COLUMBUS, Ohio — With other state lawmakers seated around her in the Ohio House, Democratic state Rep. Tavia Galonski got to her feet and began to loudly chant, “One person, one vote!”
The former Teamster's cry spread quickly through the visitors gallery, then began to rise from the throng of protesters gathered outside in the statehouse rotunda. Struggling to be heard over the din, the Republican speaker ordered spectators cleared from the chamber.
Last week's striking scene came as Ohio joined a growing number of Republican-leaning states that are moving to undermine direct democracy by restricting citizens' ability to bypass lawmakers through ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments.
The Ohio proposal will ask voters during an August special election to boost the threshold for passing constitutional amendments to 60% rather than a simple majority. It also would double the number of counties where signatures must be collected, adding an extra layer of difficulty to qualifying initiatives for the ballot.
The Missouri Legislature failed to approve a similar measure on Friday, but Republicans vowed to bring the issue back in 2024 in an attempt to head off a citizens' attempt to restore abortion rights in the state through a constitutional amendment.
A similar measure will be on North Dakota's ballot in the November 2024 general election. It would restrict how citizens can amend the state constitution by increasing the petition signature threshold to put measures on the ballot, limiting measures to one subject, and requiring petition circulators to be North Dakota voters. Voters also would have to approve such measures twice, in the primary and general elections.
North Dakota lawmakers in recent years have grumbled about certain constitutional initiatives voters have approved, including measures for a state Ethics Commission in 2018 and for term limits on the governor and state lawmakers last year.
A measure in the works in Idaho would ask voters to increase signature requirements imposed on petition gatherers. In Wisconsin, which does not allow statewide citizen initiatives, Republicans who control the Legislature have proposed prohibiting local governments from placing advisory questions on ballots. Such referenda are sometimes used to boost voter turnout, though results don’t carry the weight of law. Florida Republicans added new hurdles to that state's constitutional amendment process in 2020.
The trend has taken off as Democrats and left-leaning groups frustrated by legislative gerrymandering that locks them out of power in state legislatures are increasingly turning to the initiative process to force public votes on issues that are opposed by Republican lawmakers yet popular among voters. Only about half the states, mostly in the Western U.S., allow some form of citizen ballot initiative.
In Ohio, voters have proposed using the initiative process to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution this November, as well as to increase the minimum wage, to legalize recreational marijuana and to reform a redistricting system that has produced persistently unconstitutional political maps favoring Republicans.
Arkansas Sen. Bryan King, a Republican who has joined the League of Women Voters in a lawsuit challenging his state's latest initiative restriction, said he views efforts to undermine the initiative process as anti-democratic.
A measure approved earlier this year by Arkansas’ majority-GOP Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders makes it harder to get initiatives on the ballot by raising the number of counties where signatures must be gathered from 15 to 50.
“I think one of the things it does is, no matter what party is in power, when you start trying to make it harder for citizens to challenge what their government does or make changes, then it just makes people not have faith in the process,” King said. “So I do think that making it harder is wrong.”
In Ohio, former governors and attorneys general of both major parties have lined up against the proposed constitutional amendment that would alter the simple majority threshold for passing citizen-led initiative that has been in place since 1912.
Democratic legislators point to the bipartisan opposition and the maneuvering that allowed the proposal to be on an August ballot as evidence that today's Republicans are extremist in their desire to maintain political power.
Republican state Rep. Brian Stewart, the Ohio plan's sponsor, argued during last week's raucous floor session that a simple majority of voters will get to decide whether to impose the stricter requirements on future ballot initiatives.
“SJR 2 will ask Ohioans, not us, whether Ohio’s constitution should require a 60% vote threshold to adopt amendments going forward. It will ask Ohioans, not us, to decide whether all 88 counties should have a voice in determining what amendments make it onto the ballot and to eliminate the cumbersome ‘cure’ period, which gives initiative petitions effectively a do-over when they fail to meet the requirements for ballot access,” he said. “Putting this issue in front of Ohioans, that is democratic.”
What Stewart didn't address is how Republicans circumvented a law they had just passed so they could put the proposed amendment on a summertime ballot when voter turnout is typically quite low, rather than putting it before voters in the regular election this November.
Democratic Rep. Casey Weinstein called out Stewart and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, for previously opposing the very August special elections that they supported for offering the 60% question.
Weinstein read in its entirety LaRose's testimony from December advocating for the provisions of a new law — signed in January — that eliminated most August elections. LaRose argued that making big decisions, including those regarding ballot issues, in chronically low-turnout August elections “isn’t the way democracy is supposed to work” and that such elections “aren’t good for taxpayers, election officials or the civic health of our state.”
In testimony, Mark Gavin Sr., outreach director for the Black Environmental Leaders Association, referred to the U.S. Constitution's counting of enslaved people by calling the Ohio proposal “the new Three-Fifths Compromise.”
Gavin was among hundreds of protesters who packed statehouse hearings and overflow rooms, testified and marched in opposition to the Republican proposal, which he said is intended to dilute the power of individual voters.
“I’ve been a voter in Ohio for 15 years, and it’s getting really old to always have to have new rules and regulations on a ballot,” he said.
Anti-abortion and pro-gun groups were the primary forces behind the push in favor of the proposed Ohio amendment. Since the Supreme Court's decision last year overturning Roe v. Wade, voters in Michigan, Kentucky and Kansas have protected abortion rights through statewide votes.
David Couch, an attorney who has worked on citizens' initiatives in Arkansas, said Republicans' efforts to thwart direct democracy are uniquely partisan.
“If you look in Arkansas history in the '90s, when the Democrats controlled Arkansas, the conservative right passed same-sex marriage amendments, they passed adoption amendments," he said. “They passed all sorts of reforms, and the Democrats didn’t try to change the process.”
Democrats in Missouri did try to cripple the initiative process through legislation in 1992. Then-Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican who went on to serve as U.S. attorney general, vetoed the bill. Ashcroft’s son, Jay, is the state’s current secretary of state.
"It is through the initiative process that those who have no influence with elective representatives may take their cause directly to the people," the elder Ashcroft said in a veto letter that became part of this year's debate. "The General Assembly should be reluctant, therefore, to enact legislation which places any impediments on the initiative power which are inconsistent with the reservation found in the Constitution.”
Missouri's Republican lawmakers are singing a different tune today. Fearing a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights, they vowed last week to make it a priority in 2024 to adopt a ballot measure that would establish a 57% threshold for passing future amendments.
Not all Republicans in the state think that's a good idea. Former Republican House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden said the proposal would infringe on the rights of Missouri voters while noting that the initiative process is intended to be a check on the power of the Legislature.
“It is not a conservative policy,” he said of the Republican plan.
The North Dakota Senate votes on a measure that would tighten how citizens can petition for and approve ballot measures to change North Dakota…
WASHINGTON — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Monday there's been “no progress” on debt ceiling talks ahead of a meeting with President Joe Biden on Tuesday at the White House, as the country pushes closer to a crisis over the need to raise its legal borrowing limit.
Compounding pressure on Washington to strike a deal, the Treasury Department on Monday left unchanged a June 1 deadline when the nation will have exhausted its ability to cover its debt payments, though Secretary Janet Yellen also suggested the so-called “X-date” could move days or weeks later than the estimate.
“It's very concerning to me,” McCarthy, the Republican speaker, told reporters as he opened the House chamber.
“There’s no progress that I see,” he said of the staff-level talks that extended through the weekend. “And it really concerns me with the timeline of where we are.”
Time is narrowing as Biden prepares to depart for the Group of Seven summit Wednesday in Japan. The standoff comes as the Treasury Department issued a new letter Monday outlining its ability to continue paying the nation's bills. Biden's National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that so far, “we are still planning to leave as scheduled.”
Biden, who was in Philadelphia on Monday to attend granddaughter Maisy’s graduation from the University of Pennsylvania, told reporters the meeting was on for Tuesday but did not elaborate on prospects for a deal.
The president remained hopeful that an agreement could be reached with McCarthy and congressional leaders when they meet to avoid what would be an unprecedented debt default, which could trigger a financial catastrophe. Now at $31 trillion, the debt limit must be lifted, as has been done countless times before, to allow continued borrowing to pay already accrued bills.
"I remain optimistic because I’m a congenital optimist," Biden told reporters Sunday while out for a bike ride in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. "But I really think there’s a desire on their part as well as ours to reach an agreement. I think we’ll be able to do it.”
Yellen said Monday that agency estimates are unchanged on the possible X-date when the U.S. could run out of cash.
Yellen’s letter to House and Senate leaders leaves some opening for a possible time extension on a national default, stating that “the actual date Treasury exhausts extraordinary measures could be a number of days or weeks later than these estimates.”
She said she would update Congress next week “as more information becomes available.”
Aides said talks had continued throughout the weekend. Staff is narrowing on four areas of potential agreement that could begin to shape a budget deal that would unlock a separate vote to lift the nation's borrowing capacity. They are discussing clawing back untapped COVID-19 money, future spending caps, permitting reforms to ease energy development and bolstered work requirements on recipients of government aid, those familiar with the talks said.
But at least publicly, there was little indication that either the White House or House Republicans had budged from their initial positions. Biden has called on lawmakers to lift the debt limit without preconditions, warning that the nation’s borrowing authority should not be used to impose deep spending cuts and other conservative policy demands.
Republicans led by McCarthy want Biden to accept their proposal to rollback spending, cap future outlays and other policy changes in the package passed last month by House Republicans.
“We’ve not reached the crunch point yet,” Biden told reporters Saturday before flying to his beach home. “There’s real discussion about some changes we all could make. We’re not there yet.”
Biden did signal over the weekend that he could be open to tougher work requirements for certain government aid programs, which Republicans are proposing as part of the ongoing discussion. He has said he will not accept anything that takes away people’s health care coverage.
“I voted for tougher aid programs that’s in the law now, but for Medicaid it’s a different story,” he said. “And so I’m waiting to hear what their exact proposal is.”
Administration officials said the talks among staff had so far been productive after Biden and the leaders — McCarthy of California, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — ended their first meeting last Tuesday without a breakthrough.
The president described that Oval Office session as “productive” even though McCarthy said later he “didn’t see any new movement” toward resolving the stalemate. White House and congressional aides have been in talks since Wednesday.
“The staff is very engaged. I would characterize the engagement as serious, as constructive,” Lael Brainard, head of the White House’s National Economic Council, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
McCarthy has insisted on using the threat of defaulting on the nation’s debts to wrangle spending changes, arguing that the federal government can’t continue to spend money at the pace it is now. The national debt now stands at $31.4 trillion.
An increase in the debt limit would not authorize new federal spending. It would only allow for borrowing to pay for what Congress has already approved.
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WASHINGTON — A special prosecutor found that the FBI rushed into its investigation of ties between Russia and Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and relied too much on raw and unconfirmed intelligence as he concluded a four-year probe that fell far short of the former president's prediction that the “crime of the century" would be uncovered.
The report Monday from special counsel John Durham represents the long-awaited culmination of an investigation that Trump and allies had claimed would expose massive wrongdoing by law enforcement and intelligence officials. Instead, Durham's investigation delivered underwhelming results, with prosecutors securing a guilty plea from a little-known FBI employee but losing the only two criminal cases they took to trial.
The roughly 300-page report catalogs what Durham says were a series of missteps by the FBI and Justice Department as investigators undertook a politically explosive probe in the heat of the 2016 election into whether the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia to tip the outcome.
It criticized the FBI for opening a full-fledged investigation based on "raw, unanalyzed and uncorroborated intelligence," saying the speed at which it did so was a departure from the norm. And it said investigators repeatedly relied on “confirmation bias,” ignoring or rationalizing away evidence that undercut their premise of a Trump-Russia conspiracy as they pushed the probe forward.
“Based on the review of Crossfire Hurricane and related intelligence activities, we conclude that the Department and the FBI failed to uphold their important mission of strict fidelity to the law in connection with certain events and activities described in this report,” the document states.
The impact of Durham’s report, though harshly critical of the FBI, is likely blunted by Durham’s spotty prosecution record and by the fact that many of the seven-year-old episodes it cites were already examined in depth by the Justice Department’s inspector general. The FBI has also long since announced dozens of corrective actions. The bureau outlined those changes in a letter to Durham on Monday, including steps meant to ensure the accuracy of secretive surveillance applications to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists and spies.
“Had those reforms been in place in 2016, the missteps identified in the report could have been prevented. This report reinforces the importance of ensuring the FBI continues to do its work with the rigor, objectivity, and professionalism the American people deserve and rightly expect,” the FBI said in a statement. It also stressed that the report focused on the FBI's prior leadership, before current Director Christopher Wray took the job in 2017.
Still, Durham’s findings are likely to amplify scrutiny of the FBI at a time when Trump is again seeking the White House as well as offer fresh fodder for congressional Republicans who have launched their own investigation into the purported “weaponization” of the FBI and Justice Department. After the report was released, Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan said he had invited Durham to testify next week.
Trump, on his Truth Social platform, claimed the report showed the American public had been “scammed.”
Durham, the former U.S. Attorney in Connecticut, was appointed in 2019 by Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, soon after special counsel Robert Mueller had completed his investigation into whether the 2016 Trump campaign had colluded with Russia to move the outcome of the election in his favor.
The Mueller investigation resulted in roughly three dozen criminal charges, including convictions of a half-dozen Trump associates, and concluded that Russia intervened on the Trump campaign’s behalf and that the campaign welcomed the help. But Mueller’s team did not find that they actually conspired to sway the election, creating an opening for critics of the probe — including Barr himself — to assert that it had been launched without a proper basis.
The original Russia investigation was opened in July 2016 after the FBI learned from an Australian diplomat that a Trump campaign associate named George Papadopoulos had claimed to know of “dirt” that the Russians had on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of hacked emails.
But revelations over the following months laid bare flaws with the investigation, including errors and omissions in Justice Department applications to eavesdrop on a former Trump campaign aide, Carter Page, as well as the reliance by the FBI on a dossier of uncorroborated or discredited information compiled by an British ex-spy, Christopher Steele.
Durham’s team delved deep into those mistakes, finding that investigators opened the investigation hastily, without doing key interviews or a significant review of intelligence databases. The report says the FBI, at the time the investigation was opened, had no information that any Trump campaign officials had been in touch with any Russian intelligence officials.
It said the FBI did not corroborate a “single substantive allegation” in the so-called Steele dossier and ignored or rationalized what it asserts was exculpatory information that Trump associates had provided to FBI confidential informants. That includes, the report said, minimizing the importance of a conversation in which Papadopoulos strenuously denied to the FBI informant that he had any knowledge of ties between the campaign and Russia.
“An objective and honest assessment of these strands of information should have caused the FBI to question not only the predication for Crossfire Hurricane, but also to reflect on whether the FBI was being manipulated for political or other purposes,” the report said. “Unfortunately, it did not. ”
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