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July 28, 2014

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July 28, 2014

Speaker’s Lawsuit Against Obama Is a Longshot | Procedural Politics

boehner009 072414 445x302 Speakers Lawsuit Against Obama Is a Longshot | Procedural Politics

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker John A. Boehner’s plan to sue the president for overstepping constitutional boundaries has produced a cascade of volume and verbiage in media echo chambers. In a memo to his colleagues, Boehner explained, “President Barack Obama has declined to faithfully execute the laws of our country — ignoring some statutes completely, selectively enforcing others, and at times, creating laws of his own.” The president in return has called the suit a “stunt” and waste of taxpayer dollars.

I give the speaker two cheers for standing up for the institution of Congress in the face of what he perceives as questionable unilateral actions by the president to get what he wants. The president did give Congress fair warning of his intentions last January when he said, “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need.” He added, “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone…and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions….”

The speaker’s initiative is designed in part to divert and relieve pressures from some in his party who want to impeach the president — something that would be politically suicidal and downright stupid. However, I have withheld the third cheer for the speaker’s stand because I think the judicial route is a long shot and the wrong shot.

It is a long shot because the odds are heavily against Congress being granted standing as an injured party in the president’s delay of the health care act’s employer mandate which is the target of Boehner’s suit. Even if Congress clears that hurdle, the courts would likely dismiss the suit as a “political question” between the branches — something in which courts have traditionally been reluctant to intervene.

It is the wrong shot because Congress should not be entrusting its fate to the third branch of government. If Congress clears the first two hurdles, the Supreme Court could well rule against it: hard cases make bad law and mad lawmakers. Even if not, such a precedent can only enhance the powers of the courts if either of the first two branches can go running to them any time it has a dispute with the other branch and expect intervention.

I am reminded of hearings before the Joint Committee on Congressional Operations in February 1974 on “Congress and Mass Communications.” The hearings were prompted by a persistent 20th century concern that the legislative branch was losing public confidence, power and stature vis-a-vis the executive, in part because the president dominates the airwaves (though President Richard Nixon’s press at the time wasn’t all that great in the wake of Watergate scandal revelations).

My boss then, GOP Congressman John B. Anderson of Illinois, cautioned the committee against falling into the “media mandate trap” of tailoring legislative behavior and actions to maximize media coverage. He quoted Yale law professor Alexander Bickel’s testimony earlier in the decade on war powers: “The way for Congress to resume control over the foreign and war policy of the United States is to resume. The way to redress the balance is to redress it — by action.” Paraphrasing Bickel’s sentiments, Anderson said: “The way for Congress to make the news is to make news. The way to redress the balance is to redress it — by action.”

House Republicans are understandably angry over the president’s repeated assertions they have not taken action to help the middle class when in fact they have enacted several jobs-related bills and passed dozens of others that have gone nowhere in the Senate. Meantime, the president is doing what his predecessors have done by acting unilaterally to implement his agenda.

Whether Obama is pushing the constitutional envelope or shredding it is a matter of interpretation. Regardless, the two branches can better address their differences by reengaging each other in the national interest than by waging perpetual spitting matches in the national media.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

July 16, 2014

Reforms May Fade, but Voter Anger Won’t | Rules of the Game

Opponents of big money in politics celebrated some small victories lately: A constitutional amendment to curb campaign spending cleared a key Senate committee and was introduced in the House. And a new “super PAC to end all super PACs” raised $5 million in a matter of weeks.

At first glance, such long-shot causes look inevitably doomed to fail. No one really expects two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states to amend the Constitution in an area as disputed as campaign financing. And numerous super PACs bent on banning unrestricted money have come and gone in recent years, most of them now terminated.

But the latest campaign finance push, however impractical or constitutionally suspect, has tapped a well of voter anger that politicians ignore at their peril. Public disgust with Congress, which according to Gallup now enjoys a record-low 7 percent approval rating, may not impact this fall’s midterm elections. But as erstwhile House Majority Leader Eric Cantor discovered in his stunning loss in Virginia’s GOP primary, voter wrath over big money can exact a political price. Cantor’s primary opponent, tea party Republican Dave Brat, had made the majority leader’s cozy Wall Street and special interest ties a central campaign theme. Brat is now trumpeting the $400,000 he’s raised from small donors as evidence that he’s running a “campaign of the people.”

“People think you can’t win on the basis of this issue, and we want to say, ‘Actually, you can,’ ” said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor who on May 1 founded the Mayday PAC, a crowdfunded super PAC that will back congressional candidates committed to campaign finance changes. “And we want to do it in a way that surprises Washington, inside the Beltway.”

Lessig has already surprised himself and others by pulling in $1 million in the PAC’s first 13 days, then another $5 million by July 4. In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Lessig said he developed his own open source software to raise the money, since the popular Kickstarter crowdfunding tool lacked a platform for political donations. Mayday PAC has now raised $7.7 million of an anticipated $12 million once matching funds from large donors roll in, probably by the end of this month.

If Lessig hits his $12 million target, Mayday PAC will be among the top five highest-grossing super PACs in this midterm. The American Crossroads super PAC organized by GOP operative Karl Rove, for example, raised just $11 million through June 30 of this year, Federal Election Commission records show. Granted, the conservative super PAC’s social welfare affiliate, known as Crossroads GPS, appears to be raising and spending the largest share of the operation’s money in this election.

Still, Lessig’s anticipated $12 million haul is all the more noteworthy given how many super PACs formed with the aim of ending super PACs have fallen flat in recent years. A whole slew of do-gooder super PACs, many of them inspired by comedian Stephen Colbert’s super PAC contests and spoofs, sprung up in 2012. But virtually all of them, from Citizens Against Super PACs to No Dirty Money Elections, raised virtually no money and closed up shop within a year.

An exception is Friends of Democracy, a super PAC headed by David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund. That PAC raised and spent about $2.5 million in the 2012 elections, and managed to oust eight of the nine candidates it targeted for defeat. In this cycle, Friends of Democracy had raised $2.5 million through the second quarter, and will announce by the end of this month a new slate of state and federal candidates.

“There’s a tremendous amount of interest in it, and we’re very excited about the work that Mayday PAC and Larry Lessig are doing,” Donnelly said, noting the two PACs do not compete for donors and will coordinate their efforts. “There’s clearly an appetite for expanding this type of work.”

Lessig has generated media buzz and checks thanks in part to his public persona and promotional savvy. An author, progressive organizer and advocate of Internet deregulation, Lessig’s won backing from such Silicon Valley heavyweights as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. His crowdfunding model — donors were told they would get their money back if the PAC didn’t meet its targets in time — went viral to draw in 53,000 contributors.

The constitutional amendment push has also fueled surprising popular support. The amendment proposed by New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall in the Senate and introduced this week in the House by Rep. John B. Larson, D-Conn., flies in the face of more than one landmark Supreme Court ruling. Republicans deride it as a blatant First Amendment violation.

Some campaign finance experts cast the uphill amendment drive as an ill-advised distraction from more pragmatic changes. Lessig’s Mayday PAC, for one, is focused not on amending the Constitution but on such changes as matching small-dollar donations with public funding. Yet proposals to amend the Constitution are now backed by 16 states and 550 municipalities.

“People are really angry about what’s happening in our democracy,” said Margrete Strand, executive vice president of Public Citizen. The push for an amendment is something that average voters can “understand” and “grab onto,” she added.

To be sure, voters are notoriously fickle when it comes to campaign financing. Gallup’s latest polls on the topic found that half of voters support government funding of elections, and 79 percent support limiting campaign receipts and spending. But Democrats’ perennial assaults on big money have repeatedly failed to help them at the polls.

Lessig has set out to prove the issue can fire up voters as well as donors, and Mayday PAC will announce a slate of at least five federal candidates on July 21. Whatever the merits and demerits of various campaign finance schemes, voters will ultimately have the last word.

“The only way to prove this is to do it,” said Lessig. “We can have all sorts of polling and science and focus groups. But the thing that counts in Washington is victory.”

Eliza Newlin Carney is a senior staff writer covering political money and election law for CQ Roll Call.

May 6, 2014

Did Soft Money Ban Kill Political Parties? | Rules of the Game

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling to overturn limits on aggregate campaign contributions has revived a long-running debate over the demise of the nation’s political parties, and what could bring them back to life.

In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the high court may have done the parties a favor by eliminating the $123,200 cap on what individuals may give to candidates and parties as a group in one election cycle. Parties are now free to solicit much larger checks through so-called joint fundraising committees, a type of collective account that divvies up money between parties and candidates.

Watchdogs warn that such joint campaign funds will effectively bring back the unlimited soft money contributions to the parties that Congress banned in 2002, legislation best known as the McCain-Feingold law after its Senate authors. But conservatives hail the McCutcheon ruling as the first step toward repairing the damage that they say was done by that ban.

That law “has succeeded in profoundly altering the state of American politics by severely weakening American political parties to the benefit of outside spending groups who may raise and spend unlimited funds in connection with federal elections,” testified election lawyers Neil Reiff, a Democrat, and Donald McGahn, a Republican, before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee last week.

Reiff, the former deputy general counsel at the Democratic National Committee, and McGahn, a former FEC chairman, aren’t the only McCain-Feingold critics to vent their frustration with the soft money ban in recent weeks. If only Congress hadn’t outlawed soft money, the ban’s detractors imply, a host of political ills would never have come to pass.

It’s easy to see why party organizers and advocates of campaign finance deregulation chafe at the current regime. After all, if unrestricted super PACs and non-disclosing tax-exempt groups can spend millions in elections with no limits, why can’t the parties? A wave of commentary has enumerated the parties’ salutary role promoting robust competition, and moderating partisan polarization by appealing to the voters in the center.

But the parties’ demise goes way beyond McCain-Feingold. And eliminating the cap on “base” contributions to candidates and parties, which many conservatives now endorse, would not necessarily strengthen the parties. While the McCain-Feingold law put $591 million in soft money that the parties had raised in 2002 out of reach, they quickly made up for that loss. In the 2004 elections, the parties collected more in “hard” money subject to contribution limits — $1.5 billion — than they had in hard and soft money combined ($1.1 billion) before the ban took effect.

Outside spending did increase — the so-called 527 groups came that came into vogue following the ban boosted their receipts to $424 million, an increase of some $273 million, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. But the big non-party spending jump didn’t come until after the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling to deregulate independent campaign spending. In 2012, the first presidential race to follow that ruling, outside spending topped $1 billion.

If the parties had really spent their unrestricted money on get-out-the-vote activities and party building before the McCain-Feingold law took effect, soft money nostalgia might be more compelling. But a parade of former and current elected officials who defended that ban in court testified that the money was spent not on grass-roots activity or state and local elections, but on high-dollar ads; in 2000, 92 percent of those ads did not even identify the parties.

The former members of Congress testified that they “were expected to raise significant amounts of money for their party committees, were given incentives to do so, and could face sanctions if they did not.” They also detailed how party officials relied on lawmakers to net big donors and described “an inseverable link between the national political parties, their congressional fundraising committees and federal candidates.”

That real-world account contrasts sharply with the Supreme Court’s conclusion in McCutcheon that the parties act as a “buffer” that protects lawmakers from the corrupting influence of large contributions. Soft money gave the parties plenty of money to spend on ads, but it also gave them a black eye in the form of foreign money scandals, White House coffees and Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers.

Unrestricted money would strengthen the parties’ bottom line, but it may arguably weaken them institutionally in the long run. Parties succeed over time on the strength of their ideas, and on their ability to appeal to a broad base of voters, reflected materially in the support of small donors.

Notes former FEC chairman Trevor Potter, who heads the Campaign Legal Center and the political activity law practice at Caplin & Drysdale: “A couple of people writing big checks leaves you a hollowed-out party structure.”

Eliza Newlin Carney is a senior staff writer covering political money and election law for CQ Roll Call.

March 25, 2014

Democrats’ Anti-Koch Attacks Have a Familiar Ring

There is an oddly familiar ring to Democrats’ escalating attacks on the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.

In 2010, then-White House adviser David Axelrod decried the undisclosed, unrestricted money bankrolling outside conservative groups as “a threat to our democracy.” This year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been blasting the Kochs as “un-American” and accusing them of “trying to buy America.”

The comparison bodes poorly for Democrats now dumping millions into their campaign to demonize the Kochs in what appears to be a central piece of their midterm elections strategy. In 2010, unrestricted conservative outside groups funded by industrialists Charles and David Koch helped knock House Democrats out of power in a historic GOP upset. This time around, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity has already spent some $27 million attacking Democrats, focusing squarely on the party’s most vulnerable Senate incumbents.

But it’s unclear how much Democrats have learned from the last midterms. Yes, Democrats have established their own network of unrestricted super PACs, casting off any pretense of taking the political-money high road. This election’s top-spending super PAC so far is the pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and liberal super PACs have spent almost double that of their conservative counterparts.

The anti-Koch attacks are now the subject of a $3 million Senate Majority PAC ad campaign — essentially a retread of liberal assaults on big money in 2010. In those elections, the first to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling in early 2010 to lift all limits on independent political spending, Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse bemoaned the “growing and pernicious effects of secret, special interest money being used to determine the outcome of our elections.”

This time, the Democrats’ attacks on big money are being leveled more personally at the Kochs and their Koch Industries Inc. conglomerate. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee portrays Republicans as “addicted to Koch.” A Web ad by American Bridge 21st Century, the Democratic super PAC and tracking organization, calls the Koch agenda “bad for the middle class.”

Officials for Koch Industries have criticized the attacks as an intimidation campaign designed to deflect attention from Democrats’ own agenda. Organizers for Americans for Prosperity, a social welfare group that operates outside the disclosure rules, maintain that their objective is to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

But the group’s ads hammer on vulnerable Democrats in states such as Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, and they are expanding into campaign-style organizing, door-knocking and voter mobilization. Some speculate that the anti-Koch attacks leveled by Reid and his allies are a distress signal to liberal donors.

Democrats say their complaints against the Kochs are rooted in their policy differences with Republicans. The anti-Koch campaign hammers on populist themes such as economic equity and entitlements for seniors, and portrays Republicans as the party of moneyed interests.

As American Bridge spokeswoman Gwen Rocco put it: “The real reason the Kochs have already spent tens of millions on attacks this cycle is to undermine voters’ confidence in government and drive their conservative agenda that enriches the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle and working class.”

In Arkansas, where GOP Rep. Tom Cotton is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, Pryor campaign officials estimate that Americans for Prosperity has spent $2.2 million on ads opposing the senator. Total outside spending against Pryor tops $5 million. Pryor accuses Cotton of being in the pocket of wealthy interests and argues that the representative’s votes against the farm bill and the Violence Against Women Act, for example, put him and the conservative groups that back him out of step with Arkansas voters.

“Obviously the outside money from these Republican groups is going to be large, and it’s likely that we will be outspent on TV,” Arkansas Democratic Party spokesman Patrick Burgwinkle said. “But what’s important for us is getting the message across that Congressman Cotton and these outside groups are just too reckless for Arkansas.”

In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has launched a digital media campaign showing her GOP opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, as aligned with the Kochs’ “bad-for-the-middle-class” policies. Americans for Prosperity has spent $8.3 million on ads opposing Hagan, according to numbers released by Hagan’s campaign.

Republicans dismiss the anti-Koch attacks as a sign of Democratic desperation. In 2010, voters largely ignored Democrats’ assaults on secret, unrestricted campaign money and delivered the House to Republicans in a 68-seat sweep. Democrats’ recent anti-Koch assaults are more rooted in substantive differences with Republicans on issues such as Medicare and the minimum wage. Still, it remains to be seen whether their campaign against moneyed interests will resonate any better with voters in the 2014 midterm elections than it did four years ago.

March 3, 2014

The Perfect Thing to Do on Your Snow Day

Getting bored on your snow day? Check out the top photos from last week, Feb. 24-28.

Enjoy these great moments caught by Bill Clark and Tom Williams — and stay warm!

By Meredith Dake Posted at 12:40 p.m.
Uncategorized

January 29, 2014

Caption This Photo: Vice President Joe Biden

sotubiden 445x302 Caption This Photo: Vice President Joe Biden

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

We’d love your suggestions for a caption to go with this classic moment of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., captured right before  Tuesday’s State of the Union address by CQ Roll Call photographer Tom Williams. Leave you caption in the comments below or tweet us @rollcall.

PHOTOS: Captured Moments From SOTU 2014

Enjoy the below slideshow that documents memorable moments from the 2014 State of the Union captured by CQ Roll Call photographers Bill Clark and Tom Williams.

January 27, 2014

PHOTOS: Best Pictures From SOTU Past

Check out some of the best moments from previous State of the Union addresses captured by CQ Roll Call photographers.

You can browse more Roll Call photos and buy them here.

January 14, 2014

Super PAC Boom Marginalizes Women, Report Says

Schriock 040 010713 445x316 Super PAC Boom Marginalizes Women, Report Says

Stephanie Schriock, president of Democratic women’s PAC EMILY’s List, at the National Press Club. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The proliferation of super PACs and other unrestricted outside groups is further marginalizing women campaign donors, who are already vastly outnumbered by men, according to a report released Tuesday.

Women make up only about 30 percent of political donors overall, a figure that has remained largely unchanged over the last decade, but they gave even less — just under 20 percent — of the money that went to outside groups in the 2012 elections, according to the report, titled “Money in Politics with a Gender Lens.”

“Amongst both general donors and ‘mega donors,’ to super PACs, women continue to be underrepresented and outnumbered by men,” said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant research professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which co-authored the report with the Center for Responsive Politics. “As super PACs increase in influence, we find that to be significant.” Full story

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

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 8, 2013

Intel Panels Are Making Original Doubts Come True | Procedural Politics

During the 1977 House debate to establish a Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, two lawmakers expressed concerns that the new panel could become a third chamber of Congress that would constrain other members’ abilities to make informed decisions on intelligence matters. 

Rep. Robert Giaimo, D-Conn., said he feared the resolution would permit the committee to write regulations “which are going to limit and infringe upon those rights which we now have.” And Rep. Ted Weiss, D-N.Y., said his constituents “did not expect that I would become a second class member of Congress, subject to 13 other members telling me what I could say and what I could read and what I could talk about.”

Such tensions between the intelligence committees and non-committee members came into stark relief most recently with the illegal disclosure by government contractor Edward Snowden of classified information regarding the intelligence-gathering activities of the National Security Agency.  Some members were shocked at what they perceived to be a massive intrusion into citizens’ privacy rights and wondered how much the intelligence committees knew and condoned.

Back in 1977, some members worried that the new committee would issue regulations restricting the open access to committee materials by all members that House rules require of other committees. To finesse the issue, the resolution reported by the Rules Committee provided that the committee “shall, under such regulations as the committee shall prescribe, make any information … available to any other committee or any other member of the House.” The resolution creating a counterpart Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the previous Congress made access to information by non-committee members discretionary with the committee.  

Notwithstanding the more liberal access thrust of the House rule, the new committee confirmed the suspicions of Giaimo and Weiss by ultimately adopting a committee rule more akin to the Senate rule: “Pursuant to the Rules of the House, members who are not members of the committee may be granted access to such classified transcripts, records, data, charts or files of the committee,” upon written notification with specific justification for the request and the need for access. The committee would then determine whether to approve or deny the request.

Flash forward to 2013. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., filed specific requests for information with the intelligence committee in June. When he received no response, he followed with three more letters in July and still received no answer before a House vote late that month to dismantle the NSA’s bulk collection of everyone’s phone records.

Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., had a similar experience with information requests about the NSA’s intelligence-gathering, except he did get a response. Like Griffith, he had filed a request in June. Four weeks later he received a letter from House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., informing him that the committee had denied his request “by voice vote.” But committee rules specify that “the Committee shall determine, by record vote, what action it deems appropriate in light of all the circumstances of each request.”

The House and Senate Intelligence committees are currently working on ameliorative legislation to head off moves in both chambers’ Judiciary committees to impose tighter restrictions on the NSA.

The whole drama raises the question of whether the primary responsibility of the intelligence committees is to protect and defend the agencies they are overseeing, or whether it’s to protect the integrity of Congress and serve the informational needs of its members. Ironically, the House and Senate Intelligence committees occupy the same secure Capitol Dome quarters as the former Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Perceived as too cozy with the nuclear power industry, it was abolished in 1977.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who chaired the House Intelligence panel in 1985-86, recently wrote: “In the past, the congressional overseers of the intelligence community have been captivated, if not captured, by the people they’re supposed to be supervising.” Speaking of the current controversy over the NSA, Hamilton says, “There is no place for the timidity Congress has shown so far on these issues.”

While Washington “is beginning to debate the proper extent of government eavesdropping powers,” he adds, “it’s hardly as robust a discussion as it should be, but it’s a desperately needed start.” Let us hope that discussion continues, and that the Intelligence committees will welcome and assist in fully airing the issues and in taking the corrective actions needed.

October 1, 2013

Poll Watchers Beware: Public Blames GOP | Pennsylvania Avenue

The new Quinnipiac poll’s findings on public attitudes on the crucial upcoming debt limit fight ought to give serious pause to Republicans. They thought voters were on their side, but the latest evidence shows they aren’t.

The GOP and its outside supporters were emboldened on Sept. 26 by a Bloomberg poll showing that by 61 percent to 28 percent, voters said it would be “right to require spending cuts when the debt ceiling is raised, even if it risks default” on the government’s debts.

It was seen as a repudiation of President Barack Obama’s stance that bills previously contracted by the government had to be paid and that he would not negotiate about it.

Republicans thereupon decided they could load nearly their entire agenda onto the debt vote, including delay or repeal of Obamacare, fast-track authority for tax reform, a rollback of EPA regulations on greenhouse gases and coal ash emissions, medical malpractice caps and restrictions on the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

They also took encouragement from an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing that the public, by 44 percent to 22 percent, opposed raising the debt limit.

And any number of polls, of course, have shown a decline in Obama’s approval ratings.

The Quinnipiac poll out Tuesday also shows Obama’s approval somewhat under water — 45 percent positive, 49 percent negative.

But the results were devastatingly negative on GOP tactics on both the government shutdown and the debt limit. By 77 percent to 22 percent, the public opposed the GOP tactic of shutting down the government to block implementation of Obamacare.

And by 64 percent to 27 percent, voters opposed blocking an increase in the debt ceiling to stop Obamacare.

They are split on Obamacare — 45 percent pro, 47 percent anti — but they opposed cutting off its funding 58 percent to 34 percent.

Undoubtedly hardliners on the Republican side — maybe leaders, too — will say, forget Quinnipiac and believe Bloomberg.

But there’s other evidence that the public understands that not raising the debt ceiling and not being able to pay the government’s bills is a bad idea.

The Washington Post/ABC poll on Sept. 18 showed that by 73 percent to 22 percent, voters believe that not raising the limit would cause “serious harm” to the economy. It’s true that voters favored raising the limit by only 46 percent to 43 percent. But, on the question of which side — Obama or the Republicans — was doing too little to compromise with the other, it was 49 percent, Obama, and 64 percent, the Republicans.

The bottom line is that Republicans are risking both political and economic disaster if they persist in loading multiple conditions onto the debt limit vote later this month.

A government shutdown, if it doesn’t last too long, will cause pain, but not risk the fundamental health of the economy. Defaulting on the national debt well might — and the latest evidence is that the GOP will get (and deserve) the blame.

September 25, 2013

Sequester-Battered Research Budget Hurts Economy, Too

Today’s Washington Post compellingly traces the case of Yuntao Wu, a pioneering AIDS researcher at George Mason University whose funding has been cut off owing to across-the-board spending cuts imposed by Congress and President Barack Obama.

Unfortunately, the article was at the bottom of Page A6, below a story on the capital’s latest fixation, Sen. Ted Cruz’s political showboating around Obamacare. The crisis in research funding — which I wrote about last week — deserves to be Page 1 once in awhile and to be addressed specifically as Congress considers how (I mean, whether) to keep the government operating.

As The Post and I related, the budget sequester has taken a 5.5 percent bite out of funding at the National Institutes of Health and all the other research programs of the federal government. Full story

September 18, 2013

Campaign Watchdog to Get New Blood, but Other Fixes Await

Now that the Senate Rules and Administration Committee has unanimously approved Republican Lee E. Goodman and Democrat Ann Ravel to serve on the Federal Election Commission, full Senate confirmation is expected to quickly follow suit.

The six-member FEC is down two commissioners, and the four who remain are all serving expired terms. Never a popular agency, the FEC has been through a particularly rough patch lately, hamstrung by constant stalemates and bitter disputes over even the most routine matters of business.

Goodman, a GOP election attorney, and Ravel, who chairs the California Fair Political Practices Commission, are sure to get an earful from watchdogs, lawmakers and political players if they join the FEC. With that in mind, here’s some unsolicited advice from this corner of Capitol Hill: Full story

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