(E minus 43) There wasn’t much reason to expect big things when Congress reconvened in Washington after Labor Day; the only major legislation that appeared likely before the elections was a short-term continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government running until December. So much for earlier vows to pass 12 individual appropriation bills on a timely basis this year, thereby restoring “regular order” to the budgetary process. Assessing record of the 114th Congress, 8/29/16. Things have been proceeding more or less as expected since September 6, with considerably more talk than action, and in his weekly address on September 17 the president pointedly blamed Republicans. Both parties have contributed to the present impasse, however, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Our analysis follows, dear readers, see what you think.
I. Bad start - On September 6 (first day back), Senate Democrats voted to block two spending bills from being taken up (under the filibuster rule), in both cases for the third time.
#The first bill covered $1.1 billion in funding to combat the Zika virus; it included provisions that Democrats deemed unacceptable. Senate Dems block Zika bill, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner, 9/6/16.
Democratic lawmakers have refused to back the legislation because it strips more than half a billion dollars from a defunct Obamacare fund as well as more than $200 million from other unspent federal funds. Democrats also oppose the bill because the funding would not be distributed to clinics in Puerto Rico that are affiliated with Planned Parenthood, a women's health care and abortion provider. And finally, they want the GOP to strike language in the bill that would allow spraying for mosquitos near water, which is banned under the Clean Water Act.
One observer speculated that Democrats would like to use the Obamacare funds to reimburse insurers for losses on healthcare insurance policies they have sold on government-run exchanges. Democrats block Zika funding to get an Obamacare bailout, Michael Cannon, Washington Examiner, 9/9/16.
Democrats object that Republicans would fund the bill partly by cutting a $543 million of defunct Obamacare funding whose purpose has evaporated. Why would Democrats fiercely protect a completely unnecessary appropriation? A good guess is that they hope to use it after election day to bail out the crony-capitalist insurers fleeing Obamacare's health[care]-insurance exchanges.
#The second bill covered defense spending. Although the funding levels involved had been previously agreed, Democrats reportedly wanted to hold the bill hostage in an effort to negotiate additional funding for domestic spending programs. Dems spike Defense Dept. funding bill, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner, 9/6/16.
The bill would provide $515.9 billion in base Department of Defense funding and $58.6 billion in overseas operations, which includes operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the fight against the Islamic State. While the funding amount was agreed upon under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, Democrats have dropped their support for the bill since then. Democratic leaders said they don't trust the GOP to negotiate in good faith on the remaining domestic spending bills if they agree to the military spending separately.
SAFE felt both of these bills should have been taken up rather than filibustered, and we so advised Delaware’s two senators (both Democrats). To date, neither of them has responded to the question posed at the end of our message. Query re votes on defense & Zika spending, 9/7/16.
It was disappointing to see that you voted to block both the defense authorization bill and the bill that would have provided anti-Zika funding yesterday. No wonder Congress never completes its authorization bills in a businesslike fashion, let alone balancing the budget. Do you have any suggestions for making the system run the way it is supposed to?
II. Current status - Little if any progress has been made on individual appropriation bills since September 6, and that effort is essentially dead for now. The prevailing assumption is that a CR must (and therefore will) be enacted around September 30, and that the CR will expire on December 9 – paving the way for a budget deal during the lame duck session - rather than running until early March as conservatives would like.
If passage of individual appropriation bills proves too much of a chore in December, it’s envisioned that authorizations may be packaged in several “minibus” bills versus a single “omnibus” bill. Why? The omnibus label has acquired a pejorative connotation after the bloated spending and tax package that was rammed through last December (Some thoughts about the omnibus budget package, 1/11/16), so no one wants to be associated with it.
Unsurprisingly, there has been plenty of wrangling over specific terms of the CR legislation, such as the previously noted dispute about whether anti-Zika spending should be partly offset by canceling an outmoded Obamacare appropriation. Here are several other examples:
#Export Import Bank – Last year, House Republicans balked at reauthorizing the EIB and its charter lapsed for several months before being extended until 2019 as part of a surface transportation bill enacted in December. Obama signs $305B highway bill, Keith Lang, thehill.com, 12/4/15.
All was still not well, however, due to a hold by the head of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs (Sen. Richard Shelby) on the appointment of new EIB directors. The lack of a quorum on the board has prevented approval of large new loans (over $10 million) under the bank’s charter, and that troubles big companies like Boeing and GE. Someone came up with the idea of slipping a corrective provision into the CR. Exim still not totally back in business, Peter Buxbaum, globaltrademag.com, 9/20/16.
“The continuing resolution represents the most viable path forward to restore full operations at the [EIB], which is vital to American businesses and their supply chains trying to compete in a fierce global economy,” said a joint statement from NAM president and CEO Jay Timmons and Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue. “A supermajority in Congress has already settled the question of [EIB] reauthorization, and there is simply no more time to waste. Following the Senate’s failure to act on a board nomination that would reinstate the bank’s full functionality, we urge Congress to embrace identical language adopted in both the House and Senate foreign operations appropriations bills to fully reopen the bank as intended last year.”
Having previously advocated abolition of the EIB, SAFE agreed to participate in a coalition message opposing the above proposal that was sent to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Over 35 conservative groups to Congress: Oppose riders to fast-track loans from crony Export Import Bank, 9/16/16.
Time will tell how this skirmish comes out, business lobbyists are very resourceful, but the coalition letter was timely and a number of publications reported it. See, e.g., Conservative groups oppose Export-Import Bank lifeline, Vicki Needham, thehill.com, 9/16/16.
#Disaster relief – Democrats are demanding more funding to address water supply problems in Flint, Michigan (which might be described as a government-caused disaster), while Republicans want to support relief and recovery spending in flood-ravaged Louisiana. Surely, conservatives shouldn’t quibble about needs like these, you may be thinking.
Well, no, except that a funding mechanism has already been created for disaster relief, which should probably be used before appropriating more money. Senate backroom spending bill will only get worse, John Gray, conservativereview.com, 9/20/16.
This issue shouldn’t even be debated in a short term funding bill. The Disaster Relief Fund currently has $12 billion available, today, to address immediate needs and disaster mitigation. Instead of using money normally dedicated to long-term disaster needs, like housing and reconstruction, Congress should use the billions of dollars they already have set aside.
At last report, $500 million had been promised for Louisiana flood relief, but the Flint, Michigan request was in limbo. Fight over Flint aid threatens government shutdown, Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner, 9/23/16.
"I am not going to support an effort that says to the people of Flint, 'you don't count,'" Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Thursday in a Senate floor speech. "We care about the people in Louisiana. Oh, they count. But people in Flint, Michigan don't count."
#Internet giveaway – Among the conservative policy riders being proposed for the CR is one to delay a pending transfer of the last vestiges of US oversight over the Internet infrastructure (developed by this country) to an internationally-controlled organization.
The Department of Commerce announced its intention to transfer oversight responsibility two years ago, and this goal has been pursued without seeking congressional input let alone approval. The final step is scheduled to take effect on October 1. FCC commissioner [Ajit Pai, described in his bio as the “senior Republican” on the 5-member Federal Communications Commission] calls for pause in Internet transfer, Rudy Takala, Washington Examiner, 9/21/16.
Commerce is scheduled to hand IANA, a key agency responsible for overseeing Internet Protocol addresses on the Web, over to the international Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers effective Oct. 1. The action is aimed at killing the last vestiges of American control over the Internet, a move critics have argued could result in censorship by countries like Iran and China.
Why should there be a rider in the CR about this matter? First, there is no other way at this point to force a delay, and if the transfer takes place it will be not be reversible by either Congress or the next administration. Second, this rider would provide some solace for conservatives whose views are generally being ignored in crafting the CR. How Ted Cruz’s Internet offense could change spending strategy in the House, Philip Wegmann, dailysignal.com, 9/13/16.
A founding Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said conservatives are open to supporting a short continuing resolution if two provisions are added: one pausing immigration from Syria and another “stopping the transfer of ICANN to an international entity.” [Senator Ted] Cruz is spearheading the effort to craft the policy rider on Internet control in the Senate’s version of the short-term budget measure. Counterarguments boil down to the following claims: control of Internet addresses is a relatively minor matter, Americans will look “selfish” if they don’t proceed with this plan which has been in the works for some time, and critics of the transfer are simply seeking to score political points. No, Ted Cruz, the US isn’t giving away the Internet, Rob Pogoraro, yahoo.com, 9/20/16.
It’s also been suggested that there is something odd about a conservative like Senator Cruz threatening a government shutdown in order to perpetuate US government control over the Internet. White House: Transferring Internet control is limited government, Nicole Duran, Washington Examiner, 9/22/16.
The Internet rider has been dropped by Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, so it’s probably dead. Ironically, Democrats attacked the CR that McConnell chose to introduce on September 22 as unacceptable so the omission of this and other conservative riders served no apparent purpose. Why the free and open Internet had to die, Robert Romano, netrightdaily.com, 9/23/16.
“We Democrats cannot vote for that substitute and urge others to vote against it.” That was Senate Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) explaining in no uncertain terms that the proposed continuing resolution by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is dead on arrival.
The CR will reportedly be voted on tomorrow, and Senate Democrats are expected to hold out for further concessions. With only three days left to cut a deal, get it passed by both houses of Congress, and send it to the president, Republicans will be (as usual) in a weak bargaining position. Senate GOP floating plan to avert government shutdown, but Dems vow to block, Tom Howell & Dave Boyer, Washington Times, 9/22/16.
Here’s a review of what’s been going on. Congress has little to show for its work this year, Genevieve Wood, dailysignal.com, video (2:35), 9/23/16.
III. Blame game – According to many liberals, delays in passing appropriation bills and last minute negotiations are a product of GOP fecklessness and obduracy.
Consider how the president recently castigated the loyal opposition. (Although “they” could be taken as referring to all members of Congress in some instances, the nonuse of the term “Democrats” suggests that’s not what was intended.) It’s time for Republicans in Congress to do their jobs, president’s weekly address, 9/17/16.
One might infer from the president’s remarks, that the “job” of the “Republicans who run this Congress” is to buckle down and advance the president’s agenda without a lot of back talk. Thus they should “protect women and children by fighting Zika in a serious way” - dole out funding for the people of Louisiana and communities like Flint - give Merrick Garland, a Supreme Court nominee with unprecedented judicial experience, “the simple courtesy of a hearing” – attack bipartisan priorities such as criminal justice reform, attacking the opioids epidemic, funding Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot, approving the Trans-Pacific trade agreement – make sure that “all of America’s priorities are funded without resorting to shutdown threats and last minute gimmicks” - raise the minimum wage for the first time in nearly 10 years. “So if any of these priorities matter to you, let your Congressperson know. And if they still refuse to do their jobs – well, you know what to do in November.”
There was another volley of criticism after Mitch McConnell’s CR was introduced in the Senate last week, including a thinly veiled threat that the president will veto any bill – government shutdown or not – containing provisions that don’t suit him. Senate GOP floating plan to avert government shutdown, op. cit.
The White House said blame for the looming shutdown falls on Republicans, who control both houses of Congress but who haven’t been able to pass any of the 12 spending bills required to keep the government open. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Republicans are trying to undermine Mr. Obama with “ideological” amendments designed to curtail the president’s plans. “The president is not going to be a part of any effort to sign those kinds of ideological riders into law when they are attached to a short-term spending bill,” Mr. Earnest said.
IV. One more thing – The members of Congress can act in unison when they are so minded, as was dramatically demonstrated on September 9 when the House passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) – crafted in and previously passed by the Senate – in both cases by a voice vote (signifying no opposition). The thrust of this legislation was to clear the way for family members of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in US courts, 15+ years after the fact, for alleged support of this infamous attack. Bill allowing 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia heads to Obama’s desk, Rebecca Shabad, cbsnews.com. 9/9/16.
An observation: where unity does exist these days, it is generally about the past rather than the future. It would be well-nigh impossible to generate similar unity about strategies for dealing with current threats, which may lead to catastrophes dwarfing the 9/11 attack in years to come; indeed, the typical attitude is to ignore most of these threats because we don’t know what to do about them. See, e.g., The gathering nuclear storm, Mark Helprin, Wall Street Journal, 9/23/16.
The gravest danger we face is fast-approaching nuclear instability. Many believe it is possible safely to arrive at nuclear zero. It is not. Enough warheads to bring any country to its knees can fit in a space volumetrically equivalent to a Manhattan studio apartment. Try to find that in the vastness of Russia, China, or Iran. Even ICBMs and their transporter-erector-launchers can easily be concealed in warehouses, tunnels and caves. Nuclear weapons age out, but, thanks to supercomputing, reliable replacements can be manufactured with only minor physical testing. Unaccounted fissile material sloshing around the world can, with admitted difficulty, be fashioned into weapons. And when rogue states such as North Korea and Iran build their bombs, our response has been either impotence or a ticket to ride.
Also, JASTA will likely inspire the citizens of other nations to sue our citizens, business interests, and government in their courts – with seriously adverse consequences. The president signaled his intention to veto JASTA and last Friday did just that. Veto message, 9/23/16.
JASTA would upset longstanding international principles regarding sovereign immunity, putting in place rules that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for U.S. national interests. The United States has a larger international presence, by far, than any other country, and sovereign immunity principles protect our Nation and its Armed Forces, officials, and assistance professionals, from foreign court proceedings. These principles also protect U.S. Government assets from attempted seizure by private litigants abroad. Removing sovereign immunity in U.S. courts from foreign governments that are not designated as state sponsors of terrorism, based solely on allegations that such foreign governments' actions abroad had a connection to terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil, threatens to undermine these longstanding principles that protect the United States, our forces, and our personnel.
This is the president’s 12th veto during his time in office; 10 of his vetoes were cast in 2015-2016, while the GOP had a majority in both houses of Congress. Wikipedia, accessed 9/24/16. And for the first time, his veto may very possibly be overridden by a 2/3 vote of both houses of Congress, i.e., many of the members of his own party won’t go on record as opposing this popular legislation. Obama vetoes 9/11 bill, Jordan Fabian, the hill.com, 9/23/15.
Obama waited until the very end of the 10-day period he had to issue a veto, hoping to buy time to lobby members of Congress against the measure. White House officials also hope congressional leaders will leave Washington to hit the campaign trail before trying for an override, kicking a vote to the lame-duck session after the election. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said the upper chamber will remain in session until the veto override vote is done.
SAFE has often disagreed with the president’s views on policy issues, and we were appalled by some of his previous vetoes, e.g., the one airily rejecting congressional approval of the Keystone pipeline. How ironic, therefore, that we find ourselves in agreement with the only veto he has cast that Congress may choose to override.