Politics

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.

Inflationary politics: GOP messaging capitalizes on rising consumer prices

Republicans, who for the last month have used rising inflation as a cudgel against the Biden agenda, are doubling down as more concerning inflation numbers emerge.

Pelosi signals earlier expiration date for Biden agenda

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “paring down years” would be key to reaching the spending bill’s new top line.

Short-term debt ceiling raise previews future debt standoff

In the short term, the country avoids what could have been a difficult financial situation and, possibly, a default. But, the debt ceiling political battle will be re-visited in less than two months.

Democrats defend tax provisions of Build Back Better plan despite Republican criticism

Democrats say Build Back Better plan good for workers and small businesses, but Republicans criticize tax hikes for wealthy and corporations.

Progressives vs. Moderates: What Capitol Hill looks like during a showdown

WASHINGTON — Progressive and moderate House Democrats continued their weeks-long brawl Thursday on the $1 trillion infrastructure act and the $3.5 trillion social spending bill — the Build Back Better Act. Both part of President Joe Biden’s agenda, the two bills had been planned for back-to-back votes  until House Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi unlinked them Monday night.

Pelosi, along with moderates in her caucus, was confident that Congress would pass both bills.

Progressives don’t want to reduce the scope of  the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act, which contains funding for the social safety net, child care, healthcare, climate and more. Their votes are need to keep a Democratic majority that can pass both bills. Thursday morning, moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said the highest he’d like the bill to go is $1.5 trillion – and because the Democrats have only a one-vote majority in the Senate, Manchin’s vote is crucial.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., predicted the Progressive Caucus would vote for the $1 trillion infrastructure bill in the end because it would fund numerous water, bridge and highway projects.

“It starts tonight with this historic infrastructure package,” said Gottheimer. “We’re going to get that over the finish line and continue our work with reconciliation.”

But Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal  signaled she wouldn’t let infrastructure pass without a firm yes on the much larger social spending bill.

Jayapal, D-Wash., said she told Speaker Pelosi she was committed to the spending bill. “I’m happy to stay here and keep working,” she said.

 

 

 

 

After much wrangling, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi signs the bill to extend government funding, effectively putting off the specter of a government shutdown until December. The bill now goes to President Joe Biden for signature (Dan Hu/MNS)

 

 

 

 

As the Democrats’ infighting paralyzed the House, GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy called them the party of “delusion and deception.” (Dan Hu/MNS)

 

 

 

 

New Jersey representative Josh Gottheimer told a group of reporters Thursday that the infrastructure bill would pass “today.” (Mary Yang/MNS)

 

 

 

 

”Reconciliation,” a.k.a. the Progressive-guarded $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act, “is very, very important to me,” said Gottheimer, a leading voice of the center-left 19-member Blue Dog Coalition. (Mary Yang/MNS)

 

 

 

 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Chair of the Progressive Caucus said she’s confident both bills would pass. “Eventually.” (Mary Yang/MNS)

 

 

 

 

Thursday morning, Jayapal testified at a House Oversight Committee hearing on Protecting and Expanding Abortion Rights. “I would never tell people who don’t choose to have an abortion that they should; nor should they tell me that I shouldn’t,” Jayapal said in her testimony.
“This is a constitutionally protected, intensely personal choice.” (Mary Yang/MNS)

 

 

 

 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal leaves the Capitol Thursday afternoon. The House is expected to reconvene at 9 p.m. (Mary Yang/MNS)

Tension high as highly anticipated House vote delayed

WASHINGTON – Weeks of tension between moderate and progressive House Democrats will continue at least one more day, following the delay of a crucial vote on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. The vote was scheduled for Thursday – but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to recess the House instead of adjourning, meaning Friday would technically be the same legislative day as Thursday.

It’s a move meant to appease moderate Democrats, such as Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., who said Thursday that a delay would be a “significant breach in trust that would slow the momentum in moving forward [President Joe Biden’s] agenda.” Pelosi and top moderate Democrats such as Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., had promised multiple times that the vote would occur on Thursday, and Biden ran for presidency counting on his ability to strike deals in Congress. However, if no deal is reached Friday night, Biden’s domestic agenda could be in jeopardy.

Although the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed 69-30 in the Senate, it stalled in the House, where Democratic Party infighting threw its future into uncertainty. Progressive leaders have refused to support the infrastructure bill without “ironclad” assurances that the much larger $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act also would pass – a bill that would provide money for the social safety net, childcare and more.

However, Pelosi has affirmed multiple times that she would not consider a bill that could not pass the Senate, meaning moderate senators like Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have gotten involved in the negotiations. For days, Manchin and Sinema said $3.5 trillion was too high – but on Thursday morning, Manchin revealed his topline number of $1.5 trillion, less than half of what Progressives want.

That $1.5 trillion number has infuriated Progressives, who stood firm on their $3.5 trillion price tag. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the leader of the House Progressive Caucus, confirmed after a meeting with Pelosi this morning that Progressives would “not be able to vote for the infrastructure bill until the [Build Back Better Act] has passed.”

With no side backing down, all eyes will be on the House Friday night. At a press conference on Thursday, Pelosi also made “assurances for the [Build Back Better Act],” but did not elaborate on the bill’s final price tage. Top House Republican Kevin McCarthy said he would be willing to “go back” to the drawing board and support a new $1 trillion infrastructure bill – as long as it wasn’t associated with a much larger bill like the Build Back Better Act.

(This is a developing story.)

Congress narrowly avoids government shutdown, gears up for new fight over debt ceiling

WASHINGTON — Congress passed a stopgap spending bill Thursday, averting a government shutdown and maintaining the federal government’s budget at current levels for the next two months.

President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill shortly after 6 p.m. Eastern time. The final vote tallies in Congress showed significant bipartisan support: 65-35 in the Senate and 254-175 in the House. The legislation is set to expire Dec. 3 unless Congress again votes to extend temporary funding or pass an annual budget.

In addition to continuing funding of federal agencies, Thursday’s bill also provides $28.6 billion in funding for disaster relief and $6.3 billion for resettlement and support of Afghan refugees.

“At any time, it is a bad thing to let the government shut down,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said just before the vote. “At this time in particular, where there is so much going on in this country, it is a glimmer of hope.”

The final Senate approval of the bill – a continuing resolution — was made possible by an amendment from Senate President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy that removed the suspension of the public debt limit in a compromise to bring Senate Republicans on board. Before the bill’s passage, Leahy criticized his colleagues for their inconsistency in supporting the continuing resolution but blocking an extension of the government debt limit. The extension was included in an earlier version that did not get enough votes to block a threatened filibuster.

“If there’s no money in the U.S. Treasury to pay the bills, then these are empty promises,” Leahy said, referring specifically to the funding for disaster relief, much of which would go to states represented by Senate Republicans.

Removing the public debt limit suspension guarantees a high-stakes partisan standoff down the road because current estimates say the Treasury Department could reach its borrowing limit within just three weeks.

Despite the looming deadline, both parties remained consistent in their messaging this week, attempting to pin blame for the potential economic disaster on one another. Democrats pointed out the majority of recently accrued debt came during the Trump administration, while Republicans argued that Democrats had plenty of time to address the debt ceiling through other bills.

On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear once again that Democrats will have to raise the debt ceiling on their own by including it in a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, a type of legislation that requires only a simple majority.

“We are funding the government today because the majority accepted reality,” McConnell said Thursday morning. “The same thing will have to happen to raise the debt limit.”

Yet Senate Democrats are still publicly holding firm on using means other than reconciliation to suspend the public debt limit. Schumer promised to bring to the Senate floor next week a stand-alone bill that would suspend the debt limit into 2022, which the House passed Wednesday.

Getting the bill through the Senate would require either convincing Senate Republicans not to filibuster or getting 10 Senate Republicans to vote in favor. While both are highly unlikely, Democrats are remaining unified in their message that increasing the debt limit is a bipartisan duty.

“It’s vital that we defend and sustain the sovereign credit of the United States,” Sen. Jon Ossoff, D.-Ga., said. “And we should act as a unified body to do that immediately.”

Bush, Jayapal tell stories of “difficult decision” to have abortions at House hearing on abortion rights

WASHINGTON — Wiping away tears, Rep. Cori Bush on Thursday told a House committee the story of her rape at age 17 to demonstrate the need for abortion rights and less restrictive access to abortion.

“When he was done, he got up, he pulled up his pants, and without a word he left,” Bush said. “I was confused. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I asked myself, ‘Was this something that I had done?’”

The Missouri Democrat said she felt broken and alone when she later found out she was nine weeks pregnant. She said the decision to get an abortion was hard, but she knew it was the right decision for her at the time.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing focused on a Texas law that went into effect on Sept. 1 and bans abortion after approximately six weeks of pregnancy, a challenge to the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that makes abortion within the first six months of pregnancy a constitutional right.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said abortion bans “are not just a political issue, they do real harm to people across the country and in our most vulnerable communities.”

Jayapal said she, too, had an abortion. In her case, she said, doctors told her the pregnancy would likely be of high risk to her and the child.

“For me, terminating my pregnancy was not an easy choice — the most difficult I’ve made in my life, but it was my choice. That is what must be preserved for every pregnant person,” Jayapal said.

Last week, the House passed the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would protect a health care provider’s right to perform abortions. Many states have enacted laws that have resulted in numerous restrictions on providers and women trying to get abortions.

At Thursday’s hearing, Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., called on the Senate to “meet the moment and immediately pass this critical bill.”

But House Republicans on the committee supported restrictions on abortions. Several Republicans emphasized that the committee has no jurisdiction over the Texas law and should instead focus on more pressing issues such as COVID-19 and Afghanistan.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said she feels sorrow for any woman who has to “destroy her unborn child.”

“We live in a society that mistakes choice for liberty and denies the dignity of unborn life,” Foxx said. “Those who are attempting to normalize the destruction of the innocent unborn do so through language that denies what they are doing.”

Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., said her mother suffered a stroke when she was pregnant with Cammack’s older sister. When her mother became pregnant a few years later with her, doctors advised against having the child because of risks to the mother and the child.

“You can imagine the pain that she felt when her own family told her that she needed to abort her child. But because of her strength, she chose life,” Cammack said. “My mom survived, I survived, and I am a living, breathing witness of the power of life and the incredible choice that my own mother made.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Hears Testimony on Texas Abortion Law and Supreme Court’s “Shadow Docket”

WASHINGTON – Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday defended the Supreme Court’s decision to decline a request to block a Texas law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, saying it was not unusual for the court to use the “shadow docket” to make the ruling without hearing arguments.

The Texas abortion law, which took effect Sept. 1, bans abortions after cardiac activity can be detected, which is usually about six weeks into a pregnancy. The law allows people to sue someone for “aiding and abetting” an abortion performed after six weeks for a minimum of $10,000. There is an exception for life-threatening medical emergencies, but not for victims of rape or incest.

At the Judiciary Committee hearing, Texas State Democrat Rep. Donna Howard testified that constituents have told her they had been turned away from abortion clinics because they were more than six weeks pregnant. Howard also said that abortion providers have had to hire private security and people with guns have turned up at clinics.

Democrats and Republicans on the committee argued about the role of the Supreme Court’s “shadow docket,” a term used to describe emergency orders and summary decisions that the court issues without hearing oral arguments. The shadow docket, more commonly known as the orders docket, was used by the Supreme Court to decline a request to block the Texas abortion law.

Republicans on the committee, as well as George Mason University Law Professor Jennifer Mascott and Alabama Solicitor General Edmund LaCour, argued that the orders docket is a long-standing and ordinary part of the high court’s procedures.

“This whole notion of ‘shadow docket’ is called ‘an operating court,’” Sen.Ted Cruz,  R-Texas, said.

However, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin argued that the Supreme Court has started to use the orders docket for “ideologically driven” decisions.

“This a five-alarm fire for due process,” he said.

Stephen Vladeck, a law professor from the University of Texas, testified about what he sees as a worrying trend in the Supreme Court’s use of the orders docket. In his written testimony submitted to the committee, he argues that while the orders docket has been around as long as the Supreme Court, it has noticeably changed in recent years. For most of the Court’s history, according to Vladeck, the order docket was used primarily to handle uncontroversial procedural matters. However, since 2017, Vladeck argues there has been a notable increase in not only the use of the orders docket but also in the substantive impact of such decisions.

This is a problem, Vladeck argues, since such decisions are often unsigned, made without oral arguments and lack legal reasoning. All of this, Vladeck argues, serves to undermine the legitimacy of the Court in the eyes of the public.

A recent Gallup poll found that public approval of the Supreme Court fell to a record low of 40% after its decision to allow the Texas law to take effect.

Senate Republicans indicate support for short-term spending bill

WASHINGTON – A group of Republican senators Wednesday signaled their support for a temporary spending bill to avoid a government shutdown Thursday at midnight when the 2022 federal fiscal year begins. But their support was conditioned on removing language that would have suspended the federal debt ceiling.

“Democrats don’t want to shut down the government. Republicans don’t want to shut down the government. That will supply the result that we all expect, which is to keep the lights on,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said at a news conference with seven other GOP senators.

The legislation, known as a continuing resolution, would temporarily continue government funding at current levels with some adjustments because Congress has not passed the annual appropriations bills that fund federal programs and agencies. It also would provide $28.6 billion in funding for disaster relief and $6.3 billion for resettlement and support of Afghan refugees.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said he was hopeful the Senate would vote late Wednesday to pass a version of the spending bill that passed the House last week, but with the debt ceiling language removed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said Senate Republicans want Democrats to take responsibility for increasing or suspending the debt ceiling. The federal government will run out of borrowing authority in a few weeks without such action.

Negotiations on the exact terms of the spending bill could last until Thursday, leaving enough time for House to pass the new version and send it to the president before the midnight deadline on Thursday.

“The only question is how long the continuing resolution will be for and whether it will include things like funding for Iron Dome,” Cornyn said.

The current framework allows the government to continue operating until Dec. 3. Cornyn did not elaborate on what date he would prefer. Senate Republicans also want a stricter vetting process for the Afghan resettlement program.

Appropriations to fund the government through the end of fiscal 2022 are part of the $3.5 trillion spending bill currently awaiting passage in the Senate.

All Strings Attached: Pelosi, House Democrats keep Thursday infrastructure vote despite pushback

WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats on Tuesday pushed a fragile message of party unity in hopes of passing both a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure agreement and a $3.5 trillion spending bill – both part of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

“It’s a big week for the American people,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries,  D-N.Y., during a news conference Tuesday morning after a House Democratic Caucus meeting. “It’s a big week for House and Senate Democrats. We’re not running away from that.”

The House vote is set for Thursday on the bipartisan infrastructure agreement, which would fund projects to improve highways and provide high-speed internet to all Americans.

“Our caucus is strongest when it’s unified,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., as she was leaving Tuesday’s caucus meeting.

She is among a group of House Progressives who say they’ll vote “no” to the infrastructure bill on Thursday if the spending bill, which contains funding for progressive measures, doesn’t have enough votes to be passed in the Senate.

Progressives believed they had Pelosi’s agreement that the two bills could only be passed in tandem. By setting the vote for Thursday, Pelosi has unlinked the two bills.

The Progressives’ commitment to the spending bill was re-upped Tuesday by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., in a statement by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

According to the statement, progressives are ready to vote for both bills, but “a majority” of the 96-member Progressive Caucus “will only vote for the infrastructure bill after the president’s visionary Build Back Better Act passes,” said Jayapal.

The bills “are two parts of a whole, and they must be passed together,” tweeted Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who’s been a strong Progressive voice. “Any other way goes against everything the President and Congressional Democrats promised.”

While the infrastructure bill has support from both parties, passing 69 to 30 in the Senate, the much larger spending bill – called a reconciliation bill in parliamentary language – has run into significant GOP opposition. But some Senate Democrats are confident their coalition can push the bill through.

“All members of the caucus feel a sense of urgency,” said Sen. Ron Wyden,  D-Ore., who is the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Members of Congress are being moved to action by what they’re hearing from their constituents, such as calls to lower the cost of prescription drugs and expand health care coverage, measures included in Biden’s reconciliation bill, said Wyden. “Failure here is not an acceptable alternative,” he said.

Pelosi was clear in her determination to pass the measures at all of her appearances Tuesday.

“I wish this could be bipartisan,” she said. “We will achieve what we need to do because it’s absolutely necessary.”

Photos: House Democratic Leaders Go All In On Build Back Better Agenda

 

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday spoke at the House Democratic Caucus press conference in support of the Build Back Better agenda. (DAN HU/MNS)

“We will pass both bills,” Speaker Pelosi said on Tuesday morning in reference to the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act and the $1 trillion infrastructure bill. (DAN HU/MNS)

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries D,-N.Y., also said House Democrats are commitetd  to moving the bills forward. “We have five great tasks: the Build Back Better Act, the Infrastructure Bill, keeping the government open, the debt ceiling, and the Congressional baseball game,” Jeffries said. (DAN HU/MNS)

That’s the promise that we made to the American people,” Jeffries said. “That’s the commitment that we still have.”(DAN HU/MNS)

Pelosi reiterated her support for the climate change section of the Build Back Better Act. (DAN HU/MNS)

Rep. Lauren Underwood D-Ill. said climate change is a public health crisis and Americans don’t have more time to wait. (DAN HU/MNS)

Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan.,said President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better climate agenda isn’t just promoting the clean energy industry but also offers economic drivers for our grandchildren. (DAN HU/MNS)

Medical professionals assess presidential front-runner Joe Biden’s health care plan

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law 10 years ago this month. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, access to health care will likely weigh heavily on voters in the remaining Democratic primaries leading up to the Democratic National Convention.

According to RealClearPolitics, 36% of Americans ranked health care as their most important policy concern and 26% listed it as second in 2019.

Following a string of primary wins, former Vice President Joe Biden continues to lead Sen. Bernie Sanders in a race in which health care policy continues to be a main point of disagreement.

Biden supports an expanded version of the Affordable Care Act, a health care reform law that extended coverage to millions of Americans. An expanded plan under a Biden presidency would insure more than an estimated 97% of Americans, add a public option like Medicare, increase the value of tax credits to lower premiums and extend coverage to low-income Americans in states where the Affordable Care Act was not adopted.

“I believe we need to protect and build on Obamacare,” Biden said on his campaign website. “I understand the appeal for Medicare-for-All, but folks supporting it should be clear that it means getting rid of Obamacare, and I’m not for that.”

Sanders is running on a progressive platform in support of Medicare-for-All, a health care plan that offers free coverage to every person through a government-funded, single-payer program.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on national health issues, found that as of January, 55% of Americans favor a Medicare-for-All health care plan similar to Sanders’ proposal, but 68% prefer a government-administered “public option” found under Biden’s plan.

“The system we have now, it’s time has come and gone Northwestern University clinical professor of medicine Todd Selma said. “It’s time to move on to something more modern.”

But, adopting a Medicare-for-All program would come at a cost and require a restructuring of the health care system.

A vascular surgeon who works at a private multispecialty clinic in in Atlanta, Georgia, who asked not to be named to protect the privacy of his patients, said a Medicare-for-All plan has four essential flaws: private insurers offer better quality care, higher cost for the government and taxpayers, the displacement of private insurance companies and a salary cut for doctors.

He added that Medicare-for-All would be unable to overcome partisan barriers in Congress.

“There’s no way that any of those things would pass,” he said.

He does, however, see merit in the Affordable Care Act.

“I’m a 100% ardent supporter of the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “It’s a happy medium between Medicare for all single payer systems and the existing system that we have trying to marry these corporations, entities and companies that have existed, so that the market doesn’t just go ‘crash’.”

Members of Doctors for Bernie, don’t think an expanded Affordable Care Act will be enough to combat the health care concerns that millions of Americans face such as lack of coverage and insufficient coverage.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people in the United States without health insurance was 27.5 million in 2018. Dr. Winnie Lin, an attending pediatrician at Miles Square Health Center in Englewood, Chicago and a member of Doctors for Bernie, said Biden’s plan to increase coverage is simply not enough.

“That’s a huge gap and just kind of a paradigm of trying to make small tweaks over time,” Lin said. “That’s what we’ve been doing for decades now and here we are, and it’s still not working.”

Lin said adding a public option under Biden’s plan as a step forward in terms of insuring more people, but believes the problems with the current health care system exceed the issues that Biden’s plan would potentially resolve.

Under the Affordable Care Act, not only will some citizens continue to have no insurance, but those with insurance might not have enough of it, she said.

Dr. Scott Goldberg, an internal medicine specialist in the Bronx, New York and another member of Doctors for Bernie, agrees that the Affordable Care Act has not done enough to provide full-coverage insurance to Americans and a continuation would “continue to entrench the current system.”

“People [will] have high plans with high premiums, high deductibles, high out of pocket expenses, that basically prevent them from actually getting the care that they need.” Goldberg said.

FEC COULD FINALLY GET A QUORUM, BUT PLANS TO CLEAN HOUSE ARE POTENTIAL ALTERNATIVE

WASHINGTON — When Matthew Petersen left his role as a commissioner in the Federal Election Commission at the end of August, the campaign finance oversight agency no longer had a quorum four commissioners — leaving it unable to meet. 

The Senate Republicans finally appear ready to confirm the Trump administration’s nominee for Peterson’s slot — Trey Trainor. But in the current environment at the FEC, there is no guarantee the three existing commissioners — each having served past the end of their terms — would stay, former Republican FEC Commissioner Lee Goodman said. The commission is supposed to have six members, three Democrats and three Republicans – there have only been three commissioners since August. At least four commissioners — two-thirds of the six commissioners legally allowed to serve — are needed for a quorum to conduct oversight on the nation’s campaign finance laws.

“You oughta be asking, are any other commissioners considering leaving the commission?” Goodman said. “Because they’ve all been there a very long time, and there’s no guarantee that any of them would stay much longer.”

To ameliorate this possibility and assemble a lasting quorum, the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have expressed a willingness to have a slate of six new commissioners – three from each party, according to a source familiar with the politics of commissioner appointments. 

However, Senate Minority Leader Schumer has only given the name of one potential Democratic appointee — FEC Executive Assistant Shana Broussard — to fill the only vacancy left of the Democratic commissioners. 

Watchdog role stalled 

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Congress enacted the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, which created limits on donations to political campaigns. 

To enforce the new laws, Congress also established the FEC — composed of three Democrats and three Republicans — to make rulings and uphold the campaign finance laws. 

Before the days of stringent campaign finance laws, there was little accountability regarding issues such as foreign contributions, former Democratic Commissioner Ann Ravel said.

“The whole purpose of the FEC was because there was very little disclosure of violations of law and new enforcement of those violations prior,” Ravel said. “There was no agency to enforce the law.”

Though day to day operations in the FEC remain intact, an essential function of the FEC is to deliver decisions on campaign finance laws in federal elections. Because the commission requires four commissioners to conduct business, Petersen’s departure stalled vital decision-making duties of the commission. 

Without a quorum, the FEC could not enforce penalties on campaign finance laws and deliver advisory opinions to candidates looking for guidance on campaign finances. 

“Many functions of the agency continue uninterrupted in the absence of a quorum on the commission,” Goodman said. “Those penalties actually can’t be imposed unless there is a quorum on the commission… In order to even issue an administrative fine for misreporting data, the commission must vote on that. And without a commission, you can’t.”

Clean slate 

Though a Senate confirmation of Trainor would bring a quorum back to the FEC, McConnell and the White House have both expressed interest in clearing the current commissioners and appointing a new slate of six commissioners. 

“The White House has been prepared to appoint six new commissioners, if Sen. Schumer would send them the names of three Democrats to take the Democratic seats,” a source familiar with the politics and inner workings of the commission said. “The hold-up is that Sen. Schumer will not send three names to the White House.” 

The White House did not respond to requests for comment. 

A McConnell spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of the Majority Leader’s agenda for the FEC, but he did offer the overall mission for the Majority Leader.

“The goal has always been to have a full commission,” the spokesman said. “That will take bipartisan cooperation. Discussions continue on how to accomplish the goal.”

Others speculated that the motivation was to lessen the extent to which the FEC takes an oversight role. To Schumer, Trainor’s record on campaign finance shows McConnell’s desire to loosen the rules and weaken the commission, along with the existing campaign finance laws. 

Ravel said the talk of cleaning house on the commission comes from a desire to alter the way the FEC administers campaign finance laws. 

“What the Republicans in the Senate have wanted is to eliminate all of the present commissioners and just put all new commissioners,” Ravel said. “This was viewed by the Democrats as an effort by the Republicans to pack the commission… (with members) who don’t believe in the central mission of the FEC.”

Besides being able to appoint more lenient commissioners to the FEC, others worry that cleaning house on the commission would force all appointees to learn at the same time. Instead, by adding Trainor and then getting Democrats and Republicans to each nominate one more, the current commissioners would be able to help the newcomers learn the ropes of the federal watchdog. 

Daniel Weiner, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program, expressed concern with appointing six commissioners all at once to the FEC. 

“There’s some risk in sweeping in all six people at the same time,” Weiner said. “It would be better to stagger the replacements… There would always be some commissioners with experience, and the new people could get acclimated.”

A quorumless precedent? 

Though the body has lacked a quorum, even in the midst of a presidential election year when millions in campaign contributions will be made, some people were concerned about what precedents would be set when the independent commission goes without a functional number of commissioners. 

Weiner said that leaving the body quorumless heading into an election year only further deteriorates liberal democratic functions in the government. 

“We’re living in a time when many norms are being eroded,” Weiner said. “And I do worry that the FEC not having a quorum would further undermine the norm that we do need these campaign finance laws.” 

While the question of precedent remains, it is worth noting that day-to-day operations continue, and candidates still must file their documents to the FEC every quarter. 

A quorum will eventually be reached, Goodman said, so there is no reason to avoid providing these documents to the FEC. But if they didn’t, the current commission could not meet to enforce these campaign finance laws. 

“People know there will be quorum at some time in the future, and so no one has stopped reporting their campaign finance data to the commission,” Goodman said. 

Ravel, though, struck a hopeful tune about the future of the commission, during this election year and without a quorum. This instance may prove to the public that they need this watchdog and these campaign laws, she said. 

“The lack of an FEC during the election, I think, is going to…create even more of a desire on the part of the public to have an agency that has an ability to act,” Ravel said.

Women could lose insurance coverage for birth control if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Trump administration

WASHINGTON — Rachel Fey remembers struggling to get health insurance to cover her birth control costs – more than $400 out of pocket for three months of her pills.

For some women, paying for food and shelter often doesn’t leave enough left over to pay for birth control, said Fey, now the senior director of policy for Power to Decide, a birth control advocacy organization.

But the prospect of shouldering this cost could become a reality for many low-income women.

In April, the Supreme Court will hear Trump v. Pennsylvania and Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, a consolidated case that would allow virtually any employer or university to deny women access to birth control based on religious or moral objections.

Under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, employers have to provide birth control coverage. However, in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that requiring family-owned corporations to cover contraception under the ACA violates religious liberties guaranteed under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Due to this ruling, religious organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor are exempt from the ACA mandate.

In October 2017, the Trump administration released a regulation to make it easier for employers with religious objections to exclude contraceptive coverage from health plans for employees. Enforcement of these regulations has been blocked by federal courts in Pennsylvania and California.

Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, emphasized the Trump administration is pushing for its regulation to become a permanent exemption.

“The exemption means nobody is paying for coverage, whether the employer or the insurance companies, and the employees are just blocked from coverage,” Amiri said.

The Little Sisters

The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic nursing home, claims it is being forced to comply with the ACA mandate to cover birth control despite the order’s religious objections when big corporations like Exxon and Visa are let off the hook. On their website, the Little Sisters say 45 million Americans are covered by health insurance under “grandfathered” employer plans that are required to comply with some of the Affordable Care Act, but are exempted from the contraception mandate.

In a statement, the religious organization said, “The government exempted these corporations for the sake of convenience.”

But according to Amiri, the Little Sisters of the Poor has never been required to provide contraception coverage for employees through their health plans for two reasons: the Little Sisters is on a church plan, which is exempt from the contraception coverage requirement, and the Little Sisters secured an injunction in the Colorado federal district court preventing the government from enforcing the requirement against them.

“It’s incredibly frustrating that so much attention has gone to Little Sisters and people have bought into this narrative that they shouldn’t be forced to cover contraception, which has never been really a possibility,” Amiri said.

Every year, fewer health insurance plans are covered under the “grandfather” protection. When a plan is renewed, it will no longer be grandfathered.

Under Obamacare, the Little Sisters of the Poor must sign an opt-out form saying it will not pay for contraceptive coverage for their employees, allowing for the government to ensure employees receive coverage separately. In the past, officials of the religious order argued that even signing the opt-out document is prohibited by their religion. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania said that filling out an opt out form is not a substantial burden on religious beliefs.

The Trump administration took the side of religious organizations and enforced new regulations that included an exception for employers “with sincerely held moral convictions opposed to coverage of some or all contraceptive or sterilization methods.”

Last May, the state of Pennsylvania fired back, arguing that the Trump administration’s new rules put a burden on the state to shoulder the costs of providing contraceptives to women who lost their coverage.

“A Patchy System”

Without insurance, some women won’t be able to pay for birth control, Amiri said. She finds it “very cynical” that the federal government points to the Title X program as the place for women to turn to if they lose their coverage.

The Title X program provides reproductive health care services to low-income, under- and uninsured people across the country. The Trump administration’s gag rule rule would separate Title X services from abortion services, prohibiting Title X funding recipients from referring patients for abortion care and rescind a prior requirement that all Title X funding recipients offer information and counseling to pregnant patients regarding prenatal care and delivery, infant care, foster care and adoption, and abortion.

The Trump administration has not increased funding for Title X, while proposing onerous regulations on its enforcement and closing some Title X-funded programs, Amiri said.

“It’s disingenuous to say that Title X can meet these women’s needs if their employer doesn’t cover contraception when at the same time you’re implementing rules that are decimating the Title X clinic network,” Fey said.

Four million people rely on Title X for affordable birth control and reproductive care, and nearly two-thirds of those earn below the federal poverty level. If employers are able to opt out of covering contraceptives, the number of women turning to clinics that receive Title X funding will increase, even as funding has not.

Right now, the Title X gag rule would prohibit clinics that offer affordable contraceptive services from receiving Title X funding if they also offer abortion services. As a result, providers across the country had no choice but to leave the Title X program and subsequently lose millions of dollars needed to provide women with affordable birth control. Fifteen states have lost some or all of their Title X funding, and more than 8.8 million women have lost access to affordable contraception because the clinics they once depended on have lost federal funding.

Power to Decide’s Fey explained that in practice, the remaining clinics will no longer be able to afford to give a woman the method of birth control that works best for her at the low price they once offered it. In addition, they might have to cut back on their hours or the number of providers, which would increase wait times and ultimately make it harder for a woman to go to a clinic.

It is “already a patchy system when it comes to what women are able to get if they’re struggling to make ends meet,” Fey said. “Now, on top of that, her employer isn’t covering the contraceptive methods that she needs. So she has less resources in her community to turn to and no insurance coverage to cover it. So she’s facing a double barrier now.”

Fey said Title X is meant to be there as a last resort for women who don’t have insurance. Title X also provides support dollars for clinics that serve women with private insurance.

“The gag rule doesn’t just hurt people who are dependent on Title X paying for their services, it hurts any woman that depends on a clinic that gets Title X funding, which is a much larger universe of people,” Fey said. “For Title X to take on top of that women whose employers want to decide what health care they’re going to cover and not cover is a burden that it wasn’t intended to take and it’s not set up to be able to handle.”

There are over 19 million women on low incomes who are living in contraceptive deserts, counties lacking access to a clinic offering a full range of methods, according to Power to Decide.

What’s at stake: Impossible Choices

Dr. Jamila Taylor, health care reform director at The Century Foundation, said a Supreme Court ruling favorable to the Trump administration would disproportionately affect low-income women and women of color.

“For women of color, they tend to lack the coverage that they need to have contraception and also the financial resources to purchase contraception out of pocket,” Taylor said. “Any sort of denial of free birth control is going to impact those communities the hardest.”

According to the Center for American Progress, women experiencing economic hardship are less likely to start using contraception or continue usage due to out-of-pocket costs. Additionally, the rate of unintended pregnancies for Latinas and black women is 58 percent and 79 percent, respectively, while the rate for white women is 33 percent.

“All women no matter their racial or economic background need access to contraception,” Taylor said.

Fey said if the rules from the Trump administration go into effect, women would be forced to make impossible choices in order to get something that is basic health care: their contraception.

“It should not be making women choose between one essential and another, when birth control is related to healthcare,” Fey said. “We don’t do that to any other kind of health care. So why are we doing it when it comes to a basic part of women’s healthcare, something that 99 percent of American women have used at some point in their life?”

American citizen detained in Iran is temporarily released due to coronavirus

With increasing concerns about the coronavirus spreading in Iran’s overcrowded prisons, Michael White, an American citizen detained in Iran since 2018, has been temporarily released, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday, although four other American imprisoned in Iran apparently remain in custody.

White must remain in Iran and is under the custody of the Swiss embassy, where he will undergo a series of medical checks. He has cancer that is likely to have gone untreated because of Iran’s prison conditions, making him especially vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are thrilled to learn that Michael White has been released on medical furlough,” said Margaux Ewen, executive director at the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for the safe return of all Americans unjustly detained abroad. “[But] we remain concerned for his health and well-being.”

Iran has temporarily released at least 70,000 detainees, ordering them to self-contain at home in response to the coronavirus, yet American citizens detained in Iran remain imprisoned and exposed to the outbreak, according to medical and human rights experts.

“Reports that COVID-19 has spread to Iranian prisons are deeply troubling and demand nothing less than the full and immediate release of all American citizens,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week. “Their detention amid increasingly deteriorating conditions defies basic human decency.”

There are over 17,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Iran, according to Worldometer, a platform offering live statistics from around the world. Since Tuesday, the country recorded 988 deaths, according to Kianush Jahanpur, a spokesman for the Iranian Health Ministry.

In an effort to limit the outbreak in overcrowded prisons, Iran ordered the temporary release of prisoners with sentences of less than five years, according to Kamiar Alaei, co-president of the Institute for International Health and Education and an epidemiologist previously based in Iran. Political prisoners were excluded from the temporary release.

“Prison populations are extremely vulnerable to contagious diseases due to their confined living spaces and should be protected along with all other vulnerable groups and communities during health crises,” said Jasmin Ramsey, director of communications at the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

Pompeo said foreign powers should not provide Iran with any humanitarian aid until they release all foreign detainees in response to the coronavirus outbreak. He also said the United States will hold the Iranian regime accountable for the wrongful imprisonment of American citizens.

Besides White, there are at least another four Americans imprisoned in Iran.

Baquer Namazi was convicted along with his son, Siamak, in October 2016 for collaborating with a hostile government, the United States. Robert Levinson is a former FBI agent detained in Iran’s Kish Island in 2007 and considered to be the longest-held American hostage in history, but little is known of his current situation. Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American, was arrested in January 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly conducting espionage.

“I am begging as a human being to please allow my brother as well as others who have been exposed to the virus to be given a [temporary release to self-contain,]” said Babak Namazi, the son of Baquer Namazi and brother of Siamak Namazi. “We’re desperate. I cannot underscore enough the danger that they’re exposed to.”

Iranian prisons lack testing kits, medicine and disinfectants. Prisons are also overcrowded, reaching at least twice their capacity, said Alaei, who was imprisoned in Iran between 2008 and 2010.

“Definitely some of the people who visit prisoners and the prison staff can easily bring those viruses [into the facilities] and there is definitely a huge outbreak among prisoners because of the limited health care system,” said Alaei.

Ramsey urged that all detainees have unrestricted access to adequate medical treatment as new coronavirus cases are continuously detected in prisons.

“We hope that Americans Siamak and Baquer Namazi and Morad Tahbaz can be granted at the very least the same medical furlough [as Michael White] to protect them from the virus and receive any medical attention they might need,” said Ewen. “But we are also particularly concerned for the well-being of missing American Bob Levinson, the longest-held hostage in US history.”

“These people have a basic right to protect themselves,” said Alaei. “This is the responsibility of the prison organization to either provide [political prisoners] a temporary release or to make sure to protect their lives and access to healthcare services.”

 


 

Medill Today // October 21, 2021