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WEEKLY WONK

Originally Published: 12/16/2017

Who Do They Serve?:  The tax cut bill just passed is wildly unpopular with the American people. A USA Today poll found only 32% approval. In fact, it’s even less popular than some tax hikes. (538) However, the most unpopular piece of legislation ever was the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which only had 25% support. (NPR) Chris Warshaw, a political scientist at George Washington University who specializes in studying the link between public opinion and political outcomes, has some interesting insight into what is going on. (Washington PostI guess he was wondering why the Republicans have spent the entire year trying to pass 2 enormously unpopular acts. So he examined 15 pieces of major domestic legislation going back to 1990 and studied 17 polling firms’ approval ratings for those bills when they were being voted on. He found that the tax cut bill and the ACA repeal ranked 14th and 15th in the popularity list. But what’s even more interesting is that, of the 15 bills, 9 had an approval rating above 50% at the time they passed or failed. And of those 9, 8 pursued what could be viewed as liberal or progressive, like gun control and environmental protection. The Brady bill, which mandated background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases, was the most popular and, by the way, most Republicans in both houses were against the bill. The next most popular was the minimum wage increase of 2007, followed by the 1994 assault weapons ban and Clean Air Act amendments in 1990. There is only 1 bill that could be called “conservative” - the Bush tax cuts of 2001 which polled above 50% at the time of passage. So, in 27 years Republicans have passed 1 popular conservative law and spent most of that time voting against things that most Americans want. If they weren’t listening to their constituents, who were they listening to? You know the answer.

 

Paul Manafort:  Judge Amy Berman Jackson has agreed to Manafort’s request (TWW, Paul Manafort, 12/9/17) to be released from house arrest “once he meets certain conditions.” He agreed to forfeit 4 properties worth $10 million “if he ever failed to appear for court proceedings.” He must execute documents agreeing to forfeit his properties: 2 in New York, 1 in Alexandria, Virginia, and his Florida home. He will also be subject to a curfew and GPS monitoring “but will be allowed to leave his home in Alexandria for his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, once he meets the conditions.” (Reuters)

 

Lock-Up:  Remember the American citizen the U.S. military has held in a secret jail in Iraq for 2 months, without charges, a lawyer, or even releasing his name? (TWW, Lock-Up, 11/11/17) The ACLU has petitioned the courts to represent the man “to assert his constitutional right to go to court to challenge being held in custody.” The U.S. government argues that the government “can secretly hold the man without court review for a to-be-determined ‘reasonable period’ because no lawyer can establish legal standing to sue on behalf of the unnamed American.” U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan seems to be concerned, but said she will rule “shortly.” She said that the government is asking for a “blank check” to “indefinitely detain American citizens held as enemy combatants in active war zones.” (Washington Post)

 

Gitmo:  Nils Melzer, the United Nations rapporteur on torture, said that “he had information about an inmate being tortured at the U.S. Guantánamo Bay detention facility,” despite Obama’s banning “enhanced interrogation techniques” almost 10 years ago. The Defense Department denied the allegation. (Reuters)

 

Campaign Surveillance:  The Guardian and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism obtained documents showing that 5 large corporations have been identified “as having paid corporate intelligence firms to monitor political groups that challenged their businesses. . . This included the use of infiltrators to spy on campaigners. . . The police have claimed that commercial firms have had more spies embedded in political groups than there were undercover police officers.” The companies include British Airways, The Royal Bank of Scotland, Porsche, C2i International, and Caterpillar.

 

Israel:  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the European Union to ask them to join with the U.S. in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (TWW, Israel, 12/9/17) But he “met a firm rebuff from EU foreign ministers who saw the move as a blow against the peace process.” (Reuters) By the way, Middle East Monitor pointed out that the 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine, “upon which Israel largely bases its international legitimacy,” has 3 components, one of which is the “independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem.” Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas “has formally declared that Palestinians will no longer accept the U.S. as a mediator in the Middle East peace process.” (Guardian)

 

Funding Oil and Gas:  The World Bank announced that it will no longer finance upstream oil and gas projects after 2019, except for “certain gas projects in the poorest countries in exceptional circumstances.” (Reuters)

 

Alabama:  Doug Jones (D) bested Roy Moore (R) for the Senate seat vacated by now Attorney General Jeff Sessions 49.9% to 48.4% with 22,819 people writing in another person’s name. Check out the distribution of voters. We can thank Alabama black women for this one. (NY Times) Alabama law requires an automatic recount if the election is won by fewer than 0.5%, but that isn’t the case here. Still, Moore appears to be demanding a recount and has refused to concede the election. (USA Today) The White House is urging him to concede, but his supporters are looking for evidence of voter fraud. (Washington Post) James Hohmann, writing at WaPo’s Daily 202, listed the 6 takeaways from the results.

 

California:  The Los Angeles City Council’s Immigrant Affairs, Civil Rights, and Equity Committee “voted to formally adopt the ‘sanctuary’ label and to require businesses with city contracts to disclose if they are working on Trump’s proposed border wall.” The full council must sign off on the proposal. (LA Times)

 

Minnesota:  Governor Mark Dayton (D) is appointing Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith (D) to replace Senator Al Franken (D). She will have to run for the seat in a special election next year. (Reuters)

 

Pennsylvania:  The state senate has an anti-choice bill going through “without input from medical professionals.” The proposal has “such narrow exceptions” that it “could land doctors in prison for providing standard abortion care.” (Rewire) If you live here, better start calling.

 

Final Tax Cut Bill:  Republicans announced on Wednesday that they had reached an agreement on the tax cut bill. We haven’t seen the bill yet, but the NY Times provided a synopsis based on information from staffers and aides. It drops the corporate tax rate to 21%, rather than the proposed 20%, and it will go into effect in 2018. It reduces the amount of sales and local taxes (SALT) that can be deducted to $10,000, split between property taxes and either income or sales taxes paid, which was done to appease primarily California representatives. They’ve agreed to rescind the corporate Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), but will preserve the individual AMT at a “watered down” rate. The top individual tax rate will drop to 37%, down from 39.6%, but the lower rate only kicks in for those making less than $1 million. The agreement “appears” to “allow some high-earning business owners to claim an even larger tax break than the Senate bill would have.” The tax deduction for pass-through companies will be lower than 23% but would allow companies with few employees “but large amounts of investment in their businesses” to bypass the limit. Excessive medical expenses will still be deductible. The estate tax threshold will be raised to $11 million from $5.5 million. Also, they agreed to abandon higher education taxes. Tuition waivers for graduate students will remain tax-free, students can still deduct their student loan interest payments, and college bonds for construction will remain interest free. (Washington Post) Senators Marco Rubio (R, FL) and Mike Lee (R, UT) threatened to not vote for the bill unless they got a larger, refundable child tax credit - and they got it. The cap was raised from $1,100 to $1,400. The bill was finalized early Friday and the written bill released late Friday, so as of right now I haven’t seen any analysis of the actual bill. Voting is being scheduled for next week. (Roll Call) Once again, it’ll be a while before all the bad news comes out.

 

Treasury Report:  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the above bill worked out in the conference committee would decrease revenues by about $1,649 billion and decrease spending by about $194 billion over the next 10 years, “leading to an increase in the deficit of $1,455 billion over the next 10 years.” The Treasury Department released a 1-page analysis of the Senate tax cut bill, suggesting the $1.5 trillion tax cut plan “would more than pay for itself, assuming the economy grows much faster than any independent analysis of the bill has projected.” [Emphasis added.] The Treasury acknowledged that its analysis was based on “optimistic forecasts that assumed a host of policy changes yet to be enacted, including increased infrastructure spending, further loosening of business regulations, and changes to welfare programs.” Many tax experts “scratched their heads” and said that the Treasury “was offering misleading data.” (NY Times) So the bill we ended up with has the same 10-year deficit estimate has the Senate bill. Now we’ll have to wait and see if this time, unlike all the other times Republicans sold a tax cut saying it would pay for itself, the money comes in.

 

Military Budget:  Trump signed a $700 billion military budget into law “but there’s a catch.” It won’t go into law “until lawmakers agree to roll back a 2011 law that set strict limits on federal spending, including by the Defense Department - and they haven’t yet.” The law referred to is the sequestration law (TWW, Super Committee, 11/23/11), which caps the military budget at $549 billion. (Chicago Tribune)

 

Net Neutrality:  It’s officially dead. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to dismantle it. The federal government will no longer regulate high-speed internet delivery as if it were a utility, like phone service. (NY Times) See what Stephen Colbert said about it. (You Tube)

 

House Ethics:  On Monday morning, with no advance notice or debate on the issue, House Republicans voted to “significantly curtail” the power of the independent ethics office. (NY Times)

 

Senate Rules:  The Senate Rules and Administration Committee is meeting next week “to consider a resolution sponsored by James Lankford (R, OK) that would reduce the time the chamber debates” executive and judicial nominees from the current 30 hours to only 8 hours. Roy Blunt (R, MO), the former chair of the committee, said that Democrats were abusing the procedure. (Roll Call)

 

Transgender Troops:  U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly denied Trump’s request to delay her order requiring the military to begin accepting transgender recruits starting January 1st. (TWW, Transgender Troops, 11/4/17) She wrote: “The Court is not persuaded that Defendants will be irreparable injured by” meeting the deadline. (Washington Post)

 

Contraception Rule:  U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone in Philadelphia “temporarily blocked a Trump administration rule that allows virtually any business to cite religious or moral objections and opt out of a federal requirement that they cover contraception as part of employee health plans.” (TWW, Contraception, 10/7/17) The plaintiff in the case, the state of Pennsylvania, argued that the rule was “harmful to working women and would force the state to shoulder the costs of their birth control and unplanned pregnancies.” (Washington Post)

 

CDC:  The Trump administration gave the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a list of words they are forbidden to use in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget, like “fetus” and “transgender.” Also included are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” In some cases they were given alternative phrases. For instance, rather than “science-based” or “evidence-based,” the suggested wording is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.” Since the CDC is under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) it’s likely that there’s a similar list for the entire department. (Washington Post)

 

Sexual Discrimination:  The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case regarding “whether existing law banning discrimination ‘because of . . . sex’ encompasses discrimination based on sexual orientation.” (Think Progress)

 

EPA:  The NY Times analyzed the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement data and found that the administration “has adopted a more lenient approach than the previous 2 administrations - Democratic and Republican - toward polluters . . .” During the first 9 months under Scott Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA has started about 1,900 cases against polluters, one-third fewer than the number under Obama’s first EPA director and about one-quarter fewer under Dubya’s. “In addition, the agency sought civil penalties of about $50.4 million from polluters for cases initiated under Mr. Trump. Adjusted for inflation, that is about 39% of what the Obama administration sought and about 70% of what the Bush administration sought over the same time period.”

 

Oil & Gas:  The Guardian has a great piece on how the Trump administration is granting oil and gas their wishlist through environmental rollbacks. The American Petroleum Institute (API), the leading lobby group for U.S. oil and gas companies, penned a document called “comments on specific regulations” last May, and sent it to the EPA. It highlighted 8 key changes it wanted to ease the regulation of air and water pollution. “An analysis shows that the EPA has now so far either partially or wholly delivered on 6 out of these 8 key demands within the first year of the Trump administration, which solicited input on government rules from a number of trade groups.”

 

Bears Ears Uranium:  Trump’s decision to shrink Bears Ears National Monument (TWW, National Monuments, 12/9/17) was the culmination of “a concerted lobbying campaign” by a uranium company which believes that this action will “give it easier access to the area’s uranium deposits and help it operate a nearby processing mill.” (Washington Post) But scientists are fighting back. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante “contain thousands of archaeological sites, landscapes sacred to Native American tribes, virtually pristine wilderness, and unique geology.” They also contain paleontological specimens of “international importance, spanning 320 million years of life on earth. Much of this will be open to destruction if planned cuts go ahead.” So, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is suing. (Guardian)

 

Tip Pooling:  The Labor Department (DOL) released a proposed rule that would rescind portions of its tip regulations, including the current restrictions on tip pooling. The new rule would allow employers to pool tips - say, for instance, servers - and share them with untipped workers - like cooks and dishwashers. However, “the rule doesn’t actually require that employers distribute pooled tips to workers. Under the administration’s proposed rule, as long as the tipped workers earn minimum wage, the employer can legally pocket those tips.” Heidi Shierholz, writing at the Economic Policy Institute, noted: “Make no mistake: as a result of this rule, workers will take home less, and their loss will be employers’ gain. And Trump’s DOL is willing to break the requirements of the rulemaking process to attempt to hide that fact.”

 

Challenging Chains:  The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed another Obama-era rule “that had given workers significant leverage in challenging companies like fast-food and hotel chains over labor practices.” This changes the standard “for holding a company responsible for labor law violations that occur at another company, like a contractor or, franchisee, with which it has a relationship.” (NY Times)

 

Interest Rates:  The Federal Reserve “lifted its benchmark interest rate . . . by a quarter point to a range of 1.25% to 1.5%.” This has been expected because the economy is improving. “This is the 5th rate increase since the bank cut the rate to nearly zero during the financial crisis of 2008.” (Washington Post)

 

Another Merger:  Geez, it’s beginning to look like the Clinton years. So many mergers - and we know we’ll pay for it. This time it’s Disney who’s buying “most of the assets” of 21st Century Fox for $52.4 billion. The NY Times noted that “the once unthinkable acquisition promises to reshape Hollywood and Silicon Valley. . . Disney now has enough muscle to become a true competitor to Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook in the fast-growing realm of online video.” Of course, the transaction will have to be approved by antitrust regulators. By the way, 21st Century Fox is owned by Rupert Murdoch. It’s being sued for allegedly agreeing to pay millions of dollars in bribes to South American soccer officials “to secure major broadcast deals.” (Guardian) Maybe this has something to do with his decision to sell.

 

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