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Deep Dive: The Budget Process

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

 

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

 

The President’s Budget

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Congressional Budget Resolutions

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Appropriations Process

 

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

 

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

 

What Does This Mean to You?

 

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

 

 

 

Deep Dive: The Budget Deficit and Debt

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Budget Deficit

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

The National Debt

 

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

 

The government finances this debt in two ways.

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

 

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

 

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

 

Comparisons to Gross Domestic Product

 

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

 

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

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

 

The Trade Deficit

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What Does This Mean for You?

 

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

 

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

 

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

Sweeping Election Law Passes the House

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Senate Approves 3 Federal Judges

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Do you approve of President Trump’s judicial nominees?

Deep Dive: Presidential Emergencies

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

 

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

 

The National Emergencies Act of 1976

 

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

 

Presidential Power

 

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

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

 

Congressional Power

 

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

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

 

History of Use

 

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

 

President Trump’s Emergency Declaration

 

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

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

 

Legal Issues

 

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

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

 

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

 

What This Means for You

 

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

 

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

 

 

Rand Paul Says “No” To Border Wall Emergency

President Trump usually has an ally in Senator Rand Paul. When it comes to the border wall, however, the Kentucky senator is breaking with the president, saying that the emergency declaration is “extra-constitutional.”

 

In a speech over the weekend, Sen. Paul said he would vote in favor of a resolution that would terminate the president’s emergency declaration. He justified it by pointing to the Constitution. According to Sen. Paul, “I can’t vote to give the president the power to spend money that hasn’t been appropriated by Congress. We may want more money for border security, but Congress didn’t authorize it. If we take away those checks and balances, it’s a dangerous thing.”

 

The House of Representatives passed a resolution to terminate the emergency declaration on February 26 by a vote of 245-182.

 

Sen. Paul’s vote will join a handful of other Republican senators who have announced their support for ending the emergency declaration. These include Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Susan Collins of Maine. With all the Democratic senators expected to vote in favor of the Senate resolution, these Republican votes will ensure that the resolution will pass. If this happens, then President Trump still has the option of vetoing it.

 

Do you think that the Senate should vote in favor of ending President Trump’s border wall emergency declaration?

House Passes Gun Control Bills

This week the House of Representatives passed two bills that expanded the federal law mandating background checks for gun purchasers:

 

HB 8

Mandate background checks on more gun buyers

To require that private individuals who sell guns must conduct a background check on gun purchasers. Currently only licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks under federal law.

Passed 240-190.

 

HB 1112

Lengthen background check time limit

To require gun dealers to wait at least 10 days (instead of the current 3 days) before selling a gun to someone if they have requested a background check but have not received a response.

Passed 228-198.

 

While there have been discussions on gun control bills over the past two decades, none have emerged from Congress. With the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, however, there is now enough support to pass such measures. It remains to be seen if other restrictions on gun sales or gun ownership emerge from the House over the next two years.

 

The Senate, controlled by Republicans, is unlikely to consider either bill.

 

Do you support more restrictions on gun ownership or gun sales? Should all gun sales by private individuals be subject to federal background checks?

Booker Pushes for Marijuana Legalization

Cory Booker is running for president. He’s also a senator, and in that role he is pushing for a major overhaul of federal drug laws. He is introducing legislation that would legalize marijuana, and he’s being joined by four of his fellow senators who are running for president.

 

Under Sen. Booker’s bill, not only would marijuana be removed from the federal Controlled Substances List, effectively legalizing it, but those convicted of federal marijuana possession crimes would have their convictions expunged.

 

Sen. Booker introduced similar legislation in 2017, but it never received consideration by the Senate. This year’s bill is also being co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, and Sen. Kamala Harris. All of these senators are running for the Democratic nomination for president.

 

Do you support legalizing marijuana at the federal level?

House Rebukes Trump on Border Wall

President Trump may think that there’s an emergency at the U.S.-Mexican border, but the House of Representatives disagrees.

 

By a vote of 245-182, the House voted in favor of House Joint Resolution 46. This resolution terminates the national emergency declared by President Trump earlier this month in order to shift federal funds around to build a border wall. Thirteen 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 also 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. If one house of Congress passes the resolution, the other house must consider it within 15 days.  

 

There is likely enough support among Republicans in the Senate to pass a disapproval resolution. However, the majority in the House for approval is does not meet the threshold to override a presidential veto. That means that if President Trump vetoes the resolution, which he is likely to do, then his emergency declaration stands.

 

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 think that Congress should vote to terminate President Trump’s emergency declaration allowing him to build a border wall?

Senate Confirms Trump Attorney General Pick

President Trump has a new attorney general.

 

By a vote of 54 to 45, senators confirmed Bill Barr as attorney general on Thursday. Barr, a former attorney general under George H. W. Bush from 1991 to 1991, is the second attorney general to serve under President Trump.

 

His first, Jeff Sessions, resigned last year. President Trump had criticized Sessions numerous times for recusing himself from overseeing the investigation into possible illegal activities undertaken by the Trump campaign. Some Senate Democrats had voiced concern that Barr will not allow this investigation to continue.

 

Every Senate Republican supported Barr’s nomination except one, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. He expressed concerns about Barr’s support of warrantless wiretapping and opposition to criminal justice reform. Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Doug Jones of Alabama, and Kristyn Sinema of Arizona broke with Senate Democrats by voting “yes” on the Barr nomination.

 

Do you support Senate confirmation of Bill Barr to be attorney general?

Trump Declares Emergency to Build Border Wall

There’s an emergency at the national border – at least that’s what President Trump thinks. He said today that he plans to use his powers under a 1976 law to declare an emergency and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

 

The National Emergency Act of 1976 gives the president broad authority to declare an emergency, which frees up his power to make decisions and spend money in ways that have not been approved by Congress. Previous presidents have used this power a number of times, although this is likely to be the most high-profile and controversial use.

 

President Trump campaigned on the promise of building a wall on the southern border, but has not bene able to convince Congress to fund it. He said that he would sign legislation that would keep the government open and allocate money for some border security, but would pair that action with an emergency declaration that lets him build the wall. The president says that the humanitarian crisis at the border justifies such an action.

 

This has prompted a backlash from Democrats and some conservatives. They argue that there is no real emergency at the border. Instead, they say the president is misusing his powers in order to bypass Congress, not using his power to combat an unexpected crisis.

 

Under the emergency legislation, a majority in each house of Congress can pass a resolution to revoke an emergency declaration. The president would likely veto such a resolution, meaning that 2/3 of Congress would have to override it. Democrats have vowed to introduce and pass such a resolution in the House of Representatives. Besides this resolution, there will also be lawsuits against the president’s actions.

 

Do you support President Trump’s emergency declaration to bypass Congress and build a border wall?

Border Security Deal May Avert Government Shutdown

Democrats and Republicans in Congress have agreed on principles of a border security package that would pave the way for bipartisan support for a bill that would fund the federal government. This would stop a looming government shutdown and provide the government with money to operate through the end of the fiscal year. The only question that remains is if President Trump will support it.

 

Under the proposal, the funding bill will contain $1.375 billion for 55 miles of border fencing and over 40,000 slots in immigrant detention facilities. There is also another $1.7 billion for other border security measures. Democrats had been pressing for a cap on slots in interior immigration detention facilities, but this did not make the final cut.

 

President Trump has pushed for $5 billion in funding for a wall or other border barrier. While this deal does not contain full funding for the president’s request, it does contain funding to begin construction.

 

Currently, the federal government is staying open because Congress passed a temporary funding measure that the president signed. That funding runs out on February 15. Congress has time to work out the details and pass a long-term funding measure prior to this date. If the president vetoes it, however, that would possibly lead to another government shutdown unless Congress overrode his veto.

 

Do you support the plan to fund 55 miles in border fencing? Do you think that President Trump should veto the bill because it does not contain full funding for his border wall?

Senate Reauthorizes Israel Aid, Rebukes Trump Syria Policy

This week the U.S. Senate passed S. 1, legislation that dealt with military aid to both Israel and Jordan.

 

Here is how VoteSpotter describes that bill:

 

Reauthorize military aid to Israel and Jordan

To reauthorize military assistance and arm sales to Israel and Jordan. The bill also authorizes state and local governments to pass measures to remove investments from entities that boycott or sanction Israel.

 

Senators supported it by a vote of 77-23.

 

As part of that bill, senators incorporated this amendment offered by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:

 

Oppose troop withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan

To amend a Middle East defense bill express the sense of the Senate that there continues to be terrorism threats in Syria and Afghanistan and that the sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from those nations will put U.S. national security at risk.

 

Senators supported it by a vote of 70-26. It was a clear rebuke of President Trump’s recent announcement that he would withdraw troops from Syria. While this may be a significant symbolic vote, it was merely a “senate of the Senate” vote that had no force of law.

 

Do you approve of the Senate voting to reauthorize military aid to Israel and Jordan? Do you support President Trump’s removal of troops from Syria?

Trump Talks Immigration, Unity in State of the Union Address

President Trump delivered his second State of the Union address last night, sounding familiar themes on immigration, among other issues. He also used the occasion to tout bipartisanship, talking about ways he has worked with Democrats in the past and wishes to work with them in the future.

 

According to the president, “The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial well-being of all Americans.” He reiterated his call to build a wall on the southern border, saying, “I’m asking you to defend are very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and our country.”

 

While there has been discussion of the president using emergency powers to build the border wall, during this address he did not say that he would do so. Instead, he asked Congress to support his proposal for “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier — not just a simple concrete wall.”

 

Currently, funding to keep the federal government open lasts until February 15. Congress must pass a new spending bill before then to avoid another government shutdown. If the president’s border wall plan is not part of this spending bill, he may veto it, triggering a shutdown.

 

Republicans at the speech reacted favorably to the call for a wall, but Democrats were unenthusiastic. However, the president did talk about bipartisan initiatives he supported, such as criminal justice reform. He also said, “Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure” and discussed efforts to lower drug prices. These are issues that Democrats may find common ground with Republicans.

 

What did you think of President Trump’s State of the Union address? Do you support President Trump’s call to build a border wall? Do you think that Democrats and Republicans should work together on infrastructure and drug prices?

Trump Judicial Pick Neomi Rao under Scrutiny Today

President Trump has made judicial appointments a top priority. That has not escaped the notice of Senate Democrats and liberal activists, who have mobilized to oppose many of them. This battle over the fate of the federal judiciary is once again on display today as Neomi Rao faces senators in the Judiciary Committee.

 

The president has nominated Rao to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The seat has been left empty with the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Rao is currently Administrator for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

 

The president and many legal commentators have praised Rao for her background. They point out that as head of an agency that specializes in regulatory affairs, she is well suited to serve on the D.C. Circuit Court, which handles many regulatory and administrative matters.

 

Opponents counter that she has never served as a litigator. They also say that, while she was in college, she wrote troubling things about women and rape.

 

With Republicans in control of the Senate, Rao’s path to confirmation seems assured. What remains to be seen is if she will pick up any Democratic support in the final Senate vote.

 

Do you think that Neomi Rao should be confirmed as a federal judge? Do you think that someone’s writings during college should be held against them decades later?

Democratic Tax Proposals Target the Rich

The Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nod are betting that the road to the White House is paved with high tax rates for the wealthy. At least, that is how they are designing their presidential campaigns.

 

With high-profile Democrats beginning to announce their candidacies or explore the option of running for president, there is competition to design a plan to tax the rich that will make a candidate stand out in the Democratic primaries.

 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants a “wealth tax” on households with a net worth over $50 million. Sen. Kamala Harris wants to target the rich for higher taxes to pay for a tax credit for households making less than $100,000 a year. Sen. Bernie Sanders would hike the estate tax and lower the number of people who are exempt from it. All three of these senators are running or expected to run for president.

 

This desire to impose high taxes on the rich is not limited to presidential aspirants. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has also said that she wants to see a 70% marginal tax rate on incomes over $10 million.

 

While each give differing justifications for their proposals, in general they support these taxes on the rich as a way to reduce the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. They say that tax policy should break up this concentrated wealth and use the revenue to fund programs, especially services for the lower and middle classes.

 

Opponents counter that these proposals are simply class warfare. They say that hiking taxes in this way would discourage work and wealth creation, which would hurt the economy and kill jobs.

 

These tax plans are designed to appeal to the more liberal part of the Democratic coalition. It remains to be seen if they will have broader appeal as the Democratic primaries approach next year.

 

Do you think that the federal government should dramatically increase tax rates on wealthy Americans?

House of Representatives Votes to Hike Federal Employee Pay


With federal employees returning to work this week after the partial government shutdown, the House of Representatives passed legislation to increase their pay.

Here is the description from VoteSpotter:

 

HB 790

Increase federal employee pay

To increase the base rate of pay for most federal civilian employees by 2.6%. This pay raise would not apply to the vice president or most appointees made by the president.

Passed 259-161 on January 30

 

Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, sponsored this legislation. All the Democrats voting supported it, while the majority of Republicans opossed it. It remains to be seen if the Republican-controlled Senate will consider it.

 

Do you support federal employees receiving a 2.6% pay raise?

Estate Tax Repeal Introduced in Senate

Some call it the estate tax. Others label it the death tax. Whatever name it goes by, the federal tax levied on the transfer of someone’s estate after death a popular topic of discussion in Congress. There has long been a move to repeal it, and legislation will continue that effort during the new session of Congress.

 

Senator John Thune (R-SD) has introduced S. 215, a bill to repeal the estate tax. Twenty-eight senators, all Republicans, have cosponsored it. The current estate tax rate is 40%. The 2017 tax cut legislation raised the amount of an estate that is exempt from this tax to $11.4 million for individuals.

 

When Republicans took control of Congress after the 1994 election, repeal of the estate tax (which they labeled as the “death tax”) was a top priority. The tax cut legislation signed into law by George W. Bush phased out the estate tax, and eliminated it entirely for one year. When those tax cuts expired, however, the federal estate tax came back, too. Farmers have pushed hard for a repeal, saying that the estate tax forces them to break up their farms or go through costly planning to structure their farms to avoid the tax.

 

Supporters of repealing the estate tax point to studies showing that it harms economic growth. They note that it taxes income twice – once when it’s earned and again when it is passed to heirs. They also contend that the tax is easily avoided if people structure their estates in the right way, but that this avoidance is costly and harmful to the economy. Opponents of a repeal say that it helps stop the accumulation of wealth from being passed from generation to generation, something that entrenches income inequality.

 

Do you think that the estate tax should be repealed?

Senate Votes Fail to End Government Shutdown

Senators considered dueling plans to end the partial government shutdown on Thursday. Republicans offered President Trump’s path to re-open the government while Democrats presented their proposal. Neither side received enough votes to pass the legislation, leaving negotiations between Senate leaders ongoing.

 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) offered an amendment that would have provided $5.7 billion for a border wall and extended protections for illegal immigrants covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The Senate voted 50-47 to invoke cloture, or end debate, on this proposal. The measure needed 60 votes to move to a final vote, so it failed. Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Mike Lee of Utah joined the Democrats in voting “no.”

 

After the Senate failed to invoke cloture on the Republican measure, it considered a Democratic plan to re-open the government through February 8th. This proposal did not have funding for a border wall. The Senate vote of 52-44 also failed to reach the 60-vote threshold to close debate. Republicans Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Mitt Romney of Utah joined the Democrats in voting for this proposal.

 

Senator McConnell continues to meet with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the minority leader, to negotiate a deal that would re-open the federal government and gain enough bipartisan support to pass the Senate.

 

Do you think that members of Congress should re-open the government temporarily while Congress and the president negotiate over a border wall? Or should the government remain shut down until the border wall is funded?

Family Leave Tops Gillibrand’s Presidential Platform

Kristen Gillibrand, New York’s junior senator, is running for president. She is betting that paid federal family leave is her key to gaining the White House.

 

Getting ready to announce her candidacy on “Late Night with Stephen Colbert,” Sen. Gillibrand previewed her campaign platform. One of her highest priorities is a federal policy of mandatory paid family leave, something that she has championed while in the Senate.

 

Under Sen. Gillibrand’s proposal, a new federal program would pay workers who take up to 12 weeks of family leave in a year. This leave could be used to deal with health conditions, pregnancy or childbirth, and caring for family members. The federal government would pay 66% of the parent’s monthly wages, financed by a tax on both individuals and businesses. A new federal agency, the Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave, would be created to administer the program.

 

Supporters of this idea argue that this would promote people entering the workforce who are of child-bearing age, since they would be guaranteed income if they have children. They also note that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation without such a leave guarantee, so it is time that we join the rest of the world in helping working parents. Opponents point out that this would involve a large tax hike on both workers and businesses. They also say that it would hurt smaller businesses who would lose employees when they are needed for work.

 

Sen. Gillibrand’s family leave legislation never received a hearing in the Senate when she introduced it in the previous session of Congress.

 

Do you think the federal government should impose a tax on employees and employers to pay for a federal paid family leave program?

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