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Posts in "Domestic Policy"
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big fight over how to sidestep the edge of the transportation funding cliff is not going to be about remaking an outdated policy.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
June 15, 2014
Appropriations is supposed to be the exception to the rule that Congress will be minimally productive this year, and the recent flurry of action on the annual money bills has made it appear that way.
Just beneath the surface, though, lies a lengthening list of disagreements over spending priorities and policy shifts. They are not only between Republicans and Democrats on the Hill, but also between Congress and the Obama administration.
Half a dozen major confrontations have surfaced just in the past week — even while progress has appeared steady.
Nine of the dozen appropriations bills have at least started down the legislative assembly line. The House is on course to pass its fifth measure this week, and Eric Cantor says moving as many as possible is his main goal before relinquishing the majority leader post at the end of July. The Senate has set the next two weeks aside for debating a package containing three of the politically easier domestic bills.
Yet no one in the know is holding out hope for answering all the myriad where-the-money-goes questions by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year and also when lawmakers plan to pack up for a month of full-time campaigning. That means a continuing resolution will surely have to keep most (if not all) of the government operating at least to the middle of November, when the lame-duck session begins and Republicans know whether they’ll have more power next year.
The end result, for now, is a real sense of disconnect. One the one hand, there’s a superficial steadiness to the appropriations process, a break from many years of chaos from the start. On the other hand, there are plenty of signs that a long period of the customary messiness lies ahead.
Here are five disputes that have recently blossomed, each of which has the potential to complicate this year’s budget debate until its closing days. Full story
June 2, 2014
It’s among the more curious recent coincidences in Congress. The veterans’ health care scandal reached a climax, and galvanized unusually bipartisan outrage — just as the dwindling roster of veterans slips below a symbolic threshold.
The defeat of 91-year-old Rep. Ralph M. Hall in the Texas Republican primary last week means there won’t be any veterans of World War II at the Capitol come January. He was among the nearly 500 members from the “greatest generation” who served both during the war and in Congress.
Hall’s impending departure underscores how the decline in members with military experience has been accelerating for three decades, creating ample anxiety for veterans organizations. As their roster of virtually guaranteed Hill allies has dwindled — and splintered among lawmakers who served in half a dozen conflicts — these groups have grown increasingly concerned that Congress is losing its ardor for forcefully addressing veterans’ concerns.
Their fears have grown as budget constraints have intensified and because the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees have gained reputations as legislative backwaters — not only beset by rapid turnover, from the top seats on down, but also now infused with the partisanship that had for so long skirted these committees.
The worries will be tested anew this summer, no matter who is nominated to run the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to replace Eric Shinseki, who resigned last week. Revelations about astonishingly long waiting times for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, and efforts by officials to cover up the problem, is applying considerable pressure on both parties to compromise on legislation smoothing delivery of care to the 6.5 million veterans who use the system annually.
Senate Democrats on Sunday unveiled a revived and expanded version of their comprehensive VA health care bill, which was blocked by a GOP filibuster in February. It calls for overhauling the VA appointment scheduling computer system, hiring more medical personnel, making it easier to fire senior department officials and creating 27 new veterans clinics. Implementation would cost at least $18 billion during the next five years.
When the House returns next week, it will begin moving legislation embodying the GOP’s big idea on the subject, which is to make the VA embrace more privatization. The bill would permit any veteran who has waited more than a month for an appointment at a department facility to get care from a private hospital or doctor, with the VA providing vouchers for footing the bill.
Both measures look likely to move through the Veterans’ Affairs committees, creating rare moments in the national spotlight for a pair of panels that are more often regarded as legislative afterthoughts by leadership and as way stations by the rank and file.
In the past decade, the chairmanship of the Senate panel has changed five times and the House committee gavel has been passed along four times. Six of the 14 seats on the Senate committee have changed hands over the last four years. Turnover on the House side has been even more dramatic: Nine of today’s 14 Republicans, and eight of the 11 Democrats, are in their first or second terms. That’s 17 of 25 lawmakers who are relatively new to Congress. The general rule has been that members are willing to bide their time on the VA panels only until their bids come through for more powerful or prestigious committee posts.
In the winter, Republicans blocked the Senate bill to protest both its cost and the restrictions imposed on what amendments they could offer. Now, with the wait time scandal on the front pages, Democrats are betting a sufficient number of Republicans will reverse course.
GOP interest in more private care, and the thwarting of the Senate bill, have caused friction between veterans lobbying groups and the top Republican on the Senate panel, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina. (Another sign of the high turnover on the panels is that Burr rose to be ranking member after just four years as a senator.)
The rift burst open over Memorial Day weekend, when Burr offered a blanket condemnation of veterans organizations, saying they are “more interested in their own livelihoods and Washington connections than they are to the needs of their own members.” Many of the groups lambasted him right back, with several of Burr’s critics suggesting he had no feel for the real concerns of people who wore a uniform because he is not among them.
Sticking by that correlation could prove problematic for the veterans groups. Military service is on the resumes of only eight of the 39 lawmakers now serving on either of the VA panels — and none of them is a chairman or ranking member.
Those numbers are a precise reflection of the entire 113th Congress. Just 19 percent of the current membership served in the military (86 lawmakers in the House and 18 in the Senate). That percentage peaked at 77 percent (347 in the House and 65 in the Senate) in 1977, when members of the World War II generation were in their late 40s and early 50s. With those people aging and the era of an all-volunteer armed forces set in place, the share of veterans has been shrinking since — dropping below half of lawmakers in the middle 1990s and falling below one-quarter a decade ago.
According to data compiled by CQ Roll Call, nearly one-third of the veterans now on the Hill served during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. Only one, recently appointed Democratic Sen. John Walsh of Montana, saw combat.
Speaker John A. Boehner is the only member of the leadership with any military service. He enlisted right after graduating from high school in Ohio in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, but was honorably discharged after eight weeks in the Navy because of a back problem.
The 2012 election, meanwhile, was the first presidential contest since 1944 when neither major party nominee was a veteran.
Hall, first elected in 1980, will now join Democratic Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, who’s retiring, in turning out the lights on the Hill’s World War II generation in December. (The Senate’s final veteran of that conflict, Democrat Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, died last year.)
The first of their ilk arrived in 1944, before the war was even over. That’s when Democrat George Andrews won an Alabama House seat while on active duty in the Navy, and Republican William Jenner was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy fresh from his discharge as a captain in the Army Air Corps.
Jenner retired in 1958, while Andrews stayed until 1970. But neither of them ever served on a committee that handled veterans policy. In their day, there just weren’t enough seats to go around.
May 7, 2014
In summarizing how the debate over the future of the planet played out Tuesday, the temptation to resort to a cliché proves too great.
The growing effects of global warming in all regions of the country were chronicled in unsettling detail in a report assembled over four years by hundreds of prominent scientists assembled by the government. But the study’s release by the Obama administration was met in Congress with nothing more than a bipartisan blast of hot air.
“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the scientists declared, writing in simpler language than most federal reports so that voters and policymakers alike might readily absorb the message. “Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced,” it goes on. “Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.”
The stark tone did not appear to sink in right away at the Capitol. Through no coincidence, senators were supposed to begin debating a modest measure to promote energy efficiency — but, as is so often the case, they devolved instead into an argument over the terms of debate.
“Often times working with my Senate Republican colleagues reminds me of chasing one of these little pigs in a greased pig contest,” Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada declared. “Regardless of all of our efforts, any time we get close to making progress, it seems as though we watch it slip out of our hands.”
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky countered that Democrats were only “about alleviating the guilt complexes of liberal elites,” whom he described as “the kind of people who leave a giant carbon footprint and then lecture everybody else about low-flow toilets.”
The readily apparent bottom line from this latest “So’s your mother” rhetorical duel: The chances have dropped precipitously that Congress will contribute in even the most modest way in 2014 to reducing Americans’ contribution to the warming of the Earth. Full story
May 1, 2014
Long before Wednesday’s totally predictable Senate vote blocking a bill to increase the minimum wage, President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress had embraced their guaranteed consolation prize.
It’s a construct as venerable as the Capitol itself: They will not have the bill, but they are plenty satisfied to have the issue.
In fact, especially if some sunshine newly cast on policy deliberations in the Clinton administration can be considered instructive, the Democrats may have gotten just what they wanted all along from one of the first big show votes of the campaign season.
“This is all about politics,” Minority Whip John Cornyn declared before the Senate came up five votes short of advancing the minimum wage legislation beyond a GOP filibuster. “This is about trying to make this side of the aisle look bad and hard-hearted.”
To support that assertion, the Texas Republican introduced into the record a document that his side views as powerful past-is-prologue evidence, unearthed from an avalanche of papers created in Bill Clinton’s White House and being released this year by the National Archives. It’s a January 1998 memo to the president about that year’s minimum wage debate. The author was Gene Sperling, who then ran the National Economic Council. Sperling, of course, returned to that job during the Obama administration, leading the NEC for three years ending this March, as Obama’s own minimum wage goals were evolving. Full story
April 27, 2014
Congress returns Monday afternoon for its longest run of the year — nine straight weeks when the lights will be on in at least one chamber. And, for so many glimmers of policymaking hope, it’s getting close to now-or-never time.
The House will be gone again in two weeks, the Senate will take off all of Memorial Day week and the House will be dark again the first week in June. But the next bicameral break is not until June 30 through July 4.
But don’t be fooled by the slog from spring into summer that’s now getting started. For the 113th Congress, it’s later than you may think.
After Independence Day, there are just four weeks until the August recess, which lasts five weeks, including the week starting on Labor Day, followed by maybe as few as a dozen days in session before early October. That’s when the House majority leadership has promised members they can go home to campaign full time, and the Senate’s likely to follow suit.
That’s not much time for genuine legislating, especially given that both parties plan to spend much of the time using the Capitol as a sound stage for their political messaging. This week, for example, the Democrats who run the Senate will make a big show of their obviously-going-nowhere legislation to raise the minimum wage by 39 percent in just two years. And the Republicans who run the House will go after headlines with their entirely-for-show vote to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the agency’s scrutiny of conservative political groups.
But there are still dozens of members in both parties working in the shadows toward deals that would refute the conventional wisdom that nothing will get done this election year. Serious talks are under way about how to finance the next generation of road construction, once the highway trust fund is emptied later in the year; how to meaningfully shrink the Postal Service’s overhead, and how to get a majority of House Republicans to “yes” on an immigration overhaul.
Any breakthroughs on those fronts are probably a season away. But here are five areas that remain ripe for important accomplishment in the next two months: Full story
April 8, 2014
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
March 28, 2014
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.
February 23, 2014
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 28, 2014
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 13, 2014
The long list of George Miller’s prominent official titles being unfurled is a reminder of why he is easily the most important member of the current Congress who has announced a retirement.
But his informal position — at the very center of Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle — makes Monday’s news of his planned departure especially consequential.
Miller has been her uniquely influential patron, confidant, consigliere, travel buddy and liberal soul mate during the past three decades. More than any other lawmaker, he made and has maintained his fellow Californian’s hold on power in the House Democratic Caucus. Full story
January 7, 2014
Few would argue that Michael B. Enzi ought to be the happiest guy in Congress this week.
As a practical matter, he’s just become the first of the 27 senators seeking new terms in 2014 to win re-election. Now that Liz Cheney has backed out of her GOP primary challenge, Enzi is as close as there is in politics to a sure bet to win his fourth term in solidly Republican Wyoming.
Once that happens, Enzi will be in position to return to the Capitol a year from now as one of its most adept and best positioned legislative forces, especially if his party has reclaimed control after eight years in the minority.
Enzi is not only unimpeachable from the right — as the former vice president’s daughter was belatedly starting to figure out — but he is also among the relatively few proven deal-makers in a Congress characterized by hardened ideological standoffs. The self-effacing nature suggested by his back story — he’s the only accountant, the only computer programmer and the only former shoe salesman in the Senate — comes off as the real thing in the daily legislative grind, where Enzi gains bipartisan admiration as an anchor tenant on the more virtuous end of the work horse to show horse spectrum.
In short, his low-profile but high-impact style of conservatism looks to be an essential piece of the Senate Republican strategic game plan for the rest of the decade, especially whenever his side is looking to strike a deal with the Democrats on domestic policy.
Enzi is not only positioned to make the most of it, but sounds determined to do so. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” is one of his favored cowboy aphorisms. Full story
January 6, 2014
The first Senate vote of the new year — Monday evening’s confirmation of Janet L. Yellen as the first Federal Reserve chairwoman in its hundred-year history — kicked off the second session of the 113th Congress with a genuinely meaningful bang.
And, as outlined in this space, there’s a solid chance lawmakers will achieve three of the year’s marquee goals before the coldest weeks of winter are over.
A $1 trillion spending package that begins repairing the broken appropriations process seems on course for completion next week. A deal that finds the bipartisan sweet spot for reductions in both food stamps and crop subsidies may follow in a matter of days. And prospects are brightening daily for a relatively drama-free increase in the Treasury’s borrowing authority — lasting until after the election — soon after the Winter Olympics are over.
But then what? Much of the talk at the moment is about revived Republican interest in changing immigration law. But it will be summer, after the bulk of tea party challenges to House GOP incumbents have played out, before leadership decides whether it’s politically safe pull the trigger on an agreement that would easily rank as 2014’s biggest.
After that, there’s a substantial drop in headline appeal. But there are a range of policy areas where Republicans and Democrats might plausibly strike narrow, and narrowly consequential, agreements before the midterm elections. These are half a dozen to watch: Full story
January 5, 2014
Congress is reopening for business this week, to begin what President Barack Obama says “needs to be a year of action.”
When the president offered that call to arms for 2014, just as the Capitol lights were being dimmed for the holidays, the eye-rolling sentiment from so many lawmakers, aides, lobbyists and journalists amounted to: “Yeah, right. Good luck with that.”
The collective assessment is there’s no way that 2013, the least legislatively productive first year of an administration in six decades, is going to be followed by a more productive spurt from a divided Congress in an election year.
However, the next 10 weeks may hold some genuine prospects for rebutting the conventional wisdom, if only temporarily.
A trio of hallmark accomplishments in the second session of the 113th Congress have strong potential to get done before St. Patrick’s Day. Assuming the Republicans keep to their current course — confining their focus to avoid new, self-inflicted political wounds — lawmakers will be able to extend their current truce in the budget wars not only on the spending front but on borrowing as well. A food and farm bill that gives both sides a claim to victory is well within reach.
And, without traveling too far into optimistic fantasy-land, it’s possible to envision that bipartisan success on that trifecta by March would spawn interest in reaching for some additional deals in the spring. An immigration overhaul may still be the longest of viable long shots, but there’s some hopeful early talk about carefully calibrating compromise on a variety of second-tier issues left hanging at the end of 2013 — from sentencing disparities to water projects, patent lawsuits to online sales taxes, energy efficiency standards to physician reimbursement rates. Full story
December 3, 2013
It sounds like a big, unexpected deal: A lopsided bipartisan House majority will vote to ban a category of firearms this afternoon. In fact, the modest measure is the handiwork of Second Amendment champions, and its passage probably guarantees no expansion of gun control gets enacted in the year since the Sandy Hook schoolhouse massacre.
The legislation would extend for a decade a longstanding prohibition on the production of entirely plastic weapons. Most Republicans will support keeping the law on the books, describing their vote as evidence of the reasonableness in the gun violence debate. Most Democrats will vote “yes” as well, because the bill stands to be the only gun control measure getting close to the House floor for the foreseeable future.
But most Democrats would like the bill to do more, and most Republicans want to make sure nothing more regarding firearms gets on the legislative docket. The suspense is over which side gets its way once the bill arrives in the Senate. The mystery won’t last long, because the 1988 law is set to expire next week. Full story