Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

Why Dems Should Make a $15 Wage Their First Order of Business

Let’s make the increasingly likely assumption that Democrats take back the House in November. Nothing symbolizes concern for working people better than a higher minimum wage. And nothing jams Republicans quite as starkly as making them take a vote on this.

Do you doubt that? Here is a true fact. In the election of 2004—that’s the one where John Kerry booted a winnable election—activists in Florida qualified a ballot initiative raising that state’s minimum wage by one dollar, from $5.15 to $6.15

Well, you might say, that doesn’t affect all that many people, right? John Kerry was asked to come down and campaign for it. He declined.

How do you think the initiative did in this quintessential swing state, which George W. Bush carried in that election?

The minimum-wage initiative won overwhelmingly, with 71 percent of the vote. It carried every single Florida county, including some very conservative ones where the sort of working people who later voted for Donald Trump care about their paychecks.

The minimum-wage initiative won by three million votes. It received about two million votes more than Kerry did, and a million votes more than Bush did. If Kerry had accepted the invitation to go out on street corners and campaign for the minimum-wage hike, he might have been elected president.

So as I was saying, when Democrats take back the House, they should make a vote on a $15 minimum wage their first order of business. Any questions?

The Tax Act’s Unfinished Business

The wealthiest Americans were already pretty happy with the 2017 Republican Tax Act. It bequeaths corporations with $1.7 trillion in tax cuts at the expense of funding for social programs, and 83 percent of the law’s benefits will go to the top 1 percent by 2027, when most of the individual income changes will have expired.

But greed works in not-so-mysterious ways, and it seems these gifts weren’t enough. During the G20 summit earlier this month in Argentina, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told The New York Times that the Trump administration was considering dodging Congress to reduce capital gains taxes through regulation. Larry Kudlow, Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, has long advocated indexing capital gains to inflation, meaning that when an investor sells an asset, the initial price they paid for it would be adjusted for inflation so that the amount they’re taxed on (how much they earned when they sold it) would be lower.

The possible Treasury action, reported by the Times on Monday, is likely illegal. But as the Prospect outlined in its summer issue, which was devoted entirely to the 2017 Tax Act, Trump and his allies may stop at nothing to slash taxes for the wealthy. Even in the face of strong opposition, Republicans and the administration were determined to get their bill through, despite the fact that the tax cuts were demonstrably unpopular among voters. (The articles in that issue cover everything from who benefits the most, to how Democrats should respond, to debunking the claims of those promoting the law.)

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had promised to close the carried interest loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay the lower capital gains rate on the money they make from an investment, but the loophole survived the 2017 bill and doesn’t seem likely to be revisited in the so-called Tax Reform 2.0 proposals currently being floated by Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Is ‘Jeopardy!’ Crossing Racial Lines?

Alex Trebek, longtime and iconic Jeopardy! Host, announced his possible retirement on Sunday. At 78 years old and recently having had brain surgery, Trebek told Fox News that he is “50-50” for remaining host after his contract expires in 2020.

Trebek’s departure, of course, wouldn’t be the end of the show, but it would leave the podium open for a new host. Trebek gave two recommendations for his potential heirs.

“The fellow who does play-by-play for the Los Angeles Kings, they should consider him,” Trebek told TMZ. He’s talking about Alex Faust, a 28-year-old announcer for the Los Angeles hockey team.

For his second pick, Trebek said, “There is an attorney, Laura Coates, she’s African American and she appears on some of the cable news shows from time to time.”

Why was her race one of her primary identifiers? There’s plenty more that Trebek could have cited from Coates’s impressive resume. Coates is a Princeton grad, a successful lawyer for the Department of Justice, a book author, and a legal analyst for SiriusXM and CNN.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, maybe Trebek just wanted to highlight the progressiveness of the show. But even if this is the case, true acceptance would be highlighting Coates’s achievements as making her qualified, rather than her race.

Trebek didn’t say that Faust was white and male, but I suppose he didn’t have to. Since Jeopardy! debuted in 1964, the host of the show has always been a white male.

Saturday Night Live has used Jeopardy! as a vehicle to highlight the divisiveness of race in America through their “Black Jeopardy” skits. Typically, these skits are formatted like a regular Jeopardy! game show (with Kenan Thompson as the host, Darnell Hayes aka “Alex Treblack”) with two black contestants and one white contestant, whose ignorance about the nuances of African American culture is exposed through the questions and responses.

It will be interesting to see how viewers of the real Jeopardy!—whose average age is 65—will react to the possibility of a young black woman hosting the nightly weekday show, possibly making parts of the sardonic SNL skit a reality.

With Massive Merger, the Prison Phone Industry Could Become Even More Lucrative

The prison phone industry, which has come under fire for the exorbitant fees it charges prisoners calling home, may be set to become even more profitable. This month, the giant inmate phone services company Securus petitioned the FCC to approve its plan to buy a smaller competitor, ICSolutions.

If the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission approves the merger, just two companies (Securus and Global Tel Link) would control between 74 percent and 83 percent of the market, according to analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). (Securus responded to PPI’s analysis, calling it “unreliable and misleading.”)

I previously wrote about how the prison phone industry is lucrative for both companies and states: Companies squeeze as much money as possible out of prisoners and their families, who are typically poor, while states often award contracts to phone companies that are willing to pay the highest commission rates. As a result, prisoners and their families may pay as much $1 per minute for a phone call.

As Aleks Kajstura, legal director at PPI, wrote in a blog post, just two companies controlling the lion’s share of the prison communications industry “will give facilities less choice and less ability to draft contracts that truly meet their needs.” According to reporting by the Marshall Project, if the deal is approved, prison systems in 47 states will contract with either Securus, Global Tel Link, or CenturyLink—and CenturyLink subcontracts nearly all of its contracts with ICSolutions or Securus.

PPI joined a number of prisoner advocacy organizations in filing a petition to deny the merger—but not merely because of the threat of a duopoly. They also argue that Securus routinely ignores regulations in order to maximize its profits (like when the FCC banned flat-rate fees on phone calls, and Securus changed the name of the charge to “first-minute” fees).

How will the Trump FCC rule on this? We can’t be sure yet, but let’s look to recent history: Last year, the administration approved Global Tel Link’s acquisition of Telmate, a company that had a market share just shy of ICSolutions’.

The Nation’s Youth Demand Action on Climate Change

Dreary weather and constant rain did not stop hundreds from turning out for Saturday’s Youth Climate March in Washington, D.C. The diverse crowd included families from Kansas City, youth who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation, and residents of the Marshall Islands who have seen firsthand how rising sea levels threaten their communities.

Young people were both the symbolic and actual leaders of this movement: The Youth Climate March was hosted by ZeroHour, an activist group with about 40 core members, most of whom are still in high school. Founder Jamie Margolin, 16, self-identifies as “#GenZ” in her Twitter bio. 

Generation Z is the age group younger than millennials, who overwhelmingly believe that anthropogenic climate change is real and a serious threat. A 2015 Pew survey showed that 52 percent of people ages 18 to 29 said climate change is a very serious problem, and more recent data shows that 81 percent of millennials say there is solid evidence for global warming. The recent student-led gun-control movement is just one indication that Generation Z could be even more progressive than their generational predecessors. Margolin said that ZeroHour learned from past marches, such as the February 21 March for Our Lives and the Families Belong Together march in June, but she and other organizers realized that high turnout wasn’t their only goal.

“We see mass mobilizations but we don’t see the change that we need,” she told the Prospect. “That’s why we came up with a platform of what we, the youth, need in order to have a livable future.” 

The ZeroHour platform specifies the need to listen to people whose daily lives have already been affected by climate change and calls for adding climate change to the political conversation for the midterm elections. 

The leaders of ZeroHour aim to make it an inclusive and worldwide initiative. “ZeroHour is not just [saving] the planet,” Margolin said. “It’s about the communities that have already been impacted, the lives that have already been lost. That’s who we’re fighting for, that’s what we’re fighting for.” 

Kibiriti Majuto, 20, who led the effort to write ZeroHour’s platform, added that the group addresses the responsibility of the United States, as the world’s second-highest greenhouse gas–emitting country, to fight climate change. Majuto also said there needs to be a “just transition” away from fossil fuels, but that transition needs to guarantee protection for marginalized communities and youth.

Majuto, who was granted asylum from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012, said that the march’s message came from “a lot of collaboration with young people across the country and the world … different parts that are mostly impacted by climate change.” 

“The people who are at the receiving end of oppression are feeling the worst effects of the climate crisis, so we are fighting to uplift those voices,” Margolin explained. 

The march was a culmination of three “days of action” in the District that included a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill on Thursday and community art festival on Friday. Margolin said that ZeroHour representatives talked to almost half of all the senators, including Bernie Sanders, Tammy Duckworth, and Patty Murray. Majuto is not optimistic that lobbying will spur change.

“We know they’re not going to do anything,” Majuto said, expressing his pessimism about the lobbying effort. But Margolin hopes these conversations will make climate change an important issue advance of the midterm elections. ZeroHour members handed out a No Fossil Fuel Money pledge to members of Congress, asking them to divest from the fossil fuel industry and to stop taking campaign contributions from the industry.

When asked which members ZeroHour was targeting, Margolin’s answer was decisive: “Anyone who takes money from the fossil fuel industry has to go.” 

Come September, many of the young activists will return to school—Margolin to her junior year of high school in Seattle and Majuto to Piedmont Virginia Community College. But Margolin said that won’t stop the work of ZeroHour.

A Nonprofit Group (and Not the Government) Saves SNAP at Farmers Markets—For Now

Food justice advocates breathed a sigh of relief Thursday as a pending disruption in farmers markets accepting SNAP benefits was narrowly averted for the time being. Has the Trump administration stepped in and provided a solution to the markets nationwide that were threatened? Of course not! A nonprofit group has cleaned up after the government’s missteps.

Let me try to briefly tell a very complicated story of why this was necessary (which I recently reported in a longer feature). As originally reported by The Washington Post, the federal government chose a new contractor for the program that funds equipment for farmers markets to accept SNAP benefits. That new contractor did not choose to work with the software vendor, Novo Dia, that currently processes SNAP benefits for about 40 percent of SNAP transactions at markets across the country. Because of this, Novo Dia announced it couldn’t cover the costs of their software and was going out of business. Novo Dia’s service to markets would end July 31. Without that vendor’s technology, nearly 2,000 markets would not be able to accept SNAP benefits, affecting SNAP recipients’ ability to buy food and affecting small farmers’ revenue.

But on Thursday, the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs announced that it will fund Novo Dia for an additional 30 days so that there will be no disruption in service for markets who use the company’s app to process SNAP benefits. That service extension will run through at least until the end of August.

Not only will this mean that markets will be able to continue accepting benefits, but it also buys time for markets and advocates to ensure that service isn’t disrupted at all. The move “[gives] us time to provide a long term, workable solution to keeping our markets and farmers active in the SNAP program,” said Diane Eggert of the Farmers Market Federation of New York in a statement. Instead of being forced to find a solution in the next two weeks, farmers and markets have more time to switch equipment (which they likely will still have to fund themselves).

The extension of Novo Dia’s service is great news for farmers markets and SNAP recipients: It’s hard to underscore how perilous the situation would have been for low-income people who shop at markets, as well as for farmers who rely on revenue from SNAP benefits, if SNAP could no longer be accepted at many markets.

But in celebrating, let’s not let the Department of Agriculture off the hook. As I wrote, the government knowingly ended the program last fall and was slow to restart it. They changed the stipulations for the federal contracting bid so that nonprofits were not able to apply, ensuring that it would be a new contractor that would take over the program, who would essentially be starting from scratch. And the department did not work with the new contractor to build a timeline to guarantee service would not be disrupted—that new contractor just started accepting applications this week. Finally, the government stipulated that the new contractor could not accept applications from farmers and markets using equipment under a previous contract, even if that equipment was, say, about to shutdown.

And it wasn’t even the government, which is nominally in charge of this program, who promised they were “exploring all available options in an attempt to avoid a service disruption,“ that solved this problem. Instead, that was left to the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs. 

Trump Didn't Flout GOP Norms — He Epitomized Them

When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, the American Right was faced with a conundrum. For most of the 20th century, it had defined itself by its anti-communism, the sole idea on which all wings of the disparate conservative community could agree. Moreover, anti-communism gave the Republicans a handy club with which to beat Democrats, since they could always attack the Democrats for being either soft on communism or, since Democrats believed in a mixed economy, being closet communists themselves. Then as now, Republicans were seldom deterred by an absence of evidence.

But with the 1991-1992 dissolution of the Soviet Union, the barbarians were no longer at the gate. The immediate beneficiary of this brave new world was presidential candidate Bill Clinton, whom the Republicans couldn’t attack, in the sudden absence of communism, for being soft on communism. There was still China, of course, but Republicans in those days and for some time thereafter liked China as a place where American corporations could do business.

Over the past quarter-century, however, Republicans have risen to the occasion: They have invented an enemy within whose purported terrors still drive GOP voters to the polls. The process began right after the Commies disappeared, in the 1992 Republican primaries, when Pat Buchanan proclaimed a culture war on liberals, minorities, and modernity itself—that is, on his fellow Americans. By 1994, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh were singing from the same foul hymnal, and one year later Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes came along to swell the chorus. From that time forth, the Republican mantra was established: The enemy was here; the enemy was modernity; the enemy was the Democrats.

Then, a decade ago, Buchanan struck again. In his columns, he began noting that Vladimir Putin, while a onetime KGB-nik, was also becoming the leading figure on the world scene to oppose homosexuality and other egalitarian liberal deviations. Putin’s our guy, Buchanan concluded, waging the kind of war for traditional patriarchal authority and against his liberals that we Republicans need to wage against ours. (Having grown up in a household that vehemently supported Francisco Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War, Buchanan had a chronic soft spot for authoritarians.)

Yesterday, what was once Buchanan’s eccentricity became the official policy of the president of the United States. Trump probably doesn’t give a hoot about Putin’s leadership of the war on gays, but as a nationalist patriarchal authoritarian thug, Putin is Trump’s kind of guy. Yes, Trump believes that he needs to back Putin up on the electoral interference question because it calls into question his victory; yes, perhaps Trump fears that Putin and his comrades have got the goods on him and he’d better go along with whatever they say.

But what we saw yesterday was also the reductio-ad-absurdum of the great Republican switcheroo: With the Communists gone, our real enemy is the enemy at home. And so a KGB thug with blood on his hands is the Republican president’s man, while Robert Mueller and the FBI are the cancer growing within. This is completely nuts, but it is also the logical culmination of the last 25 years of Republican evolution.

NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly Goes Ballistic in Interview with London Mayor Sadiq Khan

On July 13, an NPR interview with London Mayor Sadiq Khan turned into a debate over the right to peaceful protest. While the topic of the interview was purportedly Trump’s U.K. visit and his harsh criticisms of Khan, reporter Mary Louise Kelly instead used the opportunity to pick a fight with the mayor over whether a giant “Trump Baby” balloon that hovered over the anti-Trump protests in London went beyond the bounds of acceptable dissent.

Trump’s comments about Khan were part of the same explosive interview with The Sun in which he attacked British Prime Minister Theresa May on the eve of their meeting in London. In the Sun story, Trump launched several broadsides at Khan, a Labour Party member who has been London’s mayor since 2016—among them, “You have a mayor who has done a terrible job in London,” “I think he’s done a terrible job on terrorism,” and “I think he has done a bad job on crime, if you look, all of the horrible things going on there, with all of the crime that is being brought in.”

Kelly began the interview by asking Khan: “I’m holding a copy of The Sun, which as you know has a scathing interview with President Trump today in which he tears into you for doing a terrible job as mayor and doing a terrible job keeping this city safe. What’s your response?”

Khan tried to be diplomatic. The New York Times’ fact-checking analysis noted that Trump’s remarks about Khan and London were misleading, but Khan didn’t seek to specifically rebut Trump’s remarks. Instead, Khan—who has often jousted with Trump and with The Sun, a right-wing tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch—simply said, “Well, one of the great things about our city and our country is we have a free press. And we also have the right to protest, the right to free speech.” Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor, didn’t directly counter Trump’s provocative comment, that Europe was “losing its culture,” and facing rising crime, because of immigration. Nor did he address Trump’s inflammatory attack on May.

“Well, he’s entitled to have his views,” Khan told Kelly. “I’m not going to rise to the individual things President Trump said. I’m hoping during the course of his visit he sees a city and a country very comfortable with ourselves, very comfortable with our diversity. That’s something we should celebrate and not be scared of.”

When it became clear that Khan was not going to respond in kind to Trump, Kelly picked a fight with Khan, asking him whether he should have prohibited the giant balloon depicting Trump as a screaming orange baby in a diaper—holding a cellphone with Twitter on the screen—that floated above Parliament Square, where about 250,000 people rallied against the American president.

Kelly asked: “Speaking of protests, down near Parliament today—a giant Trump baby blimp. You signed off on this. You have history of bad blood with President Trump. Is this your way of taking a pot shot at him?”

Khan defended people’s right to protest, but Kelly wouldn’t relinquish her line of questioning: “But the blimp is such a striking visual. It will be the image beamed around the world of London, the city you run, all day today. It will be seen as London raising a middle finger to President Trump.” 

Khan refused to take the bait, again defending the right to protest. At that point, Kelly went ballistic, asking Khan: “If somebody wanted to float a blimp of a naked Theresa May over Parliament, that would be OK?” 

Khan kept his cool, despite Kelly’s outrageous question. 

“Look, the limitations are quite clear,” he said. “They’re there in the rules. They’ve got to be peaceful. They’ve got to be safe. It’s really important that police—”

Kelly interrupted: “A naked Theresa May would be peaceful and safe. Would that be all right?” 

Many politicians would have ended the interview at that point, but Khan calmly responded: “It’s really important that police sign off on them as well. So a blimp has got to be signed off by—not just by City Hall staff, certainly by the police and the National Air Traffic Services as well. But people are finding—”

Kelly—the co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered who should have learned something about civil liberties while majoring in government at Harvard and earning a master’s in European Studies at England’s Cambridge University—interrupted him again. “But you run this town,” she said. “You allowed this.” 

Khan didn’t let Kelly rattle him. He explained: “Well, can you imagine what your listeners would think if the politicians curtailing free speech, curtailing the right to protest simply because somebody’s offended—what’s next? The key thing is it should be done in a peaceful manner and should be good-spirited.”

By that time, Kelly realized that Khan wasn’t going to be lured by her provocation, so she abruptly ended the interview. 

“Mayor Khan, thank you for taking the time,” she said. 

“My pleasure,” Khan responded with obvious irony. 

Kelly ended the four-minute segment with: “That’s Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London.”

Putin Must Love Having Trump on His Side

It must be nice to have Washington on your side.

Vladimir Putin has to be heading home scratching his head. His meeting with Trump was choreographed to be cordial. But why on earth did Trump need to repeat, in even stronger terms, that he believes Putin’s denials over the extensive investigations of the entire U.S. intelligence establishment?

“They said they think it’s Russia; I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” Mr. Trump declared at the joint press conference—right after the Putin admitted that he had favored Mr. Trump in the election because of his promises of closer relations with Moscow.

Why did Trump not even go through the motions of asking Putin to keep his mitts off the American election process?

This makes no sense, either in domestic political terms or in terms of Trump’s tactical effort to discredit the special counsel. And it strengthens the case for what will be the strongest count in the impeachment of Trump—namely, treason.

Trump's mission to Finland is a political catastrophe for him, capping his buffoonish performances at NATO and in Britain. There is no good explanation for any of it, except a psychiatric one.

Those Democrats who say that raising impeachment will set back their chances of taking the House in the November elections are profoundly wrong. Impeachment just became inevitable.

Nebraska Voters Could Decide to Expand Medicaid

While many Republican governors have refused to expand Medicaid, some conservative-led states may have to resign themselves to letting direct democracy decide the question, thanks to the efforts of advocacy groups across the country. 

In Nebraska last week, advocacy group Insure the Good Life announced that it had received the number of required signatures for a November ballot initiative that will put it to the voters whether to expand access to Medicaid for 90,000 low-income Nebraskans. The group collected 133,000 signatures, almost 60 percent more than the approximately 85,000 necessary. Insure the Good Life is supported by several Nebraska groups, but is mostly funded by the Washington, D.C.-based Fairness Project, a group working to get Medicaid expansion on the ballot in states across the country. 

Similar efforts backed by the Fairness Project are underway in Idaho and Utah. Idaho, like Nebraska, still needs to validate petition signatures; the expansion measure will appear on the ballot in Utah this fall.

But even if a state’s voters decide to expand health care, that doesn’t mean the state government will necessarily respect the vote. In Maine, about 60 percent of voters elected to expand Medicaid, but Republican Governor Paul LePage is steadfastly refusing to allow the expansion—even in the face of a state judge’s order to stop stalling and to comply with the outcome of the popular vote.

While Nebraska Republican Governor Pete Ricketts’s re-election campaign spokesperson said that the expansion decision “ultimately rests with Nebraska voters,” the state legislature’s cooperation is even less certain. Medicaid expansion has failed repeatedly over the past six years in the Nebraska Legislature, and two Republican state senators have already sued to block the measure from appearing on the ballot.

The efforts to get Medicaid expansion on state ballots is an example of increased progressive grassroots action in conservative-led states, from canvassing for thousands of signatures to raising awareness about how expansion would bring federal dollars into Nebraska and provide health coverage to the poor.

Marea Bishop, an advocate for Insure the Good Life’s petition drive, wrote an op-ed in the Omaha World-Herald describing how her health condition keeps her from holding steady work and her own inability to afford health insurance. 

“Our communities can no longer wait while our Nebraska lawmakers fail to solve this public health problem,” she wrote. “We can do what our lawmakers have chosen not to do: to give our neighbors, our co-workers, our fellow Nebraskans a chance at a healthier life.”