While out on the campaign trail, a favorite refrain of Donald Trump’s was “drain the swamp”! That promise was about as genuine and well-conceived as his wall/steel slats/beaded curtain border security plan is now. Although there are varying interpretations as to what Trump meant by the phrase, in the common vernacular one would expect serious ethics reforms and anti-corruption initiatives to follow. Instead the self-professed outsider who loved to tout his credentials of not being a politician didn’t skip a beat in rigging the political system in his favor. In fact he and his cronies are playing it like a finely tuned fiddle.
Take for example former HHS Secretary Tom Price, who resigned after it was learned he chartered expensive private flights at taxpayer expense, or former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke whose daily calendars were as private as Brett Kavanaugh’s were public, and then there was former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s closed-door meetings with fossil fuel executives and his $43,000 soundproof booth. The list goes on.
In case you missed it, the hypocrisy isn’t limited to the president’s cabinet. From Ivanka Trump’s special Chinese licensing deals to the Secret Service tab at Mar-A-Lago to whatever it is Erik and Donald Jr. do, it seems the main offender is the commander in chief himself. Case in point - the current government shut-down. While families struggle to pay mortgages and put food on the table, and our national parks fill with trash, an historic clock tower at Trump International Hotel in D.C. remains open and fully staffed by National Park Service rangers. Can you say “conflict of interest”?
No, this is not the first administration to engage in scurrilous practices, nor are the transgressions confined to the Executive Branch, but the current resident of the Oval Office makes Abscam look like an old ladies’ sewing circle. This is why it’s encouraging that the new House of Representatives presented as its priority legislation H.R. 1 or the For the People Act. It is a 4-prong bill that is both symbolic yet has teeth. It consists of 571 pages of existing problems and proposed solutions regarding voting, money in politics, ethics and corruption, and redistricting.
*Here are some of the key provisions of H.R. 1 as outlined by NPR’s Peter Overby:
Voting and election laws
As for redistricting, one of the more “radical” proposals is to take the power to draw districts away from the states and give that authority to an independent commission.
*Taken from House Democrats Introduce Anti-Corruption Bill As Symbolic 1st Act, NPR politics, January 5, 2019.
It probably doesn't need to be said, but it's a lot to chew all in one bite, and many of these measures have been proposed before without success. But with new energy in Congress and those of us here at home manning the pumps, maybe we can drain that swamp after all.
posted by Amy Levengood
A person can learn a lot from U.S. Census data. It’s an especially useful tool for genealogy buffs. With just a few clicks I found things like my great-grandfather was a chipper in a steel mill, one of the hardest and dirtiest jobs in the plant, or the dates when my great-grandparents became naturalized citizens. I learned that census gatherers recorded information like whether the person spoke English or not or how much their house was worth. By today’s standards this sounds a bit intrusive, but they’re all things that help to round out a family history. The Census has another more important and consequential function, namely ensuring that each community gets the correct number of representatives and that public funds get distributed equitably.
The United States Census is conducted every ten years as mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, part of which states: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States ... according to their respective Numbers ...” The first census was taken in 1790 under the direction of Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State. There have been 22 since that time. Management of the census falls under the Bureau of the Census, which is part of the Commerce Department. The last count was in 2010. According to the data gatherers the 2010 Census found the U.S. population to be 308,745,538. (By current estimates, it’s now close to 327 million.)
So who gets counted? Individuals living in U.S. residential structures – check. Americans and their dependents living overseas who are federal employees (military and civilian) – check. Citizens – check. Non-citizen legal residents – check. Non-citizen long-term visitors – check. Undocumented immigrants – check.
That last one is where the trouble starts. Remember how I said the Census falls under the auspices of the Commerce Department? Last time I looked (one can never be too sure) the person heading that department is one Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., banker, billionaire, and grifter extraordinaire. Ross’s political ties range wide and deep on both sides of the aisle, his financial dealings with the Russians have raised eyebrows, he failed to divest of his interests when he came on board with the Trump administration, and now he’s coming after our census.
It’s been 70 years since the Census has had a citizenship question, but Wilbur wants to change all that by adding that question to the 2020 Census. He claimed, under oath to Congress mind you, that his motivation was to provide better data on eligible voters to the Justice Department in order that the Voting Rights Act could be better enforced. But attorneys general of 17 states and the District of Columbia, the ACLU, and immigrants rights groups said not so fast. In a lawsuit brought in New York, the aforementioned entities contend that the true intent of the citizenship question is to intimidate people of color and cause an undercount in minority areas, all in order to help Republicans. “We are seeing aggressive efforts to change the rules to entrench one political party in power regardless of the support they receive from voters,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Click here to read Rolling Stone's stinging essay on Wilbur Ross.
The citizenship question is just one threat to an accurate census count. Other challenges include the new on-line format, which raises a whole host of issues for low-income communities and the elderly, and the fact that Congress, true to form, has limited the amount of funding available for the administration of the Census.
In response to these threats, our partners at the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN) are calling for a public fund to make sure our state gets an accurate count. Click here to read their analysis.
2020 is not just a year we choose a new president. It’s a census year. Let’s make sure all Pennsylvanians stand and be counted.
posted by Amy Levengood
By now you’ve probably realized I’m a big fan of former President Obama. Yes, I agreed with his stances on many issues, but it wasn’t just his policies that led me to vote for him twice. There was a lot to admire about his leadership style. One of his qualities that especially stood out, particularly in today’s environment, was his temperament. He didn’t earn the moniker “No Drama Obama” for nothing. Those who have worked with him and even Obama himself often noted his careful deliberative style. No one could ever accuse President Obama of “thinking from his gut”. Many of his detractors and even some supporters found his approach over-analytical. I found it comforting. But it wasn’t only that. President Obama even planned out how he would make decisions. Take this simple example from an interview he once gave to Vanity Fair:
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
By limiting choices he was required to make on inconsequential matters, Obama was better able to focus on the important things. There is actually a name for this type of analysis and there are people who actually spend their time studying it. It’s called “choice architecture” or the concept that decisions we make are a function of the environment we’re in. One of those people who has made his career looking at choice architecture is Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He says without our realizing it, many decisions are made for us by design. Here’s an example Ariely likes to use to emphasize the point:
“this is one of my favorite plots in social sciences. And these are different countries in Europe. And you basically see two types of countries - countries on the right, that seems to be giving a lot, and countries on the left, that seems to be giving very little, or, you know, not much less. The question is, why? Why do some countries give a lot and some countries give a little? When you ask people this question, they usually think that it has to be something about culture, right? How much do you care about people? Giving your organs to somebody else is probably about how much you care about society, or maybe 'cause about religion. But if you look at this plot, you could see that countries that we think about as very similar actually exhibit very different behavior.
For example, Sweden is all the way on the right. And Denmark, that we think is culturally very similar, is all the way on the left. Germany's on the left, and Austria is on the right. The Netherlands is on the left, and Belgium is on the right. And by the way, the Netherlands is an interesting story. You see the Netherlands is kind of the biggest of the small group. Turns out that they got the 28 percent after mailing every household in the country a letter begging people to join this organ donation program. Right, so you know the expression, begging only gets you so far. It's 28 percent in organ donation.
But whatever the countries on the right are doing, they're doing a much better job than begging. So what are they doing? Turns out, the secret has to do with the form at the DMV. And here's the story. The countries on the left have a form at the DMV that looks something like this. Check the box below if you want to participate in the organ donor program. And what happens? People don't check, and they don't join. The countries on the right, the one that give a lot, have a slightly different form. It says check the box below if you don't want to participate. Interestingly enough, when people get this they, again, don't check, but now they join...”
Now I realize that many conservatives’ heads are going to explode at the mere thought of my next statement, but this led me and apparently many other more qualified people to think - what if voter registration wasn’t a choice? What if it were something we had to opt out of rather than make a conscious effort to do? What would be the results?
Well to some extent we can answer that question, because over a dozen states in our union are already doing it. It’s called Automatic Voter Registration (AVR), and places such as Vermont, California, and New Jersey have put some form of it in place. One way AVR is implemented is to automatically register an individual to vote when said person interacts with a government agency like the DMV, for example. Just like the model described by Dan Ariely with European organ donorship, citizens have to decide to opt out of voter registration as opposed to opting in. It’s a convenient and simple solution to something that is a perennial problem in our democracy-getting people registered. But it’s more than that. AVR saves money by consolidating where states keep records and keeps voter information secure and up to date. States that have active AVR are seeing positive results. Common Cause, which has launched a nationwide voter reform campaign, cites several examples:
In Illinois, the state Board of Elections recently announced that 20,000 people have updated their voter registration or registered to vote for the first time in just the first three weeks since implementing the AVR program.
In Vermont, 12,344 voter registrations were processed or updated at the DMV in the first six months of the program in 2017. This is compared to 7,626 registrations processed during the same time period without AVR in 2016, which is significant since 2016 was an election year and 2017 was not.
In a democracy voting is the most basic way for the public to express their opinions. It shouldn’t be complicated or difficult. It’s how we choose who will lead us and be our voice in the halls of power. Like President Obama our mental energy should be spent on more important things like deciding who will the best candidate for the job.
posted by Amy Levengood
One of my personal holiday traditions is to listen to Patrick Stewart’s reading of a Christmas Carol. If you’re familiar with the story, you know that in the beginning of the tale two gentlemen come to Scrooge’s office asking for donations for the poor. The exchange goes as follows:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.
And with that final pronouncement, Scrooge dismisses the men from his office without so much as a pence.
Not even Charles Dickens could have imagined such a stingy character as Donald Trump, especially when it comes to immigration policy. Apparently separated families, children in cages, tent cities, and identification numbers inscribed on people’s arms with Sharpies are not enough for him. A persistent and loud refrain of this administration is that they’re not anti-immigration; they simply want people to come into the country legally. Never mind the fact that the so-called “caravan” is doing just that in seeking asylum at the border. But hey, what’s a little nuisance like international law when you’re trying to impose your authoritarian, racist agenda on the country? Even Scrooge wasn’t mean enough to begrudge the needy what meager “relief” was available to them in the 19th century, such as workhouses and alms houses. But our government is now planning to means test individuals who have entered legally and are current green card holders.
The Trump administration puts a lot of stock into fear. Mexicans are rapists, the caravan is full of MS13 members, rocks are akin to rifles, etc. This tired rhetoric is intended to both terrorize already scared and put upon immigrants into keeping far from our borders and to stoke fear in the American public to further perpetuate the president’s agenda. Now the administration is targeting green card holders. Recent reports say the administration is proposing to expand the number of benefits that immigration officers take into account when deciding on granting permanent residence status to green card holders. If such an individual is determined to be a “public charge” they may be denied residence. A “public charge” being defined as someone who depends excessively on government benefits to survive. Those benefits include Non-Emergency Medicaid, SNAP (Food Stamps), Section 8 Housing, and Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidies, all programs, by the way, that green card holders are permitted to use under current law.
Sadly Trump’s fear campaign seems to be working. As Zaidee Stavely of PRI’s The World reported last week:
“Administrators at community clinics, school-based health centers and agencies serving children say some parents in California are already choosing not to enroll or withdrawing their children from health and nutrition programs.
A parent asked First 5 Alameda, an agency that supports families with small children, to stop seeking early intervention services from a local school district for their toddler with autism. A teenage mother in the Central Valley asked to withdraw from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) one month before giving birth. A grandmother in San Francisco asked North East Medical Services, a federally funded community clinic, to purge her grandchildren’s medical records.”
Mayra Alvarez, president of The Children’s Partnership, a nonprofit children’s advocacy organization noted, “It’s causing fear, it’s causing confusion and it’s really impacting kids.”
DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s defense of the proposed policy is that the department is merely following established law in wanting to “promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.” But just like the family separation policy, the current proposal regarding green card holders is ill-conceived and half-baked. What DHS and the Trump administration is missing in their myopic view is the harm done to children and families when they avoid accessing programs legally available to them. The government in purportedly trying to solve the “public charge” problem is actually creating it. Denying assistance to green card holders will only increase poverty, homelessness, and illness, thus creating a true crisis where one needn’t exist.
Near the end of A Christmas Carol, as you may recall, the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two wretched children hiding beneath his robes, a boy and a girl, whom the spirit says are “Ignorance” and “Want”. The ghost then says to Scrooge:
“Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
You know the rest of the story. Would it be asking too much for this one to have a similar resolution?
posted by Amy Levengood
Last Tuesday in Reading during a Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony, participants read the names of over 300 transgender people who were killed around the world last year. The Day of Remembrance comes at a time when a number of issues are confronting the transgender community, issues that could significantly impact the civil liberties of transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Now I don’t pretend to speak for this community nor purport to be thoroughly versed in its challenges, but I do read and watch the news, and I don’t like the way the wind is blowing.
It started in 2017 when the Trump administration announced (via Twitter) that most transgender individuals would be barred from military service. The policy also specified that those suffering from gender dysphoria could only serve if they do so according to the sex they were assigned at birth. Thankfully district courts across the country have blocked the policy from taking effect, but just this past Friday, Solicitor General Noel Francisco petitioned judges to take up related cases in lower courts so that the issue could be decided. Francisco argues that lower court rulings should not be imposing nationwide injunctions. He wrote that not enforcing the president’s ban has “posed too great a risk to military effectiveness and lethality." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded by saying, "The President's ban is a cruel and arbitrary decision designed to humiliate transgender Americans who have stepped forward to serve our country. This bigoted ban weakens our military readiness and our country, and shows this president's stunning lack of loyalty to those who risk all to defend our freedoms."
With the new makeup of the Supreme Court, the White House must feel especially emboldened, because now they want to essentially erase transgender individuals altogether. Under the Obama administration, Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits against sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, individuals were also protected against gender identity-based discrimination. Now the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) wants to redefine gender identity under Title IX. DHHS issued a memo urging the agencies that enforce Title IX, such as the Departments of Labor, Education, and Justice, to define gender solely as what is listed on a person’s birth certificate. The DHHS memo also suggests that a person whose gender identity doesn’t match their assigned sex at birth must undergo DNA testing in order to “prove” their gender. Not only is this policy downright cruel and an infringement on civil rights, it flies in the face of scientific research on gender identity and further enflames the bigotry and harassment this community already faces. Remember-last year-300 people killed. Twenty state attorneys general, including PA’s Josh Shapiro, sent a letter to DHHS Secretary Alex Azar and Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos saying the states must resist this hateful proposal.
Finally there’s a situation literally close to home at the Boyertown Area School District. As you may remember, the school district’s current policy is to allow students to use facilities that match their gender identity. A lawsuit filed on behalf of cisgender students at the school challenging the inclusive policy failed in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in June. A conservative legal group, the Alliance Defending Freedom, wants the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Third Circuit ruling. If SCOTUS takes up the case, it could have profound consequences for transgender people across the country.
Many advocates like ACLU attorney Ria Tabacco Mar argue that all these court “tussles” could be avoided if Congress would simply pass the Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected characteristic under federal civil rights law, including Title IX. Nancy Pelosi has said the Equality Act would be a “top priority” in the new Congress.
Once again we find ourselves at a place where our courts are the last defense against the ill-informed and discriminatory policies of this reckless president and his administration. Hopefully the women and men sitting on the bench heed the wisdom of Mahatma Ghandi: “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supercedes all other courts.”
posted by Amy Levengood
photo from The Course Correction
With GOP members of Congress shirking their duty as a check and balance on the Executive Branch, the courts and we the voters stand as the last bastion between democracy and the Trumpocalypse. We have recently seen how important the courts have been with decisions like protecting freedom of the press with the reinstatement of Jim Acosta’s White House press pass and just today a federal judge issuing a temporary restraining order against the administration’s attempt to deny asylum seekers due process. Two weeks ago we witnessed the power of the vote. But what happens when both the courts and the ballot box are being compromised?
That’s exactly what’s happening with the current nominee Mitch McConnell is ramming through to confirmation. Thomas Farr, a Republican lawyer and longtime political operative, has been nominated for a lifetime judgeship in the Eastern District of North Carolina. But this is not Farr’s only claim to fame. He gained recognition decades ago as a protégé of Senator Jesse Helms. That last “accolade” should be enough to put the brakes on this train.
A word about Jesse Helms. One would have hoped that the likes of segregationist politicians such as Helms, Thurmond, and others would have been consigned to the dustbin of history. But with the advent of Trump, racist skeletons are again rattling in the closet. As Thomas Goldsmith writes in IndyWeek describing Helms’ successful 1984 reelection bid, “Never underestimate the power of the dog whistle.” Helms, U.S. Senator of North Carolina from 1973-2002, was one of the most ardent conservatives in Congress. He believed protections like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were federal intrusions in matters better left to the states. Nicknamed “Senator No”, he was notoriously opposed to women’s productive freedom, gay rights, disability rights, the Food Stamp Program, and affirmative action.
Sounds like a real charmer, right? So where does Thomas Farr fit into the picture? As an attorney, Farr served as legal counsel to Helms’ ’84 and ’90 election campaigns, both marred by blatant attempts at suppressing the African American vote with misleading and intimidating mail campaigns and racist TV ads. One postcard mailer led voters to believe they were ineligible to vote and would be prosecuted for fraud if they tried. Last November, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund asked for Farr to be called back to the Judiciary Committee, claiming he misled Senators regarding his role in the postcard mailing scheme during his testimony. As the Reverend William J. Barber, the former head of the state NAACP, wrote at the time, Farr is "a product of the modern white supremacist machine that Mr. Helms pioneered."
In more recent history, Farr defended North Carolina’s discriminatory voter ID law, which the courts ruled targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision”. He also defended North Carolina’s 2011 legislative districts which were ruled “illegally racially gerrymandered”, 28 of which were ordered to be redrawn. Throughout his career, Farr has aligned himself with politicians like Helms who were hostile to communities of color. By far the most disturbing part of Farr’s past is his association with the pro-eugenics Pioneer Fund, founded in 1937 to pursue “race betterment” for those “deemed to be descended predominantly from white persons who settled in the original thirteen states prior to the adoption of the Constitution”. The Pioneer Fund was one of the largest monetary backers of the fight against civil rights in the South. Read more here about Farr’s connections to Helms and the Pioneer Fund here.
Just looking at what happened in Georgia’s gubernatorial election is reason enough for concern over voting rights. Democratic leaders in the House have said they will restore key parts of the Voting Rights Act when they assume the majority in January. But if we don’t protect the courts from dangerous ideologues like Farr, their legislation can only go – well, so far. The vote on Farr is scheduled for the Monday after Thanksgiving. We don’t get to directly participate, but we still have the power of the pen and the phone. I’ve already given our senators a ring. How about you?
posted by Amy Levengood
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