News

Back in their districts, here’s how Democrats are talking about impeachment

Washington, DC – U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) walks towards to a podium to speak to announce plans for formal impeachment proceedings  at the Capitol Building September 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. P(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. House Democrats are spending the Thanksgiving recess hammering President Donald Trump for allegedly soliciting foreign interference in U.S. elections as they prepare for another round of impeachment hearings when they return to Capitol Hill.

“The president used his office to pressure a foreign government to interfere in our elections,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted Monday — repeating a message she made to reporters last week when the House adjourned for the one-week recess. The president, she said, has “undermined the national security of the United States” and “the integrity of our elections.”

Congressional Democrats are emphasizing that message — and stressing its national security implications — back at home this week.

In a call with reporters Monday, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut (D), a member of the House committee leading the impeachment inquiry, said the Trump administration’s actions in Ukraine have made the country more vulnerable.

“The president has demonstrated his weaknesses and characteristics to the world,” said Himes, who was joined by national security experts on the call. “This is a grave danger.”

Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, a three-term Democrat, emphasized that point at an impeachment-focused town hall meeting in northern Virginia last week, where he too was joined by national security experts from Washington, D.C.-area think tanks. And other Democrats are highlighting the risk to national security and the U.S. electoral system in their messaging, using the hashtag “DefendOurDemocracy” on social media.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said this is the progressives’ strongest message on impeachment — in part because the public doesn’t understand the details of the president’s alleged misconduct in his July 25th call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“They’re not completely clear why this was an impeachable offense,” Lake said, referring to the president’s alleged attempt to withhold U.S. foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation of his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The public, she continued, doesn’t understand why the Ukraine call triggered an impeachment inquiry — even though their ability to understand the exchange was reportedly a key factor in Pelosi’s decision to launch a formal impeachment investigation. The public also wonders why other, seemingly more egregious grievances aren’t the focus of the inquiry, Lake said.

As such, Democrats are emphasizing the broad themes of democracy, safety and security — values the public can easily understand — and tapping experts to serve as messengers on the finer points of the implications of the president’s actions on foreign policy.

Others, however, say pointing to the president’s behavior is a more effective strategy, with the phrase “abuse of power” the most compelling shorthand, according to a Nov. 12 report by Navigator Research, a progressive firm.

Democrats are using that language too. Rep. Val Demings, a Florida Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, used the phrase in a tweet last week. Rep. Susie Lee, a Nevada Democrat, used it at a town hall meeting in Las Vegas over the weekend.

Many Democrats have also made a linguistic shift — swapping out the wonky Latin phrase “quid pro quo” for the more familiar word “bribery” — a move Lake said has helped the public understand the allegations against the president. The word “bribery” is much stronger because it connotes illegal activity, whereas “quid pro quo” suggests business as usual, she said.

GOP ‘all over the map’

Republicans, meanwhile, have yet to coalesce around a single message on impeachment — a strategy often seen as necessary to communicate effectively in today’s fractured media environment. Read more

News

At congressional hearing, Virginia Foxx praises rise in state-level abortion restrictions

Rep. Virginia Foxx

WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday assailed a sharp rise in state-level efforts to restrict access to abortion and other reproductive health care services.

“Across the country, extreme forces in some state governments are taking draconian steps to violate women’s rights,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the acting chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said at a hearing. These restrictions deny “basic services that women have a right to receive no matter where they live.”

Over the past decade, states have enacted nearly 500 abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think thank in Washington, D.C. That’s about 40 percent of all restrictions enacted since the U.S. Supreme Court legalize abortion nearly a half century ago. The wave of state laws has contributed to a significant drop in the number of clinics offering abortion services.

A veteran North Carolina Republican lawmaker strongly objected to her colleagues’ assertion that the restrictions harm women.

“States are grappling with issues of how to defend and preserve life and support high standards for women’s health care. As states continue to explore ways to do so in recent years, we are now at a reflection point,” said North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, a high-ranking Republican on the committee.

“I hardly find that anyone is losing access to anything, anyone save the defenseless,” she said. “The pendulum in the states is not one that is swinging against women, not in the slightest.”

The hearing focused on Missouri, one of six states in the country with only one clinic providing abortion services. Some 30 years ago, the state was home to nearly 30 such clinics, said Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of Missouri’s Planned Parenthood clinic.

The restrictions are the result of a political “abuse of power” to restrict access to the procedure, McNicholas said.

Missouri is at risk of becoming the first in the country without a clinic that provides abortion services since the constitutional right to

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.)

abortion was recognized in Roe v. Wade.

The state’s restrictions came under scrutiny at the hearing, including its requirement that patients undergo pelvic examinations before receiving an abortion.

The Missouri health department’s practice of tracking some women’s menstrual cycles, which the state’s top health official admitted to last month, also drew attention during the hearing. The department’s director testified that the department maintained a spreadsheet documenting the dates of clinic patients’ periods, according to a report in the Kansas City Star.

“I cannot begin to describe my disgust at these violations of privacy and breaches of trust by government officials,” Maloney said, adding that they’re not taking place in isolation. Maloney was born in North Carolina and is a graduate of Greensboro College.

‘Hostility’ to reproductive rights

More than half of states — including North Carolina — have shown “hostility” to reproductive rights, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

North Carolina has enacted numerous restrictions on the procedure, such as requiring patients to receive anti-abortion counseling, undergo an ultrasound before obtaining the procedure and wait 72 hours before the procedure is performed. Health insurance plans offered to public employees and on the state’s health exchange under the Affordable Care Act can only cover abortion in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest, according to the institute. Read more

immigration, News

Is DACA doomed? Supreme Court may side with Trump

Activists gathered outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday – Photo: Robin Bravender

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court appears unlikely to salvage an Obama-era program that has allowed hundreds of thousands of young, unauthorized immigrants known as “Dreamers” to remain in the country without immediate fear of deportation.

Lawyers defending the program — known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — argued Tuesday that the Trump administration broke the law when it rescinded the program in 2017. Hundreds of protestors echoed the sentiment Tuesday, chanting “Home is here!” and other pro-immigrant messages on the streets in front of the high court.

But the court’s conservatives seemed to disagree. During extended arguments in three consolidated cases, they seemed to endorse the legality of the administration’s decision to end the program and suggested that the question doesn’t even merit judicial scrutiny.

“I assume that was a very considered decision,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s most recent appointment to the bench, said of the decision to end it. “Now we can agree with it or disagree with the merits of it … but “what is the shortfall?”

Even if the decision were illegal, the judicial branch couldn’t necessarily fix it, Chief Justice John Roberts said. “It’s not always the case when the government acts illegally in a way that affects other people that we go back and untangle all of the consequences of that.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first appointee to the high court, struggled with the issue of “reviewability.”

“I hear a lot of facts, sympathetic facts … and they speak to all of us,” he said. “But what’s the limiting principal?”

Temporary protections

Photo: Robin Bravender

The DACA program was created in 2012 to allow certain immigrants who arrived to the United States before age 16 to apply for temporary protection from deportation and work permits. There were roughly 661,000 active participants in the program as of June 30.

Trump vowed on the campaign trail to “end” what he has characterized as an illegal program. His administration made good on his promise in 2017, but lower courts blocked the decision from taking effect.

In June, the U.S. House passed legislation that would safeguard the program and provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. But the bill is languishing in the GOP-controlled Senate, which is unlikely to act on it any time soon.

“We hope and pray that the courts will do the right thing,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a news conference after the arguments. She pointed to the bill passed by the House more than 160 days ago, which she pledged to drop off at the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted that President Barack Obama had “no legal right” to create the program but said he would make a deal with Democrats to allow DACA recipients to stay if the program is overturned.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Trump on Tuesday of playing politics with the Dreamers who rely on the program. “The president’s relentless scapegoating of immigrants is the most un-American thing I can think of,” Schumer said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the court’s more liberal jurists, took issue with the administration’s attacks on the program during the arguments Tuesday. She called it legal and said she supports its efforts to defer deportation of Dreamers — more than 90 percent of whom are employed and nearly half of whom are in school, according to a 2017 survey.

Photo: Robin Bravender

Such law-abiding immigrants and their families rely on the program, she said. Trump, meanwhile, has said he would protect DACA recipients but he hasn’t — an as-yet empty promise that she said must be considered when ruling on the case. “This is about our choice to destroy lives.”

But Gorsuch and others suggested that the administration has adequately considered such “reliance interests.”

A ruling in favor of the Trump administration would not necessarily result in the immediate deportation of these so-called Dreamers, according to Steven Schwinn, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But it would threaten their ability to live in the United States and would deprive them of legal authorization to work and to access certain social benefits.

The ruling — expected next spring or summer — will also likely inflame partisan divisions over immigration and could influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential contest. A majority of the public backs the DACA program, polls show, though support is stronger among Democrats and Independents than Republicans.

Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom Network of which NC Policy Watch is a member.

Higher Ed, News

U.S. House Dems advance sweeping effort to lower higher education costs

WASHINGTON — A U.S. House committee passed legislation on Thursday that supporters hailed as a “down payment” on a long-sought liberal goal: free college education for all.

The sweeping measure from Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, aims to help more Americans of all backgrounds obtain high-quality college degrees by increasing affordability, accountability and accessibility in higher education.

It would fund states that waive tuition at community colleges and invest in their public colleges and universities, which proponents say would lower costs for students and families. It would also increase federal education grants, crack down on “predatory” for-profit colleges and strengthen supports for low-income students and students of color, among other things.

The bill — an update of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, which hasn’t been reauthorized in more than a decade — cleared the House Education and Labor Committee on party lines Thursday morning. The committee’s 28 Democrats all voted in its favor and the committee’s 22 Republicans all voted in opposition.

Rep. Alma Adams

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Alma Adams voted for the bill; Republican Reps. Virginia Foxx,  Mark Walker and Gregory Murphy voted against it.

Proponents called the legislation an important step toward universal access to an affordable college education, a goal articulated more than a half century ago when President Lyndon Johnson first signed the HEA into law in 1965.

At the time, Johnson said the law meant that “a high school senior anywhere in this great land of ours can apply to any college or any university in any of the 50 states and not be turned away because his family is poor.”

But that promise remains out of reach for many Americans, said Scott. “We must fulfill the promise of making higher education affordable for all students,” he said at the opening of a committee markup of the bill on Tuesday.

Committee Democrats agreed, voicing strong support during the markup, which stretched over three days this week and involved debate over dozens of amendments on issues ranging from campus child care to student health care to equity in higher education.

The bill will “bring us closer to the vision of a higher education system that provides a ticket to America’s middle and upper class,” said Adams.

Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson said that it will “make a strong statement that everyone deserves access to a quality post-secondary education.”

Republicans, meanwhile, strongly objected to the measure, which carries an estimated price tag of $400 billion over 10 years.

Rep. Virginia Foxx

The “partisan” legislation “throws billions and billions of dollars at a failing system,” said Foxx, the committee’s highest-ranking Republican.

Pennsylvania Rep. Lloyd Smucker, the top Republican on the committee’s Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee, echoed the sentiment, saying it “doubles down on failed policies that are hurting students and American taxpayers.”

Virginia’s Cline agreed. “We need to massively overhaul the system, get the federal government out of the way and create more workable options,” he said.

Michigan Republican Rep. Tim Walberg, meanwhile, accused Democrats of trying to “dictate every choice a student can make along the path of their post-secondary education.”

Skyrocketing costs 

The value of a bachelor’s degree is coming under heightened scrutiny, but experts say it is still a good investment for most people, with a high average rate of return. Scott made that point during the markup, calling a high-quality college degree “the surest path to financial security and a rewarding career.”

Yet the cost of the path to a college diploma is climbing, leaving millions of Americans in debt.

Over the last decade, the average annual cost of tuition and fees rose by $930 (in 2018 dollars) at public two-year colleges, $2,670 at public four-year institutions and $7,390 at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities, according to a 2018 CollegeBoard report.

Higher sticker prices are due in part to state funding cuts to higher education over the last decade, according to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

Overall, and after adjusting for inflation, state funding for public colleges was $6.6 billion less in 2018 than it was in 2008, before the Great Recession, the report finds. These cuts deter enrollment among low-income students and students of color, undermining efforts to advance equity in higher education, according to the center.

Despite higher tuition costs, participation in the nation’s higher education system is on the rise. Over the last two decades, the percent of U.S. adults with an associate’s degree or higher has risen from 31 percent to 45 percent, according to the American Council on Education.

Scott’s bill — the College Affordability Act — now awaits action by the full House chamber, which is consumed by an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump and pressing legislative matters, including funding the government. It also faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled Senate, where lawmakers are working on higher education bills of their own.

At the outset of the markup, Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson predicated that the bill wouldn’t see “the light of day” in the Senate.

Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom Network of which NC Policy Watch is a member.

News

Elijah Cummings’ memorial brings political foes together

Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, an influential Democrat in Congress, died last week.

The nation’s political elite gathered in the U.S. Capitol Thursday to celebrate the life of Baltimore’s native son, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings.

In a week otherwise marked by partisan acrimony, Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate came together to praise Cummings for his ability to bring people together in a sharply divided time.

Cummings’ unifying impact on Congress, his community, and the country was heralded by several lawmakers during the morning memorial service on a sunny fall day in the nation’s capital. But it was perhaps best captured by Rep. Mark Meadows, a conservative Republican from North Carolina and a strong ally of President Donald Trump.

“I was privileged enough to be able to call him a dear friend,” Meadows told the crowd of dignitaries assembled in Statuary Hall, his voice cracking and his eyes tearing up. “Some classified that as unexpected, but … perhaps this place and this country would be better served with a few more unexpected friendships.”

The pair developed an unlikely friendship as fellow members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which Cummings chaired this year until his death last week. He was 68.

Rep. Mark Meadows

Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri opened with a prayer for Cummings, whom he called the “Mahogany Marylander.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) offered gratitude and reverence for a man she called “the son of sharecroppers, master of the House.”

“I have called him our North Star, our guide to a better future for our children,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) followed, praising the longtime lawmaker for his efforts to heal wounds, particularly amid the unrest in his hometown that followed the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody.

“By day, the congressman was here in the Capitol, working and leading in these hallways of power,” McConnell said. “But every night, he rode the train back home and walked the neighborhood, bullhorn in hand, encouraging unity and peace.”

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin (D) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also memorialized Cummings, as did Democratic leaders Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.); Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus; and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Universally respected and admired, Cummings’ authority came from “the moral force of his life,” Schumer said — a sentiment echoed by others of both parties.

The morning’s somber and collegial tone came in the midst of a bitter week on Capitol Hill, featuring a GOP attempt to break in to a closed-door impeachment hearing and attacks on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for failing to halt the spread of disinformation.

Son of Baltimore

Born and raised in Baltimore, Cummings graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Howard University despite struggles with reading and learning as a child. He went on to earn a law degree from the University of Maryland and practiced law before entering state politics.

Cummings represented Maryland’s 7th District since first winning the seat in 1996. He served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus from 2003 to 2005 and assumed the chairmanship of the House Oversight and Reform Committee — one of six panels conducting an impeachment inquiry into Trump — in January.

Cummings’ remains were delivered to the Capitol on Thursday morning, where he was scheduled to lie in state until Thursday evening. Members of the public were able to view his flag-draped casket in the Capitol Thursday afternoon.

Cummings is the first African American to receive the honor, which has been granted to only a few dozen statesmen in U.S. history.

The events follow a week of tributes to the Maryland lawmaker, including remarks in the U.S. House on Monday. His funeral will take place Friday at the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, where he worshipped for decades.

The ceremony also featured a short performance by the Morgan State University Choir and a wreath-laying by Congressional leaders.

It is widely assumed that Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, will run in the special election to succeed him.

Official campaign launches for the special election aren’t expected until after Cummings’ funeral. But a host of potential candidates are rumored to be in the running, and Rockeymoore Cummings could face a crowded field if she decides to jump in.

Allison Stevens writes for the Washington bureau of the Newsroom Network, of which NC Policy Watch is a member.