DC update: three big battles in September
08/31/15 Filed in: Political System
Having been otherwise engaged for five weeks, the members of Congress will return to Washington on September 8. There are many important matters on the agenda, but let’s focus on three items that belong in the “must do” category. If all of them got accomplished, the coming month could truly be “a September to remember.”
Here is what we would like to see Congress do: (1) Comply with the clear intent of the Iran Nuclear Review Act by conducting a yes or no vote on this “deal” and sending the results to the president by the September 17 deadline; (2) Start moving appropriation bills, which under congressional budget procedures are due to be completed by September 30; (3) Refrain from renewing the charter of the Export-Import Bank, which expired on June 30. Discussion follows.
A. The Iranian nuclear deal (IND) - Our views about the substance of this agreement were expressed in last week’s entry and summarized in an 8/27/15 letter to the Delaware members of Congress. Enough said!
We would like to comment, however, on some procedural aspects of the coming congressional showdown.
In common parlance, the IND would appear to be a “treaty” requiring affirmative approval of 2/3 of the US Senate (Constitution, Article II, Section 2). The administration proposed to label it an “executive agreement,” however, so as to finesse the requirement for Senate approval.
In the face of mounting criticism, the administration agreed that Congress would be allowed (but not required) to take a vote on the IND within 60 days of its finalization. The Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015 (Corker bill) was passed by an overwhelming majority of the House & Senate; the president signed it on 5/22/15.
Now the IND has been finalized, and the deadline for congressional action is September 17. Most Republican members of Congress are reportedly planning to vote against it, and a few Democrats (notably Senators Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez) have announced they will do likewise. A resolution of disapproval is anticipated.
That’s not the end of the story, however, as a presidential veto has been promised. If there was a veto, a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress (which doesn’t appear attainable) would be required to block the IND. Fading hopes for Congress to stop the Iran deal, Eli Lake & Josh Rogin, nypost.com, 8/29/15.
Democrats would apparently prefer not to have a congressional rebuff on the record, as evidenced by statements that a resolution of disapproval will be filibustered if possible. Thus, if 41 of the 46 senators in the Democratic caucus lined up in favor of the IND, no vote on the matter would take place.
Delaware’s senior senator came out in favor of the IND last week. This is why I am in favor of the Iran nuclear deal, Senator Tom Carper, News Journal, 8/28/15A. Senator Chris Coons is slated to declare his intentions on September 1.
As all but a handful of the 535 members of Congress voted for the Corker bill, which affords them an opportunity to vote on the IND, wouldn’t it be patently unfair for 41 senators to support a filibuster just because they didn’t expect the vote to go their way? One leading critic certainly feels that way. [Senator Tom] Cotton blasts Reid for threatening to block Iran vote, Ted Barrett, cnn.com, 8/25/15.
Harry Reid wants to deny the American people a voice entirely by blocking an up-or-down vote on this terrible deal. He is obstructing because he is scared. He knows that a majority of Americans and senators oppose this dangerous deal, and that its only chance for survival is if he and the president ram it down the throats of the American people.
Nevertheless, the Corker bill doesn’t seem to rule out a filibuster in this situation. There is a provision for expedited consideration of legislation (including no Senate filibusters), but it only applies to subsequent congressional actions under specified circumstances, e.g., a presidential report of a material breach of the IND by Iran, not to the original vote. Thomas legislative site (search for HR 1191).
There will be political theater galore in the next several weeks, including a September 9 rally against the IND led by two GOP presidential candidates. Trump, Cruz to hold anti-Iran rally on Capitol Hill, Julie Hattem & Kristina Wong, The Hill, 8/27/15.
But at the end of the day, the IND may escape a congressional vote unless Senate Republicans do something SAFE suggested several months ago – abolish the filibuster. Something’s got to give in the US Senate, 2/23/15.
B. Funding the government – As is well known, the government will be forced to “shut down” as of October 1 unless funding has been authorized by then for all or part of the new fiscal year. Ideally Congress should get busy and start passing appropriation bills in line with the budget resolution passed in early May, but Senate Democrats are blocking action on grounds that Republicans must effectively agree to scrap the budget resolution.
One possible outcome is some sort of bipartisan budget deal, which would accept somewhat higher deficits going forward and leave all of the principals (never mind us taxpayers) in a position to claim that they “won.” When Congress returns from vacation, budget fight looms, Richard Cowan, reuters.com, 8/27/15.
The U.S. Congress will soon embark on a high-stakes budget negotiation with President Barack Obama that, if productive, could give Republicans the increased military spending they want and Democrats the increased domestic spending they seek.
We see no valid reasons for such a budget summit. First, previous budget negotiations with the president have produced lamentable results. Debt limit deal solved nothing, 8/8/11. Second, the congressional budget resolution may be more fiscally responsible than the president’s budget proposal, but it doesn’t cut spending fast enough to suit us so a “split the difference” approach doesn’t make sense. The budget process grinds on, 5/4/15.
On the other hand, Republican leaders in Congress are determined to avoid a shutdown – and given the outcome of the shutdown two years ago one can hardly blame them.
The government shutdown ends, with unresolved issues aplenty, 10/21/13.
The most likely outcome is an omnibus continuing resolution to keep the government going until December or so, after which there might be another CR for the rest of the fiscal year. That’s a terrible way to run a $4 trillion a year cost center, in effect setting overall spending levels and divvying up the loot without reviewing the merits of the various programs being supported, but it’s become the norm in recent years because Congress has repeatedly failed to follow its own budget procedures.
Finally there is SAFE’s proposal that the members of Congress get serious and start moving detailed appropriation bills through the system. Given some attitude adjustments on both sides of the aisle (as previously discussed), it should be possible to get the job done (in September if possible, but a short-term CR could be passed if time ran out despite good faith efforts). Another budget shutdown looms, 8/17/15.
C. Export-Import Bank – The need here is not to take action, but only to block efforts to renew the EIB’s charter (which expired at the end of June). Despite no worries about filibusters in this case, the battle will not be easy.
The EIB has existed since the 1930s; its activities primarily benefit large US corporations like Boeing and General Electric, which should be able to afford their own export financing arrangements. In other words, here’s an example of “corporate welfare” – a category of spending and targeted tax breaks that costs taxpayers some $100B per year. Wouldn’t it be nice to eliminate the EIB and other corporate welfare programs, thereby simultaneously streamlining the government and debunking the notion that conservatives are shills for the business community?
Given all the populist political rhetoric these days, one might think doing away with the EIB would be an easy sell. Guess again, because the EIB is popular with big business and many politicians are therefore pleased to support it. Supporters claim, among other things, that this program doesn’t cost the taxpayers a dime (probably untrue if fair value accounting is used) and that other countries subsidize their exports so the US must do likewise to remain competitive. Corporate welfare has nine lives, 7/11/14.
Legislation to save the EIB was inserted into a bill to provide more dedicated revenue for the highway trust fund (HTF); the bill (aka DRIVE Act) was passed by the Senate in early August and is now awaiting consideration by the House. Meanwhile, a short term “fix” (transfer of funds from general revenues) will keep the HTF afloat until October 29.
In his August 22 weekly address, the president criticized Congress for taking a 5-week vacation while leaving a lot of business unfinished. He went on to tout saving the EIB as one of the top priorities in September.
For the first time ever, Congress failed to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. That left thousands of business owners and their employees at a serious disadvantage compared to their competitors overseas. That’s not good for jobs. It's not good for our economy. When it returns from recess, reauthorizing the bank ought to be a top agenda for members of Congress.
The Senate’s DRIVE Act has many flaws, starting with the fact that it is a revenue bill and should therefore have originated in the House (Constitution, Article I, Section 7). Our hope is that the House will bin it and start from scratch. Given that there have been a series of short-term fixes for the HTF going back to 2009, it’s a mystery why a longer-term solution has suddenly become so urgent. If the House can’t agree on a longer-term solution by October 29, then another short-term fix would be better than passing legislation that hasn’t been properly thought through. Fixing the Highway Trust Fund, 8/3/15.
In any case, the EIB provisions should be stripped out of the HTF legislation, debated on the merits, and rejected. It’s time to begin dismantling corporate welfare programs, and this appears to be a good place to start.
#The only cure for the problems referred to in this morning’s memo is ‘TERM LIMITS’. The present CONGRESS - both parties – is made up of people bent on protecting their own cushy existence. Service to the country is a [distant] second priority. – SAFE member (DE)
SAFE would love to see term limits, but it would take a constitutional amendment to put them in place and previous efforts have fallen short. Government run amok disease, Nov.-Dec. 2009 (term limits section).
##"There is no prime mover to make politicos change their tactics of using more and more tax monies to buy votes. And when the Constitution gets in the way, legislation will be passed to circumvent it. The mistake was allowing people who don’t pay much in the way of taxes, and therefore aren’t concerned about the cost of government, to vote. – SAFE director