Hospitals decry funding cuts in Build Back Better act

Hospital groups demand Democrats drop the proposed funding reduction in the Build Back Better Act.

Environmental experts say EPA needs to study human health and environmental impacts of PFAS

Members of an EPA federal advisory committee said Tuesday that the agency needs to prioritize health and environmental impacts of PFAS.

Congress raises concerns about allocation of COVID-19 education funds

Schools received government funding to improve learning loss from the pandemic, but some policymakers raised concerns on where this money is going.

FTC delays decision on probe into supply shortages squeezing small retailers

Although large retailers have always had the upper hand in the supply chain, the pandemic shortages are exacerbating the problem, leaving small retailers without many options

Bill seeks to improve healthcare access for urban American Indians

The roughly 2.8 million American Indians living off tribal lands rely on Urban Indian Organizations for their healthcare.

Latest in Politics

Activists rally to demand US stop funding of Philippine security forces

WASHINGTON — With a backdrop of 3,000 white ‘tsinelas’—or flip flops—lying in rows on the National Mall to symbolize the 30,000 Filipino lives lost under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s five-year war on drugs, dozens of activists and Filipino community members Thursday rallied to urge Congress to pass legislation ending U.S. support of the Philippine government’s security forces.

U.S. assistance has totaled more than $2.1 billion since Duterte took office in 2016, including arms sales and aid, according to the legislation.

The Duterte regime has led a violent crackdown on environmental activists, human rights defenders, religious leaders, trade unionists and journalists under the mandate of its war on drugs, which has resulted in 376 documented extrajudicial political killings and more than 25 assassinations of elected officials, according to a 2019 report from Human Rights Watch.

The Philippine Human Rights Act—introduced earlier this year by Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa.,—would end U.S. support to the country’s security forces until the Duterte government commits to human rights goals.

“Why would the U.S. keep supporting a regime that’s clearly corrupt?” asked Jo Quiambao, an educational officer for GABRIELA DC—a Filipino women’s rights organization—and a speaker at the rally. “We don’t want our money to go into corrupt hands.”

While human rights violations in the Philippines are not unique to the current regime, the country has seen a dramatic escalation of the number of killings, tortures and forced disappearances under Duterte’s rule, said Yves Nibungco, chairman of the pro-democracy organization the Malaya Movement. The drug war campaign serves as a guise to suppress government opposition, he said.

For the eighth consecutive year, the Philippines was declared the deadliest country in Asia for defenders of human rights, the environment and natural resources by Global Witness, an environmental NGO. The December Tumandok massacre—in which nine indigenous people were killed and 17 environmental activists arrested in the central Philippines—was cited by the organization as one of the “most shocking” massacres of 2020.

Some rally participants described the White House’s lagging acknowledgement of the human rights crisis in the Philippines as hypocritical, particularly as it continues reaffirming a commitment to human rights in its diplomacy. The Biden administration’s foreign policy is “centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights,” according to a statement from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken earlier this year.

“The Biden administration hasn’t made any specific comments about the Philippine Human Rights Act, but it’s talked about renewing a strong partnership with the country,” Nibungco said. “The longer we take, the more people that are going to die.”

And although the legislation is a start, it is not “the silver bullet” for holding the Philippine government responsible, Nibungco said

“The Duterte regime, not to exaggerate, is an existential threat for Filipino people,” Nibungco said. “The country has fought so hard for democratic institutions and he’s practically destroyed them in the span of five years.”

House edges closer to vote on Biden’s $1.85T social, climate bill

WASHINGTON, Nov. 18 (UPI) — The U.S. House of Representatives edged closer to a vote Thursday on President Joe Biden‘s $1.85 trillion social policy and climate change bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said a vote could come as soon as Thursday afternoon.

Lawmakers have been waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to release its cost estimate of the Build Back Better legislation to compare with the White House’s estimate of a $1.85 trillion price tag.

The House began debate on the measure Thursday morning. Shortly before 1 p.m., the CBO announced that the final estimate would come later in the afternoon.

Pelosi said that in addition to the CBO estimate, she has been waiting to hear back from the Senate for a “parliamentary scrub” to help clarify whether the bill fits the Senate’s rules for the reconciliation process, which would allow the measure to get Senate approval with a simple majority and avoid the need for 60 votes to break a threatened GOP filibuster.

There are 50 Democrats in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaker vote as Senate president.

The CBO score and parliamentary scrub are needed before Pelosi brings the legislation to a vote, she told reporters Thursday.

The Build Back Better Act, a pillar of Biden’s agenda, would expand the enhanced child tax credit for one year, establish universal pre-kindergaren for 3- and 4-year-olds and allocate $555 billion to climate change initiatives.

The bill also would increase taxes on corporations and the rich. “Each one of these sections alone is a major victory for the American people,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., chairman of the House Budget Committee.

During the Thursday morning debate, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Democrats “have an opportunity to be the architect to build a better future for working families.”

Several House Democrats also emphasized the “millions of jobs” they say the bill would create.

Meanwhile, Republicans pushed back, tying Democrats’ recent spending initiatives to rising rates of inflation. Speaking about a provision to allow state and local tax deductions, Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, said Democrats had made “a Christmas tree of giveaways to their political allies.”

Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., called the measure the “worst piece of legislation” he had ever seen and railed against House Democrats’ opaque process drafting and rewriting the bill.

On Nov. 5, Pelosi tried to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote along with the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, after promising that the two historic measures would pass the House together. However, moderate Democrats derailed the effort, requesting the bill only be passed after the CBO score was released.

In a last-minute deal, the moderate and progressive Democrats agreed to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill along with a procedural rule vote for the BBB, which allotted the two hours of debate that occurred Thursday morning.

Biden signed the infrastructure bill into law on Monday.


Published in conjunction with UPI Logo

Latest in Education

UNICEF launches plan to pay Afghan teachers, if agency gets funding

WASHINGTON — UNICEF launched a plan this month that aims to pay teachers’ salaries in Afghanistan without going through the Taliban-run government, which has been a sticking point for countries and international organizations that had provided billions in foreign aid to the previous Afghan government.

Teachers’ salaries traditionally have come from the Afghan government’s Ministry of Education, UNICEF spokesperson Joe English said in a statement.

To allow world leaders to deliver humanitarian aid to the country without funding the Taliban, bypassing the de facto Ministry of Education, UNICEF will send money directly to teachers by using private sector financial systems, such as private banks and mobile networks, English said.

English added that specific funding sources have not yet been agreed on, but UNICEF is in discussions with “several donors and international financial institutions.”

Meanwhile, the agency is preparing the groundwork to deliver payments – including visiting every formal public school in the country to confirm a list of existing teachers.

Before the Taliban took over, funding for Afghanistan’s health care and education systems primarily came from the ​​World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, said Heather Barr, associate director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.

Afghanistan is one of the most aid-dependent countries, with 75% of the government’s budget coming from foreign aid, she said.

But the World Bank paused funding to Afghanistan in August, including the reconstruction fund.

That gap in funding, combined with decisions by the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund to freeze their aid to the country, meant Afghanistan lost billions of dollars and immediately entered into economic collapse.

Many workers previously paid through international funding lost their salaries, Barr said. The Biden administration announced it would provide an additional $144 million in essential, life-saving aid to Afghanistan in late October, bringing the U.S. total to $474 million this year. But It would not include education funding.

“People are in real financial desperation,” Barr said. “You have a choice between doing your job without getting paid or not doing your job without getting paid.”

Shortly after the Taliban took over, primary schools, which go through sixth grade, reopened for all students, and secondary schools reopened for boys. But girls no longer can attend secondary schools in most parts of the country, and female teachers are not allowed to teach in boys’ secondary schools.

Tamana Azad, an eighth grade teacher at Sardar Mohammad Dawood Khan High School in Kabul, who has been out of work since August, said in an interview that many girls are becoming hopeless because they are stuck at home, unsure when they will be able to return to school.

Barr said providing foreign aid for education becomes complicated because the current system does not prioritize educational rights for women and girls.

“I don’t think donors should support a system that educates boys and not girls,” Barr said, adding that funding decisions should be part of a larger negotiation with the Taliban about women’s rights.

Yasmine Sherif, director of the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies Education Cannot Wait, returned from the first female-led, all-women mission to Afghanistan late last month.

She met with the de facto Minister of Education Sheikh Molvi Noorullah Munir, who promised to deliver an action plan for reopening girls’ secondary schools – though he did not give a clear timeline.

Sherif said that an estimated $1 billion is needed for the education sector in Afghanistan. UNICEF is ready to act immediately once it receives funding, she said.

“Our priority is to make sure that education is part of the humanitarian response,” she said. “There are ways of doing this in a crisis situation like Afghanistan.”


Published in conjunction with UPI Logo

Classmates lend a hand to welcome Afghan refugees

FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — Refugees escaped out of Afghanistan after the Taliban’s takeover, leaving many families and students needing assistance as they arrived in new communities. 

Annandale High School welcomed many Afghan refugee students, and their classmates reached out with a resource guide and school supply collections. Their peers made sure they know they are not alone. Student Sosan Barakzai arrived in the United States from Afghanistan years ago, and she understood how they felt. 

“Everyone is struggling in their own way. I struggled and understand how hard it was, how it feels to be just in an unknown place where you must first get used to it and accept it,” Barakzai said. 

The school provided outreach to the Afghan families and worked with resettlement organizations like Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington. Meredith Hedrick, the English for Speakers of Other Languages Chair at Annandale High, provides support through learning accommodations, socio-emotional help, language programs and community projects like a food pantry. 

“Until you feel healthy, safe and secure and grounded, you’re not going to be able, basically, to learn,” Hedrick said. 

John Bailey, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that schools need more funding and coordination from the government for these academic communities to continue providing for these students. 

“What we need right now is just better coordination to help make sure that schools are preparing for the students that they’re going to receive,” Bailey said. 

Despite funding and teacher shortages, Barakzai said kindness goes a long way and helps the students adjust to the new learning environment. 

“I believe, as long as you help, it doesn’t matter which way it is,” Barakzai said. 

Health & Science

Bill seeks to improve healthcare access for urban American Indians

A proposed amendment to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is intended to improve healthcare access for American Indians who live urban areas, its advocates say.

The Urban Indian Health Confer Act would require the Department of Health and Human Services to consult with the 41 Indian organizations — nonprofits governed by Native Americans — on healthcare policies for the 2.8 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives who live in urban areas.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-N.M., and co-sponsored by 19 members of the House. It passed the House on Nov. 2 and awaits Senate action.

Roughly 70 percent of American Indians and Alaskan Natives live in urban areas and face inequities in healthcare access because the the Department of Health and Human Services is not required to consult with the urban organizations when it creates policies that impact urban Indians, Grijalva said.

American Indians began to move to urban areas after the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 was enacted. The act incentivized American Indians and Alaskan Natives to live in urban areas by promising housing, jobs and healthcare.

Other American Indians have moved off reservation lands to pursue higher education and employment opportunities.

According to the Department of the Interior, the United States has a trust obligation to provide American Indians with healthcare, education and welfare in exchange for settling Native lands. This trust responsibility also follows individuals once they leave reservation land.

Limited healthcare options

Yet, for many American Indians who move off tribal land, healthcare options are limited.

For Grijalva, the Urban Indian Health Confer Act would improve parity between urban Natives and American Indians living on tribal lands.

“Passage of the Urban Indian Health Confer Act will provide urban Indian health organizations with a critical role in planning and decision making for Alaska Natives and American Indians. I look forward to working with my counterparts in the Senate to get this bill over the finish line and onto the president’s desk,” Grijalva said in a Nov. 2 press release.

Sunny Stevenson (Walker River Paiute), the federal relations director for the National Council of Urban Indian Health, said Urban Indian organizations are under-resourced, underfunded and not found at all in all metropolitan areas.

Stevenson said the bill supporting urban Indians will not cut into IHS funding and will not disadvantage Indians living on reservations.

“An urban confer policy with any part of the administration does not conflict, supplant or undermine any tribal consultation or government to government relationship,” Stevenson said.

Monumental benefits

RoxAnne Unabia (Chippewa), executive director of the American Indian Health Service of Chicago, said benefits of the confer act would be monumental.

“We’re hoping through urban confer, we’re able to explain and discuss with Congress how severely funds are needed for urban natives,” Unabia said. “I have so many people who are opting to pay for their heat versus coming in for a visit.”

With additional funding, Unabia hopes to hire specialists, such as rheumatologists and cardiologists, to come into the clinic to better assist urban Indians.

American Indians are disproportionately affected by health problems, including lower life expectancies and higher rates of chronic disease, such as diabetes, according to the Indian Health Service.

Unabia said the clinic has to outsource appointments, meaning urban natives pay more and wait longer. Additional funding also could bring down co-pays for medications, which many of her patients cannot afford.

“Our patients have to decide between paying utilities, paying rent and buying prescriptions. And they want to keep living in their homes. They want a roof over their heads and their families’ heads,” she said.

Lack health insurance

Unabia said 40% of her patients are uninsured because they don’t qualify for Medicare and Medicaid, and many urban Natives do not have health insurance.

“When families were on the reservation, we were always told it’s part of your treaty right to receive health care,” Unabia said. “But the U.S. government has never fully fulfilled any treaty obligations.”

For Stevenson, an urban confer would be the first step toward improving urban Indian health, but confers need to be monitored to prove successful. She said it’s important for Urban Indian Organizations to complete a satisfaction survey after conferring with a federal agency. Then, the urban Indian organization’s feedback should be made public immediately.

“If the administration’s interested in furthering transparency, staying accountable, and being held to a high standard, it’s important that they release those survey results as they come,” Stevenson said.

A confer would become nearly useless, Stevenson said, if federal agencies don’t respond promptly. She said Urban Indian Organization leaders recommended a deadline of 30 days.

Stevenson said federal agencies also will need to establish a point person to communicate with Urban Indian organizations. The point person should not only relay information but also be in a position to affect change, she added.

“If you have people on there that are just there to listen and relay information, that’s really insufficient,” Stevenson said. “You need to have people there who can agree to make commitments on behalf of Indians.”


Published in conjunction with UPI Logo

VA is failing survivors of sexual violence, IG and veterans advocates say

WASHINGTON — The inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs and advocates from veterans groups Wednesday highlighted systemic failings in how the VA handles military sexual trauma claims.

Studies suggest that as many as one in three female U.S. service members are sexually assaulted. Despite the scale of the problem, however, survivors face systemic barriers in getting benefits for military sexual trauma-related post-traumatic stress disorder, witnesses told a House Veterans’ Affairs joint subcommittee Wednesday.

A 2018 report by the VA’s Office of the Inspector General found that half of the military sexual trauma-related claims denied by the Veterans Benefits Administration weren’t properly processed.

Beth Murphy, executive director of the VBA’s compensation service, told lawmakers the mistakes in the processing of these claims were “procedural errors” and the fact that a claim wasn’t processed properly doesn’t necessarily mean it was wrongly denied.

However, Murphy acknowledged the importance of getting the process right. She said the VBA has made several changes to fix the problem. In her written testimony, Murphy said the changes include enhanced training, revised procedural guidance, ongoing outreach efforts and consolidating military sexual trauma-related claims to specially trained processors.

VA Inspector General Michael Missal said the problem persists, however. A follow-up report by the inspector general published in August found that 57% of denied military sexual trauma-related claims were incorrectly processed. The report also found that the VBA had failed to properly implement any of the recommendations made in the previous report, which Missal called “particularly disturbing.”

Murphy pointed to an increase in the overall percentage of military sexual trauma-related claims granted by the VBA, from 57% in fiscal year 2018 to 72% in fiscal year 2021, as a sign of improvement.

However, Shane Liermann, deputy national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said a recent poll of his organization’s members found that 70% said they had seen no improvement or a decrease in the quality and timeliness of the processing of military sexual trauma-related claims.

“Put simply, VA must do better,” Liermann said.

Tracy Farrell, vice president of connections and wellness for the Wounded Warrior Project, said the military sexual trauma-related claims process can be re-traumatizing for survivors because they are repeatedly asked to share the details of their experience.

Katie Purswell, health policy deputy director for The American Legion, said military sexual trauma should be considered its own disability and not a subtype of PTSD.

“Veterans should not have to minimize their experiences by placing it under the subheading ‘stressor'” on a PTSD questionnaire, Purswell said.


Published in conjunction with UPI Logo

Latest in Environment

Agency leaders call on Congress to invest in windstorm-resilient infrastructure and data collection

WASHINGTON – Top federal disaster and weather officials called on Congress last week to invest in natural hazard-resilient infrastructure and data collection to reduce the deaths and financial losses caused by the increasing number and intensity of windstorms such as tornadoes, hurricanes and winter storms.

On Monday, President Joe Biden signed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law, which allocates $47 billion to prepare communities for worsening natural disasters including floods, hurricanes and other storms. The Act also provides the Federal Emergency Management Agency with $3.5 billion in flood mitigation assistance grants over the next five years, along with $1 billion for the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, which funds hazard mitigation projects in communities across the country to create pre-disaster plans and invest in infrastructure that can withstand the effects of climate change such as high winds and flooding. Such infrastructure can include roads made of durable materials, updated drainage systems and buried powerlines.

Research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown that climate change is impacting storm activity and causing more frequent and intense natural disasters. Scientists have linked human-induced climate change with higher hurricane intensity due to warmer oceans, as well as more frequent and intense extreme wind events, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientists have not yet linked climate change to tornadoes, but have recorded an increase in tornado variability since the 1970s, according to a 2014 report published in the Science Magazine.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, windstorms and their related flooding have caused $1 trillion in economic losses and over 8,000 fatalities over the last 40 years. Last year, windstorms caused over $78 billion in losses and resulted in over 170 deaths compared with around $15 billion in losses and 40 deaths in 2010, according to data collected by NOAA.

Michael Grimm, assistant administrator for risk management at FEMA, said that while the risk of extreme windstorms varies across the country, recent storms such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017 and the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo. show the need for investment in mitigation measures as climate change will likely worsen the impacts of storms.

“Mitigation projects (are) particularly important for underserved communities that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” Grimm said.

In 2004, Congress established the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program, which was created to improve agencies’ understanding of windstorms and the quality of windstorm impact assessments as well as reduce the damage from the storms. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, which leads the program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the NOAA and the National Science Foundation collaborate on research, promoting windstorm mitigation measures and improving building codes.

Scott Weaver, director of NWIRP, said windstorms affect the whole country and are the most costly natural hazards. To reduce future windstorm risks, Weaver told the House Science, Space and Technology committee’s Research and Technology subcommittee, the federal government needs to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and help communities create and enforce windstorm-resilient building codes.

Every $1 invested in resilient building codes creates an $11 return on investment, according to Grimm, who said adopting new building codes through 2040 would save $132 billion in property losses, but only around one-third of the country has adopted the latest codes.

Building codes can require such things as the use of weather-resistant materials, anchored building foundations, windows fitted with shutters and walls designed to withstand high winds, according to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Rhode Island all have wind design requirements, according to a 2020 FEMA report.

“These codes help protect people both physically and financially by reducing damages to buildings and minimizing disruptions to daily life,” Grimm said. “(They) are a low-cost, high-impact solution that can help break the cycles of natural disaster damage and reconstruction.”

Building codes are shaped by data collected among FEMA, NIST, NOAA and NSF, but there are gaps in data on windstorms, Weaver said. During a landfalling hurricane, for example, Weaver said the agencies often do not have sufficient observations on wind and rain to precisely understand what happens to buildings as the hurricane hits.

While there are some university-led efforts to deploy observational equipment before a storm hits, Weaver said, the processes are not standardized and are conducted by “a coalition of the willing.”

Greater federal investment in research would improve scientists’ ability to predict windstorms before they hit, said Linda Blevins, deputy assistant director of the NSF.

Blevins said agencies’ data is also used to inform risk assessments conducted by insurance agencies.

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., attended the online hearing from City Hall in Farmington, Mich., where severe windstorms in July cost the city millions of dollars in damages. Stevenson said that while improvements have been made in terms of hazard preparedness and damage reduction, policymakers need to push for greater investments in windstorm resilience measures.

“No state in our nation is untouched by the damaging physical and emotional impacts of windstorms and associated flooding,” Stevens said. “The challenges in preparing for and mitigating severe windstorms are far too broad for any one agency to handle on their own.”

Tribal leaders urge lawmakers to fund Native American climate resiliency projects

WASHINGTON — Tribal leaders and experts called on lawmakers Thursday to invest much more money in tribal climate resilience efforts and elevate Indigenous knowledge in climate change decision-making.

Indigenous people across the country have lost nearly 99% of their historical lands through forcible displacement, which has left them in areas that are more vulnerable to climate change, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Science.

While tribal nations have long been stewards of their land, the climate crisis has forced them to develop new strategies for land and environmental protection based on their traditional knowledge and practices, Fawn Sharp, vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation and president of the National Congress of American Indians, told the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Tribes need significantly more funding to protect their communities from droughts, floods, fires and more, Sharp said.

“We are chronically underfunded. Without the added support of addressing climate change,” Sharp said, “we would see our lands, our resources, our territories, even our traditional foods and plants disappear and they’re already disappearing. It would prove to be devastating for Indian country.”

Without sufficient federal funding for climate resilience and mitigation projects like solar rooftops and methane capture initiatives, Sharp said tribes don’t have the resources to understand the scope of the climate crisis on their lands. She also urged lawmakers to establish with Indigenous people a federal relocation framework to provide support to communities forced to move because of the effects of climate change, such as rising water levels and drought.

Allocating more resources to support small-scale projects would create jobs for Indigenous people and tap into the abundance of natural resources on their lands, Sharp said.

Most important, though, is that the federal government provide Native American communities with direct, long-term funding for climate change adaptation while giving tribes sovereignty over program development, said Casey Thornbrugh of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and climate change program manager at the United South and Eastern Tribes Inc.

Thornbrugh said tribal leaders need the authority to help shape national climate policy and incorporate Native American knowledge and practices into the decision-making process.

“Tribal nations must be afforded the dignity and the means to move to preserve the wellbeing of our nations, as well as our rights to our ancestral places which must be maintained, even if these places become submerged,” Thornbrugh said.

In 2010, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory reported that Indian Country, which makes up 5% of land area in the U.S., contains 10% of all energy resources in the country. NREL data shows that many tribal lands are in areas with abundant renewable energy resources, including wind, solar power and biomass.

Pilar Thomas, former deputy director for the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs at the Department of Energy, said Indian Country has an outsized amount of clean energy resources that can be used in climate resilience efforts. Effectively using them will require federal investment in tribal climate projects and relevant technology, she said.

Acquiring funds is a challenge for many Native American communities, Thomas said, because the process is too complex. She said there are around 75 federal renewable energy programs across nine agencies that tribes can apply for, which can cause confusion.

Thomas said aligning federal programs and consolidating funding sources for climate resiliency projects would help more tribal nations to implement these initiatives within their communities.

“The big opportunity for the administration, as with any administration, is, how do we better coordinate amongst ourselves?” Thomas said. “Part of that really should start with asking the tribes who are trying to develop projects: what do you need from us, and what can we do from the federal government perspective to support that effort?”


Published in conjunction with Planet Forward logo

Latest in National Security

Preventing suicides in military and veteran communities

WASHINGTON — When Marine Sgt. Christopher McDonald was injured, he was prescribed opioids but when he had mental health issues, he was not treated, said his friend, retired Staff Sgt. Johnny Jones, at a House oversight subcommittee hearing Wednesday. McDonald died by suicide in 2012.

“Chris was four years removed from a combat deployment, where he suffered both physical and mental injuries. He was prescribed … hydrocodone for a hip injury he suffered in Iraq in 2008, but received no treatment for his mental trauma,” said Jones, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wednesday’s National Security Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing was to address military and veteran suicide prevention and how to support military families after the loss of a loved one.

According to the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report in 2021, on average more than 6,300 veterans have died by suicide every year from 2001 to 2019. The report also says veterans aged 55 to 74, the largest population group, made up 38.6 percent of veteran suicide deaths in 2019.

Jones said McDonald became addicted to opioids in the months before his suicide and later asked for help from his family and friends. Jones said the Department of Veterans Affairs did not offer significant help because McDonald’s case was not severe enough for inpatient rehabilitation.

“Ultimately, he decided taking his own life was the only way to ensure he no longer hurt or let down those he loved,” Jones said. “We can’t stand by and allow those who serve to think this is the only option.”

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, D-Mass., said the VA has employed evidence-based clinical intervention strategies to prevent suicides and has encouraged partnerships with mental health organizations, while the Department of Defense has designed programs to better identify suicide warning signs on social media and has promoted the safe handling of firearms and other lethal means.

The White House released a fact sheet on Nov. 2 that lists strategies to reduce military and veteran suicide, which include educating veterans and their families on reducing access to lethal weapons or drugs, improving access to effective care, addressing risk factors that might lead to suicide and sharing data.

“The strategy outlines a government-wide, cross-section, and data-based approach to addressing the public health and national security crisis,” Lynch said.

Jones, who is on the board of veterans’ advocacy group Boot Campaign, said the DoD should improve its transition processes for service members who are leaving. He noted a civilian receives up to a year of training to become a service member, but the transition back into civilian life could take less than two weeks.

Retired Brig. Gen. Jack Hammond, who served in the Army for more than 30 years and led combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, recommended that Congress engage private hospital systems and academic medical centers and that the Pentagon “take a more aggressive approach towards suicide prevention in a proactive manner.”

Alyssa M. Hundrup, director of health care at the Government Accountability Office, said the DoD has implemented several initiatives in training and education to reduce suicide risk in the military. In 2020, the Defense Suicide Prevention Office published a framework to assess these efforts but did not tell the DoD the effectiveness of its initiatives.

“Given unique risk factors the military population faces such as higher likelihood of experiencing trauma, it is imperative that DoD also ensures that each of its individual efforts are fully assessed to understand how well they are working,” Hundrup said.

Oversight Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., said her brother took his life after serving in the Vietnam War.

“I applaud President [Joe] Biden for taking key steps to address this tragedy. … This plan adopts a whole-of-government approach to addressing the public health and risk factors that contribute to suicide,” Maloney said. “… But it must be implemented in coordination with nongovernment veteran and community organizations.”


Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

America and its foes remain in the way of a landmine-free future, new report shows

WASHINGTON —Around 135,500 landmines were destroyed in 2020 but the U.S. and some if its main adversaries continue to stockpile the weapons, according to the Landmine Monitor report released Wednesday.

The International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, which has been issuing the report  annually since 1999,  pointed to the rising numbers of overwhelmingly civilian casualties from landmines and again urged all countries to adopt the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. So far, 164 have done so; the U.S. is not among them.

The Landmine Monitor was able to confirm 7,073 casualties due to landmines and other explosive leftovers of war, up significantly from the lowest point in 2013 of just under 3,500. The overwhelming majority of victims — 80% — were once again civilian and male (85%). Children made up about half of all civilian casualties. The report also said that 146 square kilometers of land had been cleared and 135,000 landmines destroyed in 2020, a slight decrease compared with 156 square kilometers in 2019. Croatia and Cambodia had cleared the most land. Both countries have significant numbers of landmines in the ground from wars in the latter parts of the 20th century. 

The Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Treaty, prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of landmines and sets deadlines for the destruction of existing munitions. It is commonly seen as a prime example of international cooperation, with more than 80% of the world’s countries having signed on, and significant progress having been made in the two and a half decades since its 1997 conception. However, some of the countries most affected — because they use landmines or have lands contaminated with them — have not signed on. China, both Koreas, India, Pakistan, Iran and Russia are prominent among those that have not joined the treaty. In the Americas, the U.S. and Cuba are the only two governments that have not committed. All of these countries are also on the list of just 12 nations that still maintain the capacity to produce landmines. Neither the Pentagon nor the Cuban Embassy responded to a request for comment on Wednesday.

According to the report, the U.S. holds the fifth-largest stockpile of landmines in the world, at approximately 3 million. 

The authors of the report criticized the U.S. for the Trump administration’s decisions to roll back President Barack Obama’s commitments to no longer procure any weapons prohibited under the Mine Ban Treaty, to phase out existing stockpiles and to reverse course on a policy that had limited the U.S. use of mines to the Korean peninsula. The Biden administration has said it would reverse the Trump decision, but has yet to do so. 

“The Korean peninsula has been a sticking point for U.S. accession to the Mine Ban Treaty,” said Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association. “But frankly, those are bad arguments,” because they are useless  in the modern context of Korea, which focuses on rockets and nuclear weapons. “A landmine has no impact on a missile coming to Seoul.”

Like in previous years, the Landmine Monitor showed the U.S. and its western allies as by far the largest funders for global demining efforts. Abrams said that it was “exceedingly frustrating” that this “severe disconnect” exists.

The report also heavily criticized Myanmar, whose military reportedly deployed landmines in civilian areas particularly in the north of the country in 2020, resulting in a number of deaths. It was the only nation that the report confirmed to have deployed new landmines in the past year, with all other new deployments being carried out by non-state groups such as the Afghani Taliban or Colombian criminal organizations. The Embassy of Myanmar did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. 

Abramson said the Biden administration could score points globally if it returned to the Obama-era commitments more in line with the Mine Ban Treaty and that the country ultimately should sign the pact. 

“The treaty has been wildly successful,” he said, highlighting the significant progress it had made toward making the world landmine-free by 2025, and that all of America’s NATO allies had signed it. “The Biden administration could leave a very positive legacy.”


Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

Latest in Living

Opportunity Zones’ tax break program left neediest communities behind, experts say

WASHINGTON — More than 80% of nearly 9,000 low-income areas named “Opportunity Zones” as part of a 2017 tax break program received no money in 2019, federal records show.

The reason: There’s no incentive for wealthy taxpayers, who receive generous tax breaks for investing in the zones — which are designated economically distressed areas — to give to those who need it most, Brookings Institution expert David Wessel told a House Ways and Means subcommittee on Tuesday.

The Opportunity Zones program was established in 2017 as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to spur investment in low-income communities. In exchange for their investments in vehicles known as Qualified Opportunity Funds — which distribute money toward nearly 9,000 designated areas — wealthy taxpayers can receive significant tax benefits.

As of 2019, $29 billion had been invested across all Opportunity Zones, according to a Government Accountability Office report in October, but just 1% of the zones received half of those investments, said Wessel. What’s more, zones that received Opportunity Zone money were better off economically than those that received zero dollars, according to an April Joint Committee on Taxation analysis.

Wessel, a Brookings senior fellow and author of “Only the Rich Can Play,” a book about Opportunity Zones, said he doubts the program will be repealed because it’s so popular among mayors and governors who tend to support any development tool available to them.

“But if we can’t fix it, we should repeal it,” Wessel said Tuesday.

Some Republicans expressed frustration with calls to end the tax incentive, which they said had bipartisan support in the previous Congress. “We are still incredibly early in the process,” said Rep. Mike Kelley of Pennsylvania. “The limited data that we do have is pointing to success,” said Kelley, the top Republican on the oversight subcommittee, which held the hearing.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, the New Jersey Democrat who leads the oversight subcommittee, said the program doesn’t require investors to demonstrate job creation or build affordable housing, which makes it difficult to assess whether investments are producing positive economic change for the Opportunity Zone residents.

Jessica Lucas-Judy, GAO strategic issues director, testified that because of data limitations, the Internal Revenue Service cannot adequately ensure that investors are complying with regulations.

Long-standing issues in the IRS’ reporting system and additional reporting delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a data processing backlog, Lucas-Judy said.

“It’s hard to know whether the incentive is having the intended effect on communities,” she said.

Although the IRS developed plans to ensure taxpayers comply with requirements, those plans depend on data that isn’t readily accessible, Lucas-Judy said. Thus, the IRS could have trouble tracking investors who aren’t following the rules.

The nearly 9,000 Opportunity Zones encompass more than 10% of the nation’s population. Residents who live in the designated tracts tend to have lower incomes, experience higher poverty rates and are more likely to be non-white, she added.

But wealthy taxpayers benefiting from the Opportunity Zones program tend to be white, and in 2019, the average investor had an annual income of $1.1 million, said Wessel.

“If we want to create a scenario where people living in Opportunity Zones can become owners and can have a share of their local economy where they can invest locally, we’re going to need to think through alternative structures and vehicles,” said Urban Institute Senior Fellow Brett Theodos.

The GAO in its report recommended that the IRS research the risks posed by limited data and that it take steps to mitigate non-compliance by wealthy investors.

The IRS has agreed to the recommendations.


Published in conjunction with MarketWatch Logo

Congressional rights office announces interim head amid privacy reform effort

WASHINGTON — The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights’ official for House of Representatives workplaces, Teresa James, will serve as the interim head of the agency until a new executive director is chosen, the board chair told a House committee Tuesday.

Testifying before the House Administration Committee, OCWR Board Chair Barbara Childs Wallace said James, who is the agency’s deputy executive director for the House of Representatives, will replace Executive Director Susan Tsui Grundmann, who was nominated by President Joe Biden to the Federal Labor Relations Board in August.

“Ms. James has so much experience that the transition will be seamless,” Wallace said.

The Senate has not yet confirmed Grundmann’s nomination, but the OCWR has already filed a vacancy for her job.
The agency was created in 1995 under the Congressional Accountability Act to protect workplace rights through dispute resolution, education and enforcement for over 30,000 congressional employees including staffers in House and Senate offices, Capitol Police, interns and Library of Congress employees.

James told the committee that a top agency goal is to upgrade its technology and cybersecurity to protect employees who file harassment claims.
Last February, a Government Accountability Office study found that the OCWR had not established privacy requirements for its discrimination and harassment-reporting software.

“We have an IT security person,” James said, “and we have another IT person who just came on a few months ago. It is our goal to ensure that our system of confidential filing of claims stays confidential. The information with the Office stays safe.”

When asked what progress has been made since the report, James said she would schedule a future meeting with the committee to brief members on cybersecurity efforts.

Barbara Camens, a board member of the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, recommended Congress pass an amendment to the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act that would allow employees to request third-party mediation to resolve workplace disputes without obstruction. Currently, a worker’s employing office has the ability to reject mediation requests, Camens said, and 15% to 20% of mediation requests have been negated by employers.

James, who has worked for the office for over 20 years, said the office’s work has become visible because of a 2018 amendment to the Congressional Accountability Act.

“I’m now walking through the halls and tunnels of this Capitol Hill campus where our workplace rights posters clearly tell employees — as well as unpaid interns and fellows — who we are, what their rights are, and how to get help,” James said.

She said an increasing number of employees turn to the office for information and advice, and the number of harassment claims has gone down since 2018.

“We have much work to do and we must remain vigilant to ensure that recent reforms are permanent reforms,” James said.


Published in conjunction with Federal Times

Latest Business

Key House Democrat wants to ratchet up law aimed at Chinese companies listed on U.S. exchanges

WASHINGTON — Beijing’s refusal to allow U.S. government oversight of Chinese companies whose stocks are traded on American exchanges increases risks for investors, the chairman of a House Financial Services subcommittee said Tuesday as he backed changes to a new law that targets this matter.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who heads the investor protection subcommittee, said he has started drafting a bill that would require foreign companies to comply with the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board audit process within two years instead of the current three years. If they don’t comply, they would be delisted from the exchanges.

The existing three-year threshold stems from the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act. That’s a law that a divided Washington enacted last year, with Sherman among those championing the Beijing-focused measure.

Most China-based companies cannot accept investments that would lead to foreign ownership of the company due to Chinese governmental regulations. Therefore, many of those companies turned to a variable interest entity structure to raise capital in the U.S., according to a memo from the House Financial Services Committee’s staff.

The VIE structure prevents foreign ownership of China-based companies but offers economic benefits to foreign investors, the memo says. The original China-based operating company creates an offshore shell company and a new company in China owned by the offshore shell company to imitate equity ownership, although it would not be ownership for the foreign investors.

Sherman said people should understand that investors are not shareholders within the VIE structure. They might not have any right to elect the board, which could put the interests of the Chinese Communist Party above those of the people that elect the board.

“Even if the board seeks to deploy the assets of the company to further the interests of shareholders, the government is free to sanction, seize, redirect — all without the protections of a legal system designed to protect private property,” Sherman said during a hearing on Tuesday. “So we’ve got a lot to do to protect American investors who invest in China.”

Congress created the PCAOB in 2002, establishing a watchdog that conducts independent, external oversight of the auditors of public companies. However, Beijing blocks the PCAOB from inspecting audits of Chinese companies that trade on U.S. exchanges.

Eric Lorber, senior director of the Center on Economic and Financial Power at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told the subcommittee that transparency in the global financial system is crucial to protecting U.S. national security and the financial system, and many Chinese companies lack such transparency, impeding American investors from making informed decisions.

He said the U.S. government should “consider the use of narrowly targeted sanctions, which offer a well-established tool to ensure U.S. companies and U.S. national security are protected.”

The U.S. could use sanction tools to target specific Chinese companies whose activities present security risks to the country, Lorber said during Tuesday’s hearing. The sanctions could limit these companies’ access to U.S. markets.

Separately, Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Virginia Democrat, has introduced a bill that would require issuers of securities to disclose their activities related to China’s Xinjiang region. The measure was referred to the House Financial Services Committee. Beijing is accused of using forced labor in that region, as well as holding more than 1 million members of mostly Muslim ethnic groups in detention camps.


Published in conjunction with MarketWatch Logo

Small Business owners urge Congress to fix labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, calling them a threat to expansion

WASHINGTON – Executives representing small businesses from home construction to candy manufacture told a House Small Business Subcommittee Wednesday that supply chain disruptions and labor shortages are hampering their efforts to grow their businesses.

John C. Fowke, owner of a home construction company in Florida, said he ordered windows last November but they didn’t arrive until June, stalling the next steps in his construction projects.

“Everybody that works in this industry is in dire need of added labor,” said Fowke, who was testifying on behalf of the National Association of Home Builders. “We’ve got to do something about the labor situation that will help us with the supply chain.”

House Small Business Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Regulations Chairman Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., said small businesses have limited inventories compared with big companies, meaning they cannot afford to wait months for supplies, and the higher shipping costs during the pandemic also hurt small businesses.

Christine Lahtinen, president of Maud Borup Inc. based in Plymouth, Michigan, said her 100-year-old candy manufacturing company currently has 200 employees, approximately 100 below the optimal number.

“My business faces a dire shortage of workers,” Lahtinen said. “Since December 2020, we have instituted a 36% hourly salary increase and we still have trouble recruiting workers.”

Subcommittee members on both sides of the aisle agreed that labor shortages contribute to supply chain disruptions, but Republicans and Democrats disagreed on governmental actions that would encourage more people to join the workforce.

Rep. Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn., suggested the government should stop putting money into the economy, saying it leads to inflation. Instead, he proposed Congress pass his legislation to help people get technical training in vocational colleges.

“I’m a proponent of transition wages, whatever we have to do in order to give people the incentive to get back to work. It’s much more compassionate than having people dependent on the government,” Hagedorn said.

But Phillips said the government should find solutions to make the supply chain more resilient and “look to existing measures that we can utilize to help small businesses with issues surrounding supply chain and foreign trade.”

The Biden administration launched the Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force in June to strengthen domestic supply chains. In October, the administration also announced commitments to move products faster by extending the operation hours at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle 40% of containers entering the U.S.

Phillips added the Small Business Administration’s State Trade Expansion Program (STEP) could help entrepreneurs market and sell their products overseas, which could stimulate the U.S. economy.

Kevin Loe, director of customer engagement at Redi-Rock International, a retaining wall manufacturer based in Michigan, said the company went from almost zero export sales to a global market leader in the industry thanks to STEP.

“STEP was a catalyst for us to invest our time and resources into international trade,” Loe said. “These exports have allowed us the freedom to get good-paying, hard-working jobs, diversify our sales, increase our market share.”

Washingtonians alternately protest, celebrate the State of the Union

WASHINGTON – DC-area residents had very different reactions to President Donald Trump’s second State of the Union address Tuesday night. But whether they celebrated or denounced the event, emotions were strong.

Around 40-50 people gathered at each of two intersections near the Capitol ahead of the address  — far fewer than the 400 people who protested last year, according to Resist DC, the community action group that organized both years’ protests.

People lined the sidewalks along the streets that President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other Trump cabinet members’ motorcades were expected pass by. They held homemade signs lit with string lights so they would be visible to government officials in their cars and chanted anti-Trump messages to music and drums.

Eileen Minarick, 70, said she was protesting simply “because the state of our union is terrible.”

Members of Herndon-Reston Indivisible, a group created to resist President Trump's policies and elect Democrats to office, held lit-up letters spelling “Fraud” and “Yuge Liar.” (Ester Wells/MNS)40-50 protestors were stationed at each of two points along 3rd Street NW in Washington, D.C. (Ester Wells/MNS)Protestors waved Russian flags as they waited along the sidewalk. (Ester Wells/MNS)A protestor held a lit-up sign as he shouted the words. (Ester Wells/MNS)Eileen Minarick, 70, said, “I don’t feel I’m protesting Trump. I’m protesting the policies of his administration, which are inhuman.” (Ester Wells/MNS)The Capitol dome Tuesday night. (Ester Wells/MNS)Police cars and officers patrolled the streets surrounding the Capitol, many of which were blocked off to both vehicles and pedestrians. (Ester Wells/MNS)Patrons don pink stickers and resistance apparel as they listen to activist speakers and wait for President Trump's State of the Union address to begin  (Brooke Fowler/MNS)Sitting in front of the projector, a stray star is caught on actor Danny Glover's face as he prepares to educate attendees about the conflict in Latin America. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)Co-founder of CODEPINK, Madea Benjamin addresses the crowd as other speakers converse with audience members. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)The classic pairing of wine and board games is at every table, except with a twist. In order to ‘survive the night’ patrons mark a square every time President Trump utters a common saying. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)Violence against women must end, said Chad Smith, a trainer with nonprofit organization Men Can Stop Rape. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)All eyes are trained on the screen as Trump enters the House Chamber for the State of the Union address. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)Grinning, a man in a Make America Great Again hat listens as President Donald Trump announced “I will get it built” in reference to a southern border wall at a local Young Republicans watch party. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)A sign welcomes members of the DC Young Republicans and Arlington Falls Church Young Republicans. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)Members of Republican organizations gather around as President Trump continues past expected time in his State of the Union speech. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)The scene is more mellow downstairs, where a few recluse bar patrons chat with each other as the television screens broadcast in synchrony. (Brooke Fowler/MNS)

Elsewhere in the city, local bar patrons gathered to drink beer, compete in presidential bingo and watch the State of the Union.

Grassroots activist group CODEPINK hosted a number of guest speakers, including actor Danny Glover, for a lively discussion before the main event. Topics ranged from the Bolivarian revolution to ending domestic violence.

Anita Jenkins, spokeswoman for Stand Up for Democracy, riled the crowd with a call to establish the District of Columbia the 51st state in the United States.

“The people of D.C. have no representation… We have nobody to speak for us,” she said. Modifying the words of America’s early founders, she said, “Taxation without representation is a rip-off.”

As President Trump appeared on the projector, shouts of disapproval rose from the bar patrons. The State of the Union 2019 had begun and the energy was energetic in its moroseness.

Across town, the atmosphere was also charged. Members of DC Young Republicans and Arlington Falls Church Young Republicans filled a restaurant for a celebratory viewing party.

“In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall… but the proper wall never got built,” said Donald Trump. He paused and then said, “I’ll get it built.” Hoots and hollers erupted in the bar and two girls were seen smiling and hugging each other.

Though Trump stressed unity in his national address, DC-area residents remained divided in their reactions.

2020 Candidates Alternate Cheers, Hisses to Trump Wall, Immigration Proposals during State of Union

WASHINGTON – Several Democratic 2020 presidential candidates expressed their displeasure with many of President Donald Trump’s policies during the State of the Union address Tuesday.

Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., could be seen shaking their heads when Trump mentioned controversial topics such as his commitment to building a border wall and the dangers of migrant caravans heading to the U.S. southern border.

Harris, who announced her candidacy on Jan. 21, shook her head and visibly mouthed, “They’re not,” as Trump said, “Large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States.”

In a Facebook Live address before the State of the Union, Harris told viewers, “It’s a moment for a president to rise above politics and unite the country with a vision that includes all Americans, not just the ones who may have voted for them. It’s a moment to bring us together.”

Early in the address, Harris was often reluctant to give Trump a standing ovation, asking her colleagues, “Really?” as they cheered the president’s comments about space exploration.

The candidates and their Democratic colleagues booed and hissed as Trump labeled the numerous investigations into his campaign finance and relationship with Russia “ridiculous partisan investigations.”

“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way!”

Democrats cheered later as Trump mentioned that women have filled 58 percent of new jobs in the past year. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has formed a presidential exploratory committee, pointed at the newly elected House Democrats, who stood up and chanted, “USA, USA.”

“I think he didn’t realize that all the female jobs he created were for [congresswomen],” Gillibrand said after the speech.

The Democratic candidates stood and applauded with everyone in the chamber when Trump recognized World War II veterans, a SWAT team member and a childhood cancer survivor.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., sat stoically as Trump denounced socialism. Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, is widely considered likely e to enter the presidential race. Unlike Sanders, Gillibrand and Harris stood and applauded as Trump said, “America will never be a socialist country.”

TRUMP STRIKES CHORD WITH WOMEN, FALLS FLAT ON BIPARTISAN BORDER WALL PITCH

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump got one of his biggest rounds of applause during his State of the Union address Tuesday night when he noted that Congress now has a record-high number of elected women, but it wasn’t lost on the crowd that when the women rose to cheer they were mostly on the Democratic side of the aisle.

“Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before,” Trump said as the women lawmakers rose to clap and celebrate. He then advised them “Don’t sit. You’re going to like this.”

“Exactly one century after the Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in the Congress than at any time before,” he said. There were 117 women elected to Congress in 2018.

Bipartisan chants of “USA! USA!” filled the chamber as both the Democrats and Republicans broke into uproarious applause. Many of the Democratic women wore white and donned pins that read “ERA YES,” in a nod to the women of the suffragette movement.

Trump called his list of priorities “the agenda of the American people” in his second State of the Union address Tuesday, which was delayed a week because of the 35-day government shutdown, which didn’t end until the previous Friday. The address was the first the president has delivered before the new Democratic majority in the House.

The president remained on-script for the duration of the 84-minute speech and touted his administration’s achievements from the past two years. He also laid out several legislative priorities going forward, including a “smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier,” an infrastructure bill and the eradication of HIV and AIDS.

Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., was glad that health care was a topic in the speech, while Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., described the speech as “terrific.”

“We haven’t gotten that right when it comes to protection our citizens with pre-existing conditions, correcting all the problems and costs associated with the ACA,” French said. “I like that he kept an emphasis on that while also tackling the prescription drug process.”

For Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., laying out these broad initiatives wasn’t enough.

“I wrote down a number of initiatives — defense spending, cancer research, transportation, infrastructure — and never heard anything of how we’re going to pay for them,” he said.

The president also pushed his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and to reduce drastically the number of troops in Afghanistan.

Among Democrats, reactions were mixed as Trump highlighted his achievements. When Trump lauded the U.S. increase in gas and oil production, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who has championed a Green New Deal to address accelerating climate change, remained seated.

Many Democrats applauded Trump’s push for a new infrastructure bill and decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who sat behind Trump with Vice President Mike Pence, was clearly following a printed version of the speech. She applauded when Trump mentioned criminal justice reform and bipartisan efforts on lowering drug costs and furthering women’s rights.

After praising a recent bipartisan effort to secure criminal justice reform, Trump shifted to a project he said would require the same bipartisan effort: a southern border wall.

“Simply put, walls work and walls save lives,” he said. “So let’s work together, compromise and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.”

However, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was not encouraged by the president’s attempt to strike a bipartisan tone.

“I just don’t think he is to be trusted,” she said. “This is not a president who is working for the middle class of this country.”

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said that while parts of Trump’s speech were good, he was too combative at times.

“There should have been more emphasis on the fact that the government was shut down and we all need to work together to bring it back,” he said. “Blaming the Democrats is not going to keep the government open.”

Freshmen members of Congress excited, disappointed at their first State of the Union address

WASHINGTON — Before attending his first State of the Union address, Rep. Jefferson Van Drew, D-N.J., felt a sense of excitement and joy, but also feared the president might once again fan partisan flames by rehashing controversial issues.

“I hope that right now, he doesn’t talk about closing the government again. I hope he doesn’t talk right now about declaring a national emergency. I would so much rather see that we try to work together and get something done. That requires flexibility on Democrats side as well. Both sides have to do this,” said Van Drew.

Partisanship is the reason the approval rating for Congress is so low, but issues like border security, and infrastructure deserve cooperation between the two parties, said Van Drew.

“Rather than just argue and disagree and investigative and be hurtful on both sides, maybe we can actually get something get done.”

▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

Chris Pappas, D-N.H.

Although having been full-fledged members of Congress for a little over a month, the freshmen class of senators and representatives still retains a “sense of awe” about the State of the Union address, said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. Pappas said he hoped Trump would strike a conciliatory tone with Democrats, allowing lawmakers to avoid a second government shutdown.

Pappas brought a transgender military veteran from his home state to hear the president as a symbol of his hope that Trump’s transgender military service ban will be lifted.

“That doesn’t make us any safer and in fact plays politics with the military,” he said.

In addition to passing social justice reform, Pappas said he would like Trump to speak about the opioid crisis, prescription drug costs and infrastructure — and Trump did.

▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill.

In Illinois Rep. Sean Casten’s dreams, Trump’s State of the Union address would make climate change a priority, but said his expectations were low. Trump did not in fact mention the environment.

“Truth is what I hope he doesn’t say is what I fear he will say,” Casten said, “which is that he’s going to threaten to shut down the government again if he doesn’t get a wall.”

Casten’s guest was Julie Caribeaux, the executive director of Family Shelter Service, which receives federal aid and provides support for victims of domestic abuse. He said domestic violence victims are some of the “primary victims” of Trump’s rhetoric.

▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-NY, was hoping for a message of bipartisanship and unity, things that “the American people are calling for.” Trump did call on Congress to act together on many issues.

Brindisi’s top priorities this year are trying to find common ground with the Republicans on immigration reform, infrastructure and lowering prescription drug costs. On infrastructure, he said he specifically wanted to hear Trump’s ideas on investing in job training programs. Trump mentioned all the issues, but with little specificity except that he wants a border wall and enforcement to stop what he called “caravans of migrants” heading to the southern border.

“Those are things that I talked about during the campaign that many people back in upstate New York are calling for and those are things I hope he does say,” Brindisi said.

▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev.

Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., said she gets excited every time she walks onto the House floor, and Tuesday was no exception. Although there were parts of the speech she did not agree with, namely Trump’s insistence on a border wall, Lee said she appreciated the call for bipartisanship.

Lowering prescription drug prices, investing in infrastructure and a comprehensive border control strategy — these are all components of his speech Lee said she could agree with.

“These are all ideas I can get behind and they work together to produce some results for American families,” she said.

▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

Rep. Deb Halaand, D-N.M.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., said she was dismayed about Trump’s urgency regarding funding for a border wall.

“I wasn’t surprised. Let’s put it that way about the president’s speech. I mean, of course, we don’t want a wall,” said Halland. “He instilled fear and everybody about the danger, you know, the danger that’s coming across the border.”

Haaland hopes to focus on promoting awareness about climate change and wished the President would be more receptive to the diverse issues and people around the country.

▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬

Rep. Chuy Garcia, D-Ill., said he enjoyed his first State of the Union in a historical sense, but wanted President Trump to address issues he feels are important, including raising the minimum wage and healthcare.

Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill.

He said while the president did mention lowering prescription drug costs, there was another area of healthcare that was not noted, such as the millions who do not have healthcare at all.

“He wrapped himself around a lot of patriotism and recognition of your courageous battles and victories and but in the end, I think he failed to address important things more,” Garcia said.

 

 

Post-SOTU Interviews with Illinois Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowski and Cheri Bustos

Our Alex Lederman sat down with Illinois Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowski and Cheri Bustos after the State of the Union to hear their thoughts on President Obama’s address.

Schakowski — Evanston’s congresswoman since 1999 — said “(Obama)’s vision of what makes our country strong was so human and so true.”

Bustos said Obama is focused on the future — our children and grandchildren — and working together to solve the nation’s problems.

Medill on the Hill produces live State of the Union broadcast

WASHINGTON — It was the third day of reporting for the 21 students in Medill on the Hill. It also happened to be the day the president would deliver his final State of the Union address.

Months ago, buoyed by the excitement of the possibilities and the folly of youth, some of us came up with the idea of taking Medill on the Hill to a new level — producing live TV while also finding new ways of storytelling for the website and social media.

On State of the Union night, Jan. 12, the Washington web team led by Alex Duner and Celena Chong managed the flow of copy and constant web updates streaming in from reporters around Capitol Hill and elsewhere in D.C. There also was a constant stream of @medillonthehill tweets and snapchats as well as several Periscopes.

Tyler Kendall, Allyson Chiu and Shane McKeon were responsible for the main story, and Chiu said the experience was, “the highlight” of her journalism career.

“It was hectic, crazy and we were definitely all running on adrenaline by the end of the night,” she said.

Other reporters were assigned to stories on specific issues the president mentioned, or how local college students reacted to the speech. One even tweeted the speech in Spanish.

My task was to produce the Washington end of a live television broadcast.

Nine months ago Jesse Kirsch came back from 2015 Medill on the Hill with an idea for Carlin McCarthy, another producer with the Northwestern News Network, and me.

He said, with the optimism of a television anchor, that for the 2016 State of the Union we should produce a live broadcast with analysts at our home studio in Evanston and reporters in our D.C. bureau and on Capitol Hill. I said, with the skepticism of a television producer, that I thought he was crazy.

It took long nights, patience and a lot of support from the Medill faculty and staff, but we pulled it off.

Jesse opened the show in Evanston and before we knew it Isabella Gutierrez was doing a live hit from the Washington bureau. Then we were live in Statuary Hall with Noah Fromson, followed by a live report from graduate student Ryan Holmes on what to watch for just minutes before we streamed the live feed of President Barack Obama addressing a joint session of Congress for his final State of the Union.

We did a live interviews with Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, wrote scripts while we counted down the seconds until they were read and gathered quotes from senators and members of Congress. Alex Lederman also provided quick-turn video interviews with two congresswomen.

Associate Producer Geordan Tilley, who interviewed Durbin, was nervous before the show, but she said she is proud of the Medill effort.

“I thought the show was some of our best work, Tilley said. “Especially considering how many firsts were involved, not the least of which was our first time going live.”

 

 

What do senators do after the State of the Union? Not much

As police with bomb-sniffing dogs swept the halls of Congress in preparation for the State of the Union early Tuesday night, senators began trundling into the Capitol on the small subway tram that runs between their offices and the Senate basement. Medill intercepted them on their way to the elevators to ask about what happens after the cameras shut off.

What do senators do when they leave the Capitol after the State of the Union?

“Sleep.”

– Sen. Charles Schumer,D-N.Y.

“He goes back home with his wife.”

– Iris Weinshall (Schumer’s wife)

 

“Normally I do press with my press in Michigan … I’m usually on the phone talking to folks or doing interviews.”

– Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

 

“You go through Statuary Hall, you do press, and then I’m going to try to find my guest who is a laid off skill worker and make sure he gets back to the Holiday Inn … One time [Sen.] Jeff Sessions and I did joint press afterwards because we were dates for the State of the Union. That was quite romantic.”

– Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

 

“I’m going to watch the Republican response and collect my wife and reflect on the day. Get ready for tomorrow. Tomorrow’s another day.”

(Medill: That sounds rather unglamorous.)

“Yes it’s boring, very boring. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

– Sen. Michael Crapo, R-Idaho

 

“I go home and go to bed.”

(Medill: There are no cocktails with colleagues or anything like that?)

“No. That may be a perception somewhere out in America, but I can assure you that a vast majority of senators are going home and going to bed and getting up to go to work early in the morning.”

– Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Mary Landrieu, D-N.D.Louisiana

 

State of the Union 2016: Preview and Excerpts

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama delivers his seventh and final State of the Union address Tuesday night. Excerpts released by the White House indicate that the speech will express optimism for the country’s future in “a time of extraordinary change.”

“It’s change that promises amazing medical breakthroughs, but also economic disruptions that strain working families. It promises education for girls in the most remote villages, but also connects terrorists plotting an ocean away. It’s change that can broaden opportunity, or widen inequality. And whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate,” according to excerpts released by the White House.

The speech will likely be light on specific policy proposals with the president  talking instead about how the country has improved since the crises he inherited when he took office in 2009.

“We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did — because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before.”

The president is also expected to discuss the political climate leading up to the 2016 presidential election, saying that change will come “only happen if we fix our politics.”

“A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and imperatives of security.”

 

 


 

Medill Today // November 23, 2021