‘She’s a lucky duck’: GOP implodes again for McCaskill

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is up for reelection. And, like clockwork, the Republican Party of Missouri is in complete turmoil again.

McCaskill won a second term term in 2012 when GOP Rep. Todd Akin’s campaign imploded in the wake of his comments about “legitimate rape.” Now, Republicans worry GOP Gov. Eric Greitens’ mounting scandals will inundate McCaskill’s likely Republican opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, and bestow another term on one of the most endangered incumbent senators in the country.

The scandals are damaging the GOP at the most critical interval of its six-year wait to unseat McCaskill.

“[Greitens] is jeopardizing the whole Republican Party of Missouri,” said Rob Jesmer, a top Republican consultant who was executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee when Akin made his infamous comments about rape and abortion during McCaskill’s last campaign.

Democrats can hardly believe their good fortune at the same time they pounce. They say Hawley’s outrage at Greitens rings empty, accusing him of going easy on a fellow Republican by stopping or stalling other investigations into the governor’s actions for a year, until Greitens became politically toxic. McCaskill’s party is also hammering Hawley for accepting a $50,000 campaign donation from Greitens in 2016.

The conflagration doesn’t guarantee McCaskill will win this November — she’s one of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection this year, and one of five Democrats running in states President Donald Trump carried by double digits. But Greitens still maintains fervent pockets of support among state Republicans and is now feuding openly with Hawley: Earlier this month, the governor said Hawley is “better at press conferences than the law,” while deriding the accusations against him as a “witch hunt.”

Democrats are maintaining that Hawley spent much of the past year shielding Greitens from legal scrutiny.

“We’re glad that Hawley has come out of hiding to acknowledge the existing evidence of criminal behavior of the Governor,” McCaskill’s campaign said in a statement last week, after Hawley announced that his office had found evidence of criminal wrongdoing in Greitens’ political fundraising. “However, the sad truth is that this shows gross incompetence on the part of the attorney general.”

“We’ve known since 2016 that Eric Greitens exploited a veterans charity,” state Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber said in a statement. “Josh Hawley has had every opportunity to investigate that. It appears he’s instead decided to protect a political ally until the very last minute.”

(Excerpted from Politico 4/23/18)

Trump Plan Would Cut Back Health Care Protections for Transgender People

The Trump administration says it plans to roll back a rule issued by President Barack Obama that prevents doctors, hospitals and health insurance companies from discriminating against transgender people.

Advocates said the change could jeopardize the significant gains that transgender people have seen in access to medical care, including gender reassignment procedures — treatments for which many insurers denied coverage in the past.

The rule was adopted in 2016 to carry out a major civil rights law embedded in the Affordable Care Act. The law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability in “any health program or activity” that receives federal financial assistance.

The Obama administration said the rule covered “almost all practicing physicians in the United States” because they accept some form of federal remuneration or reimbursement. It applies, for example, to hospitals that accept Medicare and doctors who receive Medicaid payments, as well as to insurers that participate in health insurance marketplaces.

The Trump administration has been scaling back protections for transgender people on several fronts. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, reversing an Obama administration policy, said the main federal job discrimination law “does not encompass discrimination based on gender identity per se.”

Mr. Trump’s effort to bar transgender people from serving in the military is tied up in several federal courts. The Education Department has rescinded Obama administration guidelines on how schools should accommodate transgender students.

The existing health care rule adopted two years ago says that sex discrimination — clearly forbidden by the Affordable Care Act — includes discrimination based on “gender identity” and “stereotypical notions” about how men or women should present themselves or behave.

Under the existing rule, health insurers cannot place arbitrary limits or restrictions on health services that help a person transition from one gender to another. These services may include counseling, psychotherapy, hormone therapy and a variety of surgical treatments.

In the past, many insurers, as they denied coverage for such treatments, cited what they called the cosmetic or experimental nature of the procedures. The Obama administration said that view was “outdated and not based on current standards of care.”

Jocelyn Samuels, who was the director of the civil rights office under Mr. Obama and an architect of the rule, said, “If the Trump administration rescinds the protections against sex stereotyping and gender identity discrimination, the effect will be potentially devastating not just for the trans community, but for any other patients who are gender-nonconforming, including lesbian and gay individuals.”

(Excerpted from New York Times 4/21/18)

Trump Celebrates Earth Day By Praising Rollback Of Environmental Protections

President Donald Trump commemorated Earth Day on Sunday by applauding his administration’s efforts to roll back key environmental protections.

Trump stressed the importance of preserving the “life-sustaining gifts” of “our magnificent land and waterways, abundant natural resources, and unique wildlife” in a White House statement released Sunday.

“It is our responsibility to protect them for our own benefit and that of generations to come,” Trump said in the statement, before praising his administration for repealing regulations meant to do just that.

“We know that it is impossible for humans to flourish without clean air, land, and water,” according to the statement. “We also know that a strong, market-driven economy is essential to protecting these resources. For this reason, my Administration is dedicated to removing unnecessary and harmful regulations that restrain economic growth and make it more difficult for local communities to prosper and to choose the best solutions for their environment.”

With climate change skeptic Scott Pruitt as the president’s appointed leader of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Trump administration has taken a hatchet to progressive, Obama-era environmental regulations.

Pruitt outlined plans earlier this month to gut landmark fuel standards for vehicles that were designed to reduce carbon emissions, the nation’s top source of greenhouse gas pollution. The Trump administration in January proposed a plan to massively expand offshore drilling and opened up millions of acres of previously protected public land to fossil fuel developers.

In June 2017, Trump delivered a major blow to the fight against global warming by announcing the United States will pull out of the Paris climate accord.

Despite what many activists consider to be the administration’s unprecedented assault on environmental protections, Trump called on Americans to “give thanks for the environment we share, protect, and call home.”

“Americans embrace the idea of enjoying nature in a responsible fashion, while preserving the blessings of the land for future generations,” he said in the statement. “My Administration is committed to furthering this rich legacy of conservation.”

(Excerpted from Huffington Post 4/22/18)

Missouri Gov. Eric Grietens is in big trouble. But impeaching him will be hard

Missouri has never impeached a sitting governor before; lawmakers impeached one former Democratic secretary of state named Judi Moriarty in 1994. The process for a impeachment of a governor or Supreme Court justice is an entirely separate process from impeachment of other executive officials, involving a panel of seven judges to hand down a verdict. But lawmakers are struggling in the Greitens case because the governor’s sexual misconduct scandal and donor list flap both happened before he took office. Moriarty, on the other hand, was impeached for something she did while in office.

The question of whether a sitting governor can be impeached for transgressions committed before holding office is a legally ambiguous one — and Greitens could be the test case.

The Missouri Constitution says executive officials can be impeached “for crimes, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office.”

The Associated Press’s David Lieb interviewed former Missouri House Speaker Steve Gaw, who served on Moriarty’s impeachment panel back in 1994, asking whether the same standard could apply to Greitens. Gaw admitted he didn’t have a good answer.

“This [impeachment] provision can be read a couple of different ways, kind of depending upon how you construct that sentence, which I think is going to lead to a legal argument about whether or not this is an impeachable offense under the constitution,” Gaw told Lieb. “It’s a question that hasn’t been answered by the Missouri courts.”

The state’s House and Senate both have their own process.

The Missouri House is the legislative body that has to act first, by voting on articles of impeachment. But from there, the process gets trickier. It typically would be up to the Missouri Supreme Court to decide whether to impeach most other executive officials … but there is an entirely different process for governors.

In that case, the state Senate has to select a panel of seven “eminent jurists” (judges) to hear impeachment proceedings and decide whether to impeach the governor, according to the state Constitution. At least five of the seven judges must vote in favor of impeachment in order for the governor to actually be removed.

In Greitens’s case, it could be made even more complicated by the Missouri legislative calendar this year. If the House decides to get the ball rolling on impeachment, it likely won’t do so until the regular legislative session ends on May 18 — four days after Greitens goes to court on the felony charge of invasion of privacy. And potential impeachment proceedings could stretch on well beyond that.

That is bad news for the man in Missouri who wants Greitens gone the most: Attorney General Hawley, who is planning to mount a US Senate challenge to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. Hawley has been one of the most vocal Republicans in the state calling on Greitens to step down or be impeached. The longer the governor hangs on, the more of a drag it is on Hawley’s campaign.

And unless impeachment proceedings can start soon — and actually be successful — Greitens doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

(Excerpted from Vox 4/18/18)

The Senate just voted to kill a policy warning auto lenders about discrimination against minority borrowers

The Senate on Wednesday voted to kill a five-year-old Obama administration policy warning auto lenders not to discriminate against minority borrowers.

The legislation, which passed 51 to 47 largely along party lines, is the latest Republican rebuke of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s history of aggressive tactics. Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the measure.

Democrats and consumer advocates cautioned that rescinding the CFPB guidance would encourage bad behavior in the more than $1 trillion auto finance market. “Many auto dealers are actively discriminating against people of color. This behavior is pervasive, and the CFPB’s guidance would help to end it,” said Karl Frisch, executive director of the consumer watchdog organization Allied Progress. “They may try to dress it up with political spin, but today the Senate endorsed discrimination.”

he fight centers on guidance issued by the CFPB in 2013 that took aim at a common industry practice that allows auto dealers to mark up interest rates offered by finance companies. Finance firms such as Ally set an interest rate based on objective criteria — including borrowers’ credit history and the size of their down payments. Auto dealers are then free to raise the interest rates within certain limits. The finance companies and the dealers split the extra profits.

The CFPB argued that auto dealers were using that discretionary markup to charge black and Hispanic borrowers more than white ones, even if they had the same credit scores. Over several years, the agency fined several auto lenders millions of dollars for discriminating against minority borrowers, and some lenders stopped allowing discretionary markups, cutting into auto dealer profits.

(Excerpted from Washington Post 4/18/18)

Trump’s EPA quietly revamps rules for air pollution

The Trump administration has quietly reshaped enforcement of air pollution standards in recent months through a series of regulatory memos.

The memos are fulfilling the top wishes of industry, which has long called for changes to how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees the nation’s factories, plants and other facilities. The EPA is now allowing certain facilities to be subject to less-stringent regulations and is letting companies use friendlier math in calculating their expected emissions.

Environmentalists and public health advocates say the memos could greatly increase levels of air pollutants like mercury, benzene and nitrogen oxides. They accuse the EPA of avoiding the transparency and public input requirements that regulatory changes usually go through.

“All of these, individually and taken together, will result in more air pollution and less enforcement of the Clean Air Act,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.

“These were radical departures of current law when they were proposed a decade ago and they’re just as radical today,” he said, referring to the Bush-era efforts, some of which were unsuccessful, to make changes to EPA air programs.

The first memo, issued in December, states that the EPA will no longer “second guess” companies’ calculations of their expected pollution output after certain big projects under what is known as New Source Review. Under that program, the EPA reviews the changes made to a facility to decide whether they need to go through the same process as if the facility were newly built.

The December memo effectively means the EPA will usually not take action against a company for its calculations if they turn out to be wrong.

The second memo, issued in January, repeals a Clinton-era policy known as “once in, always in.” Under the previous policy, facilities could never be considered “minor” sources of hazardous pollution if they were already considered “major” sources, and subject to much stricter rules.

Now, facilities can be regulated as “minor” if their emissions drop enough.

The third memo allows companies to use a procedure known as “project netting” when applying for permits for major projects under the New Source Review program. That means companies can use a more industry-friendly emissions calculation when they argue that a particular project would reduce emissions.

President Trump added to the memos last week, signing one himself that formally asks the EPA to use more industry-friendly practices in enforcing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards program, a key Clean Air Act program for air quality nationwide.

(Excerpted from href=”http://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/383661-trumps-epa-quietly-revamps-rules-for-air-pollution?userid=1860″>The Hill 4/18/18 )

Trump order targets wide swath of public assistance programs

The Trump administration is seeking to completely revamp the country’s social safety net, targeting recipients of Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance.

Trump is doing so through a sweeping executive order that was quietly issued earlier this week — and that largely flew under the radar.

It calls on the Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture and other agencies across the federal government to craft new rules requiring that beneficiaries of a host of programs work or lose their benefits.

Trump argued with the order, which has been in the works since last year, that the programs have grown too large while failing to move needy people out of government help.

The order is directed at “any program that provides means-tested assistance or other assistance that provides benefits to people, households or families that have low incomes.”

Democrats have blasted the effort, arguing the order blends the issues of welfare and broader public assistance programs in a deliberate way they say is intended to lower support for popular initiatives.

“Welfare” has historically been used to describe cash assistance programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Democrats and liberal activists say the Trump administration is seeking to expand the definition of welfare to mean food stamps, Medicaid and other programs as a way to demonize them.

“This executive order perpetuates false and racist stereotypes about certain groups supposedly taking advantage of government assistance,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said in a joint statement reacting to the order.

President Trump “is trying to erect a smokescreen in the shape of Reagan’s ‘welfare queen’ so people don’t see he’s coming after the entire middle and working class,” said Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Center for American Progress’s Poverty to Prosperity Program.

Welfare reform has long been a goal of GOP lawmakers, and there’s broad support in the Republican conference for changing the federal safety net to impose stricter work requirements and block grant state funding for programs like Medicaid and food stamps.

(Excerpted from The Hill 4/14/18)

Interior Officials Have History Of Hostility To Native Concerns

A scathing Inspector General’s report released last week is raising new questions about last summer’s mass reassignment of Interior Department (DOI) employees that disproportionately affected Native Americans.

Now, current and former members of Congress and former department officials tell TPM that two top Trump political appointees at the department — at least one of whom played a key role in the reassignments — have long been hostile to Native concerns. Both officials, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, the department’s second in command, and Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason, served in top DOI posts during the George W. Bush administration, at a time of intense conflict between the agency and Native American tribes.\

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, is demanding the two officials testify before Congress about whether the reassignments were politically motivated.

“It’s no coincidence that those workers were sent to other functions separate from the responsibilities they had regarding land issues and Native American issues,” Grijalva told TPM. “It’s a way to take away institutional memory. It’s a way to take away the expertise about the history of the issue and the definition of tribal sovereignty.”

review by TPM found that 11 of the 33 officials reassigned last summer under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke were Native American — a potential violation of both federal anti-discrimination laws and the agency’s own Indian Preference rules. The Inspector General’s report released Wednesday prompted additional charges from Democrats that the staffers may have been reassigned because of their race or their political ideology.

(Excerpted from Talking Points Memo 4/16/18)

Under Trump, a voice for the American consumer goes silent

In the 135 days since the Trump administration took control of the nation’s consumer watchdog agency, it has not recorded a single enforcement action against banks, credit card companies, debt collectors or any finance companies whatsoever.

That’s likely no fluke: Mick Mulvaney, appointed acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in late November, promised to shrink the bureau’s mandate and take a much softer approach to enforcement, and records reviewed by The Associated Press indicate he has kept his word.

A review of a CFPB database obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information request shows that the bureau issued an average of two to four enforcement actions a month under former Director Richard Cordray, President Obama’s appointee. But the database shows zero enforcement actions have been taken since Nov. 21, 2017, three days before Cordray resigned.

Before Mulvaney, the bureau used enforcement actions to extract billions of dollars in relief for consumers from financial companies and to stop companies from doing harm. Bank of America was ordered to return $727 million to consumers for deceptive credit card practices in 2015 — the largest award in the bureau’s history — but the CFPB has issued dozens of smaller actions to get relief for student borrowers, victims of debt collection companies and bank customers.

In the roughly seven years it has been in existence, the bureau has returned $3.97 billion in cash back to American consumers through enforcement actions and an additional $7.93 billion in other types of relief, such as lower loan balances or debt relief, based on the CFPB’s records. The bureau estimates roughly one of every 10 Americans has received some sort of reimbursement or relief due to the bureau’s enforcement work since it was created.

Despite that direct relief to consumers, Republicans — including Mulvaney when he was representing South Carolina in Congress — accused the bureau of overreach. Mulvaney once called the bureau a “sick, sad joke” of an agency.

While consumer advocates expected fewer enforcement actions under a more business-friendly Trump administration, the fact that the database indicates they have stopped entirely raises concern that consumers have been left vulnerable. There were some periods under the Obama administration where bureau enforcement actions slowed, but those appear largely tied to the fact the agency was just getting underway. This is the longest stretch without enforcement actions in the CFPB’s history.

“Enforcement is very important,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director at the National Consumer Law Center, a consumer advocacy organization and a critic of Mulvaney. “If a company violates the law, it needs to be held accountable and called out instead of being quietly admonished through supervision.”

(Excerpted from Associated Press 4/10/18)

Trump administration issues rule further watering down Obamacare

The Trump administration took additional steps to weaken Obamacare on Monday, allowing U.S. states to relax the rules on what insurers must cover and giving states more power to regulate their individual insurance markets.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a final rule that allows states to select essential health benefits that must be covered by individual insurance plans sold under former President Barack Obama’s healthcare law. The 2010 Affordable Care Act requires coverage of 10 benefits, including maternity and newborn care and prescription drugs. Under the new rule, states can select from a much larger list which benefits insurers must cover.

That could lead to less generous coverage in some states, according to Avalere Health, a research and consulting firm.

President Donald Trump’s administration has used its regulatory power to undermine Obamacare after the Republican-controlled Congress last year failed to repeal and replace the law. About 20 million people have received health insurance coverage through the program.

The new CMS rule also allows states the possibility of modifying the medical loss ratio (MLR) formula, the amount an insurer spends on medical claims compared with income from premiums that is also a key performance metric. A state can request “reasonable adjustments” to the medical loss ratio standard if it shows that it could help stabilize its individual market.

Insurers could also have an easier time raising their rates under the new rule. Obamacare mandated that premium rate increases of 10 percent or more in the individual market be scrutinized by state regulators to ensure that they are necessary and reasonable. The new CMS rule raises that threshold to 15 percent.

(Excerpted from Reuters 4/10/18)