Tea Party Patriots Weekly Report from Washington for 5/22/16
The House comes back into session on Monday, May 23, and will be in session through Thursday, with last votes expected no later than 3 PM. Then the House will take the following week off for the Memorial Day District Work Period, and return on Tuesday, June 7.
The Senate will return to session on Monday, May 23, with the first vote at 5:30 on the Adam Walsh Reauthorization Act of 2016, and will be in session through Friday, at which point the Senate will join the House for a one-week District Work Period, and return on Monday, June 6.
LAST WEEK ON THE HOUSE FLOOR:
The House came back to work on Monday, and took up 10 bills on the Suspension Calendar. But the real action Monday was taking place in the Rules Committee, where Chairman Pete Sessions was writing a self-executing Rule that would, upon passage, remove from the committee-passed version of the NDAA the provision requiring women to register for the military draft. By using the power of the Rules Committee, House GOP Leadership was able to remove the problematic provision without requiring their Members to take a separate vote on the floor.
Also on Monday, as part of the plan for a Zika virus response, the House took up on the Suspension Calendar H.R. 897, a bill offered by GOP Rep. Bob Gibbs that would allow local communities to spray pesticide effectively to quickly reduce the mosquito population, by reducing bureaucratic red tape that requires EPA permission to use pesticides they’ve already approved for use. The bill was put on the Suspension Calendar so it could move quickly; but you’ll recall the condition for passage under Suspension of the Rules is that two-thirds of the House must vote for the bill, and while the bill garnered a majority, it was not a two-thirds majority, so the bill failed. House leadership will bring it back under a Rule this week.
On Tuesday, the House took up H.R. 4909, the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017. More than 300 amendments were lined up for consideration.
On Wednesday, the House finished up with H.R. 4909, the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017. The bill passed by a vote of 277-147, with 9 Members not voting.
Later Wednesday, the House took up H.R. 5243, the Zika Response Appropriations Act of 2016. The bill appropriates $622 million to fund a federal response to the Zika virus for the rest of this fiscal year. The funds are offset – that is, they don’t require the U.S. Government to borrow more money to pay for the bill. Instead, the legislation directs that the funds be made available from rescissions of previously appropriated funds that remain unobligated — $352 million from a 2015 appropriations bill for Ebola funding, and $270 million from what’s called the “Nonrecurring Expense Fund of the Department of Health and Human Services.”
And then, later on Wednesday, the House kicked off its Fiscal Year 2017 appropriations process. First up was the ever-popular H.R. 4974, the Military Construction/Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. Now fewer than 44 amendments were considered. The bill increases VA funding by three percent over last year, prohibits closure of the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, and prohibits bonuses for senior civil service bureaucrats – they’re called “Senior Executive Service,” or “SES” – at the VA.
During consideration of the appropriations bill, all hell broke loose, when Democrat Rep. Jared Huffman offered an amendment that would ban the display of Confederate flags on battleground memorials, except on Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day. You’ll recall it was about this time last year when Democrats did the same thing. The solution last year was to bring the appropriations process to a screeching halt, take the bill off the floor rather than make anyone vote on that amendment, and then never bring up the bill again.
This year’s solution was different. The House GOP Leadership decided to allow the amendment on the floor for a vote, and then the entire House GOP Leadership team became part of a group of 84 Republicans who voted for the amendment with all but one Democrat. Speaker Ryan himself did not vote on the amendment – Speakers vote only rarely – but he has in the past said he thinks the Confederate flag should come down. The amendment passed, by a vote of 265-159, with eight Members not voting.
That was just the start of the bedlam, though. Next up was an amendment offered by Democrat Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who offered a provision that would have affirmed a directive from President Obama that mandated that contractors who receive federal funding cannot refuse to hire or work with LGBT people, even if they have religious objections. At first, it appeared the amendment had enough votes to pass, with 217 votes on the big board, but the Leadership held the vote open for roughly 10 minutes, and Leadership went to work twisting arms, and one by one those votes changed, until the final tally on the amendment was 212 votes for, and 213 votes against. Democrats yelled “Shame!” at Republicans, and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer lit into the GOP in remarks on the floor. About an hour after the vote, Hoyer’s office tweeted out a list of seven Republicans they think changed their votes under pressure from the GOP Leadership – they included Reps. Darrell Issa, David Valadao, Jeff Denham, Mimi Walters, Greg Walden, David Young and Bruce Poliquin. Their offices refused to confirm switched votes.
And then the bill passed by a vote of 295-129, with 9 Members not voting, and the House went home for the week.
THIS WEEK ON THE HOUSE FLOOR:
The House will return on Monday, and take up 30 bills on the Suspension Calendar. In anticipation of Memorial Day, we’re renaming lots and lots of U.S. Postal facilities and other federal offices after veterans. The House will also take up H.R. 5077, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 under Suspension.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will be devoted to H.R. 897, the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2015 – that’s the bill that would have cut red tape at the EPA when it comes to local communities getting permission to use certain pesticides to eradicate mosquitos – and H.R. 5233, clarifying congressional intent in providing for DC Home Rule Act (in other words, this bill affirms full congressional control over the District of Columbia budget), and H.R. 5055, the House version of the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, and a House Amendment to S. 2012, the Energy Policy Modernization Act, followed by a Motion To Go to Conference on S. 2012.
LAST WEEK ON THE SENATE FLOOR:
The Senate returned to work last Monday, and took up and confirmed the nomination of a federal district judge.
On Tuesday, the Senate resumed consideration of H.R. 2577, the FY2017 appropriations bill that combined two appropriations bills, both of which have already been reported out of committee – S. 2844, the Transportation/Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill, and S. 4974, the Military Construction/Veterans Affairs appropriations bill.
As I said last week, the Senate moved early in the week to take up three amendments on funding a response to the Zika virus – first, the amendment offered by Bill Nelson of FL, to spend the full $1.9 billion requested by the President, with no budget offsets; then the $1.1 billion amendment offered by John Cornyn of TX, which would be fully offset; and then, finally, the compromise amendment, which appropriates $1.1 billion, with no budget offset.
And, as predicted, the first two failed to achieve cloture – the Nelson amendment went down by a vote of 50-47, and the Cornyn amendment went down by a vote of 52-45. Cloture was invoked on the compromise amendment, by a vote of 68-29.
Also on Tuesday, the Senate – over the strenuous objection of the White House – unanimously passed legislation that would allow victims and the families of victims of the 9/11 terror attacks to bring lawsuits against nation-states for activities supporting terrorism. In this case, that means the government of Saudi Arabia could find itself in court. The bill now moves to the House, where Speaker Ryan has voiced skepticism.
Interestingly, after I just happened to mention it last week, Sen. Pat Roberts of KS lifted his hold on Eric Fanning to be the new Secretary of the Army, and his confirmation was voice-voted on Tuesday.
There were no roll call votes on Wednesday, and then the Senate on Thursday took up and passed the Blunt Zika amendment, and passed it by a vote of 68-30. Later Thursday the Senate passed H.R. 2577 as amended, and the combined Transportation-Housing and Urban Development and Military Construction-Veterans Affairs appropriations bill was in the books, and the Senate went home.
THIS WEEK ON THE SENATE FLOOR:
The Senate had planned to spend most of the week considering S. 2943, the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act, but as of Friday afternoon, the Majority Leader’s office was considering holding off on the NDAA and instead doing what the House is doing in anticipation of Memorial Day a week from Monday – that is, passing a bunch of veterans-related legislation.
So we’re still not sure what will be on the Senate floor this week, other than the first bill they’ll consider, when they come back – S. 2613, the Adam Walsh Reauthorization Act of 2016. That’s bipartisan legislation aimed at preventing future abuses by registered sex offenders.
House Select Committee on Benghazi Chairman Trey Gowdy said during an interview with MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily” on Friday that his committee will release its report on the 2012 attack within the next month and ahead of the GOP and Democratic nominating conventions.
Former Budget Committee Chairman and current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is really, really determined to pass a budget resolution through the House of Representatives. Even though we’re now past the May 15 statutory deadline that allows the House to consider appropriations bills without a budget resolution having passed, and even though the House has already taken up and passed its first appropriations bill of the 2016 appropriations season, he still wants to get a budget resolution on the books.
The latest possibility is a maneuver that works on House conservatives’ desire to return to regular order. “Regular order,” remember, means introducing an appropriations bill in the appropriate subcommittee, where subcommittee members can offer amendments to insert or remove line item spending provisions, then moving the bill to the full committee, where the process is repeated, then sending it to the floor, where even more amendments to insert or remove individual spending provisions can be offered for consideration. So “regular order” gives Members the opportunity to make spending adjustments on individual line items.
When the Congress fails to pass an appropriations bill through regular order, and instead opts to fund the government via Continuing Resolution, all that work they’ve done is for naught. Continuing Resolutions fund the government at the previous year’s spending levels, whether for good or ill.
So the new maneuver is an attempt to play off this dynamic. The latest proposal under consideration would call for setting the top line number at $1.04 trillion – the figure supported by our friends in the House Freedom Caucus – but would include a trigger provision that would allow the budget to be increased to $1.07 trillion if and when the House passes at least 10 of the 12 appropriations bills used to fund the government every year.
In other words, the conservatives would be asked to trade a little less than a three percent spending increase in exchange for having the ability to insert or remove individual line items, to shape federal spending more to their liking.
Mark Meadows seems to like this idea. In one press interview, Meadows said, “That’s gaining a lot of support among conservative members, feeling like if we get back to the normal appropriations process it gives control back to members of Congress and that the increase in spending would be a minor exchange for getting back to regular order.”
And Rep. Mick Mulvaney of SC goes further, arguing that some Members might be willing to vote for the higher top-line numbers if they include the right policy riders. “We’re asking that some of the good rider bills go first,” he said last week. “Energy and Water is a really good bill because that’s where the EPA riders are. Financial Services is a really good bill – that’s where the IRS riders are.”
What happens when a bunch of corporate interests see a $600 billion government authorization bill coming down the pike? Especially when it’s a bill that has been enacted every single year for the last 54 years, which means that getting a favored provision into the bill is a virtual guarantee of taxpayer money to flow your way? Well, not surprisingly, if you’re the Washington office (read: lobbyist) of such a corporate entity, you go all out to get your provision into that bill.
Let me give you two examples of the kind of corporate cronyism I’m talking about in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act – one from the House, and one from the Senate.
In the House, after a seven-year-long campaign, the Washington office of New Balance shoes succeeded in getting MA Democrat Rep. Niki Tsongas to insert a provision in the NDAA markup session that would effectively mandate that the Air Force provide only New Balance shoes for new military recruits. At issue is something called the Berry Amendment, which goes all the way back to 1941, when Congress, in what it saw as the run up to increasingly likely U.S. military action in World War II, adopted it as a means to promote the purchase of American-made products by the U.S. armed forces. It’s important to note that the Berry Amendment requires the U.S. military to purchase uniforms for its service members from American manufacturers, but the Pentagon has not considered athletic shoes part of the uniform, so service members still had a choice of footwear when it came to their athletic shoes. Plus, there was one other slight hitch – there was no wholly American-made athletic shoe that complied with the requirements of the Berry Amendment.
Solution, if you’re a shoe company and you want to lock up the market for athletic shoes sold to military recruits? Simple. Work the right Members of Congress, and see what you get. Oh, and it helps if you hire a lobbying firm whose key lobbyists used to work for the right Members of Congress.
That’s what New Balance did, years ago. Oh, but we’re not done.
It seems the Administration had a card to play, too. Last month, New Balance vice president Matt LeBretton revealed to NPR that the company cut a secret deal with the Administration last year – if it would drop its objections to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Administration would look favorably upon bids from New Balance for far more lucrative military contracts. LeBretton told the Boston Globe that his company “swallowed the poison pill that is TPP so we could have a chance to bid on these contracts.” And he told NPR that “we were told that we weren’t to speak about this publicly in any way, shape or form. And we weren’t to criticize the TPP or the Administration in any way, shape or form. We took the deal.”
Well, wait, you say. If New Balance wasn’t supposed to talk about the secret deal as part of the secret deal, why is this guy talking about the secret deal? Because the Administration broke its end of the deal and screwed New Balance, that’s why. The Pentagon determined that the New Balance shoes offered up did not meet “cost standards, and one of the models did not meet durability requirements.”
And that’s when New Balance lobbyists looked for, and found, another route – by lobbying Niki Tsongas and ME GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin, in whose district sits, not coincidentally, no fewer than three shoe manufacturing plants, each of which, apparently, contributes to the final New Balance product. Tsongas offered a provision during the committee markup that would require the military to purchase athletic shoes for new recruits directly from New Balance under the Berry Amendment, rather than give recruits a stipend to purchase athletic shoes on their own.
So, thanks to smart lobbying and more than a bit of corporate cronyism, future service members had better hope their feet fit into New Balance athletic shoes, because that’s all they’re going to get until another American shoe manufacturer produces a wholly American-made athletic shoe that meets DoD requirements. We’ll see training injuries increase – a Pentagon study shows that there’s a direct correlation between footwear choice and injuries – and we’re virtually guaranteed to see taxpayer dollars spent on athletic shoes increase, too.
But at least the lobbyists got paid.
And now, to the Senate, where one of our old favorites – Arizona Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee – is engaged in no small measure of corporate cronyism himself.
At issue is the rocket engine we use to send spy satellites into space – you know, the satellites we use to track ISIS and other radical Islamic terrorists, and the international drug traffickers that smuggle drugs and people across our vulnerable southwest border.
Without going into excruciating detail, the situation is simple: Sen. McCain does not like the engines used in those rockets. He says it’s because the rocket engines, called the “RD-180,” are manufactured in Russia, and we shouldn’t buy rocket engines from Russia or anything else from Russia because Russia invaded the Crimea. One problem with that argument, though, is that we do almost $35 billion in trade with Russia every year, and the rocket engines account for about $88 million – less than one-third of one percent of our total bilateral trade with Russia – and Sen. McCain hasn’t said anything about the other $34 billion in trade.
What’s far more likely, in reality, is that Sen. McCain doesn’t like buying rocket engines from Russia because he wants the Pentagon to use rockets made by his liberal donor buddy, Elon Musk, whose SpaceX is now trying to get those contracts. And, actually, not just because Sen. McCain wants to use his power as chairman of the key committee to do a favor for his donor friend, but because he also wants to use his power as chairman of the key committee to screw a company with whom he’s had a long-running beef, Boeing. So for Sen. McCain, it’s a two-fer – he gets to screw a corporate enemy and help a liberal McCain donor at the same time.
But there’s a hitch: SpaceX doesn’t have a rocket capable of carrying these payloads into space.
This is a real problem. Roughly two-thirds of our military, intelligence community, scientific and even weather satellites are launched into space on the Atlas 5 rocket, which uses the Russian rocket engines. Says Sen. Richard Shelby of AL, a former chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, “Given the current volatility of our relationship with Russia, our nation needs to develop a reliable, American alternative to the RD-180 as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that may not be for another four to five years at best … Recklessly restricting the use of the RD-180 in the near term will undermine both national security and the prospects for real competition in the military launch business.”
Despite that, Sen. McCain has inserted a provision into the Senate version of the NDAA that limits the use of the RD-180 engine to just 9 more. That’s not enough for even a year’s worth of launches, and when we’re done with those engines – if the McCain provision is enacted into law – we’re up a creek without a paddle.
The Pentagon is sympathetic to the long run goal of using American-made rocket engines, but there just aren’t any available right now, and there won’t be for several more years. We’ve been using the Russian-made rocket engines for years, for the simple reason that if there was one thing the Soviet Union knew how to do during the Cold War, it was make good rockets and rocket engines. The Russian RD-180 rocket has a flawless track record with our Atlas 5 rocket – 59 straight launches, without a hitch. The SpaceX experimental rockets? They keep blowing up. Blown up rockets means blown up payloads, too, and that means we have to build new satellites, and that adds up, all on the taxpayers’ dime.
So Sen. McCain’s provision will put Atlas 5 rocket launches on hold for several years, and then cost taxpayers more if and when the American-made rocket engines come online.
But at least Elon Musk will be happy.
A bunch of conservatives went to visit Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday. Jenny Beth was one of them.
Judge Andrew Hanen, the federal district judge in Texas who initially blocked the President’s planned executive amnesty, on Thursday ripped into the Administration’s lawyers in that case, ordering annual ethics classes for the DOJ attorneys for being what he called “intentionally deceptive” during the consideration of that case. “Such conduct,” he wrote, “is certainly not worthy of any department whose name includes the word ‘Justice.’”
As punishment, DOJ attorneys who wish to appear in any state or federal court in one of the 26 states that brought the lawsuit will first have to undergo annual ethics training totaling at least three hours per year. And while he could not disbar the out-of-state counsel, he did take advantage of the fact that he could revoke their right to practice law in the state of Texas – and he did so.
On Monday of last week, three GOP Senators – Majority Whip John Cornyn of TX, along with Mark Kirk of IL and John Barrasso of WY – sent a letter to President Obama urging him to fire White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes.
White House Counsel Neil Eggleston wrote to House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz last Monday, telling Chaffetz it would raise what he called “constitutional concerns” if Rhodes were to testify before Chaffetz’s committee on how he manipulated the media and the Congress regarding the circumstances surrounding President Obama’s terrible nuclear deal with Iran.
“While the Administration will continue to consult closely with Congress on this important matter, testimony by one of the most senior advisers to the president raises significant constitutional concerns rooted in the separation of powers … Specifically, the appearance of a senior presidential adviser before Congress threatens the independence and autonomy of the president, as well as his ability to receive candid advice and counsel in the discharge of his constitutional duties,” Eggleston wrote.
Chaffetz, who last week was so adamant about getting Rhodes to testify in front of his committee that he threatened to use a subpoena if necessary, backed down. Instead, he spent a large part of his opening statement at the Tuesday morning hearing excoriating Rhodes for his refusal to come testify before the committee, and apparently left it at that.
I told you last week when I shared news with you regarding the upcoming House Judiciary Committee hearings on IRS Commissioner John Koskinen that Freedom Caucus members Jim Jordan of OH and Mark Meadows of NC were instrumental in making that happen. They had, I said, put a lot of pressure on Speaker Ryan to make those hearings a reality.
Well, this week, thanks to Politico and The Hill, I can tell you that Jordan and Meadows actually threatened Speaker Ryan with moving the impeachment resolution directly to the floor without his approval, using what’s called a “privileged resolution.” They met with him about two and a half weeks ago and explained they were tired of waiting for action against Koskinen, and they were prepared to use the House rules to force the issue to the floor, whether Ryan wanted it or not. They said they would use the “privileged resolution” maneuver unless Ryan could get House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of VA to announced the hearings. In the end, Ryan decided with his leadership team that holding the Judiciary hearings would be a better move than allowing Jordan and Meadows to move their privileged resolution. And that’s how next Wednesday’s hearing came to be.
The hearing will begin at 10 AM. The first panel will consist of witnesses Reps. Jason Chaffetz of UT and Ron DeSantis of FL. The second witness “panel” will be IRS Commissioner Koskinen, by himself. To watch the live stream of the committee hearing, follow this link: https://judiciary.house.gov/hearing/examining-allegations-misconduct-irs-commissioner-john-koskinen-part-1/
Meanwhile, last Wednesday, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz – who introduced the original Koskinen impeachment resolution, H.Res. 494, last October – rolled out a new resolution to censure Koskinen, something he called a “precursor to impeachment.”
As a reminder, that Koskinen impeachment resolution is H.Res. 494, and it has 68 cosponsors.
On Wednesday, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop finally released the revised version of the bill to deal with Puerto Rico debt relief. H.R. 5278, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act – PROMESA – includes significant changes to the legislation we were concerned about back in February.
Since we sent our letter in late February, the situation has changed:
- Puerto Rican government debts are currently not being paid by the Puerto Ricans. When we wrote our letter, major defaults had not happened. Now they have. The Puerto Rican government defaulted on a $450 million debt payment in May, and, without relief, the Puerto Rican government will likely default on another $2 billion debt payment in July. Further defaults will follow. They only way the debt payments will be made in anything approaching the terms they were entered into is with an orderly renegotiation. The alternative is not full payment – that will not happen – but default.
- When we sent our letter, we feared that a Puerto Rico debt relief bill would have the potential of creating the precedent for action in the states. We were not the only ones who had that concern.
Under the current legislation, no precedent for states will be set – the legislation, in fact, draws its authority from Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution (known as the “Territories Clause”), which gives Congress explicit power over U.S. territories. Any attempt to apply the legislative remedy in the current debt relief bill would be ruled illegal under the 10th Amendment, for the simple reason that a state is not a territory. The revised bill has been designed precisely to avoid our February concern.
- When we sent our letter, we feared that a bill might allow politicians to restructure Puerto Rico’s debts. That’s not the case in this bill. Under the language of the new legislation, if debt restructuring does not happen voluntarily, a federal district court judge is the final arbitrator after a plan has been approved by a largely non-Puerto Rican control board. It’s out of the hands of the politicians in Puerto Rico, and it’s out of the hands of the politicians in Washington.
In addition, the revised measure would block the Labor Department’s new overtime rule from applying to Puerto Rico – that wasn’t even a concern in February, because the Administration hadn’t yet introduced its overtime rule. The bill also “creates a firewall between the constitutionally protected creditor hierarchy and pensions in the development of Fiscal Plans,” which is another way of saying Democrats didn’t get what they wanted – they wanted pensions to be paid before bondholders got back their money. That was a real sticking point for the unions, and, therefore, for the Obama Treasury Department, but Republicans considered that non-negotiable. Not surprisingly, the unions are more than a bit upset.
The bill expressly prohibits federal taxpayer funds from being used to pay down the $72 billion debt. It also does not include the Medicaid expansion the Democrats wanted, and it still contains a provision allowing the Governor of the island to lower the minimum wage for new employees.
The bill creates a seven-person financial oversight board, with four members selected by Republicans, and three by Democrats. The financial oversight board will have the authority to help manage the island’s financial obligations and oversee a debt restructuring.
And yet there’s one group of bondholders that’s still trying to torpedo this bill – they were the last ones in, and they want their money back first, despite the fact that their risk was already factored in to their interest rate. They’re represented by former GOP Congressman Connie Mack IV of FL. He’s pissing people off, sending emails to the Hill claiming that certain Members and outside organizations are opposed to the new legislation when they are, in fact, no longer opposed. For instance, he’s been saying the National Taxpayers Union opposes the bill, when NTU has changed its mind and now supports the revised legislation. So there’s that.
H.R. 5278, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, is quite different from the legislation we feared. Introduced on May 18, about 10 weeks after we sent our letter, it appears to incorporate and address many of our concerns, all to the good.
Pity the poor Democrats. Try as they might, they just can’t get Republican Senators to budge on the confirmation of Judge Merrick Garland, the Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A week and a half ago, they submitted his nominee questionnaire, even though Republicans had not asked for it. That landed with a thud, much to the chagrin of Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. Then, last Wednesday, Senate Democrats held a mock confirmation hearing to drive media attention. That landed with a similar thud.
At this point, virtually every Republican Senator who’s going to grant Judge Garland a courtesy visit has done so. Not a single one of them has back off his or her determination not to confirm Judge Garland, and to instead wait for the next president to make a nomination to fill the vacancy left by Justice Scalia’s death.