True story. A local contractor was awaiting final inspection of a building before being granted an occupancy permit. Typically it would be a routine part of the process for the seasoned businessman, but this particular project had been beset from the beginning with numerous setbacks and disaster after disaster-so much so that those involved were convinced they had mistakenly built on sacred ground or were the subject of some gypsy curse. The builder held his breath as the township zoning officer went through his checklist. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until the inspector pulled out his tape measure and held it up to the countertop in one of the rooms. “This is an inch and a half too high,” he said. The two men went from room to room measuring each work station, double-checking their blue prints, and sure enough, every counter in every work area was out of compliance. In ordering premade cabinetry, the builder forgot to specify the correct height. There was no denying it. In order to receive an occupancy permit, thus allowing the business to open on time, it meant that seven rooms of cabinetry including countertops, tile, sinks and plumbing would have to be entirely removed, redone, and reinstalled. Now if we were dealing with a less scrupulous businessman or a less diligent public servant you may be guessing that this story would have a less savory ending-maybe involving some green bills being slipped under the table. Not so. The builder bit the bullet, did what had to be done, and finally received the needed permits.
Why am I telling you this? Remember that inch and a half measurement error? It may seem insignificant, but to a person in a wheelchair it adds up to being able to wash one’s hands or turn around in hallway, or reach something in a cabinet-in other words, to have the same access as every other person. That inch and a half wasn’t some arbitrary number the zoning officer came up with to torment men and women in the construction business but one of the many requirements outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA.
Believe it or not, there was a time in Washington when there were certain issues that stayed above the fray of partisanship. One of those issues was disability rights. In 1990, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act in the Senate, delivering part of his speech in sign language so that his deaf brother was able to understand. The ADA was signed into law by a Republican president, George H. W. Bush, who said upon signing, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
The purpose of the act is “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities''. Title III of the ADA, in particular, “prohibits places of public accommodation from discrimination against individuals with disabilities”. “Places” includes hotels, restaurants, theaters, shopping centers, auditoriums, museums, parks, private schools, day care centers, offices of health care providers, and gymnasiums. Title III also states that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation”. Title III requires that existing facilities be “free of architectural barriers and communication barriers that are structural in nature . . . where such removal is readily achievable”.
Prior to the ADA, it was often difficult for people with disabilities to fully participate in society. Public places were often inaccessible, and there was no recourse for those who were essentially barred entry solely on the basis of their disability. The ADA gave individuals with disabilities the grounds to file lawsuits against businesses which lacked accommodations, and although required by law under the ADA, many of the gains these individuals have made since 1990 are due to having to resort to litigation.
But now those gains could be in jeopardy. A new bill oddly titled the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 is making its way through Congress. Introduced last year by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX-2) and officially known as H.R. 620, the bill would create burdensome red tape for individuals with disabilities attempting to fully exercise their rights as outlined in the ADA. First of all, H.R. 620 requires anyone filing a lawsuit under Title III of the ADA to provide written notice to the offending business owner, which cites the specific statutes that are being violated. The business owner would have 60 days to acknowledge the violation and then a further 120 days to make “substantial progress” toward rectifying the problem. Translation-as pointed out by the ACLU, “Business owners can spend years out of compliance and face no penalty even after they receive notice, so long as the owners claim substantial progress.”
It’s another case of those on the right decrying the undue inequities of federal regulations. The proponents of H.R. 620 assert that Title III has led to frivolous lawsuits that are killing business and hurting the economy. The claim is misleading. Business owners only have to remedy the violation not pay any monetary damages, and accommodations are only required if they don’t present an “undue burden” on the proprietor and can be “readily achievable”. Furthermore, there are federally funded resources that assist businesses to get in compliance. And by the way, they’ve had almost 28 years to set things right!
H.R. 620 is not the only threat to the ADA. In December, AG Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice was rescinding several ADA documents which provide guidance on items such as service animals and accessible building practices. Also rescinded was a 2016 letter issued by President Obama that read in part, “The civil rights of persons with disabilities, including individuals with mental illness, intellectual or developmental disabilities, or physical disabilities, are violated by unnecessary segregation in a wide variety of settings, including in segregated employment, vocational and day programs.” This leads me to a final point. In recent months the Trump administration and Republicans on the Hill have been pushing for work requirements for Medicaid recipients. In fact, Kentucky has already received a waiver from the administration to roll out such a plan, and at least 9 other states are following suit. Seniors, children under 19, and pregnant women are exempt from the work requirement, but the situation is murkier for individuals with disabilities. States are being given wide latitude as to how the requirements will be imposed. Many disabled people rely on Medicaid, not to mention that many are already employed. But if provisions of Title III of the ADA are weakened, will Title I, which deals with employment, be next?
Maybe it’s just a problem of semantics. By definition the word regulation means to be controlled by rules. Unlike the contractor and the zoning officer in my story, some people just don’t like rules or being controlled by them. Or maybe it’s something darker. Perhaps we’ve come to an ugly place where expediency and greed take precedence over common decency and basic human compassion.
posted by Amy Levengood
On December 11th, 2017 State Rep Margo Davidson (D-PA 164) joined a group of female legislators, including State Sen Judy Schwank (D-PA 11), to announce new legislation to combat sexual harassment.
Following the lead of their counterparts in Washington, women of the PA House and Senate are coming together to introduce legislation that would protect victims of sexual harassment and abuse.
Back in November, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA 14) launched the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On Congress Act or Me Too Congress Act, supported by a bipartisan group of House members. A few weeks later, 20 Senators led by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-MI) introduced an almost identical bill called the Congressional Harassment Reform Act.
Speier herself is a victim of sexual harassment. In October she related her own Me Too story about being forcibly kissed by a chief of staff while she was a Congressional staffer. (Side note for the history buffs- Jackie Speier, as a young staffer, accompanied California Congressman Leo Ryan to Jonestown in 1978 to investigate human rights abuses by Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones. The team was ambushed by Jones’ followers. Congressman Ryan was killed and Speier suffered several gunshot wounds.)
Introducing the Me Too Congress Act Speier said, “In 1995, Congress created the Office of Congressional Compliance to protect itself from being exposed, and it has been remarkably successful. Twenty years later, 260 settlements and more than $15 million have permanently silenced victims of all types of workplace discrimination. Zero tolerance is meaningless unless it is backed up with enforcement and accountability. Today, I am proud that my colleagues in the House and the Senate, from both sides of the aisle, are joining me to end the era of impunity for disgraceful behavior and to protect the survivors.” Speier added, “Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long. It’s rigged in favor of the institution and the members, and we can’t tolerate that.”
The bill (officially named HR 4822) is meant to address shortcomings of the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 Reform Act or CAA Reform Act. It was scheduled for mark up on Monday Feb 5th. HR 4822 is cosponsored by several Pennsylvania congressmen including Bob Brady (D-PA01) (who just announced he’s not running for reelection), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA08), and Ryan Costello (R-PA06).
One thing addressed by the 1995 legislation was that up until that time the legislative branch was exempt from many workplace laws that applied to the rest of the federal government. Critics say that the CAA Reform Act lacks transparency and accountability. Costello has described the current process as “confusing” and “opaque.” Costello said, “While many, if not most, Congressional offices, mine included, have policies in place regarding sexual harassment, this legislation will require annual sexual harassment training, and bring greater transparency and accountability to procedures for filing and investigating a complaint. It is appropriate for the federal government to lead on this issue. This bill is an important step forward in supporting a professional work environment, and I hope to see it signed into law.”
Here’s a look at the current process for victims on Capitol Hill:
Rep Speier points out that the current process as described above is excruciating and puts the survivor “at the bottom of the totem pole”. As the New York Times reported in the case of Pat Meehan’s former staffer, “It set her back financially and professionally, as she continued to pay legal costs associated with the complaint even after leaving her job in Mr. Meehan’s office and struggling to find a new one. She moved back in with her parents and ultimately decided to start a new life abroad.”
The new bill would change the process in a number of ways:
Reps. Speier, Costello, Brady, and Poliquin (R-ME) also introduced the bipartisan H.Res. 604 or the CEASE Resolution. It would require all members and staff of the House of Representatives to undergo annual sexual harassment prevention and response training. The Senate has already passed a similar resolution.
Much of the public uproar seems to stem from the fact that taxpayer money has been used to settle many of these harassment suits. While that outrage is understandable, the proposed legislation addresses more than that. As was mentioned earlier, the power of the Me Too movement has sparked legislative proposals not just at the federal level, but at the state level as well.
Pennsylvania Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D-PA 161) has introduced the #METOO PA State House Act (Member and Employee Training and Oversight on PA General Assembly Act) that would protect the victim and the public in the event of workplace sexual harassment in the PA General Assembly. The bill, HB 1965, has co-sponsors from Berks, including Mark Gillen (R-PA 128), Mark Rozzi (D-PA 126), and yes, wait for it, Tom Caltagirone (D-PA 127). (Hypocrisy is alive and well at the State House.)
The following are included in HB 1965:
HB 1965 is not the only legislation currently being considered in Harrisburg. A bill being introduced by Rep. Maureen Madden (D-PA 115) would legally protect all employees in Pennsylvania from unwanted sexual harassment by extending the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to any entity that has more than one employee. Rep. Carol Hill-Evans (D-PA 95) has introduced legislation to create a task force to examine sexual assault on college campuses. Sen. Judy Schwank (D-PA 11) is also introducing legislation that would prohibit non-disclosure agreements within contracts or secret settlements related to sexual harassment or misconduct.
The efforts above should be applauded, but the biggest takeaway of all is that (sorry boys) women are leading the charge. In his recent column, Leonard Pitts Jr. says the 80’s pop song, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves”, has in 2018 become a prophecy -with a record number of women running for office and forming organizations to support those who wish to do so. Pitts writes, “Now women have cranked the volume to 11 and broken off the knob…this wave of women power is an inspiration larger than gender. One hopes little boys are taking note, every bit as much as little girls. Sisters are doin’ it for us all.”
posted by Amy Levengood
Donald Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department didn’t start when he decided to enter the political arena. In 1973 when he was just 27 years old and fresh out of business school, he held a press conference (yes, he used to do those) outside a hotel in Manhattan and referred to what he called the government’s “outrageous lies”.
These comments were in response to a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division against Trump Management Company run by Trump’s father, Fred. The organization was being charged with racial discrimination in renting and managing some 39 buildings it owned, thus violating the Fair Housing Act.
One former employee alleged that Fred Trump told him not to rent to blacks, and that Trump clearly knew this was against the law. The same employee claimed that the elder Trump wanted to “get rid of blacks” who were in his building by telling them they could get cheaper housing elsewhere and offered to pay the down payments himself. Another allegation by the anonymous employee was that codes were used on rental applications to distinguish between blacks and whites. The employee was eventually fired.
In true Trumpian style the Trump Management Co. countersued the government for $100 million in damages. (The lawyer representing the Trump’s was none other than Roy Cohn.) The suit never went to court with both parties entering into a consent decree. The Trump’s admitted no wrong-doing but from that point on were required to advertise that they offered equal opportunity in housing.
Let’s take a brief look at the history of the Fair Housing Act the Trump’s were accused of violating, because it’s relevant to some recent activity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under Secretary Ben Carson.
The Fair Housing Act, formally known as The Civil Rights Act of 1968, was intended to provide for equal housing opportunities regardless of race, religion, or national origin. The Act, which saw serious pushback for years (It was the most filibustered legislation in U.S. history up to that point.) was finally signed into law by President Johnson just one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The following forms of discrimination are banned by the law:
In 2012 HUD’s office of Fair Housing and Opportunity prohibited LGBT discrimination in federally assisted housing programs. In regard to non-federal housing, sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t protected under the Fair Housing Act, but 22 states have passed such legislation. Pennsylvania isn’t one of them. (Numerous municipalities in PA have signed their own non-discrimination ordinances. See our post from September, “Location, Location, Location”.)
Although the Fair Housing Act made significant strides in combating discrimination, there were aspects of the legislation that were underdeveloped. The Obama administration sought to make several improvements that would advance the law further.
Then 2016 happened. Julian Castro was out as HUD Secretary and Ben Carson was in, and he decided it was time to rearrange the furniture.
Carson attempted to delay for two years implementation of the Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFM), which is designed to give Section 8 housing voucher recipients more choice in where to live. In yet another reminder of why the courts are so important, the district court of Washington, D.C. ruled last month that HUD must enforce the Obama-era anti-segregation measure beginning January 1st, 2018 as originally scheduled.
Not only would the SAFM rule give recipients more choice, they would also be protected from price gouging. HUD calculates “fair market rent” by averaging rents across a metro area. The subsidy is capped at the fair market rent value. The vouchers often fall short of the amount needed to cover the rent unless the recipient lives in a low-income or impoverished area. Because many voucher recipients are people of color, one could argue that the program was actually reinforcing segregation. The Obama-era SAFM rule made a small but important change-fair market rent would be calculated by averaging a nearby zip code rather than across an entire are, allowing the value of the voucher to rise.
SAFM was vetted for a number of years, and Carson gave little explanation for wanting to delay it. It is yet to be seen whether Carson will appeal the district court’s ruling.
But there’s more than one way to breach the castle walls. If starving the inhabitants doesn’t succeed, this administration will surely man the catapults. On Friday, HUD announced it will delay enforcement of a second Obama-era rule, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule that would have required communities to address patterns of racial segregation.
Under AFFH communities must review their housing policies in regard to segregation and submit a plan known as an Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) to address any abuses. Failure to submit a plan could cause communities to lose block grants and aid from the government. Carson didn’t repeal the rule outright, but again is trying to delay further implementation.
Based on his history, Carson’s delaying tactics are likely intended to undermine anti-segregation efforts and HUD itself. In 2015, he wrote an op-ed calling the AFFH rule “an experiment in failed socialism. Carson’s activity at HUD is part of a broader pattern by the Trump administration to undo anything Obama accomplished. And Trump’s actions in general certainly give credence to the old adage-Like father, like son.
posted by Amy Levengood
Vetting doesn’t seem to be Donald Trump’s forte. One has to look no further than his 2016 campaign team to know this isn’t an alternative fact. Corey Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, and George Papadopoulos turned out to be less than savory characters. Michael Flynn, Seb Gorka, Tom Price, and “The Mooch” shouldn’t have made it past the first interview. And let’s not even get into HUD regional appointee Lynne Patton. Her resume’s a beaut! Trump tapped the former wedding planner and event coordinator to manage the nation’s largest Section 8 program along with its billion dollar budget.
Given this track record, you would think the Senate would certainly scrutinize the administration’s nominees with laser-like precision, especially when said nominees have the potential of influencing policy for decades to come. But we now live in the Trump era where up is down and left is right and norms are left on the mat like an unfinished game of Twister.
On December 12th in a narrow 50-48 party-line vote, the Senate confirmed Leonard Steven Grasz to serve on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Grasz was Nebraska’s chief deputy attorney general for more than eleven years and served as general counsel to the Nebraska Republican Party. “What’s the problem?” you may ask.
Even if Trump didn’t go over this particular nominee with a fine tooth comb, Republican Senators who gave the nod to Grasz can’t claim ignorance. Prior to confirmation proceedings, Grasz was given a rare and unanimous “not qualified” rating by the American Bar Association (ABA). In assigning the rating, the ABA cited concerns which were raised in confidential interviews with Grasz’s colleagues that he wouldn’t be able to set aside his conservative ideological beliefs. Both Nebraska Senators, Ben Sasse and Deb Fischer, recommended Grasz for the position and defended him during the process. Other Republicans have dismissed the ABA as partisan and called its rating a “hit job”.
The “concerns” of Grasz’s colleagues are shared by Democrats and liberal advocacy groups, but what are they? Grasz once referred to the legacy of Roe v. Wade as a “moral bankruptcy”. In another opinion he wrote, he said it was a “grave danger” for Nebraska’s Supreme Court to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and that legislation refusing to recognize such marriages could be defended against unconstitutionality.
Grasz is only the third nominee since 1989 to have been given a “not qualified” rating by the ABA, but he’s got company in the current administration. Brett Talley, who Trump chose to serve as district judge in Alabama, has also received a unanimous “not qualified” rating. In fact Talley has never even tried a case in court.
To put things in perspective, in less than a year in office, the Trump administration has seen 12 of its appellate court nominees confirmed. President Obama had 3 with none of his nominees receiving the ABA’s “not qualified” rating.
Democrats are not only questioning the quality of Trump’s nominees, but also the speed at which they’re being pushed through the confirmation process. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is worried that the Judiciary Committee’s ability to properly vet these nominees appointed to lifetime positions is being compromised. “I’m concerned our role is becoming diminished,” Feinstein said on Nov. 30. “Our committee has never been a rubber stamp for any president’s nominee, and I don’t think we should start now.”
Midterms are in November. Congress and the White House have less than a year to spruce up their own resumes. I’d be guessing, but I’d bet the electorate won’t be so permissive when it comes to vetting them.
posted by Amy Levengood
“Despite press reports that the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee now may be considering changing the Committee’s practice of observing senatorial courtesy, we, as a Conference, expect it to be observed, even-handedly and regardless of party affiliation. And we will act to preserve this principle and the rights of our colleagues if it is not.”
What short memories members of congress seem to have. The quote above is an excerpt from a letter signed by every GOP senator including Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and sent to President Obama in 2009 warning that they wouldn’t allow judicial nominees to move forward if they weren’t first approved using the “blue slip” process.
That was in 2009, when Republicans had neither a majority in the Senate nor an ideological ally in the White House. Now it’s 2017 and my, how things have changed! When it comes to Trump’s nominees, McConnell and Grassley are doing a politically expedient about face. Grassley, the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced last week that he would allow hearings to proceed for two nominees despite the fact that their home state senators had not returned positive blue slips.
So what's a blue slip?
The blue slip process is a tradition of "senatorial courtesy" that actually dates back to the very origins of our republic.
In 1789 George Washington sent particular senators his list of nominees for port tax collectors. Next to the nominee's name, a clerk noted each senator's vote of either approval or dissent.
Every nominee received an "aye" except for poor Benjamin Fishbourn of Georgia. (Fishbourn was opposed by GA Senator James Gunn who preferred a candidate who was a close political ally.) Fishbourn became the first presidential nominee to be rejected by the Senate. This is where the tradition began.
There are two versions of the blue slip, one in the House and one in the Senate. The House version involves tax and spending bills. In the Senate "blue slip" refers to the letter printed on blue paper (thus the term) sent to home state senators from the chair of the Judiciary Committee, allowing them to weigh in on a particular judicial nominee.
One of the earliest examples of a blue slip from 1917.
It's been a longstanding tradition of the Senate Judiciary Committee that both home state senators of a nominee, even if they're not on the committee, must turn in the blue slip in order for the committee to move the nominee forward for consideration. Senators may also choose to not return a blue slip on the candidate, and in the past this often meant that the nominee wouldn't get a hearing. A "negative" blue slip was seen as a veto, and the chairman would refuse to move the nomination forward. Either way, the blue slip gave the Senate a participatory role in both the advisory and consent part of the process. A role, which many believed, ensured a qualified and mainstream judiciary.
That’s what Senator Grassley said in 2015. But now, on November 29th in fact, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider two circuit court nominees who have not received the support of both of their home state senators: Kyle Duncan of Louisiana (nominated for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals) and David Stras of Minnesota (nominated for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals).
Reviews from home state senators on both Stras and Duncan are mixed. Senator Amy Klobuchar has returned a favorable blue slip on Stras, but Senator Al Franken has decided to withhold his because he fears Stras’ would be a “deeply conservative jurist. Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy (of Graham-Cassidy fame) approved of Duncan’s nomination; Louisiana’s other Republican senator, John Kennedy has yet to return his blue slip.
If we take a closer look at Kyle Duncan’s record, we get a better understanding of the kind of judicial candidates the blue slip was designed to prevent.
What we know about Kyle Duncan:
He was raised in Baton Rouge and was Louisiana’s solicitor general from 2008 to 2012. Duncan has never been a judge, but he has what some have called “sterling credentials with right wing political activists”.
The blue slip was designed to block extremist nominees like Kyle Duncan. The tradition also gives the party that's not in power some say in the process. “Blue slips are one of the few weapons that are left to protect the minority’s rights,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor and an expert on the judicial nominations process. “They also protect home state senators’ prerogatives to affect who is nominated from their states, which could be important for GOP senators who disagree with Trump.”
A recent memo from Grassley’s staff stated, “A blue slip policy allowing a single senator to block a nominee from even receiving Committee consideration is a more extreme example of a counter-majoritarian practice.”
Chuck Grassley doesn’t face his electorate for another 6 years. But some of his colleagues in the Senate won’t be as lucky. Come 2018, if they continue to ignore Senate tradition they won't have to worry about about returning blue slips. They'll be getting pink slips from us!
Learn more about the judicial process on our Federal Court System page.
For more information on judicial nominees go to the Alliance for Justice at www.afj.org.
What's At Stake With The Judiciary
140 federal judicial vacancies
19 in circuit courts
121 in district courts
52 judicial emergencies
10 for circuit courts
42 for district courts
46 nominees to the federal bench
10 circuit court
36 district court
19 nominees pending on the floor
posted by Amy Levengood
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sent out a tweet Sunday asking people to tell her what they’d do with the money they’d save under the Trump tax scheme. Apparently by cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%, we are all going to get an average pay raise of $4,000 per household. Sarah wants to know what we’re going to do with all the extra cash, and she’s promising to share our stories from her podium. I thought this was rather fitting, since this White House is so given to telling fish stories and fairy tales.
But hey, if you think she can be a little loose with the facts, don’t take it from Sarah; look no further than fashion maven, popsicle aficionado, and presidential advisor, first daughter Ivanka Trump. Speaking Monday in Bucks County, Ivanka told the audience that her father’s tax plan would work in tandem with his deregulation crusade. The economy would be spurred, young entrepreneurs would keep their companies stateside (cough), we would all stop “losing sleep over” industry regulations and live happily ever after.
If that’s too much fiction for you, here’s a reality check. Trump’s tax plan is Little Red Riding Hood economics-a hungry, greedy wolf of a tax cut for the wealthy all gussied up in grandma’s bloomers. Just like the Big Bad Wolf who tried to pull a scam on Little Red, Trump and Republicans in Congress are trying to fool the American people into believing their tax “reform” plan is going to benefit the middle class. But we’ve all heard this story before, so let’s break it down by playing a game of Fact or Fiction and expose this animal for what it really is.
Fact or Fiction?
The U.S. tax code is cumbersome and hinders economic growth. Trump's plan is a tax reform, which will simplify tax brackets and close loopholes to help small businesses and average families.
What they’re not telling you is that it’s the wealthiest of the wealthy that will benefit. The top tax rate goes from 39.6% to 35%, which only helps those making more than $418,000 or $470,000 for a married couple. For the top 0.1% the average tax reduction per return will be $1 million!
Fact or Fiction?
Under the Trump plan, the "pass-through" income tax rate would be lowered. Small businesses would benefit.
Many businesses are organized in a way that they are taxed through the owner’s individual income not through the corporate tax code. 70% of all pass-through income is accrued by the top 1%. Pass-through income is taxed at the individual rate of 39.6%. Republicans want to limit the tax on pass-through income to 25%. This will cost $770 billion over ten years. It would not help small businesses. Half the benefits of this change would go to the 1%. Republicans say they want to reform the tax code, but this would create a huge loophole that would be a boon to hedge fund managers not mom and pop. A certain individual would be one of those who gain the most. Want to guess who that may be? The Trump Organization is essentially a series of pass-through entities. If the rate is lowered to 25%, Trump and his brood would see a significant tax reduction.
Fact or Fiction?
Repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) would eliminate some of the loopholes used to avoid paying taxes.
The AMT was put in place so that the wealthiest couldn’t exploit loopholes. Under this part of the tax code, the wealthy must first calculate their tax obligation under the regular code, then calculate it under the AMT. If the AMT is greater, those individuals must pay the difference. Republicans want to eliminate the AMT, giving the wealthy another break, allowing them to pay little or no tax at all.
Fact or Fiction?
The estate tax should be repealed, so American families can maintain their hard-earned assets.
This tax only effects individuals whose estate is valued at more than $5.5 million. The richest 400 billionaires have more wealth than 62% of Americans. The estate tax was intended to correct this persistent concentration of wealth. Now Republicans want to get rid of it altogether. This would cost $239 billion in ten years. Who will this benefit? 99.8% of people would be unaffected by the estate tax to begin with, so again we're looking at a tiny portion of the overall population.
Are you sensing a trend?
Let's face the facts. The Trump Tax plan is a hoax and one we've seen before. The money doesn't trickle down as promised and any small advantages that may be claimed are usually erased by cuts in essential programs and services. The White House pretends this will be a gift from the gods for the middle class, but those it actually helps are doing rather well already. According to Ed Wolff, an economist at N.Y.U., "the richest ten per cent of U.S. households own more than eighty per cent of all stock-market wealth. And, as the market has risen in anticipation of the Trump tax plan passing, these wealthy households have already enjoyed a substantial windfall." In other words, the rich get richer.
There's one last point that needs to be made, and it's one of the more insidious aspects of the plan. Trump's tax plan would widen the already cavernous racial wealth gap. "The vast majority of the benefits of the Trump Tax Scam flow to the highest quintile of families—an income band that is 77% white but only 6% African American and 7% Latino. "
What all of this underscores is how imperative it is for the American people to see Trump’s tax returns-to see just how much he is benefiting from his own policies while at best, not helping, and at worst, hurting the rest of us.
This story is far from its conclusion, but unless we mobilize like we did to fight Trumpcare, it won't have a happy ending. Like Little Red Riding Hood in her refrain with the wolf, we might say, “Mr. Trump, what small hands you have!” I'm just afraid his response would be, “The better to fleece you with, my dear!”
Credit: Tony Webster/Flickr
When a nation’s president personally and ferociously attacks one of its citizens and by extension an entire group of people, I don’t think it’s too much to ask what’s really at the heart of such vitriol. Yes- I’m speaking of 45, and yes- I’m speaking of Colin Kaepernick and his NFL colleagues.
By now I’m sure you’re all aware of the story behind Kaepernick’s protest. It began in 2016 when he sat during the playing of the national anthem. In Kaepernick’s words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." He was referring, of course, to cases such as those of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, which led to the Black Lives Matter movement. Later Kaepernick took to kneeling during the anthem to show respect for members of the military but insisted that he would continue his protests until "[the American flag] represents what it's supposed to represent".
Unfortunately, between the president’s rants and stunts like the one pulled this weekend by VP Mike Pence, the original intent of Colin Kaepernick’s protest has gone a little blurry around the edges. One can't help but wonder if that wasn’t precisely their intent.
What is it exactly that 45 and his VP don’t want us to see? Maybe it’s the fact that in 2015, for example, in officer-involved killings the rate of death of young black men was 5 times higher than white men of the same age. To say we need to refocus the issue is an understatement. Up until last December the FBI didn’t even have accurate data on homicides by police and depended solely on police chiefs voluntarily submitting their numbers. In fact, it was found that by using this method the bureau was recording less than half of all killings occurring nationwide.
After the unrest in Ferguson, a White House task force convened by President Obama recommended that better data on killings and the use of force by police was warranted. The basic lack of data came to light due to a project by The Washington Post and one from The Guardian called The Counted, which combined reporting with verified crowdsourced information to give a more accurate tally of the number of police involved killings. Former FBI Director James Comey announced reforms to the FBI’s data collection methods saying it was “unacceptable” that projects like The Counted had better numbers than his own agency.
Fortunately, Senator Art Haywood (Senate District 4, serving parts of Montgomery and Philadelphia counties) is placing attention back where it belongs. Haywood is the prime sponsor of a bill, SB 400, which would require an independent prosecutor be appointed when there is a deadly force incident and police officers are involved. Haywood first introduced the bill during the 2015-16 legislative session and is reintroducing it now along with co-sponsors Daylin Leach (SD-17), Jay Cost (SD-43), and Vincent Hughes (SD-7).
Senator Haywood has a simple objective. “When it comes time to investigate a police-involved shooting, let’s have more independence in the process,” said Haywood.
The initiative has met with some criticism, particularly from Wendall Morris of the Pennsylvania State Police director of the Bureau of Integrity and Professional Standards unit. “I’m confident in the ability of our internal affairs division, and our investigators and current processes that’s set up to make sure that there are fair and impartial investigations,” said Morris.
Some district attorneys have also expressed reservations saying the law would take away the rights of local DA’s to decide whether prosecution in such cases is necessary. “You’d be given that decision to someone who’s unelected, who’s not responsible to the community,” Dauphin County DA Ed Marsico said.
But isn’t that precisely the bill’s objective to keep the process apolitical and independent?
Pennsylvania ACLU director Liz Randol notes, “This would be a clear-cut way to ensure that there’s a level of separation between the local district attorneys and the police officers they’re investigating. I think most important for us, it’s about making sure that the public perceives and understands that this process has to be fair.”
SB 400 would provide fairness and a neutral review of cases in which an individual dies at the hands of police. It would also restore something fundamental to our democracy-public confidence in our judicial system. Maybe then the American flag will once again “represent what it’s supposed to represent” -not just for some of the people but for us all.
posted by Amy Levengood
Francisco de Goya's The Third of May, 1808. 1814, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
I’m always intrigued when I read stories of 19th Century art patrons fainting in galleries before particularly graphic paintings by Goya, for example, or depictions of human suffering in works such as Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. It seems strange that our Victorian cousins’ sensibilities were so delicate and different from our own. Though their lives were often harsh with death a constant companion, they weren’t inundated on a daily basis with violent visual imagery in movies or on T.V. as we are today. I think of this every time there’s a mass shooting in this country. While it’s always horrifying, I must admit each time one of these events occurs I feel a little more numb than the last time. Is this a sympton of the desensitization that that our pre-24 hour news cycle fore bearers had not yet acquired? In a nation where, according to the Congressional Research Service, there are twice as many guns per capita as there were in 1968 (more than 300 million in all) it’s often hard to be surprised.
This brings me to two bills dealing with gun legislation sitting in the PA Senate. One is an improvement on current law, the other is simply appalling.
The first is SB 501: Enhancing Safety For All Parties Involved In Protection From Abuse. Under current PA law, when a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order is issued, judges have the discretion of whether to order a surrender of the defendant’s firearms. The defendant has the option of turning them over to a parent, close friend, or relative. This presents a very dangerous proposition. Nothing prevents the third party from allowing the defendant continued access to the weapon. There are at least three cases over the last decade where a defendant has convinced their friend or relative to return the gun and then committed a homicide. (Click here to view the Domestic Violence Fatality Report.) SB 501 would only allow the firearms to be surrendered to the County Sheriff, an additional law enforcement agency, or a federally-licensed firearms dealer. If the defendant is convicted, the firearms would have to be handed over within 24 hours rather than the current 60 days.
Providing victims with extended PFA protection is a significant tool for victim safety and offender accountability. SB 501 would allow judges to use risk assessment tools to determine whether a defendant poses a danger to a victim when determining bail.
Ellen Kramer of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence notes, “There is so much more that must be done to stem the tide of domestic violence in our communities. For many domestic violence victims, a PFA offers vital protection that allows them to escape their abusive relationships and live in safer and more independent environments.”
Now for the appalling part. The gun lobby has a singular solution for securing our country against gun violence: Americans need to pack more heat. According to NRA Leader Wayne LaPierre, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Beyond this being simply nuts, the lack of logic in it was born out in the recent massacre in Las Vegas.
“If you were in the concert venue, concealed carrying, it’s not likely you could effectively respond,” said Pete Blair, the executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University and author of a study of police responses to active shooters. “Most people with a pistol aren’t accurate or effective beyond 25 yards.”
In the case of Pennsylvania Senate Bill 383, the “good guys” are teachers. SB 383 would allow school personnel to have access to firearms in school safety zones with three conditions: if the school board approves, they are licensed to carry, and have met certain training requirements. The bill has passed 28-22 in the PA Senate. Now it's up to the House Education Committee.
Numerous groups have come out in opposition to the bill, including PSEA, AFT, Ceasefire PA, and Moms Demand Action. “Elementary, middle and high school teachers should not be expected to do double-duty as sharpshooters, nor should they have to tolerate an environment where their colleagues or visitors in their schools might be carrying a loaded gun," reads a statement from Moms Demand Action.
When we let fear shape public policies, we end up with a false sense of security without actually addressing the problem. When we let campaign donations and the NRA shape public policies, we end up with a lot of "thoughts and prayers" and no concrete action. It's this lassitude or "numbing down" that the gun lobby and the politicians in its pocket are counting on.
Some may chalk up Victorian delicacy to tight corsets, but I like to hope that we are still capable of a spontaneous and visceral reaction to violence and bloodshed. Let's hope our lawmakers, too, have retained at least this much of a semblance of humanity.
posted by Amy Levengood
If you're a resident of California, New York, Colorado, or even Guam, and are a member of the LGBT community you can rest assured that you are protected by law from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in both the public and private sectors. Those areas listed are just a few of the 23 states and territories which afford their residents such protection. (See the map above.)
“What about Pennsylvania?” you may ask. Believe it or not Pennsylvania was the first state to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation in the public sector back in 1975. (This was done via executive order. In 2003 via executive order, discrimination was banned based on gender identity.) But since then those working in the private sector, which are by far the majority, have been left defenseless. And little has been done to protect transgender individuals in either sector of the economy. There are currently no explicit, comprehensive statewide non-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people in Pennsylvania.
Remember the little cartoon scroll from School House Rock! who dreamed of becoming a bill? He sang, “It’s a long, long wait while I’m sitting in committee.” Well sitting quietly in committee since April 2017 is an act now known as SB 613. It’s a piece of legislation that seeks to amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) of 1955. It’s identical to SB 974 proposed in the last session of the PA legislature and co-sponsored by Berks County’s own Senator Judy Schwank.
Here’s the language of the current PHRA:
(a) The practice or policy of discrimination against individuals or groups by reason of their race, color, familial status, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, handicap or disability, use of guide or support animals because of the blindness, deafness or physical handicap of the user or because the user is a handler or trainer of support or guide animals is a matter of concern of the Commonwealth. Such discrimination foments domestic strife and unrest, threatens the rights and privileges of the inhabitants of the Commonwealth, and undermines the foundations of a free democratic state. The denial of equal employment, housing and public accommodation opportunities because of such discrimination, and the consequent failure to utilize the productive capacities of individuals to their fullest extent, deprives large segments of the population of the Commonwealth of earnings necessary to maintain decent standards of living, necessitates their resort to public relief and intensifies group conflicts, thereby resulting in grave injury to the public health and welfare, compels many individuals to live in dwellings which are substandard, unhealthful and overcrowded, resulting in racial segregation in public schools and other community facilities, juvenile delinquency and other evils, thereby threatening the peace, health, safety and general welfare of the Commonwealth and its inhabitants.
(b) It is hereby declared to be the public policy of this Commonwealth to foster the employment of all individuals in accordance with their fullest capacities regardless of their race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, handicap or disability, use of guide or support animals because of the blindness, deafness or physical handicap of the user or because the user is a handler or trainer of support or guide animals, and to safeguard their right to obtain and hold employment without such discrimination, to assure equal opportunities to all individuals and to safeguard their rights to public accommodation and to secure housing accommodation and commercial property regardless of race, color, familial status, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, handicap or disability, use of guide or support animals because of blindness or deafness of the user or because the user is a handler or trainer of guide or support animals.
(c) This act shall be deemed an exercise of the police power of the Commonwealth for the protection of the public welfare, prosperity, health and peace of the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
SB 613 would provide a basic level of protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. Why should Pennsylvanians support this amendment? Number one-it’s the right thing to do! In addition, recent surveys show 70% of Pennsylvanians support bolstering protections against discrimination for the LGBT community. But beyond that there are positive economic benefits for the commonwealth. Promoting a respect for diversity can only serve to attract the best workers and give Pennsylvania an economic advantage. Language from the bill's Memorandum sums it up well:
"More than 400 companies in Pennsylvania, including some of the largest employers, have non-discrimination policies in place that include sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Additionally, all Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the Commonwealth have non-discrimination policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and most have a gender identity or expression policy as well. These employers recognize that by respecting diversity, they can attract and retain the best workers and maintain a competitive advantage – a key factor in stimulating economic growth.
Pennsylvania should be seen as a place that welcomes any individual who wants to work hard, succeed, and contribute to our economy without the fear of being fired or refused services simply because of who they are. Although there has been an increase in the number of Pennsylvania municipalities that have passed non-discrimination ordinances, without a statewide law, thousands of individuals not residing in one of these thirty-eight (38) municipalities are not covered. Moreover, Pennsylvania has the distinction of being the only state in the Northeast without a law protecting individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity."
Since the Memorandum was written, the number of municipalities has increased to 44.
Municipalities with non-discrimination ordinances
Forty-four (44) municipalities in Pennsylvania prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or both:
1. City of Philadelphia (1982 SO, 2002 GI)
2. City of Harrisburg (1983)
3. City of Pittsburgh (1997)
4. City of York (1998)
5. City of Lancaster (2002)
6. City of Allentown (2002)
7. Erie County (2002)
8. City of Erie (2002)
9. New Hope Borough (2002)
10. City of Scranton (2003)
11. Swarthmore Borough (2006)
12. City of West Chester (2006)
13. City of Easton (2006)
14. Lansdowne Borough (2006)
15. State College Borough (2007)
16. Allegheny County (2009)
17. City of Reading (2009)
18. Doylestown Borough (2010)
19. Lower Merion Township (2010)
20. Borough of Conshohocken (2011)
21. Haverford Township (2011)
22. City of Bethlehem (2011)
23. Springfield Township (2011)
24. Newtown Borough (2011)
25. Whitemarsh Township (2011)
26. Jenkintown Borough (2011)
27. Susquehanna Township (2011)
28. Cheltenham Borough (2012)
29. Abington Township (2012)
30. Upper Merion Township (2012)
31. East Norriton Township (2012)
32. City of Pittston (2013)
33. Bristol Borough (2013)
34. Downingtown (2014)
35. Ambler Borough (2016)
36. Dickson City (2016)
37. Wilkes-Barre (2016)
38. Carlisle (2016)
39. Kennett Square Borough (2017)
40. Phoenixville (2017)
41. Royersford (2017)
42. Camp Hill (2017)
43. Stroudsburg (2017)
44. Upper Dublin Township (2017)
courtesy Equality Pennsylvania
Listen to the stories of people directly affected by SB 613:
Hopefully our legislators will get SB 613 out of committee and up for a vote soon. As for me, I don't remember the Declaration of Independence saying anything about pursuing happiness only in certain zip codes. Maybe I need to binge watch some School House Rock!
posted by Amy Levengood
Shortly after the terrible events in Charlottesville, a message came into my inbox from Governor Wolf. On the surface it read like the usual boilerplate with the fine print at the bottom reminding me that contributions and gifts to Tom Wolf for Governor are not tax deductible. But something about the tone of it was a bit different. In the email Wolf talked about the tragedy in Charlottesville and expressed his and his wife Frances’ sympathy for the victims. He denounced white supremacy and described the president’s response as “nothing short of disgusting and incendiary”. He also reminded us of the special place Pennsylvania holds in the nation because of its particular history, first as a colony built on values of freedom and tolerance, then as the place where the Declaration of Independence, the document which embodies those values was written and signed, and later as home to the battlefields of Gettysburg where people gave their lives to preserve and defend the young nation in order that those values could be enjoyed by all.
This started me to thinking. Where does a state like Pennsylvania, which sits north of the Mason Dixon Line, find itself on the continuum of tolerance and bigotry? I began to do a little sleuthing and what I found was troubling.
Back in February the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published a study showing hate groups are on the rise across the country. SPLC has identified 917 organizations in the U.S. that qualify as hate groups. 40 of those groups have affiliates right here in PA. In fact, Pennsylvania ranks as the state with the 5th most hate groups in the U.S.
Sadly this came as no surprise. At one time I lived in the center of Boyertown and can vividly remember when once a month usually on Saturdays, KKK members would rally in broad daylight, albeit hidden under hoods, handing out pamphlets to passing motorists in the main intersection of town. That’s when Project Lemonade stepped in. Using a phone chain to alert members, Project Lemonade would spring into action when the Klan began their activities. For every minute the hate group would rally, Project Lemonade would counter-protest in order to solicit donations which in turn would be given to the NAACP, Anti-Defamation League and the SPLC or be used toward school programs and books that promoted diversity. This grass roots effort was successful in ridding downtown Boyertown of the Klan.
Unfortunately the didn't go far. As was noted earlier, the SPLC has identified 40 hate groups in PA. On their website is a resource called the Hate Map which pinpoints the groups in PA and throughout the country. Looking at the map, one sees that an affiliate of the Klan calling itself the Ku Klos Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is centered about 6 miles north of Boyertown in Bally, PA.
Other groups in PA that the SPLC has identified as hate groups fall into the following categories: general hate, white supremacy, black separatists, Holocaust deniers, radical traditional Catholicism, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT. Of all these, the Klan remains the most active.
In addition to the above-listed groups, in 2015 Pennsylvania was found to have the most anti-government groups in the country, including two militias. (Members of the Pennsylvania Lightfoot Militia were spotted in the crowd in Charlottesville. See Sean Kitchen's article in Raging Chicken Press.) SPCL doesn’t qualify anti-government groups as criminal, violent, or racist. The groups describe themselves as opposed to the “New World Order” and in general subscribe to unfounded conspiracy theories and extreme antigovernment doctrines.
It’s not a pretty picture we Pennsylvanians see when we look in the mirror. We need to remain vigilant and remind ourselves of our history. We need to take heart in how a small grassroots group of ordinary citizens with an innocuous name like Project Lemonade chased the bogeyman from their town. Governor Wolf said in his email, “I have a message for any white supremacist who thinks that they can make Pennsylvania a safe haven for bigotry and intolerance: you are not welcome here. You cannot intimidate us because the spirit of Pennsylvania will always win over hate.” I hope he’s right.
7 Charts that explain hate groups in the U.S.
If you're asking what you can do, take a look at a new publication from the SPLC: "Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide". The center describes it as "a blueprint for speaking up and organizing communities against hate while – most importantly – avoiding violent confrontations."
posted by Amy Levengood