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House Passes 2 Bills to Reform Treatment of Children at Border

The House of Representatives is taking aim at how the Trump Administration is treating migrant children who cross the U.S.-Mexican border.


This week members of the House passed two bills that would change key part of the Trump Administration’s strategy to deal with migrant children. Here is how VoteSpotter described them:

 

U.S. House Bill 3525 Mandate speedy medical checks of children detained at ports of entry

Passed 236 to 174 in the U.S. House

To mandate that anyone under the age of 18 who is detained at a port of entry to the U.S. must receive a medical check within 12 hours. For individuals who may have health problems, the deadline would be six hours.

 

U.S. House Bill 2203 Limit immigration child separations

Passed 230 to 194 in the U.S. House

To limit the circumstances when the Border Patrol or Department of Homeland Security may separate a child entering the country from a parent. With few exceptions this would be allowed only when a court determines it is in the child's best interest. The bill also establishes a variety of government commissions and committees to reform the way that the Department of Homeland Security operates regarding immigration as well as stopping some of the Trump Administration's new asylum rules.

 

These bills come in response to what some observers call abuses by the Border Patrol of children who are detained entering the U.S. The policy of separating children from adults when they arrive across the border has been an especially controversial policy. Under the legislation passed by the House, this could only occur under rare circumstances.

 

Those supporting these bills say that they are necessary to end inhumane treatment of children at the border. Those opposing them counter that this would needlessly hamstring the Border Patrol and would end up leading to higher levels of illegal immigration.

 

The bills now head to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to bring them up for a vote.

 

Do you think that the federal government should only be able to separate migrant children from parents under rare circumstances? Should the federal government provide medical checks to anyone under 18 within 12 hours of being detained when they enter the country?

 

Senate Again Votes to End Trump’s Border Wall Emergency

For the second time, the Senate has voted to terminate President Trump’s emergency declaration regarding the U.S.-Mexico border wall. But, once again, there were not enough votes to override a likely presidential veto, leaving the emergency declaration in place.

 

On September 25, the Senate votes 54-41 in favor of Senate Joint Resolution 54, which would terminate President Trump’s emergency declaration allowing him to re-allocate funds to build a border wall. The president issued such an emergency order on February 15 after Congress had refused to vote in favor of money for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

 

As explained in this VoteSpotter Deep Dive, the president has the power under a 1979 law to declare a national emergency. When this happens, he can shift some federal funds that were approved for other projects to meet the needs of whatever emergency the president has declared. However, Congress then has the ability to vote to terminate the emergency declaration.

 

Soon after this February declaration, both houses of Congress did indeed vote to terminate it. However, the president vetoed the termination resolution and there were not enough votes to override the veto. According to the law governing emergencies, termination votes can occur every six months. That is why the Senate once again took up this issue.

 

The Senate-approved resolution will now be considered by the House of Representatives, where it is likely to pass. The president is likely to veto it once again, and there is little chance that either house will override the veto. This will preserve the emergency declaration for at least another six months.

 

Do you think that Congress should end President Trump’s emergency declaration that allows him to move money around to pay for a border wall?

Ocasio-Cortez: Immigrants’ Legal Status Shouldn't Bar Government Assistance

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez today outlined a variety of bills she said are aimed at reducing poverty. Given her progressive political leanings, many of these bills stake out a liberal position on this issue. One in particular will likely to be quite controversial – a bill that would allow any immigrant, whether they are in the country legally or not, to obtain benefits from government programs.

 

Current law prohibits illegal immigrants from accessing most federal assistance programs. Legal immigrants can only access these benefits once they have been in the country for five years. Under Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s bill, an individual’s immigration status, whether legal or not, would no longer be considered when providing these benefits.

 

In the 1990s, Congress passed legislation that was signed by President Clinton which limited when immigrants could access federal benefits. Supporters of this change said that while the U.S. should welcome immigrants, it should not draw them here with the promise of government assistance. Instead, these reformers, argued, immigrants should come here with an expectation to work.

 

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s legislation would change this by giving all immigrants the opportunity to qualify for government programs. She argues that society benefits when there are fewer restrictions on the social safety net. She says that allowing these individuals to access government benefits will produce a more just society.

 

This proposal to reform federal welfare law comes as part of a package of bills that would make major changes in how the federal government deals with poverty. Among her proposals would be to adjust the federal poverty rate by geography, impose rent control nationwide, allow individuals with criminal convictions to obtain government benefits, and enact an international treaty declaring that “all persons have the right to work, fair and just conditions of work, social security, an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing, housing, and healthcare.”

 

Do you think that immigrants, regardless of legal status, should have access to government benefits?

Sanders Unveils His “Wealth Tax”

Senator Bernie Sanders has few good things to say about Americans who earn high incomes. In his run for the Democratic nomination, he has made targeting the wealthy a centerpiece of his campaign. Now he has a tax plan that takes aggressive aim at this group.

 

Today Sen. Sanders released a plan that would impose a wealth tax on higher-income households. This is how the new tax surcharge would escalate:

  • 1% tax on married couple wealth above $32 million and single individual wealth above $16 million
  • 2% tax on married couple wealth above $50 million and single individual wealth above $25 million
  • 3% tax on married couple wealth above $250 million and single individual wealth above $125 million
  • 4% tax on married couple wealth above $500 million and single individual wealth above $250 million
  • 5% tax on married couple wealth above $1 billion and single individual wealth above $500 million
  • 6% tax on married couple wealth above $2.5 billion and single individual wealth above $1.25 billion
  • 7% tax on married couple wealth above $5 billion and single individual wealth above $2.5 billion
  • 8% tax on married couple wealth above $10 billion and single individual wealth above $5 billion

 

According to the Sanders campaign, this tax plan would cut the wealth of American billionaires in half. The campaign also says it would produce $4.35 trillion over 10 years. That new revenue would help pay for a variety of costly plans that Sanders has outlined on the campaign trail, such as student loan forgiveness, Medicare-for-all, and universal child care.

 

Proponents of the Sanders plan justify it as a way to equalize what they say is an extreme gap between wealthy Americans and everyone else. They argue that the government has a role to take some of this wealth and use it for social programs that benefit the public. Opponents counter that this plan would discourage individuals from investing and working, leading to fewer jobs created and lower economic growth. They also note that wealthy Americans can take steps to avoid the tax, so it will likely produce far less income than the Sanders campaign predicts.

 

Among the individuals running for the Democratic nomination, Elizabeth Warren has also proposed a wealth tax. The Sanders plan is more aggressive than the tax program outlined by Warren.

 

Do you support a special tax on individuals who earn more than $16 million?

Court Begins Hearing Challenge to Tennessee’s Abortion Waiting Period

A federal court challenge to Tennessee’s mandate that women seeking an abortion must undergo a mandatory waiting period began today in Nashville.


Under Tennessee, a woman seeking an abortion must visit a clinic once to receive counseling and set up an appointment for a procedure, then wait 48 hours until the procedure occurs. Thirteen other states have some form a mandatory waiting period for abortions.

 

Supporters of the law argue that it gives women a chance to reflect on their decision and possibly change their mind. Opponents, however, say that it places a large burden on women who must make two trips to an abortion clinic. They note that many women travel far distances to abortion clinics, so requiring them to do so twice is especially burdensome.

 

Similar bans have been challenged in other states. The Iowa Supreme Court struck down a law in that state that mandated a waiting period of 72 hours. A federal court ruled a Florida law mandating a 24-hour waiting period was unconstitutional, but that case is currently under appeal. The Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that a Pennsylvania law requiring a 24-hour waiting period was constitutional.

 

Do you think that states should be able to impose a mandatory waiting period on women seeking an abortion?

House Votes to Bar Binding Arbitration

This week the House of Representatives passed a bill that would affects a contract provision signed by tens of millions of workers – binding arbitration agreements.

 

For many workers, a condition of their job is their acceptance of what businesses call “alternative dispute resolution.” Instead of suing over certain issues if an employee alleges a problem at work, these agreements require the employee and employer to go through binding arbitration. This is a less formal, less expensive means of settling a dispute. However, opponents of binding arbitration say that it deprives employees of their rights to sue over harassment, discrimination, and other issues.

 

By a vote of 225-186, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1423. Here is how VoteSpotter describes the bill:

 

To make unenforceable provisions in contracts that require the parties to pursue arbitration first on disputes over employment, consumer, antitrust, or civil rights issues. The bill also prohibits agreements that limit class action lawsuits.

 

As noted in this description, it goes beyond merely prohibiting binding arbitration for certain issues. It also prohibits employers from requiring employees to waive their rights to join in a class action lawsuits over employment practices. A 2018 Supreme Court case ruled that current law allows employers to request that employees sign such contracts.

 

Backers of this legislation say that it’s necessary to restore the rights of employees to sue over what they consider abuses by employers. They argue that binding arbitration usually works in favor of employers. Opponents counter that lawsuits are expensive and, at times, frivolous. They say that banning the use of binding arbitration will lead to more lawsuits, with the result being higher costs passed to consumers and fewer people hired.

 

While some Republicans in the Senate have signaled support for curbing binding arbitration, the House legislation passed with only two Republicans voting in favor of it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may not schedule this bill for consideration in that body.

 

Do you think that employers should be able to ask employees to sign binding arbitration contracts?

House Holds Hearing on DC Statehood

Today the issue of statehood for Washington, D.C., will be discussed in Congress for the first time in 25 years.

 

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is holding a hearing on H.R. 51, a bill that would admit the District of Columbia to the union as the 51st state. Most of the current territory of the district would be in the new state, with the exception of some federal buildings such as the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court.

 

Residents of Washington, D.C., can vote for president and they pay federal taxes. They do not have a voting representative in Congress, however, and the city is still governed by Congress (although Congress has delegated much of that power to the city government).

 

Eleanor Holmes-Norton is the district’s delegate to the House of Representatives. She can vote in committee and, at times, when the House meets as a “committee of the whole.” She introduced H.R. 51, which has 219 cosponsors.

 

City officials have long pushed for statehood, but they have failed to convince members of Congress to support it. They argue that they deserve representation in Congress the same as other taxpayers in states across the country. Opponents note that the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in a way that provided federal control over the district in order to prevent a state government from threatening the federal government.

 

It is unclear if House leadership will bring H.R. 51 to the floor for a vote. However, if the bill did pass the House of Representatives, there is little chance that it would be considered by the Senate.

 

Do you think that Washington, D.C., should be a state?

Tuition-Free College May Be Coming to New Mexico

If you live in New Mexico and want to go to college, the state’s governor wants you to be able to do so without facing tuition payments.

 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced today that she is proposing legislation allowing state residents could attend the state’s 29 two- and four-year institutions tuition-free. This program would be open to any New Mexico resident, regardless of household income. The price tag could run between $25 and $35 million each year.

 

To be eligible, a student must graduate from a New Mexico high school or pass a GED test. The students must also maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college. While the program would cover college tuition, it would not pay for other educational expenses such as housing or books.

 

The governor and supporters of this plan tout it as a way to provide more people with the possibility of higher education. They also note that this will mean that those attending these state schools will no longer face the burdens of student debt. Opponents counter that this is a government giveaway to the wealthy, since federal Pell Grants already provide help for lower-income students to attend college.

 

Tuition-free higher education is something that more Democratic politicians are embracing. Many of the candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination are proposing ideas that would reduce or end tuition at some colleges and universities or forgive student loan debt.

 

The New Mexico plan must still be approved by the state legislature to go into effect.


Do you support making public colleges and universities tuition-free?

 

 

Arizona Court Rules Against Forcing Artists to Work Same-Sex Wedding

Where does speech end and commerce begin? That is a key question in the debate over what legal protections should apply for business owners who participate in same-sex weddings.


Yesterday the Arizona Supreme Court held that two calligraphers and artists could not be forced to produce work for a same-sex wedding. The court’s decision concluded that calligraphy and artist expression was speech, and that a business owner could not be compelled to produce speech that contains a message the person disagrees with.

 

The case involved business owners who refused to produce wedding calligraphy for a same-sex wedding. The couple getting married sued, arguing that this refusal constituted discrimination based on sexual orientation. The court disagreed, saying that this type of activity was not mere commerce, but also involved “pure speech.”

 

The issue of whether business owners who think same-sex marriage is sinful can be compelled to provide services to these types of marriages is one that has emerged in states around the nation. Often, the issue involves anti-discrimination laws fit with constitutional protections for religion and speech.  

 

In its 4-3 decision, the Arizona Supreme Court decided that the principle of free speech was paramount:

 

[The business owners'] beliefs about same-sex marriage may seem old-fashioned, or even offensive to some. But the guarantees of free speech and freedom of religion are not only for those who are deemed sufficiently enlightened, advanced, or progressive. They are for everyone. After all, while our own ideas may be popular today, they may not be tomorrow.

 

However, the court also noted that this was a limited decision focused on the calligraphy business in question. It did not hold that all business activities could be shielded from ordinances that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation.

 

Do you agree that business owners should not be compelled to produce artistic items for same-sex weddings or other activities that violate their religious beliefs?

 

 

Warren Unveils “Anti-Corruption” Plan

Today Sen. Elizabeth Warren outlined a proposal that she says is necessary to fight corruption in the federal government.

 

Her plan calls for a variety of reforms to federal laws, including:

  • Mandating that the president and vice president place their assets in a blind trust to be sold.
  • Disclosing automatically the tax returns of candidates for federal office, including the president and vice president.
  • Requiring senior government officials to divest from assets that could pose a conflict-of-interest.
  • Banning members of Congress from trading in individual stocks while in office.
  • Prohibiting members of congress and senior congressional staff from serving on corporate boards.
  • Banning lobbyists from serving in government within two years of ending their lobbying career.
  • Prohibiting members of Congress and some federal officials from ever taking a job as a lobbyist after their time in the government is over.
  • Mandating the disclosure of financial information for federal judges and imposing a code of conduct on these judges.
  • Extending lobbying restrictions to anyone who is “paid to influence lawmakers.”
  • Banning lobbyists from representing foreign entities.
  • Prohibiting lobbyists from donating to political candidates or fundraise for them.
  • Banning forced arbitration clauses and mandatory class action waivers.

 

According to Sen. Warren, President Trump’s Administration has shown the weakness of federal anti-corruption laws. Many of her proposals are aimed explicitly at practices that she says are weakening our government under President Trump. Other proposals are older ideas that liberals have long pushed for, such as the ending of forced arbitration clauses.

 

Critics of her plan note that many of her ideas, such as prohibiting lobbyists from contributing to candidates, would likely run afoul of the Constitution. They also point to these plans as being a vast expansion of federal power over political speech and activity.


Sen. Warren has sponsored similar legislation during her time in the Senate. This plan is an updated version that is part of her platform as she runs for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

 

Do you think that the federal government should prohibit lobbyist from contributing to candidates? Should the IRS automatically release the tax returns of anyone running for federal office, from presidential candidates to members of Congress?

 

 

House Committee Advances 3 Gun Control Bills

New gun control bills are headed to the House of Representatives this month. On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee approved three bills that advance key Democratic priorities on firearms.

 

The three bills passed by the Judiciary Committee tackle different aspects of federal and state gun laws:

 

H.R. 1186 – To ban the import, sale, manufacture, transfer, or possession of an ammunition device that holds more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Such devices that are already in the possession of an individual could be retained but could not be transferred to anyone else.

 

H.R. 1236 – To create a federal grant program for states to use to support activities concerning extreme protection orders. These orders, sometimes called "red flag" orders, allow law enforcement to seize someone's firearms if a court determines that a person poses a danger to himself or others. Such orders can be issued without conducting a hearing with the person in question under some circumstances.

 

H.R. 2708 – To prohibit anyone who has been convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime from possessing a firearm.

 

Each of the bills passed along a party-line vote. Republicans on the committee offered amendments that they said would approve the bills. Democrats rejected them, then passed the bills over Republican objections.

 

Gun control has become a hot topic in Congress and on the 2020 campaign trail. Democrats are pushing for stronger federal laws that they say will prevent gun crime, especially mass shootings. They argue that the federal government needs to strengthen its gun laws, which have gone decades without revision. Republicans, however, argue that these laws are ineffective to address the real causes of crime and mass shootings. They also say that the laws may infringe upon a individual's constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

 

With the Judiciary Committee's approval, all three of these bills are headed to the House floor for a vote. Speaker Pelosi will likely schedule them for consideration at some point in September. Given the Democratic majority in that chamber, they are almost certain to pass. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to schedule any of the bills for a vote in that chamber unless President Trump signals his support.

 

Do you think that the federal government should ban people from buying or owning gun magazines that hold more than 10 bullets?

Deep Dive: Judiciary Committee Impeachment Investigation

This week the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a resolution to begin an impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump. This is something that many Democrats have been pressing the committee to do. However, other Democrats, notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are cautious about impeachment, viewing it as politically risky. 

 

Impeachment is the bringing of charges against the president, vice president, or other “civil officials,” such as cabinet officers. Impeachment does not remove them from office, however. Instead, impeachment refers charges to the Senate, which then must vote to remove that person from office.

 

Impeachment and the Constitution

 

The Constitution establishes the impeachment and removal process, explaining it in a few key sections:

 

  • Article I, Section 2: The House of Representatives “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”

 

  • Article I, Section 3: “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present. Judgment in Cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.”

 

  • Article II, Section 4: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

 

The U.S. impeachment and removal process is similar to the process that existed in Britain during the writing of the Constitution. However, the British Parliament impeaches and removes officials in one action. The framers of the U.S. Constitution made impeachment and removal two separate processes, thus weakening the ability of the legislative branch to remove executive branch officials.

 

How Impeachment and Removal Works

 

The House Judiciary Committee begins the impeachment process. Its members consider articles of impeachment, with approval coming with a majority vote. If approved, these articles of impeachment move to the full House of Representatives for a vote. The House then debates and votes on these articles. If a majority approves them, then that person has been impeached.

 

The Senate then begins its role. With the Chief Justice of the U.S. presiding, the Senate conducts a trial. The House of Representatives appoints members to manage the case before the Senate, laying out the charges contained in the articles of impeachment. The Senate then votes, with a two-thirds vote being necessary to remove that person from office.

 

Impeachment and removal may be for a public official’s criminal act, but they are not criminal proceedings. The only penalty, as the Constitution stipulates, is removal from office. The underlying crimes can be prosecuted by civil authorities, however, which may result in criminal conviction and penalties after impeachment and removal from office.

 

The History of Impeachment

 

The House of Representatives has considered over 60 impeachment cases, but most have failed. There have only been 8 instances where individuals have been impeached and removed from office. Fifteen judges have been impeached, as have 2 presidents:

 

  • Andrew Johnson: The House passed 11 articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson in 1868. The Senate came within one vote of removing him from office.

 

  • Bill Clinton: The House passed 2 articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton in 1998. The Senate vote to remove him from office failed.

 

In 1974, the House began the impeachment process against President Richard Nixon. The House Judiciary Committee approved 3 articles of impeachment against him, but Nixon resigned prior to a full House vote.

 

Federal Judge G. Thomas Porteous, Jr., was the last official impeached and removed from office. His impeachment and conviction occurred in 2010.

 

The Clinton Impeachment

 

The last presidential impeachment and trial took place over 20 years ago, when the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton. If there are proceedings initiated against President Trump, it would likely follow the pattern set during these proceedings.

 

In 1998, Independent Counsel Ken Starr provided a report to Congress that contained evidence gathered in the course of his investigation into various allegations against President Clinton. The House Judiciary Committee passed four articles of impeachment. Two were for perjury, one was for obstruction of justice, and one was for abuse of power. The full House of Representatives passed two of those articles of impeachment, one for perjury and one for obstruction of justice, on December 19, 1998.

 

The House of Representatives appointed thirteen managers to present their case to the Senate, which began its trial on January 7, 1999. Chief Justice William Rehnquist presided. The trial lasted a month, with the Senate beginning closed-door deliberations on February 9. The Senate took a vote on February 13 on the articles of impeachment. The Senate defeated the perjury charge by a vote of 45-55 and the obstruction of justice charge by 50-50. Sixty-seven votes would have been necessary to convict the president and remove him from office.

 

While both the votes in the House and Senate were largely along party lines, there were members of Congress who broke with their party leadership on impeachment or conviction. Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican senator from Pennsylvania (who later became a Democrat), voted “not proved.” Many observers saw these proceedings as an example of partisanship on both sides. This is in contrast with the impeachment proceedings that had begun against President Nixon, where a bipartisan consensus was forming to impeach and remove him from office prior to his resignation.

 

What This Means for You

 

The House Judiciary Committee vote means that this committee will begin investigating whether the president has committed the actions described in the Constitution that warrant impeachment. According to the resolution, "The Chairman may designate a full committee or subcommittee hearing as being for the purpose of the presentation of information in connection with the Committee's investigation to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to President Donald J. Trump."

 

Many Democrats accuse the president of obstructing justice and other crimes. They say that it is the House’s duty to impeach under these circumstances. The House Judiciary Committee's actions could add more clarity to these charges. However, Speaker Pelosi has cautioned members that such a move is politically risky, pointing out that Republicans lost popularity when they impeached President Clinton in the 1990s.

 

With Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, there is a possibility that the Judiciary Committee and then the full House could pass impeachment articles. However, it is unlikely that the Senate would follow suit, given Republican control of the chamber. If the Senate would convict the president and remove him from office under this situation, then the vice president would assume office.

Trump Administration Takes Aim at Homelessness

President Trump has long criticized how Democratic politicians in California treat homelessness. Now his administration is looking into how the federal government can intervene to treat what the president sees as a crisis in that state.

 

Members of the Trump White House staff and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are meeting with California officials this week to discuss the issue. President Trump has highlighted what he sees as a growing homeless population in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles and attacked the Democratic politicians that he says are failing to deal with it.

 

The Trump Administration is reportedly considering using the federal government to remove the homeless from the streets and house them in federal facilities. Dealing with homeless individuals has long been under the authority of local and state governments. It is unclear what authority the federal government has to intervene in a widespread way on this issue. Nevertheless, President Trump has said that he is considering what he could order done to reduce the number of people living on the street.

 

The homeless population of California is rising. Some state officials blame this on rising rent rates, and are embracing rent control as a potential solution. Others observers say that state regulatory barriers is driving up the cost to build housing, so the solution is to relax these restrictions. They also note that many homeless people have substance abuse issues or mental health problems, so their situation may not be related to the cost of housing.

 

Do you think the federal government should intervene in California to address the homeless issue?

Deep Dive: Finishing the Yearly Federal Spending Bills

With Congress returning from its August recess, there are now three weeks left until the next fiscal year begins on October 1. Congress has yet to pass any of the spending, or appropriations, bills that fund the federal government from year-to-year. This month will see this legislation take top priority in order to avoid a government shutdown.

  

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. 

 

 

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 2020 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.

 

Fiscal Year 2020

 

To avoid a government shutdown in October, Congress must pass these 12 spending bills and the president must sign them. So far this year, the House of Representatives has passed 10 bills (with only Homeland Security and Legislative Branch still remaining to be approved). The Senate has passed none. 

 

The Senate leadership said that they would not consider spending bills until a budget deal had been approved by the president and Congress. That happened over the summer, so the Senate Appropriations Committee is now set to begin work on this legislation. The Senate version of the bills will likely be different from what the House of Representatives passed, so these bills will have to go through a conference committee to eliminate any differences. Then both Houses will have to pass identical versions of spending legislation.

 

It will be difficult to get this done with only three weeks remaining in the fiscal year. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that the likely outcome will be a short-term spending bill until November 22. That would give Congress enough time to complete the appropriations process and pass spending bills that the House, Senate, and president can agree upon. However, the Senate may include more funding for a border wall in its version of the spending bills, something that Democrats have resisted. If that happens, it could lead to another impasse over federal spending legislation and a possible government shutdown similar to what we saw earlier this year.

 

The 2018-2019 Government Shutdown

 

The last government shutdown occurred from December 2018 to January 2019. The beginnings of this shutdown began a year ago, with the failure of Congress to pass the necessary spending bills. 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.

 

What This Means for You

 

The two-year budget deal that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and President Donald Trump agreed to over the summer was designed to eliminate the possibility of a government shutdown this year or next year. However, there is still disagreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress over border funding. If the Senate and House cannot agree on spending bills that are acceptable to both bodies, as well as the president, there could be a repeat of the 2018-2019 partial government shutdown. The budget agreement makes this less likely, but it could still happen.

Sanford Targets Federal Debt in Run against Trump

Mark Sanford wants to wrest the Republican presidential nomination from Donald Trump. He thinks that focusing on rising federal spending and debt is the way to do this.

 

Sanford announced his candidacy on Fox News Sunday over the weekend. On Twitter, he wrote that he was running for president because of his concern over rising national spending and debt accumulation:

 

We have a storm coming that we are neither talking about nor preparing for given that we, as a country, are more financially vulnerable than we have ever been since our Nation’s start and the Civil War. We are on a collision course with financial reality. We need to act now.

 

As discussed in a VoteSpotter Deep Dive, federal spending, the deficit, and debt are all rising. Yearly deficits are likely to reach over $1 trillion per year for the next decade. Phil Swagel, head of the Congressional Budget Office, recently wrote:

 

The nation’s fiscal outlook is challenging. Federal debt, which is already high by historical standards, is on an unsustainable course, projected to rise even higher after 2029 because of the aging of the population, growth in per capita spending on health care, and rising interest costs.

 

According to Sanford, President Trump bears a large responsibility for what he sees as a looming fiscal crisis. He noted that the president embraces debt and has presided over a large expansion of federal spending.

 

A former South Carolina governor and member of Congress, Sanford lost his seat to a Trump-backed primary challenger last year. He had been a critic of the president during his time in Congress, focusing mainly on what he saw as unsustainable federal spending.

 

Do you think that rising federal spending and debt are problems?

Kamala Harris Backs Nationwide Plastic Straw Ban

Want a plastic straw with your drink in a restaurant? Sen. Kamala Harris doesn’t think that is a good idea.

 

During a CNN debate on climate change, Sen. Harris said that she supports a national ban on plastic straws. She did, however, acknowledge that paper straws do not work very well. Her campaign has said that she wants to see more innovation in straw production to make the elimination of plastic straws feasible. The debate was being held for the candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

 

California has a statewide ban on restaurants offering a plastic straw to a customer unless the customer requests one. A variety of cities have also enacted similar straw bans. Florida legislators passed a law that would prevent local governments from banning plastic straws, but Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed it.

 

Plastic straws have come under attack from critics who allege they contribute to pollution, especially in the ocean. These backers of straw bans contend that ocean wildlife are harmed by these straws. Opponents of a straw ban counter that plastic pollution in the ocean overwhelmingly comes from places other than the U.S. They say that banning plastic straws will do very little, if anything, to address pollution concerns and will only inconvenience American consumers.

 

Do you support banning plastic straws?

Terrorist Watch List Ruled Unconstitutional

A federal judge for the Eastern District of Virginia has ruled that the federal government cannot keep a watch list of suspected terrorists.

 

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga wrote:

 

An individual’s placement into the [list] does not require any evidence that the person engaged in criminal activity, committed a crime, or will commit a crime in the future and individuals who have been acquitted of a terrorism-related crime may still be listed.

 

The list is officially named the Terrorist Screening Database, and it contains over a million names of individuals that the Department of Homeland Security considers to have terrorist ties. This list is not the same as the “no-fly” list also compiled by the federal government (that list has also been ruled unconstitutional). Inclusion in this database triggers a higher level of scrutiny and government action. In recent years, some Democrats have pushed for legislation that would deny individuals on the list the right to purchase a firearm.

 

The 23 individuals who sued are all Muslim. They noted numerous instances of government actions that impeded their ability to travel, among other things. They alleged that they were not notified of their inclusion on the list nor were they given proper ways to challenge such an inclusion.

 

Judge Trenga agreed, noting that the list is based on subjective decisions and is error-prone. He concluded that the database violates the Constitution’s Due Process Clause and ordered the plaintiffs and the government to file briefs setting forward ways to remedy these problems.

 

Do you think the government should have a terrorist watch list? Should individuals on that list have special scrutiny when they travel or buy a gun?

 

House Committee Considers Gun Magazine Ban, Red Flag Laws

Today the House Judiciary Committee is meeting to consider three gun control bills:

 

H.R. 1186 – To ban the import, sale, manufacture, transfer, or possession of an ammunition device that holds more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Such devices that are already in the possession of an individual could be retained but could not be transferred to anyone else.

 

H.R. 1236 – To create a federal grant program for states to use to support activities concerning extreme protection orders. These orders, sometimes called "red flag" orders, allow law enforcement to seize someone's firearms if a court determines that a person poses a danger to himself or others. Such orders can be issued without conducting a hearing with the person in question under some circumstances.

 

H.R. 2708 – To prohibit anyone who has been convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime from possessing a firearm.

 

These bills are being advanced in the wake of two mass shootings in Texas. Congressional Democrats have been calling for stricter gun control since they took control of Congress earlier this year. The House of Representatives has passed legislation that extends the application of federal instant background check laws to private gun sales, but the Senate has failed to act on this legislation.

 

One of the most controversial proposals is H.R. 1236, which provides federal incentives for states to enact so-called “red flag” laws. These laws create a new class of protective order that allows law enforcement to seize someone’s guns without a court hearing in cases where there is an allegation that the person is a threat to himself or others. Supporters say this is a vital tool to prevent dangerous people from committing harm with firearms. Critics say it is a way for government to seize guns without due process.

 

If passed by the Judiciary Committee, these bills will likely come for a vote in the House of Representatives soon. However, there is little chance for action on them in the Senate.

 

Do you support laws that allow police to confiscate someone’s firearms if they believe the person poses a threat? Should these confiscations occur without a court hearing allowing the person to contest the confiscation?

 

O’Rourke Proposes Mandatory Gun Buyback

 

In the wake of recent mass shootings, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke thinks he has the answer – the government mandating that gun owners relinquish certain guns in return for a payment.

 

O’Rourke, a former member of Congress from Texas, proposed this buyback plan after two mass shootings in that state. He said that “weapons of war” should not be on the street, and that the owners of what he calls “assault weapons” should have to turn them over to the government. In return, the government will compensate gun owners.

 

Various cities have operated gun buyback programs for decades. However, these are voluntary operations, with individuals bringing in guns to receive cash or gift cards. There has never been a mandatory gun buyback program in the United States.

 

O’Rourke says that this is the only way to remove these guns from public use. He argues that this will reduce mass shootings. Critics counter that only law-abiding gun owners will comply, which would not affect crime. They also note that this plan would face legal challenges for violating the Second Amendment.

 

Various Democratic candidates have proposed stricter gun control laws as they jockey for the 2020 presidential nomination. High-profile events where a gunman has killed numerous people with a semi-automatic firearm has galvanized activists who are pushing for stricter limits on gun ownership. The House of Representatives has passed bills that would impose background checks on private gun sales, but the Senate has yet to act on this legislation.

 

Do you think that the government should force gun owners to give up “assault weapons” in return for compensation?

California Looking to Reclassify Independent Contractors as Employees

The “gig economy” – people who work for Uber, Lyft, in similar ways – depends on independent contractors. Now California legislators are looking to change state law to reclassify most of these independent contractors as employees. They say this will lead to greater worker protection. Critics argue that it will end their work completely.

 

Under federal law, companies can contract with individuals to do work under certain circumstances, such as not having direct control over how work is done. This has allowed the flourishing of occupations in the “gig economy,” which allows people to work at jobs without meeting the traditional definition of being an “employee.”

 

Many of those who work at these jobs like this status. They say it allows them to pick and choose what jobs they do and when they do them. They like the flexibility and the lack of red tape that comes with traditional employment situations. Others, however, complain that such jobs do not offer the security and benefits of traditional jobs. They say that employers take advantage of independent contractors.

 

California legislators have listened to organized labor and others who take the latter view. The Assembly has passed legislation that would tighten rules in California for when employers can use independent contractors. The bill would narrowly limit who could work as an independent contractor.

 

Supporters of the bill argue that it will mean that employers will have to offer health and other benefits to a wider set of workers. Opponents counter that by adding more cost to hiring these workers, it will end their employment. Instead of helping independent contractors, they say, this will leave these people without work.

 

Uber, Lyft, and other companies that use independent contractors have vowed to fight this bill if it becomes law. They are sponsoring a ballot initiative that will increase protection for independent contractors while still allowing them to work. This ballot would be on the 2020 ballot.

 

Do you think that states should restrict who can work as independent contractors for companies such as Uber and Lyft?

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