Can Our Nation Survive Trump and the GOP’s Control of Capitol Hill?

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 8, 2017

Almost two months ago when GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump trounced his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton and his party took control of both chamber of Congress. Trump’s surprising victory stunned both voters and political commentators and pundits covering the heated presidential race. According to a November 16, 2016 Gallup Poll, 80 percent of Trump’s voters are “excited,” while 76 percent of Clinton’s voters say they are “afraid.” A large majority of the respondents (75 percent) shared one reaction: “surprise.”

Days after the tumultuous election, Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, penned his thoughts about how president-elect Trump might govern the divided nation. His posting, “Four Scenarios for a Trump Presidency,” can be found on the Brooking’s FixGov blog, written on November 14, 2016.

Speculating on Trump’s White House Governance

In his 1,286 word blog, West, an American author, political scientist, pollical commentator who formerly taught political science at Brown University for 26 years, says that Trump might choose to govern as a traditional Republican endorsing tax cuts, deregulation and repealing Obamacare. Like other GOP politicians he would call for reinstituting law and order, fighting ISIS and other extremist militant groups, and controlling illegal immigration from coming into this country. “These typical GOP positions might resolve his philosophical differences on “entitlement reform and free trade,” says West, an author or co-author of 22 books.

Trump just might even turn over the reins of the presidency to Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, says West, these individuals “becoming the de facto prime minister.”

According to West, like president-elect Trump did during the presidential campaign, he might take on the role of a “popular rogue.” A “populist Trump could break conventional political rules and “attack the political establishment to represent the little guy,” notes West’s blog posting.

West also suggests that Trump might ultimately fail as president. After all he lost the popular vote by 2 percentage points or nearly three million votes and alienated women, millennials, minorities and immigrants with his insulting comments. Scandals and disclosures about his personal behavior and continuing concerns about serious financial conflicts of interest could derail his “honeymoon” phase at the beginning of his presidential term and negatively impact his popularity ratings, he says.

West also speculates in his blog that policy backlashes due to millions losing health care coverage by his push to repeal Obamacare, privatizing Medicare or gutting Social Security, a slow-down in the economy or even Trump’s continued liking of Russian President Vladimir Putin, might make him a one term president, like President Jimmy Carter.

Finally, public outcry and violent protest may turn Trump into an authoritarian leader. If this happens West expresses concerns smear campaigns (waged by White House Strategist Steve Bannon), the use of federal agencies to “attack adversaries” and the use of local police to “crack down” on protestors. “Firing top intelligence officials would suggest that Trump wants compliant people who will do his bidding against foreign and domestic adversaries,” he says.

Big Changes with the GOP in Charge

“It is a scary time in American politics,” says West, who expects to see big changes on Capitol Hill in 2017. The Brookings political pundit predicts that a Trump White House with a GOP controlled Congress will tackle large tax cuts, corporate tax reform, repealing Obamacare (but not having anything to replace it with), and reversing the Dodd Frank financial regulation bill. With the Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress he does not expect gridlock during the first six months of the 115th Congress.

West predicts that in the long-run many of the GOP president and Republican Congressional leadership policy initiatives will be problematic. “They are governing as if they have a clear mandate even though they lost the popular vote, he says.

West, like some political observers, expect many of the GOP’s conservative policy proposals to hurt the people who voted for Trump. The tax cuts go disproportionately to the top one percent and proposed changes in Medicare and Medicaid will limit medical care, he said.

“In a couple of years, the economy probably will be much weaker than it is today, which will undermine the very rationale of Trump’s candidacy,” says West, noting that if this happens the newly elected president could have a 30 percent job approval rating by 2018. “Of course, that is when he really will become dangerous! The risk is he may try things to improve his poll numbers, such as identifying scapegoats or confronting adversaries,” warns West.

“GOP Congressional leaders have plans to privatize Medicare and block grant Medicaid to the states. This will impose limitations on medical care and make it more difficulty for needy people to get the help they need,” adds West, who also sees Republicans moving to reduce home care and medical assistance to America’s elderly.

West sees the “GOP legislative initiatives as being very contentious politically, and will reinforce perceptions of the GOP as cold and heartless [to Americans].”

“Democrats will not be able to pass legislation. Their main power will be trying to block things they don’t like or stop nominations at confirmation hearings that they find problematic,” says West, noting that they will be put in a defensive posture. “They will seek to protect certain gains made during the Obama administration. However, Congressional Democratic leadership may well be able to work together on infrastructure investments,” he says.

West believes that Trump’s fix for the economy will not work. “In the longer-run, there is a risk that inflation will go up. Interest rates already have risen in anticipation of this,” he says.

“The market is expecting Trump to spend a lot of money and not be able to corral spending by the same amount. That will increase deficits and drive up inflation. It will be hard to blame this on Democrats since there has been low inflation for years now. It will be pretty obvious that GOP policies are responsible for the rate increases,” West adds.

Democrats Mobilize, Video Sends Message to Congress

As president-elect Trump’s inauguration approaches, President Obama traveled to Capitol Hill last week to urge Congressional Democrats to block the GOP president and the Republican Congressional leadership’s efforts to dismantle Obamacare, the outgoing president’s signature healthcare reform law and to fight their legislative policy initiatives. Behind closed doors Obama urged Democratic lawmakers to not “rescue” the Republicans by passing replacement measures. He suggested calling the GOP’s new plan, “Trumpcare,” to ensure that they are held responsible for any disruptions in health coverage. At press time there seems to be no GOP health care plan to consider.

After Obama’s meeting Democrats lawmakers have begun using the phrase, “Make America Sick Again, tying into Trump’s wildly recognized campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Hollywood is moving to block Trump’s policy initiatives. Almost a week ago documentarian Liz Garbus unveiled her one minute and 49 second video (#StandUpForUS), released by Humanity for Progress, to urge Congress to block any legislative initiatives pushed by Trump and his GOP allies that attack groups he marginalized during last year’s presidential campaign. Celebrities and activists lined up to participate in this video. They included Rosie Perez, Keegan-Michael Key, Tavi Gevinson, Lea Delaria, Sally Field, Steve Buscemi, Zoe Kazan, Jeffrey Wright, and Janet Mock, among others.

“The majority of Americans, regardless of who they voted for, did not vote for racism, for sexism, or for xenophobia. And yet Donald Trump won,” notes the video. At the end of the video, viewers are asked to email the video to members of Congress, as well as to sign a petition on http://www.MoveOn.org, to resist Trump and the GOP agenda,

Stay Tuned

The aftermath of the 2017 presidential election has politically split our nation. Although Trump won the Electoral College, Clinton, the former secretary of state, pulled in over 64 million votes. Even without a clear legislative mandate President-elect Trump and Republican Congressional leadership are moving at a quick pace to make major policy and systemic changes during the first 100 days of the 115th Congress. Democrats are now forced to play the loyal opposition for the next four years and fight against GOP policies rammed through the legislative process. Will GOP legislative fixes push American in the right direction? Or will the nation survive these changes? Stay tuned.

Republicans Begin a Legislative Assault on Social Security

Published in Woonsocket Call on December 11, 2016

With the dust just settling after last month’s heated presidential 2016 election, the GOP took over the White House and maintained control of both chambers of Congress. With almost 40 days left before Obama leaves office, an emboldened GOP calls for the repeal of Obmacare and the privatization of Medicare. That said, fixing Social Security is now on their short list of domestic policies to address.

Last Thursday, the long-anticipated political skirmish over how to reform and ensure the fiscal solvency of Social Security began with Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (TX-03) introducing legislation to drastically overhaul the nation’s most popular social insurance program.

In the Eyes of the Beholder

“For years I’ve talked about the need to fix Social Security so that our children and grandchildren can count on it to be there for them just like it’s there for today’s seniors and individuals with disabilities,” Johnson said in his statement introducing H.R. 6439, the Social Security Reform Act of 2016. “My commonsense plan is the start of a fact-based conversation about how we do just that. I urge my colleagues to also put pen to paper and offer their ideas about how they would save Social Security for generations to come,” he said.

Johnson’s legislative proposal seeks to overhaul the nation’s Social Security program by increasing the retirement age from 67 to 69, this change impacting people born in 1968 who will begin retiring in the mid-2030s. The basic Social Security benefit formula would also become less generous for beneficiaries… except for the poorest beneficiaries. The annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), using a Chained-Weighted CPI, would put the brakes on generous COLA increases. COLA’s would be cut for those earning over $85,000.

Circling the Wagons to Protect Social Security

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi came out swing in a statement after Johnson’s threw his bill into the legislative hopper, charging that it would “inflict deep cuts in Social Security benefits.”

“Apparently nothing upsets House Republicans like the idea of hard-working people getting to enjoy a secure and dignified retirement. While Speaker Ryan sharpens his knives for Medicare, Chairman Johnson’s bill is an alarming sign that Republicans are greedily eying devastating cuts to Americans’ Social Security benefits as well,” Pelosi said.

She warned, “Although current retirees and those close to retirement will receive their Social Security benefits, changes are looming with a Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. For younger generations all benefit cut options are expected to be put on the table.”

Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline calls Johnson’s legislative proposal a “travesty,” warning that it would “destroy Social Security as we know it by slashing the critical benefits that millions of seniors rely on to live their retirement years with dignity.”

According to Cicilline, the last time Republicans tried to eliminate Social Security during the Administration of President George W. Bush, the American people were outraged and rejected it.”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare views Johnson’s Social Security fix legislation introduced as the 114th Congress is wrapping up, “the first salvo in the ‘War on the Working Class.’”

Rep. Johnson will no doubt re-introduce his bill in the next Congress, he predicts.

According to Richtman, Johnson’s legislative proposal cuts Social Security benefits by one third while raising the retirement age from 67 to 69. It seeks to control costs by changing the benefit-computation formula in a way that cuts benefit amounts. Finally, it cuts COLAs, too.

Richtman charges that this Social Security reform proposal would “irreparably harm the nearly 60 million Americans who currently depend on Social Security as well as future beneficiaries.”

“President-elect Trump will have a veto pen. Now is the time for Mr. Trump to re-affirm his campaign promise “not to touch” Social Security and Medicare. So far, he has been uncharacteristically silent on this vital issue. I promise that we will hold him accountable,” says Richtman.

“No one voted for massive cuts to Social Security, nor to end the program as we know it,” says Nancy Altman, founding co-director of Social Security Works, in a response to Johnson’s legislative proposal to radically change Social Security. “The Johnson plan would gradually but inexorably turn Social Security from a program that replaces wages to one that produces essentially one flat benefit, independent of how much a worker contributed,” she says.

“With Republicans in full control of the federal government, these cuts have a real chance of being passed into law. Trump needs to immediately reassure the American people that he will keep his campaign promise and veto this awful bill. He should tweet that immediately,” adds Altman.

The presidential debates and the platforms of the GOP and Democratic party reveal a stark difference as how to each party will fix the ailing Social Security program. Now is not the time to put Social Security on the chopping block. Congress must come together to hammer out bipartisan approaches to ensure the fiscal solvency for the next 100 years. .

Gridlock Threatens Elder Programs, Services

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 11, 2013

At press time, this week continued heated partisan bickering on Capitol Hill that threatens to unravel a fragile economy, along with putting the brakes to an economic upturn that slowly was pushing the nation out of its financial doldrums. With this stand-off, a partial shutdown of the federal government continues. The Republican-controlled House, captured by the ultra-right Tea Party, has refused to budge, opposing the passage of a continuing resolution (CR) to fund government agencies past Sept. 30. House Republican leadership has demanded that passage of the CR must be tied to either the repeal or partially dismantling of President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The Democratic President along with a Senate Democratic leadership say no.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a “clean” CR to provide funding through Nov. 15, not putting ACA on the GOP’s chopping block. Even if both legislative chambers sort out differences and hammer out a compromise agreement to open the doors of the federal government, this would not shield the nation from the disastrous impact of the impending second round of sequester cuts and a Oct. 17 deadline for the government to raise the debt ceiling. No action means a first-ever default on the nation’s debt that could send the stock market tumbling and push the nation’s and the world’s economy into a tailspin.

Treasury officials say that congressional deadlock and no action will result in the federal government running out of cash to pay its bills if Congress does not act to raise the nation’s debt ceiling this month.

Get Your House in Order

With the debt crisis looming, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond called on Congressional lawmakers to settle the debt ceiling debate to avoiding default on the nation’s debt, specifically to protect the retirement of seniors and future generations.

In her letter, LeaMond expressed concern that any delay in raising the nation’s debt limit may unnecessarily increase borrowing costs, negatively impact retirement savings accounts and harm the nation’s fragile economy.

“Our members are worried that the benefits they have earned may be cut as part of a deal to reduce the deficit, fund government operations, or increase the debt ceiling, and they are increasingly worried that if there is no agreement very soon, they may not receive their Social Security checks and may lose access to their health care,” noted LeaMond.

Ten days ago, the nation entered a government shutdown, forcing furloughs of 800,000 workers, without pay, and suspending services. The last time this occurred was 17 years ago during the Clinton administration. The Congressional impasse has closed national parks and monuments, federally owned museums, such as the Smithsonian, offices overseas that give visas to foreigners hoping to visit the United States, and even many federal regulatory agencies.

So, how does this impact programs and services for older Americans? Simply put, impact on programs and benefits may vary throughout the federal bureaucracy.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services will furlough over 40,512 of its 78, 198 employees. The largest percentage of these employees comes from “grant-making and employee-intensive agencies,” such as the Administration for Community Living. This federal agency would not be able to fund the Senior Nutrition programs, Native American Nutrition and Supportive Services, Prevention of Elder Abuse and Neglect, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, and Protection and Advocacy for persons with developmental disabilities.

As reported, Social Security checks will be mailed, Medicare and Medicaid benefits will continue to be paid out, because these are considered mandatory programs, not discretionary ones. Benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food Stamps, will continue in October, despite the federal shutdown.

Food Program Takes Budgetary Hit

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Heather Amaral, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island, agrees, noting that her Providence-based nonprofit program, has already lost $70,970 in 2013 federal funds due to last year’s sequestration cuts.

Amaral says that as a result of these cuts, to maintain meal delivery at the same numbers as last year (360,299 meals), she had to reduce menu items that were once offered. “Although the government shutdown doesn’t have an immediate impact on our program, I am concerned that it could lead to additional cuts,” she says, noting that should the shutdown continue until year end, the nonprofit agency will be forced to rely on donations and reserves to maintain service levels.

“We provide a safety check along with each home delivered meal and are often the only contact our client has that day, adds Amaral, who stresses that her program may be the only thing keeping a senior at home. “If we are forced to reduce the number of meals we serve, these people may be forced to live with a family member or enter a nursing home,” she warns.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency will be unable to fund additional payments to public housing authorities, many providing shelter to older Americans. HUD expects the 3,300 Public Housing Authorities it funds to have enough funding to get through the month of October. But, if the shutdown continues, some public housing authorities will not be able to maintain normal operation.

Also, Quarterly formula grants will not go out for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), or the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG).

Nutrition programs serving older adults face a double whammy with no FY14 appropriations and no reauthorization of the Farm Bill. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program expired along with the Farm Bill on Sept. 30. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) requires appropriations to continue operating.

According to well-known Aging Advocate Susan Sweet, this is a partial shutdown that hasn’t really hit aging programs yet. There are funding reductions in programs for older people, but that is due to the sequester, which will have another round of cuts in October, she says.

Sweet predicts that the negative effects of the shutdown itself will become worse with every passing day. For example, there is doubt that veterans benefits and social security will be paid in or after October absent a funding bill. Death benefits, including burial subsidies, have not been paid to the survivors of fallen armed forces members, she notes. Because of the public outcry regarding this outrage, a private charity has stepped up to pay the benefits with the promise of reimbursement when the government re-opens.

“Reduced to its true absurdity, the United States of America has lost the ability to rationally govern,” states Sweet. “The sequester cuts, previously characterized as “cuts for dummies”, have been implemented, we are in a war yet cannot bury our dead from that war, can’t even agree on a temporary fix, and are arguing whether the US should pay its bills or default,” she adds.

“It is perplexing, and we have heard many, many concerns from Rhode Island members, “ said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Since the U.S. government has never failed to meet its financial obligations, we don’t know what payments it could make if the President and Congress fail to reach an agreement.

“One cannot help but wonder what effects this uncertainty has on people – many of whom struggle enough with health and financial issues,” Connell added. “We’re doing whatever we can to urge Congress and the President to act responsibly.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.