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April 17, 2014

Posts in "Congress"

April 2, 2014

Supreme Court Rejects Aggregate Contribution Limits

scotus 078 100813 445x296 Supreme Court Rejects Aggregate Contribution Limits

Campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer speaks at the Supreme Court after McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission arguments last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated, 11:45 a.m. | In a long-awaited ruling in the case known as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court today struck the aggregate limit on campaign contributions as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

Significantly, the high court left in place the base limit on how much individuals and political action committees may give to candidates and political parties. But today’s ruling makes a challenge to that direct contribution limit, which stands at $2,600 per election for an individual, all but inevitable in the near future.

What the court overturned today was the overall limit on the amount that one individual may give to candidates, parties and PACs in a two-year election cycle, a cap that now stands at $123,000. Republican businessman Shaun McCutcheon had challenged the aggregate limit on the grounds that giving the same amount to a larger number of candidates would not invite corruption. Full story

March 25, 2014

Steeped in Overhead: A Look at the Expenses of Tea Party Groups

chocola002 010914 445x299 Steeped in Overhead: A Look at the Expenses of Tea Party Groups

Chocola runs the Club for Growth. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated, 5:20 p.m. | Republican leaders are stepping up their campaign to discredit tea party activists who are challenging them on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, accusing conservatives of lining their own pockets at the expense of the GOP.

A recent radio ad for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — who is under attack from the right in his own primary — blasts the Senate Conservatives Fund for spending its money “on a luxury townhouse with a wine cellar and hot tub in Washington, D.C.” House Republicans joke privately about the “conservative-industrial complex.” Even Ann Coulter has warned of “con men and scamsters” infiltrating the tea party movement.

Such claims hold more water for some groups than others in a movement with no clear leader. The tea party, loosely defined, is scattered among more than a dozen multimillion-dollar organizations, from the Club for Growth to FreedomWorks, to the Tea Party Express and the conservative startup Madison Fund, all with different bottom lines and spending patterns.

Some of the groups that have come in for the most criticism, such as the Senate Conservatives Fund — which calls the McConnell radio ad inaccurate — actually do spend most of their money on candidates. Others, such as the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, have spent exactly zero in this election cycle on candidates, even as they raise millions from low-dollar donors.

Whatever their overhead, tea-party-aligned groups are spending tens of millions collectively, sometimes with little or no board oversight. Such groups tend to operate multiple fundraising entities, simultaneously pulling in checks for a 501(c)(3) charity, a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, a conventional political action committee subject to contribution limits and an unrestricted super PAC. Public records filed with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission revealed some unusual expenditures.

Full story

January 29, 2014

The State of the Union in 3 Minutes (Video)

From focusing on the minimum wage to celebrating the Olympics to addressing the partisan divide in Congress, Roll Call condenses President Barack Obama’s fifth State of the Union address into 190 seconds.

Read Roll Call’s full coverage of Obama’s speech here.

January 27, 2014

Key Moments From Obama’s State of the Union Addresses (Video)

Watch Roll Call’s key moments from President Barack Obama’s five State of the Union addresses, including criticism of the Supreme Court, hammering Wall Street banks and pushing for immigration and gun reform.

January 7, 2014

The State of K Street | K Street Files

No one expects a boom in the lobbying business this year. But out of the dysfunction and stalemate of 2013, K Streeters see signs of potential work in select areas, including a revival for an old standby: appropriations.

The bipartisan budget deal (tiny as it may have been) from late last year has given lobbyists cause for hope that a return to regular order on appropriations bills will offer them a legislative vehicle to work on behalf of clients.

Still, for any Hill staffers or soon-to-be-ex-members of Congress eyeing a gig downtown, the hiring scene on K Street will continue to be tight and the competition fierce.

Lobbyists are also trying to woo lawmakers to extend 55 lapsed tax credits. A patent bill, immigration matters, a farm bill, regulatory work and trade policy may also drive business. And K Streeters are looking to set the stage for longer-term overhauls of the nation’s tax code and housing finance system. Full story

December 23, 2013

The Best (or Worst) of Congress in 2013 (Video)

The first session of the 113th Congress — the least productive in modern times — will be remembered for what it did, and did not, accomplish.

An immigration overhaul, gun control and health care mixed with “calves the size of cantaloupes,” “Alice in Wonderland” and cocaine. Together, it is the best and worst of the year that was, wrapped into one.

December 9, 2013

The Tragedy of the Budget Deal | Kondracke

murray ryan 041 111313 445x312 The Tragedy of the Budget Deal | Kondracke

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., are grown-ups, and it looks as though they are reaching a deal to avoid another government shutdown crisis — provided superpartisans don’t block it.

That said, it’s sad — and bad for the country — that the best they could do was avoid immediate disaster. What they could not do, apparently, is make the slightest dent in the long-term disaster that the federal debt represents.

If the Washington Post lead story Monday is right, their deal will also — to their credit — partially repeal the budget sequester that is strangling federal agencies and give them slightly more money to spend in fiscal 2014 and 2015.

It’s not clear, but one hopes they will also provide Cabinet officers with the ability to move money around and not continue having to slash every program across the board.

But it’s a grave disappointment that they could not even begin to shave the government’s $17.6 trillion national debt — more than 100 percent of GDP, now higher than at any time since World War II. Full story

December 4, 2013

Partying Within the Rules | K Street Files

Hide the silverware. Stow the dinner plates. And definitely keep that 100-year-old cognac corked.

This is how K Street gets ready for a holiday shindig in the age of the Capitol Hill party police.

Fancy finery and displays of luxury have been replaced by toothpicks and finger foods. Six years ago, changes to the rules tightened the restrictions on gifts that members and staff may accept from lobbying groups, including food and drinks at lavish soirees.

Some good news for those seeking holiday cheer: Many K Street-Capitol Hill holiday parties slip in through the reception exemption, which allows for menu items of nominal value. And while the scene may not be what it once was, the parties go on.

Full story

November 12, 2013

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Both Parties | Kondracke

Face it: Both the Republican and Democratic parties are in trouble. Neither can be sure which is in worse shape. So it behooves them both to do something right for a change.

What? Reach a budget deal that ends threats of government shutdowns and debt defaults, restores confidence among both foreign and domestic investors, and convinces the public that federal politicians can govern.

Will it be hard to get a deal — especially by the mandated deadline of Dec. 15? Of course. But both sides know what needs to be done — reform entitlements to get the country’s long-term debt under control, reform taxes to make the economy more productive, and lift the budget sequester’s stranglehold on domestic spending and defense. Full story

May Staffers Participate in IPOs? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I am a House staffer and have been offered a chance to participate in the initial public offering of a well-known company that is about to go public. My position as a House staffer had no role at all in the opportunity becoming available to me. In fact, the person who invited me to participate did not even know that I work for the House of Representatives. I presume this means that it is OK for me to participate. However, another staffer in our office told me I’m wrong.  I really want to do it, so please don’t tell me the rules prevent it.

A. You know the adage that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission? In this case, ignore it. Here’s why. Full story

November 5, 2013

Ideology Isn’t Source of All Partisanship | Procedural Politics

Why do political parties in Congress sometimes fight, even when they agree? Is it like siblings who seem to quarrel over nothing — just the nature of the beast?

Frances Lee, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, agrees that a lot of the inter-party fighting seems senseless because it doesn’t involve deep philosophical differences. In her book, “Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship in the U.S. Senate,” Lee writes, “The public perceives party conflict in Congress as ‘bickering,’ as excessive quarreling driven by members’ power and electoral interests.”

Political scientists, on the other hand, have “tended to interpret congressional party conflicts as evidence of members’ principled differences on the proper role and scope of government,” she writes.

Lee sides more with public perceptions that parties often spar just to advance narrow partisan interests, rather than giving voice to pre-existing policy differences in the larger political context. That only exacerbates and institutionalizes conflict. In their quest to win elections and hold power, she writes, “partisans impeach one another’s motives, question one another’s ethics and competence and engage in reflexive partisanship … rather than seeking common ground.”

Evidence of this can be found in instances in which the parties are in broad agreement on an underlying bill yet still engage in partisan combat. Lee’s analysis of the Senate reveals that “procedural votes on issues not involving ideological questions are just as intensely partisan as substantive votes on some of the most ideologically controversial issues in American politics.”

From my experience, the House is much the same. An example arose last month over House consideration of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. The bill would authorize 23 water projects — dams, levees, canals, harbors, dredging and environmental restoration programs — at a cost of $3.1 billion over the next five years. It also would establish a new, non-congressional earmark process for selecting future projects.

The bill had nearly four dozen bipartisan co-sponsors and was approved on a voice vote from the 70-member House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Dozens of business, labor and civic groups endorsed the bill, as did the White House and bipartisan House leadership. With such a strong tailwind, it is little wonder the measure sailed through the House, 417-3.

And yet, before the vote, the special rule for the bill encountered partisan resistance. The Rules Committee had allowed one hour of general debate and 24 amendments — divided equally between the parties. However, 98 amendments had been submitted to the Rules Committee. Ranking Democrat Louise M. Slaughter’s attempt in committee to substitute an open amendment process was defeated on a party-line vote, as were attempts to make in order three additional amendments.

When the rule was called up on the floor, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, who was managing the rule for committee Democrats, complained that the procedure blocked more than 70 amendments, “many of which were germane” — he said that “is not conducive to an open process.” The Florida Democrat then spent the balance of his time discussing something closer to home: Port Everglades, Fla., has been waiting 17 years for a report from the chief engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers on deepening its channels in anticipation of the new Panama Canal standards.

Near the end of the hour of debate on the rule, Hastings indicated that if the previous question on the rule was defeated (the only opportunity for the minority to amend the rule), he would offer a motion to make in order an amendment by Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., to authorize projects that received a final chief of engineer’s report within a year after enactment, thereby holding out hope for Port Everglades. Despite Hastings’ efforts, the previous question was adopted on a near party-line vote, with only two Democrats breaking ranks, and the rule was subsequently adopted with all but 48 Democrats opposing it.

This minor partisan dust-up on the rule didn’t affect the eventual overwhelming passage of the bill. Hastings didn’t follow through on his implied threat to force a vote on an open amendment process and instead confirmed former Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.’s axiom that “all politics is local.”

Nevertheless, the two procedural votes on the rule will be part of CQ Roll Call’s session-end tally of “party unity” votes (party majorities on opposing sides), as well as of ideological spectrum rankings of members. In the 112th Congress, 197 party unity votes on special rules alone (not counting other procedural votes) constituted 17 percent of all party unity votes — a significant exception to any ideology connection.

Who Does Congress Listen to Most? | K Street Files

It might just be the ultimate insiders’ strategy: When pressing a client’s cause, try to catch the ear of the two offices that Congress most cares about to spread your message.

This duo of influential outposts isn’t the House and Senate leadership. Rather, Hill staffers’ most valuable sources of information are the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office.

That’s according to research done by ex-K Streeter David Rehr, who holds a doctorate in economics and is now an adjunct professor with George Washington University’s graduate school of political management.

If you’re a lobbyist and you’ve never tried to cultivate the CRS or the CBO, you might be missing out, Rehr says. Just don’t expect it to be easy.

“I’m a little surprised that people don’t naturally think of CRS or CBO as part of the process,” Rehr said recently. “And I think the one thing the research said to me: They’re more important in the process than we probably realized.”

Rehr 042903 105x147 Who Does Congress Listen to Most? | K Street Files

Rehr

Rehr’s survey of bipartisan aides on Capitol Hill found that 55 percent rated the CRS’ information as “very valuable,” the most of any source. They ranked the CBO third — after academic and issue experts — at 32 percent.

These findings don’t match up with the sources that lobbyists think Hill aides find most important, Rehr’s research showed. Neither the CRS nor the CBO even registered among lobbyists’ top 5.

“It’s a little harder in the culture of advocacy because if you’re not used to doing it, you do what’s easier for you,” Rehr said. “If you were a Hill staffer, now you lobby staff and members.”

Michael Fulton, a longtime lobbyist who is with the Arnold Agency, recently heard Rehr’s pitch and said the idea clicked with him because he relied on CRS reports when he worked on Capitol Hill.

“My daughter works on the Hill, and she lives by them, and I used to live by them when I was on the Hill,” Fulton said. “I think if a CRS report has any inaccuracies or is leaning away from your client’s perspective, it would be valuable to correct that sooner rather than later.”

When it comes to dealing with the numbers-driven, wonky CBO, lobbyists caution that if you don’t have the data to back up a client position, it’s probably not worth the stop.

“It’s not really lobbying, it’s educating,” said one veteran health care lobbyist. This K Streeter noted that the CBO, which “scores” how much each piece of legislation will cost, is less interested in meeting with lobbyists or the Washington representatives of corporations and instead wants high-level executives, actuaries or economists who speak their language.

“People don’t approach them lightly or approach them ever without an outside numbers run or solid policy arguments that would shape a score,” this lobbyist said. “They’re going to dig, and they’re going to find the answer.”

A spokeswoman for the CBO referred me to its website, which explains that in preparing its cost estimates and other analysis, “CBO uses data and other information from a wide variety of sources, including federal agencies, state and local governments, and industry groups, among others. CBO closely follows professional developments in economics and related disciplines, encourages open discussion of analytic issues, and consults with outside experts in a broad range of relevant fields for guidance on ongoing work.”

Lobbyists who’ve worked with the CRS, a branch of the Library of Congress, say it can at times seem more shrouded in mystery and potentially more difficult to navigate as an outsider with an agenda. Many of the CRS reports are private and come only at the request of a member of Congress.

“I think the better way to go is to have a congressional champion who then writes to the CRS,” Rehr said. It’s also crucial to identify the researcher who handles the topic your clients care about.

“You’ll see who wrote the CRS report, and you find out you knew them from GW or American [University],” Fulton said.

Then, you can make the connection directly.

“CRS experts use available information from a wide variety of sources, on all sides of issues, enabling them to serve Congress with comprehensive, authoritative, objective and nonpartisan research and analysis,” CRS Communications Specialist Cory Langley wrote in an email.

Rehr said the research service is “less numerical” than the CBO, “so they’re even more open to data and empirical studies that help them do their job better.”

Still, said Rehr, the former head of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, it’s not as if you could hand a CRS researcher a study on beer taxes and they’ll include it in one of their reports. “But it might influence the report,” he said.

And a CRS or CBO mention that isn’t negative means ready-made talking points, one-pagers and potential fodder for issue advertising.

“Sometimes you get some favorable paragraphs or a reference, then you can pull that out and create lobbying material,” Rehr said.  “It gives you a little more oomph.”

October 29, 2013

Are Members of the House Allowed to Hire Relatives? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I have a question about a recent “60 Minutes” segment I saw about nepotism among members of Congress. As I understand the report, it said that there are some circumstances in which nepotism is legal. This confused me. As a former House staffer, I’m pretty sure members are not allowed to hire relatives to work in their offices. What’s the deal? May members of the House hire relatives to work for them?

A. Yes and no.

You are correct that federal law prohibits members from hiring relatives to work in their House offices. But no law prevents members from employing relatives for their election campaigns. Here’s why:

Federal law broadly forbids a government official, including a member of Congress, from hiring or promoting any “relative” to any agency over which the official exercises authority or control.  Someone counts as a relative of a member under this restriction if they are a “father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, first cousin, nephew, niece, husband, wife, father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, stepfather, stepmother, stepson, stepdaughter, stepbrother, stepsister, half brother, or half sister.”

Ever since 1967, when the anti-nepotism statute was enacted, it has been illegal for a member to hire or promote anyone meeting this definition. Full story

October 16, 2013

McConnell to the Rescue — Again | Pennsylvania Avenue

Assuming that the U.S. economy survives its latest near-death experience, significant credit ought to go to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell.

President Barack Obama ought to realize this is the second time this year that McConnell has been the key player in resolving a terrifying fiscal crisis — and start talking to him regularly.

This time, it is the Kentucky Republican’s negotiations with Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada that (apparently, hopefully) are saving the country from a catastrophic debt default and are ending the costly close-down of the federal government.

In January, it was McConnell and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. who figured out how to prevent the country from falling over the “fiscal cliff”— avoiding tax increases on all but the richest Americans.

McConnell “gave” on what had been a key GOP demand: keeping tax rates on the rich from rising to 39 percent.

In July 2011, McConnell invented a plan B to avoid an earlier default by giving Obama authority to raise the debt limit subject to congressional veto.

Obama evidently detests McConnell, regarding him as hopelessly partisan. It took Obama a full 18 months at the outset of his presidency to have a one-on-one meeting with the GOP leader.

But McConnell has proved to be a statesman. He’s risking the fury of the Senate Conservatives Fund and its allied tea party extremists, who are running a primary candidate against him in Kentucky.

Obama ought to take notice. The Reid-McConnell agreement, assuming it passes Congress and saves the day, merely puts off new days of reckoning on spending and debt.

But it also creates the opportunity for serious negotiations on entitlement and tax reform. If Obama wants to avoid a repeat of the current crisis, he’d best start talking — secretly, if necessary — with Republican grown-ups such as McConnell and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.

House Speaker John A. Boehner obviously has to be part of the mix, but he has fallen far short — so far — of showing McConnell’s courage and legislative acumen. Even though the Ohio Republican obviously knows that his tea party brethren are irrevocably tarnishing the GOP brand, he’s yielded to them time after time.

In the meantime, Senate Republicans, led by McConnell, have isolated extremists Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah to the fringe and encouraged tea party favorites like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida to behave.

If his leadership causes the radical right — the radio talkers, Heritage Action, the Fund for Growth, etc. — to make McConnell a key primary target in Kentucky, it’s an opportunity for sane Republicans to counter them in force.

Most of all, this whole dismal exercise ought to lead Obama, Reid, McConnell and House GOP leaders to understand that they will put the country through crisis after crisis — and allow other legislative priorities to die — unless they finally reach a long-term fiscal deal.

It’s time for a grown-ups’ weekend retreat at Camp David.

October 15, 2013

Keep Working While Furloughed? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I am a staffer for a member of the House. The government shutdown has caused most members’ offices to furlough staffers, and I am one of them. Unfortunately, there are a number of things I was working on before the shutdown, and I’d like to be able to make some progress on them while on furlough. I’m not being paid either way, so I figure I might as well be productive. The problem is that I’ve been told I’m not supposed to do any work while out. Is this really prohibited?

A. Answering this question reminds me of the type of thing I might tell my young children when using reverse psychology. “Do not do any work. Whatever you do, you may not do any work.”

Believe it or not, those are essentially the marching orders for staffers who have been furloughed. A general prohibition prevents all nonessential federal workers, including nonessential House staffers, from working while on furlough.

The House Administration Committee confirmed this in guidance recently issued to members. “If I furlough an employee, can he/she still come into work?” asks one question in the guidance. The answer? “No, if you have decided that an employee is non-essential, he/she cannot perform official duties, (either at the office or at home).”

There are several reasons for this. One is an old law known as the Anti-Deficiency Act, which has its origins in 19th-century budget battles between the executive branch and Congress. Under the Constitution, no money may be drawn from the Treasury unless appropriated by Congress. This means that Congress generally has discretion over which government services to fund and how much to fund them.

During the 19th-century budget battles, executive branch departments would seek ways around the financial constraints of running out of funds appropriated to them. (Sound familiar?) One method was to allow employees to perform government services on a volunteer basis. When the volunteers later asked to be paid for their services, there would be a “deficiency” of funds. Congress would sometimes feel compelled to fill that deficiency so that the volunteers could receive retroactive payment for their services.

The Anti-Deficiency Act prohibits this practice. Specifically, it states that a federal official “may not accept voluntary services for either government or employ personal services exceeding that authorized by law except for emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” Federal officials have interpreted this to mean that when there is a lapse in appropriations for government services, they may not allow those services to continue on a volunteer basis.

Note that this doesn’t mean that all government services must shut down whenever there is a lapse in appropriations. As a 1995 memorandum by the Office of Management and Budget observed, the commonly used term “government shutdown” to refer to a lapse in appropriations is in fact an “entirely inaccurate description.” A true government shutdown, the memo states, would mean no air traffic control, FBI, customs services, border control, stock markets or VA hospitals, among other vital services. A “true shut down of the federal government,” the memo says, “would impose … incalculable amounts of suffering and loss.”

Thus, even during a lapse in appropriations, such as the current one, the Anti-Deficiency Act permits the continuation of certain essential services. The House has determined that the essential services of House staffers include those that are associated with constitutional responsibilities, the protection of human life or the protection of property. Each member must determine which of his or her staffers perform such duties. All others — that is, nonessential employees — must be placed on furlough.

Under the Anti-Deficiency Act, then, furloughed staffers may not perform their official duties on a volunteer basis while on furlough. The recent guidance by the House Administration Committee explains just how broad this prohibition is. For example, a member’s office “may not communicate with a furloughed employee about official duties and the furloughed employee may not perform official duties by email or telephone.” As a way to ensure compliance, the guidance suggests that a member’s office may even require furloughed staffers to turn in their cellphones, laptops and BlackBerrys.

One wonders whether even this is enough to comply. Keep in mind that, technically speaking, violations of the Anti-Deficiency act can be considered crimes, punishable by up to two years in jail. So, what if your mind strays and you start having productive thoughts about the projects you were working on before being furloughed? It seems that if you really want to make sure you don’t break the law against working while on furlough, merely turning in your cellphone and turning off your computer won’t do the trick.

Have you considered a lobotomy?

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