Off The Mall: June 5, 2021

The never-ending Infrastructure Week. Someone, please help me.

Welcome back to Off The Mall.

A little housekeeping note to start: I’ll now make Saturday mornings the regular sending time for this newsletter. I find it works better with my work schedule and gives me a chance to write about anything that breaks late in the day on Fridays, as things sometimes tend to.

Also, the newsletter for the next two weeks will be shorter (maybe a few links to recommended reading and some commentary on one story, not quite sure yet). I’m about to begin some much-needed time off work and want to unplug a little bit from the news. Thank you for understanding.

With that out of the way….

Let’s get to some news

Infrastructure

Infrastructure was the word of the week in Washington. Why? Who the hell knows because NOTHING HAPPENED.

President Biden met with and had a phone conversation with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the lead infrastructure negotiator for the Senate GOP, to try to make progress toward a bipartisan agreement.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that a bipartisan deal to fix the nation’s roads, bridges, ports and pipes won’t happen because Republicans aren’t working in good faith. Biden started at a proposal of $2.3 trillion for roads, bridges, airports and even some things not thought of as traditional infrastructure like elder care. Republicans started at around $500 billion with their first proposal.

That should’ve been Biden’s first clue.

Since then, Biden has come down to an official counterproposal of $1.7 trillion, and even reportedly agreed to drop his desired corporate tax increase. Republicans countered with a $928 billion proposal, but less than $300 billion of that would be new spending.

The GOP wants to use what it sees as unspent money from the COVID relief bill earlier this year to pay for most of this bill. The White House doesn’t think there is any unspent COVID money and wants to make infrastructure heavily new spending.

Biden and Capito spoke by phone on Friday, and Capito reportedly put an offer on the table that was only about $50 billion more than the previous offer and made only a modest increase in the amount of new money. The White House said the president rejected this offer as too small and too limited in scope.

The Senate GOP has proven again and again with its paltry offers to Biden that it’s not really serious about reaching a bipartisan agreement. The president needs to wisen up to this, or he’ll continue making concessions to maybe win Republicans over and risk losing progressive senators in his own party if the package is too small.

Plus, Republicans don’t have any incentive to work with Biden. If infrastructure passes, people will see it as a victory for Biden. Why would the opposition party, whose leadership is “100%” focused on “stopping” the Biden administration, work with him to give him a victory?

The White House should recognize it also doesn’t have an incentive to work with Republicans, or even appear to be working with Republicans. On both the 2009 stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act, President Obama tried to win Republican support and got very little for stimulus and none for the ACA.

Biden has political constraints from within his party just like Obama did. But it’s undeniable that an effort to pass major legislation with only Democratic votes would result in bigger and arguably more transformative legislation. Progressives will remind you of this all the time.

Biden and Capito will speak again on Monday, but the bottom line here is this: Don’t expect a major breakthrough. We’ll either see an infrastructure plan pass with only Democratic votes, or we won’t see an infrastructure plan at all. Despite the sycophantic commitment to bipartisanship from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the reality is bipartisanship on most major issues is dead.

Two Bits of Facebook News

Facebook came in hot at the end of the week with one big bit of news and an accompanying smaller piece of news.

The big news came in the form of a company announcement that former President Trump’s ban from the platform would extend for two years, meaning he’d come back sometime in 2023 at which time Facebook will reevaluate.

Trump was of course banned in wake of the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in a wave of suspensions and bans from various social media platforms.

On its own, the decision is probably a good thing. Trump’s praise of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6, his general ambivalence to violence and white supremacy among his supporters and his continued influence over Republican voters post-presidency shows his presence on social media could cause real-world violence to erupt from the worst parts of his base.

It also is a quintessential “kick the can down the road” action from Facebook. Rather than grapple with the threat Trump’s presence poses, they make a pseudo-decision and say they’ll decide again later.

A real, substantive response would look something like a policy change or new policy implementation dealing with the speech of public figures that could lead to violence offline.

For Trump, it likely won’t mean much for now. He’s been banned from social media for most of this year, and his blog shut down this week after only getting under 15,000 unique interactions a day.

(As a blogger myself, I’d advise Donald to just stick with it and keep the audience in mind. You can’t expect it to pick up that much traffic. But then I remember he’s the biggest Republican figure alive right now and I chuckle at the proportional size of his audience.)

But the more meaningful effect will come in 2022 where he won’t be able to use Facebook as a fundraising tool to help Republicans in House and Senate races. It remains to be seen what any effect could be beyond then.

It’s worth noting that he could come back to Facebook in Jan. 2023, just in time for the start of the 2024 campaign season.

What a coincidence.

The smaller accompanying bit of news could have bigger implications. For years now, we’ve known Facebook keeps a list of political accounts that aren’t subject to the same content moderation and fact-checking policies that affect normal users. Put simply, Facebook treats politicians differently than you.

Now, however, Facebook is making some modest changes to that policy. The company announced Friday that political accounts are now open to harsher content moderation for speech that violates certain Facebook rules around things like bullying.

On the whole, politicians’ speech will probably be left untouched because most politicians don’t engage in speech that violates Facebook rules, and the company deems such speech “newsworthy.” With these rule changes, though, speech left up for “newsworthiness” will now be marked and explained.

Essentially, if a politician says something deemed bullying or unfairly targeting a group of people or an individual, the politician can now be punished for that.

“When we assess content for newsworthiness, we will not treat content posted by politicians any differently from content posted by anyone else,” Facebook’s Clegg wrote in a blog post. “Instead, we will simply apply our newsworthiness balancing test in the same way to all content, measuring whether the public interest value of the content outweighs the potential risk of harm by leaving it up.”

This could have serious implications for politicians around the world, but it all comes down to how Facebook enforces these rules. Given the whole “newsworthy” exception, difficult decisions will have to be made on controversial online speech within a company that’s proven to not be very adept at handling political controversy.

You can read a little more on this from The Verge here and here.

One More Thing

Shout-out to my incredible stepbrother Paul for flagging this story I missed in my own backyard.

Here’s the double take-inducing headline of the story he sent me:

In This Local Election, Every Candidate Is Incarcerated At The D.C. Jail”

Sure enough, it’s true.

Washington, D.C., has an inherent contradiction at its heart when it comes to local governance. We elect a mayor and a city council but are still subject to the whims of Congress when it comes to what those officials can and can’t do.

We may not have a say in a congressional sense, but we do have a voice at the local level. We use our voices in bodies called Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs). They’re bodies that serve individual neighborhoods, and the people who serve on ANCs are elected volunteers.

ANCs are the people of D.C.’s chief method to exercise influence over the D.C. government outside the mayor and city council's normal voting and election schedule. It’s a key official channel going up to elected leadership from individual neighborhoods. And while the government doesn’t have to listen to the ANCs, D.C. law requires it to give recommendations from ANCs “great weight.”

There are 40 ANCs in the District, each representing around 2,000 people. The subject of this article, a seat on ANC 7F, represents a part of the city where the majority of the voting population is incarcerated in the local jail.

The reason the prisoners are counted as voters, and are eligible to run for the ANC seat, is because D.C. last year made it legal for incarcerated residents to vote. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, don’t prevent incarcerated residents from voting.

And given that the neighborhood around the jail is being slowly gentrified, the prisoners have a limited window in which to exercise some political power. Five candidates are running, and doing it in a jail that’s had 23-hour lockdowns throughout the pandemic.

Some details about this seat remain unclear. How would an incarcerated ANC member attend meetings? How can they represent an entire prison complex if they can’t move between different parts of the facility?

It’s an interesting story and one I’ll watch closely. You can read more on it here.

(On a related note: I understand the whole “you should be punished for a crime” argument, but the fact that felon enfranchisement isn’t more widespread is a shame. Prisoners are stripped of a lot once they’re sentenced, but they generally retain a pretty basic set of constitutional and human rights. The right to vote is a sacred thing and shouldn’t be stripped away.

And to answer the question: Should we trust a felon’s judgment? I’d raise this: We trust the judgment of an overall American public that’s vastly under-informed about the vast majority of issues facing the country. If we trust that judgment, it’s not a far cry from trusting a felon’s judgment. Especially as criminal justice reform remains a hot issue in our elections, it’s fair to give the people directly impacted by some of those policy decisions a say. Just something I ruminated on while writing up this story. Food for thought.)

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