Happy Wednesday! Planning to tag along with your daughter’s Girl Scout troop to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall?
We’re sure you’ll have a great time—unless, of course, you’re an attorney at a firm involved in litigation against a restaurant the Rockettes’ parent company also owns, in which case the lobby facial recognition software will flag you and security will escort you out before you ever reach the auditorium. Merry Christmas!
Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to visit Washington, D.C. today, to meet with lawmakers and—if security concerns allow—address a joint session of Congress, Punchbowl News first reported Tuesday afternoon. The visit will be Zelensky’s first trip outside Ukraine since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began February 24 and coincides with Congress’ push to pass about $45 billion in new military and economic aid for Ukraine within the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill. Ukrainians are experiencing widespread power outages as Russia continues strikes on civilian infrastructure, but Ukrainian troops have been holding back a renewed Russian push to take the city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk oblast.
- The House Ways and Means Committee voted Tuesday along party lines to release six years’ worth of former President Donald Trump’s tax returns to the public once they are redacted to protect personal information such as Social Security numbers. The committee, led by Democratic Rep. Richard Neal, first sought the returns in 2019 as part of an investigation into an IRS program that mandates the auditing of presidents and vice presidents, but it only gained access to them a few weeks ago after a lengthy legal battle. Neal alleged Tuesday the IRS didn’t perform the mandatory audits during the first two years of the Trump administration.
- The Taliban announced Tuesday that, effective immediately, universities in Afghanistan are now closed to women entirely; they had already restricted the subjects female students could study and segregated classrooms by gender. Also Tuesday, the Taliban released two Americans who had been detained in Afghanistan. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the release was not part of an exchange and that no money had been paid for the prisoners’ release.
- The $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill being considered by Congress this week now includes language banning the social media app TikTok from federal government devices. The Washington Post also reported that TikTok has “agreed to sever decision-making over its U.S. operations” from its Chinese Communist Party-controlled parent company ByteDance amid negotiations with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).
- U.S. Central Command announced Tuesday that Special Operations forces—accompanied by troops from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces—captured six ISIS officials in Syria this week during multiple helicopter raids. It’s the second such operation in recent weeks: Special Forces on December 11 killed two ISIS operatives in a nearly three-hour gun battle.
- More than 80 percent of the continental U.S.—including Austin and Orlando—is forecast to experience temperatures below freezing this week as cold air moving down from Canada is projected to bring temperatures 30 to 50 degrees below normal for this time of year. The National Weather Service has warned of “life-threatening” cold for hard-hit areas like the Plains and Midwest. Quickly dropping temperatures and accelerating wind speeds could produce a “bomb cyclone” blizzard and knock out power for millions.
- Early Tuesday morning, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake in rural northern California killed at least 2 people, injured 12, and left more than 72,000 customers without power, leading California Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency for Humboldt County. The violent earthquake near the intersection of three tectonic plates came days after a smaller earthquake in the Bay Area woke residents before 4 a.m.
- Former film magnate Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape and other sexual crimes by a Los Angeles jury on Monday and could face up to 24 years in prison when sentenced. He is currently serving 23 years in prison for a 2020 New York rape conviction. Weinstein was also acquitted of a 2010 sexual battery allegation, and a mistrial was declared for some other charges, including an allegation of rape brought by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Democratic Backsliding in Mexico?
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) seems to have a simple legislative mantra these days: If at first you don’t succeed in overhauling your country’s elections administration, try, try again. At the urging of Mexico’s populist left-wing executive, the country’s legislature has in recent days rushed to approve sweeping electoral changes that critics warn could undermine future votes.
Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE, from its Spanish initials) oversees the country’s federal elections and performs a host of related tasks—registering political parties, overseeing political finance and advertising, maintaining the voter rolls and distributing voter IDs, helping with local elections, and running recalls. Established in 1990 to counter longstanding vote manipulation, its standing bureaucracy was developed to create an electoral administration system relatively free of party loyalties.
AMLO isn’t a fan. Though international observers considered Mexico’s 2006 presidential election free and fair, AMLO blames the INE for his narrow loss in the race—even though he later won in 2018. He’s also regularly run afoul of laws governing when and how officials can make campaign pitches. In his ongoing quest to make major institutional changes in Mexico, the INE is the latest on the chopping block.
His initial proposal, a constitutional amendment, would have slashed much of the INE’s bureaucracy and transformed it into a much smaller, more centralized agency. Voters would have elected its board from a candidate pool selected by Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court—raising fears from critics that the INE’s ranks would quickly become filled with party faithful.
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets across Mexico protesting the proposal and supporting the INE, which enjoys a 61 percent approval rating according to a November poll. The protests didn’t necessarily reflect growing opposition to AMLO himself—the president’s popularity surged to a record 73 percent this month, per Morning Consult—but his proposal failed to garner the two-thirds majority in the lower house of Congress needed to alter Mexico’s constitution.
Undeterred, AMLO pivoted to what he labeled his “Plan B,” a bill stuffed with narrower—but still sweeping—changes. Among other measures, the package would close local voter ID offices and limit the INE’s ability to sanction parties and candidates. INE Director Lorenzo Córdova estimated the changes would eradicate nearly 85 percent of the body’s career civil servants, raising questions about how the agency will effectively administer 2024’s presidential election. AMLO isn’t eligible for reelection—Mexico limits presidents to one six-year term—but critics worry he’ll use the changes to sway future elections toward handpicked successors.
“If you see the changes one by one, perhaps it’s not that bad, but when you see the whole package of proposals, then you can get a sense of what they are trying to do,” Javier Martín Reyes—a lawyer who formerly worked for Mexico’s election court—told The Dispatch. “The calculation is to try to control the institution through the political appointments and to weaken the professional structure of INE.”
Because “Plan B” is a bill instead of a constitutional amendment, it only needed a simple majority to pass—and AMLO’s party and its allies control 278 of 500 seats in the Congress’ lower chamber and 75 of 128 in the Senate. Both chambers have approved the package, though the final details are still in flux as they passed different versions. Ricardo Monreal—leader of AMLO’s party in the Senate—voted against the package, saying, “I only want the constitution respected.” Opposition parties will likely mount a number of legal challenges to the final law, potentially forcing further changes to the provisions.
The White House has said little about the proposed measures, but Congress did include a clause in the recent National Defense Authorization Act directing the Biden administration to provide “an assessment of any changes in Mexico’s electoral and democratic institutions, including their ability to ensure accountability for human rights violations, and its impacts on national security.” Asked about the provision last week, AMLO laughed it off.
“You think the president of the United States has that on his agenda? He doesn’t even know about it,” he told reporters on Friday. “President Biden, first off, is very respectful of the decisions we make, he knows that Mexico is an independent, sovereign, free country. He’s an experienced politician.”
AMLO, for his part, argues that the legislation is needed to reduce bloat and political infiltration at the INE. But the agency’s budget for 2023—shy of 14 billion Mexican pesos, or about 700 million USD—is less than 1 percent of Mexico’s 2021 governmental expenditures. And while the INE has a patchy record in some areas like enforcing campaign finance limits, international observers have concluded it’s effective and generates trust in Mexico’s elections system.
Political analysts say the existence of an independent electoral authority played a critical role in ending rigged elections and 70 years of one-party rule—and that AMLO’s steep cuts and centralization proposals could undermine that progress. “Forty years ago in Mexico, we had elections, but we all knew who was going to win because the government controlled basically all the administration process of elections,” Martín Reyes said. “[INE is] pretty big, but at the same time, it’s one of the few institutions in Mexico that works decently.”
Worth Your Time
- Are some languages more efficient? How long would it take for children taught no formal language to invent one? Does learning more languages make you smarter? On the latest episode of the “80,000 Hours” podcast, linguist John McWhorter discusses all these questions and more—including why languages die and whether we should devote resources to saving them. “You speak a very small, and probably therefore fascinating and very complicated language,” McWhorter explains. “You marry somebody who speaks another one from several villages over. The two of you move to the city, [where] there’s some big giant lingua franca. What are you going to speak to your kids? You’re going to speak that big fat language. That kills languages, because after a while, there are very few people left in the village. The big language is the language of songs, the big language is what you text in. That’s a very hard thing to resist.”
- If you love It’s a Wonderful Life but have always been a bit bothered by Mary ending up a miserable spinster without George—well, then, Clare Coffey’s essay in The Bulwark is for you. “George’s life is shaped by a recurring characteristic act: the heroic acquiescence to duty when circumstances require it,” Coffey writes. “But Mary sees the greater vision from the start. She is determined that George will lasso the moon, even if she is the only one who can see it in the sky. … It is certainly pleasant but not unduly extraordinary to be a popular and beautiful woman who can marry a rich and popular man if she chooses. It is less ordinary to see, with Mary’s perfect clarity and uncanny certainty, the life and man you want, and to choose it in the teeth of discouragement with all its disadvantages apparent, to persist single-mindedly in the face of hardship. It’s a Wonderful Life is, in part, the story of someone becoming, kicking and screaming, against all intentions and desires, a big man. Mary sees the big man in George from the first, because she is a big woman.”
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Toeing the Company Line
- It’s been a heck of a year, and on last night’s episode of Dispatch Live (🔒) David, Kevin, and Price reflected on 2022’s most significant moments and took some time to name their picks for “Person of the Year” and “Rat Bastard of the Year.” Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.
- In Tuesday’s edition of Uphill, Haley interviews Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher about his priorities for the new select committee on China he’s set to chair. “One hearing we want to have very early on is on how we got to this point,” said Gallagher, a Republican. “Why did the bipartisan bet that both parties made on China fail? What were the assumptions underlying it that were wrong? What did we misunderstand about the Chinese Communist Party that we need to understand in order to have a successful policy going forward?”
- The “Twitter Files” have revealed that the FBI made pervasive requests that Twitter remove certain information from its platform and that, oftentimes, Twitter complied. Is that a First Amendment violation? Depends on whether a court would consider the requests coercive, David writes in Tuesday’s French Press (🔒), a legal explainer of the facts we know so far.
- Kari Lake may have lost Arizona’s gubernatorial election, but she hasn’t gone away and is only doubling down on “fruitcake populism.” In Tuesday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒), Nick examines Lake’s motives. “She’s likely just following her instincts—cry fraud, play the victim in front of any audience that’ll have her, and be as obnoxiously combative as possible,” he writes. “For an ambitious Republican, [those] are good instincts to have in the Trump era.”
- Led by President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party is planning to shake up its primary schedule ahead of 2024. In Tuesday’s edition of The Sweep (🔒), Sarah examines whether it can. Plus: did redistricting cost Democrats the House?
- On the site today, Harvest explains why it’s taken Congress so long to pass the Electoral Count Reform Act, Jonah reflects on a very bad year for opponents of liberal democracy, and Kevin looks at how Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover in some ways mimics Xi Jinping’s missteps in China.
Let Us Know
Why do you think Americans generally pay more attention to the internal politics of small European countries an ocean away than the densely populated, major trading partner directly to our south?