Democrats plan more pressure on Trump to reopen government
By CATHERINE LUCEY and LISA MASCARO
Monday, January 7
WASHINGTON (AP) — With no weekend breakthrough to end a prolonged partial government shutdown, President Donald Trump is standing firm in his border wall funding demands and newly empowered House Democrats are planning to step up pressure on Trump and Republican lawmakers to reopen the government.
Trump showed no signs of budging on his demand for more than $5 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, though on Sunday he did offer to build it with steel rather than concrete, a concession Democrats panned.
With the shutdown lurching into a third week, many Republicans watched nervously from the sidelines as hundreds of thousands of federal workers went without pay and government disruptions hit the lives of ordinary Americans.
White House officials affirmed Trump’s funding request in a letter to Capitol Hill after a meeting Sunday with senior congressional aides led by Vice President Mike Pence at the White House complex yielded little progress. The letter from Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russell Vought sought funding for a “steel barrier on the Southwest border.”
The White House said the letter, as well as details provided during the meeting, sought to answer Democrats’ questions about the funding request. Democrats, though, said the administration still failed to provide a full budget of how it would spend the billions requested for the wall from Congress. Trump campaigned on a promise that Mexico would pay for the wall, but Mexico has refused.
The letter includes a request for $800 million for “urgent humanitarian needs,” a reflection of the growing anxiety over migrants traveling to the border — which the White House said Democrats raised in the meetings. And it repeats some existing funding requests for detention beds and security officers, which have already been panned by Congress and would likely find resistance among House Democrats.
Trump sought to frame a steel barrier as progress, saying Democrats “don’t like concrete, so we’ll give them steel.” The president has already suggested his definition of the wall is flexible, but Democrats have made clear they see a wall as immoral and ineffective and prefer other types of border security funded at already agreed upon levels.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi intends to begin passing individual bills to reopen agencies in the coming days, starting with the Treasury Department to ensure people receive their tax refunds. That effort is designed to squeeze Senate Republicans, some of whom are growing increasingly anxious about the extended shutdown.
Among the Republicans expressing concerns was Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should take up bills from the Democratic-led House.
“Let’s get those reopened while the negotiations continue,” Collins said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Adding to concerns, federal workers might miss this week’s paychecks. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that if the shutdown continues into Tuesday, “then payroll will not go out as originally planned on Friday night.”
Trump reaffirmed that he would consider declaring a national emergency to circumvent Congress and spend money as he saw fit. Such a move would seem certain to draw legal challenges.
Incoming House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said on ABC’s “This Week” that the executive power has been used to build military facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan but would likely be “wide open” to a court challenge for a border wall. Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff called the idea a “nonstarter.”
Trump also asserted that he could relate to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who aren’t getting paid, though he acknowledged they will have to “make adjustments” to deal with the shutdown shortfall.
Associated Press writer Julie Walker in New York, Jill Colvin in Washington and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.
Would bringing back pork-barrel spending end government shutdowns?
January 6, 2019
Author: Diana Evans, Professor of political science, Trinity College
Disclosure statement: Diana Evans is affiliated with Common Cause in Connecticut
For eight years, Congress has banned the use of earmarks, otherwise known as “pork-barrel spending.” Earmarks paid for pet projects of legislators back in their districts, as a way of encouraging those officials’ votes for a spending bill.
But earmarks were seen by many members of the public as wasteful and distasteful. Even some lawmakers didn’t like them.
“Earmarks are the gateway drug to spending addiction,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, in 2007.
But now, in the middle of one of the longest federal government shutdowns on record, Rep. Nita Lowey, the new chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, made a bold statement: She wants to bring back pork-barrel spending in order to make passing appropriations bills easier.
“I would be supportive of earmarks,” Lowey, a Democrat from New York, told Politico. “I think there is a way to do it.”
Greasing the wheels – maybe
Earmarks would not have solved the current government shutdown, which is the result of an impasse between congressional Democrats and President Trump over funding the president’s border wall.
But Lowey’s not alone in her concern with Congress’ inability to pass spending bills on schedule. That difficulty, which has ended in several government shutdowns in the last decade, has produced unrelenting criticism by commentators and members of Congress alike.
A return to earmarking – for projects ranging from new bridges to museum funding to renewable energy research, tailored for individual members’ districts – would require lifting a 2011 moratorium imposed on the practice.
I have studied the effect of pork-barrel spending on passing spending bills. Although earmarks are worth reconsidering as a way of greasing the legislative wheels, I would argue that the case for them is mixed.
Pro-earmark arguments have come from both parties. The supporters include Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, as well as President Trump.
Simultaneously, pressure from House Republicans led former Speaker Paul Ryan to allow hearings to consider ending the 2011 earmark moratorium.
Prior to 2011, these earmarks were, with a few exceptions, regularly, and until 2006, in increasingly large numbers, put into appropriations bills as well as highway reauthorizations to help smooth the way to passage.
Pork helps move things along
My own research, as well as that of Frances Lee of the University of Maryland, shows that earmarks helped transportation committee leaders pass three massive highway bills, overcoming significant policy controversies surrounding each bill. I also found that earmarks were often helpful in passing appropriations bills.
Nevertheless, to opponents, earmarks remain pork-barrel projects that are rife with waste and reek of corruption. Former Sen. Clare McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, called earmarks “the Washington swamp creature that just never seems to die.”
To supporters, on the other hand, earmarks are a legitimate use of Congress’ constitutionally mandated power of the purse, which, not incidentally, may help members’ political careers.
Earmark proponents say a return to the practice could remedy the long-running difficulty of passing appropriations bills in a carefully considered, transparent manner.
What did we spend that money for?
In the normal appropriations process, Congress would pass 12 individual spending bills each year, a process designed to give members of Congress a chance to examine the spending in each bill before voting.
The reality is far different.
Data compiled by the Pew Research Center show that between the 2011 earmark moratorium and fiscal year 2018, only one individual appropriations bill was enacted, rather than the 84 appropriations bills Congress should have passed.
The record was somewhat better last year, when five of the 12 bills became law. The remaining seven Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations bills have been held up by the president’s insistence on funding for a border wall in the Homeland Security bill.
Instead of using the process that encourages careful consideration of individual spending items, Congress has funded government agencies in massive omnibus appropriations bills or full-year continuing resolutions. These bills make it virtually impossible for members to know what they are voting for.
This breakdown in the appropriations process coincides neatly with the earmark moratorium.
However, the process did not always go smoothly before the moratorium either. The large increase between 1991 and 2006 in the cost of earmarks, from $3.1 billion to $29 billion, did not ensure the passage of stand-alone appropriations bills.
Would earmarks now help Congress pass appropriations bills?
The evidence is less clear than it is for highway bills. I analyzed a number of Senate appropriations bills from 1994 to 2000; although the political dynamics might be different today, the findings could be helpful for the current conversation about earmarks.
In 1994, when the Democrats controlled Congress, earmarks helped convince senators to vote in support of the positions of the powerful appropriations subcommittee chairs.
After the Republican takeover in 1995, however, earmarks were somewhat less effective. By 2000, with Republicans still in control, earmarks – although growing in number and cost – had no discernible effect on senators’ appropriations votes.
Partisanship could undermine earmarks’ benefits
My interviews with committee staff members suggested various reasons for this. Prominent among them, according to one staffer, was the fact that votes were “increasingly … on highly charged substantive policy matters.” Senators needed to vote on those issues in a partisan manner, regardless of earmarks.
Another staffer blamed the failure of leaders to punish disloyal members by removing their earmarks.
That staffer said, “People have no shame. They vote no and take the dough.”
It is difficult to predict how returning to pork-barrel spending would work today.
For earmarks to be effective tools, members who otherwise would oppose the bills on a partisan or ideological basis would have to vote contrary to their own or their party’s preferences. Their willingness to do so would undoubtedly depend partly on the electoral consequences.
As Yale political scientist David Mayhew has argued, members believe that bringing benefits to their home district gives them something they can claim credit for, enhancing their chances for re-election. That gives congressional leaders leverage over members’ votes.
The evidence for this effect is nuanced, however.
Earmarks can help members win re-election, especially when members claim credit for them.
But there is also evidence that constituents are more likely to reward Democrats than Republicans for such benefits. This is not entirely surprising, given that earmarks are consistent with Democrats’ commitment to activist government. For Republicans committed to cutting the cost of government, bringing home earmarks could be painted as hypocritical.
These differences could help explain why I found that earmarks provided leaders with less leverage over members’ votes in Republican-controlled congresses.
The powerful get more
At their peak, earmarks amounted to approximately 3 percent of the discretionary budget, the portion that Congress controls, which amounts to about one-third of total federal spending. As a result of earmark reform in 2007, spending on earmarks dropped to 1.3 percent of the discretionary budget. In fiscal year 2010, earmarks cost $16.5 billion.
Earmarks are vulnerable to other criticisms, not least of which is the disproportionate share awarded to the districts of the most powerful members, particularly to members and leaders of the appropriations committees.
For example, scholar Austin Clemens and his colleagues found that in 2008 and 2009, members of the House Appropriations Committee got 35 percent of all earmarked dollars. That was more than twice what they would have received if earmarks had been equally distributed among all the committee members.
In addition, the majority party gets disproportionately more earmarks than the minority, although the minority gets enough to make it harder for them to use earmarks as a campaign issue. That’s a strategy dubbed “partisan blame avoidance,” according to Steven J. Balla of George Washington University and his colleagues.
While it is tempting to condemn earmarks as frivolous or corrupt, research paints a more complex picture of their role in the governing process.
As Congress wrestles with the process of passing individual appropriations bills, party leaders may respond by once again allowing earmarks in appropriations bills, winning more votes for spending bills, and protecting some of their own vulnerable members at the polls.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on March 26, 2018.
Mark Woods: We shouldn’t have to bribe members of congress to do the right thing. How distasteful is that?
3D scans of bat skulls help natural history museums open up dark corners of their collections
January 7, 2019
Ready to spatially manipulate 3D bat skulls from the comfort of your own computer?
Author: Jeff J. Shi, Education Program Specialist, University of Minnesota
Disclosure statement: Jeff J. Shi received funding for this research from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology, in the form of a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant co-awarded to Dr. Daniel L. Rabosky.
Picture a natural history museum. What comes to mind? Childhood memories of dinosaur skeletons and dioramas? Or maybe you still visit to see planetarium shows or an IMAX feature? You may be surprised to hear that behind these public-facing exhibits lies a priceless treasure trove that most visitors will never see: a museum’s collections.
Far from being forgotten, dusty tombs, as is sometimes the perception, these collections host the very cutting edge of research on life on this planet. The sheer scale of some of the largest collections can be staggering. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, for instance, houses over 150 million specimens. Even a smaller academic institution, like the Research Museums Center of the University of Michigan, houses a labyrinth of specimen vaults, preserving millions of skeletons, fossils, dried plant material and jarred organisms.
Most importantly, poring over this wealth of knowledge at any given time are active researchers, working to unravel the intricacies of Earth’s biodiversity. At the University of Michigan, where I received my Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology, I worked nestled among these skeletons, fossils and other natural treasures. These specimens were critical to my research, as primary records for the natural history of the world.
Yet despite the incalculable value of these collections, I often wondered about how to make them more accessible. A project to digitally scan hundreds of bat skulls was one way to bring specimens that would look at home in an antique Victorian collection straight to the forefront of 21st-century museum practices.
A valuable resource, largely hidden from view
By researching variation among and within collection specimens, biologists have uncovered many ecological and evolutionary mysteries of the natural world. For instance, a recent study on bird specimens traced the increasing concentration of atmospheric black carbon and its role in climate change over more than a century. Scientists can collect ancient DNA from specimens and gather information about historical population levels and healthy genetic diversity for organisms that are now threatened and endangered.
My own research on global bat diversity used hundreds of museum specimens to conclude that tropical bats coexist more readily than many biologists expect. This finding fits with an overall pattern across much of the tree of life where tropical species outnumber their temperate cousins. It may also help explain why in many parts of Central and South America, bats are among the most abundant and diverse mammals, period.
However, research on these specimens often requires direct access, which can come at a steep price. Researchers must either travel to museums, or museums must ship their specimens en masse to researchers – both logistical and financial challenges. Museums are understandably wary of shipping many specimens that are truly irreplaceable – the last evidence that some organisms ever existed in our world. A museum’s budget and carbon footprint can quickly balloon with loans. And as physical specimens cannot be in more than one location at once, researchers may have to wait an indefinite amount of time while their materials are loaned to someone else.
CT scanning bat skulls
I have tried to tackle these issues of access with my collaborators Daniel Rabosky and Erin Westeen using micro-CT technology. Just like with medical CT scanning, micro-CT uses X-rays to digitize objects without damaging them – in our case, these scans occur at the fine scale of millionths of meters (micrometers). This means micro-CT scans are incredibly accurate at high resolutions. Even very tiny specimens and parts are preserved in vivid detail.
For my Ph.D. research, we used micro-CT scanning to digitize nearly 700 individual bat skulls from our museum’s collection. With estimates of about 1,300 described species, bats represent about 25 to 30 percent of modern mammal species, second only to rodents. However, one of the reasons researchers have long been fascinated by bats is their immense diversity of behavior and function in nature. Much of this ecological diversity is encoded in their skulls, which vary broadly in shape and size.
At the Michigan School of Dentistry’s micro-CT facility, we scanned every bat skull at high resolutions. Each scan produced hundreds of thousands of images per specimen – each image a tiny cross-section of an original skull. With these “stacks” of cross-sections, we then reconstructed 3D surfaces and volumes. In essence, we recreated a 3D “digital specimen” from each of the roughly 700 originals.
Users can manipulate the 3D cranial model created from micro-CT scans of a female Desmodus rotundus, the common vampire bat.
Digital specimens open doors
In partnership with MorphoSource at Duke University, we’ve since published our digital specimens within an open-access repository for researchers, educators and students. Each digital specimen is associated with the same identifying data as its original, enabling research without travel or shipment. Even better, many delicate parts can be digitally dissected without fear of irreparable damage. Digital specimens can even be 3D-printed at varying scales for use in educational settings and museum exhibits.
My colleagues Dan and Erin have continued to expand these efforts to other vertebrates at our museum. Our hope is that the broader scientific community will embrace open-access digital specimen data in much the same way that digital, publicly available genetic data has been adopted across biology. Digitization can expand the reach of each museum, especially as scanning prices drop and open-access micro-CT software becomes more practical.
This digital revolution comes at time when many natural history museums are endangered. Around the globe, museums are hamstrung by budget cuts and decades of neglect, with devastating consequences.
One way to revitalize museums is to embrace digital missions that preserve priceless data and promote global collaboration. Far from making physical collections obsolete, digitization can modernize natural history museums, as it has with libraries and other museums of art, history and culture. The originals will always be there for those looking to dive deep into natural history. The digital wing can instead invite curiosity and questions from sources most museums could never dream of otherwise reaching.
In my earliest days as a biologist, I was plagued by common researcher worries. What was going to happen to all of my data? Who else would ever see it? Scientists never know what new life may be breathed into our basic research after years, decades, centuries. I think about the hundreds of past scientists who unknowingly contributed data to my own research, spanning nearly 130 years and six continents of expeditions.
By digitizing their earlier efforts, my colleagues and I ensured that they can reach broad audiences, far beyond what they likely imagined. No longer should the potential impact of any specimen be restricted by the walls and constraints of any one museum. Instead, museums can throw their doors open to a digital future, inviting anyone into the endless wonders of the natural world.