Russia probe revival expected if Democrats win House
By MARY CLARE JALONICK
Monday, October 22
WASHINGTON (AP) — House Democrats are expected to reopen the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election if they win the majority in November. But they would have to be selective in what they investigate.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, has said his party would have to “ruthlessly prioritize the most important matters first.”
The Republican-led Intelligence Committee was the only House panel to investigate Russian meddling, and its investigation is now closed. Republicans say they found no evidence of collusion between Russia and President Donald Trump’s campaign.
Democrats say Republicans ignored key facts and important witnesses and want to restart parts of the investigation if they win the House. But some Democrats also worry that there could be a political cost if they overreach.
Schiff and other lawmakers say they are closely watching special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and the Senate’s Russia probe to look for gaps that they could fill. And if Mueller issues any findings, their investigative plans could change.
“My sense is that we want to be precise,” says California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the intelligence panel.
Here’s a look at what Democrats are likely to investigate if they take the House majority.
Schiff has repeatedly said a priority for Democrats would be investigating whether Russians used laundered money for transactions with the Trump Organization.
Trump’s businesses have benefited from Russian investment over the years. Schiff said he wants to know whether “this is the leverage that the Russians have” over Trump.
Other committees might also want to look into money laundering, including the House Financial Services panel.
It’s unclear whether Mueller is probing money laundering related to the president’s business.
The Democrats issued a list in March of several dozen people whom the committee hadn’t yet interviewed when the Russia investigation was shut down. Democrats would want to call in some — but probably not all — of those witnesses. Former Trump campaign advisers Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos are among them. They all pleaded guilty to various charges in the Mueller probe and have cooperated with prosecutors.
Important witnesses whose credibility Democrats have questioned might also be called back. That includes Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty in federal court in August to campaign-finance violations and other charges, and prominent Trump supporter Erik Prince, who met with Russians during the campaign. Prince was defiant in an interview with the intelligence panel in December.
“I believe there are those who were less than candid with us,” says Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democratic member of the committee, referring to Cohen and Prince, among others.
Democrats have said they also want additional documents that Republicans refused to subpoena.
House Republicans limited their Russia investigation to the intelligence panel, which traditionally conducts most of its business in secret. Democrats would probably spread the investigation over several other committees, opening it up and allowing for public hearings with top Trump officials.
Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democratic member of the intelligence panel, says they would try to be more transparent. The Republican investigation was “a way to keep everything behind closed doors,” he said.
Democrats would also push to provide interview transcripts to Mueller, a step Republicans had resisted. The committee recently voted to make most of its Russia transcripts public, but it’s unclear when that will happen.
DONALD TRUMP JR.
Democrats have pushed for more information about the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and communications with his father and other aides related to a June 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer.
According to phone records he provided to Congress, Trump Jr. had a call with a blocked number several days before the meeting took place; he said he didn’t recall with whom. Democrats want to subpoena additional phone records because Trump Jr. has insisted he didn’t alert his father to the meeting beforehand. They also want more information about his communications with former Trump communications aide Hope Hicks.
Democrats may also look into direct messages on Twitter between Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks, the website that released emails from top Democratic officials during the 2016 campaign. Trump Jr. has released those direct messages, in which the website urged him to publicize its leaks.
Democrats in the majority would probably push for the release of Trump’s tax returns, a task that would be up to the House Ways and Means Committee. Trump broke a decadeslong tradition by declining to release his returns during the campaign. The Republican House and Senate have declined to ask for them.
Lawmakers hope that access to Trump’s taxes would reveal information about his financial entanglements with other countries, among other things. But getting them may not be easy. The tax-writing committees in Congress can obtain tax records from the IRS under the law, but it is possible the Trump administration would refuse to hand them over, prompting a court fight.
ISSUES RELATED TO COLLUSION
Since Republicans closed the Russia investigation earlier this year, Democrats on the intelligence panel have conducted some of their own investigations despite not having subpoena power. They have made some progress in probing Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm once employed by the Trump campaign that improperly gained access to data from millions of social media profiles. They have also investigated Republican operative Peter W. Smith, who worked to obtain Democrat Hillary Clinton’s emails from Russian hackers, according to The Wall Street Journal. Smith died shortly after talking to the paper.
PROTECTION FOR ROBERT MUELLER
A Democratic House would probably try to move legislation to protect special counsel Mueller. Trump has repeatedly criticized Mueller and his investigation, calling it a witch hunt. Prompted by concerns that Trump may try to fire Mueller, the GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation in April that would give any special counsel a 10-day window to seek expedited judicial review of a firing. The bill would put into law existing Justice Department regulations that a special counsel can only be fired for good cause.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to take up the bill in the Senate. But House Democrats would be expected to pass their own special counsel protection bill if they take the majority.
New data tool can help scientists use limited funds to protect the greatest number of endangered species
October 19, 2018
Authors: Leah Gerber, Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Sciences and Director; Timothy Male, Faculty Affiliate, both Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, both Arizona State University
Disclosure statement: Timothy Male serves as Executive Director of the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, a non-profit dedicated to finding ways to speed up conservation through innovations in policy. Leah Gerber does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Arizona State University provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
A large majority of Americans strongly support the goal of preventing the extinction of endangered wildlife and plants. Today, over 1,600 U.S. species are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and more are added every year. The list includes well-known species like the manatee, grizzly bear and green sea turtle, as well as hundreds of imperiled plant species, and more than 400 species in the Hawaiian Islands.
In an ideal world there would be enough funding and time to restore all of these species. But federal and state governments have never received more than a fraction of the funding that this would require. As a result, wildlife managers face difficult and complex choices about which species and actions to fund.
Should managers target big charismatic mammals on the brink of extinction? Low-cost, easy-to-save freshwater fish? Research into ways of saving species for which there’s currently no good turnaround strategy? There is no single answer to these questions, partly because they involve a complicated mix of science and values that affect human attitudes toward wildlife species and how well equipped agencies are to help save them. As a result, very few government agencies charged with managing species have adopted systematic methods for allocating money among species.
In a two-year project, we engaged a diverse research team to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assess how decision science and big data could help make decisions about saving endangered species more effective and transparent. One of our results, newly published in the journal Science, is a decision tool that focuses on identifying cost-effective recovery plans.
Lessons from Down Under
Critics argue that the Endangered Species Act is ineffective because only around one percent of species protected under the law have recovered to the point where they can be removed from the list. This is a legitimate criticism, given that recovery plans are severely underfunded. Indeed, it is remarkable that extinction has been avoided for 99 percent of listed species. It turns out, however, that recovering species from the brink of extinction is a lot harder and more expensive than conservationists once thought.
Australia and New Zealand also have numerous endangered species, too little money to conserve them all, and too many choices about how to use it. Over the past several years, these countries have developed innovative approaches that bring together all of the best information they have about the uniqueness of species, the likelihood that funding specific actions would succeed in saving them, and cost estimates for different strategies. With this information, they have produced a transparent approach to species conservation that highlights opportunities for managers to allocate resources in ways that will maximize success.
In the Australian state of New South Wales, which has more than 1,000 endangered species, this prioritization process showed the benefits that new funding could achieve and led to an additional $100 million government investment in wildlife conservation.
With support from the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, our team developed a funding allocation tool that could be employed for the United States. We used data for U.S. species, such as the cost of recovery plans, the likelihood that funding will actually lead to recovery, and factors like geographic region and taxonomy.
Our algorithm is based on a form of the “knapsack problem,” so called because it describes the challenge of filling a metaphorical backpack of limited size with a cargo that is as valuable as possible. In this case, selecting an optimal portfolio of species for funding is based on the aggregate benefits within a constrained budget.
With input data on the relative attributes of possible choices, our Recovery Explorer decision tool applies our ranking algorithm to prioritize choices according to manager objectives, and then allows for visualizing and comparing the implications of various choices.
No such solution has ever been developed to date for the problem of funding recovery efforts at the national scale in the United States.
Values still matter
The Recovery Explorer can help identify cost-effective solutions to prevent as many extinctions and achieve as many recoveries as possible. But it can’t solve contentious value-based debates about which kinds of species we should be saving.
The tool provides a way to investigate alternative valuing systems, allowing users to compare the outcomes of focusing on imminent risk or long-term potential; favoring charismatic or keystone species over others; and even of seeking a balance among such objectives. Other features can be added based on deliberations by users.
In the 1940s, whooping cranes in eastern North America were reduced to just 15 birds. Using ultralight aircraft, pilots from the nonprofit organization Operation Migration guided captive-hatched and imprinted whooping cranes along a planned migration route from Wisconsin to Florida. Each crane that survived the winter in Florida returned north the following spring, and continued to migrate annually thereafter. Gradually, the number of cranes began to increase, giving hope for the species. The program ultimately was discontinued because it was expensive and the chicks it produced had a low survival rate.
Since there is no systematic approach to prioritization currently used, we have thwarted facing the thorny issues about whether it’s more important to save birds or mammals, whether to focus on certain geographic areas or equally on species everywhere, or how to decide whether money is better used to save 100 species or just one. But we believe it’s better to bring these value-based questions into the light.
Society has an important role to play in determining the relative priority of different kinds of investments. Assuming that endangered species recovery is a priority, computer-assisted decision-making tools like the Recovery Explorer have enormous potential to help us save as many of the species Americans value as possible.
Scientists and policymakers now have an opportunity to develop a more workable strategy to improve the Endangered Species Act. And for those species that are deemed worthy of protection, the next steps will be to promote their recovery and be willing to pay for it.
Kavanaugh Confirmed: Where Do We Go From Here?
By Laura Finley and Matthew Johnson
The dust has settled on Judge Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court and the strong, complex emotions associated with it. Despite being the least popular, most polarizing nominee in recent memory, his legacy is far from settled. It remains to be seen whether progressives’ worst fears or conservatives’ best hopes will come to fruition.
It goes without saying that Kavanaugh’s confirmation process was about more than filling one seat on the highest court of the land. It was even about more than securing a 5-4 majority for the conservatives or blocking an attempt to do so. It was about justice for sexual assault survivors.
Although justice was delayed (to put it optimistically) the unprecedented campaign to shed light on Kavanaugh’s high school and college exploits was not waged in vain. Progressive activists can learn a lot from it about strategy and tactics — beyond the obvious negative lessons regarding the extent of Republican partisanship and white male privilege.
Takeaway #1: Survivors can be taken seriously
Yes, despite the result of the Senate hearings, Christine Blasey Ford was considered credible by many commentators from Left to Right. Her testimony was a transformational moment in U.S. politics, and it’s reasonable to say that history may condemn the Kavanaugh confirmation and praise Ford as a hero. More and more people on both sides of the political spectrum are coming to realize the complex reasons survivors do not always report sexual assault to the police or even to their loved ones. The harassment of Ford and her family — including death threats requiring relocation and other personal security measures — was repugnant to many conservatives as well as progressives. Ford’s picture on the cover of the mainstream magazine Time further demonstrates the continued shift in the degree to which the nation will discuss sexual violence, riding on the heels of the many celebrities outed, accused, and occasionally convicted as a result of the #MeToo movement.
Takeaway #2: If you can’t beat ‘em, confront ‘em in an elevator
After Ana Maria Archila, a sexual assault survivor, confronted Republican Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator, Flake called for a one-week delay in the Senate floor vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. This was a dramatic shift, as Flake had just said he would unequivocally vote to confirm Kavanaugh. Flake noted how moved he was by the woman’s story, while she said it was good to know that “people who have the responsibility of making decisions for our country can actually listen to their conscience.” This type of confrontation — non-threatening but forceful — has long been a tool of nonviolent activists and has been successfully adopted by #MeToo. Moreover, grassroots activists can utilize principles of what criminologist John Braithwaite calls reintegrative shaming. That is, once individuals are shamed for an offense, concerned citizens can then find ways to educate them, to change their thinking, and to offer them second chances.
Takeaway #3: Women are not monolithic but have common interests
The consensus among conservative women, once the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh surfaced, seemed to be that the judge was the one in need of protection. This “himpathy” is not new, and, despite their condemnation of the Left for trying to hold “victim status,” it is a frequent tool of conservatives. Many expressed concern that their sons could some-day face unfair or false accusations by women. This might be a concern shared equally by progressives if it were likely to occur, but the data show that false allegations of sexual assault and similar offenses are rare. According to the FBI, an estimated 2 to 8 percent of sexual assault claims are false — a rate lower than that of most crimes. The challenge for progressives is to break through the information barrier on multiple fronts because, while many conservatives deny the rarity of false reporting, they also deny the frequency of sexual assault. This is despite the obvious fact that sexual assault directly affects conservatives at comparable rates to the rest of the population. Feminist and playwright Eve Ensler alluded to this in her recent “Letter to White Women Who Support Brett Kavanaugh.” The common, uncontroversial goal of all sides of the spectrum should be to end rape culture in the United States. This will not only ensure that no one is ever-again falsely accused but also, more importantly, that no one is ever-again sexually victimized.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice. Matt Johnson is an author and activist.
Opinion: Congress Must Get Ahead of Taxpayer Bailout for Federally Chartered Pension Insurer
By Pete Sepp
Federal officials are going back and forth over Americans’ retirement plans again, but this time it’s not about Social Security. The future leadership of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) is currently in a state of flux due to partisan infighting. But while politicians squabble in a Washington-insider drama, the PBGC is heading for a fiscal crisis that will be a disaster for workers and likely leave taxpayers on the hook for a bailout that will cost tens of billions of dollars — or more.
When a private sector employer-funded pension program fails, it is supposed to be rescued by a federal backstop called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a system that insures partial benefits for retirees who, along with companies, have previously paid for the protection. But who protects the protectors?
That question could soon become disturbingly relevant for the part of PBGC’s portfolio called multi-employer pension plans. In fact, at a congressional hearing in November of last year, PBGC’s current director, Thomas Reeder, warned Congress that “projections show that the (multi-employer) program is likely to become insolvent by the end of 2025.” Allowing this to happen is irresponsible to workers, retirees and especially taxpayers.
Chartered to be “financially self-supporting,” PBGC’s inventory of single-employer plans (i.e., those covering one corporation’s workers) always bears close scrutiny, but it’s the Multiemployer Pension Plans — mainly union plans with workers from many businesses — whose troubles are more urgent.
MPP liabilities total $67 billion against assets of $2.2 billion. This huge deficit is double what it was in fiscal year 2013. At the same time, PBGC estimates that its exposure to future losses from underfunded plans of all types is more than $250 billion.
There may be worse news on the far horizon: across all categories, the plans insured under PBGC carry a total of $850 billion in unfunded liabilities, according to the most recent available data. Without corrective action, those liabilities could raise PBGC’s already considerable loss exposure even higher.
It is clear that this entity can’t fulfill its mission as currently structured. Because the PBGC insures the pension benefits of nearly 40 million American workers and retirees, they would all be at risk if this corporation goes under. While the PBGC’s liabilities are not official obligations and therefore not backed by the federal government, does anyone really believe that taxpayers will not be asked to bail out the system in a meltdown situation? After all, a decade has passed since the financial meltdown of 2008, but taxpayers bitterly recall being put on the hook for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s liabilities, which public officials often claimed were not explicitly guaranteed by Washington.
With Social Security and Medicare facing their own shortfalls, adding a blank check for PBGC should be as unthinkable as it is unsustainable. But just because a bailout of any dollar amount should be off the table doesn’t mean Congress has no role in putting the system on sound actuarial footing.
The “Butch Lewis Act,” proposed by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, would effectively snare taxpayers in a trap that will take a minimum $34 billion bite from their wallets. This should be off the table.
Rather than have taxpayers foot the whole bill, as some congressional Democrats have proposed, there are more sensible solutions at hand. In a policy paper from 2003, National Taxpayers Union was already warning that PBGC was endangered by “falling income, rising liabilities, and expected losses that are greater than its assets,” and recommended reforms such as greater reliance on risk-based pension insurance premiums and more development of private reinsurance products.
The Government Accountability Office, which has put parts of PBGC on its High Risk List for over a decade, has noted that despite increases in overall premiums, the use of risk-pricing and other risk-management tools remains highly limited.
In the nearer term, MPPs need to be stabilized, and one way might be to issue carefully calibrated Treasury loans at preferential interest rates to the PBGC. To be completely clear: these loans would be dispersed only if there is enough collateral to ensure the loans will be entirely repaid. An overriding concern must be to assure risks to taxpayers are minimized.
To further mitigate the prospect of default on these loans, an additional safeguard should be constructed through a risk-reserve pool. The pool could be funded through modest premium increases and higher membership fees.
During this period there will need to be tough concessions by beneficiaries to shore up longer-term financial viability as well. A uniform benefit reduction (20 percent or more) would be a show of good faith in building this bridge to a more certain financial future — one that would bring the most comfort to retirees, who would know their pensions are stable for the long haul.
Government-backed loan arrangements are far from ideal, and should not be contemplated lightly. Equally important are the details of such arrangements.
Witnesses before a Joint Select Committee empaneled by Congress earlier this year to study MPPs have floated a variety of solutions ranging from blatant handouts that require no restructuring to more limited approaches. Unfortunately, the cost of no intervention and reform will be much worse — measured in tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars.
For now, the steps outlined above comprise the measuring stick for progress, and from the taxpayers’ perspective, they stand far taller than any of the bailout schemes that have been offered thus far.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Pete Sepp is president of the National Taxpayers Union. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.