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Essential, invisible: Covid has 200,000 merchant sailors stuck at sea

By Taylor Telford and Jacob Bogage
Essential, invisible: Covid has 200,000 merchant sailors stuck at sea
Cargo ships wait to enter the Port of Oakland on March 26, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

Brian Mossman says he has read "Moby Dick" nearly200 times. The 61-year-old captain of the container ship Maersk Sentosa says he revisits the Melville classic nearly every voyage, because each time reveals something new about the people who take to the sea: people like him and the two dozen merchant mariners on his crew.

Sentosa means "a place of peace and tranquility" in Malay, but Mossmansays the 1,048-foot super carrier is more of a "floating industrial plant." It runs around-the-clock hauling cargo to 14 ports in eight countries, from the eastern United States to the Middle East, supplying embassies and military bases and delivering humanitarian aid.

The work is risky, demanding and essential - 90% of the world's goods are transported by water - and merchant mariners typically work in months-on, months-off rotations to guard against burnout and the pervasivedangers of life at sea. But in March 2020, aglobal pandemic gave rise to new and unprecedented pressures: Shipping ports and airports closed. Cargo carriers prohibited shore leave for their crews.

And Mossman was faced with a simple fact: If one person became infected, the virus would spread greedily and easily in the close confines of the ship.

No lessons from Captain Ahab, his 38 years of seafaring or those of his forebears - a line of "able-bodied seamen" dating to 1757 - prepared Mossman for what came next: His crew was trapped aboard, with no certainty on when they could go home.

Mossman was forced to tell his mariners they had to keep working, a conversation that was replicated by captains and ship operators around the world. The U.S. Navy instituted a "gangways up" order that prevented military and civilian sailors alike from leaving their ships. Ports in even the most avidly seafaring nations refused to allow mariners ashore.

Roughly 400,000 seafarers were stranded on ships around the globe at the peak of the "crew change crisis" in late 2020, according to the International Maritime Organization; now, about 200,000 are stuck. Some have been at sea for as long as 20 months, though 11 months is the maximum time allowed by the IMO. The situation threatens to grow more dire in the coming months, industry experts say, as mariners desperately try to access to coronavirus vaccines, their situation complicated by a web of complex logistics and workplaces often situated thousands of miles offshore.

World leaders have called the crew change crisis a humanitarian emergency. It is also a cautionary tale about essential but oft-ignored global supply chains. Industry officials told The Washington Post there's been an increase in severe injuries and mental health concerns - including suicide at sea - as mariners have yearned to leave their ships and return home.

The industry also is grappling with staffing shortages while seeing unprecedented demand for its services, a situation that worsened when a container ship ran aground last month in the Suez Canal and blocked the crucial waterway for nearly a week.

Mossman and his crew weren't relieved until Aug. 5 - more than 10 weeks past their contract. Looking back, he said, it's hard to say whether it was the best voyage of his life or the worst. He's proud to have gotten the crew off safely, without illness or injury, but the stress took its toll. When he finally got home, he says, his blood pressure and blood sugar werethrough the roof. And the extra time away from his four children put a strain on the family.

He's back out at sea now, though still unvaccinated. But between the new dangers at sea and at home, the situation feels like wartime, he says.

"Those people over there, our soldiers, our sailors, they're depending on us to bring everything, from steaks to bullets," Mossman said. "Who am I to say 'Oh I can't go back, I can't do this anymore'? Somebody's got to do it."

- - -

Wander aboard a cargo vessel, pry open a container and enter a world that's both eminently recognizable and bizarre: bins filled with flat-screen televisions, pallets of clothing and fabric, drums of chemicals, car parts and plastics, all piled high on a ship that would dwarf a football field. It's less a ship than floating warehouse, with tiny apartments for the crew.

"Without seafarers, there is no world trade," said Christine Cabau Woehrel, the executive vice president for industrial assets and operations at the cargo carrier CMA CGM.

Consumers tend to think of commerce in terms of finished parts or at least in terms of large components, said Frank Kenney, the director of markets at Cleo, a supply-chain integration firm. But maritime cargo allows it all to travel together on the same ships, keeping prices lower for both producers and, ultimately, consumers.

"When you stop and think, 'How do we consume freight from China?' and the high cost of moving things via airplane," Kenney said, "you have to come to the conclusion that, 'Wow, there's so many things in my house that were sitting in a container on a ship.'"

Not much can stop or slow the methodical pace of world shipping. There is such a high volume of trade - and demand for consumer goods has only increased with the surge in online shopping - that a busy port or seemingly isolated problems on one ship or within the workforce do not have much of an impact on the flow of goods.

It takes a true disaster, such as a grounded ship blocking a major waterway, or a crew-change crisis, to stall the pace of the industry. The consequences are immediate for consumers, producers, dockworkers, transportation brokers and others: Products remain at sea or a continent away, and prices go up. But behind the scenes, the mariners are caught in the middle.

"If you have a just-in-time supply chain that is dependent upon those goods at that time . . . one little hiccup in that supply chain is very, very disruptive," said Ira Douglas, the vice president for labor relations at Crowley Maritime, a major U.S. shipping services company.

Maintaining licenses and certifications is essential in the maritime industry, and this hinges on in-person instruction and hands-on experience with equipment. But the International Maritime Organization has been offering waivers during the pandemic as maritime academies have halted classroom instruction and workers have not been able to leave their ships. Without proper certification, workers are unable to get new jobs.

Gerard Pannell is the director of training with the American Maritime Officers, the nation's largest union for deck- and engine-licensed mariners, at the STAR Center in Dania Beach, Florida. The facility has resumed training at 60% of its pre-pandemic capacity, but Pannell said the coronavirus pandemic has created a backlog in vital licensing and credentialing that will limit the ability of many workers to get jobs and advance their careers.

"It's going to take five years for this ripple in the cycle to work itself out," Pannell said.

Jake O'Boyle said the pandemic is "expediting" his retirement. The 66-year-old became a merchant mariner because he wanted to see the world, and he said a life of sailing on freighters and bulk carriers, oil tankers and container ships has taken him to more than 50 countries. But although the pandemic is beginning to ease, the kind of life he has known on the water seems distant.

"Not a lot of light on the horizon," he said. "The job has become a commitment to livelihood only."

O'Boyle, the captain of the Maersk Durban, which runs cargo and military aid between Egypt and Turkey, was stranded with his crew over the summer. It took the intervention of the U.S. State Department to finally get everyone home, he said. Some of his crew had been at sea for six months by that point.

Now he worries that the industry will have a hard time attracting young talent, further weakening the U.S. foothold in international trade. He called the shrinking workforce an Achilles' heel for national security.

American mariners make up just a fraction of the 1.7 million worldwide who move about11 billion tons of goods by ship each year, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. Global maritime trade is worth about $14 trillion.

"It's frightening to me that we are such a small presence in the maritime world," O'Boyle said. "Once it's dead, it's dead. And we are on life support in the American Merchant Marine."

- - -

The pandemic's disruption of the global shipping industry has robbed workers of some of their most basic rights, experts say. In December, the International Labour Organization ruled that governments had failed to uphold the minimum standards of seafarer rights as laid out by the 2006 Maritime Labor Convention, including access to shore leave, medical care and repatriation.

"This is an unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis," said Fred Kenney, the director of legal and external affairs for the International Maritime Organization.

As a result, workers are struggling to contain physical and mental exhaustion. In a September crew change survey by the International Transport Workers Federation, 60% of seafarers said it was "more likely than not" that they or crewmates would be "involved in an accident that could harm human life, property or the marine environment due to fatigue while aboard.

"Extended time on vessels is worsening fatigue," Allianz warned in its 2020 Shipping & Safety report, adding that "human error is a contributing factor in 75 to 96% of marine incidents."

Any mistake or accident on the water can make waves throughout the global supply chain. The Ever Given, the Taiwanese container ship that became lodged in the Suez Canal, delayed roughly $10 billion a day of trade through one of the world's most critical waterways for the movement of oil and manufactured goods.

The ship's operator, Evergreen Marine, declined to comment for this report. Several U.S. federal agencies, including the Maritime Administration, the Committee on the Marine Transportation System and the Coast Guard, declined interview requests.

"I hope this incident will remind governments of the vital role that seafarers and shipping plays in keeping world trade moving," Guy Platten, the secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said in a statement about the Ever Given. "Seafarers must not be forgotten as soon as this incident is over."

Ship captains, unions and international maritime organizations all told The Post that reports of suicides, at least anecdotally, have increased during the pandemic. But many factors make it difficult to track such deaths. No central body captures global data on this issue.

A civilian mariner on the Navy cargo ship USNS Amelia Earhart killed himself in July after reportedly struggling with extended time at sea, according to news reports. Shortly after, the heads of three of the largest Merchant Marine unions wrote to Rear Adm. Michael Wettlaufer, the commander of the Military Sealift Command, to voice concerns about the "gangways up" restrictions that barred mariners from leaving their vessels in port and other mariners from coming aboard as relief.

"We are genuinely worried that if restrictions are not eased, the likelihood of shipboard emotional instability will increase," they wrote, cautioning that stress-related fatigue could lead to more injuries and ultimately create security vulnerabilities at military installations around the globe.

What about us, aren't we heroes? We're spending our lives here. We don't know when we're coming back home. We're all prisoners and our freedom is sacrificed in order to maintain worldwide trading.

Roger Harris, the executive director of the International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network, which runs hotlines for nine major shipping companies, said the organization experienced a tripling of its call volume triple during the worst of the crew change crisis. It is still receiving far more calls than it did before the pandemic, Harris said, including from seafarers grappling with thoughts of suicide and twice the usual number of reports of fights aboard ships.

Unions and labor advocates say there have been numerous instances in the past year of mariners suffering medical emergencies aboard and not being able to go ashore for vital treatment. In a Facebook video from late January, Christo Mavroulis, a Greek captain, described the ordeal of trying to get medical care for one crew member off the coast of China. Mavroulis spent hours negotiating with port authorities but was unable to persuade them to take the ill man - a Chinese national - to the hospital.

"What about us, aren't we heroes?" Mavroulis said in the video. "We're spending our lives here. We don't know when we're coming back home. We're all prisoners and our freedom is sacrificed in order to maintain worldwide trading."

- - -

The merchant mariners who crew the U.S. fleet endure roughly the same process most Americans face to get coronavirus vaccine shots: They're on their own.

The United Nations called for the world's governments to designate seafarers and other marine personnel as "key workers" during the pandemic. But as of late March, just 56 of 174 IMO member states had designated seafarers as key workers.

Nations with international ports have a patchwork of regulations regarding if and when crew members are allowed to leave their ships, let alone get vaccinated. American sailors face similar difficulties.

I don't want to take the shot away from someone who's deserving, but [covid-19] spreads like wildfire, and the ship will be out of commission at least two weeks, most of the time longer. When it's tied up like that,... all the things that society needs to cope with this pandemic is also taken out of service.

Vaccine distribution is left up to state governors with guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security. Industry officials say they've had difficulty swaying state leaders to move maritime workers up in line because of the size and nature of the industry.

With fewer than 15,000 merchant mariners in the United States, competing for resources at the state level is difficult, they say, because governors tend to prioritize the industries that drive their economies. Though sectors as diverse as vehicle manufacture and agriculture are reliant on maritime trade, seafarers are too few - and distant - to garner much attention.

And because mariners are off work for weeks at a time between assignments, many do not live near ports. When their next contracts begin, they travel to meet their ships, which could be docked a few states away or halfway around the world. That makes vaccine access a logistical nightmare.

One of Crowley Maritime's captains, Douglas said, was not eligible for a vaccine in New Hampshire, his home state. He ended up getting the shot in Jacksonville, Fla., before boarding the ship for his most recent voyage, then got his second shot at another Florida port several weeks later.

Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico have been more responsive to the need to vaccinate maritime workers, but most states have been hit-or-miss in their approach, Douglas said.

Ed Hanley, the vice president for labor relations and marine safety and standards at Maersk, has argued in letters to state health officials that his crews should be treated as front-line workers because of the duties they perform aboard ships. Hanley has sought access to vaccine shots for the mariners in charge of ships' fire response teams and for those who have medical training. So far, the strategy has worked.

"I don't want to take the shot away from someone who's deserving, but [covid-19] spreads like wildfire, and the ship will be out of commission at least two weeks, most of the time longer," Hanley said. "When it's tied up like that, everything that's on board, all the medicine, the PPE, all the things that society needs to cope with this pandemic is also taken out of service."

The threat of the virus hangs heavy - not only in the risk of infection, but also in the steep consequences of disruption on a vessel. On such tightly crewed ships, having a single person out of action puts a significant strain on the rest. If the cook is sick, the crew still has to eat. Someone must always be standing watch.

Elizabeth Livi, a 24-year-old third mate from Fairlawn, N.J., worked on a ship with multiple covid-19 cases over the summer. She didn't become ill, but she said she saw the ripple effects. People were anxious, overworked, distracted. The ship was delayed a month.

"Every person's job is important," Livi said. "It's not like somebody can sit out and the ship will just operate normally."

- - -

Life at sea, which typically has merchant mariners home half the year and away for the other, places tough demands on workers and their families.

Sara Gasper is a port dispatcher in Houston. Her husband, Nick Gasper, is a captain with Maersk. They have a 3-year-old daughter.

"It's hard when he's gone," Sara said. "He misses lots of things." Nick takes pieces of home with him when he goes, like packets of pictures Sara puts together and Starbucks Cafe Verona, his favorite blend of coffee. "If I could bring my family, I would," Nick said.

Jason Woronowicz, 41, owes his life to the water. His father was a commercial fisherman in Long Island, N.Y. His mother worked at a bar by the water owned by his grandmother. They fell in love.

Woronowicz has been working on boats his whole life as a merchant mariner - on tugboats and cruise ships, now as a third mate on a Columbia University ocean research vessel. On March 7, 2020, he got married in a quiet beach ceremony in Florida just before the world shut down. He went to sea five days later.

"Didn't have much of a honeymoon," he said.

In mid-March, both of Woronowicz's parents were hospitalized with covid-19. With the world in lockdown, there was no way for him to get home, so he spent his time on the ship's shoddy satellite phone while making decisions about life support and ventilators. His wife was there, wearing a Tyvek suit, when his father died on March 31. The family waited weeks for the funeral so that Woronowicz could be there.

"To this minute, I don't remember flying home," Woronowicz said.

He had to look at the logbooks to pull the pieces together. As a merchant mariner, Woronowicz is used to missing holidays at home, and births and weddings. He had tried mentally to prepare for the possibility that he would be at sea when one of his parents died.

"In this industry, there's always a 50/50 chance something like this is going to happen while you're gone, but I didn't expect it to be like this," Woronowicz said. "I always hoped it would happen when I was around."

- - -

The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has exacerbated the tensions of life at sea, creating a mental health crisis among workers, experts and advocates say.

"Most of us like to have some semblance or illusion of control for our lives and livelihood," said the Rev. Mark Nestlehutt, the president and executive director of the Seamen's Church Institute, the largest welfare organization serving mariners and seafarers in North America. "One of the things that weighs on seafarers stuck at sea is the lack of control. It can be hard to cope when you have no sense of when things are going to be normal."

Marissa Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who is conducting a mental health survey of U.S. mariners in partnership with the Coast Guard, said many have been reporting worsening sleep and deteriorating mental health. But she also said she's seen a greater receptiveness to mental health resources.

Every time I'm on a vessel, I always say, 'Thank you so much for your service, thank you for your sacrifice, thank you for being here. Without you I have nothing, literally.'

The tension workers feel in being "essential yet invisible" has surfaced repeatedly in the responses to the survey, Baker said.

"They're a vital part of the supply chain, but it's something most of us take for granted."

Many major shipping lines are increasing Internet bandwidth on their vessels so sailors can more easily connect with their families back home, executives at Maersk, CGM CMA and Hapag-Lloyd said in interviews.

Maersk and CGM CMA have chartered flights, executives said, to change crews. The crew change crisis, they warn, cuts both ways for mariners. Some can't get off their ships. Others can't travel to join their ships, meaning they're at home without pay.

Silke Muschitz, the head of marine personnel for Hapag-Lloyd, said the company has begged governments worldwide to stop stigmatizing seafarers as carriers of disease.

"If you're not afraid of a seafarer, then why would you restrict them?" she said.

Maersk, Hanley said, has started paying its sailors bonuses to compensate them for remaining aboard ship at all times, even in ports that allow seafarers limited shore leave. The company has also picked up the tab for crew members' personal snacks and groceries, he said.

"It's little stuff," Hanley said, "but it makes them think, 'At least someone's thinking about us.'"

Cora DiDomenico, a chaplain with the Seamen's Church Institute, is tasked with caring for workers' mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. The 27-year-old hangs out in the ports of New York and New Jersey, boarding anywhere from three to six vessels a day, trying to cram as much care and practical assistance as she can into each visit.

DiDomenico has always kicked off her visits by offering items the crew might need: SIM cards, groceries, help sending money home. But in the era of no shore leave, DiDomenico has become a de facto delivery driver. She has picked up prescriptions for a seafarer who ran out of vital medication after his contract was extended. She's been delivering packages from the sister of a mariner who lives in New York but can't get off the ship in his own hometown. She's gotten used to making runs to Dunkin' for 10 dozen doughnuts or to McDonald's for 20 Quarter Pounders.

The people with whom DiDomenico works are accustomed to being invisible. It rankles her that just a few years ago, she, too, knew nothing about this world; now she imagines bringing her future children to the port and worries about finding books for them in which shipping is represented.

"Every time I'm on a vessel, I always say, 'Thank you so much for your service, thank you for your sacrifice, thank you for being here. Without you I have nothing, literally,'" DiDomenico said. "But a lot of times when I say that to a seafarer, they kind of dismiss it."

Before the pandemic, DiDomenico would visit during coffee breaks or lunchtime, when all the crew would have an opportunity to rest and speak with her. Now, she usually can go only as far as the gangway. She's learned to communicate with just her eyes. But the crew still see her white helmet with the words "SCI Chaplain" and come, with heartbreaking frankness, and share their troubles.

"I just need to let you know that my father died," a mariner might say.

Or else it's, "I just had to tell you: I just had a baby girl."

When she asks "Have you shared this with anyone?" the answer is generally no. But they light up without fail when she asks to see pictures.

In the past year, DiDomenico has seen more "depression, anxiety and isolation" than ever before. People talk more about their families, and about their sacrifices. The uncertainty - about when they'll go home or even set foot off their vessels - is hard for all to bear.

Sometimes, after visits, DiDomenico returns to her car and cries.

"Nobody signed up for this," she said.

The Philippines' drug war is putting more pregnant women behind bars. What happens to their children?

By Regine Cabato
The Philippines' drug war is putting more pregnant women behind bars. What happens to their children?
Rosemarie Santiago sits at home with her son Jericho, who was born while she was incarcerated in Manila. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Hannah Reyes Morales.

MANILA, Philippines - Rosemarie Santiago was four months pregnant when she walked into prison. She left more than a year later as a mother who had spent just one day with her child.

She was taken to a Manila hospital to give birth to her son Jericho. The next day her siblings claimed him, and she returned behind bars. She would not see him for another nine months.

"When I came back, he was so thin," said Santiago, who was arrested in 2018 on drug charges. "I kept thinking about what could have happened if I had not been arrested."

Santiago is among hundreds of young mothers who give birth while in government custody in the Philippines, where the poor can wait up to a decade for a trial. Some women tend to their children in dismal conditions, sometimes handcuffed to their hospital beds. Others, like Santiago, surrender the child to family.

The most prominent recent case is that of activist Reina Mae Nasino, whose baby River died of pneumonia in October. The spectacle of the funeral, with a 23-year-old mother cuffed and unable to wipe her tears, was seen by critics of President Rodrigo Duterte as a jarring portrait of diminishing rights in the country. Duterte's expanding crackdowns on drugs has sharply increased prison populations and left an estimated 25,000 people dead - drawing criticism from rights activists around the world. Nasino is charged with the possession of illegal weapons, which she denies.

The national Bureau of Jail Management and Penology recorded more than 1,600 pregnant detainees and 485 births in the past two years. Around 80% of the women face cases related to drugs, said medical officer Paul Borlongan.

Drug-related charges against women jumped to more than 15,000 from 9,000 in 2015. Many are arrested alongside their partners and families, according to the Commission on Human Rights.

At least one other death of a detained activist's child was reported this year. Human rights advocates argue that babies have higher chances of survival if they are not separated from their mothers. The World Health Organization recommends at least six months for breastfeeding.

But rules in the jail management bureau manual cap a mother and baby's time together at one month. Anything more must be approved by a court. Many facilities enforce separation after only a day, citing health concerns for the child.

The treatment of incarcerated mothers is largely "prison-specific, judge-specific, warden-specific," said Inez Feria, director of NoBox Philippines, an organization advocating for drug policy reform. NoBox has supported calls to release mothers and other vulnerable people to decongest jails.

At the Correctional Institution for Women, mothers can spend up to a year with their children. As the only national prison for women, it can set different rules than the one-month limit for newborns that applies in most other detention facilities.

When The Washington Post visited in February, three young women and their babies shared a space called the "mothers' ward," across the hall from the cramped dorms of fellow inmates. The room had five beds - two mothers recently checked out - a shared bathroom, a pantry and a shelf of toys.

Superintendent Virginia Mangawit said a separate facility would still be ideal. They are always in need of bed space. The prison, built for 1,500 inmates, holds more than 3,000.

Santiago, the former detainee, said she was not involved in drugs but pleaded guilty on the advice of authorities to avoid a longer wait for trial. By the time she walked free in 2019, Jericho's father had left.

Bureau of Jail Management and Penology spokesman Xavier Solda defended the one-month cap for new mothers to be with their babies. "[It] is in the best interest of the child given the atmosphere, the health risks, on the part of the baby," he said. "Are [critics] really saying that it's more okay to stay in a jail, given the conditions in our jails, rather than at home with a family?"

But human rights advocates say the Philippines is in violation of the "Bangkok Rules," guidelines from the United Nations on the treatment of women in detention. Under these requirements, determining the length of a mother and child's time together must be "made in the best interests of the child."

The rules also say cuffing mothers even during the transfer to a hospital "[violates] international standards," and every effort should be made to give pregnant women noncustodial sentences, among other recommendations on the facilities and health services that should be available.

In the Philippines, the Commission on Human Rights reports inconsistency in access to maternal health services. "None of the women mentioned availability of postnatal care or services for those experiencing postpartum depression," it said. Only 37 out of 84 women's dormitories have a breastfeeding room.

Raymund Narag, prison reform advocate and assistant professor at Southern Illinois University, said the lack of physical and legal structures forces bureau employees in the Philippines to come up with individual solutions. Jail officers sometimes convert their offices to nursing spaces or pool donations with the help of other detainees. At the national penitentiary, a prison employee adopted an inmate's child.

"Sometimes those coping mechanisms benefit other people but don't benefit others," said Narag, a former detainee himself, spending seven years in jail on murder charges for which he was eventually cleared. "You need new guidelines to deal with the concrete situation, not idealistic ones."

Experts suggest that these gaps be addressed through a new law, formal guidelines from the country's Supreme Court and revisions to the jail management manual.

Officials told The Post an interagency memorandum that would streamline rules and probably extend the time allotted for mother and child is under review. The Health Department hopes it will pass within the year. A Philippines Senate bill meant to aid incarcerated parents has been pending at the committee level since last year.

The issue can be personal for bureau employees. Hannah Nario-Lopez, a University of the Philippines assistant professor who conducts research and skills training in jails, says some female guards expressed frustration at online vitriol received after the Nasino case.

"At the end of the day, all women suffer here," she said. "[Anger at the] cruelty of the state, I think, should [be] directed to the critique of the system, lack of institutional support . . . rather than personal attacks on the officers."

In one case last May, jail guard Sallie Tinapay - who was nursing her own 8-month-old at the time - was assigned to watch over a detainee after childbirth. When the inmate could not produce milk, she fed the baby from her own breast.

"It was like she didn't want to breastfeed," she recalled. "She was thinking that they would be separated anyway."

The mother, who authorities did not identify for her privacy, could not secure a court permit that would prolong her hospital stay. Social services picked up the infant, and a relative claimed her later, Tinapay said.

The inmate has been released, jail management said.

"I hoped she would be set free," Tinapay said, "so she can take good care of her child."

Tourists and looters descend on Bears Ears as Biden mulls protections

By Joshua Partlow
Tourists and looters descend on Bears Ears as Biden mulls protections
The sun sets over Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey.

BLUFF, Utah - In the sandstone canyon where Vaughn Hadenfeldt once saw the bloody tracks of a mountain lion hauling off a mule deer, there are 1,000-year-old cliff dwellings decorated by rock paintings of bighorn sheep where one can still see the ancient footprint of an infant pressed into the wall.

A renowned wilderness guide with decades of experience exploring the Bears Ears area, Hadenfeldt has long argued that this austere landscape teeming with archaeological and cultural treasure in southeastern Utah should be viewed as an outdoor museum. And each time he visits, more of that treasure has been looted.

"Come on, people," he muttered in disgust, as he scanned the sandy soil this week for pieces of painted pottery from the Ancestral Puebloan Indians that used to be so easy to find in this area.

"This whole site was covered with beautiful pot shards," he said. "I guess we're just never going to stop people from pocketing this stuff."

In the three years since President Donald Trump slashed the size of the Bears Ears National Monument by 85%, undoing protections established by President Barack Obama, the pressures on this area have only intensified, according to the residents and scientists who study it. The threats come in many forms - from roaring ATVs to uranium mining to coronavirus-weary tourists seeking outdoor adventure - on land that is considered sacred ground by several Native American tribes.

On her first trip as the new interior secretary, Deb Haaland arrived in this small town perched under bluffs and spires Wednesday for three days of meetings and hikes in the area. The first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history is reviewing what to do with the Bears Ears National Monument and the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that Trump also reduced in size. After her visit, Haaland is widely expected to recommend that President Joe Biden restore the Bears Ears boundaries to at least the 1.35 million acres established by Obama near the end of his term in 2016.

On Thursday, Haaland hiked with Utah Republicans including Sen. Mitt Romney and Gov. Spencer Cox as well as tribal leaders to see Native American settlements in an area known as Butler Wash. She planned to meet with mining and drilling executives and business leaders from the recreation industry as well as proponents of the national monument.

"I know that decisions about public lands are incredibly impactful to the people who live nearby. But not just to us, not just the folks who are here today, but people for generations to come," Haaland told reporters during a news conference in the city of Blanding. "It's our obligation to make sure that we protect lands for future generations so they can have the same experiences that the governor and I experienced today."

"This place is filled with cultural heritage," Haaland said. "That cultural heritage belongs to every single American."

Biden's allies see Bears Ears as an early opportunity to prioritize conservation over fossil fuel extraction on public lands while responding to an issue of particular importance for Native Americans, who want to see the monument not only restored butexpanded beyond the Obama boundaries.

Without protection, the remains of thousands of Native American settlements and cultural sites are in "grave jeopardy," said Pat Gonzales-Rodgers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which is composed of five tribes with deep ties to the region.

"At the end of the day, these are the sanctuaries and the cathedrals of worship and cultural practice for these tribes," he said.

But Bears Ears remains a divisive issue in Utah. Republican politicians do not want Biden to use an executive order to restore the monument. Instead, lawmakers say they can build a more durable solution through federal legislation that would allow for negotiations among ranchers, miners, Native Americans and conservationists to balance competing interests.

"If President Biden rolls this out, the likelihood that it will be rescinded by a future president or taken up by the Supreme Court is just extremely high," said Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, whose district includes Bears Ears. "And that's a terrible way to resolve these issues. Nobody wins."

Cox, Romney, and other Republicans stressed the need for legislation that could reach a more permanent compromise for how to use land around Bears Ears.

"The minute we made them a monument, people started coming," Cox told reporters. "The more people who come, the more degradation that happens to the lands. And how do we celebrate these areas and not love them to death, and not overwhelm them."

"All of those things can only be done through legislation. They can't be done through an executive order," he said.

Curtis has asked Haaland to delay the monument decision "just long enough to see if we can reach this consensus."

"How in the world does somebody in Washington, D.C., know where you should be able to hunt and fish, where you should be able to gather wood, where grazing is appropriate?" he added. "Let's leave those decisions to the locals."

- - -

Because Bears Ears was challenged by Trump so soon after it was created, much of the infrastructure that can be found at other protected areas - signs, buildings, management staff - does not exist here. But the crowds came anyway - fueled by social media and the national spotlight on the area.

"Visitation has just really skyrocketed," said Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the area. "You've got all this visitation happening without resources."

More than 420,000 people are estimated to have visited Bears Ears last year, despite the pandemic, and Ewing expects well over half a million visitors this year. Volunteers have seen visitors leave trash, loot fossils and remnants of Native American settlements, and scribble graffiti over ancient rock art. Car campers and RVs can be spotted parked on the rims of canyons and driving through the area, following GPS coordinates posted on the Internet that identify archaeological sites.

"Google is really managing the monument," said Tim Peterson of the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental group.

One recent tourist rush targeted the spot where an intriguing 10-foot public art "monolith" was found in a canyon last year, at a site that was within the monument boundaries established by Obama and excluded by Trump.

"It was completely overrun," Peterson said. "It's a textbook example of how completely out of control things can get."

The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees what remains of the Bears Ears National Monument and other public land, has just two law enforcement officers in its Monticello field office who are responsible for nearly 2 million acres, according to Friends of Cedar Mesa.

Faced with the shortage of government resources, Friends of Cedar Mesa volunteers opened a Bears Ears visitor center in 2018 to try to orient tourists. The group even resorted to installing portable toilets in one area particularly popular with hikers.

"We're paying for those to be pumped and maintained out of nonprofit dollars just to address the human waste issues that are in that area," Ewing said.

Native American tribes and environmentalists sued Trump over his decision to shrink the monument, arguing that national monuments are permanent and Trump didn't have the authority to revoke Obama's decision. That case is now on hold pending the Biden administration's review.

The five tribes that came together in a historic coalition to fight for the monument more than a decade ago - the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe and Pueblo of Zuni - are calling on the Biden administration to create a 1.9-million-acre monument, as they had originally requested of Obama, said Matt Campbell, a lawyer representing three of the tribes in the lawsuit against Trump.

"If we saw something that was identical to President Obama's plan, the tribes would be grateful, but there would be some disappointment," he said.

- - -

Less than a year after Trump sliced 1.1 million acres out of the Bears Ears monument, Kyle Kimmerle, a residential contractor from Moab, filed a claim with the Bureau of Land Management to dig for minerals on land that had been within theprotected zone established by Obama.

Uranium mining is both part of his family history - traced back to his great-grandfather - and a hobby for Kimmerle. He called his mine Easy Peasy.

"Some people go fishing on Saturday, I go tinker around on my mining claims," he said.

Trump had been lobbied by a Canadian mining firm before reducing the size of Bears Ears, and an ongoing concern among critics has been that mining or oil and gas companies would rush into the area once protections were removed.

Not much of that has happened so far. There have been six mining claims filed since 2018, according to the Bureau of Land Management. Environmentalists who track the area say that the Easy Peasy mine is the only one that has been actively excavated.

Kimmerle dug up 30 tons of ore, sampled it for vanadium andidentified uranium - a feasibility study, he called it. At the moment, with uranium prices about half what they'd need to be for him to break even, he said, mining here is not feasible.

"Nothing is going right now; the price is just too low," he said.

Environmentalists point out that prices could always change and that without protections, the land remains at risk.

Kimmerle said a restored Bears Ears monument would make Easy Peasy hard - if not impossible.

"There is layer after layer after layer of red tape and regulation in this country," he said. "And that monument will be one more big blanket of red tape."

- - -

Trump's decision to slash the monument already cost Robert Gay some work.

The paleontologist who studies fossils of crocodile ancestors around Bears Ears watched as federal research dollars dried up after Trump shrank the monument.

He had planned to be in Bears Ears this week, digging up what he called a "really amazing site" full of fossils of phytosaurs - a predatory crocodile mimic with a blowhole above its eyes - that all appeared to die off simultaneously in one mass event.

After discovering the site in 2016, Gay had received a $25,000 grant from the National Conservation Lands Scientific Studies Support Program, money Congress sets aside for scientific work on national conservation lands, including national monuments. He had started excavating, but once his site fell outside of the national monument boundaries, he said, he could no longer access the funding.

It is "probably one of the most interesting fossil sites from this time period in Utah," said Gay, who is land programs director at the Colorado Canyons Association. "Because there's no money, it's going to not be excavated again this year."

In his fieldwork, Gay has found ATV and motorcycle tracks crossing the fossil sites he is working on.

Not great for the outdoor museum that is Bears Ears.

"I liken it now to opening the museum and taking away all the docents and security guards. Or just not hiring them there in the first place," he said. "It's sort of like a free-for-all."

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Respectfully, Justice Breyer: Court enlargers aren't the problem

By e.j. dionne jr.
Respectfully, Justice Breyer: Court enlargers aren't the problem

E.J. DIONNE COLUMN

Advance for release Monday, April 12, 2021, and thereafter

(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is an engaging, intellectually serious advocate of judicial modesty and compromise. Some years ago, he put forward an admirable concept he called "active liberty." It asked judges to recognize "the principle of participatory self-government" as the heart of the Constitution's purposes.

If I believed that today's judicial conservatives shared Breyer's approach and restraint, I might agree with his warnings last week against the movement to enlarge the Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, most right-wing judges are not who Breyer wants them to be, and the court on which he serves is not as apolitical as he wishes it were.

The Supreme Court faces a legitimacy crisis not because progressives are complaining but because of what they are complaining about: a reckless, right-wing, anti-democratic court majority, and a conservative court-packing campaign marked by the disgraceful Republican blockade against President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 and the unseemly rush to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett just before President Trump's defeat last November.

So I respectfully dissent from the skepticism Breyer expressed about court enlargement in a lecture at Harvard Law School last week precisely because I share his underlying principles.

For the same reason, I applaud President Biden for creating a commission on Friday to examine reforms to the courts, including the possibility of adding Supreme Court justices. Even if the commission doesn't endorse enlargement (though I hope it will), it underscores the nature of the crisis we confront.

Breyer's Harvard lecture offered a thoughtful historical argument for why protecting the court's legitimacy is vital to protecting liberty.

"If the public sees judges as politicians in robes," he said, "its confidence in the courts and in the rule of law itself can only diminish, diminishing the court's power, including its power to act as a check on other branches."

What Breyer declined to point out is that conservative justices are the ones who have turned themselves into party bosses through decisions such as Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act, and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgates to big money in politics.

"The rule of law depends on trust, a trust that the court is guided by legal principle, not politics."

Right. But then he added: "Structural alteration motivated by the perception of political influence can only feed that latter perception, further eroding that trust."

"What I'm trying to do," he said at another point, "is to make those whose initial instincts may favor important structural change or other similar institutional changes, such as forms of court-packing, to think long and hard before they embody those changes in law."

Alas, the good justice has the causation arrow pointing in the wrong direction.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Trump were the court-packers. There would be far less talk of court enlargement if McConnell and Trump had not abused their power. Nor would enlargement be on the table if conservative justices had not substituted their own political preferences for Congress' decisions, notably on voting rights and campaign finance reform, 5-4 rulings on which Breyer, rightly, joined the dissenters.

Breyer also seemed unhappy that in reporting on a jurist's decision, media outlets are more inclined than in the past to mention "the name or the political party of the president who nominated the judge to office." But there's a reason for this. Particularly in cases affecting participation in elections, a judge's partisan provenance is hugely predictive of how he or she will decide them.

In fact, supporters of court enlargement have already thought "long and hard" before we got here. We're not the radicals. We're not the judicial activists. We're not the ones trying to overthrow decades of precedent.

In my ideal world, we would not have to worry about a thoughtful justice such as Breyer spending the rest of his days on the court. But that world no longer exists.

This is why many liberals are calling on the 82-year-old justice to resign. They want a Democratic president, backed by a Democratic Senate, to install his replacement. After Garland, only a fool would believe that a Republican Senate would give a Democratic president's appointee, no matter how moderate or qualified, a hearing.

The irony for Breyer is that he must quit to give his own principles a fighting chance in the future. I'd be sad to see him go, but not nearly as sad as I would be if Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor were the only liberals left on the court.

In his speech, Breyer declared that "the Constitution itself seeks to establish a workable democracy and to protect basic human rights." That's a bracing vision, and it's what advocates of court enlargement are trying to protect.

- - -

E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

Corporate Backlash Against Georgia Voting Law Causes Elephants to Dance in Circles

By ruben navarrette jr.
Corporate Backlash Against Georgia Voting Law Causes Elephants to Dance in Circles

RUBEN NAVARRETTE COLUMN

FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE

(For Navarrette clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

WRITETHRU: In 4th graf, 1st sentence, fixes number in parenthetical to 32.6% African American)

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

SAN DIEGO - As Americans bicker over Georgia's new voting statute, I can't tell if we're all talking about the same law.

Supporters insist the legislation is simply about preventing voter fraud, preserving election integrity and making sure every vote counts.

That sounds lovely. But it's fiction.

What the Georgia law is really about is resisting demographic changes in the Peach State (which is now 10% Latino and 32.6% African American). It's about protecting White Republicans by discouraging non-whites from voting. And it's about calling attention away from the embarrassing fact that Republicans couldn't deliver a GOP-controlled state to Donald Trump in November, and that Georgia then went on to lose two Senate seats in runoffs in January.

Democrats could have stopped right there, made that argument and said nothing else. What fun would that be? Of course, they went further. They oversold their outrage, and made themselves look silly.

President Joe Biden has previously called the Georgia law "Jim Crow on steroids." This week, Biden doubled down on hyperbole when he said "these new Jim Crow laws are just antithetical to who we are."

That sounds awful. But it's just more fiction.

Here's the truth.

U.S. history, common sense and human nature tell us that voting bills come in only two varieties: those that expand the franchise, and those that limit it. The Republican-backed Georgia bill, which has been aggressively defended by Gov. Brian Kemp, falls into the second camp.

Context matters. The law comes after a string of GOP losses, which was fueled by historically high turnout among Latinos and African Americans. The bill should be titled "The Republican Protection Act," because it is designed to prevent the GOP from losing future elections in a Dixie state that is becoming more racially diverse.

Some big corporate players based in Atlanta -- namely Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines -- publicly condemned the Georgia bill. This angered cultural conservatives, who told the corporations to butt out because voting isn't about soft drinks or air travel.

That was dumb. Coca-Cola and Delta have presumably, over the years, paid millions of dollars in local and state taxes in Georgia. They have the right to speak up when the state takes a wrong turn.

Likewise, Major League Baseball had every right to decide that it didn't want to be associated with Georgia, and so it moved its annual All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver.

Conservatives insisted that Colorado has a voting system that is much like one that Georgia will now have.

What they miss is that Colorado didn't just pass a bill to restrict voting in response to changing demographics and election losses.

Meanwhile, this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was "quite stupid" for corporations to wade into political battles.

On Monday, McConnell told reporters at a press conference: "My advice to the corporate CEOs of America is to stay out of politics. Don't pick sides in these big fights."

On Tuesday, McConnell dug himself in deeper when, at another press conference, he added this about corporate leaders: "They have the right to participate in the political process…[But] if I were running a major corporation, I'd stay out of politics."

This is the same Mitch McConnell who - having raised millions of dollars in the last few decades from corporate PAC's and private corporate donors - sucks up corporate contributions like a vacuum sucks up dust. McConnell has also spent years fighting against attempts to restrict corporate giving. Clearly, the Republican is interested in what corporate leaders give, but he couldn't care less what they think.

On Wednesday, McConnell corrected himself.

"I didn't say that very artfully yesterday. They're certainly entitled to be involved in politics. They are. My principal complaint is they didn't read the darn bill."

My complaint about Republicans is that these tantrums over corporations that grow a conscience have shown them to be a bunch of phony hypocrites who don't believe in anything but their own survival.

The old Republicans hated whining, victimhood, cancel culture, racial fear mongering, identity politics and forcing Christian bakeries to bake cakes for same-sex weddings.

The new Republicans are whiny victims who use identity politics to scare White people, depict corporations as bullies and threaten to "cancel" companies that choose not to do business in a given state.

Now that it has gotten its feelings hurt by the backlash to the Georgia voting law, the GOP hasn't just lost its bearings. It has lost its mind.

- - -

Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His podcast, "Ruben in the Center," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2021, The Washington Post Writers Group

Pure political chutzpah

By ruth marcus
Pure political chutzpah

RUTH MARCUS COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, April 11, 2021, and thereafter

(For Marcus clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- The music is ominous, the mood dark. A man, face obscured, lowers a cigar from his lips, smoke curling in sinister wisps. "Far-left billionaires and liberal dark money groups went all in," the narrator intones. "They spent record amounts electing Biden, building the Democrats their bare majority in the Senate."

Silhouetted in a hallway, a man and woman shake hands. "And now, they are getting what they paid for," the narrator continues. "A bench of radical, activist judges." A judge's gavel comes down, a hand reaches out to take a wad of bills. "Paying back secret donors. Ignoring the Constitution. It's no way to pick judges."

Exaggeration in the service of ideology is no surprise. Blatant hypocrisy is a bipartisan sport, so widespread that it would be impossible to decry every instance. But this new ad, from the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, is 30 seconds of the purest political chutzpah, now airing in Arizona, Georgia, West Virginia and the District.

To understand why requires understanding the operations of the Judicial Crisis Network and a web of allied groups that have spent millions over the past several decades to transform the federal judiciary into a conservative force. Millions in "dark money" donations that come from, yes, "secret donors."

If this is "no way to pick judges," it is precisely the way that the Judicial Crisis Network, its president, Carrie Severino, and one of its founders, former Federalist Society executive vice president Leonard Leo, pioneered and perfected.

And, by the way, the people who turned membership in the conservative Federalist Society into a prerequisite for entrance into the federal judiciary, the ones who worked assiduously during the Trump administration to confirm a record 10 judges deemed "not qualified" by the American Bar Association, have some nerve labeling President Joe Biden's first 11 picks "politicians in robes, who would transform the country, ignore the people, and shred the Constitution."

But back to dark money. As The Post reported in 2019, Leo is a wizard at "raising money for nonprofits that under IRS rules do not have to disclose their donors. Between 2014 and 2017 alone, [Leo and his allies] collected more than $250 million in such donations, sometimes known as 'dark money,' according to a Post analysis of the most recent tax filings available." Tens of millions of dollars of this was spent in the service of confirming Republican judicial nominees, including Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

For the Judicial Crisis Network to inveigh against "secret donors" on judicial nominees is mighty rich. Perhaps they could tell us who wrote the $17 million check that came from a single mystery donor in 2017-2018.

It is true that dark money comes in shades of gray. Secret money to groups like the Judicial Crisis Network is less pernicious that secret money aimed at directly influencing federal elections. The new Judicial Crisis Network ad cites a 2021 Bloomberg report on $145 million in dark money donated to groups backing the Biden campaign, far in excess of what GOP-aligned entities spent to help President Donald Trump.

This would be a stronger argument if the Judicial Crisis Network and its allies supported efforts, championed by Democrats, to shine light on such secret spending -- now included in H.R. 1, the sprawling election and ethics reform measure now pending in the Senate.

Instead, these conservatives, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have done their best to prevent additional disclosure requirements. Democrats "realized they couldn't shut up their critics" and "decided to go after the microphone instead, by trying to scare off the funders," McConnell said in 2012.

But McConnell & Co. don't simply want to prevent new disclosure rules; they want to cut back on existing reporting requirements.

Consider this friend-of-the-court brief filed by McConnell in a pending Supreme Court case. The dispute involves a conservative challenge to a California requirement that nonprofits operating in the state disclose to its attorney general the identities of donors -- but not to release them to the public.

"This Court's continued, wrongheaded deference to campaign finance disclosure requirements simply has no application here," advises the brief, written by Donald McGahn, White House counsel for Trump who, in his role as chief judge-picker, worked closely with the Judicial Crisis Network. In the McConnell-McGahn view, transparency when it comes to campaign contributions is not an important element of effective democracy; it is a "misguided" exception.

Finally, a few words on these supposed "radical" judges. They look different from Trump's picks, for sure. Nine of the 11 are women; nine are people of color. Four are former public defenders; four are former federal prosecutors.

Consider the three appeals court nominees, all Black women. One, U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, named to the D.C. Circuit seat vacated by Attorney General Merrick Garland, was confirmed by the Senate in 2013 by voice vote, meaning that no Republican senator objected. Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, nominated to the federal appeals court in Chicago, attended Princeton University and Yale Law School. Tiffany Cunningham, nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the specialized court that hears patent claims, is a graduate of MIT and Harvard Law School.

If the Judicial Crisis Network wants to convince anyone that these are "politicians in robes," it's going to have to come up with more than scary music and wild smears.

- - -

Ruth Marcus' email address is ruthmarcus@washpost.com.

Joe Manchin - hero or spoiler?

By kathleen parker
Joe Manchin - hero or spoiler?

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, April 11, 2021, and thereafter

(For Parker clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON -- Well, it all depends.

To Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., is a one-man obstacle to progress; on the other side of the aisle, he's the best Republican the country has had since Ronald Reagan.

Except, of course, the West Virginia senator is a Democrat. The best kind in a world where principle matters. By recently committing to protect the filibuster, which Democrats had hoped to upend, Manchin likely has made impossible most of what President Joe Biden had hoped to accomplish: A $2 trillion infrastructure bill, significant advances on gun reform, immigration and climate change, not to mention the cynically named "For the People Act" which might have been better titled, "For the Democrats Act."

As always, Democrats in power tend to overreach while Republicans tend to obstruct.

The act, which purports to expand voter access, is in reality a Democratic Party power grab that takes redistricting authority away from state legislatures while permanently enshrining in law ballot harvesting, same-day registration and no-fault absentee voting. The bill would also essentially nullify state voter ID laws. Though I've recently criticized those laws, I concede they are subject to reasonable differences of opinion.

With Vice President Harris in place to cast the decisive vote in the 50-50 Senate, the only way for Republicans to stop its passage, as well as other Democratic pipe dreams, is through the filibuster. Manchin has now made it clear that he'll do nothing to eliminate or weaken the filibuster, which both parties at different times respect, use and abuse.

Manchin had already opposed previous efforts to weaken it when, in years past, both Democrats and Republicans sought alterations that served their purposes. After then-Majority Leader Harry Reid sought to eliminate the judicial filibuster, Republicans took it a step further and removed the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. Manchin opposed both moves.

Manchin also opposes background checks on firearm purchases, an odd tic from my perspective. But again, he's from a red state that's full of hunters and Second Amendment purists. As he wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed: "If I can't go home and explain it, I can't vote for it."

Manchin said his hardened position on the filibuster was informed by the Jan. 6 riots and attack on the Capitol.

As self-styled warriors stormed the offices and corridors of the "people's house," Manchin said he decided that advancing bipartisanship would become his unflagging operating principle going forward. The bitter forces that had led Americans to turn violently against one another and led to the attempted overthrow of the nation's duly elected government had to be addressed in a serious way, he said. No more games.

In another time, Manchin might be considered a hero for standing on such principle, much the way Democrats these days view Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, for voting for Trump's second impeachment. Of course, another's principles are salutary and laudatory when they serve one's own purposes. Manchin's just happen to suit Republicans in this instance. Nonetheless, standing alone against the herd is an uncomfortable place, no matter what party you belong to.

If some think that Manchin is merely preserving his reelection chances, the same can't be said of Romney. Utah is solidly red and deeply Mormon. His Senate seat is secure no matter what. At 74, Romney has run for president twice and may have no future ambitions. But a girl can dream. If sanity were someday to return to our borders, a Romney/Manchin presidential ticket might hold some appeal for independents, as well as Republicans and Democrats who've been trapped so long beneath their respective parties' underbellies, they've practically begun sprouting mushrooms.

Let's be clear: Manchin's willingness to serve as the lone buttress against a torrent of Democratic legislation required enormous courage. He might even be a worthy successor to Romney as a recipient of the JFK Profile in Courage Award. As Caroline Kennedy wrote in a statement about Romney: "He reminds us that our Democracy depends on the courage, conscience and character of our elected officials."

Manchin's urgent call to bipartisanship will likely fall on deaf ears, at least along the Potomac. But it won't go unheard by everyday Americans, most of whom really do want their government to work along bipartisan lines, and who believe that "for the people" is more than an act.

- - -

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

We must get everyone in America a yacht to protect them from gun violence!

By alexandra petri
We must get everyone in America a yacht to protect them from gun violence!

ALEXANDRA PETRI COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, April 9, 2021, and thereafter

(For Petri clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Alexandra Petri

Well, I am the fool. The National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre testified this week during his organization's bankruptcy hearing that there was a good reason he spent so much time on a friend's 108-foot yacht, called Illusions.

Illusions was "the one place that I hope I could feel safe," he said, "where I remember getting there going, 'Thank God I'm safe, nobody can get me here.'" And you know what? I believe him. The only detail of this story that is frustrating is the thought that he knew a solution that would guarantee absolute safety, and he was keeping it so quiet.

Here he was sitting on the holy grail that the United States has been searching for for so long - and he said nothing! He should have been shouting this "security retreat" from the rooftops. In the United States, we have reached a point of numbness and despair where gun violence gets treated as something akin to bad weather, a grim condition of living in this country, to be planned around but never prevented. Yet all this time, Wayne LaPierre had the antidote! Yachts!

I am not mad that Wayne LaPierre was frittering money away and relaxing aboard a watercraft that contained not one but TWO wave runners and a "hydraulic swim platform." No. I'm just relieved we finally know how to keep millions of Americans safe from gun violence. The only thing that remains now is to implement this solution at scale. Doubtless this will count as infrastructure now that we know how essential it is to keeping Americans safe and healthy, and we can tuck it into the American Jobs Act somehow.

We must band together as a nation and demand that all our schools be equipped with yachts. All places of work must have a big yacht (108 feet minimum, perhaps even bigger) with a cook and a hydraulic swim platform. I am not sure how putting supermarkets on yachts will work, but we had better try it. Not until everyone in this country is safe aboard their yacht can we breathe easily again.

Although maybe it isn't just yachts. Maybe it's spending money, in general. Wayne LaPierre additionally used the NRA to pay for a mosquito treatment at his home, which apparently was also a security measure. The organization spent $65,000 on Christmas gifts from him. It seems clear that what gun violence responds to well is money.

Again, I'm not upset. I'm just relieved that there exists a solution. Praise be! All these years of anguishing over the question of how we were going to keep schoolchildren safe from gun violence, how we were going to keep people in grocery stores and offices and places of work and buildings and concerts and - America, generally, safe from gun violence, and the answer, all along, was: yachts.

Now that we know we do not need to reduce the number of guns or the ease of access to guns or pass any sort of legislation about guns because we already have the solution, I am sure the NRA will be very relieved. Its leadership can set about equipping every American with a service yacht, for their own protection. With two wave runners, just to make assurance double sure.

It is too bad the NRA is bankrupt now, unrelatedly.

- - -

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

Inside the U.S. government's new $30 million effort to combat pandemic profiteering

By michelle singletary
Inside the U.S. government's new $30 million effort to combat pandemic profiteering

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, April 11, 2021, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only. WRITETHRU: In 3rd graf, changes opening to "Most likely,"

By MICHELLE SINGLETARY

WASHINGTON -- The scammers and schemers are coming for your cash.

No, that's not the government calling with a threat to "suspend" your Social Security number. Yes, you're being swindled if you're asked to pay anybody for anything with a gift card.

Most likely, that work-at-home business or multilevel marketing opportunity will cost you more than you will ever make.

Identity thieves are lying to trick you into giving up your personal financial information, which they will then use to steal from credit card companies by pretending to be you.

Scams have become so sophisticated and ubiquitous that it's hard to know whether the calls, texts and emails are fake. Technology allows hucksters with distant landlines - and now mobile phones - to display local numbers in an effort to trick you to answer.

Now, factor in the pandemic and the massive effort to get people vaccinated.

The scams are coming fast and furious, relentlessly conning people at a time when they are vulnerable.

Billions of dollars in stimulus payments are being sent to Americans, and that makes them a target for fraudsters. Coronavirus-related cons have given crooks another way into people's bank accounts, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, whom President Joe Biden name acting chair of the Federal Trade Commission, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

"People are desperate," Slaughter said. "They are struggling financially. They're worried about their health. They're dealing with child-care issues. And that's why it's great that the money is coming, but bad guys are seeing that desperation, too, and are taking advantage of it as they do. We're just looking out for people who are trying to take advantage of that stimulus money and other related programs."

The FTC received nearly 2.2 million consumer fraud reports last year, up almost 27% from the year before, including a surge of online shopping complaints in the early days of the pandemic. Consumers reported losing more than $3.3 billion to fraud, up from $1.8 billion a year earlier.

Last year, the FTC introduced ReportFraud.ftc.gov, an updated platform for consumers to file fraud complaints.

The FTC is seeing scams involving personal protective equipment (PPE). The agency has also pursued schemes involving the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides money to businesses to help them make payroll during the pandemic.

In the interview, Slaughter discussed the role the FTC is playing in chasing down and prosecuting pandemic profiteers.

Tucked in the third round of stimulus aid, largely unnoticed, was $30.4 million allocated to the FTC to fight not just the old consumer scams but also new schemes with a pandemic twist.

Under the American Rescue Plan, signed by Biden on March 11, $24 million went to fund full-time employees at the FTC to address unfair or deceptive acts or practices, including those related to the coronavirus. An additional $4.4 million would go to process and monitor consumer complaints received by the FTC's Consumer Sentinel Network, including increased complaints about schemes related to the pandemic, and $2 million for consumer-related education to help consumers avoid coronavirus scams.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation about why this money is so important - and why more is probably needed.

Q: What type of covid-related scams are you seeing?

A: There are lots of pandemic profiteering challenges that we have, whether it's scams related to PPE or vaccines or fake cures or economic business opportunities. People are promising desperate folks easy money that it turns out you have to pay a lot of money upfront to access this great new business opportunity. These are things that we see generally, even in normal times, but it's accelerated and amplified by the economic desperation around covid-19.

We are particularly seeing economic scams. We sued a company that targeted struggling small businesses and induced them to submit loan applications by falsely claiming to be an approved lender for the Small Business Administration when they were not. We've sued a business for deceiving customers by sending mailers that featured a seal of the United States and a mock stimulus check and promised to get people federal stimulus benefits but actually just lured them to a used-car sale.

Q: Are there covid scams specifically targeting minorities?

A: Business-opportunity scams where companies target consumers with fake earnings claims. We sued a company that targeted Latino customers with false earning claims in Spanish-language ads. I think that these kinds of scams that particularly target communities of color are especially pernicious because they are doubling down on the disparities that we're seeing across the board in health outcomes and economic fallout and basically everything associated with the pandemic.

Q: How do you get ahead of these scams?

A: It's a two-step process. The first thing we have to do is educate consumers about what to look out for. And we do that in partnership with state and local authorities and in partnership with community advocacy groups. And we just launched a new Community Advocate Center that will help us reach communities that might not otherwise have the FTC immediately on their radar. Consumer education is a huge part of it. We don't want people to fall victim to scams in the first place.

(For more information about the Community Advocate Center and to sign up to participate, visit ReportFraud.ftc.gov/community.)

And then we do actually go after the scammers whenever we find them. We collect complaints and we pursue law enforcement action in coordination with state and local partners. We do that because there are many targets. It is hard to get all of them. But when we bring cases, we send a strong message that we are not going to tolerate predatory, deceptive, unfair behavior targeting communities of color or any other communities.

Q: Why is it important for people to report covid scams to the FTC?

A: Participating in reporting is a hugely important thing to do, both to help themselves and to help the broader community. When we go after companies, one of our top priorities is getting money back for consumers that are wronged. And that starts with knowing about the problem. If people are not reporting to us, we don't know where to look for the next scams.

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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