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Senate Ramping Up Court Confirmations

 

Donald Trump made the appointment of federal judges a key part of his appeal to Republican voters when he ran in 2016. He has not ignored this issue since taking office, and neither has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In recent weeks, much of the Senate’s time has been devoted to confirming these judges – something that pleases the president’s conservative base but worries liberals.

 

So far this year, the Senate has confirmed the following circuit court nominees:

 

David Ryan Stras, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Eighth Circuit: 56-42

Elizabeth L. Branch, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Eleventh Circuit: 73-23

Stuart Kyle Duncan, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Fifth Circuit: 50-47

Kurt D. Engelhardt, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Fifth Circuit: 62-34

Michael B. Brennan, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Seventh Circuit: 49-46

Michael Y. Scudder, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Seventh Circuit: 90-0

Amy J. St. Eve, of Illinois, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Seventh Circuit: 91-0

Joel M. Carson III, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Tenth Circuit: 77-21

John B. Nalbandian, U.S. Circuit Judge for the Sixth Circuit: 53-45

 

These judges, who can serve for life, will sit on circuit courts that are one level below the Supreme Court in terms of jurisdiction. The U.S. is divided into twelve judicial circuits, with a panel of judges serving on each court.

 

The appointees to these circuit courts has become increasingly contentious over the past two decades. Members of both parties began to use the filibuster to block appointments to these courts, forcing the president’s party to come up with 60 votes to confirm a judge. In 2013, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid ended the filibuster for circuit court nominees. That allowed some of President Obama’s circuit court picks to advance over the objection of Republicans, but also paved the way for relatively easy confirmation of President Trump’s nominees.

 

While two of President Trump’s nominees received unanimous votes (those of Amy St. Eve and Michael Scudder), the Senate was closely divided on many of the others. This has been the pattern for many of the president’s nominees, whether for judicial posts or for executive branch positions.

 

Are you happy that the Senate has confirmed so many of President Trump’s judicial nominees? Or do you think that President Trump’s judge picks will reshape the federal judiciary in a way that you disagree with?

 

Can the Government Mandate Honest Online Ads?

 

In the wake of allegations over Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Congress is looking at regulating advertising on Facebook, Twitter, and other online platforms. This month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent two days testifying before members of the House of Representatives and the Senate on this and other topics. But some are asking if federal rules for online ads will be an effective way of bringing transparency to the electoral process.

 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, has introduced the “Honest Ads Act,” to expand federal regulation of election ads to cover those placed on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. If passed, that act would express the sense of Congress that “the dramatic increase in digital political advertisements, and the growing centrality of online platforms in the lives of Americans, requires the Congress and the Federal Election Commission to take meaningful action to ensure that laws and regulations provide the accountability and transparency that is fundamental to our democracy.”

 

For its enforcement provisions, the Honest Ads Act would expand the current federal rules governing electioneering to apply to ads that are being run online. This would require these ads to have some indication of who paid for them. The bill would also mandate that companies with more than 50 million monthly online visitors must maintain a database that has information on anyone who bought more than $500 in political ads, a copy of the ads, the rate charged, and the audience targeted.

 

Senator Klobuchar’s bill is cosponsored by 22 other Democratic senators and a lone Republican, John McCain of Arizona. There is also a companion bill in the House sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington.

 

Supporters of this legislation say that it is a way to stop Russians and others from using Facebook and Twitter to influence American voters. They contend that mandatory disclosure on ads will help to prevent these activities from taking place in the future. Opponents of the bill say that anyone wishing to use online ads to meddle in U.S. elections can easily evade these reporting requirements. They also point out that maintaining the database as required in the bill will impose significant costs for online companies.

 

Both Facebook and Twitter have endorsed the bill, although Twitter said it would work with lawmakers to refine and revise it. The companies have also said that they would voluntarily work to provide more transparent information to the public about political ads.

 

Do you support expanding federal election regulations to cover online political advertisements? Or will these new rules be easily evaded by those looking to influence U.S. elections?

 

 

Will Trump Tariffs Help or Hurt the Economy?



When Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency, his attacks on foreign trade drew big cheers from crowds. Now he’s taking steps to turn his “fair trade” rhetoric into reality.

 

On March 1, the president announced that he would be signing an order to impose a 25% tariff on imported steel and a 10% tariff on imported aluminum. His power to do this comes from a federal law that allows tariffs to be imposed on certain goods if the Commerce Secretary determines their importation undermines national security.

 

Such tariffs may boost domestic manufacturers of steel and tariffs, possibly even leading to a growth in these industries. However, U.S. businesses such as car makers rely on imported steel. They will be forced to pay higher prices for the inputs they need, as will U.S. consumers. Such tariffs could also provoke retaliatory trade barriers from foreign countries.

 

According to Christine McDaniel, an economist who works for George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, the president is hurting American workers with this action:

 

“Import taxes on steel and aluminum will raise the prices of those products, which in turn will raise the price of doing business for U.S. manufacturers. There are more people in U.S. manufacturing sectors that rely on steel than there are in the U.S. steel industry. In terms of the economics, the trade-off does not make sense.”

 

Other observers praised the move. Dave Burritt, president and CEO of U.S. Steel, said, “it's for our employees, to support our customers, and when we get this right it will be great for the United States of America. We have to get this done.”

 

The affected nations will likely take their case against these tariffs to the World Trade Organization once the president imposes them.

 

Do you think that President Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum will help U.S. industry? Or will workers be hurt because consumers and the industries that rely on imported steel will be paying higher prices?

 

Immigration: A Touchy Issue for Three Decades

 

 

The big issue in Washington, D.C., is immigration. That should be no surprise to anyone who has followed politics over the past generation.

 

The last time that Congress and the president agreed on comprehensive immigration reform was 1986. President Reagan signed into law a bill that made big changes to how the nation treated immigrants, especially those who came to the country illegally. Almost from the time that the president signed that bill into law, there has been a divisive split in Washington over what to do next on this issue.

 

Whether they crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas, the U.S. has millions of immigrants who are not here legally. There has been considerable debate over what to do with these individuals. For two decades, there has been work on trying to find a bipartisan bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some of these illegal immigrants while also enhancing border security. President George W. Bush was a champion of this approach.

 

A path to citizenship for illegal immigrants has always met with vocal opposition from some conservative Republicans, however, who decry this approach as “amnesty.” Some liberals will not support stricter order enforcement efforts and increased deportation measures. The attacks from both sides on compromise immigration legislation has made it difficult for Congress to act. In 2006, the Senate passed a bill along these lines, but the House failed to act. In 2007, the Senate tried and failed to pass a comprehensive reform bill. In 2013, the Senate once again passed a bill but it died in the House. Efforts in 2018 to pass immigration reform bills have failed to gain the 60 votes necessary to shut off Senate debate.

 

Many people have been focused on what to do about minors who were brought to the U.S. illegally and grew up here. These are often called “Dreamers,” and have been subject to deportation the same as any other illegal immigrant. However, there is bipartisan agreement that there should be some pathway for them to become citizens if they do not have a criminal record and if they have done things like enroll in college or the military.

 

As far back as 2001, members of Congress have considered legislation that would deal with Dreamers. Provisions to solve their situation was included in comprehensive immigration reform bills. Since these bills never became law, however, their status remained in limbo. President Obama put in place the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, which directed the Department of Homeland Security not to deport Dreamers.

 

Republicans objected to DACA as being an overreach of executive authority. President Trump rescinded President Obama’s order, effective March 2018, urging Congress to provide a legislative solution to the Dreamer issue. So far, however, partisan wrangling has prevented this from happening.

 

The agricultural community has also been advocating for a guest worker program that would allow immigrants to come to the U.S., work temporarily, and then return home. They contend that this would reduce illegal immigration by giving foreign workers a legal way to earn money in the U.S. but not stay here. This has been included in immigration bills but has never been enacted.

 

Do you think that the U.S. immigration laws should be changed? Do you support giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship? Should the U.S. focus on more border control?

Trump Endorses Gun Control, Armed Teachers

 

In the wake of the school shooting in Florida that claimed 17 lives, there is a renewed call for gun control. One of those people adding his voice to the chorus for more restrictions on gun ownership is President Donald Trump. But he’d also like to see armed teachers as a “GREAT DETERRENT.”

 

Bans on semi-automatic firearms, expanded background checks for private gun sales, and increased age limits on purchasing semi-automatics are among the variety of ideas being proposed by politicians, pundits, and students. On Thursday, February 22, the president tweeted his support for some of these measures, saying “I will be strongly pushing Comprehensive Background Checks with an emphasis on Mental Health. Raise age to 21 and end sale of Bump Stocks! Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue - I hope.”

 

He also said that some “gun adept” teachers should be armed to confront school shooters. According to the president, “highly trained” teachers would be quicker to deal with shooters than waiting for law enforcement.

 

Gun control measures have not had much success in Congress in recent years. They face strong opposition from Republicans and some Democrats, especially those representing rural areas. President Trump’s endorsement may break some of this resistance, however.

 

There are some Republicans who are willing to endorse gun control measures. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said that he would work with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on legislation to ban sales of AR-15s to people under 21 years of age (currently, anyone over 18 can buy rifles). There is also bipartisan support to pass legislation that would address flaws in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

 

Any legislation to enact new gun laws must gain at least 60 votes in the Senate. It is unclear if these or other gun control proposals can gain enough bipartisan support to overcome that hurdle. President Trump’s backing may make it easier for Republicans to support such measures, however.

 

Do you support new laws that put restrictions on gun ownership? Or do you think that gun control laws are ineffective and infringe upon constitutional rights?

 

Senate Fails to Act on Immigration Reform

 

President Trump has made immigration reform a top priority. Congressional Democrats want to see action, too. If the Senate debate last week is any indication, however, there will be no resolution to this issue any time soon.

 

Much of the focus has been finding a way to provide legal protection and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, known as “dreamers.” There is broad agreement among Republicans and Democrats that this should be done. The two parties disagree, however, on what else should be in the legislative package that contains “dreamer” protection.

 

On February 15, the Senate voted on four measures to reform immigration. These were presented as amendments to another bill, and each vote was to close debate. Such a vote requires 60 senators to agree, and then the Senate could move to a final vote on passage of the amendment. None of these four measures received 60 votes, so each one failed:

 

Sen. Coons amendment to protect “dreamers”

Failed 52-47

To cut off debate on an amendment that would provide legal protection and a path to citizenship for “dreamers” and provide funding for border security, though no border wall.

 

Sen. Toomey amendment to defund “sanctuary cities”

Failed 54-45

To cut off debate on an amendment that would end a variety of federal grants for local governments that have policies directing their employees not to cooperate with the enforcement of federal immigration law. These local governments are sometimes called “sanctuary cities.”

 

Sen. Schumer amendment to protect “dreamers”

Failed 54-45

To cut off debate on an amendment that would provide legal protection and a path to citizenship for “dreamers” and provide $25 billion for border security. The bill would have also prevented “dreamers” from being able to sponsor their parents so they could achieve legal status.

 

Sen. Grassley amendment to protect “dreamers” and reduce legal immigration

Failed 39-60

To cut off debate on an amendment that would provide legal protection and a path to citizenship for “dreamers” provide $25 billion for a wall on the U.S./Mexican border, reduce family-based immigration, and end the immigration diversity lottery. The Trump Administration favored this amendment.

 

With the failure of these measures, it is unclear if any proposal can achieve the 60 votes necessary to pass the Senate.

 

What do you think Congress should do to reform America’s immigration system?

 

Trump Budget Increases Spending for Some, Slashes it for Others

 

A week after signing a proposal to allow an increase in spending by roughly a half-billion dollars over the next two years, President Trump has released his budget proposal for the next decade.

 

Overall Impacts 

Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget - 

The policies called for in the President's budget would reduce deficits by $3.6 trillion relative to its own baseline (and about $3.1 trillion relative to current law), the result of $1.2 trillion of new spending and tax cuts ($1.75 trillion relative to current law), $3.7 trillion of deficit reduction (mostly on the spending side), about $800 billion in reduced war and disaster spending, and a bit over $300 billion in interest savings.

 

Proposed Increases in Spending

  • Defense -- $800 billion increase for next year
  • Infrastructure -- $21 billion, part of a $200 billion, 10-year plan
  • Department of Commerce -- $600 million increase
  • Department of Homeland Security -- $5.1 billion increase
  • Veterans’ Affairs Department -- $6.8 billion increase

The budget also allocates $18 million for a wall on the U.S./Mexico border.

 

Proposed Decreases in Spending 

According to the White House, this budget includes “proposed savings of $48.4 billion in discretionary programs, including $25.8 billion in program eliminations and $22.6 billion in reductions” for the next budget year. Here are some of the areas where the president has proposed decreased spending:

  • Department of Agriculture -- $938 million, including ending funding for land acquisition and rural wastewater grants
  • Department of Education -- $5.7 billion, including the elimination of a variety of federal grant programs
  • Department of Health and Human Services -- $4.3 billion, including the elimination of low-income heating grants
  • State Deparment and USAID -- $4.7 billion, including eliminating funding for the Global Climate Change Initiative
  • National Endowment for the Arts -- $121 million cut
  • Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- $480 million cut

The president’s proposal also calls on a redesign of the Supplemental Assistance for Nutrition Program (SNAP). These include greater restrictions on who is eligible for food benefits, more work requirements, and using a portion of the program’s funding to provide food commodities to recipients.

 

Next Steps

This budget outline is simply the president’s desired spending path over the next decade. It has no force of law and does not actually affect federal spending. Congress will likely enact its own budget resolution, which is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the president’s proposal. The congressional budget resolution will outline the spending bills that will provide funding for actual federal spending in the next fiscal year.

 

Do you support President Trump’s budget as a good way to trim wasteful federal spending? Or is the president’s budget a blow to necessary government programs?

 

Democrats, Republicans Agree to Big Spending Increase

 

Bipartisanship flourished in Washington this week. While the parties have major differences, it seems the one thing that Democrats and Republicans can both agree on is a spending increase of $500 billion over two years.

 

Members of the two parties came together to pass a continuing resolution that would keep the government open until March 23, but eliminates caps on military and domestic spending that have been in place for most of this decade.

 

Here are some key features of the agreement that will add $320 billion to the deficit:

  • Sixty percent of the spending increase goes to the military, the rest is for domestic programs.
  • It includes $90 billion in disaster relief for Puerto Rico.
  • There are targeted tax breaks for a variety of activities, including rum production, wind energy development, geothermal projects, and film production.
  • It raises the debt ceiling until 2019.

 

Republicans pushed for the military spending increases. For Democrats, the package prevents scheduled cuts for Medicare and Medicaid, has nearly $6 billion for Child Care Development Block Grant, and $20 billion in money for infrastructure (which includes rural broadband funding), among other things.

 

Not everyone was thrilled with the bill, however. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) used procedural motions to block quick approval of it. He was opposed to the size of the spending increases and the fact that it will add significantly to the deficit. On the Senate floor, he said:

 

I ran for office because I was very critical of [Barack] Obama’s trillion-dollar deficits. Now we have Republicans hand-in-hand with Democrats offering us trillion-dollar deficits… I can’t in all good honesty, in all good faith, just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits.

 

Sen. Paul’s delaying tactics prevented the bill from being passed and signed by the president by midnight on February 8, which is when funding for government operations ran out. This led to a brief five-hour shutdown of the federal government. Eventually, however, both the Senate (on a vote of 71-28) and the House of Representatives (on a vote of 240-186) passed the resolution, which President Trump signed.

 

Do you support increasing federal spending by $500 billion over the next two years? Or do you think it is a bad idea to grow the deficit?

 

Can President Trump’s Immigration Reform Succeed?

 

Immigration played a big part in President Trump’s first State of the Union Address this week. It appears, however, that neither Democrats nor Republicans are pleased with what the president wants to do on this highly controversial topic.

 

In late January, the president released four principles that outline how he would like to see the nation’s immigration laws changed:

  • Spend $25 billion to set up a trust fund for a border wall security system
  • Provide a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million individuals (known as “Dreamers”) who were covered by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or who were eligible for that program
  • End the ability of immigrants to sponsor family members for entry to the U.S., except for spouses and minor children
  • Eliminate the visa lottery system

 

When President Trump discussed this plan during his speech before both houses of Congress, it received a mixed reaction. Democrats are steadfastly opposed to any attempts to end what they call “family reunification” and what the president calls “chain migration.” Neither side can even agree on what this type of immigration should be called. Many congressional Democrats said that they will reject any immigration deal that has this as a provision, regardless of what else is in the package.

 

On the Republican side, some conservatives are labeling as “amnesty” the proposal to provide citizenship to DACA recipients. They note that this path to citizenship affects far more people than was proposed under President Obama. Some observers charge that the president is breaking his anti-amnesty pledge that played such a large role in his campaign.

 

With both liberals and conservatives in Congress opposed to major parts of the president’s plan, it is unclear what will emerge from the legislative process. It is possible that there will be no plan that can achieve the support of the majority. This will leave current immigration laws intact, but will also mean an end to the DACA program. This initiative, put forth under President Obama, protected from deportation some illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. President Trump’s cancellation of this program goes into effect in March.

 

Do you support President Trump’s deal to curtail legal immigration and give citizenship to Dreamers? Do you think that ending family reunification immigration is too big of a price to pay for Dreamer citizenship? Or is the president breaking his campaign promise and supporting amnesty for 1.8 million illegal immigrants?

 

The Government is Open – For Now

 

After a shutdown that lasted for a weekend and one workday, the federal government is re-open and running. However, two large questions remain after this brief shutdown: Will Congress hold a vote that provides “Dreamers” protection from deportation? And, will the government shut down again after the short-term funding bill expires in February?

 

Dreamers

 

A solid block of Democratic senators voted against a government funding bill on January 19. Needing to reach a 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not have sufficient votes to advance this bill through the Senate. What followed was a brief shutdown.

 

The Democrats were upset that this funding measure did not resolve the situation of individuals covered under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). These individuals, known as “Dreamers,” were brought to the country illegally by their parents. President Obama issued an order giving some of them protection from deportation. President Trump revoked that directive, and asked Congress to act on legislation that would codify legal protection.

 

When President Trump, Congressional Republicans, and Congressional Democrats could not agree on the details of a DACA bill, Democrats in the House and Senate voted against short-term funding legislation. After days of negotiations, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reversed course upon assurances by Sen. McConnell that a bill containing DACA protections would be brought to the floor of the Senate for consideration. Sen. McConnell also said this bill would include other immigration measures.

 

A Long-Term Funding Fix

 

The measure approved by the Senate only provides funding for the government through February 8.

 

With Congress failing to pass individual appropriations bills to fund the various federal agencies, the operations of the federal government are dependent on either continuing resolutions (which fund the government at the previous year’s levels) or omnibus appropriations bills (which combine smaller spending bills into one larger bill).

 

For the federal government to continue operating past February 8, the House and Senate must pass either another continuing resolution or an omnibus appropriations bill. Efforts to do this are complicated by spending limits that are in place due to the 2013 sequester legislation. That agreement put caps on defense and discretionary spending. These caps can be lifted, and have been in the past. But there is no agreement among members of the two parties on how to lift the caps for this fiscal year (which began on October 1, 2017).

 

It seems unlikely that such an agreement can be reached by early February. That means that there will be another short-term continuing resolution to give congressional negotiators more time to accomplish this.

 

What do you think about the government shutdown? What path should Congress take on immigration and spending?

 

Will Trump and Congress Make a Dreamer Deal?

 

President Trump and Congress may be close to making a deal on immigration. Or they may not. It depends on how one interprets what happened earlier this week.

 

The president met with a group of Republican and Democratic members of Congress on Tuesday to discuss the fate of children covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. These children, known as “Dreamers,” were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. There is bipartisan agreement that Congress should take some steps to protect them from deportation. President Trump has also said he favors legislation on this issue. The sticking point is whether any such legislation should also be tied to further immigration reform.

 

While the original intent was for the meeting between the president and congressional leaders to be behind closed doors, the participants opened it up to the press. What occurred was an hour-long discussion of what President Trump, congressional Republicans, and congressional Democrats want to do about immigration.

 

President Trump has long held that any attempts to solve the Dreamer issue must be tied to other immigration reform measures, such as a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. Congressional Democrats have pushed for a “clean” DACA bill with no other immigration provisions attached.

 

During Tuesday’s meeting, the president seemed inclined to agree with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) when she said she wanted a clean DACA bill, saying “We’re going to come up with DACA, and then we could start immediately on the phase two, which would be comprehensive.”

 

Congressional Republicans pushed back on that suggestion, and the president later clarified that he still wants border security included as part of any DACA legislation.

 

President Trump has set March 5 as the deadline when President Obama’s executive order providing protection to Dreamers expires. Congressional Republicans said that they want to see legislation completed by then. It is unclear whether or not there can be bipartisan consensus on what else should be included in such a bill. Some Republicans are pushing for wider immigration restrictions, such as ending the diversity lottery. Democrats have said they would support some funding for border security, but not money for constructing a wall.

 

This meeting did show that there is broad agreement on some immigration priorities, but there is also sharp disagreement on how to achieve those priorities. And, as always, there remains a wide gulf on immigration issues that do not involve the Dreamers. One thing is clear – immigration will be a significant issue for Congress and the president in 2018.

 

Do you support congressional action to allow Dreamers to stay in the country? Do you think that any legislation to deal with Dreamers should also have funding for a border wall?

 

“Dreamers,” Government Funding Face Congress in 2018

 

With a flurry of activity on taxes to end 2017, members of Congress took a short break over the Christmas season. This week, however, legislators return to Washington, D.C. They will be taking up a variety of important issues that could reinforce the already sharp partisan divisions in Congress:

 

Funding the Government – Before leaving for their holiday recess, members of Congress passed a measure that temporarily funds the federal government. This avoided a government shutdown over Christmas, but only runs until January 19. Either Congress must pass an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year or another series of short-term continuing resolutions that provide funding over a limited time-frame.

 

“Dreamers” – Last year President Trump reversed the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but he also called on Congress to do something about the “Dreamers,” children who were brought to the country illegally by their parents. There is bipartisan support to pass legislation to deal with children in this category, but no consensus yet on what the details should be. The president wants action on Dreamers tied to funding for a wall on the Mexican border, something that congressional Democrats reject.

 

Entitlement Reform – Republicans in the House of Representatives have said they would like to focus on reforming entitlement programs like welfare and Medicaid. Changes to these programs could result in significant budget savings over the long run, but Democrats worry about how these changes may affect people who depend on the programs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has also been cool to any talk of debating entitlement reform in the Senate.

 

Infrastructure – President Trump has repeatedly said he would like to see more money put into an infrastructure improvement program. Some Republicans are wary of a large new government spending program, but this could be an area where the president works with Democrats to advance his agenda in the new year.

 

Disaster Relief – The House of Representatives passed legislation to provide aid in response to hurricanes and wildfires last year. The Senate failed to act before 2017 ended, however.

 

Children’s Health Insurance – Congress passed temporary funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), but this funding only lasts through March. There is a bipartisan push to provide a more permanent funding fix for this program.

 

What do you think Congress should focus on in 2018?

 

Congress Key Votes – Taxes, Spending, Class-Action Lawsuits, “She Persisted”

 

Check out these key votes made by elected officials in Congress earlier this year, and go to www.votespotter.com to sign up and see how your elected officials voted on these and other issues that impact your daily life.

 

U.S. House Bill 1, Reduce tax rates and eliminate some deductions: Passed 51 to 49 in the U.S. Senate on December 2

To set new federal income tax rates (10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35%, and 38.5%) to replace the current tax rates (10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39.6%), increase the standard deduction ($12,000 for single filers, $18,000 for heads of household, and $24,000 for joint filers), eliminate the mandate that individuals must purchase health insurance, increase the child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000, cut the corporate income tax rate from 39% to 20% starting in 2019, authorize a 23 percent deduction for income from smaller businesses whose earnings are taxed at the owner's individual tax rate, double the estate tax exemption, and more. The individual income tax provisions sunset in 2025.

 

U.S. House Bill 1, House version of federal income tax cuts and reform: Passed 227 to 205 in the U.S. House on November 16

To create four new federal income tax rates (12%, 25%, 35%, and 39.6%) that would replace the seven current rates (10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39.6%), increase the standard deduction (to $12,200 for single filers, $18,300 for heads of household, and $24,400 for joint filers), eliminate a deduction for state and local tax payments (except homeowners could still deduct up to $10,000 in property taxes), limit the mortgage interest deduction to loans under $500,000, increase a child tax credit from $1,000 to $1,600, cut the corporate income tax rate from 39% to 20% starting in 2020, cut and phase-out the federal estate tax, and more.

 

U.S. House Bill 601, Fund disaster-related programs, raise the debt ceiling: Passed 316 to 90 in the U.S. House on September 8 and 80 to 17 in the Senate on September 7

To provide $7.4 billion in direct funding for Hurricane Harvey disaster relief, $450 million to the Small Business Administration’s disaster loans program, and $7.4 billion in general disaster spending. As “emergency” spending, this funding is exempt from budget controls aimed at controlling the deficit. The bill also raises the federal debt limit and funds federal government operations for another three months.

 

U.S. House Bill 985, Restrict class action lawsuits: Passed 220 to 201 in the U.S. House on March 9

To prohibit lawyers from bringing class action lawsuits unless the individuals in the lawsuit have suffered the same type and scope of injury. The bill also mandates that lawyers who successfully bring class action lawsuits get paid only after the victims collect any damage awards.

 

U.S. Senate Motion 57, Affirm Senator Warren broke Senate rules: Passed 49 to 43 in the U.S. Senate on February 7

To uphold the ruling of the chair that Senator Elizabeth Warren broke Senate Rule 19, which prohibits any senator from “imput[ing] to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator." Senator Warren had been reading a letter by Coretta Scott King about Senator Jeff Sessions, whom President Trump had nominated to be Attorney General. The chair had ruled that by reading certain sections of this bill, Sen. Warren had disparaged her colleague, Sen. Sessions.

 

Senate Advances Tax Legislation

 

At 2 a.m. on Saturday morning, the Senate voted 51-49 in favor of legislation that would reshape the nation’s tax code. The Republicans who supported this bill say that it will provide much-needed tax relief for families and boost the economy. Democrats contend that it is a giveaway to the rich that will dramatically increase the deficit.

 

Here are some of the major provisions in this tax bill:

  • Retains the current seven tax brackets, but reduces the top marginal rate to 38.5% and cuts rates in other brackets
  • The standard deduction increases to $12,000 from $6,500 for single filers, $18,000 from $9,500 for heads of households, and $24,000 from $12,500 for joint filers
  • Increases the child tax credit to $2,000 from $1,000
  • The phase-out for the child tax credit starts at $500,000 (compared to $110,000 today)
  • Lowers the corporate income tax rate to 20% from 35% starting in 2019
  • Creates a higher exemption for the corporate minimum tax
  • Exempts $11.2 million from the estate tax, up from $5.6 million now
  • Repeals the individual health insurance mandate under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare

 

The individual income tax changes are set to expire in 2025. This was done to give the bill a more favorable budget score, which helps ease passage. Some observers expect that these provisions of the bill would be made permanent in the future, since members of Congress will be hesitant to allow (in effect) a tax increase to tax place upon their expiration. However, there is no guarantee that this will occur.

 

All Senate Democrats opposed it. Every Senate Republican except Bob Corker of Tennessee supported it.

 

The Senate bill differs in some key respects from the House tax cut legislation. These differences must be resolved in a conference committee, then the same bill must be passed by both house of Congress and signed by the president. Given the commitment by Republicans in both branches, this process should proceed fairly quickly. It is also possible that the House of Representatives could pass the Senate version of the bill. Whatever happens, it is likely that President Trump will have tax legislation on his desk to sign before the end of the year.

 

Do you support the tax cuts in the Senate bill? Or do you think that this legislation is the wrong way to reform the tax code?

 

Keystone XL Pipeline Moving Forward

 

After years of delay, the Keystone XL Pipeline cleared its last significant regulatory hurdle. TransCanada is now free to complete its controversial multi-billion pipeline project.

 

This final approval came when the Nebraska Public Service Commission granted approval for TransCanada to build the pipeline through that state. On a 3-2 vote, the PSC supported an alternate route for the Keystone XL Pipeline instead of TransCanada’s first choice. This new route will not go through the state’s Sandhill region.

 

President Obama had stopped this project at the federal level. TransCanada initially applied for a federal permit in 2008 to allow the pipeline to cross the U.S./Canadian border. In 2015, Congress passed legislation that would authorize the construction of the pipeline. President Obama vetoed this bill. Later that year, he rejected TransCanada’s application to build. President Trump reversed this action when he took office, clearing the way for Nebraska’s consideration of the issue.

 

Business and labor groups support the pipeline, saying that it will create jobs and provide the U.S. with a reliable supply of oil. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline because it will be carrying petroleum from oil sands in Canada. They also have concerns about the pipeline’s potential impact on Nebraska’s water supply.

 

Approval of the alternate route means that TransCanada will have to devise new agreements with landowners, something that will further delay the pipeline’s completion. However, barring any court challenges, the fight over the fate of the Keystone XL Pipeline appears to be over.

 

Do you support construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline?

 

Tax Plan May Axe Individual Mandate

 

If Senate Republicans get their way, Americans may not only see their taxes cut, but they may also be free from the federal mandate to buy health insurance. Depending on your views about the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, this is either a win-win situation or a sneaky move to end health care for millions of Americans.

 

Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee have been busy writing their version of a tax bill for consideration by the full Senate. Among traditional tax reforms such as cutting rates, they also included a provision to end the Obamacare mandate that punishes taxpayers who do not have health insurance.

 

This “individual mandate” is designed as a tax administered by the Internal Revenue Service. In a 2012 case, the Supreme Court upheld this provision of the law on the grounds that it was not a true mandate to purchase a product, but a tax on those who did not purchase it.

 

Ending the individual mandate will not only kill a vital part of Obamacare, a key Republican legislative priority, it will also ease the path for deeper tax cuts. Due to budget rules, this tax legislation can only add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years. An individual mandate repeal would produce an estimated $338 billion in new federal revenue over the next decade. That new revenue could be offset with more tax cuts.

 

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this new revenue will be available because fewer people will purchase health insurance, thus saving the federal government money that it would otherwise spend on subsidies. This has Democrats upset. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) tweeted, “Senate GOP just added provision to their tax plan that would gut ACA & kick 13M ppl off insurance. Yes, it's same tax plan that would add $1 trillion+ to deficit while giving majority of benefits to corporations & the rich.”

 

Tax reform must pass both chambers of Congress and be signed into law by the president. The tax reform bill proposed by Republicans in the House of Representatives does not include a repeal of the individual mandate. President Trump has expressed support for including the repeal as part of the tax package.

 

Do you think that the tax reform bill should also repeal the individual health insurance mandate? Or are Republicans hurting Americans’ health care with the mandate’s repeal?

 

Tax Cuts May Be Coming

 

On Thursday, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled a blueprint for tax reform. While details will change as the bill makes its way through Congress, Rep. Kevin Brady’s outline appears to have broad support among Republicans. The “Tax Cut and Jobs Act” is likely to be very close to what actually emerges if Congress passes a tax bill this year.

 

Here are a few of this bill’s changes to the current code: (more complete details are available from the Tax Foundation here):

  • Reduce tax brackets from seven to four
  • Increase the standard deduction from $6,350 to $12,000 for single filers, $9,350 to $18,000 for heads of households, and $12,700 to $24,000 for joint filers
  • Repeal itemized deductions except for mortgage interest, charitable, and property tax deductions (property tax deduction would be capped at $10,000)
  • Cap the mortgage interest deduction for new home purchases at $500,000 of principle
  • End the alternative minimum tax
  • Replace the exemption for dependents with a higher child tax credit, and increase the amount of income taxpayers could earn before this credit is phased out
  • Lower the corporate income tax rate from 35% to 20%
  • Repeal the estate tax after 6 years, and in the meantime increase the amount of the estate exempt from tax to $10 million (indexed for inflation)

 

Due to the passage of a budget resolution in October that allows for tax reform to be considered under an expedited process not subject to Senate filibuster, this tax legislation will only need a majority of votes in the House and Senate. If Congressional Republicans can remain united and devote time to moving it through the legislative process, it is possible that they could present this bill to President Trump by the end of the year.

 

Do you think that the House GOP is on the right track with its proposed changes to the tax code? Or would you prefer to see other tax reforms being discussed?

 

Should Congress Have a Role in Authorizing Military Force?



When four American soldiers were killed in Niger recently, many people were surprised to know that the U.S. military was operating in that country. Even though it is not widely publicized, there are U.S. troops conducting military operations in a variety of countries around the globe. Some members of Congress think that these operations call for a blessing from the legislative branch. The Trump Administration, however, rejects calls for Congress to pass a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

 

The president is the commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces, but only Congress can declare war. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, Congress passed an AUMF that led to military operations in Afghanistan. Congress also passed an AUMF prior to the invasion of Iraq. Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump have used these authorizations of force to expand the U.S. military role far beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, however.

 

The presidential use of an AUMF to justify military action in numerous nations rankles some in Congress. Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) are pushing for a new AUMF to target al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS. This AUMF would have a five-year sunset and would require congressional oversight if fighting occurs outside Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, or Somalia. Those pushing for a new AUMF contend that the original authorization passed in 2001 only targeted those who planned or aided the 9-11 attacks. As such, they say, it cannot also authorize the use of force against ISIS or other terrorist organizations.

 

There was debate in 2015 over an AUMF to fight ISIS (or ISIL) after President Obama had already committed military forces against that group. The president submitted a resolution for new authorization, and many members of Congress (including Sens. Kaine and Flake) pushed for consideration. However, Congress never passed an authorization and the president did not stop military action against ISIS.

 

President Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, rejects calls to pass a new AUMF. Testifying before Congress, he said, “The 2001 and 2002 authorizations to use military force, or AUMF, remain a sound basis for ongoing U.S. military operations against a mutating threat.” In general, presidents have opposed efforts by Congress to interfere with or place limits on the executive branch’s power to deploy military forces.

 

Do you think that Congress should vote on a new authorization to use military force against terrorist groups? Or does the 2001 authorization of force provide justification for President Trump’s military actions? 

 

Trump Puts Pressure on Iran

 

President Donald Trump is not a fan of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated under President Obama. He has spent years criticizing it. Now he is saying that he won’t certify that Iran is complying with the agreement. What does that mean for the U.S.?

 

While President Trump can play a key role in determining the future of U.S. policy toward Iran, there are other nations involved in the agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear activities. The “Iran Deal,” as many call it, also involves China, France, Russia, the U.K., and Germany. These nations, in essence, negotiated with Iran to limit its program to acquire nuclear arms in exchange for the relaxation of sanctions. If the president and Congress both want the U.S. to act alone to ramp up these sanctions, however, that could do a lot of damage to this multi-party agreement.

 

By itself, the president’s announcement does not do anything to derail the deal. Under a 2015 U.S. law passed after the Iran deal was negotiated, the U.S. has the power to re-impose its sanctions only if Congress and the president agree. Under this law, every 90 days the president must certify that Iran is complying with its part of the bargain. If the president does not do this, Congress has 60 days within which it can re-impose sanctions on Iran.

 

President Trump’s announcement that he would not certify Iran as in compliance with the deal triggers that 60-day window in which Congress can choose to act. However, Congress does not have any obligation to re-impose sanctions. The Trump Administration has even said that it does not want to see sanctions put back in place; instead, it is calling for Congress to set forth new conditions under which these sanctions would be re-instated in the future.

 

There are a few vocal members of Congress who have long urged a harder line on Iran. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), for instance, is pushing legislation that would set in place a system for automatically re-imposing sanctions on Iran for noncompliance. It is unclear if this type of proposal has enough support in Congress to pass. There is also a chance that, once legislation is introduced, Congress could amend it to re-impose sanctions immediately.

 

The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran is dismantling its nuclear program in response to this agreement. If Congress and President Trump re-imposed sanctions on Iran, many observers think that Iran would view this act as freeing it from the conditions of the multi-party agreement.

 

Do you think the U.S. should continue to be part of the deal to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons program? Or is President Trump right that this deal is bad for the U.S.?

 

Congress Unlikely to Take up Gun Control

 

In the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, some politicians are calling on Congress to pass new laws restricting access to firearms. They say that it is time for strict gun control aimed at stopping these events. Opponents of this idea push back on the claim that new laws will be effective. Given the makeup of Congress and the limited time period left for work, gun control proponents face a lot of obstacles in D.C.

 

Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) has perhaps been the most vocal member of Congress in calling for new gun laws. In a statement made after the Las Vegas shooting, he said:

 

This must stop. It is positively infuriating that my colleagues in Congress are so afraid of the gun industry that they pretend there aren't public policy responses to this epidemic. There are, and the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference. It's time for Congress to get off its ass and do something.

 

A White House spokesperson has said it is premature to discuss gun control, and congressional Republican leadership have not given any indication that they support such a debate.

 

After other shooting events, Democrats have attempted and failed to enact new firearms restrictions at the national level. Congress has a limited time before the end of this year to work on issues such as tax reform, so it appears unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Speaker Paul Ryan will give Democrats an opportunity to advance their proposals this time, either.

 

In fact, if any firearms legislation were to move through Congress yet this year, it may actually loosen federal laws. One proposal that was on the verge of being considered before the Las Vegas shooting was a bill to repeal the $200 federal tax on silencers and make it easier to buy them. Proponents of the bill say that silencers can be useful in preventing hearing damage during hunting or sport shooting. Opponents say that silencers would make mass shootings more deadly by masking the sound of gunshots.

 

If Congress does not act, there is the possibility that state legislators could do something. In 2016, voters and legislators in a few states took action on gun laws. Some of these states (including Nevada) enacted stricter laws, but many others loosened their restrictions.

 

Should gun control be a top priority in Congress? Or do you oppose new restrictions on gun ownership?

 

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