President Donald Trump won’t let up on the border wall, and is reportedly set to ask Congress for $8.6 billion to deliver on his signature campaign promise — even after his smaller border-security ask prompted the longest shutdown in American history.
Despite continued congressional resistance, Trump plans to submit a budget request to Congress tomorrow that, in addition to cutting non-military federal spending, would add $5 billion to the Department of Homeland Security’s budget and $3.6 billion from the Department of Defense’s military construction funds, Reuters reported this morning.
Though the executive branch’s budget requests are just that — requests — they help set the tone for Congress’s annual debates over how to appropriate federal funds, not to mention the tone for Trump’s 2020 campaign.
But the wall has become a political nightmare for Trump. The last time he demanded wall funds from Congress, it turned into a 35-day government shutdown that ended in defeat for the president when he signed a spending bill that gave him far short of his $5.7 billion request. Trump paired his signature on the bill with a dramatic move: declaring a national emergency on the southern border. His attempt to circumvent Congress’s power of the purse will likely lead to his first veto.
There’s still confusion about what, exactly, the wall is (bollards? slats?) and how much of it has already been built, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from teeing up another no-holds-barred political fight for 2019.
.@realDonaldTrump hurt millions of Americans and caused widespread chaos when he recklessly shut down the government to try to get his expensive and ineffective wall, which he promised would be paid for by Mexico. pic.twitter.com/YtljS96gcD
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) March 10, 2019
This tactic didn’t work last time, so why try again?
This new spending demand, billions of dollars higher than the last one, will meet the same resistance. But “building the wall” — sometimes “finish the wall,” depending on the context — is a key issue for Trump’s base. Walking away from that promise is not an option.
Backed into a corner after the longest shutdown in US history started hurting the economy and affecting everyday Americans, Trump saw declaring a national emergency as a way out, as Vox’s Li Zhou reported:
It’s clear that a government shutdown is a political loser for Trump, after the recent one proved disastrous for his approval ratings — but he also fears criticism from his conservative base, who say he hasn’t done enough to deal with what he says is a crisis at the southern border.
By signing the spending bill and declaring a national emergency, he can prevent another shutdown, while also claiming to live up to his campaign promise of building a border wall.
But as Vox’s Tara Golshan reported, “shutdown brinksmanship” — that is, “the game of using the government shutdown to leverage a policy win” — didn’t work, and put Republicans in a tough position.
Conservatives and the Trump White House are stuck. They have to either admit that they gravely underestimated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ability to keep Democrats unified against the border wall or say the shutdown was a political play — one that forced 800,000 federal employees to miss two paychecks over the holidays.
The administration wants to fund 722 miles of barriers along the southern border, and they say the $8.6 billion on top of the national emergency funds could get them there. The fight will ramp up this fall, as spending bills need to pass by October 1 to keep the government open.
Another shutdown could have major consequences the country
The partial closure’s effects were felt nationwide. The government employees and contractors who went without pay were the most visibly affected, but the federal government is a major player in almost all areas of American life. Nicole Fallert rounded up some of the shutdown’s hidden costs:
- While Food and Drug Administration inspections of high-risk food manufacturing facilities have continued, routine checks on low-risk facilities have stopped, as Julia Belluz detailed for Vox. The agency oversees about 80 percent of the country’s food supply. USDA inspections have continued without interruption.
- Furloughed workers are struggling to even access food. The Department of Agriculture regularly funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). SNAP is only guaranteed funds through February, as Tara Golshan wrote for Vox. The New York Times’s Glenn Thrush found that some workers have turned to a local shelter or pantry, but these organizations are also struggling to meet a higher demand for services.
- Thrush also found that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is struggling to regularly subsidize payments for home renters. Renters are being asked to pay money they don’t have to make up the difference because the government isn’t.
- More than 40,000 immigration hearings (and counting) have been canceled due to the shutdown, according to a report by the Transactional Records Access Clearing House at Syracuse University. For these people who legally applied for asylum, there was already a backlog, according to a CNN report. More than 300 judges have been furloughed as well as workers hiring new judges. Rescheduling each canceled hearing could take years, and the true number of people from around the world who are impacted won’t be known until the shutdown is over.
And further shutdowns could make a serious impact on the economy, but Trump isn’t backing down. “We don’t control our own border,” he said when he announced the national emergency. “So we’re going to confront the national security crisis on our southern border. And we’re going to do it one way or the other — we have to do it.”
He went on to clarify that this wasn’t just because it was a campaign promise, but with only four in 10 voters saying they’ll back him for reelection, he can’t afford to lose his base.
“He’s going to stay with his wall, and he’s going to stay with the border security theme,” Larry Kudlow, the White House’s top economic adviser, said on Fox News on Sunday. “I think it’s essential.”
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Whales dying from plastic bags: The alarming trend, explained
Another dead whale has washed ashore with a belly full of plastic.
This week, the carcass of the young sperm whale, estimated to have been 7 years old, was found on a beach in Cefalù, Italy. Investigators aren’t certain whether the plastic killed the whale. But it’s part of a gruesome pattern that’s become impossible to ignore.
In April, a pregnant sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sardinia with nearly 50 pounds’ worth of plastic bags, containers, and tubing in her stomach. Biologists in Florida last month euthanized a baby rough-toothed dolphin with two plastic bags and a shredded balloon in its stomach.
“The dolphin was very young and emaciated,” said Michelle Kerr, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in an email. “Due to a poor prognosis, the decision was made to humanely euthanize the animal on scene.”
In March, a 1,100-pound Cuvier’s beaked whale was recovered in the Philippines filled with 88 pounds of plastic bags, fishing line, and rice sacks. A beached sperm whale was found in Indonesia last year with more than 1,000 pieces of plastic inside.
As the quantity of plastic humans dump in the ocean has reached obscene proportions, we’re seeing more and more sea life — including birds, otters, sea turtles, and fish — choking on it.
But the impact on whales is particularly alarming. After centuries of whaling and overfishing, the survival of many whale species is already precarious. Now, just as their numbers are starting to recover, whales are consuming our toxic waste. And their deaths aren’t just about biodiversity loss: Whales play a critical role in marine ecosystems, which provide 3 billion people with their primary sources of protein.
To find out more about why whales are so vulnerable to plastic waste, I talked to Lars Bejder, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He said there are multiple mechanisms at work here and that dying isn’t the only plastic hazard for whales, and explained why the problem will only get worse.
There’s a gargantuan amount of plastic in the ocean
The root cause of these stranded, plastic-filled whales is that plastic is cheap and easy to produce but almost impossible for nature to destroy. Chunks of plastic linger for decades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. This waste then churns in the ocean in massive gyres.
Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic — a mass greater than that of the Great Pyramid of Giza — enters the ocean each year.
Meanwhile, we’re still trying to figure out how much plastic waste has already accumulated in the ocean. A study published this week in the journal Scientific Reports estimated that 414 million bits of garbage weighing 238 tons have been deposited on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands 1,300 miles off the coast of Australia. It’s a sign that even the most remote regions of the world are now contaminated with the detritus of civilization.
“Sadly, the situation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is not unique, with significant quantities of debris documented on islands and coastal areas from the Arctic to the Antarctic,” researchers wrote. “[G]lobal debris surveys, the majority of which are focused solely on surface debris, have drastically underestimated the scale of debris accumulation.”
And the amount of plastic waste in the ocean is surging. Our current trajectory puts us on track to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.
So for the largest, hungriest animals in the ocean, plastic is becoming an unwelcome part of their diets.
Different whales face different risks from plastic
Whales are among the more intelligent creatures in the ocean, so why aren’t they smart enough to avoid eating plastic?
Well, one reason is that often plastic is in their food.
Small crustaceans like krill and tiny fish like anchovies often end up inadvertently consuming microplastics. Whales, the largest animals ever known to have existed, have a voracious appetite for these critters. A blue whale eats between 2 and 4 tons of krill per day.
Whales like the blue whale have baleen plates in their mouths that act as filters, trapping their small prey as well as small bits of plastic. This means they are less likely to ingest larger plastic waste items like bottles and containers, but the small plastic bits they consume quickly pile up.
“These baleen whales filter hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water per day,” Bejder said. “You can imagine all these microplastics they encounter through this filtration process that then become bioaccumulated.”
Microplastics are unlikely to obstruct the digestive tract of a baleen whale, but as they build up inside an animal’s tissues, they can leach toxic chemicals like endocrine disruptors that make the creature sick. This problem can affect all ocean filter feeders, including manta rays and whale sharks.
That means there could be large whales dying of plastic poisoning without obvious culprits like flip-flops and food containers in their stomachs, according to Bejder.
A study published this week in Royal Society Open Science also reported that plastic pollution is more dangerous to baleen whales than oil spills. “Particle capture studies suggest potentially greater danger to [baleen whales] from plastic pollution than oil,” the authors wrote.
Toothed whales like sperm whales and dolphins normally catch bigger prey, like squid. But since they can swallow larger animals, they are vulnerable to larger chunks of plastic, like bags and nets.
“They might be seeking those out because they’re thinking they might be prey,” Bejder said. A plastic container in murky waters could resemble a fish to a toothed whale, or a sperm whale may inadvertently swallow plastic garbage as it hunts for a meal.
Once ingested, the plastic piles up in the whale’s stomach. It can then obstruct bowels, preventing whales from digesting food and leading them to starve to death. It can also give a whale a false sense of being full, leading the whale to eat less and get weaker. That leaves it vulnerable to predators and disease.
We’re only seeing a tiny fraction of the whales being harmed by plastic
Part of the reason we pay so much attention to whales killed by plastic is because the whales themselves are very big and the plastic culprits are startlingly obvious. Large animals decay slowly, giving people plenty of time to figure out the cause of death, whereas smaller fish and crustaceans dying from plastic decompose quickly and are rarely investigated. Even for casual observers, a dead whale blocking a beach vacation photo is pretty hard to ignore.
Still, we’re missing a big part of the picture.
“The ones that land on the beach that are killed through ingestion, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. They’re just the ones that we see,” Bejder said. “I’m sure that many, many marine mammals have some levels of plastic bags and plastic items in their stomachs.”
Many more whales could be dying from plastic poisoning without our knowledge. Around the Gulf of Mexico for example, 2 to 6 percent of whale carcasses end up on a shoreline. That means the vast majority sink to the ocean floor. This is likely the case for most of the world’s waters.
And the fact that whales are suffering shows that our marine ecosystems in general are in peril. “Whales, baleen whales, these larger dolphins species are pretty much at the top of the food chain,” Bejder said. “They are sentinels of ocean health for sure.”
But with more plastic waste pouring into the ocean, the prognosis for the most mega of megafauna is grim.
Yoga With ELLE: When You’re Low On Energy
Join Fern Ross, our Chief Sub-Editor / Production Editor and resident (ahem, registered) yoga teacher as she takes you through several yoga poses each tailored to specific needs. This week, yoga for when you’re low on energy aka yoga for when you’re on your period.
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