Originally Published: 12/23/2017
Stacking the Courts: Paul Butler (Guardian) did an amazing piece on the “rightwing takeover of the U.S. court system” and how it will “transform America.” He pointed out that Trump has nominated an “unprecedented” number of judges to federal courts. I’d like to point out that this is due to the fact that Senate Republicans blocked all of Obama’s appointments, so there are numerous vacancies in the federal courts. Of the 60 judges nominated so far, only 1 is black, 1 is Hispanic, and 3 are women. “All of these people are conservatives who will be interpreting and helping (re)write the law for decades.” Butler believes that Trump is fashioning a federal court system “of Steven Bannon’s dreams.” That a Republican president would appoint rightwingers to the courts is not surprising, but what is surprising is how poor his choices are. Take, for instance, Brett Talley, who the Senate approved last month. (TWW, Brett Talley, 11/11/17) Talley has only been a lawyer for 3 years, has never tried a case, and was unanimously rated as “not qualified by the American Bar Association. His only qualification is that he is openly and vocally a rightwinger and he is married to Annie Donaldson, Trump’s chief of staff to White House counsel Donald McGahn. (TWW, Brett Talley, 11/18/17) Then there’s Matthew Petersen, who couldn’t even answer basic questions about legal procedure during his confirmation hearing. In fact, his sole qualification for the job is that he has been a lawyer for Republicans “fighting against campaign finance law enforcement” and has been 1 of 3 Republican members of the Federal Election Commission. (Think Progress) Watch the clip from his testimony. (You Tube) He finally withdrew himself from consideration. (Roll Call) And there’s Jeff Mateer who never bothered to submit his paperwork. He is reported to have said that transgender children are part of “Satan’s plan.” Slate called him the most dangerous of Trump’s nominees. Trump finally pulled his nomination. (Washington Times) And don’t forget Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s appointment to the Supreme Court. After more than a year of holding up Obama’s nomination for the Supreme Court, the Senate approved this guy lickety-split. (TWW, Neil Gorsuch, 4/8/17) Reuters pointed out that after only 8 months on the bench, “Gorsuch has given every indication through his votes in key cases and remarks from the bench he will be a stalwart of the conservative legal agenda.” Trump may be gone in a few years, but these people will be around for generations.
Emoluments Clause: U.S. District Judge George Daniels in Manhattan dismissed a lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) alleging that Trump is violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution “by continuing to own and profit from his business empire.” Daniels said that the plaintiffs failed “to show that they had lost revenue because of specific actions by Mr. Trump.” (NY Times)
Israel: The UN Security Council voted unanimously - except the U.S. - to call for the withdrawal of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (TWW, Israel, 12/16/17) But the U.S. vetoed the resolution, angering many. Still members pushed for it to go to the General Assembly. (Guardian) Trump threatened to cut funding to any country that votes in favor of of the Security Council’s recommendation. (NY Times) Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan said that UN member states shouldn’t let their decision be dictated by money. “Mr. Trump, you cannot buy Turkey’s democratic will with your dollars. The dollars will come back, but your will won’t once it’s sold.” (Reuters) The General Assembly passed it anyway (Washington Post) with 8 nations voting with us and 35 abstaining. Who stuck by Trump? Small nations: Micronesia, Nauru, Togo, Tonga, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Guatemala, and Honduras. (CNN) How embarrassing.
Virginia: Think your vote doesn’t count? This shows just how much it does. The race for the seat in the House of Delegates between Shelly Simonds (D) and incumbent David Yancey (R) got real weird. In the initial count Simonds was behind by only 10 votes which triggered a recount. The recount found her ahead by 1 vote. Republicans released a concession. But a 3-judge panel of the Virginia board of elections (all Republicans) found another vote for Yancey, making it a tie. The ballot that the panel found had originally been thrown out as being “questionable” but the panel, obviously looking for 1 more vote, decided it was good. Check it out. Republicans argued that the voter had selected other Republicans on the ballot and, thus, must have intended to vote for Yancey. According to Virginia law, in the event of a tie the decision will be made by “lot,” meaning they’ll draw straws, cut cards, or something else. (Washington Post)
What’s in the Tax Cut Bill: The NY Times put up a summary of what’s in the bill. It appears to be what we thought. (TWW, Final Tax Cut Bill, 12/16/17) According to the Washington Post: “The expiration of many tax cuts for individuals won’t be enough” to cover the $1.5 trillion deficit the bill creates. “So the bill contains provisions that raise money from taxpayers to offset the cuts for corporations.” Check out the graph. But they have a good table of what your tax will be based on your income. If this is hard to understand, try plugging your information into this graphic. (NY Times) Or this one. (Washington Post) In addition we’ve learned that medical expenses will still be deductible for 2017 and 2018. Then they go away. The individual mandate for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been removed. The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) is still in effect, but it will apply to fewer people. The estate tax baseline was increased to $10 million. The pass-through is intact but it phases out at $157,500 for individuals and $315,000 for couples. Bloomberg added that a new provision will provide “a multimillion-dollar windfall to real estate investors” like Trump. Withdrawals from accounts for higher education remain intact, but now they apply to private or religious schools and for home schooling. Deductions for professional fees for investment advisers are no longer allowed, but will go back into effect in 2025. Deductions for losses during fires and floods are still allowed but only if the president officially declares the event to be a disaster. Alimony will no longer be deductible but it no longer needs to be declared as income. This only takes effect for divorces starting in 2019. As of 2018 moving expenses will no longer be deductible except for members of the military. Fees for tax preparation will no longer be deductible. Bicycle riding to commute to your job will no longer be deductible. Inflation will be calculated using the chained CPI which will reduce spending. (TWW, Chained CPI, 2/16/13) There are changes to gambling income. Student loan debt that is discharged in the event of death or total or permanent disability will no longer be taxable. And there’s a long list of things that did not change.
Takeaways: The Washington Post published the 10 key takeaways from the bill, the first being that it’s the biggest tax overhaul in 3 years, but it’s not the biggest cut. The biggest change to the tax code was done by Reagan in 1986 (which led to a recession) and the biggest cut was done by Dubya in 2001 (which led to the 2008 great recession). Most of the long-term benefits go to corporations but for individuals most will see no tax cut or a tax hike. And, of course, blue states will benefit less than red states. Reuters said that the bill is likely to “spark” a trade dispute with the EU because it includes “a tax break for U.S. exporters that appears to contravene World Trade Organization rules.” While GOP leaders have - over and over again - predicted that this bill will lead to such a huge boon to the economy that it will pay for itself, Goldman Sach’s doesn’t agree. Alec Phillips and Blake Taylor, Goldman’s economic analysts, predict that the tax cut will give the economy only a slight boost over the short-term, “but that the boost would quickly fade.” (Business Insider) In fact, many large corporations have already announced that they’ll spend the windfall on buying back their stock, not increasing wages or hiring more employees. (Investors)
Winners & Losers: Bloomberg noted that a new provision in the tax cut bill will provide “a multimillion-dollar windfall to real estate investors” like Trump. The Guardian reported that experts say he’ll save $15 million. One potential loser is Puerto Rico. The bill contains “a new 12.5% tax on profits derived from intellectual property held by foreign companies - a move designed to compel those companies to move back to the United States. Puerto Rico is considered part of the United States in all realms except taxes - meaning that island residents don’t pay federal income taxes but do pay into Social Security. Companies based on the island are treated as if they were located in other Caribbean tax havens, not under the American flag.” (Washington Post)
It’s Done: The House passed the bill on Tuesday 227 to 203. “All but 12 Republican members voted for the bill.” No Democrats voted for it. (Washington Post) Check to see how your reps voted. (NY Times) You’ll notice that most of those Republicans voting “no” are from high-tax states - California, New York, and New Jersey - where the new provisions will hurt their constituents. But hours later it was discovered that they needed to vote again “because the measure as written would violate Senate rules.” The problem was with the reconciliation process which allows the bill to be passed with a simple majority in the Senate. There were 3 provisions that were in violation of the Byrd rule. (Roll Call) “The parliamentarian took issue with a provision allowing for tax-incentivized accounts for home-schooling expenses, as well as one dealing with exempting certain universities’ endowments from a new excise tax. The third had to do with the abbreviated name of the legislation.” (Washington Post) Apparently these provisions weren’t in the conference committee report sent to the Senate and the bills have to be identical. In the meantime the Senate passed the bill 51 to 48 (NY Times) and the House revoted and passed it 224 to 201. (Roll Call) In his crowing about the bill, Trump accidentally told the truth. While Republicans have been selling it as a middle class tax cut, Trump tweeted that the plan will lower tax on businesses. “That’s probably the biggest factor in this plan.” (Washington Post) Trump also touted the bill as repealing Obamacare. He said: “Obamacare has been repealed in this bill. We didn’t want to bring it up. I told people specifically ‘be quiet with the fake news media because I don’t want them talking too much about it because I didn’t know how people would . . .” (CNN) Despite Trump and other Republicans’ statements that they will have this bill done by Christmas (CBS), Bloomberg reported that they were deliberately holding off on Trump’s signing of the bill until January 3rd to ensure that the automatic spending cuts to Medicare and other programs (TWW, Senate Tax Cut Bill, 12/9/17) wouldn’t take effect until 2019, apparently to help with the 2018 elections. Nevertheless, Trump signed the bill and it is now law. (Washington Post)
Other Funding: The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) expired at the end of the fiscal year - September 30th. To date it has not been renewed. States are warning families that their children’s health insurance will soon run out. (WBUR) Boy, they were sure in a hurry to pass tax cuts for corporations but children’s health care? No hurry whatsoever. And it may never be done. Georgetown University Health Policy Institute has the details on this funding. And the Perkins Student Loan program also expired (Student Loan Report) and has not been renewed. (WAOW)
Government Shutdown: Due to the last Continuing Resolution (CR), the government would have shut down on December 22nd. (TWW, Government Shutdown, 12/9/17) “But with a midnight-Friday shutdown deadline looming, not to mention the coming holidays, GOP leaders in the House and Senate indicated that lawmakers were likely to do the bare minimum - passing another short-term spending bill to keep the government open and then revisiting all these issues in January.” (Washington Post) And House Republicans “abandoned” plans to vote on the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which allows the federal government to conduct surveillance on U.S. soil. (Washington Post) Apparently the Freedom Caucus (the Teapartiers) was balking. (Roll Call) They’re the ones who don’t want to fund anything, but they were just fine with the tax cut bill. The House finally managed to pass another CR on Thursday, keeping the government open until January 19th. (NY Times) Later that day the Senate passed it. It includes temporary funding for CHIP (see above). (Washington Post)
Travel Ban: Another appeals court has weighed in on this. (TWW, Travel Ban, 10/21/17) The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that Trump’s travel ban on people from 6 Muslim countries “should not be applied to people with strong ties to America.” The court also said that this ruling will be stayed until the issue gets to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Guardian)
Global Entry: The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) is revoking Global Entry clearances for hundreds of travelers with a Muslim, Arab, or South Asian background “in what lawyers and civil rights activists say is a de facto extension of the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban. . . Global Entry is one of 4 CPB Trusted Traveler Programs that allow vetted U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and nationals from 9 countries expedited entry through airport security and customs.” (The Intercept)
National Security Strategy: Trump is forming a new NSS which lists the global threats to our nation. He’s dropped climate change from the list. (Guardian) However, the Pentagon is still preparing for global warming “even though Trump said to stop.” (Military Times)
Transgender Troops: More courts are deciding this issue as Trump continues to attempt to prevent the military from accepting transgender recruits. (TWW, Transgender Troops, 12/16/17) A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the administration had “not shown a strong likelihood that they will succeed on the merits of their challenge.” The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA denied Trump’s similar request. And the federal judge in Riverside, CA blocked the ban while the case proceeds in other courts. (Reuters)
Student Debt: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has finally decided to start forgiving some of those student loans that have been backing up. She announced that she’s responded to more than 20,000 requests, but there are 87,000 requests pending. (TWW, Student Debt, 11/18/17) Some students will only be granted partial relief. (NY Times)
Train Crash: Do you remember the train crash in Southern California 9 years ago? (Los Angeles Daily News) A report found that had the train had an automatic braking system, called Positive Train Control (PTC), the collision could have been avoided. So, in 2008 Congress passed a law that all railroads must have the technology by 2015. (The Brake Report) But Congress delayed the mandate and extended “the government’s authority to spend money on transportation programs.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) So, we had another derailment in Washington state, killing at least 3 people. (NY Times)
Cliven Bundy: The Bundy trial (TWW, Cliven Bundy, 11/4/17) ended in a mistrial, “dealing a major blow to the U.S. government and another victory for those who have long fought federal regulators over land rights.” A Nevada federal judge ruled that prosecutors “willfully withheld evidence.” (Guardian)
Prescription Drugs: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on “Profits, Research and Development Spending, and Merger and Acquisition Deals.” The amount of money people spend on prescription drugs “has nearly doubled since the 1990s. Much of this increase is due to expensive brand-name drugs, but the prices of some generics have also gone up.” The GAO’s analysis found that “pharmaceutical and biotechnology sales revenue increased from $534 billion to $775 billion between 2008 and 2015.” They also found that 67% of drug companies “increased annual profit margins during the same period - with margins up to 20% for some companies in certain years.” What I found interesting is that research and development only increased from $82 billion in 2008 to $89 billion in 2014. Drug companies are always telling us that they need to raise prices to pay for more research. However, they’re only spending about 10% of their profits on research. There goes that argument.
Obamacare: Trump declared that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is “imploding.” But this year’s sign-ups are nearly as high as last year’s, despite the shorter enrollment period. (NY Times)
EPA: Environmental Protection Agency employees who spoke out against the shenanigans of the director, Scott Pruitt, have had their emails scrutinized “that mentioned either Mr. Pruitt or President Trump, or any communication with Democrats in Congress that might have been critical of the agency.” The request for the emails came from America Rising, “a Republican campaign research group that specializes in helping party candidates and conservative groups find damaging information on political rivals, and which, in this case, was looking for information that could undermine employees who had criticized the EPA.” And Definers Public Affairs has been hired by the EPA to provide “media monitoring,” in a move the agency said “was intended to keep better track of newspaper and video stories about EPA operations nationwide.” Employees say these things have created a culture of fear. (NY Times) What are they doing? Looking at past emails, tweets, instagrams for signs of left-leaning employees? Apparently lawmakers were outraged so Pruitt cancelled the contract with Definers Public Affairs. (Washington Post) But the “draining” of talent at the EPA is unbelievable. More than 700 people have left since Trump took office. More than 200 of them are scientists and 96 are specialists who investigate and analyze pollution levels. (NY Times)
Polar Vortex: It’s producing a cold wave that’s coming your way if you live in the middle of the country. It’s likely to stretch from the Rockies to the Great Lakes. “Christmas Eve may feature temperatures 20 to 40 degrees below normal around Denver and Bismarck. By Christmas Day, such cold could envelop Minneapolis and Chicago. Subzero nighttime lows are a good bet.” The exact time of the onset is still in question, however. And some areas in the south will have a greater chance of snow.” (Washington Post)
Wage Theft: In 2015 and 2016 the Labor Department (DOL), state departments of labor and attorneys general, and in cities through class action suits recovered $2 billion in wages stolen from workers by their employers. (Economic Policy Institute)
NLRB: The National Labor Relations Board upended another Obama-era rule that makes it easier for workers to form so-called “micro unions.” (Reuters)