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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Federal money hasn’t reached disaster victims
Long after hurricanes, red tape leaves relief aid unspent

A man rides a bike in Loiza, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria in 2017. The island’s nearly $20 billion in aid from a Department of Housing and Urban Development program has been mired in a clunky bureaucratic process. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images file photo)

It’s been more than a year and a half since Hurricane Maria laid waste to Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing roughly 3,000 people and causing an estimated $90 billion in damages.

But federal money for any long-term rebuilding has yet to reach those in need in the U.S. territory, which was also battered by Hurricane Irma that same month.

Trump, Biden and the battle for Pennsylvania
‘Biden deserted you,‘ president roars in Montoursville rally, as former veep sets up shop in Philly

Former Vice President Joe Biden removes his jacket at the Eakins Oval in Philadelphia on Saturday as he formally kicks off his 2020 White House bid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Three times President Donald Trump mentioned former Vice President and Pennsylvania native Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic front-runner, and three times his crowd of loyalists booed at a rally Monday night in Lycoming County. But it is swing voter-rich places, like the one here in Lehigh County, two hours to the southeast, that will help determine who is president in January 2021.

Biden clearly has attracted the president’s attention since he jumped into his party’s race to take on Trump in the general election.

‘Inconvenient Truth’ producer tackles climate change again — just without saying it
The romance of farm life clashes with environmental reality in Laurie David’s latest project, ‘The Biggest Little Farm’

Laurie David’s latest project has less Al Gore, more oinking pigs. (Elissa Federoff/NEON)

Rising at dawn to milk the cows. Watching pigs root around in dirt. Listening to cute baby goats bleating while they munch on grass. Grabbing a shotgun to dispose of the coyotes terrorizing your chicken coop. Yes, farming can be romantic, but the reality of creating your own complex, self-sustaining ecosystem is not.

That’s the closest thing to myth-busting you’ll get from “The Biggest Little Farm,” the latest project from producer Laurie David. Thirteen years ago, she gave us “An Inconvenient Truth,” with its flow charts and heavy-handed appeals to science. The nasal intonations of former Vice President Al Gore were the righteous cherry on top.

Senate, House start to chip away at ‘kiddie tax’ hike
Increase for low-income children was an unintended consequence of 2017 tax overhaul

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., is leading the Senate effort to repeal the “kiddie tax” increase for military survivors in Gold Star families. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Both chambers are moving to reverse tax law changes that unintentionally subjected investment earnings of low-income children to the same tax rates paid by wealthier households.

The House, which under the Constitution must originate revenue bills, plans to act later this week on a broader retirement savings bill that would eliminate the full set of changes to the so-called kiddie tax made by Republicans in the 2017 tax overhaul.

Interior Department policy let political appointees review FOIA requests
So-called awareness review process could expose department to legal action

A public records request for emails between a National Park Service official and Lolita Zinke, above, wife of former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, was originally estimated to potentially yield 96 pages of communication. It ended up being 16 pages long after being put through the awareness review process.  (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo)

The Interior Department has for about a year allowed political appointees to weigh in on which federal records are released to the public, creating delays that could violate open records law and expose the department to legal action.

“If political officials are becoming involved in the process and as a result of that causes the agency to not comply with its obligations” under the Freedom of Information Act, “that is a serious problem,” said Adam Marshall, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.

Republican Fred Keller wins Pennsylvania special election
State lawmaker was heavily favored given 12th District’s GOP lean

Pennsylvania state Rep. Fred Keller, who won Tuesday’s special election in the 12th District, joined President Donald Trump onstage at a rally Monday in Montoursville. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A former factory manager who hasn’t gone to college is now headed to Congress.

Republican state Rep. Fred Keller easily defeated Democrat Marc Friedenberg in a special election Tuesday in Pennsylvania’s 12th District. With 48 percent of precincts reporting, Keller led the Penn State professor, 72 percent to 28 percent, according to The Associated Press.

White House, Hill leaders unable to reach spending deal Tuesday
“Deals like this take time,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer agree that spending caps and debt limit legislation will go on the same bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Negotiators were unable to reach an agreement on spending caps and the debt limit Tuesday, hours after a two-year deal seemed possible.

“Deals like this take time,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said after leaving an afternoon meeting between congressional leaders and administration officials.

After Iran briefings, Democrats in Congress want to know more, sooner
Republicans generally on board with Trump administration moves

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was among the Trump administration officials briefing lawmakers on Iran on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Intelligence briefings on U.S. relations with Iran Tuesday left Democrats in both the Senate and the House unsure of what the Trump administration’s objectives are following recent heightened tensions in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, briefed lawmakers on their strategic campaign to push back against what he called “Iran’s malign activity” and described the country as participating in 40 years of terrorist activity.

Hope Hicks, Ann Donaldson the latest ex-Trump officials to get subpoenas

Hope Hicks, former communications director for President Donald Trump, was subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee, along with Ann Donaldson, a former aide for Don McGahn. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks and Ann Donaldson, the former chief of staff for ex-White House Counsel Don McGahn, were issued subpoenas Tuesday to provide documents and testimony to the House Judiciary Committee for its probe into corruption and obstruction by President Donald Trump and his associates.

Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., sent Hicks and Donaldson document requests on March 4, but the requested materials were never furnished.

Marijuana legalization goes mainstream with first-ever forum in Capitol complex
Event highlights growing bipartisan support for banking, farming, medical and social justice bills

Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, is the co-sponsor of a bill that would allow states to craft their own cannabis policies. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The cannabis industry investors, business owners and legalization advocates had met before to discuss the legal and regulatory headaches of operating in a world that’s licensed and regulated by states but illegal under federal law.

But what made those at Tuesday’s gathering describe it as a public relations milestone was the location: inside the Capitol complex.

Trump wants 400 TSA agents sent to the border. Democrats say that may hurt morale
Lawmakers worry high TSA turnover could increase after the White House said it was sending agents to the southwest border

A transportation security officer checks passengers at Reagan National Airport in D.C. Democrats raised concerns Tuesday that the Transportation Security Administration’s ongoing problems with high turnover rates could worsen after the Trump administration announced it would send 400 TSA workers to the southwest border to help with the migrant surge. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats raised concerns on Tuesday that the Transportation Security Administration’s ongoing problems with high turnover rates could worsen after the Trump administration announced it would send 400 TSA workers to the southwest border to help with the migrant surge.

“I think what I see now is continued manufacturing of a crisis, to the detriment of TSA and some other agencies, which should not be,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., House Homeland Security chairman, said at a Tuesday hearing on the TSA workforce crisis. “I’m concerned that we are now putting airports at risk potentially, as well as the traveling public at risk in general, by taking people away from airports and sending them to the border.”

Is Artificial Intelligence the final frontier? Probably not

(Nathan Ouellette/CQ Roll Call)

Watch CQ Roll Call’s senior writers Gopal Ratnam and Kate Ackley dispel some common misconceptions about artificial intelligence.

These two Democratic presidential contenders voted for a gas tax increase
Both Sanders and Biden voted for the last federal gas tax hike 26 years ago

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, here at the Exxon gas station at Second and Massachusetts Avenue Northeast in Washington in 2007 for a news conference on price-gouging at the gas pumps, voted for a federal gas tax increase in 1993 — the last time it was raised. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

When he meets with Democratic congressional leaders Wednesday, a key question will be whether President Donald Trump backs an increase in the federal gas tax the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been pressing him to support.

Trump reportedly backed an increase in private meetings before, but the 2020 election could be a reason for hesitation.

Trump officials, congressional leaders make ‘progress’ on budget talks
A follow-up meeting is scheduled to begin Tuesday afternoon

Mick Mulvaney, acting White House Chief of Staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin walk through the Capitol after participating in a budget meeting about reaching possible agreement on the debt limit and spending caps with Congressional leaders Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congressional leaders and top Trump administration officials made “progress” toward a spending caps and debt limit agreement during a two-hour meeting Tuesday morning and are planning to meet again in the afternoon, according to acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

The meeting included Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought as well as Mulvaney.

Adios, La Loma: Requiem for a Senate-side institution
Mitch McConnell calls it ‘the shutdown we all oppose!!’

La Loma, a popular Mexican restaurant at 316 Massachusetts Avenue NE, has closed. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Whether it was the convenient location a short walk from the Capitol, the bustling street-side patio or the tanker-sized margaritas, La Loma carved out a place in the life of Capitol Hill. And just like that, its 21-year Senate-side run on Massachusetts Avenue Northeast was over. 

If any place proved the real estate maxim of location, location, location, it was La Loma. Southwestern natives grumbled about the quality and execution of the fare, but it didn’t matter. Even the rain or cold wasn’t enough sometimes to keep people away from the patio, festooned with its green awning and multihued umbrellas, particularly during happy hour. And when the sun was out, it made for a mad dash to lunch, particularly on the Senate’s semi-workdays, Monday and Friday — and especially during recess.