5 things Congress needs to confront in 2018

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Congress will face several key legislative deadlines when they return from holiday break.

The items on Congress’s to-do list include government funding, Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) and disaster funding. The most pressing will be funding the government in order to avoid a government shutdown Jan. 19.

1. Short-term spending bill

The current short-term spending bill expires Jan. 19. Congress passed a continuing resolution Dec. 21, 2017 to keep the government funded into the New Year. The Congress uses “congressional resolution” to buy more time to address key legislative functions.

A congressional resolution is “legislation in the form of a joint resolution [requires approval of both chambers] enacted by Congress, when the new fiscal year is about to begin or has begun, to provide budget authority for federal agencies and programs to continue in operation until the regular appropriations acts are enacted, according to the Senate glossary.

However, when the Congress returns, they will have about two weeks to pass a bipartisan bill and avoid a government shutdown.

2. Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) will receive funding through the end of March 2018. CHIP was signed into law in 1997 and is jointly funded by both the federal government and individual states.

In 2016, approximately 9 million people were enrolled in the program, according to the annual enrollment report on Medicaid.gov.

The program “provides low-cost health coverage to children in families provides low-cost health coverage to children in families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid. In some states, CHIP covers pregnant women. Each state offers CHIP coverage, and works closely with its state Medicaid program,” according to HeathCare.gov.

The website also says that CHIP covers “routine checkups, immunizations, doctor visits, prescriptions, dental and vision care, inpatient and outpatient hospital care, laboratory and X-ray services and emergency services.”

State health departments have already begun to notify families that funding could expire for the program in March.

Jimmy Kimmel gave an emotional opening statement on his show calling for support of the program.

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Congress seeks to define president’s role in using military force

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met Wednesday to discuss the role of the president and Congress when using military force.

On Nov. 14, the committee evaluated a related topic — the president’s power to fire a nuclear weapon — and evaluated the administrative procedures for firing that weapon. That hearing looked at the powers enacted by The Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which places the power of firing a nuclear weapon under political control and not the military.

Wednesday’s hearing focused primarily on Article I and Article II of the U.S. Constitution and the president’s powers to act independently or with the consent of Congress when considering the use of force against an enemy.

Article I of the constitution does grant the Congress the power to “declare war.” Article II gives the president authority as the Commander in Chief:

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States,” according to Article II.

Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R- Tenn., said it is in the nation’s interest to have a strong commander in chief to take quick and decisive military actions in times national security calls for it.

“That authority must be legally sound and be checked by vigorous oversight and engagement from Congress on behalf of the American people. The decision to use military force is one of the most consequential any president can make,” Corker said.

The senator said he was interested in learning more about the tests the president should use to determine if force should be used, how the president should weigh the use of force against other options, and the consideration of public opinion in these situations.

“We should look at the legal side of this issue. The reality is that unless Congress takes the rare step of withholding funding, history shows that the president’s ability to initiate military action without a congress has been extremely broad,” Corker stated. “That said, discussing the legal doctrine regarding these questions is a conversation worth having.”

Ranking Member Ben Cardin, D-M.d., expressed his concern about the president taking military action without the Congress’ consent.

“President Trump’s entire inclination to use military force and to risk war rather than to find diplomatic solutions to these crises is troubling,” Cardin said. “His attitude toward diplomacy ranges from disinterest to naivety to actively sabotaging his own Secretary of State.”

The senator remarked that the increasing tension between the president and North Korea could lead to a nuclear first strike situation.

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Congress debates the role of artificial intelligence in America

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Lawmakers on Capitol Hill met Tuesday to discuss advancements in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, wanted to discuss the new and emerging role of AI in the nation’s growing digital environment.

Artificial intelligence is defined as “a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers,” and “the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior,” according to Merriam-Webster’s. But it was also evident during Tuesday’s hearing that the definition and uses for AI are still evolving.

Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said the increase in data collected from Americans through the use of the internet and mobile devices has contributed to the advances in the industry.

“Although AI applications have been around for decades, recent advancements, particularly in machine learning, have accelerated in their capabilities because of the massive growth in data gathered from billions of connected devices and the digitization of everything,” Wicker said. “Developments in computer processing technologies and better algorithms are also enabling AI systems to become smarter and perform more unique tasks.”

During his opening remarks, he also cautioned the risks of automating common processes through AI.

“These are important considerations to ensure that the decisions made by AI systems are based on representative data that does not unintentionally harm vulnerable populations or act in an unsafe anticompetitive or biased way,” Wicker said. “So, there is a lot to think about.”

The subcommittees’ Ranking Member Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, also expressed his concern for certain aspects of AI calling it a “black box.”

“It can make decisions and come to conclusions without showing its reasoning. There are also known cases of algorithms that discriminate against minority groups,” Schatz said. “And when you start to apply the systems to criminal justice, health care or defense, lack of transparency and accountability is worrisome.”

The senator encouraged lawmakers not to purchase AI systems for the government until there is a stronger understanding of its capabilities. Schatz said that U.S. policy needs to be updated to adapt to the advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

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Weapons of Mass Destruction office takes shape within the Dept. of Homeland Security

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Lawmakers held a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday to discuss the implementation of a new office within the Department of Homeland Security dealing with weapons of mass destruction.

The new office within DHS will be called the “Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office.” The office has already begun the process of reorganizing and implementing some of the new changes of the consolidation to their current workflow.

The House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications expressed an interest in understanding more about the establishment of this new office.

Subcommittee Chairman Dan Donovan, R- N.Y., said the threat of weapons of mass destruction has changed and become more diverse.

“The scope of the threat has changed dramatically. It has become much more diverse and diffuse,” Donovan said. “We know that terrorist groups have long strived to employ chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials in their attacks.”

The congressman mentioned a number of increased attacks; including the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government involving mustard, Sarin and chlorine gas as well as a plot to release hydrogen sulfide uncovered by the Australian police and a laptop retrieved from ISIS in Syria in 2014 with plans for weaponized bubonic plague.

“As the world of threats becomes more complex, it is incumbent upon the Department of Homeland Security to assess whether or not it is optimally organized to best confront the variety of threats it is expected to counter,” Donovan said.

Ranking Member Congressman Donald Payne, D- N.J., felt strongly that the Department of Homeland Security should have consulted the committee before implementing the reorganization. He reminded the department that the DHS will soon no longer have the ability to make those changes under the section 872 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, as the committee has taken action to repeal section 872.

The section states that secretary of the department may “may establish, consolidate, alter, or discontinue organizational units within the Department.”

“I appreciate the congressional authorization process takes time, but it also has value. And this committee has proven itself to be willing to partner when DHS has wanted to reorganize,” Payne said. “DHS officials spoke in generalities about how reorganization advanced the then secretaries unity of effort initiative and created a center point of contact for stakeholders. Such vague explanations are little justification for setting a disrupt.”

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Actor Richard Gere: In Tibet, ‘oppression cannot be tolerated’

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Members of the House Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific met Wednesday to discuss U.S. policy toward Tibet.; more specifically, working toward greater access, religious freedom and human rights for Tibetan citizens.

Two bills pending before the subcommittee were highlighted. The H.R.1872 —Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2017 would require the U.S. State Department to submit a list to Congress of senior Chinese officials in leadership positions for review. Congress would then determine the officials’ level of access to the United States contingent with the access U.S. officials are granted to Tibetan areas in China.

The second bill, H.Con.Res.89, maintains that United States policy toward Tibet and treatment of the Tibetan people should remain a factor in U.S. relations with China.

Subcommittee Chairman Ted Yoho, R- Fla., discussed the ways in which the Tibetan people have had their human rights and civil liberties encroached upon.

“Human rights and personal freedoms in Tibet are already in a poor and worsening state,” Yoho said. “According to a 2016 Human Rights report, the government of China engages in the severe repression of Tibet’s unique cultural and linguistic heritage by among other means strictly curtailing the civil rights of the Tibetan population, including the freedoms of speech, religion, association, assembly and movement.”

The congressman added that the flow of information is heavily restricted to Tibet by China.

“Tibet remains extremely isolated. The flow of information in and out of Tibet is tightly restricted,” Yoho said. “Tibetans are prevented from obtaining passports and moving freely and foreigners especially journalists and officials are frequently denied access.”

Ranking Member of the Subcommittee Brad Sherman, D- Calif., said in 2015 China expressed they had no intentions of granting autonomy to Tibet.

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Congress evaluates its role building international policy alongside the president

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gathered Tuesday to discussed the authority of the president and the Senate in engaging in or withdrawing from vital international policy.

According to the Berkeley Law Library, treaties and international agreements are the responsibility of the executive branch. However, in Article II Section 2 of the United States Constitution, it states that”he [the president] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur.” These agreements involving the Senate are referred to as “congressional-executive agreements.”

Berkeley Law Library outlines this process in the following order:

  • “Secretary of State authorizes negotiation
  • U.S. representatives negotiate
  • Parties agree on terms, and upon authorization of Secretary of State, sign treaty
  • President submits treaty to Senate
  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee considers treaty and reports to Senate
  • Senate considers and approves by 2/3 majority
  • President proclaims entry into force”

Some of the “treaties” the public hears about the president engaging in are executive agreements, which are not the same as the type of treaties mentioned in Article II of the constitution. These types of agreements are called “executive agreements.”

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R- Tenn., called on Congress to take a more active role in treaties and the negotiations that occur when forming them.

“Through the years the president from both parties have increasingly abused their authority to enter into and terminate binding international agreements with little input from Congress,” Corker said. “Unilateral presidential action without meaningful congressional partner undermines our national strength.”

Corker said that the hearing was not to “constrain” the powers of the president with respect to diplomacy, but to encourage the United States speaks with one voice on foreign policy and diplomatic affairs.

Ranking Member of the Committee Senator Ben Cardin, D-Md., highlighted that treaties are not as commonly used as they once were to enter into international agreements. Presidents are opting to use executive agreements to avoid Senate gridlock and red tape.

“So, the president when he wanted to enter into a climate agreement he chose an executive agreement rather than a treaty. When he wanted to enter into an agreement with the international community with Iran, he chose an executive agreement rather than a treaty,” Cardin said. “Why? Because he couldn’t get it ratified in the United States Senate under any scenario.”

Hearing witness and professor at the Duke University School of Law Curtis A. Bradley said in his statement the reason behind the increase in executive actions is the high demand for them during the 20th century.

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Congress investigates companies’ use of data to impact consumers

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Legislators held a hearing Wednesday to investigate how algorithms affect the type of data acquired by companies and, in turn, how that information impacts consumers in their use of the internet.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’ subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection convened the meeting to gain a greater understanding of “how companies’ decisions about data and content impact consumers.” Black Friday weekend through Cyber Monday saw an increase of 16.8 percent in online sales from last year, according to Adobe Insights.

Subcommittee Chairman Robert Latta, R- Ohio, said it was the Equifax data breach that raised greater concerns about how consumer data is handled. Those concerns are compounded by Uber’s hack last month which left 57 million users/ personal data exposed.

“Rather than alert authorities and make the breach known to their users and drivers, Uber kept the hack secret for over a year,” Latta said. “Disregard of law and disregard of consumers’ and drivers’ trust all require close scrutiny.”

He then called on lawmakers to ensure that their constituents understand the risks of a digital environment.

“It is our obligation to ask the tough questions and make sure consumers understand how their information is being used in our digitally driven economy,” Latta said. “That is why we explore today how personal information about consumers is collected online and importantly how companies use that information to make decisions about content consumers see.”

The Subcommittee Ranking Member Jan Schakowsky, D- Illinois, highlighted that some of what users see, content companies pay to put in front of those people.

“Algorithms determine what appears in web ads, search results, and your customized news feed,” Schakowsky said. “Some of the content you are presented may be based on personal information such as your gender race and location. It may also depend on how much companies have paid to get content in front of you.”

One witness, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law Frank Pasquale, said that privacy erosion has led to the classification of users.

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Lawmakers step off Capitol Hill to explore solutions to opioid crisis

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee met at Johns Hopkins Hospital Tuesday for an “in the field” hearing on the growing opioid crisis in America.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in March 2017 establishing a President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, with Governor Chris Christie, R–N.J., as chairman. The purpose of the commission was to study ways to combat the ongoing crisis while working in conjunction with the White House Office of American Innovation, led by Senior Adviser to the President Jared Kushner.

“This is an epidemic that knows no boundaries and shows no mercy, and we will show great compassion and resolve as we work together on this important issue,” Trump said.

In October, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency.

“This epidemic is a national health emergency, unlike many of us we’ve seen and what we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Nobody has seen anything like what’s going on now,” Trump said.

More than 90 Americans die every day from related opioid overdoses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. At least 40 of those deaths are from prescription opioids.

The Centers for Disease Control estimated 64,000 people could die from drug overdose in 2016.

Breaking with tradition, Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-M.D., gave his opening remarks first as the committee was meeting in his home state. He commented on the number of lawmakers who turned out for the hearing off Capitol grounds.

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Coast Guard stresses need for more funding: ‘We need to be made whole’

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – The Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard made an appeal to lawmakers Wednesday for a much-needed increase in funding to sustain the strain placed on their resources created by the 2017 hurricane season.

The Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee, Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a hearing Wednesday with the purpose of examining the role of the Coast Guard in preparing for these natural disasters.

Chairman of the Subcommittee Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, opened the meeting by addressing the work of the Coast Guard during Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

“The recent hurricanes that have made landfall this year, have significantly stretched the coast guards service capabilities,” Sullivan said. “In these three disasters alone, the Coast Guard has rescued 11,000 Americans utilizing 95 aircraft, 55 cutters, 129 rescue craft, and mobilized at least 3,000 additional personnel.”

Ranking Member Sen. Gary Peters, D- Mich., cautioned the 2017 hurricane season is just one season and that “winter is coming,” borrowing the phrase from HBO hit show “Game of Thrones.”

“I want to emphasize that the coast guard’s missions will not stop because the weather is getting colder,” Peters said. “If we do not ensure that service members have the right equipment. If we do not ensure that they are being taken care of in terms of retirement and medical benefits then we are not doing our job.”

During the testimony of U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft, he explained that the recent extreme weather response was truly an “all-hands-on-deck” campaign that cost them in terms of readiness, opportunity and monetarily.

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Lawmakers review president’s authority to fire a nuclear weapon

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Senators on Capitol Hill held a hearing Tuesday, to re-evaluate the administrative procedures for firing a nuclear weapon.

The Atomic Energy Act of 1946, signed by President Harry S. Truman, established an Atomic Energy Commission to utilize “atomic energy for peaceful purposes to the maximum extent consistent with the common defense and security and with the health and safety of the public.” The act placed the sole discretion of firing a nuclear weapon under political control, not military control. Only the president has the authority to order the use of a nuclear weapon.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearing was the first time the topic had been broached by the committee in 41 years, according to the Congressional Research Service. The purpose of the hearing was to determine if the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons and the realities of the current system that is in place.

Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Coker, R- Tenn, pressed upon the importance of reviewing this policy.

“Making the decision to go to war of any sort is a heavy responsibility for our nation’s elected leaders. And the decision to use nuclear weapons is the most consequential of all,” Corker said. “Whether we are responding to a nuclear attack or not, once that order is given and verified there is no way to revoke it.”

Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, D – Md, said he saw an increase of questions at local town halls pertaining to the possibility of a nuclear conflict with North Korea. The ranking member blamed President Donald Trump’s August remarks to North Korea; specifically, when the president stated if Pyongyang’s threats continue, they will “face fire and fury like the world has ever seen.”

And as the chairman pointed out base on my understanding of the nuclear command and control protocols there are no checks no checks on the president authority,” Cardin said. “The system as it set up today provides the president with the ultimate and sole authority to use nuclear weapons.”

He along with the committee’s chairman stated that the protocols the nation has in place today were primarily established as a result of the Cold War and the potential threat from the nuclear Soviet Union. Cardin then stated that the United States faces a different set of challenges, and as a result must evaluate its policy regarding a procedure for firing those weapons.

He even suggested requiring the president seek the permission of Congress before making his decision.

“Given today’s challenges, we need to revisit this question on whether a single individual should have this sole and unchecked authority to launch a nuclear attack under all circumstances including the right to use it as a first strike,” Cardin said.

The former Commander of the United States Strategic Command, Gen. General C. Robert Kehler, USAF (Ret.), was an expert witness during Tuesday’s hearing. He reassured the committee that while the power to fire a nuclear weapon is a given, there are processes in place.

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