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By Tom DiChristopher, CNBC

President Donald Trump set in motion a vast rollback of energy, climate and environmental regulations during his first two years in office. Over the next two years, those actions will face intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

On Thursday, Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives and the committees that conduct government oversight. Within the first few months of the year, incoming committee chairs intend to hold a series of hearings to pick apart Trump’s energy and environmental policies and what role industry insiders played in crafting them.

The Trump administration has targeted dozens of rules. Some of the biggest items on its agenda include withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, expanding drilling on federal lands, and watering down rules ranging from limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants to fuel efficiency in cars and trucks.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat tipped to chair the House Natural Resources Committee, says Americans can expect the committee to probe the financial costs and public health risks associated with Interior Department policies under Trump. Those include rolling back methane emissions rules from oil and gas operations and making virtually all federally administered offshore waters available to drillers.

“The Trump administration has spent two years giving away the store to fossil fuel companies, and Republicans in Congress cheered every step of the way,” said Grijalva. “We need to know what kind of impact this corporate favoritism is having on average Americans’ health and quality of life.”

With House Republicans wielding committee gavels during the first two years of the Trump administration, the president’s deregulatory agenda has proceeded with minimal scrutiny. Now, administration officials and energy industry executives are bracing for a grilling on Capitol Hill.

“No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, which is what these guys are about to face,” said Rich Gold, a partner at lobbying firm Holland & Knight, referencing the famous “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch.

Building a record to battle Trump

Gold, who heads his firm’s public policy and regulation group, says the hearings create several opportunities for Democrats.

First, they will bog down the administration in requests for information, leaving it less bandwidth to continue slashing regulations. Second, the hearings create an on-the-record account detailing how the administration developed its policies and who it consulted to craft its agenda.

That record provides fodder for the many lawsuits aimed at defeating Trump’s energy and environmental rollback. It can also be leveraged by Trump’s challenger in the 2020 presidential contest to make the case that Trump put industry profits ahead of public health and climate action.

The hearings also present an opportunity for Democrats to trip up administration officials and damage the administration’s credibility, says Gold.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who will likely become Speaker of the House, last week opened another avenue to scrutinize Trump’s policies with the creation of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Trump rejects the consensus among climate scientists that global warming is primarily caused by human activity and presents an urgent threat to the world. He dismissed a recent report by his own administration that climate-related impacts could shave 10 percent off the U.S. economy by 2100.

In a statement, Pelosi said, “The American people have demanded action to combat the climate crisis, which threatens our public health, our economy, our national security and the whole of God’s creation.”

Don’t bet on big energy legislation

But with Congress divided and many Republicans still downplaying global warming risks, few Washington watchers expect much, if any, meaningful energy or climate legislation to emerge from Capitol Hill.

“I don’t have high expectations about legislation,” said David Konisky, associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “I think most of the activity from the Democrats will be oversight of policy and activities inside the EPA and the Department of Interior.”

One area that could generate bipartisan support is carbon capture and storage, says Ben Finzel, president at Washington communications firm RenewPR.

The technology strips carbon emissions from power plants and other industrial activity and sequesters it underground. The process has not been proven commercially viable at scale, but it is widely seen as critical to mitigating the impacts of climate change because developing nations around the world are still building coal plants.

“The interesting thing about carbon capture is that it really is bipartisan and there are folks on both sides of the aisle in both chambers that like the concept of addressing at least a piece of energy policy, whether it be jobs or emissions reduction or technology innovation,” said Finzel, whose clients include the Carbon Capture Coalition, which advocates for the technology.

Rebuilding American infrastructure is also seen as some of the most fertile ground for bipartisan compromise and could yield progress in the realm of energy. Democrats say they want an infrastructure bill to include provisions to modernize the nation’s energy infrastructure, expand renewable energy and bioenergy and invest in energy efficiency and smart technology.

Gold, the public policy head at Holland & Knight, says disagreements over how to fund infrastructure spending could be an obstacle, but it’s one area where Trump is fairly content to let Congress hammer out the details. An infrastructure bill would also give him another legislative credential after two years with little to show in terms of bipartisan lawmaking.

“I think he has to go bold on something like that because if he doesn’t, what he’s done so far is not going to get him across the finish line” in the 2020 presidential election, he said.

But Democrats must also contend with intraparty fighting.

The party’s progressive wing, led by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, is pushing for a “Green New Deal,” a sweeping stimulus package that calls for generating all U.S. electric power from renewable sources within 10 years. Some centrist Democrats and members of the establishment worry the plan is unfeasible and threatens to alienate independents and moderate Republicans ahead of 2020 elections.

Ocasio-Cortez has taken a combative stance and said Pelosi’s new select committee will be weaker than one the leader convened when she was last Speaker of the House.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a rare coal supporter within the Democratic party, will also become the ranking member on the Senate Energy Committee. Environmentalists and progressives worry that Manchin will use the position to advocate for the coal industry, a powerful player in his state.



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Supreme Court allows Trump administration to enforce transgender military ban

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed the Trump administration to go ahead, for now, with its plan to ban transgender military service.

The court, without comment, granted a request from the Justice Department to allow the government to enforce the ban while challenges to the policy play out in the lower courts. The earliest the Supreme Court could act on the issue would be during its next term, which begins in October.

In a July 2017 tweet, President Donald Trump announced that he would end a policy, begun during the Obama administration, that allows transgender men and women to serve openly and to have the government pay for sex-reassignment surgery.

“After consultation with my generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity,” he said. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”

Six months later, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis announced a revised policy that would allow transgender individuals in the military, provided that they served “in their biological sex” and did not seek gender-transition surgery.

Federal district court judges in California, Washington, D.C., and Washington state issued orders blocking the policy nationwide. They said it most likely amounted to unconstitutional discrimination and rejected the administration’s claims that military readiness was at issue.

“There is absolutely no support for the claim that the ongoing service of transgender people would have any negative effect on the military at all. In fact, there is considerable evidence that it is the discharge and banning of such individuals that would have such effects,” wrote Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the court in Washington, D.C.

The Justice Department went to the Supreme Court in November to urge that the justices take up the issue even before the cases had gone through the federal appeals courts — a request the Supreme Court grants very rarely. A month later, the government as a fallback asked the court to narrow the effect of the lower court rulings so that they applied only to the individuals who sued and not to the entire country.

The cases involve “a matter of imperative public importance: the authority of the U.S. military to determine who may serve in the nation’s armed forces,” Solicitor General Noel Francisco told the court. “The secretary of defense determined that individuals with a history of the medical condition gender dysphoria should be presumptively disqualified from military service, particularly if they have undergone the treatment of gender transition or seek to do so.”

Opponents of the ban urged the court to leave the lower court orders in place that prevent enforcement of the Trump administration’s proposed policy change.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday also opted to stay out of several other high-profile legal battles, which included taking no action Tuesday on the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a move that requires the government to keep the program going for at least 10 more months.

The justices also took no action on whether federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination on the job also apply to sexual orientation. Federal appeals courts are divided on the question.

Some have ruled that in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Congress did not intend to include same-sex bias when it prohibited job discrimination on the basis of race, sex and other characteristics. But other courts have said discriminating against someone because of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination. Civil rights groups say there’s no need to change the law, arguing that it already bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In other action Tuesday, the justices said they would not hear Indiana’s effort to revive a state law intended to restrict access to abortion. Passed in 2016 and signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence, the law prohibited what the state called discriminatory abortions — those sought because of characteristics of the fetus, including gender, race or a diagnosis of Down syndrome or other defect.

Supporters of the measure said the law responded to medical developments that allow women to choose which child to bear, an option the state said was not contemplated at the time of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. But Planned Parenthood said it was an unconstitutional restriction on abortion rights, and lower courts agreed, preventing the law from taking effect.



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Supreme Court won’t hear case of HS football coach fired for on-field prayer

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Tuesday to take up the appeal of a Washington state high school football coach who lost his job after he refused to stop praying on the field immediately after games.

Joseph Kennedy’s firing as assistant coach at Bremerton High School in 2015 made headlines nationwide. During a 2016 campaign event, Donald Trump called it “very, very sad and outrageous.”

Kennedy became a coach in 2008 and later began offering a brief prayer on the field after games ended and the players and coaches had met midfield to shake hands. He would drop to one knee and, in the words of his Supreme Court appeal, “offer a silent or quiet prayer of thanksgiving for player safety, sportsmanship and spirited competition.”

His religious beliefs, Kennedy’s appeal said, “require him to give thanks through prayer at the end of each game.”

No one complained about the prayers, but when school district officials became aware, they reminded him of a policy that prohibits school staff from indirectly encouraging students to engage in religious activity or discouraging them from doing so, because it would be perceived as endorsing or opposing religious activity.

Bremerton assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, obscured at center in blue, is surrounded by players in prayer in Bremerton, Washington, on Oct. 16, 2015.Meegan M. Reid / Kitsap Sun via AP file

Kennedy briefly stopped his prayers but then resumed them, and his dust up with the school district attracted widespread attention.

After a game in October 2015, he knelt on the 50-yard line and was soon surrounded by other coaches and players, as well as spectators who came onto the field from the stands. A week later, after again praying on the field after a game, he was placed on leave. The district did not re-hire him for the following season.

He sued, claiming the school district violated his rights of free expression and religious freedom, but lower federal courts ruled against him. They held that his prayers were not entitled to the kind of protection an individual would have, because he was acting in his capacity as a public employee and disregarding a requirement for the government to remain neutral in religious matters.

He was dressed in school colors, still on the job, and responsible for the conduct of his players, the trial judge said, and a reasonable observer would have seen his actions as a coach “participating in, in fact leading, an orchestrated session of faith.”

In his appeal, Kennedy said the Supreme Court has long held that teachers and students do not give up all their First Amendment protections while at school. If the rulings against him are allowed to stand, everything a teacher says or does in view of students would be unprotected.

“Donning a hijab or yarmulke or making the sign of the cross in the school cafeteria could be made a fireable offense,” his lawyers said.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and other religious groups urged the Supreme Court to take the case. The Constitution “does not require schools to be policed as religion-free zones,” they said.



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The government shutdown’s forgotten victims

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By Dareh Gregorian

The government shutdown has already cost federal contractors — and their employees — between $5 and $6 billion, experts say.

And unlike the 800,000 furloughed federal employees who haven’t been paid since the longest shutdown in U.S. history began on Dec. 22, the contractors aren’t likely to get back pay when the impasse eventually ends.

An analysis by Bloomberg News found the shutdown is costing contractors to lose a total of over $200 million a day — a hardship for mid-size companies and devastating for smaller outfits.

That puts the direct loss to the economy at roughly $5.6 billion as of Friday — about the same amount President Donald Trump is demanding from Congress to build his border wall and reopen the government.

The money crunch has already caused affected companies to have to furlough “tens of thousands of government contracted employees,” said David Berteau, president of the Professional Services Council, which represents 400 companies with government contracts.

“We economists are likely severely underestimating the economic impact due to the loss of work from government contractors,” said Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist for international consulting RSM US. “We are in uncharted terrain with a shutdown of this breadth and depth.”

There are over 5 million contract employees working across the federal government, ranging from highly paid consulting and technical jobs to lower paid janitorial and cafeteria jobs. It’s unclear how many are affected by the partial shutdown, but Paul Light, a professor of public policy at New York University, estimated it to be 1.2 million workers and grant recipients.

“If you’re a contractor or a non-profit or a university and you have the money in hand, you’re okay. But if you’re waiting to execute work orders — you ain’t going to get paid,” Light told NBC News, and that’s taking a toll on the greater economy.

“They’ve underestimated an integral part of the federal workforce. They spend money, just like federal employees. They know they better not buy that new car now, or schedule a vacation,” Light said. “There’s too much uncertainty.”

The contract employees are facing additional issues as well. While federal workers are still getting their health care, some contractors who aren’t getting work are worried they won’t be able to pay their insurance premiums, the experts say.

“They’re right to be concerned. It’s one of those ancillary issues for government contractors that has a real impact,” Alan Chvotkin, executive vice-president of the Professional Services Council.

He said the larger companies with government contracts have been able to stanch the bleeding by “putting their employees on other work or putting them on training vacation or status,” but that may not be an option for smaller companies.

“Companies have contingency plans, but not for a shutdown this long,” Chvotkin said.

He said his organization has been talking to members of Congress to get them to consider back payments for contract workers after the shutdown ends, but acknowledged it’s a tough task that’s never been done before.

“It’s more complicated because it involved thousands of employers” and “different employment statuses. The mechanics are different,” Chvotkin said, adding some lawmakers have shown “a willingness” to tackle the issue.

“We’re hopeful members of Congress will come to a solution and that the president will agree,” he said.

Brusuelas said the worst is yet to come.

“It’s doesn’t look like there’s an end in sight,” he said.

CORRECTION: (Jan. 22, 2019, 11:31 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the executive vice president of the Professional Services Council. He is Alan Chvotkin, not Shvotkin.

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