SCOTUS defers gerrymandering ruling

From today’s New York Times:

The Supreme Court declined on Monday to address the central questions in two closely watched challenges to partisan gerrymandering, putting off for another time a ruling on the constitutionality of voting districts designed by legislatures to amplify one party’s political power.

In a challenge to a redistricting plan devised by the Republican Legislature in Wisconsin, the court unanimously said that the plaintiffs had not proved that they had suffered the sort of direct injury that would give them standing to sue. The justices sent the case back to a trial court to allow the plaintiffs to try again to prove that their voting power had been directly affected by the way state lawmakers drew voting districts for the State Assembly.

In the second case, the court unanimously ruled against the Republican challengers to a Democratic plan to redraw a Maryland congressional district. In a brief unsigned opinion, the court said the challengers had waited too long to seek an injunction blocking the district, which was drawn in 2011.

Both cases had the potential to deliver a reckoning on a practice that dates to the early days of the Republic and got its name from one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Elbridge Gerry. The court instead kicked the can down the road, leaving the door open to further challenges.

But the decisions were a setback for critics of gerrymandering, who had hoped that the Supreme Court would transform American democracy by subjecting to close judicial scrutiny the way districts have been redrawn to accommodate the preferences of the party in power. When the dust settled Monday, the status quo remained in place.

Read the complete article here.

In parts of America, Department of Labor hasn’t updated “prevailing wage” for taxpayer-funded work in decades

From Bloomberg News Network:

Thanks to a web of loopholes and limits, the federal government has been green-lighting hourly pay of just $7.25 for some construction workers laboring on taxpayer-funded projects, despite decades-old laws that promise them the “prevailing wage.”

Over the past year, the U.S. Department of Labor has formally given approval for contractors to pay $7.25 for specific government-funded projects in six Texas counties, according to letters reviewed by Bloomberg. Those counties are among dozens around the nation where the government-calculated prevailing wage listed for certain work—such as by some carpenters in North Carolina, bulldozer operators in Kansas and cement masons in Nebraska—is just the minimum wage.

That’s in part because, according to publicly available data from the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, the agency is relying on wage survey data in more than 50 jurisdictions that’s from the 1980s or earlier. Experts said that’s a far cry from what Congress intended when, starting with the Depression-era Davis Bacon Act, it passed a series of laws meant to ensure that private companies contracted for government-backed projects pay their workers at least in the vicinity of what others get for the same work in the same geographic area.

In an emailed statement, the Labor Department didn’t address whether the decades-old data is a problem.

“The Wage and Hour Division carefully plans where to survey on an annual basis to ensure that prevailing wage rates reflect the reality of construction pay practices in a locality. The division identifies potential survey areas based on a number of criteria, including where available data on active construction projects in an area reveal changes in local pay practices such that a survey is necessary,” the department said.

Because government contracts are often required to go to the “lowest responsible bidder,” supporters say prevailing wage rules prevent a “race to the bottom” in which exploitative companies who pay workers less outbid safer, higher-quality firms, and in turn drive down industry standards to pocket more taxpayer dollars. Opponents of prevailing wage rules counter that they’re intrusive mandates that waste money, inflating construction costs in order to help unionized firms beat non-union competitors.

In recent years, the opposition—largely Republicans and industry groups—scored a series of wins, successfully pressing state governments in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia to repeal their own “little Davis Bacon” rules. By contrast, the federal statutes remain in place, despite the efforts of Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, who said last year  that “no one can claim to be a fiscal conservative if they think the federal government needs to inflate the cost of wages.”

Read the complete article here.

Trump pardons Dinesh D’Souza on felony campaign contribution violation

From today’s CNBC “Politics” site:

Conservative commentator and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza revealed on Friday what he said President Donald Trump told him about why he was getting a pardon.

On Fox News, D’Souza said he didn’t know he was going to get it. “I was just in my office working away. And an operator came on the line and said, ‘Is this Dinesh D’Souza?’ Yes. ‘Hold the line for the president of the United States.’ And there was Trump.”

He said Trump said: “”You’ve been a great voice for freedom. I’ve got to tell you man to man, you’ve been screwed.’ He goes, ‘I’ve been looking at the case. I knew from the beginning that it was fishy.'”

D’Souza, who was convicted in 2014 of making an illegal campaign contribution, said, “[Trump] said upon reviewing it, he felt a great injustice had been done. And using his power, he was going to rectify it, sort of clear the slate. And he said he just wanted me to be out there and be a bigger voice than ever defending the principles that I believe in.”

A day earlier, Trump announced on Twitter his decision to pardon D’Souza, an outspoken critic of Democratic former President Barack Obama. D’Souza was prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, an Obama appointee who was later fired by Trump.

Read the complete article here.

Trump Changes Executive Regulations to Ease the Firing of Federal Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Seizing on a longtime ambition of many Republicans, President Trump on Friday overhauled rules affecting at least two million federal workers, making it easier to fire them and rolling back the workplace role of their unions.

Mr. Trump, furthering a goal cited in his State of the Union address this year, signed a series of executive orders affecting disciplinary procedures and contract negotiations and limiting the conduct of union business on government time.

Andrew Bremberg, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the president was “fulfilling his promise to promote more efficient government by reforming our Civil Service rules.”

Past administrations of both parties have argued that Civil Service rules are in need of modernization, but Mr. Trump zeroed in on aspects that create sharp partisan divisions. And the action follows growing acrimony between his supporters and the federal bureaucracy that they portray as the deep state.

Unions representing government workers were quick to denounce the actions. “This is more than union busting — it’s democracy busting,” J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, said in a statement. “These executive orders are a direct assault on the legal rights and protections that Congress has specifically guaranteed.”

The executive orders come after a series of prominent Republican victories against public employee unions in recent years at the state level and a rollback of Obama-era policies favorable to labor at the federal level.

In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will rule on a case, propelled by years of conservative philanthropy, that could end mandatory fees for public-sector unions in more than 20 states, dealing a body blow to union coffers.

The Trump administration portrayed its new rules as a needed remedy to make a sclerotic work force more efficient and responsive, but Newt Gingrich, who has been an informal adviser to the White House on Civil Service issues, has given a different explanation in the past.

In an interview last year, when the administration was considering action, Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, said that a major impetus was the federal bureaucracy’s ideological opposition to the Trump agenda.

Read the complete article here.

The face of political corruption in DC? Emails show collaboration among EPA and climate change deniers

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Newly released emails show senior Environmental Protection Agency officials collaborating with a conservative group that dismisses climate change to rally like-minded people for public hearings on science and global warming, counter negative news coverage and tout Administrator Scott Pruitt’s stewardship of the agency.

Emails show collaboration among EPA and climate change deniers

The emails were obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Southern Environmental Law Center through the Freedom of Information Act.

The emails show John Kokus, EPA’s deputy associate administrator for public affairs, repeatedly reached out to the conservative Heartland Institute.

EPA spokesman Lincoln Ferguson says the Heartland Institute is one of a broad range of groups the agency engages with.

Heartland’s Tim Huelskamp says it will continue to work with Pruitt and the EPA against a “radical climate alarmism agenda.”

Read the complete article here.

Trump Undercuts Giuliani’s Comments About Payments to Stormy Daniels

From today’s New York Times:

President Trump undercut his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani on Friday, and said the former New York mayor will eventually get the facts right regarding a payment to a pornographic actress who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump.

“And virtually everything said has been said incorrectly, and it’s been said wrong, or it’s been covered wrong by the press,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Giuliani, who joined Mr. Trump’s legal team last month, “just started a day ago,” Mr. Trump said, speaking to reporters on Friday as he left Washington to attend a National Rifle Association convention in Dallas.

“He is a great guy,” Mr. Trump said. “He’ll get his facts straight.”

It was the first time the president addressed the inconsistent narrativeabout the payment made by his personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, to the actress, Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels. Mr. Trump did not offer any details on Friday to clarify the confusion, but said, “It’s actually very simple. But there has been a lot of misinformation.”

Mr. Giuliani released a statement Friday trying to clarify the confusion, saying that his “references to timing were not describing my understanding of the president’s knowledge, but instead, my understanding of these matters.” He also said there had been no campaign violations in the matter.

The comments capped a week of evolving facts surrounding the Oval Office.

The American public learned its president, once described by a doctor as “the healthiest individual ever elected,” actually wrote that description himself, leaving his health ranking among those who held the office before him a mystery. Mr. Trump also hired an attorney he previously had deniedrecruiting. And the president contradicted himself when, this week, he said he paid back Mr. Cohen for the $130,000 given to Ms. Clifford just days before the election. Last month, the president said he did not know anything about the transaction.

Mr. Giuliani kicked off the confusion about the payment with an interviewon Fox News on Wednesday, surprising even some of Mr. Trump’s other attorneys.

Read the complete article here.

Mick Mulvaney says CFPB’s priority is ‘free markets and consumer choice’

From today’s LA Times:

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Mick Mulvaney told lawmakers Wednesday that the agency’s new priority is “to recognize free markets and consumer choice” and take “a humble approach to enforcing the law,” according to prepared remarks released in advance.

In his first testimony to Congress since his controversial appointment as the bureau’s acting director, Mulvaney acknowledged that many lawmakers have disagreed with his actions in the job, “just as many members disagreed with the actions of my predecessor.”

Mulvaney blamed lawmakers’ frustrations on the structure of the bureau, an independent watchdog created in the wake of the financial crisis. He was an outspoken critic of the bureau as a Republican congressman, and last week he formally asked Congress to reduce the bureau’s authority.

Mulvaney and other Republicans have said the bureau is unaccountable because its funding, like that of other financial regulators, is outside the appropriations process, and the president can fire the bureau’s director only for cause, rather than at will.

Read the complete article here.

Breaking: FBI raids Trump lawyer’s office

From today’s LA Times:

President Trump lashed out Monday at news that his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was the subject of an FBI raid, calling it “a disgraceful situation” and adding that “many people have said” he should fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel heading the Russia investigation.

“They broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys,” Trump told reporters before a meeting with his military advisors, adding that “I have this witch hunt constantly going on for over 12 months now.”

“It’s a disgrace,” he said. “It’s an attack on our country. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”

The raid is “a whole new level of unfairness,” Trump added, saying that he learned about the raid, from news reports, “like you did.”

He called attorneys working under Mueller “the most conflicted group of people I have ever seen.” The raid on Cohen’s office was undertaken by agents working with the federal prosecutor’s office in Manhattan, acting on a referral from Mueller.

“They’re not looking at the other side. They’re not looking at Hillary Clinton and all the horrible things she did,” Trump said, repeating a charge that he has made before that the lawyers working for Mueller were all Democrats.

The president also renewed criticism of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, saying he “made a terrible mistake” by recusing himself from involvement in the Russia investigation, “a very terrible mistake for the country.”

Read more about the raid here.

Breaking News: Kentucky teachers rally at State Capitol over state budget

From today’s LA Times:

Thousands of Kentucky teachers filled the streets near the state Capitol in Frankfort on a cold, overcast Monday to rally for education funding.

Teachers and other school employees gathered outside the Kentucky Education Assn. a couple of blocks from the Capitol chanting, “Stop the war on public education” and holding or posting signs that say, “We’ve Had Enough.”

“We’re madder than hornets, and the hornets are swarming today,” said Claudette Green, a retired teacher and principal.

The rally is happening after hundreds of teachers called in sick Friday to protest last-minute changes to their pension system.

Teacher unrest is not just limited to Kentucky. Educators in Oklahoma were gearing up Monday to march on their state capital as well.

Oklahoma teachers are demanding that lawmakers approve more education funding just days after the Legislature did just that.

Some teachers are saying the legislation signed by Gov. Mary Fallin last week was not enough. The measure increases taxes on cigarettes, fuel and oil and gas production to provide teachers with raises of about $6,100, or 15% to 18%.

Read the complete article here.

Frustrated Supreme Court Looks For A Solution To Partisan Gerrymandering

From today’s NPR News:

The Supreme Court justices seemed to grasp the problem of gerrymandering in oral arguments on Wednesday and that it will only get worse, as computer-assisted redistricting gets even more refined.

But they appeared frustrated over what to do about it — without becoming the constant police officer on the beat.

This case, involving a Democratic-drawn congressional district in Maryland, is essentially Act II of the gerrymandering play at the Supreme Court.

Act I opened the first week in October when the nine justices heard arguments in a case testing whether there is any constitutional limit to partisan gerrymandering — the practice of drawing legislative district lines to maximize and perpetuate the power of the incumbent party. At issue in the case is the Republican gerrymander of the Wisconsin Legislature — a design that delivered nearly two-thirds of the districts to the GOP even as Republicans lost the statewide vote.

In the Maryland case argued Wednesday, Michael Kimberly, the attorney for the Republican plaintiffs, contended that the map drawers succeeded in “rigging” an election, and the average American voter understands what’s going on. He dubbed it an affront to democracy.

That’s the kind of argument that Democrats have made about lots of other states throughout the country, where Democrats are underrepresented in both state legislatures and the U.S. House or Representatives.

Read the complete article here.