Congress

Commentary & Community

Trump Pushes for Wall During Oval Office Address

Saying there was “a growing humanitarian and security crisis,” President Donald Trump used a televised speech from the Oval Office to call for Democrats in Congress to support funding for a border wall. Democratic leaders, however, said that the president was pushing “misinformation” and “malice.”

 

President Trump and Democrats in Congress are at odds over $5 billion in funding for portions of a wall that the president wants built on the U.S.-Mexico border. He has refused to sign legislation that would fund parts of the federal government because it did not contain this funding. This has led to a partial government shutdown that is going into its third week.

 

Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi appeared on television after President Trump to dismiss his call for a wall and instead urge him to sign legislation to re-open the government. They say that the president is manufacturing a crisis for political gain.

 

According to President Trump, the lack of a wall has led to undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. and committing a range of crimes. He focused on some of these crimes during his address. He said that the U.S. will be safer with a wall to stop criminals and drug smugglers from entering the nation. Critics dispute the president’s characterization of the situation, noting that illegal immigration is down from historic highs and that undocumented immigrants do not disproportionately commit violent crimes.

 

The president has been considering using his powers to declare a national emergency in order to use military construction funding to build a wall. He did not take this step during his address, instead he urged people to contact Congress in support of a border wall. It remains unclear what steps he will take if Congress refuses to consider such funding.

 

Do you support a border wall? Should the president sign legislation to re-open parts of the federal government even if he doesn’t receive his wall funds?

Trump Mulls Declaring Emergency to Build Border Wall

President Trump wants a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. Congress does not want to appropriate money for it. So the president is considering doing an end-run around the legislative branch by declaring an emergency, enabling the military to use its funds to build the wall. If he does that, say some observers, it could prompt a constitutional crisis.

 

The issue of the border wall is one that then-candidate Trump campaigned on from the day he announced his candidacy for president. Once elected, he has pushed Congress to provide money for it. While spending bills have contained money for border security, there has been no decision to allocate money to build the wall as envisioned by the president.

 

The government is currently undergoing a partial shutdown because President Trump has refused to sign a spending bill to keep it open unless that bill has $5 billion in it to construct roughly 200 miles of a border wall. Democrats in Congress have refused to go along with this demand, and neither side seems willing to shift from its positions.

 

Since he cannot get the money from Congress, President Trump is now considering another route. Under this scenario, he would use provisions of a 1978 law to declare a national emergency. That would give him leeway to use some military funding to build the wall. Under this law, however, Congress could pass a resolution that would disapprove of his action. There are also legal scholars who dispute that the president would be able to declare an emergency over the situation at the border. They say that this action would not survive legal challenge and would be unconstitutional.

 

President Trump will discuss this issue during a televised address tonight.

 

Do you think that President Trump should declare a national emergency to bypass Congress and build a border wall?

Ocasio-Cortez Wants Tax Hike to Fund “Green New Deal”

She’s only a freshman member of Congress, but Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is already spurring a national debate over tax rates and environmental spending. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez recently proposed increasing the top marginal tax rate to 70% in order to pay for a variety of environmental programs known as the “Green New Deal.”

 

While there is no formal proposal, this Green New Deal is a concept that has been discussed over the past few years in liberal and progressive circles. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is supporting a plan that would transition the U.S. to an economy that stops using carbon-based energy (such as oil, natural gas, and coal), spend trillions of dollars, guarantees federal jobs, and addresses inequality. These are goals, not policy proposals. She has called for House leadership to form a select committee to study the issue and develop legislation.

 

In order to pay for this plan, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has said that the tax rates on wealthy individuals should be increased to 70%. She has floated the idea that on income of $10 million or above, that this rate should apply. She argues that marginal tax rates in the past were much higher, so this idea has already been tried. In her view, the wealthy should pay their “fair share,” which means taxing $10 million in income at a much higher rate than it is taxed today.

 

This idea was immediately attacked by critics who said that it would be a massive tax hike, putting the U.S. rates far above other nations’ tax rates. This would discourage work and encourage tax avoidance. These critics pointed out that while high marginal tax rates existed in the past, there were also many more loopholes for high-income taxpayers.

 

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has also said that taxes may not need to be raised to pay for environmental programs. She argues that other measures, such as tax cuts and military spending increases, are paid for by deficit spending, so the Green New Deal could be funded in that way, too.

 

Do you support increasing the tax rate to 70% on incomes over $10 million? Should the federal government spend trillions of dollars on new environmental programs?

Democrats Tee Up Campaign Finance & Ethics Bill

On their first day in control of the House of Representatives, Democrats plan on tackling two issues that they think will be winners for them: campaign finance reform and stricter ethics rules. They know that their legislation has no chance of becoming law, but they think its passage will send a message that they plan on doing things differently.

 

In the weeks after the 2018 elections when voters elected a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi announced that the first legislation the House would vote on in January would be a sweeping set of campaign and ethics reforms. This has been introduced as HR 1. Among other things, this bill would:

  • Establish a voluntary system of campaign matching funds at a rate of 6-1 for small donations to qualifying candidates
  • Mandate that certain nonprofits engaged in public policy debate report their donors to the government
  • Mandate that social media companies disclose to the government the source of money being spent on political advocacy ads
  • Require that the president disclose his or her tax returns
  • End the practice where members of Congress can use office funds to pay for sexual harassment suits
  • Prohibit office funds from being used to purchase first-class plane tickets
  • Impose a new ethics code on the Supreme Court
  • Enact a national system of automatic voter registration
  • Prohibit states from removing certain names from their voting rolls

 

The Democrats pushing this legislation argue that it is needed to restore trust in government and end practices that have allowed politicians to game the system. They say that it will open the door for more people to vote and to curb the influence of big money in politics. Opponents counter that it would enlarge the power of the federal government over elections, something that the Constitution largely gives to states. They also say that this will lead to more government control over what people can say during elections and is an infringement upon the First Amendment.

 

The House of Representatives plans to vote on this after new members are sworn in on January 3. The Senate is unlikely to consider the legislation if it passes the House.

 

Do you think that the federal government should enact automatic voter registration in every state? Should nonprofits that engage in political advocacy have to report their donors’ names to the government? Do you support a program that gives federal matching funds to candidates for small political donations?

 

Border Wall Divides Trump, Congress

Whether or not the government stays open could depend on the fate of President Trump’s border wall.

 

In a familiar dispute, the president has said he will not sign any bill that would keep the government open unless such legislation has money for a border wall. While Republicans largely agree with this position, the president needs Democratic votes in order to make it happen. So far, Senate Democrats are refusing to go along with funding a border wall. This had led the government to the brink of a shutdown.

 

The border wall was a key plank in Donald Trump’s platform during the 2016 campaign. At that time, he said that Mexico would pay for it. Today, however, the dispute is whether or not Congress will put money for a wall in their annual spending bills. Opposition from Democrats has prevented this from happening so far during President Trump’s term.

 

While Congress has passed appropriations bills to fund some parts of the federal government, it has not yet passed legislation to fund the entire government through the end of the fiscal year. Currently, the government is staying open due to short-term funding measures. The president has said he will refuse to sign any further short-term spending bills until he gets money for his wall.

 

Do you support President Trump’s refusal to sign legislation to keep the federal government open if Congress does not provide funding for a border wall?

Senate Passes Criminal Justice Reform

Something rare happened in the U.S. Senate last night – major legislation advances with overwhelming bipartisan support. While Democrats and Republicans disagree on many things, it appears that overhauling the federal criminal justice system is not one of them.

 

The First Step Act passed by a vote of 87-12. It had broad support across the political spectrum, with liberal groups focused on justice reform allying themselves with libertarians like the Koch brothers and conservative religious groups to support it. President Donald Trump also urged Congress to pass it.

 

Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) led the opposition to the bill. He said that it would release potentially violent criminals from federal custody. He argued that it was a return to the “soft on crime” policies of the past. Sen. Cotton and other senators who shared his concerns offered a series of amendments that would made the bill tougher on federal inmates, but these amendments failed to pass.

 

Among other things, this bill would:

  • Prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates while giving birth
  • Apply changes that removed the disparities between penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine retroactively
  • Require that prisoners be incarcerated within 500 miles of their families
  • Provide incentives for prisoners to undertake job training and rehabilitation programs
  • Reduce the “three strikes and you’re out” penalty for drug trafficking to 25 years (instead of life)

 

The House of Representatives passed a different version of this legislation earlier this year by a vote of 360-59. However, that body is expected to endorse the Senate’s version and pass it later this week. If it does so, the bill will head to President Trump for his signature.

 

Do you support reform of the federal criminal justice system? Should pregnant prisoners be shackled during birth? Should inmates be housed within 500 miles of their families? Do you agree with inmates being released from prison early if they complete job training programs?

Congress Takes Aim at Google

As the lame duck Congress moves towards adjournment, members of Congress still have many unfinished issues. Grilling Google is one of them.

 

Lawmakers have concerns about a variety of issues, ranging from how Google treats conservatives to the company’s privacy protections, and they aired them at a House Judiciary Committee hearing today. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) chaired this hearing, which featured Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

 

There have been repeated complaints from President Trump and Republican elected officials that Google discriminates against conservative voices. This hearing offered Rep. Goodlatte and his colleagues an opportunity to air these concerns and Pichai to respond. “I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” Pichai testified. “To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests. We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions — and we have no shortage of them among our own employees.”

 

Google is also under fire for a recent security breach that affected over 50 million users. In addition, the company is working with China to develop a search engine that complies with that country’s censorship. Both of these issues are troubling for some lawmakers.

 

This hearing was an opportunity for members of Congress to air their grievances against Google. What steps they may take in response is unclear, however. Some have floated the idea of treating social media companies like public utilities, subject to strict government rules on how they operate. Others have called for investigations.

 

When the new Congress convenes in January, there will likely be multiple bills filed that deal in some way with the issues raised in today’s hearing.

 

Do you think that the federal government should impose more regulations on Google and social media companies?

Former Michigan Congressman Calls for End to Senate

John Dingell represented Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives for 59 years. Now he is calling for an end to the U.S. Senate.

 

In an op-ed published by the Atlantic, Rep. Dingell writes that the Senate enshrines minority rule:

 

California has almost 40 million people, while the 20 smallest states have a combined population totaling less than that. Yet because of an 18th-century political deal, those 20 states have 40 senators, while California has just two. These sparsely populated, usually conservative states can block legislation supported by a majority of the American people. That’s just plain crazy.

 

He proposes abolishing the Senate, or combining it in some way with the House of Representatives. This, he says, will be a way to stop ideas that are supported by a majority of Americans from being killed in the Senate.

 

Opponents of this idea note that the framers of the Constitution never intended the U.S. to be ruled strictly by a legislative majority. They point out that the Senate was designed specifically to be anti-majoritarian, leading to a check-and-balance on both the House of Representatives and the presidency.

 

This idea has been floated by other observers, who are frustrated that the Senate membership is comprised of two senators from every state. Population plays no part in determining the number of U.S. senators, something that gives more power to less-populated states in that chamber. The Founding Fathers designed the Senate to be a representative of state interests. Initially senators were chosen by state legislatures, but this was changed by constitutional amendment in the Progressive Era.

 

Article V of the Constitution states that “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” This would seem to preclude any changes made to the current makeup of the Senate without every state agreeing.

 

Do you support abolishing the U.S. Senate?

Government May Shut Down over Border Wall Dispute

In what is becoming a semi-regular situation, the nation is facing the possibility of a government shutdown. The issue that may hold up the passage of legislation to keep the government open is also a familiar one – a border wall with Mexico.

 

When the fiscal year ended on October 30, only a few of the necessary government funding bills had been passed by Congress and signed by President Trump. The remaining portions of the government, including the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and the Interior, are operating under short-term funding legislation that expires on December 7.

 

President Trump has said that he wants a long-term spending bill to include money for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. Democrats are refusing to go along with this idea. Instead, they are supporting an additional $1.67 billion for border security measures.

 

If President Trump continues to insist that this is inadequate, he could veto legislation to keep the government open past December 7. That would lead to departments deemed “non-essential” to close. Any federal employees in these departments would be on leave without pay, although Congress usually appropriates back pay once the shutdown is over.

 

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and the incoming Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, are scheduled to meet with the president on Tuesday. No Republican members of Congress have been invited. It is possible that this meeting will lead to a deal that would avoid a government shutdown.

 

Do you think that the President should veto any funding bill that would keep the government open but not fund a border wall?

Senate Advances Anti-Saudi Resolution

President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress usually agree on legislative issues. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, however, there is a growing rift between the president and members of Congress from both parties. That was never more evident in a recent Senate vote on a resolution over U.S. military involvement in Yemen.

 

With the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian forces and increasing evidence of atrocities by the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni civil war, members of Congress are breaking with President Trump’s support for the Saudi regime. They are pushing for a stronger response to these Saudi actions, steps that President Trump has so far resisted.

 

In response, the Senate voted 63-37 to bring a resolution to remove all U.S. military support from Saudi forces fighting in Yemen. From the text of Senate Joint Resolution 54:

 

Congress hereby directs the President to remove United States Armed Forces from hostilities in or affecting the Republic of Yemen, except United States Armed Forces engaged in operations directed at al Qaeda or associated forces, by not later than the date that is 30 days after the date of the adoption of this joint resolution … and unless and until a declaration of war or specific authorization for such use of United States Armed Forces has been enacted.

 

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, sponsored SJ Resolution 54. It has 18 cosponsors from both parties. This resolution notes that U.S. military personnel are involved with aiding the Saudi government in aerial targeting, intelligence, and other military activities in Yemen.

 

The Trump Administration has pushed back against withdrawing U.S. military assistance, saying that it is necessary to fight terrorism. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argues that weakening the U.S.-Saudi alliance would only strengthen Iran. Those who support the resolution say that the U.S. should not be aiding forces that kill civilians and commit other war crimes. They also note that there has been no declaration of war on Yemen or even an authorization to use U.S. military force in this conflict.

 

Some senators, such as Rand Paul of Kentucky, have long been pushing the Senate to act against Saudi Arabia. These efforts gained support with the weak reaction by President Trump to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Senators have requested that CIA Director Gina Haspel brief them on the murder, but she has yet to appear. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, has said he will not support the president on any major votes until this briefing occurs.

 

The timetable for debating the Yemeni resolution is still unclear. The lame duck session of Congress will continue through December.

 

Do you think that the U.S. should stop assisting the Saudi military’s actions in the Yemeni civil war?

 

Flake Pushes for Bill to Protect Mueller Investigation

President Trump continues to attack Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. Fearing that the president may pressure the acting attorney general to fire Mueller, Senator Jeff Flake is working to pass legislation in the lame duck session of Congress that help shield Mueller from the president's wrath.

 

The ire that President Trump feels for Robert Mueller is evident to anyone reading the president’s Twitter feed. In one recent tweet, for instance, the president wrote, “The Fake News Media builds Bob Mueller up as a Saint, when in actuality he is the exact opposite. He is doing TREMENDOUS damage to our Criminal Justice System, where he is only looking at one side and not the other.”

 

As an employee of the Justice Department, Mueller could be fired by the attorney general. Some observers say that President Trump asked former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign in order to do this. Matthew Whitaker is now serving as the acting attorney general.

 

In April, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) introduced S. 2644, legislation that would place some limits on the ability of the attorney general to fire a special counsel. This bill is co-sponsored by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

 

Senator Jeff Flake has announced that he will not support confirmation of any of the president’s judicial nominees until the Senate considers S. 2644. If all the Democrats support the bill and the Republicans who have cosponsored it do, too, then it will have a majority of senators in favor of it. First, however, it must be called up and placed on the Senate calendar. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell controls what legislation is put on the calendar, and there is no indication that he wants to spend time in the lame duck session considering this bill.

 

If Senator McConnell does bring the bill up for consideration, it would still face a filibuster threat. If the bill overcame that threat, it would then go to the House of Representatives and then, upon passage, be presented to the president for his signature. President Trump seems unlikely to sign such a measure.

 

While there is little chance that S. 2644 will become law, Senator Flake and others are pushing for its consideration to discuss the importance of protecting the Mueller investigation. If Sen. McConnell does not allow this debate to happen, he may find it difficult to confirm any federal judges during the remainder of the lame duck session.

 

Do you support legislation to protect Robert Mueller’s investigation? Do you agree with Sen. Flake’s refusal to vote in favor of any of President Trump’s judges until the Senate debates legislation to protect Mueller?