of the material accepted in Arlington was 140 picocuries per gram. Kevin Niles, Assistant Director for Nuclear Safety with the Oregon Department of Energy said that, while the facility was cited, it would not be fined because the landfill operators misunderstood the state guidelines and were not aware they were committing violations. According to ABC News, Niles said that fines could only be levied for violations repeated after an official warning, for willful acts, or for acts that result in “serious adverse impacts” to humans or the environment, which begs the question of exactly how many tons of radioactive fracking waste would be required to meet the “serious adverse impacts” threshold. The organization Columbia Riverkeeper has launched a petition calling for an investigation of Chemical Waste Management’s handling of the material, an immediate fix to loopholes that allowed this dumping to occur, an end to new oil and fracked gas projects in the state, and accountability for the organizations responsible for the radioactive dumping. S-HP

You can join the Columbia Riverkeepers in demanding both stronger state laws regarding radioactive fossil fuel waste and consequences for those responsible for such waste–addresses for the Oregon governor and attorney general are here.

11. Climate change and homeland security

The House has passed H.R.4737, the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] Climate Change Research Act. This legislation would require the DHS to evaluate federal research in order to anticipate potential impacts of climate change on homeland security, to identify gaps in that research, and to launch research projects to fill those gaps. This legislation has moved to the Senate where it is currently with the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. S-HP

You can urge leadership of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and your own Senators to take swift, positive action on H.R.4737 because real security requires acknowledging the threats posed by the climate crisis.


  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist has easy, straightforward things you can do. Now you can click them off when you’ve done them, so they have a idea of their impact.
  • If you want to work from Sarah-Hope’s complete list, it is here.
  • Martha’s list offers opportunities to comment on major revisions to Medicare and Medicaid (scroll down–there are several), the travel ban for New Yorkers, rules changes to permit drilling and mining in Bear Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante, migratory birds, seismic blasts at polar bear dens, and a request for climate scientists on some recommendations–pass the word.
  • Rogan’s list has ways to respond to the outrages at the Department of Justice, send support to the four prosecutors who resigned, speak up for disability rights, comment on Trump’s budget, object to the shredding of files at the archives, and more.
  • Many of you have circulated this great list of 64 things white people can do for racial justice.