A Flurry of Courts Have Ruled on Election Maps. Here’s What They’ve Said

From today’s New York Times:

Judges in a number of states have recently thrown out election maps, saying that they have been gerrymandered to the point of being unconstitutional, effectively dooming one party to permanent underrepresentation.

The decisions are certain to have drawn the Supreme Court’s interest as it mulls a resolution to the question of extreme partisan gerrymanders. The justices are expected to decide this spring whether the practice violates the Constitution, and if so, how to determine whether an electoral map is fairly drawn.

Here are the basics of the major contested cases.

Wisconsin: State Assembly districts

How many seats does each party hold?

In the most recent general election, 52 percent of the votes were cast for Republican Assembly candidates, who won almost two-thirds of the seats — 64 out of 99. Democrats received 46 percent of the vote and won 35 seats.

What’s happened so far?

In November 2016, a panel of three judges ruled that the map was unconstitutionally drawn to favor Republicans, the first time a partisan gerrymander was struck down in federal court. The ruling was notable, according to experts, because it provided a clear mathematical formula to measure how partisan a district map is.

The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which took the case(known as Gill v. Whitford) and heard arguments in October 2017.

What’s next?

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the spring, probably setting the course for the other cases in federal court as well.

North Carolina: Congressional districts

How many seats does each party hold?

In 2016, Republican candidates received 53 percent of the votes cast, and won 10 of the state’s 13 seats; Democrats received 47 percent of the votes and won 3 seats.

What’s happened so far?

The map was thrown out and ordered redrawn by a panel of three federal judges on Jan. 9, who said that Republicans had drawn it most recently in 2016 in an attempt to gain a political advantage. The

Supreme Court temporarily blocked the lower court’s order to redraw the map nine days later.

What’s next?

It’s unclear. The Supreme Court has not said whether it will schedule arguments in the case, known as Rucho v. Common Cause. The court may choose instead to let whatever ruling it issues in another gerrymandering case stand as its final word on the matter. Because of the temporary block, experts say the current North Carolina map will probably remain in effect for the midterm elections this fall.

Read the complete article here.

Why the Trump-led GOP Continues to be the Party of Massive Budget Deficits

From today’s LA Times:

The Trump administration proposed a spending plan on Monday that projects deficits as far as the eye can see, giving up the longtime Republican goal of a balanced budget to champion a spending plan replete with cash for a host of military programs and some domestic ones the president’s supporters might admire.

The budget calls for about $716 billion in annual defense spending, more than $100 billion above the level Trump requested last year. Add in the tax cut Republicans pushed through in December and the extra spending Congress approved just last week, and the result is a flood of red ink projected to send the national debt ever higher.

Trump’s budget anticipates deficits throughout the next 10 years even if Congress were to approve some $3 trillion in cuts over that same time period that he’s proposing for a wide range of federal programs. Both parties already rejected most of those cuts last year and have shown little interest in pursuing them.

The deficits persist even though the White House is forecasting extremely optimistic levels of economic growth. If growth falls short of those projections — most economists think it will — deficits would be higher still.

As a result, the budget marks something of a milestone — the Trump administration’s abandonment of the quest for budget balance that the Republican Party has claimed as a guiding light for years, at least rhetorically.

In reality, deficits have often soared under Republican presidents as the party has put cutting taxes ahead of balancing budgets on its list of priorities. In the past, however, Republican administrations have taken pains to at least come up with a budget that would balance on paper.

Read the complete article here.

When Wall Street Writes Its Own Rules, It’s An Age of Unprecedented Corruption

From today’s New York Times:

On July 25, 2013, a high-ranking federal law enforcement officer took a public stand against malfeasance on Wall Street. Preet Bharara, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, held a news conference to announce one of the largest Wall Street criminal cases the American justice system had ever seen.

Mr. Bharara’s office had just indicted the multibillion-dollar hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors, charging it with wire fraud and insider trading. Standing before a row of television cameras, Mr. Bharara described the case in momentous terms, saying that it involved illegal trading that was “substantial, pervasive and on a scale without precedent in the history of hedge funds.” His legal action that day, he assured the public, would send a strong message to the financial industry that cheating was not acceptable and that prosecutors and regulators would take swift action when behavior crossed the line.

Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC and one of the world’s wealthiest men, was never criminally charged, but his company would end up paying $1.8 billion in civil and criminal fines, one of the largest settlements of its kind. He denied any culpability, but his reputation was still badly — some might argue irreparably — damaged. Eight of his former employees were charged by the government, and six pleaded guilty (a few later had their convictions or guilty pleas dismissed). Mr. Cohen was required to shut his fund down and was prohibited from managing outside investors’ money until 2018.

Now, with the prohibition having expired in December, Mr. Cohen has been raising money from investors and is set to start a new hedge fund. He’ll find himself in an environment very different from the one he last operated in. His resurrection arrives as Wall Street regulation is under assault and financiers are directing tax policy and other aspects of the economy — often to the benefit of their own industry. Mr. Cohen is a powerful symbol of Wall Street’s resurgence under President Trump.

As the stock market lurched through its stomach-turning swings over the past week, it was hard not to worry that Wall Street could once again torpedo an otherwise healthy economy and to think about how little Mr. Trump and his Congress have done to prepare for such a possibility. Stock market turbulence typically prompts calls for smart and stringent financial regulation, which is not part of the Trump agenda. One of Mr. Trump’s first acts as president was to fire Mr. Bharara, who made prosecuting Wall Street crime one of his priorities. Mr. Trump has also given many gifts to people like Mr. Cohen.

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS conservatives set to strike down union fees on free-speech grounds

From today’s LA Times:

Paying union dues and baking a wedding cake may not seem like classic examples of free speech—except perhaps at the Supreme Court.

This year, the high court is poised to announce its most significant expansion of the 1st Amendment since the Citizens United decision in 2010, which struck down laws that limited campaign spending by corporations, unions and the very wealthy.

Now the “money is speech” doctrine is back and at the heart of a case to be heard this month that threatens the financial foundation of public employee unions in 22 “blue” states.

Like Citizens United, the union case is being closely watched for its potential to shift political power in states and across the nation.

The legal attack on the campaign funding laws was brought by conservative activists who hoped that the free flow of money from wealthy donors would boost Republican candidates. And since 2010, the GOP has achieved big gains in Congress and in state legislatures across the nation.

Conservatives also believe the attack on mandatory union fees has the potential to weaken the public sector unions that are strong supporters of the Democratic Party.

“This is a big deal,” Illinois’ Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner said in September on the day the Supreme Court said it would hear the lawsuit that he initiated. A court victory would be “transformative for the state of Illinois, transformative for America and the relationship between our taxpayers and the people who work for our taxpayers.”

Read the complete article here.

#VotingRights Update: Group Targets GOP States to Attack Gerrymandering

From today’s New York Times:

A Democratic group backed by former President Barack Obama intends to pour millions of dollars into an eclectic array of elections in a dozen states, in an effort to block Republicans from single-handedly drawing congressional maps after 2020, officials leading the group said.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, formed last year under the leadership of Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general, has settled on a strategy to contest a combination of governorships, legislative seats and more obscure state offices to chip away at Republicans’ sweeping control of the redistricting process.

Mr. Holder said in an interview that the group was chiefly determined to deny Republicans so-called trifectas in state governments — places where a single party controls the governorship and an entire legislature, as Republicans do in Ohio and Florida, among other critical battlegrounds.

The group’s list of high-priority states includes most of the critical states in presidential elections. Mr. Obama, who has made redistricting a focus of his attention since leaving office, plans to visit some of those states in 2018, and Mr. Holder reviewed his strategy with the former president in Washington on Monday, aides said.

States at the top of the just-finalized target list include traditional purple states like Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans can currently design maps without Democratic input, and others — including Colorado, Minnesota and Nevada — where Democrats have significant influence in government but must defend it in the 2018 elections.

Read the complete article here.

Thorny Logistics Of A Federal Shutdown and How It Affects Agency Employees

From National Public Radio:

Hundreds of thousands of federal employees will either be sent home or have been told to not show up to work at all on Monday, as furloughs due to the government shutdown that began Friday night start to affect workers around the country.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave a foreboding warning from the Senate floor on Sunday.

“The shutdown is going to get a lot worse tomorrow,” he warned. “A lot worse.”

Republicans are insisting the shutdown is less “weaponized” than the last time this happened, in 2013 under then-President Barack Obama, but it’s still sure to have a broad effect across the country and get worse the longer it goes.

“Essential services” will continue, and essential workers will remain on the job, albeit without pay.

But there will be a lot of federal workers — thousands — who will see a change.

Every federal agency has a specific contingency plan, in the case of a loss of funding, and you can look through them all here. In 2013, about 800,000 of the 2.1 million civilian federal employees were furloughed in 2013, according to The Washington Post.

Read the complete article here, including a list of different agencies and the affects the shutdown will have on employees and services.

Individual Mandate Now Gone, G.O.P. Targets the One for Employers

From the New York Times:

Having wiped out the requirement for people to have health insurance, Republicans in Congress are taking aim at a new target: the mandate in the Affordable Care Act that employers offer coverage to employees.

And many employers are cheering the effort.

While large companies have long offered health benefits, many have chafed at the detailed requirements under the health law, including its reporting rules, which they see as onerous and expensive. Now that relief has been extended to individuals, some companies believe they should be next in line.

The individual mandate and the employer mandate are “inextricably entwined,” said James A. Klein, the president of the American Benefits Council, an influential lobby for large companies like Dow Chemical, Microsoft and BP, the oil and gas producer.

“It is inequitable to leave the employer mandate in place when its purpose — to support the individual mandate — no longer exists,” Mr. Klein said. “We are urging Congress to repeal the employer mandate.”

Opposition to the employer mandate could increase as more employers are fined for not offering coverage or for not meeting federal standards for adequate, affordable coverage. Since October, the Internal Revenue Service has notified thousands of businesses that they owe money because they failed to offer coverage in 2015, when the mandate took effect.

Representatives Devin Nunes of California and Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, both Republicans, recently introduced a bill, supported by party leaders, to suspend the mandate, canceling any penalties that would be imposed for any year from 2015 to 2018.

“The employer mandate is a job-killer, a wage-killer and a business-killer,” Mr. Kelly said.

But Tom Leibfried, a health care lobbyist at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., called the proposals to repeal or weaken the employer mandate “a very bad idea.”

“The Affordable Care Act was built on a framework of shared responsibility,” Mr. Leibfried said. “If you get rid of the employer mandate, you will see people lose coverage from their employers.”

Such a move could also increase costs for the federal government. Even though Congress has eliminated the penalties for people who go without insurance, millions of consumers are still eligible for financial aid in the form of tax credits to help them pay insurance premiums. These subsidies increase with the rapidly rising cost of insurance. If fewer people receive coverage from employers, more will qualify for subsidized coverage in the public marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act.

“The employer mandate holds down the cost of premium tax credits for the federal government,” said Catherine E. Livingston, a tax lawyer at the law firm Jones Day who was the health care counsel at the I.R.S. from 2010 to 2013. “Any employee who receives an offer of affordable coverage from an employer is not eligible for the tax credit. And the employer mandate provides a strong incentive for employers to offer affordable coverage.”

Read the complete article here.

CFPB to reconsider rule on payday loans

From CNN Money Edition:

The watchdog agency said in a statement Tuesday that it intends to “reconsider” a regulation, issued in October, that would have required payday lenders to vet whether borrower can pay back their loans. It also would have restricted some loan practices.

If the rule is thrown out or rewritten, it would mark a major shift for an agency that had zealously pursued new limits on banks and creditors before Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s budget director, became the CFPB’s acting director.

Mulvaney took over the top job at the CFPB in November following a leadership scramble. A vocal critic of the CFPB when it was run by President Obama appointee Richard Cordray, Mulvaney since said the agency would cut back on burdensome regulations.

Tuesday’s announcement does not amount to a formal repeal of the payday lending rule. But it does cast doubt on whether it will ultimately be implemented.

Payday loans provide those in need with small amounts of cash — typically between $200 and $1,000. The money needs to be paid back in full when a borrower receives his or her next paycheck, and such loans often come with exorbitantly high interest rates.

Consumer advocates that have supported the CFPB’s restrictions on the loans say such transactions often take advantage of people in desperate financial situations.

“The CFPB thoroughly and thoughtfully considered every aspect of this issue over the course of several years,” Karl Frisch, executive director of progressive group Allied Progress, said in a statement. “There is no reason to delay implementation of this rule — unless you are more concerned with the needs of payday lenders than you are with the interests of the consumers these financial bottom-feeders prey upon.”

The sentiment was echoed in a statement by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who helped create the CFPB.

“Payday lenders spent $63,000 helping Mick Mulvaney get elected to Congress and now their investment is paying off many times over. By scrapping this rule, Mulvaney will allow his campaign donors to continue to generate massive fees peddling some of the most abusive financial products in existence,” Warren said.

Read the complete article here.

In win for #VotingRights, Federal Court Rules NC Electoral Map Unconstitutional

From the New York Times:

A panel of federal judges struck down North Carolina’s congressional map on Tuesday, condemning it as unconstitutional because Republicans had drawn the map seeking a political advantage.

The ruling was the first time that a federal court had blocked a congressional map because of a partisan gerrymander, and it instantly endangered Republican seats in the coming elections.

Judge James A. Wynn Jr., in a biting 191-page opinion, said that Republicans in North Carolina’s Legislature had been “motivated by invidious partisan intent” as they carried out their obligation in 2016 to divide the state into 13 congressional districts, 10 of which are held by Republicans. The result, Judge Wynn wrote, violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.

The ruling and its chief demand — that the Republican-dominated Legislature create a new landscape of congressional districts by Jan. 24 — infused new turmoil into the political chaos that has in recent years enveloped North Carolina. President Trump carried North Carolina in 2016, but the state elected a Democrat as its governor on the same day and in 2008 supported President Barack Obama.

The unusually blunt decision by the panel could lend momentum to two other challenges on gerrymandering that are already before the Supreme Court — and that the North Carolina case could join if Republicans make good on their vow to appeal Tuesday’s ruling.

In October, the court heard an appeal of another three-judge panel’s ruling that Republicans had unconstitutionally gerrymandered Wisconsin’s State Assembly in an attempt to relegate Democrats to a permanent minority. In the second case, the justices will hear arguments by Maryland Republicans that the Democratic-controlled Legislature redrew House districts to flip a Republican-held seat to Democratic control.

Read the complete article here.

In Cutting taxes, the Economic Odds and Historical Experience Are Against Trump

From today’s New York Times:

When President Trump adds his distinctive signature to the tax bill, he will also be making a huge bet that the Republican strategy of deep cuts for businesses and wealthy individuals will fuel extraordinary growth across the board.

Perhaps more than any other American political leader, Mr. Trump knows that long shots, like his own presidential bid, sometimes pay off. In that vein, he and congressional Republicans are arguing that their bitterly contested and expensive rewrite of the tax code will ultimately create more jobs and raise wages.

If they are proved correct, they will be repudiating not only historical experience, but most experts. From Congress’s own prognosticators to Wall Street’s virtuosos, scarcely any independent analyses project anything like the rosy forecasts offered by the president’s top economic advisers.

To Mr. Trump and his allies, the normal models just do not fully capture the high-octane “rocket fuel” embedded in the tax plan. Mr. Trump intuitively understands just how much attitudes and expectations can shape economic decisions.

With a businessman in the White House, Mr. Trump argues that companies, large and small, have a renewed faith in the economy. And the corporate tax cut, combined with the rollback in regulation, will prompt waves of new investment and hiring, as middle-class Americans liberally spend the extra money in their pockets.

Read the complete article here.