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Pennsylvania Republicans lost the redistricting battle. Now, they’re declaring war on the courts.

Republican lawmakers from Pennsylvania who lost a gerrymandering case before the state’s Supreme Court are now calling for justices who issued the ruling to be impeached.

The court ruled this year that the congressional map drawn by Republican legislators in 2011 was a partisan gerrymander that “clearly, plainly, and palpably” violated the state constitution, and the justices ordered the state’s legislature and governor to draw a new map. Shortly thereafter, Republican state Rep. Cris Dush circulated a letter to his colleagues saying that the court’s majority “engaged in misbehavior in office” because the ruling “overrides the express legislative and executive authority” to create laws.

“Wherefore,” Dush concluded, “each is guilty of an impeachable offense warranting removal from office and disqualification to hold any office or trust or profit under this Commonwealth.”

For several weeks, Dush was the only lawmaker openly advocating this idea. Then, after Pennsylvania’s Republican legislative leaders and Democratic governor were unable to agree on a new map, the court stepped in and drew one of its own with the help of an independent redistricting expert from Stanford University.

The court’s new map largely undid the Republican gerrymander, creating 10 Republican-leaning and eight Democratic-leaning House seats, as estimated using 2016 presidential election returns. Outside redistricting experts who were not involved with the case praised the new map, calling it “fairer” and “much more competitive” than the old one.

The new map is a better reflection both of the composition of the state’s electorate, which tends to be divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, and of the traditional redistricting criteria used to draw maps in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

But because the 2011 Republican-drawn map was skewed so strongly toward the GOP, the net result is that Republicans are likely to lose three or more seats in the state’s House delegation. And now, the calls for judicial impeachment are growing louder.

Republican congressman Chris Costello, who is facing a very real possibility of losing his seat as a result of the redistricting, called the court’s independent redistricting plan “politically corrupt.” He said, “I think the court did enough in the way of judicial activism to be impeached.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey weighed in this week as well, saying that the court’s ruling was a “blatant, unconstitutional, partisan power grab that undermines our electoral process” and that the question of whether it rises to the level of impeachment is “a conversation that needs to happen.”

Judicial impeachment in Pennsylvania requires the support of a majority of House members and two-thirds of the Senate. Republicans currently hold enough seats in both chambers to carry out an impeachment without any Democratic support.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati have been sharply critical of the court, saying that it “conspicuously seized the redistricting process.” But they have not weighed in on the question of impeachment.

Legal experts say the comments from other Republican lawmakers are alarming.

“Using impeachment — even talking about impeachment in a serious fashion — as a means to express disagreement with one particular substantive decision is a very dangerous approach to both the structure of government and the rule of law, and a serious threat to the independence of the judiciary,” said Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Levitt said there are a number of reasonable objections to make to the court’s ruling, including its definition of gerrymandering and the time frame in which it required new maps to be drawn. But, he said, “that’s a standard-issue fight over substance and procedure, not about whether the Justices were defaulting on their obligations to act as Justices.”

Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine, similarly said that “it undermines rule of law to impeach judges because you disagree with their decisions.” He suggested that lawmakers concerned about partisanship on the court should consider a “more worthy reform,” such as allowing the state’s Supreme Court justices to be appointed by lawmakers. Right now, they’re elected by voters in “partisan elections.”

And Michael Li, redistricting and voting counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center, said that Pennsylvania Republicans could take partisanship out of redistricting completely by putting the process in the hands of an independent commission. “If Rs really believe this is a bad state supreme court,” he wrote on Twitter, “they should pass the great bipartisan redistricting reform amendment currently before them.”

So far, however, Republican leadership has refused to take the first step of scheduling a hearing on that bill. This week, the leaders filed an application to the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the redistricting decision. But the Supreme Court has already turned down one request to intervene in the case, and experts say this request is likely to be denied as well.

“In our system, judges aren’t supposed to always act in a way that legislators like,” Levitt said.

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The Trump administration takes its first big step toward stricter work requirements for food stamps

A sign in a market window advertises the acceptance of food stamps. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Trump administration is taking a step toward tightening work requirements in the food-stamp program, with a focus on high-unemployment areas that have been exempted from those rules since the recession.

On Friday, the Department of Agriculture will begin soliciting public comment on work requirements, the first step toward changing those rules, USDA administrator Brandon Lipps said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.

The agency is not advancing any changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as “food stamps” — at this time, Lipps said. But it is interested in restoring work requirements in states where they have been waived in recent years because of high local unemployment rates.

Under existing rules, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs)  can only receive benefits for three months, unless they work at least 80 hours a month or participate in a qualified job training or volunteer program.

But those rules do not currently apply in Alaska, California, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico and parts of 28 other states, where jobs are less widely available.

USDA estimates that roughly 2.9 million of the 43.6 million people who used food-stamps last year — or roughly 6.8 percent — are unemployed ABAWDs.

“This is a population that we believe we can move to self-sufficiency, with the right focus,” Lipps said Thursday.

The move, while preliminary, is likely to please many Republicans — and rankle food-stamp defenders and anti-hunger advocates. For years, conservatives in Congress and at influential think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation have argued stricter work requirements would save taxpayers money while putting low-income people on a path to independence.

President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal specifically recommended USDA slash work-requirement waivers to high-unemployment states, granting them only to individual counties with unemployment rates of 10 percent or more over a year-long period. It also proposed raising the ABAWD cutoff age and eliminating discretionary state exemptions. That change would save the government almost $27 billion over the next 10 years, the administration said.

“It’s evident that there are able-bodied adults without dependents who are on the food stamp program, who we believe it is in their best interests, and their families’ best interests, to move into an independent lifestyle,” Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters several weeks before the budget came out. “During the last downturn, it became a lifestyle for some people. We don’t want it to become permanent.”

But as USDA collects public comment on changes to SNAP work requirements, it is also likely to hear from anti-hunger advocates who argue that past adjustments have increased hunger and hurt vulnerable populations.

While research into the ABAWD population is limited, some surveys have suggested that these nonworking adults include large numbers of veterans, people with undiagnosed disabilities, and children aging out of the foster case system — circumstances which can present obstacles to holding down steady employment.

Work requirements also punish people who are looking for work but can’t find it, advocates argue. And the rules do not account for the availability of qualified education and training programs, which not all areas have.

“SNAP recipients’ benefits are generally cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job or willing to participate in a qualifying work or job training program,” the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, wrote in a recent report. “As a result, this rule is, in reality, a time limit on benefits and not a work requirement, as it is sometimes described.”

In his comments Thursday, Lipps said that USDA would take those comments into account before proposing a final rule change. That could potentially be months, or even years, away.

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Marco Rubio says banning all semiautomatic weapons is ‘a position well outside the mainstream.’ Polls show otherwise

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) unintentionally drew a round of raucous applause Wednesday night when he said at a CNN town hall gathering that, to effectively ban assault weapons, “you would literally have to ban every semiautomatic rifle that’s sold in America.”

Later, he attempted to characterize support for a blanket ban on semiautomatic weapons as a fringe view. “Banning all semi-auto weapons may have been popular with the audience at #CNNTownHall, but it is a position well outside the mainstream,” he wrote on Twitter.

But the latest available polling shows that, in fact, more than half of Americans say they would support an across-the-board ban on all semiautomatic weapons. And academics who study gun violence say that such a ban would be an effective way to combat mass shootings and gun violence overall.

Some definitions are in order. A semiautomatic weapon is any gun that fires one shot with a pull of the trigger and automatically reloads the gun’s chamber with another round from a cartridge or magazine so that the gun can immediately be fired again.

The definition also covers virtually every handgun on the market today, as well as a number of common hunting rifles. It also includes military-style assault weapons, such as the AR-15 variant a shooter used to kill 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14.

Common guns that aren’t semiautomatic, on the other hand, include bolt- and lever-action hunting rifles, as well as certain types of revolvers.

A blanket ban on all semiautomatic weapons would be far more restrictive than the 1994 assault weapons ban, which covered certain types of semiautomatic rifles. As Rubio pointed out Wednesday night, Democratic lawmakers have largely shied away from supporting such a ban in the aftermath of major mass shootings.

That doesn’t mean the idea is lacking public support, however. Pollsters don’t ask about a comprehensive ban on semiautomatic firearms as frequently as they do about the more common assault weapons ban. But in 2016, Morning Consult and the New York Times asked registered voters whether they supported “banning the sale and ownership of all semi-automatic and automatic firearms.”

Nearly two-thirds — 63 percent — said they’d support such a ban to reduce gun homicides, and 62 percent said they would support it to reduce mass shootings.

Those numbers are considerably higher than the amount of support found for such a ban in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, in which 20 children and six adults were killed.

In early 2013, CBS News, for instance, posed the following question: “Do you favor or oppose a nationwide ban on semiautomatic weapons — including some rifles, pistols and shotguns — that have detachable magazines, allowing them to rapidly fire a high number of rounds?”

Forty-nine percent of respondents said they favored such a ban, with an equal amount opposing it.

Similarly, 58 percent of respondents to a Pew Research Center poll taken around the same time said they supported “a ban on semiautomatic weapons,” with just 39 percent opposing. And a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 50 percent supported “a nationwide ban on semiautomatic handguns, which automatically reload every time the trigger is pulled,” with 46 percent opposed.

It’s unclear how these numbers might have evolved in the years since the Sandy Hook shooting, or whether most respondents fully understood the implications of banning most models of handguns sold in the United States. But it is clear that many, if not most, Americans support the idea in theory, putting it well within the mainstream of the current political debate.

Similarly, in 2016 the New York Times polled a panel of 32 gun violence experts from across the ideological spectrum on a variety of measures intended to prevent gun violence overall and mass shootings in particular.

Those experts ranked a ban on semiautomatic guns as one of the most effective tools for mitigating gun violence, putting it well above a more narrow assault weapons ban on that measure. And when it came to preventing mass shootings specifically, both the broad ban on semiautomatic guns and the assault weapons ban fared even better, tied for first place with a high-capacity magazine ban and a ban on all sales to violent criminals.

So it’s inaccurate to portray a blanket ban on semiautomatic firearms as a fringe idea. The latest available polling shows that a majority of Americans support it at least in theory, and experts rank it as an effective tool for limiting the toll of gun violence and mass shootings.

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The real reason Congress banned assault weapons in 1994 — and why it worked

Last week’s horrific massacre of 14 students and three staff members in Parkland, Fla., has ushered in a surge of support for a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons. A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday, for instance, found that 67 percent of Americans, including 53 percent of gun owners, say they favor such a ban — the highest level of support seen on this question since 20 children and six educators were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Critics of bans on assault weapons, however, say they do little to save lives. The NRA correctly points out that assault weapons are used only in a tiny fraction of gun crimes. The gun rights group also notes that a federally funded study of the previous assault weapons ban, which was in place from 1994 to 2004, concluded that “the ban’s impact on gun violence is likely to be small at best, and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” Similar points have been made in arguments against a new ban in publications running the ideological gamut from Breitbart to the New York Times to the HuffPost.

But the 1994 assault weapons ban was never intended to be a comprehensive fix for “gun violence” writ large. Its purpose, according to gun violence experts and the lawmakers who wrote the bill, was to reduce the frequency and lethality of mass shootings like the ones in Parkland, Sandy Hook and elsewhere. And on that front, the data shows it had a significant impact.

Louis Klarevas, a University of Massachusetts at Boston researcher who wrote a book on mass shooting violence published in 2016, says that impetus for a federal assault weapons ban began gathering in 1989. That year Ohio Democratic Sen. Howard Metzenbaum introduced the original assault weapons ban bill after a gunman armed with an assault rifle killed five children and injured 29 more in a schoolyard in Stockton, Calif.

“The guy used an AK-47 variant, with large capacity magazines” capable of holding 10 or more rounds, Klarevas said. The shooting “got a lot of attention” and galvanized public opinion. National polls conducted in the months following, for instance, showed that over 70 percent of Americans supported bans on assault weapons like the one used in Stockton.

But Metzenbaum’s bill didn’t pass, and Congress spent several years debating other assault weapons measures that were less stringent in nature. None of those were ever signed into law.

Momentum returned with two back-to-back mass shootings in 1993: one at a San Francisco law firm that killed eight people and injured six more, and another on a Long Island Railroad train that left five dead and 19 wounded. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, architect of the 1994 assault weapons ban, said that “it was the 1993 mass shooting at 101 California Street in San Francisco that was the tipping point for me. That’s what really motivated me to push for a ban on assault weapons.”

The San Francisco shooting “made clear that the increasing sophistication of weapons had made it possible for a mass shooter to murder large numbers of people in a matter of minutes,” Feinstein said. “The goal of the ban was to reduce the frequency and deadliness of mass shootings.”

The final piece of legislation that we now know as the federal assault weapons ban was signed into law a little over one year after the San Francisco shooting.

The 1994 law included a ban on 18 specific models of assault weapons, as well as a ban on any firearms containing certain military-style features, like a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor or a folding stock. It also banned high-capacity magazines capable of holding more than 10 bullets. The bill allowed individuals already in possession of such weapons to keep them. It was also set to expire after 10 years’ time.

“The original intent of the assault weapons ban was to reduce the carnage of mass shootings,” Klarevas said. “And on that front the data indicate that it worked.”

Klarevas has compiled data on gun massacres involving six or more fatalities for the 50 years before 2016. His numbers show that gun massacres fell significantly during the time the assault weapons ban was in place, and skyrocketed after the ban lapsed in 2004. A separate mass shooting database compiled by Mother Jones magazine shows a similar trend.

Klarevas wasn’t surprised by the 2004 report showing the ban had little effect on overall rates of gun crime. “If there was going to be any benefit on [overall] violent crime, that would have been a pleasant surprise,” he said. But, “the real objective of the assault weapons ban was always to reduce both the frequency and lethality of mass shootings.”

Klarevas is particularly concerned about what the numbers show for the years after Congress allowed the assault weapons ban to lapse. Guns like the ones used in Parkland and in other mass shootings are now among the most popular firearms currently on the market. The proliferation of these guns means that would-be mass shooters have little trouble obtaining them.

“In the last three years we have had as many gun massacres with assault weapons as in the decade prior,” Klarevas said. “The trend is continuing to escalate.”

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Fewer Americans are working. Don’t blame immigrants or food stamps.

Prisoners wait for breakfast at California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo, Calif., in 2013. Rising incarceration rates are one of a handful of factors that help to account for the United States’ missing jobs. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Where did all the jobs go? Well, we’re finally starting to find some satisfactory answers to the granddaddy of all economic questions.

The share of Americans with jobs dropped 4.5 percentage points from 1999 to 2016 — amounting to about 6.8 million fewer workers in 2016.

Between 50 and 70 percent of that decline probably was due to an aging population. Explaining the remainder has been the inspiration for much of the economic research published after the Great Recession.

Economists and politicians have pointed at immigration, China, video games, robots, opioids, universities, working spouses — everything up to and including the academic equivalent of shrugging their shoulders and muttering, “Kids these days.”

Until recently, there was no good system to untangle it all.

University of Maryland economists Katharine Abraham and Melissa Kearney built one. After reviewing the most robust research available and doing some rough-but-rigorous math to estimate how much job loss each phenomenon can explain, the duo discovered something surprising: pretty much all the missing jobs are accounted for.

Just as important, they pinpointed the culprits. In a draft paper released by the National Bureau for Economic Research this week, Abraham and Kearney find that trade with China and the rise of robots are to blame for millions of the missing jobs.

Other popular scapegoats, such as immigration, food stamps and Obamacare, did not even move the needle.

Factors that mattered

Competition from Chinese imports

The era of vanishing jobs happened alongside one of the most unusual, disruptive eras in modern economic history — China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 and its subsequent rise to the top of the global export market.

There’s a deep body of research into the manufacturing jobs that were lost to competition from cheap Chinese imports, as well as those that vanished from related industries. On the basis of that research, Abraham and Kearney estimate that this competition cost the economy about 2.65 million jobs over the period.

Robots

Automation also seems to have cost more jobs than it created. Guided by research showing that each robot takes the jobs of about 5.6 workers and that 250,475 robots had been added since 1999, the duo estimated that robots cost the economy another 1.4 million workers.

Minimum wage increases

Abraham and Kearney used previous research into how teens and adults respond to rising wages to produce a high-end estimate of the impact of minimum wages over this period. Other recent research has found either a small effect or no effect. In the end, they combined those figures to find that about 0.49 million workers were lost.

That number does not account for the benefits that the broader labor force derived from higher wages, Kearney said.

Social Security Disability Insurance

The number of people receiving Social Security Disability Insurance nearly doubled from 1999 to 2016, from 4.9 million to 8.8 million. The population has aged, but that is still 1.64 million more people than there should have been, had rates remained steady for each age group, the researchers found.

Abraham and Kearney estimated that the labor force shrank by about 0.36 million as an increasing number of workers drew disability benefits.

Veterans benefits

The economists estimated that roughly 0.15 million people were not working because of the expansion of a disability insurance program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Between 2000 and 2013, the share of veterans receiving such benefits rose from 9 percent to 18 percent.

Mass incarceration

There were about 6.5 million former prisoners in the United States between the ages of 18 and 64 in 2014, according to the best available data. Assume that 60 percent of them served time as a result of policies implemented since the 1990s, account for their ages, time served, and pre-prison earnings, and you get a conservative estimate of 0.32 million lost jobs.

What did not reduce employment

Immigration

Most research indicates that immigration does not reduce native employment rates. And even if it did, it is unlikely that it would reduce overall (native and foreign-born) employment. Immigrants’ employment rates are higher than those of native-born residents.

Food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)

SNAP benefits average about $4.11 per person per day. Able-bodied adults are generally cut off from benefits unless they are working. Furthermore, the program itself did not change enough over the period in question to alter people’s behavior. It grew, but that was because of fallout from the Great Recession, not because of permanent policy changes that made nutrition assistance more accessible.

The Affordable Care Act

Obamacare went into effect in 2014 and has not had a noticeable impact on jobs to date. It is safe to assume it was not a decisive factor in the 1999-2016 period.

Working spouses who allow men to stay home

While this is a popular theory, the share of men who are not in the labor force but had a working spouse actually fell slightly between 1999 and 2015, according to a 2016 report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

The unknowns

Along with an aging population, the first six factors (competition from China and automation in particular) account for the majority of the jobs lost during the recession. But the U.S. labor market is colossal and complicated, and other explanations are out there, pushing and pulling the estimates in either direction.

It might be harder to change jobs now

Americans are not moving as often as they once did. It seems reasonable to assume, on the basis of recent research, that employment rates would be higher if people were more willing or able to relocate for work. But there is not yet enough evidence to state this conclusively.

Likewise, it is possible that the skills possessed by the available workers are becoming increasingly unrelated to the skills required by the available jobs. But this “skills mismatch” has not yet been proved over the long term.

Finally, there has been speculation that the rapid rise — from 5 percent in the late 1950s to about 30 percent today — in the share of workers in jobs that require a local or state government license has limited folks’ ability to switch careers and respond to labor-market requirements. We do not yet know enough to put a number on it.

Video games, opioids and changing youth culture

U.S. youth employment rates fell rapidly over the period. Economists have grabbed headlines recently by blaming the precipitous drop in young males in the workforce on a variety of factors including video game playing and prescription painkiller abuse.

But there is not yet enough evidence to prove that either phenomenon is a cause of low youth employment or a result of it. According to Kearney,  both issues could, at their root, be the result of shifting views of what is acceptable for a young man to be doing with his life.

“For whatever reason, these men seem more willing to stay home, live with their parents, live off their girlfriends,” Kearney said.

The paper’s most striking finding is not, however, speculation on idle American youths. It is that many of the topics that dominate political discourse about the labor market — such as immigration, food stamps and Obamacare — are unlikely to bring back lost jobs.

Instead, policymakers should be focusing on the forces that took those jobs in the first place: import competition, automation, incarceration and disability insurance.

“There’s not much we can do about the fact that our population is aging,” Kearney said. “But it’s pretty imperative that we figure out why younger individuals aren’t working at the rates they used to and do something to change that.”

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Disney workers accuse company of withholding their Trump tax cut bonuses

Disney employees are worried they’ll never see the Trump tax cut bonuses. (iStock)

The Disney World puppeteer had to miss his sister’s wedding in West Virginia. He had to skip his family reunion in the Dominican Republic.

But after President Trump signed a tax law last December slashing corporate rates, his employer announced it would offer $1,000 bonuses to 125,000 theme park workers, and he thought: I can finally take a vacation.

“That’s three weeks salary,” said Michael Kirby, 36, who maneuvers Muppets and Little Mermaid characters in Orlando. “That’s a week in the Dominican Republic.”

However, it is now unclear whether Kirby, along with 36,000 other unionized Disney workers, will get the bonus. The extra cash is stuck at the center of a dispute between the a coalition of labor groups and the company responsible for Mickey Mouse.

“I’m counting on it never happening,” Kirby said.

The Service Trades Council Union — a coalition of six locals, including branches of the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the Transportation Communications International Union — filed a federal unfair labor practices complaint to the National Labor Relations Board on Monday accusing Walt Disney World Resorts of refusing to pay the bonuses until unionized employees agree to a new contract.

In December, members voted to reject Disney’s November offer for a 50-cent wage increase, plus another one the following year and a $200 bonus.

Disney responded with a wage proposal earlier this month threatening to withdraw the offer if the two sides don’t reach a deal by August. “If the Company’s offer is not ratified by August 31, 2018, the bonus offer will expire,” the proposal said.

Disney did not immediately respond to the Post’s request for comment.

The next round of negotiations have yet to be scheduled. For non-STCU employees, the first installment of the bonus ($275) is slated to be paid in March.

The union said Disney’s tactics were illegal.

“We believe an effort by Disney to link cast members raises with the $1,000 Trump tax cut bonus would constitute an unlawful Unfair Labor Practice for discriminating against Cast Members engaged in Bargaining,” Jeremy Haicken, the STCU’s secretary-treasurer, wrote to Disney in a Feb. 16 letter.

Disney has already signed off on bonuses for security guards and painters who don’t belong to the SCTU, said Eric Clinton, president of  Unite Here Local 362, which is part of the coalition.

“You’re holding us hostage,” he said. “You’re saying we have to accept the raise we already said no to. That’s discrimination against people in negotiations.”

Legal analysts say the union could have a case.

“What they’re saying is: You’re treating us differently,” said Michael Leroy, a labor and law professor at the University of Illinois. “That does appear to have merit. Everyone is being offered the $1,000 — except the union folks. They’re being asked to take the $1,000 with some conditions.”

However, it’s hard to say how the National Labor Relations Board will respond to the complaint.

“It really only becomes illegal if the employer has some provable anti-union motivation, and even then, NLRB and court decisions are somewhat inconsistent as to what that entails,” said Joseph Slater, a professor at the University of Toledo College of Law.

Disney reported a 78.4 percent jump in quarterly profits this month, attributing the $1.6 billion gain to the Republicans’ tax law, which shrank the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent.

The company was one of several firms, including AT&T and Walmart, to announce employee bonuses after Trump signed the measure in December.

“We are directing approximately $125 million to our cast members and employees across the country and making higher education more accessible with the launch of this new program,” chief executive Bob Iger said in a statement at the time.

Clinton, the local president, said the union was holding out for “living wages” and declined to name a number. Members make $10.71 an hour, above Florida’s minimum wage ($8.25).

But on Unite Here Central Florida’s public Facebook page, some who identified themselves as Disney employees have bashed the union for delaying their extra money.

“You guys just threw me into debt,” one wrote. “I needed that money to pay for my prescriptions.”

“Are you freaking kidding me?” said another, who described herself online as a Disney World pastry chef. “So because I’m in the union I won’t get the bonus? Great. You know I was counting on that money for my unborn child but I guess not.”

Others put the blame on Disney.

“Just want to say bullshot and Corp needs to stop treating us like shit,” someone wrote. “We work hard and keep the Disney magic alive for the guest that comes to our park.”

Read more:

Republicans suddenly seem to like unions again

Trump tried to save their jobs. These workers are quitting anyway.

Some feared hackers and the devil. Others got microchipped.

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Blue Apron for food stamps’ already exists. And some recipients hate the powdered milk.

The Trump administration has proposed remodeling SNAP after an existing program for seniors, which provides them a monthly box — pictured — of government-sourced, shelf-stable foods. (Courtesy Capital Area Food Bank)

On a recent Friday afternoon, under the watchful gaze of local food bank staff, 68-year-old John Samuel pawed through a box of government-sourced canned goods and found little inside that he wanted.

Canned carrots? “I wish we had peas,” he said.

Grape juice? “Well — it’s okay.”

Powdered milk? “Horrible.” He tossed the bag on a growing pile of identical bags, each abandoned by a food-box recipient earlier that day.


[‘We would literally not survive’: How Trump’s plans for the social safety net would affect America’s poorest]

Such are the trade-offs of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, a limited federal initiative for low-income seniors — and the model for the Trump administration’s controversial pitch to radically transform the food-stamp program.

The administration last week proposed halving the monthly benefit of most participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, and replacing it with a "Harvest Box" of shelf-stable, government-sourced foods, a system that White House budget director Mick Mulvaney compared to Blue Apron.

The proposal was directly modeled after the existing senior food-box program, a USDA spokesman said, and will include similar features. States will order boxed foods from a preset list,  and develop their own delivery and distribution networks, including through partnerships with nonprofits.

The administration argues its plan would cut costs while improving the diets of the estimated 43.6 million low-income Americans who use SNAP.

“USDA America’s Harvest Box is a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families – and all of it is home grown by American farmers and producers," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. "It maintains the same level of food value as SNAP participants currently receive, provides states flexibility in administering the program, and is responsible to the taxpayers.”

But the senior food-box program also has significant flaws, from the foods it supplies to the infrastructure it’s built to deliver them. In CSFP, seniors have minimal or no choice in the foods they receive, which are intended as a supplement to their normal diets. There are minimal protections for people who cannot pick up their boxes. And the program is almost entirely reliant on volunteers, recruited by local nonprofits.

Scaling up the senior food-box program to serve tens of millions of people from the current 630,000 would prove both costly and complicated, experts said.

“[The senior food box program] is an important program but serves far fewer people than SNAP,” said Elizabeth Wolkomir, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “The proposal would require operational capacity that neither USDA nor states have.”

The Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal blindsided the food industry and anti-hunger advocates. Many said they had never even heard the idea discussed before — not even during a series of more than a dozen congressional hearings on the future of SNAP.

But the concept of a commodity food box isn’t entirely novel in the U.S. The Agriculture Department has been in the business of buying and redistributing food since the Great Depression, and has been distributing boxes to low-income pregnant women, young children, and more recently seniors for nearly 50 years under the Commodity Surplus Food Program.

“We find that it helps a lot of seniors free up funds for other expenses, which on a fixed income is very important,” said Frank Kubik, the vice president of the National CSFP Association and the director of a senior food-box program in Detroit. “The program has historically enjoyed a lot of support.”

Experts caution that it is difficult to generalize about how CSFP works, since the program is administered largely on the local level. But the vast majority of participants receive a box of USDA commodities each month, which they or an authorized representative must pick up from a warehouse, apartment building or other centralized location.

The boxes are packed and delivered by local groups — usually nonprofits — who are subcontracted by the state. Local administrators order the foods from a predetermined USDA list, which includes a limited number of shelf-stable options from several food groups, including grains, fruits and vegetables. USDA sources these foods from domestic suppliers, including name-brand producers like Del Monte, and sets rules for how many of each item a food-box can contain.

In D.C., the Capital Area Food Bank relies on nine paid, full-time staff and upward of 140 monthly volunteers to administer the senior food assistance program. Volunteers pack the 27-pound boxes, and paid staff deliver the majority of the boxes to a handful of low-income apartment buildings, where residents must come down to pick up their boxes. The food bank also distributes some boxes from a pickup center in Anacostia.

While nonprofit administrators are required to make special arrangements for homebound seniors, they do not have to make accommodations for people who can’t get their boxes for other reasons, such as time constraints or transportation issues. At the Capital Area Food Bank, unclaimed boxes are given to other program-eligible seniors.

This month’s box contained two cans or boxes each of green beans, carrots, applesauce, salmon, spaghetti, hot cereal and shelf-stable milk, plus two bottles of grape juice, a jar of peanut butter, a block of processed American cheese, and a bag of nonfat milk powder.

“Every little thing makes a big difference,” said Ronald Mackie, a 53-year-old D.C. resident who came to pick up a box for his 87-year-old grandmother. “She gave me a little smile this morning and said ‘I’m looking forward to that box.’”

Advocates of the senior food-box program say it offers distinct benefits. The boxes are nutritionally balanced, with strict limits for sugar, salt and fat content, disallowing, for instance, fruits canned in full-sugar syrup.

According to USDA, a typical senior food box provides for a quarter of an individual’s monthly calories and is far healthier than the average American diet. On the Healthy Eating Index, a standardized nutrition measurement that scores dietary quality out of 100, CSFP participants earn an 83.6. The average American scores a 59, USDA says.

“USDA Foods are really honed in on nutritional standards,” said Chris Facha, the president of the American Commodity Distribution Association and a USDA food coordinator for the state of Oregon. “They’re minimally processed, low sodium, reduced fat — they help recipients meet nutrition requirements.”

There appear to be cost savings for taxpayers, as well. Kubik of the National CSFP Association estimates that the federal government spends roughly $22 for every senior food-box, and that those boxes would cost $40 to $50 if seniors had to buy their components themselves.

That lines up with internal USDA estimates: The agency says it can provide a box of shelf-stable foods for half the price of retail, but that figure does not account for the full cost of packing and delivering boxes.

Those costs could be astronomical if SNAP adopts the food-box model, said Keith Taylor, who oversees the food-box program at the Capital Area Food Bank. While the food-box programs work on a small, local scale,  local agencies do not have the resources to pack or deliver boxes to millions of people and are often dependent on volunteers, he said.

Experts on the senior food-box program also warn that many clients already have problems with the limited choices in the boxes. Those issues could be compounded, they fear, if the boxes became a primary food source for a vastly larger and more diverse population.

USDA does not currently supply kosher or halal foods to the senior food-box program, Taylor said; nor does it offer dairy substitutes, gluten-free grains, or low-sugar juice or fruit alternatives for diabetics. The D.C. food bank has stopped ordering orange juice, when possible, because it can be dangerous for dialysis patients.

“Sometimes they leave items behind,” Taylor said. “If they don’t want them or can’t have them.”

Back at the food-box distribution center in Anacostia, John Samuel is doing just that

He takes each item from his cardboard box — stamped “Healthy Food for Seniors” — before either placing it on the food bank’s giveaway table or dropping it into his shopping bag.

The former printing press operator has eaten the partially standardized American-grown diet that the Trump administration envisions for everyone on food stamps for the last three years.

“It’s okay,” he says of the food. “It’s not exactly what you’d like to have for yourself.”

And yet, Samuel said he would be loathe to miss a pickup. Retired since 2012, the 68-year-old has come to depend on food boxes to supplement his Social Security income. As much as he doesn’t like the foods in the boxes, he said, he fears the alternative.

“You never know when you might wake up and not have food,” he said. “Or the money to buy it with.”

Read more:

What Americans get wrong about food stamps, according to an expert who’s spent 20 years researching them

The surprising argument for extending food stamps to pets

‘We would literally not survive’: How Trump’s plans for the social safety net would affect America’s poorest

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25 GOP senators urge Trump to restart TPP trade talks, a deal he called a ‘disaster’

Twenty-five Republican senators, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), sent President Trump a letter Friday asking him to “re-engage with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” It’s the latest attempt by Republican lawmakers to get Trump to take a softer stance on trade, even though his administration is gearing up to erect more trade barriers. Trump withdrew from TPP in his first week in office after calling the trade deal a “disaster” and “rape of our country” during his presidential campaign.

“We encourage you to work aggressively to secure reforms that would allow the United States to join the agreement,” the senators wrote. “Increased economic engagement with the 11 nations currently in TPP has the potential to substantially improve the competitiveness of U.S. businesses, support millions of U.S. jobs, increase U.S. exports, increase wages, fully unleash America’s energy potential, and benefit consumers.”

There’s a sharp divide among congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration on how to handle trade. Trump blasted America’s trade deals during the campaign and vowed he would either renegotiate many deals or scrap them entirely, but many senators believe harsh action on trade would backfire, causing the loss of U.S. jobs and businesses.

The GOP letter was sent on the same day that Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross released a report recommending that the president heavily restrict steel and aluminum imports with a large tariff or quota. Ross said the high levels of steel and aluminum imports “impair the national security” and need to be reduced. Trump has until mid-April to decide what to do about steel and aluminum, a separate issue from TPP, but many of the nations involved in TPP would be impacted by U.S. tariffs on steel.

Despite Trump’s fierce opposition to TPP, Republican senators saw an opening after the president’s comments at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in late January when Trump surprised many by saying he would be open to trade deals with multiple countries. He even mentioned TPP specifically.

“I would do TPP if we were able to make a substantially better deal,” Trump told CNBC in Davos. “The deal was terrible, the way it was structured was terrible. If we did a substantially better deal, I would be open to TPP.”

Up until then, Trump had said he only wanted to do unilateral deals between the United States and one other country.

Ripping up TPP was a key talking point of Trump’s campaign. He portrayed it as a deal that former president Barack Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton concocted. It would lower tariffs — better known as taxes — on goods traded between the United States and 11 other countries in the Pacific Rim (Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Brunei).

Supporters of free trade, including many Republicans, worried that Trump had made a mistake. They saw it as the U.S. giving up its leadership role and ceding even more power to China. China was excluded from TPP in an attempt to counter the communist country’s growing influence on the global economy.

After the United States pulled out of TPP in January 2017, Canada took over the leadership role. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used his own speech in Davos to announce the other 11 nations had reached an agreement without the United States.

The Republican senators tried to make an economic case for TPP, saying it would build on Trump’s pro-growth agenda.

“An improved TPP would therefore bolster and sustain the economic growth America has experienced over the past year facilitated by the regulatory reductions and reforms enacted by your Administration and the substantial tax cuts you signed into law,” the letter says.

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New Pennsylvania congressional map erases 1,100 miles of district borders

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has drawn a new congressional district map for the state after finding that the previous map, drawn by Republicans following the 2010 Census, was an illegal gerrymander that deprived the state’s voters of their right to participate in free and equal elections.

One of the criteria used by the court in drawing the new districts is “compactness.” This means, in short, that wherever possible districts should avoid the sprawling, winding, inkblot-like shapes that characterized the old Pennsylvania map, and gerrymandered maps in a number of other states, as well.

A Washington Post analysis shows that the court-drawn map is indeed considerably more compact than the Republican-drawn version, eliminating more than 1,100 miles of borders drawn by Republicans to give themselves a partisan advantage.

Redistricting experts have a lot of ways to objectively measure compactness, using geometric qualities like district area, perimeter and so on. But the best way to understand compactness is visually. The three districts below, for instance, are geometrically compact.

The following three districts, on the other hand, are not.

Many states require districts to be as compact as possible because it’s one way of ensuring that all the voters in that district have at least one thing in common — geographic proximity. “A district in which people generally live near each other is usually more compact than one in which they do not,” explained redistricting expert Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School.

District borders necessarily divide populations, so districts that are more compact put fewer divisions between and within communities. We can look at Pennsylvania as an example. Here, for instance, are the state’s interior district borders under the 2011 Republican-drawn map. (I’ve eliminated the external state borders because those are a constant in every district map.)

 

Now let’s look at the interior borders under the court-drawn map.

It’s obvious that these districts are more compact, less sprawling and less squiggly than the ones drawn by Republicans in 2011. And a visual inspection suggests that, compared with the Republican-drawn map, there are fewer internal borders overall. If, for instance, if you were to unravel each district’s boundaries and place them all end-to-end, it looks like the total length of the boundaries would be shorter for the court-drawn map.

Fortunately, we don’t have to just eyeball this. For each of the above maps, I’ve calculated the total length of the interior district borders as follows: First, I added up the perimeters of all 18 districts in each map. Then I subtracted the total perimeter of the state of Pennsylvania, to eliminate that constant quantity that never changes between maps.

Finally, for each map I divided the remaining sum by two: Each interior border is a boundary between two adjacent districts, so simply adding up the perimeters would double-count the length of the interior borders.

That calculation shows that in 2011, Republicans drew roughly 3,047 miles of interior district boundaries to divvy up the state into 18 districts. The 2018 court-drawn map, on the other hand, accomplished the same feat with just 1,908 miles of boundary — a reduction of 37 percent, or 1,139 miles.

That works out to roughly the driving distance between Philadelphia and Miami. Or, to use a Pennsylvania-centric measure, it’s like driving from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh 3½ times. Or like driving from Scranton to Wilkes-Barre and back, 26 times.

From a redistricting standpoint, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court removed 1,139 miles of unnecessary divisions between and within communities of Pennsylvania voters, divisions that Republican lawmakers put in place primarily to give themselves a political advantage over their Democratic opponents.

Compactness isn’t the only measure of a district’s fairness. After all, in response to the state Supreme Court’s challenge, Pennsylvania Republican leaders submitted a revised map that was much more compact than their 2011 effort, but which showed just as much partisan skew toward the GOP.

The new, court-drawn map is not only more compact than either Republican offering — it also splits up fewer counties and municipal areas,  and more closely reflects the total partisan divide of the state.

The state’s Republican leaders, for their part, have vowed to challenge the new state court-drawn map in federal court.

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Using the best data possible, we set out to find the middle of nowhere

The northeastern Montana town of Glasgow, not far from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, pictured above, is — according to an algorithm — just about as far as you can get from anywhere. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In a triumph of data collection and analysis, a team of researchers based at Oxford University has built the tools necessary to calculate how far any dot on a map is from a city — or anything else.

The research, published in Nature last month, allows us to pin down a question that has long evaded serious answers: Where is the middle of nowhere?

To know, you’d have to catalogue and calculate the navigation challenges presented by the planet’s complex, varied terrain and the dirt tracks, roads, railroads and waterways that crisscross it. You’d then need to string those calculations together, testing every possible path from every point to every other point.

That is pretty much what the folks did at the Malaria Atlas Project, a group at Oxford’s Big Data Institute that studies the intersection of disease, geography and demographics. The huge team — 22 authors are credited — spent years building a globe-spanning map outlining just how long it takes to cross any spot on the planet based on its transportation types, vegetation, slope, elevation and more. Those spots, or pixels, represent about a square kilometer.

Armed with this data, and hours and hours of computer time, The Washington Post processed every pixel and every populated place in the continuous United States to find the one that best represents the “middle of nowhere.”

Congratulations, Glasgow, Mont.!

Of all towns with more than 1,000 residents, Glasgow, home to 3,363 people in the rolling prairie of northeastern Montana, is farthest — about 4.5 hours in any direction — from any metropolitan area of more than 75,000 people.

Below, we’ve mapped the 10 most isolated towns in the United States. Also marked are what the analysis shows to be the hardest-to-reach unpopulated parts of the contiguous 48 states: the heart of Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, and part of the Shoshone National Forest outside of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

The Malaria Atlas Project’s research could shed light on global efforts to help the poor — because access to cities, the researchers have found, is associated with such issues as health, education and environmental protection.

The map above, based on The Post’s analysis, helps us understand the landscape of geographic isolation in the United States —  not a geography with as giant implications as the Malaria Atlas Project’s, but still one that gives a deeper insight into a country that seems so defined by the cities and suburbs that all but about 2 percent of the population can reach in less than an hour.

Glasgow is in a region of northern Montana — running from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation to the west to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in the east — that consistently ranks as the most isolated, but still settled, part of the country.

To the north, a border crossing and acres upon hectares of wheat and other grains lie between Glasgow and the nearest midsize Canadian city, Regina, in the province of Saskatchewan. To the south, both Glasgow and the waters of the Missouri River are pinned in by Fort Peck Dam, an icon of an era when New Deal feats of civil engineering earned a place in the inaugural edition of Life magazine.

The seven-year boom fueled by the dam’s construction ended in 1940, and the town didn’t get its second wind until Glasgow Air Force Base opened in 1957. Before it closed in 1976, more people living on the base than in the town itself, said Mark Dulaney, a longtime resident and a sales rep for a local office supply company.

Dulaney, 61, who moved to Glasgow from Iowa with his family in 1971, lives out by the reservoir and hunts pheasant and whatever game is in season. He said he enjoys the isolation in northeastern Montana, even if it means driving hours to sell printers and supplies across a sprawling sales territory or paying twice as much for wood pellets to heat his garage than he would in Billings, a metropolitan area of 164,496 people that’s about 4.5 hours away.

“It’s pretty slow moving here,” said Dulaney, who can travel all day on a hunting trip without seeing another car. “When we go to Billings, it seems like a big metropolis.”

Getting a Lubbock, TX vibe here in Montana.

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Today, folks in Glasgow tend to work for the railroad, grow wheat, raise livestock, or provide goods and services for people in those industries. Last summer had the worst drought on record, Dulaney said, but there has been plenty of snow this winter, so 2018 is looking better.

“When the farmers and ranchers are happy, then everybody’s happy,” he said. The money they spend at restaurants and bars, and on farm equipment, buoys all of Glasgow.

Prior attempts to compare the solitude of the Glasgows of the world have been hamstrung by a lack of data. They tended to measure distance from roads — not travel times. Five miles on a dirt road in the Montana Rockies isn’t equivalent to five miles on a state highway in Illinois farm country.

The measurement is daunting enough in the United States, but it quickly becomes nearly impossible in the developing world.

It explains why Daniel Weiss, the Malaria Atlas Project’s director of global malaria epidemiology, and his team invested so much time acquiring data from satellites, Open Street Map, Google, shipping databases, surveys and other sources.

In the end, their data accounted for 4.8 times as much road coverage as a previous effort in 2000. With Google’s Earth Engine, they combined it with travel speeds for myriad transportation types, elevations and slopes. They estimated walking speeds through everything from open shrub lands (2.6 miles per hour) to croplands (1.55 mph) to snow and ice (1.01 mph).

When they were done, they had a Rosetta Stone for transportation. With the right algorithm, it can estimate transit times between any two points on the globe (although areas near the polar regions are a special case), and be modified to suit just about anyone’s needs. It excludes flight, and the final product doesn’t distinguish between transportation types, instead assuming travelers will take the fastest method available.

We focused our analysis on that previously impossible search for the most remote places in the contiguous United States, using a variant of the methodology the researchers used. Like them, we attempted to measure a place’s distance from any densely populated spot within a metro large enough to provide key goods and services.

When you take population out of the equation, the most remote place in the Lower 48 is a vast conglomeration of protected areas in Idaho that some locals call “The Frank.”

The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, the largest contiguous federal wilderness outside of Alaska, is named after the Idaho senator who did much to advance conservationism in the 1960s and the Salmon River, one of the most wild and scenic rivers on the continent.

The Salmon River Canyon, the Salmon River Gorge and the Salmon River mountains are at the heart of The Frank. They’re also where you’ll find the ultra-remote area pinpointed by our algorithm.

The runner up for most remote area lies southeast of the Wapiti Ranger Station in the Shoshone National Forest, part of the oldest federally protected forest in the country. The Shoshone abuts Yellowstone to the east, and was set aside along with the more famous and accessible national park as a timberland reserve in 1891, the year after Wyoming became a state.

All the above reckoning, however, still relies on distance from what might be a generous definition of “city.” Outlying metro areas such as Rapid City, S.D., and Helena, Mont., end up with a large influence on the outcome.

If you went to another extreme, and told the data set that you wanted to be as far away from a city of more than 1 million people as possible, it probably would suggest, well, pretty much all of Idaho, Montana and New Mexico.

For the most extreme case — finding the world’s hardest-to-access places regardless of population — we used a data set created by the researchers. It shows the number hours needed to travel from a city to almost any point on the globe.

When analyzing their data, we only considered contiguous groups of more than 20 pixels that were all in the top few percentiles of inaccessibility to reduce distortion from small and mountainous areas.

Greenland’s interior led the list. The world’s largest island’s never-ending ice pack, combined with its distance from the population centers of Maritime Canada and Western Europe, make its farthest reaches uniquely inaccessible, probably in part because the map assumes you’ll be making much of the overland journey on foot. Its neighbor to the west, Canada’s Ellesmere island, came in third for many of the same reasons.

The runners-up, the Pitcairn Islands, are a lonely Pacific island chain still populated by descendants of the Bounty mutineers. The parts of Greenland remote enough to make this list aren’t inhabited.

We’ve mapped the top five below. Polynesian islands fill out the rest of the top 10.

In the United States, being far from a major city means that it’s harder to access specialized types of health care, as well as things such as certain elite institutions of higher learning and international airports.

In the developing world, living in a remote location is measurably worse for your well-being. They’re not only harder to reach, but they also can host endemic diseases such as the malaria that Weiss and his colleagues are helping to eradicate.

In low-income and middle-income countries especially, the researchers write, the link between access to cities and well-being is “unequivocal.” The access itself also is harder to come by. In developed nations, they found, 90.7 percent of the population lives within an hour of a major city (see, for example, the entire eastern half of any of our maps), while in low-income countries, only 50.9 percent does.

Western Kansas won’t be struck by a malaria outbreak. Tropical diseases aren’t festering within the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. But the same data that gave us the power to determine what makes a speck on the Nevada map or a stretch of the Montana Badlands unique also will empower researchers worldwide.

Laris Karklis contributed to this report.

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