Senate Leaders Announce Bipartisan Budget Deal

Leaders in the Senate have announced a vast bipartisan budget deal to avoid another government shutdown.

A much smaller proposal had already advanced through the House of Representatives that funds the government through March 23. It’s likely the Senate’s bill will be sent back to the House for a vote.

President Trump tweeted:

The Budget Agreement today is so important for our great Military. It ends the dangerous sequester and gives Secretary Mattis what he needs to keep America Great. Republicans and Democrats must support our troops and support this Bill!

Two-Year Budget Details

The long-term budget agreement increases military and domestic spending levels for two years. Some of the bill’s highlights include:

• Nearly $300 billion in additional funding for defense and nondefense over the next two years
• $165 billion in defense spending, with $80 billion in fiscal 2018 and $85 billion in fiscal 2019
• $131 billion in nondefense spending, with $63 billion in fiscal 2018 and $65 billion in fiscal 2019
• A debt-ceiling deadline extension of one year, moving it past the midterm elections
• $6 billion to combat the opioid crisis
• An additional four years of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program for a total of 10 years (The previous funding deal extended the program by six years.)
• An extension of funding for community health centers and a variety of other Medicare programs
• An additional $80 billion to $90 billion in funding for areas affected by natural disasters in 2017.

The bill isn’t expected to be voted on before Thursday’s funding deadline. Because of this, lawmakers will need to pass another short-term spending bill to keep the government open.

Pentagon Purchasing Agent Loses Over $800 Million in Taxpayer Money

An internal audit obtained by POLITICO shows the Defense Logistics Agency, one of the largest agencies in the Pentagon, can’t account for over $800 million of spending.

Accounting firm Ernst & Young found the Pentagon’s purchasing agent has such poor management that hundreds of millions in purchases are not properly recorded. This leads to questions about where exactly the money actually went.

Missing Taxpayer Money

The Pentagon has long been under fire for its shoddy accounting practices, which are infamous for being wasteful. It’s never been subjected to a full audit, but with DLA controlling over $40 billion per year, that’s not coming anytime soon.

DLA has 25,000 employees that process over 100,000 orders a day for the military and other federal agencies. The auditors found, however, that the agency cannot point to a documentation trail for most of its purchase. This means hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are currently unaccounted for.

Ernst & Young found over $465 million of errors just dealing with finished construction projects. Another $365 million was missing documentation for projects still in progress. Over $100 million in computer assets had no paper trail at all.

The Trump administration is looking to clean up the DLA’s audit problems. It’s expected to cost $367 million to complete the necessary audits and get DLA’s spending and documentation problems under control. On top of that, it could cost another $551 million to fix the systems that officials say are necessary to manage the finances better in the future.

The Pentagon’s top budget official says that going forward, the agency will be audited yearly. Reports will be publicly available by November 15th of each year.

However, this doesn’t fix the current problem. Ernst & Young says the holes in accounting they’ve found so far mean there are much more to be found. It’s also very likely the problems may not be fixable.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) says the chances of a successful audit of the Department of Defense is literally impossible, but he’s going to keep trying.

Al Franken’s Senate Replacement Sworn In

Former Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith was sworn into the U.S. Senate this week, one of 22 female senators currently serving – a new record.

Sen. Smith, a Democrat, took the place of disgraced former Senator and comedian Al Franken, who found himself at the center of several allegations of groping and forcibly kissing women without their consent.

Los Angeles radio host LeeAnn Tweeden accused Franken of sexual misconduct, as did seven other women. While Franken attempted to deny many of the incidents, Tweeden produced photographic evidence depicting Franken jokingly pretending to grope her breasts while she was asleep. Franken was eventually forced to resign after top Democrats who had formerly supported him finally told him it was time to step down.

Franken told supporters in Minneapolis that he was resigning his Senate seat but not giving up his voice. The crowd applauded the idea that the disgraced lawmaker would still be somehow involved in politics.

Smith served as Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton’s Chief of Staff for four years before taking on the Lt. Gov. position in 2015. A staunch supporter of abortion, Smith is a “lifelong Democrat political operative,” according to state Sen. Karin Housely (R-St. Mary’s Point).

The new Senator will have to run in the midterm elections in order to keep her seat; her appointment is only good until this fall. Her plan to fill the remaining two years of Franken’s term, however, is hardly locked down; former Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann, as well as former Governor Tim Pawlenty, are considering a run for the seat.

Also sworn in was Democrat Doug Jones, who took the hotly contested Senate seat in Alabama vacated by former Senator Jeff Sessions – now serving as President Trump’s Attorney General.

Almost 1,000 people signed the StandUnited petition calling for Al Franken’s resignation. While we certainly hope to see the seat filled by a conservative in the midterm elections, we’re thrilled to see that Franken has stepped down and is no longer in a position to make laws for Americans.

New Legislation Would Require Transparency for Taxpayer-Funded Accounts

A slush fund has been revealed after a recent rash of sexual harassment allegations against US lawmakers. This slush fund is a Treasury Department account with funds designated to be used for court settlements against federal government employees and lawmakers.

According to the Congressional Office of Compliance’s annual report, $934,754 was paid from this taxpayer-funded account in 2017 to government employees to settle claims that included sexual harassment, overtime pay disputes, and other workplace violations. More than $4 million has been paid out since 2007. But, since it’s unclear how much of those funds went to settle each type of claim, there have been calls for transparency on these settlements, and to name the harasser in any payout due to office sexual harassment.

New legislation has been bipartisanly introduced in the House and Senate that would make Congress reveal how funds are being dispersed for workplace discrimination complaints in the Member and Employee Training and Oversight of Congress Act (“Me Too” Congressional Act). This bill would require identification, the amount of money paid, and the number of allegations against each office.

Some lawmakers that have been accused of sexual misconduct include current Minnesota Senator Al Franken, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, and former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner. The new law would prohibit members of Congress from using any taxpayer funds to pay for settlements and would require the use of personal funds instead.

Although legislation has already been passed mandating sexual harassment training for all lawmakers, staff, and interns, it’s still uncertain if, or when the “Me Too” Congressional Act will gain momentum to proceed on to House leaders for passage.

Sign the petition below to take action and demand Congress Unseal these slush fund deals!

THIS City Might Let Illegal Immigrants Vote

After heated discussions and comments from residents, the city of College Park, Maryland moved towards allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections. The council considered a new measure that would allow green card holders, legal permanent residents, and illegal immigrants to vote alongside U.S. citizens. College Park could join 11 other municipalities in Maryland that enfranchise non-citizens.

Four of College Park’s eight city council members voted in favor of the policy. Three opposed it, and one – a naturalized U.S. citizen – abstained. Several other towns in Maryland allow non-citizens to vote, but College Park would have been by far the largest city to take this step. Roughly 20% of College Park’s population is foreign-born.

Though the measure initially seemed to have passed the city council, the governing body’s new rules require 6 “yes” votes for a measure to pass. Heated debate on this measure rages on. The original vote was originally planned for August, but was delayed due to threatening messages received by council members. On the day of the meeting, September 12, a larger police presence was at the council meeting as residents voiced their opinions over the issue. Nearly two dozen people signed up to discuss the matter.

Activists and council members who supported the initiative believe it will show that College Park is a community that welcomes residents, regardless of their legal status. Some residents arguing that letting non-citizens vote was a slap in the face for immigrants who spent years becoming naturalized citizens. Some council members argued that there had not been enough discussion about the charter amendment to take a vote.

The council voted first on whether to send the decision to a citywide referendum. Next, they voted on whether only legal non-citizens should vote. The council voted to make the decision themselves, but split on what that decision should be. In both instances, Mayor Patrick Wojahn cast the tie-breaking vote. Additional debate on the measure is expected at the next city council meeting.

IRS Re-Hires 213 Criminal Employees

A new report shows that the IRS re-hired 213 fired employees.  While initially employed by the agency, these employees committed offenses like tax evasion, falsifying documents, and misuse of taxpayer data.

Refilling the Swamp?

These “public servants” have access to Americans’ most sensitive financial information. Someone who abuses that power could collect data on innocent citizens and potentially use that information to commit a crime.

The 213 fired employees represent only a fraction of the problem at the IRS. Out of all the IRS employees caught breaking the law, Forbes reports that only 39% get fired. Though the agency demands honesty and accuracy from citizens, it seems to have much lower standards for its own internal dealings.

Commissioner Koskinen Under Fire

The re-hiring began in late 2015, under the leadership of Commissioner John Koskinen. Koskinen, an Obama appointee, faced impeachment hearings last Fall regarding the alleged targeting of conservative groups.

A year later, the IRS faces public scrutiny yet again.

Applying for Social Security? You Might Be Judged On Looks.

The arm of the Social Security Administration that determines who can receive benefits is at the center of a major harassment scandal. Several employees from the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) report harassment, abuse, and neglect from their managers. Now, those employees are speaking up to end the mismanagement of such a vital part of Social Security.

Fear of Retaliation

The first of many ODAR employees to come forward, Mary Brister, endured years of inappropriate treatment before blowing the whistle in May 2016. Brister told the Wisconsin Watchdog that people in her office were scared to come forward, but bullying was rampant. Brister said that her supervisor inappropriately tried to invite her to his apartment. “He said, ‘As soon as I get my divorce, I’m going to be all over you,’” she alleged.

The ODAR facilities in Madison and Milwaukee suffer from particularly nasty incidents of misconduct. One employee in a Wisconsin ODAR office allegedly broke into another employee’s private records. The victim claims her male co-worker was bragging about information “he could have known only by reading [her] personal file.”

Another ODAR employee, a disabled veteran with PTSD, reported chronic bullying and harassment by a supervisor. The harasser targeted someone who had served our country and was still paying the price.

To make matters worse, an ODAR Administrative Law Judge allegedly decided who could receive benefits based not on the applicant’s case, but on the person’s appearance – even their race. Judge John Pleuss used words like “cute,” “buxom,” and “gorilla-like” when describing claimants, according to the Wisconsin Watchdog. Imagine having your Social Security claim denied because the judge has a gripe with your personal appearance. That miscarriage of justice unfairly targets people based on looks.

Ending the Abuse

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) says that it is making progress with its investigation of the SSA. However, an investigation means nothing unless someone acts on the results.

Members of Congress are beginning to take note. U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) sent a letter to SSA Acting Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill, urging her to fix ODAR.  She urges the Commissioner to protect employees in their workplace and uphold the SSA’s commitment to taxpayers. In addition, she refers to the use of racist and sexist descriptions by judges as “abhorrent behavior.”

Republicans and Democrats alike want Social Security to clean up its act. Why, then, is change so slow to come to the Administration?

9 Year Old Girl Raises Money to Save Local Library

Mia, a young girl in Berkley, Massachusetts, heard that the local library might shut down this summer. She’s too young to vote, but she still found a way to take matters into her own hands. Mia set up a lemonade stand and raised over $600 for the library in her first day of sales. One civic-minded and entrepreneurial kid won’t be enough to save the historic library. However, Berkley citizens will vote this summer, and they could save the library for Mia and kids just like her.

Books for a Better Youth

If you have ever read or seen Roald Dahl’s Matilda, you know how important reading can be to children. Young minds grow by exploring new ideas and diving into stories both fictional and real. With children now using smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets at a very young age, preserving a traditional source of learning is crucial. Mia is a real-life Matilda, and it is up to us to fight alongside her for her library.

Mia has used her young entrepreneurial skills to set up a lemonade stand in order to raise enough money to save the library. She stood outside all day selling lemonade. People from all over town came to see this 9 year old entrepreneur in action. Through determination and hard work, Mia was able to raise $625 for the library.

Finding the Funding

A town as small as Berkley, Massachusetts does not have enough people to have its own high school. A library can help fill that gap as a learning resource for readers of all ages. 

The neighboring town, Somerset, MA has a population three times larger than Berkley. Last year, Somerset spent $519,000 on their library expenses. Their library is much larger, so if Somerset can fund it, Berkley should be able to do the same on a smaller scale. 

Berkley’s elected officials called Selectmen, who have the power to keep the library open, should know that they have options for funding the library.  Other neighboring towns have opened up “Friends of” the library funds, that allow for private interests, including individuals, families, and businesses, to donate yearly to the library.  Because every parent wants their child to succeed, an initiative like this would likely take off.  It is the community’s responsibility to help this happen, and stand by Mia in her fight for the library.

Georgia Government is Quietly Abandoning Kids with Disabilities

In 2013, Tamika Taylor faced a parenting crisis with her then three year old son, Brycen. Today, more families are facing that same crisis.

Taylor’s son Brycen has cerebral palsy. Until December 2013, he went to a daycare in College Park that supported medically fragile children. The nurses there helped Brycen learn to eat from his mouth (instead of from a feeding tube) while Taylor, a single parent, worked to keep the family afloat.

Taylor felt helpless when she learned that Brycen’s daycare would be closing. “This is not stuff he just needs to have. This helps preserve his life and growth,” she said.

Now, another state program is denying kids the medical care that they need.

Georgia’s Lifeline for Kids with Disabilities

The Georgia Pediatric Program (GAPP) provides fragile children and struggling families with medical assistance. The program offers daycare facilities and in-home nursing services. However, GAPP now struggles to fulfill its mission. 

Parents face an impossible choice: If they keep working, no one will be around to care for their child with special needs. If they quit working to care for the child full-time, they lose their income and eventually run out of money for food, housing, and other essentials.

GAPP Abandons Kids in Need

The Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH) runs the Georgia Pediatric Program. DCH currently faces legal trouble for potentially violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

GAPP sometimes assumes that the children under its care will automatically get better, even if their condition shows no improvement.  Julia Gouteix is one of those children. In November of 2015, when Julia was only four years old, GAPP sent a nurse to her home for eight hours each week. Her mother explained that Julia needed 40 hours a week of in-home nursing, according to federal law.  “Julia can smile and snuggle, but not eat, drink, or speak,” her mother said“She has cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and regular seizures.”

Josh Norris, Director of Legal and Advocacy Services at the Georgia Advocacy Office, says that neglect like this is often illegal under federal Medicaid law.

Now, a medically fragile seven year old named JD must cope with the same injustice. JD has Mitochondrial Disease, severe global development delay, hypotonia (abnormally decreased muscle strength), and mental retardation. He is totally dependent on caregivers. GAPP has reduced his nursing assistance to just two hours a week.

Engineer Fined $500 for Writing Letter About Traffic Lights

Mats Jarlstrom is an engineer.

The state of Oregon fined him $500 for calling himself an engineer. He is an engineer: Jarlstrom holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. He has worked as an airplane camera mechanic in the Swedish Air Force and then at Luxor, an electronics company.

It’s safe to say that the guy knows his stuff.

Dangerous Traffic Lights

In 2013, Jarlstrom’s wife received a red light camera ticket. He started noticing red light cameras around town. Like a true engineer, Jarlstrom crunched the numbers and found something interesting: Traffic lights weren’t staying yellow long enough to give people time to slow down safely.

Jarlstrom wrote a letter to the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying. In that letter, Jarlstrom explained his qualifications and his findings. He hoped to speak at an upcoming Board meeting.

Punished for Free Speech

The state of Oregon fined Jarlstrom $500 for “practicing engineering” without a state license. Should the government control who can use their skills for the common good? And should anyone be punished for trying to improve public safety?