Equal Rights Amendment Gets First Full Committee Hearing in 40 Years

House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney called on the archivist of the United States to ignore the deadline set by Congress and certify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Agency leaders fight for Afghan resettlement

Resettlement leaders asked Congress to pressure the Biden administration to help vulnerable Afghans settle into American communities.

Howard University student sit-in continues into 2nd week

There are more than 50 students sleeping inside Blackburn, and there are around 40 tents camped outside the building, as of Thursday.

The modern space race: U.S. aims to stay on top

In response to China’s increased presence in space, the Senate space subcommittee looks to ensure the United States’ dominance in exploration beyond Earth.

Ahead of COP26, climate experts say “we’re running out of time”

As the window to limit global warning closes, the House International Development Subcommittee heard testimony on climate crisis-prevention plans.

Latest in Politics

Inflationary politics: GOP messaging capitalizes on rising consumer prices

WASHINGTON — The latest consumer price report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed an increase in costs of 5.4% over the past year, the highest annualized inflation rate in more than a decade. The post-pandemic inflation presents a political dilemma for President Biden and a powerful messaging tool for Republicans.

According to minutes from the most recent meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, which sets monetary policy for the Federal Reserve, the current inflation is “boosted by a surge in demand as the economy reopened further, along with the effects of production bottlenecks and supply constraints.”

The Federal Reserve remains set on the idea that it is “transitory,” meaning it’s a temporary condition resulting from unique post-pandemic economic conditions. The minutes noted that, while a gradual tightening of monetary policy will begin shortly, the nation’s top economists “aim to achieve inflation moderately above 2% for some time so that inflation averages 2% over time.”

Inflation has factored heavily in recent Republican criticisms of the Biden administration. The party line has been repeated by countless lawmakers over the past weeks, exemplified by South Dakota Republican Sen. John Barrasso’s speech on the Senate floor last week that Americans are “already feeling the big bite of Joe Biden’s inflation at the gas pump and the grocery store.”

Wednesday’s report showed an increase of 0.4% in costs over September, driven in part by a 0.9% increase in food costs — meat and eggs, especially — and a 1.2% increase in energy costs. Annualized inflation rates for food and energy are 4.6% and 24.8%, respectively, although the energy hike is mainly due to artificially low oil prices last year.

Hours after the inflation report was released, Republicans ramped up their messaging against both Biden’s governance to date and the expansive reconciliation bill that represents much of his agenda.

“Prices are rising because Democrats spent trillions of dollars we don’t have on a socialist giveaway,” read a statement by National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Mike Berg. “It’s completely reckless that they are now trying to spend trillions more on another massive tax and spending bill.”

For Democrats, the strategy seems to be waiting for consumer prices to die down. The organizations responsible for electing Democrats to the House and Senate have been silent on inflation, instead focusing on low unemployment claims, fund-raising successes and GOP obstinance over the debt ceiling vote.

If monthly inflation reports continue showing less-than-favorable numbers, however, that may no longer be an option. Jonathan Bydlak, director of the Governance Program at the conservative R Street Institute, said the possibility of losing competitive districts in 2022 over inflation could deepen divisions between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party and imperil the reconciliation bill.

“It’s easy to be in favor of all these things when there’s no apparent impact on the economic well-being of Americans,” Bydlak said. “But as soon as [House moderates] look and think they may be in trouble electorally, it’s not implausible to see perhaps a rethinking of priorities.”

One messaging possibility for Democrats if inflation becomes a salient issue in the midterm elections could be placing the blame on former President Donald Trump. But, Bydlak pointed out, that strategy has its downsides.

“Theoretically, [Democrats] do have somewhat of an out, they could basically say, ‘This is Trump-flation,’” Bydlak said. “But they can’t really do that because they have the progressive part of the party that wants to see even larger amounts of spending.”

Another messaging possibility for Democrats is a bit more counterintuitive.

J.W. Mason, an assistant professor of economics at John Jay College, is among those who believe that the current inflation spike is temporary. He says those using current inflation trends as a sign that there has been too much federal spending are “either confused or deliberately dishonest.”

“We don’t have any economy-wide overheating at this point. We don’t have a situation where there’s simply too much spending in the economy,” Mason said. “We have a situation where a few sectors are having trouble adjusting to a post-pandemic world, that is all.”

As for solutions, Mason is trying to sell a progressive fix, arguing the solution is an increase in government spending. One example he gives is combating the current vulnerability to global oil prices with investments in alternative energy.

“The way you make that argument is you talk about specific areas where prices are rising,” Mason said. “If it’s just inflation in the abstract, then people immediately go to this interest rates and austerity solution.”

Pelosi signals earlier expiration date for Biden agenda

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Tuesday indicated that she is leaning toward cutting the length of programs in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan to pare down the $3.5 trillion price tag.

The spending package, which was originally slated to dole out $3.5 trillion over 10 years, now seems more likely to hover at roughly $2 trillion, the figure Biden has floated to House Progressives who blocked a move to pass a Senate-cleared infrastructure bill without assurance that the Build Back Better package would be passed in tandem.

At a morning news conference, Pelosi told reporters that the “first thing” up for negotiation in the drive to reduce the bill’s top line would be “timing.”

Adjusting the length of programs within the spending package is one of two options House Democrats have in the weeks before Pelosi’s new Oct. 31 deadline to pass the measure – either keep the programs but set earlier expiration dates or eliminate some programs but have them last 10 years.

Pelosi Tuesday signaled she’s likely to go with the former.

“Mostly we’d be looking at paring down years,” she said.

On Monday, Pelosi took a different position in a letter to members of her Democratic caucus. “Overwhelmingly,” Pelosi wrote, Members want to do “fewer things well.”

Either way, some programs would require a minimum amount of money in order to be sustainable, said Pelosi, and cuts to lower the cost would “not undermine” the bill’s “transformative” nature.

Moderate Democrats, led by Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have opposed the $3.5 trillion cost. Without the two senators, Democrats do not have a majority to pass the legislation.

Pelosi said she’s “very disappointed” that the massive bill has to be cut, but “we’re still talking about a couple trillion dollars.”

The speaker said there will be “important decisions” to make “in the next few days.”

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Latest in Education

Department of Education reevaluates student loan forgiveness program

WASHINGTON — The Albany City Council was early to conversations about the need for widespread federal student loan forgiveness. In August 2009, council members passed a resolution urging the federal government to consider forgiving student loans in order to help the economy. 

Jim Sano, a lifelong Albany resident and former middle school teacher, said he conceived the idea for the resolution after receiving an article from his daughter, a graduate student at New York University, outlining the devastating effects of student debt. It struck a nerve, especially because he saw other parts of the economy receiving federal help in response to the Great Recession. 

One section of the resolution focused on expanding access to forgiveness of both private and public loans for public sector employees in order “to better utilize these degrees and experience especially in our most disadvantaged sectors.”

At the time, the federal government had already created one program to forgive loans for public servants: the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. But it has proved to not be as effective as intended, and the Department of Education announced a massive overhaul last week.

Established in 2007, the PSLF program was a promise to public service employees teachers, firefighters, health care employees and more that after 10 years in public service their debts would be removed if they had fulfilled 120 payments.

“It was both a reward for people who were doing important work and an incentive to make sure that folks wouldn’t be prevented from entering public service jobs because of their debt burden,” Winston Berkman-Breen, director of advocacy for the Student Borrower Protection Center, said. 

The first year a group of eligible borrowers would have had their debts forgiven was 2017.  However, the number of participants who benefited was much lower than expected. 

According to a Government Accountability Office report, by April 2018, over 1 million had started the process to verify their eligibility for the program. From there, a total of 20,000 people had submitted an application for loan forgiveness, and only 55 people were granted forgiveness. 

Only 1.2% of New York PSLF participants have had their debts forgiven, with the remaining PSLF participants in the state still owing more than $8 billion in student loans, according to a report by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., using Education Department data. 

A confusing application process, stringent requirements for payments that would qualify toward the 120 and lack of clear communication are partially to blame for this outcome, according to a number of experts. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers said the program was “worse than the worst maze that anyone has ever gone through.” 

With the overhaul, the Department of Education plans to make a number of changes. Significantly, a limited-time waiver will allow borrowers to consolidate their loans, making prior payments count towards their 120 payments regardless of the type of loan or payment plan.  The deadline to apply for this program is Oct. 31, 2022.  

Other changes include plans to simplify the application process, review all denied PSLF applications to correct prior errors, remove barriers that deter the participation of members of the military and improve communication with eligible borrowers, the agency said. 

Eric Harrington, senior counsel for the National Education Association, said the significance of this overhaul is being understated. 

“This is a very big deal… For educators, this overhaul could mean 10 to 15% of all educators in the country, nearly a million people, could have their student debt wiped out from these actions,” he said.

But some say these changes only scratch the surface. 

Gillibrand, who’s been calling for reform of the program since last year, commended the Biden administration for the recently announced changes. However, she emphasized that the changes are only temporary solutions.

“We can and should do more to help people who have served our communities and planned their lives careers and futures around the promise of the PSLF program,” Gillibrand said.

She sponsored legislation last year that would make more permanent changes to the program, including making it more flexible. Her bill would allow participants to have their loans partially forgiven after five years of service and make all federal college education loans eligible permanently. 

Janet Werther, an adjunct professor in the State University of New York System, has failed to qualify for PSLF twice – once while a professor and again while working part-time at an arts nonprofit. PSLF requires borrowers to work full time or at least 30 hours a week and while there are exceptions to the rule, reaching this minimum is a necessity year after year. Werther said this requirement, especially in the higher education system, poses a problem because there is a higher proportion of part-time professors compared to full-time positions. 

“There’s a structural inequity there in that those of us who in the university system are the most economically disadvantaged, the most precarious, the most structurally underprivileged in our work, are also the least able to access public service loan forgiveness,” they said. 

The impact of the overhaul will be seen in the coming years, and until then, Gillibrand said the key for regaining faith in this program lies in making it work. 

“If we give a million people loan forgiveness, the million who have done the work over the last 10 years, who deserve it, that would transform people’s impression of the program overnight.”

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Federal funding would help improve HBCU infrastructure, says university president

WASHINGTON — Some buildings in historically Black colleges and universities are in such bad shape that “when it rains outside, many times it rains inside,” the Tennessee State University president told a House subcommittee on Wednesday.

Tennessee State University is one of about 100 historically Black colleges and universities in the country. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, these institutions were all established prior to 1964 with the principal mission of educating Blacks, who were restricted from attending other universities. 

Deferred maintenance refers to needed repairs that get delayed and it’s just one of the problems that TSU President Glenda Glover said HBCUs face. 

“The infrastructure needs extensive work. I’ve spoken to other college presidents,” Glover said. “The deferred maintenance can be anywhere from $200 to $300 million — that’s how much it is on Tennessee State’s campus. Where you learn, where you live, that’s where [it] becomes so important.”

HBCUs have become a focal point for the Biden administration and Congress. Last month, Biden signed an executive order reaffirming his stance on advancing educational equity and economic opportunities for students through HBCUs.  

Since March of 2020, Congress has allocated around $6.5 billion for HBCUs through COVID-19 relief funding and a capital financing program.

Glover said this funding helped HBCUs and their students immensely throughout the pandemic by giving them access to funds used for tuition assistance and technology necessary for online learning. 

While thankful for the emergency aid, Glover told the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment the Build Back Better Act would be game-changing for HBCUs.

The portion of the bill that the Committee on Education and Labor’s advanced last month includes over $30 billion in funding for HBCUs: $2 billion for a competitive grant program that would increase their research capacity, $27 billion to reduce low-income students’ tuition costs and $1.45 billion in additional funding. However, this could change dramatically as the Democrats and Republicans continue to debate over what the final price tag should be for the Build Back Better Act. 

Rep. Greg Murphy, the highest-ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said he didn’t think additional federal funding through the Build Back Better plan would be beneficial. He said federal money has led to decreased accountability for institutions and that HBCUs and other universities should look to partnerships in the private sector and innovation to make their universities better.

Chairwoman Frederica Wilson D-Fla., who graduated from Fisk University, another HBCU in Tennessee, pointed to a history of hurdles and complications that differentiate the struggles of HBCUs from other universities. For example, HBCU endowments, which rely heavily on investments and donations, don’t come close to those of other universities. According to the Brookings Institution, endowments for all HBCUs combined totaled around $3.9 billion in 2019, while New York University’s endowment alone totaled $4.3 billion.

“HBCUs continue to experience persistent challenges including systemic underfunding, chronic state disinvestment and discriminatory funding policies that left HBCUs to achieve far more with far less,” Wilson said. “We must continue to invest in HBCUs and their students.” 

Health & Science

AAPI women underline nuanced challenges to access abortion

WASHINGTON – “Terminating my pregnancy was not an easy choice, but it was my choice.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat representing Washington state and an immigrant from India, along with two other congresswomen shared their abortion stories at a House committee hearing discussing recent abortion bans.

Jayapal first disclosed her abortion in 2019 in a New York Times Opinion article. Until then, she said at the hearing, her mother did not know about it.

“Some of it was because as an immigrant from a culture that deeply values children and in a society that still stigmatizes abortion, suicide and mental health needs, I felt shame that I should never have felt,” she said.

Jayapal said in an interview that AAPI – Asian American and Pacific Islanders – women experience some unique challenges in trying to get abortions that members of Congress need to learn about.

“Unfortunately, many AAPI women do face cultural stigma around the choice to have an abortion,” said Jayapal.

Studies show AAPI parents find discomfort in discussing sexual health with their children. Among 455 AAPI respondents ages 18 to 25, only 10% reported family as the source of sex and birth control education, according to a study by the University of California. As a result, one in three Asian women had used the calendar method for pregnancy prevention, twice the percentage of other racial and ethnic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Activists said the cultural stigma not only comes from the traditional family values of Asian families but the historical silencing of Asian American women in American society.

“The model minority myth just makes it easier to say AAPI are okay,” said Da Hae Kim, a legal advocacy manager at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), which advocates for AAPI reproductive rights. “If you don’t know that there is a problem, you’re not going to be able to come up with solutions. We’re stopped right out the gate.”

A study by the Guttmacher Institute, an organization with ties to Planned Parenthood that analyzes reproductive health issues, shows 6% of American women who get abortions identify as AAPI, and AAPI women make up 6.5% of women in the U.S.

NAPAWF filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, urging it to reject overturning the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in favor of abortion rights and outlining the nuanced challenges AAPI women face in trying to obtain an abortion, including language, economic and cultural barriers.

AAPI women often cannot afford to obtain abortions out of state, advocates said. About 27% of employed AAPI women are essential workers, according to the Center for American Progress. The median annual income among different AAPI subgroups ranges from $30,000 to $70,000.

“They may not be able to fly out of state or drive out of state or even take a day off of work,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif.

In addition, activists said there is a need for culturally informed care that reaches out to all corners of the AAPI community.

“You cannot just provide the top three Asian languages and expect you’ve reached the AAPI community. We speak dozens of languages, even more dialects,” said Jennifer Wang, chief of strategic partnerships and research at NAPAWF.

Further, 34% of AAPI report limited English proficiency, which means they have difficulty communicating in English, according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.

NAPAWF members in Texas said that AAPIs face an information barrier because many cannot understand the ongoing legal battle surrounding Texas’s abortion bans.

“The uncertainty and the fear that it creates really just all compounds,” said Anvita Kandru, Texas outreach coordinator at NAPAWF.

Chu, the first Chinese American elected to Congress, has introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act in the House in each new Congress for a decade. The act would guarantee women’s right to an abortion by law rather than relying on the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling. The House passed the measure in September, but the Senate has not yet taken it up.

“It did send a strong message out there that AAPI women can be a leader, not only for the AAPI community but actually for all of America on very important issues,” said Chu.

Opening U.S. to vaccinated travelers exacerbates global inequality, experts say

WASHINGTON — With the U.S. set to join the EU and Canada in reopening its borders for vaccinated travelers in November, people in countries with limited access to COVID-19 vaccinations face significant hurdles that federal officials should address quickly, migration experts said Tuesday.

Nearly 60 countries, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, had not been able to vaccinate more than 10% of their population by September, according to a World Health Organization report. The Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford predicted that the majority of African countries will miss the WHO’s goal to vaccinate 40% of the population by the end of the year.

“A lot of people traveling from low-income countries already face lots of challenges in getting a visa,” said Meghan Benton, a speaker at the panel and research director at the Migration Policy Institute, at a Brookings Institution event. “This (vaccine requirement) only exacerbates the inequality in the global traveling system.”

She suggested providing vaccines during the visa application process or after travelers arrive at their destinations instead of rejecting all unvaccinated travelers.

“We need to think about enabling infrastructure rather than simply enforcement,” Benton said.

Other experts at the panel said access to vaccines is only one of the problems people from low-income countries face.

“Even if you can access vaccines, can you get the documentation that can then be verified? How are data handled in countries where people have trusting issues with their governments?” said Elizabeth Collett, a senior adviser to the Migration Policy Institute.

Benton said in an interview that there is “a big question mark” on what kind of vaccine verification system the U.S. government will propose, especially because states and cities differ in ways they handle vaccine verification, such as accepting digital or print vaccination cards.

On Nov. 8, the U.S.will lift the almost two-year travel suspension on 33 countries including China, Iran and most European countries for those vaccinated. In the past two years, people who weren’t U.S. citizens could not enter America if they were in one of the other countries in the 14 days prior to their proposed arrival in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization will be accepted as proof of vaccination. The list includes vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Oxford-AstraZeneca (and Covishield), and China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines.

Foreign travelers with mixed doses of approved vaccines from different manufacturers will be admitted. The FDA recommendation for Americans to receive mixed doses is expected this week.

The American borders are also opening up to Canada and Mexico in early November to vaccinated non-essential travelers, which include tourists and those visiting friends and families. Currently, essential workers from those countries may enter the U.S. without proof of vacation, but in January they, too, will have to prove they’ve been vaccinated.

Last week, the Biden administration warned Moderna to increase its global vaccine distribution and noted that Moderna has already received $10 billion in federal funds to fund the vaccine development.

“I think these companies understand our authorities and understand we would not be afraid to use them, but the best recourse right now is for them to step up to the plate now,” David Kessler, the Biden administration’s chief science officer for the COVID-19 response, said last week at a Yale Law School event.

Benton said putting people into two categories – vaxxed and nonvaxxed – obscures the more important need to increase vaccination rates globally.

“We should stop thinking about preventing people from coming in but how to facilitate vaccine access worldwide,” she said.

Published in conjunction with UPI Logo

Latest in Environment

EV Evolution: Buttigieg pushes Congress to support electric vehicle initiatives

WASHINGTON – Surrounded by a dozen electric buses and a few other electric vehicles outside the Transportation Department building Wednesday, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg called on Congress to fund electric vehicle initiatives — especially in polluted and low-income communities.

Consumers have been turning to electric vehicles because they reduce fuel costs and carbon emissions. In 2020, 1.1 million battery-powered passenger vehicles were on U.S. roads, according to the International Energy Agency. The industry has also expanded beyond passenger vehicles to battery-powered motorcycles, buses, delivery and garbage trucks, Buttigieg said.

“The question is, how do we make sure that EVs are accessible to all Americans?” Buttigieg said. “Especially those who would benefit the most from the fuel savings, which includes people in underserved parts of cities and in rural areas?”

Malina Sandhu, business development director for Lion Electric Co. – a zero-emissions electric school bus manufacturer — said making electric vehicles affordable is an equity issue.

Lion Electric Co.’s zero-emissions school bus parks in front of the Department of Transportation. Lion Electric has over 400 buses in 11 states. (Yiming Fu/MNS)

“When electric cars came out, they were expensive,” she said. “And people thought EVs were only for higher demographics.”

According to Sandhu, low-income communities, communities of color and residents living in polluted neighborhoods near highways and airports need EVs the most because they live with noise and air pollution, but charging infrastructure for EVs is often not found in these communities.

Lion Electric Co. is working to bring its school buses to diverse communities, Sandhu said.

But Jackie Piero, vice president of policy at Nuvve Corp., which develops charging stations, said electric school buses cost three times more than current buses.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill before Congress includes a $7.5 billion investment in electric vehicle charging and more than $10 billion for zero- and low-emission buses. If passed, this money would bolster the country’s EV infrastructure to be internationally competitive, and it would connect more Americans with EVs.

Orville Thomas, Lion Electric’s lobbyist, said federal funding from the bill is key to getting electric buses into more communities.

“That is going to help communities get to a point in a post-COVID world where they have the ability to spend,” Thomas said. “And not in a program that says, ‘Okay, you pay for it first and then we’ll pay you back,’ but a program that says, ‘We’ll make it easy for you on the regulatory side and we’re giving you the funding to get buses into communities and full of children.’”

With additional funding, Lion Electric can also expand its supply chain, bringing down the cost of its buses, he said.

“Everything right now is just a matter of money,” Thomas said. “Because the more that they fund, the more that we can get ready to do.”

EPA timeline on “forever chemicals” clean-up is too slow, lawmakers say

WASHINGTON — Two days after the Environmental Protection Agency released a plan to address PFAS chemicals, lawmakers expressed concern Wednesday that the agency’s plan will leave communities across the country waiting too long for regulations.

Testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Radhika Fox, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Water, said the agency is moving as quickly as it can to better regulate PFAS chemicals and committed to collaborating with states to ensure changes are made.

PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment, have been used in many products, including nonstick pans, water resistant coats, food packaging and firefighting foam, since the 1940s.

Due to their widespread use and durability, the chemicals have contaminated water sources, soil and air across the country — and found their way into the bloodstream of 97 percent of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The EPA has identified over 120,000 facilities across the country that may be exposing people to PFAS, which are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, according to data obtained by The Guardian.

“PFAS can be found nearly everywhere — in our air, in our land, in our water, in our wildlife, in our own body,” Fox said.

Human exposure to the chemicals has been linked to cancer, increased cholesterol levels and other adverse health effects. Yet, they are not considered hazardous substances by the federal government and continue to be used in consumer and industrial products. On Monday, the EPA released a plan to address PFAS contamination, which includes steps to fund research on the chemicals, restrict their presence in the environment and accelerate clean-up efforts.

Republican Senator Shelley Capito of West Virginia. Capito said she applauded the EPA’s efforts to regulate PFAS, but says there’s much more work to be done. “It is vital that the EPA ensures that science and not politics is driving PFAS regulatory decisions,” she said. (Delaney Nelson/MNS)

Fox said the agency intends to propose a national water drinking standard by next fall and designate certain PFAS as hazardous substances by summer 2023, a timeline the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Shelley Capito of West Virginia, said is too long.

“I want it to be right, I want it to be grounded in science, but I am frustrated,” Capito said. “I would urge you to prioritize this, if not at the top, at near the top of the list because of the impacts it will have all across this country.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Thomas Carper said he’s encouraged by the EPA’s plan, but concrete change will require timely implementation.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said that while he appreciated Fox’s sense of urgency, he wants the agency to act on the water standard as quickly as possible, saying that the longer the chemicals go unregulated, the more challenges the nation will face in the future.

Fox said the government should have established a drinking water standard years ago, but the EPA progress was set back during the Trump administration. She said the agency is committed to creating a durable standard during Administrator Michael Regan’s tenure.

Committee Chairman Thomas Carper of Delaware speaks at a Wednesday hearing. “While I am encouraged by EPA’s issuance of a new PFAS roadmap, the key to meaningful change lies in its timely, complete implementation,” Carper said.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill would be a “game changer” for the EPA in its efforts to regulate PFAS and clean existing contamination, Fox said. The legislation includes $10 billion to remove the forever chemicals from drinking supplies and clean up contamination.

“This is what communities around the country have been suffering from for too long. They have been caught holding the bag for contamination that industry or other facilities have created and they need help,” Fox said. “If we see that contamination exists and that there is imminent and substantial danger to communities, we will use our current enforcement authorities to act.”

Latest in National Security

Biden’s Pacific Strategy needs more Manpower and new Embassies, Experts tell House Committee

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration should open new embassies and increase its diplomatic force in Pacific island nations if it hopes to counteract a rising China, foreign policy and diplomatic experts told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Wednesday.

Leveraging unique advantages that only the U.S. holds – like close personal and historical ties, military cooperation and long-standing soft power programs – should be a core priority of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, they said.

The Pacific is shaping up to be a main diplomatic battleground between the United States and China as Beijing hopes to expand its sphere of influence and project military power, which Cleo Paskal of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said is spearheaded by a navy that China hopes will challenge America’s essential hegemony of the seas.

“The problem for China is that to use its navy, it needs access out of its ports and into the Pacific – but there are several island chains that can be used to block its access,” said Cleo Paskal of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The U.S. has historically maintained strong ties in the Pacific.

“Pacific island nations are our friends, partners and neighbors,” said Judith Cefkin, former ambassador to Fiji and neighboring Pacific nations. Hawaii is a part of the region, as are the U.S. territories of the Northern Marianna Islands, American Samoa and Guam. The U.S. also administers many of the government functions of the freely associated states of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau. Deep historical ties – rooted in large parts in shared World War II experiences – connect America to the rest of the region.

Yet China has made significant inroads. Both Kiribati – a significant Pacific player – and the Solomon Islands cut ties with Taipei and instead recognized Beijing as the one true China in 2019. “I think the U.S. was taken by surprise by how far down the road the Solomon Islands was,” said Paskal. It had offered the U.S. military basing rights just a few years prior, she said, but “that opportunity was lost as well.”
She and other experts told the committee that the U.S. must open more embassies and send more diplomats to Pacific island countries. Having one diplomat representing the U.S. for several countries – as Cefkin did – simply isn’t enough, they said, particularly not when China has many more in each country’s capital.

The U.S. should also build on existing programs. “A state partnership program of the Nevada national guard with Tonga was hugely beneficial to our relationship,” Cefkin recalled. Since then, she said, the program has been expanded to Fiji and Wisconsin’s guard entered into a partnership with Papua New Guinea. Other programs exist in a number of different fields, including educational programs, leadership exchanges and American aid.

“Strong foundations can breed complacency and overconfidence,” said James Loi, who spent 20 years with the State Department working on the region. The policy toward the Pacific islands must “not be driven by a reactionary approach to China, but by our own, deep-seated interest.”

Paskal cited another regional player as problematic: New Zealand, saying it is “very problematic in Polynesia, where some of its short-term economic interests might be undermining the region’s interests,” which include closer ties with the United States.

A recent leadership vote of the Pacific Islands Forum has already led to a regional split, Paskal said. Australia, France and New Zealand helped sway the vote in favor of the South Pacific, which left Micronesian countries thinking that there is a South Pacific and a Micronesian bloc, rather than thinking of the Pacific as a whole, Paskal said.

“We have more to gain from Pacific solidarity than from fragmentation,” said Cefkin. The U.S. must “view the Pacific as a whole and work with the Pacific as a whole.”

Supreme Court considers excluded evidence in Boston Marathon bomber case

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices on Wednesday heard arguments on whether the death penalty was incorrectly overturned for one of the Boston Marathon bombers, focusing most of their questions on the trial judge’s decision to exclude evidence about the other bomber’s possible involvement in other crimes.

On April 15, 2013, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother Tamerlan set off two bombs near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring approximately 264 others. Tamerlan was shot several times during their arrest, run over by his brother’s car and died later. Dzhokhar was convicted of 30 offenses, including three counts of using a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death. He was sentenced to death on six counts; the judge also imposed 20 life sentences.

Tsarnaev appealed the sentencing decision. In July 2020, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed 27 of his convictions, reversed three, threw out his death penalty sentence and ordered that Tsarnaev continue serving a life sentence until a new penalty-phase trial is held.

The appeals court vacated the death sentence on two grounds – that the trial judge should have asked prospective jurors specifics about their news consumption about the case pretrial and that during the penalty phase, the trial judge should not have excluded evidence that Tamerlan Tsaraev allegedly was involved in a triple homicide two years before the bombing.

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court decision said that “omitted evidence might have tipped at least one juror’s decisional scale away from death.”

During trial, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s lawyers argued his brother served as a “radicalizing catalyst” who influenced Dzhokhar to participate in the bombings. The government said the brothers were equally culpable.

During Wednesday’s hearing, justices focused most of their questioning on why Tamerlan’s connection to the triple-homicide was not allowed in evidence during the trial and whether it mattered to imposition of the death penalty.

Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the information about Tamerlan’s alleged crime could not be verified since he was dead and Tamarlan’s friend who had said it happened also was dead.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett made the point that even if hearsay rules would not have excluded the information, a federal district judge still might have discretion to keep it away from the jury.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that “part of the problem is that the district court withheld information, and so the defense attorney could not proffer everything.”

Justice Elena Kagan pointed out other pieces of evidence about Tamerlan that were allowed in court.

“This court let in evidence about Tamerlan shouting at people, about Tamerlan assaulting a fellow student all because that showed what kind of a person Tamerlan was and what kind of an influence he might’ve had over his brother,” Kagan said. “And yet this court kept out evidence that Tamerlan led a crime that resulted in three murders?”

U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Eric Feigin said that the alleged crime was irrelevant to the defense’s argument because it was about a different crime in which Dzhokhar was not involved and would have distracted the jury.

“The jury was supposed to be focused on [Dzhokhar] not on something Tamerlan might have done two years earlier that was quite a different crime,” he said.

Ginger Anders, Tsarnaev’s attorney, argued the inclusion of this evidence was essential to the defense’s case.

“The theory is that Tamerlan influenced Dzhokhar. The theory is that Tamerlan indoctrinated Dzhokhar and Dzhokhar radicalized because of Tamerlan and Tamerlan was more likely to have led the bombings,” Anders said.

Barrett asked Feigin about the government’s goal for bringing the case to the high court in spite of the Biden administration’s opposition to federal executions.

“The administration continues to believe the jury imposed a sound verdict and that the Court of Appeals was wrong to upset that verdict,” Feigin answered.

According to Robert Durham, executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center, the Biden administration’s stance on the death penalty is largely irrelevant.

“If the (Supreme) Court’s decision [is] against Tsarnaev, this case will be in the courts for another decade at least,” long past when Biden will have left office, Durham said. “If the court decisions are in favor of Tsarnaev, the Department of Justice will have to make the decision of whether to seek the death penalty in a reset and revictimize the entire Boston community.”

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Latest in Living

Following botched vaccine rollout to American Indians, lawmakers introduce Urban Indian Health Confer Act

WASHINGTON – The Department of Health and Human Services’ botched response to rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine for Native Americans caused significant delays in getting the vaccine to urban American Indians, the president of the National Council of Urban Indian Health told a House subcommittee Tuesday.

HHS neglected to ask Urban Indian Organizations for input on the vaccine rollout until a day before the deadline, according to Walter Murillo, president of the National Council of Urban Indian Health.

As a result, he told the House National Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous People, vaccine distribution to urban American Indians was significantly delayed. American Indians in urban areas were unclear whether to get their shots through their state of residence or through the Indian Health Service, Murillo said.

The Urban Indian Health Confer Act, introduced by subcommittee member Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-N.M., would require HHS to consult the 41 Urban Indian Organizations, which are urban-based nonprofits governed by Native Americans to address health care issues, on health care policies concerning the 2.8 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives living in urban areas.

The Indian Health Service is the only HHS agency that confers with Urban Indian Organizations before making policies about American Indians. There are no communication chains to any other agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We must move past the notion that only the IHS has a trust obligation to Native people,” Murillo said. “Because the truth is, the federal government has the responsibility to provide care for all native people.”

The federal government has an obligation to provide health care for American Indians because of treaties signed with tribal nations in exchange for their land.

According to Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., Urban American Indians rely on health organizations in major cities, such as the Zuni Clinic in Albuquerque, which offers primary care, dental and behavioral health services at no cost. Grijalva’s bill would bring the Zuni clinic and similar urban organizations into the forefront of decision-making.

The Biden administration’s budget proposal includes a $2.2 billion funding increase for the Indian Health Service, and for the first time, includes an advance appropriation for the IHS so funding does not have to be approved each year. This would protect the IHS from a government shutdown if an annual federal budget is not approved, as nearly happened last week. However, Biden’s budget proposal has yet to be approved by Congress.

Murillo ultimately wants American Indian voices to guide all federal-level public health conversations related to Native Americans.

“We would like to adhere to the phrase ‘no policies about us without us,’” he said.

Legislators discuss increasing economic opportunity for the formerly incarcerated

WASHINGTON — After serving a total of 12 years in prison on a series of felony convictions, Dolfinette Martin spent the first year of her release living in her mother’s senior living apartment, hiding from others in the building because the lease prohibited roommates.

Nearly a decade later, Martin now is the housing director for the New Orleans nonprofit Operation Restoration, and on Tuesday she urged members of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion to approve legislation that would expand housing, employment and financial opportunities for people who have been incarcerated.

The hearing was part of a continuing effort by Democrats who want to reform the criminal justice system.

Nearly one in three U.S. adults has a prior arrest record or conviction, according to the National Employment Law Project.

“These are our neighbors, our friends, our family members,” Chairwoman Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, said. “We are a nation of second chances.”

While the U.S. has a record-setting 10 million job openings, more than 8 million people are still unemployed, sometimes due criminal records that are barriers to employment, said Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, the top Republican on the subcommittee.

The subcommittee considered four bills — two that would remove barriers to housing and two that would increase economic opportunities for those who have been arrested, convicted or incarcerated.

The Fair Chance at Housing Act would ensure public housing agencies could only deny tenants a home based on criminal activity if they were engaged in “covered criminal conduct” — a felony conviction that threatens the health and safety of other tenants.

The subcommittee also considered legislation that would restrict tenant-screening companies from accessing anything other than conviction records.

Melissa Sorenson, executive director of the Professional Background Screening Association, told the subcommittee the legislation should also include liability protections for employers in case an employee with a criminal record were to harm someone on the job. Sorenson also recommended a uniform “ban-the-box” standard for private employers, which would prohibit them from requesting a job applicant’s criminal record until after conditionally offering the job. Many employers ask job seekers to check a box on an employment application if they have been convicted of a crime. Advocates for eliminating that box say it would help reduce bias in the hiring process.

Starting in December, federal agencies and contractors will be prohibited from requesting a job applicant’s criminal record until after conditionally offering the job. 

Sorenson noted that states have differing laws – or no laws – prohibiting “ban-the-box” practices for private employers, which means applicants applying for the same job in different states may receive different treatment. 

Other legislation considered during the hearing included the Expanding Opportunities in Banking Act, which would loosen economic restrictions for people who have kept a clean record five years after incarceration, are under 21 or whose records were expunged or who committed minor crimes, like the use of a fake ID or shoplifting. 

Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said she expects the committee “to be in the forefront of getting rid of these discriminatory policies.”

The measures have yet to be introduced formally in the House.

Latest Business

‘Retail redlining’ or small-business cost-saver? Lawmakers debate the impact of going cashless

Businesses should not be allowed to refuse to accept cash because it hurts vulnerable populations, Democrats on a House Financial Services subcommittee said Thursday, as Republicans said using cash increases operating costs for small retailers.

A bill co-sponsored by Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Texas Democrat and member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, would make it illegal for retailers to refuse to accept cash for in-person payments.

The U.S. is increasingly moving away from cash. A study by the Federal Reserve in October 2020 found that cash use accounted for 19% of payments, down seven percentage points from 2019. More and more retailers, meanwhile, are going cashless. The trend away from cash has been accelerated by the pandemic, with rapid growth of online and contactless payment methods, according to a study by Square SQ, +0.64%, an online payment company.

A 2019 survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, meanwhile, found that 5.4% of U.S. households don’t have a bank account, with low-income, Black and Hispanic households being more likely to be unaffiliated with a bank. Among the unbanked, the top reason cited was not having enough money to meet the minimum balance requirements.

For one subcommittee member, the issue was personal.

“I’m a congresswoman who’s been unbanked,” said Rep. Nikema Williams, a Georgia Democrat. “I’ve been that person who’s had to rely on cash to get by.”

Garcia said if the economy goes cashless, “there are poor people that are not going to be able to access those basic necessities of life.”

“I mean, even something as simple as handing the cash to a child to get their meal at the school, being able to pay a cash bond when one of their friends or loved ones is in jail, being able to even just put the cash in an offertory basket at church,” she said. “Those things cannot be done with a credit card.”

Beverly Brown Ruggia, the financial justice program director for New Jersey Citizen Action, said in testimony that businesses refusing to accept cash amounts to “retail redlining.”

“Instead of a red line around a neighborhood,” she told lawmakers, “there are millions of red lines around individual customers shopping on Main Street every day, which deny them access to goods and services despite having perfectly sufficient U.S. legal tender to spend.”

The National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the top Republican on the subcommittee, said having to hold cash increases costs for retailers and puts them at greater risk of robbery.

“My office has received calls from small businesses across the country that for the most part prefer not to hold cash, and would oppose any federal law that would require them to accept cash as a payment,” Emmer said.

Todd Zywicki, a George Mason University law professor and a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, testified that accepting cash payments increases labor and equipment costs for retailers. Zywicki said requiring businesses to accept cash would essentially constitute a tax on retailers, especially new ones that haven’t yet invested in the infrastructure necessary for handling cash payments.

“Rather than propping up cash,” Zywicki said, “it would be better to look at the factors that are excluding consumers and promote greater competition and innovation to open and expand electronic payments to other consumers.”

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Slain journalist’s father asks Facebook to take down videos of her murder

WASHINGTON — In August 2015, television reporter Alison Parker was live on air when a gunman approached her and killed her along with her cameraman Adam Ward. Despite multiple attempts from her father Andy Parker to take down videos of her final moments, people can still find these videos on Facebook and Instagram.

Andy Parker asked the Federal Trade Commission to “bring an enforcement action against Facebook” in a complaint, so that Facebook would remove the videos. Parker said he has never watched the videos himself.

“If I could have a sit-down meeting with (Mark Zuckerberg), I would say, you know, it’s time for you to do the right thing, stop being a sociopath, do the right thing,” Parker said.


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.”


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?


– 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 // October 21, 2021