PPC News

Republicans Say No to “Lame Duck” Supreme Court Appointment–Who Are You Calling Lame?

Within the first hour of the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had decisively emerged from mourning and rejoined the battle against functional democracy. “This vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President,” said McConnell. “Delay, delay, delay,” constitutional expert Donald Trump added, just to clarify. But when it comes to inaction, obstruction, and down-right sabotage, the Republican-controlled Senate already knows the drill.

Republicans say the American people should have a voice in choosing the next Supreme Court Justice.  But the American people have spoken, and now their voice must be honored. They spoke when they denied last-honest-cynic McConnell his number one goal by reelecting Barak Obama. And each state had a voice when it originally voted to be governed by the Constitution, including Article II, which clearly states that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint … Judges of the Supreme Court….”

President Obama—an actual expert on and former professor of constitutional law—knows that. Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and all their Senate colleagues know that, too. After all, by their oath of office they swore to support and defend the Constitution.  Past presidents in their final year in office have known that, too, and have a history of performing their constitutional duty without past Senates balking at performing theirs.

What would Justice Scalia think of this abdication of constitutional responsibility by so many of his most ardent admirers? As the expounder of textual originalism, the doctrine that one should look to the text of the law and interpret it as it was intended at the time it was adopted, Justice Scalia would have pointed out that Article II doesn’t contain any exceptions for what Republican leaders are calling a “lame duck” presidency. Even those who typically disagreed with Justice Scalia find the Republican interpretation of the Constitution laugh-out-loud lame.

Which brings us to the definition “lame duck.” A lame duck presidency refers to the period between the election of a president’s successor and time that successor assumes office. We are obviously not in that period.

However, there’s another definition of lame duck: an ineffectual person or thing. This hardly describes a president who in the last months alone has taken decisive action on gun violence, immigration, protecting environmentally sensitive lands, and averting a nuclear confrontation in Iran, all in the face of relentless opposition. That doesn’t exactly sound ineffectual.

But what about the obduracy, stalling, and grandstanding by the Senate’s Republican majority that have rendered this vaunted institution dysfunctional and ineffectual at legislating? By preventing its members from performing their moral and constitutional duty to serve the American people, Republicans have reduced the Senate to political theater, little more than a partisan tool that sets the bar of expectation pathetically low and still fails to clear it. Now that is truly lame. What we are stuck with might be called a “lame duck Senate.”

Gail Gottlieb
Public Policy Committee

Trade Policy Clouds Obama’s Climate Legacy

“Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now,” said President Obama during his memorable trip to the Arctic in August 2015, just months after approving Shell’s drilling off the coast of Alaska.

That contradiction captures the mixed record of our president on what has been described as the only issue that will matter 100and 10,000 – years out. Renewables have become the largest new source of electricity after federal tax credits were passed, state targets adopted, and costs decreased. The president had embraced an all-of-the-above climate-change strategy that included so-called “clean coal.” Nevertheless coal has experienced major setbacks. The president’s Clean Power Plan (recently stayed by the Supreme Court) and the moratorium on coal leases on federal lands, pending a comprehensive environmental review, may further weaken that polluting sector.

Nationally, a divided Congress has blocked cap-and-trade legislation and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies. Internationally, the president rejected the controversial Keystone XL pipeline ahead of the Paris Climate Talks, then advanced a global accord of voluntary, nonbinding commitments. If met, those commitments should limit warming to 2.7- to 3.5-degree Celsius versus longstanding, reaffirmed targets of 1.5 or 2 degrees. “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster,” wrote the The Guardian’s George Monbiot. He, like others, highlighted the need to slow fossil fuel extraction (80 percent must stay in the ground to limit warming to two degrees.)

The president understands climate action will be a crucial part of his legacy. Climate change will devastate humanity by transforming agriculture, hunger, war zones, and clean water supplies. Cross-cutting policies must be marshalled to limit it.

Yet climate protections are being undermined in trade agreements. Strong efforts to include enforceable carbon targets in global climate talks have borne no fruit, even as trade agreements support unlimited monetary compensation for corporations affected by governmental climate action.

President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which fails to mention climate change, provides an example of such an agreement. Under the TPP, Investor-State Dispute Settlements would be used to address multinational corporations’ claims that government regulations to prevent climate change (or other concerns) will reduce their profits. Banks and corporations would be able to use arbitration panels, whose members may harbor bias resulting from their corporate careers, to sue governments for billions when they act to protect their citizens.

The TPP also promotes the extraction of dirty fossil fuels. It requires the U.S. Department of Energy to approve heavily polluting liquefied natural gas exports to signatory nations. All for what, exactly? Several studies have found the agreement will produce minimal or negative growth, job losses, and greater inequality. Both Democratic candidates for president oppose the TPP, and Congress should not ratify it.

Other trade deals with provisions similar to the TPP’s are already being used to undermine climate action. TransCanada is suing the US for $15 billion under NAFTA investment provisions like those in the TPP, after the president rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline. This followed the largest environmental protests in decades aimed at stopping the transport of dirty energy. Earlier this week, the World Trade Organization ruled that “buy local” provisions of Indian law that have helped develop India’s fast-growing solar sector are illegal. Such provisions are being used in almost one-half of American states to grow renewable energy and create jobs but will face obstacles in the TPP. Trade deals, ironically, may seal the fate of the planet.

President Obama also plans to sign the Customs Bill, which contains a negotiating objective to keep the United States Trade Representative from addressing climate change in trade agreements that use the fast track process. Future trade agreements will likely contain enforceable sanctions, like increased tariffs or monetary damages. Why discourage their use in addressing this top priority?

Despite President Obama’s urgent warnings in Alaska that climate change could “condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair,” he seems to have curbed his climate ambition. The president should call for creating the renewable energy future that is possible, in parallel with keeping fossil fuels buried. He must call out the corporations that have undermined his climate goals through trade or politics. Such actions will strengthen his presidential legacy.

Veena Trehan
Social and Economic Justice Task Force

Is Greenland Melting?

Greenland got its name from Viking settlers in the 9th century during a warm period in earth’s history. Present day Greenland is white, covered with a thick ice sheet and many massive glaciers.

But Greenland’s ice is changing as a result of human-driven increases in global temperatures. Greenland’s glaciers have been shrinking for many yearsA recent study, published in December in the scientific journal Nature, shows that Greenland’s ice loss is now accelerating much more rapidly. This study covers the years 1900 through 2010 by combining several information sources: recent marks left on the land by retreating glaciers; aerial photography; and since 1983, satellite and aircraft measurements. The data show that in 2003-2015, ice loss more than doubled in comparison to the rest of the period studied. The rate of melting is contributing an estimated 186 billion metric tons of ice loss annually, a frightening amount of meltwater to add to the already rising level of the earth’s seas.

Ice loss will continue as global temperature increases.  The goal set by the recent Paris accords would hold the increase to below 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit. IF temperature rise slows then Greenland may stay white. Unfortunately, the latest news is that 2015 is the warmest year on record, and January 2016 the warmest January on record.

Will the world’s nations do their part?  Will the U.S. be able to counter roadblocks from the fossil fuel industry and allied politicians?  It is time for us to educate Americans on what we must do to avoid catastrophic flooding of our planet.

Jean Stewart, Chair
Environment and Energy Task Force

Governor Snyder’s Politics Are Poisoning Flint’s Children

Republican Governor Rick Snyder and a “Tea Party” Republican legislature gained control of Michigan in the 2010 midterm elections. Snyder was eager to implement Koch brothers-inspired changes in governance, which he characterized as “fiscal martial law.” By spring of 2011, the Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act (PA4) was rushed into law without public commentary to declare a “fiscal emergency” for any municipality or public service. PA4 set the stage for the tragedy that poisoned both the drinking water and the public trust in Flint, Michigan.

Once the governor declares a “fiscal emergency,” he can appoint an Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) who “will exercise any power or authority over any officer, employee, department, board, commission or other similar entity of the local government whether appointed or elected.” EFMs come to power through corporate or political connections and have absolute control over democratically elected officials. There is no redress for an EFM’s decisions to seize pensions, confiscate public parks or schools for private development or outsource or insource any public workers (police for instance).

EFM Actions: In 2013, EFM Howard Kurtz decided to end Flint’s use of clean Detroit water for cheaper water piped into by a pipeline still under construction. His successor, Darnell Earley, followed that decision with the disastrous choice to forget the proposed pipeline and immediately changed to water from the Flint River. Earley stated $1.5 million would thus be saved.

No studies of Flint River water were ordered, and no environmental experts were consulted. But it was well known that the General Motors plant in Flint had previously refused to use Flint water “because it (the water) rusted car parts.”

EFM Earley’s second decision, which was horrific, was to omit adding a “corrosive inhibitor treatment” to Flint River water. Omitting the corrosive inhibitor saved $140 per day but destroyed the linings of the entire Flint water pipe system, allowing lead from the corroded pipes to leech into every Flint citizen’s drinking water.

By March 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies revealed Flint water to be contaminated with chemical and bacterial infestations and violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. EFM Earley and Governor Snyder were notified but did not publicly acknowledge that Flint’s water was poisoned. However, Governor Snyder quietly ordered bottled water delivered to all state employees working in Flint.

At the same time, a courageous pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hannah-Attisha, held a press conference and advised Governor Snyder her young patients’ blood lead levels had “spiked dangerously high” and that an increasing number of children were being affected.  Her results were strongly challenged and she was publically berated for being an “alarmist.”

Finally, on January 26, 2016, the U.S. Attorney’s office began an investigation into why Flint’s water is so contaminated now when it had been clean and clear two years ago.  Governor Snyder immediately called a press conference and declared that he was “Sorry about the water …. I will fix the problem,” but he disguised his own responsibility by adding “your government failed you at all levels.” He did not offer any state money for bottled water or blood lead level testing from Michigan’s Rainy Day fund.

President Obama immediately declared a State of Emergency and has ordered Federal Emergency Management Assistance (FEMA) funds and experts to manage the water crisis.  So Governor Snyder continues to refuse personal responsibility for the potentially life threatening consequences of the decisions of his specially appointed EFM Darnell Earley to “save money” for Michigan.

What Now? For now, billions of gallons of bottled water will continue to be paid for by the federal government and donated by service organizations. But the long- term solution needed to end the lead poisoning by Flint River water is to replace hundreds of miles of Flint city water pipes and all water pipes in individual homes, which is likely to take 15 years and cost at least $60 million, according to e-mails released by Governor Snyder.

To date, no specific plans for complete rebuilding of Flint’s water system have been identified. Meanwhile, Flint’s citizens continue to be billed $100 per month for lead-contaminated water that neither humans or farm animals or pets can drink. And Flint’s children will be forever diminished intellectually in addition to suffering from other very serious chronic medical conditions.

We will continue to watch Governor Snyder and the citizens of Flint. Follow-up postings will discuss irreversible medical problems of elevated blood lead levels, especially in children.  And we will review the environmental racism implicit in “financial martial law” in Flint and other poor cities in America.

Karen Pataky
Vice President for Public Policy and Political Action


Trump and Sanders won, as expected, Trump with 35.3% and Sanders with 60.4%.

Although they are often dismissed by the intelligentsia as little more than infotainment, debates really do matter, as we saw from the likely impact of Donald Trump’s absence from the pre-Iowa Caucus debate. Marco Rubio’s pounding by Chris Christie in the February 6 debate badly shook his campaign. Rubio crawled in at fifth place with less than 11%. Unfortunately for Christie, Rubio’s loss wasn’t Christie’s gain. After placing sixth with just 7.4%, Christie has withdrawn.

Speaking of intelligentsia, Trump won the college-educated Republican vote by a margin of 14%. But among those with no more than a high school education, Trump really trumped, winning 46%, compared to next-place winner Ted Cruz, who attracted 16% of those voters.

Clinton did worse than expected among women, who made up 55% of the Democratic vote. The reasons for her 11-point loss are complex, but she was not helped by scolding remarks by icons Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright directed at women voters who have little experience of earlier feminist struggles.

How much does money matter? Immediately following his win, Sanders raised a whopping $6.5 million, a one-day record. He’ll need that money and more as he heads into South Carolina and Nevada, where Clinton expects her message to resonate with African American and Hispanic voters.

Still, “Jeb!” hasn’t seen much benefit from his massive spending, nor from the country-club demeanor that contradicts his exclamation mark. Even after his 11% showing, Bush surrogates predicted the campaign’s “resurrection”—a hopeful though hardly flattering characterization of its status.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the 15.8% second-place showing by Governor John Kasich of coveted swing state Ohio. Does this mean that the second-biggest voting block of New Hampshire Republicans actually prefers a more moderate voice? No. Hard-righters Trump (35.3%), Cruz (11.7%), and Rubio (10.6%) garnered a combined 57.6%, while relative moderates Kasich (15.8%) and Bush (11%) totaled just 26.8%–not a ringing endorsement of the GOP’s supposed voices of reason.

Nonetheless, after delivering what sounded like a victory speech, Kasich headed to South Carolina, where he will try to build on his sudden relevancy, stretch his campaign’s strained coffers, and blunt Trump’s expected strong support from Evangelical supporters.

Finally, Christie was not the only candidate to withdraw in the wake of the New Hampshire primary. Carly Fiorina has also packed up and gone home, much to the relief of voters who wondered whose marriages she would be disparaging next.

Gail Gottlieb
Public Policy Committee