Articles of Interest

GOP Unified Control Still Means Divided Congress

The demise of the Republican effort to repeal the 2010 health care law put an exclamation point on what has become obvious in Washington: The GOP, for all its enthusiasm following its election win last year, is too riven with dissension to meet ambitious goals it set out for itself.

And President Donald Trump seems to have oversold his skills as a deal-maker.

“On delivering on their campaign promises, it’s hard to pat them on the back and tell them they’ve done a good job,” said Sam Geduldig, a former aide to House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, now a partner at the CGCN Group lobbying firm.

That said, the downfall of the Senate health care effort has obscured the achievements Congress has had.

History shows that “it is a mistake to expect big-ticket legislative accomplishments during the early months of presidents newly elected to the office,” said David Mayhew, the Yale political scientist who is perhaps America’s foremost student of congressional productivity.

The exceptions come in moments of crisis, such as early 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed landmark legislation to regulate the sale of stock in response to the Great Depression, or early 2009, when President Barack Obama got his stimulus bill to revive an ailing economy.

Obama didn’t sign his health care law or his financial regulatory overhaul, Dodd-Frank, until his second year in office. President George W. Bush got a tax cut across the finish line in June of his first year but didn’t sign the biggest policy victory of his first Congress, the No Child Left Behind law, until January of the following year.

Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have set ambitious goals to overhaul the 2010 health care law and revamp the tax code. Prospects for both look bleak — GOP leaders announced last week they were throwing out their initial tax plan — but who knows?

It’s easy to foresee the 115th Congress setting a record for futility. But there have been achievements.

So far, the biggest GOP win was the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, gained by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to change Senate rules to allow a simple majority to confirm him — as well as hold the seat open more than year after Antonin Scalia’s death, depriving Obama of the chance at so much as a hearing for his nominee to succeed Scalia, Merrick G. Garland.

The Senate has confirmed every Trump Cabinet appointee it considered. Trump’s only loss on that front, his first Labor Department nominee Andrew Puzder, dropped out after acknowledging that he’d hired an unauthorized immigrant as a housekeeper.

Trump trails his three most recent predecessors, Obama, Bush and Bill Clinton, in the pace of his nominations and confirmations.

On the productive side of the ledger, this Congress did make innovative use of the Congressional Review Act, a 1996 law allowing it to rescind recently finalized regulations.

It had been used successfully once before, in 2001, when Bush signed a resolution revoking a rule by the Clinton Labor Department requiring employers to protect their workers from repetitive stress injuries: the ergonomics rule.

This year, Congress rescinded 14 Obama-era regulations to keep pollution out of streams and guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, among other things. Such CRA resolutions make up nearly a third of its legislative output.

It also sets a precedent future Congresses will surely mimic.

In May, Congress finalized fiscal 2017 spending. It came seven months after the fiscal year began, but was done without shutdown brinkmanship.

In June, Trump signed a law that marks a bipartisan win: a measure responding to the scandal at Veterans Affairs Department hospitals, where dying veterans were left waiting for appointments. The law makes it easier to fire VA employees for poor performance and for whistleblowers to come forward.

Still, Congress hasn’t made much progress on basic obligations. Fiscal 2018 appropriations bills have only begun to move, with no indication Republican leaders can, as promised, restore an orderly budget process.

The House passed a “minibus” spending bill Thursday covering four of the 12 annual appropriations bills for defense, military construction and veterans’ benefits, energy, and the legislative branch. It included $1.57 billion for barriers along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.

There’s little likelihood it will be enacted in its current form. Because Democrats can block appropriations bills in the Senate, given the 60-vote threshold there, the two parties need to reach a deal to raise limits on defense and nondefense spending enacted in 2011.

Democrats don’t plan to go along with the wall funding, or the defense spending increase in the House bill if there are not comparable nondefense increases. Congress must raise the debt limit, too, this fall — always a fraught vote.

House Republicans hope to move a fiscal 2018 budget resolution when they return in September that would allow them to move forward with a tax overhaul using the fast-track budget reconciliation procedure. Reconciliation allows the Senate to pass measures that have budgetary effects such as taxes, spending and the deficit with only a simple majority.

But disagreements among Republicans over the centerpiece of the House GOP leaders’ initial tax proposal, a border adjustment tax that would have hit imports, prompted leadership on Thursday to ask the tax-writing committees to start over.

Meanwhile, Congress is making progress on other must-pass bills. The House has passed measures reauthorizing the Food and Drug Administration’s system of user fees — which help fund the agency — and a defense authorization bill. They await Senate action.

Both chambers are moving forward with legislation, due by Sept. 30, to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. Progress is slow because of Trump’s plan to privatize the air traffic control system. The House has incorporated the proposal into its bill, but the Senate has rejected it. Republicans are divided over the idea, with rural members most likely to oppose it for fear it could hurt small airports.

And work has begun on reauthorization of the federal flood insurance program, also set to expire this year.

Another issue is what to do about surveillance authority granted to the National Security Agency in 2008 to collect emails of foreign terrorist suspects. The NSA’s dragnet at one time captured messages written by Americans who were not suspects but merely mentioned people who were, prompting an outcry from civil libertarians. The agency earlier this year said it was now only collecting emails to or from suspects.

Even so, the expiration of the authority at the end of this year will prompt a fight between security hawks who want to renew it, and civil liberties advocates who want to let it expire, or curtail it. Congress has made no progress on a resolution.

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Rants aside, Trump scores big with Congress
Podcast, Episode 141

Trump in the House during his State of the Union address on Feb. 5, 2019. Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Reps Omar and Zeldin are beefing on Twitter... again
New York Republican, Minnesota Democrat have longstanding Twitter beef over terrorism, Middle East politics

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., speaks during the press conference calling on President Trump to declassify the Carter Page FISA applications on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Reps. Lee Zeldin and Ilhan Omar renewed their Twitter beef this week — this time, over a Coast Guard lieutenant caught using work computers to plan a sprawling domestic terrorist attack against Democratic lawmakers.

Zeldin, a New York Republican who is Jewish, and Omar, a Minnesota Democrat who is Muslim, accused each other over Twitter in January of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Donors to Rep. Duncan Hunter’s legal defense fund: His uncle, defense contractors
Longtime donors connected to Edison Chouest Offshore also contributed

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, walks down the House steps following a vote in the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Donors to a special fund established by Rep. Duncan Hunter to underwrite his legal defense include the board member of the company founded by his uncle and multibillion dollar defense contractors.

Hunter can tap $60,800 in donations to a piggybank separate from his campaign committee — called the Duncan D. Hunter Legal Expense Trust — to finance his legal case. Hunter faces trial in September on 60 federal charges related to spending more than $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses such as a family vacation to Italy and dental work.

Some troops will stay in Syria, White House official confirms
‘The exact number has not been determined yet,’ the senior White House official said.

President Donald Trump delivered the State of the Union address, with Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, at the Capitol in Washington, DC on Feb. 5, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times POOL PHOTO)

A senior White House official confirmed the Trump administration plans to keep U.S. troops in Syria even after President Donald Trump announced plans of a complete American withdrawal.

“Yes, some troops will stay in Syria,” the senior official told Roll Call Friday morning. The confirmation comes after Senate Armed Services member Lindsey Graham, a Trump confidant, announced the president decided to leave 200 U.S. forces in the war-torn country to combat the Islamic State.

Democrats introduce disapproval of Trump’s border emergency declaration
Rep. Joaquin Castro told reporters there was one Republican cosponsor — Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, is leading the resolution of disapproval. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

An effort to disapprove of President Trump Donald Trump’s border security national emergency declaration is on the fast track through the House of Representatives.

Rep. Joaquin Castro told reporters that he filed the joint resolution of disapproval on Friday.

From silent to millennial, generations of the Democratic presidential field
The growing primary roster now ranges in age from 37 to 77

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, represent the range of generations making up the 2020 Democratic presidential field. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Say this for the Democrats, they are multigenerational. 

Their presidential field continued to swell as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who affiliates with Democrats, announced he was running and promptly raised millions of dollars to show his campaign apparatus was doing just fine. 

White House ‘looking into’ Acosta’s role in sex offender’s illegal plea deal
Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined Friday to say whether Trump still has confidence in his labor secretary

Alex Acosta, nominee for Secretary of Labor, talks with Ranking Member Patty Murray, D-Wash., during his Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building, March 22, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday declined to say whether President Donald Trump still has confidence in Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta a day after a federal judge ruled the Justice Department broke the law while Acosta was a U.S. attorney. 

Florida-based U.S. District Judge Kenneth A. Marra ruled Thursday that Acosta — then the U.S. attorney in Miami — signed off on a 2008 plea deal with Jeffrey Epstein, the Palm Beach billionaire and serial sex abuser, without informing victims about what they were doing. 

Rep. Steve King says he has been cyberbullied
Iowa congressman says New York Times, Washington Post and former NRCC chairman conspired against him

Rep. Steve King told reporters in Iowa that he has “nothing to apologize for.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Steve King was defiant in an interview with Iowa public television this week, insisting he won’t apologize for the racist remarks and actions that cost him all of his committee assignments and endangered his reelection.

“I have nothing to apologize for,” King told a roundtable of reporters on Iowa Public Television in a Thursday taping.

Congress tries to walk the climate crisis talk
Amid debate on Green New Deal, Democrats are treading lightly in their daily lives

Staffers are aiming to lead by example, by creating workplace cultures where being “green” is a priority. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Staffers working for environmentally minded lawmakers are trying to walk the talk on climate change by taking small personal actions while their bosses call for big-picture policy shifts.

Around Capitol Hill, several aides are aiming to create workplace cultures where being “green” is a priority and holding colleagues accountable is the norm.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a ‘living wage’ starts in her office
New York Democrat will pay staffers no less than $52,000 a year

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, center, and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, third from right, arrive with staff members for a press conference on the Green New Deal outside the Capitol on Feb. 7. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Claudia Pagon Marchena, like so many Hill staffers, moonlighted at a Washington, D.C., eatery to pay her rent until she took a job with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She celebrated her last day at her coffee shop job that same week.

That’s because Ocasio-Cortez, who has called on fellow lawmakers to pay their staffs a “living wage,” is making an example out of her own office. The New York Democrat has introduced an unusual policy that no one on her staff will make less than $52,000 a year — an almost unheard of amount for many of the 20-somethings whose long hours make House and Senate offices run.

Abusive callers, chatty constituents? It’s all in a day’s work on the Hill
For former interns, staff assistants, answering phones has been a formative experience

Aaron Fritschner, communications director for Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., has plenty of experience answering constituent phone calls in his previous positions on Capitol Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Aaron Fritschner’s first day on Capitol Hill was Dec. 14, 2012.

As the only intern in New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s office, he was being trained how to answer the phones and talk to constituents.

Lori Trahan got the band back together as she staffed up her office
Freshman Democrat was once a Hill aide herself

When Rep. Lori Trahan was a scheduler, she tried to be the first one at the office, if only for a little quiet time. Now that she’s the boss, she doesn’t want her staffers to burn the candle at both ends. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Lori Trahan knows a thing or two about transferable skills. After climbing the Hill ranks from scheduler to chief of staff, she decamped to the male-dominated world of tech, where her congressional experience came in handy.

Now that she’s back as a freshman Democrat — in the same seat once held by her former boss, Massachusetts Rep. Marty Meehan — she’s trying to think like a consultant. That means being willing to say, “Wait a second, that’s crazy.”

Will members of Congress ever drug-test themselves? They’ve certainly tried
From the Gingrich era to the present, lawmakers have toyed with peeing in a cup

Last year Rep. Clay Higgins became the latest member to call on Congress to drug-test itself. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congress has a long history of trying to drug-test itself. But has it ever succeeded?

Back in 1997, House Republicans got close. They changed the rules to let the speaker develop a sweeping program to test members and staff.

Frostpaw still can’t bear climate change
That’s why this gigantic polar bear roams around Washington

Bill Snape dons his Frostpaw outfit in Philadelphia for the 2016 Democratic convention. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

If you see a 7-foot polar bear around D.C., don’t panic. It’s probably just Frostpaw.

“It’s akin to hot yoga,” said Bill Snape, who’s been donning the iconic costume for several years. “Whenever I first put it on, I have these five minutes of claustrophobia and discomfort, and then I just relax and find my breathing pattern and get into this love trance.”