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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Kavanaugh Accuser Rejects Proposal for Monday Senate Judiciary Hearing
Lawyers sent a letter to Judiciary Chairman Grassley, encouraging an FBI review first

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley had scheduled a hearing Monday to hear from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated 10:28 p.m. | Lawyers representing Christine Blasey Ford, the alleged victim of a sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh decades ago, are rejecting the idea of an open hearing in less than a week from now.

Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, the lawyers representing Ford, said in a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa that plan to hold a hearing on Monday, Sept. 24., was not going to work for their client. A copy of the letter was posted by CNN on Tuesday evening. 

Understanding the Constitution Is Hard, This New Website Helps Explain
Cornell University Legal Information Center introduces searchable version of Constitution Annotated

The Constitution of the United States is stored under glass in the rotunda of the National Archives. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Want to know the parameters of a president’s pardoning power? What about the definition of the emoluments clause? Or what constitutes an impeachable offense?

The Supreme Court decisions that have informed such constitutional questions — all hot topics during the Trump administration— are now easily searchable thanks to a new project by the Legal Information Institute at the Cornell Law School.

EPA Watchdog to Step Down as Scott Pruitt Probes Continue
Arthur Elkins had contradicted the former administrator’s account of his security detail

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies during a hearing in May. The inspector general who led multiple investigations of his spending habits is retiring this fall. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The EPA’s inspector general, who led multiple investigations into former Administrator Scott Pruitt’s spending and management practices at the agency, will leave in October, his office announced Tuesday.

Arthur A. Elkins Jr., who has been EPA inspector general since 2010, said in a news release that he will retire on Oct. 12, but did not indicate whether his departure is related to issues at the agency. Before becoming inspector general, Elkins worked as associate general counsel in the EPA’s Office of General Counsel.

Mark Judge, Possible Witness to Alleged Brett Kavanaugh Sexual Assault, Does Not Want to Testify
“I did not ask to be involved in this matter nor did anyone ask me to be involved”

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 6. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

The third person identified by Christine Blasey Ford as having been present in the room during what she alleged was a sexual assault by Judge Brett Kavanaugh wants no part of the Judiciary Committee proceedings.

“I did not ask to be involved in this matter nor did anyone ask me to be involved,” Judge said in a statement relayed to the committee by his lawyer.

Court Bucks Chief Justice, Sheds Light on Dark Money Donors
Justices denied stay of lower court ruling requiring donor disclosure

The Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision paved the way for super PACs and other avenues of political money. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Some political groups may no longer be able to hide the identities of their donors after the full Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed a decision by Chief Justice John G. Roberts that had stopped a lower court ruling requiring the disclosures.

The full court, which has eight members at the moment, denied an application for a stay — or delay — of the lower court ruling in a case involving the conservative group Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, which has been fighting since 2012 a lawsuit demanding that it disclose its donors.

Trump Focuses on Kavanaugh’s Resume, Family — Not Accuser
‘This is not a man who deserves this,’ president says

President Donald Trump said Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh is a “gentleman” and expressed empathy for what he and his family are going through — but he did not offer the same to his accuser. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump has called for the FBI to investigate his political foes, but on Tuesday he signaled he will let bureau leaders decide whether to look into sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

His comments revealed much about the White House and Senate Republicans’ emerging strategy: Focus on Kavanaugh, his career, his professional relationship with women and his family — but do not attack Ford. And do everything they can to keep the nomination in solid enough shape for a floor vote in the coming weeks to tip the balance of the high court to the 5-4 conservative majority the party has eyed for a decade.

Future of U.S. Military in Syria Decision Coming Soon, Trump Says
Calls out Russian plane downing

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House chamber on January 30, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Extra Hurricane Relief Cash Could Wait Until After Elections
Ryan: ‘Right now FEMA has money in the pipeline’

Residents of Spring Lake, North Carolina, are evacuated from their apartments as flood waters rise. FEMA enters the recovery phase with coffers flush with cash. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has more than enough money to assist states hit by Hurricane Florence and likely won’t need Congress to pass an emergency disaster aid bill in the coming weeks, based on figures provided to lawmakers.

Due to lawmakers’ largesse when they provided more than $136 billion in late 2017 and earlier this year — mostly to respond to Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma — government disaster aid coffers are flush with cash. It’s a vastly different situation from last year, when Congress returned in September after Harvey spent five days battering Houston and surrounding areas.

Kavanaugh ‘Anxious’ to Testify, Trump Says
President says he will not order FBI to look at allegations facing Supreme Court nominee

President Donald Trump smiles during his State of the Union address on Jan. 30. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/POOL photo)

President Donald Trump on Tuesday said Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is “anxious” to defend himself before senators next week, and said the FBI should not investigate sexual misconduct allegations the nominee is facing.

Trump could order the FBI to look into the allegations, which date back to a 1982 high school party, ahead of a much-anticipated Senate hearing Monday. But he signaled Tuesday he will not do so.

A Workhorse and a Hard Charger Aim for Transportation Top Spot
Sam Graves and Jeff Denham mostly align on policy, but couldn’t vary more in style

An airplane takes off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport at sunrise on Monday, Aug. 27, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The personalities of the two candidates angling to be the next top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee may be the starkest difference between them.

As Steering Committee members decide committee leadership posts later this year, they’ll have to choose between behind-the-scenes operator Sam Graves of Missouri and Jeff Denham, a hard-charging Californian best known for nearly forcing House leadership’s hand on immigration votes by advancing a discharge petition earlier this year. 

Public-Facing Congressional Research Reports Site Launches to Criticism
crsreports.congress.gov went live on time, but with a number of shortcomings

A new Congressional Research Service website with public reports is now live. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congress’ in-house research division has moved to make more of its reports public, as required by law, but the new website is already drawing criticism.

Under the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill, the Congressional Research Service had to publish all nonconfidential reports on a public website operated by the Library of Congress. The website went live Tuesday, meeting the deadline set by appropriators.

Spending Vote Deal and No Brett Kavanaugh Markup Means Quick Senate Exit
Senators set to vote to fund government through at least Dec. 7

Reporters question Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process as he returns to his office from the Senate floor on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senators made another quick exit from the Capitol on Tuesday.

The chamber was always going to be closed for business Wednesday, in observance of Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown Tuesday. But getting the next two-bill spending package done and ready for the House next week could easily move up the departure.

Wisconsin Democrat Randy Bryce Snubbed by Brother in New Ad
Paul Ryan-aligned super PAC put out the ad in speaker’s home district

James Bryce, the brother of Wisconsin Democratic congressional candidate Randy Bryce, endorsed his brother’s opponent, Bryan Steil, a former aide to Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis. (CLFSuperPAC/YouTube)

Strangers from around the country have poured millions of dollars into Democratic congressional candidate Randy Bryce’s campaign after his video announcing a grass-roots bid against Speaker Paul D. Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District went viral.

But the “Iron Stache,” as he has been nicknamed on the web, has not managed to secure the support of someone much closer to home: his brother.

Scary Moment for Rep. Chris Stewart at Debate
‘Vaccines cause autism!’ man shouts into Utah rep’s microphone

Utah's 2nd District candidates for Congress Shireen Ghorbani and U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart participate in a debate on Monday in St. George, Utah. (Chris Caldwell/The Spectrum via AP, Pool)

Police arrested a man Monday after he walked onstage and interrupted GOP Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah at a debate with Democratic opponent Shireen Ghorbani.

Law enforcement arrested Corbin Cox McMillen and charged him with disorderly conduct and interrupting a political meeting, a Class B misdemeanor, for leaning into Stewart’s microphone during his closing statement and loudly stating a conspiracy theory about a connection between vaccines and autism, according to KUTV in Utah.

Obscure Pentagon Fund Nets $2B, Sets Pork Senses Tingling
Program prompts complaints of ‘jurassic pork’ as some see earmarks by another name

Where supporters see a way to bankroll innovate programs that the military may not even know it needs, critics see pork by another name. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Pentagon will soon have received about $2.3 billion in the last nine years — money the military never requested — for a special fund intended to help replace earmarks after Congress banned them, our analysis shows.

Buried deep inside the $674.4 billion Defense spending measure for fiscal 2019 that the Senate is expected to vote on this week is a chart with one line showing a $250 million appropriation for the Defense Rapid Innovation Fund, the latest installment of sizable funding for a largely unknown program that quietly disburses scores of contracts every year.