Commentary & Community

Trump Signs Coronavirus Aid and Federal Spending Bill

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


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

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



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


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


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


Trump Vetoes Defense Bill

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Looking Back at Congressional Coronavirus Aid Bills

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


Congress, Trump Agree on New Coronavirus Aid Bill

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


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

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


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


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


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


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

Senator Blocks COVID Aid over Price Tag

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Congress Approves Short-Term Government Spending Bill

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


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


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


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


Deep Dive: Year-End Spending

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


A previous Deep Dive examined the budget process that talks about the overall spending blueprint for the federal government. This Deep Dive will discuss the specific part affecting spending – the appropriations process. This is key to understanding when and why the federal government shuts down.


The Status of Federal Spending


The 2020 fiscal year ended on September 30. A new fiscal year started on October 1, which means that Congress needed to approve a new round of spending to keep the federal governments (or parts of the federal government) operating. If it failed to do so, this would lead to a government shutdown. These shutdowns occur when either Congress fails to pass spending bills to keep parts of the government open or the president vetoes these spending bills.


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


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


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


The Appropriations Process


Article I, Section 9, of the U.S. Constitution states: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.”


Federal government spending is divided into two categories:

  • Mandatory: Programs authorized by Congress that operate outside the regular spending process are entitlement programs, and their spending is deemed “mandatory.” For Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, anyone who meets certain qualification is entitled to benefits. Funding for these programs does not have to be authorized yearly by Congress, although the eligibility and payment rules can be changed.
  • Discretionary: To pay for other government activities, ranging from military operations undertaken by the Defense Department to operating national parks to paying congressional staff, Congress must pass 12 appropriations, or spending, bills. These bills operate on a fiscal year basis. If they do not become law, funds cannot be drawn from the U.S. Treasury to pay for the government operations they cover.


Appropriations Bills


The 12 appropriations bills that should be passed by Congress every fiscal year (October 1 through September 30) are:

  • Agriculture
  • Commerce/Justice/Science
  • Defense
  • Energy and Water
  • Financial Services
  • Homeland Security
  • Interior and Environment
  • Labor/Health and Human Services/Education
  • Legislative Branch
  • Military/Veterans
  • State/Foreign Operations
  • Transportation/Urban Development


You can see the progress of the Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations bills through Congress here.


The number and title of these bills can be changed by Congress. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress re-organized the appropriations process, which at that time had operated with 13 appropriations bills.


Consolidated Appropriations/Continuing Appropriations/Omnibus Appropriations


While the spending process is supposed to proceed with the 12 bills being passed separately and signed into law by October 1 of each year, this almost never happens. In fact, since 1977 (when the current spending system was put in place), Congress has passed all of the appropriations bills on time in only four years. The last time it did this was 1997. The usual pattern is that Congress passes some, but not all, of the bills to be signed into law by October 1.


When this happens, Congress can take a variety of steps to avoid a government shutdown. It can pass a resolution for continuing appropriations, which fund the government for a specified period of time at the level of the previous fiscal year. During this time, it can then pass a consolidated appropriations act, which combines two or more appropriations bills. An omnibus appropriations bill generally wraps all the outstanding appropriations bills into a single act for the rest of the fiscal year.


If special spending needs arise during the fiscal year, Congress can also pass a supplemental appropriations bill, which provides funding more money than what was contained in the original spending bill.


The Previous Government Shutdown


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

Prior to the beginning of Fiscal Year 2019 (which began on October 1, 2018), Congress had only passed these appropriations bills:

  • Defense
  • Energy and Water
  • Labor/Health and Human Services/Education
  • Legislative Branch
  • Military/Veterans


Continuing resolutions funded the government agencies covered by the other appropriations bills through December 21. President Trump signaled his opposition to signing any spending bills that did not contain funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. As a consequence, the agencies not covered by the already-passed appropriations bills were shut down on that date.


The parts of the government that were covered by these spending bills could continue to operate as normal, however. Since the Legislative Branch appropriations bill was signed into law, congressional staffers could continue to be paid their salary. So could employees of the Energy Department, Defense Department, the Labor Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Education Department.


When President Trump signed House Joint Resolution 31 in January, it funded the federal government through the end of Fiscal Year 2019. There was no government shutdown for Fiscal Year 2020.


What This Means for You


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

House Votes to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Trump Issues Defense Bill Veto Threat over Social Media Protections

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


On Tuesday night, President Trump tweeted:


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

House Voting on Big Cat Bill This Week

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


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


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


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


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


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

Biden Could Pursue Gun Control upon Inauguration

When Joe Biden takes office on January 20, many progressives are pushing him to enact a variety of policies that break with the Trump Administration's actions over the past four years. One high-profile area where Biden will likely act is on gun laws. His proposals to place more federal restrictions on gun ownership will meet sharp opposition from Republicans in Congress, however.


 During his time in the U.S. Senate and as vice president, Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of gun control. During the 2020 campaign, he outlined a variety of proposals that he says would help stem gun violence. These include:

  • Ban online sales of guns and gun parts
  • Ban the sale of certain types of semi-automatic guns known as "assault weapons"
  • Ban the sale of high-capacity magazines
  • Mandate a background check for all transfers of guns, including those between private individuals
  • Repeal a federal law that prevents gun manufacturers from being sued for the misuse of their products
  • Prohibit individuals from purchasing multiple guns in a month
  • Require gun owners to lock up their guns, report them if stolen, and be held legally liable if minors have access to them


Biden contends that these ideas are necessary to reduce murder and suicide rates. He and his supporters argue that these stricter laws will deter crime while still preserving firearm access to those who want them for hunting. Opponents, however, point out that there is little evidence that gun control laws actually reduce crime rates. They note that many criminals already evade current gun laws so these new proposals would simply infringe upon the rights of legitimate gun owners.


To enact these proposals, however, Congress must act. The last time a major gun control package passed Congress was in the mid-1990s. If Republicans retain control of the U.S. Senate, none of these proposals is likely to even come to a vote in that chamber. As president, Biden can pursue some gun control measures through executive orders, but his ability to do so is limited.


Do you think the federal government should impose new restrictions on gun ownership?

House Passes Veterans Bills

Members of Congress are meeting during a lame duck session, working on a variety of bills before the session ends. They are even putting aside some of their partisan disagreements. This week, the House of Representatives passed two veterans-related bills with no dissenting votes.


While the Republicans, Democrats, and one Libertarian member of the House have strong disagreements, these disagreements were not on display during debate over veterans legislation. On November 16, the House unanimously passed two bills:


  • S 3147: To require the Veterans Affairs Administration to report on the policies and procedures it changed to improve care.
  • S 327: To allow veterans with a service-connected disability to enter national parks with no charge.


The passage of these bills was timed to occur near Veterans Day, which was on November 11.


The House will move on to debating more contentious legislation soon, however. Funding to keep the federal government open will expire on December 11. Congress and President Trump must agree on legislation to fund federal activities for the rest of the fiscal year when members return to the capitol after Thanksgiving.


What do you think Congress should do to honor veterans?

Senate Focusing on Judges During Lame Duck Session

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made confirming President Trump’s judges a high priority during the last four years. The focus on the judiciary is continuing during this week’s lame duck session.


Since the Senate reconvened on November 9, it has held 14 votes. All but one of those votes involved a judicial confirmation. Senators must go through a two-vote process in order to approve judges. One vote is for cloture, or to close off debate on a nominee. Previously, it took 60 votes to invoke cloture. In 2013, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid changed Senate rules so that a cloture vote can pass by a majority vote.


During this month, the Senate has approved these Trump-nominated judges:

  • Kathryn Kimball Mizelle to be United States District Judge for the Middle District of Florida -- 49-41
  • Stephen A. Vaden to be a Judge of the United States Court of International Trade -- 49-43
  • Toby Crouse to be United States District Judge for the District of Kansas -- 50-43
  • Benjamin Joel Beaton to be United States District Judge for the Western District of Kentucky -- 52-44
  • Kristi Haskins Johnson to be U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Mississippi -- 53-43
  • Aileen Mercedes Cannon to be U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Florida -- 56-21
  • James Ray Knepp II to be U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Ohio -- 64-24


As these vote totals show, most of these judges are confirmed along party-line votes or votes that have just a few Democrats joining the Republicans. Judicial nominations have become especially partisan over the past twenty years, and this has intensified under President Trump's term in office. Democratic senators have consistently opposed Sen. McConnell's efforts to confirm judges. 


This opposition is especially pronounced during the lame duck session. Democrats see Sen. McConnell's efforts as a way to ram through federal judges with life tenure before President Trump leaves office. They also worry that the Republican majority will approve few federal judges nominated by incoming President Joe Biden.


Do you support Senate Republicans focusing on the confirmation of President Trump’s judicial nominees?

Coronavirus-Related Unemployment Benefits Set to Expire

When Congress passed the CARES Act in March, it made self-employed workers and freelance workers eligible for unemployment benefits for the first time. That eligibility will expire on December 26 unless Congress acts during the lame duck session to extend it.


Congress included these workers in the CARES Act when it passed in March. The rationale was that in a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty, workers who had not been previously eligible for benefits should be included. Unlike traditional employees, people who are self-employed or who do freelance work do not pay into the unemployment system. Under the CARES Act, however, they could also receive payments similar to other workers.


This expanded eligibility ends in December, however. 


Congress convened a lame duck session this week to pass legislation to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year and pass a handful of other bills. While coronavirus aid bills were largely bipartisan when Congress passed them in the spring, that cross-party agreement has broken down. Differences between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as differences between Congress and the president, are currently hampering efforts to craft new legislation. 


If congressional leaders can work out their differences, Congress could pass another round of coronavirus aid in late November or early December. However, some Democrats want to wait until Joe Biden takes office, which they think will give them a stronger hand during negotiations.


Do you support extending the eligibility for unemployment benefits to people who are self-employed?

Barrett's Confirmation Leads to Calls to Expand the Supreme Court

Amy Coney Barrett has taken her seat on the Supreme Court. Now some Democrats want to make sure she has some new colleagues if Joe Biden is elected president.


Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar are pushing the idea of expanding the Supreme Court if Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump for the presidency. They argue that since Republicans have, in effect, stolen seats for the Supreme Court, so the only way to rebalance the court is for a President Biden to appoint one or two new justices. Some argue that Republicans reduced the number of Supreme Court seats when they refused to vote on President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland, so any expansion by Biden would be appropriate.



The idea of expanding the Supreme Court’s membership in response to a disagreement over its ideological makeup was prominently championed by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. Upset by court decisions invalidating part of his New Deal legislation, President Roosevelt suggested expanding the number of Supreme Court justices. There was an uproar in opposition to that idea, and Congress never acted on it.


Opponents of court packing argue that once this process starts, it will lead to an ever-larger number of justices appointed for purely political reasons. They note that if Democrats expand the court’s membership when they control the presidency and Congress, then Republicans will do so when they regain both branches of government. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell notes that no Senate rules or laws were broken to confirm any of President Trump's Supreme Court nominees. 


There are currently nine Supreme Court justices. This number is not set by the Constitution, so Congress and the president could pass legislation to alter it.


Do you think that Democrats should increase the number of Supreme Court members if Joe Biden is elected president?

Senate Confirms Barrett to Supreme Court


The Supreme Court has a new justice.

The Senate voted today to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the high court. The vote was close, 52-48, with no Democrats joining the Republicans to approve her. 

Democratic had boycotted the Judiciary Committee vote on Barrett. They claimed that Republicans were using an illegitimate process to seat her. They argue that this nomination should wait until after the presidential election. Democratic senators said the same on the Senate floor during debate over the confirmation vote. However, with the removal of the judicial filibuster, they had no way to stop it.


Conservatives see her as a reliable judge that adheres to an originalist view of the Constitution. They contend that she would interpret the Constitution in ways that are consistent with the original meaning of the document, and not embrace the idea of  "living Constitution" that can be changed to fit the whims of judges.


Liberals, however, have vowed to everything they can to stop the nomination. They argue that her decisions show she would gut the Affordable Care Act, impose new restrictions on abortion, and expand gun rights. They argue that her presence on the high court would lead to a reversal of decisions that protect the rights of women and minorities.

Barrett will step down from her seat as a federal appeals court judge to take her place on the Supreme Court. Barrett was formerly a law professor at Notre Dame. She also clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.


Barrett joins two other women on the court, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.


Do you think the Senate did the right thing in confirming Barrett to the Supreme Court?

Judiciary Committee Sends Barrett Nomination to Full Senate

On a 12-0 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved President Trump's nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court. The unanimous vote occurred as the panel's Democratic members boycotted the vote, objecting to the way the process has developed.


Instead of appearing at the vote, Judiciary Committee Democrats placed pictures of Americans who are using the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Democrats have attacked Barrett's nomination on the grounds that she would vote to overturn the ACA. Barrett has said that her mind was not made up about the legality of certain areas of that law. 


With no Democrats taking part, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee moved quickly to vote in favor of Barrett. The 12-0 vote sends her nomination to the full Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is targeting next week for a confirmation vote. While there are some indications that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) may vote against Barrett, the rest of the Senate's GOP members are likely to support her. 


Democrats have vowed to use procedural means to delay the vote. They contend that the nomination should be filled by whomever voters select as president in November. Republicans have vowed to confirm Barrett before Election Day. Options for blocking the nomination are slim since members can no longer filibuster judicial nominations.


Do you support Judiciary Committee Democrats boycotting today's vote on Amy Coney Barrett?

Obamacare Takes Center Stage at Barrett Hearings

The Senate Judiciary Committee is spending a lot of time discussing health care this week.


The issue of whether the Supreme Court could overturn the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, has become a centerpiece of Democratic opposition to the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. Democrats fear that if the Senate confirms Barrett, she will vote with four other justices to invalidate the ACA. Judge Barrett has responded that she has not made up her mind on the fate of the controversial health care law.


Democrats point to Barrett's criticism of the 2012 Supreme Court decision that upheld the individual insurance mandate as a tax. Barrett countered by noting that the current cases dealing with the ACA involve completely separate issues. She also said that she is "not hostile" to the ACA.


The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering Barrett's nomination this week. Democrats on the committee have been pressing her on various issues, from gay rights to abortion. However, the fate of the ACA is one of their biggest topics of discussion. They see this as a pertinent issue during the runup to the November election.


The committee hearing is likely to conclude this week. There is little chance that any Democrats on the committee will vote for Barrett. But with Republicans in control of the chamber, there are few obstacles to a supportive committee vote and Senate confirmation before the end of the month.


Do you think the Supreme Court should overturn the ACA?

Trump Administration Pushes for Airline Aid

Coronavirus aid talks are in flux, with House leadership and Trump officials at odds over what legislation should look like. There may be one area where both sides agree, however -- aid for the airline industry. House Democrats tried to advance an airline aid bill last week, while Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin this week has said this is something the Trump Administration supports.


During last week's House of Representatives legislative session, Rep. Peter DeFazio attempted to advance a $28 billion bill that was aimed at preventing layoffs of airline workers. House Republicans objected, however, so the bill could not be fast-tracked through the body. Earlier this week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin spoke with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and said that the president would like to see an airline bill advance.


President Trump has tweeted both that he is cutting off coronavirus aid negotiation with Democrats and that he would sign an aid bill that has a stimulus check for Americans. Many Republicans prefer passing legislation that focuses on certain areas of need, not a larger bill that encompasses many more things. With airlines struggling because of a lack of travelers, many in Congress and the Trump Administration see this as an area of agreement.


In March, Congress included $32 billion in aid to airlines. It was conditioned on these airlines not making layoffs or wage cuts through last month. Airlines and unions are pushing for this aid to be extended in the new legislation or new money to be provided to airlines. They argue that the prospects for increased travel do not look good, and that without aid there will be widespread layoffs in the airline industry.


Some in Congress are sympathetic to this view, noting that this is an issue that was beyond airlines’ control. However, there are also concerns about the overall cost of an aid package. 


Do you think that Congress should pass an airline aid bill?

Senate Schedules Amy Coney Barrett Hearings for Next Week

The fight over the future of the Supreme Court will move to the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.


Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced today that his committee will begin hearings on Monday. President Trump nominated federal appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court seat left empty by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


Chairman Graham said that the committee will be taking precautions to protect against coronavirus transmission. These include meeting in a larger room, the use of protective equipment, and social distancing. Members can also participate remotely. Democrats, however, say that this is still not safe enough. They argue that given the coronavirus outbreak that has infected President Trump and three U.S. senators, that it is irresponsible to conduct a Judiciary Committee hearing at this time.


It remains unclear if Democratic Judiciary Committee members will attend next week’s hearings. They argue that the Senate should not vote on this nomination, pointing to Senate Republicans’ refusal in 2016 to vote on then-President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has vowed that the Senate will vote on Barrett’s nomination before Election Day.

Do you think the Senate should proceed with hearings on Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court?

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