Congress

Commentary & Community

Warren Proposes Wiping out Student Debt with Wealth Tax

Senator Elizabeth Warren is trying to separate herself from a crowded field of Democratic candidates for president. Today she announced a plan that pairs two ideas that cause excitement for progressive activists: canceling student loan debt and a tax on wealthier Americans.

 

Under Sen. Warren’s plan, she would take revenue from her proposed annual tax on those who have more than $50 million in wealth and cancel student loans for millions of Americans. She calls for forgiveness of up to $50,000 of debt for people in households with an income under $100,000, and a partial cancelation of debt for those in households with incomes up to $250,000.

 

In addition, Sen. Warren has also proposed other reforms that she said would make college more affordable. These include elimination of tuition and fees at two-year and four-year institutions, expanding what federal Pell Grants can pay for, increase aid to historically black colleges and universities, and ban colleges from considering an applicant’s criminal history or citizenship status.

 

Supporter of Sen. Warren’s plan argue that student loan debt is overwhelming for many people. They say that this debt harms the economy by limiting the decisions that graduates can make. Opponents counter that those with debt should have the skills necessary to repay the debt, so taxpayers should not shoulder the burden. They also note that canceling this debt would disproportionately benefit the middle class and wealthier Americans.

 

Do you support canceling student loan debt? Should the government forbid colleges and universities from charging tuition?

Trump Vetoes Yemen War Resolution

A bloody civil war is raging in Yemen, with Saudi Arabia backing one side and Iran the other. The U.S. is assisting Saudi Arabia in this conflict, and will continue to do so thanks to a veto issued by President Trump on Tuesday.

 

The House and Senate both passed Senate Joint Resolution 7, which directs the president to stop U.S. military involvement in the Yemeni civil war. President Trump vetoed the resolution, arguing that the U.S. is not involved in the Yemeni hostilities. However, the military does provide technical assistance and refueling for Saudi forces that are battling rebels in the country.

 

Proponents of military assistance to Saudi Arabia argue that this is necessary to prevent the Iranian-backed rebels from taking over Yemen. Opponents counter that the U.S. should not involve itself in a Yemeni civil war that has led to atrocities and a high civilian death count.

 

The Senate voted 54-46 in favor of the resolution, while the House voted 247-175 to support it. Neither votes reached the 2/3 majority to overcome a presidential veto.

 

Do you think that the U.S. military should be involved in the Yemeni civil war?

Congress Faces Big Issues When It Returns in 2 Weeks

Easter is approaching, and that means that legislative work in Washington, D.C., is on hold for two weeks. While Congress has left many big issues unaddressed when it left town on its recess, it has also scored some notable accomplishments in the year so far.


Here are some of the big items that Congress has worked on during this legislative session:

 

Rebuking President Trump’s border wall emergency: When the president declared an emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border in order to spend money for a wall, he set up a showdown with Congress. Bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate voted to terminate the president’s emergency declaration. President Trump vetoed this termination resolution, and the House failed to override the veto. Congress can revisit this issue again in a few months.

 

Approving President Trump’s nominees: Frustrated with what he perceived as Democratic obstructionism, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell engineered a rule change to speed up consideration of presidential nominees. Much of the Senate’s work this year has focused on getting these nominees confirmed.

 

 Net neutrality: The House of Representatives passed a bill that would re-instate “net neutrality” rules. The Federal Communications Commission had instituted regulations in 2015 that imposed restrictions on how Internet service providers price services, provide content, and manage their networks. The FCC removed those rules in 2017.

 

Election reform: In March, the H.R. 1 passed the House of Representatives with only Democratic support. This legislation 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 states to same-day voter registration, and mandate how states remove ineligible voters from the rolls, among other things. The Senate is unlikely to take up this bill, however.

 

And here is what we can expect the House and Senate to address once members return in late April:

 

Disaster relief: President Trump, congressional Republicans, and Congressional Democrats cannot agree on what a disaster relief package should look like. The president contends that Puerto Rico is mismanaging federal funds, and that has left a disaster aid package for the island’s hurricane recovery, as well as other disasters around the nation, in the lurch. There are indications that Republicans and Democrats in Congress could come to an agreement after the Easter recess, but it is unclear if that agreement would have presidential support.

 

Yearly spending: If the government is going to avoid shutting down at the end of the year, Congress must pass spending bills to keep it open. The appropriations process will begin after Congress returns from recess and go until at least October 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

 

Marijuana legislation: With an increasing number of states legalizing marijuana for medicinal or recreational use, more businesses are profiting from marijuana sales. Since the federal government continues to enforce its marijuana prohibition, however, this puts banks and credit unions in a tough position. HR 1595 is a bipartisan bill that would give these financial institutions a safe harbor when they deal with marijuana businesses that comply with state laws. The Financial Services committee passed this legislation in March. The Judiciary is currently considering it. The full House could take up the bill within the next few months if it emerges from this committee.

 

 

What do you think Congress should focus on once members come back from their 2-week recess? Should they provide disaster relief to Puerto Rico? Should they ease rules on banks dealing with marijuana businesses? What should happen with federal spending?

Senators Speeding up Confirmations after Rule Change

Confirming President Trump’s nominees has been a top priority of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Last week he engineered a step that speeds up Senate confirmation, and this week the Senate moved quickly to approve numerous nominees put forward by the president.

 

Senate rules have traditionally given senators numerous ways to block or delay consideration of legislation or nominees. In recent years, however, when the president’s party controls the Senate, the majority leader has taken steps to limit the minority’s power when he perceives it as being obstructionist. In 2013, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid thought that Republicans were blocking too many of President Obama’s nominees. He ended the judicial filibuster for lower court nominees, allowing them to be confirmed with a majority vote instead of a supermajority.

 

Since President Trump has been elected, Senator Mitch McConnell has eliminated the judicial filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. Last week he also eliminated the 30-hour rule for consideration of nominees, limiting debate time to 2 hours. Senate Democrats had been using that rule to delay many of President Trump’s nominees, even though they could not ultimately stop them.

 

While it takes a supermajority to change Senate rules, it only takes a majority to change how the Senate interprets these rules. Both Senators Reid and McConnell have used this “nuclear option” to make their rule changes. By a vote of 48-51, senators on April 3 voted against sustaining the ruling of the parliamentarian who said that debate over nominees must last 30 hours.


The Senate has moved 9 nominees under this expedited consideration process:

  • David Bernhardt, Secretary of the Interior, 56-41
  • Steven Morales, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Texas, 56-41
  • Holly Brady, District Judge for the Northern District of Indiana, 56-42
  • John Abizaid, Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 92-7
  • Cheryl Marie Stanton, Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, 53-45
  • Patrick Wyrick, Judge for the Western District of Oklahoma, 53-47
  • Daniel Domenico, Judge for the District of Colorado, 57-42
  • Mark Calabria, Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, 52-44
  • Kalman Altman, Judge for the Southern District of Florida, 66-33

 

Do you support Majority Leader McConnell’s move to speed up consideration of presidential nominees? Do you think that Senate Democrats are right to use 30 hours of debate on President Trump’s nominees?

GOP Senators Float Social Media Regulation

Facebook and Twitter came under fire during a Senate hearing this week. Some senators even floated ideas to impose more government oversight on these social media companies.

 

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Chairman Ted Cruz and other Republicans grilled officials from Facebook and Twitter regarding what they perceive as anti-conservative bias. While saying they did not want to see the government begin regulating these companies, they did float ideas that would increase government oversight of the platforms or open the door for more lawsuits by users.

 

Likening these companies to public utilities or the “town square,” some Republican senators said that the government had a role to ensure that the companies were not discriminating against certain viewpoints. Bringing up instances that these senators said proved Twitter or Facebook removed conservative content, they said that the government may be needed to preserve fairness.

 

These companies, as well as Democrats on the committee, pushed back against the idea that conservatives faced systematic discrimination on social media. Democrats pressed the officials to do more to police their content, especially when it comes to hate speech.

 

Senator Cruz said that no one wanted the government to be the “speech police.” However, he did suggest that the federal government could apply antitrust law to larger social media companies. He also said that Congress could change the law to make the companies liable for users who post libelous content.

 

Do you think that the federal government should regulate social media companies? Do Facebook and Twitter discriminate against conservatives? Should these companies do more to police hate speech?

AG Says Feds Shouldn’t Interfere with State Weed Laws

Federal law bans marijuana while state laws are increasingly legalizing its use. Now the attorney general is saying that the federal government should not interfere in states where marijuana is legal.

 

During testimony before a Senate committee, Attorney General Bill Barr said that he would prefer that the U.S. has a uniform law making marijuana illegal. That does not exist today, with states allowing medicinal and even recreational use of the drug. This sets up a situation where the federal government could enforce its anti-marijuana law in places where marijuana use is legal according to state law. The attorney general acknowledges this leads to federal law being ignored, which he does not like.

 

Attorney General Barr’s answer came in response to a question about his views on S. 1028, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment through Entrusting States (STATES) Act. This bill, sponsored by Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Cory Gardner, would stop federal enforcement of marijuana law in states where it has been legalized. The attorney general stopped short of endorsing this legislation, but did indicate that he thought federal law should be changed to recognize state legalization efforts.

 

Should the federal government stop enforcing its anti-marijuana laws against businesses and individuals in states that have legalized marijuana? Do you support state efforts to end bans on marijuana use?

House Takes Up Net Neutrality

How strictly the federal government should regulate Internet service providers is the question that the House of Representatives will take up today. The House is set to vote on legislation that would overturn a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote that invalidated net neutrality rules.

 

In December 2017, the FCC voted 3-2 to repeal “net neutrality” regulations. The regulations in question date to 2015, when the FCC decided to regulate Internet service providers more stringently. In essence, the agency at that time classified the services they provide as a public utility, largely forcing providers not to discriminate in pricing, content, and the management of the network.

 

H.R. 1644, the bill that the House will vote on, would overturn the 2017 vote and re-impose the 2015 rules. That has been a goal of Democrats in Congress and liberal activists around the nation since the FCC vote occurred.

 

Not surprisingly, Internet service providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast opposed the 2015 net neutrality rules and the House legislation. They do not like the fact that these regulations constrain them from treating different types of customers differently when it came to pricing or network management. Internet content companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, however, are strongly lobbying for the imposition of net neutrality regulations, seeing an advantage in being protected from higher charges when they use far more bandwidth than other websites or apps.

 

This 2017 FCC rule change did not remove federal oversight from the Internet. In fact, the rule mandates transparency for network management practices. The Federal Trade Commission also regulates Internet service providers. But it did lessen the ability of the government to set rules proactively that constrain Internet service providers.

 

Do you support legislation to re-impose net neutrality regulations? Should the Internet be treated as a public utility, subject to government rules on pricing and usage?

House Pushes Trump to Defend Obamacare in Court

The legal fight over the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is currently raging in court. This week, the House of Representatives condemned the Trump Administration’s efforts to see this law invalidated by court order.

                                 

On April 3, the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 271, which condemns the Trump Administration’s legal actions against the ACA. That resolution calls on the Trump Administration to reverse its course and defend the law from legal challenges. It passed by a vote of 240-186, with 8 Republicans joining all but one Democrat in backing it.

 

In February 2018, attorneys general and governors from 20 states filed a lawsuit arguing that a portion of the ACA was unconstitutional and the entire law should be invalidated because of that. Initially the Trump Administration took a stance that the portion of the law in question, the minimum essential coverage mandate, was indeed unconstitutional, but that this portion could be ruled so without overturning the entire law. A federal judge in December 2018 agreed with the plaintiffs, finding this part of the law unconstitutional and saying that the entire law had to go because of it.

 

After that ruling, the Department of Justice changed course, saying that this ruling should be upheld and that the entire ACA was unconstitutional. The case is still being litigated, but this new position from the Trump Administration weakens the argument in favor of the law. In most cases, the Justice Department defends federal law when they are being challenged in court.

 

While the resolution passed by the House of Representatives urges the Trump Administration to once again defend the ACA, this is unlikely to have any effect. The Department of Justice is expected to continue arguing that the law should be invalidated. It remains to be seen how the courts will decide, especially since this case is likely to make it to the Supreme Court.

 

Do you think that the Trump Administration should defend Obamacare in court?

Time to End Prescriptions for the Pill?

Birth control has emerged as a contentious issue in the wake of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Now two senators want women to be able to buy birth control pills without a prescription.

 

Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, and Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, have introduced S. 930. This legislation would not directly remove the current Food and Drug Administration rule requiring a prescription to access the drug, since Congress does not have the power to do this. It would, however, expedite the process of moving the drug to over-the-counter usage.

 

Currently, the process could take up to five years. There is some interest among drug companies for applying to petition the FDA to do this. If this legislation becomes law, it would give priority to such applications.

 

Some states currently allow pharmacists, rather than doctors, to write a prescription for birth control pills. That makes them easier to get, but not as easy as if they were approved for over-the-counter sales.

 

Do you think that the federal government should allow birth control pills to be sold over the counter?

Trump Threatens to Close the Border

President Trump this week continues his focus on illegal immigration, threatening to close the border with Mexico if that nation does not curtail the flow of migrants north. This has met pushback from Republicans as well as Democrats, who point out the large economic damage it could cause.

 

On Wednesday morning he tweeted, “Congress must get together and immediately eliminate the loopholes at the Border! If no action, Border, or large sections of Border, will close. This is a National Emergency!” This follows earlier statements calling for Mexico to do more to stem illegal immigration or the border would close.

 

It is unclear how the border would be closed under the president’s scenario. He has floated both a complete closure and a closure of key ports of entry. Either way, say business leaders and elected officials, this would impose a heavy cost on the economy. With significant trade between the U.S. and Mexico, a border closure would impede U.S. exports south and Mexican exports north. Both businesses and consumers would be affected quickly if such an action is taken.

 

The president and his allies say that shutting down border crossing is the best way to deal with an increasing number of illegal immigrants. Many disagree, however. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said, “Closing down the border would have potentially catastrophic economic impact on our country, and I would hope we would not be doing that sort of thing.”

 

Do you think that President Trump should shut down the U.S.-Mexican border?

“Equal Pay Day” Brings Debate

It’s “Equal Pay Day,” and you’ll probably be seeing statistics about how women are paid less than men and statistics debunking that stat. Regardless of how you interpret these statistics, one thing that may be overlooked today is that the House of Representatives passed a bill last week aimed at addressing this issue.

 

By a vote of 242-187, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 7, the Paycheck Fairness Act, on March 27. This bill has a variety of provisions that are aimed at reducing what the sponsors view as a gender wage gap. It would:

  • Narrow the factors by which employers can justify gender-based pay disparities to only apply to “bona fide” factors such as education, training, or experience
  • Prohibit employers from punishing employees who discuss their pay
  • Ban employers from considering salary history when considering hiring someone

 

Sponsors of this bill have been trying for years to see it pass the House. With the Democrats now in charge, they finally succeeded. No Democrats voted against it, while 7 Republicans voted for it.

 

Those supporting this bill say it is necessary to address persistent discrimination against women in the workforce, as evidenced by the gender pay gap. Opponents say that the pay gap is not due to discrimination, but to personal choices made by women – such as leaving the workforce for motherhood. They argue that this bill will only tie up businesses in more red tape.

 

The legislation now goes to the Senate for consideration, where it is unlikely to receive a vote.

 

Do you think that the gender pay gap is due to discrimination that needs to be addressed by stronger federal laws? Or is the gender pay gap due to choices that individual men and women make in the workforce?

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?

 

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?

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