Nel's New Day

October 30, 2015

Budget Bill, GOP Debate Dismay Republicans

This past week was filled with news, especially the GOP debate and the new Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. A miracle also happened, but the media largely ignored this amazing event: Congress passed a bill that stops threats of government shutdown from the GOP refusing to both raise the debt ceiling and eliminate the sequester for the next 18 months. The GOP cannot use these threats before the general election a year from now. President Obama will finish his second term without the budget warfare, including an almost month-long government shutdown, that he’s endured for the past five years.

The budget agreement raises the government debt ceiling until March 2017 and sets the budget of the government through the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years. A collection of spending cuts and revenue increases provides $80 billion more for military and domestic programs, avoiding the sequester for another two years. The appropriations committees are just left to write legislation to reflect the spending by December 11.

The House passed the deal by a 266-167 vote; 79 Republicans joined 187 Democrats. Former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) had hoped for this bill to pass before he left his position—and the House—but most people didn’t believe it was possible. Not everyone in the House wanted the bill: 167 Republicans voted against the bill. The so-called Hastert Rule, requiring that no bill would be put on the floor without the promise of enough Republican votes for passage, was totally ignored. The rule is named after the former Speaker who just pled guilty about lying to the government after they discovered he had been paying off a former student sexually abused by Hastert while he was a high school coach.

The budget accord raises spending caps on domestic and defense spending over the next two years and makes changes to the Social Security disability program while raising the debt limit until March 2017. There’s also a drawdown from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and savings reaped from a Justice Department fund for crime victims that involves assets seized from criminals.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the budget a “major victory” and removes “the stranglehold of sequestration … from our nation’s growth.” The other indicator that the bill is a positive move forward is that conservatives absolutely hate the agreement. Boehner almost lost the deal over the proposed cap for insurance in the federal crop insurance system but backed down in an agreement that the situation would be addressed later this year.

Social Security played a part in the bill that continued a two-percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors and other health care providers. Earlier this year, the Republicans tried to eliminate part of the Social Security disability program, but the current bill covers the shortfall in the disability trust fund with Social Security funds. At least one-third of Medicare recipients avoided a 52-percent premium hike.

The bill finally passed the Senate by 64-35 at 3:00 in the morning after long wrangling when 18 Republicans joined all Senate Democrats to support its final passage. The vote could have been earlier, but Rand Paul (KY), who came back from his presidential campaign trail for the vote, spoke against it for an hour. GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz (TX) and Marco Rubio (FL) also voted against the bill; Lindsey Graham (SC) voted in favor of it.

The bill’s great advantage is that the congressional appropriations committees can stop arguing about short-term continuing resolutions to avert government shutdowns. Cruz can no longer threaten the nation with his favorite activity—stopping all government activity. Hedge funds and private equity firms are losers because the bill calls for heightened IRS scrutiny for them. The government receives $11 billion to audit large partnerships.

The bill also requires generic drug makers to pay an additional rebate under Medicaid if drug costs outpace inflation—a given. Non-generic drugs already have to pay that rebate. The GOP should be happy that it finally killed one small part of the Affordable Care Act that no one knew about—the mandate for large employers to automatically enroll new employees in health plans. That part hadn’t been enforced yet so people won’t notice.

Equally crushing for conservatives is that over half the Republicans joined Democrats to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which conservatives called corporate cronyism. The backers used a little-used discharge petition which circumvents leadership opposition to bring the bill up for a floor vote. It is yet to be seen whether the Senate will pass a bill that got almost three-fourths of the House vote.

While the congressional Republicans were fighting about the budget, the GOP presidential candidates were honoring the liberal union position of striking to get better working conditions. They banded together to protest what they perceived as unfair media treatment at last Wednesday’s debate and erase the contract with NBC for the debate in Houston on February 16, 2016. RNC Chair Reince Priebus called the questions “petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates.” He added that the debate “was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas.”

Conservatives are calling for “conservative media professionals” (an oxymoron) to moderate GOP debates because “liberal moderators” are in charge. This may be the first time that the Fox network has been called “liberal.” Their suggestion is to have Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Mark Levin as moderators because they “influence more Republican primary voters.” Diana Banister, Executive Director of Citizens for the Republic, described past debate questions as being “of zero relevance, yet designed to bring chaos and disorder to the Republican’s chance to win the race for the White House.” Others went farther to ask that Democrats have a debate moderated by “conservative opinion leaders.”

Thus far the group of protesting presidential candidates has at least ten of the remaining 16 wannabes although they are excluding RNC Chair Priebus.  Each one is voicing complaints and ways to make the debates more successful for them individually.

Jeb Bush and Rand Paul want equal speaking time, and Bobby Jindal, still at the kids’ table, wants to change the criteria for determining who qualifies for the prime-time debate. Polling better in Iowa than nationally, he wants early state polling instead of just national surveys. Others at the early debate at the bottom of polling want a random drawing instead of poll numbers to determine the main debate. Ben Carson is upset about what he called “gotcha” questions about his affiliation with the fraudulent supplement company Mannatech. He skipped over the fact that he lied about his relationship with the firm. Chris Christie accused a moderator of being rude, “even in New Jersey”; he’s the governor who bellowed “sit down and shut up” and calls people in the audience “idiot.”

Donald Trump had already convinced the networks that two hours was better than three hours, reducing fire from other candidates. The candidates also demanded opening and closing statements, something that the network said would take too much time for ten candidates but agreed to. Before the debate, candidates complained about the quality of their green rooms. The post-mortem of the GOP-failed 2012 campaign concluded that 20 debates were too many because they allowed candidates to show the weaknesses of their opponents.

Petty? Mean-spirited? Too long? Zero relevance? “Gotcha” questions? Designed to embarrass? All these terms describe the past month’s grueling 11-hour Benghazi hearing at the House of Representatives that Democratic presidential candidate faced with grace and patience. The GOP candidates could take a lesson from watching her.

August 2, 2014

Congress Passes a Few Bills, Leaves Town

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!

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