The only PhD scientist in Congress on fighting Trump’s cuts: “Republicans get cancer as well as Democrats.”

About an hour before pouring rain started to pummel the thousands of attendees at Saturday’s March for Science in D.C., Congressman Bill Foster of Illinois was hanging outside of the media registration tent, taking photos with science enthusiasts (and security guards). While there are a few mathematicians and doctors in Congress, Foster is the only formerly practicing scientist with a PhD in physics, which gives him a pretty unique perspective on the increasingly increasingly relevant intersection between science and politics. Foster and I chatted briefly about the state of science literacy in Congress, and whether any Republicans are nerdier than we think.

So do you hang out with the math people and the doctors in Congress?

Oh yeah, we sit there and make math jokes from time to time. But it’s a serious business. The attacks on science and the scientific method and just generally the disrespect for scientific truth is something that has all scientists on edge. That’s why we’re here—this is a day for wet scientists and bad humor.

And bad puns, right?

That’s right. But also a very serious opportunity for scientists to stand up and look the dragons in the eye.

You spent time in a lab before coming to Congress, right?

Oh, I spent almost 25 years as a high-energy particle physicist. I was on the experiment that discovered the top quark, the heaviest known form of matter, and I actually designed and led the construction of one of the last of the giant particle accelerators in the United States.

So what’s the difference between the mood in the lab and the mood in Congress?

Well there’s a big difference between scientific facts and political facts. Because a political fact is whatever you can convince people of. And in science, you’re debating what the logically possible answers are to a question, and what experiments you can perform to figure out which one of those logical possibilities is actually represented in the universe.

In politics, I think partly because due to the fact that we’re dominated by lawyers, the question is always what can you convince people of, rather than what is true.

The people that you work with in Congress, do you think any of them care about what’s happening today?

I think they do. And I think we’re likely to see a lot more public support for the budget at the National Institutes of Health. Because everyone knows someone who’s suffering from cancer, and is aware of the incredible breakthroughs that are happening as we speak and the fact that they’re due to decades of federally funded basic research. Because it turns out, Republicans get cancer as well as Democrats.

Putting climate change aside, do you think your colleagues in Congress are generally scientifically literate?

There’s a wide spectrum. There’s a lot of enthusaism for the economic benefits of science. And unfortunately that sometimes doesn’t get reflected in the budgets.

Is there anyone in Congress who is maybe more scientifically nerdy than we know?

Oh, [Colorado Democrat] Ed Perlmutter. He is always sending me emails with things he’s found in the science blogs.

Any Republicans?

Yes, I have a very good email conversastion going with [Texas Republican] Lamar Smith, the chair of the science committee on which I serve. [Note: Smith is one of the most notorious climate deniers in Congress.] We talk about human genetic engineering and what that means for humans.

My conversations with Lamar resulted in the first-ever science committee hearing on human genetic engineering, which I have been told was one of the best-ever-attended hearings on the science committee.

So you guys don’t fight all the time about climate change then?

No. And when we had that hearing, Democrats and Republicans asked very thoughtful and probing questions, and generally behaved themselves, which does not always happen when fossil fuels and climate change gets brought up.

So you think aside from the climate debate, the state of science literacy in Congress is maybe not so dire?

That’s right, but the way to understand what a politician really believes is to look at the budgets they vote for.

February 21, 2018

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Pennsylvania Republicans are inching toward a constitutional crisis.

A growing number of GOP officials in the Keystone State are calling for the impeachment of five justices on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court who struck down the state’s congressional districts for unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. Those calls intensified after the court issued a new map on Monday that reduces Republicans’ advantage in races for the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case last week.

State Representative Cris Dush began circulating a letter among colleagues calling for the Pennsylvania judge’s removal shortly after their decision. U.S. Representative Ryan Costello, who represents the state’s Sixth Congressional District, endorsed removing the justices for what he described as a “politically corrupt process.” Other Republicans are planning a lawsuit in federal court, which has the backing of President Donald Trump.

U.S. Senator Pat Toomey told reporters on Wednesday that impeachment is “a conversation that has to happen” among state lawmakers. “I think state house members, state senators, are going to be speaking among themselves and their constituents, and the fundamental question is, does this blatant, unconstitutional, partisan power grab that undermines our electoral process—does that rise to the level of impeachment?” he asked.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices are elected to ten-year terms, and can be reelected for another ten-year term. All five of the justices in the gerrymandering majority ran as Democrats. Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives holds the power to impeach judges, whom the state Senate could then vote to remove by a two-thirds vote. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans, while Governor Tom Wolf is a Democrat.

Impeaching judges for misconduct isn’t unheard of at the state level or in the lower federal courts. But Pennsylvania’s Republican lawmakers are proposing something much different. Removing judges purely on the basis of an adverse legal decision would be a grave breach of the principle of judicial independence, which helps form the bedrock of the American rule of law.

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Donald Trump wants to know why Obama didn’t do more about Russian meddling. He should ask Mitch McConnell.

In the aftermath of Robert Mueller indicting 13 Russian nationals for intervening in the 2016 election, Trump has hit on a new defense: Actually, it’s all Obama’s fault.

The argument, such as it is, goes like this: Russian meddling occurred in 2016. Barack Obama was president in 2016. Therefore, it’s Obama’s fault that Russia interfered in the election.

There are a number of flaws with this reasoning. For one, there is a substantial body of evidence that, at the very least, the Trump campaign played footsie with Russian operatives during the 2016 election. It also suggests that Trump has been tougher on Russia than Obama was, a claim for which there is no evidence.

But the biggest problem is that Obama tried to do something about Russian meddling but was blocked by Mitch McConnell. Last year, The Washington Post reported that McConnell “voiced skepticism” when presented with intelligence by the FBI suggesting that Russia was trying to undermine Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Because of McConnell’s intransigence, the Obama administration decided not to go public with the information, fearing that it would just lead to a partisan squabble and accusations that it was trying to influence the election on Clinton’s behalf. (That said, it’s unclear whether the Obama administration would have intervened if it thought that Clinton losing was a serious possibility.)

The Obama administration could have done more to publicize Russian interference in the 2016 election, sure. But it failed to act because of partisan pressure from Republicans.

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Billy Graham, dead at age 99, transformed American Christianity and the Republican Party.

Graham passed away at his Montreat, North Carolina, home on Wednesday morning. Arguably the most important evangelist in American history, he applied a Southern preacher’s earnest demeanor to the eternal Christian project of winning souls. As NPR reported on Wednesday:

His influence as a moral and spiritual leader in 20th century America was such that one historian said Billy Graham could confer “acceptability on wars, shame on racial prejudice, desirability on decency, dishonor on indecency, and prestige on civic events.”

His Crusades, which began as modest tent revival services, earned him both a loyal following and disdain from some of his peers in the faith. The latter was because Graham was no theologian, and held only a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Wheaton College in Illinois. He further irked fundamentalists by promoting a more open engagement with the secular world—though they differed little on actual doctrine. Graham believed the Bible was God-breathed, or infallible in every respect, and thus should be interpreted in a literal fashion. 

Aside from the Crusades, Graham became best known for his influence on American politics. This did not always go well for him. Despite a record of condemning some forms of racial prejudice, he also appeared on the Nixon Tapes complaining about the Jewish “stranglehold” on the country. He apologized for those remarks in 2002, but they seriously damaged his credibility at the time. And Graham’s work—becoming a counselor to presidents, bringing religion into politics—may have unleashed consequences he did not intend. What “evangelical” means now is not what it meant when Graham began his career. It’s mutated from religious identity to demographic signifier: It increasingly means “white” and “Republican.”

Though Graham reached out to both parties, his emphasis on political engagement helped set the stage for the marriage of evangelicalism to the Republican Party. It is perhaps the greatest irony in Graham’s superlative life that his son, Franklin, is a vituperative, Muslim-hating, gay-bashing reminder that the admixture of Christianity and Republican politics benefited the latter more than the former.  

February 20, 2018

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Banning bump stocks wouldn’t have prevented the Parkland shooting.

The White House announced on Tuesday afternoon that President Donald Trump has decided to take action on bump stocks, which effectively convert semiautomatic rifles into machine guns:

Bump stocks were used in last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, but not in the Parkland shooting. And as a one reporter for The Trace pointed out on Twitter, Trump may not have the legal authority to bypass the legislative branch in this manner:

Still, this is more action than his fellow Republicans in Florida appear willing to take. On Tuesday afternoon, state legislators there refused to even hear a bill that would ban assault rifles:

They did so in front of survivors of the Parkland shooting.

Mitt Romney will never stop being owned by Donald Trump.

During the 2016 election, Romney gave a speech in which he called Trump a “phony” and a “fraud” and fervently argued that he was unfit for office. After the Access Hollywood tape dropped, Romney tweeted that these “vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world.” Then, three weeks after Trump won, he kissed the ring and submitted to a humiliating photo-op while trying to convince the president-elect to make him Secretary of State.

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When Romney finally announced that he was running for Senate last week, he strongly hinted that his days of criticizing Donald Trump were over. Advisers told the press that Romney would be focusing on Utah and Utahns. While there was some attempt to subtly rebuke Trump, offering Utah’s approach to conservatism as a contrast to the president, it was clear that Romney was throwing in the towel.

Romney’s supplication was complete on Monday evening, however, when he received and accepted Trump’s endorsement on Twitter.

Inconsistency is the core of Romney’s political brand. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney was pro-life and built a health care system that became the model for Obamacare. In 2016, Romney repudiated these positions and others (notably on immigration) and pitched himself as a Tea Party-style conservative.

But what’s notable about Romney’s decision to bow before Trump is that it’s unnecessary. Though Utah is a red state, it has been ambivalent toward Trump—Trump received just 46 percent of the vote there in 2016, while independent candidate Evan McMullin received 22 percent. Given his name recognition and his record criticizing Trump, Romney could conceivably run as a Republican alternative to the president. But that’s not who Mitt Romney is.

February 16, 2018

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Mitt Romney won’t be calling Donald Trump a “phony” and a “fraud” any time soon.

On Friday morning, Romney made it official: He’s running to replace Orrin Hatch as Utah’s senator.

Romney’s biggest weakness is that he’s not really from Utah. He grew up in Michigan, and while he did attend Brigham Young University in Provo, he spent most of his professional life in Massachusetts, where he served as governor from 2003-2007.

The state’s GOP chairman blasted Romney on these grounds, saying on Thursday that Romney is “essentially doing what Hillary Clinton did in New York” when she ran for Senate in 2000. “I think he’s keeping out candidates that I think would be a better fit for Utah because, let’s face it, Mitt Romney doesn’t live here, his kids weren’t born here, he doesn’t shop here.” The two-minute video accompanying Romney’s announcement makes it clear that his campaign takes that weakness seriously: The words “Utah” and “Utahans” appear a dozen times, and it focuses on Romney’s work as CEO of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

But there is still a national message in the ad, and in Romney’s campaign. “I think it will be very much a Utah-centric campaign,” longtime Romney ally Derek Miller told The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins. “[Romney] wants the country to look at Utah as an example. Why are things going so well here? … What lessons are there to learn, and how do you take them back to the nation’s capital?” In the ad, Romney uses Utah as a model for the country: The people are decent, hard-working, and frugal.

This is being held up as a subtle, anti-Trump message: Instead of attacking Trump, as he did during the 2016 election, Romney is embracing an implicit critique by standing up for a different kind of conservatism. But it’s also an acknowledgment that Romney’s critiques of Trump (and his overtures to him) have failed. Romney hasn’t been able to influence the president or his party, so he’s going to try to ignore Trump and run a conventional Senate campaign. The question is whether he’ll also be a conventional Republican senator—which is to say, obeisant to Trump.

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A former Playboy model says she was paid off to keep quiet about her affair with Donald Trump.

Karen McDougal told New Yorker correspondent Ronan Farrow that she had a consensual affair with Trump during his current marriage, and that she voluntarily ended it. Bolstering her account, the magazine reprinted her handwritten journal entries from the time of the affair.

The real scandal isn’t necessarily that Trump had another affair, but that a Trump ally—tabloid king David Pecker, the CEO of American Media Inc.—reportedly paid McDougal for the rights to her story. McDougal’s contract with Pecker’s company, which publishes the National Enquirer and other supermarket-aisle staples, effectively silenced her, Ronan reports:

Six former A.M.I. employees told me that Pecker routinely makes catch-and-kill arrangements like the one reached with McDougal. “We had stories and we bought them knowing full well they were never going to run,” Jerry George, a former A.M.I. senior editor who worked at the company for more than twenty-five years, told me. George said that Pecker protected Trump. “Pecker really considered him a friend,” George told me. “We never printed a word about Trump without his approval.”

McDougal told Farrow that she regrets signing the contract; American Media claims it never printed her story because it did not find her credible. But her account does resemble that of Stormy Daniels’s, the former porn star who alleges she was paid to keep quiet about her affair with Trump, and the White House’s statement is hardly a full-throated denial: “This is an old story that is just more fake news. The President says he never had a relationship with McDougal.” Emphasis mine.

February 15, 2018

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America just had its first social-media school shooting.

As a teenage boy in Florida moved through his high school murdering people on Tuesday, students posted about their experience on social media in real time. A user called Aidan Minoff tweeted, “My school is being shot up and I am locked inside. I’m fucking scared right now,” along with pictures. On NBC’s site, you can see a video taken from Snapchat of bullets being fired into a classroom while teenagers scream. (It’s very disturbing.) The alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz, had an Instagram feed full of guns.

Social media made headlines in the wake of the terrible shooting in Las Vegas last year, when false accusations and other hoaxes spread across Twitter. Several Twitter users were revealed to have claimed they had family among the victims, although they did not. One tweet supposedly from the Florida school by a user named “Heather” has been widely reproduced online, as in this Slate piece, but its authenticity seems questionable. Twitter is always incensed by senators who offer “thoughts and prayers” to the families of victims, in between taking payments from the National Rifle Association. It’s not new for social media to react.

But citizen reportage from within school shootings, live, is new. Very real changes take place to the texture of current events when the means by which they are represented changes. Consider how the invention of personal video systems both helped to kick off and then to shape the coverage of the L.A. riots in 1992. Handheld cameras, once popularized, instantly gave citizen-filmed footage the “look” of truth. That’s why Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield are extra scary, and extra-convincing.

Watching a Snapchat video from the middle of a school shooting feels at first surreal, then very quickly normal. There’s a temptation to throw up one’s hands and bemoan the brandedness of the whole thing—every mention of Snapchat in the coverage of this shooting bolsters its corporate image. It’s not a neutral technology. Not even the phone in your camera is a neutral technology. Somebody owns it.

But we should get used to the brandedness of social-media communications. President Trump has himself transformed Twitter, from a medium for talking to one’s friends into a personal-announcement megaphone from the world’s most powerful and least impulse-controlling man. The context of the Florida shooting’s social-media posts—the fact that they’re making money for a company that also makes money from silly puppy filters, the way that the industry has been changed by Trump—lends the whole event a dystopian feel, a sense of living in an awful future that none of us could have predicted. But if personal social-media feeds give kids a voice while they’re experiencing terrible violence, that sense of increased agency cannot be an entirely negative development.

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Lift the federal ban on gun violence research.

By March 23, Congress will have to pass a bill to fund the government. In doing so, Republicans and Democrats can reverse the maddening policy that has essentially shut down research on gun violence for the last 22 years.

This is the easiest, least controversial step Congress can take in the wake of Wednesday’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead. Gun control legislation certainly isn’t going anywhere—House Speaker Paul Ryan suggested as much on Thursday morning, when he said Congress needs more information on what would be an effective policy: “I think, as public policymakers, we don’t just knee-jerk before we even have all the facts and the data.”

But as things stand now, Congress will never have the facts or the data Ryan claims to need because, as the Washington Post reported in October, “Gun-control research in the United States essentially came to a standstill in 1996.”

In 1996, the Republican-majority Congress threatened to strip funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unless it stopped funding research into firearm injuries and deaths. The National Rifle Association accused the CDC of promoting gun control. As a result, the CDC stopped funding gun-control research — which had a chilling effect far beyond the agency, drying up money for almost all public health studies of the issue nationwide.

“In the area of what works to prevent shootings, we know almost nothing,” Mark Rosenberg, who led the CDC’s gun-violence research in the 1990s, told the Post.

This policy—known as the Dickey Amendment—should not exist. Even its former champion acknowledged as much. In 2015, two years before his death, Republican Congressman Jay Dickey told HuffPost that he wished he had never put forward the policy. “I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time,” he said. “I have regrets.”

If Americans had this research, Congress would have a clearer picture of what effective policy steps would be to prevent these sickeningly familiar mass shootings. As the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Yogin Kothari pointed out on Thursday, “Since 2013, there have been 290 school shootings, an average of nearly one per week. In 2018, there have been 18 school shootings in 45 days.” Then again, it’s already widely accepted that reducing gun ownership would reduce gun violence. The New York Times’ Max Fischer and Josh Keller last November addressed the question, “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings?

Perhaps, some speculate, it is because American society is unusually violent. Or its racial divisions have frayed the bonds of society. Or its citizens lack proper mental care under a health care system that draws frequent derision abroad.

These explanations share one thing in common: Though seemingly sensible, all have been debunked by research on shootings elsewhere in the world. Instead, an ever-growing body of research consistently reaches the same conclusion.

The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.

This, perhaps, is why Republicans are opposed to federal funding of gun violence research: They know what the conclusion will be. And as long as the research is being conducted independently of the federal government, Republicans can discredit it just like they do to environmental research: by accusing it of bias, or lack of rigor, or insufficient data. If Congress does not reverse this prohibition in March, and the Republicans are to blame, it will be up to voters to punish them for it this fall.

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The Trump administration is invoking 9/11 to kill a bipartisan immigration bill.

The Senate’s most recent bipartisan immigration bill, which is being led by Republican Mike Rounds and independent Angus King, would provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, drastically curb family reunification, fund Trump’s border wall, and restrict ICE’s ability to deport undocumented immigrants without criminal records. It’s a compromise bill, in other words, and one that is no one’s idea of a perfect solution. Though somewhat to the left of an earlier compromise bill that was killed by the White House, some Democrats are reluctant to support the bill, given its changes to legal immigration and its funding for the wall.

But the Trump administration is proving to be the biggest roadblock for a bipartisan compromise. While the administration has suggested that it’s open to a bipartisan compromise (something that is necessary, given the Senate’s 60-vote rule), it has thus far stood in the way of anything less than total capitulation. It has also given what is, in effect, a veto to some of Congress’ most radical voices, like Senator Tom Cotton and Congressman Steve King, neither of whom are incentivized to compromise. And on Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security invoked 9/11 in stating its opposition to the bill:

DHS is upset over the amendments that would curb ICE’s power—even though there’s nothing in the bill to suggest that it would lead to millions of immigrants entering the country. Invoking 9/11 is particularly rich, given that ICE’s recent spate of deportations, which have targeted law-abiding citizens, have had nothing to do with terrorism. But it does suggest how far the administration is willing to go to kill any immigration compromise.