Just how much is Trump’s judiciary sabotaging the Biden presidency?

“No one has ever elected Matthew Kacsmaryk to anything.

Kacsmaryk, whom former President Donald Trump appointed to the federal bench in 2019, was previously a lawyer for a Christian right law firm. He once claimed being transgender is a “mental disorder” and that gay people are “disordered.” He’s also one of the most powerful immigration officials in the country, having successfully wrested control of much of America’s border policy away from the man Americans elected president in 2020.

With the Supreme Court’s blessing, Kacsmaryk ordered President Joe Biden’s administration to reinstate Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which requires many asylum seekers who arrive at the United States’ southern border to stay in Mexico while they await a hearing.

Even if you ignore the moral implications of reinstating such a policy, there are good reasons to doubt that the policy is a good use of America’s limited border security resources. And Kacsmaryk’s decision is also unlawful for numerous reasons.

One of the most important reasons is that it upends the balance of power between the president and unelected judges. Reinstating the Remain in Mexico program requires the Mexican government’s cooperation — which means that Kacsmaryk ordered the United States to change its diplomatic stance toward Mexico. And that’s despite decades of warnings from the Supreme Court that judges should be “particularly wary of impinging on the discretion of the Legislative and Executive Branches in managing foreign affairs.”

Kacsmaryk’s decision, and the Supreme Court’s decision to stand with Kacsmaryk against President Joe Biden, is one of the most dramatic examples of the Republican-controlled federal judiciary’s many conflicts with America’s Democratic president. But it’s hardly an isolated incident.

In just four years as president, Trump remade the federal judiciary — all with a big assist from a Senate Republican leader willing to break any norm in order to ensure GOP control of the courts. Trump appointed a third of the Supreme Court and nearly a third of all active appeals court judges. He also peppered federal trial courts with conservative activists like Kacsmaryk, who are eager to overturn some of the most fundamental assumptions of US law.

Nearly one year into Biden’s time in office, the result hasn’t exactly been a bloodbath for his policies — in contrast to the seemingly never-ending array of lawsuits seeking to repeal Obamacare, no federal judge has yet tried to repeal Biden’s major legislative accomplishments such as the American Rescue Plan or the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. But in two areas in particular, immigration and public health, the courts have been unusually aggressive.”

“if the Supreme Court wanted lower-court judges to stop ignoring precedents that permit President Biden to govern, it could intervene to stop them from doing so. Instead, it has rewarded many of the most aggressive conservative innovators within the judiciary.”

Joe Biden Says He’s Willing To Kill the Filibuster

“”I believe that the threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills,” Biden said. “Debate them, vote, let the majority prevail. If that majority is blocked, then we have no choice but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster.”
Democrats hold the slimmest possible majority in the Senate, which is currently split 50–50 with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tiebreaker. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) says he’s prepared to bring a pair of election bills to the floor in the coming weeks despite nearly unanimous Republican opposition. The Freedom to Vote Act would limit state-level efforts (led by Republicans) to restrict mail-in voting and absentee balloting, make Election Day a federal holiday, impose new rules for the redistricting process, and require more disclosures from political donors. The second bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would reimplement a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

On Tuesday, Biden positioned the two bills as a response to Republican efforts (in Georgia and elsewhere) to tighten election laws, and a necessary rejoinder to former President Donald Trump’s craven efforts (in Georgia and elsewhere) to influence the results of the 2020 election.

“That’s not America,” he said. “That’s what it looks like when they suppress the right to vote.”

Those Republican efforts to impose new rules on elections do indeed run the risk of corroding democracy, and Trump’s attempts to overturn the last presidential election were grotesque and condemnable. Even so, it’s not clear that the Democrats’ proposals make sense. If anything, greater federal control over elections might make it more likely that a future president could exercise undue influence over democratic proceedings.

But whether Democrats can pass those bills after suspending the filibuster might be a moot point because it doesn’t seem like there are 50 votes in the Senate for abolishing the filibuster in the first place.”

Biden’s Regulatory Wish List Will Make Infrastructure Projects More Expensive

“It would be terrific if the Biden administration intended to truly “update and modernize” the Davis-Bacon Act, namely by hollowing it out and allowing workers to truly compete for federal construction contracts in a field where wages are not preemptively set, regardless of the applicant’s experience. After passing an infrastructure bill that was considerably smaller than originally proposed, any opportunities to cut costs should be obvious winners. Unfortunately, despite the new rule’s lack of specificity, Biden’s previous rhetoric on the law is discouraging.

“When President Obama put Vice President Biden in charge of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Biden made sure that Davis-Bacon Act and Service Contract Act standards were strictly enforced, requiring that the prevailing wage be paid to construction workers and service workers on all projects funded by ARRA,” noted Biden’s campaign website. “As president, Biden will build on this success by ensuring that every federal investment in infrastructure and transportation projects or service jobs is covered by prevailing wage protections.”

In “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” signed a week after he took office, Biden stipulated that “agencies shall, consistent with applicable law, apply and enforce the Davis-Bacon Act and prevailing wage and benefit requirements.” And in his February remarks to labor leaders regarding his plans for a future infrastructure spending bill, Biden indicated that he expected the legislation to create “jobs—good-paying jobs, Davis-Bacon and prevailing wage jobs.”

From Biden’s statements on the subject, it’s clear that any of his proposed “updates” to the Davis-Bacon Act would not make it easier to hire contractors at market rates.”

Dems shift gears on Russian pipeline, backing Biden against Cruz’s gambit

“Top Senate Democrats have long opposed a Russian natural gas pipeline that’s set to enrich Vladimir Putin. But those lawmakers are putting those concerns aside to back up President Joe Biden as he navigates increasingly precarious talks with Moscow.

Democrats have consistently supported sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, arguing that the project will jeopardize Europe’s energy security and allow Putin to blackmail his enemies. But as the Senate prepares to vote next week on legislation from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would force Biden to impose those sanctions, Democrats on Wednesday signaled a significant shift in their posture.

The reason, Democrats say, is that they don’t want to undermine Biden while he engages with Russia over its military buildup on the border with Ukraine. As Putin flirts with an invasion of the U.S. ally, Democrats argued Cruz’s legislation would undercut Biden as he seeks to project unity with European allies — and would remove a key leverage point in the talks.”

Biden talks tough on Putin, but European allies are less ready for a fight

“President Joe Biden has warned Russian dictator Vladimir Putin that his country will face severe sanctions if it once again attacks Ukraine. A key question looms, however: Will European countries really go along with serious penalties on Moscow?

On the surface, Europe appears willing. European Union officials and national leaders from across the continent have promised huge economic penalties against Moscow for any new military incursion into Ukraine, in lockstep with their American partners.”

“While much of Eastern Europe — especially Poland and the Baltic states — is on high alert, the issue is nowhere near the top of the political agenda across most of the rest of the continent, where battling the pandemic and its economic fallout remains the priority. In Brussels, EU officials are more focused on why they don’t have a seat at the table for the Jan. 10 talks between U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva than what’s happening along the Russia-Ukraine border. Some countries are reluctant to undermine their business links with Russia; that includes Germany, which relies on Russian natural gas and has backed the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline.”

“Putin has amassed tens of thousands of troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine. If he orders his military forces to stage another land invasion, it will make it hard for most European countries to go easy on him. But if he takes steps that undermine Ukraine short of an invasion — cyber attacks, for instance, or incursions by mercenaries — that could complicate talks between Europe and the United States about how to react.”

“Another complicating factor for the Europeans is uncertainty about how long the tough U.S. stance on Russia will last, especially if Donald Trump returns to the White House after 2024. Although Trump’s administration imposed plenty of sanctions on Russia, Trump himself regularly sought better relations with Putin. Many European officials even question whether Trump would come to Europe’s aid if Russia were to attack a NATO ally, such as one of the Baltic states.

“If Trump wins the next election, we’re on our own,” one European official said. “And then what?”

Such concerns aside, some European leaders have at times given Putin the benefit of the doubt. In the wake of Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine in 2014, European powers, led by Germany, refused for months to bow to U.S. pressure to endorse sanctions against Moscow. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel was particularly worried about the effect such a move would have on Germany’s substantial trade relationship with Russia.

Merkel insisted for months on fruitless dialogue with Putin in the wake of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea even as Moscow-supported separatists escalated the war in eastern Ukraine. President Barack Obama tried to win Merkel over when she visited the White House in May of 2014 — to no avail. It took the downing, several weeks later, of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 with 298 people on board for Berlin to agree with U.S. demands to impose sanctions.”

“The U.S. could impose new or additional sanctions on Russian banks and energy firms. There also are potential targets in Russia’s mining, metals and shipping sectors, according to former officials who deal with sanctions. Another option is cutting Russia off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a critical global network for exchanging financial information. That would be a particularly tough move against Russia’s finance sector, though Russian analysts and others have downplayed the seriousness and note the country is developing an alternative.

The trick is to calibrate the sanctions in a way that doesn’t rebound in too harsh a way on the European economy or, in the longer run, the U.S. economy.

European leaders for now appear intent on deescalating the crisis with Russia, even if it means mollifying Putin with concessions. Just before Christmas, for instance, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said it would be “false to link Russia’s behavior in the conflict with Ukraine with the operation” of the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline. That was taken as a signal that Austria would not support any punitive action toward Russia beyond the cosmetic.”

“Biden and his aides have stressed that they are keeping European allies and Ukraine in the loop as the U.S. talks to Russia. Biden’s top aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, have been in touch with a range of foreign officials to discuss the Ukraine crisis, and U.S. officials will be in Brussels during the next week for a series of meetings at NATO HQ, including a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on Jan. 12.

At this stage, however, the administration, like its European allies, is avoiding mentioning details about sanctions possibilities or new weapons shipments it says amount to negotiating in the open.

“We won’t telegraph the specifics publicly, but there is broad consensus between Washington and key allies and partners in Europe on the need for a high impact, quick action response” to Russian aggression, the U.S. official said.”

Israel and the Gulf States Are Becoming Closer. But It Won’t Make Biden’s Life Much Easier.

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/12/16/israel-emirati-rapprochement-biden-middle-east-problem-524851

Biden’s H-1B Conundrum

“I spoke with current and former H-1B holders, U.S. workers, union reps, academics, lobbyists, recruiters and immigration lawyers on both sides of the political spectrum. While they differed on the specifics, many said that the program is used not to fill labor shortages, as corporations insist, but to cut costs. Critics say that businesses regularly game the system to pay H-1B visa holders below market wages, both exploiting foreign workers and stacking the deck against American job seekers.

As a candidate, President Joe Biden promised reform, saying “high skilled temporary visas should not be used to disincentivize recruiting workers already in the U.S. for in-demand occupations.” Now in office, his administration is considering increasing the wages companies have to pay H-1B workers, which would reduce the incentive for companies to hire foreign workers. This summer, it quietly — and unsuccessfully — defended in court a Trump-era rule that would have replaced the lottery system currently used to allocate visas with one that prioritizes the highest-paying jobs. Both Democratic senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa had long been calling for the change, saying in a joint letter that the “H-1B visa program is greatly in need of reform.”

But full scale reform is going to prove tricky for a president who campaigned as a champion for both workers and immigrants. Because while many pro-labor groups say the program lines the pockets of the likes of Google and Facebook at the expense of American workers, immigration advocates, along with business interests, oppose measures to rein it in, saying that doing so will hurt American competitiveness by narrowing access to a badly needed pipeline of high-skilled talent. Politically, H-1B reform is pegging two powerful Democratic constituencies against each other. Meanwhile, getting anything through a sharply divided Congress won’t be easy.”

“H-1B reform could drastically change the landscape of business and immigration in the U.S. There are roughly 600,000 H-1B visa holders in the country, the vast majority from China and India. Most of these jobs are in tech, but companies can also use the program to hire, say, Spanish-language teachers or doctors with special skills.”

“Proponents of the H1-B program say that U.S. firms need access to foreign STEM talent in order to remain competitive, an argument that hinges on the existence of a domestic labor shortage in the tech world. Unemployment in the tech sector is significantly lower than it is for the economy overall, which business groups say is evidence that domestic tech workers are doing pretty well and foreign workers are mostly filling demand above and beyond what the domestic workforce can supply.

The problem is, historically it’s not clear that there has been a labor shortage in tech. Skeptics point to the fact that median wages in the sector haven’t increased everywhere in the country, or all that dramatically. “What happens when there’s something in short supply?” said Ron Hira, an associate professor of political science at Howard University and research associate with the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute (EPI). “You have a price mechanism. In this case, it would be wages. So, anything in shortage you’d see wages going through the roof.” The fact that there haven’t been dramatic wage spikes, he says, suggests that claims of labor shortages in the U.S. are overblown.

Instead, Hira and others believe that corporations have become accustomed to paying below market wages through use of the H1-B program. Employers are required to pay H-1B workers the higher of either the actual wage paid to a worker in a comparable role at their company, or the average wage for similar workers based on occupation, geography and experience. Employers select this “prevailing wage” from four levels set by the Department of Labor.

But an analysis by EPI found that, in 2019, employers certified 60 percent of all H-1B jobs at the two lowest levels — leading to questions about whether corporations were classifying these jobs at artificially low levels to avoid paying higher wages.”

“Wages can be pushed down by other factors, too. H-1B visas are held by employers, which means there are restrictions on the free movement of labor. Foreign workers can’t simply leave the company if their wages aren’t competitive. “I felt like I had no option to negotiate whatsoever,” said a Pleasanton, Calif.-based former H-1B worker and now-green card holder who didn’t want to be identified for fear of professional repercussions. He guesses he was paid 25 to 35 percent less than his domestic counterparts as an H-1B worker.

“People who have been here for 10 years, or even some people who were born and brought up here who’ve been in good jobs making six figures, suddenly they’re losing their jobs just because [their employers] found somebody from India who would do it for $50,000,” said Choudhary.”

“Some argue that the H1-B visa program lifts all boats: There is research showing that an increase in foreign STEM workers as a share of a city’s total employment increases wages for domestic workers more broadly. But for many workers, any aggregate benefits of the program are far outweighed by the costs. In 2015, Disney famously fired over 200 U.S. workers, some of whom said they were made to train their H1-B-holder replacements.”

“One of the biggest arguments made by tech and other companies against making it harder for foreigners to come in on an H-1B visa is that it would dissuade the “best and brightest” from coming to the U.S. But several of the people I spoke with said that’s not always the case. “It’s a mixed bag,” said the Pleasanton, Calif.-based former H-1B worker about the caliber of the H-1B visa holders he worked with.

In recent years, H-1Bs have been awarded by lottery because the number of visa applicants has far exceeded the annual cap. Immigration advocates say that this shows the scope of the need for high-skilled foreign workers. But critics say that has led to a proliferation of mediocre workers.

There’s also the problem of players who want to cheat the system.”

“H-1B visas are good for three years, after which workers may apply for an additional three year extension. After his six years were up, Vikram’s employer initiated the process of applying for a green card for him, but, because of an enormous backlog for people coming from India, the processing time was expected to last at least nine years.

Vikram decided it wasn’t worth it. He still works with his former employers — but now as part of his own business, which he runs from India, charging his American clients half the cost of a U.S. salary.”

““The focus on H-1B, as if it were the way that we get skilled workers into our economy — that’s an artifact of the misuse of the H-1B visa,” said Bruce Morrison, a former Democratic congressman who wrote the legislation that created the H1-B program. “The H-1B program is a non immigrant program. And non immigrant by definition is supposed to be temporary.”

His solution is to expand the current limit of 140,000 employment-based green cards per year. “We still have the same numerical limitations that we had in 1990,” said Morrison. Biden’s immigration bill includes a provision that would increase the number of employment-based green cards to 170,000.

“People who have green cards have a right to become citizens,” says Morrison. “They get to vote, they have the same rights as citizens, they can’t be exploited in a legal sense. These are real values.””

De Blasio tells Biden: New York needs help now

“Outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is urging the Biden administration to send help as the Covid-19 Omicron variant rises dramatically in the city’s five boroughs.

The variant’s lightning-fast spread in the city forced the cancellation of Radio City Music Hall’s annual “Christmas Spectacular” over the weekend and led Saturday Night Live to broadcast without a live studio audience and with a smaller cast.

De Blasio said the White House should invoke the Defense Production Act to help provide a larger number of at-home tests as well as monoclonal antibody treatments. He also said the Biden administration should fast-track approval of an antiviral pill from Pfizer.

“We need help now … and we need a surge of support in terms of monoclonal antibody treatments,” de Blasio said at a briefing on Sunday. “We need more made available for New York City.””

The downside to Biden’s electric vehicle charging plan

“to build 500,000 chargers with half the budget, the Biden administration will have to opt for slower chargers. (The faster the charger, the more expensive it is to install.) The Biden administration’s plan, which draws on funds from the recently passed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, prioritizes chargers that take hours to fully charge an electric car — a potentially hard sell for Americans who are used to filling gas tanks from empty to full in minutes. And while more chargers are great, the plan is an indicator of just how watered-down Biden’s energy policies have become over the last year. Democrats still haven’t been able to agree on a clean energy plan, and without one in place, those EV chargers could just end up getting their energy from fossil fuel sources.”

“There are currently three different types, or levels, of electric vehicle chargers. Level 1 chargers plug into a regular 120-volt power outlet and deliver power to electric cars at a glacial three to five miles of range per hour. At that rate, it would take a couple of days for most cars to go from empty to fully charge. Level 2 chargers convert the 120-volt connection to about 240 volts, charging cars around 10 times faster than Level 1 chargers and bringing a battery to full within a few hours. Level 3 chargers, also called DC fast chargers, are the fastest of the lot. They add anywhere from three to 20 miles of range per minute.That means your car can be about 80 percent charged in the time it takes you to use the bathroom and grab a cup of coffee at a rest stop.”

“industry experts say, we don’t really need every charger to be a fast charger — which is why the Biden administration’s charging framework just might work.
“There’s a temptation to recreate the gas station model, where we say, ‘Oh I’m low on fuel, I need to go fill up now and be on my way in five minutes,’” Joe Britton, executive director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association, told Recode. “That would be a mistake.” (Just don’t tell Harris, who said charging the Volt was “just like filling up your car with gas.”)

Instead, Britton said, it’s important to consider how most people actually use their cars on a regular day. Most folks aren’t driving hundreds of miles each day; they’re driving between home and work or running errands around town. For those folks, Level 2 chargers would work just fine. They can charge their cars at home, drive to a grocery store, plug in at the parking lot, and drive back home with a full battery. So while the Biden plan does include strategically installing faster chargers along highways and in rural areas, the focus on building lots of Level 2 chargers in local communities is a way to stretch that $7.5 billion a long way.”

“Despite being home to EV pioneers like Tesla and GM, the US lags far behind Europe and China in electric vehicle sales. The majority of American EV sales are also concentrated in major metropolitan areas, with nearly half of all EV sales in California alone.”

“Studies have shown that electric cars drawing power from coal-heavy grids can actually be worse for the climate than hybrids. And so far, the president’s attempts to clean up the grid have been repeatedly thwarted by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who single-handedly gutted a proposal to replace coal- and gas-powered plants with solar, wind, and nuclear energy. Most of the energy policy that remains in Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill revolves around tax credits for clean energy, with few penalties for continued pollution-heavy energy production.”

U.S. Drone Strikes Plunge Under Biden

“Airwars, an independent nonprofit that tracks strikes and casualties in conflict areas like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, provides regular assessments of civilian deaths. And in their latest data which spans the first year of Biden’s presidency, civilian deaths and strikes plunged in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

The differences are striking, even keeping in mind we’re comparing just one year of Biden’s presidency with four years of President Donald Trump and eight years of President Barack Obama.

During the length of Trump’s four-year presidency, Airwars documented more than 16,000 air and artillery military strikes in Iraq and Syria, which itself was a decline of more than 1,500 strikes when compared to Obama’s second term. During Biden’s first year, there have been 39 total military strikes spread between both countries.

Alleged civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria skyrocketed under Trump’s four years in office to more than 13,000 compared to 5,600 during Obama’s second term. Thus far, Airwars reports only 10 under the Biden administration. There have been no reported civilian deaths in Somalia thus far during Biden’s term, compared to 134 under Trump and 42 under Obama over both of his terms. Strikes in Yemen, which had declined each year throughout Trump’s administration, have dropped to just four this year (Airwars did not provide civilian deaths for Yemen).

This follows reporting earlier this year that Biden had quietly imposed restrictions on the use of drone strikes outside of active war zones. Trump had eased restrictions and allowed the military and CIA to decide when to strike, thus explaining the dramatic increase in strikes and civilian deaths in Somalia during his term. Biden is now requiring the White House to vet and approve these strikes, for now, until the administration sets up new formal policies (about which we know very little, but observers hope will require more procedures to ensure that civilians aren’t killed).”