Breaking News! Congress passed a bill! Just before Congressional legislators roared off to the airports to get out of Washington, they actually passed a VA bill after stalling for almost six month. The $16.3 billion plan to change health policies for veterans passed the Senate by 91-3 last Thursday. The bill had passed the House by 420-5 the day before. Serving almost nine million veterans at 1,700 locations, the VA runs the nation’s largest integrated health care system. Each day, 200,000 beneficiaries seek care at its hospitals and clinics.
Provisions included expansion of veterans’ access to private health care, more VA medical staff, and greater power for the Secretary to fire executives. New doctors, nurses, and other VA medical staff will take $5 billion, and leases for 27 new medical centers in 18 states and Puerto Rico will cost $1.27 billion. Over $10 billion goes to treatment from private providers for veterans who cannot get a VA appointment within 30 days of a request or who live more than 40 miles from a VA health care facility.
GOP Sens. Tom Coburn (OK), Bob Corker (TN), and Jeff Sessions (AL) voted against the bill as did five Republicans in the House: Rick Crawford (AR), Walter Jones (NC), Jack Kingston (GA), Mark Sanford (SC), and Steve Stockman (TX).
More news! Congress actually passed another bill. In its typical last-minute crisis move, Congress agreed on extending the Highway Trust Fund until next May. The Senate wanted the deadline for the stopgap measure to be December, but the GOP House worried about losing votes if it came up before election. The law will temporarily save 660,000 jobs and at least 6,000 Department of Transportation construction projects.
The GOP doesn’t want to tackle funding for highways because it would require raising taxes, specifically gas taxes. Although a GOP principle is that markets can succeed only if services are paid for by those who use the services, they betrayed that philosophy in this bill. The 18.4-cent tax per gallon hasn’t been increased for 21 years. That tax is 39 percent less than it was in 1993. The GOP opposes new taxes, but they’re unwilling to charge drivers for federal highway spending. The first way to cover road expenditures was to stop Saturday postal delivery, but people balked at this idea.
To get the $11 billion, the GOP members of the House engaged in “pension smoothing,” a scam that allows corporations to underfund their pension systems. Companies can put aside less money to pay for future benefits and thus have to pay more taxes because of their profits. In the future, the same corporations will have to pay less tax, but today’s legislators don’t look at the future. Also not considered in the bill is the fact that the taxpayers will be on the hook to pay employees’ pensions who work for companies with underfunded pensions if they go bankrupt.
In connection with this bill in the House, members passed a rule change that allows only one representative—the Majority Leader or his designee—to bring up a transportation trust fund bill for a vote. As Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) pointed out, House Republicans did the same thing last October to keep the government closed:
“You know, Mr. Speaker, the last time we saw this happen? On the government shutdown. Our Republican colleagues used the same measure to refuse to take up the Senate bill which would have ended the government shutdown. They didn’t want to end it, so they kept it going. That cost the American taxpayer $24 billion–$24 billion in damage to the economy …. The Speaker is not the king, and we should make sure every Member has an opportunity. Thank you Mr. Speaker.”
Van Hollen finished by criticizing House GOP members for complaining about the president exceeding his authority after they shut down democracy in the House.
The Senate succeeded in confirming an ambassador to Russia, but the other 40+ nominees to almost one-fourth of the countries with embassies are still waiting. Part of the failure was the lack of a quorum for the voting. The rest was childish behavior. To paraphrase of Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY)’s explanation: Democrats restored majority-rule on nomination votes because the GOP abused the filibuster in these cases; Republicans are upset so they’re blocking votes on ambassadors regardless of the damage to the U.S. foreign policy.
Congress also approved $225 million package to replenish Israel’s missile defenses. This brings the total to about $1 billion that the U.S. has given to Israel solely for the Iron Dome, which shoots down Palestinian rockets with about a 90 percent accuracy. This past week the United States supplied Israel with rockets and mortar to replace all the ones killing people in Gaza.
Although Israel did not declare an emergency when it requested the munitions about ten days ago, the country was allowed to access the U.S. stockpile. An official said, “They didn’t ask for it from there but we gave it to them so we could rotate our stocks.” Since then, Israel requested more ammunition from the U.S., but the official didn’t give any details about how much more the U.S. would supply the Israelis.
Before the House left town yesterday, they also passed a few other bills against the people of the United States, but that’s a topic for Monday’s blog. Meanwhile the streets of Washington are a bit emptier, and visitors will have an easier time getting restaurant reservations as 525 legislators have departed the city with their staff for five weeks.
Congress doesn’t plan much work for the rest of the year. Boehner has scheduled only 14 days in session for the next four months. These 14 days won’t be enough time to deal with issues important to the people of the United States: reforming immigration, repairing the country’s infrastructure, preventing corporations from not paying taxes, raising the minimum wage, providing equal pay for equal work, and ending job discrimination against LGBT people.
Another issue is the deadline for the re-authorization of the Export-Import Bank at the end of September. The Ex-Im Bank saves major companies such as Boeing and General tens of billions of dollars because of its below market loans. Former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) could have pushed through its re-authorization, but he resigned from the House after his surprisingly loss in the primary to a Tea Party member. Cantor’s replacement for Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, is far more likely to cave into the Tea Party demands to end this subsidy for big business. Democrats are considering using a re-authorization bill to avert another government shutdown by attaching a stopgap spending measure. This is something to watch in September.
While Congress is gone for five weeks, President Obama has also planned a two-week vacation, the longest of his presidency. The GOP has criticized him for his time off, but George W. Bush took off 367 days during his eight years—almost seven weeks a year. Republicans who want the president to make fewer decisions, according to the lawsuit that the House approved this past week, should be happy that he is gone. More about the lawsuit and other House bills on Monday!