the debt ceiling

Today, the United States reached its debt ceiling, which is the maximum amount of debt that it is allowed to have under current legislation. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen can borrow money from pension funds and such to keep up with debt payments and government obligations until June but the responsible thing would be for Congress to immediately either raise the debt ceiling or suspend it. (The most responsible thing would be to eliminate the debt ceiling but no one is even discussing that.)

Like many other governments and corporations, the United States raises some of the money it uses for its operations through issuing bonds. Perhaps you are familiar with the US Savings Bonds program or with Treasury Bills, often called T-bills. The purchasers of these financial instruments are basically loaning money to the government, which then pays it back with interest on the maturity date. While some of these are held by individuals, the vast majority are held by large financial institutions, like banks and mutual funds, or by foreign governments. The United States dollar is considered the world’s reserve currency because of its stability and the reliability of the US government.

If Congress does not pass an increase in or suspension of the debt limit, the US government would default on its bonds, which could cause a steep downturn in both the stock and bond markets, a severe recession, higher unemployment, rising interest rates on loans, and higher prices. The impact would be global because many US government financial instruments are held in or by other countries. It would also cause some countries to mistrust that the United States will keep its word in other areas.

The US government also would not be able to pay its workers or to fully pay Social Security, veterans’ benefits, nutrition programs, and all the other programs that the federal government provides. This would be a huge hardship to many of their constituents, so why would Congress hesitate to raise the debt ceiling?

Politics.

Apparently, one of the things Kevin McCarthy promised in order to get enough “yes” and “present” votes to win the Speakership was that he would not pass a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling. Instead, McCarthy promised that the debt ceiling increase bill would mandate spending cuts, including to programs that are earned benefits, like Social Security.

This doesn’t make sense. The debt ceiling issue has to do with paying the bills for spending that has already been authorized by Congress. The time for debate about cutting the total amount of government spending is when debating appropriation bills for the next budget year.

Furthermore, the Fourteenth Amendment, Section Four to the US Constitution states, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” It seems that the House Republicans are trying to question the validity of public debt by threatening to default on it.

It’s also telling that Republicans passed debt limit increases without making a fuss three times during Donald Trump’s presidency when the budget deficits were higher than they are now under President Biden. Part of the reason deficits were higher was that the Republicans passed large tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations, thus reducing revenue. At the same time, they cut the budget of the Internal Revenue Service so that it was more difficult to audit and catch high-income tax cheats.

It’s hypocritical for the Republicans to be complaining about the size of the national debt now, because it increased so quickly during the four years of the Trump presidency. 25% of the total national debt is attributable to the Trump years.

If the Republicans were serious about balancing the budget and beginning to pay down the national debt, they would be looking at ensuring the wealthy are paying their fair share in taxes. Current law, with lots of loopholes for the wealthy, often has the very rich paying a lower percentage of their income in taxes than their average employee does. Yet, one of the first pieces of legislation the Republicans in the House passed was to rescind that increased funding to the IRS to upgrade their systems and audit more high-income earners. This bill would result in lower tax revenue as tax cheats would have a lower chance of being discovered and forced to pay what they owe. Fortunately, the Senate will not take up this House bill so it has no chance of becoming law.

I have already written to my member of Congress, Republican Marc Molinaro (NY-19), to ask him to join with Democrats and the reasonable Republicans in the House to pass a clean debt ceiling increase or suspension. If Speaker McCarthy won’t put the bill on the floor, they may need to file a discharge petition to get the bill put up for a vote.

Unfortunately, that process takes several weeks, so they had better start now. Secretary Yellen will enlist whatever shuffling of resources are allowed while they do it, but the clock is ticking and folks – and the financial markets – will be worried.

Of course, it would be faster and easier if McCarthy put the good of the country first and introduced a clean bill today. It would also show that the House Republicans want to cooperate in the governance of the country to “promote the general welfare,” as the Preamble to the Constitution states.

Given that they have thus far not shown this inclination, I won’t hold my breath.
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January 6 contrasts

Last week in the United States, we marked the second anniversary of the January 6th attack on our Congress by supporters of then-President Trump who were trying to keep the election of Joe Biden from being certified.

There was a short, solemn ceremony on the Capitol steps, led by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. Families of officers who died in the aftermath of the attack read their names and a bell was rung in their memory. There was a period of silent reflection of 140 seconds to honor the 140 officers who were injured that day, some so severely that they had to leave their jobs permanently. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Republican House members chose not to attend. Only one was spotted among the 200+ Democrats commemorating the day.

In the afternoon, President Biden honored fourteen individuals with the Presidential Citizens Medal. Nine were police officers who worked to defend the Capitol. Sadly, three of the medals were given posthumously. I was especially moved by the acknowledgement that the two officers who died by suicide after dealing with trauma from the attack were its victims as much as if they had died as a direct result of physical injury. Also honored were five people who upheld the integrity of the 2020 election, despite threats and actions against them.

Meanwhile, the House Republicans not only did not show respect for the anniversary but also displayed their inability to govern effectively. Late in the evening of January 6th, Kevin McCarthy failed to be elected Speaker for the fourteenth time. Two years ago, McCarthy was among the 139 House Republicans who refused to certify state electors in the 2020 presidential electoral college, even after the mob had broken in, ransacked the Capitol, and threatened to harm or kill Vice President Pence, Speaker Pelosi, and members of Congress. Many of those 139 are still in Congress, including some who are known to have been involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 election. It’s not known if any of them will eventually face charges or other consequences for their actions, but their refusal to honor the sacrifices of the officers who defended them two years ago was telling.

In the early morning hours of January 7th, McCarthy won the speakership on the 15th ballot because enough Republicans voted “present” rather than “no” for him to get the majority of votes cast. Unfortunately, McCarthy and the House Republicans so far have shown no intention of working with Democrats toward effective governance. They have passed a rules package that calls for votes on bills that the Senate will never take up, gutted the Office of Congressional Ethics, and passed a meaningless bill to require care for a baby born alive after an attempted abortion, meaningless because, in the rare instances where this occurs, those protections are already in place.

I am still holding out hope that there will be a few moderate Republicans who will join with House Democrats to pass needed bills into law over these next two years. It may take a lot of complicated maneuvers to get bills to the floor, such as discharge petitions. Of course, it would be much easier if McCarthy reaches out to craft bipartisan bills for the good of the American people but he hasn’t shown that level of political ability as of yet.

Stay tuned.
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One-Liner Wednesday: Speaker-less

Yesterday, for the first time in a hundred years, the United States House of Representatives failed to choose a Speaker on the first day of the new Congress, when Kevin McCarthy failed to get a majority of votes on three attempts, despite the fact that his Republican party holds a slim majority.

This update to my post from yesterday is brought to you by Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays and Just Jot It January. Join us! Details here: https://lindaghill.com/2023/01/04/one-liner-wednesday-jusjojan-the-4th-2023-courage/

late 2022 US political wrap-up

In the media, there are lots of summaries and lists as the old year closes and the new one begins.

Here at Top of JC’s Mind, I sometimes post about US politics to summarize what has been going on and offer my viewpoint in such a way that people who don’t follow US politics can get the gist of the situation. Over these last few weeks, though, it’s been impossible to keep up and synthesize what has been going in with the various investigations into our former president.

The House Select Committee on January 6th held its final public hearings and issued an 845 page final report. It has also released thousands of pages of transcripts from interviews they conducted. I haven’t been able to read all the materials but have seen and heard commentary from lawyers and analysts I trust. With these materials, there is lots of publicly available evidence showing what seemed to be happening at the time: that President Trump knew that he had lost a fair election to Joe Biden but orchestrated an elaborate plot to lie about it and try to stay in power. The plot encompassed not only the ultimate 1/6/21 attack on the Capitol but also pressure on lawmakers in various states to throw out legally cast votes and appoint alternate electors to the electoral college, pressure on the vice-president to fail to certify the electors so that the election would be thrown to the House where each state would get one vote and Trump would likely win, and the call for Trump supporters to descend on Washington and “be wild” on January 6th when Congress would meet to fulfill their Constitutional duty to certify the presidential and vice-presidential election.

The Select Committee referred Donald Trump and others to the Justice Department on a number of counts, including obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to make a false statement, and inciting, assisting, and/or giving aid and comfort to an insurrection. The Justice Department will be deciding in the coming months whether or not to file these charges or others. We know that there are grand juries reviewing evidence but we don’t know what they will decide or when. It does seem, though, that things are moving more quickly since the appointment of Special Counsel Jack Smith.

Jack Smith and the Justice Department are also investigating other possible crimes of Donald Trump and his administration. One area of investigation is the presidential documents that Trump took with him when he left office. He then defied subpoenas to get the documents back to the National Archives. Some of the documents that have been recovered were classified, including some that should only be viewed in a secure location. Legal analysts think that the documents case may be getting close to the point of indictment.

Another area that is coming under public scrutiny is Donald Trump’s personal and business tax returns. Since Nixon, presidential candidates have released their tax returns publicly and have placed their business investments in a blind trust so that the public can see that they aren’t being influenced by personal financial factors when they are making decisions for the country. Trump refused to do this and fought the House Ways and Means Committee request to review his taxes and the IRS audits that should have been routine for all presidential and vice-presidential tax returns. The IRS hadn’t even begun the audits until Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Richard Neal requested them in 2020, midway through Trump’s term. Trump fought the returns being turned over all the way to the Supreme Court, which finally decided that they should be made available to the Committee just a few weeks ago. The Committee redacted personal data like Social Security numbers and released six years of returns publicly just a few days ago. They show that the Trumps paid little or no federal income taxes in most of those years and showed lots of business losses. There are lots of questions about the legality of some of the deductions, business expenses, and losses, but it will take forensic accountants to unravel all that information.

The release of the tax returns follows the recent New York State court ruling that convicted the Trump Organization of tax fraud. Trump, his three elder children, and the Trump Organization are also named in a civil lawsuit in New York for fraud for lying to insurers and lenders about the value of assets.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, a grand jury has been hearing evidence about attempts to overturn Biden’s victory in the state. After they finish their report, the Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis may decide to indict Trump in the case. It’s possible that federal charges could be made in the same case, but it’s worth noting that, if Trump were convicted on state charges, he could not be pardoned by a future Republican president, as would be possible for federal convictions.

I think that it is likely that Trump will be indicted on numerous charges over a period of time. It seems that there is a lot of evidence of guilt and I am hoping there will be accountability for Trump and for those who took part in the planning and execution of crimes against the Constitution and the people of the United States.

Guilty pleas or verdicts on some of the possible charges would bar Trump from ever again holding office. Of course, despite the losses of many Trump-backed candidates in the midterms, Trump has already declared himself as a presidential candidate for the Republican party for the 2024 election. So far, the campaign does not have many backers but I am scared about the prospect of Trump ever holding political power again, having experienced the harm he has already inflected.

Meanwhile, the new Congress is being sworn into office. It’s still unclear if Kevin McCarthy has enough votes to be elected Speaker of the House. (As I publish this, the House is schedule to convene for the Speaker vote in a couple of hours.) The Republicans are arguing among themselves so much that it may not be possible for them to pass much legislation, especially bills that the Democratic majority in the Senate would also agree to pass so that they could become law.

I’m trying to remain hopeful that support from Congress for Ukraine will remain strong, as well as for keeping the basic functions of the federal government running. The Republicans don’t have a great record for passing bills, though, so we’ll have to wait and see. I have the feeling that I will need to write to my member of the House frequently; he is a newly elected Republican who stressed his ability to work with Democrats to get things done. We’ll see if he can do that on the federal level. With the House majority so slim (only a four seat margin for Republicans), a handful of Republican moderates could join with the Democrats to pass bills, even if they have to use the discharge petition process to force a floor vote.

We’ll see.
*****
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election reflection

When I finally made myself post about the upcoming midterm elections in the US, I knew I’d have to do a wrap-up post, so here goes…

The election outcomes were more positive than I had feared but not as good as I had wished. Some of the ultra-MAGA candidates lost and accepted defeat but a few that lost are refusing to concede. Some who won their races are trying to leverage their position to move legislatures to the extreme right. This is particularly worrisome in the House of Representatives, where some individual Congress members are threatening to withhold their votes to make Republican Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House unless he agrees to undertake certain investigations that come out of right-wing conspiracy theories.

Technically, the election season is not quite over yet. While the Democrats picked up a Senate seat which gives them the majority of 50-49, the race in Georgia is going to be decided in a run-off in a few days. If current Senator Raphael Warnock is re-elected, the Democrats will hold a clear majority of 51-49, which will also give them a majority of committee seats and make confirming President Biden’s nominees quicker and easier in the new session. Theoretically, this would also help make legislation easier to pass but it’s unlikely that the Republican House will pass many bills that the Senate cares to take up. Given that the Republicans don’t really have a platform, it seems they are more inclined to undertake endless investigations than to actually try to make laws and pass budgets.

The impending change in the balance of power in the Congress has led to a push to enact as much legislation as possible before the end of the year. One thing that should happen is raising the debt ceiling; in my ideal world, it would be abolished but I doubt that is in the cards. There needs to be a budget resolution passed. I’d love action on voting rights, codifying reproductive health access, gun safety, care for children and the vulnerable, and anti-poverty programs like permanent expansion of the child tax credit. One major piece of legislation that has passed is marriage equality, which was in place in only some states before the 2015 Obergefell decision from the Supreme Court made it legal nationally. Given the current Court’s eagerness to overturn precedent, an explicit law from Congress will be helpful in ensuring the continuing right to marriage the partner of one’s choice.

I believe that the Republicans were only able to regain the House majority because of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, along with their allowing redistricting maps that were found to be unconstitutional by state courts to stand for this election in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Ohio. There was also extensive gerrymandering in Florida and Texas that favored Republicans.

Contrast this with my home state New York. In an attempt to make redistricting fairer, map making was taken out of the state legislature and assigned to a bipartisan commission with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. Unfortunately, the commission could not agree on a new map and sent two versions to the legislature, which drew its own map and adopted it. The Republicans sued, a court threw out that map, and a new one was drawn by an academic. This delayed our primaries and caused major changes in which some incumbents ran against each other in primaries and others had districts that had a majority of voters that were new to them.

It also led to some representatives shopping for a new district that would elect them, even though they don’t live there. Take my current representative Republican Claudia Tenney as an example. She lives in the present 22nd district, which nonsensically lumps part of the Southern Tier where I live with the Utica area where she lives. When it looked like one of the commission or legislative maps was going to be adopted, she had filed to run in the Southern Tier district to my west which was an open seat because the Republican incumbent had resigned. When the court map was adopted, she changed to run in the new 24th district which had been most of the district of the retiring Republican John Katko. I don’t know whether or not she plans to move. I now live in the 19th district and our incoming (Republican) representative, Marc Molinaro, also lives outside our district. I haven’t heard anything from him that he plans to move here, either.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints from national pundits that the Democrats lost the House majority because “the New York legislature is bad at gerrymandering” but they are off the mark. The fact is that the prior maps were drawn when the Republicans had the majority in the State Senate while the Democrats controlled the Assembly. The maps made the House districts upstate, which tends to have more Republicans, lower in population than the downstate districts, which tend to be more heavily Democratic. All the versions of the new maps made the population distribution for each district more even, which is good. Unfortunately, the court’s map that went into effect didn’t give much weight to the prior lines, so lots of voters and candidates were thrown into new districts at a very late date.

For me, that meant going from a central NY district that didn’t really make a lot of sense into a district that stretches from here, through the Catskills and Hudson Valley over to the Connecticut border. It would make much more sense for Binghamton to be included in a Southern Tier district. The Southern Tier is our economic development zone and our regional identity. If we needed to be connected to another region to make the population required, it would make the most sense to include some of the Finger Lakes region. We have much less in common with the Catskills/Hudson Valley.

There are big changes in Democratic Party leadership in the House. The most noted is that Nancy Pelosi, who has been either Speaker or party leader for twenty years is stepping down from leadership. This didn’t surprise me as she had promised to step down from leadership to make room for the next generation. Additionally, she is in her eighties and is recovering from the trauma of the politically motivated attack on her husband and their home before the last election.

Nancy Pelosi has been the most effective House speaker in my lifetime, shepherding through major legislation, such as the Affordable Care Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, with very small Democratic majorities and next to no help from Republicans. She is very astute in figuring out what is possible and bringing along the members to pass it. While she grew up around politics, I think a lot of her success comes from her personal values, shaped by Catholic social justice doctrine and the Constitutional call to “promote the general welfare,” and with her experience raising five children.

Unfortunately, she has been attacked by Republicans in personal and vile terms, which has led to political violence. Besides the recent attack at her home, there are several chilling videos of January sixth insurrectionists threatening her life. That she continues to serve her district and the country is a testament to her strength and convictions as a person and a public servant. I’m grateful that she is remaining in Congress as a mentor in the coming terms, as well as, of course, a powerful voice on policy questions.

When Pelosi stepped down from leadership, her fellow octogenarians Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn also took themselves out of the running for the next two highest-ranking leadership posts. The new top leadership team is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries as Minority Leader, Rep. Katherine Clark as Democratic whip, and Rep. Pete Aguilar as Democratic Caucus chair. They are all in their forties or fifties. Jeffries is the first Black to become leader of a major US political party. Clark is only the second woman, after Pelosi, to be in a top leadership post in Congress. Aguilar is the highest-ranking Latino in Congress.

What is happening with the Republicans is still unclear. While Kevin McCarthy was elected Republican leader, it remains to be seen if he has enough votes to be elected Speaker. It’s also unclear if he or anyone can hold the party together with a slim majority as Speaker Pelosi has been able to do with the Democrats. My fear is that the House Republicans will refuse to craft bipartisan legislation with the Democrats but not be able to hold their own party together to pass bills either. We could wind up with gridlock that leaves even vital legislation in limbo. We’ve seen this before under some past Republican Speakers.

I have a feeling that I will spend the next term writing to Rep. Molinaro, who claims to be a proponent of bipartisanship, asking him to stand up for reasonable legislation that passes the Senate to make it to the House floor for a vote, where it can pass with Democratic and a minority of Republican votes.

Will that happen? I don’t know, but I’ll try to at least start out with that hope.

voting and violence

I try to keep up-to-date on the news, particularly in the US, and often blog about what is happening with politics and public policy.

I admit it has been daunting to write about the upcoming midterm elections next week. There has been so much disheartening rhetoric that I haven’t been able to make myself post about it but I feel compelled to post today after watching the continuing aftermath of the horrific attack against Paul Pelosi, spouse of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

For those of you not in the US, early Friday morning, a 42-year-old man broke into the San Francisco home of Paul and Nancy Pelosi. He had zip ties and duct tape with him and asked where Nancy was. (She was in Washington, DC.) He attacked the 82-year-old Paul Pelosi with a hammer, fracturing his skull and injuring his hands and arms. Pelosi is still in intensive care following surgery and is expected to recover over time from his physical injuries. The suspect is in police custody and will be charged soon, most likely for attempted murder among other charges.

The suspect had posted on social media his belief in a number of conspiracy theories, including those that demonize the Democrats as child abusers. While Democrats have been vocal and universal in the condemnation of the attack, Republicans have been much less so. Instead of recognizing this as political violence, some are saying it is just another example of increasing crime. They also fail to acknowledge that their political advertising, posts, and speeches featuring weapons and demonizing Speaker Pelosi and other prominent Democrats have any role in the increase in political violence.

The Republicans do a lot of “what-about-ism” in which they try to create false equivalencies and fear-monger on their talking points, all while conveniently dismissing any responsibility. In this case, they ignore things like the fact that most of the rise in crime is occurring in Republican-controlled areas that have relaxed regulations on guns. It’s likely that one of the reasons that Mr. Pelosi was attacked with a hammer rather than a gun is that California has a more rigorous system of allowing gun permits than Republican-led states, such as Texas. Republicans, including those in New York, blame bail reform for the increase in violent crime, even though the data show this isn’t true. There is also a much higher level of violent extremism on the far right than on the left. And, of course, we have recent and ongoing trials and convictions of perpetrators of political violence on January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol and the thwarted kidnapping of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer.

My usual way of determining for whom to vote is to look at the stand of the candidate and their party on a range of issues. Given my personal background, I place the highest priority on environmental and social justice issues. This is in keeping with the principles of Catholic social justice doctrine and with the call in the Preamble to the US Constitution to “promote the general welfare.”

I look at the candidates’ character, personal behavior, and integrity. I also look at their personal experience and intelligence. I want to vote for candidates who are smarter and more experienced than I. I don’t choose candidates on the basis of “who I want to have a beer with!” That comment may sound strange to those outside the US but there is recurring theme about this question as a gauge for likability/authenticity since about the year 2000.

In this election, there is an additional factor that I honestly never thought would be an election issue here in the United States. Do you believe in democracy? So many of the Republican candidates seem to be embracing anti-democratic, even autocratic, leadership and policies. They don’t believe in the outcome of free and fair elections, such as the 2020 election, even though they have no evidence to the contrary. They won’t say that they will accept the outcome of their own election if they lose. They won’t say that Biden was legitimately elected president. They have tried and sometimes succeeded in making it more difficult for minorities, elders, young people, and lower-income people to vote. They have broken up likely Democratic voters who live in a community into different voting districts to dilute the power of their vote.

What is most destructive is that they continue to support and perpetrate the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that he is not responsible for the January 6 insurrection, for illegal possession of presidential documents (including sensitive national security information), for obstruction of justice, and for other crimes for which there is ample, publicly available evidence.

Apparently, Republicans are into wielding governmental power for their own benefit – and the benefit of the wealthy people and corporations who underwrite them – rather than being public servants.

I won’t be voting for any of them.

I will vote for candidates who uphold our American values and who are serious about enacting and executing laws that improve our lives and communities, that try to heal our planet and climate, and that work with all people of good will to end conflict and disease.

I hope millions of others will join in this cause and remember that democracy is on the ballot.

One-Liner Wednesday: Liz Cheney

“Today, our highest duty is to bend the arc of history to preserve our nation and its blessings to ensure that freedom will not perish, to protect the very foundations of this constitutional republic.”
~~~ Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) in her concession speech after losing her primary race because she is standing up for the Constitution and election integrity in the face of Trump’s lies

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US environmental update

Trying to get the United States back to a better position regarding climate change and environmental issues in general has been a major task for the Biden administration. While some things were relatively straightforward, such as rejoining the Paris climate accords, others have been much more difficult.

Unwinding the changes that the prior administration had made to regulations was sometimes blocked by the courts. The biggest blow was the Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, in which a 6-3 majority found that the EPA can’t regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants unless they have been given specific direction by Congress. It was odd that the Supreme Court heard the case because it was brought against the Clean Power Plan, which was proposed by the Obama administration, but never enacted. The Biden administration had no intent to revive that plan, as circumstances have changed, so it appears that the conservative majority heard the case for the purpose of striking down the manner in which executive branch agencies and departments go about executing the laws that have been passed by Congress. This ruling could bog down not only EPA work but also the regulatory work of other Cabinet departments. [Please note that this is my layperson understanding of the case and its implications. There has been a lot of legal commentary which can be found in myriad places online, if you are interested.] An August 26 post with an update on the impact of this case can be found here.

Legislation to address the climate crisis was an important cornerstone of the Biden agenda. The House of Representatives passed a strong bill dealing with climate change and the care economy, including health care, universal education for three- and four-year-olds, provisions for child and elder care, permanent expansion of a fully refundable child tax credit, and other measures for social justice and equity. The bill was paid for by increasing taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Unfortunately, the 50-50 split in the Senate combined with Senate rules gave a couple of Democratic senators power over what was in the bill and they opposed some of the financial and energy provisions, so it looked as though it would not pass.

This was extremely discouraging to millions of people in the US, as well as to millions in the rest of the world who are depending on US action to cut carbon in the atmosphere and provide leadership for other countries to do the same.

And then, a surprise announcement that Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who made his money from coal and had shot down prior versions of the bill, had reached an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on a version of the bill that he could support. Additional changes wound up being made to get Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona on board. Senator Schumer kept the Senate in session in Washington into their August recess to pass the bill with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. House Speaker Pelosi called the House back into session to pass the bill last Friday and President Biden will sign the bill into law this week.

While the Inflation Reduction Act is not as strong as the original legislation, I’m very happy that it will become law. It should bring down energy costs over time. It is projected to lower US greenhouse gas emissions by about 40% of 2005 levels by 2030; the United States goal in the Paris accord is a 50-52% reduction, so we hope that additional measures will be enacted to reach that goal. However, before this bill, we were on track for only a 25% reduction, so this is a major improvement. This article is a good summary of some of the main environmental/energy provisions of the bill.

I am grateful and still a bit shocked that this bill is about to become law. Yes, there is more to do, both on environmental and economic justice issues, but, at least, we have made a good start. This is important because people and the planet need this help and because it shows that the Democrats are actually serious about governing in a bipartisan way when it is possible, such as with the infrastructure law, and alone, if necessary. I hope that the progress in the last 18 months will encourage voters to keep the Democrats in the majority so more can get done in the next session. Perhaps, it will even give more Republican Congresspersons the impetus to support popular, commonsense measures that benefit the public. We have all witnessed past Republican majorities who were unable to pass much substantive legislation; for example, the Trump administration announced multiple “Infrastructure Weeks” but never got close to passing legislation. We have also, sadly, seen Republican minorities block action on legislation and appointments through the filibuster and other holds and delaying tactics. I think these need to be reformed so that the Congress is not bogged down and unable to do the work our country needs to function.

As the new programs ramp up, I encourage people in the US to be on the lookout for provisions that can help them make their lives greener, whether that is rebates on efficient electric appliances, incentives to buy used or new electric vehicles, or the opportunity to purchase renewable energy at lower than current rates. Support candidates who make the health and well-being of people and our environment their top priorities. We need representatives who are looking out for us, not just corporate profits and tax loopholes.

In my district, that means voting for the Democratic candidate. Make sure that you know the candidates’ positions in your area before casting your ballot.

The US and guns – update

In late May, when I wrote this post, I knew there would need to be an update in the continuing saga of gun violence in the United States. A lot has happened since then, so here goes.

In the wake of the national furor over the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings, a bipartisan group of senators managed to hammer out a bill that could pass. It is much weaker than the bill that had originally passed in the House but does have some important provisions. It increases funding for mental health services, which is much needed. The impact on mass shootings is unclear but the majority of gun fatalities in the United States are suicides, so there is hope that these funds will avert some share of these deaths. There are incentives for states to implement red flag laws, which prevent firearm sales and/or remove guns from homes where someone is deemed threatening to themselves or others. The laws preventing those convicted of domestic violence from obtaining guns were strengthened. There will be enhanced background checks for those ages 18-20. Penalties for those who purchase guns for someone who is not eligible to own one have been increased. Funding for security in schools will increase.

Unfortunately, stronger prevention measures were not included, most of which have broad public support. Among these are strengthened and universal background checks, banning military-style assault weapons and large ammunition clips, and raising the age to buy semiautomatic weapons to 21. It’s unlikely that Republicans will agree to any further national legislation in the immediate future, so it is up to states to do what they can to protect people, although it is easy for anyone intent on getting a weapon to do so by visiting a state with looser regulations.

Ironically, just as this legislation was passed, the Supreme Court handed down an opinion that struck down the process to carry a concealed weapon in my home state, New York. This law, which had been on the books for over a century, was somehow not deemed to be part of our history and tradition by the conservatives on the Court, while ignoring the clear text of the Second Amendment that places gun rights in the context of “a well-regulated militia.”

Governor Hochul called the state legislature, which usually is in session only in the winter and spring, back from recess to pass new laws that would seem to be acceptable to the Court which had objected to a gun owner proving that they needed to carry a concealed weapon for protection. The new laws include mandatory standardized training and tests to obtain a concealed carry permit, a blanket prohibition on carrying firearms on private property and businesses unless they expressly give permission, and a list of “sensitive places” where concealed weapons are not permitted, including public transportation, medical facilities, schools and day care facilities, libraries, government buildings, houses of worship, public demonstrations, entertainment venues, and establishments that serve alcohol.

There are also provisions that strengthen New York’s already relatively strict gun laws, including background checks for all ammunition purchases, enhancements of the safe storage requirements including in vehicles, and extending the sales ban on body armor to include hard body armor which was used by the shooter in Buffalo.

These new laws will take effect on September first. They may be challenged in court but the legislature and governor tried to design them in such a way that they will be upheld. At least, we will have greater protections while the cases wind their way through the courts.

Meanwhile, of course, gun violence continues unabated. The Fourth of July weekend was especially brutal, with over 500 shootings, at least 11 of which were categorized as mass shootings (four or more injured or killed, not counting the shooter), resulting in over 220 deaths and nearly 570 injuries. The information source for this reporting is the Gun Violence Archive, an organization that collects and compiles data on shootings in the US. That our country has need of such an organization is sobering in and of itself. As I write this on July 7, 2022, they have verified 22,733 gun deaths so far this year, of which 12,408 were suicides.

The most prominent of the mass shootings this weekend was at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. A 21-year-old man, shooting with a military-style weapon from a rooftop overlooking the parade route, killed seven with several dozen wounded. He was later arrested and has confessed to the crime. Our news reports are filled with the tragic losses of family members, including the parents of a 2-year-old who was found beneath his father’s body.

This father died protecting his only child from a young man who should not have had a weapon of war. All of us need the protection of law to keep these weapons out of civilian hands. Congress, do your job and pass more laws so that our rates of gun violence are more in line with those of other advanced democracies. Other countries have similar rates of mental illness, violent video games, and social problems, but have nowhere near our rates of gun violence. Republicans, it’s time to wake up and admit the truth that the heart of the problem is too-easy access to guns, especially military-style weapons. And remember that your beloved Second Amendment is about a “well-regulated militia” – now akin to the National Guard – not your mentally unstable 18-year-old neighbor who has fallen into some dark conspiracy-laden corner of the internet and thinks he should kill some folks to show he has power over them.

Congressional Republicans, you have the power to join with your Democratic and Independent colleagues to protect us. If you need help mustering courage, look to the example of that dad in Highland Park. Your possibly sacrificing a few votes in your next election or some campaign contributions is nothing compared to his sacrificing his life and his chance to see his child grow into adulthood.

hearings

We arrived home from the UK just in time for the first primetime hearing of the findings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. Since that hearing held on June 9th, there have been three more during the daytime with several more on the schedule.

Because I follow the news closely, I had thought that the hearings might not be very revelatory for me but I have found them to be very powerful. Part of the impact is that the testimony is all under oath. While some of the information had been revealed by investigative reporting or published in books by various participants, one was never quite sure of the veracity of claims. Knowing that witnesses are sworn to tell the truth makes it more likely that they are, given that committing perjury before Congress or a court can result in imprisonment. The vast majority of the 1000+ people who have been interviewed in the investigation came forward voluntarily without being compelled by subpoena, so they intended to tell what they had seen and heard for the good of the country. The committee also has access to hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence, enabling it to stitch together a detailed timeline of the web of activities that led to the January 6th attack as well as what happened on that day and in the aftermath.

In the daytime hearings, a different member of the Committee has taken the lead in questioning, sometimes paired with a member of the staff. The staff includes experienced lawyers and investigators who have done the lion’s share of the work with witnesses and evidence.

At this point, the Committee is providing a preliminary review of its findings; a written report will be issued later in the year. They are doing a very comprehensive job of laying out evidence in an organized and cogent way. It probably helps that many of the committee members are themselves lawyers with courtroom experience. Their questioning of live witnesses is very straightforward so that each witness can tell their story without the distraction of political grandstanding. Most of the witnesses, whether appearing live or in recorded clips, are Republican officeholders, officials, or staff, so that it is clear that the Committee is not just interviewing critics of the Trump administration or engaging in hearsay. The Committee is putting forth actual evidence that you would expect to find in a court of law.

Chair Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, presides and does opening and closing statements at each hearing; Vice-chair Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, also does opening and closing statements each time. She has been particularly vocal in calling out Trump and the Republicans who assisted him in the lies about the 2020 election that led to the Capitol attack.

The testimony has revealed some previously undisclosed details. For example, in the hearing that centered on threats to then Vice-president Mike Pence, we learned that attackers got within forty feet of him as he was being evacuated, that he refused to leave the Capitol grounds, and that he was acting as commander-in-chief in calling in the National Guard as Trump refused to act.

It’s sobering and terrifying to see through this evidence how close our country came to an actual collapse of our democracy. If Pence and Republican members of Congress had delayed certification in violation of the Constitution, there would likely have been widespread violence in all regions of the country; Trump would have declared martial law and it would have been very difficult to recover our democracy. It’s also chilling to see the continuing impacts on our electoral process. A number of states have enacted provisions that make it easier to disenfranchise voters or ignore their legally cast ballots. Supporters of the lies about the 2020 election are winning elected office in some states, enabling them to interfere with government from within.

It’s very tense to be in the middle of all this, gaining all this knowledge but not knowing if/when there will be consequences for those who engaged in wrongdoing. We know the Justice Department is investigating but we don’t know if they will charge Trump, members of his administration and staff, and members of Congress with crimes pertaining to attempts to stage a coup. The Committee will make recommendations for legal reforms to the Electoral Count Act and other measures to try to avert another attempt to interfere with the certification of the election. These should be widely endorsed and enacted with large majorities of both parties but it remains to be seen if they will.

It scares me that so many current Republicans still cling to lies about the 2020 election and refuse to take responsibility for their activities that supported it. Even after the attack, eight senators and 139 representatives voted against acceptance of some of Biden’s electors, even though there was no factual basis to do so. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Georgia Republican who led a group on a long tour of the House office buildings the day before the attack though the entire Capitol complex was closed to visitors due to the pandemic, is denying he did anything wrong, even with evidence that a member of the tour group was part of the January 6 mob. There are dozens of members of Congress who should resign over their shameful disregard for their oath to uphold the Constitution but there is not even the possibility of Republican votes in favor of censure, much less removal from Congress.

I’m trying to remain hopeful that these hearings will break through the denial bubble that surrounds many Republican voters. After being the only major broadcast/news outlet to not air the initial primetime hearing, Fox News has begun to provide some coverage. I think that the powers that be at Fox News knew that the hearings would be important because during the primetime hearing, they did not take their usual commercials breaks so that their viewers wouldn’t be tempted to check in on the hearings. It’s also important to remember that Fox News, despite its name, is not really a news channel. While there are actual journalists who work for Fox News, they only have a few hours of airtime per week. The vast majority of their programming is classified as “entertainment” with pundits/personalities who are not constrained by any standards of truthfulness or propriety. The breath-taking amount of fear-mongering that Fox News and other right-wing outlets echoes and engenders the civic divide that Trump and the Republicans created and which threatens our democracy.

If Republicans watch the hearings, they will hear a number of familiar people and themes. Retired Judge J. Michael Luttig, one of the most revered conservative jurists, was featured in one hearing, speaking about the current dangers to our democracy. A number of the witnesses have spoken about the role of their faith in their actions. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers was particularly eloquent in this regard.

I have been moved by the real-world consequences for those who protected the integrity of the election and of the Capitol. Speaker Bowers’ account of the threats against him and his family, including harassment at his home as he and his wife attended to their terminally ill daughter. US Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards’ testimony on being injured on January 6th and still trying to aid her fellow officers in what amounted to hand-to-hand combat, not the policing work for which they had been trained. The appalling loss of any sense of safety or security for election workers Shaye Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman, including even the ability to use their own names in public for fear of being attacked after being repeatedly vilified by Trump, Giuliani, and their followers.

I will continue to watch the hearings and the analysis and urge all the people of the United States to do the same. I hope that they will mark a turning point for the electorate so that we can root out all those who have failed in their oaths to uphold the Constitution before it is too late.

The hearings are showing us how close we came to disaster and how little time we have to strengthen our democratic institutions against attack.

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