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Alice Ollstein

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.

Articles by Alice

Dating back to his mid-1990s reign in the House of Representatives, and continuing through his failed presidential runs and unsuccessful audition to be Donald Trump’s vice president, Newt Gingrich has led a crusade for rolling back protections for federal workers and eliminating entire agencies. Today, he is pushing from the outside for that same agenda — both as a contributor to Fox News, the President’s favorite source of information, and in private communications with the administration urging officials to conduct a “cleaning” and fire career civil servants suspected of disloyalty.

Whistleblowers report that retaliation against nonpartisan federal workers is on the rise under the Trump administration, with career staffers being pushed out of many different government agencies. As investigations into these purges heat up, and as efforts on Capitol Hill to pass bills making it easier to fire career civil servants intensify, Gingrich is emerging as a key player to watch in the months to come.

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As President Trump continues to insist that the Affordable Care Act is “essentially repealed” due to the 2019 demise of the individual mandate penalty, new polling from the experts at the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 9 in 10 individual market enrollees plan to keep their health plan with or without a mandate. The poll found that the threat of paying a tax penalty is not the top deciding factor for most people on whether or not to purchase insurance, and ranks below reasons such as
protecting against high medical bills, peace of mind, or because they or a family member has an ongoing health condition.

The finding is yet another sign that the ACA is more resilient than people on both sides of the debate assumed, and may not be decimated by either the repeal of the individual mandate, the gutting of federal outreach efforts, or the termination of cost-sharing reduction payments.

But the picture is not all rosy. Monthly premiums for the minority of ACA consumers who don’t qualify for subsidies jumped about 30 percent this year, and could go up more in 2019.

Congress’ decision to throw in the towel on either stabilizing Obamacare’s individual market or fully repealing it has also pushed states to move forward aggressively with their own plans.

On Monday, Iowa’s governor signed a law allowing the Iowa Farm Bureau to team up with insurance companies to sell skimpy plans that flout Obamacare regulations (such as the ban on discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions). Under federal law, the plans cannot even be called health insurance due to how unregulated they are, and will instead be dubbed “health benefit plans.” As with the Trump administration’s move to allow the sale of bare-bones short term plans and association health plans, health care experts say Iowa’s move could drain the individual market of its younger and healthier consumers, driving up premiums for those who depend on comprehensive health plans.

Meanwhile, state efforts to slash their Medicaid rolls — potentially by hundreds of thousands of people — by imposing work requirements and other restrictions could run into both legal and political opposition. A class-action lawsuit by 15 low-income Kentuckians against the Trump administration and their Republican governor, Matt Bevin, is moving forward, and its outcome could determine what policies dozens of states pursue going forward.

And as GOP governors pitch the Medicaid restrictions as a cost-saver, evidence continues to stack up suggesting that implementing the new Medicaid rules could cost states millions instead of saving them money. Top congressional Democrats have demanded that the Government Accountability Office investigate how much the new requirements are costing both state and federal taxpayers in the three states approved so far to move forward: Kentucky, Indiana, and Arkansas.

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A full third of the senior Interior Department (DOI) career officials reassigned under Secretary Ryan Zinke in a major agency reshuffling are Native American, even though Native Americans make up less than 10 percent of the Department’s workforce, a review by TPM has found.

The finding comes days after Democratic lawmakers demanded an investigation into whether Zinke discriminated when he reassigned 33 career officials last summer, and follows on reports that Zinke has repeatedly told DOI officials he doesn’t care about diversity — which prompted one member of Congress to accuse Zinke of working to create a “lily-white department.”

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Earlier today, we published an exclusive feature story in which I reported that Capitol Hill Democrats are demanding an investigation into whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke disproportionately targeted senior employees of color for reassignments when he shuffled dozens of staffers around last summer. This story is the latest in my ongoing investigation into the bigger story of retaliation against career civil servants under the Trump administration, which is reportedly happening across several federal agencies.

The targeting of racial minorities in the federal workforce may also be an emerging pattern. The Interior Department probe demanded by Democrats follows reports that Trump appointees at the State Department coordinated with White House officials and outside conservative activists to sideline an Iranian-American career staffer.

For this latest scoop, I talked to one of the most prominent whistleblowers of the Trump era: climate scientist Joel Clement. Clement, who believes he was targeted because of his work on climate change and with Native American tribes who are affected by it, is challenging his reassignment at several levels. There are simultaneous investigations pending at the Office of Special Counsel, the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General, and the Government Accountability Office.

When I spoke with him, Clement emphasized that his case is about way more than just his own career and the careers of the few dozen of his colleagues who were also pushed out of their roles. If the various investigating bodies uphold Zinke’s move, he warned, it could give the green light for a government-wide purge.

“The concern is that if you let this one fly, they won’t hold back,” he said. “They’ll exercise their authority to move people around however they want.” 

Clement said that while many of his cohort are keeping their heads down until their cases are decided, he wanted to speak out publicly. 

“They had already taken my job, so all I had left was my voice,” he said. “The legal and political community needs to know what is is happening in terms of abuses of power. Career staff usually doesn’t have a voice, so I wanted to be that voice. Even if all the legal stuff goes sideways, I still have that.” 

TPM plans to stay on this story, and, as we do, readers’ tips will be an invaluable part of our reporting. If you are a federal worker who has experienced or witnessed politically motivated retaliation under this administration — or if you know someone who is and has — send me a tip.

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Senior Democrats are demanding that Congress’s investigative arm probe whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s mass reassignment of senior career civil servants last summer violated federal anti-discrimination laws.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the Government Accountability Office, obtained early by TPM, a group of Senate and House Democrats say they’re concerned that the controversial reassignments — already the subject of multiple investigations — are disproportionately affecting employees who “belong to a protected class.”

It’s illegal to make federal personnel decisions based on race, gender, age, religion, or disability. 

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As we predicted last week, Congress’ last-ditch effort to pass a bill to stabilize Obamacare’s struggling individual market fell apart, and the omnibus went to the President’s desk without it. This means insurance companies will likely announce major rate hikes this September, just before the midterm elections. The angry finger-pointing over this outcome has already begun, and will likely be a constant theme heading into the midterms.

The core of the proposal was the same federal reinsurance program and restoration of CSR payments that senators have been struggling to pass since last summer. But Democrats who had long campaigned for a stabilization bill revolted over GOP provisions in the version that was part of the omnibus spending package. One such provision expanded to the private insurance market a ban preventing federal funding of abortion. Another codified Trump administration guidance on cheap, short-term health insurance that Democrats call “junk plans.” The former would have meant a significant and permanent expansion of abortion restrictions, and the latter would have made it easier for companies to sell skimpy plans that charge people more or turn them away based on their age, gender and whether they have a pre-existing condition.

Congress’ failure to shore up Obamacare’s individual market means the spotlight is once again on the states, who now have just a few months to prevent the predicted double-digit rate increases.

State legislatures could vote to ask HHS for permission to set up their own reinsurance programs — something Colorado and others are currently exploring. Other states are looking into ways to contain the damage to the market expected from the Trump administration’s short-term and Association Health Plans, both of which are expected to drain younger and healthier patients out of the regulated ACA market into “junk” plans. Washington State wants to force these short-term plans to follow many of the ACA’s rules, while New Jersey wants to ban them altogether.

But many states are going in the opposite direction, taking steps to further chip away at the Obamacare market. Iowa legislators are advancing a bill to allow the sale of plans that flout ACA rules — for example, plans that do not cover maternity care or mental health treatment. Idaho, despite receiving pushback from HHS, has vowed to do the same. Many other states are petitioning for federal permission to cut their Medicaid rolls by imposing work requirements, lifetime limits, or other restrictions. Even in the one state that voted overwhelmingly to expand Medicaid by ballot initiative — Maine — outgoing Republican Gov. Paul Lepage is blocking implementation.

In petitioning for these Medicaid cut-backs, GOP-controlled states are characterizing the federally subsidized program as a heavy financial burden. But a study from Brookings published Monday found “no significant increases in spending from state funds as a result of the expansion,” even as millions more people qualify for coverage. The report finds that Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, LouisianaMichiganMontana, New Mexico, Ohio, and West Virginia “have actually reduced, not increased, state spending as a result of expansion.”

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With the passage of the budget omnibus, Congress blew past their last, best opportunity to stabilize Obamacare’s struggling individual market and prevent anticipated premium hikes this fall. And, in a bizarre role reversal, it was Senate Republicans who were mad as hell — accusing Democrats of blocking the bill so they could use the rate increases as a political cudgel in this November’s midterm elections.

“I can think of no other explanation,” fumed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Democrats countered by accusing Republicans of putting “poison pills” in the legislation — specifically, provisions expanding a ban on federal funding of abortion into the private insurance market and codifying Trump administration guidance on cheap short-term health insurance Democrats call “junk plans.”

Experts are also dubious that the bill’s core provisions would have lowered premiums as promised, arguing that the policies would have actually made insurance less affordable for many Americans.

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Several days after its promised arrival, Republican congressional leaders released the text of the $1.3 trillion omnibus budget late Wednesday night, and must pass the 2,232-page bill by Friday night to avoid yet another government shutdown.

The White House confirmed Wednesday afternoon that Trump plans to sign the bill if it makes it through Congress, saying: “The President and the leaders discussed their support for the bill, which includes more funds to rebuild the military, such as the largest pay raise for our troops in a decade, more than 100 miles of new construction for the border wall and other key domestic priorities, like combatting the opioid crisis and rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure.”

Conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill, however, are not pleased, saying the bill includes many provisions they oppose, such as a modest strengthening of the gun background check database, and fails to include many they favored, such as full funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“There’s no joy in Mudville,” House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) complained Wednesday afternoon. “The wins for conservatives will be few and far between.”

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The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee says whistleblowers have detailed a plot by the Trump administration to oust the CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and replace him with someone favored by the White House.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) warned in a letter to the BBG, obtained by TPM, that that candidate, André Mendes, then plans to dismiss the existing Board of Governors, according to the whistleblowers.

In a statement to TPM, Engel called the alleged plot “our worst nightmare coming true.”

“This action would violate current law and represent what these whistleblowers have described as ‘a coup at the BBG,’ presumably with the aim of pushing the BBG’s journalism toward a viewpoint favorable of (sic) the Trump Administration,” Engel wrote to the BBG. “I view these claims as credible and this scenario as outrageous and unacceptable.”

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Congress must pass a sprawling $1.3 trillion omnibus budget by Friday evening to avoid yet another government shutdown, and many key policy disputes have not yet been resolved. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has announced his intention to pass the bill out of the lower chamber on Thursday, giving the Senate just a single day to pass the bill, and allowing any disgruntled senator to filibuster and threaten a shutdown.

Because lawmakers expect that the omnibus will be the last major bill passed out of Congress ahead of the 2018 midterms, many are scrambling to hitch their own bills to the wagon—trying and so far failing to include policies tackling Capitol Hill sexual harassment, implementing an online sales tax, and addressing the status of 700,00-plus immigrant “Dreamers” living in legal limbo.

Many policy battles, however, remain. Here are five of the biggest sticking points still tying up the omnibus negotiations:

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