Editorials from around New England:
The Boston Globe
House Democrats now in charge of the three major investigative committees have some tough choices ahead. With so much concern about foreign interference and self-dealing in Donald Trump’s Washington, where do they even start?
The Big Three - Jerrold Nadler on Judiciary, Elijah Cummings on Oversight, and Adam Schiff on Intelligence - have spent the past two years of the Trump presidency hamstrung as Republican chairs investigated anything but the man in the Oval Office and his team. Why worry about Russians corrupting the election process when you could be combing through Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, right?
Democrats now want to make up for lost time. Just to give a flavor of how much pent-up frustration Democrats have endured, Cummings, as the then-ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, submitted 64 subpoena requests during the past two years. None were approved by the then-Republican chair.
So the stage is now set - but for what?
Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, said on CNN Sunday that one of his first acts will be to share the transcripts of closed-door testimony before the committee with special counsel Robert Mueller, “including for the bringing of perjury charges, if necessary, against any of the witnesses.” Those transcripts would likely include testimony by Donald J. Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Roger Stone.
Among the subpoenas not issued by the former Republican Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, was one that might answer an intriguing question: Who did Trump Jr. talk to on his cell phone between calls setting up the Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton? Trump Jr. insists he simply can’t recall, and Nunes was remarkably uncurious about it. Not so, Schiff.
Also of interest are “persistent allegations that the Trumps, when they couldn’t get money from US banks, were laundering Russian money,” Schiff told the Lawfare Podcast. “If that is true, that would be a more powerful compromise than any salacious videotape or any aborted Trump Tower deal.”
Cummings’s Oversight Committee has even broader jurisdiction - and with it, the temptation to spread itself too thin. Clearly any possible violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause comes under the committee’s jurisdiction, and whether Trump personally profited from decisions he made as president are of particular interest to Cummings. That would include whether a decision by Trump not to move the FBI headquarters from its current Pennsylvania Avenue address - across the street from the Trump International Hotel - was actually designed to prevent any potential rival from acquiring what would be a most desirable “surplus” property.
“The American people have the right to know if the President is working in his own personal best interest to support his pocket book, or whether he is working in theirs,” Cummings told ABC News.
The committee also has jurisdiction to investigate the administration’s family separation policies at the southern border. Cummings seems determined to make sure those children are accounted for - as he should.
The Judiciary Committee shares jurisdiction over Immigration and Customs Enforcement - not that you would have known that during the past two years under Republican oversight. Nadler has put the December deaths of two migrant children in Border Patrol custody on his early investigative to-do list.
The best part, of course, is that Trump can huff and puff, but he can’t fire Schiff or Nadler or Cummings.
There will be no shortage of material for eager Democrats to probe in the days ahead. In fact, the temptation will be to do it all. But being in the majority also requires discipline and focus, often in short supply on Capitol Hill. Possible corrupt acts, possible violations of the rule of law, and policies with real life and death impact ought to go to the top of everyone’s list.
The Connecticut Post
Nearly three weeks in and with no sign of a solution in sight, the partial federal government shutdown is seriously affecting people’s lives, nationally and in the state of Connecticut.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which has 500 active duty officers in New Haven and New London, is unable to inspect all cargo ships headed into state waters for safety violations, or to enforce fishing laws.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds federal nutrition programs including school lunches and food stamps, says it can fund these programs through the end of the month, but February could be another story.
Even local breweries, who have provided a jolt to an otherwise stagnant state economy in recent years, say they are being held back by the shutdown, with the introduction of new labels on hold until the federal government gets back to work. “It’s anti-small business,” says one brewer, accurately.
All this is happening over a crisis that isn’t really a crisis and a proposed solution that wouldn’t really solve anything.
Illegal crossings of the U.S.-Mexican border are down significantly, with about one-fourth as many people apprehended last year compared to 2000. This comes at a time when the border is more secure, and more militarized, than ever before.
Most immigrants who are unauthorized to be in this country have overstayed visas; relatively few got in by sneaking across borders. Illegal drugs - and legal ones - take a terrible toll on American communities, but there is no reason to think closing the southern border would end that crisis. And the idea that terrorists are surreptitiously crossing from Mexico has been thoroughly debunked.
But even if none of that were true, a physical wall across 1,500-plus miles of border would be untenable and ineffective. Much of the border is already fenced, and what isn’t tends to be in wilderness, on private land or along the Rio Grande. None are legitimate options for building a concrete wall as envisioned by the president, or even the steel-slatted alternative he has offered up in recent weeks.
Congress, including most Republicans, voted just weeks ago to keep the government open without funding for a border wall. The president was about to sign it into law when he changed his mind, likely prodded by conservative media personalities. This is no way to run a government.
The new Congress, which includes a Democratic majority in the House along with a Senate still run by Republicans, must once again vote to reopen the government with all its agencies fully funded, but without a dime to pay for a border wall. If the president vetoes the measure, Congress should override his veto. This is not just about President Trump, but about Senate Republicans, who have the power to reopen the government without him.
There are debates to be had about immigration, about government funding and border security. None of that is possible while the very functioning of the government is held hostage. The shutdown must end now.
The Providence Journal
It is shameful that the Rhode Island Judiciary chose to fight against the public in court rather than concede it will honor the First Amendment in its future actions.
That stubbornness has already cost the taxpayers $50,000 in legal fees, which could rise when the full bill comes due (see “A $50,000 bill for judge’s ego,” editorial, Dec. 26).
Unfortunately, a U.S. judge who was asked to step in and protect the public’s constitutional rights has refused a request by The Providence Journal to require that Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Nettie Vogel commit to follow the law in the future.
His ruling was essentially that Ms. Vogel has learned from this episode and that the public can safely trust her to do the right thing from now on.
The dispute centers on Judge Vogel’s order last April that reporters not contact what she called “my jurors” after a trial - a blatant violation of the First Amendment. Talking to jurors is one of the ways the public learns how our court system works. As we have noted, that system belongs to the people, not to the judges.
The state also refused to provide access to juror forms. Ms. Vogel even sent a letter to jurors stating that they should contact her first if they wished to talk to a reporter!
U.S. District Judge Steven McAuliffe, in a decision filed last week, ruled that Judge Vogel’s ban on reporters “swept too broadly” and “was likely untenable.” That, of course, is putting it mildly.
Still, he said, “she acknowledged the issue, promptly corrected it, and is unlikely to repeat it.” As part of his ruling, he offered the public assurances that Judge Vogel is not clueless about limits on her power and the importance of open courts under the Constitution. She “is an experienced jurist (having served on the bench for more than 20 years)” and is “plainly aware of the requirements imposed by the federal Constitution as they relate to public jury trials and public access to juror identities.”
Even though her actions less than a year ago suggested she was unaware of, or oblivious to, those requirements.
After being compelled to defend its improper conduct, the Rhode Island court last month agreed to provide expedited press and public access to juror forms containing identifying information of empaneled jurors. Following that assurance, The Journal dropped that part of the suit.
Let us hope that Judge McAuliffe’s sanguine predictions prove accurate, and that this veteran of the bench will act constitutionally without further compulsion.
Still, it is disappointing that the Rhode Island judiciary must be challenged in court to do the right thing, and that state leaders - including Supreme Court Justice Paul Suttell and Superior Court Presiding Judge Alice Gibney - sat in silence while the citizens’ rights under the First Amendment were blatantly abused.
Court officials would serve the public well by giving judges refresher courses on the First Amendment and the importance of open courts under our Constitution. And those who parlay their political connections into winning nominations for these coveted lifetime plums should, as part of the confirmation process, be required to demonstrate an understanding of the First Amendment and the case law surrounding that foundation of all our freedoms.
The Rutland Herald
For a so-called “little girl,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has certainly gotten under the Republicans’ skin.
The 29-year-old freshman congresswoman from New York has become the GOP’s latest liberal boogeywoman. A democratic socialist who’s proposing an ambitious renewable energy plan and floating a 70-percent tax rate for wealthy Americans, she has made conservative pundits apoplectic as they try to expose her as a naive political lightweight. But personal attacks on Ocasio-Cortez have proven to be a poor strategy. The millennial is a social media maven who’s deftly used Twitter and Instagram to document her transition from bartender to congresswoman. The transparent documentation of her journey has opened up the process, making the pursuit of public office appear accessible to anyone.
She also never passes up an opportunity to clap back at her critics with fact checks and withering rebuttals. As the old guard is quickly learning, if you’re going to attack a millennial on social media, you better pack some sunscreen because you’re going to get burned.
Since being elected, she’s dismissed Sarah Palin’s mocking tweets as “grandpa emails,” and brushed off criticism from former-Gov. Mike Huckabee by telling him to, “Leave the false statements to Sarah Huckabee.”
More recently, an attempt to depict Ocasio-Cortez as unfit for public office by posting an innocuous video of her dancing with friends in college backfired spectacularly. The video turned out to be yet another viral win for the congresswoman.
While it remains to be seen if Ocasio-Cortez can deliver on the big game she’s been talking - endearing Instagram stories and pithy tweets don’t necessarily translate into good governance - she has already succeeded in inserting herself in the political conversation and even wresting control of the news cycle from President Trump.
As BuzzFeed tech writer Charlie Warzel observed this week, “She’s an insurgent, internet-native political force. Which makes her a perfect foil for a different, oxygen-sucking brand of political warfare: the pro-Trump media.” While her age and quickness to respond to critics with snark has made it tempting for many on the right (and left) to dismiss and discredit her, more observant critics, like MAGA-verse true-believer Mike Cernovich, have acknowledged her skill for leveraging her current celebrity to start serious policy conversations.
“Everyone is talking about AOC’s tax plan….and she’s 29 and got sworn in a day ago,” Cernovich tweeted last week.
Warzel points out Ocasio-Cortez is part of a generational shift in political discourse that “leans into conflict.”
“She’s playing by the new rules of the internet while septuagenarian pundits on Fox Business are tsk-tsking and calling her ‘little girl.’”
He likens her outspokenness to the survivors of last year’s Parkland school shooting - another group of internet-savvy young people who have boldly called out politicians for their hypocrisy and intransigence.
The GOP’s dismissal of the Parkland teens and Ocasio-Cortez is a dangerous play for a party that is getting older, whiter and more male with every election cycle. While it’s unclear if the party can ever make substantial gains among voters under 40, they mock young people at their own peril.
Journalist Dan Rather acknowledged that fact on Facebook earlier this week. In response to the GOP’s continued belittling of Ocasio-Cortez, he wrote, “. I’m not sure if your political party is struggling with young voters and changing national demographics the smart strategy is to engage in television and social media battles with a young, popular, Latina freshman congresswoman who has proven to be a master at viral communication.”
Voter data from the 2018 midterms supports Rather’s critique. According to an exit poll analysis by the Pew Research Center, a majority of voters age 18 to 44, around 62 percent, voted Democrat.
An assessment from the Brookings Institution published in June 2018 further drives this bleak reality home, noting that since the beginning of the Trump administration, voters aged 18-29 have “consistently given him his lowest approval ratings.”
The authors went on to observe that “A political party that can’t attract young people, especially in a generation that is as big as the Millennial generation - America’s largest demographic group - is not a party with a very bright future.”
At this point, is it even possible for the GOP to appeal to young voters? The party has clung to power in recent years by doubling down on embracing racists, fostering intolerance and denigrating women and minorities. Its policies have restricted access to health care, polluted the environment, disenfranchised voters, gutted public education and disproportionately targeted people of color.
While young people aren’t a monolith, they are indisputably more politically progressive than older generations. The Republican party’s socially regressive values are simply out of step with a majority of young Americans. Coming of age in a post-9/11, post-Great Recession world, they are feeling impatient, restless and alienated. They are seeking a party that offers hope and opportunity, not pessimism and division. And as young people like Ocasio-Cortez have demonstrated, they are unafraid to boldly make themselves heard.
The Concord Monitor
New Hampshire natives and longtime residents are familiar with the funeral watch over the state’s sagging barns, and most famously, over the Old Man of the Mountain, who fell to his storied death on May 3, 2003.
That was the year the city of Concord purchased the granite tannery building in Penacook, built in 1846. Four years later, despite money spent to stabilize the crumbling structure, a portion of the tannery’s roof collapsed under the weight of snow, and the building was ultimately demolished. Now, mourners of Concord’s lost past turn their eyes to the city’s iconic gas house, the round brick building on South Main and Water streets that powered much of the downtown between the presidencies of Grover Cleveland and Dwight Eisenhower. Will it, too, collapse into time and fade from memory like Concord’s enormous train station? We fear it will.
Only the top of the gasholder itself, a 40-ton iron tank open at the bottom, is visible and that only from inside the round brick building that protects the gasholder and the gears and rails that allowed it to rise as it filled with coal gas and fall as the gas was consumed.
People are fond of the building. It’s a head-scratcher for tourists, a monument to the industrial age and architecturally quite lovely. It’s also unsafe to enter. The building’s fanned rafters have been damaged by weather and a fallen tree. Its octagonal cupola has tilted, and the whole structure is in danger of collapse. How soon? Consultants can’t say.
They have estimated what it would cost to save the building, the only one of its kind in the nation with all of its equipment in place: $2.1 million. We don’t know if that price includes coping with whatever pollutants remain on the site or beneath the tank in a 24-foot-deep cistern that once held 80,000 gallons of water.
Making gas from coal by heating is an environmental horror show. The process yields flammable gas along with coal tar, napthalene, benzene, toluene, xylene and a lot of other things now considered toxic and/or carcinogenic. Earlier in this century, Liberty’s predecessor spent a lot of money removing coal tar pollutants from the Merrimack River and a pond near what is now Exit 13, but contaminants remain.
Liberty Utilities acquired the gasholder and its 2 acre site when it purchased its predecessor, Energy North. The site’s only role in company operations is as a white elephant, or make that an albatross. The company, we believe, would dearly love someone to buy the gas house building and preserve it, but no developer has expressed interest. Tearing down the building would cost $350,000, a burden rightly borne by Liberty’s shareholders, not its customers. The city could purchase the property, but is that the best use of several millions of public dollars? Probably not. Could the building, if saved, be re-purposed as a theater literally in the round, a bar or restaurant? Not without a massive investment in construction and environmental remediation. Could the gas house lot become a park, as some manufactured gas plant sites, notably Seattle’s Gas Works Park, have? Sure, all it takes is money, from taxpayers or someone who wants naming rights to a significant piece of New Hampshire history.
There may not be much time left for that someone to step forward.
The Portland Press Herald
We still don’t know how much taxpayer money Gov. Paul LePage spent at the Trump International Hotel during his frequent trips to the nation’s capital, but we have learned something that could be much more important.
By now we should know that Maine’s Freedom of Access Act is not strong enough in its current form to adequately protect the public’s right to know what its government is doing. If the law is not soon buttressed with the addition of meaningful consequences for officials who willfully violate it, the law will quickly become irrelevant.
That’s not an outcome anyone interested in good government should accept.
Ignoring public records requests became the norm during the LePage administration, as deadlines were allowed to expire and months turned into years without producing any documents or satisfactory explanations. Now that LePage is no longer in office, his successor’s staff is struggling to fill leftover requests, but the fact that LePage was able to get away with it sends a powerful message throughout government at all levels: Compliance with this law is optional.
The Trump hotel bills are a classic example. LePage made a number of trips to Washington in the early months of the Trump administration. We know that the governor’s security detail stayed at the hotel, which is owned by the president’s family. When LePage was asked how much he spent during those visits, he grew uncharacteristically quiet.
The government is supposed to respond to requests for records within five days, either by turning over the documents or explaining why it’s taking longer. The hotel bill request languished for hundreds of days, even though complying with the law would have been no more difficult than producing a few receipts - just like every business traveler does every month of the year.
Previous administrations have complied with the Freedom of Access Act, and so have school boards, town councils, task forces, blue ribbon commissions and other government bodies. They did it because they understood that it was their obligation because the public has a right to know what the government is doing. In some cases, officials probably complied with the law even if they found the request to be annoying, because violating it would make them look as if they had something to hide.
But the LePage record with Freedom of Access requests shows that if an official does not respect the public’s rights and has no shame about appearing corrupt, there’s not much more the law can do.
A task force of legal experts assembled by the Brennan Center for Justice recently issued a report calling for reforms to protect the rule of law and democracy on the federal level. Its authors identified the kind of problem that has been exposed by the failure to comply with public records laws in Maine.
“Our republic has long relied not just on formal laws and the Constitution, but also on unwritten rules and norms that constrain the behavior of public officials,” they wrote. “Without them, government becomes a chaotic grab for power and self-interest.”
Once the unwritten rules are violated, the country has to decide whether we can live without them or if they should be spelled out in statute.
As an example, they cite presidential term limits passed after Franklin D. Roosevelt broke the unwritten two-term tradition that had been established by George Washington.
Paul LePage is not in power anymore, but he has left a mess behind that goes beyond finding out how much he spent at the hotel.
If we still believe that government functions best in the sunshine, we need to give the Freedom of Access Act some teeth.
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