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House, Senate Hold Hearings on Syria & Turkey

President Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from norther Syria has sparked outrage across the political spectrum. Now both the House and Senate are set to hold hearings into the president’s actions and the resulting Turkish military incursions in the area.

 

Earlier this month, President Trump removed a small force of American troops that were stationed in northern Syria. He said that America should not be involved in endless foreign wars. Critics, however, said that this would result in Turkish attacks on America’s Kurdish allies in the region. President Trump sent a letter to the Turkish president warning him not to attack the Kurds, but the Turkish military began operations in that area after the U.S. military left.

 

Both Republicans and Democrats criticized the move. They said that this was a betrayal of long-time allies, the Kurds. They noted that this is what Turkey wants, and that President Trump has business interests in that nation. In addition, they said it would strengthen Russian influence in the Middle East.

 

This week there will be three hearings in both chambers of Congress that will allow members of Congress to focus their anger at this action. In the House, the Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing entitled, “The Betrayal of our Syrian Kurdish Partners: How Will American Foreign Policy and Leadership Recover?” The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by Republicans, will focus its hearing on the Turkish offensive that came after U.S. troops left. A Senate appropriations subcommittee will also hold a hearing on U.S. foreign policy towards Syria.

 

It is unclear what actions Congress could take in response to President Trump’s actions. More answers may emerge after the hearings this week.

 

Do you support removing U.S. troops from northern Syria?

Trump Vetoes Attempt to Overturn Border Wall Emergency

Congress wants to end President Trump’s emergency declaration on the U.S-Mexican border wall. But President Trump is fighting back with a veto of a resolution that would terminate his declaration.

 

In February, President Trump declared a national emergency regarding the situation at the border between the U.S. and Mexico. His declaration freed up money that Congress had appropriated for other sources in order to build a border wall, something that Congress had explicitly refused to fund.

 

Under the terms of the national emergency law (something explained in this VoteSpotter Deep Dive), Congress can vote every six months to terminate that declaration. Congress voted to do so in the spring, and it recently did so again. But this termination resolution is subject to the president’s veto. President Trump vetoed the resolution in the spring, and he vetoed the latest resolution yesterday.

 

There were not enough votes to override the first veto, and there are unlikely to be enough to override this one. That means that, as far as Congress is concerned, there is no way to stop the border wall construction from occurring. However, the president’s plans have recently suffered a setback in the courts. Local officials in Texas sued to stop construction, and a federal judge sided with them. This ruling does not affect the entire length of the border wall, however, and it is likely to be appealed by the Trump Administration.

 

Do you support congressional and legal efforts to stop President Trump’s emergency declaration to build a border wall?

House May Hold Vote on Impeachment Inquiry

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made it very clear that the House of Representatives is in the midst of an impeachment inquiry. The full House, however, has never voted to open such an inquiry, something that President Trump says makes it illegitimate. Speaker Pelosi disagrees, but some House Democrats are pushing for a vote to ensure that they are on solid legal ground.

 

During the impeachment proceedings against Presidents Nixon and Clinton, the full House of Representatives voted to begin an inquiry that led to the House Judiciary Committee considering articles of impeachment. However, as Speaker Pelosi points out, there is nothing in the Constitution or House rules that requires such a vote.

 

Some critics say that a vote is necessary nonetheless. This is a view that is prominently argued by the White House counsel’s office. No judges have ruled yet on this question, but it will likely be considered as the House issues subpoenas that the White House resists. Some judges in the early stages of such proceedings have said that a vote to open an impeachment inquiry would clarify matters.

 

With a majority of the House of Representatives on the record as favoring impeachment, such a vote should easily pass. Those who want one argue that it would deprive impeachment opponents or their objection that the proceedings are invalid. However, Speaker Pelosi and her allies say she is standing up for the integrity of the legislative branch by resisting calls from the other branches of government to hold such a vote. They note that the House determines its procedures, not the president or judges.

 

There is also a political consideration. With some Democratic House members representing districts that Donald Trump carried in 2016, a formal vote on impeachment could endanger their re-election chances.

 

The House is currently in recess for two weeks. It remains to be seen if members will persuade the Speaker to hold a vote, and what a refusal to do so will mean for the legal cases regarding impeachment-related subpoenas.

 

To read more about impeachment, check out VoteSpotter’s Deep Dive.

 

Do you think the House should hold a formal vote on opening an impeachment inquiry?

House Passes 2 Bills to Reform Treatment of Children at Border

The House of Representatives is taking aim at how the Trump Administration is treating migrant children who cross the U.S.-Mexican border.


This week members of the House passed two bills that would change key part of the Trump Administration’s strategy to deal with migrant children. Here is how VoteSpotter described them:

 

U.S. House Bill 3525 Mandate speedy medical checks of children detained at ports of entry

Passed 236 to 174 in the U.S. House

To mandate that anyone under the age of 18 who is detained at a port of entry to the U.S. must receive a medical check within 12 hours. For individuals who may have health problems, the deadline would be six hours.

 

U.S. House Bill 2203 Limit immigration child separations

Passed 230 to 194 in the U.S. House

To limit the circumstances when the Border Patrol or Department of Homeland Security may separate a child entering the country from a parent. With few exceptions this would be allowed only when a court determines it is in the child's best interest. The bill also establishes a variety of government commissions and committees to reform the way that the Department of Homeland Security operates regarding immigration as well as stopping some of the Trump Administration's new asylum rules.

 

These bills come in response to what some observers call abuses by the Border Patrol of children who are detained entering the U.S. The policy of separating children from adults when they arrive across the border has been an especially controversial policy. Under the legislation passed by the House, this could only occur under rare circumstances.

 

Those supporting these bills say that they are necessary to end inhumane treatment of children at the border. Those opposing them counter that this would needlessly hamstring the Border Patrol and would end up leading to higher levels of illegal immigration.

 

The bills now head to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to bring them up for a vote.

 

Do you think that the federal government should only be able to separate migrant children from parents under rare circumstances? Should the federal government provide medical checks to anyone under 18 within 12 hours of being detained when they enter the country?

 

Senate Again Votes to End Trump’s Border Wall Emergency

For the second time, the Senate has voted to terminate President Trump’s emergency declaration regarding the U.S.-Mexico border wall. But, once again, there were not enough votes to override a likely presidential veto, leaving the emergency declaration in place.

 

On September 25, the Senate votes 54-41 in favor of Senate Joint Resolution 54, which would terminate President Trump’s emergency declaration allowing him to re-allocate funds to build a border wall. The president issued such an emergency order on February 15 after Congress had refused to vote in favor of money for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

 

As explained in this VoteSpotter Deep Dive, the president has the power under a 1979 law to declare a national emergency. When this happens, he can shift some federal funds that were approved for other projects to meet the needs of whatever emergency the president has declared. However, Congress then has the ability to vote to terminate the emergency declaration.

 

Soon after this February declaration, both houses of Congress did indeed vote to terminate it. However, the president vetoed the termination resolution and there were not enough votes to override the veto. According to the law governing emergencies, termination votes can occur every six months. That is why the Senate once again took up this issue.

 

The Senate-approved resolution will now be considered by the House of Representatives, where it is likely to pass. The president is likely to veto it once again, and there is little chance that either house will override the veto. This will preserve the emergency declaration for at least another six months.

 

Do you think that Congress should end President Trump’s emergency declaration that allows him to move money around to pay for a border wall?

Ocasio-Cortez: Immigrants’ Legal Status Shouldn't Bar Government Assistance

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez today outlined a variety of bills she said are aimed at reducing poverty. Given her progressive political leanings, many of these bills stake out a liberal position on this issue. One in particular will likely to be quite controversial – a bill that would allow any immigrant, whether they are in the country legally or not, to obtain benefits from government programs.

 

Current law prohibits illegal immigrants from accessing most federal assistance programs. Legal immigrants can only access these benefits once they have been in the country for five years. Under Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s bill, an individual’s immigration status, whether legal or not, would no longer be considered when providing these benefits.

 

In the 1990s, Congress passed legislation that was signed by President Clinton which limited when immigrants could access federal benefits. Supporters of this change said that while the U.S. should welcome immigrants, it should not draw them here with the promise of government assistance. Instead, these reformers, argued, immigrants should come here with an expectation to work.

 

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s legislation would change this by giving all immigrants the opportunity to qualify for government programs. She argues that society benefits when there are fewer restrictions on the social safety net. She says that allowing these individuals to access government benefits will produce a more just society.

 

This proposal to reform federal welfare law comes as part of a package of bills that would make major changes in how the federal government deals with poverty. Among her proposals would be to adjust the federal poverty rate by geography, impose rent control nationwide, allow individuals with criminal convictions to obtain government benefits, and enact an international treaty declaring that “all persons have the right to work, fair and just conditions of work, social security, an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing, housing, and healthcare.”

 

Do you think that immigrants, regardless of legal status, should have access to government benefits?

House Votes to Bar Binding Arbitration

This week the House of Representatives passed a bill that would affects a contract provision signed by tens of millions of workers – binding arbitration agreements.

 

For many workers, a condition of their job is their acceptance of what businesses call “alternative dispute resolution.” Instead of suing over certain issues if an employee alleges a problem at work, these agreements require the employee and employer to go through binding arbitration. This is a less formal, less expensive means of settling a dispute. However, opponents of binding arbitration say that it deprives employees of their rights to sue over harassment, discrimination, and other issues.

 

By a vote of 225-186, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1423. Here is how VoteSpotter describes the bill:

 

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

 

As noted in this description, it goes beyond merely prohibiting binding arbitration for certain issues. It also prohibits employers from requiring employees to waive their rights to join in a class action lawsuits over employment practices. A 2018 Supreme Court case ruled that current law allows employers to request that employees sign such contracts.

 

Backers of this legislation say that it’s necessary to restore the rights of employees to sue over what they consider abuses by employers. They argue that binding arbitration usually works in favor of employers. Opponents counter that lawsuits are expensive and, at times, frivolous. They say that banning the use of binding arbitration will lead to more lawsuits, with the result being higher costs passed to consumers and fewer people hired.

 

While some Republicans in the Senate have signaled support for curbing binding arbitration, the House legislation passed with only two Republicans voting in favor of it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may not schedule this bill for consideration in that body.

 

Do you think that employers should be able to ask employees to sign binding arbitration contracts?

House Holds Hearing on DC Statehood

Today the issue of statehood for Washington, D.C., will be discussed in Congress for the first time in 25 years.

 

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform is holding a hearing on H.R. 51, a bill that would admit the District of Columbia to the union as the 51st state. Most of the current territory of the district would be in the new state, with the exception of some federal buildings such as the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court.

 

Residents of Washington, D.C., can vote for president and they pay federal taxes. They do not have a voting representative in Congress, however, and the city is still governed by Congress (although Congress has delegated much of that power to the city government).

 

Eleanor Holmes-Norton is the district’s delegate to the House of Representatives. She can vote in committee and, at times, when the House meets as a “committee of the whole.” She introduced H.R. 51, which has 219 cosponsors.

 

City officials have long pushed for statehood, but they have failed to convince members of Congress to support it. They argue that they deserve representation in Congress the same as other taxpayers in states across the country. Opponents note that the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in a way that provided federal control over the district in order to prevent a state government from threatening the federal government.

 

It is unclear if House leadership will bring H.R. 51 to the floor for a vote. However, if the bill did pass the House of Representatives, there is little chance that it would be considered by the Senate.

 

Do you think that Washington, D.C., should be a state?

Warren Unveils “Anti-Corruption” Plan

Today Sen. Elizabeth Warren outlined a proposal that she says is necessary to fight corruption in the federal government.

 

Her plan calls for a variety of reforms to federal laws, including:

  • Mandating that the president and vice president place their assets in a blind trust to be sold.
  • Disclosing automatically the tax returns of candidates for federal office, including the president and vice president.
  • Requiring senior government officials to divest from assets that could pose a conflict-of-interest.
  • Banning members of Congress from trading in individual stocks while in office.
  • Prohibiting members of congress and senior congressional staff from serving on corporate boards.
  • Banning lobbyists from serving in government within two years of ending their lobbying career.
  • Prohibiting members of Congress and some federal officials from ever taking a job as a lobbyist after their time in the government is over.
  • Mandating the disclosure of financial information for federal judges and imposing a code of conduct on these judges.
  • Extending lobbying restrictions to anyone who is “paid to influence lawmakers.”
  • Banning lobbyists from representing foreign entities.
  • Prohibiting lobbyists from donating to political candidates or fundraise for them.
  • Banning forced arbitration clauses and mandatory class action waivers.

 

According to Sen. Warren, President Trump’s Administration has shown the weakness of federal anti-corruption laws. Many of her proposals are aimed explicitly at practices that she says are weakening our government under President Trump. Other proposals are older ideas that liberals have long pushed for, such as the ending of forced arbitration clauses.

 

Critics of her plan note that many of her ideas, such as prohibiting lobbyists from contributing to candidates, would likely run afoul of the Constitution. They also point to these plans as being a vast expansion of federal power over political speech and activity.


Sen. Warren has sponsored similar legislation during her time in the Senate. This plan is an updated version that is part of her platform as she runs for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

 

Do you think that the federal government should prohibit lobbyist from contributing to candidates? Should the IRS automatically release the tax returns of anyone running for federal office, from presidential candidates to members of Congress?

 

 

House Committee Advances 3 Gun Control Bills

New gun control bills are headed to the House of Representatives this month. On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee approved three bills that advance key Democratic priorities on firearms.

 

The three bills passed by the Judiciary Committee tackle different aspects of federal and state gun laws:

 

H.R. 1186 – To ban the import, sale, manufacture, transfer, or possession of an ammunition device that holds more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Such devices that are already in the possession of an individual could be retained but could not be transferred to anyone else.

 

H.R. 1236 – To create a federal grant program for states to use to support activities concerning extreme protection orders. These orders, sometimes called "red flag" orders, allow law enforcement to seize someone's firearms if a court determines that a person poses a danger to himself or others. Such orders can be issued without conducting a hearing with the person in question under some circumstances.

 

H.R. 2708 – To prohibit anyone who has been convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime from possessing a firearm.

 

Each of the bills passed along a party-line vote. Republicans on the committee offered amendments that they said would approve the bills. Democrats rejected them, then passed the bills over Republican objections.

 

Gun control has become a hot topic in Congress and on the 2020 campaign trail. Democrats are pushing for stronger federal laws that they say will prevent gun crime, especially mass shootings. They argue that the federal government needs to strengthen its gun laws, which have gone decades without revision. Republicans, however, argue that these laws are ineffective to address the real causes of crime and mass shootings. They also say that the laws may infringe upon a individual's constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

 

With the Judiciary Committee's approval, all three of these bills are headed to the House floor for a vote. Speaker Pelosi will likely schedule them for consideration at some point in September. Given the Democratic majority in that chamber, they are almost certain to pass. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to schedule any of the bills for a vote in that chamber unless President Trump signals his support.

 

Do you think that the federal government should ban people from buying or owning gun magazines that hold more than 10 bullets?

Deep Dive: Judiciary Committee Impeachment Investigation

This week the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a resolution to begin an impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump. This is something that many Democrats have been pressing the committee to do. However, other Democrats, notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are cautious about impeachment, viewing it as politically risky. 

 

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

 

Impeachment and the Constitution

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

How Impeachment and Removal Works

 

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

 

The Senate then begins its role. With the Chief Justice of the U.S. presiding, the Senate conducts a trial. The House of Representatives appoints members to manage the case before the Senate, laying out the charges contained in the articles of impeachment. The Senate then votes, with a two-thirds vote being necessary to remove that person from office.

 

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

 

The History of Impeachment

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Clinton Impeachment

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What This Means for You

 

The House Judiciary Committee vote means that this committee will begin investigating whether the president has committed the actions described in the Constitution that warrant impeachment. According to the resolution, "The Chairman may designate a full committee or subcommittee hearing as being for the purpose of the presentation of information in connection with the Committee's investigation to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to President Donald J. Trump."

 

Many Democrats accuse the president of obstructing justice and other crimes. They say that it is the House’s duty to impeach under these circumstances. The House Judiciary Committee's actions could add more clarity to these charges. However, Speaker Pelosi has cautioned members that such a move is politically risky, pointing out that Republicans lost popularity when they impeached President Clinton in the 1990s.

 

With Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, there is a possibility that the Judiciary Committee and then the full House could pass impeachment articles. However, it is unlikely that the Senate would follow suit, given Republican control of the chamber. If the Senate would convict the president and remove him from office under this situation, then the vice president would assume office.

Deep Dive: Finishing the Yearly Federal Spending Bills

With Congress returning from its August recess, there are now three weeks left until the next fiscal year begins on October 1. Congress has yet to pass any of the spending, or appropriations, bills that fund the federal government from year-to-year. This month will see this legislation take top priority in order to avoid a government shutdown.

  

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. 

 

 

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 2020 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.

 

Fiscal Year 2020

 

To avoid a government shutdown in October, Congress must pass these 12 spending bills and the president must sign them. So far this year, the House of Representatives has passed 10 bills (with only Homeland Security and Legislative Branch still remaining to be approved). The Senate has passed none. 

 

The Senate leadership said that they would not consider spending bills until a budget deal had been approved by the president and Congress. That happened over the summer, so the Senate Appropriations Committee is now set to begin work on this legislation. The Senate version of the bills will likely be different from what the House of Representatives passed, so these bills will have to go through a conference committee to eliminate any differences. Then both Houses will have to pass identical versions of spending legislation.

 

It will be difficult to get this done with only three weeks remaining in the fiscal year. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that the likely outcome will be a short-term spending bill until November 22. That would give Congress enough time to complete the appropriations process and pass spending bills that the House, Senate, and president can agree upon. However, the Senate may include more funding for a border wall in its version of the spending bills, something that Democrats have resisted. If that happens, it could lead to another impasse over federal spending legislation and a possible government shutdown similar to what we saw earlier this year.

 

The 2018-2019 Government Shutdown

 

The last government shutdown occurred from December 2018 to January 2019. The beginnings of this shutdown began a year ago, with the failure of Congress to pass the necessary spending bills. 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 28 on January 25, this reopened the portions of the federal government that were shut down until February 15. The signing of House Joint Resolution 31 by President Trump funds the federal government through the end of Fiscal Year 2019.

 

What This Means for You

 

The two-year budget deal that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and President Donald Trump agreed to over the summer was designed to eliminate the possibility of a government shutdown this year or next year. However, there is still disagreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress over border funding. If the Senate and House cannot agree on spending bills that are acceptable to both bodies, as well as the president, there could be a repeat of the 2018-2019 partial government shutdown. The budget agreement makes this less likely, but it could still happen.

House Committee Considers Gun Magazine Ban, Red Flag Laws

Today the House Judiciary Committee is meeting to consider three gun control bills:

 

H.R. 1186 – To ban the import, sale, manufacture, transfer, or possession of an ammunition device that holds more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Such devices that are already in the possession of an individual could be retained but could not be transferred to anyone else.

 

H.R. 1236 – To create a federal grant program for states to use to support activities concerning extreme protection orders. These orders, sometimes called "red flag" orders, allow law enforcement to seize someone's firearms if a court determines that a person poses a danger to himself or others. Such orders can be issued without conducting a hearing with the person in question under some circumstances.

 

H.R. 2708 – To prohibit anyone who has been convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime from possessing a firearm.

 

These bills are being advanced in the wake of two mass shootings in Texas. Congressional Democrats have been calling for stricter gun control since they took control of Congress earlier this year. The House of Representatives has passed legislation that extends the application of federal instant background check laws to private gun sales, but the Senate has failed to act on this legislation.

 

One of the most controversial proposals is H.R. 1236, which provides federal incentives for states to enact so-called “red flag” laws. These laws create a new class of protective order that allows law enforcement to seize someone’s guns without a court hearing in cases where there is an allegation that the person is a threat to himself or others. Supporters say this is a vital tool to prevent dangerous people from committing harm with firearms. Critics say it is a way for government to seize guns without due process.

 

If passed by the Judiciary Committee, these bills will likely come for a vote in the House of Representatives soon. However, there is little chance for action on them in the Senate.

 

Do you support laws that allow police to confiscate someone’s firearms if they believe the person poses a threat? Should these confiscations occur without a court hearing allowing the person to contest the confiscation?

 

Trump Considering Backing Background Checks for Private Gun Sales

In the wake of three recent mass shootings, there are increased calls for new gun control measures. President Trump has signaled his support for universal background checks, something that has put him at odds with some in the Republican Party.

 

Currently, federal law requires that any gun sales from federally-licensed firearms dealers must first go through a background check. Sales between private individuals do not have to complete a background check under federal law, although some states require this. President Trump is considering supporting legislation that would expand this mandate nationally.

 

Supporters of such a requirement say that it is necessary to close a "loophole" that allows people who are prohibited from owning firearms from buying them. They say that this will help stop dangerous people from owning guns. Opponents point out that the vast majority of gun sales already go through background checks, and this would only burden individuals who are looking to sell a gun from their private collection or pass along guns to family members.

 

While President Trump has signaled he supports legislation to require universal background checks, many in the Republican Party do not. The National Rifle Association has also come out against such a mandate. Senators Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) have introduced a bill that would put this requirement into law, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to schedule it for a Senate vote. It remains to be seen if President Trump will try to persuade Republicans to back this bill and expand the federal background check requirement.

 

Do you think that all gun sales, including private sales between individuals, should go through the federal background check system?

 

Deep Dive: The Debt Limit

President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have reached a deal on a two-year budget proposal that increases spending and suspends the federal debt limit for two years. Within the past decade, there have been bitter political fights over raising the debt limit. Now, however, there is bipartisan agreement to suspend it altogether.

 

What Is the Debt Limit?

 

Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution gives Congress the power “To borrow Money on the credit of the United States.” Using this authority, Congress sets a limit on how much the federal government can borrow. This is called the “debt limit.”

 

Federal spending includes both discretionary spending through the appropriations process and spending that has been authorized by law to happen automatically through federal entitlement programs. If this federal spending exceeds federal revenue, then there is a deficit and the government must borrow money to finance this spending. The debt limit sets a cap on how much borrowing can occur. That number is whatever the members of the House of Representatives and the President agree it will be.

 

The debt limit covers several different types of government debt issuance:

  • Debt to finance budget deficits
  • Debt to pay for intergovernmental borrowing
  • Debt incurred by federal lending, such as student loans

 

When federal borrowing is approaching the debt limit, Congress has four options:

  • Vote to raise the debt limit
  • Keep the current debt limit in place and not allow future borrowing
  • Keep the current debt limit in place but take steps to postpone the limit from being breached
  • Vote to suspend or eliminate the debt limit

 

Under “extraordinary circumstances,” the Treasury Secretary can suspend the debt limit. This occurred in March when Secretary Steven Mnuchin suspended the debt limit to allow time for the president and Congress to negotiate a new one.

 

Controversy Surrounding Raising the Debt Limit

 

Congressional action to increase the debt limit was relatively uncontroversial until 2011. In that year, congressional Republicans refused to increase the debt limit without budget concessions from President Obama. Two days before the debt limit would expire, the president and Congress agreed to a package of items designed to control future spending in return for a debt limit increase.

 

In 2013, there was another fight between Congress and the president over the debt limit. Republicans wanted to defund the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, in return for an increase in the debt limit. This issue became tied up with the yearly government funding legislation, and a resolution occurred that raised the debt limit and ended a government shutdown.

 

Both of these disputes over the debt limit increase caused significant alarm in some quarters. Observers pointed out that that annual spending bills and entitlement programs had authorized spending that, in the absence of enough revenue, must be paid for by borrowing. Failing to raise the debt limit would impair the federal government’s ability to borrow money to engage in the activities that members of Congress and the president had already agreed to do. This could lead to the U.S. being in default, or in lenders penalizing the federal government with less favorable terms for borrowing.

 

The Future of the Debt Limit

 

Under the current deal reached by the president and congressional leaders, there would be a two-year suspension of the debt limit. This follows a one-year suspension of the debt limit that expired earlier this year. A suspension does not raise the debt limit by a set amount; instead, it allows the limit to lapse for a defined period of time, after which the debt limit is re-imposed at a level that takes into account the borrowing that occurred in the interim.

 

While there was controversy over raising the debt limit earlier in the decade, this may signal that there is little political will to have such a fight in the future. For two years, at least, there will be no disputes between Congress and the president over the debt limit, which pushes the issue past the 2020 election.

 

What Does This Mean for You?

 

According to some observers, past fights over the debt limit have led to volatile financial markets and reduced economic growth. If these analysts are correct, this means that removing further uncertainty about the debt limit will remove a barrier to economic growth. However, not all experts agree that the economy suffers due to disagreements about the debt limit.

 

However, members of Congress used agreeing to the 2011 debt limit increase as a way to enact a measure of budget discipline. Since the debt limit increase is seen as one of the few “must pass” pieces of legislation, using it as leverage is a way to force votes on other issues. For individuals concerned about budget deficits and federal spending, a two-year deal on the debt limit means one less method to enforce a measure of fiscal discipline.

Recent Shootings Prompt Calls for Gun Control

After three recent mass shootings, Democrats are renewing their calls for more federal gun control laws. However, congressional Republicans and President Trump are pushing back, saying instead that the focus should be on mental illness.

 

Dozens were killed and wounded by shooters in California, Texas, and Ohio in recent days. This has led some to say that such shootings could be prevented with stronger laws restricting the sales of guns and what types of guns can be possessed. Among the measures being proposed is a ban on so-called “assault rifles” and expanded background checks. Some state lawmakers are also supporting “red flag” laws that allow law enforcement to seize guns from individuals suspected of posing an immediate threat.

 

The House of Representatives has passed legislation that would mandate that private sales and transfers of guns go through background checks. Currently anyone who has a federal firearms license must conduct a background check, but private sales between individuals do not require such checks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not scheduled this bill for a vote in the Senate, and is unlikely to do so.

 

Supporters of these gun control measures say that they are necessary to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who commit mass shootings. Opponents argue that these measures will only hurt law-abiding gun owners. They point out that the vast majority of gun owners do not commit crimes, so the focus should be on the small number of individuals who misuse them. President Trump tweeted his support for looking at mental health issues after these shootings.

 

Do you think that there should be stronger gun control laws? Or is the problem related to mental health, not guns?

House Passes Bill to Prop Up Insolvent Pension Funds

Many union-managed pension funds are in big financial trouble. Under a bill approved by the House of Representatives, these funds may be headed for a federal bailout.

 

By a vote of 264-169, the House passed H.R. 397 on July 24. Here is how VoteSpotter describes the bill:

 

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

 

This bill affects pension funds that are sponsored by multiple employers but managed by unions. Numerous plans do not have enough funding to pay full benefits in the years to come. Supporters say that the bill is necessary to ensure that people who were promised pension benefits actually receive them. They argue that without this bill, people would be left without the retirement funds they were promised.

 

Opponents counter that this bill is special interest legislation that benefits the unions who have mismanaged these pension funds. They say that taxpayers will be bearing the burden of propping up the funds and paying for the mistakes of union officials.

 

The bill now moves to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to schedule it for floor action.

 

Do you think that the federal government should provide forgivable loans to union-sponsored pension plans to keep them from going insolvent?

Senator Targets “Addictive” Social Media

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) thinks that social media companies addict users, and he wants the federal government to do something about it.

 

Under a bill introduced by Sen. Hawley, social media companies would be banned from offering more content than a user requested in ways that try to keep the user engaged with the platform. This would end things such as YouTube’s autoplay feature and Facebook’s infinite scroll.

 

According to Sen. Hawley, these are features designed to addict people and psychologically trick them to use social media more than they want. He says it is proper for government to step in to protect people from these predatory practices. Opponents of this legislation say that companies should be free to innovate, and that the federal government would stifle such innovation with laws like Hawley’s.

 

This legislation comes in the midst of attacks on technology companies from both liberals and conservatives. Criticisms range from charges of censorship of conservative ideas to exploitation of users. Sen. Hawley has introduced other legislation targeting technology companies in response to these charges.

 

The enforcement of this legislation would be left to the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general. They could sue technology companies that continue to use what Hawley terms as “addictive” features.

 

Do social media companies design their products to “addict” users? Do you think that the federal government should ban features that regulators deem to be “addictive”?

Senator Targets “Addictive” Social Media

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) thinks that social media companies addict users, and he wants the federal government to do something about it.

 

Under a bill introduced by Sen. Hawley, social media companies would be banned from offering more content than a user requested in ways that try to keep the user engaged with the platform. This would end things such as YouTube’s autoplay feature and Facebook’s infinite scroll.

 

According to Sen. Hawley, these are features designed to addict people and psychologically trick them to use social media more than they want. He says it is proper for government to step in to protect people from these predatory practices. Opponents of this legislation say that companies should be free to innovate, and that the federal government would stifle such innovation with laws like Hawley’s.

 

This legislation comes in the midst of attacks on technology companies from both liberals and conservatives. Criticisms range from charges of censorship of conservative ideas to exploitation of users. Sen. Hawley has introduced other legislation targeting technology companies in response to these charges.

 

The enforcement of this legislation would be left to the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general. They could sue technology companies that continue to use what Hawley terms as “addictive” features.

 

Do social media companies design their products to “addict” users? Do you think that the federal government should ban features that regulators deem to be “addictive”?

Senate Continuing to Focus on Confirming Trump Nominees

Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made no secret that he wants to see the Senate confirm as many of President Trump’s nominees as possible. This has become a top priority for the upper chamber, with far more votes occurring on nominations than on legislation.

 

Many of the nominees being confirmed are federal judges. When Democrats controlled the Senate, they had eliminated the filibuster for some judges; under Sen. McConnell’s leadership, the Senate ended the filibuster entirely for judges and other nominees. The majority leader also reduced the time necessary to consider nominees.

 

The result has been numerous nominee votes during 2019. In recent weeks, these have included some confirmation votes that were broadly bipartisan. The Senate confirmed General Mark Milley as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by a vote of 89-1 and Mark Esper as Secretary of Defense by a vote of 90-8.

 

Some confirmation votes split the Democratic caucus, with a sizable number of Democrats supporting President Trump’s nominee. These include Donald Tapia’s nomination to be ambassador to Jamaica (confirmed 66-26), Thomas Barber’s nomination to be a federal judge for the Middle District of Florida (confirmed 77-19), and Rodney Smith’s nomination to be a federal judge for the Southern District of Florida (confirmed 78-18).

 

Most confirmation votes fall largely on partisan lines, however. The Senate confirmed Brian Buescher as federal judge for the District of Nebraska by a vote of 51-40, Wendy Williams Berger as federal judge for the Southern District of Florida by a vote of 54-37, Stephen Dickson to be Federal Aviation Administration Administrator by a vote of 52-40, and Daniel Bess to be a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by a vote of 53-45.

 

These votes fall in line with the pattern of other confirmations during the Trump Administration. A few nominations receive widespread bipartisan support, but most only attract a handful of Democratic votes. Supporters of the president say that this is an example of Democratic obstructionism, in which they will do anything to stymie the president. Critics of the president counter that he is nominating radical or unqualified people for these posts, and senators are only doing their duty in opposing them.

 

Do you think that President Trump’s nominees should receive wider bipartisan support? Or are Democratic senators right in opposing many of them?

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