The Trump-Russia Connection: Why a Special Counsel is Not Enough

By: Eleanor Wertman, MPH

Over the past few weeks, evidence has emerged to suggest that Donald Trump’s administration is actively working to suppress investigations of his campaign’s ties to Russian interference in the 2016 elections. On May 9, Trump took the unprecedented step of firing FBI Director James Comey. Trump initially claimed that he fired Comey at the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote a letter condemning how Comey handled Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. However, Trump later admitted in an interview on national television that he decided to fire Comey because of the FBI’s investigation of his team, stating: “And in fact when I decided to just do it [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won’.”   

Congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle condemned Comey’s firing. Even Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr, who has faced criticism for failing to commit time and resources to his committee’s Russia investigation, spoke out against Comey’s termination. “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination,” Burr remarked. “I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.”

In the wake of Comey’s termination, additional troubling revelations have emerged about the Trump team’s connections to Russia. The day after he fired Comey, Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. During the meeting, Trump revealed highly classified information about an Islamic State terrorist threat to the Russian officials without permission from Israel, the ally who initially shared the information with the United States. The disclosure angered Israeli intelligence officials and may have compromised an important source of information about the Islamic State’s activities.

Meanwhile, the New York Times broke the news that, back in February, Trump asked Comey to drop the federal investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn resigned after it was revealed that he had undisclosed conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, weeks after acting attorney general Sally Yates warned Trump’s team that Flynn could be subject to Russian blackmail. Additionally, the Washington Post obtained audio and transcripts from a 2016 meeting of Republican leadership in which House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy joked about Trump being on Putin’s payroll. “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [California Republican Rep. Dana] Rohrabacker and Trump,” McCarthy said. House Speaker Paul Ryan immediately interrupted McCarthy to cut off the conversation and urged those present not to discuss it further, stating, “No leaks, all right?,” Ryan said, adding: “This is how we know we’re a real family here.” Given that Congressional Republicans control the investigations of Trump’s Russian connections in both the House and Senate, Ryan’s cavalier attitude about Putin’s influence over Trump is especially troubling.

Trump’s startlingly inappropriate intelligence disclosures to Russian officials and blatant efforts to obstruct any investigation of his administration, combined with Republicans’ apparent longstanding awareness of his Russian connections, suggest the serious need for an independent investigation uncontrolled by the executive or legislative branches of government. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took an important step in this direction when he appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller III as a special counsel, i.e. someone who investigates allegations that could constitute a conflict of interest within the Department of Justice, to oversee a nonpartisan investigation of Trump’s campaign. Mueller is widely respected as a nonpartisan public servant with a commitment to challenging presidential abuses of power. As a special counsel, Mueller is tasked with investigating the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, as well as any additional issues “that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” Department of Justice regulations provide Mueller with the same authority as a United States attorney, including the ability to subpoena information and initiate criminal charges.

However, Mueller’s powers come with limits. Until 1999, special prosecutors could not be fired by the president, thanks to a law passed in the wake of President Nixon’s Watergate scandal. In 1999, however, Congress let this provision expire and instead issued new guidelines that let an attorney general appoint a special counsel (Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from Russian investigations after admitting he’d lied about meetings with Russian Ambassador Kislyak during Trump’s campaign). Mueller’s ties to the Department of Justice may limit his investigation’s scope and independence from the Trump administration. For example, Department of Justice precedent suggests the president may be immune to criminal prosecution, which could make it impossible for Mueller to indict Trump. The Department of Justice can fire Mueller or even override his decisions.

Thus, while Mueller’s appointment and Congressional committees’ long-overdue moves to investigate Trump’s Russian connections more thoroughly are steps in the right direction, they still leave ample room for partisan interference in the search for the truth. Indeed, Reuters has reported that the White House is already investigating avenues to undermine Mueller’s work, Mueller’s investigation is also predicted to take years to complete. We must continue to advocate for the creation of a wholly independent special commission, which could work independently from both Congress and the Trump-controlled Department of Justice. Democrats introduced legislation to establish just such a bipartisan commission months ago. These bills, HR 356 and S 27, have languished in Republican-led committees. In an attempt to move this legislation forward, Eric Swalwell (D-CA) introduced a discharge petition to force a vote on HR 356 in the full House. If the petition can get 218 signatures (as of 5/19, it had 191, including signatures from Durham Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield), the entire House will vote on the bill, demonstrating whether or not Republicans are willing to give the Russian investigation the serious consideration it deserves.

The evidence of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia just keeps coming. Just last Thursday, news broke that Michael Flynn and other Trump advisers had 18 previously undisclosed contacts with Russian officials towards the end of the 2016 campaign. On Friday, sources reported that the FBI has identified a senior White House official as a “significant person of interest” in their ongoing Russia investigation. Congress must act to protect our democracy now and establish an independent commission. The integrity of our government and our national security are at stake.

Call Representatives Price (202.225.1784) and Butterfield ((202) 225-3101) today to thank them for supporting the discharge petition to force a vote on HR 356. Then, call Senators Burr and Tillis and demand they support S 27 and advocate for an independent commission to investigate Trump’s Russia ties.

Tell Richard Burr to Do His Job on the Russia Investigation

By Alex McVey, PhD Candidate, Dept. of Communication, UNC Chapel Hill, Twitter:


The Trump administration is running roughshod over American democracy by collaborating with the Russians to spread false stories, using Michael Flynn to conduct backchannel negotiations with Russia, and obstructing the FBI investigation into Trumps Russia ties by pressuring former FBI director James Comey to end the investigation, and firing him when he didn’t comply.

North Carolina’s US Senator Richard Burr is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and as such, is one of the two Senators most responsible for investigating the ties between the Donald Trump campaign and Russia.

Unfortunately, Senator Burr isn’t doing his job very well. First, The Senate Intelligence Committee is dragging its feet on the investigation. It is understaffed, underfunded, and currently working with bare bones resources.

As the editors of Bloomberg news recently wrote: “The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is woefully understaffed, conducting a vital national security investigation with fewer than a dozen full-time staff. The independent commission studying the Sept. 11 attacks, by contrast, had a staff of about 75. At its peak, the Watergate committee had about 100; the Church Committee investigating intelligence abuses had some 150.”

Second, Senator Burr is equivocating when it comes to Trump’s actions on Comey. When he was informed that Comey had circulated an internal memo about Trump’s attempt to influence the outcome of the FBI investigation, Burr demanded that the New York Times obtain that memo.

This is a shocking demand from a Senator with the full subpoena power to obtain that memo independently. Senator Burr’s job requires him to be one of the last safeguards of America’s democracy, but he’s not doing his job very well. It’s not up to the New York Times, it’s up to him.

Call Richard Burr and tell him to do his job (DC office:  (202) 224-3154): 

Hello, I’m a North Carolina voter from (Zip Code), and I’m concerned about the status of the Russia Investigation. Senator Burr needs to do his job in the Senate Intelligence Committee and demand more resources for the investigation. He also needs to use his subpoena power to the fullest extent regarding Trump’s firing of James Comey.

The American Health Care Act: What it is and how to fight back

by Eleanor Wertman, MPH

What is the American Health Care Act, and why did it pass this time around?

On Thursday May 4th, House Republicans narrowly passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA), their purported replacement for the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare). The version of the AHCA that they passed contained most of the same provisions as the original bill draft, which was so unpopular that it was never brought to a vote. Among these provisions were a rollback of Medicaid expansion; changes to the tax credit structure for plans sold on the individual market (i.e. the exchanges); abolition of the individual insurance mandate; a provision to increase insurance rates by 30% for a year for beneficiaries who let coverage lapse; and a repeal of funding for the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which currently constitutes about 12% of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which analyzes the cost impact of legislation, estimated the AHCA would leave 24 million people uninsured by 2026 and increase premiums for older adults and middle class families, among other negative outcomes.

House Republicans struggled to revise the AHCA to come up with a version that would appease both party moderates and right-wing Freedom Caucus Republicans. They finally found a solution in the form of the MacArthur Amendment, a series of provisions allowing states to apply for waivers starting in 2020 to eliminate certain ACA insurance regulations. This amendment appealed to enough House Republicans on both sides of the aisle that they were finally able to ram the AHCA through.

What does the MacArthur amendment change about the AHCA?

The ACA’s “community rating” policy prohibits insurers from charging beneficiaries higher premiums based on their health history and gender. However, the MacArthur amendment creates an AHCA waiver allowing states to let insurance companies consider people’s health status for one year when pricing policies. This waiver would affect people with a preexisting condition (a broad term that historically included everything from a past cancer diagnosis to asthma) who have a lapse in health coverage for 63 days or more. States that use the waiver would be required to participate in some kind of risk mitigation arrangement, in which insurance companies would bill states for costs incurred by people with preexisting conditions and coverage gaps. The AHCA establishes the Patient and State Stability fund to allow states to finance such risk reduction arrangements, including high-risk pools. High-risk pools concentrate disproportionately sick beneficiaries into one insurance plan, which conservatives argue will insulate healthier people from higher premiums. However, high-risk pools have historically been tremendously expensive both for the states implementing them and the consumers placed in them. AHCA critics argue the money set aside to fund risk mitigation for sicker people is woefully insufficient to meet the healthcare costs of people with preexisting conditions; one estimate predicted the Patient and State Stability Fund would cover the costs of only 5% of people with preexisting conditions.

Under the ACA, insurance companies are required to cover 10 categories of services known as essential health benefits (EHBs), including doctors’ services, hospital care, prescription drug coverage, mental health services and substance use treatment, maternity care, and more. The MacArthur Amendment to the AHCA also lets states apply to waive the requirement that insurance plans cover these benefits. While this waiver would be applied on a state-by-state basis, critics argue it could affect insurance across state lines as well because of its potential impact on employer-sponsored insurance plans. The ACA currently prohibits private insurance plans from setting lifetime or annual spending caps on EHB services. However, large employer insurance plans, which make up 86% of the plans on the private market, can use any state’s definition of EHBs when establishing their policies. Thus, if one state decided to drop maternity coverage, mental health coverage, and prescription drugs from its EHB list, an employer plan could use that state’s restricted definition of benefits. Under this employer plan, lifetime and annual spending caps would no longer exist for those services no longer defined as EHBs.

I’m confused. Does this bill eliminate insurance or automatically increase costs for people with preexisting conditions?

Critics of the AHCA have argued that the bill completely eliminates protections for people with preexisting conditions, which is not strictly true. People with preexisting conditions who maintain their healthcare coverage will not immediately be denied insurance or charged more. However, many people are unable to maintain consistent insurance coverage and will be subject to price discrimination if their state applies for a waiver of the ACA’s community rating policy. The Commonwealth Fund estimates that about 30 million working adults experienced a coverage gap of at least 63 days in 2016. The various AHCA policies that increase premium costs for exchange plans could further increase the number of adults who let their insurance coverage lapse. Additionally, an estimated 27% of all Americans (52 million people) have a preexisting condition that would allow insurance companies to charge them more money if they experienced a coverage gap. The AHCA was passed rapidly without the customary Congressional Budget Office review (and without leaving time for many House Republicans to even read the bill in its entirety). It’s therefore difficult to estimate how many people with preexisting conditions could lose affordable coverage under the AHCA. However, the AARP has estimated that people with preexisting conditions could see annual costs of $25,700 annually.

What happens to the Affordable Care Act now?

The AHCA is far from law, and the ACA remains the law of the land. The bill heads next to the Senate, which will likely significantly alter the AHCA or start over from scratch. As Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) commented, “We’re writing a Senate bill and not passing the House bill.”  Republican Senators will try to pass their version of the bill using a congressional process called reconciliation, a process which lets the Senate pass bills that have a budgetary impact with just a simple majority instead of the two-thirds majority normally needed (Senate Democrats used budget reconciliation to pass the ACA back in 2010). Once the bill passes in the Senate, it must then be passed by the House.

Unlike House Republicans, the Senate GOP appears to be taking a more gradual approach to drafting their ACA replacement. Republican Senators have refused to commit to a timeline for a vote. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) would only state, “When we get 51 senators, we’ll vote.”

What can I do to fight against the ACA’s repeal?

Start reaching out to your Senators and urging them to draft a bill that repairs the ACA’s problems instead of creating a whole new host of barriers to affordable healthcare. Meet with their healthcare staffers and tell them your personal stories about how the ACA has helped you (or, if it hasn’t helped you, how the ACA needs to be improved). Learn more about how the AHCA would affect you personally and use that personal story to call and/or write your Senators. Consider using tools like 5 Calls, ResistBot, and Fax Zero to reach out to your representatives.

Don’t forget to advocate with local politicians, too. North Carolina still has the opportunity to expand Medicaid under the ACA, and House Republicans have even proposed a bill to do so (albeit with a work requirement and other restrictions). Call your state representatives and urge them to push for Medicaid expansion while they still can. Twenty Senators come from Medicaid expansion states, and securing Medicaid expansion in as many states as possible before any ACA repeal plan is in place will make it even harder for Congress to undo Medicaid expansion.

House Republicans passed the AHCA narrowly, without a Congressional Budget Office review and without support from the Senate for their plan. We still have the chance to protect and improve the ACA and ensure the AHCA never becomes law.   

Take Action to Fight the Zombie Trumpcare Apocalypse

By Alex McVey, PhD Candidate, Dept. of Communication, UNC Chapel Hill, Twitter: @JAlexanderMcVey

President Donald Trump suffered an embarrassing set-back on his promise to repeal Obamacare within his first 100 days in office, as the American Health Care Act (AHCA), or Trumpcare as it has affectionately been renamed was crushed by a wave of popular #resistance. Sad!

But Zombie Trumpcare is back from the dead and this time, it’s worse than ever.

Last time around, Republicans failed to get the Freedom Caucus, a radical group of far-right congress members, on board with the AHCA. In an effort to appease the Freedom Caucus, the GOP revised the AHCA to be even worse for poor people, women, the elderly, and the disabled.

The scariest part? This bill actually stands a chance at passing:

One of the reasons this version of the bill appeals to the Freedom Caucus is that it puts protections for pre-existing conditions under threat. As the AARP reports, the revised AHCA allows insurers to charge people with pre-existing conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

In an attempt to offset increased premiums for people with pre-existing conditions, the bill creates a Federal Invisible Risk Sharing Program. However, because the AHCA also strips subsidies and shifts costs onto consumers, the risk sharing program would fail to cover the increase in premium costs. The Center for American Progress argues that “the average enrollee would still see their total costs rise by more than $3,000 by 2020.”

In addition to slamming people with pre-existing conditions, Newsweek reports that the bill also allows states to choose to exempt themselves from the ACA’s rules about essential benefits. This means insurers may no longer be required to cover mental health care, emergency services, hospitalization, maternal care, pediatric care, and prescription medicines.

It’s up to us to fight back against the Zombie Trumpcare.Apocalypse. What can you do to get involved?

First, call your representative, and let them know you oppose the AHCA. You can use the following script:

“Hello, I’m a North Carolina voter from (ZIP CODE), and I oppose the AHCA because I support protections for pre-existing conditions and essential medical services. Please vote against the AHCA.”

Need help finding your representative? Just click here, and put in your address to find your representatives.

Second, check out the resistance tools available in the Trumpcare Toolkit and the Healthcare section of the Resistance Manual.

Third, check out the following progressive organizations doing advocacy work on health care justice here in North Carolina:

The Impact of Trump’s Budget Cuts on the Arts in North Carolina

By Alex McVey, PhD Candidate, Dept. of Communication, UNC Chapel Hill, Twitter: @JAlexanderMcVey

Last week, we provided you with an update on the local impact of President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget. Trump’s proposed budget would devastate scientific research, education, and environmental funding in North Carolina. 

This week, we want to focus on a different local impact from Trump’s proposed budget cuts: funding for the arts.

President Trump’s budget proposes entirely eliminating federal funding for the National Endowment of the Arts. The NEA received 148 Million Dollars in 2016, which, as Andrea K. Scott in The New Yorker points out, is a mere .003 percent of the federal budget. That would save Americans approximately 46 cents per year, less than the cost of a postage stamp.

Budget cuts to the NEA would hit North Carolina hard.  Last year, twelve grants were awarded to North Carolina organizations dedicated to supporting the arts in our state:

  • North Carolina Arts Council: $957,300
  • United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County: $20,000.
  • North Carolina Symphony: $10,000.
  • North Carolina Folklife Institute: $25,000.
  • Music Maker Relief Foundation, Inc.: $15,000
  • Mint Museum of Art, Inc. (aka Mint Museums): $30,000
  • Central Park (STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise) Star Glass exhibit: $15,000
  • Central Park (STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise) NC Woodfire! Fest 2017.: $50,000
  • University of North Carolina at Charlotte: $10,000.
  • Durham Arts Council: $100,000
  • Duke University, Durham: $18,000
  • Brevard Music Center, Inc., Brevard: $10,000

While this money is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the overall federal budget, it is the lifeblood of the organizations who rely on it to sustain their funding throughout the year and create new projects to benefit North Carolinians.

Funding for the arts is a boon for North Carolina’s educational system. Studies have shown that participation in arts correlates with an increase in student attendance, higher scores on standardized tests in math and science, and improved cognition.

Not only are the arts intrinsically valuable, they are also an economic and educational boom for the state. As Wayne Martin, the Executive Director of the North Carolina Arts Council states in an interview with IndyWeek:

"The NEA has been around for more than fifty years, and now, if it were taken away, to me it’s really penalizing our state, because it’s through the NEA that we use these funds to improve our quality of life… NEA’s budget is a speck in the federal budget. Those funds are very important for us and for our arts partners across the state. They translate into economic development, helping students do well in school and later on in life, helping cities and towns revitalize themselves. It seems really obvious to me that that small investment is yielding big returns for North Carolina."

The NC Arts Council estimates that the state’s arts and culture sector is a 1.24-billion-dollar industry which supports over 300,000 jobs, over 6% of the state’s work-force. Funding for the arts thus provides a huge bang-for-the-buck for North Carolina’s economy.

Your call to action: Call your representatives and tell them to protect crucial federal funding for the National Endowment of the Arts, because these funds benefit all North Carolinians.

The Local Impact of the Federal Budget

By Eleanor Wertman, MPH

Donald Trump has proposed a budget for Fiscal Year 2018 that would eviscerate funding for dozens of government agencies while increasing military and defense spending. North Carolina stands to lose $340,172,000 if Trump’s budget is fully enacted, a 9% cut in overall federal funding. Fortunately, Trump’s budget proposal is merely an advisory document to guide Congress in making their spending decisions for next year. While Congress is in recess (from now through April 24), we have the chance to tell our elected officials to reject Trump’s cruel budget and preserve essential federal funding in our state. Read on to learn about some of the local consequences of Trump’s federal budget, and then use this information to make yourself heard!

Scientific Research

North Carolina’s Research Triangle and excellent universities have long been centers of scientific research and innovation. All of these institutions rely heavily on funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which made 2,221 grants totaling $1.2 billion to NC organizations in 2016. Trump’s budget would cut NIH funding by 18.3%, eliminating $5.8 billion. Critical research, like a UNC study on early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and a Duke study on improving radiation therapy for cancer patients, might no longer be possible. NIH cuts would also threaten the over 17,000 jobs in the state that are at least partially funded by NIH grants.

Trump’s proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be another blow to research and innovation in NC and in the Triangle in particular. The proposed 31% cut to the EPA directly threatens the 3,200 workers employed at NC-based EPA offices, including the 2,000 employees at the EPA’s second-largest office in the Research Triangle Park. These EPA offices, including the EPA’s primary center for air pollution research and regulation, conduct critical research to identify and respond to public health threats. EPA funding cuts also threaten jobs at contract research agencies like nonprofit RTI International, which currently manages about $30 million in EP research contracts and has done contract work for the EPA for decades.

Your call to action: Call your representative and senators and demand they protect funding for crucial scientific and medical research from agencies like the NIH and the EPA. Remind them that NC’s proud history of cutting-edge research is only possible with continued federal funding. 


The Trump budget proposes cutting the Department of Education’s overall budget by $9 billion, while increasing funding for so-called “school choice” programs. The budget would eliminate $2.4 billion in funding for teacher training; $1.2 billion in funding for summer school and after-school programs; and $200 million in funding for low-income, first generation, and disabled college students. It would also eliminate Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants for low-income undergraduates entirely.

At the state level, NC already spends disproportionately little on its public schools, ranking 44th in per pupil funding and 41st in teacher pay as of 2016. The state public school system is currently on the brink of a funding crisis thanks to a Republican mandate to reduce class size without any additional funding. The federal budget covers about 10% of NC’s educational spending, and Trump’s proposed changes would remove critical dollars for after school care and professional development for teachers. Even charter school advocates have pushed back against the proposed budget changes, noting that the changes will undermine public education by removing programs that support public school students.

NC’s university students, particularly low-income and first generation students, would also suffer if the proposed budget is approved. With deep cuts to funding for the Federal TRIO Programs, which identify and provide services for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, over 70 programs in our state could lose crucial funding.

Your call to action: Call your representative and senators and urge them to vote against cuts to the Department of Education that undermine public education by defunding teacher development, after school programming, and funding for programs for low-income university students.

The Environment

Trump’s budget would slash funding for agencies that protect public lands and the environment. Federal funding constitutes more than half of NC’s environmental budget, and North Carolinians rely on this money to preserve our beautiful public parks, defend our state against ground and water pollution, monitor and respond to severe weather like Hurricane Matthew, and more.

For example, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) provides over $79 million in state grants to protect nearly 41,000 acres of national parks and other public lands in NC; the agency provides NC an additional $148 million to preserve national parks and forests and conserve habitats. North Carolina’s natural environment is not only beautiful but also a source of revenue, as outdoor recreation in the state generates $19.2 billion in annual consumer spending, generates 192,000 jobs, and produces $1.3 billion in state and local tax revenue. Senator Richard Burr, Representative G.K. Butterfield, and Representative David Price have all signed onto an annual “Dear Colleague” letter to affirm their support for the LWCF, but Senator Thom Tillis has not.

Your call to action: Call Thom Tillis and urge him not to support cuts to the LWCF, and call Burr and your House Representative to encourage them to continue resisting cuts to this important funding source.

Additionally, categorical federal grants from the agencies mentioned above currently provide about half of NC’s funding to implement laws like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Without this funding, NC would be unable to provide basic environmental protections to its citizens. However, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have consistently voted against environmental protections like those provided by the Clean Water Act to protect big polluters like Duke Energy.

Your call to action: Call Senators Tillis and Burr and demand they preserve critical federal funding to protect our state from pollution.


The Nuclear Option and Neil Gorsuch

By Eleanor Wertman, MPH

What is the nuclear option, and what does it have to do with Neil Gorsuch?

          Before Thursday, April 6, a minority of Senators could block the appointment of a Supreme Court nominee. While a Supreme Court appointee could be confirmed with a simple majority of votes, opponents could obstruct a candidate’s appointment indefinitely by filibustering. This filibuster could only be interrupted via a cloture motion, which requires 60 votes and ends floor debate on an issue to force a final vote. The “nuclear option” is a Senate procedure to override a rule or precedent with a simple majority of votes, rather than a supermajority of 60.

          Last Thursday, Republicans deployed the nuclear option after a majority of Senate Democrats committed to filibustering the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The use of the nuclear option allowed Republicans to override the rule requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee.

Have Democrats used the nuclear option to confirm nominees in the past?

          Yes, although under different circumstances. In 2013, former Senate leader Harry Reid (D-NV) used the nuclear option to end Republican filibusters of lower court and executive branch nominees. However, Reid’s decision came in the face of unprecedented Republican opposition to Obama’s nominees. Prior to Obama’s presidency, the Senate had used the filibuster to block 68 nominees to various positions; by 2013, Republicans had blocked 79 of Obama’s nominees. Republicans blocked so many of Obama’s judicial appointments that Donald Trump could have the opportunity to fill more judicial vacancies than any first-term president since the 1970s. Republican opposition to all Obama appointees was so strong that they prevented moderate Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland from having a confirmation hearing at all.

Why does it matter that Senate Republicans used the nuclear option to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court?

          The 60 vote threshold to overcome a filibuster was seen as a way to prevent partisanship in the appointment of Supreme Court justices and encourage presidents to appoint more moderate candidates. Gorsuch, however, was far from a moderate choice. Democrats cited numerous reasons for opposing Gorsuch, including his ambiguous confirmation hearing responses; his attitudes towards the rights of women, people with disabilities, and laborers; and the ongoing federal investigation of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia. By lowering the vote threshold to a bare majority to confirm a right-wing, anti-woman, anti-labor Supreme Court Justice to the seat stolen from Obama nominee Merrick Garland, Senate Republicans have opened the door for unprecedented partisanship in the Supreme Court Justice selection process.

What can I do to resist?

          Unfortunately, the nuclear option has been invoked, and Neil Gorsuch has been confirmed to the Supreme Court. However, the fight is not over yet. First, we must ensure the 60-vote threshold for breaking filibusters is preserved for other Senate proceedings, including legislation. Sixty-one senators from both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Tillis and Burr, have already sent a letter to Senate leaders encouraging them to maintain the filibuster threshold. We must hold Tillis and Burr accountable to their promises and keep an eye out for future threats to the filibuster.

          Additionally, Tillis and Burr need to hear our outrage that the nuclear option was invoked to confirm a Supreme Court nominee whose views directly threaten reproductive rights, the rights of laborers, the rights of people with disabilities, and more. Use the below 5 Calls script to contact Burr and Tillis today.

Hi, my name is [NAME] and I'm a constituent from [CITY, ZIP].

I'm calling to express my outrage that Sen [NAME] voted to use the nuclear option to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court seat stolen from Obama nominee Merrick Garland. The use of the nuclear option to confirm this candidate has permanently introduced dangerous partisanship into the Supreme Court Justice selection process.

[IF LEAVING A VOICEMAIL: please leave your full street address to ensure your call is tallied]


Donald Trump's Budget Explained

By Eleanor Wertman, MPH

Last week, Donald Trump released a preliminary Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal, which describes the changes he would like to make to the federal government’s discretionary spending in the coming year. The proposal, which suggests cuts to scientific research, diplomacy, housing, the arts, and more, has alarmed people across the political spectrum. However, Trump’s proposal is currently just that—a nonbinding recommendation that Congress considers as they determine the federal budget for 2018. Read on to learn more about what Trump has proposed, what happens to his proposal now, and how you can hold your members of Congress accountable for their spending decisions.

What does the federal budget look like today?

The federal budget is divided into mandatory spending, which is mostly allocated to Medicare, Social Security, and paying interest on the national debt, and discretionary spending, which includes defense spending and all other federal spending. The Fiscal Year 2017 federal budget allocated 73% of funds ($2.56 trillion) to mandatory spending and 27% ($1.08 trillion) to discretionary spending. Of this discretionary spending, about 49% (over $543 billion) went to defense spending.  

The percentage of the budget allocated to non-defense discretionary spending is currently at a historic low.

What does Trump’s budget proposal recommend?

Trump’s budget proposal only makes recommendations for discretionary spending and includes large cuts to non-defense discretionary spending and large increases for defense spending.

As the graphic above shows, Trump’s budget proposal would massively scale back funding to most federal agencies to pay for increases to defense spending and funding for the border wall and school voucher programs. The proposal would reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency to its lowest level ever and decrease funding for many other departments, such as the Department of Labor, the Department of the Treasury, and the Department of Agriculture, to their lowest levels in a decade or more. The budget would also completely eliminate funding for 19 federal agencies, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Chemical Safety Board, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Trump’s $1.15 trillion proposed discretionary budget, if passed in its entirety, would be the lowest federal discretionary budget in 15 years despite raising defense spending to its highest level in 6 years. The proposed budget is a threat to the environment, to education, and to programs like Meals on Wheels that rely on community development block grants to serve vulnerable Americans.

What happens next?

The president’s budget proposal is nonbinding, as only Congress has the constitutional power to appropriate Treasury funds for federal spending. The House and Senate Budget Committees will refer to Trump’s proposal when developing and proposing their own nonbinding budget resolutions. The House and Senate then attempt to reconcile their two proposals into a single budget resolution that sets federal spending targets for each of the twelve appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate. The budget resolution is supposed to be completed by April 15 (although Congress often misses this deadline).

Once the resolution is complete, appropriations subcommittee members hold oversight hearings to decide how the money allocated to their subcommittee should be divided up among the various departments and agencies whose funding they oversee. The subcommittees develop appropriations bills based on hearings and the President’s budget proposal. For these bills to become law, they must pass through the House Subcommittee, the full Committee, and the entire House, and then go through the same process in the Senate.

The President is supposed to sign all appropriations bills into law by October 1 (the beginning of the new fiscal year). However, Congress sometimes fails to agree on appropriations bills by this deadline. When the Congress cannot agree on a budget by the October 1st deadline, they must either pass continuing resolutions to maintain current funding levels to various federal agencies or allow the government to temporarily shut down; the last budget-related government shutdown happened in 2013.

What can I do to resist the budget cuts Trump has proposed?

As mentioned above, Trump’s budget proposal is still far from being implemented. Members of Congress need to hear from you about why his proposed budget is unacceptable.

First, educate yourself about Trump’s budget proposal. The New York Times has a good high-level overview of proposed budgetary changes. USA Today provides a list of the federal agencies and programs Trump has recommended eliminating completely. Pick an issue that matters to you personally—medical research, education, the environment, providing community support to seniors, addressing racial inequities, etc.—and learn how Trump’s proposed budget would affect funding for that issue.

Next, contact your members of Congress and encourage them to oppose Trump’s funding cuts. Congressional staffers have stated that in-person visits to your members of Congress and polite, concise phone calls are the most effective ways to communicate your feedback. Individualized letters (especially to state district offices), faxes, and emails can also be helpful, but they can take longer to process than phone calls. Congressional staffers tend to disregard social media posts and mass emails orchestrated by advocacy groups, so be sure you are calling and writing letters in addition to using these methods. Be as specific as you can when contacting Congress. Ask them to oppose funding cuts to specific agencies and programs when you can. Use resources like 5 Calls and the Indivisible Guide to find sample language to use for your calls and letters.

Above all, stay informed and keep fighting. It is up to us to ensure Trump and the Republican-led Congress do not dismantle crucial federal programs that serve our nation.

The American Health Care Act

By Eleanor Wertman, MPH


On Monday, March 6th, House Republicans released a proposed bill, the American Health Care Act to dismantle key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a nonpartisan group that offers objective estimates of the potential budgetary effects of legislation, said that 24 million people would lose coverage by 2025 under the new plan. The bill's key provisions seem designed to benefit wealthy consumers while leaving low income individuals responsible for a higher proportion of their healthcare costs. 

As currently drafted, the bill would end federal funding for Medicaid expansion by 2020, change Medicaid's federal financing structure to a per capita payment cap, end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, end income-based subsidies for people buying insurance through the exchanges by 2020, and allow insurers to charge older adults five times more for insurance than younger adults (with an option for states to allow even higher rates). All of these provisions will reduce healthcare access and increase the burden of healthcare costs for low income people

Republicans have proposed using tax credits as a way to offset healthcare costs. For the majority of Americans, tax credit amounts will depend on people's age, with younger people receiving smaller credits than older people. Individuals making more than $75,000 and households making more than $150,000 will still receive age-based tax credits, but their credits will be incrementally reduced based on their income. An initial analysis of the tax credit plan by the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation estimates this arrangement will generally reduce the value of tax credits for older and lower-income people, as well as people who live in areas with high premium costs. For example, a 27 year old Durham County resident making $20,000 a year is eligible for an average of $4,900 in subsidies under the ACA but would receive a credit of only $2,000 under the American Health Care Act. A 40 year old Durham County resident with a $30,000 annual income would go from receiving a subsidy of $4,660 to a tax credit of $3,000. By contrast, 60 year old Durham County resident currently receiving no subsidies for healthcare would instead receive $1,500 a year in tax credits.

The Republican plan also offers people the option to contribute more pre-tax dollars to health savings accounts to cover anticipated healthcare expenses. However, health savings accounts work best for relatively healthy and wealthy people, who can afford to set aside money to save for their healthcare expenses.

Rich individuals are not the only ones who stand to benefit from this bill; insurance companies will also make more money. The ACA ended insurance companies' tax breaks for executive salaries over $500,000. However, the current version of this bill would reverse this tax, providing a windfall to insurance companies while low income people shoulder an increasing proportion of health care costs. 

In short, the proposed bill withdraws funding from healthcare for lower-income Americans, offers tax credits to people who do not need them, establishes a healthcare savings vehicle that caters to the wealthy, and offers a windfall to insurance companies in the form of tax breaks. 


This bill is extremely vulnerable. The Republicans' repeal and replace plan immediately attracted criticism from both sides of the aisle. Even before the bill was released, four Republican Senators wrote a letter refusing to vote for a bill without adequate protection for individuals covered by Medicaid expansion. Some Republicans have also resisted calls to end federal funding to Planned Parenthood. More conservative Republicans have critiqued the plan as "Obamacare Lite" and expressed concerns that the bill is unlikely to reduce healthcare costs. Democrats have slammed the bill for its benefits to the rich, its negative effects on low income people, and the lack of CBO oversight in its initial drafting. 

Update on Rep. Butterfield's commitment to take action in Nestor Avila's deportation case

By Eleanor Wertman, MPH

During Congressman GK Butterfield’s recent town hall, Rosa Parra confronted the representative to demand action on the case of her son, Appalachian State student Nestor Avila. Mr. Avila’s foot was injured when he was detained during an ICE raid and is currently imprisoned in Georgia. Ms. Parra reports that her son has a bone infection in his foot but is not receiving proper treatment. Read more about Nestor and how he was severely injured in a road-rage assault while he was in the custody of ICE. At the town hall, Butterfield promised action on Mr. Avila’s case.

We followed up with his office to check in. Butterfield’s aide reported that they can’t call ICE about Mr. Avila until his mother submits a privacy release form, as Mr. Avila is legally an adult. Ms. Parra is working with her attorney to get this form sorted out, and after that Rep. Butterfield will file a congressional inquiry into Mr. Avila's case. We’ll continue watching Nestor’s case closely in the coming weeks and will follow-up with Rep. Butterfield's commitment to demand ICE release Nestor. 

Update on Rep. Butterfield's Co-Sponsorship of H.Res. 111

Our Indivisibull team attended Rep. Butterfield’s Community Discussion on Saturday Feb. 25. We asked him to co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler’s (D-N.Y.) “resolution of inquiry” into Trump and his team’s connections with the Russian government if any. Rep. Butterfield said “it will be done by Monday.” On Monday, February 27, we confirmed that Rep. Butterfield did co-sponsor this resolution!