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“Unprecedented” meddling in the Census

They weren’t subtle about it.

A newly disclosed memorandum citing “unprecedented” meddling by the Trump administration in the 2020 census and circulated among top Census Bureau officials indicates how strongly they sought to resist efforts by the administration to manipulate the count for Republican political gain.

The document was shared among three senior executives including Ron S. Jarmin, a deputy director and the agency’s day-to-day head. It was written in September 2020 as the administration was pressing the bureau to end the count weeks early so that if President Donald J. Trump lost the election in November, he could receive population estimates used to reapportion the House of Representatives before leaving office.

The memo laid out a string of instances of political interference that senior census officials planned to raise with Wilbur Ross, who was then the secretary of the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau. The issues involved crucial technical aspects of the count, including the privacy of census respondents, the use of estimates to fill in missing population data, pressure to take shortcuts to produce population totals quickly and political pressure on a crash program that was seeking to identify and count unauthorized immigrants.

Most of those issues directly affected the population estimates used for reapportionment. In particular, the administration was adamant that — for the first time ever — the bureau separately tally the number of undocumented immigrants in each state. Mr. Trump had ordered the tally in a July 2020 presidential memorandum, saying he wanted to subtract them from House reapportionment population estimates.

The census officials’ memorandum pushed back especially forcefully, complaining of “direct engagement” by political appointees with the methods that experts were using to find and count unauthorized noncitizens.

“While the presidential memorandum may be a statement of the administration’s policy,” the memo stated, “the Census Bureau views the development of the methodology and processes as its responsibility as an independent statistical agency.”

[…]

Kenneth Prewitt, a Columbia University public-affairs scholar who ran the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, said in an interview that the careful bureaucratic language belied an extraordinary pushback against political interference.

“This was a very, very strong commitment to independence on their part,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re going to run the technical matters in the way we think we ought to.’”

The officials’ objections, he said, only underscored the need for legislation to shield the Census Bureau from political interference well before the 2030 census gets underway. “I’m very worried about that,” he said.

See here and here for some background; I wrote about Census-related topics and shenanigans a lot while it was happening. We got lucky this time around, but there’s no reason to believe our luck will hold. My advice would be to put some criminal penalties in for the various forms of interference and intimidation that the Trump thugs used, and don’t require proof of intent for the crime to have occurred. My advice would also be to prioritize democracy and good governance over ant-democratic Senate trivia, but what do I know? Texas Public Radio and Mother Jones have more.

Sheriff Gonzalez re-nominated for ICE

Take two.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is still President Joe Biden’s pick to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even after the Senate failed to confirm him last year.

Biden renominated Gonzalez for the ICE director on Tuesday. His initial nomination, from April, expired earlier this week.

Gonzalez still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, which is evenly split and has been moving through Biden’s nominees at a glacial pace amid Republican opposition. ICE — a particularly polarizing agency — has been without a permanent director for five years.

“He’s likely to face the same result in 2022 that he has in 2021,” said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones. “He’s received quite a bit of flak from the left and the right. The right has attacked him because of his because of his past criticism of ICE, but the left has attacked him because of his support for border security and the rule of law at the border.”

Gonzalez is one of many Biden nominees who Democrats have struggled to get confirmed, reflecting shifting norms in the Senate and the growing difficulty of confirming political appointees in recent years, said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that promotes effective government.

See here for the background. With all due respect to Professor Jones, if Gonzalez lacked support from even one Democratic Senator, he’d be toast. There are progressive critics of his, though I’d say that criticism is more about ICE as an agency, but if that had been enough to sway any votes in the Senate, someone else would be getting nominated. As both this story and the previous one note, the main issue here is the extreme slowness in getting presidential nominees approved by the Senate, for a variety of reasons in that profoundly broken institution. Either Leader Schumer is able to get a floor vote for him on the calendar, without negatively affecting any higher priorities, or we face the same situation next year, possibly with a Republican-controlled Senate that will make the matter entirely moot. Good luck.

What does “race blind” redistricting even mean?

Good question.

In states like Texas and North Carolina, Republican lawmakers in charge of redrawing the political maps for the next decade say that the new plans are “race blind.” Their opponents in court say that the claim is implausible and one that, in some situations, is at odds with the Voting Rights Act.

Several lawsuits, including from the Justice Department, allege that the maps drawn after the 2020 census discriminate against voters of color.

Between a 2013 Supreme Court decision that scaled back the federal government’s role in monitoring redistricting and a 2019 ruling that said partisan gerrymanders could not be challenged in federal court, voting rights advocates have been left with fewer tools to address what they say are unfair and illegal redistricting plans.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the states where the redistricting legal fights have been most pitched have adopted an approach that claims that racial data played no role as they drew the maps for the next 10 years. Legislators say they’re avoiding the use of race data after decades of litigation where they’ve been accused of unconstitutionally relying on race to gerrymander.

“I don’t view this as a serious legal defense, but more of a PR defense,” said Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is suing Texas lawmakers over their new maps.

Challengers to the maps say that such an assertion of “race blind” maps is dubious as well as a betrayal of states’ obligations under the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in redistricting. The law requires that in some circumstances, map-makers must draw plans in a way that creates minority-majority districts where voters can elect the candidates of their choice. In lawsuits alleging a failure to comply with the law, states like Texas have been accused of drawing maps that instead dilute the votes of communities of color.

Legislators may be trying to “immunize” themselves from most of the claims that are used in court to strike down redistricting maps, according to Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School professor and redistricting expert.

“By saying race was not in the minds of the people who drew the lines, you potentially get out of those constitutional causes action that you are intentionally diluting the vote of racial minorities or that race was the predominant factor in the construction of a district,” Persily told CNN, adding that such an approach doesn’t shield map-drawers from cases alleging Voting Rights Act violations.

Lawmakers’ description of maps as “race blind” is both “political rhetoric” and “test case rhetoric,” said Ben Ginsberg, a former Republican redistricting lawyer who is not involved in the current lawsuits. “But still, the standard is you can’t dilute minority voting power and minority opportunity to vote for their candidates of choice. And by not using race data they run the risk of being found to have diluted minority voting strength from what’s in the current map.”

[…]

In tension with legislators’ obligations under the Voting Rights Act are the limits the Constitution — under Supreme Court precedent — put on the use of race in redistricting.

The Supreme Court has said, via the 1993 decision in Shaw v. Reno, that use of race as a sole factor in drawing districts unconstitutional in most circumstances. However, the Voting Rights Act presents the sort of compelling government interest that allows for race to be considered.

Jason Torchinsky — a Republican election lawyer who has defended North Carolina legislators in redistricting cases in the past, but is not involved in the current cases in North Carolina or Texas– told CNN that map-drawers have to walk the line between their VRA obligations and not running afoul of the Constitution.

“Legislatures have to use very localized data to determine if they are required to draw [Voting Rights Act] Section 2 districts,” Torchinsky said. “If they are, then they have to consider race in those parts of the states because they’re required to under the Voting Rights Act.” But when states aren’t required to draw VRA districts, Torchinsky said, the use of race could pose a potential Constitutional problem.

I mean, if SCOTUS hadn’t killed preclearance back in 2013, we wouldn’t be having most of this debate right now, because none of these extreme maps would have seen the light of day. The claim at the time that we didn’t need preclearance any more because racial discrimination was a thing of the past was ludicrous then and is beyond obscene now. The 2019 ruling that said SCOTUS was unable to deal with partisan gerrymandering claims, even as the lower courts had no trouble adjudicating them, was cowardly and shameful. Of course, we do have what could be a pretty good answer to all that sitting on the Senate agenda, if we can somehow manage to convince two loathsome Senators that American democracy is a bigger concern than arcane and anti-democratic Senate rules. Until then, the only thing you can count on is that something is legal if SCOTUS says it is, no more and no less. And down the rabbit hole we go.

Sheriff Gonzalez’s status

Two words: In limbo.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate has yet to confirm Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez as director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, meaning he will likely need to be nominated again and will face an uphill battle to be confirmed in that role.

The Senate must agree unanimously before Jan. 3 to hold over the nomination of Gonzalez or nominate him during the 2022 legislative session.

Even if Gonzalez is held over — or nominated a second time — a number of political obstacles remain in the way of confirmation.

“The prospects for the confirmation of Sheriff Gonzalez in 2022 would not be very auspicious were Biden to nominate him again,” said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones, who noted the confirmation process would essentially start over from scratch in that case.

“The fact that there was a hold that remained now suggests that if Biden nominates Gonzalez again, he’s likely to face the same result in 2022 that he has in 2021,” Jones said.

The struggle to confirm Gonzalez reflects shifting norms in the Senate and increasing difficulty to confirm political appointees in recent years, aid Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes more effective government.

“Everything is becoming harder and slower, and you have even fewer people actually being confirmed for very important positions,” said Stier.

As of Dec. 30, just 266 of Biden’s political appointees had been confirmed, according to the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post, compared to 383 during the Obama administration.

The position of ICE director is especially challenging to confirm, considering the polarizing beliefs on immigration law enforcement and the 50-50 split of party control in the Senate.

“The position itself in this instance, ICE director, is one that’s become a bigger lightning rod, a more controversial position,” said Stier.

Trump failed to secure someone in that role during his entire term.

Mark Jones said he doesn’t believe the Senate’s failure to confirm Gonzalez has much to do with his ability to lead the agency, but much more to do with how Republicans are likely to utilize the hot-button issue of immigration during the 2022 midterm elections.

Gonzalez “still has a long track record of criticizing ICE, which means that during a time when Republicans realize that immigration policy is an advantageous one for them, they’re unlikely to support his confirmation. Even though from a policy perspective, his position is not nearly as far from their position,” Jones said.

Republicans have questioned the Democratic sheriff’s commitment to immigration enforcement since he was tapped for the role in April.

As a reminder, Sheriff Gonzalez was nominated in late April, and was approved by the Senate committee in early August. It’s not clear what the actual holdup is here, as Gonzalez would get through if he has full Democratic support. It may be that one or more Democratic Senators are not on board with him, or just don’t want to confirm anyone to this position without some action on immigration in general or ICE in particular, or it may be that this was just another thing moved to the back burner while everyone was chasing Joe Manchin to get his vote on Build Back Better. If it’s the latter, then I think there’s a decent chance Sheriff Gonzalez eventually gets confirmed next year. If not, then we’ll know when he eventually withdraws his name from consideration.

Congressional committee has some questions for Live Nation

Interesting.

A congressional committee is investigating the promoter of the Astroworld music festival, where 10 people were killed in a crowd surge as rapper Travis Scott performed last month.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a letter Wednesday to Live Nation Entertainment Inc. President and CEO Michael Rapino requesting information on preparation and safety measures for the Nov. 5 event.

[…]

“Recent reports raise serious concerns about whether your company took adequate steps to ensure the safety of the 50,000 concertgoers who attended Astroworld Festival,” the top Democrat and Republican on the committee wrote in a letter also signed by U.S. Reps. Al Green, D-Houston, and Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands.

“For instance, reports indicate that security and medical staff were inexperienced or ill-equipped to deal with mass injuries,” they wrote. “Some attendees stated that the placement of barricades made it difficult to escape. Experts have stated that Astroworld Festival organizers failed to heed warning signs.”

[…]

The committee is requesting information about venue security, crowd control, mass casualty planning, emergency communications and medical care. The panel also wants to know at what time Live Nation Entertainment was first made aware of casualties, and what steps were taken in response.

The letter says the committee is also looking into reports that Live Nation withheld pay until part-time employees who worked the festival signed a revised employment contract that includes a broad provision releasing the company from liability in the 2021 festival.

The committee wants Rapino to address members during a briefing on the issue on Jan. 12, the letter says.

Hard to know how to evaluate this right now. This kind of action can often be more of an opportunity to grandstand than to uncover truth. Even with that in mind, we may learn things that might have stayed hidden or unnoticed otherwise. Let’s see what they can find out.

FDA lifts restrictions on medical abortion

Long overdue

The Biden administration on Thursday ended a long-standing restriction on a medication used to terminate early stage pregnancies, even as politicians across the United States intensified efforts that represent the most serious challenge to abortion rights in decades.

The elimination of the rule by the Food and Drug Administration means abortion pills can be prescribed through telehealth consultations with providers and mailed to patients in states where permitted by law. Previously, the pills could not be mailed, though that regulation had been temporarily suspended by the FDA.

In large swaths of the nation, however, strict state rules will dampen the impact. Several states ban sending abortion pills by mail and impose other restrictions.

The medication, mifepristone, was approved by the FDA in 2000 for what’s known as medication abortion. It is used with a second drug, misoprostol. The FDA required patients to pick up mifepristone in person at a hospital, clinic or medical office. There is no FDA requirement that the medication, also known as RU-486, be taken in a clinical setting, and most patients take it at home.

In April, the FDA waived the in-person dispensing requirement during the pandemic, saying research showed the action did not raise “serious safety concerns.” It then launched a scientific review to see whether restrictions on mifepristone should be lifted permanently, with Thursday as the deadline.

The agency, writing to a medical group that had sued the FDA over the rule, said it was dropping the in-person dispensing requirement “to minimize the burden on the health care delivery system” and “to ensure that the benefits of the drug outweigh the risks.” The FDA did not give an effective date for the change.

[…]

Loosening the federal restrictions will not change abortion access in many states with stricter regulations on the pills. Nineteen states have banned receiving the drugs through telehealth appointments, making the relaxed FDA rules irrelevant in places including Alabama, Arizona and Missouri. Some states impose other limitations on medication abortion, including allowing only physicians to prescribe the drug and mandating that patients take the pills under a doctor’s supervision rather than at home.

As federal officials have moved to ease restrictions on the drug, many states have tightened access. At least 16 states have proposed new restrictions on medication abortions this year, said Elizabeth Nash, state policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute.

“State legislatures have been watching very carefully what happens at the federal level,” Nash said.

The highest-profile limitations were enacted in Texas, where lawmakers made it a felony to provide abortion pills after seven weeks of pregnancy and outlawed sending the drugs through the mail. Texas also banned nearly all abortion within the state by making any form of abortion illegal after about six weeks of pregnancy, though that law is being challenged in the courts.

The differing rules have the potential to widen disparities in abortion access, Nash said.

“Access looks very different depending on where you live,” Nash said. “Abortion access will continue to be very limited in states in the South, in the Plains and in the Midwest, and more accessible in states along the West Coast and the Northeast. … That’s problematic in and of itself, and could become an even bigger divide.”

Yeah, it sure is an issue here in Texas. The main question I have is how effectively will Texas be able to enforce its restrictions. It seems to me that there will be a lot of effort put into avoidance, and as such the only way to really make that law work as intended is to be pretty darned invasive. I don’t know how that will work.

Restrictive state laws are spurring an increase in some areas of what’s known as “self-managed abortions” in which patients buy illegal medication on the Internet and terminate pregnancies without interacting with the health-care system.

While some see this as a dangerous trend, others say the situation is sharply improved from decades earlier — because of the abortion pills.

Abigail Aiken, assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said she is often asked whether the country is headed to “back-alley abortions and infections” if Roe v. Wade is struck down.

“One of the things we have that we didn’t have in the ’60s and ’70s is access to abortion pills that are very safe, very effective if you have the right instructions,” Aiken said. “Self management is a safety net. And it’s also an ability to take your health care into your own hands when the state legislature is trying to block access.”

That sounds logical to me. And it should be known, this way around the law has been in use for some time. Again, the question to me is how vigorously Texas will try to crack down on that, and how heavy-handed such enforcement will be. I feel very confident saying that the zealots who pushed the bounty hunter law will not be satisfied by anything other than an all-out crackdown, whatever the consequences. If you think I’m being alarmist, look at where we are now and tell me honestly it’s not far worse than you thought it would be. The 19th and Mother Jones have more.

It’s not looking good for Roe v Wade

Yesterday, it seemed like there was the possibility of a chance that SCOTUS could so something other than eviscerate abortion rights nationally. Today, not so much. I don’t have the energy to write a real post about it, so I’m just going to point you to coverage at The 19th, Slate (twice), TPM, Mother Jones, and Daily Kos. Or you could have spent five minutes on Twitter, or you could be like me and get a billion campaign/action/fundraising emails from a multitude of organizations, all with the same message.

Lots of people think that this will change the political dynamics, and indeed maybe it will. Anger is a strong motivator, and this has already made a lot of folks on my side angry. But winning is a big motivator, too, and the people that have been pushing for forced births for decades are within sight of getting what they want. Whatever happens with the politics, the real world effects of this are going to be very bad, very harmful, and not at all easy to undo. The one thing we can’t do is stop fighting, because the other guys sure aren’t going to.

Vaccine mandate for health care workers blocked

I’d say this is getting ridiculous, but we’re well past that point.

A federal judge on Monday blocked President Joe Biden’s administration from enforcing a coronavirus vaccine mandate on thousands of health care workers in 10 states that had brought the first legal challenge against the requirement.

The court order said that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid had no clear authority from Congress to enact the vaccine mandate for providers participating in the two government health care programs for the elderly, disabled and poor.

The preliminary injunction by St. Louis-based U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp applies to a coalition of suing states that includes Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. All those states have either a Republican attorney general or governor. Similar lawsuits also are pending in other states.

The federal rule requires COVID-19 vaccinations for more than 17 million workers nationwide in about 76,000 health care facilities and home health care providers that get funding from the government health programs. Workers are to receive their first dose by Dec. 6 and their second shot by Jan. 4.

The court order against the health care vaccine mandate comes after Biden’s administration suffered a similar setback for a broader policy. A federal court previously placed a hold on a separate rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure their workers get vaccinated or else wear masks and get tested weekly for the coronavirus.

Biden’s administration contends federal rules supersede state policies prohibiting vaccine mandates and are essential to slowing the pandemic, which has killed more than 775,000 people in the U.S. About three-fifths of the U.S. population already is fully vaccinated.

But the judge in the health care provider case wrote that federal officials likely overstepped their legal powers.

“CMS seeks to overtake an area of traditional state authority by imposing an unprecedented demand to federally dictate the private medical decisions of millions of Americans. Such action challenges traditional notions of federalism,” Schelp wrote in his order.

That ruling doesn’t affect Texas, but this one does.

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care workers from going into effect nationwide next week after Texas and other states challenged the order.

Louisiana Western District U.S. Judge Terry Doughty’s ruling follows the same decision on Monday from Missouri U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp. However, Schelp’s ruling applied for only 10 states.

Doughty wrote in his decision that the mandate exceeds the Biden administration’s authority.

“If human nature and history teach anything, it is that civil liberties face grave risks when governments proclaim indefinite states of emergency,” Doughty wrote.

I Am Not A Lawyer, and I couldn’t find any commentary out there about this, but just knowing that it was two Trump-appointed judges who made these rulings makes me look at them with extreme skepticism. (There are some other reasons for that, as the Daily Kos story indicates. I still want to see some serious lawyers weigh in on it.) The willingness of so many people to put the lives of so many other people in danger just boggles my mind.

On the moderately positive side, there was this.

A judge in Galveston has denied a bid from a group of federal workers seeking an injunction to halt enforcement of the White House’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, saying they had natural immunity from having been infected with the virus.

John J. Vecchione, senior litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance in Washington, D.C., said his team argued it was “arbitrary and capricious” to require vaccinations across the board for all federal employees, because this particular group of workers was not any more dangerous to others than people who have been fully vaccinated. Vecchione says in court documents his clients’ immunity is “at least as robust and durable as that attained through the most effective vaccines.”

[…]

The 11 litigants include a high ranking lawyer at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from Frisco, a Navy technician from Robstown, an air traffic controller from St. Cloud, Fla. , a Georgia-based veterinary specialist from the Department of Agriculture, a special agent with the Secret Service from Springfield, Va. and a supervisory air marshal with Transportation Security Administration in Palos Verdes, Calif. .

The suit is directed at Dr. Anthony Fauci, others on the COVID response task force and representatives of other federal agencies tasked with enforcement or supervision of the mandate. The deadline for vaccinations was Nov. 22 and enforcement was set to begin some time after Nov. 29.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey V. Brown denied the workers request for a temporary injunction, saying they did not face irreparable harm if they complied with the mandate and they were unlikely to win their case on the merits. He noted that all but one of the plaintiffs were pursuing religious exemptions that would allow them to avoid the vaccine. The worker who did not seek an exemption works for ICE; the judge said the civil liberties lawyers had probably erred in failing to sue that agency.

Any win for sanity at the district court level feels like it’s written on sand these days, but I’ll take what I can get. Roy Edroso has more.

What the BIF means for Texas

That’s the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was passed last week.

The White House estimates that Texas will receive about $35.44 billion over five years for roads, bridges, pipes, ports, broadband access and other projects after federal lawmakers passed a long-anticipated national infrastructure bill on Friday.

The influx of capital is set to advance existing transit plans, pay for much-needed repairs and could lay the groundwork toward increasing transportation options for Texans.

U.S. House lawmakers gave the roughly $1.2 trillion measure final approval late Friday after a series of negotiations and concessions to get the bill passed. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill into law soon.

[…]

Here is the breakdown of the funds that Texas is expected to receive based on estimates from the White House:

The White House also estimated that $3.5 billion will be invested to weatherize the country’s energy infrastructure, but it wasn’t immediately clear how much of that money would go to Texas or how those plans could combine with measures approved by the Texas Legislature this year in response to February’s devastating winter storm.

It’s smaller than I wanted, and there are some projects that were left out, but that’s still a sizeable investment, and after four years of loose talk about “Infrastructure Week”, it’s nice to finally close the deal. Just needed the right President and Congress, clearly. Speaking of which, remember that every Republican in Texas voted against this bill, so when you inevitably see one of them take credit for some project that is being funded by it, be sure to call them out.

The employer vaccine mandate is here (and on hold)

Here are the details.

Deadline is Jan. 4: The first rule, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, covers companies with 100 or more employees, applying to an estimated 84 million workers. Companies must ensure that their workers are either fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4 or that they test negative for COVID-19 at least once a week. The rule will take effect as soon as it’s published in the Federal Register.

Workers must get paid time off to get vaccinated: Under the OSHA rule, employers must pay workers for the time it takes to get vaccinated and provide sick leave for workers to recover from any side effects.

Employers don’t need to pay for testing: In a move that appears designed to push workers to choose vaccinations over testing, the rule does not require employers to pay for or provide testing to workers who decline the vaccine. However, collective bargaining agreements or other circumstances may dictate otherwise.

Unvaccinated people must wear masks: Unvaccinated workers must also wear face coverings while on the job.

Health care workers don’t have testing option under separate rule: A second rule issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services requires some 17 million health care workers to be vaccinated by the same deadline, Jan. 4, but with no option for weekly testing in lieu of vaccination. The rule covers all employees — clinical and non-clinical — at about 76,000 health care facilities that receive federal funding from Medicare or Medicaid.

Earlier, Biden had ordered federal workers and contractors to be vaccinated, with no testing option. Federal workers have until Nov. 22 to get the shots, while federal contractors have until Jan. 4.

[…]

In the case of the OSHA rule, enforcement will largely fall to companies themselves. With only a couple thousand state and federal OSHA inspectors nationwide, there is no mechanism for checking up on millions of workplaces to see whether they are in fact keeping vaccination and testing records.

Rather, OSHA inspectors will mostly respond to employee complaints and add COVID-related inspections to their to-do lists when they are already on-site somewhere. Employers who violate the rule can face fines of up to $13,653 per violation for serious violations and 10 times that for willful or repeated violations.

The company I work for will fall under this mandate. They have been waiting for the official rules before saying what the company policy will be, so I expect to see a communication about that soon. I have a co-worker who is Not Happy about this. I’m sure you can guess how I feel.

How will it affect Texas?

The White House said the new rules preempt any state and local laws, weakening Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates, employment lawyers said.

Abbott issued an executive order last month banning any entity in Texas, including private businesses, from requiring anyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The new Biden administration rule would void part of the ban, but it would still apply to everyone else in the state, including local governments, school districts and smaller businesses.

[…]

The conflicting vaccine mandates put the many Texas businesses that receive federal contracts in a tough position: Comply with federal law and violate Abbott’s ban, or comply with Abbott and turn down business from the federal government.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines said they would continue requiring employee vaccinations despite Abbott’s new order.

See here, here, and here for some background. As the story notes, the state of Texas has filed a lawsuit against the national mandate for federal contractors, which has not yet had a court date. A day after the updated OSHA rules came out for employers, Texas filed another lawsuit, because of course they did.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration on Friday over new federal COVID-19 vaccine rules announced the day before, which order big businesses to mandate vaccination against the virus among their employees by Jan. 4 or require regular testing.

The new federal rules preempt state and local laws, including part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide ban on vaccine mandates.

“The Biden Administration’s new vaccine mandate on private businesses is a breathtaking abuse of federal power,” Paxton said in a written statement Friday.

The U.S. Labor Department, which drafted one of the rules, “has only limited power and specific responsibilities,” Paxton said. “This latest move goes way outside those bounds. This ‘standard’ is flatly unconstitutional. Bottom line: Biden’s new mandate is bad policy and bad law, and I’m asking the Court to strike it down.”

Obviously, I’m not going to take Ken Paxton’s word on that. Texas is not the only state suing over this order, and a little searching led me to this AP story about the other lawsuits, which has some prognostication on the suits’ viability.

Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and director of the World Health Organization’s center on health law, said the half-century-old law that created OSHA gives it the power to set minimum workplace safety measures.

“I think that Biden is on rock-solid legal ground,” he said.

Critics have taken aim at some aspects of the requirement, including that it was adopted as an emergency measure rather than after the agency’s regular rule-making process.

“This is a real emergency,” said Gostin, who has spoken with the Biden administration about the requirement. “In fact, it’s a national crisis. Any delay would cause thousands of deaths.”

[…]

So far, courts have allowed businesses on their own to require employees to be vaccinated. But Michael Elkins, a Florida-based employment lawyer, said those decisions do not necessarily mean judges will rule the same way when it comes to the federal government’s requirement.

“You may see a federal judge, or a bunch of them, say, ‘This is just overreach,’” Elkins said.

Benjamin Noren, a New York-based labor lawyer, said he thought the rule is likely to be struck down because OSHA was intended to deal with workplace hazards such as chemicals, not a virus. He said OSHA has made 10 emergency rules in the last five decades. Of the six that were challenged, only one survived intact.

“It’s an innovative use by the Biden administration to figure out some way to mandate vaccination in the private sector,” Noren said. “I hope it works. I have doubts.”

We didn’t have to wait long to find out. I started this draft on Friday morning when the story was just the OSHA announcement. By the time I finished the initial draft, the lawsuits were announced, so I added that on. Somehow, I figured there wouldn’t be any more news until the next week, so I waited to publish on Sunday just to spread things out a bit. That turned out to be a poor decision.

A U.S. federal appeals court issued a stay Saturday freezing the Biden administration’s efforts to require workers at U.S. companies with at least 100 employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested weekly, citing “grave statutory and constitutional” issues with the rule.

The ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit comes after numerous Republican-led states filed legal challenges against the new rule, which is set to take effect on Jan 4.

In a statement, Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda said the Labor Department was “confident in its legal authority” to issue the rule, which will be enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“The Occupational Safety and Health Act explicitly gives OSHA the authority to act quickly in an emergency where the agency finds that workers are subjected to a grave danger and a new standard is necessary to protect them,” she said. “We are fully prepared to defend this standard in court.”

A copy of the order is here. If you’re thinking it doesn’t say much and stands in stark contrast to the court’s actions on SB8, you’re not alone.

If we ever get around to expanding the Supreme Court, could we maybe give some thought to doing the same to the Fifth Circuit? Because there are some trash judges on that court, and something needs to be done to restore some sense of justice there. The Biden administration has until Monday at 5 PM to file its response, so look for more updates soon. I won’t sit on any of them. WFAA has more.

Get your kids ready for their COVID shots

At long last.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on children ages 5-11, marking a long-awaited milestone in the nearly two-year fight against the deadly virus that experts say has likely already infected nearly half the population in that age group.

In Texas, that makes up to 2.9 million children eligible for the vaccine.

The federal regulatory agency said the vaccine is safe and effective for children in that age group. The Pfizer test results shared with the FDA show that its vaccine prevents symptoms in most children and causes no side effects more serious than those already seen in older age groups. FDA panelists decided that the benefits of the vaccine for children ages 5-11 — many of whom have suffered isolation, depression and learning loss throughout the course of the pandemic — outweigh the risks associated with the Pfizer shot.

“As a mother and a physician, I know that parents, caregivers, school staff, and children have been waiting for today’s authorization. Vaccinating younger children against COVID-19 will bring us closer to returning to a sense of normalcy,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting FDA commissioner. “Our comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the data pertaining to the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness should help assure parents and guardians that this vaccine meets our high standards.”

Still uncertain, however, is whether the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will limit the shots to only children with preconditions that put them at high risk of serious disease from COVID-19 — a decision expected next week.

The FDA’s announcement, which follows a recommendation by its vaccine advisory panel earlier this week, triggers an initial federal allocation of more than a million doses destined for children ages 5-11 to providers in nearly half of Texas counties. Those will start landing in Texas pharmacies, pediatrics offices, health clinics and hospitals within a few days, state health officials said.

After the first federal shipment, others will continue on a weekly basis. The amounts will vary based on providers’ requests, officials said.

Most of the parents I know nowadays have older kids who are already vaccinated, and yet I know plenty more who will be ready and eager to get their kids vaxxed. As with every other instance of this vaccine, I expect there will be a big surge up front as all of the willing people stampede to get it done, followed by a long fallow period in which the reluctant, the folks with access issues, and eventually some of the holdouts who meet up with mandates of one form or another get around to it. The boost to the overall vaccination rate in the state should help keep things under control, more or less, through the winter. It’s good news for many, and we have been waiting for it. The Chron has more.

Caught between a mandate and a madman

I have sympathy for the schools.

Many Texas universities — which collectively hold billions of dollars in federal contracts — are wrestling with how to navigate the Biden administration’s mandate that all federal contractors be vaccinated by Dec. 8 in a state that bans vaccine mandates.

While more public universities across the country are announcing that all employees must be vaccinated to comply with the federal requirement, several Texas public universities — all managed by Gov. Greg Abbott appointees — told The Texas Tribune they are still evaluating the executive order, which applies to new federal contracts of $250,000 or greater and awarded as of Nov. 14 or existing contracts that have been renewed as of Oct. 15.

“This is unprecedented,” said Michael LeRoy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois College of Law. “There have been conflicts between the state and federal government, but not at this magnitude with this kind of money on the line.”

LeRoy believes the issue will be resolved in the courts because of the two conflicting issues at the center. State universities receive funding from the state and federal level but they are run by a board of regents appointed by the Texas governor.

While LeRoy said it’s unlikely the federal government will immediately terminate a grant if universities don’t comply, he said a university’s actions could impact future bids for federal grants. The federal government could begin to give notice to rescind a grant, he speculated, but that is a lengthy process. For now, universities are awaiting guidance from their own lawyers.

“… [T]he White House has been clear that noncompliance will not be excused, even in situations where state law contradicts the federal directive,” University of Houston spokesperson Shawn Lindsey told the Tribune in a statement. “It’s an extremely complicated situation that requires further analysis.”

Texas Tech University is working with its lawyers to determine if there are contracts that would trigger the vaccination requirement, school officials said in a statement. Texas Tech is also requesting guidance from the Texas attorney general’s office.

A Texas A&M University System spokesperson said they are also still evaluating the order. The A&M system has about 500 contracts with the federal government worth $2 billion, most of which are tied to the flagship university in College Station.

A statement from the University of Texas System revealed how universities are trying to appease both federal and state leaders.

“We will endeavor to comply with federal vaccine requirements for specific, covered individuals to protect these investments in our state,” spokesperson Karen Adler said in a statement. She then went on to say the system would provide exemptions for those with religious beliefs and “we will make every effort to accommodate employees’ personal situations.”

I think we can all guess what the AG’s office will say to Texas Tech, but the ritual must be observed. We’re all awaiting final guidance from OSHA, which is writing the rule that will implement that executive order. After that is when the lawsuits will fly. Not much else to say at this point, other than I do not envy any of these university officials the task they have before them.

For now, some Texas women can travel to other states for abortions

For now.

Right there with them

The new Texas abortion ban has spurred a flood of women traveling sometimes hundreds of miles to access the procedure in neighboring states.

The law, which prohibits abortion after six weeks of pregnancy and calls for lets private citizens to enforce it by filing lawsuits, has been in effect for just over a month. But already, clinics in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Colorado and New Mexico have said they’re being inundated with Texas patients.

“We haven’t seen numbers like this ever,” Dr. Rebecca Cohen, a Denver OB/GYN, told CBS News last month.

“An abortion can be painful, people can hurt,” Cohen said of the emotional toll. “But this is different. We are seeing patients who are traumatized when they arrive.”

In Louisiana, officials at Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport said they went from seeing no more than 20 percent of their patients from Texas to now over 50 percent. Some patients are driving from as far as McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley.

[…]

The Guttmacher Institute, which supports for abortion rights, estimates that Texans are now traveling an average of 14 times farther to get the procedure. In states such as Louisiana, they then have to go through mandatory waiting periods.

The law is likely to disproportionately impact women of color, many of whom lack the time and money needed to get out of state.

In affidavits last month, abortion providers said Texas patients were undergoing traumatic and sometimes daunting trips to neighboring states. One child who was allegedly raped by a relative traveled with her guardian from Galveston to Oklahoma to get an abortion, and another woman was reportedly selling some of her belongings to pay for the trip to an out-of-state abortion clinic, according to the filings, which are part of a pending federal lawsuit over the law.

I guess it’s a minor consolation that some people are still able to exercise their constitutional right, but not everyone can, and those who are able to are now massively inconvenienced and having to pay a lot more money for the privilege. States like Louisiana and Oklahoma have their own abortion restrictions, like waiting periods, so even those who can travel to get the care they need and deserve have to make an ordeal of it. And of course, all this is available only until Oklahoma and Louisiana pass their own version of SB8, which they are apparently free to do now. As writers like Dahlia Lithwick have observed, SCOTUS does not need to write the words “Roe v Wade is overturned” in an opinion in order to overturn Roe v Wade. It’s already happened here, and we’re just the beginning. We need to be voting a lot of people out of office for this if we ever want to get our rights back.

The Women’s March, the next generation

I look forward to a day when these aren’t necessary, but in the meantime I am grateful to all who cared enough to participate or were there in spirit.

A crowd of more than 10,000 turned out Saturday in downtown Houston to encourage voter registration and to fight Texas’ restrictive abortion ban.

Participants in the Women’s March, organized by the nonprofit Houston Women March On, made their way from Discovery Green nearly a mile to City Hall, where Mayor Sylvester Turner greeted the crowd and proclaimed Oct. 1 as Women’s Voter Registration Day.

U.S. Reps. Al Green, Lizzie Fletcher and Sylvia Garcia attended, as did George Floyd Foundation executive director Shareeduh Tate, and DeAndre Hopkins’ mother, activist Sabrina Greenlee.

Although rain started falling as the speeches began, the crowd didn’t dwindle, even occasionally shouting in unison, “vote him out” or “our bodies, our rights.”

A main focus at the event was abortion rights in response to Senate Bill 8, which effectively prohibits abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected at around six weeks into a pregnancy. It became law Sept. 1.

[…]

Women’s marches took place in more than 500 cities across the U.S. Saturday. The protests emulated the women’s marches that were held across the country in January 2017 after the election of President Donald Trump.

The protests come just days before the Supreme Court reconvenes for its new nine-month term Monday. The court is expected to review whether all state laws that ban pre-viability abortions are unconstitutional.

Couple of things here. One, I wish media would be a lot more careful in describing this law, because the statement that it prohibits abortion “after a fetal heartbeat is detected at around six weeks into a pregnancy” is factually inaccurate and I believe gives the law greater support in opinion polls than it would get if it were correctly attributed. The whole “fetal heartbeat” claim is one made by its advocates, and it is not backed by any medical evidence. It’s disappointing to see that just accepted without any reference to the facts of the matter.

Two, we’re very much going to need this kind of energy not only going into the 2022 election, but for now and for after it to put pressure on Congress and specifically the Senate to take action on a whole range of issues that have popular support but are being stymied by a range of anti-majoritarian practices, mostly but not exclusively the filibuster. The idea that the Texas ban on abortion would flip the script on abortion politics is theoretical. Seeing people take action is the practice. Let’s keep that up. Slate has more.

Yes, mask mandates work

Not a surprise, but data is always nice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new studies Friday that show enforcing masks in schools helps reduce the spread of COVID-19.

One study looked at data from schools in Arizona’s Maricopa and Pima Counties after they resumed in-person learning in late July for the 2021-22 academic year. The two counties account for roughly 75% of the state’s population.

The CDC found that the K-12 schools that did not have mask requirements at the beginning of the school year were 3.5 times more likely to have COVID outbreaks than schools that required all people, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask indoors from the first day of school.Of the 999 schools analyzed in the study, 21% had an early mask requirement, 30.9% enacted a mask requirement between nine and 17 days after the school year began, and 48% had no mask requirement. Of the 191 COVID outbreaks that occurred in those schools from July 15 to August 31, 113 were in schools that did not enforce masks at all. Schools with early mask requirements had the lowest number of outbreaks.

During that time frame, Arizona was experiencing an upward trend of weekly COVID cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Another study from the CDC looked at the impact of school mask mandates across the U.S.

Authors looked at data from 520 counties that started school between July 1 and September 4 this year and had at least a full week of case data from the school year. They only looked at counties where all the schools had the same mask policies. Of the 520 counties, 198 had a school mask requirement and 322 did not.

Researchers found that counties that had no mask requirements in their schools had a higher rate of pediatric COVID cases after the school year began than those schools that did have requirements. Schools that required masks, the study found, had 16.32 cases per 100,000 children in the first week of classes; schools without had 34.85 cases per 100,000 children.

Authors did note, however, that all children in the counties were included in the data and not just those who are school-age. They also noted that teacher vaccinate rates and school testing data were not controlled in the analyses, and that the sample size of counties is small.

Here’s the CDC press release for the studies. I’m sure you can guess why I posted about this. The data speaks for itself, so I’ll just leave it here.

From the “ounce of prevention” department

What is that worth, again? It’s right on the tip of my tongue.

Accessing a critical COVID-19 therapy could soon be tougher in Texas as the federal government moves to ration the treatment amid the spread of new variants.

The Biden administration is taking over distribution of monoclonal antibodies, returning to the system that had been in place until vaccines became readily available and infections began to plummet this year. It also purchased 1.4 million additional doses.

Under the old system, the federal government had been doling out doses to states based on need, and states were then responsible for distributing them.

The administration had until recently been allowing hospitals and other health care centers to order directly from manufacturers, and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department would initiate a review of any individual site that ordered more than 50 doses to make sure none were hoarding.

But with the highly contagious delta variant continuing to spread nationally, demand for the treatment has soared, with concerns that it could soon outstrip supply. By last week, the vast majority of doses — 70 percent — were going to just seven Southern states where COVID cases are still high and vaccination rates are low, including Texas.

“The recent increase in the prevalence of the delta variant coupled with low vaccination rates in certain areas of the country resulted in a substantial (20-fold) increase in the ordering and utilization of (monoclonal antibodies) since mid-July,” the federal health services agency said in a statement. “Just seven states accounted for about 70 percent of our monoclonal antibody ordering. Given this reality, we must work to ensure our supply of these lifesaving therapies remains available for all states and territories, not just some.”

Under the new model — and a 50 percent bump in allocations that President Joe Biden ordered this month — Texas and Florida are still getting far more doses than other states. Texas received 23,640 doses this week, behind only Florida, which received 30,950. Georgia received the third most, 9,920.

There’s an extremely whiny quote in the story from Chip Roy, and y’all, if people like that put one tenth the effort they exert being crybabies into getting people vaccinated, we wouldn’t have these problems, because we’d have crushed COVID by now. My sense of empathy has been a major casualty of this pandemic, and I’d really like to get it back.

More federal support for emergency contraception

Good.

The federal government announced Friday it is providing additional funding to Austin nonprofit Every Body Texas to address a potential increase in clients’ need for emergency contraception and family planning services now that Texas prohibits abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a release Friday that the Office for Population Affairs will award funding to the group, which is the statewide administrator of the federal Title X funding program, which provides family planning and reproductive health services to low-income patients.

Friday’s move comes as the Biden administration is challenging Texas’ near-total ban on abortion in court.

The federal government is also launching a new funding program that allows any entity across the country, regardless of if it receives Title X funding, to apply and receive additional money to provide reproductive and family planning services to patients impacted by Senate Bill 8.

There is $10 million available for these two programs, though it is unclear how much Every Body Texas is receiving directly. According to the federal government’s website, the grant application for the new program, called Funding to Address Dire Need for Family Planning Services, says they expect to award 10 grants between $150,000 and $1.5 million by the end of this year. The announcement said Every Body Texas must use the money provided by March 31.

[…]

Becerra also issued a memorandum detailing two federal statutes he says his department would enforce to provide protection for patients who may need an abortion and health care providers who assist pregnant patients in certain situations.

“​​Today we are making clear that doctors and hospitals have an obligation under federal law to make medical decisions regarding when it’s appropriate to treat their patients,” Becerra said in a release. “And we are telling doctors and others involved in the provision of abortion care, that we have your back.”

It was not immediately clear late Friday how Becerra’s memorandum would impact people’s ability to access an abortion in Texas or providers’ willingness to perform the procedure.

The two federal laws Becerra referred to include the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act and the Church Amendments. The federal government issued a memorandum reminding health care providers that patients who appear in the emergency room must receive appropriate medical screening, stabilizing treatment and a transfer, in or out of state, regardless of state laws, including pregnant patients or patients experiencing a pregnancy loss.

Becerra said the federal government would impose civil monetary penalties against hospitals or physicians if they violate that law.

Second, the federal Office of Civil Rights released guidance about the Church Amendments, which prevent discrimination against health care personnell who object to performing an abortion because of their relgious beliefs. Those amendments also protect health care providers from discrimination if they do assist or perform a lawful abortion, such as an abortion where federal funds are used to end pregnancies that result from rape or incest or to save the life of the pregnant person.

See here for the full statement from HHS. This is the sort of thing that would have been good to do at any time, but these are not normal times, and it’s everyone’s job to fight back against SB8. I hope the commitment continues once we have a (hopefully positive) resolution to the litigation. The Chron has more.

The COVID shot for kids is coming

Not a moment too soon.

On Monday, Pfizer released the initial trial results, showing that its vaccine is safe and effective for the 5-11 age group. The findings are a key step toward inoculating a younger population that so far has been unprotected from the virus.

“It’s good to hear the studies are paying off,” García said. “We are happy to be part of the process to help other people get more trust in the vaccine, so we can start getting back to normal as soon as possible.”

The announcement summarized results from 2,268 trial participants. The findings show that children develop an antibody response similar to the 16- to 25-year-old age group when given a lower dosage of the vaccine.

Pfizer and BioNTech, the company’s German partner, plan to include the data in a “near-term submission for Emergency Use Authorization” while safety research is ongoing. Dr. Bill Gruber, a Pfizer senior vice president, told The Associated Press that the company plans to apply for emergency use by the end of the month.

My kids are thankfully old enough to already be vaccinated, but I know a lot of people who have been eagerly awaiting this announcement. I expect there will be a surge of new vaccinations in the weeks following the emergency use grant, and while it will surely fall well short of the full total of eligible kids, it will make a decent dent in the overall vaccination rate. We’re going to need every bit of this. The 19th and Daily Kos have more.

Feds officially investigating Texas mask mandate ban

Good.

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday launched a civil rights investigation into Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in schools, making Texas the sixth state to face a federal inquiry over mask rules.

The investigation will focus on whether Abbott’s order prevents students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of federal law, Suzanne B. Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights wrote in a letter to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath.

The investigation comes after the Texas Education Agency released guidance saying public school systems cannot require students or staff to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in light of Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

[…]

Goldberg wrote that the Office for Civil Rights will examine whether TEA “may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the individual educational needs of students with disabilities or otherwise enabling discrimination based on disability.”

The department previously opened similar investigations into mask policies in Iowa, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Tennessee. But the agency had not done so in Texas because of court orders preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s order. The new TEA guidance changed that, however.

See here and here for the background. The TEA’s new directive made me scratch my head.

In newly released guidance, the Texas Education Agency says public school systems cannot require students or staff to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A statement released by the agency Friday says Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order banning mask mandates precludes districts from requiring face coverings.

“Per GA-38, school systems cannot require students or staff to wear a mask. GA-38 addresses government-mandated face coverings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement reads. “Other authority to require protective equipment, including masks, in an employment setting is not necessarily affected by GA-38.”

The agency previously had said it would not enforce the governor’s ban until the issue was resolved in the courts.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued several school districts for imposing mask requirements on students and teachers, and some districts have sued the state over the governor’s order. The lawsuits have produced mixed results with some courts upholding districts’ mask mandates and some siding with the attorney general.

TEA officials on Tuesday did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the new guidelines and questions about how the agency would enforce the ban on mask mandates. The agency has not yet clarified what prompted the new guidelines, given that the legal battles regarding the order are ongoing.

Hard to know exactly what motivated this, but “pressure from Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton” would be high on my list of suspects. If I were to advise school districts that currently have mask mandates, as HISD does, or are thinking about imposing one, I would say go right ahead, and keep the mandates you have. This is a toothless threat, and the courts have not yet weighed in on the issue in a meaningful way. We know that having the mask mandates promotes safety, and if that isn’t the highest priority I don’t know what is. Do not waver.

Anyway. The Trib has an explainer about the state of mask mandates and lawsuits around them, but it doesn’t indicate when the legal cases may be having hearings, which admittedly would be a big task to track. The federal lawsuit will have a hearing on October 6, and we may get some clarity out of that. In the meantime, keep the mask mandates. We need them, and (a couple of district court judges aside) no one is stopping school districts from having them. The Trib has more.

It’s not too late to pass a voting rights bill

Look, we have one queued up.

Senate Democrats are close to an agreement on updated voting rights legislation that can get the support of all 50 Democratic-voting senators, three Democratic aides familiar with negotiations said.

The For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act were introduced in Congress in 2019 and 2021, respectively. Since their introductions, both have been voted on along party lines.

The member-level discussions are complete, a source said, but staff members are going through the text to fix technical issues. No further details have been shared.

The legislation would require the votes of 60 senators, including 10 Republicans, and it’s unlikely that Democrats will get enough Republican supporters.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia.

Senators, who return from their August recess this week, face a number of items, such as a voting rights measure and an ambitious infrastructure spending package.

“We’ve been talking to quite a few different Republicans who are very interested in doing something that makes sense,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Manchin said he has been working with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on the issue but didn’t elaborate.

Well, Sen. Murkowski plus fifty Democrats is still well short of 60. Might there be some other option?

With a make-or-break vote looming in the Senate on a sweeping voting-rights and anti-corruption bill, President Joe Biden and his advisers have said in recent weeks that Biden will pressure wavering Democrats to support reforming the filibuster if necessary to pass the voting bill.

According to three people briefed on the White House’s position and its recent communications with outside groups, Biden assured Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he was ready to push for filibuster reform. Biden’s pressure would aim to help Schumer convince moderate Democrats to support a carveout to the filibuster, a must for the party if it’s going to pass new voting protections without Republican votes. According to a source briefed on the White House’s position, Biden told Schumer: “Chuck, you tell me when you need me to start making phone calls.”

The Senate returns to work this upcoming week, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer intends to call a vote on the For the People Act, the most ambitious reform bill in decades and the Democrats’ best shot at countering the wave of state-level GOP voter suppression laws this year. But to get the bill out of Congress, Senate Democrats will almost certainly need to change the filibuster, the procedural tactic used by the minority party to block many types of legislation.

Publicly, there are two centrist Democrats who have stated their opposition to changing or abolishing the filibuster, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Activist groups and fellow Democratic senators say Manchin and Sinema are the likely 49th and 50th votes both on any voting-rights legislation and especially any filibuster reforms. Sources say both senators are likely targets for when Biden launches his final push to pass a compromise version of the For the People Act.

“I think there’s a clear recognition the president will have a role to play in bringing this over the finish line, and if in order to do that, we need [filibuster] rules reform, then so be it,” says Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who helped write the original version of the For the People Act. “I think Joe Biden with his long history and experience in the Senate can see that.”

[…]

Some outside activist groups say Biden and his administration haven’t done enough to make the case for a new voting-rights bill in Congress. “For a long time there was no engagement,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of the government-reform group Democracy 21. Tiffany Muller, president of the anti-corruption group End Citizens United, told Rolling Stone earlier this summer that the lack of urgency from the administration felt even more acute given the energy and organizing happening outside of Washington in support of the For the People Act. “We need that same effort and help (from the Biden administration) on this,” Muller said at the time.

That frustration extended to Biden’s top allies in Congress. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose timely endorsement helped rescue Biden’s flailing presidential campaign in early 2020, begged Biden to endorse a filibuster carve-out for voting rights. During a late-July meeting in the Oval Office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pressed Biden to do more on voting rights; Democrats needed action from him, according to a person briefed on the meeting.

In that Oval Office meeting, the source says, Biden made a pledge: If Pelosi and Schumer tried every option they had to pass a voting-rights bill with Republican votes and got nowhere, Biden would get involved himself and lobby the handful of moderate Democrats to convince them to weaken the filibuster so that the For the People Act could pass without any Republican votes.

Since then, the tenor has shifted in the White House in the last month, multiple sources tell Rolling Stone. The White House has devoted more staff to the issue. More importantly, it has given assurances to outside supporters that Biden now plans to push for filibuster reform when necessary. “They have really engaged in a way that can make a difference both on substance and particularly on process as we get closer to this day of reckoning,” Rep. John Sarbanes says. “They appreciate that the electorate that showed up for Joe Biden in 2020 now wants to see Joe Biden show up for them in 2021.”

Here’s where I shrug my shoulders and mumble something about how I hope Joe Manchin, who is one of the sponsors of the John Lewis Act in the Senate, might prefer to do something to help pass his own bill than let it die by inaction. I have no idea what he’ll do and neither does anyone else, but I do like this theory about what animates a Joe Manchin.

So we have all these theories: Manchin is a crypto-Republican; he’s doing the work of his funders; he and Biden have a secret understanding and it’s all going to work out. My own theory is a bit different. It’s not even my theory. Someone mentioned it to me several months ago. But I can’t remember who. The theory is this: all of Manchin’s actions hold together and make sense if you imagine he got up on a particular day, absorbed the CW of the moment and said the first or second thing that came into his head.

This is admittedly a somewhat diminishing read. But Manchin clearly likes the limelight and he doesn’t pretend to be an ideologue. If you use this framework all the various shifts and turns start to make sense. Manchin is the quintessential Washington player, very much a creature of Washington insider culture with all its shibboleths and conventional wisdoms.

It doesn’t get us any closer to where we need to be, and it doesn’t do anything to keep my head from exploding, but at least it makes some sense. As for the rest, light a candle, throw some salt over your shoulder, avoid stepping on any cracks, and hope for the best. Mother Jones and Daily Kos have more.

Hospital systems have no excuse for not mandating COVID vaccines now

So get on with it already.

Local hospitals reacted Friday to President Joseph Biden’s sweeping vaccine mandates directed at the health care workers, who make up much of the Houston workforce.

In a move that overrides Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring public institutions from issuing their own COVID-19 restrictions, the administration said it would require vaccinations for employees at health care facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

Baylor College of Medicine’s dean of clinical affairs, Dr. James McDeavitt, said Thursday he supported the new measures.

“It is the right thing to do,” he said.

Still, he wished the plan had come sooner. “It is not going to help us with the current delta surge,” he added.

[…]

Five Houston hospital systems already require a vaccine. In June, Houston Methodist became the first hospital in the nation to announce it would require its staff to be fully vaccinated, a move that met months of resistance, including a lawsuit by some employees. Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine enacted their own vaccine mandates in July; St. Luke’s Health and Texas Children’s Hospital announced similar plans in August.

Thursday’s executive order will bring similar mandates to the city’s remaining health systems.

Until now, Harris Health System and UTHealth had encouraged worker vaccinations but were unable to require it under the governor’s order.

But on Friday, Harris Health System said it “fully intends to embrace the vaccine mandate” for workers at its two hospitals, 18 community health centers and 10 clinics serving the greater Houston area. The system has not yet set a date.

UT Health said it would wait for guidance from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service, expected in October. It had not instituted a mandate as of Friday afternoon.

St. Joseph Medical Center and UTMB Galveston said they are still evaluating Biden’s plan.

While Kelsey-Seybold Clinic said in August it was waiting for full vaccine approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before asking employees to provide proof of immunization, the clinic has not announced a mandate since the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine gained full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval late last month.

See here for the background. I agree that the mandate coming out now will have little to no effect on the current surge, given that it takes a few weeks to get both shots and the full effect of them, and that it will take time for these hospital systems to get their programs going. It would still be nice if some of them had more of a sense of urgency about it. This is still by far the best thing we can do for the medium to longer term, and at the very least these hospital systems should be setting a better example. Get it done already, y’all. The Trib has more.

Now that’s a vaccine mandate

Good.

President Joe Biden on Thursday imposed stringent new vaccine rules on federal workers, large employers and health care staff in a sweeping attempt to contain the latest surge of Covid-19.

The new requirements could apply to as many as 100 million Americans — close to two-thirds of the American workforce — and amount to Biden’s strongest push yet to require vaccines for much of the country.

“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” Biden said, his tone hardening toward Americans who still refuse to receive a vaccine despite ample evidence of their safety and full approval of one — the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine — from the US Food and Drug Administration.

He said vaccinated America was growing “frustrated” with the 80 million people who have not received shots and are fueling the spread of the virus. And he acknowledged the new steps would not provide a quick fix.

“While America is in much better shape than it was seven months ago when I took office, I need to tell you a second fact: We’re in a tough stretch and it could last for awhile,” Biden said in an early evening speech from the White House.

At the center of Biden’s new plan is directing the Labor Department to require all businesses with 100 or more employees ensure their workers are either vaccinated or tested once a week, an expansive step the President took after consultation with administration health officials and lawyers. Companies could face thousands of dollars in fines per employee if they don’t comply.

Biden also signed an executive order requiring all government employees be vaccinated against Covid-19, with no option of being regularly tested to opt out. The President signed an accompanying order directing the same standard be applied to employees of contractors who do business with the federal government.

He also said 300,000 educators in federal Head Start programs must be vaccinated and called on governors to require vaccinations for schoolteachers and staff.

And Biden announced he would require the 17 million health care workers at facilities receiving funds from Medicare and Medicaid to be fully vaccinated, expanding the mandate to hospitals, home care facilities and dialysis centers around the country.

“We have the tools to combat the virus if we come together to use those tools,” Biden said at the outset of what was billed as a major speech to tackle the latest phase of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I mean, I’d have ordered the FAA to issue a vaccine mandate for getting on an airplane as well while I was at it, but maybe that’s still to come. To the extent that this is allowed, and based on a lot of public polling, this will move the needle significantly in the vaccination rates. Still won’t get us to 100%, but it will get us a lot closer. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth and lawsuits – you can already hear Greg Abbott caterwauling – but it is going to have an effect. (And by the way, none of this would have been necessary if it hadn’t been for the likes of Greg Abbott.)

I have no idea what the legal status is of any of this. I’ve seen a few people I trust on Twitter suggest that the President has the authority to impose this kind of rule on large businesses in the name of public safety, especially via his emergency powers, but for sure there will be a broad array of opinion on that. Most of the rest of us are at most barely aware than it’s the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that will be doing the work on this, or that it will take some time for the rule to be developed. But as you can see, it has already had an effect:

The more you know…The Trib and the Chron have more.

More on the AG response to the “heartbeat” bill

Yes, like this.

Democrats on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee are calling on U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice to prosecute people who are now empowered to file lawsuits against abortion seekers under Texas’ new abortion law.

In the letter signed by all Democratic members of the committee, including Texas Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Sheila Jackson Lee and Veronica Escobar, Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York urged the department to take legal action against “would-be vigilantes” and reiterated Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in the ruling.

“The Department of Justice cannot permit private individuals seeking to deprive women of the constitutional right to choose an abortion to escape scrutiny under existing federal law simply because they attempt to do so under the color of state law,” the Democrats’ letter said. “Indeed, the Department is fully empowered to prosecute any individual who attempts, ‘under color of any law,’ to deprive a United States citizen of ‘any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution.’”

The members went on to call the new Texas law a clear violation of women’s right to choose an abortion under the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

[…]

This call for action comes after Garland issued a statement Monday saying law enforcement officials were exploring options to challenge the law “to protect the constitutional rights of women and other persons, including access to an abortion.”

Garland said DOJ officials have contacted U.S. attorneys and FBI field offices to “discuss our enforcement authorities,” but did not go into detail on specific enforcement measures.

That’s in line with what I wanted. There’s plenty of ideas out there. We need to see them get translated into action. Sooner rather than later would be nice. The Chron has more.

The federal response to the “heartbeat” bill

I hope it amounts to something, and I hope they’re quick about it.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Monday the Department of Justice is “urgently” exploring ways to challenge Texas’ strict new abortion law, but did not specify what options were being considered.

Garland’s statement in a press release comes days after the U.S. Supreme Court denied Texas abortion providers an emergency injunction against the new law banning abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected, which can occur as early as six weeks into pregnancy, when many don’t know they are pregnant.

The Supreme Court stated it was not ruling on the constitutionality of the law but was refusing to block it at this point.

Twenty abortion providers originally filed the lawsuit against the state in July to try and shield themselves from the law, which allows private citizens to sue providers and others suspected of helping women get what are now illegal abortions. Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 8 into law in May, after abortion providers already began sounding alarms about its potential impacts.

In his statement Monday, Garland also said that federal officials will rely on the decades-old Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act to “protect those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services.” That federal law bans threats of force or physical obstruction against those seeking such health services.

“The department will provide support from federal law enforcement when an abortion clinic or reproductive health center is under attack,” the statement said.

Garland said DOJ officials have contacted U.S. attorneys’ offices and FBI field offices to “discuss our enforcement authorities.”

[…]

President Joe Biden denounced the Texas law in a statement released on Wednesday, also without specifying a course of action.

“My administration is deeply committed to the constitutional right established in Roe v. Wade nearly five decades ago and will protect and defend that right,” Biden said.

We don’t know what the specifics of this will be, so let me state a general principle that I hope they follow: Roe v Wade remains the law of the land, abortion remains a constitutionally protected right, and any interference in the expression of that right will be met with the full force of the federal government. Bring the pain, scorch the earth, and don’t back down. Talking tough is easy, we need to see action. Slate and Daily Kos have more.

Feds take first steps in the mask mandate fight

Coming attractions.

The U.S. Department of Education is opening civil rights investigations to determine whether five states that have banned schools from requiring masks are discriminating against students with disabilities, the agency said on Monday.

The department is targeting Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, all Republican-led states, in its investigations. It said it was concerned that their bans on mandatory masking could leave students with disabilities and underlying health conditions more vulnerable to COVID-19, limiting their access to in-person learning opportunities.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

“The Department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”

[…]

Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona are four other Republican-led states that have banned mandatory masking orders in schools. The Education Department left those states out of its inquiry because court orders or other actions have paused their enforcement, it said in a news release.

The department says it is monitoring those states and would take action if local mask-wearing policies are later barred from going into effect.

See here for the background, and here for the press release. It’s too early to say how this might go, and that’s before we get a resolution in the reams of mask mandate-related lawsuits that are still working their way through our system. Suffice it to say that the good guys have a lot of fight left in them.

January 6 committee seeks answers from Paxton

Good. Play hardball and do not let him get away with anything.

Best mugshot ever

The U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has requested communications between Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Trump White House officials in the months leading up to the insurrection.

The request was issued this week as a part of a series of letters seeking materials from the National Archives and Records Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and other executive agencies.

Committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, demanded that the National Archives hand over “all documents and communications referring or relating to the 2020 election results between White House officials and officials of State Governments.” The document then listed Paxton specifically, along with seven officials from other states.

In the letter, Thompson emphasized the urgency of the request and gave a deadline of no later than Sept. 9 to comply.

“This is our first request for materials, and we anticipate additional requests as our investigation continues,” Thompson wrote.

This demand comes after Paxton spoke at the pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., before the insurrection began, touting his unsuccessful legal effort to overturn the 2020 election.

“We will not quit fighting. We’re Texans, we’re Americans, and the fight will go on,” Paxton told the crowd.

As others have documented, the January 6 committee is asking for a lot, and they’re not fooling around. Paxton was there in DC inciting the crowd, he filed the kind of seditious lawsuit to overturn the election that recently got the Kraken lawyers sanctioned and for which there have been two complaints filed against him, and he’s generally been a remora on Trump’s shark from the beginning. If he doesn’t have something to hide, that will be an upset. All I want from the committee is to not take any bullshit from him. Hit him hard, hit him with subpoenas, and do not let up until you’ve gotten everything there is to be gotten from him.

The nursing home vaccination mandate

This just seems obvious to me.

President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that he is directing all nursing homes to require their staff be vaccinated against Covid-19 in order to continue receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding.

Biden said he is directing the Department of Health and Human Services to draw up new regulations making employee vaccination a condition for nursing homes to participate in Medicare and Medicaid. The decision on nursing home staff represents a significant escalation in Biden’s campaign to get Americans vaccinated and the tools he is willing to use, marking the first time he has threatened to withhold federal funds in order to get people vaccinated.

“Now, if you visit, live or work at a nursing home, you should not be at a high risk of contracting Covid from unvaccinated employees. While I’m mindful that my authority at the federal government is limited, I’m going to continue to look for ways to keep people safe and increase vaccination rates,” the President said during a speech at the White House.

[…]

The move comes as the more transmissible Delta variant now accounts for 99% of Covid-19 cases in the United States and as data shows a link between low vaccination rates in certain nursing homes and rising coronavirus cases among residents.

The Delta variant has spurred a jump in daily new cases from a low of 319 on June 27 to nearly 2,700 on August 8, according to Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Many are in facilities in areas with the lowest staff vaccination rates.

In the seven states in which less than half of nursing home staff is vaccinated, weekly cases were 7.9 times higher in the week ending August 1 than they were in the week ending June 27. Meanwhile, in states that have vaccinated a larger share of staff than average (more than 60%), cases reported in the week ending August 1 were only three times higher than cases reported in the last week of June.

The new regulations could go into effect as early as next month, but Johnson said the CMS will work with nursing homes, employees and their unions to ramp up staff vaccinations before the regulations go into effect.

About 1.3 million people are employed by the more than 15,000 nursing homes that participate in Medicare and Medicaid. Some 62% of those workers are vaccinated nationwide, according to CMS data, but the figure ranges from 44% to 88% depending on the state.

“We have seen tremendous progress with low Covid rates within the nursing home population and I think we’re seeing signs that it is starting to tip the other direction. We don’t want to go backwards,” said Jonathan Blum, CMS’ principal deputy administrator.

Blum said CMS officials are “confident we have the legal authority” to implement the new regulation, noting that the law allows CMS to take action as it relates to the health and safety of nursing home residents.

As the story notes, this came a day after Biden directed the Education Department to get involved in the mask mandate fight. You would think, given how devastating the first wave of COVID was to the residents of nursing homes, that their staffers would be highly vaccinated as well, but you would be wrong.

Nationwide, most of the elderly and vulnerable in long-term care facilities have taken the coronavirus vaccine, but many of the staff caring for them have refused it. The federal program responsible for bringing vaccines to the vast majority of nursing homes and similar settings inoculated roughly half of long-term-care workers in the nation, and in some states a much slimmer percentage, as of March 15, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided to the Center for Public Integrity.

In seven states and the District of Columbia, the program vaccinated less than a third of staff members.

Now the federal program is winding down in the coming days, leaving states and facilities to figure out how to vaccinate the remainder of workers in settings where COVID-19 has already taken a heavy toll.

Though they represent a tiny fraction of the American population, long-term-care residents made up 34% of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths as of March 4, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Low vaccination rates among staff at these facilities mean that workers continue to have greater risk of contracting COVID-19 themselves or passing the virus to their patients, including residents who can’t be inoculated for medical reasons. Low staff uptake can also complicate nursing homes’ attempt to reopen their doors to visitors like Caldwell, who are striving for some sense of normalcy.

“Going into it, we knew it was going to be a problem,” said Ruth Link-Gelles, who led the team at CDC working on the federal initiative that’s now closing up shop, the Federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program.

She cited past years’ low vaccination rates among long-term-care workers for diseases such as the flu. “We were disappointed, but I don’t think anyone was shocked to see the low uptake. … There is a stubbornly large portion of the population that really doesn’t want to get vaccinated, and we have a lot of work to do generally and in this community in particular.”

Federal agencies and states have poured resources into a #GetVaccinated educational campaign, hosting listening sessions, live chats and virtual town halls for long-term-care staff to get their questions answered.

In spite of all these efforts, many workers are reluctant to take the shots because they don’t trust information about the vaccines’ safety or they don’t wish to be among the first to take them, experts said.

“There are many reasons to blame nursing homes and the federal government,” said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School who studies long-term care. “We knew this coming in — that this was a group that was not very trusting of leadership and frankly not very trusting of the vaccine so it was going to take some work in terms of building that trust.”

That story was from late March, so things may be better by now. According to the map embedded in this story, as of that time about 54% of the long-term care workers in Texas who have been vaccinated got their shots through this federal program. But as usual, the overall story in Texas is not great.

The number of nursing homes across the state with at least one active COVID-19 case has shot up nearly 800% in the past month — while nearly half of nursing home employees in Texas remain unvaccinated.

Nursing home residents were among the hardest hit by COVID-19 last year as the virus tore through facilities at an alarming rate. More than 400 Texas nursing home residents died during a single week in August 2020; since the pandemic began, 9,095 have died after contracting COVID-19, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. As of Aug. 11, that’s 17% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

To slow the virus’s spread, Gov. Greg Abbott shut down nursing home visitation in March 2020, then eased those restrictions five months later for facilities that didn’t have active cases in the previous two weeks. HHSC’s current visitation guidelines for nursing homes require visitors to wear a mask at all times and limits visitation to no more than two “essential caregivers” per resident.

But after seeing infections remain relatively low in recent months, the state’s more than 1,200 nursing homes are seeing a new wave of infections as COVID-19 cases explode around the state, driven by the highly contagious delta variant:

  • The number of Texas nursing homes with active COVID-19 cases has risen by 773% in the past month, from 56 in mid-July to 489 on Aug. 11. That’s still well below the peak in January, when more than 900 facilities had at least one active case.
  • Deaths are increasing as well. From July 21 to Aug. 11, 84 nursing home residents died from COVID-19, compared to seven deaths during the four-week period before.
  • Roughly 76% of nursing home residents in Texas have been fully vaccinated, putting the state 46th nationally. The national average is 82%.

But the current surge in nursing home cases hasn’t triggered renewed restrictions by the state.

“We continually assess what actions are necessary to keep people safe in the facilities we regulate,” HHSC spokesperson Helena Wright-Jones said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, just over half — 56% — of nursing home staff have been fully vaccinated, below the national average of 59%, which puts Texas 33rd nationally for nursing home staff vaccination rates.

In other words, the usual indifference from state government and general mediocrity, which puts a whole lot of people at risk. What do the nursing homes have to say for themselves?

Kevin Warren, the president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, whose members include both for-profit and nonprofit long-term health care facilities, said nursing homes are hesitant to require staff to be vaccinated because they are fearful of losing employees who might look for other jobs that don’t require vaccinations.

“Right now, we have a severely stretched workforce,” Warren said. “And when we see this surge occurring again, the stress and the emotional toll it places on staff and others that are in the building, the concern is: ‘If I put this vaccine mandate on, am I potentially going to lose staff?’”

The percentage of nursing home staffers who are unvaccinated is similar to the general population, Warren added, “so let’s not set them out to the side.”

Except they’re in close contact with the most vulnerable people in the state, and not enough of them are vaccinated, either. The DMN has a whole story on that, and while I can believe it to some extent, there’s a quote from a nursing home operator whose staff is 70% vaxxed, and I cannot see how this is any less urgent than getting hospital staff vaccinated. We’ve tried the carrot, now there needs to be a stick. There’s plenty of polling data to suggest that a non-trivial number of people who are vaccine hesitant will give in and get the shot if their workplace mandates it. Let’s put that to the test.

The feds prepare to enter the mask mandate fight

Good.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott may soon be fighting a war on two fronts — with local officials and the federal government — to stave off mandatory COVID-19 prevention efforts after the Biden administration announced Wednesday it was going after states like Texas that try to ban universal masking at schools.

Saying that the federal government will not “sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators from protecting our children,” Biden said he will use the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights enforcement authority to deter states from blocking mask mandates in classrooms.

“I’m directing the Secretary of Education, an educator himself, to take additional steps to protect our children,” Biden said. “This includes using all of his oversight authorities and legal action, if appropriate, against governors trying to block and intimidate local school officials.”

“If you aren’t going to fight COVID-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who’s trying,” Biden added.

Biden didn’t directly name Texas or Abbott in his Wednesday remarks, but both Florida and Texas have made national headlines for efforts to block schools from requiring masks, even as children under 12 remain ineligible for the vaccine and the delta variant affects mostly the unvaccinated.

Biden’s announcement could tee up another legal battle for Abbott, who is already fighting in state court Texas school districts which have implemented mask mandates as school kicked off this month. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More than 50 school districts and at least eight counties are currently defying or have recently violated Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates, according to a tally released Wednesday by Attorney General Ken Paxton.

[…]

Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona sent Abbott and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath a letter expressing support for local school districts that have implemented mask mandates.

Cardona said in the letter that school districts had received COVID-19 relief funds to use for “contact tracing, implementing indoor masking policies, or other policies aligned with CDC guidance” and that the federal government was monitoring whether the state’s ban was in line with fiscal requirements attached to those funds. Texas has received $18 billion for public schools in COVID-19 relief dollars from the federal government and has already released $11 billion of it to the districts to spend.

Hard to know exactly what this means right now. Most likely, we’ll learn more in the coming days, and this is just an early flare to give some warning that stuff is about to happen. There needs to be a clear statement about what is expected, and what will happen if a state isn’t living up to it. As with the school districts defying Abbott on his mask mandate ban, if there’s no known mechanism of enforcement, it’s all voluntary. As I noted yesterday, the Biden administration can also get involved with the lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Texas, but that’s independent of whatever this will be. I want ’em both, and the sooner the better.

Sheriff Gonzalez approved by Senate committee

We are one step closer to needing a new Sheriff.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday advanced the nominations of two Texans tapped by President Joe Biden to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Census Bureau.

While San Antonio native Rob Santos, Biden’s nominee to lead the Census, advanced easily on a 10-3 vote, Republicans on the committee unanimously opposed Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s nomination to lead ICE — a sign Democrats may need to bring in Vice President Kamala Harris to break a tie in the Senate and get him confirmed.

Republicans said Gonzalez’s past criticism of the agency and moves to end a partnership with it as sheriff were “deeply concerning.”

“On numerous occasions during his time as sheriff, he criticized ICE and stated that he only worked with them because he was compelled to do so under a Texas law — a law that he openly and vocally opposed while it was being debated in the Texas Legislature,” said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the committee.

“The law enforcement agents of ICE need strong leadership now more than ever given what’s happening on the border and what’s happening in the interior,” Portman said. “The leader of ICE needs to believe in the importance of the agency’s mission. And for purposes of morale, I think it’s very important that the leader be one who supports ICE strongly.”

During his confirmation hearing last month, Gonzalez said that if confirmed, he would not end the controversial ICE program in which local law enforcement agencies screen jailed suspects to identify those who are in the country illegally. He said he believes in the agency’s mission and would be “aggressive” in going after people who pose a threat to public safety.

It wasn’t enough to sway any Republicans as the committee voted 7-6 to advance his nomination.

“Sheriff Gonzalez is a proven leader and dedicated law enforcement professional,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the committee. “At his confirmation hearing, he demonstrated his deep commitment to the rule of law and his understanding of the complex mission and challenges that ICE faces.”

See here and here for the background. I have no idea how the Senate’s calendar is likely to work, and I don’t know if a vote to confirm will come up before or after the August recess, which may wind up being shortened because of the infrastructure bill. So maybe he’s confirmed in the next week or so, and maybe it doesn’t happen till mid-September or later. Either way, I assume that Commissioners Court is thinking about who will be the next Sheriff. We’ll find out soon enough.

Day 17 quorum busting post: Testify

Ladies and gentlemen, Ms T.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson described to a U.S. House committee on Thursday occasions in 2010 and 2012 when white Republican poll watchers showed up at a Houston polling place where she and many other Black voters cast ballots.

“They had people that looked like they was from the Proud Boys looking at you like you were in the wrong place,” the Houston Democrat testified. “In a minority area, that has a chilling effect. The word gets out that these people are at your polls looking at you like they want to arrest you, keep you from voting.

“You’re damn right I left Texas, and I’m glad I did,” Thompson said. “I left Texas to give my people a right to be able to vote without them being infringed upon.”

It was one of several instances in which Texas Democrats detailed the ways they say Republican-backed legislation would make it harder for minorities to vote. Republicans, meanwhile, said the Texas Democrats were exaggerating the effects of the bill and should be back in Austin debating it in the Legislature, not complaining about it to Congress.

[…]

Three Texas Democrats — Thomspon, San Antonio state Rep. Diego Bernal and Dallas state Rep. Nicole Collier — gave impassioned testimony to the House panel as they urge Congress to advance new federal voting laws to head off GOP efforts in Texas and other states.

The congressional hearing also brought a bit of news: U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, a Sherman Republican, said his colleagues in Texas informed him they would remove a provision from the proposed legislation that would require voters applying to vote by mail to include a driver’s license number or social security number that they used when registering to vote.

“That speaks well for coming to Washington,” said U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “You made a little bit of progress.”

It all made for a big day for the more than four dozen Democrats who have drawn a national spotlight and met with a slew of their party’s leaders since their arrival in D.C. three weeks ago. The group left Texas earlier this month to break quorum in the state House and stop Republicans from passing new voting restrictions.

That’s what they’re there for, to make this not only real but timely for the Washington Democrats. And maybe, just maybe, there’s some hope on the horizon.

Senate Democrats have been crafting a revised voting rights bill that Sen. Joe Manchin might deign to vote for, particularly since he is in the group that’s working on it. The Rev. Sen. Raphael Warnock asked Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to convene the group to rewrite the bill, he told The Washington Post, and he, Schumer, Manchin and a few other senators met Wednesday. Further, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are meeting with President Joe Biden on Friday to discuss moving forward on voting rights, perhaps before August recess.

“It’s important that the American people understand that this is very much on our radar, and we understand the urgency, and we’re committed to getting some progress,” Warnock said. Manchin added, “Everybody’s working in good faith on this … It’s everybody’s input, not just mine, but I think mine, maybe … got us all talking and rolling in the direction that we had to go back to basics,” he said. Other Democrats in the meeting included Sens. Alex Padilla of California; Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, who is lead sponsor of the For the People Act in the Senate; and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, chair of the committee in charge of the bill.

A Democrat who did not wish to be named told the Post that the bill would largely follow the proposal for revisions Manchin put forward last month. It could also potentially include language to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, restoring provisions gutted by recent Supreme Court decisions. It’s not clear now whether it would incorporate the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, or just some provisions from it. That bill hasn’t been acted on in the House yet.

The same source also told the Post that it could include language to counter “election subversion”—specifically the kind of action the Republican legislature in Georgia is trying to pull by taking over the duties of elections officials in the state’s largest—and most Black—county.

As I said before, getting a federal voting rights bill passed would be the big, ultimate slam-dunk win for the legislative Dems. This may be the best opportunity yet, if it can get that crucial buy-in to not let the stupid filibuster be the roadblock. But time is running out, at least for our Dem legislators. The special session is nearly over, both chambers of Congress are fixing to go on recess, and then there’s also this:

If you want there to be preclearance, then you have to have it in place before the new maps get drawn. Leadership is aligned, but the Senate is as always the bottleneck. Keep pushing, it won’t happen on its own.

GLO defends P Bush in Congressional hearing

Dude couldn’t be bothered to show up himself, so he had someone else there to defend him.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush did not play a role in the process that left Houston and Harris County without any federal aid for flood mitigation projects, according to a top disaster official with the General Land Office who defended the agency’s scoring criteria during testimony to a congressional committee Thursday.

Bush, who is challenging incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton in the upcoming Republican Party primary, has received bipartisan backlash over the GLO’s allocation of $1 billion in flood project funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, none of which went to the 14 projects sought by the city or county. Bush since has announced that he will ask the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department to direct $750 million to the county.

“For the record, the Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush was by design recused from the scoring committee and the scoring process,” Heather Lagrone, the GLO’s deputy director of community development and revitalization, told members of a House Financial Services subcommittee. “The commissioner was informed of the competition result only after the projects had been through eligibility review and scored in accordance with the federally approved action plan.”

U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Houston Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, accused the GLO of using a “rigged formula” to distribute the relief money, defining the process as “the hijacking of a federal mitigation appropriations process.”

“I think that the time has come for a course correction,” Green said.

See here for the background. Didn’t you hear the lady, Rep. Green? LEAVE GEORGE P. BUSH ALOOOOOOOOONE!

It was a chicken move for P Bush to not show up and explain himself, but that’s hardly surprising. And let’s face it, had he been there himself, we’d have gotten the same lies about the ridiculous GLO formula and the “red tape” that was actually in place under Trump, and we never would have gotten a rational explanation for why their formula made any sense.

While coastal communities bore the brunt of Harvey, the GLO disproportionately sent the $1 billion in aid to inland counties that suffered less damage and, by the state’s own measure, are at a lower risk of natural disasters, a Houston Chronicle investigation found last month.

Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock noted during the committee hearing that the GLO declined to award a penny in mitigation funds to Aransas and Nueces counties, where Harvey made landfall, nor to Jefferson County, which saw the heaviest rainfall during the storm, nor to Houston and Harris County, which saw the most damage from the storm.

“The Texas General Land Office’s process for allocating granted zero dollars to all of these localities, and it was only after bipartisan political pressure that the GLO retroactively requested $750 million for Harris County,” Haddock said.

The GLO process got the result it intended. Everything else is details, and a reminder of why you cannot put bad faith actors in positions of power.

The risk of being unvaccinated

The numbers don’t lie.

Nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. now are in people who weren’t vaccinated, a staggering demonstration of how effective the shots have been and an indication that deaths per day — now down to under 300 — could be practically zero if everyone eligible got the vaccine.

An Associated Press analysis of available government data from May shows that “breakthrough” infections in fully vaccinated people accounted for fewer than 1,200 of more than 853,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations. That’s about 0.1%.

And only about 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May were in fully vaccinated people. That translates to about 0.8%, or five deaths per day on average.

[…]

The preventable deaths will continue, experts predict, with unvaccinated pockets of the nation experiencing outbreaks in the fall and winter. Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, said modeling suggests the nation will hit 1,000 deaths per day again next year.

In Arkansas, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, with only about 33% of the population fully protected, cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising.

“It is sad to see someone go to the hospital or die when it can be prevented,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson tweeted as he urged people to get their shots.

As the story notes, this is an AP analysis of the available data. The CDC has not done its own analysis yet because the data is not complete – only 45 of the 50 states report breakthrough infections, and they vary in how they define them. But the overall point is clear: Even though COVID deaths are down over ninety percent from January, when vaccinations started rolling out, they could be down a whole lot more, if more people were vaccinated. The extent to which COVID is under control is the extent to which the population is vaccinated. That can vary by quite a bit, by state and by region, and so we will continue to see some level of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID. And that level is higher than it needs to be. Link via Daily Kos.

Testify, George P!

I’m ready for this.

A congressional panel is set to review the Texas General Land Office’s denial of federal flood mitigation funding to Houston and Harris County, the latest in an ongoing spat over more than $1 billion in aid approved by Congress and doled out by the state.

The Democrat-led House Financial Services Committee wants Land Commissioner George P. Bush to testify about the decision during a hearing next week, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Houston Democrat who chairs the panel’s oversight and investigations subcommittee. It’s unclear yet if Bush will appear at the July 15 hearing.

[…]

Green said he wants Bush to explain the initial denial, as well as why it has taken so long to get the federal funding out. The funding is part of a relief package that Congress approved in 2018 after Hurricane Harvey.

“This is pretty serious, when you look at the time that has lapsed … then not to have the money spent on people who are still suffering and waiting to have the relief and the money is in the hands of GLO,” Green said. “I think GLO should explain.”

These are all good questions, and we deserve to hear answers to them. We should also recognize that in the tradition of the Trump administration, there’s a decent chance that Bush just blows this off. If that happens, then Congress needs to do the stand-up thing and subpoena him, and hold him in contempt if he continues to defy them. Do not wimp out on this. Either there’s accountability or there isn’t, and enforcement is a key part of that. If he’s not there willingly, make him be there, or else.

Let a thousand Justice Department probes of Texas voter suppression bloom

Just don’t expect too much to happen.

With Texas lawmakers poised to push for new voting restrictions in a special session next week, the state’s congressional Democrats are urging U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate Texas’ existing voting laws.

In a letter to Garland on Thursday, the Democrats — led by U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Marc Veasey of Fort Worth — urged the U.S. Department of Justice to examine what they called “unconstitutional voter suppression” in Texas. They pointed to a number of existing practices that they say disproportionately affect Black and Latino voters, including the closure of polling sites across the state, reports of voter intimidation and a lack of Spanish-language voting materials.

They also reminded Garland that Republicans are likely to bring back a revised version of a controversial elections bill as early as next week, asking that federal officials keep a close eye on any changes.

“The Department of Justice must protect voting rights for all Texans,” wrote the group of 12 lawmakers, which includes all of the state’s Democratic members of Congress except U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo. “I am requesting that the DOJ Civil Rights Division focus its investigative powers in key areas reported over the last several elections that present a pattern of racially discriminatory voting practices in Texas.”

This was motivated in part by AG Garland puttint Texas on notice after suing Georgia over its voter suppression law. I applaud the move, but I don’t expect much from the federal courts, especially now. Put the maximal pressure on the poll watcher stuff and the “mistaken” provision to make it easier to overturn elections. Make some noise and hope to score some PR wins, if nothing else.