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August 2, 2015

Posts in "Domestic Policy"

July 9, 2015

The One Candidate Who Did Something in Congress

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Webb may have only stayed one term, but he got a lot done in Congress, for a freshman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When the expansive presidential field tops out the week after next, five current and six former members of Congress will officially be in the hunt. Only one can claim to have driven the enactment of landmark legislation.

Jim Webb, who announced his bid for the Democratic nomination a week ago, spent just a single term as a senator from Virginia and realized his crowning achievement as a freshman. The bill he introduced on his first day in office in 2007, the most comprehensive update of the GI Bill in 25 years and the biggest expansion of educational aid to veterans since World War II, became law a year and a half later. Full story

June 21, 2015

Four Nominees From Hill History for New Face on $10

Chisholm could be a contender for the new $10 bill. Her portrait was dedicated in March 2009, with Reps. Barbara Lee, Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Chisholm could be a contender for the new $10 bill. Her portrait was dedicated in March 2009, with Reps. Barbara Lee, Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

There’s not a female face on our paper currency, which the U.S. Treasury is now promising to change. There is also no one on our money who’s distinguished because of service in Congress. The Obama administration has viable options for rectifying both shortcomings simultaneously with its choice for new portraiture on the $10 bill.

A strong case can be made that the visage for our monetary future should be Jeannette Rankin, the first congresswoman. Or Margaret Chase Smith, the first female to serve in congressional leadership. Or Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman in Congress. Or Barbara Jordan , a singular voice of congressional conscience during the constitutional crisis of Watergate. Full story

June 18, 2015

GOP Not Quite Ready for the Health Care Victory It’s Dreamed About

Obamacare

Sisters hold a sign at a rally outside of the Supreme Court during arguments in the King v. Burwell case on March 4, 2015. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With each passing day of Supreme Court suspense, the image of the dog catching the bus has come more warily into focus for congressional Republicans.

The wait could end as soon as Thursday, when the justices are expected to announce rulings in a few of the 17 cases remaining on this year’s docket. If there’s still no decision on the fate of the landmark health care law, many GOP members will indulge in a collective sigh of relief — because they will have been given a little more time to cobble together plans for a moment they’ve spent five years dreaming about. Full story

June 10, 2015

In Budget of Billions, a Fight Over Pennies for Metro

A proposed cut to Metro funding would affect hundreds of thousands of commuters. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)

Congress’ proposed cut to Metro funding would affect hundreds of thousands of commuters. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)

When tracking this year’s inevitable budget crisis, which is showing every early sign of climaxing 16 weeks from now in another shutdown showdown, the Hill community may want to keep Metro in mind.

Even the most seasoned members, staffers, lobbyists and reporters tend to have their eyes glaze over when confronted with appropriations numbers expressed in the multiples of billions and adding up to more than a trillion — so much of it for weapons systems, farm programs, school aid, medical research, prison construction and the like that’s way removed from their own lives.

Full story

March 26, 2015

Voting Marathon: More Test Marketing Than Attack Ads

Begich was able to deflect campaign attack ads stemming from the vote-a-rama. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Begich was able to deflect campaign attack ads stemming from the Senate’s vote-a-rama. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators readying their patience, their reading material and even their bladders for the annual ritual known as the “vote-a-rama” may rightfully be getting ready to ask, “Will it be worth it?”

The answer, predictably, depends on who’s posing the question. A look back over the past decade reveals a divide that countermands the conventional wisdom. For those wishing to make life miserable in the next elections for their Senate colleagues across the aisle, the answer is a version of, “Not so much.” For those hoping to uncover hidden pockets of legislative momentum, the answer is, “Sometimes.” Full story

March 25, 2015

Why the ‘Doc Fix’ Deal Has Senate in Something of a Fix

Boehner seems pleased he's worked out a deal with Pelosi on the 'doc fix.' (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Boehner seemed pleased Tuesday that he’s worked out a deal with Pelosi on the “doc fix.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The odds have crested the 50-50 threshold for what would surely become one of the year’s biggest legislative achievements — an overhaul of how doctors and other Medicare providers get paid. And the usual encrusted ideological positioning, at both ends of the political spectrum, is no longer the biggest obstacle.

Instead, what’s standing in the way is a springtime functionality gap between the Capitol’s two wings. Full story

March 4, 2015

Landmark Supreme Court Cases Ahead, but Not on TV

Sotomayor has changed her views on cameras in the courtroom since her 2009 confirmation hearings. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Sotomayor has changed her views on cameras in the courtroom since her 2009 confirmation hearings. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s arguably the most important single hour of federal policymaking this year, and it’s happening Wednesday morning inside a government building on Capitol Hill. But except for clusters of reporters and attorneys, joined by a few dozen citizens who’ve waited hours in a long queue for a glimpse, the event will remain invisible forever.

The occasion is the Supreme Court oral argument, starting at 10 a.m., in a case threatening the viability of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. The justices are going to decide if one phrase fails to legally underpin one of the statute’s central provisions: Tax breaks for poor and middle-income Americans who obtain medical insurance through the federal government’s new online marketplace.

King v. Burwell is one of this term’s landmark disputes, along with the cases that could establish a constitutional right for gay couples to marry, to be argued this spring. Health care for millions is threatened in the first instance, and the civil rights of millions is at stake in the other. But taxpayers whose futures hang in the balance will never get to witness their government in action at this important juncture. Full story

February 24, 2015

Oscar-Winning Portrayals About Legislative Impasse

Common and John Legend (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Common and John Legend. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

There’s always at least of whiff of politics at the Oscars, but the speeches this year touched on as many different hot-button issues in Congress as ever.

Almost all the appeals for action were jabs from the left, readily predictable given the homogeneity of the movie industry’s ideology. So, almost all the passionate provocateurs are bound to be disappointed with what they hear out of the Capitol — at least between now and the 89th annual Academy Awards in 2017. Full story

February 12, 2015

Power Primer: Obama Veto of Keystone Is Just One Step

In this 2007 archival photo, Ron Auerbach, 8, delivers petitions to the White House to protest President George W. Bush's veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In this 2007 photo, 8-year-old Ron Auerbach delivers petitions to the White House to protest President George W. Bush’s veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It looks like a refresher course is in order on how Congress handles a veto, procedurally and politically.

It’s been four years and four months since the last time a president rejected a bill that landed on his desk. And 243 House members, along with 54 senators, have taken office since the last time legislation was enacted despite such a veto.

The most recent veto date (October 2010) is about to be eclipsed, because President Barack Obama has left no doubt he’s going to return the measure approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline. But the most recent override marker (July 2008) is guaranteed to remain a while longer, because neither side of the Capitol has the two-thirds majorities required to make the Keystone bill into a law without the president’s say-so. Full story

January 29, 2015

A Democrat’s Choice to End Subtlety on Divisive Issue

Ryan, center, might be looking to join Sen. Sherrod Brown, right, in the other chamber. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Ryan, center, just might be looking to join Sen. Sherrod Brown, right, in the other chamber. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Yet another measurement of the current congressional polarization, and yet another reminder that nothing happens on the Hill without suspicion of political motive, arrived Wednesday on the op-ed page of the Akron Beacon Journal.

It was an 820-word essay from one of the four House members from that part of northeastern Ohio, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, headlined, “Why I changed my thinking on abortion.”

Full story

July 10, 2014

Politics, Not Policy, Shape Bridge Over Highway Cliff

Lawmakers are struggling with a long-term solution for funding the nation's transportation construction. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Lawmakers are still struggling with a long-term solution to fund transportation construction. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Latest Budget Skirmishes: From School Lunch to Immigration

Two young children pass out plates to promote passage of a school nutrition bill in 2010. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Veteran Voices, Influence Fade on the Hill

None of the veterans in this 2008 photo are currently serving in Congress, an illustration of the dwindling numbers of military members on the Hill. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

None of the veterans in this 2008 photo are currently serving in Congress, an illustration of the dwindling numbers of military members on the Hill. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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 a dozen House members and one senator, recently appointed Democrat 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

Greasy Piglets Vs. Guilty Elitists: A Climate Standoff

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Minimum Wage Vote Loss Gives Democrats Their Wedge Issue

Senate Democrats are going after Republicans on the minimum wage, just in time for the midterms. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats are lambasting congressional Republicans on the minimum wage, just in time for the midterm elections. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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

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