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An old Virginia plantation, a new owner and a family legacy unveiled

By Joe Heim
An old Virginia plantation, a new owner and a family legacy unveiled
Sharswood in Gretna, Va., was built in the middle of the 19th century and at one point was the hub of a sprawling plantation. The Pittsylvania County property now consists of 10½ acres. Out of the frame behind the large tree at right is a cabin that may have been used by enslaved people as a kitchen and laundry for the main house as well as a residence. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Heather Rousseau.

GRETNA, Va. - There was so much Fredrick Miller didn't know about the handsome house here on Riceville Road.

He grew up just a half-mile away and rode past it on his school bus every day. It was hard to miss. The home's Gothic revival gables, six chimneys, diamond-paned windows and sweeping lawn were as distinctive a sight as was to be seen in this rural southern Virginia community. But Miller, 56, an Air Force veteran who now lives in California, didn't give it much thought. He didn't know it had once been a plantation or that 58 people had once been enslaved there. He never considered that its past had anything to do with him.

Two years ago, when his sister called to say the estate was for sale, he jumped on it. He'd been looking, pulled home to the place he left at 18. His roots were deep in this part of Pittsylvania County, and he wanted a place where his vast extended family, many of whom still live nearby, could gather.

The handsome house set on a rise had a name, it turned out. Sharswood. And Sharswood had a history. And its history had everything to do with Miller.

Slavery wasn't something people talked much about in this part of Virginia when Miller was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. And other than a few brief mentions in school, it wasn't taught much, either.

The only time he remembers the subject coming up was when Alex Haley's miniseries, "Roots," was broadcast in 1977.

"For a lot of us, that was our first experience with what really happened during slavery," he said. "It just wasn't discussed."

Miller assumed his ancestors had been enslaved. But where and when and by whom were questions that were left unasked and unanswered.

"People didn't want to talk about this stuff because it was too painful," said Dexter Miller, 60, a cousin of Frederick's who lives in Java. "They would say, 'This is grown folks' business.' And that's how some of the history was lost."

Another cousin, Marian Keyes, who taught first in segregated schools and later in integrated schools from 1959 to 1990, said that for a long time there was little teaching about slavery in Pittsylvania County.

"We weren't really allowed to even talk about it back then," said Keyes, who turns 90 this year and lives in Chatham. "We weren't even allowed to do much about the Civil War and all of that kind of stuff, really."

Even outside of school, when she was growing up, Keyes said, the subject of slavery was avoided.

"I just thought everything was normal," she said, "because that was the way of life."

But the unspoken history left a gulf.

- - -

It wasn't until after Fredrick Miller bought Sharswood in May 2020 that its past started coming into focus. That's when his sister, Karen Dixon-Rexroth and their cousins Sonya Womack-Miranda and Dexter Miller doubled down on researching their family history.

What neither Fredrick Miller nor his sister knew at the time was that the property had once been a 2,000-acre plantation, whose owners before and during the Civil War were Charles Edwin Miller and Nathaniel Crenshaw Miller.

Miller.

That Fredrick Miller and so many members of his extended family were born and grew up in the shadow of Sharswood was a clue to perhaps a deeper connection. It wasn't uncommon after emancipation for formerly enslaved people to take the last names of their enslavers. But establishing the link required more research.

His sister and cousins scoured genealogy sites and contacted Karice Luck-Brimmer, who works in community outreach with Virginia Humanities in Pittsylvania County and researches local African American genealogy. They pored over court and real estate records, examined census data and revisited family tales passed down over generations.

As the puzzle pieces connected, a clearer picture emerged. Sarah Miller, great-grandmother to Fredrick, Karen and Dexter, and great-great-grandmother to Sonya, died in 1949 at 81. From her death certificate, they learned that Sarah's parents were Violet and David Miller.

The 1860 Census does not list enslaved people by name, only by gender and age. In the 1870 Census, however, Violet and David Miller lived just a short distance from Sharswood. Between the many documents that the descendants of Sarah Miller have obtained, the fragments of family oral history they've sewn together and the proximity of the family to the plantation, they are certain that Violet and David Miller were among those enslaved at Sharswood.

More clues continue to emerge. An entry in the Virginia Slave Births Index uncovered this month by Luck-Brimmer shows that a boy named Samuel was born to Violet in Pittsylvania County on May 9, 1864. N.C. Miller is listed as the enslaver. In the 1870 Census record for Violet and David Miller, Samuel, age 5, is listed as a member of the household. Sarah, his youngest sister, also is listed as a member of the household. She would have been 2, although no age is given for her in the record.

The newly discovered document "hands down places them on the plantation," Womack-Miranda texted after seeing the entry. "It can never be disputed."

That the 10.5-acre-estate that Fredrick Miller purchased for $225,000 ended up not being just a future gathering spot for the family, but also its first traceable point in the United States, was an astonishing revelation for him. It also left him thinking about family history - and the absence of that history for many people like him.

"You've got to know where you come from," he said in a phone interview from his California home. "You've got to know where you come from. It's unfortunate that a lot of us don't."

In an undated photo of Sarah that family members have shared with one another, the mother of seven wears wire-rimmed glasses and faces the camera with a somber expression. When he looks at the photo of his great-grandmother, Frederick Miller sees sadness in her face. But, he hopes, maybe this purchase has brought some redemption.

With Sharswood in his hands, her family is reclaiming its past.

"I just hope that somehow she's looking down from heaven and finally cracking a beautiful smile," he said.

- - -

On a mid-December day, the oaks and walnuts that tower nearby have shed their leaves. A dry spell has turned the winter grass browner still. But Sharswood shines, bright white with black shutters and a green metal roof. Immaculate.

Designed by the famed New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis and built in the middle of the 19th century, Sharswood signaled success.

Even with the additions and paint jobs over the years, it's not hard to envision how the house looked before the Civil War, when it was the hub of one of the largest tobacco plantations in Pittsylvania County. And it's not hard to envision the enslaved men, women and children who toiled to harvest that tobacco and enrich the plantation's owners.

Approximately 550,000 people in Virginia were enslaved at the outset of the Civil War - roughly a third of the commonwealth's population - Virginia Museum of History & Culture figures show.

In Pittsylvania County, closer to half of the population was not free. Those enslaved at Sharswood in 1860 ranged in age from 1 to 72, according to Census figures. Thirty-five were 12 or older and considered adults on the census count. There were 23 children. Of the 58 total, 31 were female.

There were 12 houses for enslaved people on the plantation, determined Doug Sanford, a retired professor of historic preservation at the University of Mary Washington who has been documenting former homes of the enslaved across Virginia with Dennis Pogue, an associate research professor at the University of Maryland and retired archaeologist.

The census numbers are a small window into the plantation's life. But not much more.

For many Black Americans, slavery is a brick wall that prevents them from finding out more about their past before emancipation. Census records before the Civil War rarely provided names of enslaved people. Some owners kept records that included first names and the prices they paid to buy an enslaved person or what they received for selling one. But personal details are scarce. Separations of families made the kinship trails even more difficult to follow.

Even when slavery ended, the details of the people subjected to it and of their daily lives were not easy to come by. After emancipation, there often was a reluctance among those who had endured slavery to share their story with their children and grandchildren, said Leslie Harris, a professor and historian at Northwestern University who has written extensively about slavery in the United States.

"The generation closer to these experiences clearly were dealing with a traumatic memory, and they didn't want to rehearse that memory," Harris said. "Toni Morrison has this line in her book 'Beloved' where she says 'This is not a story to pass down.' So, for that generation, they didn't want to pass down that trauma."

But for subsequent generations, Harris said, "It's not that it's not troubling to learn these histories, but our curiosity and our desire to understand is enough removed from that to have us ask different questions of the record."

- - -

The dilapidated cabin behind the main house at Sharswood isn't visible from the road. A humble structure with a central chimney dividing two rooms, it feels almost hidden. But Sarah Miller's descendants have focused their attention on it.

What the family learned from ongoing research by Sanford and Pogue and by Jobie Hill, a preservation architect who started the Saving Slave Houses project in 2012, is that the cabin was built before 1800, probably as the main house on the property, and then was divided into a duplex before 1820. From then on, they said, it probably served as a kitchen and laundry for the main house and a living space for some who were enslaved at Sharswood.

Standing 50 feet from the 16-by-32-foot cabin in which her ancestors may have worked or lived, Womack-Miranda, 53, said the discovery of the connection has been life-altering.

"When I walk around here, I imagine my ancestors walking on the same ground, the same dirt," she said. "As an African American, you feel like you have reached the point where you can say, 'I'm connected to my ancestors, to my roots, to the very plantation [where] my ancestors were enslaved.' It makes me feel whole as an African American."

Karen Dixon-Rexroth says she, too, feels the presence of her ancestors all about the property.

But Dixon-Rexroth, 49, also has noticed the generational difference when it comes to discussing the history of the plantation. As she walked with her mother, Betty Miller-Dixon, across the backyard last month and toward the cabin, she sensed her mother's reluctance.

"You don't like to go there, do you, Mom?" she asked.

Miller-Dixon, 81, stopped and looked at the dwelling.

"You just wonder how they survived it," said Miller-Dixon, whose father, Gideon Miller, was Sarah Miller's youngest child. "I don't want to dwell on something I can't control, but it bothers me when I go even just to look in there."

Thinking about what their ancestors may have endured in captivity is painful. Although the Miller men who owned the property never married, the descendants of those enslaved at Sharswood believe they had children with women on the property. They wonder about ancestors who would have had no say in that. That some of them are descendants of the enslaved and the enslaver is a real possibility. They have thought of all of that. And more.

"When I saw the cabin, a feeling came over me like I believe I'm home," said Dexter Miller. "I could feel my ancestors, and it almost brought tears to my eyes. I can picture them sitting around the fireplace, and the stories they were telling. I'm in the presence of my ancestors hundreds of years ago who lived here and slept here and birthed here. But I also think about what happened around that big oak tree. Were my ancestors beaten there? Hanged there? That's crept into my mind. You never know."

Fredrick Miller thinks about what slavery has done not just to his family, but to all descendants of the enslaved.

"When people experience traumatic events, they get counseling for it. They go through a process and, you know, try to get through it," he said. "Black folk went through that kind of stuff for hundreds of years. And then when it was over, they just said, 'OK, go out there and be normal.' You know, how is that possible? We are a product of who we were hundreds of years ago. And so it's unfortunate, because I think that we could have definitely progressed a lot further had we dealt with that stuff early on and dealt with it the right way."

While they do not ignore the pain and privation suffered by their forebears, many in the family say the lessons they are taking from this reconnection, from this reclaiming, is that history is not fixed in place; it is always being written.

"I just imagine my ancestors walking here and how they may have felt inside that life has to be better than this," Dixon-Rexroth said. "And now, all these years later, us having the property in our possession. I think they are definitely smiling down on us."

In August, the Miller family held a huge two-day reunion on the grounds. More than 200 relatives came. Tents and chairs were set up in the yard. Tables overflowed with fried fish, grilled jerk chicken, banana pudding and corn pudding. A food truck served Italian water ice. Children ran around or played in a moon bounce. There were board games, raffles, giveaways. A DJ set up on the front porch.

The Miller family reunions go back to at least 1965. Relatives told Fredrick Miller it was the best one they had attended.

Miller said that when he looked at the crowd that had gathered that weekend, he was proud that his relatives were reconnecting, not just with one another, but also with their past. The small cabin behind the house was something everyone wanted to see.

"I just sat back and was able to observe the excitement of the people who showed up," Miller said. "It was just such a good feeling to talk to them about that place, and that's something we'd been lacking."

He still thinks about if he had not bought Sharswood and how the past almost slipped through the family's fingers.

"That history would have definitely been lost," he said. "Definitely."

Two brothers were separated in India during the partition. 74 years later, they have finally reunited.

By Gerry Shih and Anant Gupta
Two brothers were separated in India during the partition. 74 years later, they have finally reunited.
Sikka Khan was separated from his parents and his brother, Sadiq, during the partition of India in 1947. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Gerry Shih.

PHULWAL, India - As Sikka Khan tells it, he was struck by tragedy, but also fortune, in 1947.

He was a 6-month-old orphan, the son of Muslim laborers caught in the chaos of India's partition. Sadiq, his 10-year old brother, barely fled to Pakistan alive. His father died trying. His mother took her own life, leaving Sikka alone in this village. But he survived: The Singhs, a local family of landowning Sikhs, took Sikka in, fed him, and raised him.

In the ensuing years and decades, Sikka begged local Muslims migrating to Pakistan to look for his brother. Others helped him write letters to Delhi newspapers and later, on the Internet, to search for Sadiq. He never heard back, until fate struck a second time, on May 4, 2019.

Sikka was tending to animals in the Singh family courtyard when Davinder, the grandson of the man who took him in, rushed home to announce that Sadiq may have been found.

A farmhand who never owned a phone, Sikka recalled he didn't understand the chain of people or the 21st century wizardry - a village leader in Pakistan, a YouTube channel, a doctor in Canada - that would put him face-to-face one day this month with the brother he lost in 1947. As he sat under a jujube tree, peering into Davinder's smartphone, he didn't even know if it would really be Sadiq, he recalled.

But then the screen lit up with the face of an 83-year-old man, and Sikka knew.

"I tried to look for you," Sikka said.

- - -

In the summer of 1947, the British, who were departing India, drew a new border to divide the former colony, prompting as many as 20 million people to begin a desperate migration. Muslims scrambled toward newly formed Pakistan, while Hindu and Sikh refugees poured into India. As many as 2 million people died, historians say, as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs turned on each other in waves of killing, rape and kidnapping, leaving behind fractured families with missing women and orphaned children.

Even those who were not touched by violence found themselves forging new lives, unmoored from their old families, belongings and even identities.

In 1956, India and Pakistan stopped efforts to reunify families across the tense border, and the two governments have tightly controlled visas, making physical reunions - when families manage to remain in touch - nearly impossible.

But over the past decade, a younger generation has taken a renewed interest in the documentation of the partition, often relying on technology. In 2009, a California physicist created the 1947 Partition Archive, an online oral history project. In 2018, University of Oxford students created Project Daastan, which uses 360-degree cameras to create virtual-reality reproductions of the villages and homes that survivors left behind in another country. On YouTube, several volunteer groups have cropped up with a sole purpose: uniting long-lost families.

In the past, relatives and friend sought each other through newspaper ads, word of mouth, or by posting notes on pilgrimage sites that both Indians and Pakistanis can visit - when diplomatic relations permit. "Today, social media makes connecting people much easier," said Nasir Dhillon, 37, a Pakistani real estate agent who founded a YouTube channel, Punjabi Lehar, in 2013 with a Sikh partner.

The channel has helped reunite about 200 families, Dhillon estimates. "When we put out a video, things happen," he said.

None of these tools existed when Sikka was a young man. Growing up in Phulwal, he barely knew his own story and pieced it together from villagers: His mother had brought him to Phulwal to visit her family just as the partition erupted, severing them from his father, who died, and his brother, who left for Pakistan. According to Sikka and local residents, Sikka's despondent mother hanged herself. Her relatives fled Phulwal, leaving Sikka with a destitute uncle, who gave the child away.

Then, Paag Singh stepped in.

Paag sent Sikka, a member of the gujjar laborer caste, to work his fields and take care of his cows and goats. It was hard, dirty work. "I was miserable, crying all the time," Sikka said. "But Paag Singh protected me with a ferocity."

Sikka settled into the rhythms of farming life, and the Singh family. He played with Paag's son, Darshan, on his lap until Darshan grew up. He watched Darshan marry an energetic woman named Paramjit and have a son of his own, Davinder.

Paag had offered to arrange a marriage for Sikka, too, with one of his distant cousins, a Muslim girl. But Sikka said no. By that point, the Singhs had "made me a man," Sikka said, "but it was hard to imagine starting another family."

By day, Sikka worked hard harvesting wheat and pearl millet and feeding animals. By night, he shared a bedroom with Davinder. The unspoken rules in the house remain today, said Paramjit.

"If I eat two peanuts, he eats two peanuts," she said. "If Davinder drinks a cup of milk, he drinks a cup of milk."

As elsewhere in India, caste and religion impose an enduring, often exploitative structure over rural Punjabi society, said Anupama Uppal, a labor economist at Punjabi University. But the relationships between landowners and laborers can also be nuanced, said Jagsir Singh, a doctor born in Phulwal. "You till the land together, eat meals together," he said. "It's hard to understand for people not from here."

Sikka always yearned for the family he never knew. As a child, he begged Muslim families departing for Pakistan to look for Sadiq. He asked others to help him write letters to distant family, put ads in newspapers and in his later years, even post on Davinder's Facebook.

No reply ever came. "He would say, 'I have nobody in this world,'" said Razia Begum, the wife of a distant nephew who lives in Phulwal.

And so for decades, the story of the Muslim gujjar living with the Sikh family hung over the village of 3,000. "Everybody pointed to him with pity," Jagsir said. "He was the one left behind."

- - -

Jagsir Singh was in Vancouver visiting his daughter in May 2019 when his sister-in-law's husband, an avid watcher of Punjabi Lehar, sent him a link to the YouTube channel.

The video began with an old man in a white turban telling his interviewer, Nasir Dhillon, that his infant brother went with his mother to Phulwal village in 1947, never to be heard from again. Sadiq's father was killed in a confrontation with Indian soldiers near Ludhiana, Sadiq said, while he joined a refugee caravan. Walking to Pakistan, he encountered "dead bodies all around me," he said.

"If you can see me, please talk to me," Sadiq said into the camera, at Sikka. "Who knows if I might die without meeting you?"

Jagsir immediately wondered, "Could this be our man?"

He forwarded the link to family back in Phulwal, who relayed the news to Davinder. Then Jagsir called Dhillon, and the YouTuber explained that he was introduced to Sadiq, a farmer living outside Faisalabad, Pakistan, through Mohammad Ishraq, a young village leader who figured YouTube was Sadiq's best hope. By about 1 p.m. the next day, Dhillon's team was sitting next to Sadiq in Faisalabad, dialing Davinder's Indian WhatsApp number.

Seventy-two years of questions poured out from Sadiq. He didn't know what happened to their mother, or that Sikka no longer went by his childhood nickname, Habib. He asked if Sikka ever managed to marry, if he ever bought any land.

"I tried to look for you," Sikka said.

"You tried to find me?" Sadiq asked.

Sikka nodded. "I wrote letters," he said. "I tried so much, but I could never find an address."

After the first day, the brothers would ask Davinder and Ishraq to set up calls whenever they felt like speaking, which, on some days, was more than once.

They would talk about Sadiq's six children and his grandchildren. Sikka would tell Sadiq what crops he grew, what Phulwal looked like. Sadiq would recount how he also searched for Sikka. He once traveled 160 miles to ask a relative from India if he had any word of Sikka, he said. He once made a pilgrimage to ask a Sufi holy man whether he would find his brother.

"He told me you are alive, so I must keep trying," Sadiq recalled.

Within days, the brothers' friends and families began to prepare passports, hoping to apply for visas so the two could meet. But politics stood in the way. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and borders clamped shut.

Visas have been nearly impossible to obtain in recent years as bilateral relations plummeted, with the Indian government particularly reluctant to approve them, said Urvashi Butalia, a New Delhi-based author of "The Other Side of Silence," a collection of partition stories.

Time and again, survivors say they want to go back, just once, "to say goodbye to people, things, relationships," Butalia said. "Without that, there's a deep sense of lacking closure."

- - -

There was one last option for Sikka and Sadiq: They could meet at the Kartarpur Corridor, a visa-free passage established in 2019 that lets Indians visit a Sikh holy site, the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, about three miles inside Pakistan.

As covid receded, they set a date: Jan. 10.

In Phulwal, the Singhs had arranged for news of the reunion to be broadcast over the village loudspeakers. The family rented a bus, and about 30 of them - plus Sikka - piled in, laden with 50,000 rupees, or $700, worth of gifts.

In Faisalabad, Sadiq's entourage, with his entire family, was even bigger. Ishraq, the village leader, counted 70 people bundling boxes of clothes and delicacies into their own bus.

It was a perfect, clear afternoon when the two sides finally approached each other at the Kartarpur gurdwara, beneath its gleaming domes of white and gold.

In a video clip that's since gone viral in India and Pakistan, Sadiq rushes into Sikka's arms and wails, as Sikka soothes him. "We are alive, so we could be together again," Sikka said.

The Indians and Pakistanis engulfed each other in hearty, Punjabi-style welcomes - big hugs all around, recalled Paramjit. Sadiq introduced his children and grandchildren one by one. "I didn't have anyone, so I presented them," Sikka said, referring to the Singhs.

Sikka gave Sadiq a gift of turbans. Paramjit gave Sadiq's wife Basri a luxurious salwar kameez and handed envelopes stuffed with money to Sadiq's grandchildren. Sadiq, leading the Pakistani delegation, offered a garland of flowers to Darshan. He placed his hands on Paramjit's forehead and gave her bolts of fine cloth.

They spent three hours together before Pakistani soldiers closed the site before sundown. The brothers had to be separated, said Dhillon, who filmed the reunion. "Sadiq wouldn't let him go."

Since the meeting, the brothers have kept up their video calls every day. They're pushing to get visas to visit each other. A senior aide in the Pakistani prime minister's office reached out and promised he would help, according to Sadiq, who is urging Sikka to move to Pakistan.

"I want to make up for all the years we lost," Sadiq said, "to spend the rest of my life, whatever joys and sorrows, with him."

In India, Sikka said he's also desperate to visit Pakistan. But move there? He said he's not sure. After searching for a lifetime, he finally found Sadiq, and maybe more than a brother.

"I tell him I want him to come to India," Sikka said.

He was back in the Singh family courtyard, surrounded by Darshan, Paramjit, Davinder and Davinder's young kids. Cold wind rustled through the jujube tree. Davinder went to fetch Sikka's shawl.

"I recognize everybody in this village," he said. "They're family, too."

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After decades, Biden plans to make mobile homes greener. But it's sparked a fierce debate.

By Tik Root
After decades, Biden plans to make mobile homes greener. But it's sparked a fierce debate.
Tony Flanders, a housing consultant at Factory Direct Homes, stands outside a manufactured home in Pittsford, Vt. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Hilary Swift

PITTSFORD, Vt. - At Factory Direct Homes here in central Vermont, Tony Flanders stepped through the front door of a gray double-wide mobile home and pointed at the living room window to his left.

A thin coating on the glass helps make homes more energy efficient, he explained, and the double-wide show model is better protected from cold than base versions.

"It's all about insulation," said Flanders, a housing consultant at the company, who was bundled in a dark-blue parka to withstand the frigid December temperatures.

But even this fancy double-wide couldn't be sold in Vermont without a federal exemption, because it doesn't meet state housing requirements. The mobile homes in which 22 million Americans live - also known as manufactured houses - are governed by federal requirements that haven't changed in nearly 30 years.

Spurred by a court order, the Biden administration is proposing long-awaited updates to energy-efficiency standards for manufactured homes that it projects will save mobile-home owners thousands of dollars and prevent millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere in the coming decades. But the new standards, due in May, have also sparked a fierce debate about costs, equity and the future of manufactured housing.

The changes that the Biden administration has put forward include updates to insulation and windows, as well as heating and cooling systems.

Some say the Energy Department's plan goes too far. "We believe in the importance of energy efficiency," said Lesli Gooch, CEO of the Manufactured Housing Institute, a trade organization. "We just don't think that this proposal is going to have the desired impact. And in fact, it's going to have a negative impact on the supply of affordable, manufactured housing."

"To us, the primary metric needs to be the upfront cost of the home," added Mark Weiss, president of the Manufactured Housing Association for Regulatory Reform, another industry trade association. "Our concern is that these new requirements are going to make them substantially more costly."

Others argue that energy savings and better quality homes with higher resale values would cover any extra costs. They would like to see the Energy Department set even stricter standards.

"There are a lot of low-income people in these homes and the impact on them is exactly the right question," said Lowell Ungar, director of federal policy at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. "But putting them in homes in which they aren't going to be able to afford the energy bills for the next few decades is not the solution to that problem."

Many advocates, however, haven't been waiting for government or industry fixes. They are already building workarounds - from weatherization initiatives and zero-energy modular homes to grant programs and improved mortgage products - that can help residents lower their utility costs and combat climate change.

- - -

Manufactured houses are built in a factory, hitched to a truck and shipped all over the country. The concept dates back to the traveling trailers that gained popularity throughout the early 1900s. By mid-century, they had became larger, more permanent and equipped with indoor toilets. In recent years, Americans have been buying about 100,000 manufactured homes annually.

Because it's such an interstate business, manufactured housing has long been regulated federally. Congress gave that authority to the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1974 and its code for manufactured housing went into effect two years later. The last significant update to the code took effect in 1994.

Manufactured homes use less overall energy because they are relatively small. And nearly a third of such houses shipped in the United States in 2020 were Energy Star certified - according to the Systems Building Research Alliance, a nonprofit research organization that supports the factory-built housing industry - including almost all the homes Flanders sells. Some go beyond Energy Star.

But even top-of-the line models don't always meet the local code for site-built homes. And manufactured houses lag behind in other measures of efficiency as well.

In the most recent residential energy consumption survey by the U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2015, mobile home residents were more likely than single-family home residents to report having too many drafts in the winter and single-pane (versus double or triple pane) windows. And mobile homes consumed about 35 percent more energy per square foot than detached single-family homes.

Congress has been attempting to improve on the HUD standards for more than a decade. In 2007, it passed a law that gave the DOE until 2011 to release updated efficiency requirements for manufactured houses. But that never happened. Obama administration officials started the process but did not finish in time, and the Trump administration withdrew the proposal.

In 2017, the Sierra Club environmental organization sued the Trump administration to force the issue. The court ordered the DOE to finalize a rule by May 16, 2022, and it released a proposed rule last summer, along with updated data in the fall and a draft environmental impact statement this January.

While the DOE proposal considers various alternatives to the rule, it features a two-tiered strategy in which manufactured houses with a sales price of under $63,000 are subject to less stringent requirements. The department designed the lower level - Tier 1 - so that energy-efficiency improvements don't raise the cost of a home by more than about $750, on average. It estimates that Tier 2 would increase the price of a home by about $3,900 to $5,300, depending on its size.

Energy savings would offset these costs in 3.5 to 11 years, the department calculates. And, over 30 years, the upgrades would cumulatively avoid 86.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is equal to the annual operations of roughly 22 coal-fired power plants.

The government's latest environmental impact statement is subject to public comments until Feb. 28 and is likely to draw a slew of responses.

"I hate Tier 1. I think it's a real equity issue," said Stacey Epperson, founder of Next Step Network, a sustainable housing nonprofit. "These cheaper homes are shipped into the poverty regions."

Emanuel Levy, executive director of the Systems Building Research Alliance, compares the changes to auto-fuel efficiency standards. "What's happening is as if the miles per gallon [in cars] were being raised to 100," he said. "You're cutting out the affordable buyers from the market."

Part of the issue is how manufactured homes are financed.

Mobile-home-park residents often buy their houses but lease the land. And leased land isn't always eligible for traditional mortgages, which can push home buyers into what are known as chattel loans. Those generally come with higher interest rates and shorter terms, making borrowing for home improvements such as energy-efficiency upgrades more expensive.

The DOE estimated that the cost increase of its proposed changes would result in around 1,500 fewer homes shipped each year due to buyers' price sensitivity. But that's not something Flanders, the Factory Direct Homes consultant, is particularly worried about.

He said his customers are already choosing whatever efficiency upgrades are available, and that regulation could push reluctant manufacturers to go even further with their offerings.

An updated code could also help weed out lower-efficiency or lesser-quality manufactured homes on the market. Although Flanders says he avoids selling those models because they can lead to service calls and unsatisfied customers, he still has to compete against them.

"There are still dealers that are really unscrupulous . . . They're just trying to get the houses pumped out and make some money," he said. "We're not on a level playing field."

- - -

Peter Schneider is a senior consultant with the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), a nonprofit that designs and administers decarbonization and energy-efficiency programs around North America, including in Vermont. He first started trying to make manufactured housing more efficient after Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont in 2011. Among the damaged property were 438 manufactured houses - 129 of which required complete demolition.

When it came time to rebuild, Schneider wanted to find replacement homes that at least met local building and efficiency standards. "I called all over," said Schneider, who tried companies in New York, Pennsylvania and as far away as Indiana. He had no luck.

New York was in a similar predicament with its Parks of the Future Program. "We had real trouble finding anyone who could produce energy-efficient manufactured homes," said Dina Levy, senior vice president at the New York State division of homes and community renewal.

"There's really an unwillingness in this industry to build anything beyond what they're required to build," Schneider said. "They've been stuck building these homes that meet a standard that was developed nearly 30 years ago."

But Schneider, Levy and others have been finding ways around this roadblock. "We are forced to be creative," he said.

For folks already living in a manufactured home, Schneider suggested an energy-efficiency audit as a great first step. An audit helps homeowners identify areas for possible improvement - whether that's switching to higher efficiency lightbulbs, doing more regular heating system maintenance or installing better air-sealing and insulation.

The DOE estimates that weatherization assistance programs can save homeowners hundreds of dollars annually. And there are often subsidies available for those who are income-qualified.

An energy audit makes sense for those in newer manufactured homes as well, said Schneider, who is trying to develop a formalized program for retrofitting new Energy Star-certified manufactured homes to meet local code. Manufactured-home shoppers should also consider a new modular mobile home.

Modular and manufactured homes are both built in a factory and are very similar housing types. "Visually, manufactured and modular homes don't appear that different from one another," according to an article on the website of factory-built home builder Clayton. "The main difference between manufactured and modular homes is the codes they are built to."

Because modular homes must meet local, rather than HUD codes, they are generally more energy efficient. When Schneider couldn't find a manufactured-home company that would meet Vermont code, he turned to a modular-home company for help. The result was what are called "VerMods." With 10-inch thick walls, triple-pane windows and roof-mounted solar panels, they go far beyond local code and are designed to create as much energy as they use. There are now a couple hundred of them around the state.

"This is where we need to go in terms of decarbonization," said Schneider, standing outside a VerMod park in Vergennes, Vt., the sun beaming down. There are no fossil-fuel connections on-site.

In New York, Levy's program is going the modular route as well. The State of New York Mortgage Agency also developed a lending program that allows purchasers of manufactured or modular homes to qualify for traditional financing, even on leased land. The purchase limit is $50,000 higher for those buying at least Energy Star model homes.

And efficiency can certainly be more expensive upfront. VerMods cost as much as $200,000 - which can be more than twice the price of the Energy Star manufactured homes that Flanders sells. Grants and other incentives help subsidize a large portion of the difference. But the broader hope, Schneider said, is that paying less in utilities allows people to put more toward mortgages that build equity.

As of 2021, VEIC calculated that the owners of an Energy Star manufactured home in Vermont would pay about $747 a month in housing costs: $500 in mortgage and $247 in utilities. A zero-energy modular owner would pay around $696 a month, but only $25 of that would be utilities.

Anne Martell, a VerMod owner in Huntington, Vt., said she hardly ever gets an energy bill. "We don't have an electricity bill until around January or February," said Martell of the cold winter months. In total, she says she pays about $500 a month toward the mortgage and $300 per year in utilities. "It's great."

Schneider emphasizes that the VerMods can also help insulate their owners from future increases in energy prices. "The last people who need to be victims of our energy prices doubling overnight because of something are our disadvantaged communities or our more vulnerable homeowners," he said.

Not everyone is happy with their VerMod. Flanders says he's had customers who left VerMods after the homes proved less affordable than expected. But he's supportive of the modular concept generally. The modular houses he sells cost about $40,000 more than a similarly sized Energy Star-certified manufactured house. And, despite the added costs, he said that in the past decade, modular has gone from making up less than 10 percent of his business to roughly half.

The VerMods experiment has drawn interest from across the country. Schneider says his organization is working on zero-energy home projects with groups in Massachusetts, Maine, Colorado and Delaware, among other locales.

But some trailer parks only allow manufactured homes rather than modular ones. So the ultimate solution, Schneider said, is still to get manufactured-home builders to move beyond where they are right now - a process he hopes federal regulators can kick-start.

"We are demonstrating a path for builders," he said. "But we need to bring the standard up so it's equivalent with our standard for modular and site-built homes."

Flanders said he wants his manufactured-home customers to have more of the same choices as those purchasing modular homes. For example, the inch of foam insulation around the outside of modular houses not only cuts down on energy use but, he says, increases the longevity, durability and ultimately value of the home. It's well worth the several thousand dollars, he said, but the manufactured-house companies he works with don't offer that upgrade.

"Stuff like that makes common sense," Flanders said. "You can never have enough insulation."

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

The handling of the Texas abortion case is an embarrassment for the federal judiciary

By ruth marcus
The handling of the Texas abortion case is an embarrassment for the federal judiciary

RUTH MARCUS COLUMN

Advance for release Monday, Jan. 24, 2022 and thereafter

(For Marcus clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only. WRITETHRU - new hed, minor changes throughout

By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- In the aftermath of the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in (BEG ITAL)Brown v. Board of Education(END ITAL), Southern states launched a campaign of massive resistance to school desegregation. Today, a version of massive resistance is again playing out, this time to the court's ruling in the Texas abortion case -- and this time, the resistance is coming from within the judiciary itself.

Worse yet: In the years after (BEG ITAL)Brown(END ITAL), the court made clear that it would not tolerate any disobedience of its desegregation ruling. By contrast, in the weeks since the court allowed a limited challenge to the Texas abortion law to proceed, the conservative justices have shown themselves unwilling to enforce even that weak edict.

Since Sept. 1 -- for almost five months -- women in Texas have been denied the ability to exercise what, for now, remains their constitutional right to abortion.

Texas passed a law, prohibiting most abortions after six weeks, that is flatly unconstitutional under the Supreme Court's precedents -- and the conservative justices let it take effect. The Supreme Court eventually agreed to decide whether the law could be challenged in federal court -- and still allowed it to remain in place while that case proceeded.

The court then ruled that a partial challenge to the law could go forward. That was Dec. 10, six weeks ago. What has happened since is nothing short of massive resistance, except this time the robes are black.

Once the case was decided, the court, as is its usual practice, sent the case back to the appeals court. The ordinary thing for the appeals court to do would have been to refer it back to the trial level judge, who appeared inclined to put the law on hold while the litigation continued.

Not here. The ultraconservative U.S. Court for Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in league with Texas, has managed to ensure further weeks, even months, of delay.

The diabolical genius of the Texas law is that it forswears enforcement of the six-week abortion ban by state officials and instead outsources that job to private bounty hunters. This twist made it difficult for the abortion providers challenging the law to find an appropriate state official to sue in federal court, because under the constitution, the state itself can't be sued directly.

The Supreme Court's December ruling closed off most of those avenues but allowed one potential opening: suits against state medical licensing authorities. That wasn't much because the licensing boards play such a limited role, but it offered at least some hope.

Then came Texas, with a new delaying tactic. Actually, the state said, the licensing officials don't have any authority under Texas law to enforce the abortion law. And, the state added, that question of state law should be sent over -- "certified," in legal terms -- to the Texas Supreme Court to decide.

Notably, as the litigation made its way up to the justices, Texas had never before suggested this move. Even more notably, this question had already been considered and decided -- by the Supreme Court itself. Eight justices -- (BEG ITAL)eight(END ITAL) -- agreed that the case against the licensing officials could proceed. Only Justice Clarence Thomas, dissenting, suggested otherwise.

Undeterred, the 5th Circuit stepped in to aid and abet Texas' efforts to sidestep the constitution and ignore the Supreme Court. The three-judge panel hearing the case took the remarkable step of ordering oral arguments on the certification question -- more delay. In the majority were Reagan nominee Edith Jones and Trump nominee Stuart Kyle Duncan. Judge Stephen Higginson, an Obama appointee, dissented. "The defendants already lost this point in the Supreme Court," he wrote. "They should not get a second bite."

At the oral argument, Jan. 7, Jones said the quiet part out loud. "What happens when the Supreme Court, if the Supreme Court, as many expect, says something about (BEG ITAL)Roe v. Wade(END ITAL) that implies that [the] prohibition on abortions after heartbeat may be enforceable," she asked. "What happens then? Is this case alive or dead? ... Maybe we should just sit on this until the end of June," by which point the Supreme Court will have ruled on Mississippi's abortion law and may well have overturned Roe.

Courts are not supposed to work this way. They are supposed to follow the existing law even if they disagree with it. They are not supposed to place their bets on that they deduce -- or hope -- the justices might do in the future.

As Marc Hearron, the clinics' lawyer, told Jones, for the appeals court to "sit on" the case "would be completely inconsistent" with the Supreme Court's expedited handling. Even Texas wasn't asking for that, its lawyer conceded.

It will surprise no one that the appeals court this past week agreed to toss the question to the Texas Supreme Court -- untold more weeks of delay.

In the meantime, the abortion providers returned to the Supreme Court, imploring the justices to, in effect, order the 5th Circuit to cut it out and follow the court's own ruling. "There is no clearer rule in all appellate jurisprudence than the rule that a lower court must comply with the mandate of a superior court and that the issues decided by the superior court are not subject to relitigation below," they argued.

No dice. On Friday, over the anguished dissent of the three liberal justices, the court declined to intercede. Here is Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan: "Instead of stopping a Fifth Circuit panel from indulging Texas' newest delay tactics, the Court allows the State yet again to extend the deprivation of the federal constitutional rights of its citizens through procedural manipulation. The Court may look the other way, but I cannot."

No one should. After (BEG ITAL)Brown,(END ITAL) the Supreme Court and the federal courts stood strong, in defense not only of civil rights but of their own authority. That was a proud, storied moment for the federal judiciary. This is not.

- - -

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

As invasion looms, Ukrainians are calmly defiant

By david ignatius
As invasion looms, Ukrainians are calmly defiant

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

Advance for release Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, and thereafter

(For Ignatius clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By David Ignatius

KYIV, Ukraine -- With 100,000 Russian guns pointed at their heads, Ukrainians appear to take a stoical pride in not seeming rattled. They appear ready for what could be a savage war. Their main worry is that the United States and its allies will get so nervous they will yield to Russian pressure.

Driving through Maidan Square in a light snow on Friday afternoon, with traffic snarled and the lights of the city blazing, you could almost think this was normal life, on the eve of what could be a Russian invasion. Some people with money are buying dollars and property abroad. But the restaurants are full, and Ukrainians appeared to get the jitters only when President Volodymyr Zelensky told them this past week not to panic.

Over several days of intense conversation here, I heard the same message of resistance. Russian President Vladimir Putin might imagine that Ukrainians share his almost mystical conviction that Russia and Ukraine are the same country, but if so, he's wildly mistaken. Putin's eight years of war against Ukraine, beginning with his seizure of Crimea in 2014, have made him nothing but enemies here. Polls say that even a large majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians oppose him.

"Don't trust Putin. Don't fear Putin," said former president Petro Poroshenko on Friday during a conversation with a group organized by the German Marshall Fund. (I'm a trustee of GMF but came here as a journalist, along with Sylvie Kaufman of the French newspaper Le Monde and a half-dozen others, including two German parliamentarians and analysts from NATO and the European Union.)

It was partly bravado, but a defiant Oleksiy Danilov, the head of the national security and defense council, told our group: "Since 2014, we have been in a state of war with Russia. There are no people other than us who will defend us. Even if we don't receive weapons [from the West], we will strangle them with our bare hands."

Ukraine is where the dissolution of the Soviet Union was ratified in 1991, when 92% of Ukrainians voted for independence in a referendum. Putin has said that he regards the Soviet collapse as a tragedy that he is determined to avenge -- and that resolve has led him inexorably toward this confrontation. He sent troops to the border in April, paused for a round of diplomacy with President Joe Biden in Geneva in June, and then stormed back to the Ukraine border in October with what U.S. intelligence concluded was a force ready to invade all the way to Kyiv.

As the Biden administration mobilized NATO resistance, Putin has doubled down repeatedly, saying that he wants to dismantle the post-Cold War architecture of Europe and insisting on promises that Ukraine will never join NATO. On Friday, against a firm NATO rejection of that ultimatum, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went even further, demanding that the alliance withdraw its troops from Russian neighbors Bulgaria and Romania.

Putin has left little room for maneuver or compromise. He evidently feels that now is the time to strike -- when the United States is politically divided, with what he apparently sees as a weak and compromising president. Biden did not help himself when he talked Wednesday about his expectation of a small Russian invasion -- a suggestion of accommodation that he had to reverse the next day. It's also unfortunate that NATO's unity has appeared fragile this week with France and Germany both appearing uncertain about following the United States' lead.

Putin has prepared well for this strategic moment. Russia's financial reserves are substantial enough to ease the impact of sanctions, at least initially, and energy prices are high. And Russia's military alliance with China hasn't been this strong in decades. Putin's popularity has been sagging, but given Russia's prospects for long-term decline, it probably won't get any better. For the Russian leader, this is a window of opportunity that won't last.

"What I am concerned about is that Russia is putting itself in such a position that it can't step back," argued Dmytro Razumkov, a young member of the Ukrainian parliament who led Zelensky's party there and has now formed one of his own.

A similar view that there might be no escape came from Ihor Zhovkva, the senior foreign policy adviser in Zelensky's administration. "Ukraine is not in a panic," he told us. "We understand we will have to fight. This is our destiny."

Over and over, here and in Warsaw, I heard an argument that the United States must stop being reactive in dealing with Putin. The Russian leader loves to provoke anxiety in the West, and he has shown with Ukraine that he's ready to turn the dial way up. He's apparently convinced that the United States and Europe in the end will prefer accommodation to an ever-escalating crisis.

"Putin wages war without any rules," says a senior Ukrainian defense ministry official, sitting across from a painting depicting a wild cavalry charge by warriors from several centuries past. The Russians have a name for Putin's form of intimidation. They call it "bespredel," a Russian mafia term that means, "without limits."

It falls to Biden to find a way to contain this bullying Russian leader without triggering an all-out war in the heart of Europe. The best advice I heard, echoed by the most thoughtful analysts in Kyiv and Warsaw, is that the United States and its allies must check the balance of intimidation -- by taking action themselves rather than responding to Moscow. Impose severe sanctions on Russia now, rather than after it has rolled into Ukraine. If Putin persists in covert actions in the West, match him.

"You cannot permit the Russians to believe you are afraid of an escalation. They will use it time and again," argued one of Poland's wisest Russia analysts during a conversation on Wednesday in Warsaw. "Restraint does not stabilize Putin. It encourages him." To paraphrase the analogy coined by the Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan, Putin thinks that accommodationist Americans are now, similar to Europeans, from Venus -- while warlike Russians are very much from Mars.

It's a dizzying and frightening prospect, to imagine a war triggered by a doomed attempt to rewrite history. The most reassuring note is that Ukrainians, in the eye of the storm, don't appear all that worried. I posed to Ukraine's defense official the question asked by Gen. David Petraeus at the beginning of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, "Tell me how this ends." He answered without hesitation: with Ukrainian sovereignty over all of its territory.

- - -

Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

Venmo, PayPal and other payment apps have to tell the IRS about your side hustle if you make more than $600 a year.

By michelle singletary
Venmo, PayPal and other payment apps have to tell the IRS about your side hustle if you make more than $600 a year.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only. WRITETHRU: Swaps in new headline

By Michelle Singletary

WASHINGTON -- The sign on the door for the hairdresser read "Cash only, please!"

I wasn't sure, but I suspected the reason behind the change in the accepted form of payments might have had something to do with new income-reporting requirements. In the past, payment options had included apps such as Venmo, PayPal and Cash App.

To help identify tax cheats, the IRS as of Jan. 1 started requiring all third-party payment processors in the United States to report payments received for goods and services of $600 or more a year.

This is going to be a jarring change for some self-employed gig workers and people with side hustles.

For others who use such payment platforms for personal transactions, there's nothing to worry about.

"The government has been looking for ways to close that tax gap by making more transactions reportable to the IRS," said Eric Bronnenkant, head of tax for the online financial adviser Betterment. "The ultimate goal is laudable, which is to make it harder for people to underreport their taxable income."

Let's walk through what you need to know about the new IRS reporting rule.

- Will I be taxed on money I send to friends if we split the cost of a meal?

There's a lot of confusion about the new rule.

You can still use the payment applications to split the restaurant tab with friends or send birthday money to relatives without triggering a tax bill. The taxing agency is trying to track income received, not the transfer of funds between family and friends.

Under the pandemic-related American Rescue Plan, changes were made to the tax code relating to what are called "third-party settlement organizations." These include such companies as PayPal, Venmo and Cash App, which accept payments for the sale of goods and services.

"Third party information reporting has been shown to increase voluntary tax compliance and improve collections and assessments within IRS," the agency says in an FAQ about third-party-network transactions.

In the past, the threshold for reporting peer-to-peer (P2P) payments for goods-and-services transactions was quite high. The companies were required to send IRS Form 1099-K for gross payments exceeding $20,000 and more than 200 transactions within a calendar year.

This threshold has now been substantially lowered.

If your business enterprise receives $600 or more in payments, regardless of the total number of transactions for the calendar year, then the payment processors must send a 1099-K. This is the tax form used to report payments received by a business or individual for the sale of goods and services that were paid via a third-party network.

So yes, this includes the income you receive for T-shirts you make and sell on Etsy or the house you rent out on Airbnb.

By the way, Zelle says on its website that it's not subject to the new requirement, writing, "The law requiring certain payment networks to provide forms 1099K for information reporting does not apply to the Zelle Network."

Early Warning Services, the network operator behind Zelle, said in an emailed statement, "Payments between friends and family, and eligible small businesses sent through the Zelle Network are not subject to this law because Zelle facilitates messaging between financial institutions, but does not hold accounts or handle settlement of funds."

Why is the IRS coming after my small side-hustle income?

This isn't a new tax. It's a new reporting requirement.

Even if you hadn't been receiving a 1099-K, you were still required to report any taxable income received through these platforms on your income tax return.

The change won't affect the reporting requirement for 2021 tax returns. But gig workers or people with side hustles should expect to start getting 1099-K forms for the 2022 tax year early next year.

How will the platforms know the money I'm receiving isn't business income?

The various platforms have been sending notices to people who use the payment applications to accept business income that they need to accurately report their income and confirm their tax information.

Many payment apps have a way to differentiate between commercial payments and money sent as a gift or reimbursement.

Cash App said on its website that business accounts with $600 or more in gross sales in the 2022 tax year will qualify for a Form 1099-K. But it does not apply to personal Cash App accounts.

In its own FAQ, PayPal, which also owns Venmo, pointed out it offers users an opportunity to tag their P2P transactions as personal or business-related.

"Users should select Goods and Services whenever they are sending money to another user to purchase an item," PayPal said.

It's still possible that you might mistakenly receive a 1099-K, which would require you to explain to the IRS that the money wasn't taxable, Bronnenkant said.

Will I be taxed on money I make from selling used items in my home?

Unless you are in the business of selling secondhand items, you will not be taxed for offloading that old living room furniture or the bed you've had since college.

If you're selling personal items at a loss, the reporting doesn't affect you, Bronnenkant said.

For instance, if you purchased a dining-room table for $1,000 and sold it for $600, this amount would not be subject to income tax or result in PayPal sending you a 1099-K.

Why shouldn't I just go back to accepting cash only?

Will people find a way around the new reporting rules? Probably.

But there are several reasons you should report all your income.

It's the law, and failure to report it could land you in big trouble with the IRS. Yes, the agency is overwhelmed, but woe to the person who finally gets caught.

There are some other short-term and long-term advantages to reporting all your income.

Your income is used to qualify for loans.

You might be shutting yourself out of qualifying for some tax breaks, such as the earned-income tax credit, Bronnenkant pointed out. The EITC helps low-to-moderate-income workers, and families get a tax break. For 2021, a married couple with three children could qualify for the EITC if their earned income was under $57,414.

Long-term, underreporting or not reporting your income can affect the amount of Social Security benefits you receive.

I understand that if you're working hard to just make ends meet, you feel it's not cheating to skirt the IRS reporting requirements. But keep in mind that underreporting what you owe could negatively affect your financial future.

- - -

Call Michelle Singletary at 1-800-Ask-Post. Readers can also 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

Giving up on voting rights now would be unconscionable

By e.j. dionne jr.
Giving up on voting rights now would be unconscionable

E.J. DIONNE JR. COLUMN

Advance for release Monday, Jan. 24, 2022, and thereafter

(For Dionne clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- If civil rights leaders had given up at the first signs of resistance to equality in the 1950s, our nation would never have won the next decade's great victories over racial subjugation.

The same determination is required after last week's defeat of voting rights legislation. It was depressing. It was enraging. But it cannot be the final act.

In the short run, this means fighting voter suppression and election subversion with whatever tools are at hand. Over the long term, building political power is the only way to win federal guarantees for ballot access. Walking away out of frustration or disillusionment is self-defeating.

To avoid a demobilization that could lead to an anti-democratic retreat akin to the disgraceful reaction to Reconstruction, political leaders must prove through concrete action that they are still in this fight.

Today's civil rights leaders, like their forebears, are certainly not giving up. They will keep pressure on the 50 Republicans and two Democrats who blocked Senate action. "We need to broaden our strategy," Wade Henderson, interim president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told me. "There are Republicans who should have been willing to at least engage in the debate and they did not. And they were somehow let off the hook."

The Biden administration can demonstrate its resolve in ways small and large. It should fully implement its March executive order calling on all agencies of the federal government to help citizens register and vote. The president should take other pro-democracy executive actions. An example: Make Election Day a federal holiday for government employees and encourage state holidays, too.

Despite the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department should announce that it will use every tool it still has to enforce the Constitution's guarantees of equal voting rights. Congress should increase funding for this work.

If some of the cases get to the Supreme Court, good: Let the conservatives on this court either stop trying to push us back to the late 19th century or prove beyond doubt how hostile they are to democracy -- and how urgent it is for Congress to act.

Congress should try to pass whatever pieces of the Freedom to Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act it can. On any issue that touches on funding for easier voting access, the Senate should avoid the filibuster by using the reconciliation process.

Reforming the 1887 Electoral Count Act is necessary, though no substitute for voting rights. Republicans who support reform of the law should be pressed to merge it with the John Lewis bill. At minimum a revised law should block states from politicizing election boards and strengthen federal penalties against intimidating voters and election officials.

In the states, organizers need to do all they can to block further suppression and subversion measures and, where possible, use the referendum process to undo some of the damage.

Fighting voter suppression in this fall's election will be work-intensive and expensive, so activists should concentrate their efforts. The times call for a Georgia Summer project -- akin to the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi -- and flood the state with resources through Election Day and beyond.

Georgia Republicans have enacted some of the worst election laws in the nation and two of the most forceful Democratic champions of voting rights, Sen. Raphael Warnock and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, will be on the ballot. Other states that might be focal points: Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin and Texas. All have key races and voting challenges.

Short-term defeats can contain the seeds of future victories, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., one of the Senate's most effective voting rights advocates, pointed to two "silver linings" of forcing even a disappointing showdown on the voting bills.

First, she said in an interview, one of the most passionate floor debates in many years underscored the depth of "the assault on democracy going on" and demonstrated how damaging to voters seemingly obscure changes to state election laws can be.

Second, it exposed the hypocrisy of claims that the filibuster was sacrosanct when it has, in fact, been altered again and again. "Why are we accepting the fact that tax cuts and [the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice] Amy Coney Barrett and repeal of regulations can get through with 51 votes, but a voting package for every voter in America, to make it easy for them to vote, needs 60?" she asked. The debate, she said, put "a big spotlight on all the shenanigans that have gone on for a long, long time."

The last book Martin Luther King Jr. wrote bore the title "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" This era's answer to his question must be to fight the chaos created when a democracy based on equal citizenship is sabotaged.

- - -

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

How Fox News and Republican officials devised one Biden smear

By dana milbank
How Fox News and Republican officials devised one Biden smear

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, and thereafter

(For Milbank clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON -- For three months, Republican officeholders and Fox News personalities have been shouting it from the rooftops.

"The attorney general announced the FBI would investigate moms who dared to complain at school board meetings as potential terrorists," Fox's leading prime-time host, Tucker Carlson, announced last week.

"Biden and his cronies are calling the parents domestic terrorists," contributed Florida's lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez, on Fox News last Sunday.

"I'm glad that the Biden administration labeled us domestic terrorists, because that was a wake-up moment for a lot of parents," commentator Matt Walsh said on the channel last week.

"Parents who are complaining about the schools are being branded as extremists, or even domestic terrorists," host Laura Ingraham inveighed. "Merrick Garland gets involved, Justice Department gets involved."

"The Biden administration … has said that they are considering parents who speak out regarding education issues for their children to be domestic terrorists," proclaimed Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 House GOP leader, on Fox News.

There's just one wee problem with the whole Biden-says-parents-are-terrorists claim, reported dozens of times on Fox News airwaves and echoed at each link down the Republican media food chain: It's horse excrement. Biden never said it. Attorney General Merrick Garland never said it. No senior (nor even junior) official in the Biden administration has ever been shown to have said it. Yet Fox News presents it as unchallenged fact, week after week. (In response to my request, a Fox News spokeswoman provided me no instance of a Biden official calling parents domestic terrorists.)

It would be easy to overlook this one drizzle of disinformation in the torrent of falsehood the GOP-Fox axis produces. The network, which "informs" the majority of Republican voters, has painstakingly constructed a parallel universe in which vaccines kill you, Biden stole the election, Biden is senile, grade schoolers are being force-fed critical race theory, the FBI orchestrated the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the country is in an apocalyptic spiral of open borders, rampant crime and runaway inflation.

But let's pause to dissect this particular smear, because the Biden-says-parents-are-terrorists fiction fits with a narrative sometimes described on Fox as Biden's "war on parents." It also sanitizes violence.

Fox's Carlson and others have objected to the Jan. 6 insurrectionists being (accurately) labeled as domestic terrorists. If they can make it appear that Biden is "labeling anyone who disagrees with his policies … as domestic terrorists" (Fox's Rachel Campos-Duffy), or that Biden is saying all "Trump supporters are effectively domestic terrorists" (as one of Carlson's guests put it), then it's just more condescension from liberal elites about "deplorables."

"They are trying to turn half of the country into second-class citizens," J.D. Vance, a Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, told Fox, with "Attorney General Garland going after parents as domestic terrorists."

The basis for the smear is Garland's Oct. 4 memo saying that, because of a "disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff," the FBI would develop "strategies for addressing threats" with state and local authorities. It said nothing about parents being labeled domestic terrorists.

Fox News has reported that the administration "requested" a Sept. 29 "letter from the National School Boards Association calling parents domestic terrorists." The administration denied this allegation (which was based on a third-hand remark in an NSBA email released under the Freedom of Information Act) and, in any event, the NSBA-written letter (it has since apologized for the language) also didn't call parents domestic terrorists. It said that certain "heinous actions" of violence and threats against school officials "could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes."

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, claimed an FBI email provided by a "whistleblower" showed "troubling attempts" by DOJ and the White House "to use the heavy hand of federal law enforcement to target concerned parents." This email also didn't mention parents; it was about tracking "threats" against educators.

In reality, DOJ is doing what you'd expect: targeting people who threaten or commit violence, whether at school board meetings or at Capitol insurrections -- not angry parents. "The Justice Department supports and defends the First Amendment right of parents to complain as vociferously as they wish," Garland testified to Congress.

But the smear goes on.

Kellyanne Conway tells Fox that Americans "see the Democrats calling parents domestic terrorists."

Lara Trump tells Fox that Biden should apologize for choosing "to label … parents as domestic terrorists."

Sean Hannity solicits "reaction to the memo of the Department of Justice to look at parents … being investigated as domestic terrorists."

House Republican Whip Steve Scalise tells Fox that Biden's DOJ is telling parents "that they're domestic terrorists if they go to the school board meeting to say, 'Stop teaching your kids to hate America.' "

"Parents don't like being told that they're domestic terrorists," Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tells Fox.

Indeed not. But thanks to Republicans and Fox News, millions of Americans can now add this to their long menu of lies digested.

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Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

My week with omicron

By kathleen parker
My week with omicron

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, and thereafter

(For Parker clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By Kathleen Parker

COVID hunts us like dogs -- and it finally caught me.

As I write, I'm on Day 4 of isolation. That is, I'm locked away in my room, hostage to the mercies of my insouciant butler, who, along with our petite zoo, has been free-roaming throughout the house and enjoying his wife's indisposed condition a tad too much.

I'm not a happy dependent, as some readers might imagine, and am finding my butler's sporadic attention to my needs more than a little annoying. He takes my mood as a sign of improving health, and my dependency, I suspect, as an opportunity to control my caloric intake. Apparently, he hasn't yet heard about the anti-diet movement.

In the spirit of public service, I thought I'd share my experience -- very briefly -- for the few who've not yet had the displeasure.

Day 1 produced a slight hint of something not-quite-right. A mini wave of nausea caused me to notice that I was sneezing quite a bit and ripping through a box of tissues. I had thought it was only the lingering effects of the weekend's ice storm -- and life in an elderly house (c. 1827) that requires an indoor coat in winter. I think of home, appropriately, as a large wine cooler.

Day 2 consisted of a series of long naps and a wracking cough.

Day 3, ditto, with a worsening cough and notable chest pressure. More napping. I rallied long enough for a shower, which reminded me I should have taken one sooner.

Day 4, lipstick. Weary of my wretched image as I ambulated past a mirror, I dabbed a little rouge on my lips, hoping that perhaps now my butler might be inclined to provide more than a bowl of gruel each midday.

Obviously, I've turned a corner and will be in fighting form again before this column hits print. This is to confirm, as you've already heard, that omicron sometimes causes a less severe version of COVID (for the vaccinated) and, in my case, without fever. Some have fared worse than I, others much better. An 82-year-old friend had no symptoms at all.

How did I catch it? That's the riddle of our time, especially if, like me, you've had your three shots and typically wear a mask in public. Additionally, and testament to my not-so-latent obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I hold my breath if closer than six feet to another human until I can scoot away. A bird's-eye view of my erratic path through a grocery store would look like a drunken rat trying to resolve an inscrutable maze.

Between naps, I've retraced my steps in the days preceding my positive test, including car travel to a few destinations over the long weekend. Did someone's cough float on a breeze toward me as I sat by a bonfire at an outdoor pizza joint in Mount Pleasant, S.C.? What about the guy who, clearing his throat, passed by the ATM as I extracted some cash in nearby Lake City?

We can drive ourselves crazy trying to figure out who, when and where. The truth is that omicron is everywhere. Perhaps we're on our way to herd immunity, though experts predict a reprieve from infections would be short-lived pending another, new variant and barring a vaccination rate of at least 70% of the population.

Estimates are that about 740,000 people test positive for the coronavirus daily. That's a lot of sick days, and a lot of disruption to businesses and excessive strain on health-care workers. It makes some people wonder whether we should go on about our business even when we test positive. I suspect many people do just that. Not sick enough to stay in bed -- and needed at work -- they figure everybody is going to get it anyway. Or so I've heard tell.

The downside to this argument is that not everyone has been vaccinated and many of those folks could get sick and possibly die. But really, whose fault is that? If you want to survive COVID, there's only one clear option: Get the shots and cheat the reaper. Evidence is overwhelming that people with COVID who are unvaccinated are much more likely to be hospitalized.

I'm not recommending that anyone ignore medical advice to isolate if sick or quarantine if exposed. Omicron isn't nothing. I was sicker than I thought I'd be, but I'm going to be fine. It seems we're nearing the end zone. If you'd like to join the celebration, get the vaccine.

If you've followed all the rules, good for you -- and me. If all else fails and you feel like you might be getting sick, try to make the best of it. Charge your batteries, stockpile some easy edibles and notify your butler(s) that their services may be required.

I'm sorry to say it, but the dogs of COVID aren't likely to relent until they catch you, too.

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

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