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WEEKLY WONK

Originally Published: 12/30/2017

Selling the Tax Cuts:  The GOP’s tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy are not popular with the American people. (TWW, Who Do They Serve?, 12/16/17) Since any benefits that may accrue to voters won’t be evident until after filing in April 2019 for the 2018 year, what will Republicans do to sell betrayal as a great victory for average folk? Well, according to David Dayen writing at The Nation, they’re going to “game” paychecks to win the support they need. In February the new tax-withholding tables will come out to reflect the new code, so many will get more money in their paychecks. Dayen wrote this is the Republican prediction: “Once that formula for estimating what comes out of paychecks gets tweaked, Americans will feel richer, spend their windfall, rocket-launch the economy, and fall to their knees thanking Republicans for the good times ahead.” But remember that it’s Trump’s political appointees who are responsible for the new withholding tables. “Critics fear the possibility for abuse exists - that Trump’s team could artificially goose U.S. paychecks in 2018 to make the tax cut look bigger for the working class in advance of midterm elections.” What makes the revamping worse is that the bill didn’t include additional funding for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to ramp up the new code. “To be clear, this is the only way most Americans will experience the tax legislation between now and the midterms.” [Emphasis added.]

 

David Kautter:  He’s Trump’s political appointee serving as the acting IRS commissioner and he’ll be in charge of the new withholding tables. He’s a former Ernst & Young executive who is now working 2 jobs. In addition to acting IRS commissioner, he was confirmed as the assistant secretary for tax policy, “in an unusual committee vote in a private room off the Senate floor.” Dayen noted: “His experience for the job? He oversaw national tax practices at Ernst & Young while the company assisted firms in avoiding federal taxes. Ernst & Young ended up paying $123 million in fines for the tax-evasion scheme, known as Viper, and 4 employees went to jail. (2 sentences later were overturned.)” So, a Trump loyalist “with a history of at least turning a blind eye to tax avoidance” is running the IRS.

 

Other Salespeople:  AT&T announced it’s handing out $1,000 bonuses to 200,000 of its employees, a total outlay of $200 million. (Business Insider) Of course, it can be expensed, so it won’t cost them that much. And I wonder which employees will get it. Think it’ll be those at the very bottom of the wage scale? Still, it helps the Republicans sell the plan, even though the main reason they’re doing it is to help them with their attempt to buy Time Warner. (Business Insider) Of course, no one is talking about the fact that Communication Workers of America had already reached a new contract agreement with AT&T to provide bonuses. (Daily Beast) There are other companies doing the same thing (USA Today) - trying to make the tax cuts look good for the coming election. Yet no one seems to be taking into account that these companies are going to make billions from the cuts and are just handing out crumbs. 

 

Trumps Attacks:  Just gotta have some year-end fun. Stephen Colbert played a medley of news reports about all the people, companies, and others Trump attacked this year. Yeah. Watch and chuckle. Or cry. (You Tube)

 

Kenneth Allen:  He’s Trump’s pick to the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), “the country’s largest public utility.” Who is he? He’s a retired Armstrong Coal executive who will now be in position to “guide the TVA toward coal-friendly policies.” Also, TVA has been a longtime customer of Armstrong and still purchases coal from them. “And, according to public filings, Allen is still receiving payments from his former employer on the basis of the amount of coal mined and sold from various Armstrong-owned properties.” So, Allen stands to personally enrich himself from this position. (Think Progress)

 

Homeland Security:  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is going global. Yeah. I don’t know what part of “homeland” they don’t understand. An estimated 2,000 DHS employees “from Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents to Transportation Security Administration officials” are being deployed to 70 countries. “Hundreds more are either at sea for weeks at a time aboard Coast Guard ships, or patrolling the skies in surveillance planes above the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.” Some European countries are saying “that the United States is trying to export its immigration laws to their territory.” But others like it, claiming it “strengthens international security while preventing a terrorist attack, drug shipment, or human smuggling rings from reaching American soil.” (NY Times)

 

United Nations:  Trump is, as promised, going to punish the UN for not supporting his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. (TWW, Israel, 12/23/17) Under the UN charter, “the U.S. is responsible for 22% of the body’s annual operating budget, or around $1.2 billion in 2017-2018, and 28.5% of the cost of peacekeeping operations, estimated at $6.8 billion over the same period.” But Nikki Haley, our ambassador to the UN, announced that the U.S. will be cutting its obligations. The Guardian noted that this will be interpreted “as a further ratcheting up of pressure from the Trump administration looking to bend decision-making at the international body to its will.” It’s not clear exactly how much the U.S. will reduce its obligatory payment but it will be at least $285 million. But the Washington Post reported that the U.S. had “negotiated” the reduction and that Haley said the reduction is necessary due to the “inefficiency and overspending” of the UN and that she wouldn’t let “the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of.”

 

Australia:  About a month ago Tesla unveiled its new backup power system in South Australia. Didn’t take long for it to prove its worth. “In the past 3 weeks alone, the Hornsdale Power Reserve has smoothed out at least 2 major energy outages, responding even more quickly than the coal-fired backups that were supposed to provide emergency power.” (Washington Post)

 

China:  It just opened a new solar-powered highway in Shandong Province. “The road is constructed using solar panels which have a thin sheet of clear concrete on top of them, protecting the surface. The innovative panels were built to transfer energy to electric vehicles passing on top of them - and to instantly melt snow.” (EuroNews) And what have we got?

 

North Korea:  The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a new set of “draconian U.S.-drafted” sanctions on North Korea. CNN noted they will “further strangle its energy supplies and tighten restrictions on smuggling and the use of North Korean workers overseas.” North Korea considers this an act of war. (BBC)

 

Russia:  NATO officials are warning about an increase in Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, “saying that it was the highest-level of undersea activity from Moscow since the Cold War.” (Newsweek)

 

Scotland:  It has implemented a trial of Universal Basic Income (UBI) in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife, and North Ayrshire. “Although still in its infancy and rife with controversy, the idea has already attracted £250,000 (nearly $334,500) of public funding in the form of a grant to develop feasibility studies. The cities involved have until late March 2018 to submit their bids.” (Futurism) For a little more information, see this piece by Conrad Shaw titled Money Isn’t Money Until It Is where Shaw argues that UBI isn’t money because money isn’t money until it comes with choice, is disposable, and abolishes extreme poverty and wage slavery. It’s pretty interesting. (Medium)

 

Alabama:  Roy Moore (R), who lost the race for the Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Doug Jones (D) (TWW, Alabama, 12/16/17), filed a complaint in the Montgomery Circuit Court “to block state officials from certifying” the election because of “systematic voter fraud.” (NY Times) But Secretary of State John Merrill said that he would certify the election despite Moore’s challenge. (Reuters) Then Judge Johnny Hardwick, “citing a lack of jurisdiction,” dismissed Moore’s complaint and Merrill certified Jones’ win. (NY Times)

 

California:  The Department of Health announced new guidelines for the use of mobile phones after multiple studies showed the health effects of the radiation they emit along with increased problems of concentration. They appear to be especially concerned about children. “Children’s brains develop through the teenage years and may be more affected by cell phone use.”

 

New York:  New York City is on track for an annual homicide rate lower than 2014 “and crime will have declined for 27 straight years, to levels that police officials have said are the lowest since the 1950s.” Police, “under Mayor Bill de Blasio, use less deadly force, make fewer arrests, and scale back controversial practices like stopping and frisking thousands of people on the streets.” (NY Times)

 

Virginia:  The lotto for the next member of the House of Delegates (TWW, Virginia, 12/23/17) has been delayed. Democrats have filed suit because of the disputed ballot that Republicans decided to count. (Washington Post)

 

The Rich Get Richer:  Despite the GOP’s touting the tax cuts as being for the middle class, Trump spilled the beans with his friends at Mar-a-Lago. While being surrounded by his fellow moneyed elite at a holiday dinner he told them, “You all just got a lot richer.” (CBS) How much richer can they get? “The richest people on earth became $1 trillion richer in 2017, more than 4 times last year’s gain, as stock markets shrugged off economic, social, and political divisions to reach record highs.” (Bloomberg) If you remember, the Tax Policy Institute estimated that half of the tax cuts will benefit those earning between $100,000 and $500,000 annually, and another 25% would benefit those earning $500,000 or more. (Washington Post) So, it’ll stimulate the economy, won’t it? Not according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) which found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth. However, you haven’t seen their report because it was withdrawn “after Senate Republicans raised concerns about the paper’s findings and wording.” (NY Times)

 

Voting Commission:  If you remember, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed suit in U.S. District Court asking for a restraining order (TWW, Going to Court, 7/8/17) blocking Trump’s Voting Integrity Commission (TWW, Voting, 5/13/17) from obtaining state voter data (TWW, Voting, 7/1/17). The Commission, Kris Kobach’s baby, is based on his Operation Crosscheck (TWW, Operation Crosscheck, 7/8/17), and has already received many records. (TWW, What the States Are Doing, 7/8/17) EPIC lost the suit in the lower court (TWW, Voting, 7/29/17) and now a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia concurred, saying EPIC doesn’t have standing “to seek to force the presidential commission to review privacy concerns before collecting individuals’ voter data.” (Reuters)

 

Private Prisons:  Thanks to the tax cut bill (TWW, What’s in the Tax Cut Bill, 12/23/17), investors in private prisons are set for a “giant windfall.” Under the new law, investments in “real estate investment trusts” (REITs) “will see a 25% reduction in tax.” Corecivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and Geo Group, “which together own more than 80% of private prison beds,” restructured as REITs in 2013 “after a private letter ruling by the Obama administration IRS green-lit the change.” Prison investors “could see an additional $50 million in dividend earnings next year.” (Guardian)

 

Nursing Homes:  The Trump administration is scaling back penalty protocols - meaning fines - “against nursing homes that harm residents or place them in grave risk of injury, part of a broader relaxation of regulations under the president.” Why? The nursing home industry wanted it. (NY Times)

 

HIV/AIDS:  The remaining members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) were fired en masse this week. Many members have already resigned “in protest of the Trump administration's position on health policies.” (TWW, AIDS Policy, 6/24/17) The unpaid group advised the White House on HIV/AIDS policies and members of the council offered recommendations on strategies. Also, the Office of National AIDS Policy has not had a director since Trump took office. (Washington Post)

 

Medicare:  It looks like Trump has found a way to get to Social Security funds. If you’re on Social Security your check will go up slightly. However, the deduction for Medicare Part B will go up almost as much, leaving you with just a dollar or 2 more each month. This is just a way to get money out of the Social Security fund and move it to the general fund to pay for Medicare - so rich people can have their tax cuts.

 

Lead-Based Paint:  A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco, in a 2 to 1 decision, ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revise it’s nearly 17-year-old standard “for dangerous levels of lead in paint and dust within 1 year.” This means the EPA “must propose a new rule within 90 days, instead of the 6 years the Trump administration had requested to reconsider what levels of lead exposure are acceptable for children.” (NY Times)

 

Plastic:  Fossil fuel companies are among those ploughing $180 million into building more plastic plants. “The new facilities - being built by corporations like ExxonMobil and Shell - will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade . . . exacerbating the plastic pollution crisis that scientists warn already risks ‘near permanent pollution of the earth.’” (Guardian)

 

Offshore Drilling:  The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) ordered the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to halt its study on how to make offshore drilling safer. (EcoWatch) Why? Because it’s rolling back regulations “put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.” According to BSEE, the rollback “will save companies at least $288 million over 10 years.” (Bloomberg) How do they know that?

 

Mining Leases:  The Interior Department renewed leases for copper and nickel mining operations on the border of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, “reversing a decision made in the final weeks of Barack Obama’s tenure in office.” (Washington Post)

 

MBTA:  The Interior Department has a new interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It rolls back another Obama-era policy “aimed at protecting migratory birds, stating in a solicitor’s opinion that it will no longer prosecute oil and gas, wind, and solar operators that accidentally kill birds.” (Washington Post)

 

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