Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
April 21, 2014

Posts in "Domestic Policy"

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

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

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 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 13, 2014

Will Miller’s Exit Leave Pelosi Too Lonely at the Top?

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Is the retirement of Miller, center, a sign that Pelosi, left, is considering leaving Congress soon as well? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

Cheney’s Exit Is the Buzz, but Enzi’s Future Is the Story

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Enzi is likely to return to the Capitol a year from now as one of its most adept and best-positioned legislative forces. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

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

6 Sleepers Lurking on the Hill’s To-Do List

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

3 Reasons Congress’ Year Might Start Unexpectedly Strong

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

Big Gun Ban Vote Will Mean Much Less Than It Seems

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Schumer is pushing for a stronger version of a House bill banning plastic guns. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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

November 20, 2013

Don’t Bet on a Tax Code Rewrite Happening Anytime Soon

luncheon014 100113 445x296 Dont Bet on a Tax Code Rewrite Happening Anytime Soon

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In the current congressional climate, it’s wiser to assume something won’t happen than it is to assume it will — even when it’s the chairman of an important committee proposing a sweeping policy rewrite.

That advice should prove good for assessing the meaning of this week’s biggest legislative policy revelations: the plans for revamping the federal tax code that Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus has been gestating for years, which he has started parceling out in modest daily installments.

One of the top Democratic tax-writers on the Hill for more than a decade, the Montana Democrat has been defying initial expectations and working as hard as he’s able to marshal whatever political capital he has behind an overhaul. He still dreams of defying all the odds and realizing his biggest legislative achievement in the next year before his four decades representing Montana in Washington come to an end.

“Once we get the ball rolling, many are going to say, ‘Hey, maybe there’s something to this. Maybe there’s an opportunity there to help the country create jobs and therefore an opportunity for political benefit,’” he told reporters in beginning his big reveal Tuesday.

It’s tough to find viable reasons for believing he’ll achieve this admittedly steep uphill climb, but there are several solid reasons to be confident it won’t.

Full story

November 14, 2013

Yellen Takes a Grilling, but Will Soon Head the Fed

Janet L. Yellen faced intense and skeptical questions from several Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee, but nothing appeared to threaten her prospects for becoming the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.

While almost all the public and congressional attention is focused on the intensifying travails of the health care law, Wall Street is paying more attention to the Yellen confirmation hearing. If confirmed, she will be a dominant player in federal monetary and fiscal policy for at least the next four years — longer, probably, than the anxiety over Obamacare’s implementation. Full story

November 7, 2013

Democrats Unveil Post-ENDA Game Plan

Senate Democrats, confident of passing legislation banning job discrimination against gay people, are readying their next assertive moves on three other issues important to their base:

  • Abortion rights
  • Minimum wage
  • Federal judiciary

The goal is to divert as much attention as possible away from the problem-plagued Obamacare rollout at this formative stage of the 2104 campaign. Full story

November 4, 2013

Gay Civil Rights Debate Moves to Still-Recalcitrant House

Monday evening’s preliminary test vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act essentially guarantees that the most consequential civil rights bill of the year will pass the Senate with genuinely bipartisan support, very likely by the end of the week.

And so, even before the crucial 60th public supporter was locked down (from Republican Dean Heller of Nevada), proponents and opponents were decamping to the other side of the Capitol, believing a climactic debate in the House during the coming months may be moving toward inevitability.

Advocates of the bill — which would outlaw workplace discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people — are working to create something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: The metaphoric arc of history is bending so quickly toward this measure of justice that, by the time midterm Election Day arrives in one year, Republicans in close races will appear dangerously out of touch unless they have become part of turning ENDA into law.

Critics say they’re confident in their view of a very different political dynamic: Voters will remain much more worried about boosting the economy than about creating more costly, religious-freedom-impinging, and maybe even unnecessary, business regulations for the benefit of narrow and out-of-the-mainstream interests.

The House’s top two leaders have encapsulated those sentiments in recent days.

Speaker John A. Boehner “believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs,” his spokesman Michael Steele said Monday, reiterating the top Republican’s longstanding plans to keep the bill bottled up.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she believed she could pressure the GOP hierarchy into applying a lesson from the expansion of the Violence Against Women Act, which Boehner ushered through the House this winter without a majority of his majority, concluding that doing otherwise would worsen the GOP’s potentially debilitating gender gap.

“We made it too hot to handle in the public. It had to come to the floor,” the California Democrat said of her party’s tactics. “We would hope that once burned, twice learned.”

Women are a majority of the electorate, and Democrats won their 2012 vote by 9 points. The 5 percent who told the exit pollsters they were gay, lesbian or bisexual preferred the Democrats by 54 points. Those are just two of the numbers that have prompted so much strategic soul-searching about softening the party’s image on social issues.

Proponents of ENDA will be concentrating their efforts on rounding up House co-sponsors, hoping momentum from the growing roster of supporters in the Senate (on top of significantly expanded congressional support for gay marriage in the past year) can create an absolute majority of committed “yes” votes in the House.

All but a dozen Democrats have signed on, and perhaps half of the holdouts may yet do so. At least four look destined to vote “no” because they cited the GOP arguments in opposing the somewhat narrower version of ENDA the House passed in 2007. They are John Barrow of Georgia, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia — all looking at tight races in swing districts in 2014 — plus Daniel Lipinski of Illinois.

That breadth of Democratic support would still require advocates to find about two dozen Republican votes, or about 10 percent of members. That’s a tall order in a GOP conference where many more members are more concerned about primary challenges from their right than about winning general elections in the center. And Boehner maintains he won’t call up the bill, even if it secures enough commitments to pass.

That situation is why one of the tactics under increased discussion would be replicating what happened in 2010 with the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” restrictions on gays in the military: Working to attach ENDA to a must-pass bill with considerable Republican support, such as the annual defense authorization measure, and gambling that enough conservatives would rather swallow the gay rights language than imperil the Pentagon budget.

Only five Republicans are co-sponsoring the stand-alone bill so far. And only one of those is in a competitive race where social policy liberalism looks to work to his benefit: Chris Gibson, who’s running for a third term in a Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains district of New York. President Barack Obama carried that district by 6 points. Gibson is running against Democrat Sean Eldridge, who is married to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and has spent much of his career as an advocate for marriage equality.

The other four GOP backers are centrist Jon Runyan of central New Jersey, libertarian-tinged Richard Hanna of upstate New York and two of the veteran moderates who voted for the narrower bill six years ago: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania.

Ten other Republicans remain from that group, including Budget chairman and 2008 vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon, House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller of Michigan, incoming Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, and Boehner confidant Pat Tiberi of Ohio.

All of them have signaled opposition to this year’s iteration because it would extend federal job bias protections to transgender people, whom the 2007 bill did not mention in a calculated effort by its sponsors to boost the GOP vote total. While 35 Republicans voted “yes,” only a handful of the 25 Democrats who voted “no” said they did so to protest the bill’s lack of inclusiveness.

Among those Democrats was Maine’s Michael H. Michaud, who revealed he is gay Monday in an op-ed published by two of the state’s biggest newspapers — a response, he said, to the “whisper campaigns, insinuations and push-polls” of his opponents in next year’s race for governor.

Dropping the transgender provision now doesn’t look to be on the table, for several reasons: A bill including that clause is going to get decent GOP support in the Senate. Taking the language out won’t unlock a surge of GOP support in the House, because most of those members still view the bill as an affront to family values and free enterprise.

What’s more, the gay rights community now looks united behind a strategy of waiting for the comprehensive victory it is confident will come before too long.

November 1, 2013

Hill Staff Health Care: Will Voters Care About This Sideshow?

For better or worse, but at least with some finality, congressional staffers’ three-year run as pawns in the Obamacare debate is ending.

Now these aides will have to wait a year to learn whether the source of their medical plans matters a whit to the voters.

Given the abysmal approval ratings that members of Congress are confronting, and the welter of public apprehension about the health law that’s making Republicans giddy and Democrats anxious, it’s tough to imagine any close race in 2014 being influenced if the incumbent’s staff is still covered under the federal health system, not one of the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges.

But since the suggestion of hypocrisy is the mother of so many 30-second attack ads, it’s not unreasonable to imagine some challengers at least trying to make a big deal out of lawmakers who have decided their employees won’t have to enter the new marketplaces into which they have recently steered millions of constituents. Fairly or not, these critics will describe this as fresh evidence of Congress going out of its way to exempt itself from the social experiments it imposes on the rest of the nation. Full story

October 29, 2013

A Filibuster Holiday? Christmas Comes Early for Obama in the Senate

Seven skirmishes in the Senate confirmation wars are being fought more or less simultaneously this week.

By the time these tussles conclude — after a series of test votes that could stretch into next week — there’s a decent chance President Barack Obama and his Democratic front men will have emerged undefeated, or nearly so.

That would amount to a solid second victory for the president on top of this month’s triumph in the shutdown and default standoff, one he could bask in for a few days because the oppositional Republican House will be silent for the next week, in recess from Wednesday until after Veterans Day.

Advancing so many contested nominees so quickly would also mark an important turning point toward finishing the Senate’s year with a return to functionality — if not quite regular order. At a minimum, it would mean that senatorial nuclear winter won’t be setting in early this year because the Democrats were able to help the president put his stamp on the government without upending decades of precedent in their own workplace.

The first two rounds went to Obama with relative ease on Tuesday.

Full story

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