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A handful of House Democrats are criticizing the new FCC Chairman's decision not to defend rate caps for phone calls placed within prison walls. Under the Obama administration, the FCC placed a rate cap on what phone companies are able to charge for inmate calls, which advocates have long argued are excessive. Now Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is declining to defend that order in court.

Reps. Bobby Rush, Elijah Cummings, G.K. Butterfield and Eleanor Holmes Norton said in a letter to the FCC's general counsel that "overpriced phone rates" deter communications with outside support systems that reduce recidivism.

"Chairman Pai's sudden reversal raises serious questions about why the FCC is now choosing to promote the financial interests of private sector telecommunications companies over those of inmates and their families."

Why it matters: It can cost more than you think for an inmate to place a phone call from prison. Depending on the state, per-minute rates and connection fees can add up for prisoners and their families, who petitioned the FCC for relief years ago. (It's a complicated issue, which The Verge lays out in detail.)

The backstory: The FCC in 2015 capped rates for inmate phone calls—an effort led by Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, now the lone Democrat on the panel. Phone companies serving prisons sued, challenging the FCC's authority to set in-state call rates. Pai, who as a commissioner also argued the agency overstepped, said the FCC wouldn't defend them in court. At oral arguments this week, the FCC declined to argue its case.

The FCC declined to comment.

Go deeper

"Atmospheric river" to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood

A map depicting 24-hour preciptation forecast (inches) ending Monday at 5a.m. local time. Photo: NOAA

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are set dump historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest from this weekend, forecasters warn.

Why it matters: A strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is predicted to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood.

10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves to be removed after fires

A firefighter looks up at a giant sequoia tree after fire burned through the Sequoia National Forest near California Hot Springs, California, on Sept. 23. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

"Upwards of" 10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves have been "weakened by drought, disease, age, and/or fire" and must be removed in the wake of California's wildfires, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks announced.

Why it matters: The damage to these trees, considered "national treasures," and work to remove them means a nearby key highway must remain closed to visitors as they have "the potential to strike people, cars, other structures, or create barriers to emergency response services," per a statement from the national parks.

Obama stumps for McAuliffe, urges Virginians not "to go back to the chaos"

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama framed a Nov. 2 gubernatorial race as a bellwether for the Democratic Party and the country, telling a crowd at a campaign event for Terry McAuliffe on Saturday that "I believe you, right here in Virginia, are going to show the rest of the country and the world that we're not going to indulge in our worst instincts."

Why it matters: With just over a week to go before Election Day in the Commonwealth, McAuliffe is bringing out the big guns. The 44th president appeared on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University to urge supporters to get to the polls.

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