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Congress Counts Electoral College Votes on Wednesday

On Wednesday the members of Congress will meet in a joint session to count the votes cast by electors from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. While this is usually a session with little drama, some Republicans this year are planning on objecting to the votes by electors in a handful of states.

 

Under the Constitution and federal law, the House of Representatives and the Senate must meet in a joint session to count electoral votes. The vice president presides and opens the votes, announcing the tally. In most years, this is a pro forma session, with little being done but ratifying the votes that were cast. 

 

Members of Congress do have the power to object to a single electoral vote or a slate of electoral votes, however. To do so, they must present an objection to the vice president and that objection must be signed by both a member of the House of Representatives and the Senate. If this occurs, then each house meets in its own chambers to debate the objection for 2 hours. They then vote on sustaining the objection. Both houses must vote in favor of rejecting the electoral vote or votes in order for the attempt to be successful.

 

Some Democratic members of the House of Representatives attempted to do so in 2001, but no senators signed. In 1968 and 2005, there were successful objections but neither house of Congress voted to throw out the votes.

 

This year, Republicans from the House and Senate have said they would object to votes in states where there are allegations of fraud or disputes about the election practices. Members have different arguments in favor of their actions, from complaints about fraudulent votes or arguments that state legislatures, not courts or governors, should set election practices. Regardless of their rationale, these efforts will likely lead to multiple meetings of the House and Senate to vote on accepting or rejecting electoral votes.

 

Given the Democratic control of the House of Representatives and many Republican senators who have said they would not support these objections, it is almost certain that Congress will eventually accept the contested electoral votes. 

 

Do you think that Congress should reject electoral votes in states where Republicans say there was fraud or irregularities?

House Votes to Override Trump Defense Veto

In the waning days of his term, President Trump suffered a rare veto override in the House of Representatives. On Monday the House voted to reject the president's veto of legislation that reauthorizes the Defense Authorization Act.

 

Here is how VoteSpotter describes the vote:

 

To override President Trump's veto of a National Defense Authorization Act. The bill authorizes military programs for the year. Trump vetoed the bill because, among other things, it does not remove a provision of federal law that shields social media companies from certain lawsuits, and it limits the president's ability to remove U.S. troops from some foreign countries.

 

The Defense Authorization Act is legislation that must be passed every year to authorize military activities and set defense policies. Prior to passage, the president said he would veto this legislation unless it contained a repeal of a federal law that provides some liability protection for social media platforms, known as Section 230. Last week, he followed through on this veto threat. 

 

In his veto message, President Trump criticized Congress's failure to repeal Section 230. He also said that the bill "fails to include critical national security measures, includes provisions that fail to respect our veterans and our military’s history, and contradicts efforts by my Administration to put America first in our national security and foreign policy actions. It is a ‘gift’ to China and Russia."

 

A bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives disagreed, voting 322-87 to override his veto. In past veto overrides, most Republicans have stuck with President Trump. This time, however, only 66 voted to sustain his veto. For a veto override to be successful, it must obtain a two-thirds majority in each house of Congress. The Senate is expected to vote this week.

 

What do you think about the House of Representatives voting to override President Trump's veto of the Defense Authorization Act?

House Votes to Increase Coronavirus Checks By $1400

This week the House of Representatives voted to increase the amount of coronavirus aid checks going to most taxpayers from $600 to $2,000.

 

As part of a coronavirus aid bill that President Trump signed into law on Sunday, Congress had authorized a second round of stimulus checks. House Speaker Pelosi had been pushing for checks of $2,000 for most taxpayers, but Republicans resisted that idea. Instead, leaders of the two parties compromised on checks of $600. A large bipartisan majority voted in favor of the bill, which was packaged with legislation that funded the federal government through the end of the fiscal year.

 

After passage, President Trump began attacking the package, saying that the $600 checks were too stingy. He said that Congress should return and amend the bill to provide $2,000 checks. While he hinted he may veto the bill, he eventually ended up signing it. However, Congress did return to the Capitol to vote on an increase in the check amount, something that Speaker Pelosi had been pushing Republicans to accept.

 

By a vote of 275-134, the House passed HR 9051, The CASH Act. The Senate is now considering the legislation. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has strongly opposed increasing the stimulus check amount to $2,000, citing concerns about deficit spending. It is unclear how much support there is for this legislation in the Republican caucus.

 

Do you support a $2,000 coronavirus stimulus check?

Trump Signs Coronavirus Aid and Federal Spending Bill

After blasting Congress for its spending priorities, President Trump signed into law legislation that keeps the federal government from partially shutting down as well as provides a new round of coronavirus aid relief.

 

Last week Congress passed legislation that funded the federal government through the end of the fiscal year (October 2021) and contained a new package of aid related to coronavirus. The coronavirus aid included these provisions, among other things:

  • A $600 check for most Americans
  • Continuing to allow self-employed workers and gig workers access to unemployment benefits
  • An extension of time limit for receiving unemployment benefits
  • An additional $300 boost in unemployment benefits
  • The Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans to businesses affected by the pandemic, was extended and provided with more funding
  • An extension of the eviction moratorium that was set to expire within weeks

 

 

Trump Administration officials had worked with Congress to craft this legislation. These officials came to an agreement over this spending and aid package, which passed both the House and Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support. After passage, however, President Trump began tweeting that he did not like the package. He said that it should include a $2,000 check for most Americans and a cut in foreign aid. The $2,000 aid check was a priority for House Democrats, so Speaker Nancy Pelosi attempted to suspend House rules to pass legislation to amend the legislation. Republicans, citing concerns over spending, blocked that move. 

 

On Sunday, the president signed the legislation into law. Doing so prevents the federal government from partially shutting down this week. However, he used a provision in federal law to set aside some spending for 45 days. During this time, Congress can consider cutting that spending. If Congress does not act, however, the spending goes into effect.

 

Do you support President Trump signing the federal spending and coronavirus aid bill?

 

Trump Vetoes Defense Bill

Following through with this threat, President Trump today vetoed the Defense Authorization Act, setting up a veto showdown with Congress.

 

The Defense Authorization Act is legislation that must be passed every year to authorize military activities and set defense policies. Earlier this month the president said he would veto this legislation unless it contained a repeal of a federal law that provides some liability protection for social media platforms, known as Section 230. President Trump and some Republicans have accused social media platforms and Google of liberal bias in moderating content. Democrats, on the other hand, say that these companies have not gone far enough to remove false or hateful speech. Congress has held hearings with officials from these companies where both Democratic and Republican members have criticized them for how they operate their businesses.

 

Repealing Section 230 would make it easier to sue social media companies for their moderating activities. President Trump has grown increasingly angry over what he perceives as unfair treatment from the platforms, and has made repeal a high priority. While there is bipartisan support for some sort of Section 230 reform in Congress, there is no agreement on what form that should take. Critics of repeal argue that easing civil suits would have a negative effect on free speech. 

 

In his veto message, President Trump also said that the bill "fails to include critical national security measures, includes provisions that fail to respect our veterans and our military’s history, and contradicts efforts by my Administration to put America first in our national security and foreign policy actions. It is a ‘gift’ to China and Russia."

 

Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) was quick to retort: "President Trump clearly hasn’t read the bill, nor does he understand what’s in it. There are several bipartisan provisions in here that get tougher on China than the Trump Administration has ever been."

 

Congress has recessed for Christmas, but has yet to adjourn for the year. Members can return next week in an attempt to override the president's veto. This takes a vote of 2/3 in both chambers. The Defense Authorization Act passed with larger margins than this, but some Republicans may be reluctant to directly confront the president on this. 

 

Do you think that Congress should override the president's veto of defense legislation?

 

Looking Back at Congressional Coronavirus Aid Bills

With the passage of a new coronavirus relief bill by Congress this week, 2020 will be ending with the federal government authorizing nearly $4 billion to be spent on dealing with this pandemic. This spending has been approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, it has come after significant wrangling by Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the Trump Administration. 

 

The aid packages began shortly after the seriousness of the pandemic was becoming apparent to the U.S. public. In early, March the House of Representatives voted 415-2 and the Senate voted 96-1 to send a $8.3 billion spending bill to President Trump. The money in this legislation concerned vaccine development and use, prevention activities, preparedness for the virus, and for federal response if the virus spreads widely.

 

There was little opposition to this legislation in either the House or the Senate. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) offered an amendment to cut funding from international programs to offset the new spending in this bill. By a vote of 81-15, senators tabled, or killed, the amendment. Sen. Paul was the only senator to vote against the final version of the bill.

 

Congress quickly passed a second coronavirus-related bill that same month. Here’s how VoteSpotter described that bill:

 

To mandate that businesses with fewer than 500 employees offer paid sick leave for two weeks, increase federal unemployment insurance payments to the states by $1 billion, provide more federal money for food aid programs prohibit the Trump Administration from strengthening social welfare benefit work requirements, and provide waivers to insurance companies to give no-cost coronavirus tests, among other things.

 

The House passed that bill 363-40 while the Senate approved it 90-8.

 

That was followed in late March by the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act:This bill incudes:

  • Expanded unemployment benefits
  • A one-time $1,200 payment to Americans whose income is under $75,000
  • A $500 billion fund administered by the Federal Reserve to provide liquidity to businesses
  • A $367 billion small business loan program that becomes a grant if firms don’t lay off employees
  • $130 billion in aid for hospitals
  • $25 billion aid package for airlines

 

This $2.2 trillion bill is the most expensive single bill ever passed by Congress. While there was some disagreement about the details of the bill, it did not face a dissenting vote in either chamber. 

 

April saw another round of coronavirus aid, with the House passing an aid bill by a vote of 388-5 and the Senate approving it by a voice vote. This $484 billion bill contained these provisions, among other things:

  • $310 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program
  • $75 billion for hospital aid
  • $25 billion for coronavirus testing
  • $60 billion for disaster loans and grants

 

After this, the bipartisan consensus for coronavirus aid broke down. The House of Representatives passed another aid bill in May along largely partisan lines, with 208 members supporting it and 199 opposing it. This bill included:

  • Nearly $1 trillion in aid for state and local governments
  • $200 billion to provide hazard pay for front-line workers
  • Another round of direct payments to households
  • $175 billion in housing aid
  • $75 billion for more testing

 

The Senate did not act on this legislation or any coronavirus bill until September. Throughout this time, President Trump continued to push for a payroll tax cut to be a main focus of any new coronavirus relief bill. In July, an administration spokesperson issued this statement:

 

As he has done since the beginning of this pandemic, President Trump wants to provide relief to hardworking Americans who have been impacted by this virus and one way of doing that is with a payroll tax holiday. He’s called on Congress to pass this before and he believes it must be part of any phase four package.

 

This idea never gained traction with either Democrats or Republicans in Congress, however. Some expressed the idea that such a tax cut would do little in terms of economic stimulus and would make the fiscal problems of entitlement programs like Medicare worse.

 

On September 10, Senate Republicans attempted to pass what they called a “skinny” coronavirus aid bill. Here is how VoteSpotter described the bill:

 

To provide an additional $300-per-week payment in unemployment benefits, an expanded loan program for small businesses affected by coronavirus, $105 billion for schools to deal with coronavirus as well as to fund school choice, $20 billion for farmers and ranchers affected by coronavirus, $31 billion for vaccines, $16 billion for testing and contact tracing, and $10 billion in loan forgiveness for the Postal Service if it makes certain reforms, among other things.

 

By a vote of 52-47, the Senate failed to meet the 3/5 margin necessary to proceed to debate. 

 

Talks to put together a bipartisan aid bill did not make much progress prior to the November election. Many Democrats and Republicans were waiting to see what the election results would be, hoping that voters would give their party an advantage. Once the election occurred, however, there appeared to be renewed desire to pass a bill.

 

The legislation that emerged did not contain the state and local aid provisions sought by Democrats nor the business liability shield sought by Republicans. Each side dropped demands for its favored position in order to pass a bill that had a variety of measures with bipartisan support. The price tag for this new aid legislation is $900 billion. Among other things, it contains these provisions:

  • A $600 check for most Americans
  • Continuing to allow self-employed workers and gig workers access to unemployment benefits
  • An extension of time limit for receiving unemployment benefits
  • An additional $300 boost in unemployment benefits
  • The Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans to businesses affected by the pandemic, was extended and provided with more funding
  • An extension of the eviction moratorium that was set to expire within weeks
  • Funding for schools to reopen
  • An expansion in the eligibility of Pell Grants
  • Funding to purchase vaccines
  • $16 billion for airlines
  • A prohibition on surprise medical billing

 

With the coronavirus pandemic likely to continue affecting workers and the economy for months to come, there will likely be another push for an aid bill once Joe Biden is inaugurated president.

 

Congress, Trump Agree on New Coronavirus Aid Bill

After weeks of negotiations, House leaders and Trump Administration officials have agreed to a coronavirus aid package.

 

The price tag for this new aid legislation is $900 billion. Among other things, it contains these provisions:

  • A $600 check for most Americans
  • Continuing to allow self-employed workers and gig workers access to unemployment benefits
  • An extension of time limit for receiving unemployment benefits
  • An additional $300 boost in unemployment benefits
  • The Paycheck Protection Program, which offered forgivable loans to businesses affected by the pandemic, was extended and provided with more funding
  • An extension of the eviction moratorium that was set to expire within weeks
  • Funding for schools to reopen
  • An expansion in the eligibility of Pell Grants
  • Funding to purchase vaccines
  • $16 billion for airlines
  • A prohibition on surprise medical billing

 

While Congress had passed three bipartisan coronavirus relief bills in the spring, there had not been an agreement on further legislation since that time. Republicans and Democrats disagreed on a variety of issues. One of the Democrats’ largest priorities was aid for state and local governments. Republicans wanted liability protection for businesses. Neither of those things were included in this legislation, with members of the two parties jettisoning demands for them to focus on issues where there was widespread agreement.

 

The legislation is packaged with an omnibus appropriations bill that finalizes federal spending through the rest of the fiscal year. This keeps the federal government open through October 1 of 2021. 

 

Most members of Congress support this legislation. Some, however, oppose it citing concerns about deficit spending. This legislation will bring the amount of total federal coronavirus aid to $4 trillion.

 

Do you support the new $900 billion coronavirus aid bill?

Senator Blocks COVID Aid over Price Tag

Senators are meeting to consider a new coronavirus aid bill. One of them is slowing down the process over concerns about the high cost of the legislation.

 

On Friday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) objected to a motion that begin Senate consideration of a new aid package. Sen. Johnson expressed his concern that the Senate was rushing to enact a bill that was not well-written as well as legislation that would be "mortgaging our children's future."

 

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-IN) was attempting to begin Senate debate on legislation that would, among other things, provide another $1,200 check to most taxpayers. According to Sen. Hawley, "What I'm proposing is what every senator has supported already, this year...What I'm proposing will give working folks in my state and across this country a shot ... at getting back up on their feet."

 

This did not persuade Sen. Johnson. While he said, "I completely support some kind of program targeted for small businesses," he went on to say he "fear[s] we're going to do with this bipartisan package and what the senator from Missouri is talking about is the same thing, is a shotgun approach."

 

Sen. Hawley had been working with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to advance direct-payment legislation. Congressional leadership has been working with the Trump Administration to craft a new coronavirus relief bill as well as legislation that would fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year. There has been no agreement yet.

 

The motion by Sen. Hawley was a procedural motion asking unanimous consent for the Senate to proceed to consideration on his bill. An objection by one senator to the suspension of rules can stop that consideration.

 

Do you have concerns about the high cost of federal coronavirus relief legislation?

Google Faces Antitrust Suit from 38 States

Google is facing a third antitrust lawsuit, this time over allegations that the company manipulates its search results to give it a business advantage over competitors.

 

The suit, led by attorneys general from Nebraska and Colorado, involves 38 states and elected officials from both parties. It alleges that Google has used anti-competitive practices to become the dominant search engine. Among the practices the suit cites are deals that place Google as the default search engine on browsers and smartphones and the company's use of paid ads to drive search results.

 

This case joins another suit by state attorneys general and one by the federal government that attack the company for practices alleged to squelch competition. Democratic and Republican elected officials have complained the company is too powerful and manipulates the market in illegal ways. They contend that the company's actions have led to a situation where it faces no effective competition, something they say is dangerous.

 

Google and its supporters push back against these claims. They say that the company came to its dominant position by offering a better product than its rivals. They point out that pre-Google search engines were not very accurate and argue that the company grew by meeting consumer demand.

 

The separate suits by state attorneys general may be consolidated. It is unclear how the incoming Biden Administration will handle the federal suit against Google.

 

Do you think that Google engages in uncompetitive practices?

Cuomo Signs Confederate Flag Sale Ban

If you want to sell Confederate flags on government property in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has other plans for you. This week he signed legislation to prohibit the sale of "symbols of hate" on state-owned property. Critics say that this ban almost certainly runs afoul of the First Amendment.

 

Under this new law, no "symbols of hate" could be sold on public property, including state fairgrounds. These symbols are defined to include "symbols of white supremacy, neo-Nazi ideology, or the battle flag of the Confederacy." Even private sellers on public land could not sell them, which would encompass vendors at fairs or others who rent space on state-owned property. Museums and other educational institutions are exempt.

 

Gov. Cuomo defended his action, saying that "by limiting the display and sale of the confederate flag, Nazi swastika and other symbols of hatred from being displayed or sold on state property, including the state fairgrounds, this will help safeguard New Yorkers from the fear-installing effects of these abhorrent symbols." 

 

Critics note that this ban is likely unconstitutional. They note that courts have long held that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. By focusing the ban on the meaning of a symbol, they argue that the law is discriminating against certain viewpoints. The Constitution does not allow this.

 

The governor acknowledges that certain aspects of the bill may need to be fixed to make them constitutional. However, he signed it regardless of these concerns.

 

Do you think that it violates the First Amendment to ban the sale of Confederate flags on public property?

Supreme Court Allows Religious Exemptions from some Coronavirus Rules

Officials in Colorado and New Jersey wanted to impose attendance limits on religious services, but the Supreme Court held that these states did not have the power to order this.

 

In both states, authorities had said that there must be limits on in-person religious gatherings. However, the states had different rules for other gatherings. The justices determined that the state must treat religious groups the same as these other gatherings. Failing to do so would violate the First Amendment.

 

These decisions were in line with a Supreme Court order from last month. In the Colorado case, the justices ruled against the state by a decision of 6-3. The three dissenting justices did not necessarily object to the rationale of the case. Instead, they held that since Colorado had already lifted its restriction, the case was moot. There were no dissents in the New Jersey case.

 

The issue of how stay-at-home orders and other restrictions related to the coronavirus apply to churches, mosques, and other religious gatherings has been a divisive issue during the pandemic. States often impose different types of restrictions on different types of businesses and gatherings. Religious groups have sued when restrictions on churches are more severe than restrictions on restaurants or other businesses.

 

These suits allege that when government is imposing restraints on religious exercises, it should do so as minimally as possible. They argue that treating religious gatherings more strictly than other gatherings is an infringement upon the freedom to worship. The Supreme Court has agreed with this reasoning.

 

Do you think that religious gatherings should be restricted in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus?





Electoral College Members Vote Today

The vote for president of the United States occurred today. Electors met in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to cast votes for president, a vote that is expected to place Joe Biden in the White House on January 20.

 

Under the Constitution, it is electors, not voters, who decide who is president. On Election Day, voters cast ballots for a slate of electors. These electors then meet in their respective state capitals in December to vote on who will be president and vice-president. Their only constitutional limitation is that they cannot vote for two people from the same state. Washington, D.C., and 26 states also require that electors vote for whomever won that state's popular vote. Each state has a number of electors equal to the number of its congressional delegation.

 

A joint session of Congress will convene in January to count the electoral votes and formally declare a winner of the presidential election. During that time, members of Congress can object to either a single electoral vote or a state's slate of electoral votes. Such an objection must be presented in writing and signed by a member of the House of Representatives and a senator. While individual members of Congress have objected during the vote counting, an objection has only been considered twice -- in 1968 and 2005. When this happens, the House and Senate meet in individual sessions to consider the objection. Both houses must vote to sustain it in order for the vote or votes to be thrown out.

 

Generally, the meeting of the Electoral College is a routine process. However, due to claims of voting fraud by President Trump and his allies, this year it is being watched more closely than in many other years. 

 

There have long been efforts to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. Critics claim it is a vestige of pre-democratic times, when a slaveholding class was looking to preserve its power. They say that the president should be chosen by popular vote. Supporters of the Electoral College argue that it provides an incentive for presidential candidates to pay attention to the entire country, not merely a few highly populated areas. They also note that it produces a clear winner, which may not happen if there are disputes over the popular vote.

 

What do you think about the Electoral College? Do you support abolishing it?

Congress Approves Short-Term Government Spending Bill

The federal government has money to operate for one more week. The Senate today voted to approve legislation that extends federal spending until December 18. The House approved the same bill on Wednesday.

 

The fiscal year ended on October 1. As described in this VoteSpotter Deep Dive, Congress must pass and the president sign spending bills every year to fund the government for the next fiscal year. However, this rarely happens. This year was no exception. In September, Congress passed legislation that provided this funding through December 11. However, this two-month extension was not long enough for members of Congress and the president to agree to a spending plan. Congressional leadership and the Trump Administration think they can find common ground within a week.

 

If they do not, there are two options: another short-term funding bill or a partial government shutdown. Some senators are saying they will not vote for another funding bill unless Congress also approves a coronavirus aid bill with direct payments to Americans. Senators Josh Hawley (R-IN) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are spearheading that effort. Congressional Democrats largely support this idea, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has stood firm against it. If either House rejects a spending bill, then parts of the federal government labeled "non-essential" will shut down on December 19.

 

Do you think that members of Congress should refuse to fund the federal government until a coronavirus aid bill is passed with direct payments to Americans?

 

Judge Strikes Down L.A. Dining Ban

The Los Angeles Public Health Department’s desire to shut down outdoor dining has run into legal trouble. This week a state judge says the agency erred in issuing the ban.

 

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant said that the department did not have the authority to issue such a ban. He went on to say that the ban “is not grounded in science, evidence, or logic.” The health department had shut down outdoor dining two weeks ago in response to rising coronavirus cases. An association of restaurant owners sued.

 

While the county said that such a ban was necessary to combat the coronavirus, Judge Chalfant disagreed. His ruling finds that the county did not rely on science in imposing the ban. The restaurant association leading the lawsuit noted that only a small percentage of coronavirus cases are linked to restaurants and that the federal government ranks outdoor dining as a less-risky activity.

 

The judge’s decision also pointed out that this ban would have severe consequences on restaurants. He noted that many of these restaurants would likely go bankrupt under such a ban. He said the county should have weighed not only the potential health benefits of a ban but also the economic consequences of it.

 

While this case invalidates the L.A. County ban on outdoor dining, the state of California has its own outdoor dining ban. 

 

Do you agree with banning outdoor dining as a way to stop the spread of the coronavirus?

 

NC Governor Imposes 10 p.m. Curfew to Stem Coronavirus Spread

Most North Carolina businesses will be closing at 10 p.m. under a new order imposed by Gov. Roy Cooper.

 

Under Gov. Cooper's order, only a few businesses will be exempt from the closing order. These include grocery stores, gas stations, and health care facilities. Restaurants can continue serving take-out food after 10 p.m., but cannot allow customers to eat inside. Individuals must stay home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless they meet certain exceptions. 

 

Coronavirus cases are rising in North Carolina, with many counties being considered as having critical community spread. The governor says that this justifies restricting businesses and public gatherings. He said that as the evening goes on, crowds increase and there is more chance of spreading the coronavirus. Critics push back against this logic, however, saying there is nothing particularly dangerous about late-night dining or drinking as opposed to doing the same activities earlier in the day. They contend that the governor's order will harm businesses that are already struggling.

 

Coronavirus cases are rising in states around the nation. Other governors are imposing or considering similar measures in an attempt to stop community spread of the virus.

 

Gov. Cooper said that if these restrictions do not work, he will consider imposing even stricter rules.

 

Do you think that states should impose curfews to stop the spread of the coronavirus?

Deep Dive: Year-End Spending

Members of Congress are negotiating this week on a package of bills that will, among other things, keep the federal government from partially shutting down. These government shutdowns have become a quasi-routine experience in recent years, the result of Congress and the president failing to agree on a spending package that will fund the federal government for an entire fiscal year. The current spending legislation to keep all parts of the federal government open expires on Friday.

 

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.

 

The Status of Federal Spending

 

The 2020 fiscal year ended on September 30. A new fiscal year started on October 1, which means that Congress needed to approve a new round of spending to keep the federal governments (or parts of the federal government) operating. If it failed to do so, this would lead to a government shutdown. 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.

 

While Congress did not pass legislation to fund the federal government for the entire 2021 fiscal year, it did pass HR 8337, which continued federal funding at the Fiscal Year 2020 level. This continuing resolution keeps the federal government operating through December 11. Members of Congress and the Trump Administration have been negotiating during this time to come to an agreement on spending for the current fiscal year. 

 

With no agreement likely this week, Congress will vote on another short-term continuing resolution to prevent a government. Congressional leadership and the Trump Administration are close to finalizing a spending package for the rest of the fiscal year that includes a new coronavirus relief package as well and possibly defense authorization legislation.

 

The new continuing resolution will fund the federal government through December 18.

 

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 2021 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 Previous Government Shutdown

 

There have been a handful of government shutdowns since the mid-1990s, with the latest ending in January 2019. While called “shutdowns,” in reality much of the government keeps operating during these times. Government employees working in capacities deemed “essential” had to work. Those in “non-essential” positions could not do any work.

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 31 in January, it funded the federal government through the end of Fiscal Year 2019. There was no government shutdown for Fiscal Year 2020.

 

What This Means for You

 

A government shutdown can disrupt a variety of federal activities, from passport processing to the use of national parks. It also leads to disruptions in the pay of federal employees. It is possible that if Congressional leadership and the Trump Administration fail to come to an agreement by December 18, there could be another partial government shutdown. That is unlikely, since many details of the funding package appear to be agreeable to both sides. However, the Fiscal Year 2021 spending bill will also likely contain coronavirus relief legislation. Many have been urging Congress to pass a new coronavirus aid bill, so they are watching this closely to see what it will contain. The new or extended programs in this bill could have a significant effect on millions of Americans, but it will also come with a significant price tag.

House Votes to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition

For the first time, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to end federal laws prohibiting the possession of marijuana.

 

By a vote of 228-164, the House approved H.R. 1380. Here is how VoteSpotter describes that bill:

To remove marijuana from the federal controlled substances list. This would end the federal criminalization of marijuana possession and leave it to states to restrict or regulate marijuana. The legislation would also impose a 5% federal tax on legal marijuana sales.

 

Only 6 Democrats opposed the bill and only 5 Republicans supported it. The House's sole Libertarian member, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, voted "aye."

 

Never before had the House of Representatives considered legislation that would completely repeal federal marijuana law. This follows votes in numerous states to legalize marijuana use for medicinal or recreational purposes. While states can remove their prohibitions against marijuana use or possession, it still remains illegal under federal law. The House vote would end that federal restriction and leave the matter of marijuana's legal status up to states.

 

Supporters of ending federal marijuana prohibition argue that this should be a matter for states to decide. If state residents want marijuana to be legal there, a federal law should not overrule it. They say that marijuana is a relatively harmless drug and that law enforcement action against marijuana possession causes more problems than it solves. Opponents, however, say that the federal government has an interest in preventing people from using a drug that causes numerous health and societal issues. They contend that this vote sends the wrong message to children.

 

This legislation now moves to the Senate, where it is unlikely to receive a vote. This action by the House follows a House vote earlier this year when that body approved ending the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have approved state-level marijuana legalization.

 

Do you support ending federal laws against marijuana use and possession?

Biden Urged to Forgive Student Loan Debt

When they ran for president, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren make forgiving student loan debt a major piece of their campaign platforms. Now they, along with other members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, are urging Joe Biden to cancel student debt once he becomes president.

 

Under Warren's plan, the president would immediately begin canceling up to $50,000 in debt for 42 million Americans. This would cover about 95% of those who have borrowed money from the federal government. Others have suggested other ideas, such as focusing on borrowers who have incomes under $100,000. 

 

While student loan debt forgiveness is not a new idea, those supporting it now argue that it would help stimulate the economy. They contend that borrowers would see an immediate economic boost from seeing their debt wiped away. Historically, debt forgiveness proponents argue that student loan debt is crushing middle class families and holding them back from achieving the American Dream.

 

Critics say these views are wrong. They note that any student loan debt plan will be an expensive taxpayer giveaway to people who can afford to pay the money they borrowed, since they have an education that should lead to higher-paid work. They point out that people with higher incomes will benefit far more than those with lower incomes. In addition, they dismiss the economic stimulus arguments, contending that this idea would be one of the least efficient ways to provide more money to the economy.

 

Sen. Warren has promoted the idea that the Secretary of Education can unilaterally forgive student loan debt. Others disagree, saying that such a move requires an act of Congress. 

 

Do you support the federal government forgiving student loan debt?

Trump Issues Defense Bill Veto Threat over Social Media Protections

President Donald Trump tweeted that he is set to veto defense authorization legislation. The subject of his ire is not anything in the bill or anything related to the military. Instead, he said that the legislation should include a repeal of a federal law that provides some liability protection for social media platforms.

 

On Tuesday night, President Trump tweeted:

 

Section 230, which is a liability shielding gift from the U.S. to “Big Tech” (the only companies in America that have it - corporate welfare!), is a serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity. Our Country can never be safe & secure if we allow it to stand....Therefore, if the very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk. Take back America NOW. Thank you!

 

Many congressional Republicans and Democrats also have issues with Section 230. This provision dates to a 1996 law concerning federal regulation of online services. The section states, in part, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." in essence, this means that services like Facebook and Twitter cannot be sued for moderating content in good faith. 

 

President Trump and some Republicans have accused social media platforms and Google of liberal bias in moderating content. Democrats, on the other hand, say that these companies have not gone far enough to remove false or hateful speech. Congress has held hearings with officials from these companies where both Democratic and Republican members have criticized them for how they operate their businesses.

 

Repealing Section 230 would make it easier to sue social media companies for their moderating activities. President Trump has grown increasingly angry over what he perceives as unfair treatment from the platforms, and has made repeal a high priority. While there is bipartisan support for some sort of Section 230 reform in Congress, there is no agreement on what form that should take. Critics of repeal argue that easing civil suits would have a negative effect on free speech. 

 

Currently Congress is meeting in a lame duck session to finish work on a variety of legislation. One of the bills under consideration would authorize U.S. defense operations. While there are disagreements on the details of this bill, there is bipartisan agreement that it needs to pass this year. Congressional leadership reacted to the president's tweet by pointing out that technology policy is not relevant to the defense bill. They contend that this matter should be dealt with in separate legislation.

 

If the president vetoes the defense authorization legislation, a supermajority of Congress could override that veto.


Do you think that Congress should include repeal of Section 230 in the defense authorization legislation?

House Voting on Big Cat Bill This Week

The hit Netflix show "Tiger King" has raised the profile of big cat sanctuaries and the people who own lions and tigers. Now the House of Representatives is considering legislation that would tighten federal restrictions on the ownership and exhibition of these cats.

 

Under H.R. 1380, only individuals or businesses licensed by the Department of Agriculture could possess big cats such as lions, tigers, and leopards. For any business or organization that wants to exhibit these animals to the public, this legislation would prohibit them from allowing people to have access to the cats.

 

H.R. 1380 is a bipartisan bill with 230 cosponsors and it likely to pass this week with overwhelming support in the House. This differs from past years, when similar legislation languished without a vote. Advocates have been trying to pass tighter big cat restrictions for five years but have failed.

 

Sponsors of the legislation credit the "Tiger King" series for bringing attention to the issues raised by this legislation. They say this show, which focuses on big cat sanctuary owners, illustrates the dangers that loose federal laws have caused. They contend that many of these sanctuaries abuse cats and endanger the people who visit them. Opponents of the bill push back, saying that tougher federal laws will infringe upon the rights of people and organizations who care for endangered cats. 

 

The House and Senate are both meeting in lame duck sessions in order to finish work on spending bills and other matters. If the House passes HR 1380 this week, the Senate could act on it before adjourning for the year.

 

Do you support prohibiting people from interacting with big cats at cat sanctuaries?

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