Tag Archives: government

Will the Government Shut Down This Week?

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump’s 100th day in office will see the federal government shut down if Congress can’t come to a budget agreement by the end of the week. Congress needs to pass a funding bill by the end of the day Friday, or else federal programs will no longer be able to spend money on Saturday, Trump’s 100th day in the White House.

Both Republicans and Democrats are largely content to maintain current funding levels by passing a continuing resolution rather than hashing out an entirely new budget. (The budget Trump introduced earlier this year calls for massive cuts across nearly every part of the federal government except the military.) But there are a few policy differences that could muck things up and send federal employees packing next week. And Republicans can’t count on getting enough votes from their own caucus to pass a spending bill, since Senate Democrats can filibuster any measure they find objectionable.

Here are the issues that could prevent a deal:

The wall

Trump might have promised throughout the campaign that Mexico was going to pay for a border wall, but everyone in Washington knows that if Trump is actually going to begin construction on the wall, he’ll need Congress to appropriate the funds. So far, that’s a nonstarter among Democrats.

Last week this looked like it could be the disagreement that would break the government. But on Tuesday, Republicans handed Democrats a funding plan offer that doesn’t include the wall.

Still, Trump could insist on getting at least a partial victory on the wall. On Tuesday morning, he took to his favorite medium to reiterate his plans:

Obamacare

Despite Trump’s goal of seeing the Affordable Care Act repealed during the first 100 days of his presidency, Republicans haven’t settled on a repeal bill that can clear the House, let alone the Senate. But as Mother Jones explained last week, Trump has a backup option that he could pull out if he truly wants to send the ACA marketplaces into a death spiral. The White House doesn’t need congressional approval to end funding for a provision of the law that forces insurance companies to offer lower deductibles, copayments, and other out-of-pocket expenses to low-income families. Cutting off those funds would cause premiums to spike and more insurers to leave the marketplaces.

Earlier this month, Trump threatened to do just that in order to get Democrats to help Republicans repeal Obamacare. Trump’s famed negotiating skills backfired this time, and some Democrats now say they’re willing to block the spending bill and shut down the government if these funds aren’t included (though the message hasn’t exactly been unified among Democratic leaders). Unfortunately for Trump, it sounds as if House Republicans might agree with the Democrats. “I don’t think anybody wants to disrupt the markets more than they already are,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who chairs a House subcommittee on health care, told the New York Times earlier this month, saying he supports the funds.

Defense spending

It’s the least likely of these three issues to prompt a shutdown, but Democrats and Republicans are still hashing out the details of defense spending levels. Trump asked for a ton of extra money—a $54 billion increase—for the Pentagon budget. Democrats are fine with a more modest defense spending hike, but only if it’s paired with extra spending for domestic programs, as has been the case in the past few budget deals. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that his party wants to maintain that same ratio for the current deal.

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Will the Government Shut Down This Week?

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Gerrymandering Is Headed Back to the Supreme Court

Mother Jones

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The New York Times reports that gerrymandering is headed to the Supreme Court again:

A bipartisan group of voting rights advocates says the lower house of the Wisconsin Legislature, the State Assembly, was gerrymandered by its Republican majority before the 2012 election — so artfully, in fact, that Democrats won a third fewer Assembly seats than Republicans despite prevailing in the popular vote. In November, in a 2-to-1 ruling, a panel of federal judges agreed.

….In Supreme Court cases in 1986, 2004 and 2006, justices variously called partisan gerrymanders illegitimate, seriously harmful, incompatible with democratic principles and “manipulation of the electorate.” But they have never struck one down….One participant in the 2004 decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, may prove the fulcrum in the court’s deliberations….“The ordered working of our Republic, and of the democratic process, depends on a sense of decorum and restraint in all branches of government, and in the citizenry itself,” he wrote then.

At a time of soaring concern over hyperpartisanship, those words could resonate. That sentence “is the most important line” in the court’s decision, said Edward B. Foley, director of the Election Law Project at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. “He’s going to look at what’s going on in North Carolina as the complete absence of that. I think that helps the plaintiffs in any of these cases.”

Today’s gerrymandering is not your grandfather’s gerrymandering. It’s a practice that’s been around for a long time, but back when it depended on humans it was necessarily limited. There were a few legislative geniuses who could wreak real havoc, and anyone could gerrymander well enough to gain a seat or two. But computers have changed the game fundamentally. Every legislature is now a supergenius at gerrymandering, which is why estimates of the number of congressional seats attributable to gerrymandering have been going up for years.

There’s a point, I think, where the Supreme Court has to recognize that quantitative changes over time have finally produced a qualitative change. Modern gerrymandering is just too good. The silver lining here is that if computers can revolutionize gerrymandering, they also hold out hope of revolutionizing the detection of gerrymandering. You can no longer say that there’s no possible standard for ruling that a particular district map is unconstitutional. In fact, there are several plausible candidates. Hopefully the court will finally recognize this.

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Gerrymandering Is Headed Back to the Supreme Court

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The Trump Administration Just Suffered a Defeat on Voting Rights

Mother Jones

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In a significant rebuke of the Trump administration Monday, a federal judge in Texas rejected the Department of Justice’s request to halt a major voting rights case that had been filed during Obama administration.

The case in question dates back to 2013, when the Obama DOJ joined voting rights advocates, Democratic lawmakers, and a group of Texas residents in suing to block a draconian voter ID law in Texas. This coalition scored a major victory last year when a federal appeals court ruled that the law discriminated against minorities and needed to be softened. The Texas legislature is currently working on amending the law.

However, the appeals court left open a key question in the case: whether the discrimination was intentional. It sent the case back to federal district court for a determination on that issue. The question of intent is significant. The finding of a discriminatory effect necessitates altering the law. But if the court finds that Texas acted with a discriminatory intent, the judge could throw the law out entirely. What’s more, if Texas is found to have engaged in intentional voting discrimination, a judge could require the state to seek federal approval for future changes to its voting laws. In arguing that Texas lawmakers indeed sought to discriminate against minorities, critics of the law pointed out that it allows voters to prove their identifies with concealed carry permits, which are disproportionately held by white people, but excludes IDs issued to state employees and state university students, which minorities are more likely to have.

But after Trump was sworn in and Jeff Sessions became attorney general, the federal government changed course. In February, the DOJ requested to withdraw its claim that the law was enacted with discriminatory intent, arguing that the Fifth Circuit’s instructions were to let the legislature amend the law before the courts decided whether to resolve to the intent question. In March, the government urged the court not to issue any opinion until after the legislature had acted. On Monday, the court allowed the US government to withdraw from the case—but rejected its reasoning for trying to halt the case.

United States District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos took issue with the idea that the state legislature’s action would remove the need to litigate the intent issue. “It is well-settled that new legislation does not ipso facto eliminate the discriminatory intent behind older legislation and moot a dispute regarding the violation of law,” the judge wrote. In her eight page order, she went on to dispute the logic the government’s lawyers presented in their briefs and cited multiple cases to explain why the case should proceed. The judge indicated she will issue a ruling on the discriminatory intent question this spring, without waiting on Texas lawmakers to act.

In a series of tweets, Gerry Hebert, an attorney representing the plaintiffs fighting this law, celebrated the judge’s order as “good news for voters seeking relief” and an “important victory.”

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The Trump Administration Just Suffered a Defeat on Voting Rights

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Tom Price Intervened on Rule That Would Hurt Drug Profits, the Same Day He Acquired Drug Stock

Mother Jones

This story originally appeared on ProPublica.

On the same day the stockbroker for then-Georgia Congressman Tom Price bought him up to $90,000 of stock in six pharmaceutical companies last year, Price arranged to call a top U.S. health official, seeking to scuttle a controversial rule that could have hurt the firms’ profits and driven down their share prices, records obtained by ProPublica show.

Stock trades made by Price while he served in Congress came under scrutiny at his confirmation hearings to become President Trump’s secretary of health and human services. The lawmaker, a physician, traded hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of shares in health-related companies while he voted on and sponsored legislation affecting the industry, but Price has said his broker acted on his behalf without his involvement or knowledge. ProPublica previously reported that his trading is said to have been under investigation by federal prosecutors.

On March 17, 2016, Price’s broker purchased shares worth between $1,000 and $15,000 each in Eli Lilly, Amgen, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, McKesson, Pfizer and Biogen. Previous reports have noted that, a month later, Price was among lawmakers from both parties who signed onto a bill that would have blocked a rule proposed by the Obama administration, which was intended to remove the incentive for doctors to prescribe expensive drugs that don’t necessarily improve patient outcomes.

What hasn’t been previously known is Price’s personal appeal to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services about the rule, called the Medicare Part B Drug Payment Model.

The same day as the stock trade, Price’s legislative aide, Carla DiBlasio, emailed health officials to follow up on a request she had made to set up a call with Patrick Conway, the agency’s chief medical officer. In her earlier emails, DiBlasio said the call would focus on payments for joint replacement procedures. But that day, she mentioned a new issue.

“Chairman Price may briefly bring up … his concerns about the new Part B drug demo, as well,” she wrote. “Congressman Price really appreciates the opportunity to have an open conversation with Dr. Conway, so we really appreciate you keeping the lines of communication open.”

The call was scheduled for the following week, according to the emails.

An HHS spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment from Price. DiBlasio and Conway didn’t respond to questions about the phone call.

The proposed rule drew wide opposition from members of both parties as well as industry lobbyists and some patient advocacy groups. It was meant to change a system under which the government reimburses doctors the average sales price for drugs administered in their offices or inside clinics, along with a 6 percent bonus. Some health analysts say that bonus encourages doctors to pad their profits by selecting more expensive treatments.

Critics argued that the rule might cause Medicare enrollees to lose access to lifesaving drugs. Lawmakers worried the federal government was potentially endangering patients and turning them into guinea pigs in a wide-scale experiment in cost savings.

However, supporters of the rule said the experiment in payments was the kind of drastic action needed to rein in soaring health costs. “We are actively reforming every other aspect of our health-care system to pay for value except pharmaceuticals,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said at the time. “Drug manufacturers are the only entity that can charge Medicare anything they want.”

The six companies that Price invested in were steadfastly opposed to the rule. McKesson formally warned investors in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that such a change could hurt share prices. The firms lobbied the government to kill the plan.

And at two of the six companies Price invested in, people who used to work for the congressman were part of the lobbying effort.

Price’s former chief of staff, Matt McGinley, lobbied House members for Amgen, disclosure records show. Another former Price aide, Keagan Lenihan, lobbied on behalf of McKesson, where she was director of government relations at the time. Lenihan has since reunited with Price, returning to government to work as a senior adviser to her old boss at HHS.

Neither McGinley nor Lenihan responded to requests for comment.

Although Price said he wasn’t aware of his broker’s trades at the time they were made, he would have learned of his holdings no later than April 2016 when he signed and filed his latest financial disclosure forms. In earlier disclosures, Price signed forms listing his other health-related holdings, which included some drug stocks.

Price’s personal intervention raises more questions about the overlap between his investments and his work as a member of Congress.

According to House ethics guidelines, “contacting an executive branch agency” represents “a degree of advocacy above and beyond that involved in voting” on legislation where a financial conflict of interest may exist.

“Such actions may implicate the rules and standards … that prohibit the use of one‘s official position for personal gain,” the guidelines state. “Whenever a Member is considering taking any such action on a matter that may affect his or her personal financial interests, the Member should first contact the Standards Committee for guidance.”

Tom Rust, chief counsel for the House Ethics Committee, declined to comment, saying any consultations with members of Congress are confidential.

In December, after Trump was elected and named Price as his choice to lead HHS, Obama administration health officials scrapped their plan to change the drug reimbursement system. “The complexity of the issues and the limited time available led to the decision not to finalize the rule at this time,” a spokesman said.

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Government Official Who Negotiated Trump Hotel Deal Says Deal Is Fine

Mother Jones

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A top government official who negotiated a controversial deal to lease a historic Washington, DC, property to Donald Trump has announced that he sees no problem with the arrangement—despite a clause in Trump’s contract that prohibits any elected officials from benefiting from the deal.

Since before Trump’s inauguration, ethics experts and Trump critics have cried foul over the 60-year lease Trump signed with the General Services Administration in 2013 to take over the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue. Long before he ran for president, Trump beat out a handful of large hotel chains to redevelop the property, which had long languished under poor management, costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

In late November, George Washington University law school professor Steve Schooner wrote in Government Executive magazine that the lease Trump signed includes a clause that prohibits any elected officials from benefiting from the deal. For months, the GSA has been silent on the question of whether Trump’s election causes a breach of the contract.

Today, Kevin Terry, a GSA contracting officer who oversaw the original contract negotiations with Trump, released a letter declaring that there was no reason for concern. In the letter, which is reprinted in its entirety below, Terry takes the position that there is no violation of the clause because the Trump Organization has been rearranged to steer any profits from the hotel away from Trump’s bank accounts while he’s in office. Trump owns more than 76 percent of the project; his children own the remainder.

According to Terry’s letter, the Trump Organization has presented documents to the GSA showing that although any profits (or losses) are accrued among the partners based on their ownership, any profits that would have gone to Trump himself will be kept separate and unavailable for Trump’s personal use until he is out of office. Under the terms of the original agreement, Trump could have withdrawn money with ease, but the new corporate structure (established before Trump’s inauguration) would prevent this, Terry wrote.

Schooner, who raised the original concerns, was scathing in his response to Terry’s letter. “Disgusting,” he wrote in an email to Mother Jones. He is bothered that Terry’s analysis does not take into account—or even acknowledge—the inherent conflict of interest in the decision.

“It is deeply troubling that the contracting officer’s letter makes no reference to the underlying conflicts of interest, which, of course, undercuts any suggestion that he (the contracting officer) engaged in independent analysis,” says Schooner, who teaches government contracting law. “The CO’s decision favors the President, who, in effect, is his supervisor, just as it favors the GSA (in terms of maintaining the status quo); but it also pleases his (the CO’s) ultimate supervisor – the head of the agency – who serves at the President’s pleasure.”

In December, congressional Democrats said they had been briefed by GSA officials who believed Trump would be in violation of the lease when he was inaugurated. Today, Reps. Elijah Cummings and Peter DeFazio, the top Democrats on the House Government Oversight and House Transportation and Infrastructure committees, respectively, condemned Terry’s decision, calling it is a reversal from what the GSA had previously told them.

According to Terry’s letter, while Trump is in office, his share of the hotel’s profits will be available for the hotel to use in its operations. The Democratic lawmakers said that was not an acceptable arrangement. “This decision allows profits to be reinvested back into the hotel so Donald Trump can reap the financial benefits when he leaves the White House,” Cummings and DeFazio said in a statement. “This is exactly what the lease provision was supposed to prevent.”

Terry’s letter is defensive and makes a dig at critics of the deal.

“To date, most of the review and reporting on the clause has focused on only a few select words, and reached simplistic ‘black and white’ conclusions regarding the meaning and implications of the clause,” Terry wrote. “However, it has been less widely reported that other legal professional and former government contracting officials have reviewed the language and come to different conclusions.”

Not all attorneys agreed with Schooner’s interpretation of the contract’s clause about elected officials. Some argued that the contract was written in a way that barred elected officials from becoming new parties to the deal but did not seem to prohibit someone from becoming an elected official after signing the contract. In a letter to the GSA that was included with Terry’s announcement, Trump’s personal attorney, Sheri Dillon, made a similar argument.

But that’s apparently not the reasoning that Terry used in making his decision that there was no breach of contract. Instead, he relied on the belief that Trump would have to wait until he left office to receive any profits from the hotel.

Terry’s letter points out that the property was a money-loser for the federal government before the Trump lease, but that the Trump Organization has been paying $250,000 a month in rent since it signed the lease. According to Terry, Trump has paid $5.1 million so far.

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Contracting Officer Letter March 23 2017 Redacted Version1 (PDF)

Contracting Officer Letter March 23 2017 Redacted Version1 (Text)

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Government Official Who Negotiated Trump Hotel Deal Says Deal Is Fine

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