The 3 possible outcomes of the midterms in Congress, explained

Originally published in Vox with Dylan Scott and Li Zhou on November 2, 2022
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Once the dust settles from the midterm elections, what — if anything — is Congress likely to do over the next two years?

Right now, polls and forecasts suggest the Senate still is a toss-up, while Republicans are more likely than not to win a majority in the House of Representatives. That would mean some form of divided government, with Republicans in charge of one or both houses of Congress while President Joe Biden and his veto pen would be able to stop them from implementing much of their agenda. But it’s still possible, although it currently looks less likely, that Democrats could hold onto the Senate, giving them two more years of a Democratic trifecta.

Those three scenarios — Republicans winning just the House, Republicans winning the House and Senate, and Democrats holding on to control of Congress — differ in important ways. A Republican-dominated Congress could create something like gridlock, leading to potential battles over the debt ceiling and government funding and giving the Senate the power to hold up Biden’s nominees. A split legislature, with Republicans controlling only the House of Representatives, would put a focus on investigations and, potentially, lead to a vote to impeach Biden. And if Democrats retain control, they’ll face many of the same challenges they did over the last two years.

Here are the three possible outcomes of the midterms and what might happen once the new Congress begins in January 2023.

Scenario 1: Republicans control both houses of Congress

How likely is it? Not unlikely! Forecasts from Politico and FiveThirtyEight suggest Republicans are favored to win the House, while the Senate is a toss-up that comes down to a few key races.

What’s at stake? If Republicans win control of the House and Senate, they’ll have the scope to pursue a legislative agenda beyond what they’ve promised on the campaign trail — even if President Joe Biden’s veto could ultimately block most of their ability to make it a reality.

GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who would become House speaker if elected, released a “Commitment to America” agenda in September — mostly a vague, one-page outline of Republican talking points like “curb wasteful government spending” and “create good-paying jobs,” though it was sprinkled with a few specifics, like a pledge to hire 200,000 more police officers and end proxy voting in Congress, which allows members to cast votes remotely. McCarthy also promises to “confront Big Tech” and expand school choice and a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

The one-pager and the Republican campaign for controlling Congress mask what are sure to be larger fights within the Republican caucus around fiscal policy. Many House conservatives are interested in using forthcoming debt limit fights to force Democrats’ hands on cutting entitlement programs.

This hasn’t been a center of the midterm campaigns: The Commitment to America agenda says nothing about Medicare or Social Security. But earlier this year, the Republican Study Committee, the House’s conservative caucus that comprises nearly 75 percent of the House GOP, released a 122-page manifesto that pledged to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits by raising the eligibility age as well as pushing beneficiaries to enroll in private Medicare and retirement plans.

In the Senate, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) endorsed the idea of forcing Congress to vote on reauthorizing Social Security and Medicare every five years, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) backed voting on the entitlement programs annually. Some conservatives and even prominent liberals believe Republicans could use the threat of a government default to force Democrats’ hand in these areas, though, for now, Biden has promised to veto any cuts to the programs. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has also so far rejected these ideas, calling them nonstarters, but the debate is unlikely to die out.

The Republican agenda for abortion rights also hasn’t been something they’ve sought to campaign on in the midterms but could become a top issue if they take control of Congress. The Commitment to America platform states merely that the Republican Party would “defend the unborn, fight for life,” but the RSC manifesto lists nearly two dozen anti-abortion bills the caucus supports codifying, including a bill effectively prohibiting abortions after about six weeks, and one that would provide 14th Amendment protections to fetuses.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced a bill in September banning abortion after 15 weeks. When he introduced a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks in 2021, 45 Senate Republicans joined in support. While anti-abortion groups are pressing Republicans to go on the offensive, it seems for now congressional Republicans are waiting to see how the issue plays out in the midterms.

With two years ahead of the next presidential election, it’s likely GOP lawmakers will be keen to avoid giving Biden more big bipartisan wins, like they did in his first two years, compromising on issues like gun control, infrastructure, and competitiveness with China.

Were Republicans able to retake the Senate, they would be able to vote down Biden’s judicial nominees (including any that come up on the Supreme Court), block them wholesale from consideration, and pressure the White House to pick what they perceive as more moderate options. Republican lawmakers have already signaled that they may not consider Biden’s nominees.

In April, McConnell wouldn’t commit to giving a Supreme Court pick a hearing in 2023 if the Republicans retook their majority. It’s something he’s done before: During the Obama administration, McConnell notably blocked Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland from ever getting a hearing by arguing that his nomination was in an election year.

What constraints would the party in power face? The House and Senate will ultimately be limited on what they can enact into law over the next two years, as Biden will remain in the White House with a veto pen he promises to use. The Senate will also lack a veto-proof conservative majority, even if Republicans win control of the chamber. But even if it’s unlikely that Republicans manage to pass very conservative bills into law, a Republican-controlled Congress will certainly be able to stymie Biden’s legislative agenda.

Scenario 2: A divided Congress

How likely is it? Congress could be divided two ways — with a Democratic Senate and Republican House, or the reverse, a Republican Senate and Democratic House. The latter is very unlikely; if Democrats perform well enough to hold on to the House, they’re unlikely to lose Senate control. The Senate is a toss-up while the House leans Republican, so the former certainly could happen.

What’s at stake? In the case of a split Congress, the likelihood of more ambitious legislation passing is exceedingly slim. Instead, the two chambers are poised to focus on their own respective priorities, while facing clashes over must-pass bills like government funding and an increase to the debt ceiling.

As House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has made clear, House Republicans are prepared to hold any increase to the debt ceiling hostage in exchange for cuts to other programs like clean energy investments and Social Security. In that case, the House and Senate could face an interminable standoff that could put the United States on the verge of defaulting on its debt, a scenario that could have devastating consequences for the economy.

On the House side, meanwhile, a Republican lower chamber would be able to proceed with its many investigations even if the GOP doesn’t control the Senate. As would be the case if Republicans captured the majority in both chambers, they’d have free rein to hold investigations in the House on everything from Hunter Biden’s financial dealings to the Biden administration’s approach to border security, and they intend to use it.

Investigations and impeachment votes can both proceed without the Senate’s approval or the White House’s signature. Some House members have already said they plan to push for the impeachment of President Biden, and have already introduced at least eight resolutions to do that.

Last week, the Atlantic’s Barton Gellman — who was prescient in predicting that Donald Trump would not admit defeat if he lost his reelection bid — published a piece detailing why he thinks a new House Republican majority would vote to impeach Biden within its first year, largely driven by mounting caucus pressure from election deniers who cast Biden as illegitimately elected.

House Republicans could also push for the impeachment of other high-ranking Biden administration officials, including US Attorney General Merrick Garland, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Vice President Kamala Harris, and hold a series of House investigations next year if they take power, specifically on areas like Democrats’ handling of the southern border, the DOJ, inflation, and the energy crisis. Rep. James Comer (R-KY) is set to lead the House Oversight and Reform Committee and told Politico he also wants to spearhead investigations into the business dealings of Hunter Biden and the origins of Covid-19.

“Part of our constitutional duty is oversight,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a founder of the Freedom Caucus, who’s expected to wield significant influence in a Republican majority, during the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year. “We need to know why the Biden administration has taken the intentional position of not having a border.”

What constraints would the party in power face? With Senate control, Democrats could continue to advance more judges and executive branch nominees. The Senate, after all, retains the critical ability to approve judges for district courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court with a simple majority. Filling these vacancies will be a crucial priority for Democrats if they’re able to hang onto the Senate, especially after Republicans spent much of the Trump administration attempting to stack the courts in their favor.

“The main difference between a split Congress and one controlled by Republicans completely would be Biden’s ability to fill judicial and other vacancies,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

Already, the Senate has confirmed judges at a rapid clip, approving Biden’s faster than any president at this point in their term since President John F. Kennedy. Biden’s nominees have also included a significant number of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and public defenders, all groups that Democrats could continue to prioritize for these roles if they hold the upper chamber. As of early October, there were still 44 judicial nominees pending in the Senate and additional vacancies that did not have nominees yet.

Scenario 3: Democrats keep control of Congress

How likely is it? This is the unlikeliest scenario of the three, according to the polling and election forecasters. The president’s party historically loses ground in the midterm elections, and Democrats hold narrow majorities as it is. But with an unusual political climate — inflation is up, but unemployment is low, while the Supreme Court’s June abortion ruling has animated the Democratic base — they have at least an outside chance to defy one of the most consistent trends in US politics.

What’s at stake: Democrats would have two more years of complete control in Washington (outside of the Supreme Court). The legislative agenda is theirs to set. What do they want to do?

Based on interviews with current and former congressional staff, as well as lobbyists and progressive advocates, two items would almost surely be the subject of legislative debate and possible action: abortion rights and election integrity.

The consequences of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and anti-democratic radicalism within the Republican Party have been the two of the most consistent themes in Democratic campaigns this cycle.

Both would likely require modifying the filibuster in the Senate, presuming (as we safely can) Democrats are still short of a 60-vote supermajority. That is where the difference between a 50-seat Democratic majority and a 52-seat one matters; Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) are resolutely opposed to weakening the filibuster, but incoming Democratic senators will have signaled an openness to it on the campaign trail.

Some bills — the Women’s Health Protection Act on reproductive rights, the Electoral Count Reform Act (if it doesn’t pass this Congress), and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act for election integrity — could serve as a starting point for those efforts, if the filibuster were no longer an obstacle. But they are only starting points and far from finished products, as earlier Senate Democratic disagreements about the WHPA and voting rights laid bare.

Democrats would also have a chance to pass budget reconciliation legislation without having to worry about the filibuster (though they would be limited in what they could do).

“The good news is it’s highly unlikely the government is going to shut down and you can still pass a lot of stuff using the reconciliation process,” said Jim Manley, a longtime strategist for former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “Nothing comes easy on Capitol Hill these days, but it helps your odds of getting something done besides continuing to fund the government.”

The contours of any reconciliation bill would depend on the macroeconomic situation. Is inflation still at historic highs? Has the economy entered a recession and sent unemployment soaring? That would dictate, at least in part, how much Democrats might be willing to approve new spending or hike taxes to pay for their spending plans.

The leftover pieces of Biden’s Build Back Better plan would likely be the starting point for any reconciliation bill that the next Congress might decide to pursue in 2023. Democrats passed climate provisions as well as fixes to the Affordable Care Act as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. But entire swaths of the BBB agenda focused on child care, pre-K, and long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities were cut out during the 18-month negotiations that were largely driven by Manchin and Sinema’s desires.

What constraints would the party in power face? The 2024 election looms, with either Joe Biden preparing to run for reelection (more likely if Democrats win a historic victory in the midterms) or a swarm of possible successors jockeying for a position from Capitol Hill. The Senate map in 2024 is much less favorable to Democrats than it was in 2022, which may make Senate leaders reluctant to put their most vulnerable members (in states like Montana, Arizona, and Wisconsin) through a messy legislative debate or force them to take difficult votes.

“If you’re just thinking of it from that perspective, with all those Democrats up for reelection, I question how much of an appetite there’s going to be for a progressive agenda,” Manley said.

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It would also make a difference whether Democrats continue to cling to 50 seats in the Senate, leaving Manchin and Sinema (who are up for reelection themselves in 2024) with an effective veto pen over the legislative agenda. If they can expand their majority to, say, 52, that would give party leadership some wiggle room in deciding which policies to pursue.

Those would likely be difficult debates, on both the particulars of the policy and the prospect of changing the Senate’s rules for good. But progressives argue Democrats would have a mandate to act.

A Democratic victory would reflect “overreach by the GOP in terms of extremism, plus Democrats competently governing in some difficult terrain,” said Mary Small, national advocacy director for Indivisible. “Codifying abortion rights has also been a galvanizing issue for voters.”

Still, progressives hope Democrats feel emboldened if they wake up one morning in November (or December, depending) and learn they are still in control of Congress. They will have passed two major bills (the American Rescue Plan and IRA), weathered soaring inflation, and still earned the trust of voters.

They will also try to learn from the mistakes of the past two years, where they feel a lengthy legislative debate reduced the urgency to get something done as the immediate concerns of voters and lawmakers transitioned from the economic recovery of early 2021 to the inflation crisis of 2022. They are hoping they can tell a more consistent story about how the policies that Democrats are proposing will materially improve voters’ lives.

“Doing nothing is not going to help us make the argument in 2024,” Small said. An unlikely victory in 2022, she said, would call for “repeating their work to call out the extremism of the GOP and to competently deliver on ways that improve people’s lives materially.”

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What Republicans would do if they win back Congress

Originally published in Vox on September 14, 2022.
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With the midterm elections less than two months away, Republicans are strongly favored to win a majority of seats in the House. Democrats, for now, are expected to keep control of the Senate, though some of the contests — particularly Wisconsin, Georgia, and Nevada — could be particularly close.

With President Joe Biden’s veto power, the implications of Republicans reclaiming one or both chambers in Congress will have more to do with blunting a Democratic policy agenda than swiftly enacting conservative priorities.

But if they do win power, what do Republicans want to do with it? If you’ve had some trouble figuring that out, you’re not alone. It’s been confusing. Different factions within the party are competing for the agenda-setting mantle, and it’s been a long time since Republicans wrote a unified policy and governing platform. When they tried at their 2020 national convention, they ended up scrapping their plans. Instead, they kept their 2016 platform, and avoided an anticipated fight with Donald Trump over a new one.

Even the right-leaning magazine National Review observed recently that “Republicans are doing little to explain what they would have the government do differently if they took power.” There has been a mix of proposals introduced with varying degrees of specificity, and previews of the intraparty fights we might see over the next few years.

It’s always easier for a party to appear united when they’re in the minority, but if Republicans reclaim power, they will have the much harder task of needing to unite around a real agenda. That’s when they’ll have to make real decisions on issues like abortion bans, civil rights, rollbacks of environmental protections, and welfare subsidies.

Here are the many competing proposals for the GOP’s policy vision — and what they tell us about what might come next.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s forthcoming “Commitment to America”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has been preparing for a world where he becomes majority leader, and has been taking cues from Newt Gingrich, who in 1994 helped write the “Contract with America” that House Republicans used to successfully return to power. When the GOP retook the House in 1994, they worked swiftly to bring votes on their agenda.

Gingrich has been advising Republicans over the past year, suggesting they focus on “kitchen table” issues, on being “happy warriors” who are enthusiastic about the future of the country, and on doubling down on government oversight and accountability, like election security and Biden investigations.

McCarthy is even calling his forthcoming platform the “Commitment to America” — a name intentionally resonant of Gingrich’s 1994 plan. The Commitment to America, which has been in the works since last June, is expected to be formally announced September 19 in Pittsburgh, according to Axios.

Much of the platform will sound familiar to anyone who has read news headlines over the last few years, with bullet-point themes around economic conditions, crime, race, and gender. Details are sparse, but ideas it’s expected to contain include fighting inflation by ending “Build Back Better” federal spending, reimposing work requirements to incentivize labor force participation, and lowering gas prices by increasing American energy production.

School-related issues include a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” and expanding school choice.

Republicans also plan to target Big Tech and illegal immigration, and to increase funding for police and the military. Holding the Biden administration accountable for “mismanagement” and supporting gun owners and anti-abortion groups are additional listed priorities.

While the platform takes aim at rising health care premiums and a “Democrat socialist drug takeover” that the GOP says could lead to fewer treatments, the McCarthy agenda notably excludes any language about repealing Obamacare — a priority for the first eight years of the law’s existence.

Mitch McConnell has resisted any specific agenda

While McCarthy is looking to 1994, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is urging his party to instead heed the playbook from 2014, when Republicans seized midterm control of the Senate chamber after campaigning primarily just against President Barack Obama.

He thinks the Commitment for America-style bullet points are too politically risky and create too many opportunities for Democrats to attack the Republican Party. Last fall, McConnell rejected pleas from colleagues and donors to release a legislative agenda, preferring instead to keep the midterms as a referendum on the White House incumbent.

McConnell suggested that whoever is the 2024 Republican nominee for president can lead the process of crafting the party’s next agenda, in part out of recognition that Biden holds veto power until then. Still, not everyone in his chamber agrees; Sen. Lindsey Graham came out this week with a bill banning abortion after 15 weeks, sending a clear, if expected, signal about what he’d push for if his party takes power.

Some Republicans are getting specific

The House’s conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee, and two presidential hopefuls have also entered the fray in releasing policy priorities.

In June, the RSC released a 122-page manifesto dubbed the Blueprint to Save America, with a long list of conservative ideas. While not a formula campaign document per se — it’s billed as an alternative budget to the one put forth by Democrats — it gives much clearer indications as to where House Republicans might go if they take power, as nearly 75 percent of House GOP members are in the RSC.

For example, while the Commitment to America platform states merely that the party would “defend the unborn, fight for life,” the Blueprint to Save America lists nearly two dozen anti-abortion bills the caucus supports codifying, including a bill effectively prohibiting abortions after about six weeks, and one that would provide 14th Amendment protections to fetuses.

Likewise, while the Commitment to America platform includes preventing transgender girls from playing school sports with other girls, the RSC platform lists seven specific anti-trans bills the caucus supports codifying, including one that would create a new criminal offense for providing gender-affirming health care to minors.

While Republicans may realize that campaigning explicitly on the items in the Blueprint to Save America creates more political vulnerabilities than the vague ideas in the Commitment to America, the RSC document offers more concrete clues as to what exactly conservative lawmakers are looking to do if they gain power.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, a first-term senator and chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in March released his own 12-point “Plan to Rescue America” — billed as an agenda for the House and Senate if Republicans take power in November. Like the other aforementioned proposals, it’s a mix of cutting taxes, fighting Big Tech and crime, and pushing cultural fights in schools, though some of its components seem more geared toward standing out in a future Republican presidential primary. For example, Scott recommends completing the border wall and naming it after Donald Trump, putting “America First,” and fighting socialism. (“Socialism will be treated as a foreign combatant which aims to destroy our prosperity and freedom,” Scott’s platform proclaims.)

Former Vice President Mike Pence also released his own 28-page policy proposal in March, dubbed a “Freedom Agenda.” It’s gained little traction among midterm candidates, but that probably wasn’t really the point, as analysts suspect he might use it for himself if he decides to run for president in 2024.

Centrists are pleading for a different path

Some political analysts and policy wonks are pushing for moderation and compromise if Republicans take control — likely a tough sell for many conservatives who are loath to give Biden any more bipartisan wins ahead of the 2024 election.

Last month, leaders with American Compass, a conservative think tank that bills itself as pro-worker and pro-family, penned a New York Times op-ed urging the GOP, if it takes power next year, to consider bipartisan dealmaking on industrial policy with China, apprenticeships and non-college educational pathways, and something like Sen. Mitt Romney’s proposed expanded child tax credit. “The common force pushing forward these various policy opportunities is the evolution in conservative thinking toward greater focus on the interests of the working class and a greater role for government in addressing the free market’s shortcomings,” they wrote.

In July, Douglas Schoen, a centrist Democratic campaign consultant who advised Mike Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential run, wrote an op-ed in The Hill urging the Republican Party “to coalesce around a moderate agenda that offers real solutions” and avoids “relitigating past grievances.” Schoen suggested some ideas that have been part of aforementioned Republican platforms, like prioritizing deficit reduction, loosening regulations on America’s energy sector, providing parents with school choice options, and increasing funding for law enforcement.

He also suggests that, “perhaps most importantly,” conservatives should moderate on abortion and guns, something no GOP coalition is calling for.

“By assuming a more open stance on abortion legality, Republicans can better sell their party as one that protects individual liberties,” Schoen writes. “Similarly, by moving to the middle on guns, the GOP can position and promote themselves as the law and order party.”

These latter proposals will likely fall on deaf ears for now.

The Trump wild card

One hard-to-predict variable that could greatly affect what Republicans do if they reclaim power in Congress is Trump, and how much pressure he seeks to put on their governing agenda. Trump made dozens of endorsements in congressional and gubernatorial elections, and even though his candidates’ win rate has been declining over past cycles, his influence over Republican voters, and thus candidates looking to win Republican primaries, is still very strong. If he mounts a bid for president, that could also affect the trajectory of a Republican-led House. He’s already promised that, if elected in 2024, he’d pardon January 6 rioters, sentence drug dealers to death, and abolish the federal Education Department.

Expect investigations and maybe an impeachment push

While the Commitment to America platform is sticking to less controversial euphemisms like “hold the Biden administration accountable,” some rank-and-file Republicans have been more explicit about the revenge and retribution they’d push for if their party takes over.

In late August, The Hill reported that some members plan to push for impeachment of the president, some of whom have already introduced at least eight resolutions to do that. While the existing impeachment resolutions will expire at the end of the year, some lawmakers have vowed to reintroduce theirs in January, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. Another possibility is to push for impeachment of other high-ranking Biden administration officials, but not Biden himself. McConnell has urged his party to avoid campaigning in the midterms on impeachment, and a highly politicized impeachment process is unlikely to be a unifying strategy for the 2024 election, but sometimes pressure for impeachment takes on its own hard-to-control momentum.

Aside from impeachment, Republicans have confirmed they’re looking at holding a series of House investigations next year if they take power, specifically on areas like Democrats’ handling of the southern border, the DOJ, inflation, and energy. Rep. James Comer (R-KY) is set to lead the House Oversight and Reform Committee and told Politico he also wants to spearhead investigations into the business dealings of Hunter Biden and the origins of Covid-19.

Ohio Charter Teachers Fired for Organizing Will Be Reinstated

Originally published in The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on July 24, 2015.

Teachers at the Ohio-based I CAN charter network decided to organize a union during the 2013-2014 school year. Yet when the school year ended, the administration did not renew contracts for seven teachers leading the union drive—resulting in a cancellation of the scheduled union vote. While about 40 charter schools in Ohio are already unionized, those are mostly conversion schools, meaning teachers had already worked for the district before going to work for a school-district sponsored charter. These I CAN schools would have represented the first start-up charters to go union in the state.

After the firing, I CAN educators and the Ohio Federation of Teachers filed a federal complaint, which accused I CAN of making teachers feel like they were under surveillance and for pressuring employees to reveal the identities of union leaders. The complaint also alleged that I CAN increased staff salary and benefits just before the scheduled vote in order to dissuade teachers from joining a union.

One of the fired teachers, Kathryn Brown, told The Plain Dealer that she wants a union because teachers don’t feel valued. “The I CAN network believes that administration and a teaching template are all you need for education,” said Brown. “That’s the big flaw and why I got involved in unionization. A school is not just administration.”

This past October, the NLRB regional director sided with the teachers and accused I CAN of “interfering with, restraining and coercing employees.” The founders of the charter network, Marshall Emerson and Jason Stragand, denied the allegations, insisting that nobody was fired specifically for union organizing. (They pointed out that most involved in the union effort did have their contract renewed.) But Emerson and Stragand also made it clear they want to keep their schools union-free. “It would really cripple our principals and administrative staff. It could dramatically change the model. It could drastically change what we do,” said Emerson.

While the I CAN schools would have been the first Ohio start-up charters to organize, other charters in the Buckeye State have since moved ahead with their own successful campaigns. This past March teachers at the Columbus-based Franklinton Preparatory Academy voted to join a union. Since then three more charter schools in Youngstown have also voted to unionize.

As for I CAN, this week the NLRB finally reached a settlement with the charter network and imposed penalties for interference. I CAN will have to re-hire four of the fired teachers and give all seven teachers back pay. School officials will also have to post a statement in their school buildings that says they cannot interfere with union organizing efforts. However, the NLRB settlement did not include any finding of wrongdoing and I CAN only needs to pay $69,000 to be split among the seven teachers.

David Quolke, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union told The Plain Dealer that he and other Ohio Federation of Teacher leaders feel vindicated by the NLRB settlement, calling it “one of the strongest we’ve seen in our years of helping to organize our fellow teachers at charter schools.”

I CAN teachers are reportedly planning to schedule a union vote this coming fall. They will join a growing number of charter teachers around the country who are also organizing their own union drives.

Christie Blusters His Way Through CPAC Appearance

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 27, 2015.
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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wasn’t going to let something like record-low approval ratings get him down as he took the stage Thursday afternoon at CPAC’s annual gathering in National Harbor, Maryland. Exuding that Sopranos-style confidence that’s earned him notoriety, Christie, sitting on the CPAC stage for an interview with conservative radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham,  dismissed the idea that, compared to other potential presidential candidates in the crowded Republican field, he’s not well-positioned to run for president. (A January survey conducted by Bloomberg Politics and the Des Moines Register showed Christie was the first choice candidate among just 4 percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers.)

Asked by Ingraham if such numbers disturb him, Christie retorted, “Uh, is the election next week?”

He continued: “I’m not worried about what polls say 21 months before [the election],” going on to point out that he won gubernatorial races twice in a blue state when everyone thought it was initially impossible.

All right—it’s evident that Christie can hold his own through tough on-the-spot interviews questions, perhaps better than some of his competition—(think Scott Walker’s recent ‘gotcha’ gaffe). Perhaps that’s why he declined to make a speech to the CPAC crowd, preferring to do only the on-stage interview. (Other dignitaries and potential candidates delivered brief remarks, followed by an on-stage interview.) But it’s still not clear what distinguishes Christie from other more moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush.

“[I]f the elites in Washington, who make backroom deals” pick the Republican presidential nominee, then Jeb Bush “is definitely the front-runner,” Christie said. By contrast, if “the people of the United States,” looking for someone who they can actually connect with, pick the candidate, the governor said, then he will do just fine.

Meh. Though Christie likes to come off as your everyday dude, his anti-elitism shtick just doesn’t hold when one actually looks at his receipt stubs. For an ostensibly ordinary guy, the governor has a big habit of traveling lavishly, drinking fancy Champagne, and quietly dumping the expensive bills on the taxpayer. (In 2013, New Jersey residents paid over $10,000 for Christie to travel with his wife and aides to the New Orleans Super Bowl.)

It was the New York Times that first reported the story about Christie’s spending habits, and Christie made several digs,saying that he “doesn’t care at all” what the paper’s reporters have to say about him. “I’m still standing,” he boasted. He even joked that he gave up the New York Times for Lent.

In an attempt to please a crowd that wasn’t necessarily disposed to see him as a true conservative, Christie noted that he had vetoed funding “five times” for Planned Parenthood, and that among the people he thought should “sit down and shut up” were those in the White House.

Christie’s bluster has some appeal, but there’s only so long that he can use it to avoid owning up to some of his massive leadership failures. His state finances are out of control. New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded eight times on his watch. The state’s pension fund has lost billions of dollars. Just 37 percent of New Jersey voters have a favorable opinion of him. And, as I wrote in the winter issue of The American Prospect, he cancelled one of the most important and desperately needed infrastructure projects in the nation—a decision that threatens the safety of hundreds of thousands of New Jersey commuters.

It’s a tough record to run on.

Chris Christie Counts on Public Amnesia

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 14, 2015.
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In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took over $3 billion in revenue earmarked for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and used it to plug a hole in his budget —leaving the people of his state and the region with no tunnel, and no money left for one in the future. Now Christie has endorsed a new report that includes a recommendation for expanding rail capacity between New Jersey and New York, as if no one would remember that he killed an earlier federally subsidized project that would have accomplished that purpose.

In the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect, I report the story of Christie’s 2010 decision and its disastrous consequences, particularly in the wake of the damage that Hurricane Sandy did to the two existing rail tunnels built over 100 years ago that are currently the chokepoint for rail transportation in the Northeast.Though Christie backed building a new rail tunnel on the campaign trail in 2009, he cancelled the project after entering office, when it became clear that it would require him to raise New Jersey’s gas tax(the next-to-lowest in the country). Doing so carried risks of antagonizing local anti-tax groups and jeopardizing his national ambitions within the Republican Party.

Last May, Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo convened a panel tasked with recommending how to improve the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bi-state agency that controls river crossings, regional airports, and marine terminals. The move came amid a flurry of Port Authority political scandals. Though the two governors publicly endorsed the panel’s proposals, which were published in a 99-page report on December 27, they both vetoed bills their state legislatures had passed to reform the Port Authority, insisting that they would enact better measures on their own.

The panel’s report notes that cross-Hudson River travel has not kept pace with population growth and that passenger demand is projected to double by 2030. Accordingly, the panel recommended that the Port Authority lead a regional planning team in 2015 to explore, among other things, expanding rail capacity between New Jersey and New York.

This is all well and good, except that political leaders have known about these population projections and regional risks for over two decades.

As Christie gears up for a presidential run, the chances of his endorsing a tax increase to finance a new rail tunnel (and other infrastructure needs in his state) are vanishingly small. Catering to the anti-tax fervor in the Republican Party will have a big cost not only for the commuters in New Jersey but for the entire Northeast region.

Minimum Wage Measures Pass Easily in Four Red States

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 5, 2014.
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A
s devastating as Tuesday night’s election was for Democrats—Republicans took control of the Senate and won a number of key governor racesit was actually an encouraging night for the progressive economic agenda. In four red states—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota—minimum wage ballot initiatives all passed easily. In San Francisco, voters overwhelmingly passed a $15 minimum wage—with notably little opposition from the business community. And in Illinois, voters sent a clear message through a non-binding advisory initiative that they want lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, and fast.

Increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 has been a major economic priority for President Barack Obama, part of his effort to curb the nation’s rising levels of inequality. (Under Obama’s plan, year-round, full-time minimum-wage workers would go from making $15,080 per year to $21,008.) Yet ever since April, when congressional Republicans mobilized to block wage-hike legislation, progress on the federal level has gone nowhere.

In light of this, it’s interesting to see a state like South Dakota—a state that hasn’t supported a Democrat for president in decades—vote to raise the wage by a 53 percent margin. The initiative will result in 62,000 South Dakotans taking home higher paychecks. In an email to The American Prospect, Zach Crago, executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, said, “It’s about rewarding hard work with an honest wage. That message resonates with South Dakotans. Republican candidates oppose it at their own peril.”

Minimum wage initiatives were so popular among voters leading up to the election that even Republican candidates like Alaska gubernatorial candidate Dan Sullivan had to say they’d vote for a minimum wage increase. Sullivan did just that, despite his having opposed it before the primary. Alaska’s minimum wage initiative passed with nearly 69 percent of the vote. Ed Flanagan, a leader of the Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage campaign, told The American Prospect that while the campaign faced no real organized opposition, the conservative state legislature could still try and repeal the law in two years—a move they pulled on Alaskan voters back in 2002. But given the high percentage of Alaskans who voted to raise the wage, Flanagan hopes state lawmakers “will think twice about messing with the will of the people.”

In Arkansas, Republican U.S. Representative Tom Cotton, during his campaign for U.S. Senate, stayed mum for months on a potential minimum wage increase until it became so popular with Arkansas voters that he finally felt compelled to come out in September to back it. Cotton won his Senate race last night, but so did the minimum wage—with 65% of Arkansas voters supporting the ballot initiative.

Exit polls for states where minimum wage initiatives weren’t on the ballot also showed high levels of support for future increases. In Wisconsin, although Scott Walker was re-elected, and has consistently opposed increasing the minimum wage, a solid majority of Wisconsin voters said they’d like to see it raised higher than $7.25.

Undoubtedly, it was a damning night for the Democratic Party, but the picture isn’t entirely bleak for progressives. Exit polls reveal that 63 percent of voters believe the U.S. economic system favors the rich; this highlights a much larger national frustration for politicians to organize around. Arun Ivatury, a senior strategist with the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, told The American Prospect that, going forward, politicians who embrace economic populism “will run away from the pack in 2016, when the electorate looks much more like America. Those who don’t will be bypassed. It’s our job to make sure people know who is who.”

We know College Feminists Care About Sexual Assault. What About Abortion?

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 24, 2014.
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In the past three years, more abortion restrictions have been enacted in the United States than in the entire previous decade. At the same time,85 colleges and universities are now under federal investigation for their handling of sexual violence. While these two issues are not divergent, campus feminists have devoted much of their energy to challenging their universities’ failure to adequately handle sexual assault cases—often at the expense of abortion rights advocacy.

But the growing threats to reproductive justice—like the Texas law that could shut down most of the state’s abortion clinics, and looming ballot measures in Colorado, Tennessee, and North Dakota that could result in women losing their legal right to terminate a pregnancy—have catalyzed the ongoing efforts of national pro-choice organizations to invest in student leaders. Campus activist priorities and national women’s rights goals might finally be aligning—sort of.

For many students attending schools in East and West Coast states, the legislative efforts to restrict abortion access commonly found in red states can seem quite distant from their own daily gender struggles. Changing local culture around rape and sexual assault, on the other hand, seems far more urgent.

“Campus activism tends to be reactionary, and women are generally kept on the defense,” says Sarah Beth Alcabes, a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s hard to organize for coherent proactive action beyond the immediate threats we face. Maybe if campuses were safe for women, there would be energy for them to focus on places not in their immediate vicinity. But that’s not the case.”

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, students have filed an anoymous Title IX complaint alleging that the school failed its responsibility to ensure the safety of students when it allowed a fraternity to continue throwing parties even after police began an investigation into an alleged gang rape that took place at the frat house. One of the complainants says that the focus of leaders on her campus has been the enforcement of federal sexual assault laws for a simple reason: “There’s no equivalent to those sorts of laws for abortion,” she explains, “so the pro-choice movement doesn’t occupy the same place as gender-based violence on the college campus.”

But geographic distance from the most pressing abortion battles and political momentum around sexual assault prevention are only part of the story. Even in those states where access is regularly threatened, many college feminists have avoided tackling the issue of abortion directly—in part because the abortion debate is so polarizing, and in part because many campuses are unwilling to institutionally support such activism.

At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Sophia Dominguez, the president of the Texas Tech Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), says she believes that reproductive rights are an important feminist issue, but her group must “recognize the political culture of Texas and adapt [its] advocacy accordingly.” She says her peers feel “repressed in the ways in which to openly discuss and address reproductive freedom.” As such, Tech FMLA has been fighting Texas Tech’s rape culture, which students believe is a more immediate problem to tackle, even in light of the Texas legislature’s anti-abortion efforts.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of URGE, a national campus organization committed to reproductive and gender equity, says that the leaders of many URGE chapters tend to focus on sexual assault because there is less official support for abortion work, even when a group is affiliated with a campus women’s center. “We might be able to push for more access to contraception,” Johnson says. “But the more the conversation centers around abortion, the more uncomfortable the administration is with getting behind it. Regardless of how people feel about abortion, when you talk about it, it charges an environment, and that’s the last thing campus administrators want.”

Several national organizations—the Feminist Majority Foundation, Planned Parenthood for America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and URGE—are trying to change these campus dynamics by building networks of college students who will advocate for reproductive justice and gender equality. While coordinated inter-campus solidarity is currently pretty minimal, efforts to build a larger college pro-choice infrastructure are growing.

But even with support from outside organizations, building a student pro-choice movement is tough. Molly Waters, a senior at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri, works as one of NARAL’s campus representatives for the Choice Out Loud campaign, an effort to help millennials engage in conversations about reproductive rights.

“I don’t think abortion is the first thing feminist students would organize around, just because it’s so polarizing and has such a stigma,” Waters says. “I understand it. I myself am a Christian. I think a lot of people are more tempted to discuss birth control or general reproductive rights and not so much abortion rights.”

NARAL donates supplies to campus chapters, organizes conference calls between campus representatives in different states, and facilitates national communication through Facebook groups. Yet Waters observes that many students just seem to have a general lack of interest in political activity. “One thing that can be really frustrating is just how many people don’t want to protest or be active as much,” Waters says. “And that’s understandable; we’re in college, we have a lot on our plates. But there does seem to be a lack of energy for action.”

Kaori Sueyoshi, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, feels more optimistic. “The student movement here in North Carolina has been growing quickly with the Republican takeover of our state,” she explains.

In 2010, Republicans won the majority in the state legislature, and won the governor’s mansion in 2012. Since then, North Carolina has enacted a controversial set of abortion restrictions, as well as a stringent voter ID law. In turn, over the past two years, college students across North Carolina have gathered together to network, strategize, and advocate for reproductive rights in their communities. Sueyoshi has been involved with Planned Parenthood’s network of campus activists, known as Generation Action, and attended the Youth Organizing & Policy Institute, a national student conference that Planned Parenthood hosts in Washington, D.C. “I think the national college advocacy movement is growing much stronger,” she says.

She may be right. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Marlies Biesinger, co-president of the Vanderbilt Feminists, says that advocacy around abortion politics has never been a real priority for them. But for the first time, in light of the political buzz around Tennessee’s Amendment 1—which could give the state legislature, not the state Supreme Court, full authority to decide the legality of abortion—the Vanderbilt Feminists have started to hold educational events to raise awareness about the ballot measure’s implications and push students to vote this November. And at Rice University in Houston, Rice for Reproductive Justice formed just last year to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and organize around a broad set of issues that inhibit reproductive freedom.

If threats to safe and legal abortion access continue to drive both college advocacy and the formation of relationships between student leaders, the questions then become: What can these activists actually do together? How, when anti-choice measures are primarily passed through state legislatures, can national advocacy play an effective role?

“The movement has shifted,” Johnson says, because anti-choice activity has moved from the federal to the state level. “For a long time there were lots of opportunities to engage on a national level. But we’re not going to mobilize people in Alabama to work on Texas. No matter how much noise you make, at the end of the day the elected officials only care how people are voting in their state and districts.” While broad-based online petitions exist, like those organized by Change.Org and Moveon.org, right now there just are not a lot of opportunities for pro-choice activists, in or out of college, to campaign on the federal level.

Despite the relatively limited array of federal policy opportunities, the need to mobilize and educate students about reproductive rights remains pressing. The All* Above All campaign, which is focused on lifting health insurance bans on abortions, is one possible avenue for students to pursue. “There’s just a real lack of awareness about what these abortion restrictions are, so we need to educate constituents and our elected officials,” Johnson says.

For Waters, the more progressive culture of her Missouri liberal arts college feels worlds away from the conservative southern Illinois town she grew up in, where mentioning abortion rights would “automatically make you a Satanist.” Coming to college and finding a new environment to educate herself, and later educate and agitate others, has been transformative. “You know, it’s taken a while for me to get there,” Waters says. “It takes a lot of education that many people just don’t usually have.”

Republicans’ Devious New Plan To Kick The Poor

Originally published in The Washington Monthly on December 10, 2013.
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As the House and Senate Agriculture committees attempt to hash out a final version of the farm bill, food stamps are at the center of the fray. The House version proposed almost $40 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next decade, while the Senate proposed cutting only a fraction of that—just over $4 billion. But last week, the Senate announced it would consider steeper cuts to SNAP.

As the negotiations continue, the House is wielding its most significant bargaining chip—the threat to eliminate what’s known as “broad-based categorical eligibility,” a mechanism that 43 states use to adjust or eliminate federally imposed asset limits for families’ food stamp eligibility.

As it is, the federal asset limit for SNAP is $2,000; families with more than that in savings or investments are, according to federal law, ineligible for food stamps. While these limits were originally designed to deter rich individuals from abusing the system, New America Foundation asset policy researcher Aleta Sprague argues that, in practice, most states now recognize they are an “an antiquated and regressive policy.”

In an effort to work around the federal limit, states have relied on “broad-based categorical eligibility” to raise state asset limits well above the federal level, or to eliminate them entirely. Nebraska’s asset limit, for example, is $25,000; 36 other states no longer have them at all. House negotiators have proposed scrapping the categorical eligibility provision, forcing states to re-impose the federal asset limit of $2000.

This would be a disaster. For one, federal asset limits impose high logistical costs on the state-administered programs, whose staffs would be called upon to investigate all applicants’ assets—a time consuming process complicated by the fact that what qualifies as an asset varies from state to state, as does the way states go about verifying the assets. Reinstating these costs is simply not efficient: the average household receiving SNAP benefits has only $333 in total assets.

Additionally—and perhaps more importantly—most experts agree that asset limits are simply bad policy. They discourage poor families from saving in case of emergencies, like car trouble or medical problems, which is precisely the opposite of what the government should be promoting. “We simply understand much more about assets and savings then we did a decade ago,” said Dan Lesser, the Director of Economic Justice at the Shriver Center. Based on this new knowledge, some states are even pushing to get rid of asset tests for other welfare programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Both Hawaii and Illinois eliminated their asset tests for TANF participants this past year.

Proponents of asset limits tend to rely on anecdotal, “welfare queen” stories to back their arguments. For example, two low-income Michigan residents recently won the lottery and continued to receive SNAP benefits despite their winnings. While the scandal made for great headlines, it also prompted Michigan to reinstate its previously eliminated SNAP asset test, even after they moved to close the lottery loophole.

The proposed Senate farm bill, however, includes restrictions on lottery earnings, making it possible to keep categorical based eligibility while also closing SNAP’s more frustrating loopholes.

Though most experts were dismayed to see House negotiators call for eliminating the categorical eligibility provision, they agree that it’s unlikely to happen. “I don’t believe the Senate is going to go along with changes to categorical eligibility. From what I can gather it’s more of a bargaining chip,” said Lesser. “It’s something they can put out for the base.”

The alternative, however, isn’t pretty either. Steeper Senate cuts are more likely to come from a crackdown on a program nicknamed “Heat and Eat”, where small amounts of fuel assistance are distributed to SNAP recipients who often have to decide whether they will pay for food or pay for heating. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that ending “Heat and Eat” would result in 500,000 SNAP households losing up to $90 a month in benefits. The deal would be struck just as winter approaches, a time when children in low-income families consume fewer calories and are at greater nutritional risk when utility costs are higher. A Census Bureau report released in September found that food stamps have helped lift almost four million people above the poverty line and have kept tens of millions more from becoming poorer.

Deciding between cutting poor families’ access to food or heating leaves no good options. But at the very least, Congress should leave states’ discretion over asset limits alone. It’s a bad idea to play chicken with smart, research-supported policies that encourage savings, and help individuals prevent disaster from unexpected financial shortfalls. Maybe it helps rally the Republican base, but it doesn’t do much more than that.