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Duck and cover: More than 200 Republicans in Congress are skipping February town halls with constituents

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It’s pathetic, and it shows that the Republicans in Congress know that they are not representing the interests of their constituents and they plan to continue to act against their constituents’ interests. Alex Thompson reports at Vice News:

Members of Congress are set to return to their districts this weekend for their first weeklong recess since Donald Trump’s inauguration. Heading home during legislative breaks is nothing new, but this year most Republicans are foregoing a hallowed recess tradition: holding in-person town halls where lawmakers take questions from constituents in a high school gym, local restaurant, or college classroom.

After outpourings of rage at some early town halls — including crowds at an event near Salt Lake City yelling “Do your job!” at Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee  — many Republicans are ducking in-person events altogether. Instead they’re opting for more controlled Facebook Live or “tele-town halls,” where questions can be screened by press secretaries and followups are limited — as are the chances of becoming the next viral meme of the Left.

For the first two months of the new Congress, the 292 Republicans have scheduled just 88 in-person town hall events — and 35 of those sessions are for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, according to a tabulation conducted by Legistorm. In the first two months of the previous Congress in 2015, by contrast, Republicans held 222 in-person town hall events.

Republicans like Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin hosted multiple in-person town halls at the beginning of 2015 but have scheduled none for the first two months of 2017. Thune’s office declined to discuss this on the record and Johnson’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Legistorm updates its list daily with software that scrapes from congressional schedules, Facebook pages, press releases, and Twitter accounts of members of congress and their staff. As a result, Legistorm said that the 88 events may not be the ultimate total because there can occasionally be a brief lag time.

For example, Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina created two town hall events on Facebook on Tuesday afternoon, and Legistorm had not listed them as of Wednesday morning. Sanford told VICE News that he thinks in-person town halls “are important, particularly getting out of space you control and getting into space that’s neutral.”

“What happens in politics is that over time, you can get increasingly insulated from people that have a strongly held point of view that’s different [from yours],” he said. Sessions like tele-town halls aren’t a good substitute, he said, because “oftentimes they will screen their calls and those forums can be manipulated.”

Republicans who get roughed up at their town halls have taken to dismissing the attendees as professional organizers. Chaffetz called his hostile crowd “more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate” him over White House ethics issues, a sentiment echoed by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who said that recent marches and protests against Trump are “a very paid, AstroTurf-type movement.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2017 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Congress, Daily life, GOP

Can we please stop gerrymandering?

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Christopher Ingraham has a great article in the Washington Post on the practice of gerrymandering, clearly explained in this short video:

Ingraham’s article is well worth reading because the problem is so prevalent. States that have solved it have taken the drawing of district lines away from the legislature and given it to an independent commission (see end of post). Ingraham’s article begins:

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on lawmakers and the public to take a number of steps “to change the system to reflect our better selves” for “a better politics.” The top item on that list was to end partisan gerrymandering: “we have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” Obama said.

In most states, state legislatures draw the district boundaries that determine how many delegates the state sends to the U.S. Congress, as well as the general partisan make-up of that delegation. State legislatures are partisan beasts, and if one party is in control of the process they can draw boundaries to give themselves a numeric advantage over their opponents in Congress. This process is called gerrymandering.

Some state legislatures are more brazen about the process than others. Maryland’s districts, drawn by Democrats, are one particularly egregious example. North Carolina’s, drawn by Republicans, are another. Advocates of reform have proposed various solutions to the problem over the years. In some states, redistricting is put in the hands of an independent commission. In others, lengthy court battles are playing out to draw the districts more fairly.

But a fundamental problem with district-drawing still remains: as long as humans are drawing the lines, there’s a danger of bias and self-interest to creep into the process. There is another way, however: we could simply let computers do the drawing for us.

From a technological standpoint it’s fairly straightforward — a software engineer in Massachusetts named Brian Olson wrote an algorithm to do it in his spare time. As I described it in 2014, Olson’s algorithm creates “optimally compact” equal-population congressional districts in each state, based on 2010 census data. It draws districts that respect the boundaries of census blocks, which are the smallest geographic units used by the Census Bureau. This ensures that the district boundaries reflect actual neighborhoods and don’t, say, cut an arbitrary linethrough somebody’s house.”

To see what this looks like in practice, compare this map of our current congressional districts (top) with one we stitched together from Olson’s output (bottom).


Big difference, isn’t it? You can check out a larger version of the compacted map here. Rather than a confusing snarl of interlocked districts, you have neat, trim boundaries that make intuitive sense. Here are some individual state comparisons I made back in 2014 that let you see some more of the detail: . . .

Continue reading.

Some states have solved the problem, as Wikipedia notes:

Rather than allowing more political influence, some states have shifted redistricting authority from politicians and given it to non-partisan redistricting commissions. The states of Washington,[28] Arizona,[29] and California have created standing committees for redistricting following the 2010 census. Rhode Island[30]and the New Jersey Redistricting Commission have developed ad hoc committees, but developed the past two decennial reapportionments tied to new census data.

The Arizona State Legislature challenged the constitutionality of the use of a non-partisan commission, rather than the legislature, for redistricting. In Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the US Supreme Court in 2015 upheld the constitutionality of non-partisan commissions.[31]

Note that both red states and blue states have been able to clean up their act on redistricting (though it seems that Arizona did not go quietly).

Wikipedia has an excellent short article devoted to Redistricting Commissions. Well worth reading and pondering and then getting your state moving toward it.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2017 at 12:19 pm

Evelyn Farkas was the Pentagon’s top Russia expert. Now she wants Trump independently investigated.

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Also read David Frum’s article blogged in the previous post. Ezra Klein writes in Vox:

From 2012 to 2015, Evelyn Farkas served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. Since leaving office, she’s been raising the alarm that there was more to the strange relationship between Trumpland and Russia than the public knew. Maybe even much more. This week, she was proven right.

We spoke Wednesday, and the relief was evident in her voice. Far from being concerned over the new revelations, she’s comforted that the ties are finally being made public and broad pressure is finally being applied for more investigations. “I didn’t think it would happen this fast,” she says.

The investigation we need, Farkas continues, is the equivalent of running “a security clearance on the president.” The core question is, “Are you susceptible to blackmail from a foreign entity or individual?”

Farkas, who served as the executive director of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, thinks Congress needs to create an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate Russia’s ties to the Trump administration and role in the election. In this interview, which is edited for length and clarity, she explains why.

Ezra Klein: What’s your level of alarm after the resignation of Michael Flynn?

Evelyn Farkas:It’s lower than it’s been since the summer, when I was first made aware of all this stuff. I’m like, finally, everybody else sees it! Seriously.

The reason I was so upset last summer was that I was getting winks and hints from inside that there was something really wrong here. I was agitated because I knew the Clinton campaign and the world didn’t know. But I didn’t think it would happen this fast. I didn’t think Flynn would survive a year, but I thought it would be most of the year.

The fact that Flynn is gone is constructive from the perspective of US foreign policy. He was getting it wrong on combating terrorism and Russia. So I feel relieved that he will not be whispering his policy prescriptions in the president’s ear.

On the bigger issue, the intelligence community, the bureaucracy, patriotic Americans, and some members of Congress are making it impossible for the White House to sweep whatever they are trying to hide under the rug. And the White House is clearly trying to hide something, or the president would have said, on day one, that he would support the investigations that began under his predecessor.

Ezra Klein: The piece of this I keep coming back to is Trump’s own actions. He’s a guy with very few consistent and clear policy positions, particularly on foreign policy. But he has always had very specific, very hard-line pro-Russian policies — questioning NATO, altering the GOP platform to be friendlier to Russia on Ukraine. And he has surrounded himself with staffers like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, who are unusually closely tied to Russia. That behavior is what, to me, creates a context that makes these contacts between his associates and Russian intelligence really unnerving.

Evelyn Farkas: It is unusual. His personnel choices line up with his words on Russia. This is the only place where we haven’t seen Trump contradict himself, but we still don’t know exactly what his policy will be. We know he’s inclined to be friendly to Putin, to cooperate with Putin, but he hasn’t articulated specifics.

Ezra Klein: Where does an investigation like this go? What do you think the investigators are looking for? . . .

Continue reading.

It’s getting pretty damn explicit and overt.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 February 2017 at 8:13 pm

Three Reasons to Reject Trump’s Criticism of Intelligence Leaks

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This one’s important. David Frum (a conservative) writes in the Atlantic:

It’s a rare event when President Trump tweets approvingly of a journalist, but yesterday Eli Lake of Bloomberg View gained that unusual honor.

Pretty obviously, the president had not actually read the underlying column, which opens with a summary of Trump’s most egregious untruths, to build to the observation: “for a White House that has such a casual and opportunistic relationship with the truth, it’s strange that Flynn’s ‘lie’ to Pence would get him fired.”  (Trump also missed Lake’s early-off-the-blocks reporting on Russian responsibility for the DNC and DCCC hacks.  )

Yet Lake’s core point has been seized upon by those looking to distract from what Trump himself called “the Russia connection.” Following Donald Trump, the House Oversight Committee’s chairman, Jason Chaffetz, has insisted that it is the leaker, not the leaks, that merits investigation. That line has been adopted by the administration’s favored talkers in the media, led—naturally—by Sean Hannity.

These talkers argue that what we are seeing here is a slow-motion coup d’etat: lawless leaks by politicized intelligence officers aimed at destroying the elected president of the United States.

Here are three reasons to reject this claim:

1) When Russian spies hacked Democratic emails, and then posted those emails via WikiLeaks, the Trump campaign and its friends noisily insisted that it didn’t matter how information came into the public domain, but only whether the information told Americans something important about a would-be president.

“I love WikiLeaks!” said Donald Trump at a rally in Pennsylvania in October. A Republican congressman who had over-enthusiastically tweeted “Thank God for WikiLeaks” explained himself in a more formal statement: While he did not condone illegal activity, he was “thankful the information was out there.”  And this was the line certainly from Trump supporters on air and online: The real news was the content of the leak, not the fact of the leak.

Yet in the WikiLeaks instance, the content of the leak was a series of nothingburgers. Maybe the most exciting revelation was that Donna Brazile had shared with the Clinton campaign one of the questions to be posed to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at a CNN townhall during the Democratic primaries. Now, however, we are dealing with information of truly vital national importance: plausible allegations that a U.S. presidential campaign had contact with a hostile foreign power which had hacked the communications of its political opponents. If there was any coordination, the resulting scandal would blend Watergate with Alger Hiss. The people who “loved WikiLeaks” seem poorly positioned to complain that potentially vastly greater wrongdoing is being brought to light by the same methods they endorsed for their own advantage.

2) If the information about the Trump campaign’s apparent collusion with the Russians were not leaked, it would have been smothered and covered up. Congress refused to act. The Department of Justice has shown zero interest. The president’s occasional remarks about the matter carry all the conviction of O.J. Simpson’s vow to search for the real killers.

What, exactly, were investigators supposed to do with their information if they did not share it with the public? Evidence that close associates of the current president of the United States had contacts with a hostile foreign-intelligence service is not a matter of purely historical interest. It’s not just a law-enforcement matter. The whistle blowers are blowing whistles, at immense professional and legal risk to themselves, because the people in charge of protecting the system against foreign spy penetration are themselves implicated in that penetration.

3) Eli Lake vividly characterized the fate of Michael Flynn as a “political assassination.” It might be more accurate to describe the current struggle as a duel. Well before the latest revelations, Team Trump has unmistakably signaled its intention to purge the intelligence services of people with knowledge of the president’s Russia connection. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 February 2017 at 8:01 pm

Congress targets a California law that aims to give low-income workers retirement security

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Evan Halper reports in the LA Times:

ambitious California law intended to help create retirement security for low-income workers is in the crosshairs of the Trump-era Congress, which is moving to block the state and others from launching programs to automatically enroll millions of people in IRA-type savings plans.

The push is one of the most direct confrontations yet with California and other liberal states by a GOP-led Congress emboldened by President Trump’s election.

And it is intensifying the debate about whether conservatives who now control Washington will honor their pledge to respect states’ rights, even when states pursue policies out of step with the Republican agenda.

By targeting the novel “auto IRA”-style programs, congressional Republicans are also provoking one of California’s most visible leaders, state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, the Democrat who championed the policy in California and nationwide and is leading a movement in the Legislature to resist the Trump White House.

The 2016 law being targeted requires employers to enroll 6.8 million California workers who currently have no access to a retirement savings account at work in a state-sponsored plan. Millions more in seven other states that have passed laws similar to California’s would also be enrolled in those states. Many more states are now weighing joining a movement that has been years in the making.

California first took steps toward creating its program in 2012. Other states, including Illinois, have been slowly implementing their own laws, which have been complicated by federal Labor Department rules governing such investment pools.

In its final months, the Obama administration gave states the green light to pursue their vision.

The state laws generally require employers with no retirement plans to automatically invest a small percentage of each worker’s pay in a state-sponsored retirement account. Employers are not required to contribute anything and workers can opt out of the program if they choose.

The first such program was expected to launch this year in Oregon. California and other states were hoping to begin next year.

Now at the urging of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of Wall Street investment firms long opposed to government-sponsored retirement programs that could compete with their own offerings, key Republicans are moving to revoke the federal approval.

“Our nation faces difficult retirement challenges, but more government isn’t the solution,” said a statement from Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), chairman of a House subcommittee on retirement issues who is taking a lead in the repeal effort.

Walberg and his colleagues are invoking an obscure parliamentary tool that gives Congress a small window to repeal new regulations. It has rarely been used in recent years because any repeal effort would have faced certain veto by President Obama. But under Trump, it is now a potent tool for Republicans to swiftly unwind Obama-era regulations.

“The results of the November election give us an opportunity to go back and correct this,” Aliya Wong, executive director of retirement policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of its effort to block California and other states from moving ahead with their programs.

No hearings are required before the full House votes on the repeal of the federal approval, which could happen as soon as next week. . .

Continue reading.

It’s really out in the open now, isn’t it? The next step will be fistfights.

And contract reporter? Shouldn’t he be on staff?

In that connection, note the GoFundMe of Pizza for the Newsroom: contribute toward buying pizza for the staff of the NY Times and the Washington Post. I have digital subscriptions to both, and they are fully worth it. And I bought a pizza, too.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 February 2017 at 7:40 pm

Trump’s China trademark looks (one helluva lot) like a quid pro quo

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It sure as hell does. What happened to the idea that Caesar’s wife (much less Caesar) must be above suspicion? Read Nikita Vladimirov’s story in The Hill.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 February 2017 at 6:14 pm

House Republicans Vote to Block States From Offering Retirement Plans

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Does the GOP actually hate the public? Of course, this is why all the Goldman Sachs people are part of the Trump Administration: to fight financial reform that would help the public (and to shut down the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). David Sirota reports in International Business Times:

House Republicans voted to rescind a federal rule making it easier for states to offer basic retirement savings plans to millions of workers. As International Business Times reported last week, the chief sponsors of the bill have been heavily supported by campaign cash from the finance industry, which has lobbied against the plans.

“If Republicans succeed in rolling back DOL regulations, they will destroy the best chance 63 million American workers have of getting access to a retirement plan,” said Ghilarducci, who estimated that another 40 million Americans without coverage would also be prevented from accessing low-fee retirement savings plans if the GOP bill becomes law. “These states took the responsible first step to save their residents from a retirement crisis defined by low coverage and inadequate savings and protect their taxpayers from the fiscal crisis resulting from millions of indigent elderly. This would be a painful step backwards for the millions who are shut out from the dwindling number of employer-sponsored plans.”

The Republican sponsors of the legislation have argued that the government should not crowd out private financial firms, which offer such services. . .

Continue reading.

Note that the Republicans have already killed a law that required private financial firms to offer advice in the best interest of the client. That was getting in the way of profits (when advice is offered that is in the best interest of the financial firm, which is the rule).

Written by LeisureGuy

16 February 2017 at 1:46 pm

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