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Tuition-Free Community College Debated in Michigan

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer wants state taxpayers to fund community college tuition for the state’s high school graduates. But critics are pushing back, citing the plan’s high cost, among other things.

 

Gov. Whitmer unveiled the “Michigan Opportunity Scholarship” plan as part of her state budget last month. This scholarship would pay for high school graduates to attend community college full time without paying tuition or fees. It would also provide money for students who attend four-year colleges and universities in the state.

 

Proponents of this idea contend that it will help increase higher education rates. They say that today’s workforce requires higher education, so it makes sense for taxpayers to provide funding for students to obtain that education. Opponents note that this plan would cost up to $100 million a year. They also contend that this program would benefit middle income and higher-income Michiganders, who can already afford community college tuition. Lower-income students already qualify for Pell Grants, which cover community college tuition.

 

The fate of this idea now rests with legislators.

 

Do you think that state governments should pay for students’ community college tuition and fees?

House Rebukes Trump on Transgender Military Ban

By a vote of 238-185, this week the House of Representatives expressed its opposition to the Trump Administration’s ban on openly transgender troops serving in the Armed Forces.

 

House Resolution 124 states that the House of Representatives:

 

(1) strongly opposes President Trump’s discriminatory ban on transgender members of the Armed Forces;

 

(2) rejects the flawed scientific and medical claims upon which it is based; and

 

(3) strongly urges the Department of Defense to not reinstate President Trump’s ban on transgender members of the Armed Forces and to maintain an inclusive policy allowing qualified transgender Americans to enlist and serve in the Armed Forces.

 

Every Democratic member of the House who voted supported this resolution, and they were joined by 5 Republicans.

 

In 2017, President Trump issued a memorandum that prohibited openly transgender individuals from serving in the armed forces. This reversed a 2016 action by the Obama Administration which allowed such individuals to serve. President Trump’s ban has been tied up with legal challenges, although the Supreme Court did rule 5-4 in January to lift one of the injunctions against it.

 

This resolution does not have the force of law, but it does signal the disagreement of the House of Representatives with the president's action.

 

Do you think openly transgender individuals should be allowed to serve in the military?

Deep Dive: Entitlement Programs

Congress is in the thick of budget season, determining how the federal government will spend dollars both borrowed and taxed. A big part of total federal spending is for entitlement programs. With the House of Representatives now controlled by Democrats and the Senate and presidency controlled by Republicans, we may see a more contentious budget process than we have seen in the past two years. Entitlement programs make up a large portion of federal spending. That means there may be a spirited discussion about the future of programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security.

 

What’s A Federal Entitlement?

 

The Office of Management and Budget defines an entitlement program as “a program in which the Federal Government is legally obligated to make payments or provide aid to any person who, or State or local government that, meets the legal criteria for eligibility.”

 

In other words, if someone meets certain conditions, that person can receive benefits from a federal entitlement program. This could be a program like Social Security, which has an age qualification and a requirement to have paid into the program, or Medicaid, which requires a medical condition and a low income to qualify for benefits.

 

Here are some of the major entitlement programs:

  • Social Security
  • Medicare
  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Supplemental Security Income
  • Unemployment compensation
  • Federal and civilian employee retirement benefits
  • Veterans’ benefits
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program
  • Student loans
  • Deposit insurance

 

The design of these programs also create a legal obligation on the federal government to provide benefits to everyone who qualifies. If someone is turned down but still thinks that he or she meets the qualifications outlined in the law, that person can go to court to obtain the benefit. This does not mean that the federal government cannot change eligibility or even end entitlement programs, but such changes must happen through the legislative process.

 

How Entitlement Programs Are Funded

 

As discussed in another Deep Dive, many government programs are funded by the appropriations process. Every year, Congress passes and the president signs spending bills that pay for federal government operations. Appropriated entitlements are funded through this process. These include Medicaid and some veterans’ programs.

 

Most entitlement programs are funded through mandatory spending, however. This is when the law authorizing the program sets the spending for the program on an ongoing basis. Programs authorized in such ways do not have to go through the yearly spending process, and continue to operate even when there are government shutdowns.

 

While there are some entitlement programs that are funded through the appropriations process, and there are some non-entitlement programs that are funded through mandatory spending, in general mandatory spending is used for entitlement programs.

 

To pay for this spending, Congress and the president can raise taxes or borrow money. If they want to slow down spending increases for entitlement programs, they could also change the eligibility requirements. That would reduce the amount of money being spent every year on these programs. Some of these options include raising the age at which someone could receive Medicare or Social Security, reducing the benefits offered by Medicaid, adjusting how the inflation increase for federal retirement benefits is calculated.

 

What This Means for You

 

As discussed in a previous Deep Dive, the federal budget deficit is growing. It is expected to continue growing substantially in the future as federal spending rises. The Congressional Budget Office projects that mandatory spending for entitlement programs is a large part of this projected spending growth.


The projected growth of the deficit will mean, at some point in the future, that Congress and the president will face hard choices about what to do regarding entitlement programs. If enacted, these changes would affect current people who receive benefits from these programs or those who are anticipating receiving benefits.

 

 

 

 

House Fails to Override Trump Border Emergency Veto

A majority of the House of Representatives may want to terminate President Trump’s border wall emergency declaration, but there weren’t enough votes to overcome his veto keeping it in place.

 

By a vote of 248-181, the House voted to override the president’s veto of House Joint Resolution 46. This resolution would end the national emergency declared by President Trump in February to shift federal funds around to build a border wall.

 

Both the House and Senate passed this resolution, but President Trump vetoed it earlier this month. The Constitution requires a 2/3 vote, or 288 members of the House of Representatives, to override a veto. The vote yesterday fell well short of that number.

 

This is not the end of the fight over the emergency declaration, however. Sixteen states are suing the federal government over this issue. Under the terms of the National Emergencies Act, the House of Representatives can also bring up another resolution to terminate the emergency in 6 months. See our Deep Dive on presidential emergencies for more information

 

Do you support a vote to override President Trump’s veto of a resolution to terminate the border wall emergency declaration?

Senate Takes up Green New Deal

The Green New Deal sets an ambitious agenda for the U.S.: zero greenhouse gas emissions, upgrading all existing buildings for energy efficiency, shielding business owners from unfair competition, and providing education, health care, and housing for everyone. Senators will soon go on the record as to whether they support this plan.

 

In the House of Representatives, newly-elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been championing the Green New Deal. Even though that body is controlled by Democrats, her House resolution is unlikely to get a vote. However, in the Republican-controlled Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is bringing up this plan for a vote.

 

Here is how he Congressional Research Service summarizes the various proposals in the S.J. Res 8, Green New Deal resolution:

 

  • Building smart power grids (i.e., power grids that enable customers to reduce their power use during peak demand periods);
  • Upgrading all existing buildings and constructing new buildings to achieve maximum energy and water efficiency;
  • Removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation and agricultural sectors;
  • Cleaning up existing hazardous waste and abandoned sites;
  • Ensuring businesspersons are free from unfair competition; and
  • Providing higher education, high-quality health care, and affordable, safe, and adequate housing to all.

 

The planned Senate vote has some Democrats displeased. Many, if not all, are planning on voting “present” when the resolution is considered. They accuse the majority leader of playing politics. Senator McConnell, however, says that if this is such a popular idea in the Democratic Party, then Democratic senators should not be upset that he’s holding a vote on it.

 

Do you support the Green New Deal? Should the U.S. pursue a policy of zero greenhouse gas emissions? Is it the government’s place to provide health care, education, and housing to everyone?

 

Trump Admin Announces Nuclear Power Support

With the Senate readying a vote on the Green New Deal this week, the Trump Administration recently announced a big boost for nuclear power.

 

Speaking to nuclear power plant employees in Georgia, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said that “This is the real new green deal.” He used the opportunity on Friday to announce that the federal government would issue taxpayer-backed guarantees for building new nuclear power plants. This is similar to arrangements made during the Obama Administration to support construction of new nuclear plants.

 

The Trump Administration has long supported nuclear power, pointing out that it is a way to produce electricity without carbon emissions. They also note that nuclear power can generate electricity regardless of the weather conditions. Administration officials say that this power source should be a big part of any strategy to combat climate change.

 

Some Democrats, however, have a different view. They prefer renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind, for carbon-free power generation. The Green New Deal does not include provisions to increase the use of nuclear power.

 

Because of strict regulations and a high cost to construct new facilities, nuclear power plant operators rely on federal loan guarantees. Even with these guarantees, however, some new plants are behind schedule for completion. The electricity produced by these plants is also more expensive than electricity produced by natural gas plants, which is causing issues for existing nuclear power plant operators.

 

Do you think that the federal government should guarantee loans for nuclear power plant construction? Are nuclear power plants a good way to produce carbon-free electricity?

Trump signs College Free Speech Order

Over the past few years, incidents of speakers being shut down at colleges around the nation have increasingly made news. Now President Donald Trump has waded into the controversy, issuing an executive order aimed at bolstering free speech on college campuses.

 

In his executive order, the president has directed federal agencies to ensure that colleges receiving federal research funds “promote free enquiry” and that private colleges receiving federal funds comply with their stated free speech policies.

 

The order states that colleges should not “creat[e] environments that stifle competing perspectives.” It also says that “it is the policy of the federal government to encourage institutions to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate.”

 

In some high-profile cases, speakers invited by conservative groups have been shouted down or disinvited from speaking on college campuses. These incidents have garnered the notice of President Trump, who has praised some of the speakers.

 

It is unclear how much of an effect this executive order will have, since the schools affected are already bound by constitutional free speech guarantees. It may give the federal government a tool to use if egregious instances are reported, however.

 

Do you think that colleges and universities should do more to protect free speech? What role should the federal government play in policing free speech conflicts on campus?

Representative Wants to Amend Constitution to Prevent Court Packing

It’s a hot topic in the emerging Democratic presidential primary – enlarging the Supreme Court’s membership. Critics call lit “court packing,” and one member of Congress wants to amend the Constitution to prevent it.

 

Right now, there are 9 Supreme Court justices. This number is fixed by law, not the Constitution. In the past, the Supreme Court has had both more than 9 justices and fewer. Senator Elizabeth Warren has said that this number should be enlarged to “de-politicize” the high court. In this view, recent Republican tactics over Supreme Court nominations have been unfair, leading to a politicized court. Some of Warren’s fellow candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, such as Sen. Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke, have also expressed support for expanding the number of justices.

 

Rep. Mark Green, a Tennessee Republican, is pushing back against this idea by introducing an amendment to the Constitution that would permanently set the number of Supreme Court justices at 9. Those who oppose Sen. Warren’s plan argue that expanding the membership would be the event that politicizes the court, since every new president would be tempted to do that. In this view, a change in presidential party control would lead to more Supreme Court members that reflect that partisan preference. Having a fixed number would prevent presidents from doing this.

 

While some Democrats have expressed support for a “court packing” plan, others have not. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, has said she thinks the current number of justices is fine.

 

Do you think that it would “de-politicize” the Supreme Court if a Democratic president increased the number of justices? Should the Constitution be amended to fix the number of Supreme Court justices at 9?

Bill Would Limit Opioid Prescriptions to 7 Days

Patients who use opioids to treat their pain would not be able to receive more than a 7-day supply under legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate.

 

Republican Cory Gardner of Colorado and Democrat Kristin Gillibrand of New York have introduced S. 724. This bill would require that when physicians register with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, they pledge not to prescribe opioids in excess of a 7-day supply and not to offer a prescription refill.

 

Supporters of the bill contend that this would limit the amount of leftover opioids that may fall into the hands of addicts or potential addicts. They argue that evidence indicates that there is little need for longer opioid prescriptions for pain management. Opponents counter that this is a decision that should be left to doctors, not government bureaucrats. They also say that some people need longer prescriptions for chronic pain management, so a 7-day limit is cruelly depriving those patients of needed medication.

 

Fifteen states have similar laws limiting opioid prescriptions.


Do you think the government should limit opioid prescriptions?

Deep Dive: The Appropriations Process and Government Shutdowns

With the longest government shutdown recently behind us, some may think that it’s too early to start talking about another one. But the budget process for the next fiscal year has begun this week. How this turns out will determine if we’ll see a government shutdown again in November or December.

 

During the recent shutdown, there was a lot of news reporting about why the government shuts down and the process for re-opening it. There was even some confusion about what it means for the government to “shut down.”

 

A previous Deep Dive examined the budget process that talks about the overall spending blueprint for the federal government. This Deep Dive will discuss the specific part affecting spending – the appropriations process. This is key to understanding when and why the federal government shuts down.

 

What Happened Recently

 

With the signing of House Joint Resolution 31, President Trump has averted another government shutdown. This avoids a repeat of the recent partial government shutdown that occurred from December 21, 2018, to January 25, 2019. While called a “shutdown,” in reality much of the government kept operating. Government employees working in capacities deemed “essential” had to work. Those in “non-essential” positions could not do any work.

 

Like every shutdown in the past, this one occurred because Congress and the president could not agree on appropriations, or spending, bills. These shutdowns occur when either Congress fails to pass spending bills to keep parts of the government open or the president vetoes these spending bills.

 

The Appropriations Process

 

Article I, Section 9, of the U.S. Constitution states: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.”

 

Federal government spending is divided into two categories:

  • Mandatory: Programs authorized by Congress that operate outside the regular spending process are entitlement programs, and their spending is deemed “mandatory.” For Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, anyone who meets certain qualification is entitled to benefits. Funding for these programs does not have to be authorized yearly by Congress, although the eligibility and payment rules can be changed.
  • Discretionary: To pay for other government activities, ranging from military operations undertaken by the Defense Department to operating national parks to paying congressional staff, Congress must pass 12 appropriations, or spending, bills. These bills operate on a fiscal year basis. If they do not become law, funds cannot be drawn from the U.S. Treasury to pay for the government operations they cover.

 

Appropriations Bills

 

The 12 appropriations bills that should be passed by Congress every fiscal year (October 1 through September 30) are:

  • Agriculture
  • Commerce/Justice/Science
  • Defense
  • Energy and Water
  • Financial Services
  • Homeland Security
  • Interior and Environment
  • Labor/Health and Human Services/Education
  • Legislative Branch
  • Military/Veterans
  • State/Foreign Operations
  • Transportation/Urban Development

 

You can see the progress of the Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations bills through Congress here.

 

The number and title of these bills can be changed by Congress. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress re-organized the appropriations process, which at that time had operated with 13 appropriations bills.

 

Consolidated Appropriations/Continuing Appropriations/Omnibus Appropriations

 

While the spending process is supposed to proceed with the 12 bills being passed separately and signed into law by October 1 of each year, this almost never happens. In fact, since 1977 (when the current spending system was put in place), Congress has passed all of the appropriations bills on time in only four years. The last time it did this was 1997. The usual pattern is that Congress passes some, but not all, of the bills to be signed into law by October 1.

 

When this happens, Congress can take a variety of steps to avoid a government shutdown. It can pass a resolution for continuing appropriations, which fund the government for a specified period of time at the level of the previous fiscal year. During this time, it can then pass a consolidated appropriations act, which combines two or more appropriations bills. An omnibus appropriations bill generally wraps all the outstanding appropriations bills into a single act for the rest of the fiscal year.

 

If special spending needs arise during the fiscal year, Congress can also pass a supplemental appropriations bill, which provides funding more money than what was contained in the original spending bill.

 

The 2018-2019 Government Shutdown

 

Prior to the beginning of Fiscal Year 2019 (which began on October 1, 2018), Congress had only passed these appropriations bills:

  • Defense
  • Energy and Water
  • Labor/Health and Human Services/Education
  • Legislative Branch
  • Military/Veterans

 

Continuing resolutions funded the government agencies covered by the other appropriations bills through December 21. President Trump signaled his opposition to signing any spending bills that did not contain funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. As a consequence, the agencies not covered by the already-passed appropriations bills were shut down on that date.

 

The parts of the government that were covered by these spending bills could continue to operate as normal, however. Since the Legislative Branch appropriations bill was signed into law, congressional staffers could continue to be paid their salary. So could employees of the Energy Department, Defense Department, the Labor Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Education Department.

 

When President Trump signed House Joint Resolution 28 on January 25, this reopened the portions of the federal government that were shut down until February 15. The signing of House Joint Resolution 31 by President Trump funds the federal government through the end of Fiscal Year 2019, averting any further government shutdowns until then.

 

What This Means for You

 

Because of the agreement that funds the government through the end of this fiscal year, there will be no more government shutdowns until at least October 1. However, if Congress and President Trump cannot agree on spending bills for the next fiscal year by then, they will be forced to resort to a short-term funding measure (a continuing resolution) or the government will shut down. With the House of Representatives being controlled by Democrats and the Senate and White House controlled by Republicans, the prospect of a spending disagreement is relatively high. For those who want to predict whether a government shutdown will occur, keep watching the annual spending bills that are supposed to be moving through Congress during the summer. If some of these bills have not been approved by both house of Congress and signed by the president in September, then there is a greater chance of a government shutdown in October through December.

 

 

 

 

House Wants Mueller Report Made Public

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is on the verge of releasing his report on potential crimes committed by President Trump's campaign to Attorney General William Barr. The House of Representatives wants to make sure that you get to read it.

 

By a vote of 420-0 (with 4 Republicans voting “present”), the House of Representatives approved House Concurrent Resolution 24. This resolution states that “the allegations at the center of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation strike at the core of our democracy, and there is an overwhelming public interest in releasing the Special Counsel’s report to ensure public confidence in both the process and the result of the investigation.”

 

The resolution then calls “for the public release of any report, including findings, Special Counsel Mueller provides to the Attorney General, except to the extent the public disclosure of any portion thereof is expressly prohibited by law; and calls for the full release to Congress of any report, including findings, Special Counsel Mueller provides to the Attorney General.”

 

When this resolution reached the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer moved for a vote. Senator Lindsay Graham objected, arguing that the measure should demand a larger investigation into how the Justice Department conducted the Trump investigation.

 

It remains to be seen if this measure will be voted on by the Senate or not. Senator Schumer said he would try to bring it up again, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell controls the calendar of votes.

 

Do you think that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report should be made public?

Senate Rejects Trump's Border Emergency

The Senate today joined the House of Representatives in voting to terminate President Trump’s border emergency.

 

By a vote of 59-41, the Senate voted in favor of House Joint Resolution 46. This resolution would end the national emergency declared by President Trump in February to shift federal funds around to build a border wall. Twelve Republicans joined all the Democrats in voting for this measure.

 

Under the National Emergencies Act, the law that allows President Trump to declare an emergency, Congress has the authority to pass a resolution to terminate that emergency declaration. Both houses of Congress must pass the resolution, and it is subject to the president’s veto.

 

The House of Representatives passed the same resolution in late February by a vote of 245-182. However, the majorities in the House and Senate for approval were not large enough to meet the threshold to override the promised veto by President Trump.

 

This is not the end of the fight over the emergency declaration, however. Sixteen states are suing the federal government over this issue.

 

Do you support the vote in the House and Senate to terminate President Trump’s emergency declaration allowing him to build a border wall?

Deep Dive: The Budget Process

President Trump released his annual budget this week, which has led to many news stories about how he plans on cutting certain programs or changing the way the federal government works. President Trump may indeed have ideas about how the federal government should spend money, but he cannot do anything alone. The budget he released is merely the official start of the budget process.

 

The process for determining how much money the federal government will spend in the next fiscal year will take until at least October, more likely longer. There are many steps that Congress must take between now and then until we know how much money individual departments or agencies will receive.

 

The President’s Budget

 

While the law states that the president must submit his budget by the first Monday of February, in many years presidents submit them later (just as President Trump has done this year). The president’s budget has a few parts:

  • Recommendations on spending for the next fiscal year (which runs from October 1 through September 30)
  • Proposals for major policy changes that have budget implications, such as reforms to programs like Social Security or Medicaid
  • Projections for future spending levels, revenue collections, and budget deficits
  • Historical data on spending and revenue amounts

 

It is important to outline a few things that the president’s budget does not do:

  • It does set any spending. It merely recommends what the president would like to see spending levels set at.
  • It is not law. This is not the president announcing how spending will proceed in the next fiscal year. If he recommends the elimination of a certain program or cuts in another program, these eliminations or cuts will not happen unless Congress agrees.
  • It does not bind Congress to do anything. The president’s budget is delivered to Congress, but Congress does not have to adopt any of it. In fact, Congress routinely ignores it.

 

So why is the president’s budget resolution important? Its importance lies in laying out the president’s overall vision for federal spending. It indicates the programs he thinks are important, those he thinks should be cut (or eliminated), and often outlines a path towards a balanced budget.

 

However, as a practical matter, the president’s budget resolution does not directly affect spending. It may indicate that, as Congress finishes up its spending process (described below), the president may veto spending bills that deviate from his priorities. Even that is not necessarily true, however, as negotiations over actual spending bills later in the year often ignore the president’s budget priorities in favor of more immediate concerns.

 

President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposal, released on March 11, 2019, can be found here.

 

Congressional Budget Resolutions

 

Once the president releases his budget, the House and Senate Budget Committees consider them. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) also analyzes the budget. The committees consider the CBO analysis and are supposed to release their budget resolutions by April 1. The full House and Senate then consider these resolutions and adopt them, usually with amendments, by April 15.

 

The adopted budget resolutions are not laws, so are not subject to presidential veto. However, they do set the funding allocations that the appropriations committees in each house use to set their spending bills. These committees, described in more detail below, set the actual spending levels for the fiscal year for discretionary government programs (that is, for programs that are not entitlements such as Social Security or Medicaid).

 

While passing a budget resolution is helpful in setting a federal spending blueprint, it is not mandatory. In fact, in Fiscal Years 2011, 2012, and 2013, Congress did not pass a budget resolution. When that happens, the prior year’s budget resolution sets the spending blueprint that appropriations committees follow.

 

These budget resolutions can also contain “reconciliation instructions.” These are instructions to committees to make changes to the law that have budget implications. The reconciliation process is not subject to a Senate filibuster, and must be considered on a faster timeframe than other legislation. That makes it a useful tool to enact policy that does not have strong bipartisan support.

 

The Appropriations Process

 

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are the committees that actually set spending levels for discretionary government programs. These committees each have 12 subcommittees that use the budget resolution allocations to determine how much government departments and agencies spend.

 

These 12 appropriations bills are supposed to be completed by Congress and signed by the president by the beginning of the fiscal year, October 1. That rarely happens. This leads to a variety of maneuvers to fund the federal government for temporary time periods or, failing that, a government shutdown.

 

What Does This Mean to You?

 

The budget process is how the government determines how much it will spend on the programs it administers. It also helps determine how much the deficit will be and how much the government will add to the national debt. If this process breaks down due to disagreement between the President and Congress, it could also lead to another government shutdown. Since President Trump has just released his budget, it remains to be seen what will happen with spending, the deficit, and a possible government shutdown this year.

 

 

 

Executions Halted in California

Governor Gavin Newsom of California has issued an executive order granting a reprieve to death row inmates and closing the state’s execution chamber. While the death penalty is still the law of the land in California, no executions will happen under this governor.

 

Although no executions have taken place in California since 2006, there was the possibility that Gov. Newsom would be asked to approve a new capital punishment protocol soon. This would then allow executions to resume.

 

In 2016, California voters rejected a ballot measure that would have abolished capital punishment in that state while also approving a ballot measure to expedite the execution process. Governors do not have the power to alter state law, but they can refuse to sign execution warrants and can commute death sentences to life in prison without parole.

 

There are 737 people on death row in California.

 

Do you support capital punishment?

Deep Dive: The Budget Deficit and Debt

Consider just how large the U.S. economy is – all the products and services that are produced in a single year. Now consider that the national debt – the total amount of debt owed by the federal government – exceeds the total yearly output of our economy.

 

That’s a lot of debt, and it’s caused by yearly budget deficit spending.

 

With news that the current year’s budget deficit increased 77% over the past year, there is renewed attention in Washington, D.C., to federal spending. The annual budget process is also underway, which means even more talk about deficits and debt. So what are deficits, debt, and how are they related? And what about the trade deficit?

 

The Budget Deficit

 

Simply put, the budget deficit is when the federal government spends more than it receives in revenue in one fiscal year. The current fiscal year began on October 1.

 

The Treasury Department recently released spending data for the first four months of this fiscal year.

  • Total money received by the government was $1.111 billion.
  • Total spending, however, was $1.421 billion.
  • This leads to a budget deficit of $310 billion.
  • This compares to a deficit of $176 billion during the same time period last year, or a $135 billion increase.

 

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the national debt will reach $897 billion this fiscal year.

 

For a few years in the late 1990s, the federal government had a budget surplus – it spent less than it received in revenue. In the years since (and many of the years prior), the government runs a budget deficit.

 

The National Debt

 

Budget deficits lead to debt because the government borrows money to pay for yearly deficit spending. The national debt is the total amount of money that the federal government owes. This is the money it borrowed to finance the yearly deficits. This debt is, in essence, the accumulated total of the budget deficits run by the federal government.

 

The government finances this debt in two ways.

  • Borrowing. This is done by selling bonds to investors who are promised a certain rate of interest.
  • Issuing debt to government trust funds that have surpluses. For instance, in years past the Social Security Trust Fund routinely collected more money than it paid in benefits. The Treasury then used that money to finance deficit spending, issuing notes that promise to repay what it borrowed.

 

As of March 7, 2019, the total federal debt was $22.029 trillion. The national debt has grown dramatically over the past decade. On September 30, 2008, the debt stood at $10.025 trillion.

 

The Treasury Department releases up-to-date figures on the national debt here.

 

Comparisons to Gross Domestic Product

 

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the sum total of goods and services produced in the U.S. economy. The US. GDP in 2018 was $20.891 trillion.

 

Some observers find it useful to compare the yearly deficit and total debt to the GDP, since this gives an idea about deficit spending and debt in terms of our economic size.

  • In 2018, the budget deficit equaled 3.8% of total economic activity. During the Great Recession, the budget deficit had equaled 9.8% of total economic activity (in 2009).
  • In the last quarter of 2000, the national debt equaled 54.2% of the yearly economic activity. In the third quarter of 2018, the debt equaled 104% of the yearly economic activity.

 

The Trade Deficit

 

The trade deficit has also been in the news recently, with reports that it hit the highest level since 2008. This deficit does not involve government spending; instead, it is the gap between the amount of goods and services exported by businesses in the United States and the amount imported for consumers in the United States.

 

The federal government labels this the “goods and services deficit,” although it is generally known as the trade deficit.

 

In 2018, the trade deficit reached $621 billion. That is an increase of $68.8 billion from 2017’s deficit, which was $552.3 billion.

 

What Does This Mean for You?

 

Ultimately, the national debt must be paid. Besides the question of paying back the actual debt, interest payments on the debt replace spending that could go to other programs. The Congressional Budget Office sums up the problems of high long-term debt: “High and rising federal debt would reduce national saving and income, boost the government’s interest payments, limit lawmakers’ ability to respond to unforeseen events, and increase the likelihood of a fiscal crisis.”

 

The solution to these long-term problems is to raise taxes, cut spending, or default on the debt (or a combination of two or three of these options). Any of these options will affect every American, since we all pay taxes, rely on government services, and depend on a sound financial system.

 

The annual budget process helps determine the annual deficit and plays a large role in determining the trajectory of future debt. This process has just begun with the release of President Trump’s budget proposal.

Sweeping Election Law Passes the House

On a party line vote of 234-193, the House of Representatives on Friday passed a major overhaul of election and campaign finance law.

 

H.R. 1, cosponsored by 236 House Democrats, would make numerous changes to U.S. election procedure and place new restrictions on organizations that engage in political speech. Among other things, it would:

  • Mandate that certain nonprofit corporations engaging in political speech report their donors to the government
  • Mandate that social media companies report the names of those who pay for political ads to the government
  • Require members of Congress to use personal funds to settle employment discrimination suits
  • Require states to implement automatic, online and same-day voter registration
  • Mandate how states remove ineligible voters from the rolls
  • Establish a pilot program to provide government funding for citizens to contribute to candidates

 

This legislation was part of the Democrats pledge during the 2018 election to reduce what they perceive as barriers to voting and combat what they call “dark money” in elections. Their argument was that states are discouraging people from voting by making it more difficult, so the federal government has a responsibility to step in and standardize how states run elections. They also contended that some nonprofit corporations are engaged in electioneering when they talk about public policy issues, so this spending should be more heavily controlled by the government.

 

Republicans pushed back against this bill, saying that many of its provisions violated free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union also raised these free speech concerns, saying that parts of H.R. 1 were an unconstitutional restriction on speaking freely. Some members of Congress also objected to the federal government removing much of the ability of states to run elections.

 

While no Republican voted in favor of the bill, some did offer amendments. One amendment would have expressed the sense of Congress that free speech, including contributing to political speech, was a fundamental right. Republicans also attempted to return the bill to the Judiciary Committee with the instruction to add language expressing disapproval of illegal aliens voting (some localities, such as San Francisco, allow residents to vote in some local elections regardless of citizenship status). None of these Republican attempts was successful. A Democratic amendment to lower the voting age to 16 also failed with broad bipartisan opposition.

 

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will almost certainly not schedule a vote.

 

Do you think that nonprofits that engage in political speech should report their donors to the government? Should voter registration be automatic? Should 16-year-olds be able to vote? Are you concerned about cities allowing illegal aliens to vote in local elections, such as for school board?

Senate Approves 3 Federal Judges

 

For many of his supporters, President Trump’s judicial appointments rank near the top of why they backed him for president. Throughout his term, his team has put a priority on filling judicial vacancies. This week saw three more of these judges move through the Senate.

  • Eric Murphy, Sixth Judicial Circuit, approved 52-46
  • Chad Readler, Sixth Judicial Circuit, approved 52-47
  • Allison Jones Rushling, Fourth Judicial Circuit, approved 53-44

 

During President Trump’s term, judicial votes have largely fallen along partisan lines. Nearly all the Democrats vote against them, while every Republican supports them (with few exceptions). This was the case in the votes this week.

 

The importance that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell places on filling these judicial vacancies was clear from the Senate action this week. Aside from votes on these judges, the only other vote that he scheduled was for another Trump Administration nomination.

 

Do you approve of President Trump’s judicial nominees?

Deep Dive: Presidential Emergencies

On Friday, February 15, President Donald Trump announced that he would declare a state of emergency to allow him to use federal funds to build a border wall. Talk about this “emergency” is common in the media, but this declaration involved a legal process that gives powers to both the president and Congress. This explainer will give you more information about the law in question, what it allows the president to do, and how Congress can react.

 

The issue of a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border has been one that President Trump has been supporting since he ran for president, but Congress has not allocated funding to do this. President Trump used a 1976 law to bypass Congress, but the law does not give him unlimited power to do whatever he wants. By invoking this law, the president also gives Congress an opportunity to take action to terminate his declaration.

 

The National Emergencies Act of 1976

 

President Trump is using authority under a law passed in 1976, the National Emergencies Act, also known as Public Law 94-412.

 

Presidential Power

 

This legislation gives the president broad powers in an emergency, but also puts some limits on those powers:

  • Where Congress has enacted legislation to delegate emergency powers to the president, he can invoke this law use those powers through a declaration.
  • The president must specify the law under which he is acting.
  • The president must renew emergency declarations annually and can terminate them at any time.

 

Congressional Power

 

This legislation also gives Congress a role to play in national emergencies:

  • Within 6 months, and every 6 months thereafter, Congress must meet to consider a resolution to determine if a national emergency should be terminated.
  • A concurrent resolution by Congress can terminate an emergency. This resolution is subject to the president’s veto, so it must pass by a two-thirds majority to ensure that it will overrule the president’s actions.
  • Every six-month time period in which an emergency is in effect, the president must provide a list of expenditures to Congress that have been incurred due to this emergency declaration.

 

History of Use

 

Since this law has been in effect, there have been 59 emergencies declared. Thirty-one of them have been annually renewed. These include emergency declarations regarding the September 11 terrorist attacks and sanctions on various foreign regimes that support terrorism.

 

President Trump’s Emergency Declaration

 

Under President Trump’s emergency declaration, various federal sources of money can be used to pay for the construction of a border wall. These include:

  • $3.6 million from uncompleted military construction projects
  • $2.5 billion from Department of Defense anti-drug efforts
  • $601 million from funds in the Department of Treasury from assets seized and forfeited to the federal government

 

Legal Issues

 

Besides the congressional resolution of disapproval, there will also be challenges in the courts to this declaration. Opponents of the declaration are likely to argue these points in court:

  • There is no true emergency. According to this argument, there is nothing new happening at the border that justifies declaring the situation an emergency. The president, they say, is simply calling this an “emergency” in order to bypass Congress.
  • Congress has refused to act, so the president should not have the presumption of authority in this case. Unlike in past emergencies, this declaration comes after Congress has explicitly refused to grant funding for the purposes of the declaration. Past emergency declarations did not involve spending money in ways that have been denied by Congress, so those who make this argument contend that President Trump is on much weaker ground in justifying his declaration.

 

The Supreme Court’s decisions do not provide much precedent in this area. In Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, the court held that President Truman’s could not declare an emergency to seize private property. The court decided this case in 1952, however, and has not adjudicated any case under the 1976 law.

 

What This Means for You

 

The House of Representatives voted 245-182 on February 26 to terminate President Trump’s national emergency. The Senate will now take up this question. With a handful of Republicans already announcing their support for the resolution, this body is likely to vote in favor of terminating the emergency, too. With a majority of both houses in favor, this would be the first time that Congress voted to revoke an emergency declaration by the president.

 

President Trump still has the option of vetoing this resolution, however, and he is likely to do so. The votes in favor of the disapproval resolution did not reach two-thirds of either chamber of Congress, so any veto override attempt is almost certainly doomed. That leaves the fight over the fate of President Trump’s emergency declaration with the courts. Sixteen states’ attorneys’ general have filed suit to stop it. This could take years to resolve. A border wall, if it gets built at all, is unlikely to be finished any time soon.

 

 

Trade Deficit Reaches 10-Year High

A key plank in Donald Trump’s presidential platform was reducing the U.S. trade deficit. Today, however, new numbers show that it has reached levels not seen since 2008.

 

In 2018, the U.S. imported $621 billion more in goods and services than it exported. That is the widest gap since 2008.

 

Calling the trade deficit a “disaster” during his campaign, he has pursued tariffs and renegotiated trade agreements as a way to close it. Recently labeling himself “Tariff Man,” President Trump has engaged in a trade war with China and imposed new tariffs on goods from that country. He has also attacked long-standing trade agreements and supported tariffs for other nations.


According to President Trump, imports hurt American workers while exports grows the economy. Economists disagree, however, arguing that reducing barriers to trade makes the economy more efficient, something that helps both workers and consumers overall.

 

Do you think that President Trump’s tariff policies have contributed to the increased trade deficit? Or do you think that the higher trade deficit shows that the president needs to be tougher on America’s trading partners?

Styrofoam Ban Advances in Maryland

It may soon be illegal for Maryland businesses to serve food or drinks in Styrofoam containers.

 

This week the state Senate passed legislation that would outlaw the use of polystyrene foam, commonly known as Styrofoam, containers in food service. Retailers are also banned from selling such containers under the legislation.

 

Three of Maryland’s largest counties already ban the use of this product, as does Baltimore City.

 

Supporters of the measure said that it was a good way to cut down a product that could not be recycled and did not easily biodegrade. They said this ban would save space in landfills and reduce litter. Opponents argued that the burden would fall on small businesses. They also said that it would have no real effect on litter or the environment, since only a tiny amount of litter involved Styrofoam.

 

The legislation now moves to the House of Delegates for consideration.

 

Do you support a ban on Styrofoam food containers?

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