GOP Quietly Pushes Through Long-Sought Priorities As Pandemic Rages

President Donald Trump announced Monday night that he planned to suspend all immigration to the United States.

Trump said the move would be an effort to combat the coronavirus ― or, in his words, to stop “the attack from the Invisible Enemy.” But, he added, it was also meant “to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens.”

The trope that immigrants steal Americans’ jobs is not new, and it has nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the same rhetoric that anti-immigration hard-liners have used for years.

The U.S. already has the most coronavirus cases in the world, by far.

Trump has already used the current crisis to close off America. During his first address to the nation on the topic, he characterized it as a “foreign virus” and touted his restrictions on travel from China. He then closed the U.S. to visitors from many European countries.

And last month, while at his private Mar-a-Lago resort with a mix of friends, family and GOP donors, Trump reportedly saw a “potential upside” in the crisis ― a chance to promote his “America First” agenda.

“Certain industries are going to be hit very hard — cruise ships and airlines and certain industries,” the president said, according to a GOP donor. “But at the same time, I’ve been saying for a long time people should stay in our country and travel in our country, and that’s going to happen.”

Like Trump, Republicans around the country have been pushing through some of their long-held priorities during the pandemic. Some of them are using the coronavirus as an excuse for passing legislation or rolling back regulations. Others are simply doing what they want, quietly, while everyone is focused on the coronavirus.

A look at what’s been going on:

Gutting auto emissions standards

Last month, right in the middle of the pandemic, the Trump administration took a major step toward rolling back auto emissions standards put in place during President Barack Obama’s tenure. The new rules would lower fuel economy standards for vehicles sold in the U.S. from 54 miles per gallon by 2025 to 40 mpg. The move has significant implications for climate change ― under the new standards, the U.S. auto fleet would emit nearly an additional 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide over the vehicles’ lifespans on the road than under the current rule.

Looser rules for toxic mercury pollutants

This month, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized its proposal to loosen rules on oil- and coal-fired power plants’ emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants. Mercury pollution damages brains and lungs. The new rules change the way regulators weigh the pros and cons of such restrictions, giving more weight to economic costs and less to indirect benefits to public health.

Abortion bans

GOP officials in a number of states ― including Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas ― have tried to use the coronavirus as an excuse to ban abortions, except when a woman’s life is in immediate danger. They say that the medical procedures are not essential and therefore need to wait until after the coronavirus crisis to be carried out.

But abortion rights advocates and medical experts say that abortion is time-sensitive and cannot wait. Many of these states also have stricter rules on when a woman is no longer allowed to obtain an abortion in her pregnancy.

“While many physicians and health care workers are on the front lines in the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unfortunate that elected officials in some states are exploiting this moment to ban or dramatically limit women’s reproductive health care, labeling procedures as ‘non-urgent,’” said Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, in a statement.

NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio Executive Director Kellie Copeland added that people decide to end their pregnancies for a number of reasons, including, “the impact of pregnancy and birth on their health, ability to work, and strained economic circumstances. These are conditions that do not go away ― and are likely heightened — in pandemic conditions.”

Tax benefits for millionaires

Senate Republicans tucked a tax change into the coronavirus relief legislation last month that will temporarily reduce the tax liability for certain businesses. Eighty percent of the benefits will go to those who earn more than $1 million annually. Hedge-fund investors and owners of real estate businesses are the main beneficiaries of the GOP change, according to Steve Rosenthal, a tax expert at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

Anti-transgender laws

Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) signed two anti-transgender bills into law during the coronavirus pandemic. One bars transgender and intersex girls from competing in girls sports in state public schools. The other prohibits transgender and gender nonconforming people from changing the gender marked on their birth certificate to match their gender identity.

Restricting science used to write environmental regulations

The Trump administration formally revised a rule this month significantly limiting the type of research that the government can use to draft environmental and public health regulations. The EPA would give preference to studies where all the data used is public ― a move that would dismiss “some of the most important environmental research of the past decades,” according to The New York Times. For example, research that uses the private medical information of study subjects who were granted confidentiality would be downplayed.

“In following through with this flawed policy anyway, the EPA administrator is undermining the agency’s ability to use the best available science as it makes decisions. … Let’s call this rule what it is: a deliberate attempt to exclude scientific evidence from the policymaking process,” said Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a statement.

Voter ID

Kentucky’s GOP-controlled Legislature recently overrode Gov. Andy Beshear’s (D) veto of a voter ID bill last week, a move that adds an extra hurdle for people to vote in November. The bill requires people to show government-issued photo identification in order to cast a ballot.

This legislation comes at a time when people are already struggling to vote in primary elections because of the coronavirus pandemic. The ACLU of Kentucky said it was considering filing a lawsuit to block the law.

Voter fraud is extremely rare, yet voter ID bills are popular with Republicans. Voters who are elderly, low-income, students and people of color ― many of whom often vote for Democrats ― are the groups most likely to lack proper ID.

“As Democratic Governors work tirelessly to expand testing and provide personal protective equipment to frontline health care workers, Republicans at every level of government are focused on enacting a partisan agenda focused on stripping away the right to vote, chipping away at health care protections, and undermining their own state constitutions,” said Jerusalem Demsas, spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association. 

Selling off oil and gas leases

The Interior Department has moved forward with fossil fuel lease sales, including offering up 78 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico last month ― despite environmental groups calling for a halt to sales during the pandemic. With oil prices dropping precipitously, the sale resulted in “lowest total for any U.S. offshore auction since 2016,” according to Reuters.

Criminalizing fossil fuel protests

Three states ― Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia ― quietly passed laws last month imposing criminal penalties on protests against fossil fuel infrastructure, such as gas pipelines. Under some of the bills, protesters would receive large fines for causing damage or disrupting or tampering with such infrastructure. South Dakota and West Virginia have Republican governors, while Kentucky has a Democratic one.

“While we are all paying attention to COVID-19 and the congressional stimulus packages, state legislatures are quietly passing fossil-fuel-backed anti-protest laws,” Connor Gibson, a Greenpeace USA researcher, told HuffPost. “These laws do nothing new to protect communities. Instead they seek to crack down on the sort of nonviolent civil disobedience that has shaped much of our nation’s greatest political and social victories.”

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