Groups slam new Trump rule allowing federal contractors to bar LGBT workers

From today’s CBS News Online:

In its latest rollback of key safeguards for LGBTQ civil rights, the Trump administration intends to remove nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people by adding religious exemptions to an Obama-era 2014 executive order that prohibited discrimination in hiring on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity. Advocacy groups have decried the new rule as just the latest attack on the LGBTQ community, slamming it as “taxpayer-funded discrimination in the name of religion.”

The proposal, which goes public on Thursday at the direction of the U.S. Department of Labor, comes as a stark reversal in administration policy after President Trump vowed to maintain the Obama executive order during his first month in office. 

“President Donald J. Trump is determined to protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community. President Trump continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election,” the White House said at the time. 

But the new rule appears to let government contractors terminate workers who are LGBTQ, based on the employers’ personal religious views. Under the Labor Department guidelines, any organization — be it a church, school or major corporation — could prove it serves a religious purpose by claiming it is “guided by faith,” according to the 46-page long draft of the rule. 

“The contractor must be organized for a religious purpose, meaning that it was conceived with a self-identified religious purpose. This need not be the contractor’s only purpose,” the document reads. 

The move is the latest in a string of policy reversals that impede on the rights of the LGBTQ community. Most recently, the Trump administration changed regulationsunder the Affordable Care Act to allow health care providers to refuse treatment to LGBTQ people on the basis of their religious beliefs. It’s also consistent with the administration’s controversial push over the past two years to include more federal protections in the name of “religious freedom.”

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Trump won key union workers in 2016. Will Scalia as labor secretary change that for 2020?

From PBS Newshour Online:

To critics, the nomination of a labor secretary who built his career fighting unions underscores a President Donald Trump’s attacks against organized labor.

But for Trump, it seems appointing Eugene Scalia is a way to continue taking on unions through deregulation and business-centric policies without alienating rank and file union members in key states he’ll need to win reelection in 2020.

The president’s pick, which he announced on Twitter but has not officially submitted to the Senate, also shows Trump’s willingness to push the boundaries on who makes a suitable labor nominee, compared to past Republican administrations.

In the past, “Republicans tended to choose businessmen” to lead the Department of Labor, said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University. “Often they were businessmen who had dealings with unions. But [they] were not anti-union.”

Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, appears to be a departure from that norm.

Scalia is a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Gibson Dunn, where he focuses on labor and employment issues. As an attorney, he has worked on behalf of Walmart, Ford, UPS and a host of other companies in lawsuits fighting against workers’ rights claims. He also served a brief stint as the Labor Department’s solicitor in 2002.

Some union leaders argued Scalia is also more extreme than Trump’s past appointments for the cabinet position. Scalia is Trump’s third pick for labor secretary. Businessman Andrew Puzder withdrew from consideration after it was reported that he had hired an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper. Former prosecutor Alex Acosta served as labor secretary for two years before resigning earlier this month after coming under scrutiny for his role in a 2008 plea deal for financier Jeffrey Epstein, who is facing charges of sex trafficking.

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Trump turning the Department of Labor into the Department of Employer Rights

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

No advocates for workers’ rights or labor were especially surprised last week when President Trump nominated Eugene Scalia for secretary of Labor, succeeding the utterly discredited Alex Acosta.

Scalia — son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — had made his reputation in Washington as a lawyer for big corporations resisting labor regulations, after all.

He had helped Walmart overturn a Maryland law mandating minimum contributions by big employers for workers’ healthcare, defended SeaWorld against workplace safety charges after a park trainer was killed by an Orca (he lost that case), and had written extensively against a federal regulation expanding ergonomic safety requirements.

But Scalia’s appointment is best seen not in the context of his own legal career, but in the context of Trump’s assault on worker rights and welfare. Despite his positioning himself during his presidential campaign as a flag carrier for the working class, Trump has rolled back numerous pro-worker regulations from the Obama era and before.

He talked a good game about bringing back manufacturing and coal jobs, but that hasn’t materialized. His steel tariffs are credited with saving some 12,000 steel manufacturing jobs, but at the enormous cost to the economy of an estimated $900,000 per job.

That’s paid by steel users, including automakers and other manufacturers. General Motors says it took a $1-billion hit in 2018from the tariffs. That contributed to its decision to shed 14,000 jobs globally and to shutter its assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, costing 900 jobs. Although Trump attacked GM Chief Executive Mary Barra for the decision, he also turned his ire on UAW and AFL-CIO leaders, calling them “not honest people” and blaming high union dues for the Lordstown closing. (Union dues are paid by workers, not employers.)

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Trump Is Urged to Fire Kellyanne Conway for Hatch Act Violations

From today’s New York Times:

An independent government agency recommended on Thursday that President Trump fire Kellyanne Conway, his White House counselor, for repeated violations of an ethics law barring partisan politics from the federal workplace.

In a letter accompanying a report to Mr. Trump, the agency called Ms. Conway a “repeat offender” of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in campaign politics at work, saying that her flagrant defiance of the law justified her dismissal from the White House.

“As a highly visible member of the administration, Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions,” said the letter to the president, signed by Henry J. Kerner, the head of the agency. “Her actions erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law.”

The agency, called the Office of Special Counsel, enforces the Hatch Act and is not related to Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Despite its official mission, the office has no power to force Ms. Conway’s dismissal, and the White House quickly made clear that Mr. Trump would not follow its suggestion.

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FACT CHECK: Foreign Interference And ‘Opposition Research’ Are Not The Same

From today’s NPR News Online:

President Trump has conflated an infamous practice in and among political campaigns — “opposition research” — with foreign election interference like that launched by Russia against the United States in 2016.

Are they the same thing? Is foreign interference just a kind of “oppo research,” as Trump said in an interview with ABC?

The short answer: No. Oppo research is part of politics. But the law prohibits American political campaigns from taking “a contribution or donation of money or any other thing of value” from foreigners. The ban isn’t limited to money, as Justice Department investigators wrote.

The long answer: Trump told ABC News that essentially every political candidate is willing to accept information that could be of use against an opponent.

“You go and talk honestly to congressmen, they all do it. They always have. And that’s the way it is. It’s called ‘oppo research,’ ” he said.

What’s the difference?

Opposition research is what campaigns and political operatives use against each other. If one candidate running for office dug up a story about something embarrassing her opponent had done, the first candidate might bundle it together and see that it found its way into the newspaper.

Active measures

In 2016, however, the Russian government also launched a broad wave of “active measures” from outside the U.S. and used sophisticated tools found only in the arsenal of a major government. Its ultimate goal was to help elect Trump.

Trump’s campaign counted on the boost it got from WikiLeaks in 2016, according to the report by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller. Donald Trump Jr. also accepted the offer of a meeting, via intermediaries, to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

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Interior nominee David Bernhardt’s ethics problems aren’t going away

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

President Trump’s pick to the lead the Interior Department heads for a confirmation vote as early as Thursday, with his career as a lobbyist raising ethical and legal concerns and doubts about his independence from the energy and water industry groups he long represented.

Acting Secretary David Bernhardt spent about eight years as a partner in Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, one of the nation’s top-grossing law and lobbying firms, according to public rankings. There he represented energy, mining and Western water interests that deal with the Interior Department, including two California entities, Westlands Water District — the nation’s largest irrigation district — and Cadiz Inc.

Bernhardt’s firm sued the department four times on Westlands’ behalf. He personally argued one appeals case challenging federal endangered species protections for imperiled salmon. He did legal work for Cadiz, which wants to build a water pipeline on a railroad right of way that crosses federal land in the California desert.

When Bernhardt was confirmed as deputy secretary in 2017, he had to sign the administration’s ethics pledge and recuse himself from participating in “particular matters” involving more than two dozen former clients. Some of the recusals were effective for two years, others for one. In the last year, he has helped put policies in place that benefit businesses he once represented as a lobbyist.

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Corruption: Cohen’s Testimony Opens New Phase of Turbulence for Trump

From today’s New York Times:

A small group of Republican strategists opposed to President Trump, branding themselves Defending Democracy Together, quietly conducted polling and focus groups last fall to gauge whether the president was vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2020. Assembling a presentation for sympathetic political donors, they listed points of weakness for Mr. Trump such as “tweeting/temperament” and “criminality/corruption.”

The group concluded that Mr. Trump’s scandals were not yet badly damaging him with Republican-leaning voters: “Even relatively high information voters aren’t paying particularly close attention to day-to-day scandals,” the presentation stated. But it added that there was “room to educate voters” on the subject.

Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, may have begun that education on Wednesday.

With Mr. Cohen’s appearance before a House committee, the public airing of ethical transgressions by Mr. Trump reached a new phase, one that may be harder to ignore for friends and foes alike. The spectacle of Mr. Trump’s onetime enforcer denouncing him in televised proceedings, detailing a catalog of alleged cruelty and crimes, signaled the pressure the president’s already strained coalition could feel in the coming months as Congress scrutinizes him and the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III completes his investigation.

Republicans still find it difficult to imagine that Mr. Trump’s electoral base would ever desert him, though they acknowledge that bond may soon be tested as never before. Mr. Trump’s core supporters — numbering about two in five American voters, polls suggest — have stayed with him through revelations of financial and sexual impropriety, painful electoral setbacks and the longest government shutdown in history.

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CBO estimates shutdown cost $11 billion, $3 billion won’t be recovered

From today’s ABC News Online:

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the longest-running government shutdown in U.S. history came at a price. It cost the economy $11 billion, with $3 billion that will never be recovered, according to a report released Monday.

For the fourth quarter of 2018, the CBO estimated real gross domestic product was reduced by $3 billion compared to what it would have been. The level of real GDP for the first quarter of 2019 is estimated to be $8 billion lower, due to a combination of the partial government shutdown delaying approximately $18 billion in federal spending, suspending services for federal workers and a reduction in demand lowering output in the private sector.

“Risks to the economy were becoming increasingly significant as the shutdown continued,” the report read. “Although their precise effects on economic output are uncertain, the negative effects of such factors would have become increasingly important if the partial shutdown had extended beyond five weeks.”

While CBO anticipates a majority of the lost real GDP will be recovered, about $3 billion will not be. That’s about 0.02 percent of the projected annual GDP in 2019, according to the report.

“Among those who experienced the largest and most direct negative effects are federal workers who faced delayed compensation and private-sector entities that lost business,” the report said. “Some of those private-sector entities will never recoup that lost income.”

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Interactive Map: Government Shutdown Is Affecting Federal Workers in All States

From today’s New York Times:

About 800,000 federal workers are furloughed or working without pay across the country because of the government shutdown, many of them concentrated in the West.

Over all, federal workers account for about 1.5 percent of the country’s labor force, with a fifth of them in the Washington metro area. But the shutdown has hit some agencies — and states — harder than others.

Outside the capital, states with large numbers of workers for the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior are more likely to feel the shutdown’s effects. And nearly the entire staff of the Environmental Protection Agency is furloughed, including hundreds of workers in North Carolina and Illinois.

A budget agreement to end the shutdown remains the subject of a fierce partisan fight in Congress, with federal workers caught in the middle. Some senators who count these workers among their constituents are pushing for an end to the impasse, but federal employment does not appear to have a clear relationship to lawmakers’ positions on the shutdown.

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Pence and Cabinet Members Are Due a Raise, as Federal Workers Go Unpaid

From today’s New York Times

Vice President Mike Pence, members of the cabinet and other high-ranking political appointees in the Trump administration are positioned to receive a pay bump of about $10,000 a year even as 800,000 federal employees are entering their third week without paychecks.

The increases are the result of Congress’s failure to renew a longstanding freeze on raises for high-ranking officials and political appointees. An extension of the freeze was included in the spending bills funding multiple government agencies that were not acted on before the expiration of the 115th Congress on Thursday.

That has created an unexpected optics issue for the Trump administration: While correctional officers, Transportation Security Administration agents, and other federal employees work without pay during the government shutdown, Mr. Pence’s annual salary could jump to $243,500 from $230,700. Cabinet secretaries who are paid $199,700 a year could see their annual pay rise to $210,700.

The administration appeared to be aware of the perception problem, and hoped to avoid it. Asked at his news conference on Friday if he would freeze the raises during the shutdown, President Trump said he “might consider that.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, later explained that the administration was “exploring options to prevent this from being implemented while some federal workers are furloughed” and described the situation as “another unnecessary byproduct of the shutdown” that she said could be remedied by Congress.

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