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A Look Behind the Curtain
February 1, 2017
Our running list of actions you may have missed that impact America. This is the start of a new feature we will include in our regular newsletter and on our website.
The vast majority of my constituents, more than have ever been in touch with my office, are outraged by the first weeks of the Trump Administration and by the actions of the Republican Congress. Let me be clear, I do NOT believe that everything we care about will be demolished in one giant fell swoop. There will be a few frontal attacks — such as the Affordable Care Act. But I think our principles are most in jeopardy from repeated small acts that occur below the radar — the proverbial slow death by 1,000 cuts.
I fear the old game of deception — pay attention to the shiny object before you, ignore what’s going on behind the curtain. I also fear the “mobbing” approach — do so many thing at one time that most will go unnoticed. It has already started.
Earlier this year, when several high profile confirmation hearings were on TV, the President was being sworn in, and demonstrations were occurring across the nation, the House passed a bill that will significantly undermine consumer protection for investors. The President also signed an Executive Order that will effectively deny millions of lower income women their right to control their own bodies. Late Friday, we learned that Executive Orders had been issued banning refugees and suspending immigration from 7 countries. These created chaos and were apparently written without consulting the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security or the Chairs of any relevant Congressional Committees.
Certainly, we will fight to save what we have accomplished: a social safety net, affordable health care, civil rights and equal opportunity; commonsense regulations to protect both the workplace and the environment; and so much more. We will uphold our principles, defend generations of progress, and, whenever possible, seek improvements in policy and approach.
I believe the most important way to fight back is to make sure people know what they are losing. With news breaking seemingly every hour, as the President spins his “alternative facts”, we must remain vigilant to even the smallest actions. I think shining a light on as many of them as we can is important. We shouldn’t wait until many small cuts add up to an irreversible loss.
So this week we are starting a new feature. We will keep a running list of the actions taken by the Administration and the House of Representatives that I believe have an important and relatively obvious and direct impact on the American dream and on programs that help improve our lives. We will leave Senate actions for others to watch. The full list will be on our website and we’ll update you regularly via our newsletter. There will be some overlap when legislation reported in the newsletter ends up on the list but we think it’s important to be as comprehensive as we can.
Many of you have asked us what you can do to make sure your voice is not lost in the new Administration. This is difficult to answer in Massachusetts because our Congressional delegation is all on the right page. One thing you can do is talk to your friends about what’s on this list, especially friends who don’t live in Massachusetts. Educate your friends and family about these changes in policy and approach.
By the way, the Federal government is huge — we are bound to miss something. If you know of something we missed that you think belongs on this list, please let us know.
I know this is long, but I am afraid we will have many additions in the days and weeks ahead. When legislation we highlight becomes law, we will update the list. Let us know if there is something you think should be included and thanks for reading.
NOTE: We have reversed the order of Behind the Curtain entries so the newest items will now lead the list, although numbering remains the same.
- On January 12, 2017, the House passed H.R. 78, the SEC Regulatory Accountability Act, which adds requirements to the Securities and Exchange Commission whenever they issue a regulation. Sounds great right? Not when you realize that the SEC will now have lots more work to do without adding a single staff member or penny to their budget. The real result is a diminished ability to police bad actors.
- On January 12, 2017 the House passed H.R. 238, the Commodity End User Relief Act. The legislation adds requirements to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) regulation of the derivatives market. It places significant burdens on the CFTC’s ability to regulate both the domestic and international swaps market. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that AIG’s abuse of the swaps market almost brought down the world economy.
- On January 20, 2017 President Trump signed an Executive Order halting a planned reduction in Federal Housing Administration (FHA) fees. This will increase the cost of mortgages for anyone using FHA insurance to buy a home. On average, 750,000 homeowners will pay $500 more per year for the life of their mortgage — that adds up to $15,000 more on a 30 year mortgage.
- On January 23, 2017 President Trump signed an Executive Order reinstituting the Global Gag Rule. This will block federal funding for international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide abortion services. It’s important to point out that current law already prohibits federal funds from being used for abortion services. The funds in question are being used by NGOs for other health care services. This Executive Order prohibits NGOs from even discussing it or referring patients who request information to other providers. In reality, this policy forces health care providers to cut services for women, increase fees and could close health care clinics.
- On January 24, 2017 the House passed H.R. 7, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2017. As noted above, federal law ALREADY prohibits taxpayer money from being used for abortion services. This legislation takes away tax credits from small businesses offering PRIVATE insurance to their employees if that insurance provides coverage for abortion services. Also, people who buy insurance through the ACA’s Health Insurance Marketplaces will not be eligible for premium tax credits if the insurance they choose provides abortion coverage. This legislation has nothing to do with taxpayer money and everything to do with attacking choice.
- On January 25, 2017 President Trump signed an Executive Order denying federal grant funding to “Sanctuary Cities” who do not comply with requests to hold undocumented immigrants for deportation. Sanctuary Cities generally do not go out of their way to determine someone’s immigration status when making a routine traffic stop for example. It is very important to note that those committing more serious transgressions do have their status reviewed. The Executive Order places an extraordinary burden on local law enforcement without additional resources. It also chills communication between public safety officials and their immigrant communities.
- On January 25, 2017 President Trump signed an Executive Order facilitating the construction of a wall along the Mexican border. After months of insisting that Mexico will pay for the $15-$20 billion wall we got a “surprise”. It turns out that American taxpayers will get the project started. Does anyone really believe that will change? Also interesting, the President recently implemented a federal hiring freeze then announced 15,000 NEW openings for enforcement and border security.
- On January 27, 2017 President Trump signed Executive Orders suspending the Syrian refugee program and blocking persons from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia from traveling to the United States. This resulted in chaos at our nation’s airports and overseas as travelers with approved visas were prevented from boarding planes bound for the U.S. or sent back to their home countries. The President’s actions also ensnared legal permanent residents because the orders were so sloppily drafted they did not make it clear that persons already issued green cards, after a lengthy application process, could reenter the U.S. This separated U.S. citizens from family members and created great fear and uncertainty. Scholars, researchers and students, with valid student or exchange visitor visas, were also prevented from entry. While these Executive Orders were widely covered, we felt they should be included.
- On January 30, 2017 President Trump issued an Executive Order requiring that for every federal regulation issued, two other regulations had to be repealed. This is a blunt instrument designed to reduce regulations on businesses. It completely disregards the substance and need for each regulation. Remember, there are federal regulations for everything from food safety inspections and air quality to airline safety.
- Late in January the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) approved a Fannie Mae/Blackstone Group deal. Blackstone will use Fannie Mae backed bonds to buy foreclosed homes, which the hedge fund will then sell or rent out for a profit. This is using taxpayer money to help a hedge fund make a profit on foreclosed homes. The deal denies working families the chance to buy one of those homes because they can’t compete with a hedge fund buying properties in bulk. It also drives up rents, mostly in poor neighborhoods.
- On January 28, 2017 President Trump signed an Executive Order elevating his chief political strategist Steve Bannon to the “principals committee” of the National Security Council. At the same time, he reduced the roles of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence. This is a shocking and frankly frightening move. It elevates someone whose role is political strategy over military and intelligence professionals. So is politics now a more important consideration when it comes to issues of national security? UPDATE: President Trump finally removed Chief Strategist Steve Bannon from the principles committee of the NSC on April 5, 2017.
- On Wednesday February 1, 2017 the House passed H.J. Res. 41, which reverses a rule requiring companies involved in oil, gas or mineral extraction registered in the U.S. to report any payments they make to foreign governments over $100,000. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed this roll back, raising concerns that it deepens poverty and empowers “autocratic leaders”. This reversal undermines our democratic principles. UPDATE: The President signed H.J. Res. 41 on February 14, 2017.
- On February 1, 2017 the House passed H.J. Res. 38, which invalidates a rule that prevented companies engaged in mountaintop removal mining from polluting streams. Without this rule, companies don’t have to consider whether their activity will poison a stream, don’t have to monitor the water quality and don’t have to restore the impacted land to its original condition. UPDATE: The President signed H.J. Res. 38 on February 16, 2017.
- On February 2, 2017 the House passed H.J. Res. 40 which prevents the Social Security Administration from reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) the names of individuals with a severe, medically documented mental disability who also require a designated representative to oversee their benefits. This reporting requirement was included in 1968 gun safety legislation. This resolution makes it easier for someone with a documented mental disability to buy a gun. UPDATE: 14. The President signed H.J. Res. 40 on February 28, 2017
- On February 2, 2017 the House passed H.J. Res 37 which invalidates a rule requiring companies seeking federal contracts to report any safety or labor violations they have committed and information on how those violations were addressed. Revoking this rule makes it harder for those awarding federal contracts, which are paid for with taxpayer money, to know if a prospective contractor has ever violated federal labor or safety laws. UPDATE: The President signed H.J. Res. 37 on March 27, 2017.
- On February 2, 2017 the House passed H.J. Res. 36 which invalidates a rule requiring oil and gas companies to limit the release of methane on federal lands. Without this rule, companies can keep sending methane gas into the air which has profound health and environmental consequences. UPDATE: On May 10, 2017 the Senate rejected H.J. Res. 36 which the House passed on February 2, 2017. Passage would have invalidated the rule requiring oil and gas companies to limit the release of methane on federal lands.
- On February 3, 2017 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) removed all animal welfare inspection reports from their website, making them inaccessible to the general public. The documents removed include records of abuse and enforcement actions against research laboratories, zoos, dog breeding operations and other animal related facilities. These records are now only available via a Freedom of Information Request. Information once readily available has now vanished, shielding cases of animal abuse from the public. Now, we have no way of readily knowing whether the zoo in our community or the dog breeder our neighbor recommended violated animal protection laws.
- On February 3, 2017 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibited 9 companies from providing discounted high-speed internet service to low-income individuals. The ability to access the internet is no longer a luxury. It is an important economic tool and necessary for those seeking employment opportunities because most job openings are advertised online. Most job applications are now online as well.
- On February 3, 2017 the FCC withdrew an effort to keep prison phone rates down. In some instances, prisoners’ phone calls went as high as $14 a minute. With this recent FCC action, rates will once again soar beyond what is reasonable.
- On February 3, 2017 the FCC also chose not to pursue a proposal that would have reduced the cost of cable boxes. Until this month, the FCC had been advancing a proposal that would allow consumers to buy a cable box from a third party rather than be required to pay a monthly rental fee to their cable provider.
- On January 31, 2017 the federal government halted a regulation giving whistleblowers the ability to seek civil penalties against federal nuclear contractors who retaliate against them. This takes away important protections from workers who may have information to share about improper or dangerous practices. It may make them less likely to come forward.
- On February 15, 2017 the House passed H.J. Res. 66 ending a program giving states the authority to create workplace savings plans for private sector employees who don’t have access to one. Massachusetts is one of the states participating in this program, which simply helps qualified employees save for retirement.
UPDATE: On May 17, 2017 President Trump signed H.J. Res. 66, ending a program giving states the authority to create workplace savings plans for private sector employees who don’t have access to one.
- On February 15, 2017 the House passed H.J. Res. 67 ending a program giving counties and municipalities the authority to create workplace savings plans for private sector employees who don’t have access to one. This is basically the same measure as H.J. Res. 66; it just applies to different entities. UPDATE: President Trump signed H.J. Res. 67 on April 13, 2017.
- On February 16, 2017 the House passed H.J. Res 43 ending a requirement that states must make Title X grant money available to ALL qualified health care facilities, including Planned Parenthood. This federal money helps community health centers and other medical facilities provide family planning and preventive health services to low income individuals and their families. By nullifying this rule, states can withhold Title X money from any provider that also offers abortion services.UPDATE: President Trump signed H.J. Res. 43 on April 13, 2017.
- On February 21, 2017 the Trump Administration released updated instructions on undocumented immigrants, discontinuing priority enforcement and seeking to find and deport anyone in the United States illegally. New detention facilities will be erected and staff hired (despite Trump’s general hiring freeze for federal workers currently in place). Local law enforcement will be asked to participate in these directives. Regardless of how one might feel about our approach to immigration, these new instructions are just impractical. They will require billions of dollars to implement, for new staff and infrastructure. Local police already have important responsibilities. They should not also be asked to check the citizenship of everyone who runs a stop sign. We have provided more details above about the immigration instructions.
- On February 22, 2017 the Trump Administration rescinded directives from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice related to Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. These directives applied to transgender students. With this action, the Trump Administration abolished a policy that simply allowed transgender students to use the restroom they feel most comfortable in. That policy made life just a little easier for a vulnerable group of young people. This is an issue of civil rights and discrimination, not states’ rights.
- On February 28, 2017 President Trump issued an Executive Order requiring the EPA to start repealing “Waters of the United States”. This provided clarity on the bodies of water subject to Clean Water Act protections, including restoring those protections for small streams. More than 117 million Americans currently get their drinking water from small streams, including a million people in Massachusetts. With this action, small streams could now be more vulnerable to pollution, which would in turn have a negative impact on the drinking water of millions of people.
- The Department of Labor is proposing to delay for 60 days the effective date of a fiduciary rule that directs financial advisors to place the best interests of their clients before profits they may make when recommending an investment. The rule would have gone into effect on April 10. The DOL is only offering a 15-day comment period on the 60-day extension, until March 17th. If you would like to submit comments on this, you may do so here. UPDATE: The Department of Labor has decided it cannot delay the effective date of a fiduciary rule that directs financial advisors to place the best interests of their clients before profits they may make when recommending an investment.
- During the week of February 27, 2017 the Department of Justice announced that the federal government would no longer challenge a 2011 Texas voter ID law on the grounds that it discriminates against minorities. That particular law has been described as one of the most restrictive voting laws in the country.
- On March 2, 2017 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set aside a rule regarding personal data collection by internet service providers (ISPs). That rule required ISPs to obtain explicit customer permission before collecting personal customer data information such as websites visited or browsing habits. The FCC argues now that providers overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, such as Google, do not have to obtain permission before collecting customer data so ISPs shouldn’t be burdened either. Of course, that logic completely sets aside the customer, who may not want their ISP to use their personal information for advertising purposes.
- On March 1, 2017 the House passed H.J. Res. 83, Disapproving of the rule submitted by the Department of Labor relating to “Clarification of Employer’s Continuing Obligation to Make and Maintain an Accurate Record of Each Recordable Injury and Illness” which weakens the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA) authority requiring employers to retain records of serious injuries and deaths for 5 years. In 2012 a court sided with a construction company that failed to record hundreds of violations, noting that if OSHA had not investigated the incident within six months of it occurring, it could not then go back and fine a company for not reporting the incident. OSHA then issued a rule making it clear that if a company did not properly maintain records of an incident for 5 years, OSHA could impose a fine even after six months. This legislation repeals that rule. If it were to become law OSHA could no longer require public disclosure or impose fines on a company if action is not taken within 6 months. UPDATE: President Trump signed H.J. Res. 83 on April 3, 2017.
- On March 2, 2107 the House passed H.R. 1004, the Regulatory Integrity Act of 2017 which establishes such a broad definition of public communication that agencies would be significantly impeded from doing the work required to implement regulations. It requires agencies to make public details about every pending regulation, including timing and all public communication about it. The legislation also requires agencies to provide Congress with a record of every public communication related to the top 5 regulations every year. This includes every phone call, electronic communication and oral conversation. It should be apparent that no possible notion of transparency could justify these overly burdensome demands. The result would be more delay in implementing regulations.
- On March 7, 2017 the Trump Administration withdrew a rule requiring airlines and ticket agents to disclose fees for checked and carry-on bags at the beginning of an online customer fare search. Now they can continue to bury the information, making it harder for consumers to comparison shop and fully understand how much they will actually pay for a flight.
- The Department of Labor has removed from its website information on consumer protections for retirement investors. The page provided answers to FAQs clarifying a new fiduciary duty rule. This will make it harder for the average person saving for retirement to understand and protect their rights under the new rule.
- On March 9, 2017 the House passed H.R. 725, the Innocent Party Protection Act, which places new burdens on plaintiffs to show that a defendant has been properly added to a court action. This will make it easier for big business to deny the average person their day in court. It gives well-funded defendants another tool to slow down legal actions against them. It also negatively impacts the ability of states to shape their own laws.
- On March 9, 2017 the House passed H.R. 985, the Fairness in Class Action Litigation and Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act of 2017, which places additional requirements on plaintiffs before they can join a class action lawsuit. It makes litigation easier for corporate defendants because it creates daunting obstacles for plaintiffs. The legislation also mandates that asbestos bankruptcy trusts disclose asbestos victims’ personal information benefiting none other than the companies responsible for these injuries.
- On March 10, 2017 the House passed H.R. 720, the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act of 2017 which overturns current court rules, taking away judicial discretion when it comes to imposing sanctions for frivolous lawsuits. HR 720 attempts to resurrect an old rule that the courts abandoned in the early 1990s because of its harmful impact, particularly in civil rights cases where plaintiffs often bring novel legal arguments that could be accused of being frivolous before being fleshed out. This bill will make it easier for well-funded defendants to claim that suits against them are frivolous, slow down the courts, and discourage plaintiffs from seeking justice. It’s an approach that was tried and rejected and has no good reason to be resurrected.
- On March 2, 2017 we learned that the Trump Administration skipped ethics training provided to cabinet nominees and other political appointees. In January, the General Services Administration (GSA) contacted the company conducting past training sessions to inform them their services were no longer needed. Ethics training may have prevented the missteps we have seen from the Administration such as asking agencies for lists of staffers working on programs they don’t like or promoting Ivanka Trump’s clothing line from the White House briefing room. It certainly looks like ethics is not a priority for this Administration. Congressional staffers are required to take ethics training every year — it doesn’t take long.
- On March 10, 2017 the Department of Housing and Urban Development withdrew a Federal Register notice on a proposal to require shelters, housing complexes and other HUD funded facilities to post notices that they are open to all individuals and families regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status. This Administration action sends the troubling message that equal access is not a priority.
- On March 16, 2017 the Department of Education reversed a directive preventing student loan collectors from charging additional fees on borrowers who default but then enter into a repayment agreement within a specific timeframe. Now loan collectors may charge new fees the moment a borrower defaults regardless of efforts to negotiate repayment. The fees alone can soar into the thousands of dollars for a loan of $15,000.
- On March 16, 2017 the House passed H.R. 1181 which alters current law requiring the Veterans Administration to provide the names of veterans who have been classified as “mentally incompetent” and cannot handle their own financial affairs to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). H.R. 1181 requires the VA to obtain a court determination before a veteran’s name can be sent to the NICS, although the legislation does not provide funding or a framework for this new court process, which currently does not exist. The legislation is also retroactive, which means that 170,000 people already on the NICS list would be automatically removed, making it easier for them to buy a gun.
- On March 13, 2017 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced changes to its Annual Program Performance Report for Centers for Independent Living which surveys persons living with disabilities. Moving forward HHS will no longer collect information on sexual orientation and gender identity. HHS is also eliminating that data collection from its National Survey of Older Americans Act Participants. This is important because the data collection helps HHS determine which programs for older Americans and persons living with disabilities are working best, if they are reaching enough people and where improvements can be made. By eliminating this information, HHS will have a diminished ability to evaluate whether programming is effective and truly available to the LGBTQ community.
- On March 17, 2017 we learned that the Department of Justice switched sides in a case involving the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a federal agency. The CFPB found that a home loan company was taking illegal kickbacks from insurance companies and overcharging its mortgage borrowers. The CFPB pursued the company, demanding they relinquish the money obtained illegally. The company in turn sued the CFPB seeking to nullify the agency's findings. One of the company's claims is that the CFPB is unconstitutional. Last week the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief supporting the company's claim that the CFPB is unconstitutional. President Trump cannot fire the CFPB director at will but can fire the director for cause - i.e. for "inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office." That may explain why the DOJ is now basically arguing in court that the CFPB is unconstitutional. If the DOJ prevails, we can expect a lot less consumer protection when it comes to student loans, payday lending, mortgage scams, Wells Fargo type fraud, auto lending discrimination, credit card and debit card fees and so much more.
- On March 20, 2017 we learned that first daughter Ivanka Trump was getting a White House office with security clearance, access to classified information and government issued communications devices to go along with it. However, Ivanka will not actually be a government employee, which means she won’t need Senate confirmation or have to be sworn in. This raises questions about application of anti-nepotism laws and conflicts of interest because she has not completely stepped away from either the Trump business empire or her own fashion business. By not making Ivanka an official employee even though that is what she effectively is, she won't have to abide by ethics rules that apply to other government employees. UPDATE: Ivanka Trump announced on March 29, 2017 that she changed her mind and would, in fact, become an official federal government employee subject to the same rules as other employees.
- On March 21, 2017 the Trump Administration delayed a rule requiring airlines to report data on damaged and missing wheelchairs. The delayed rule also required airlines to report more meaningful data on missing and mishandled baggage. Airlines currently report just the number of mishandled bags per passenger, so the numbers can be misleading if a lot of passengers don't check bags. Since many airlines now charge for checked baggage, the amount of carry-on luggage has increased. The new rule would require airlines to report both the number of mishandled bags as well as how many bags checked overall. The rule was scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2018. It has now been delayed at least a year.
- On March 21, 2017 the Trump Administration delayed a rule requiring commuter and intercity passenger railroads to develop and implement a system safety program. This is a structured and proactive program to identify then mitigate or eliminate safety risks on a railroad. This rule was scheduled to go into effect on March 21, 2017. The rule has been delayed until May 22, 2017.
- On February 23, 2017 the FCC voted to remove reporting requirements for internet providers with 250,000 subscribers or less. The carriers no longer have to report on data caps, fees, and their network performance/management practices. This data is vital for informing policymakers on a carrier’s practices related to net neutrality.
- Right after the election, Trump tapped Carl Icahn, the billionaire activist investor, as a special advisor on regulatory reform. Icahn’s charge is to target for elimination whatever the Administration considers to be excessive federal regulation. However, just like Ivanka, Icahn is not technically a government employee and is not divesting himself from any business interests. On the contrary, he's still actively trading. Last month, he bought a stake in Bristol Myers Squibb, a giant pharmaceutical company regulated by any number of federal agencies – the Food and Drug Administration, Health and Human Services, Department of Justice, and the Securities and Exchange Commission to name just a few. None of these agencies have been declared off-limits to Icahn in his government role. The arrangement raises a host of potential conflicts of interest as well as the potential for insider trading as he obtains information in his government role that could affect any of the companies he's currently invested in or could seek to invest in the future. CVR Energy, Tropicana Entertainment, AIG, PayPal, HerbaLife, Xerox, Allergan and Hertz are just a few of the public companies in Icahn’s portfolio. Many of his other ownership stakes are held in opaque holding companies that make unclear the full extent of his portfolio.
- On March 23, 2017 the General Services Administration (GSA) ruled that President Trump is not benefitting from government property and therefore is not in violation of his D.C. hotel lease. This determination comes after Trump family members met with the GSA to address conflicts of interest related to the Old Post Office Building, which is now Trump Hotel. The GSA is satisfied that Trump will not benefit from the hotel while in office because his interest will be held in trust and he won’t receive any distributions until he leaves office. What a shock that a governmental agency would clear their boss, the President, from any suspicion. It reminds me of the famous quote from the classic movie Casablanca, when Captain Renault declares himself to be SHOCKED, SHOCKED to find that gambling was going on in the casino.
This is just nonsense. The hotel is within walking distance of the White House. Even if Trump is not benefitting financially from the hotel today, he will be as soon as he leaves office. Anyone wishing to influence or curry favor with the Trump administration, including foreign governments, has an easy way of showing they have helped contribute to the success of the hotel and the Trump brand. Additionally, the hotel is valued at $200 million. $170 million of this was financed by Deutsche Bank which is under investigation by federal regulators. Those regulators will now be appointed by Trump. Labor disputes with hotel employees may end up before the National Labor Relations Board. Those members will be also be appointed by Trump.
- On March 24, 2017 President Trump signed the Keystone XL Pipeline Permit. Previously, the President established a short 60 day window to review the permit even though the State Department has said the impact of the project could not be fully considered until the route through Kansas was selected, which still hasn’t happened. The President signed this permit without seriously considering all the issues, including environmental impact along the pipeline route.
- On March 28, 2017 President Trump signed an Executive Order directing the Environmental Protection Agency to scrap the Clean Power Plan, which was an effort to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The order also rolls back many Obama Administration efforts to protect the environment and plan for climate change. For instance it rescinds guidance issued requiring agencies to incorporate climate change into National Environmental Policy Act reviews, and would reopen previously off limits public lands to coal mining. The Clean Power Plan is perhaps the biggest item in the order. The EPA acted only after determining, based on scientific evidence, that greenhouse gas emissions are a public health threat. With this EO, the Administration will have to now argue against that science.
- On March 29, 2017 the House passed S.J. Res. 34, Providing for congressional disapproval under chapter 8 of title 5, United States Code, of the rule submitted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relating to Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Services. This legislation nullifies the following FCC rule: Protecting the Privacy of Customers of Broadband and Other Telecommunications Service.
The practical impact of cancelling this rule is significant and deeply disturbing. Once the President signs this measure, internet service providers (ISPs) will be able to collect and sell our personal data without telling us or asking permission. This includes browsing history, personal information about us and our families, financial information, app usage and so much more. Just think about all the information you and your family members search for on the internet. You might not care if your ISP shares the news that you searched for a new home or a living room set or the updated recycling schedule for your community. What if your child is ill and you are concerned about her symptoms or the side effects of a prescribed medication? Or your mother has been diagnosed with a disease and you want to learn more about it? All of this information will now be available without your consent and you can’t do anything about it. I really cannot understand why anyone would think this is a good idea. UPDATE: President Trump signed S.J. Res. 34 on April 3, 2017.
- On March 29, 2017 the House passed H.R. 1430, the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act of 2017 which prevents the EPA from conducting any work on rules unless all scientific and technical research used to develop the rule is publicly available, can be reviewed by outside entities and can be replicated. Universities and research institutions are regularly consulted by the EPA for peer-reviewed research. In many cases, that research includes sensitive personal information, including details related to an individual’s health. The disclosure requirements in H.R. 1430 potentially make that information publicly available because the legislation gives the EPA Administrator the authority to release it to anyone. There is also a cost issue associated with this bill. Although $1 million is authorized to cover the costs associated with H.R. 1430, the Congressional Budget Office analyzed a similar bill and determined it would cost the EPA $1 billion over 4 years to comply.
- On March 30, 2017 the House passed H.R.1431, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017 which imposes additional requirements for the EPA when choosing Science Advisory Board (SAB) members. The board must represent “balanced” views of scientific matters, including views that are not consistent with actual scientific evidence. It is fair to ask proponents of this legislation if they would require that SAB members be equally divided between those who accept climate change is real and those who don’t. Should there be one seat for those who believe the earth is round and another for those who believe it is flat? H.R. 1431 also permits up to 90% of all board members to be scientists working in the private sector. This would give big business an outsized role in determining the direction of the EPA. The legislation mandates that all SAB decisions are consistent with the positions of all board members. It further requires the board to accept public comments on all of their decisions and respond to every one. No additional funding is provided to assist the SAB in accomplishing these additional responsibilities.
- On March 24, 2017 in an interview with Forbes, Eric Trump announced that he will continue sharing quarterly profitability reports with his father, despite President Trump’s assertions that he has no conflicts because all his businesses have been handed off to his children and he won't talk to them about anything related to those businesses. Quarterly profitability reports certainly qualify as important information related to the President’s business empire. This sharing of information raises serious questions about who the President is really working for, the American public or his companies’ bottom lines.
- On March 29, 2017 the Federal Communications Commission Chairman announced plans to let states decide which companies are certified to participate in the Lifeline broadband program. This nullifies pending requests by dozens of small and rural Internet providers hoping to offer subsidized broadband connections to low-income Americans nationwide. This will hurt their ability to choose a good provider, particularly in rural or low-income areas. The Lifeline program, created during the Reagan Administration, supports seniors, veterans and rural Americans who otherwise cannot afford phone or Internet service.
- In April 2017 the Department of Homeland Security stressed a commitment to arrest victims of crimes for immigration violations, even if they are appearing in court to testify. Victims or witnesses of crimes, from theft to rape and murder, risk being arrested if they come forward to testify against someone accused of a serious crime. So it’s more important to arrest and deport the undocumented immigrant than secure the conviction of an American citizen accused of a serious crime?
- This development occurred before we launched Behind the Curtain, but we thought it was important to include on this list. In January, President Trump named his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a senior White House advisor. Like his wife Ivanka, Kushner is a federal government employee. His portfolio at the White House keeps growing. In late March, he was named to head the new White House Office on American Innovation. This is in addition to his various responsibilities on domestic policy and foreign affairs.
- Oops — we realized we never added the Second Executive Order relative to Immigration. This order removed Iraq from list of banned countries, ended preferential treatment for Christian refugees (but kept 120 day ban on refugee entry — and 50,000 limit on refugee admissions for this year, of which almost 38,000 had reached US by 3/15/17), and permitted waivers of the ban on a "case-by-case" basis for several categories of persons, including immediate family of US citizens. This Executive Order has been stayed by Court action subject to appeals.
- At the end of March, it came to our attention that the Trump Administration has stopped disclosing troop deployments in Iraq and Syria to the public. This means that the American public will know less about the military engagements that the United States is involved in. Given the recent military action and the complexity of Syria specifically, the public has a right to know when our men and women in uniform are in harm’s way.
- On April 7, 2017 Twitter dropped a lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Patrol after the federal agency withdrew demands to unmask an anonymous Twitter account critical of the administration. Federal officials thought the account, @ALT-USCIS, looked like it might be run by an employee of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services division of the Department of Homeland Security. Federal officials ordered Twitter to turn over information about the account, including names, passwords, and ISP addresses associated with it. Federal officials noted that if the account owner wished to challenge the information demand they had one day to notify Twitter, with a certified copy of the letter sent to DHS. Of course, this action would require the user to unmask him or herself. Once Twitter started legal proceedings to protect its user, the government backed off and Twitter dropped its lawsuit. We think this example belongs on the list because it is a blatant abuse of power to silence a critic. The Trump Administration didn’t succeed this time but they will no doubt try again.
- On April 10, 2017 it was reported that AG Sessions would terminate the National Commission on Forensic Science, an advisory board of independent scientists focused on raising forensic science standards. This partnership was established to strengthen the scientific foundation of forensic evidence after the Justice Department determined some expert testimony was scientifically misleading. This can impact jury deliberation and could result in the conviction of innocent people. For example, one review of the FBI's hair analysis data found that over 20 decades experts gave flawed or overstated testimony in 90% of cases. The purpose of the commission was to strengthen forensic science when a clear need to do so was identified.
- In January the Trump Administration issued an Executive Order defining the parameters under which former lobbyists could work for the Administration and what restrictions they would be subject to upon leaving government service. The Executive Order weakens the rules President Obama put in place and are significantly less reform minded than the Trump campaign’s own “Drain the Swamp” Five Point Plan for Ethics Reform. While Trump Administration officials will face a 5-year ban on lobbying the agency they worked for, they will be free to lobby any other part of government after they leave. The Trump Executive Order also reduces to 1 year the previous 2-year ban on Administration officials contacting their former agencies. During the campaign, Trump promised to expand the definition of lobbyist because too many people today evade lobbying restrictions by calling themselves consultants or advisors. Breaking his own campaign promise, Trump’s Executive Order is limited to registered lobbyists. Obama and Trump both retained the ability to waive their lobbying bans on a case-by-case basis, but Trump has removed the requirement to report these waivers annually to the public. Since that January EO, some individuals have been hired to advise on issues for which they clearly lobbied past Administrations. By removing this public reporting requirement, the public does not know how many or to whom waivers have been granted.
- On April 14, 2017 the Trump Administration announced it would no longer make White House visitor logs public. This reverses an Obama Administration policy of sharing with the public who is entering the White House as well as whom they are meeting with. The current Administration’s reversal on this shows a stunning lack of transparency.
- On April 17, 2017 President Trump appointed former Congressman Scott Garrett to lead the Export Import Bank (Ex Im Bank). Garrett was one of the most vocal critics of this independent federal agency and in fact voted twice (in 2012 and in 2015) against renewing the bank’s charter. So is this a case of letting the fox inside the henhouse OR will this fox change his position as Trump claims to have done and now support the Ex Im Bank? This agency helps companies compete globally by giving them access to financing when private sector funding is not readily available. Eliminating or weakening the Ex Im Bank places American companies at a significant disadvantage when trading overseas which has an impact on jobs. Every other major country, including China, has a comparable institution.
- On April 17, 2017 the Administration indefinitely delayed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation limiting worker exposure to silica. This is a mineral commonly found at construction sites – for example, in concrete, granite or sand. Silica dust can cause lung cancer. Delaying this rule impacts worker safety.
- On April 18, 2017 we learned that the Chinese government approved trademarks for Ivanka Trump’s company, awarding monopoly rights to sell her brand of jewelry, bags and spa services in China, the world’s second largest economy. The trademarks were approved the day after she sat next to the Chinese Prime Minister at dinner at Mar-a-Lago. Ivanka’s company has also applied for at least 9 new trademarks in the Philippines, Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. This is one more in a long line of conflict of interest issues raised by the Trumps' global businesses and their role as First Family. The Trump family has an advantage that no other business in this country can compete with.
- On April 20, 2017 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to eliminate price caps in the business broadband market by imposing a new standard that characterizes certain local markets as competitive even though only one broadband provider is operating. This will make it easier for broadband companies to raise prices in regions where they already have a monopoly, particularly in rural areas.
- On April 20, 2017 the Federal Communications Commission also voted to ease a limit on television station ownership. The current rule establishes how stations are counted in market share and places specific limits on companies owning television stations. One restriction is that they can’t have the ability to broadcast to more than 39% of U.S. households. Concentrated ownership of television stations limits consumer programming options and can hurt local news editorial operations.
- On April 26, 2017 we learned that Ivanka Trump had established a new entity, ostensibly to provide capital to female entrepreneurs. According to multiple news reports, some countries and corporations have already contributed to it. This is another in a long line of conflicts for the first daughter. She is a federal government employee, owns global businesses, and is now soliciting money for a private venture from sovereign nations and regulated corporations. This raises many questions - is this new venture a nonprofit, a foundation? Does she draw a salary, use her government position to raise money? Is this new entity tax-exempt?
- On April 26, 2017 a Justice Department lawyer argued an immigration case before the Supreme Court. In an exchange with Chief Justice John Roberts we got another troubling look at the Trump Administration’s attitude towards immigration. The Department of Justice (DOJ) insisted that even a trivial or meaningless misstatement on a citizenship application could result in the revocation of citizenship even 20 years later, if it came to light. The DOJ actually insisted after a question from Chief Justice Roberts that if someone knowingly went 5 miles over the speed limit and didn’t include that on their application, their citizenship could be revoked. This is a telling window into the heartless attitude of this Administration toward immigrants. It’s worth noting that Melania Trump was paid for some modeling work she did while in the U.S. on a visitor’s visa. That activity is not permitted under that visa category. It does not appear that the First Lady disclosed this information on her citizenship application.
- On May 2, 2017 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) removed all scientific data on climate change from their official website, including a section explaining exactly what it is. That particular section has been in place for twenty years. This is one more glaring indication of the direction that the Trump Administration plans to take our country on the environment.
- On May 2, 2017 we learned that Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner did not include some important information in his required ethics disclosure form. Kushner failed to disclose loans on properties worth over $1 billion, including a startup that partners with Goldman Sachs. This is one more in a rapidly growing list of ethics questions surrounding Trump advisors. Why didn’t Kushner fully disclose his business ties?
- On May 2, 2017 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) rescinded nutritional guidelines for school lunches established by former First Lady Michelle Obama in her Let's Move Campaign, as well as through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The intent of these efforts was to provide more nutritious school lunches to students. The practical impact of this USDA directive will be offerings that are lower in nutritional value than the meals currently being offered.
- On May 4, 2017 President Trump signed an Executive Order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty”. It directs the IRS to exercise "maximum enforcement discretion" over the Johnson amendment. This amendment prevents churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations from getting involved in political campaigns. The EO also gives "regulatory relief" to organizations that object on religious grounds to an ACA provision requiring employers to provide certain health services, including coverage for contraception. For decades the Johnson amendment has prevented houses of worship from being used in a partisan or political manner. While it would take an act of Congress to repeal the amendment, this EO damages that wall between church and state.
- On May 2, 2017 the House passed H.R. 1180, the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2017 which lets employers grant their employees compensatory time instead of overtime pay. This discretion is solely left to the employer, employees do not have a choice on whether or not they will receive overtime pay or time off. While certainly some employees would welcome additional time off, plenty of workers would rather have more money in their paychecks. There is also no guarantee that an employee will get the time off when requested. While H.R. 1180 requires employers to pay workers for any unused comp time, they don’t have to do that until the end of the year and they don’t have to add any interest no matter how long they are holding onto it, even though it technically belongs to the employee.
- On May 4, 2017 the House passed H.R. 1628, the American Health Care Act. The is the Republican attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). There is just too much wrong with this bill to keep it short so please see my May 5, 2107 e-Update.
- In January, then President-elect Trump announced he would put together a team to draft a cybersecurity plan after being briefed on Russian hacking in the November election. He promised that this team would have a plan ready for review in 90 days. We are now well past 90 days and not only is there no plan completed – there isn’t a team in place to review data and craft a plan.
- On May 8, 2017 it was reported that EPA Director Scott Pruitt did not renew the appointments of 9 scientists serving on a science review board that advises the EPA. While it is certainly common practice for new administrations to bring their own staffers on board, Pruitt made it clear that he wanted to replace the scientists with industry representatives to bring balance to the science review board.
- On May 8, 2017 in a statement upon signing the Fiscal Year 2017 omnibus spending bill President Trump listed the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Capital Financing Program as an example of a provision in the bill that allocates benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender. The President stated that he would treat the program "in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the law under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution's Fifth Amendment." By raising this issue, the President suggests that federal financing for Historically Black Colleges and Universities may be unconstitutional which could lead to a loss of federal funding for HBCUs.
- On May 11, 2017 President Trump issued an Executive Order establishing the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The 15 person commission will be chosen entirely by President Trump and chaired by the Vice President. In November, the then President-elect claimed that 3-5 million people had voted illegally and promised to investigate it. Trump won the election, but lost the popular vote by 3 million. This commission is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. The Committee on House Administration conducted a survey of state election officials which found that the rate of attempted voter fraud is .00000010247. Even Republican leaders have repeatedly stated that there is absolutely no evidence of voter fraud. Widespread voter suppression, however, is a demonstrable fact. Fourteen states placed new restrictions on voting in 2016. These laws ranged from requiring a voter to present a photo ID, to eliminating early voting opportunities. Long lines at the polls and failing voting equipment are also real obstacles. National voter turnout rates in the last election were at a 20-year low.
- Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are renting a townhouse for $15,500 a month from Andronico Luksic, a billionaire from Chile who just purchased the property in November. The Obama Administration prevented a company owned by Luksic from building a mine in Minnesota, citing environmental concerns. The company is now asking the Trump Administration to reverse this decision. Just one more in a growing list of conflicts of interest.
- The Obama Administration gave prosecutors discretion when seeking penalties for crimes committed, recognizing that the harshest penalties with strict mandatory minimum sentences are not always the best course of action. AG Sessions has taken the opposite approach, instructing federal prosecutors to seek the harshest penalties available for crimes.
- The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) is requiring Trump cabinet members and other top officials to complete extra ethics forms to ensure they really have taken the actions they pledged to take during their Senate confirmation. The OGE wants to know whether appointees followed through on pledges to resign from private-sector positions that posed conflicts of interest, divest financial holdings they had promised to sell and recuse themselves from any issues where they have had conflicts. OGE plans to post the completed forms online, along with the ethics agreement that the appointee signed during Senate confirmation.
- On May 5, 2017 President Trump appointed Keith Noreika temporary Chair of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), skirting the Senate confirmation process and ethics rules. Instead of appointing a career official, Trump chose a campaign supporter and bank lawyer. Apparently, Noreika himself suggested this while on the Trump Treasury transition team. The OCC classifies Noreika as a “special government employee,” retained to perform “temporary duties” for not more than 130 days. This designation typically is given to people serving on advisory committees, not for overseeing a federal agency. There is nothing preventing Trump from keeping Noreika there longer to avoid the confirmation process. He has not been vetted or confirmed by the Senate. He is under no obligation to comply with ethics rules, including Trump's own lobbying ban. Noreika is already indicating he will be an activist chair. He’s promised to revisit Dodd-Frank rulemakings which he considers to be overly burdensome. This position is particularly powerful because the OCC is led by a single director and not a commission. Noreika spent much of his career at the Wall Street legal defense firm Covington and Burling with banks and executives as clients. Once his time at the OCC is up, he’ll go right back to serving the same banks he did before he was OCC Chair, but this time with some unique experience. The OCC chief also sits on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Board and the Financial Stability Oversight Council.
- On May 18, 2017 the Federal Communications Commission voted to advance the “Restoring Internet Freedom” proposal, which eliminates net neutrality rules. Under current rules, internet service providers are treated like public utilities, or common carriers. This means they must treat all internet content the same. They cannot create so-called fast lanes, charging more money for faster content delivery. Reversing net neutrality rules would make it harder for everyone to access certain internet content. Only big businesses would be in a position to pay more money for easier access. It places small companies at a serious competitive disadvantage. This is not a done deal yet. A public comment period has opened, if you have an opinion on this, I encourage you to weigh in. https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/search/filings?proceedings_name=17-108&sort=date_disseminated,DESC
- On May 2, 2017 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced plans to change the way grants are awarded. NIH plans to limit grants to no more than three per investigator. I have always supported the principle of peer review. Scientists, not politicians or bureaucrats, should decide which grants are funded and money should be invested in research that specialists in the field judge most promising. Scientists judge applicants on the basis of scientific excellence only. It should not come as a surprise that NIH money isn’t distributed equally among states. This artificial limit ignores the fact that a “Principal Investigator” could be a person of genius, a Jonas Salk or Albert Einstein, who could (in my district many do) mentor dozens of post-doctoral fellows on projects that should be judged on their merits, not artificially capped. This approach could jeopardize U.S. preeminence in biomedical sciences.
- The Department of Justice has issued a Cease and Desist order to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, demanding the organization stop providing legal assistance to immigrants unless they are formally representing them in a court proceeding. This would make it difficult for the nonprofit to continue much of the legal work it does to help immigrants, including for those facing deportation proceedings. A federal judge has issued a nationwide temporary restraining order to prevent the DOJ from sending similar letters, but this action highlights the Trump Administration’s negative approach to dealing with immigration.
- The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has asked all federal agencies to provide information about all the waivers they have issued to former lobbyists and industry lawyers now working in the Administration. OGE would like the information by June 6th with the intention of making them public. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney is challenging the OGE's authority to even request this information and has demanded they rescind it. Without waivers being made public, there is no way of knowing how many employees working in the Administration are former lobbyists and industry representatives involved with the same issues they worked on in the private sector. We also don’t know who they are. Under the Obama Administration, any waivers granted were made public and explanations were given for why the waiver was appropriate. This is one more example of the apparent disdain this Administration has for transparency and the public's right to know.
- The Department of Transportation has delayed a rule requiring states to track greenhouse gas emissions from cars that use federal highways. The idea behind this effort is to compare from year to year how federal transportation investments are impacting greenhouse gas.
- On May 23, 2017 the Trump Administration released its Fiscal Year 2018 budget. For details, please read our e-Update for 5/26/2017.
- On May 24, 2017 the House passed H.R. 953, the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2017 which exempts the application of pesticides near water from regulations applied through the Clean Water Act.
- On May 22, 2017 the Trump Administration and the Republican-led House of Representatives requested an additional 90 days to resolve a lawsuit related to Affordable Care Act (ACA) subsidies. These subsidies help reduce premiums for people who are on the ACA exchanges. Insurers must submit rates in June for next year and this three month delay will raise questions about the continued availability of the subsidies. With the repeal and replacement of the ACA still not resolved, the Trump Administration is using this subsidy issue to create uncertainty for insurers and consumers. In fact, Trump has stated on numerous occasions that destabilized exchanges could help bring Democrats to the negotiating table.
- Businessman turned President-elect Donald Trump pledged that the Trump Organization would donate all profits his hotels made from foreign governments to the United States Treasury. Because the President has refused to divest his ownership in the Trump Organization, this was an important step to ensure he was not in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution – which bars federal government officials from taking gifts from foreign governments. On May 24, 2017, Rep. Elijah Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent a letter to the Trump Organization, raising concerns about their responsiveness in identifying profits made from foreign governments. The Trump Organization has basically argued that it’s too hard to identify every instance and that it would “diminish the guest experience of our brand.” Instead, the Trump Organization plan essentially seems to be that any foreign government representative spending money in a Trump hotel should simply identify him or herself and report expenses. This is, of course, wholly inadequate and raises more questions about ethical aspects of Trump’s business interests.
- On May 30, 2017 the Office of Management and Budget posted a draft rule reversing an Affordable Care Act requirement that employer offered health care plans must cover all FDA-approved contraceptive methods, as well as patient education and counseling. The posted rule would allow any employer citing a religious objection to opt out of offering coverage for birth control. There is already a limited exemption in place for certain religious organizations and some qualified private employers. If enacted, this expanded exemption would put millions of women at risk of losing access to contraception. More than half of non-elderly Americans have employer-sponsored health insurance. While not finalized, this is one of the ways that the Administration can weaken the ACA without Congress.
- On June 1, 2017 President Trump announced he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. Once again, he is demonstrating a shocking unwillingness to even acknowledge the scientific reality of climate change. Further, he reveals an equally shocking refusal to recognize that rule of law nations abide by their international commitments. This agreement represents the resolve of 195 countries to protect the health of our planet and its people. With this reversal, the U.S. joins only Syria and Nicaragua in opting out of the accord. I am deeply troubled that the President is refusing to acknowledge the collective responsibility we all have, as citizens and as a nation, to address the underlying causes of climate change. UPDATE: Syria announced it would join the Paris Agreement regarding climate change. This leaves the United States as the only country not part of the historic agreement.
- The Trump Administration issued a new policy regarding responding to information requests from Members of Congress. Supported by a May 1st Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinion, federal agencies have been instructed to disregard information requests from Members of Congress unless they are from or supported by Committee or Subcommittee Chairs. Keep in mind that Republicans have the majority in the House and the Senate. Based on this policy, any time a Democrat asks for information the request has to be backed by Republican committee/subcommittee leadership. This significantly limits the ability of Democrats to get answers to questions for their constituents and for themselves.
- On May 31, 2017 the Trump Administration announced ethics waivers for 17 White House staffers, including Reince Priebus, Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon. President Obama issued 17 ethics waivers during his entire Presidency. These waivers exempt the employees from certain requirements, including prohibitions on communicating with former employers or clients. It raises serious conflict of interest questions.
- On May 23, 2017 the Office of Management and Budget approved a more extensive questionnaire for visa applicants that asks for all social media handles, emails, and telephone numbers for the last five years, as well as biographical information for the past 15 years. This additional scrutiny is part of an effort to tighten vetting of U.S. visitors and give more authority to consular officials to request private information. While the new questions are voluntary anyone who does not answer them may experience a delay or a denial of their visa application. This expanded questionnaire grants extensive new power to consular officials who have the sole authority to determine who is ultimately granted a visa.
- In a June 5, 2017 memo Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice would halt the practice of reaching settlement agreements directing payouts to “third-party organizations” that were not directly involved in the lawsuits. Such settlements have gone to the National Urban League, Habitat for Humanity and the Legal Services Corporation. The purpose of the settlement agreements with the federal government is to assist those who were injured by the harmful conduct of the company in the first place. The Pipeline Safety Trust, which is the only non-profit focused on pipeline safety, was created by a settlement like this in a criminal case resulting from a pipeline explosion in Washington State.
- On June 8, 2017 the House passed H.R. 10, the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017. This legislation repeals the most important provisions of the Dodd- Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. It deregulates the largest financial institutions in the world, makes it harder for state and federal regulators to pursue bad actors, and brings back the Wild West environment that Wall Street enjoyed before the 2008 financial crisis.
- In June of 2017 the Department of Labor narrowed the definition of “employees” and joint “employers”. The Obama Administration defined employees in a way that ensured workers could not be considered free lancers and that joint employers were responsible for actions of their businesses. For example, a large corporation could exercise great control over their franchisees, but still try to avoid responsibility for an issue at one of them by insisting that franchises are separate entities. Freelance employees must pay higher taxes, do not have labor rights, and don't receive benefits such as healthcare. By narrowing these definitions, workers could get misclassified and consequently be treated as freelances, losing access to certain benefits and protections.
- In June 2017 the Trump Administration announced it would end the Family Case Management Program. This program helps vulnerable women and their children who have arrived here illegally seeking asylum. The program is simply a humanitarian way to house at-risk families while they wait for their case to be resolved. With the end of this program, these families will be forced back to crowded detention centers as their asylum request is considered. The end of this program is one more example of the Trump Administration’s callous approach to immigrants.
- On June 14, 2017 the Trump Administration announced that the Department of Education would review two rules relating to for-profit colleges, scheduled to take effect on July 1st. The rules were drafted after some for-profit colleges, including Corinthian College and ITT Technical Institutes, collapsed. Students were left with debt and without degrees. The rules would have given education officials the authority to consider a range of factors, including lawsuits and reports from accrediting agencies, in deciding whether a higher education institution would remain eligible for federal financial aid. The “gainful employment mandate” was also a factor that officials could consider. This means that officials can review the employment circumstances of graduates to determine if they are making enough money to pay off their student loans. The rules also gave student borrowers an expedited path to ease their student loan debt if their college had acted unlawfully.
- On June 12, 2017 The National Women's Law Center filed suit against the Trump Administration’s Department of Education to compel them to release data on federal enforcement efforts with respect to Title IX. This statute directs how schools handle cases of campus assault and sexual harassment. In the recently filed complaint, the Center argues that the Department of Education is withholding information that is rightly public record under the Freedom of Information Act. These records could shed light on how the Trump Administration will manage Title IX enforcement. This is particularly important because Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has not indicated how she intends to handle guidance the Obama Administration issued to schools on sexual harassment. It would be within her authority to withdraw them.
- A troubling pattern is emerging with respect to White House press briefings and we think it’s worth attention. On Monday June 19th White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held the regular press briefing off camera and prohibited audio recording of it. The press briefings have also gotten shorter and less frequent. Spicer’s answers to questions, when he does take them, often consist of vague non-answers. On Tuesday, during an on-camera briefing (the first in 8 days) he was asked if Trump believes that Russia did in fact interfere in our election, a conclusion that 16 intelligence agencies have already reached. Spicer’s response? “I have not sat down and talked with him about that specific thing.” Sorry, but this answer simply defies belief. The White House has a responsibility to the American people to be accessible and answer questions about the work they are doing. This doesn’t mean they must know the answer to every question and it doesn’t mean they must hold formal briefings every single day. They have an obligation though, to do better. The journalists in the briefing room represent our window into the White House. The Trump Administration is slowly but surely closing that window.
- The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management published a notice in the Federal Register on June 15, 2017 indefinitely delaying a rule limiting methane emissions on federal lands. Methane is one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases. In May, the Senate rejected by one vote a move to invalidate this rule after the House passed it in February. Since efforts to limit methane emissions failed legislatively, Trump is moving forward administratively.
- On June 16, 2017 the Solicitor General reversed course to side with employers over employees in a case before the Supreme Court: NLRB v. Murphy Oil. The case considers whether arbitration agreements with individual employees that prevent them from pursuing work-related claims on a collective or class basis constitute an unfair labor practice and, as such, are prohibited. The Obama Administration supported the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), arguing such agreements are not legal because the National Labor Relations Act protects employees’ ability to participate in joint actions regarding the terms or conditions of their employment. The NLRB concluded that Murphy Oil USA, a gas station operator, unlawfully required employees at its Alabama facility to sign an arbitration agreement waiving their right to pursue class actions. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the NLRB ruling and found in favor of Murphy Oil. It is now before the Supreme Court. The Administration’s reversal in Murphy Oil is a victory for companies who deny workers and consumers their right to have disputes settled in a court of law in a transparent proceeding where the results are grounded in the law and decided by an impartial judge and jury.
- On June 19, 2017 President Trump nominated Jim Clinger to chair the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The FDIC is an independent agency of the U.S. government that protects the bank deposits of American families and businesses against loss if an FDIC-insured institution fails. FDIC insurance is backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act passed by Congress in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis enhanced the FDIC’s authority and tasked it with carefully winding down failing institutions to minimize the risk of failure to the economy as a whole as well as other financial institutions. Clinger is a former committee staffer for House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX). The House passed Hensarling's bill to repeal the Wall Street Reform Act on a party line vote on June 8th. If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Clinger will be in a position to shape the priorities of the FDIC.
- On June 16, 2017 the New York Times reported that late last year, the Russian government renewed 6 expiring trademarks for Trump hotel and other business initiatives that the organization never started. The Trump Organization requested the renewal of these trademarks. This news is curious and seems to be inconsistent with the President’s repeated claims that he doesn’t have any business interests in Russia. The timing is also curious because four of those renewals were registered on Election Day 2016.
- In response to a February 3, 2017 Executive Order issued by President Trump, the Treasury Department on June 19th published a report offering recommendations on ways to loosen federal regulations on financial services. Some of the recommendations include: (1) pursuant to Dodd Frank, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Federal Reserve oversee a process requiring big banks to create "living wills.” These are basically plans showing how the big banks would handle another severe market downturn without adversely impacting the rest of the economy. The FDIC has consistently taken a more critical view of the banks' submissions than the Federal Reserve. The FDIC has also been more likely to recommend consequences for banks who don’t produce satisfactory living wills. Trump's Treasury recommends removing the FDIC from this process. (2) Treasury recommends that every single bank, no matter how big they are or how much risky activity they engage in, be allowed to opt out of the Volcker Rule as long as they hold onto a certain amount of capital. The Volcker Rule prohibits banks from gambling with federally insured deposits. The problem with this recommendation is that if an institution is free to take on as much risk as it wants, whatever capital buffer exists could disappear fast. (3) The report includes many recommendations that would weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). This is the ONLY federal agency whose sole mission is to protect consumers from risky or abusive financial products and practices. Some of Treasury’s recommendations include making the CFPB director removable at the will of the President instead of "for good cause" as required by current law; hide the consumer complaint database from the public which so far has tracked over one million complaints submitted by consumers in every state; repeal CFPB's supervisory authority over financial institutions, and lift the current cap on points and fees so that lenders can potentially gouge their mortgage customers as so many did during the financial crisis. These changes would require Congressional action, but given that the Republican-led House has already voted to gut Dodd Frank, it certainly seems likely they would support the Administration’s recommendations. Treasury’s report is also illustrative of the Administration’s approach to financial regulation and consumer protection.
- On June 26, 2017 Lynne Patton started her job as head of the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Region II office, overseeing housing programs in New York and New Jersey. That regional office is responsible for distributing billions of federal dollars in affordable housing programs. Patton has no housing experience. She was an event planner for Trump’s celebrity golf tournaments and other upscale events. She also planned Eric Trump’s wedding. Despite this complete lack of relevant job experience Trump first hired her as a White House Liaison at HUD in February and now he has given her responsibility over the largest regional HUD office in the country.
- According to June 2017 press reports, President Trump is making millions off an affordable housing complex in Brooklyn. The almost 6,000 unit apartment complex, known as Starrett City, is the largest federally subsidized affordable housing complex in the country. Trump's father was a limited partner when it was constructed in 1974, which passed on to his children when he died. Trump's 4% interest was placed in a trust once he became President. Trump's budget proposes only a relatively minor cut to the Project Based Rental Assistance program, a HUD subsidy to private landlords through which Starrett City gets its affordable housing funds. In stark contrast, Trump’s budget proposes steep cuts to most other HUD programs. We know through Trump's financial disclosure that he made over $5 million through his Starrett City investment between January 2016 and mid-April 2017. Starrett City has received more than $490 million in federal rent subsidies since 2013. Almost $38 million of that money has come since Trump became President. To put it plainly – President Trump owns a percentage of a building complex receiving federal housing subsidies while many HUD programs are being cut. Moreover, Starrett City’s maintenance ratings from HUD have fallen considerably. Those housing subsidies and the complex’s federal ratings are determined by an Executive branch agency that Trump oversees as President. This is a conflict of interest, plain and simple.
- In June 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hired A. Wayne Johnson, the CEO of Reunion Student Loan Services, a private student loan company, to oversee the Federal Student Aid program. This raises conflict of interest questions due to his role in private loan servicing. There is also concern that Johnson will take an approach more aligned with the private loans business model which could diminish some borrower protections.
- In June 2017 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to reduce the EPA workforce by about 1,200 employees. This would be done through buyouts and early retirement. The EPA hopes to have this process complete by September. Trump’s budget proposal contains a 31% cut in funding which would almost certainly result in even more job loss. This will leave the agency with far fewer resources and employees to carry out the responsibilities of the EPA. It is one more troubling example of the cavalier approach that this Administration is taking to the health of our planet.
- On June 28, 2017 the EPA announced it was rescinding the 2015 Clean Water Rule. This follows a February Executive Order (BtC #27) requiring the EPA to start repealing "Waters of the United States" (WOTUS) which provided clarity on what bodies of water are subject to protections under the Clean Water Act. The EPA proposed a two-step plan for redefining "WOTUS" so it reflects the plurality opinion of Justice Scalia in Rapanos v. United States. Scalia's opinion suggests that WOTUS should only cover permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water, rather than small waterways such as wetlands and streams. Those smaller waterways are covered under the 2015 definition. Through the EO and now the EPA’s actions this week, the federal government won’t have the authority to regulate pollution in certain waterways because they don’t qualify under the EPA’s new definition. This will surely impact drinking water in many communities all across the country since 117 million Americans currently get their drinking water from small streams.
- We learned on July 10, 2017 that the General Services Administration (GSA) would end efforts to build a state-of-the art modern headquarters for the FBI. The process has gone on for more than a decade and the current headquarters is in a serious state of disrepair. GSA planned to sell its current building to the winning developer and relocate its headquarters. So many questions are raised with this abrupt decision. The GSA is President Trump’s landlord because the government owns his D.C. hotel. Was the Trump Administration concerned that the winning developer would use the existing FBI headquarters site to build a hotel that would compete with Trump’s? Or is this a way for the President to send a message to the FBI in response to all the work they’ve been doing lately?
- It was reported in late June that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Chief of Staff directed a scientist from the EPA’s scientific review board to change her congressional testimony and minimize the dismissal of other scientists serving on the board. This contributes to the growing list of evidence that the Trump Administration does not value the important role academic science can and should play in environmental policy.
- In late June, President Trump's Commission on Election Integrity requested voter data from all 50 states. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is Vice-Chair of the Commission, asked for all “publicly-available voter roll data including, if publicly available under the laws of your state, the full first and last names of all registrants, middle names or initials if available, addresses, dates of birth, political party (if recorded in your state), last four digits of social security number if available, [and] voter history from 2006 onward.” In the letter Kobach also made clear that documents submitted to the commission “will also be made available to the public.” This is a sweeping and troubling request. It raises privacy questions as well as questions over what exactly the commission is planning on doing with the information. More than 40 states have refused to turn over all or some of the requested information. This includes Kobach’s own state of Kansas. The commission is nothing more than an attempt to “prove” that millions of votes were illegally cast, which did not happen. Trump still can’t get over the fact that he lost the popular vote by 3 million votes.
- In early July, Hui Chen, a Department of Justice anti-fraud and corruption expert, resigned from her post stating that it was impossible to continue working for the DOJ when President Trump has repeatedly issued statements that she would consider examples of abuses of power and conflicts of interests. She spoke out publicly about the difficulty in "trying to hold companies to standards that our current administration is not living up to".
- Hui Chen’s resignation brings us to the resignation of Walter Shaub, the Director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) who stepped down on July 6th. He described the Trump Administration as a “disappointment” and told NPR that: “even when we’re not talking strictly about violations, we’re talking about abandoning the norms and ethical traditions of the executive branch that have made our ethics program the gold standard in the world, until now.” Although subject to Senate confirmation, President Trump will appoint Shaub’s replacement.
- On July 7, 2017 in a court filing the Department of Labor stated it wanted the right to set the salary threshold that determines who is eligible for overtime pay. An Obama Administration rule that had not gone into effect yet would have made workers earning less than $47,000 a year eligible for overtime pay. The Trump Administration now claims the right to determine that salary threshold and could lower it to limit the number of workers eligible for overtime pay. This is a clear sign that the Trump Administration will support the interests of businesses over workers.
- A July 2017 news report highlighted a February memo sent by the Director of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations division ordering deportation officers to take action against all “removable aliens” without regard for whether or not they have any history of criminal actions. While this is hardly a surprise given the Trump Administration's ongoing efforts to expand deportation, it does contradict Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s publicly stated commitment to focus on deporting immigrants who pose a clear public safety threat.
- The Trump campaign paid Donald Trump Jr.’s lawyer, Alan Futeras, $50,000 two weeks before the meeting that Trump Jr. and 7 others (so far) held with a Russian agent promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr. is a private citizen with plenty of money. Why is his father’s campaign paying his legal fees? In a recent filing the Trump campaign also disclosed an $89,000 payment to the Trump Corporation which is run by Don Jr. and his brother Eric for "legal consulting." I wonder how donors to the Trump campaign feel about their political contributions going into the coffers of Trump’s business. Also worth noting, many White House employees have been told to hire their own defense attorneys at their own personal expense because of the criminal probe by Special Counsel Mueller. Those personal costs could be significant for many employees who do not have access to the resources that the Trump family has.
- According to July 2017 news reports, Trump son-in-law and now government employee Jared Kushner tried and failed to get a $500 million loan from a Qatari businessman. The money was for a New York City building Kushner bought for $1.8 billion. Getting the money was contingent on Kushner securing additional funds for the multi-billion dollar project. That money was supposed to come from the Chinese investment firm Ambang, but the firm pulled out as conflict of interest concerns mounted. After Kushner was turned down, President Trump took a hard line against Qatar, branding it a terrorist state. It is true that we do not know if Trump lashed out at Qatar, contrary to the position taken by his own Secretary of State because of Kushner's influence but the situation reveals a web of conflicts of interest. It's a good illustration of why public officials, especially the President and his advisors, usually avoid even the appearance of a conflict and don’t put themselves in the position of being indebted to others because of their business interests. We may never know if U.S. policy towards a strategic player in the war on terrorism is based solely on the merits or is the result of a bad real estate deal. It's important to note also that Kushner has been granted the highest level of security clearance.
- According to a July 18, 2017 news report Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is considering closing the office responsible for cyber issues and folding it into another department. The position of cyber coordinator would also be downgraded. This would reduce the number of personnel working on cybersecurity issues and sends a troubling message about the seriousness with which the Trump Administration approaches cybersecurity. Given what we already know about Russian interference in the 2016 election, this approach to cybersecurity is the exact opposite of what the White House should be doing.
- On July 14, 2017 it was reported that the White House made public the comments it received so far about its Election Integrity Commission. Personal information, like addresses and places of employment, was not removed from the comments before they were published. The Trump Administration stated that the July 5th Federal Register Notice about the Election Integrity Commission made clear that submitted information would be made public. The problem with this is that about half of the comments came in before the notice was published so not everyone submitting comments was aware their information would become public. This handling of personal information supports the fears that many have over how the Trump Administration will handle the personal voter information it is seeking from states.
- On July 19, 2017 the Department of Justice announced it was reviving the adoptive forfeiture program which had been shut down by the Obama administration. This program gives local law enforcement the authority to confiscate cash and property from people who are simply suspected of a crime. The federal government doesn’t have to wait for a conviction or even for the person to be formally charged. Local law enforcement can keep up to 80 percent of what they confiscate. 20 percent goes to the federal government. By restarting this program local law enforcement agencies can seize the property of people who haven't even been charged with a crime. The median value of these seizures is only $9,000, so there is no evidence to suggest that the adoptive forfeiture program is disrupting drug trafficking rings. Instead, investigations have discovered that these policies affect the poorest neighbors. They empower law enforcement officials to take the money of private citizens who too often cannot afford it and who haven’t even been charged with a crime.
- According to July 2017 news reports, the Department of Health and Human Services cut over $200 million in teen pregnancy prevention grants. Dozens of teen pregnancy prevention centers were notified by the Office of Adolescent Health that their grant funding, which was scheduled to be available through June of 2020, will instead be cut off in June 2018. These facilities provide a range of services such as sex education programs and testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Many of these centers were also using the grant funding to conduct research projects. Because the funding has been cut off, the research cannot be completed.
- In a series of tweets on July 26, 2017 President Trump announced that the United States will not "accept or allow" transgender people in the military, stating that American forces “must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory”. Thousands of transgender Americans are already serving their country with honor and distinction. This does nothing to strengthen our armed forces. It is a cruel and hateful policy rolled out with little thought, an all too common approach with this Administration. In fact, despite Trump’s claims in the tweets that he had consulted with generals and the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military leaders weren’t aware on this. In fact, the Joint Chiefs announced they will not take any action on the basis of a “tweet”.
- On the same day that President Trump was banning transgender people from serving in the military, the Department of Justice was filing an amicus brief in a case before a New York appeals court asserting that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination in the workplace on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” doesn’t apply to discrimination based on sexual orientation. The DOJ is hiding behind Congress, arguing that it’s up to legislators to update the law. Until then, the federal government, in a court filing, is telling the world it’s basically okay for employers to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. I just don’t see any other way to interpret this action by the DOJ. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is a federal agency, is taking the opposite approach in a brief it filed for this case. The EEOC argues that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination, applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation.
- According to July 25, 2017 news reports, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross rejected an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) recommendation protecting summer flounder stocks. The commission concluded that New Jersey was in violation of a conservation plan for summer flounder (fluke) that was approved by all other impacted states. Now that the Commerce Secretary has overruled the ASMFC, overfishing of summer flounder is a real concern. This will have an impact on many other Atlantic cod species up and down the east coast. That stock has fallen 25% since 2010. If the stock falls another 14% then ASMFC would have to reduce fishing quotas drastically and could institute a moratorium on the fluke stock. If the fishing stock did fall another 14%, rebuilding it will not be easy.
- On August 1, 2017, the New York Times reported on a Department of Justice (DOJ) memo recruiting attorneys for a new project that will seemingly be added to the DOJ front office portfolio. This is the office where political appointees are usually assigned. According to the memo, the new project involves “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions”. Staffers will have the authority to investigate institutions of higher learning for evidence that their affirmative action policies discriminate against white applicants. If evidence exists, the DOJ could take action against them. This undermines the real need for diversity on college campuses and in fact may cause university leaders to reduce efforts to increase diversity. The suggestion that this project will be placed in the hands of political appointees freezes out the DOJ’s Educational Opportunities Section where career staffers are responsible for issues involving educational institutions. By pursuing this path, the DOJ is effectively abdicating its responsibility to actually defend affirmative action policies.
- As of the end of July 2017, more than $21 million taxpayer dollars were spent on President Trump’s travel. To put it in perspective, if this pace continues, Trump will spend more on travel in one year than President Obama did in 8 years. The Coast Guard also spent almost $18 million between October of 2016 and March of 2017 due to the President’s travel schedule. The Coast Guard is one of the many federal agencies that the Trump Administration thinks is overfunded. His current budget proposal cuts Coast Guard funding by 14%. The President is already provided with taxpayer funded lodging at the White House, a facility he recently described as a “real dump” according to a Sports Illustrated report on his golfing. Despite this unfortunate characterization of the White House, it certainly seems unfair for taxpayers to cover these duplicate costs at non-federal properties.
- According to an August 1, 2017 Washington Post report, Secretary of State Tillerson has directed State Department leaders to review and update the department’s mission statement as part of an overall internal review. The redrafted mission statement, which is not yet final, omits reference to promoting democracy abroad. The mission statement essentially sets forth the purposes of the United States foreign policy. The only major edit to the current mission statement is the removal of the phrase“. . .just, and democratic. . .” This is not simply a matter of wordsmithing or editing. The State Department is responsible for explaining to foreign governments, those who share our principles and those who do not, the way we see our role in the world. A change in its message could have ugly consequences: it could embolden tyrants and undermine supporters of human rights and the rule of law.
- An August 7, 2017 news report highlights President Trump’s practice of establishing advisory committees to supplement federal agency work in areas ranging from environmental policy and transportation to voting laws. While this practice is permitted under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the Trump Administration is not living up to the letter or spirit of that law. There are requirements to make certain information matters of public record, such as membership and meeting details, for example. Most of these commissions are also made up of non-government employees. For example, the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative, charged with employment creation, is being led by Andrew Liveris who is the Chairman of Dow Chemical. The Administration is rarely releasing required information and some of the commissions are already targets of lawsuits because of this lack of transparency. This disregard for the Federal Advisory Committee Act adds another layer to the secrecy pervading this presidency. These commissions are reviewing and proposing federal policy and their work should not be hidden from the public.
- According to an August 7, 2017 Wall Street Journal report, financial regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) have issued far fewer fines so far this year than during the same period last year. These entities regulate Wall Street and the financial industry. This decline in penalties issued to companies is in keeping with the Trump Administration’s prioritization of business interests over the average consumer.
- According to an August 10, 2017 report from the Environmental Integrity Project, the first 6 months of Trump's presidency has seen the Department of Justice file fewer cases against companies for violating the Clean Water Act, and they have also collected far less in civil penalties. The Trump administration has collected just $12 million in civil penalties, compared to $30 million under the first 6 months of George W. Bush's administration, and $25 million in the Clinton administration’s first six months. In last week's Behind the Curtain we reported on how Wall Street regulators have similarly prioritized business interests over the protection of the average American.
- On August 15, 2017 Trump issued an Executive Order overturning an Obama administration Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. The standard ensured that when federal dollars build infrastructure projects, they factor in increased resilience against flooding from the best available climate science. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, it caused tens of billions of dollars in damage to their infrastructure. Preparing the next generation of infrastructure against storms that are already hitting our coasts not only helps them continue to function after a storm, but also saves us money in the long run.
- On August 12, 2017, the Department of Justice was granted a warrant to obtain a wide range of information about individuals who visited a website used to organize protests to President Trump’s inauguration. In addition to IP addresses for these 1.3 million people, DOJ is also seeking cell phone numbers, credit card information, even photos. This is not the first request by the Trump Administration for sweeping information about U.S. citizens— recall the demand to provide personal information about voters.
- On August 21, 2017 the Washington Post reported that so far in 2017 Republican political organizations, including the Republican National Committee, have spent almost $1.3 million dollars in Trump owned entities. The Trump International Hotel in Washington has been a big beneficiary of this money. Once again, this raises conflict of interest questions for the President, who refuses to divest from his businesses.
- Sam Clovis, who is President Trump's nominee for the Agriculture Department’s Chief Scientist position does not appear to have any actual scientific experience. In addition to being concerned over his apparent lack of qualifications, Clovis also holds very troubling views on homosexuality. CNN reported in August of 2017 that just 5 years ago, Clovis was insisting homosexuality is a choice and LGBTQ individuals shouldn’t have the right of equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. He further argued that by legalizing same sex marriage, it was logical to project that pedophilia could be legalized. Clovis was a talk radio host and CNN reviewed his broadcasts as well as other primary source material as part of their report. UPDATE: On November 1, 2017 Sam Clovis withdrew his name from consideration after getting caught up in Mueller's Russia investigation. Clovis is the high-level campaign official that George Papadopolous spoke to about communicating with Russian officials.
- In August of 2017 the Department of the Interior directed the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to stop work on a study assessing the health effects of coal mining on residents in Central Appalachia communities. There is broad scientific agreement that coal mining is damaging to the environment and has adverse health impacts. Interior Department officials stated that the termination of the study was related to Trump’s proposal to cut the department’s budget by 13%. Trump has long called for a revival of the coal mining industry. This decision ignores the impact of the coal mining industry on the environment and health of some of the poorest rural communities in the country.
- In August of 2017 it was reported that the Department of Education changed the application rules for the Small, Rural School Achievement grants. These formula based grants are available to eligible small school districts and are generally modest awards. In the past, these school districts applied for the grants through a government website. Now, the districts must submit a complicated application involving numerous separate online steps and significantly more information. As a result of the additional requirements, 20% of eligible schools did not apply, even though federal officials extended the deadline. The problem with the additional application steps is they are overly burdensome to the school districts eligible for the grants. Because of their small size, these districts do not have, or cannot spare from other duties, administrative personnel to devote to the expanded applications. There is concern that this grant program will be shrunk, reducing necessary educational resources for rural schools.
- On August 25, 2017, with coverage of Hurricane Harvey dominating the news, President Trump pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of ignoring a court order to stop targeting drivers he believed to be immigrants in traffic stops. Many of Arpaio’s methods were shocking and reprehensible, including keeping those he detained in desert camps without relief from the Arizona heat and subjecting inmates to chain gains. Arpaio showed a remarkable disdain for the law and judicial process. Yet he received a Presidential pardon. Civil liberties groups, advocates for prisoners and immigration activists have long sounded the alarm about Arpaio’s troubling approach to law enforcement. It’s worth noting that Trump was asked why he announced the pardon on a Friday night when the nation’s attention was on a looming natural disaster. His response? “Actually, in the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they were normally.”
- On August 28, 2017 President Trump issued an Executive Order restoring the practice, banned by President Obama in 2015, of giving local police departments access to military surplus equipment. This includes grenade launchers and bayonets that simply do not belong on the streets of any American neighborhood. Militarization of this kind does not foster trust between police officers and the communities they protect.
- On August 29, 2017 the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump Administration withdrew a rule requiring employers with more than 100 employees to report wage data broken down by race and ethnicity to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The data could be used to help the EEOC identify wage discrimination. The reason for withdrawing this rule was basically that it would be too much trouble for businesses. Despite public proclamations by first daughter Ivanka Trump about eliminating the gender wage gap, the Administration has done nothing to accomplish this goal. They have not even offered any specific policies that the administration would pursue to actually eliminate the gap.
- On August 25, 2017 the Boston Globe reported that the White House National Marijuana Initiative, which is funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has asked Massachusetts and several other states where marijuana use has been legalized, for personal information about medical marijuana patients. Requested information includes the medical condition of the patients as well as other identifying data. While the Administration claims the information is simply for research purposes, it raises a whole host of privacy concerns. Since Trump's Attorney General Jeff Sessions is an opponent of legalizing marijuana, it also raises suspicions about the real reasons behind this data collection effort.
- In August of 2017 the Trump Administration nominated Julian Schmoke Jr. to serve as the Department of Education’s Chief Enforcement Officer for the Student Aid Enforcement Unit. Its mission is to identify and terminate fraud and other practices that harm students at institutions of higher learning. Schmoke’s experience includes serving as a Dean at the for-profit DeVry University. The school’s parent company, Adtalem Global Education, paid $100 million as a result of a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint that DeVry was not honest with students about employment opportunities and salary data. A settlement was also reached with the Department of Education over similar allegations. Yet Schmoke was just chosen to lead the office charged with protecting students from some of the very practices his previous employer engaged in.
- At the end of August 2017 the Department of Health and Human Services announced it was cutting the enrollment outreach budget for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by 90% - from $100 million to $10 million. This money is used to increase awareness of the enrollment period, which begins on November 1st. The Administration also cut funding to local organizations that help to support enrollment outreach by over 40%. This is a glaring example of the Trump Administration finding ways to undermine the ACA because so far they have not succeeded legislatively.
- In its August Significant Rulemaking Report, the Department of Transportation announced it was ending the Local Labor Hiring Pilot Program, an initiative that gave local agencies the ability to incorporate hiring preferences tied to geographic location in their transportation contracts. Before this initiative went into effect, contract requirements could only be related to construction issues and price. The intent of the program was to help ensure that quality jobs would be available in urban and low-income areas. Local agencies could require companies overseeing large transportation projects to hire a certain percentage of employees based on geographic location. The Local Labor Hiring Pilot Program was responsible for the creation of thousands of jobs.
- The Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection announced in early September 2017 that it was proceeding on plans to build a wall along the Mexican border. Officials selected 4 companies to construct small sample walls. DHS won’t make the details of the contracts public, another example of the Trump Administration’s lack of transparency. Congress has not authorized the construction of the wall, yet that is not stopping officials from seeking samples with taxpayer dollars and keeping details under wraps.
- In early September 2017 the Washington Post reported that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt has put public affairs staffer John Konkus in charge of vetting grants before they are finalized. Konkus is reportedly the last word on whether grants should be awarded and he has instructed staff to pay close attention to use of the phrase climate change, describing the concept as if it is profanity. He reportedly refers to it as the “double C-word”. Already almost $2 million in grant awards have been cancelled. Konkus does not appear to have any relevant environmental experience and what little he has leads him to target any research having anything to do with climate change.
- In early September 2017 we learned that Desiree Fairooz, who was arrested for laughing during the confirmation hearing of now Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going to trial AGAIN. Here is the context. Fairooz was arrested by a Capitol Police officer after she laughed out loud when Sessions was described as “treating all Americans equally under the law.” A jury ruled in favor of the Justice Department in July, but a judge nullified the decision because laughter is free expression, not a crime. So federal prosecutors are trying again to get a conviction with the second trial scheduled to start in November.
- On September 7, 2017 the Department of Justice weighed in on behalf of a Colorado baker who would not bake a wedding cake for a same sex couple. The case is scheduled to come before the Supreme Court and the federal government is supporting the baker. This is one more window into the Trump Administration’s attitude toward the LGBTQ community and it is troubling that discrimination is being defended as “religious liberty.” A member of the clergy should not be compelled to perform a ceremony that violates his or her faith, but a baker or a florist is selling a product. Such discrimination is no more acceptable on the basis of sexual orientation than on the basis of race.
- In September 2017 Politico reported that Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price used private jets five times in a week for government related travel. Locations visited included Maine, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. In a follow up story today, Politico reported that Price had taken at least 24 private flights in the past few months. Private flights are significantly more expensive than commercial travel and it appears that Price has been traveling this way regularly. The Trump Administration’s budget proposes billions of dollars in cuts, including on health care spending. Yet somehow, there is plenty of money available to charter flights when commercial travel is a viable and more cost effective option.
- In September of 2017 the U.S. Office of Government Ethics reversed a policy that banned White House staffers with legal defense funds from accepting anonymous lobbyist donations for those funds. With the ongoing Russia probe, a number of White House staffers have already obtained legal counsel and others will surely follow suit. Legal fees are expected to be enormous and setting up a defense fund helps defray costs. Now, staffers can accept donations from lobbyists in another weakening of ethics rules.
- The Washington Post reported in September 2017 that taxpayer money was used for Administration staffers to stay at Mar-a-Lago, the so-called “Winter White House” in Florida. Reporters reviewed a lodging receipt for more than $1000 which also showed that the rooms were priced at the “rack rate” which is the standard room rate as opposed to a government rate. So it certainly appears as if Trump is personally profiting from government use of his businesses. There are plenty of other lodging options in the area, yet the luxurious Mar-A-Lago was rented.
- The Trump Administration is weakening oversight of the fledgling self-driving vehicle industry by not making safety assessments mandatory. Under previous guidelines, automakers were required to provide the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) with safety assessment documents. Under the revised directives, manufacturers "may" prepare a Voluntary Safety Self-Assessment and need not submit anything to the federal government. This just makes no sense, particularly because the self-driving car industry is still in development and safety assessments should be an integral component of what they are required to analyze. Business interests are being given priority over the consumer.
- On September 26, 2017 the Trump Administration announced plans to set the refugee cap at 45,000 for the upcoming fiscal year. This is the maximum number of people permitted to enter the United States AFTER thorough vetting has been completed. If this new cap goes into effect, it would be the lowest since 1980. This cap has never in recent years been set below 67,000. At a moment in time when there are more refugees and displaced persons than at any other time in human history, including in the aftermath of World War II, this is a disgraceful retreat. According to the Department of State website, many of these persons can be resettled in their home countries or regions, but serious planning or funding for such efforts remain to be proposed.
- On September 25, 2017 the Director of Enforcement for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) announced that the commission was taking a new approach to monitoring the financial industry. The CFTC will allow the industry to police itself, reporting to the commission when financial services officials discover internal wrongdoing. The CFTC has a number of oversight responsibilities, including regulating derivatives. These are the financial products that created toxic turmoil during the 2008 economic crisis. Warren Buffet famously described derivatives as "Weapons of Mass Destruction." The new head of enforcement has decided that the largest financial institutions are actually great partners for law enforcement. So the CFTC is reducing monetary penalties and allowing these institutions to police themselves. By taking this approach the CFTC is forgetting the lessons of 2008 and taking us back to the Wild West days of the financial crisis.
- We included Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tom Price on this list last week because of his use of private planes over commercial flights for government travel (more on that later). Going onto the list this week is Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. The Washington Post reported this week that he too has chosen private or military flights over commercial, costing taxpayers $58,000. That’s not all Pruitt is spending money on. He also ordered the installation of a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) — a secure soundproof structure — for secure communication. Pruitt’s SCIF is costing taxpayers about $25,000, much higher than the approximately $6,000 they usually cost because of requested modifications and upgrades. There is already a secure communication facility on another floor at the EPA. Pruitt also has three times more security agents for a 24 hour security detail. The EPA has hired additional agents and has had to divert agents from other responsibilities — like enforcement of environmental policies and investigation of possible violations. By way of reminder, the Trump Administration has proposed cutting the EPA’s budget by 31%.
- Now back to Mr. Price. In a follow up report the week of September 26, 2017, Politico revealed that Price has spent more than $1 million on private and military travel since May. Half of that total involved military flights to Africa, Asia and Europe. In one instance, he traveled to St. Simons Island in Georgia where he owns property on a Friday to give a speech to a medical association on Sunday. One of the reasons given for choosing private travel over commercial flights was that sometimes the commercial flights couldn’t get Mr. Price where he needed to go in a timely fashion. Surely he could have found a more cost effective alternative if he was willing to leave two days early. The Inspector General for HHS is now investigating Price’s use of private travel and he has pledged to pay for the cost of his seat on the charter flights. This is a fraction of the actual cost of chartering the planes and so far does not include the military flights.
- In a September 29, 2017 Executive Order President Trump rescinded an Obama Administration initiative establishing Labor Management Forums. They were opportunities for managers and employees to share concerns and ideas about issues in the workplace. Participants would collaborate to solve problems and make improvements. Two sides working together can sometimes come up with solutions in ways that one side working alone cannot. The Administration cited best uses of “taxpayer resources” when issuing the Executive Order. It’s not clear how taxpayer resources are wasted when managers and employees cooperate to improve the workplace environment.
- In September of 2017 the Wall Street Journal reported that the Treasury Department removed a report prepared by its own Office of Tax Analysis. This is worth noting because that report directly contradicted an argument the Trump Administration is making to push its tax proposal. Secretary Mnuchin claims that Trump’s tax plan relieves workers of a tax burden because nearly every penny of the corporate tax burden is passed along to them in the form of fewer workers and lower wages. However, the report by the Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Analysis shows that the exact opposite happens. So the report was removed from Treasury’s website. Officials claimed the report was taken down because it was written in 2012 and is therefore dated, but other Office of Tax Analysis reports going back 40 years are still on the website. This has nothing to do with an old report and everything to do with obscuring how bad Trump’s tax plan really is.
- Add Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke to the growing list of Trump Administration officials using taxpayer dollars for private air travel. According to October 2017 news reports, the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General is investigating Zinke’s use of charter planes over commercial air travel. In one instance, Zinke was in Las Vegas where he participated in an event with a hockey team owned by a campaign donor. Zinke is a former Congressman from Montana which is where he flew to after his Las Vegas event.
- On October 2, 2017 all Trump Administration appointees to the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) voted to remove AIG from the list of companies designated a Systemically Important Financial Institution (SIFI). You may recall that insurance giant AIG received a $185 billion federal bailout during the 2008 financial crisis. This means that AIG is no longer subject to enhanced Federal Reserve oversight and certain regulations that apply to all SIFIs. The independent insurance member and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen voted with the Trump appointees to the FSOC to reclassify AIG because the company is smaller than it was during the crisis. Notably, the leaders of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation all dissented. Just 9 years after the crisis, one of the companies bearing responsibility for it has been essentially downgraded for regulatory purposes. As an insurance company, AIG will now be subject to the state-level oversight and not more comprehensive federal oversight.
- In an October 4, 2017 memo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice will no longer apply Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to discrimination based on gender identity. This represents a reversal of the Obama Administration’s application of the law. In the memo Sessions wrote: “Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination encompasses discrimination between men and women, but does not encompass discrimination based on gender identity per se, including transgender status.”
- According to October 2017 news reports, the Department of Justice overruled decades of precedent in January, making it possible for President Trump to hire his daughter and son-in-law. Memos from the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Obama make clear that under a 1967 nepotism law, Presidents cannot appoint their family members to any paid or unpaid positions. The Trump Administration’s Justice Department basically threw out all previous legal guidance on nepotism, making it possible for Trump to hire daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared, which he did.
- On October 5, 2017 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) disagreed with the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) decision to allow Equifax to serve as an interim fraud prevention contractor for the federal government. Equifax holds the current contract but another company recently won the bid. Equifax is protesting the loss of the contract and the IRS is now reviewing the process. The GAO maintains that the IRS could have given the interim contract to the company it chose over Equifax as it reviewed the contract awarding process. I am sure you recall that Equifax has been in the news quite a bit lately for a data breach that exposed 145 million consumers’ personal information to hackers. Yet the IRS apparently doesn’t see the problem with allowing Equifax to continue doing fraud prevention work for the federal government. The GAO argues that the law gives the IRS the authority to award a contract to the winning bidder even if the current contractor is challenging the process under certain circumstances. Certainly, awarding a company that mishandled the personal data of 145 million customers with a fraud prevention contract qualifies. UPDATE: As this newsletter was going through the final editing process, news broke that the IRS finally suspended Equifax’s government contract.
- During a confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on October 4, 2017, Michael Dourson, who is President Trump’s nominee to lead the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, refused to definitively state that he would recuse himself from all matters that would conflict with former employment. While this is concerning from an ethical standpoint, it is even more concerning because Dourson founded Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment (TERA) where he routinely issued reports favorable to chemical companies. Some of those reports were paid for by chemical companies and TERA regularly issued findings asserting that safety standards for certain pesticides and chemicals should be much lower than current federal and state regulations. It is expected that Dourson will be confirmed by the full Senate, putting him in charge of an office that is involved with protecting the public from pesticide.
- On October 6, 2017 Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued guidance that greatly expands interpretation of the protections granted religious groups and others when their beliefs are at odds with government regulation. He wrote: “To the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law, religious observance and practice should be reasonably accommodated in all government action, including employment, contracting and programming.” Given this Administration’s previous actions, it’s not hard to see an abuse of this directive that discriminates against the LGBTQ community and others. If an employer does not believe in same sex marriage, the AG has basically given that employer license to reject a candidate solely on that basis.
- On October 9, 2017 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that Administrator Scott Pruitt would take steps to repeal the Clean Power Plan, an Obama Administration rule intended to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. Abandoning this policy shows a cynical disregard for the reality of global warming. It also has health consequences. During the previous Administration, the EPA estimated that the Clean Power Plan could prevent thousands of deaths and reduce asthma attacks in children.
- In October 2017, the sabotaging of the ACA, as described in the October 13, 2017 e-Update.
- According to October 2017 news reports, White House advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner did not disclose his ownership stake in Cadre, a real estate investment firm, on his financial disclosure form. Kushner founded this company with his brother so it’s hard to imagine how he could have forgotten to list it. By not disclosing his role at Cadre, Kushner maintained ownership in the company during a period of time when it was raising millions of dollars from private investors. Kushner has left relevant details out of his filings before. This latest news is one more item on the list of ethical issues surrounding Kushner and certainly indicates an attitude that the rules don't apply to him or his family.
- According to September 2017 documentation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has greatly weakened its guidance on acceptable levels of radiation exposure. The EPA’s new guidelines allow for a level of radiation basically equal to 5,000 chest x-rays or ten times the amount of radiation contamination previously acceptable. This is a concerning rollback with no basis in health or science.
- Bloomberg News reported in October of 2017 that the Treasury Department’s Office of the Inspector General is reviewing whether acting chief of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Keith Noreika, is in violation of the rules in place for special government employees. Under the rules, Noreika cannot hold his position more than 130 days because he was hired as a “special government employee.” The Trump Administration used this designation to hire Noreika, a former bank lawyer, without going through the Senate confirmation process. Noreika is claiming that the 130 day requirement applies only to working days so he still has time. The IG is reviewing whether he should have left by September 12th. The timing is significant because Noreika voted on September 29th to de-designate AIG as a systemically important financial institution, which gave the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) the two thirds vote it needed to de-designate AIG. As we reported in Behind the Curtain #167, AIG played a big role in the 2008 economic crisis and downgrading its status allows it to escape more rigorous federal oversight.
- According to an October 2017 Politico report, the Trump Administration is moving appointees requiring Senate confirmation into their jobs before they’ve actually been confirmed. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act prohibits nominees from serving in an acting capacity while awaiting Senate action. This appears to be happening, for example, at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and at the State Department. The Administration nominated Susan Bodine to oversee the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. While she awaits confirmation, Bodine is already working with EPA Secretary Pruitt on enforcement issues. This certainly appears to violate the intention of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Mary Waters is Trump’s nominee for Assistant Secretary of State, Legislative Affairs. While she awaits Senate confirmation Waters is essentially already doing her job as well.
- According to October 2017 news reports the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has eliminated numerous climate change resources from its online offerings. This includes sections covering the observed impact of climate change as well as guidance for states and municipalities on handling weather extremes and resources for reducing emissions. EPA officials insist that the pages and the information available through them have just been archived. That argument rings hollow because this particular website used to bear the title: “Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments”. Now it is simply called “Energy Resources for State, Local and Tribal Governments”. This web site scrubbing is more glaring evidence that the Trump Administration is dismissive of well-established scientific evidence on climate change. It is particularly damaging because the missing resources on this particular website are specifically tailored to local communities who simply don’t have the resources to address climate change on their own.
- On October 24, 2017 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal the “main studio rule” which required radio and television owners to have a physical presence in the geographic areas that their broadcast licenses covered. Eliminating the “main studio rule” will most certainly diminish local voices. News coverage can now originate from ownership’s headquarters, where a national news broadcast could replace local news. This increases the likelihood that viewers and listeners will be subject to a broad national message rather than informed local and regional coverage.
- On October 24, 2017 the Senate made official what the House advanced in July when it voted to block a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (Consumer Bureau) rule limiting arbitration agreements. Pre-dispute binding arbitration clauses are a common feature of contracts today. We consumers must often agree to give up our right to sue a company for any future violation before we can participate in today’s modern economy. It is unlikely that you will be able to purchase a cell phone, open a bank account, take out a student loan or even place a loved one in a nursing home without forgoing your right to sue the company providing such products and services, regardless of the injury you may experience or the egregiousness of the company’s practices.
To correct this injustice, the Consumer Bureau issued a rule that would have reinstated the right of consumers to join together in class-action lawsuits, often the only way to get a big company to change its practices and make millions of consumers whole. As soon as the rule was published in the Federal Register this summer, House Republicans rushed to block it using an obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act (CRA) which allows Congress to overturn an agency’s regulations within 60 days and prevents the agency from ever considering the issue again without express Congressional authorization. This week, Senate Republicans completed this outrageous assault on consumer rights. They too voted to block the rule, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tiebreaking vote. Wall Street considers this a huge win, and it is for them. A company like Wells Fargo that thinks acceptable business practice includes opening up millions of deposit accounts and credit cards without their customers’ authorization has less to fear now. As does a company like Equifax that failed to properly secure the sensitive personal data of over 145 million Americans and then included a forced arbitration clause in the fine print of the credit monitoring product it offered those same consumers in the wake of the breach. We’ll leave you with this quote as reported by the New York Times: “Tonight’s vote is a giant setback for every consumer in this country,” Richard Cordray, the director of the consumer bureau, said in a statement. “As a result, companies like Wells Fargo and Equifax remain free to break the law without fear of legal blowback from their customers.” UPDATE: On November 2, 2017 President Trump signed H.J. Res. 111 into law.
- On October 26, 2017 the House passed the Senate budget resolution, which increases the deficit, slashes domestic spending and helps advance irresponsible tax cuts. You can read more about it here.
- The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) appears to be changing its approach to companies that enter into settlement agreements to remedy wrongdoing. Under the Obama Administration, companies were required to acknowledge responsibility when entering into these agreements with the SEC. This was not a requirement in every instance. Rather, the SEC required an admission of responsibility from either an individual or corporation in approximately 2% of all settlement agreements. Now, the SEC is eliminating even that small percentage. This is partly due to the fact that the SEC budget keeps getting cut, reducing its investigative and enforcement ability. The Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans don’t seem to be interested in giving an agency responsible for policing the market and holding bad actors accountable with the resources it needs. Now, SEC leadership can simply say: sorry, we don’t have enough money to do our job so we’re reducing our enforcement efforts. This is exactly the wrong way to go. Companies and individual executives don’t have to own up to any wrongdoing. They can just pay a fine and chalk it up as a cost of doing business.
- Foreign Policy reported in October 2017 that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson closed the Coordinator for Sanctions Policy Office. This is the office responsible for managing issues related to sanctions policy. The news comes as we learn that the Trump Administration missed an October 1st deadline to issue penalties against Russia. Now, the Policy Planning Office will take over the responsibilities of the defunct sanctions policy office. Staff in the planning office have historically played an advisory role and did not oversee any programming at the State Department. By missing this important deadline and closing the sanctions office, the Administration is exhibiting a troubling lack of commitment to the requirements of the Russia sanctions legislation overwhelmingly approved by Congress. It also calls into question their ability to manage sanctions policy at all.
- According to an October 2017 FiveThirtyEight report, the first “Crime in the United States Report” issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under the Trump Administration includes significantly less data than previous reports. The FBI collects information from law enforcement agencies all over the country and uses it to compile an annual report that provides a window into crime trends and activity throughout the country. FiveThirtyEight’s analysis found that the 2016 report contains almost 70% less data tables than the 2015 report. Greatly reducing the amount of information available in this annual report makes it more difficulty to identify and address crime trends. In the past, an FBI Advisory Policy Board ultimately determined what data remained in the report and what should be removed. Now the FBI’s public affairs office has that responsibility. It certainly raises the question of how decisions are being made about the data in the report. It cloaks information that was previously available and makes it more difficult to study crime trends or propose policy.
- On November 2, 2017 President Trump signed into law a resolution that blocks the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s rule prohibiting financial services companies from preventing consumers from filing class action lawsuits. We recently learned that the Trump Organization also uses forced arbitration clauses to prevent its employees from suing. This applies to all their employees, including landscapers and housekeepers, who must give up their right to litigation through arbitration agreements if they want to work for the Trump Organization. The policy itself is a bad one - it prevents individuals from choosing for themselves how to seek a remedy. By signing this policy into law, Trump is also highlighting in bold bright colors the specific conflict of interest that he has with respect to this. Trump has refused to divest his interests in his companies. To put it bluntly, less lawsuits for the Trump Organization equals more profit for Trump.
- According to November 2017 news reports, the Trump Administration argued to the U.S. Court of Appeals that federal courts have no legal authority to rule on whether a President is properly conducting a war, regardless of whether a relevant Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) has been approved by Congress. The Administration is making this case as part of an appeal filed by a former Army analyst. His complaint is based on his belief that President Obama did not have a proper AUMF in place for actions in Iraq and Syria, instead utilizing AUMFs which were passed in 2001 and 2002 in the aftermath of September 11th. The War Powers Act requires presidents to obtain Congressional approval within 60 days of initiating military action. Making the argument that a federal court cannot weigh in on whether a president is properly conducting a war is breathtaking, even for the Trump Administration.
- Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai wants to limit the effectiveness of the Lifeline program by restricting its budget. This program is available to qualified household so they can reduce the monthly cost of internet access or phone service. Over 13 million low-income Americans rely on the program, which was established in 1985 for phone service and expanded in 2016 for internet access. The argument to limit the budget is the old “waste, fraud and abuse” excuse. Students rely on internet access for homework, parents rely on it to communicate with their children’s teachers and job seekers need access for employment opportunities. Pai wants to cap the program so that after it reaches an unspecified limit, qualified recipients will no longer receive assistance.
- In November 2017 the non-profit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists began releasing the “Paradise Papers”. This is a collection of documents shedding light on the financial ties of numerous public figures from executives and world leaders to celebrities. In the process, the papers have also highlighted connections that exist between Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr and Russians who are close with Vladimir Putin. Ross holds equity in Navigator Holdings, which is a Russian shipping company. One of that company’s clients is Sibur, owned by a Putin family member. This is yet another link between the Trump Administration and Russia and one more example of troubling conflicts of interest.
- In October 2017 Vice President Pence and his wife Karen walked out of an Indianapolis Colts football game when some players took a knee during the national anthem. Pence’s action was clearly a publicity stunt and not an unplanned reaction. Well, that publicity stunt cost taxpayers about $250,000 in federal dollars. In November, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington announced that the stunt also cost the local police department more than $14,000, according to records the organization obtained. Regardless of how one feels about the anthem protests, the Vice President’s actions represent a clear disregard for taxpayer dollars.
- According to November 2017 media reports, the total amount of fines issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) dropped in FY 2017, which ended on September 30th. The SEC regulates Wall Street and the financial industry. This drop in fines is not because there are suddenly fewer violations that warrant scrutiny or that Wall Street has suddenly voluntarily strengthened its own oversight. Few would describe Wells Fargo as a good corporate citizen, for example. With penalties on institutions going down, it encourages risky activity because there is less concern that institutions will be held accountable.
- President Trump has nominated Brett J. Talley to serve as a federal district judge in Alabama, a position requiring Senate confirmation. Talley’s nomination should trouble anyone who cares about the integrity of the judiciary. In addition to the fact that he has never tried a case, Talley was also rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association in September. Talley did not disclose on a required Senate questionnaire that his wife is the Chief of Staff to the White House Counsel.
- On November 16, 2017 the House passed H.R. 1, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
- On November 14, 2017 the House passed H.R. 2874, the 21st Century Flood Reform Act.
- In November 2017 the State Department announced it will no longer accept applications for the Central American Minors (CAM) refugee program. Under this program young persons could be interviewed in their home countries to request refugee status based on fears of violence or persecution. The CAM program also allowed parents who are legally in the United States to seek refugee status for their children. The program gave eligible children the opportunity to seek safety in the U.S. Now, children trying to escape gang and domestic violence have no clear path out. If they choose to flee, their journey is certain to be more dangerous. Some won’t survive. Others will be caught by criminals and trafficked. This is a callous decision that puts young lives at risk.
- According to November 2017 news reports, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is delaying the implementation of worksite inspection rules that were drafted during the Obama Administration. One of these rules requires management to conduct safety inspections at the beginning of a shift or work day. Instead, MSHA would let mining officials determine when to conduct the safety inspections. A safety risk could be present but go undetected for all or part of a shift because management would no longer be required to ensure that working conditions are acceptable before employees are on site. MSHA is also considering eliminating a rule requiring workers to make note of safety hazards they identify during their shift if those safety hazards are immediately resolved. This clearly puts workers at risk. If the safety hazard involved a piece of equipment that was repaired on the spot, that same piece of equipment could break again but there would be no record to alert workers that there had been a problem with it.
- According to November 2017 news reports, numerous Justice Department employees are assigned to lawsuits that involve President Trump’s private business interests. This is a clear misuse of taxpayer dollars for the President’s personal interests. While the Justice Department certainly is responsible for defending the office of the President in court, these cases involve his private businesses. The President has refused to completely separate himself from his business interests and this has presented legal issues, including lawsuits. Now, lawyers from the Justice Department are essentially defending Trump’s decisions not to separate himself from all his business interests and taxpayers are paying for it.
- In response to Congress overwhelmingly passing tough sanctions against Russia in July, President Putin demanded an almost 50% reduction of U.S. diplomatic staff stationed in Russia. Embassy guards and others responsible for security were among those employees who lost their positions. We learned from November news reports that the Trump Administration has responded to the need for security staff by hiring Elite Security Holdings. The company was established by General Viktor Budanov who is a former KGB agent. Budanov’s son, Dimitry, is now running the company. So, taxpayers are paying a security company founded by a Russian spy to protect our embassy in Moscow and the diplomats working there at a cost of almost $3 million.
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has instructed its employees to treat all H-1B visa renewal applications as if the applicant were seeking a visa for the first time. 85,000 H-1B visas are available annually for qualified foreign workers in specialty fields such as technology or engineering. H-1B visas are valid for three years and can be renewed for an additional three. As a result of the new directive, approximately 25% of renewal applicants are now required to submit additional documentation and evidence to support their renewal request, even if the applicant’s specific circumstances have not substantially changed. This will delay the overall process and could ultimately reduce the number of individuals who are approved for renewal. This is not a matter of simply applying additional scrutiny. It is one more way that the Trump Administration is discouraging educated and talented immigrants from coming here and contributing to our economy and society.
- In a disheartening sign of the United States’ continuing retreat from global leadership, the State Department removed Iraq, Myanmar and Afghanistan from the list of countries using child soldiers. The 2008 Child Soldier Prevention Act requires that the State Department produce this list annually. Countries identified as using child soldiers are not eligible to receive military aid or training from the United States. President Obama waived sanctions for Iraq in 2016, presumably because he believed Iraq needed both aid and training. But this marks the first time that countries have been removed from the list. In response, some State Department employees sent Secretary Tillerson a memo expressing dissent on the decision, because the three countries taken off the list do in fact actively recruit and deploy child soldiers. Tillerson responded to the memo by basically admitting the three countries still use child soldiers but they were making progress toward ending the practice. This is not enough to justify giving these countries access to military resources.
- In November the Federal Communications Commission voted to eliminate the media cross-ownership ban, which prohibited one company from owning a newspaper and other media outlet in the same community. This will allow a single company to own radio and television stations and also a newspaper in the same geographic area, giving that company an outsized voice in the dissemination of information.
- In November 2017 President Trump named Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in an action many believe illegal under current law. The White House’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) asserted that Trump was within his authority to name a successor. The lawyer who wrote the memo making that legal argument is Steven Engel. According to the Intercept, Engel’s last job was for an entity currently being sued by the CFPB for the illegal collection of fees and loans and for making threats to consumers who weren’t making payments that they weren’t required to make in the first place. There is no question that this is a conflict of interest for Engel and clearly the Trump Administration doesn’t care about that. Mulvaney has referred to the agency he is now leading as "a sad, sick joke.” Congress intended the CFPB to be an independent agency. Putting Mulvaney who reports directly to Trump and is, moreover, on the record expressing his disdain for the agency, allows the Administration to delay the public Senate confirmation process.
- According to media reports, President Trump has interviewed candidates for U.S. Attorney positions in New York and in Washington D.C. This is not standard operating procedure, in fact, it is quite the opposite. Keep in mind Trump has significant business interests in New York and in D.C. and U.S. Attorneys would have jurisdiction over any investigations with those business dealings. There is also the matter of the Mueller investigation. It is quite possible, even likely, that charges related to that investigation would be considered in these venues. Federal prosecutors personally vetted by Trump could be making decisions that determine the trajectory of the Russia investigation, including issuing indictments. Federal prosecutors work for the people, not the President. By inserting himself so directly in this process, Trump is undermining the integrity and the independence of these offices.
- Just after Thanksgiving we all learned exactly what President Trump’s love for the game of golf is costing us. Since taking office, Trump has spent 81 days at one of his golf properties. While this doesn’t mean he has golfed every one of those days, we do know he has played many times. This has cost the Secret Service about $150,000 in golf carts so they can be close enough to protect the President while he pitches and putts. No one is suggesting that the President does not deserve some down time but all indications are he is playing quite a bit of it. It’s worth pointing out that before he was President, Trump repeatedly criticized Obama for playing golf.
- On Monday December 4, 2017 President Trump announced he was reducing the size of two national monuments in Utah. Bears Ears National Monument was reduced by 85% and the Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monument was cut in half. There is great concern among conservation and environmental groups as well as Native American Indian tribes about the implications of such a sweeping reversal. There is also concern that the Administration will start to open some of the excluded land to commercial and business development including mining and extraction of oil and gas.
- On Wednesday December 6, 2017 the Trump Administration sided against unions in a brief that the Office of Solicitor General submitted to the Supreme Court in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The issue in question is whether unions are permitted to collect “fair-share fees” from employees who decide not to be union members. These fees cover collective bargaining expenses and other aspects of representing that employee, which unions are required by law to do. The money cannot be used for political purposes. Unions argue that they are required to represent the nonmember employee and the fees help cover the cost associated with that. The Trump Administration is siding with the plaintiff, and opposing the fees. Earlier this year I spoke to a large group of union members and warned them about actions just like this. The Administration’s position on this is one of many persistent quiet attacks on unions that might not make the top of the news cycle. However, if AFSCME loses this case, it will seriously threaten organized labor. It will allow individuals to receive raises in pay and improvements in working conditions gained through collective bargaining without contributing to the costs. It’s easy to see how many people could choose not to be a union member and therefore not pay any dues. Unions won’t be able to continue representing their members in negotiations or in grievance procedures without resources provided by paying members.
Here are some informative online news services to help you find reports from Boston and the region, as well as national and international news stories.
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