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

Posts in "Balance of Powers"

October 1, 2014

A Senator to Replace Holder?

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Klobuchar has been mentioned as a possible attorney general pick. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The latest round of Cabinet handicapping is well underway, a welter of uninformed speculation (mixed with some White House trial balloons) about who might be nominated as attorney general. And the names of three Democratic senators keep getting bandied about — although they’ve all, with varying degrees of intensity, denied interest in the appointment.

From President Barack Obama’s perspective, it would arguably make sense for him, in the short term, to return to the congressional well for one of the final topflight, polarizing positions he’ll ever get the opportunity to fill. But the long-term downsides appear far greater — not only for his own legacy, but for the already wobbly balance of power at the Capitol.

Besides, taking the job at this time doesn’t look like a smart career move for any of the Senate trio meriting recent mention: Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Full story

September 16, 2014

On Ebola, Obama’s Bold Move Is Greeted on Hill With Eager Assent

Contrary to what seemed certain as the week began, American military boots will soon be on the ground to combat a societal scourge on the other side of the world. And virtually no one in Congress sounds opposed to the idea.

That’s because President Barack Obama’s expanding global assertiveness, with congressional buy-in viewed as totally welcome but rarely required, inserted the country into another international crisis Tuesday. He said he would send 3,000 members of the armed forces to West Africa to provide medical and logistical support to local officials overwhelmed by the quickening spread of the deadly Ebola virus. He’ll also be taking $500 million out of the Pentagon fund for the longstanding war-fighting efforts and using it to open 17 treatment centers in the region.

“Ebola is now an epidemic of the likes that we have not seen before,” the president declared. “It’s spiraling out of control, it is getting worse. It’s spreading faster, and exponentially.”

The new deployment will be six times larger than the number of additional military advisers Obama announced last week that he was dispatching to help contain ISIS in Iraq. And the amount he’s spending to erect those field hospitals is the same as what it’s going to cost for the U.S. military to train and arm Syrian rebels so they can confront that militant extremist group’s rise in their country.

Notwithstanding those comparisons, there was only a small amount of discussion about the newest military surge Tuesday on Capitol Hill — especially when compared to the intensifying debate about Obama’s efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

One of the reasons for that is obvious: Members of Congress generally feel both a moral and a political imperative to take some sort of formal position before their uniformed constituents are sent on new as well as dangerous missions. That’s why there was no way the House and Senate would recess for the midterm campaign without at least voting on an authorization for the drilling-and-equipping effort.

In contrast, the medics, engineers and logistical support troops being dispatched by the end of the month to combat Ebola should be able to stay out of harm’s way. (They will be given all the protective gear and training they need to avoid becoming infected with the virus — which means avoiding direct contact with the bodily fluids of people already visibly sick.)

But, in other ways, the threats to Americans from ISIS and Ebola are comparable. Both the militants and the epidemic are rapidly spreading halfway around the word. While neither phenomena has yet tarnished U.S. soil, each holds potential to create transformational chaos closer to home soon enough. The administration has expressed concern not only about the capabilities of ISIS for domestic terrorist attacks, but also about the potential for Ebola to spread worldwide and mutate into a more easily transmitted disease.

There’s also the argument that Ebola’s accelerating spread in Africa is becoming a topflight national security threat, because the threat to the fragile governments and economies of the continent could open safe havens for incubating new terrorist groups.

Full story

September 15, 2014

Nuclear Option Helped Obama Refashion Bench

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Ten months after his fellow Democrats “went nuclear” in the Senate on his behalf, President Barack Obama is done putting his stamp on the federal judiciary — at least for the year, but maybe forever if Republicans take control of the place.

Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to exercise the so-called nuclear option, which he and his predecessors from both parties had threatened for more than a decade, created the biggest change in the congressional rules since the 1970s. Taking away the filibuster as a weapon for defeating nominees has given Obama nearly free rein this year in populating his own administration and the regulatory agencies.

Even more importantly, last November’s historic power play allowed the president to brush past intense GOP objections and reclaim an important outlet for perpetuating his legacy: Filling lifetime positions on the courts with like-minded judges who will still be serving long after Obama’s second term is over.

That probably will stop cold if the Senate switches partisan control come January. While Republicans can’t prevent votes on Obama’s choices while in the minority, they would be under no obligation to schedule any roll calls for his nominees if they’re the majority.

No matter what the electorate decides in seven weeks, Obama has already succeeded in his bid to refashion the bench — and the nuclear option has played a significant role. He has filled 30 percent of all the seats on the circuit courts of appeal, with a crucial 13 of those 53 judges confirmed since the filibuster was neutered. The bottom line result is that appointees of Democratic presidents are now the majority on nine of the 13 appellate courts — a nearly total reversal since Obama took office, when 10 had majorities of GOP appointees. (Thanks to four confirmations that launched the Senate’s post-nuclear era, the most important transformation was effected at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second-most influential bench in the country after the Supreme Court because it hears so many challenges to federal regulations.) Full story

September 10, 2014

Campaign Money Debate Won’t Help Hill’s Reputation

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Senate Democrats, such as (from left) Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Sheldon Whitehouse, are messaging on the Constitution. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s nothing more than another Senate floor sideshow this week, a stage-managed debate in slow motion where the ultimate outcome is such a decisive and foreordained defeat that almost no one is paying attention.

Paying short shrift to the campaign finance constitutional amendment may be understandable, especially in light of the two imminently consequential matters lawmakers must tackle before decamping to campaign: Voting to keep the government open beyond the election and deciding how to take a stand on the coming military intervention in Syria.

But passively perpetuating the enormous role of money in politics for another year, and with nothing more than a passionless “messaging vote,” is worrisome for a couple of reasons for anyone concerned about the badly frayed institutional reputation of Congress.

For one thing, such cavalier handling of a possible change to the Constitution can only intensify the perception that lawmakers rarely place seriousness of purpose ahead of politics.

The public had come to expect the legislative decks will be cleared for the rare deliberations of constitutional amendments, which is what happened when three such matters have come before the Senate in the past decade. (Republican proposals mandating balanced federal budgets, permitting laws against flag desecration and banning gay marriage all came up far short of the two-thirds majorities required.) But this time the Democrats are willing to let their bold idea for reconfiguring the Bill of Rights fade away with a routine walk-off-the-floor roll call. (Wednesday’s procedural voice vote set the stage for the disposative  party-line tally Thursday afternoon.)

For another thing, such a quick sidestepping of the issue will make it even more difficult next time to tackle one of the biggest obstacles to congressional collaboration.

The growing consensus, at least from the outside, is that the torrent of cash coursing into House and Senate campaigns is a main reason the Capitol has become such a dysfunctional mess — and there is no reversal in sight. Other really big institutionalized contributions to the problem include the partisan nature of redistricting and the polarizing of debate on television and online. So a good answer to the question, “What’s poisoning Congress?” starts with the simple mnemonic of the three Ms: money, maps and media. Full story

August 5, 2014

Rhetoric Overload, Four Decades After Nixon

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Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell talks about his Russell Office that use to belong to Richard Nixon during an interview in 2005. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Richard M. Nixon’s fate was effectively sealed 40 years ago today. It’s a curious coincidence at the start of an August recess when the extraordinarily serious matter of presidential impeachment is going to be tossed around in such a cavalier and cynical manner.

In the current era of partisan gamesmanship and governmental gridlock, it’s understandably difficult to comprehend what a genuine constitutional crisis feels like. But there is no doubt that’s what steadily swelled toward its climax on Aug. 5, 1974.

That Monday afternoon, Nixon made public transcripts of three conversations he’d had with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman just six days after the June 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. The move ended parallel standoffs — between the president and Congress and between the president and federal prosecutors — that had festered for two weeks, even after the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon could not claim executive privilege and had to fork over the records subpoenaed for the Watergate cover-up trial. The House Judiciary Committee had also been stiff-armed after issuing similar subpoenas on the way to approving its three articles of impeachment, with solid bipartisan support, in July.

Beyond breaking the separation-of-powers fever, the transcripts provided all the evidence necessary to bring Nixon’s presidency to a dramatically swift end. His words, preserved on what came to be known as the “smoking gun” tape, left no doubt he had personally launched a criminal conspiracy. The president had effectively ordered the cover-up of the Watergate burglary, agreeing that top CIA officials should be instructed to pressure the FBI to halt its investigation of the crime on cooked-up “national security” grounds.

Within hours, Nixon’s tenuous wall of congressional support crumbled. All 10 Republicans who had voted against impeachment in committee said they would vote on the floor for at least the article alleging obstruction of justice. (The other charges were abuse of presidential power and contempt of Congress.) Senior Republican senators were dispatched to inform the president he could not count on more than 15 votes for acquittal at a Senate trial. Nixon chose instead to resign, announcing that decision Thursday night and leaving office the morning of Friday, Aug. 9.

The anxiety of that sustained constitutional impasse — capped by a president who had proclaimed “I am not a crook” quitting after being forced to reveal he really was one — is seared in the memories of everyone on the Hill who lived through it. (The most recent reminder was the July 29 death, at age 89, of former Rep. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, who as a freshman on Judiciary conceded he broke down and wept after becoming among the first committee Republican to announce support for impeachment.)

But Watergate also was the formative national trauma for anyone who arrived in Congress from the 1970s through the 1990s, the generations who still hold sway over the national debate. For those politicians, regardless of ideology, Nixon’s forced resignation ranks with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as the dates in their lives that most live in infamy.

The desire to prevent a repeat of the Nixon drama helped prompt Democrats, just 12 years later, to quickly quash calls for President Ronald Reagan’s impeachment, despite solid evidence he violated the law and misled Congress in the Iran-Contra affair. Similar sentiment fueled the Senate’s never-in-doubt, bipartisan 1999 acquittal of President Bill Clinton on the House GOP’s charges that he should lose his job for lying to a grand jury and otherwise trying to cover up his affair with West Wing intern Monica Lewinsky. A decade later, Democrats made clear they had no interest in spending the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency prosecuting him for launching the Iraq War under suspect pretenses.

In that context, this summer’s casual talk sounds astonishing. Full story

July 11, 2014

Boehner’s Bet: Lawsuit Will Quiet Impeachment Calls

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Can Boehner’s lawsuit dampen calls for Obama impeachment? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

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

June 10, 2014

Obama’s Hill Relations No Picnic, Though There Is One

He called off the traditional picnic for lawmakers not once but twice last summer, then missed both congressional holiday balls so he could speak at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. But now plans seem locked down for everyone in the 113th Congress to have at least one sociable interaction with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Don’t expect those feel-good moments to do anything to alter the do-nothing nature of the relationship between Congress and the president.

Save-the-date emails have gone out to every member. They advise lawmakers to plan on bringing their spouses and kids to the South Lawn for supper, family-friendly entertainment and maybe even a snapshot with the first couple on Sept. 17. (There’s even a rain date, scheduled for the next night if necessary.)

Given that it will be approaching two years since rank-and-file members were able to break bread with the president, and that the party is in the middle of a week when both the House and Senate will be in session, turnout is guaranteed to be strong. Even the most combative junior Republicans and the most jaded senior Democrats can’t resist a social invitation from the White House — especially one that allows them to usher their families into town to taste the sort of history-tinged glamour that’s largely disappeared from congressional life.

The picnic also guarantees at least one weeknight in Washington this year when the relentless machinery of campaign fundraising will be throttled to almost a full stop.

There’s no chance that an evening of bonhomie and burgers will do anything to narrow the partisan chasm. And the opportunity to peer into Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden at dusk won’t prompt any lawmaker to think better of the West Wing’s legislative liaison efforts. Full story

May 18, 2014

Supreme Court Decisions to Shape Policy, Campaigns

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As the justices bring this season’s caseload to a close, they have a pretty clear idea how the rest of this Supreme Court year will play out. The rest of the country, however, will remain almost entirely in the dark until the remaining decisions are unveiled over the next six weeks.

The outcome in at least four of the most important disputes will help shape both the policymaking and campaign agendas of Congress through the midterm elections and beyond. But it’s possible no single ruling will have as much impact on the national political climate as the pattern that emerges in how the cases get decided.

The members of the current court are getting a reputation for being just as partisan and polarized as the politicians populating the other two elected branches of government. New polling shows the public is none too pleased with the Supreme Court’s perception, which is backed up by some pretty solid evidence, and people want term limits for the justices in an effort to depoliticize the court.

Full story

May 5, 2014

Gowdy Tailor-Made for GOP’s Benghazi Assignment

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(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

For those lulled into thinking the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has devolved into nothing more than an over-the-top Hollywood-D.C. mashup schmooze fest, one small scene offered a reminder of how real congressional business can get done in the least likely places.

While the gawking was focused on celebrities like the drummer Questlove and the actor Freida Pinto, three prominent Republicans huddled near the bar at one Saturday evening reception: pollster and messaging savant Frank Luntz, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Trey Gowdy, a conservative second-termer from South Carolina who’s about to take his first step into the national spotlight.

Their body language made clear the conversation was serious, so glad-handers should please stand clear. Still, it’s safe to assume the talk touched on the House GOP leadership’s decision to reverse course and establish a select House committee to investigate the 2012 terrorist assault on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, announced Monday that Gowdy would be the chairman, because he’s “as dogged, focused and serious-minded as they come.”

For the Republicans, creating the panel is a high-reward as well as a high-risk proposition. On the one hand, its hearings are guaranteed to excite and solidify the party’s conspiratorial and conservative base right through the campaign season, while forcing the White House to keep playing defense on another high-profile front and making life particularly unpleasant for Hillary Rodham Clinton (who was secretary of State during the attack) just as she’s deciding whether to run for president in 2016.

On the other hand, its work will subject the GOP to criticism that perpetuating congressional interest in an incident that eight Hill committees have already hashed over is an especially wrong focus in this election year, which should be about promoting policies to put more people to work at home instead of more costly political theatrics about a foreign policy foul-up.

But for the House’s newest would-be chairman, the next six months represent a career-altering opportunity with more potential upsides than downsides. Full story

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

February 23, 2014

Supreme Court EPA Regulation Case Tests Limits, Balance of Power

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(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans angry at President Barack Obama’s muscular use of executive authority are returning from recess more focused on litigation than on legislation.

The Supreme Court’s docket for this term is unusual for including two cases with potential to reorder the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches. In oral arguments six weeks ago, the justices seemed open to a significant clipping of the president’s appointment power when the Senate is in recess. On Monday, the court will consider how much an administration can do through regulation before it has seized the congressional prerogative to alter the law.

Both decisions, expected by June, could change the relationship between Congress and the White House in ways that constitutional lawyers and politicians will be arguing about for decades. In the shorter term, though, the outcomes may play a meaningful role in the midterm campaigns and then in Obama’s final two years.

If Obama loses one or both cases, even on narrow grounds, Republicans can be counted on to crow that their complaints about an “imperial presidency” have been vindicated. They likely would further say that, to make sure his power stays diminished, they need to be rewarded with more seats in the 114th Congress. If Obama’s positions prevail, the GOP will seek to raise more money, and court more base voters, with a slightly different argument: that electing an all-Republican Congress is the best way to prevent this president from even more executive overreach. Full story

January 29, 2014

Before Going It Alone, Obama Goes After Members

“Upbeat.” That’s the adjective being used as much as any other to describe the tone of Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Members from both parties could be forgiven for hearing it a bit differently.

The speech may well be remembered longest for its genuinely stirring finale, when President Barack Obama merged the story of a 10-times-deployed and gravely wounded Afghanistan war veteran, who was sitting in the balcony, with the country’s difficult path toward a more perfect union. “Like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” Obama declared to a sustained and teary-eyed standing ovation.

But in the preceding 63 minutes, the president mixed it up plenty with the audience in the House chamber. And he made clearer than ever that he views the Capitol as a readily avoidable impediment — generating headlines about Obama pursuing a “year of action” mainly on his own authority. He also took a handful of swipes at Congress, and they were arguably aimed at least as often at the institution’s bipartisan shortcomings as at his Republican tormentors.

The japes were somewhat subtle, by the standards of today’s political discourse. And they are being overlooked, probably for a couple of reasons that have to do with the ritualized ways of the modern State of the Union:

The lawmakers themselves have become almost excessively adept at cooking up their partisan talking points hours beforehand, and repeating them verbatim with minimal regard to what they actually hear. So not all that many of them picked up on his poking one-liners — all of which were at the relative low end of the dismissive-disdainful-disparaging spectrum.

Full story

January 28, 2014

A Minimum Wage Move With Maximum Confrontational Consequences

Among the stranger phenomena of the modern State of the Union tradition is how White Houses of both parties work so hard to drain it of almost all news value before the speech actually gets delivered.

The demands of the continuous news cycle, which affords the president so many opportunities to spoon out dollops of his agenda, now easily outweigh the traditional virtue of surprise — and the old-time verity that there’s no use annoying your hosts, your opponents or your potential partners before you absolutely have to.

The trend seemed locked in place Tuesday morning, 13 hours before the national television audience was asked to start paying attention. That was when the administration revealed what was guaranteed to be among the biggest, if not the biggest, headlines out of the address: President Barack Obama is going to give many thousands of blue-collar workers a raise — on his own authority.

In other words, not only was Obama making good on his promise to make this his most assertive year yet for maneuvering around the gridlock at the Capitol, but he was getting started even before going through the formalities of seeking congressional buy-in. (Of course, he made a major push for a $9 minimum wage in his State of the Union address a year ago, and that went nowhere.) Full story

January 12, 2014

A Balance of Powers Case With Senate GOP Power in the Balance

One of the biggest congressional stories of the decade starts unfolding Monday — not at the Capitol, but across the street.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in an epic balance of powers battle between the other two branches, one that’s been waiting to happen since George Washington’s time. During the hour, the justices may or may not signal clearly whether they’re going to permit the continued expansive use of the president’s recess appointment authority — or seriously limit its use for the first time.

That second outcome would give the Senate enormously more influence over the leadership of the departments and agencies and the tenor of the federal courts. But if the court rules that way, it will be almost impossible to notice any difference in the power dynamic before the beginning of next year — if then.

It may sound a bit paradoxical, but it’s the “nuclear option” that would guarantee such a delayed reaction.

And during that delay, a new measure of importance would get attached to the midterm elections. Full story

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