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High Court Considers Religious School Funding

Thirty-seven states have constitutional prohibitions on government money going towards religious education. Today, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether those amendments are discrimination against religion or whether they are essential to preserving the separation of church and state.


The case originates in Montana, and is being brought by a parent who was using a state-funded scholarship program to pay for tuition at a private religious school. The parent’s children had suffered bullying and other problems at their public school, and so she used a state scholarship program to pay for private school.


Under Montana’s scholarship program, individuals could donate money to the fund and the state would give them a tax credit of up to $150. Parents could apply to use the money in the fund to pay for tuition at any private school in the state, including religious schools. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that this arrangement violated a constitutional ban on state money going to religious schools.


Many states have similar prohibitions, known as “Blaine Amendments.” They originated in the late 1900s, when there was growing concern about Catholic private schools. Opponents of these provisions argue that they are motivated by religious bigotry. They say that it is unconstitutional to allow funding to go to some private schools but not religious schools. There have been recent Supreme Court cases that have followed this line of reasoning in other areas, but have never directly ruled on the constitutionality of the Blaine Amendment.


Supporters of the prohibition on money going to religious schools say that taxpayer dollars should not be used to support religious education. They also argue that this will divert money from public schools, leading to worse education for the majority of students.


Do you think that states should be able to prohibit taxpayer dollars from going to religious schools?

VoteSpotter Deep Dive: Senate Impeachment Trial

After weeks of delay, the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has transmitted the articles of impeachment to the Senate. By a vote of 228-193, the House of Representatives appointed impeachment managers. This follows two votes by the House on December 18 to impeach President Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The Senate is expected to take up the trial of President Trump on January 21. This VoteSpotter Deep Dive takes a look into this process and what the Senate will do next. 


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


Impeachment and the Constitution


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


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


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


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


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


How Removal by the Senate Works


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


The Senate then begins its role. With the Chief Justice of the U.S. presiding, the Senate conducts a trial. The Chief Justice presides, but does not have any say in trial’s outcome. He can make rulings on points of procedure, but a majority of the Senate can overrule him.


There are established rules that govern impeachment trials by the Senate. These rules include:

  • Senators must keep silent while the case for removal is being made.
  • The Senate may compel witnesses to testify, but witnesses are not mandatory for a trial.
  • Counsel for the accused can speak in defense of his client, or the person accused may appear to rebut the charges.
  • If senators have any objections or procedural motions, they must be made in writing to the presiding officer.
  • Only House managers or the counsel for the accused may question witnesses directly. If senators wish to question witnesses, they must submit their questions to the presiding officer.


When the trial begins in the Senate, that body will approve new procedures and rules to govern this particular situation. These rules can pass by simple majority.


The House of Representatives appoints members to manage the case before the Senate, laying out the charges contained in the articles of impeachment. The president’s counsel will present the case to the Senate why the president should not be removed. Every member of the Senate will be present in the Senate chambers to hear these managers lay out the case for removing the president from office. After the House managers conclude their case, the senators will enter a closed session to deliberate. The Senate then votes in open session, with a two-thirds vote of the members present being necessary to remove that person from office.


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


The History of Impeachment


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


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


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


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


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


The Clinton Impeachment


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


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


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


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


What This Means for You


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that the Senate impeachment trial will take place on January 21. It could last a week or longer. With many Republican members of the Senate expressing skepticism about the case against the president, it is unlikely that the Senate would have enough votes to remove him from office. If the Senate would convict the president and remove him from office, then the vice president would assume office.


Senate Passes Mexico-Canada Trade Pact

In a rare display of bipartisan agreement, the Senate passed the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) this week. The House of Representatives passed the USMCA last year, and President Trump has long pushed for this agreement.


By a vote of 89-10, this updating of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passed the Senate with broad support from Democrats and Republicans. These are some of the major changes that USMCA made to NAFTA:

  • An increase in the amount of vehicle parts that must be manufactured in North America to qualify the vehicle as being exempt from tariffs
  • A mandate that 30% of the work done on vehicles must be done by workers making more than $16 an hour
  • A requirement that Mexico must loosen labor laws to make it easier for workers to unionize
  • Stricter safety standards for Mexican trucks entering the U.S.
  • An increase in the amount of U.S. dairy products that can be sold in Canada
  • Stricter protections for intellectual property
  • An agreement by Mexico to increase efforts to stop overfishing


One Republican, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, joined Democratic Sens. Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, Markey, Reed, Sanders, Schatz, Schumer, and Whitehouse in voting against USMCA. T


In the 1990s, Presidents Bush and Clinton shepherded the North American Free Trade Agreement into law, over the objections of critics like Ross Perot. This agreement came into being after years of negotiation between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico in order to promote freer trade between the three nations. 


President Trump has long been a supporter of high tariffs and skeptical of free trade and trade agreements. He claims that foreign trade hurts American workers, and the U.S. should enact barriers to the sales of foreign products in the U.S. Free trade supporters note that evidence clearly shows that trade has wide benefits for the economy, with both consumers and workers experiencing benefits overall. 


The House of Representatives vote in favor of USMCA was also overwhelmingly bipartisan. The trade agreement now goes to President Trump for his signature.


Do you support passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which updates NAFTA?

Equal Rights Amendment Passes in Virginia

After years of partisan disagreement over the Equal Rights Amendment, the Virginia legislature this week finally ratified it. Legislators’ action on this amendment now sets up a fight over whether or not this amendment should be added to the U.S. Constitution.


The Equal Rights amendment states:


Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.


Congress passed the ERA in 1972 and sent it to states for ratification. The original resolution required that the necessary number of states (38, or three-fourths of the states) must act within 7 years or the amendment would die. Not enough states ratified the amendment within that time, so Congress extended the deadline to 1982. Even with this extended deadline, the ERA still failed to meet the necessary number of states for ratification.


During this time, 35 states ratified the ERA. However, as controversy grew over the amendment, 5 states rescinded their ratification. Since 2017, 3 states (including Virginia) have ratified the ERA. Democratic Virginia legislators have been attempting to pass the ERA in recent years, but their efforts were thwarted by the Republican majority. In last year's elections, Virginia voters gave Democrats the majority in the legislature.


The issue of whether states can rescind their ratification is a controversial one, with many experts saying that these rescissions are not valid. The statutory deadline for ratification is also under question. The Trump Administration has issued an opinion stating that even with 38 states ratifying the ERA (which does not count states that have rescinded their ratification), the congressionally-imposed deadline should bar the amendment from being added to the Constitution.


Virginia legislators were aware of these controversies, but dismissed them. They argued that it was their job to pass the amendment to support equal rights, recognizing that there will be a legal battle over whether the amendment will become part of the Constitution.


Supporters of the ERA say it is necessary to have a constitutional bar against discrimination based on sex. They argue that this is the only way to ensure that women’s rights are protected. Opponents counter that the Constitution already prohibits discrimination and that this amendment could lead courts to strike down restrictions on abortion.


Do you support the Equal Rights Amendment?

House Sends Impeachment Articles to the Senate

The House voted on December 18 to impeach Donald Trump. Today it finally voted to send the impeachment articles to the Senate.


As explained in our VoteSpotter Deep Dive, impeachment is only one step in the process of removing the president. The Senate must hold a trial and two-thirds of its members must convict the president before that happens. But in order for the Senate to hold a trial, the House must provide the articles of impeachment to the Senate. It must also approve managers who will present the House’s case to the senators when they are assembled for the trial.


By a vote of 228-193, the House approved the following members as impeachment managers:

  • Adam Schiff (D-CA)
  • Jerry Nadler (D-NY)
  • Zoe Lofgren (D-CA)
  • Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY)
  • Val Demings (D-FL)
  • Jason Crow (D-CO)
  • Sylvia Garcia (D-TX)


This vote also approves sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated that the Senate trial will convene in January 21. Chief Justice John Roberts will preside, as the Constitution commands. Look for an upcoming Deep Dive to explain in more detail what the Senate will do during this trial.


For weeks, Speaker Pelosi had resisted calls to send the impeachment articles to the Senate. She said that she was concerned about the Senate’s procedures. She wanted senators to hear from witnesses and take other steps that she said would make the trial fairer. Majority Leader McConnell demurred in any commitments on Senate procedure.


Do you think that Speaker Pelosi should have waited so long to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate?

Warren Pledges to Unilaterally Eliminate Federal Student Loan Debt

Elizabeth Warren says that American’s student debt load is a crisis, and she wants to get rid of it. She has recently said that, if elected, she plans on using her authority to start canceling student debt on her first day in office. She said that there is no need for Congress to approve such a move.


Under her plan, upon taking office she 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.


This is not new territory for Warren. She has previously announced a higher education plan that has as its centerpiece the forgiveness of student loan debt. Much of the forgiveness focuses on borrowers who have incomes under $100,000 a year. Under that proposal, however, Warren would seek legislation from Congress to eliminate debt. Her recent announcement relies upon a legal theory that the Secretary of Education already has the authority to begin such debt forgiveness.


According to Warren, this student loan debt is crushing middle class families and holding them back from achieving the American Dream. Her plan is costly, but she says she will finance it by imposing a tax on the highest income earners. Critics argue that her proposal is 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.


If Warren is elected president and attempted to eliminate these loans without congressional authorization, it is likely she would face a legal challenge.

Do you support Elizabeth Warren’s plan to end federal student debt without congressional approval?

Gun Control Advancing in Virginia

Democrats are now in charge of the two houses of the Virginia legislature and the governor’s mansion. They are taking advantage of this opportunity to push through gun control bills that had long been stopped by Republicans.


Among the bills moving through the legislature in Richmond:

  • Banning firearms from the capitol building complex, including firearms carried by law enforcement, legislators, and those with concealed weapons permits
  • Limiting handgun purchases to one per month
  • Mandating background checks for all firearms purchases, including private sales between individuals
  • Permitting local governments more leeway in enacting gun bans for certain events
  • Giving police the ability to remove guns from someone’s possession if they think that person poses a threat of imminent harm


Democratic Virginia legislators have long tried to pass these bills, but Republicans who controlled the legislature quashed these efforts. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, called legislators into special session last year to consider gun control bills. Republican leaders adjourned the session without doing so.


In the 2019 elections, however, Virginia voters gave Democrats control of both legislative bodies for the first time in years. With Northam still in the governor’s mansion, it set up a situation where Republicans no longer had the votes to thwart gun control bills. This is what Democrats have focused on in the early days of the legislative session.


Those pushing these bills say they are necessary to reduce gun violence and protect Virginians. Opponents counter that gun control targets law-abiding gun owners and that there is little evidence that it actually reduces crime.


Do you support limiting handgun purchases to one per month? Should all gun sales, even private sales, be subject to background checks?


Congress Votes to End Military Activities against Iran

The House of Representatives yesterday expressed its displeasure with President Trump’s military actions against Iran.


By a vote of 224-194, the House passed House Concurrent Resolution 83, which invokes the War Powers Act to end Iranian hostilities. The resolution states that the President must stop military action against or in Iran until:


(1) Congress has declared war or enacted specific statutory authorization for such use of the Armed Forces; or


(2) such use of the Armed Forces is necessary and appropriate to defend against an imminent armed attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its Armed Forces, consistent with the requirements of the War Powers Resolution.


This resolution was prompted by President Trump’s drone strike, which killed a top Iranian general. Many members of Congress have said this action will likely lead to war with Iran. They point out that the Constitution requires that Congress declare war. President Trump pushed back, saying that what he did was allowed because he is commander-in-chief. He said that the drone strike saved American lives and stopped an imminent threat.


The War Powers Act, invoked by this resolution, requires that presidents consult with Congress before military actions and seek congressional approval for longer-term military deployments. Enacted in the 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War, presidents have routinely claimed that the law is an unconstitutional violation of their powers as commander-in-chief.


The vote was mainly along party lines. Three Republicans and one independent voted in favor of the resolution. Eight Democrats voted against it. The Senate is unlikely to take up a similar resolution.


Do you think that military action against Iran should stop until Congress votes to declare war against that country?

Congress to Debate Iranian Military Action

President Trump thinks that he has the authority to attack Iran without congressional approval. Some key members of the House and Senate disagree.


In the Senate, Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky blasted the Trump Administration after receiving a briefing on the drone strike that killed an Iranian general. The Trump Administration contends that the use of force resolution for the Iraq passed by Congress in 2003 covered his strike on Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Both Sen. Lee and Sen. Paul said this was absurd and that hostilities with Iran require new congressional approval.


Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi agrees. She has introduced a use of force resolution that the House will vote on today. The premise of this resolution is that only Congress has the authority to legitimize military action against Iran.


The debate about which branch controls the war-making power is an old one. The Constitution says the president is commander-in-chief. Presidents argue that this gives them sole authority to direct the military. The Constitution also says that Congress must declare war. Members of Congress argue that the president can only use his power as commander-in-chief after congress has made such a declaration.


The House will likely pass its use of force resolution, but the Senate is unlikely to consider it. Many Senate Republicans are fine with what President Trump is doing in relation to Iran. Sen. Lindsay Graham went so far as to say that senators such as Sens. Lee and Paul who question the president’s actions are empowering the enemy.


Do you think that President Trump should seek congressional approval before taking military action against Iran?

Tennessee to Debate Bill Setting Rules for Transgender Athletes

How transgender athletes play school sports is at issue in this year’s Tennessee legislative session.


Under HB 1572, schools that allow a transgender boy to compete on a girls’ team or a transgender girl to compete on a boys’ team would be penalized. Schools that do not assign transgender athletes to teams of their birth sex would lose state funding.


This legislation comes in the wake of growing concerns among some that transgender athletes have a competitive advantage when competing in gender-specific sports, especially transgender girls competing in girls’ sports. Some critics allege that these transgender athletes have a biological edge that sets them apart from other athletes.


Opponents of this legislation push back, saying that transgender girls are girls, and should not be discriminated against. They argue that this will single out transgender children and set back the effort to provide them equal rights.


If Tennessee legislators pass this legislation, the state will likely face a lawsuit.


Do you think transgender athletes should only be allowed to play on sports teams that align with their birth gender?

Speaker Pelosi Still Refusing to Transmit Impeachment Articles

The House has voted to impeach President Trump. The next step in the process should be a trial in the Senate. But that is not happening (for now). Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is refusing to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate. Until that happens, no trial can take place.


The House votes on the two articles of impeachment occurred on December 18. Under normal procedure, the House would transmit the approved articles shortly after the vote. This allows the Senate to proceed to a trial. However, Speaker Pelosi has so far refused to transmit these articles to her counterparts across the Capitol building.


When either the House or Senate passes legislation or a resolution, a signed, or enrolled, copy of that item is hand-carried to the clerk of the other chamber. Only when that document is received by that chamber can its members then vote on it. If such a transmission does not happen, the body cannot act.


Speaker Pelosi is expressing concerns over how the Senate trial will be conducted. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused requests to allow witnesses or take other actions during the trial that Democrats have requested.


If Speaker Pelosi refused to provide the articles of impeachment to the Senate, there will be no trial. Some scholars say that the refusal to complete this process will invalidate the House’s actions, and President Trump will not have actually been impeached. The Constitution is silent on this issue. It does not require that the House will transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate, but it does envision a two-part process where the House does its duty and the Senate then completes the process.


For more information on impeachment, check out VoteSpotter’s Deep Dive here.


Do you think that Speaker Pelosi should transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate?

Iraq Votes to Expel U.S. Troops

In the wake of a drone strike killing a top Iranian military official, the Iraqi parliament has voted to expel U.S. troops.


The resolution, which removes Iraqi government approval for the U.S. military to remain in the nation, passed by a large margin on Sunday. The Shiite-dominated parliament met after Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi called it into an emergency session to consider the question.


The prime minister said that part of the motivation behind the resolution was the fear that Iraqi military forces could not protect Americans who are in the country. The U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani has inflamed tensions in the region.


President Trump has reacted to the news by threatening to sanction Iraq.


The current government in Iraq is a caretaker government that has limited legal authority. It is unclear if the resolution has a binding effect. While the legal issues are being sorted out, the U.S. military presence in Iraq will continue.


Do you think that U.S. troops should remain in Iraq?

Trump Orders Drone Strike on Top Iranian Official

A U.S. drone strike yesterday killed Qasem Soleimani, a high-ranking Iranian military official. President Trump said he ordered the killing to disrupt a plot that would have killed Americans. Some Democrats are questioning whether it is wise for the U.S. to heighten military tensions with Iran.


Soleimani was a key figure in Iranian efforts to train paramilitary groups that advances Iranian goals in the Middle East. U.S. officials blamed him for playing a large role in the recent unrest that has engulfed the U.S. embassy in Iraq.


The U.S. and Iran have a long history of conflict since the late 1970s, when Muslim fundamentalists took over the nation from the American-backed shah. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran has been influencing Shiite militia in that nation in ways that counter American interests.


President Trump said that Soleimani has been responsible for American deaths in the past. Military officials say that he was planning a new attack, one that could have killed dozens or hundreds of Americans. They say that his killing will likely disrupt that plan.


Some Democrats in Congress accuse the president of launching the drone attack as a way to distract from impeachment. They say that the Trump Administration is focused on escalating tensions with Iran instead of seeking ways to bring peace to the region.


Do you support the Trump Administration’s policy towards Iran?

Flavored Vaping Pods Targeted by Trump Administration

The sale of most flavored e-cigarette pods will soon be illegal.


The Trump Administration has announced a ban on pods that contain flavored juices for e-cigarettes, except for tobacco and menthol flavors. Citing concerns with these pods being popular with teenage vapers, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says this ban is necessary to protect public health.


In September, President Trump announced that his administration would ban all flavored vaping juice. The actual policy falls short of this sweeping ban, only covering closed pods. Flavored vaping juices sold at vape stores would still be permitted to be sold. Some presidential advisers argued that a widespread ban would lead to job loss in the vaping industry.


Supporters of this ban contend that flavored vaping juices are attractive to teenagers. They argue that these flavors get teenagers hooked on an unhealthy habit. Many public health advocates are upset that the Trump Administration did not go further and ban all vaping juices.


Opponents of this action point out that vaping is far less dangerous than smoking. They say that by making it less attractive to vape, it will prevent efforts to move people from tobacco cigarettes to e-cigarettes. They argue that the federal government should not target vaping, but welcome it as a public health victory.


Sales of these flavored e-cigarette pods will end after 30 days.


Do you support the Trump Administration ban on flavored vaping pods?

Senate Focused on Judicial Confirmations in 2019

While the House of Representatives has been busy passing legislation that reflects the Democratic majority’s priorities, the Senate has done little legislative work. Instead, it has focused on filling judicial vacancies.


Most of the 2019 Senate votes involved confirming judges, either in voting to bring debate to an end on a nomination or on the nomination itself. President Trump ran for office pledging to focus on judicial appointments, and Senate Majority Mitch McConnell has pledged to support these efforts. The Senate has been very productive in moving President Trump’s judges through the process.


These judicial confirmations are not the only things the Senate has accomplished in 2019, however. Here are a few other notable confirmations and legislative votes from the upper house this year:


U.S. Senate Motion 367: Approve Dan Brouillette as Energy Secretary

Passed 70 to 15 in the U.S. Senate

To confirm President Trump's nomination of Dan Brouillette to be Secretary of Energy.


U.S. Senate Motion 1099: Approve Eugene Scalia as Labor Secretary

Passed 53 to 44 in the U.S. Senate

To confirm President Trump's nomination of Eugene Scalia to be Secretary of the Department of Labor.


U.S. Senate Motion 220: Approve Mark Esper as Defense Secretary

Passed 90 to 8 in the U.S. Senate

To confirm President Trump's nomination of Mark Esper as Secretary of Defense.


U.S. Senate Motion 264: Confirm Kelly Craft as UN Delegate

Passed 56 to 38 in the U.S. Senate

To approve President Trump's nomination of Kelly Craft to serve as the U.S. representative to the United Nations General Assembly.


U.S. Senate Motion 327: Allow Northern Macedonia to join NATO

Passed 91 to 2 in the U.S. Senate

To ratify a treaty that allows Northern Macedonia to enter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO countries commit to mutual defense if one member is attacked by an external aggressor.


U.S. Senate Joint Resolution 54: Block Trump's border wall emergency declaration

Passed 54 to 41 in the U.S. Senate

To block President Trump's February declaration of an emergency at the U.S.-Mexican border, which empowered the administration to bypass Congress and re-allocate funds to build a border wall.


U.S. House Bill 1327: Authorize 9/11 compensation fund for 72 years

Passed 97 to 2 in the U.S. Senate

To reauthorize the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund through 2092 and exempt spending from the fund from budget rules that require offsetting reductions in other new spending.


Majority Leader McConnell’s focus on confirming President Trump’s nominees will likely continue into 2020. The bills that have emerged from the House are not generally bills that will attract much, if any, Republican support. Unless President Trump, Speaker Pelosi, and McConnell can agree on a legislative agenda, there will be little change from 2019.

House Had a Busy Legislative Year

Throughout 2019, the House of Representatives has tackled many issues. It ended the year with the impeachment of President Trump, but leading up to that Speaker Pelosi had advanced numerous bills that her Democratic caucus had long supported.


Here are a few of the notable bills that the House of Representatives passed this year:


U.S. House Bill 582: Raise the minimum wage

Passed 230 to 200 in the U.S. House

To increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, phased in over 5 years. The measure would also extend the wage mandate to nonprofit organizations that under current law may employ individuals with disabilities at a lower wage, and to newly-hired and tipped workers (whose total wage with tips must still meet the minimum under current law).


U.S. House Bill 3: Authorize price controls on Medicare drug coverage

Passed 230 to 192 in the U.S. House

To cap the amount the government will pay for drugs covered by the Medicare health care program for the aged. The prices paid for specific drugs could not exceed 120% of their average price in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, or 85% of the average manufacturers' price in the U.S. These price controls would also apply to private insurance coverage unless the private insurer opted out.


U.S. House Bill 4: Mandate federal approval before some states can change voting practices

Passed 228 to 187 in the U.S. House

To mandate that states or local governments must get approval of the federal government before they make changes to voting practices in certain circumstances. This mandate for federal "pre-clearance" would apply to any state that has had 15 or more voting rights act violations in the past 25 years. The mandate would apply to local governments that have had at least 3 voting rights act violations in the past 25 years.


U.S. House Bill 4617: Expand restrictions on online campaign ads, regulate foreign involvement in elections

Passed 227 to 181 in the U.S. House

To expand federal regulations and restrictions on online political communications, mandate that social media companies keep detailed records on individuals and organizations sponsoring political ads, require political campaigns to report offers of foreign assistance, prohibit foreign nationals from contributing to ballot initiative and referendum campaigns, increase restrictions on U.S. political campaigns soliciting support from foreign entities, and make it a federal crime to mislead voters about the time and place for voting and qualifications to vote.


U.S. House Bill 1595: Allow banks to conduct business with some marijuana-related businesses

Passed 321 to 103 in the U.S. House

To prohibit federal regulators from penalizing banks that deal with marijuana-related businesses in states that have legalized the use or possession of marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes. To avoid penalties, these banks may only deal with businesses in compliance with state laws.


U.S. House Bill 1423: Ban binding arbitration contract requirements, bar limits on class action lawsuits

Passed 225 to 186 in the U.S. House

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


U.S. House Bill 205: Ban offshore drilling in areas of the Gulf of Mexico

Passed 248 to 180 in the U.S. House

To permanently ban oil and natural gas leasing in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico and within 125 miles of the Florida coastline.


U.S. House Bill 1941: Ban offshore drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts

Passed 238 to 189 in the U.S. House

To prohibit the federal government from leasing any areas of the Outer Continental Shelf in the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans for oil and natural gas exploration or production.


U.S. House Bill 1146: Prohibit oil and gas leasing in Arctic wildlife refuge

Passed 225 to 193 in the U.S. House

To prohibit oil and natural gas leasing in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.


U.S. House Bill 397: Lend federal dollars to failing union pension plans

Passed 264 to 169 in the U.S. House

To authorize government "loans" that would be "forgivable" to massively underfunded and insolvent multi-employer pension funds, which are usually managed by labor unions.


U.S. House Bill 2500: Prohibit Defense Department spending at Trump properties

Passed 222 to 205 in the U.S. House

To prohibit spending Defense Department funds at properties owned by the president or that bear his name, unless the president reimburses the amount.



The Senate has not considered any of these bills, and is unlikely to do so in 2020. Tomorrow we will take a look at some important Senate votes of this past year.


Judge Halts North Carolina Voter ID Law

North Carolina voters will not be required to show identification before voting in that state’s 2020 primary.


In 2018, North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed the legislature to enact a voter ID law. In December of that year, the Republican-controlled legislature approved a law enacting a voter ID mandate. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed it, but legislators overrode his veto. There have been ongoing legal battles over the law since then.


Supporters of a voter ID law say that it is necessary to ensure that only legal voters take part in elections. They contend that making voters show ID is a good way to combat voter fraud. Opponents counter that this is a law designed to make it more difficult for minorities and the poor to vote. They say that the real intention is to disenfranchise Democratic voters, not combat voter fraud.


This week, a federal judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of the law. He has said that it should not go into effect until courts settle whether or not this law is constitutional. His ruling does not invalidate the voter ID requirement, but does suspend it for the 2020 primary election.


A federal case over a previous North Carolina voter ID law resulted in that law being declared unconstitutional because of its effect on minority voters.


Do you support voter ID laws?

House Passes Trade Deal with Mexico, Canada

In a final vote before leaving town for the holiday recess, the House of Representatives passed the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Passage of this agreement has long been a priority for President Trump.


By a vote of 385-95, a large bipartisan majority passed this updating of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Some of the key aspects of this agreement are:

  • An increase in the amount of vehicle parts that must be manufactured in North America to qualify the vehicle as being exempt from tariffs
  • A mandate that 30% of the work done on vehicles must be done by workers making more than $16 an hour
  • A requirement that Mexico must loosen labor laws to make it easier for workers to unionize
  • Stricter safety standards for Mexican trucks entering the U.S.
  • An increase in the amount of U.S. dairy products that can be sold in Canada
  • Stricter protections for intellectual property
  • An agreement by Mexico to increase efforts to stop overfishing


The U.S., Canada, and Mexico negotiated NAFTA in the 1990s in order to promote freer trade between the three nations. This agreement mostly leaves this deal in place, but it does update some key parts, as described above.


President Trump has long been skeptical of deals that lower tariffs and move the U.S. towards free trade. He has even called himself “tariff man.” He says that foreign trade hurts American workers, and the U.S. should enact barriers to the sales of foreign products in the U.S. Critics of his approach argue that trade has wide benefits for the economy, from consumers to workers. They say it lowers the cost of goods and helps create jobs in more industries.


The Senate has yet to vote on the USMCA.


Do you support passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which updates NAFTA?

Tobacco Purchase Age Rising to 21

President Trump has signed into law a key priority of public health officials – increasing the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21.


This increase in the federal tobacco age was contained in the large spending bill that recently passed Congress. That legislation contained funding for the federal government to remain open during the current fiscal year. There were numerous provisions in the legislation that did not directly affect spending, and the increase in the tobacco purchase age was one of them.


President Trump has supported increasing this age in the past. He has said it is necessary to protect children. Upon signing the spending legislation, he touted this tobacco measure as part of the overall success of the bill.


There was bipartisan support in Congress for accomplishing this. Public health advocates have long called on the federal government to make it more difficult for people to buy tobacco. They say it is necessary to stop young people from being hooked on this unhealthy habit. Opponents argue that people should be free to make their own choices, and that a federal ban oversteps state authority.


Prior to this federal action, 19 states had already raised the tobacco purchasing age.


Do you support raising the age when someone can buy tobacco to 21?

House Passes Bill to Raise Cap on State and Local Tax Deduction

A slim majority of House members approved legislation to increase the amount of state and local taxes that taxpayers could deduct from their federal taxes.


By a vote of 218-206, the House approved H.R. 5377. This bill would increase the cap on the federal deduction for state and local taxes from $10,000 to $20,000, and eliminate it entirely for 2020 and 2021. It would also increase the top income tax rate to 39.6% and increase the deductions for some expenses incurred by first responders and teachers.


The Trump tax cut bill set a cap on their ability to deduct state and local taxes. Prior to this cap, taxpayers could deduct the full amount of their state and local taxes. While theoretically available to all taxpayers, it generally benefited taxpayers with higher incomes (who are more prone to use itemized deductions rather than the standard deduction) and those who lived in states with higher taxes.


The Trump tax bill limited this state-and-local tax deduction to $10,000. In other words, if someone paid $17,000 in state and local taxes, they could only deduct $10,000 instead of the full $17,000. This upset some state officials, especially those who represent states that have a large share of high-income taxpayers paired with high state tax rates.


In response, some states passed laws that were an attempt to circumvent this cap. These generally involved classifying taxes in certain circumstances as charitable contributions. Since the tax bill still allowed full deductibility of charitable contributions, this would have allowed these state taxpayers to skirt the state-and-local deduction cap.


The Treasury Department issued a rule that essentially invalidated these state laws for federal tax purposes. Earlier this year, Sen. Chuck Schumer, who represents New York, introduced Senate Joint Resolution 50 to disapprove of this Treasury regulation. If passed, the effect of this disapproval resolution would have been to be allow states to pass laws that circumvent the tax cap, essentially repealing it on a state-by-state basis. The full Senate did not agree with Sen. Schumer, however. In October, the resolution failed by a vote of 43-52. The vote was largely along party lines, with only Republican Rand Paul voting for the resolution and Democrat Cory Gardner opposing it.


The House bill now heads to the Senate for consideration. Given the Senate’s action on Sen. Schumer’s resolution, it is unlikely that it will succeed in that body.


Do you support limiting the amount of state and local taxes that taxpayers can deduct on their federal taxes?

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