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WEEKLY WONK

Originally Published: 4/1/2017

Internet Privacy:  Last week the Senate voted along party lines 50 to 48 to repeal the rules that protect consumers’ online data. The joint resolution was proposed by Senator Jeff Flake (R, AZ). (Washington Post) It passed the House on Tuesday, also along party lines, 215 to 205. (Vox) Please note that no Democrats in the House or Senate voted for this bill. 15 Republicans broke rank and voted against this thing. Check out Consumerist to see who they were. You should take a look at the list from The Verge of the 265 congress critters who voted for this bill and how much money they got from the telecom industry. Many of them sold your privacy real cheap. Trump signed the legislation on Wednesday. (Guardian) The measure kills privacy rules that prevent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from selling users’ web browsing histories and app usage histories to advertisers. Under the Obama administration the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had banned the practice unless ISPs get people’s consent before selling their data. (Guardian) “Broadband companies such as Verizon and Comcast are racing to develop ways to mine and analyze customer information.” (Washington Post) The Electronic Frontier Foundation published the 5 “creepy” things your ISP could do: Selling your data to marketers; Hijacking your searches; Snooping through your traffic and inserting ads; Pre-installing software on your phone and recording every URL you visit; and Injecting undetectable, undeletable tracking cookies in all of your HTTP traffic. Watch Stephen Colbert’s rant on this. (You Tube) Max Temkin, the co-creator of the “popular and crass” card game Cards Against Humanity, has pledged to buy the browser histories of “every congressman and congressional aide” and share it online. (Roll Call) Now, that’s a great idea!

 

Russian Connection:  According to letters reviewed by the Washington Post, Trump attempted to block Sally Yates, the acting attorney general (TWW, Michael Flynn, 2/18/17; New Rules, 2/4/17), from testifying before the House committee investigating the Russian connection. And it’s now come out that Sergei Millian, “a Belarusan American businessman, was the source behind the allegations in the Trump dossier (TWW, Trump Dossier, 3/4/17) “that Trump had hired prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton and that the Kremlin has kept evidence of the encounter.” (Washington Post) If you’re interested and have the time, check out this Washington Post analysis of Trump and his team’s ties to Russian interests. Pretty scary. (Washington Post)

 

Russian Investigation:  The House investigation into the Russian connection has been put on hold. Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes (R, CA) (TWW, Russian Investigation, 3/25/17) has postponed any further work until FBI Director James Comey “comes forward.” He’s already testified so I have no idea what Nunes is doing, unless it’s just stalling. (Washington Post) Given that Nunes has become an issue (TWW, Russian Investigation, 3/25/17), that may have something to do with it. Nunes claims he has evidence that Trump and his staff were caught up in surveillance by “American spy agencies,” which is what everyone thought had happened anyway. So I don’t know why this should be a surprise to anyone. Nunes claims to have documents he received from the White House that prove this, documents he then discussed with Trump even though he and his committee were supposed to be investigating the mess. Barton Gellman at The Century Foundation wrote that the implications for Nunes and his “informants” are very serious. “This is far more than a story of intelligence manipulation for political gain.” It may be that the White House is spying on the FBI. The NY Times has the details on the brouhaha that Nunes caused. Nevertheless, the Senate Intelligence Committee is moving forward with its investigation. Chair Richard Burr (R, NC) said the committee will begin privately interviewing people next week. (Washington Post) Michael Flynn (TWW, Michael Flynn, 3/11/17) offered to cooperate in exchange for immunity. (Washington Post) I bet he’s got a boatload of stuff to say. Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort will be questioned but this will probably be one of those “private” interviews. (Democracy Now!)

 

New Office:  Trump announced the White House Office of American Innovation, to be headed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, which will operate separately from any government agency and report directly to him. He claims the office will be using ideas from the business world and it will be staffed by business executives. The focus of the office will be to fix “government stagnation.” It will have sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill many of Trump’s campaign promises, such as reforming veterans care. Obviously many government functions will be profitized. Kushner said: “The government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.” (Washington Post)

 

Ivanka:  Last week we found out that the first daughter was getting an office and an unofficial position in the White House. (TWW, Ivanka, 3/25/17) Well, she changed her mind. She’s going to become an employee rather than just an informal adviser. She’ll join her husband as an official White House employee. Many ethical questions here. (Guardian) And she’ll have the title of “assistant to the president.” But remember that other family members are also involved, besides her husband. The Washington Post has the skinny on the Trump children and their spouses and the policy issues with which they’re involved.

 

New Commission:  Trump is launching a new commission to combat drug addiction. It will be overseen by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R). (Washington Post)

 

Steve Mnuchin:  Did you know that the Treasury Secretary produced “The LEGO Batman Movie?” Apparently his promotion of his movie prompted Senator Ron Wyden (D, OR) to inquire about Mnuchin’s divesting of his financial assets. Apparently, Mnuchin has not provided evidence that he has divested his interests in Ratpac-Dune Entertainment Holdings. Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) said his office is looking into it. (Roll Call)

 

Facial Recognition:  Last week’s House Oversight Committee hearing revealed some interesting facts about the FBI’s facial recognition system. “Approximately half of adult Americans’ photographs” are stored in the databases, “without their knowledge or consent.” About 80% of photos are non-criminal entries, “including pictures from driver’s licenses and passports. The algorithms used to identify matches are inaccurate about 15% of the time, and are more likely to misidentify black people than white people.” (Guardian)

 

Bahrain:  Trump is going to approve a multi-billion dollar sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain “without the human rights conditions imposed by the Obama administration. . . Under Obama, the U.S. withdrew approval before the deal was finalized because it said Bahrain had not taken steps it had promised to improve human rights.” Congress could block the sale, but it is unlikely to do so. (Guardian)

 

Britain:  It has given formal notice of its exit from the European Union. It will take 2 years to extricate itself. (Guardian)

 

Iraq:  The U.S. military admitted that it launched an airstrike “in the densely packed Iraqi city of Mosul, where residents say more than 100 people were killed in a single event.” (Washington Post) Later it was reported that the death toll was closer to 200 and U.S. Central Command said it is investigating. (Middle East Eye) According to Amnesty International, Iraqi authorities “repeatedly advised civilians to remain at home, instead of fleeing the area.” This indicates that the coalition forces knew that strikes “were likely to result in a significant number of civilian casualties.” (Guardian)

 

Israel:  It’s going ahead with a “unilateral policy of largely unconstrained settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories.” It announced the first new settlement in 2 decades. (Guardian)

 

Japan:  It killed more than 300 whales in its annual Antarctic hunt. (Guardian)

 

Scotland:  The Scottish parliament voted in favor of another referendum on independence. Approval is still needed by the British government. (Washington Post)

 

Somalia:  Trump has “relaxed” some of the rules that prevent civilian casualties when our military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia, “laying the groundwork for an escalating campaign against Islamist militants in the Horn of Africa.” (NY Times)

 

Kentucky:  Governor Matt Bevin (R) signed a “Blue Lives Matter” law into effect. It gives hate crime protections to police and emergency responders. Louisiana has already passed such a bill. (Rewire)

 

North Carolina:  According to an AP analysis, the “bathroom bill” will cost the state more than $3.76 billion in lost business over the next 12 years. That’s why they spent the last week fighting over a change to the law. Everyone is reporting that the law was “scrapped,” but that’s not entirely true. “The compromise bill effectively maintains a key feature” of the law by “leaving regulation of bathroom access solely in control of the state legislature. And it stipulates that local governments can’t pass their own anti-discrimination laws until December 2020.” (Talk Media News)

 

Texas:  Texans have started receiving “Declaration of Taking” letters from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to build the wall along the Mexican border. They’re not offering much money for the land either. (Texas Observer)

 

Death Penalty:  The Supreme Court “threw out the standards Texas used to decide that a convicted murderer was not intellectually disabled and was thus eligible for execution.” It was a 5 to 3 decision with the majority opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She wrote: “Texas cannot satisfactorily explain why it applies current medical standards for diagnosing intellectual disability in other contexts, yet clings to superseded standards when an individual’s life is at stake.” Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. (Washington Post)

 

Travel Ban:  U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson, the judge who temporarily stopped Trump’s latest travel ban (TWW, Travel Ban, 3/18/17), “indefinitely extended” his order blocking enforcement of the revised ban. Watson issued a preliminary injunction in the lawsuit brought by the State of Hawaii. (Reuters)

 

Terror Threat:  Have you heard the mainstream media talking about the “biggest terror threat in the United States?” No? That’s because it’s white Americans. According to a study by the New America Foundation of “terror” attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, most were carried out by “radical anti-government groups or white supremacists.” (PRI)

 

Family Planning:  The Senate passed a bill that undoes Obama’s rule barring states from blocking family planning money from health care providers, “most prominently Planned Parenthood.” Republicans had a rough time getting the votes since Senators Susan Collins (R, ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R, AK) wouldn’t vote for it. So they had to haul in Johnny Isakson (R, GA) who was supposed to be home recuperating from back surgery. They still needed one more, so vice president Mike Pence came in to get it passed. It passed 51 to 50. I guess the Dems didn’t filibuster it. (Roll Call)

 

Sanctuary Cities:  Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities. He announced that “local governments will have to certify they aren’t impeding communication between their police and federal immigration authorities in order to continue receiving Justice Department grants.” (Bloomberg)

 

Births & Deaths:  In more than 1,200 U.S. counties, deaths outnumber births. “It’s not particularly surprising that deaths outpace births in certain regions. The U.S. population is growing older, and younger Americans are having fewer babies. Those trends will inevitably converge in some parts of the country, or among certain demographic groups. White Americans, for instance, have been dying faster than they’re being born for a number of years now. (Washington Post)

 

Democratic Party:  Tom Perez, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, is shaking things up. He’s asked for the resignation of all staff members. (Huffington Post)

 

Defying Congress:  Last January Brian Losey, a Navy SEAL commander, was forced to retire by Congress after a “bipartisan group of senators” found he had violated whistleblower-protection laws. This week the Navy defied Congress and granted Losey a retroactive promotion, back pay, and a bigger pension. (Washington Post)

 

Carbon Dioxide:  Trump issued an executive order that “begins dismantling” an Obama rule “that slashed carbon dioxide emissions and discouraged coal-fired electricity.” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt said this order will be followed “swiftly” by actions to “make sure that whatever steps we take in the future will be pro-growth, pro-environment but within the framework of the Clean Air Act.” (Bloomberg) You can see Carl Icahn’s hand in this. He’s the billionaire investor who’s a special adviser to Trump on regulation matters who has been “busy working behind the scenes to try to revamp an obscure” EPA rule “that governs the way corn-based ethanol is mixed into gasoline nationwide.” (NY Times) According to the Washington Post, Trump has 3 goals with this order: to dismantle a rule that reduces carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants; to promote fossil fuel extraction; and to “strip consideration of the long-term effects of climate change from routine government decision-making.” Check out this video that tracks carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (You Tube) Trump said that this would bring coal-mining jobs back, but “the jobs he alluded to - hardy miners in mazelike tunnels with picks and shovels - have steadily become vestiges of the past.” According to Mark Muro, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, “The regulatory changes are entirely outweighed by these technological changes, not to mention the price of natural gas or renewables. Even if you brought back demand for coal, you wouldn’t bring back the same number of workers.” (NY Times) The Washington Post pointed out that “the entire coal industry employs fewer people than Arby’s.”

 

Lost Data:  Victoria Herrmann, an Arctic researcher, did an op-ed piece for the Guardian. She stated that, over the past 2 months, the Trump administration has been deleting data that scientists use in their research. “At first, the distress flare of lost data came as a surge of defunct links on 21 January. [The day after Trump’s inauguration.] The U.S. National Strategy for the Arctic, the Implementation Plan for the Strategy, and the report on our progress all gone within a matter of minutes. . . Since January, the surge has transformed into a slow, incessant march of deleting datasets, webpages, and policies about the Arctic.”

 

Pesticide:  EPA’s Scott Pruitt has refused to ban the chemical compound chlorpyrifos, also known as Lorsban, which the Obama administration had tried to outlaw “based on mounting concerns about its risks to human health.” Lorsban “has been used by farmers for more than a half-century to kill pests on crops including broccoli, strawberries, and citrus. The EPA banned its spraying indoors to combat household bugs more than a decade ago. But only in recent years did the agency seek to ban its use in agriculture, after mounting scientific evidence that prenatal exposure can pose risks to fetal brain and nervous system development.” (Washington Post)

 

What Do You Call It?:  According to sources, a supervisor at the Energy Department’s international climate office told staff not to use the phrases “climate change,” “emissions reduction,” or “Paris Agreement” in written memos. (Politico)

 

Worker Safety:  Trump signed a bill that “killed an Obama-era worker safety rule that required businesses competing for large federal contracts to disclose and correct serious safety and other labor law violations.” (Washington Post) Some argue that this will make it harder to enforce the LGBT protections Obama implemented for employees of federal contractors. (Think Progress)

 

Retirement:  The Senate passed a bill 50 to 49 to block cities and counties from organizing retirement savings accounts for workers who have no access to employer-sponsored plans. “The vote reverses a Labor Department rule that allows local governments to automatically enroll private-sector workers in retirement plans unless they opt out.” I guess Republicans don’t want average folk to have retirement plans. The House has already passed a similar bill. Differences will be ironed out and it’ll go to Trump for signature. (NY Times)

 

NAFTA:  Over and over Trump promised to get rid of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Well, he isn’t doing that. According to a draft of a letter sent to Congress, he’s seeking numerous, but modest, changes to the agreement. (Washington Post)

 

Trade Deficit:  Trump is issuing an executive order directing the Commerce Department to investigate countries against whom the United States runs a bilateral trade deficit. There are 16 countries on the list, like China, India, Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Canada. (CBC)

 

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