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July 24, 2014
Few things Congress does come in for more ridicule than its penchant for naming post offices. While the exercise soaks up some floor time and keeps the clerks busy, it alters public policy not one bit. Instead, each new honorific provides lawmakers with nothing beyond a sliver of feel-good accomplishment.
But even perpetuating this hallmark of our “do-nothing” legislative era is becoming complicated by partisan gamesmanship and the ideological strife inside the Republican Party.
The most prominent postal tribute hanging in the balance this summer would offer a startlingly modest tribute to Barry Goldwater — who drove the resurgence of the Republican right half a century ago, was the party’s 1964 presidential candidate and was hailed as “Mr. Conservative” during his three decades as a senator from Arizona. Full story
July 23, 2014
This week notwithstanding, this summer on the Hill has been less sticky than usual. But it’s shaping up to be as somnolent as ever.
The days leading up to the August recess are by custom dedicated to some of the year’s defining and politically consequential matters: A deal holding down student loan interest rates last year, showdown votes on taxes and drought relief in 2012, the last minute averting of government default in 2011, and confirmations of Supreme Court justices the two previous summers.
This time, no climatic or dramatic get-out-of-town roll call is in the offing. There won’t be a quick fix for the child migrant crisis, and there’s only an outside chance for a deal to patch up the veterans’ medical care system. Congress will agree to keep highway construction funds flowing for just nine months, but that’s just a classic can-kicking maneuver.
The election year void was supposed to be filled with clamorous debates on appropriations bills, which both House and Senate leaders promised would produce some unusually timely progress for this year’s budget process. That’s not happening, and it’s not going to happen. Full story
July 22, 2014
If Rand Paul is taking this summer’s most prominent turn in the Republican spotlight, then the same must be said for his Senate colleague Elizabeth Warren among the new generation of national Democratic players.
The two first-term senators are generating their surges in attention in different ways, probably because they have different timetables in mind for their presidential aspirations.
While Paul is overtly laying the groundwork for a virtually certain 2016 campaign with a series of bold fundraising, staffing and legislative moves totally disconnected from his home base in Kentucky, Warren has been taking another tack with a seemingly alternate objective. She, too, has been spending most of her not-in-session time politicking far from her home base of Massachusetts, but almost all her campaigning and cash collecting has been on behalf of others. Full story
July 21, 2014
The most wide open Republican presidential contest in modern times is shaping up, so a thousand things could change in the 80 long weeks before the first scheduled caucuses and primaries take place. And a couple hundred of them surely will.
With that enormous caveat stipulated up front, it’s worth recognizing that one aspirant is having a bit of a moment. Rand Paul has been generating at least as much policy, fundraising and organizational buzz this summer as any other potential candidate, and certainly more than the other possible contenders out of Congress.
Paul will be returning to the Senate Monday afternoon after spending three days in San Francisco, a highly unusual weekend destination for a conservative from Kentucky. But the senator concluded he had opportunities on three fronts to advance his nascent bid. He could raise money from Bay Area entrepreneurs sympathetic to his libertarian views. He could recruit some tech geeks to join his fledgling campaign staff. And he could deliver the keynote speech at a technology conference, to sell the notion that his views about free markets and personal privacy ought to be catnip to Silicon Valley.
It was Paul’s second such trip in as many weekends. The previous foray was to Sun Valley, Idaho, where he was invited to the super exclusive annual conference on media and technology organized by the investment bank Allen & Co. His time there reportedly included private meetings with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
When the August recess starts, Paul will be the first among his most ambitious senatorial colleagues to get to a more traditional political locale — he’ll spend three days in Iowa starting on Aug. 4 raising money for several county Republican organizations. The groups, of course, are crucial players in getting out the vote for the Iowa caucuses, which are (for now) scheduled to kick off the national nominating contest on Feb. 1, 2016. Full story
July 16, 2014
It’s rare, but sometimes an advertisement in Roll Call says as much about the state of congressional political infighting as our coverage.
Such was the case Wednesday. Page 7 provided an exceptionally tart and juicy morsel of insight into the Republican civil war’s summertime state of play.
The sarcastically gleeful full-page ad was the handiwork of Main Street Advocacy, which exists to stick up for the establishment wing of the GOP in part by promoting the re-election of House and Senate incumbents. The butt of the ad was the Club for Growth, which seeks to defeat those same lawmakers whenever they stray from the strictest of party fiscal orthodoxies.
For this year, anyway, the contest is shaping up as a total rout. One of the most influential players in the tea party movement created a special campaign to take out 10 House members — and every one of them was re-nominated with varying degrees of ease. In other words, a perversely “perfect” political showing.
“Main Street Advocacy congratulates our friends at the Club for Growth,” the ad declares in big type, likening the 0-10 record to such exceptional sports feats as Don Larsen’s perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series, the Miami Dolphins’ perfect NFL season in 1972 and the Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball team’s perfect season in 1976.
The last of those snide analogies was surely a jape aimed squarely at the president of the insurgent group, Chris Chocola, who represented Indiana in the House for two terms from 2003 to 2006. Full story
They don’t make members of Congress like Ken Gray any more. In today’s political climate, it would be next to impossible to make him up.
More than a quarter century after he left the House, Gray died on July 12 at age 89. And he was still remembered with bemused fondness by those old-timers at the Capitol who lament that the place isn’t populated with as many “characters” as it used to be.
Gray represented the rural southern reaches of Illinois from 1955 through 1974, when he first departed because of a heart condition and signs of an impending scandal. The Democrat returned a decade later, and served another two terms before retiring for good. That run dovetailed with my first years in Washington, and the boldness of his legislative, interpersonal and sartorial styles made him stand out as a tonic in a House where the members were becoming increasingly cautious in their policy proposals, circumspect in their dealings with the other party and downright boring in their presentation.
Gray was the opposite on all counts. His career was a vivid reminder of the time when the bipartisan pursuit of parochial project spending could be practiced with unbridled enthusiasm as well as success. Full story
July 14, 2014
Whatever happened to that summer blockbuster, the one about terrorism and scandal that would be must-see congressional TV?
Don’t expect to be able to tune in to the Benghazi hearings anytime soon. No air date for the premiere has been announced, because the pre-production work is off to a deliberately slow start.
The reason is that the impresario, Rep. Trey Gowdy, is much more experienced as a prosecutor than as an executive producer. And district attorneys, at least as much as studio moguls, are trained to refrain from going public if they have any doubt about their work being ready for prime time.
For reasons both procedural and political, Gowdy has reached a conclusion 10 weeks after he was handed the gavel of a newly created select House committee: The moment is not nearly ripe for the panel to convene in the open to talk about any events before, during or after Sept. 11, 2012, the night when terrorists overran the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Libya’s second biggest city and four Americans were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
During his first two terms, Gowdy has gained notoriety as one of Republicans’ most tenacious inquisitors of administration officials, a skill honed during his previous 16 years busting bad guys in South Carolina. His reputation for public zealotry aside, Gowdy understands how caution behind the scenes is the prosecutorial standard.
Many more criminal cases are settled with tidy plea bargains than with of roll-of-the-dice jury trials, and dozens of depositions are taken behind closed doors for every witness cross-examined in open court. The analogue on Capitol Hill is that a whole lot more fact-finding gets done by professional committee investigators away from cameras than by lawmakers posturing in front of them.
Besides, pursuing the inquiry for a while longer before any hearings works to the Republicans’ strategic advantage in several ways.
July 11, 2014
More seems curious than straightforward in Speaker John A. Boehner’s current plan for suing President Barack Obama.
But one of the easier things to understand is what the litigation might accomplish inside the House Republican Conference: a cooling of the intensifying and politically problematic talk about how nothing short of impeachment will do.
Legislation to authorize the lawsuit will get its first public hearing on July 16 at the Rules Committee. It’s on course for passage entirely along party lines in two weeks, just before the August recess begins. So it will be toward the end of September, just as Congress is preparing to decamp for the campaign trail, before the House’s lawyers actually take their complaint to the federal courthouse at the foot of Capitol Hill.
That means there’s almost no chance for even a preliminary resolution before the midterm elections. But the schedule will nonetheless provide the infuriated House Republicans several opportunities for venting their bloodlust this summer and fall.
Giving members of the GOP rank and file this way to focus their red meat rhetoric, and their appeals for donations from the hard right, could make calls for impeachment fade, if not quite disappear. And that is what Boehner has made clear he wants.
In this curious way, he is in the same place as his predecessor as speaker, with whom he sees eye-to-eye on next to nothing. Full story
July 10, 2014
Thursday will see this year’s most consequential vote in the once-mighty House Ways and Means Committee — to propose one of the more assertive legislative punts in recent memory.
The panel will get behind a plan for patching the gaping chasm in the Highway Trust Fund for the next 10 months, after which the fundamental fiscal flaw in the nation’s main public works program will be exposed once again. House Republicans, not worried about losing control of the chamber this fall, have concluded that’s when they stand their best chance of driving a long-term solution.
The Senate is looking at a totally different approach, one that wraps the funding problem in caution tape for only five months. The Democrats there are keenly aware they may have to turn over the keys to the GOP come January, so they view the lame-duck session as potentially their last best chance to come up with a lasting fix to a problem that’s been festering for years.
Put another way, this month’s big fight over how to sidestep the edge of the transportation funding cliff is not going to be about remaking an outdated policy. Not surprising this close to an election, political positioning is at the heart of the dispute — which only will determine which party can claim the upper hand when the real debate begins. Full story
July 8, 2014
In the short term, anyway, the tide of good news seems to have turned in favor of Robert Menendez.
Officials in his old New Jersey congressional district named an elementary school for the Senate Foreign Relations chairman a few months ago. Then the Democrat celebrated his 60th birthday by announcing his engagement (in the Rotunda) to Alicia Mucci, a 45-year-old widowed constituent he’d met at a fundraiser.
But the best publicity Menendez has enjoyed all year arrived Monday, when the Washington Post reported on evidence the Cuban government may have fabricated and planted the lurid story that has smudged the senator’s reputation since just before his 2012 re-election bid. Menendez crowed to CNN Tuesday that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the regime in Havana had concocted the smear he had hired several underage Dominican prostitutes — because, he said, it “would do anything it can to stop me.”
What all the righteous indignation and melodramatic skullduggery obscures, however, is that Menendez continues to face questions about behavior that’s far more legally and politically problematic than the already substantially discredited tales about his cavorting at sex parties in the Caribbean.
For nearly two years, the Justice Department has been investigating whether Menendez illegally used his congressional office to benefit the business interests of his most generous donors, particularly Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. The Senate Ethics Committee appears to have put its similar inquiry on hold in deference to the Feds.
If federal prosecutors end up alleging Menendez broke the law, that would be a much bigger deal for the already dismal ethical reputation of Congress — as well as for the Democratic Party and Latino community — than whether an antagonistic nation was able to make headway with an ambitious conspiracy to ruin an influential lawmaker.
Perhaps by design, and maybe because of circumstance, Jim Risch remains among the least recognized senators after almost six years on the job. But, given the course of his path to Congress, he was at a big disadvantage from the start — if getting noticed was his desire.
In a place where fascinating back-stories and dramatic arrivals count for much, Risch had neither. He sailed to the Senate without suspense, a very conservative Republican claiming an open seat in very conservative Idaho in 2008, when the national political story was the big Democratic year. His credentials included a reputation for resilience and three decades as a power broker in his state house, but he was overlooked from the start and since then has rarely come off publicity’s back bench.
Risch’s underwhelming first-term impression illustrates one of the odder paradoxes of today’s congressional culture: The easier time a candidate has getting to the Hill, the tougher time that new lawmaker has getting noticed upon arrival.
The incumbents, staffers, operatives, lobbyists and reporters who make up the capital’s political class spend almost all their time at the water cooler handicapping the tight races and getting to know the would-be giant killers and takeover engineers. And those winners get disproportionate attention at the start of their congressional careers. Generally, that comes at the expense of the freshmen who got to Washington without breaking a sweat the previous fall.
The phenomenon comes to mind now that this year’s House and Senate nominees have been finalized in more than half the states — yielding a roster of 20 candidates for open seats who are, in effect, already on their way to the 114th Congress. Because of their constituencies’ demographics and solidly reliable partisan voting history, securing the party nomination in their districts or states is tantamount to winning the general election. Full story
June 25, 2014
A congressional dead man walking just days ago, Thad Cochran has instead become one of the most influential players in the coming Congress. The senator who looked to become the tea party movement’s biggest scalp of 2014 is now in position to be the small government conservatives’ worst nightmare of 2015.
Cochran’s upset runoff victory has made him a totally safe bet for a seventh term, and also increased by a small notch the prospect that he and his fellow Republicans could win control of the Senate this fall. If that happens, Cochran has not only the seniority but also the vanquished victor’s clout necessary to claim the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee — where he would surely restore some of the spend-along-to-get-along spirit of bipartisan collegiality that drives insurgents on the right absolutely nuts.
Because the current limits on discretionary spending will be replaced by tightening sequester caps on domestic and military outlays for the remainder of the decade, Cochran would be legally powerless to break the bank during the four years he might be chairman. (He’d have to give up the gavel at the end of 2018, when he will turn 81, because the GOP has term limits and he ran Appropriations for two years in the past decade.)
What’s more, the ideological dynamics of the Senate Republican Conference would make it highly unwise and probably impossible for Cochran to achieve a restoration of the old-time appropriations culture, in which both sides are willing to give in on plenty so they might gain a little — and still get home on time. For starters, if there’s switch in party control, the GOP membership on Appropriations would expand next year. That means the dominant voices would belong to the younger generation of fiscal hard-liners, no longer the senior accommodationists such as Cochran. Full story
Parsing an important congressional roll call, let alone comparing two votes on similar questions a dozen years apart, is a complex and caveat-infused exercise.
So reactions ranging from “Of course!” and “Aha!” to “Who knew?” and “What’s up with that?” are bound to spring up when reviewing last week’s House vote on funding for a revived combat operation in Iraq — especially when aligning that tally sheet with the one authorizing the initial invasion of the country.
During the three days of debate on the annual defense spending package, most of the lobbying furor and press attention was on Pentagon procurement priorities, the House’s move to stop any transfers from Guantánamo and the drive to curtail government spying. But for hard core hawks and ardent doves, the key vote was about whether to bar any new U.S. combat operations to help quell the sectarian warfare that’s overtaking Iraq.
The outcome wasn’t even close. Just 3 out of every 8 members (165 total) took the anti-war hard line. (Instead, the House adopted by voice vote a requirement that the administration consult and report to Congress before reviving military involvement.)
While the lopsided result preserved all of President Barack Obama’s options for using force, it masks an important political reality he will be pressed to keep in mind during the next five months. Members of his party with the most to lose on Election Day are minimally supportive of any more war under this commander in chief. Full story
June 24, 2014
It took less than 72 hours after his election for Kevin McCarthy to reveal an unambiguous and extremely consequential way he’ll be different from his predecessor.
In what’s looking like the year’s hottest dispute between small-government crowd and the business community, the incoming House majority leader took a surprising side on Sunday. The Californian is joining the hard core fiscal conservatives who want to close the Export-Import Bank, which for eight decades has been one of the main tools at the government’s disposal for helping American businesses.
The agency steps in when private credit is scarce or expensive. Using money borrowed from the Treasury, it either makes or guarantees loans so U.S. companies can expand their exports of aircraft, farm machinery, power generation equipment, telecommunications hardware and even gourmet food. The right reviles this as a prime example of corporate welfare and derides the Ex-Im Bank as an agent of crony capitalism.
During his time in the Republican leadership Eric Cantor was an anchor for the opposite side, which argues that such credit financing is a no-risk way to leverage taxpayer dollars in the interest of creating jobs and sustaining the nation’s manufacturing base. The Virginian was more responsible than anyone else for steering the Ex-Im Bank to temporary safety two years ago, when the waves of conservative criticism first got big enough to pose a potential threat. He was so well known as a defender of the bank that stock in one of its biggest customers, Boeing, plunged 3 percent the day after Cantor lost his primary, wiping away all its gains so far in the year.
The anxiety was fueled in part by anticipation that the Ex-Im Bank’s most influential House critic, Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, would run for majority leader. When he demurred, allowing the majority whip to secure his promotion with ease, the big companies relaxed a bit — because McCarthy had been on Cantor’s side in 2012 in supporting the current reauthorization of the agency.
But all elections have consequences, and two of them were on display when McCarthy revealed his 180-degree change of position on “Fox News Sunday.” The winner’s pivotal bloc of supporters will need to feel rewarded sooner than later, so it was only a matter of time before the new floor leader would need to stake out a strong position on legislation that’s a top priority of his allies in the tea party faction.
Not to mention an important rival who took a pass this time around could change his mind as soon as November, when leadership elections for the 115th Congress will be held. So it made sense for McCarthy to act quickly to shrink some of the ideological daylight between himself and Hensarling. Full story
June 22, 2014
Perhaps never before have the people of Harlem and Hattiesburg, the Bronx and Biloxi participated in such a similar referendum on the same day.
But that’s what is happening Tuesday, when voters in a lopsidedly liberal section of New York City, and all across reliably conservative Mississippi, will answer the same question: Has an icon of the modern Congress overstayed his welcome?
Other storylines are getting at least as much attention as Thad Cochran battles for the Republican nomination for a seventh term in the Senate and as Charles B. Rangel goes after the Democratic nomination for a 23rd term in the House. Down South, the principal narrative is about whether the tea party’s top senatorial hopeful can win the movement’s most prominent challenge to the GOP establishment. Up North, the script is framed mainly as a tale about the gains of Latinos at the expense of African-Americans as players in urban Democratic politics.
The protagonists in both those versions of the stories are state senators. A runoff triumph by Chris McDaniel, who’s turning 42 on June 28 would give him a shot at becoming an anchor tenant in the confrontational wing of the Senate GOP Conference next year. (He’d still have to win a potentially competitive race against centrist former Democratic Rep. Travis Childers.) A primary win by 59-year-old Adriano Espaillat in New York would be tantamount to his election as the first Dominican-American in Congress.
As the final weekend began for both campaigns, the consensus view was that Cochran’s hold on his seat was tenuous while Rangel was looking to survive.
Victories by either McDaniel or Espaillat would put them among the trendsetters in relatively new aspects of American public life. In that sense they are similar to the veterans they’re seeking to take out — each of whom is emblematic of a congressional evolution that started in the 1970s.
Cochran’s election as the first Republican senator from Mississippi in 100 years heralded his party’s coming takeover of the South. Rangel was in the vanguard of Congressional Black Caucus members who avoided rhetorical outrage in favor of leadership connections and deal-cutting skills to achieve tangible results for their constituents. Full story