This is where you can read our posts, listed chronologically. We hope you find them thought-provoking, informative and/or in some other way worthwhile reading.
This is where you can read our posts, listed chronologically. We hope you find them thought-provoking, informative and/or in some other way worthwhile reading.
It now has been a week since Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis announced he would leave his post, and a few days since President Donald Trump decided to speed up the timetable of that departure.
It is hard to argue with the conventional wisdom that Mattis is a patriot who has served his country honorably and with distinction. As a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, he earned four
stars and served in various leadership positions, from the commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command to the supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Mattis was a rare Trump Cabinet officer to enjoy widespread bipartisan support. He won confirmation in January 2017 by a nearly unanimous vote.
And when Mattis concluded his policy differences with the president were too great to bridge, he did something rare in Washington. Instead of taking the well-worn path of undermining the president in the media – behind the shield of anonymity – he resigned in protest.
Good for him. It’s a European norm that should become more common in the United States.
But if Mattis was honest about the policy differences that he cited in his resignation letter <<< https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/20/politics/james-mattis-resignation-letter-doc/index.html
>>>, it is hard to understand whether he was not paying attention to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign or simply did not believe those campaign pronouncements.
Mattis opposed Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, which has been torn apart by civil war. He defended NATO and complained that “we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”
Mattis also cited threats posed by Russia and China.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” he wrote.
Trump’s views on these issues, dating to 2015, were not a secret. He campaigned on the idea of better relations with Russia. He also campaigned against foreign entanglements in the Middle East and as president, he promised that the troops in Syria would be back home “very soon.”
That was in a speech in Ohio earlier this year, although nothing immediately came of it because Syria a short while later launched a chemical weapons attack on anti-regime civilians, prompting U.S. airstrikes.
And, of course, demands that NATO allies meet their defense spending commitments to the alliance have been a frequent staple of Trump’s foreign policy comments.
As noted here <<<< https://www.kirbyonpolitics.com/kirbys-take/syria-announcement-inspires-hypocrisy>>> before, there are many legitimate reasons to conclude Trump made the wrong decision on Syria. The same would go for NATO. But regardless of whether Trump is right or wrong on the policy, one thing his decisions should not be is surprising.
Mattis, himself, seemed to acknowledge that his views would not always find unanimous support within the administration.
“You do not want the tyranny of consensus, of group-think early,” he said during his confirmation hearing. “It has been compared in some cabinets to a team of rivals even, and it is actually healthy. It is not tidy. It will be respectful. Of that, I am certain. And I do not anticipate that anything but the best ideas will win, sir.”
During that hearing, Mattis fielded several questions about Trump’s statements about NATO and Syria. He told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) that he had discussed NATO with Trump and that the incoming president was “open even to the point of asking more questions” and that he understood where Mattis stood on the issue.
Perhaps, Mattis thought he could change Trump’s mind.
On Syria, Mattis oversaw a sharp escalation of military operations. As Foreign Policy magazine noted <<< https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/12/27/james-mattis-wasnt-ready-to-serve-in-a-democracy/
>>>, the U.S. Central Command claimed responsibility for 199 unintended civilian deaths in that country by the time Trump took office. After Trump’s first year, that number skyrocketed to 831.
U.S. troops in the Middle East jumped from 40,517 in mid-2017 to 54,180 by September of that year.
The Pentagon also was less than transparent about the full extent of America’s involvement in Syria. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated in November 2017 that the United States had “about 503” troops in Syria. Foreign Policy notes that the Defense Manpower Data Center the next day placed the actual number at 1,723 in a quarterly report. Two weeks later, the Defense Department reported it was “slightly more than 2,000.”
These realities on the ground are not consistent with Trump’s stated policy objectives in the Middle East.
Nor was Mattis’ view of NATO in keeping with Trump’s policy. So fervently does Mattis believe in the alliance set up during the Cold War that he misstated its nature in his resignation letter.
“NATO's 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9-11 attack on America,” he wrote.
Turkey at this point is a democracy in name only under the increasingly authoritarian government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however.
Freedom House rates Turkey as “Not Free” and two other NATO countries as only “Partly Free.” That includes the newest member, Montenegro. The tiny nation, once part of Yugoslavia, brings a total of 1,950 active duty troops and another 400 in reserve to the alliance. Few Americans likely could identify it on a map.
Yet, with Montenegro’s membership in June 2017, the United States would be obligated to send citizens to fight and die on its behalf should it come under attack.
Mattis wrote that Trump has a “right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.”
That is as it should be – on defense and every other policy area.
Then voters can decide in 2020 if they want to stay on the current course or switch directions.
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President Donald Trump’s threat Thursday to scuttle a short-term deal to keep the federal government open through the end of the year shocked the political establishment in both parties.
It shouldn’t be a surprise.
More than any other issue, Trump ran on stopping illegal immigration. And building a wall was the most identifiable piece of that agenda. (He also promised Mexico would pay for it, but that’s another matter).
Since becoming president, Trump has made basically no progress on building the wall. The government has commissioned prototypes of the wall. And Congress has coughed up a pittance, most of which has gone toward rebuilding existing fencing.
Each time Trump has reached an impasse, he has agreed to punt, delaying a showdown over the wall for the sake of avoiding a partial shutdown of the government.
Although kicking the can has gotten Trump no closer to the wall, he appeared willing to do so again earlier this week. But on Thursday, he tweeted that he would not accept a short-term funding measure without $5 billion to construct the wall.
The pronouncement caused angst among Republican senators. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) argued that Trump would be in a stronger position on the issue in February when the short-term funding would expire.
“I'm not sure what leverage the President thinks he has at this moment,” he said, according to CNN. “The way you create leverage is keep this issue alive and keep arguing why we need to secure the border."
That is sheer nonsense. Trump’s position will only weaken after the new year, when Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) takes the gavel as speaker of the House of Representatives. She has flatly rejected any deal involving the wall, which she has described as immoral.
For Trump, it’s now or never for a showdown.
As if to underscore that point, the House – still controlled by Republicans – voted after Trump’s declaration to pass a funding bill that includes $5 billion for the wall. That was something Pelosi confidently had predicted in a meeting with Trump earlier this month would not happen.
Trump crowed about that in a tweet late Thursday.
“Nancy does not have to apologize. All I want is GREAT BORDER SECURITY!” he wrote.
Trump’s earlier tweet suggested he feels he’d been had by congressional Republican leaders.
“When I begrudgingly signed the Omnibus Bill, I was promised the Wall and Border Security by leadership,” he wrote. “Would be done by end of year (NOW). It didn’t happen! We foolishly fight for Border Security for other countries - but not for our beloved U.S.A. Not good!”
Trump has the full support of advocates for tough border enforcement.
“Glad to see that the president isn't a surrender monkey after all,” tweeted Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, urged Trump to force the government to shut down, if necessary.
“President Trump must stand firm and veto the continuing resolution, if it passes the House,” he said in a statement. “Failing to do so will be a complete abrogation of the federal government’s duty to secure our borders and a massive breach of the public trust.”
The odds are still against Trump. Despite Thursday’s victory in the House, the simple math is that border wall supporters do not have close to the 60 votes they need to break a Democratic filibuster. They might not even be able to muster a simple majority.
American voters are polarized over the wall, as well. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll taken earlier this month suggests that voters think Trump should compromise on the wall to avoid a shutdown. The margin was 57 percent to 36 percent.
But whatever the odds, they are better than they will be in February. Not a single House Democrat voted for the border security bill that passed the chamber Thursday. Pelosi likely will not even allow a vote on wall funding. And the odds will not be much better in the Senate, either, even with an increased Republican majority.
If Trump is going to take a stand for the wall, this is his last shot.
When President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, Republican leaders mostly played to form.
Democrats – not as much.
Republican hawks blasted Trump.
“The decision to withdraw an American presence in Syria is a colossal, in my mind, mistake – a grave error that’s going to have significant repercussions in the years and months to come,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has come under criticism for his close cooperation with Trump on a number of issues, demanded congressional hearings.
“If these media reports are true, it will be an Obama-like mistake made by the Trump Administration,” he said in a statement. “While American patience in confronting radical Islam may wane, the radical Islamists’ passion to kill Americans and our allies never wavers.”
Meanwhile, libertarian-leaning, non-interventionists in the GOP praised the president.
“Good. U.S. forces should not be engaged in Syria – or any country – without legitimate military justification AND proper congressional authorization,” tweeted Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.).
And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tweeted, “I am happy to see a President who can declare victory and bring our troops out of a war.”
In other words, the reactions were consistent with those lawmakers’ long-standing foreign policy views.
Many Democrats and liberals, however, reacted as if Trump had announced he was giving Alaska back to Russia.
Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested that Trump’s decision was a ploy to distract the country from the legal troubles of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and hinted at hearings to challenge the withdrawal.
“The deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Syria remains a stain on the conscience of the world,” she said in a statement. “Syrian families caught in the middle of this conflict continue to endure heartbreaking horrors every day.”
This would be the same Pelosi who eight months ago took Trump to task for failing to ask Congress for permission to bomb Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack.
“The President must come to Congress and secure an Authorization for Use of Military Force by proposing a comprehensive strategy with clear objectives that keep our military safe and avoid collateral damage to innocent civilians,” Pelosi said in a statement in April.
Of course, neither Trump nor former President Barack Obama got congressional authorization to insert troops on the ground. Today, the U.S. has about 2,000 troops there and – according to a Washington Post report this week – occupies roughly a third of the country.
Pelosi now describes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a vicious dictator, but that did not prevent her from leading a delegation of Democratic lawmakers to meet with him in 2007 – over the objections of then-President George W. Bush.
“We came in friendship, hope and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi told reporters after the trip.
Then-Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) called it “only the beginning of our constructive dialogue with Syria.”
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) is another Democrat who has argued both that Trump is wrong to withdraw troops – who are in Syria without authorization – and that Trump was wrong to strike Syria in April.
Back then, the senator tweeted that acting without Congress was “unacceptable.” On Wednesday, he tweeted that the “decision only underscores that the Administration has no plan for Syria other than allowing Vladimir Putin to dictate U.S. policy. President Trump’s Russia-first policy in the Middle East is harming U.S. national security.”
Colin Kahl, a foreign policy adviser in the Obama administration, tweeted that Trump’s decision reeked of “incoherence” – a rich criticism coming from an alum of an administration that infamously warned that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and then did nothing when Assad crossed it.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) demanded to know what Trump’s strategy is.
“American troops deserve to know that you have one, and the American people deserve transparency from their commander in chief. Explain yourself. #Syria,” he tweeted.
Cardin offered no thoughts on Twitter about what that strategy should be, and he issued no public statements on the matter.
Cardin has been on both sides of the question of U.S. soldiers in the Middle East, oscillating as the occupant of the White House has changed. As a representative, he voted against the resolution authorizing war in Iraq and later called for then-President George W. Bush to pull the troops out.
As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2013, though, Cardin voted to authorize intervening in Syria. The resolution never passed the Congress, but the Obama administration intervened anyway, ordering airstrikes against Islamic State fighters inside the country. It does not appear as though Cardin ever publicly criticized Obama for that move.
To be sure, there are good arguments on both sides of the debate. From the perspective of hawks, leaving Syria could allow ISIS to re-emerge and let Assad consolidate his power. Leaving also undermines Trump’s own policy of isolating Iran by strengthening its two strongest allies, Syria and Russia. And it would abandon the Kurdish fighters who have been strong American allies.
On other hand, Americans have spent trillions of dollars and have watched U.S. service members die during two decades of constant war and have little to show for it.
Trump has been consistent about his views. He campaigned on an America First platform of disengaging from Middle East conflicts. And in March – just before the Syrian regime used chemical weapons – the president told an audience in Ohio that troops would “be coming out of Syria, like very soon.”
One would expect Democrats to remain consistent, as well. Some have. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a fierce Trump critic, still found cause to praise Trump’s decision.
“I applaud the decision by @realDonaldTrump,” he tweeted. “Neither the Obama Administration nor the Trump Administration had a strategy. Neither Administration could articulate why we were in Syria, what the end state would be, and how we would achieve it.”
But for many others, politics seems to be the guiding principle.
Another Obamacare open enrollment period has ended, and the legal and political debate around insurance is as intense as ever.
But that debate sidesteps the most important issue in health care – its overall cost.
The Affordable Care Act, as the 2010 overhaul is formally known, had some measures and pilot programs intended to attack health care costs. But the fact remains that Americans spend far more on health care as a share of gross domestic product than citizens of almost any other country.
Attacking those inequities is hard but is the key to a workable insurance system.
Since the law took effect, premiums on the government-run online exchanges created by Obamacare have skyrocketed. The reason is that the grand bargain promised to insurance companies has not come to pass. The law prohibited insurance companies from turning away customers based on pre-existing health conditions or charging those folks more than healthy people. In exchange, insurance companies were supposed to be guaranteed millions of new healthy customers who would pay premiums without consuming much in health services.
The Affordable Care Act, in fact, offered up billions of dollars in subsidies to help those customers afford the premiums – and also threatened them with a tax penalty if they did not sign up.
But it largely failed. Many of the healthy people skipped insurance, anyway. Some paid the fine. Some claimed one of the many exemptions available.
Data collected by the Kaiser Health Foundation shows just how much of health spending is on behalf of a small number of people. Among all Americans in 2015, the costliest 1 percent of health consumers accounted for 23 percent of all health spending. And the top 5 percent consumed 51 percent of all health spending.
On the hand, the bottom half of Americans accounted for just 3 percent of the health spending.
The people consuming such a hugely disproportionate share of health dollars are extremely ill. They include cancer patients, those who have suffered strokes or heart attacks, those with emphysema or some other chronic disease. They are in and out of hospitals, in need of costly drugs and procedures.
These people don’t need insurance, which is a hedge against an unforeseen health emergency. They need medical care. Perhaps, the government ought to provide it to them directly and allow for normally functioning health insurance markets for the rest of the population.
Once the country has decided sick people should not be barred from insurance, there are only so many ways to pay the cost. One option is to make the sick pay higher premiums to help offset the cost. But prohibiting that kind of price variation is one of the most popular parts of the Affordable Care Act.
Another option is to spread the costs to other insurance customers. But those premiums have to go higher and higher without full participation. And the insurance mandate was the least popular part of Obamacare. In the 2017 tax cut, Congress eliminated the penalty starting next year. It’s unlikely lawmakers will add it back, let alone ramp up the penalties in order to improve compliance.
A third option is to spread the costs of the very sick to taxpayers, or some combination of taxpayers and insurance companies.
This has several advantages. First, while the insurance mandate was semi-voluntary, taxes are unambiguously mandatory. It is much harder for someone to duck responsibility for taxes than it was to avoid the mandate. If someone does not pay taxes, the IRS can place liens on his property, sue him in civil court and even pursue criminal charges. All the agency could do to enforce the mandate was to withhold a taxpayer’s refund – if the government owed him one.
Another advantage is that taxpayers, because of the progressive nature of the federal tax system, are wealthier on average than customers in the individual insurance market. Almost half of Americans pay no federal income taxes because they do not earn enough money. And the burden is relatively small for many in the middle class.
That means that caring for the sickest patients directly through taxes hits wealthier people more. Insurance premiums are the same, however, for people at different income levels. It is true the middle- and working-class customers on the exchanges get subsidies paid by the government. But some of the new levies imposed by Obamacare to pay for those subsidies were regressive, like a tax on tanning services.
The government also could pay for the sickest through “invisible” high-risk pools, programs that segregate costly insurance customers without them noticing any difference in their coverage. It works like this: Insurance customers fill out a questionnaire, and if they have certain medical conditions, they get referred to the pool.
Before Obamacare, Maine ran a program called the Maine Guaranteed Access Reinsurance Association, which collected 90 percent of its revenue from the premiums of customers referred to the pool. The rest came from a $4 monthly fee paid by all insurance customers.
The program was in effect for about 18 months before the Affordable Care Act made such programs illegal. But premiums plummeted during that time.
A federal judge’s ruling last week declaring Obamacare unconstitutional might be the perfect opportunity for Congress to explore reform options. Even if the current law survives on appeal, there are better ways to extend coverage while keep insurance costs lower.
A pair of reports produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee and made public Monday show the lengths Russia went to in an effort to influence the 2016 election.
America’s leaders greeted this as a grave threat.
Mostly, it seems silly.
Here are four takeaways from the reports on Russia's Internet Research Agency, one produced by researchers from the University of Oxford and Graphika; and one by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm, and researchers by Columbia University and Canfield Research.
Russians have a breathtakingly low opinion of black voters. The report details efforts to spread propaganda on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms – specifically targeting African-Americans.
The goal, according to the report, was to drive black voters away from 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or to simply skip the general election.
Conservative activist Candace Owens ridiculed the reports.
“You’re trying to tell me that Russia realized that they were going to impact an American election, and they said, ‘How are we going to do it?” she said in a video posted on Twitter. “So, they decided that they were going to target black people because, oh, our votes have not been the same for last 60 years. We vote in 90 percent margins for Democrats.”
She has a point.
Black voters have been reliably Democratic for decades. President Donald Trump won 8 percent of the African-American vote in 2016. That was a bit better than Republican candidates in 2008 and 2012, but less than Republican presidential candidates have done against Democratic opponents who were not America’s first black president.
Black voter participation did decline, from a record-high of 66.6 percent of adult, African-American citizens in 2012 to 59.6 percent. That drop-off is steep, but the Oxford report concludes there is no way to measure what impact – if any – the Russian propaganda campaign had. It certainly is plausible that some black voters found Clinton an unappealing comedown after eight years of Barack Obama.
The propaganda was rather ham-handed. The New Knowledge report details dozens of memes, many of them crude. They ranged from pro-Trump messages to those attacking Clinton. Other messages sought to convince black voters that their vote would not count or that they should boycott a racist system altogether.
The report calls it “memetic warfare” – the spread of memes throughout the internet in order to impact the upcoming election.
Given the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the 2016 election, it seems far-fetched that such messages on Facebook and Instagram would affect voter behavior.
And New Knowledge researchers, in fact, found no evidence that the Russian campaign changed votes.
“When we talk about the ‘impact’ of the Russian influence operation, most conversations focus on whether the IRA operation swayed voters and swung the Presidential Election in 2016,” the report states. “The answer is, we can’t tell from this data.”
The report adds: “The extent to which they changed, rather than merely reinforced, minds is difficult to answer.”
The Russians didn’t aim their messages for maximum electoral effect. If the goal of the disinformation campaign was to fix the 2016 election – as opposed to sowing division and disconnect – one might have expected messages mostly targeted at voters in swing states.
But the Oxford-Graphika report determined less than a third of the messages targeted at specific states – 543 out of 1,673 messages – zeroed in on states identified by political analyst Nate Silver as swing states.
So while always-close Florida got 42 of the targeted messages, safely blue New York got 152. Never-in-doubt California got three times as many of the targeted messages – 75 compared with 25 – than Pennsylvania, one of the most important states in the election.
The reports were light on recommendations. If Russia wants to spend its resources producing Facebook memes and divisive messages on Instagram, it’s hard to see how the United States can prevent it.
The reports’ authors also seem stumped.
The Oxford-Graphika report issued a list of recommendations for how social media companies can improve transparency.
The New Knowledge report contends that Russian disinformation “has evolved from a nuisance into high-stakes information war.”
But it, too, has little in the way of practical suggestions. It also urges social media companies to more fully cooperate with efforts to identify and counter firms like the Internet Research Agency. It calls for collaboration between federal agencies that fight foreign propaganda and private social media platforms.
The report also calls for greater release of data.
“There are millions of posts, hours of video, and hundreds of thousands of memes, and additional eyes will undoubtedly continue to provide valuable insights into this operation,” the report states.
Sustained outrage followed the death of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl in U.S. Border Patrol custody, and that outrage usually has aimed at one target – President Donald Trump.
But as with many things in the Trump era, the righteous indignation obscures the fact that the tragedy that inspired the rage is not unique.
In fact, illegal immigrants apprehended trying to cross the southwest border die every year in U.S. custody. Many are unavoidable. Some, perhaps, have resulted from the negligence of American officials. But blaming Trump’s policies is dubious.
The current case is, indeed, sad. Jakelin Caal Maquin died from apparent dehydration after about a day in U.S. custody.
The facts are in dispute. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials released a timeline indicating that the girl and her father were among a group of 163 illegal immigrants arrested in New Mexico at about 9:15 p.m. on Dec. 6. The father claimed the girl was in good health and an initial screening did not reveal need for emergency treatment, according to the agency.
At a holding station, the girl and the rest of the detained foreigners had access to food and water. The agency said the girl’s father told authorities that the girl was vomiting at 5 a.m. Dec. 7 on a bus transporting them through the desert. When the bus arrived at the Lordsburg Border Patrol Station shortly before 6:30 a.m., officials tried to revive the girl – who was unconscious and running a high fever – and arranged for her to be flown to the nearest trauma center.
Jakelin died there at 12:35 a.m. on Dec. 8.
The girl’s father, however, disputes the official account. Lawyers for Nery Gilberto Caal Cruz contend that it was improper to have him sign an English-language form indicating that the girl was in good health. Caal Cruz made sure that his daughter was well-fed and had water during the journey to the United States, according to that account.
An investigation likely will sort out the truth. Many are not waiting for an investigation, though.
“There are no words to capture the horror of a seven-year-old girl dying of dehydration in U.S. custody. What’s happening at our borders is a humanitarian crisis,” tweeted 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
If it’s a crisis, though, it has been going on at least since the administration in which she served – the Barack Obama administration.
In 2013, for instance, a 50-year-old man named Lelis Rodriguez died two weeks after Border Patrol officers arrested him. The man checked “no” on the same form given to Caal Cruz when asked whether he had any health problems. He did, however, indicate that he had been prescribed medication.
The Border Patrol officer included no other information about the medicine, despite the fact that there was a line on the form that directed him to do so.
Rodriguez suffered a stroke and hypertension on July 31, 2013, while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and died.
That anecdote comes from a report by Human Rights Watch, which documented the deaths of 18 illegal immigrants in U.S. custody from the middle of 2012 to the middle of 2015. The organization, which said it consulted with two doctors, determined that seven of those deaths resulted – at least partially – from substandard medical care and poor detention conditions.
The American Civil Liberties Union in April 2016 found that at least nine people died specifically in U.S. Border Patrol custody in the previous fiscal year. The ACLU was left to cobble the information together from other sources, because the agency did not report how many people died in custody.
The American Immigration Council, an organization of immigration lawyers, ripped the conditions of Border Patrol detainees.
“This newly released data shows that the Border Patrol routinely forces its detainees to sleep in cells that lack beds or other reasonable sleeping accommodations, often for multiple nights,” the organization wrote in June 2015. “During this time, detainees are forced to endure severe conditions, such as extreme cold, overcrowding, and limited (or no) food and water.”
It is proper to determine if negligence or worse contributed to Jakelin’s death and hold wrongdoers accountable.
But if Trump critics are going to blame the administration or him, personally, they ought to point to specific policies.
The key provision of a federal judge’s ruling striking down Obamacare on Friday is his determination that the law cannot be saved without the requirement that people buy insurance.
A 5-4 Supreme Court majority in 2012 led by Chief Justice John Roberts declared the so-called individual mandate a tax and, therefore, constitutionally permissible. But since the Republican-controlled Congress set the penalty – or “tax” – for not having insurance at zero, Judge Reed O’Connor reasoned that the mandate no longer can be considered a tax.
If that judgment withstands further scrutiny – and it follows logically from the opinion Roberts authored – then the only remaining issue is whether the other components of the law formally known as the Affordable Care Act can live separately without the mandate. In the vernacular of lawyers, is the mandate “severable” from the rest of the law?
O’Connor ruled that it is not because the mandate was the “keystone” of the statute.
“The individual mandate is inseverable from the entire A.C.A.,” the judge wrote in his opinion.
But don’t just take O’Connor’s word for it. Other prominent jurists have reached the same conclusion – including leading liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In her concurring opinion in the 2012 Obamacare challenge, Ginsburg also reached the conclusion that the mandate is thoroughly intertwined with the law’s protections for people with pre-existing health conditions.
Ginsburg wrote that the government could not require insurance companies to take all comers and forbid them from charging sicker patients higher premiums – known as “guarantee-issue” and “community rating,” respectively – without the mandate.
“But these two provisions, Congress comprehended, could not work effectively unless individuals were given a powerful incentive to obtain insurance … Congress comprehended that guaranteed-issue and community-rating laws alone will not work,” she wrote. “When insurance companies are required to insure the sick at affordable prices, individuals can wait until they become ill to buy insurance.”
Indeed, Ginsburg noted, several states in the 1990s tried passing similar restrictions on the ability of insurance companies to pick and choose customers based on health or charge higher premiums to costlier customers. But those states had no mechanism to nudge healthy people to buy insurance in order to balance the risk pool.
“The results were disastrous,” Ginsburg wrote, pointing to skyrocketing premiums and insurance companies pulling out of the markets.
In Ginsburg’s view, the move by Congress last year to eliminate the tax penalty has no bearing on the constitutionality of Obamacare since she believed Congress has the power to order people to buy insurance under the Interstate Commerce Clause.
But Roberts explicitly rejected that rationale.
“The Federal Government does not have the power to order people to buy health insurance,” he said.
Instead, Roberts upheld the law under the power of Congress to tax. Penalizing people for not having insurance was actually a tax, the chief justice reasoned.
But with the penalty set at zero beginning next month, it’s hard to view the mandate as a tax. And if the mandate is central to the entire law – as O’Connor and Ginsburg believe – it places the entire statute in jeopardy.
The judiciary is split on this question. U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson in Florida, in striking down the law in 2011, found that the other provisions of the law were not severable from the mandate. While the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the mandate was unconstitutional, it declared that other parts of the law could survive.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia, in their dissent, agreed with Vinson; they would have struck down the entire law.
The likelihood is high that the new case ultimately will land at the doorstep of the Supreme Court, which means that Roberts again may well hold the law’s fate in his hands. His views on whether the mandate – er, tax – can be separated from the rest of the law are not known. He did not address the issue.
But Roberts offered a clue to his thinking on severability pertaining to another part of the law – the Medicaid expansion. Congress originally intended to provide federal funds to states to expand eligibility for the insurance programs for the poor – and gave the federal government the power to withhold funds for states’ existing Medicaid programs if they did not go along.
Roberts ruled that coercive action unconstitutional. But he cited the ACA's severability clause in allowing the expansion to take place in states that voluntarily agreed to join.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) this week reported that nearly 100,000 foreigners trying to cross the southwest border into the United States in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 told authorities that they feared persecution in their home countries.
The number – the precise figure was 92,959 claiming a “credible fear” after getting arrested by U.S. Border Patrol or deemed “inadmissible” at border-crossing stations – was up 67 percent over fiscal year 2017.
The share of illegal immigrants claiming credible fear also increased, from 13 percent of all border crossers to 18 percent.
That was merely the continuation of a trend that began several years ago. A decade ago, it was rare for an illegal border crosser to make a persecution claim. Government statistics show that USCIS officials handled just 5,523 “credible fear” cases in fiscal year 2009 – making this past year’s total more than a 16-fold increase.
Mass immigration supporters depict these illegal immigrants – who mostly are coming from three Central American countries – as desperate people fleeing for their lives and argue that sending them back or preventing them from entering in the first place is heartless.
Experts who favor stricter enforcement are skeptical.
Andrew “Art” Arthur, a former immigration law judge who now serves as senior fellow in law and policy at the hardline Center for Immigration Studies, argued on the think tank’s website this week that the sharp spike cannot be explained by worsening conditions in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
“The fact that the number of inadmissible aliens who claimed credible fear more than doubled between FY 2017 and FY 2018 cannot be a coincidence,” he said.
More likely, Arthur wrote, illegal immigrants – and the smugglers who shepherd them across the border – have become more savvy about what to tell U.S. immigration authorities.
Anyone expressing fear of return if caught by Border Patrol or deemed inadmissible at a port of entry is placed in a process called “expedited removal.” Officials ask four questions: why the immigrants left their homes; whether they have fear or concerns about returning home; whether they would be harmed; and whether they wish to say anything else.
“CBP Agents and Officers have no discretion as to whether or not to refer an alien for a credible fear interview,” the government says on a Customs and Border Protection website. “CBP Agents and Officers do not make any determination on the validity of such claims and refer the person for an interview with a USCIS Asylum Officer.”
The percentage of applicants passing that first screening hurdle has dropped somewhat under President Donald Trump but remains high.
Only a minority of those folks ultimately qualify for asylum; the current rate is about 1 in 5. And that does not include roughly half of the credible fear claimants who fail to follow through by applying for asylum once that get into the country.
But asylum is not the goal for most. Getting into the United States is. And once admitted, many illegal immigrants stay permanently whether they win asylum or not.
To Arthur, the rising credible fear numbers indicate a giant loophole that smugglers have exploited. That’s why increasingly, he wrote, smugglers simply drop off their clients at border-crossing facilities.
“No mountains to climb, no rivers to cross, and no Border Patrol to avoid,” he wrote. “Most smugglers whom I have met have been shrewd businessmen, and this is a fairly foolproof business model.”
My wife’s family buried her aunt Wednesday, taking one staunch Donald Trump supporter from the Earth.
She went to her final resting place with some treasured items – among them a large Trump campaign button and a card the presidential campaign gave out to supporters.
Her story is a microcosm of her home state, Florida, and America’s changing politics.
Florida is a state of perpetual change. With so many retirees from elsewhere, it skews older than the nation as a whole. Every year, a lot of those retirees die, only to be replaced by the next wave of retired Americans moving for warmth and sunshine.
Florida also has one of the nation’s largest noncitizen populations. Plus, the state draws in lots of younger people from other states coming for jobs.
Despite all that annual change, it somehow manages to retain its status as America’s ultimate swing state election after election. This year was no different. Republicans won races for governor and senator by margins so narrow that it took weeks to sort out.
Like Florida as a whole, the county that my wife’s aunt called home in her later years – St. Lucie County – was close in 2016. Trump carried it with just 49.5 percent of the vote. In 2018, it swung the other way. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson won 51.8 percent of the vote there, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum took 51.3 percent of the vote.
My wife's aunt came from a union family who'd migrated south from New York. Her late husband worked at Port Everglades and was a reliable Democrat. Trump’s message on trade and immigration appealed to many working-class voters, however. He made inroads with union households, losing to Democrat Hillary Clinton by just 9 percentage points among that voting bloc, according to exit polls.
Then-President Barack Obama won among union households by 18 points in 2012, after having won by 20 points in 2008 (though, for the record, my wife's aunt came out as a conservative after her husband died in 2002, and we suspect she might have been secretly voting Republican for some time).
So, the circle of life turns and Florida changes, yet somehow stays the same.
And we say goodbye to the remarkable woman my family knew as Aunt Tillie.
President Donald Trump has been in office almost two full years and has virtually nothing to show for his signature campaign promise – a wall along the southwest border.
Mexico was supposed to pay for that wall, but never mind that detail.
With Republican control of Congress coming to an end after last month’s midterm elections, Trump probably figures it’s now or never. On Tuesday, he raised the specter of a government shutdown.
“I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down,” he said during a meeting with with incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Pelosi told reporters that she and Schumer had given Trump two options for keeping the government open. But neither includes billions of dollars for a wall.
Although Republicans nominally control the Senate, their majority is not big enough to pass most legislation without Democratic votes. That means compromise is necessary. The House of Representatives has not passed a bill that includes significant wall funding, either, indicating that cobbling together a majority in the lame duck session is no slam dunk even in the lower chamber.
After Democrats assume the majority in January, the chances of approving border wall funding will fall to something close to zero.
That leaves Dec. 21 looming as the deadline for striking a deal to fund the parts of government not already covered by spending bills. That would be the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Agriculture, State and Justice, along with the national parks.
There have been 20 partial government shutdowns since 1976. Trump even has presided over a pair. But those, like most interruptions, were inconsequential. The first, in January 2018, lasted three days. Democrats forced the closure in an attempt to prompt action to grant permanent legal status to the participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs that President Barack Obama’s administration created to protect illegal immigrants whose parents brought them to America as children.
Schumer quickly capitulated though, agreeing to a short-term funding measure.
The second shutdown, which occurred when that stopgap funding ran out, lasted just nine hours. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) triggered the symbolic shutdown to protest massive amounts of new spending in the final deal.
Shutdowns rarely accomplish a great deal. Although conservatives often cheer them as a way to demonstrate that America can get by just fine without “nonessential” government employees, they tend to be extremely unpopular with the public, which views it as a sign of dysfunction. What’s more, they tend to be costly, since Congress routinely grants back pay and benefits to workers who get furloughed in the process and because preparing for the shutdown also costs money.
So where does that leave the government for 2018 and 2019? Ordinarily, a dispute over funding should be relatively easy to solve. Both sides would compromise, and the project would get funded but not at the level favored by the president.
That is what happened in 1987, when the government shut down for three days amid a dispute over funding for the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua. Democrats agreed to provide “nonlethal” aid to the rebels and gave up on efforts to get President Ronald Reagan to reinstate the “Fairness Doctrine” that regulated political speech by broadcasters.
But should a shutdown happen this month, it could last a while. Trump can be stubborn and likely is embarrassed that he has made so little progress on his big campaign promise. And Democrats have dug in on the issue, even though a large bipartisan majority in the House and Senate in 2006 approved funding for border fencing.
Pelosi last week argued not just that a wall would be “ineffective and expensive” but “immoral.” It’s hard enough to compromise when it comes to spending money on something that one side thinks is unnecessary. It becomes all but impossible when it is something one side views as a jeopardizing their immortal souls.
Most shutdowns have lasted only a few days (or hours). “Fake shutdowns,” in the words of responsible budget advocate Marc Goldwein, in an interview earlier this year with Fox News.
Republicans have tended to get the blame for shutdowns that lasted long enough for the public to notice. In 1995, after the Republican-controlled Congress and then-President Bill Clinton failed to reach a budget deal, Gallup found that 49 percent of voters blamed the GOP, compared with only 26 percent who pinned responsibility on the president.
Surveys by CBS News, NBC/Wall Street Journal and ABC/Washington Post found similar results.
That lasted a week. By the time the government shut down again the following month – this time lasting a whole month – both sides took a hit. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 49 percent of voters had a more negative impression of Clinton that they did during the previous shutdown. But 62 percent said the same about Republicans.
The story was much the same in October 2013, when the government shut down for 13 days over a fight related to the Affordable Care Act. Republicans tried unsuccessfully to delay implementation of the health care overhaul.
Republicans got battered in the polls, and they eventually meekly relented.
Given Trump’s already-uninspiring poll numbers and the unpopularity of the wall – a majority of Americans opposed it in surveys taken over the summer – it is a good bet hat shutdown would be a replay of those previous battles.
The motto for Trump and Republicans ought to be “Caute Procedere” – proceed with caution.