Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
USA Today on the partial government shutdown and Trump's demand for billions of dollars to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico:
Like previous government shutdowns, the current one — which enters its 13th day on Thursday — has had less impact than you might expect. About two-thirds of government spending is for benefits such as Medicare and Social Security, which are unaffected by shutdowns. Also unaffected are the jobs of federal workers considered "essential."
Lessening the impact even further, Congress did manage to pass a measure financing the Pentagon, the Department of Health and Human Services and several other large agencies.
None of this should obscure the fact that this shutdown is both destructive and inane, perhaps more so because Congress, President Donald Trump and even much of the American public seem inured to these periodic events.
The shutdown is affecting a number of loan programs from the Small Business Administration and other agencies. (Initially, it prevented the issuance of federal flood insurance policies, which are necessary for mortgages in many parts of the country, but the government has apparently found a workaround.) Smithsonian museums are shuttered, and national parks are a mess.
The proximate cause of the shutdown is a dispute over funding for Trump's border wall, the one Mexico was supposed to pay for.
Physical barriers (though not concrete walls) are an important component of border security in certain places along the 2,000-mile border. But much of today's illegal immigration problem involves people who overstay their visas or who wish to be apprehended so they can apply for asylum or refugee status. Trump seemed to comprehend this when he initially signaled he would compromise. But he beat a hasty retreat when he started coming under attack from hard-line conservative pundits and power brokers.
Trump has been seeking $5 billion for the wall; Democrats have been offering $1.3 billion for border security. A deal in this case would not be difficult to envision, as the numbers involved are dwarfed by the $3.8 trillion budget.
Ideally, in return for the Democrats meeting him partway on border security, Trump would agree to end his policy of threatening "Dreamers" — young adults who were brought here illegally as children — with deportation once their court protection ends.
This fight over border funding, however, has larger overtones that might stand in the way of a quick resolution. Wednesday's meeting at the White House with congressional leaders ended with no signs of progress.
Democrats, who take control of the House on Thursday, are happy to finally be in the position of being able to say no to Trump and want to display that power to their rank-and-file voters. They plan to offer a measure funding the Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 8 and the rest of the government for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Trump, meanwhile, has spent his first two years catering to his base and ignoring or insulting just about everyone else. He does not appear inclined to change that now.
This leaves much of the country wondering when this desultory fight over a relatively small matter will come to an end. From the looks of things, the answer is: not very soon.
Chicago Tribune on race and school discipline:
Americans have grown all too familiar with the horror of school shootings. One of the worst ever, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., left 17 dead and provoked the state to tighten its gun laws. The tragedy and others like it have given parents cause to worry when they send their kids to school.
But mass shootings in schools are rare events. What's more common is the daily danger from bullying, threats and violence that many students (and even teachers) face from disruptive students. This problem is far less lethal but can cause psychological as well as physical injury, not to mention its corrosive effect on learning.
After the Parkland shooting, President Donald Trump empaneled a federal commission on school safety. In late December, it issued a report stressing the need for the federal government to help local school districts address their respective discipline issues rather than dictating one-size-fits-all solutions. One of the chief recommendations was to revoke the previous administration's guidance on racial differences in school discipline — which this commission judged to be attacking the wrong problem in the wrong way.
President Barack Obama's Education Department, headed by Arne Duncan, noted that "African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended." School districts were put on notice that evidence of "disparate impact" in disciplinary outcomes could trigger investigations of possible racial discrimination.
But why should it? More likely, actual differences in behavior account for the gap. "According to federal data," Manhattan Institute analyst Heather Mac Donald noted in City Journal, ". black students self-reported being in a physical fight at school at over twice the rate of white students in 2015." In California, black fifth-graders are five times more likely than whites to be chronically truant.
Mac Donald's point wasn't to say that race determines conduct. She was helping to explain how factors outside school may influence conduct inside school. African-American youngsters are more likely to grow up in poverty, in single-parent homes and in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Such conditions are bound to have a detrimental effect on the behavior of some students, which likely accounts for the racial gap in discipline.
The Obama administration guidance had discouraged schools from removing students who are violent or seriously disruptive. But the new commission cited Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, who expressed the view that "some school leaders have chosen to avoid potential Office of Civil Rights investigations by eliminating the use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, without considering the impact that such practices have on school safety."
In Oklahoma City, an American Federation of Teachers survey found that 36 percent of teachers said student offenses had become more frequent under a policy aimed at curbing suspensions. In Madison, Wis., suspensions declined by 13 percent between 2013 and 2018, the Wisconsin State Journal reports, but "bad student behavior in Madison schools nearly doubled."
What's easy to forget in the focus on those who are disciplined is the effect of their conduct on everyone else. In schools that are mostly black, the victims of students who engage in violent or disruptive behavior also are mostly black. When disruptive students of any ethnicity are removed from the classroom, teachers are better able to help kids who want to learn.
By rescinding the old guidance, the Trump administration will empower local school administrators and teachers to craft and enforce discipline policies that are fair to every student. A safe school, after all, should be considered a civil right.
The Washington Post on antibiotic use in farm animals:
VERY PROMISING news about antibiotic use in farm animals has come from the Food and Drug Administration. The problem of resistance — the tendency of bacteria to fight back against antibiotic drugs — has been growing for decades, fueled by overuse and misuse of antibiotics in human health, as well as widespread and often indiscriminate use in farm animals. But new data shows the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture has taken a marked downward turn.
As FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb noted Dec.?18, this is a costly public-health problem, with an estimated 2 million Americans suffering from antibiotic-resistant infections every year, leading to 23,000 deaths. Mr. Gottlieb correctly pointed out that it is impossible to outrace resistance, but efforts must be made to "slow its pace and reduce its impact on both human and animal health." Otherwise, antibiotics, the "miracle drugs" of the 20th century, will become useless, and a foundation of modern medicine could crumble.
A large share of antibiotics, including those medically important to human health, are given to food-producing animals. While it is proper for sick animals, the industry practice for decades has also been to use antibiotics so animals will grow faster and larger on the same amount of feed, and for prevention of disease in a whole herd or flock. The agriculture industry defended these practices by saying they were not the culprit in the rising tide of resistance. But studies show key factors in resistance are overuse and abuse of antibiotics on the farm, as well as in human health. Farms and people do not exist in a world apart but in a "linked ecosystem," as pointed out by a predecessor of Mr. Gottlieb, Commissioner Donald Kennedy, in 1977.
The Obama administration proposed that manufacturers stop selling antibiotics for growth promotion and that veterinary oversight be strengthened for other uses. The FDA data now shows the fruits of this wise step. There was a 33 percent decline between 2016 and 2017 in domestic sales and distribution of all medically important antimicrobials for use in food-producing animals — and a drop of 43 percent since 2015 . There are still some unknowns in the data, which reflects sales and distribution, not actual use. More research and data are needed. Still, the trend does seem to herald a new direction and fresh thinking about the problem.
Importantly, change is being driven by the market and consumers. Fast-food outlets such as McDonald's are demanding meat with less use of antibiotics. Also, there are signs of greater consensus. In an impressive joint effort, major food companies, retailers, livestock producers, and trade and professional associations announced Dec. 18 a comprehensive "framework" aimed at strengthening stewardship of antibiotic use in food animals, the result of a two-year discussion moderated by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Farm Foundation. While much more needs to be done to protect antibiotics for future generations, having so many players at the table is a great first step.
The Japan News on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement:
It is hoped that fair, high-level economic rules will be spread through the world in a drive to strengthen the free trade framework.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, with 11 participating countries including Japan and Australia, has come into force with the six countries that have completed procedures.
In addition to the abolition of tariffs, rules such as on trade, investment and intellectual property rights have been put in place. It is significant that goods and money will flow smoothly in the rapidly growing Asia-Pacific region.
Under the TPP deal, Japanese consumers and companies will gain a number of benefits. Japan's tariff on imported beef has been lowered from 38.5 percent to 27.5 percent. It will be cut to 9 percent in the 16th year. A tariff on Japanese passenger cars to be exported to Canada will be abolished in the fifth year.
In February, an economic partnership agreement (EPA) between Japan and the European Union will also take effect. It is crucial for companies and producers to draw up highly viable investment plans and sales strategies by taking the TPP and EPA as a good opportunity to expand their exports and imports.
Touting America First policies, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the TPP. The administration has continued to take selfish actions, such as imposing punitive duties unilaterally. It is unacceptable to be so dismissive of free trade.
Seeing other countries receive the benefits of free trade by participating in the TPP would put pressure on the United States, which has pushed a protectionist policy.
The TPP also has a role in putting a brake on China, which has attempted to attain both economic and military supremacy in the region.
The TPP agreement has included provisions such as those to prevent infringement of intellectual property rights, apparently with China in mind. If the TPP rules become international standards in the future, China would find it difficult to continue such acts.
Leave door open to U.S.
To spread the TPP rules to the world, it is imperative to expand its membership.
The 11 countries are scheduled to begin talks on new accession. Many countries, such as Thailand and Britain, have shown their interest in the TPP.
Japan led TPP negotiations after the United States withdrew. Tokyo is urged to take the initiative in the accession talks as well.
It is also an important task for Japan to focus on establishing other economic zones and reinforce the free trade system.
Efforts must be accelerated to conclude negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, in which China and India take part.
Japan plans to start negotiations on a trade agreement on goods (TAG) with the United States as early as next month. Washington would possibly try to achieve more than under the TPP, such as liberalizing Japan's agricultural market and introducing a currency provision that would limit currency devaluations.
The TPP agreement is the result of fragile compromises the participating countries reached after long years of negotiations. Concessions going beyond those under the TPP must be avoided.
If the bilateral TAG results in a deal with standards similar to TPP's, that could also prepare the ground for the United States to return to the TPP in the future.
The Boston Globe on criticism of President Trump by Republican Sen.-elect Mitt Romney:
Now that he's entering the US Senate as part of the majority party, Mitt Romney has real power. He also has some real problems with Donald Trump, which the former Massachusetts governor laid out in a buzzy op-ed in The Washington Post on Wednesday that trashed Trump's handling of the presidency and promised that Romney would "speak out" against "statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions."
Speaking out, of course, is grand — and publishing such a scathing op-ed on the eve of his swearing-in sent an encouraging symbolic message. But the bigger test is whether Romney, who was elected in November to represent Utah, will actually put some of his new power behind those words. If he does, he can help both the country and the Senate weather the Trump presidency.
That's a big if, and here in Massachusetts it's easy to snicker at Romney's latest political reinvention. Romney has been a Massachusetts moderate, a varmint-hunting conservative, a vocal critic of candidate Trump, and a tame recipient of President Trump's support in his most recent Senate run. Romney is also shadowed by the sad examples of Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, Republican senators who criticized Trump rhetorically but were unable or unwilling to use their power to influence his behavior.
It's not that Republicans like Romney should be expected to start voting for Democratic bills just to signal their displeasure with Trump. But senators can withhold their votes on bills or nominations to extract concessions; horse-trade to get what they want; issue subpeonas and conduct real oversight of federal agencies. At the very end of his Senate career — that is, when it no longer really mattered — Flake said he would stop voting for Trump's judicial nominees until legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller passed. Imagine if Flake had made use of his leverage like that in September.
Trump's nominations to fill cabinet vacancies will pose an early opportunity for Romney to translate his words into action. As Romney noted in the Post op-ed, the president has replaced experienced officials with "senior persons of lesser experience." Senators will need to scrutinize the nominees Trump puts forward. They need to take an especially hard look at attorney general nominee William P. Barr: If Barr can't guarantee to senators that he'll allow the Mueller probe to reach its conclusion without interference, and make its results public, the Senate should reject him.
Implicitly, part of Romney's op-ed was directed at the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has seemed comfortable turning his chamber into an appendage of the White House. Under McConnell, Senate Republicans have generally looked the other way from the president's various disgraces as long as he keeps supporting GOP nominations and legislation.
That's just the kind of bargain that Romney criticized in his op-ed: "policies and appointments are only a part of a presidency," he wrote. Challenging Trump will also inevitably mean challenging the way McConnell runs the Senate, and pushing the Senate GOP to act independently of the White House.
With the op-ed, Romney triggered a frenzy of speculation that he was preparing to challenge Trump from within in the 2020 Republican primaries. He denied any intention to his run in a CNN interview Wednesday afternoon. Whatever his plans, it's encouraging that Romney is picking up the baton from Corker and Flake, whose Senate careers ended Thursday. The resistance to Trump needs to be bipartisan.
Los Angeles Times on states passing anti-abortion laws:
This month marks the 46th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision guaranteeing a woman's right to an abortion. That's nearly half a century as settled law — and yet states continue to fight to undermine it, to restrict access and to return the country to the days of illegal abortions. As 2019 begins, these unnecessary battles will continue in courthouses and statehouses around the country.
Just since 2010, reproductive rights advocates estimate that a staggering 400 antiabortion bills have passed successfully through state legislatures. Some were so blatantly unconstitutional that federal judges banned them indefinitely or permanently. But that hasn't stopped states from appealing the rulings or introducing other such bills.
The notorious Texas law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at hospitals and mandating that abortion clinics be outfitted and equipped to the standards of ambulatory surgical centers — both of which are medically unnecessary requirements — was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 in another landmark ruling making it clear that the right to abortion means having access to abortion. Yet several states, including Louisiana and Missouri, have either passed or continued to enforce laws with very similar restrictions. In a few cases, federal courts allowed those laws to stand.
The fact that many of the laws don't survive challenges in federal court doesn't seem to deter lawmakers from coming up with new ones. Kentucky legislators are about to introduce a bill that will prohibit abortion after six weeks of pregnancy — a clear violation of Roe vs. Wade.
Several states have passed bills outlawing the most common method of second-trimester abortion, known as a dilation and evacuation procedure; those laws have generally been struck down in courts. Alabama, after losing all its appeals on its D&E ban, just petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
It's stunning that a state would try to interfere with a woman's decision whether to take on the difficult and life-altering task of raising a child with a disability — or the related decision whether to subject a child to living with a severely disabling condition. Besides, as an ACLU attorney recently noted, allowing a state to pry into the reasons a woman decides to have an abortion strikes at the very heart of a woman's right to make this private decision for herself. Given that, legal experts think it's unlikely the Supreme Court will take the issue up.
But who knows? There seems to be a push to get more antiabortion state laws on the books in order to prompt more federal lawsuits and increase the chances that the U.S. Supreme Court, with its new conservative majority, will seriously undermine — or overturn — Roe vs. Wade. In late November, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves said as much in a scathing rebuke of the state of Mississippi when he struck down its ban on abortions after 15 weeks.
Of more immediate concern than a broad Supreme Court ruling are the incremental state restrictions that manage to survive court challenges. Together, these are making it increasingly difficult for abortion clinics to stay open, intimidating doctors so that they won't provide abortions and generally reducing access in so many places that the procedure becomes almost unobtainable, particularly for poor women without the means to travel. In several states, there is, literally, only one abortion clinic.
It's unconscionable that states continue to obstruct access to abortion, and it's particularly galling when they cloak their laws in fake concerns about the health and safety of women. Abortion rights advocates must continue to challenge these laws in court, the judiciary must defend its critically important 50-year-old precedent and, ultimately, opponents must accept that abortion is a constitutional right that is not likely to go away.