Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
April 24, 2014

Posts by David Hawkings

299 Posts

April 21, 2014

President Pressured to Use Pen for LGBT Workers

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It could be dubbed the federal contractor trifecta.

Employees at businesses that do a lot of work for the government began this election year hoping to benefit in three distinct ways from President Barack Obama’s vow to act on his own whenever Congress deadlocked on his legislative priorities.

Two of those expectations have now been met. In January he ordered contractors to start paying their blue-collar laborers at least $10.10 an hour, realizing his proposal to raise the $7.25 federal minimum wage to that amount was doomed. And this month he declared that workers on federal contracts must be free to discuss their salaries, so women may more easily expose pay inequities at those companies while legislation that could close the wage gender gap nationwide languishes.

Now, the pressure will only intensify for Obama to make good in the third area. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees being paid under federal contracts want to benefit from the same sort of executive order that is aiding female and low-wage workers. And their advocacy groups, along with allies on the Hill, are signaling they’re tired of waiting for the president to apply his “we can’t wait” mantra to their cause.

The issue is job bias against LGBT people. While steady advances continue in the states for same-sex marriage — still the paramount political cause of the gay community — outlawing employment discrimination has become the principal gay rights cause in Washington, in part because it’s unambiguously subject to federal regulation or legislation in a way that marriage equality is not.

Only 21 states have made it illegal to fire or harass someone based on sexual orientation, or to deny a raise or refuse to hire on that same basis. More than 11 million people work in the remaining 29 states for companies without policies protecting workplace civil rights for gay people, according to a recent study by UCLA Law School.

Last November, 10 Republicans joined 54 Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation that would prohibit gay job bias nationwide at businesses with more than 15 workers, with some exceptions for religious organizations. But House Republicans have no interest in putting the bill on the floor. (Known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, it’s currently 16 votes shy of guaranteed passage, in any event.)

In short, the gay rights community sees their “ask” as a clear parallel to the minimum wage and pay parity issues. They argue Congress isn’t ready to change the situation nationally, so Obama should at least start paving the way by helping out people working for or seeking employment from government contractors. Full story

April 16, 2014

‘Lying in Politics’ Plaintiffs Go on Offense in Several New States

The lead plaintiff in the “Can you lie in politics?” case going before the Supreme Court next week, anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, says Ohio’s law against false campaign assertions will stifle that state’s midterm congressional debates.

The group is apparently not worried about a similarly chilling effect elsewhere – at least not in four races elsewhere in the country where it’s inserted itself in recent days.

Over the weekend, the SBA List said it has arranged to put space on billboards across three Southern states to lambaste a trio of incumbent Democratic senators in some of the closest Senate races of 2014: Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Because all of them voted for the 2010 health care overhaul, each of them can fairly be described as supporting federal financing of abortion, the group says, and that will be the central message on the roadside signage. Full story

April 14, 2014

Can You Lie in Politics? Supreme Court Will Decide

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The Supreme Court will consider a case about lying in politics, revisiting a fight from Chabot’s 2010 campaign in Ohio. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Supreme Court has made pretty clear that putting your money where your mouth is deserves broad protection as a form of free political speech. The justices are about to consider whether outright lying in a campaign deserves a similar First Amendment shield.

The court’s recent decisions easing the flow of generous campaign contributions already shifted the electoral landscape. If the court finds that even the most patently outrageous statements about candidates may not be barred by law, those two decisions combined could expand the rhetorical battlefield of the midterm elections and raise the attack ad volume as never before.

With Congress in the middle of its spring recess, few if any members are expected to attend the April 22 oral arguments. But they will all surely have their ears tuned for word about the decision, expected by the end of the term in June.

Full story

April 9, 2014

History Lesson for McAllister: Members Caught Pursuing Staffers Never Survive

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McAllister needs only to look to former Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana to see how Republican leadership deals with members’ affairs with staffers. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Rep. Vance McAllister is showing every sign he’s hunkering down in hopes of saving his nascent political life. But recent House history signals that it’s going to be a futile pursuit.

His troubles are unique in one respect — no member in modern history has seen his congressional career beset by scandal so quickly. It was just 137 days from when McAllister was sworn in to represent northeastern Louisiana, the Republican winner of a special election, to the release of grainy security camera footage of him in an 18-second lip lock with someone who is not his wife.

But Melissa Hixon Peacock is not simply a 33-year-old married woman caught canoodling with a 40-year-old congressman. Back when they were making out just before Christmas, and until Tuesday when she left the government payroll (whether voluntarily or not isn’t clear), she was his district scheduler. And that’s what places McAllister in what’s almost assuredly a non-survivable predicament.

In the past eight years, four other men of the House have been exposed for having, or seeming to seek, sexual relationships with congressional aides. None of them stayed in office longer than a couple of weeks.

Several members in the past few decades have (at least for a while) survived their sexual transgressions, substance abuse admissions, financial improprieties or other personal failings. But the punishment for dalliances with staffers has always been a swift political death penalty — no matter whether the behavior was by a Democrat or Republican, straight or gay, consensual or predatory, back home or on the Hill. Full story

April 8, 2014

Pay Equity Bill Exposes Gender Gap Politics for Senate GOP

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Shaheen is one of the female senators the GOP would need to defeat to win control of the chamber this fall. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Like so many legislative arguments, this week’s intensified debate about the gender gap in wages has been obscured by a fight over which side has the better statistics.

President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in the Senate like the Census Bureau data, which shows total earnings by women were 77 percent of what American men made in 2012. Republicans and business groups point instead to 2012 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which suggest a narrower chasm: Women earned 86 percent of what men got.

Which formula offers the fairest measure is ultimately beside the point on both policymaking and political grounds.

No matter how many caveats and qualifiers are factored into the calculations, the result from those and all the other government and academic studies is consistent. Women are still paid measurably less than men for doing the same work. And the Republicans in Congress are steadfastly opposed to the legislative remedies they’ve been offered for closing the gap. Both truths have remained essentially unchanged for years.

What has changed is the political gender gap, steadily widening and reaching record proportions — to the seemingly obvious and dangerous detriment for the Republicans. Full story

A Case for Moran: ‘Underpaid’ Is Accurate

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

He’s sounding politically tone deaf, of course, but on the merits Rep. James P. Moran has a solid case to make about congressional compensation.

Social media lit up with ridicule for the suburban Virginia Democrat last week, after he boldly told my colleague Hannah Hess, “The American people should know the members of Congress are underpaid.”

It’s a call to arms that someone running for re-election, even in the safest district, would be a fool to make at a time when the institution’s approval rating stands at a near-record-low 15 percent and the median household income in the United States is less than one-third of a member’s annual salary of $174,000.

Which is why, amid all the howling about how Moran should have his head examined (right after he’s impeached), there’s been precious little interest in understanding the justifiable reasons for such a provocative complaint, let alone what the congressman would do to improve the situation. Full story

April 6, 2014

A Landmark Election Ruling, Made by Justices With Minimal Campaign Involvement

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The scene at the Supreme Court as justices heard oral arguments in McCutcheon vs. FEC. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

One way of looking at the latest Supreme Court decision speeding the flow of big money into elections — a ruling destined to have a bigger impact on the culture of Congress than anything that happens at the Capitol this year — is that one side’s definition of political reality narrowly prevailed over the other.

Scenarios about the corrupting potential of so many more millions going to candidates, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asserted in the controlling opinion, “are either illegal under current campaign finance laws or divorced from reality.”

“In reality,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer countered on behalf of the four dissenters, “the anti-corruption interest that drives Congress to regulate campaign contributions is a far broader, more important interest” than the five-person majority recognizes.

It’s hardly unusual that, after considering the same collection of facts and arguments, the court’s conservative majority declares the glass at least half full, while the liberal minority insists the same vessel is more than half empty. What’s remarkable in this disagreement is how distant the justices are from experiencing the reality of the modern political money system.

On the current court, only Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan have donated to federal candidates or political action committees in the past 16 years, according to the Federal Election Commission database of itemized contributions.

The most obvious reason is that the other seven justices have been sitting somewhere on the federal bench since before 1997, when the FEC began digitizing donation records. And, because of the obvious potential for a conflict of interest, the official code of conduct for United States judges prohibits them from making political contributions.

But that explanation leads directly to one of the longstanding criticism of the modern Supreme Court: It has become so dominated by professional jurists that people who have worked in the political arena have been almost entirely boxed out. Full story

April 1, 2014

Ryan Budget Is High-Risk, Modest-Reward Strategy in an Election Year

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

An ocean of figures fill the final fiscal blueprint Paul D. Ryan will unveil as chairman of the House Budget Committee. But the number that matters most never appears: 16.

That’s the maximum number of Republicans who can turn their back on the budget resolution when it comes before the full House next week without dooming the caucus and its most nationally prominent figure to an embarrassing election year failure.

Full story

March 31, 2014

Camp Out, Rough Week: Michigan Delegation Facing Depleted Hill Clout

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Levin lamented the retirement of his fellow Michigander, GOP Rep. Dave Camp. They both are opting against seeking re-election this fall. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It’s shaping up to be a pretty rough week for Michigan. But the blows to its biggest business and its college basketball teams may be only a foretaste of something more consequentially harmful and longer lasting.

The state’s sway at the Capitol is getting ready for a big fall.

Monday’s retirement announcement by Dave Camp, the second-most senior Republican from the state and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, added a siren to the warning signs about diminished influence.

For the past quarter-century, the Roll Call Clout Index has gauged the relative strength of every state’s delegation at the start of each Congress. Michigan has remained the eighth most populous state since 1990, but its team of lawmakers has finished as high as fourth in influence several times — and never lower than the current ranking of seventh.

Michigan’s ability to remain anywhere in the Top 10 next year is now seriously imperiled. The size of the delegation (14 House members plus the pair of senators) is not going to shrink again this decade, but downward arrows are blinking red next to all the other quantifiable factors: collective longevity and positioning for power, and influence in leadership and the committee system.

Full story

March 28, 2014

Congress Will Allow Government Retirement System to Stay in the Cave Age

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Kelly represents the district that houses what The Washington Post labeled the ‘Sinkhole of Bureaucracy’ in Boyers, Pa. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

There’s a nickname for news reports so provocative that readers are compelled to give them a literal shout out. They’re called “Hey, Martha!” stories — as in, “Hey, Martha! Come read over my shoulder: You’re not going to believe this!”

Just such a doozy dominated The Washington Post’s front page on March 23. It detailed how the government processes federal worker retirement forms: entirely by hand, almost exclusively on paper and always deep inside an old mine in rural western Pennsylvania.

As if that picture of bureaucratic inefficiency were not jaw-dropping enough, the story explained the sobering consequences: The process takes an average of 61 days. More than 23,000 cases are backlogged on a typical day. And, after spending more than $130 million since the late 1980s on three different modernization efforts that failed, there’s almost no chance the system will hook up to the computer era — let alone the Internet age — in the foreseeable future.

What that means is that more than 100,000 outgoing government employees annually — dozens of veteran congressional staffers and Capitol complex laborers among them — can expect to wait more than two months before their retirement is official and they start seeing their full benefits. (Usually, checks representing partial estimated payments show up sooner, but even those became seriously delayed during last fall’s partial government shutdown.)

In the current tight budget climate, and given that combating federal retiree hardships isn’t a politically important cause for many lawmakers, Congress will not be spending what it takes to automate or digitize the process — or to bring it out of the darkness.

But, just as it won’t seek credit for ending the cave age system, it doesn’t deserve credit for starting it, either.

People familiar with the Hill’s old earmarking culture may assume the paperwork mine came into being under the auspices of a couple of powerful lawmakers. The available circumstantial evidence suggests otherwise.

Full story

March 26, 2014

Campaigns, Take Note: Braley’s, Brown’s and McConnell’s Unforced Errors Offer Lessons Aplenty

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Braley at the Iowa State Fair in 2011. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Running gets a lot tougher when you’ve injured yourself. Three topflight Senate candidates are about to find out whether their aspirations have been slowed a bit by a political stubbed toe — or hobbled indefinitely because they’ve shot themselves in the foot.

Within just a few news cycles this week, we saw a trifecta of unforced errors. Ex-Sen. Scott P. Brown volunteered “probably not” when asked if he has the proper credentials to seek a seat in his newly adopted home state of New Hampshire. Rep. Bruce Braley apologized after seeming to gratuitously insult all the farmers in his native Iowa. And Mitch McConnell was forced — twice! — to alter a campaign advertisement because of footage that caused consternation in basketball-crazed Kentucky.

The cluster of incidents underscore several truisms about modern competitive congressional contests: Virtually everything a candidate does or says gets noticed, recorded and repeated. Symbolic snippets that reinforce problematic aspects of a politician’s reputation stand to be remembered more than a dense policy speech or an extensive voting record.

And so those who head out on the stump would do well to adopt the physician’s maxim, “First, do no harm.” Full story

March 25, 2014

Hill’s Bipartisan Deadlock on Phone Records May Be Easing

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NSA compromise is brewing for House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., right, and ranking member Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Eight months ago, in one of its most important and fascinatingly nonpartisan votes of recent memory, the House came up just seven members short of eviscerating the government’s vast effort to keep tabs on American phone habits.

The roll call revealed a profound divide in Congress on how assertively the intelligence community should be allowed to probe into the personal lives of private citizens in the cause of thwarting terrorism. It is a split that has stymied legislative efforts to revamp the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection programs.

Until now, maybe. Senior members with jurisdiction over the surveillance efforts, in both parties and on both sides of the Hill, are signaling generalized and tentative but nonetheless clear support for the central elements of a proposed compromise that President Barack Obama previewed Tuesday and will formally unveil by week’s end.

The president, in other words, may be close to finding the congressional sweet spot on one of the most vexing problems he’s faced — an issue that surged onto Washington’s agenda after the secret phone records collection efforts were disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

If Obama can seal the deal, which he’s pledged to push for by the end of June, it would almost surely rank among his most important second-term victories at the Capitol. It also would create an exception that proves the rule about the improbability of bipartisan agreement on hot-button issues in an election season. Full story

March 24, 2014

Doctors Win, Jobless Lose: The GOP Confronts New Perception Problem

The week is still young, so there’s time left for the Republicans to change course. But for now, the party is moving assertively toward generating one of the most tin-eared headlines of this campaign year:

Congress bails out doctors again but still spurns the unemployed.

Through a confluence of circumstances, the two measures likely to get the most attention at the Capitol for the next several days would each cost about $10 billion, and both include budgetary offsets making them deficit-neutral.

But only one is likely to ever get cleared: Legislation giving physicians significant, if not-quite-total relief, lasting until after the election, from the 24 percent cut in their Medicare fees that is set to take effect next month. Full story

March 23, 2014

Oberweis’ Illinois Senate Bid Testing Theory That Persistence Pays Off

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(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

They don’t call him the Milk Dud for nothing, but right now, he is on a little roll.

Jim Oberweis made most of his fortune in the family business, a high-end dairy delivery service and chain of ice cream parlors in Illinois. And in the space of six years in the previous decade, he poured many gallons of his riches into five failed campaigns for high-profile positions — earning not only that enduring nickname, but also the enmity of Republican operatives and officeholders from Capitol Hill to Springfield, Ill.

Now Oberweis has launched his second act in American politics by winning two straight elections. He took an open state Senate seat in the GOP outer suburbs of Chicago in 2012, and last week he claimed the nomination to try and stop Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin from winning a fourth term.

But virtually no one expects Oberweis to extend his winning streak come November. At best, his allies concede, his caustic rhetorical approach and willingness to tap his own bank account could combine to make the fall campaign more expensive and uncomfortable for Durbin. (The Democrat, who counts President Barack Obama as his proudest mentoring achievement, remains favored in a year when the president’s sagging approval is the defining dynamic nationwide.)

And at worst, losing a sixth high-profile election could doom the 67-year-old Oberweis to live with the ridicule that comes with the label “perennial candidate,” no matter what he ends up accomplishing after returning to the state legislature.

Full story

March 17, 2014

Aides Aiming for Pins: Staffers Look to Join 1 in 7 Members Who Have Worked on Hill

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The newest member of the House, David Jolly, represents more than an early trophy for the Republicans and a vision of worry for the Democrats this midterm election year. For legions of Hill aides in both parties, he’s also a happy reminder that time as a staffer remains one of the best possible resume builders for those who aspire to someday wear a member’s pin.

Jolly’s opponents in Florida’s special House election never tired of affixing to him the epithet Beltway lobbyist, and that’s how he’s made a good living since 2007. But before then he spent almost a dozen years on the staff of his predecessor, the late C.W. Bill Young. He rose from legislative aide right out of college to district director and then general counsel when Young chaired the Appropriations Committee.

At his swearing in last week, Jolly became the 62nd current House member who’s held a paid position as a congressional aide. The same is also true of 14 incumbent senators. In both chambers, that’s one out of seven members.

And the roster looks likely to grow in the 114th Congress. Three somewhat competitive Senate races have candidates who once worked on the Hill, and former aides are solidly in the hunt in a dozen House contests. Thirty more with staff experience are running what appear to be hopeless federal campaigns at the moment, but some of those could still blossom. (None of these figures includes the dozens of members or 2014 candidates who have been Hill interns.)

The numbers underscore what may seem intuitively obvious in the Capitol Hill community: The sort of people who dream about becoming “the principal” will gravitate to employment with the elected officials they want to emulate. And those given an opportunity to conclude, from firsthand experience, that the congressional life’s potential benefits outweigh its manifest frustrations may be more likely to take the candidacy plunge.

Serving as an aide, in other words, is just as obvious a ticket-punching move for a budding career politician as is a judicial clerkship is for someone hoping to end up on the bench. Full story

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