The forty-fifth president of the United States hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, placed prominently behind the president’s desk. The President has named Jackson as a model executive he hopes to emulate. The 45th President has been absolutely clear about several policy goals that, if fully implemented, will lead Indian tribes […]
We want to wish everyone a very happy and prosperous new year, and hope to see you again in 2016 at conferences or here in Washington. The Congress has been very busy at the end of this year and proud of the fact it accomplished the passage of major highway and education bills that had lingered on the congressional agenda for months, and also approved a tax break and spending package, avoiding a government shutdown. Appears that Congress is working again. As Speaker Ryan recently was quoted. “We passed more major legislation in a few weeks than we have in a few years.” See my other recent blog post for details of the recent legislation that broke the congressional deadlock.
With Republicans winning control of the Senate in the November election, all the committees will get new leaders, though all have been around for years.
The heads of the 13 major committees and Veterans’ Affairs are some of the most senior members of the Senate. Three are octogenarians and four are in their late 70s. Only one new leader will be a woman; Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is in line to take over the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
A look at the powerful senators and their issues:
Kansas’ Pat Roberts, 78, will consider renewal of child nutrition programs that have been pushed by the White House and expire next year. Roberts has criticized efforts to make school lunches healthier, calling for studies on the costs of the program and economic impact on schools.
Roberts has been a recent dissenter on the normally bipartisan panel, voting against the five-year farm bill that Congress passed in May. Roberts supported the bill’s boost in crop insurance for farmers but said other subsidies needed more changes. He called the entire bill “a look in the rear-view mirror.”
Like his Republican counterparts in the House, Roberts has championed cutting back spending for food stamps, saying the farm bill’s estimated cut of $8 billion over 10 years was insufficient.
Roberts held the gavel of the House Agriculture Committee 20 years ago and during his tenure he helped write the 1996 farm bill.
The gavel of the powerful panel responsible for drafting approximately one-third of the federal budget will return to Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, who turned 77 in December and was just re-elected to a seventh term.
Cochran was in charge during the last two years of the previous GOP majority and was a driving force behind more than $100 billion in funding to help Gulf Coast states recover from Hurricane Katrina. He was also a big practitioner of earmarks, those home-state goodies such as highway projects, economic development grants and university research dollars.
GOP leaders have banned earmarking, but Cochran is sure to back Navy shipbuilding efforts. Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, which makes a variety of Navy ships such as modern destroyers, is Mississippi’s largest private employer.
Republicans are expected to use the 12 spending bills to challenge Obama on policy issues, such as health care, financial services, immigration and the environment.
Leading the committee has been a long-sought goal for 78-year-old John McCain of Arizona, the former Navy pilot, Vietnam prisoner of war and two-time presidential candidate who lost to Obama in 2008.
McCain, who has hinted he might seek a sixth term in 2016, stands as one of Obama’s fiercest critics on national security, casting the administration as weak and ineffective in countering threats overseas. He has repeatedly called for arming and training moderate Syrian rebels and favors more U.S. forces in Iraq to battle Islamic State militants.
McCain has been critical of Pentagon contracting. Increased examination of defense manufacturers and acquisition policy is certain. The Pentagon can largely forget about scrapping the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which McCain heavily favors, and can expect close scrutiny of the costly F-35 fighter jet.
BANKING, HOUSING AND URBAN AFFAIRS
The wily Richard Shelby, 80, makes a return tour as head of the committee. High on his agenda will be changes to the financial overhaul law enacted in response to the 2008 crisis, known as Dodd-Frank. The 2010 law that brought stricter regulation of banks and Wall Street has been a burr in the side of Republican lawmakers, and the GOP-controlled House has passed numerous bills to unwind it.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the next majority leader, put it plainly at his day-after-the-election news conference: “The Banking Committee is certainly going to look at Dodd-Frank.” The big banks, he said, “are doing just fine under Dodd-Frank. The community bankers are struggling.”
Besides bank rules, the committee under the Alabama senator also may focus on curbing the authority of the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau over auto lenders and credit card companies. The bureau was created by the financial law.
Also likely to get committee attention is legislation to reshape the housing finance system and wind down mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Shelby succeeded as head of the panel from 2003 to 2007 in blocking bank regulation proposals.
In a surprise, Wyoming’s Mike Enzi will become chairman of the Senate Budget Committee after Jeff Sessions of Alabama stepped aside. Sessions had been the top Republican on the committee the past four years.
Enzi, 70, said he will work to craft a budget “that cuts spending, targets executive overreach and reduces the size of government.”
He will be called upon to craft a budget framework that could serve as a template for follow-up legislation to repeal Obama’s health care law and, perhaps, tackle expensive benefit programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.
COMMERCE, SCIENCE AND TRANSPORTATION
South Dakota’s John Thune, 53, faces a heavy workload — reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and Amtrak, net neutrality and transportation.
The committee will have to address the auto safety portions of the highway bill in the aftermath of General Motors faulty ignition switch recalls, now linked to more than two dozen deaths, and the Takata air bag recalls, also linked to several deaths. Proposals to toughen federal oversight of the auto industry are likely. Some lawmakers have called for eliminating the $35 million cap on how much the government can fine automakers in such cases.
ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES
An energy policy expert from an energy-producing state, the 57-year-old Murkowski wants to unlock as much of America’s energy as safely possible.
Murkowski has argued for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, as well as Alaska’s offshore, and has opposed regulations that block energy production. She believes EPA regulations to curb coal-fired power plant pollution to deal with global warming will threaten the reliability and raise the costs of electricity.
She supports exporting U.S. natural gas and has led the charge on pressuring the administration to lift restrictions on exports of crude oil. She has backed the immediate approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which McConnell has said will be first on the new agenda.
Murkowski, unlike others in the GOP, believes global warming is happening and that Alaskans are already experiencing the effects of rising water temperatures and thinning ice.
ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
The likely ascent of Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, 79, represents one of the biggest sea changes on a Senate committee with Republicans in charge.
Inhofe, one of Congress’ most vocal deniers of the scientific consensus of climate change, wrote in a 2012 book that global warming was “a hoax.” He will replace Californian Barbara Boxer, who introduced climate change legislation in 2009 and was an ally of the environmental community and Obama.
Inhofe, by contrast, is a thorn in the side of the Environmental Protection Agency and has argued that more regulation will kill the economy and jobs. Inhofe has called on the EPA to abandon stricter rules on refinery air pollution and to reject their own scientists’ recommendation to tighten a standard for the main ingredient in smog. Inhofe is likely to boost oversight of the agency and try to thwart its agenda at a time when Obama wants to shore up his climate legacy.
The 2010 health care law is in the GOP’s crosshairs, and Utah’s Orrin Hatch, 80, is likely to use his position to take the first step at chipping away at it.
Hatch has called the law’s tax on medical devices “stupid” and is determined to roll it back. He is likely to gain some Democratic support for the effort.
Hatch could be a free-trade ally for Obama if the president pushes more trade agreements.
Overhauling the nation’s complicated tax laws also is a priority for Hatch. But it’s a heavy lift.
Administration officials say Obama will offer new specifics in the coming year on how he would like to reshape corporate taxes, which now feature the highest rate in the industrialized world. But bridging the divide between Republicans and Democrats on major tax legislation would require a level of bipartisanship that has largely been absent during Obama’s first six years as president.
Hatch has worked with Democrats in the past; his friendship with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts is legendary. Hatch will need to work with Democrats again if he is to advance an overhaul of the tax code.
Tennessee’s Bob Corker, 62, has criticized Obama’s foreign policy as tepid in dealing with Russia, Libya and Syria. Like several other Republicans on the committee, Corker has deep reservations about the administration’s negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Some Republicans have said the GOP will push new penalties this month that target Tehran.
Secretary of State John Kerry has asked Congress for new war powers in the fight against the Islamic State group. Corker has raised the possibility that he could work with the administration on the issue.
Obama’s ambassadorial picks and other nominees would face a rough outing before the committee.
HEALTH, EDUCATION, LABOR AND PENSIONS
Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, 74, is a former education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, governor and president of the University of Tennessee.
A lawyer by trade, he helped form a corporate childcare company in the private sector. Alexander said he wants to fix President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law that’s been due to be renewed since 2007 and update the Higher Education Act.
He’s called the health care law a “historic mistake” and supports repealing it. He’s also said modernizing the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration is a necessity, and he is seeking to examine the FDA’s process for drug and device review. On workers’ issues, he’s sought to turn the National Labor Relations Board into what he says is more of an umpire role.
A farmer, not an attorney, Iowa’s Charles Grassley, 81, has been on the Judiciary Committee since his 1980 election to the Senate. But this will be his first stint as its chairman.
In that post, many expect him to continue his long-running interest in protecting whistle-blowers who reveal details of alleged fraud by government contractors and others. He’s also expected to continue oversight of programs like the Justice Department’s bungled “Fast and Furious” operation, under which federal agents lost control of guns they were tracing to Mexican drug lords. Many also expect him to work on legislation easing federal regulations on businesses.
Grassley opposed last year’s Senate-approved bipartisan immigration bill, arguing that it needed to do more to secure the country’s borders before granting legal status to people in the U.S. illegally. He’s also pressed for more information about the National Security Agency’s ability to gather information on Americans, though he’s cautioned that the agency must be able to protect national security.
A decade ago, Grassley spent time as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and played a role in winning approval of President George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts and the 2003 addition of prescription drug benefits to Medicare.
HOMELAND SECURITY AND GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS
Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, 59, has been a tough questioner of administration officials about the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The question will be whether the panel’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation opens another Benghazi inquiry in Congress as well as other reviews of the Democratic administration.
Under the leadership of Delaware Democrat Tom Carper, the committee focused primarily on the internal workings of the sprawling Homeland Security Department, including low morale ratings from rank-and-file employees and contracting issues.
Johnson has focused on those rankings in the past and led an investigation of complaints from whistle-blowers about the department’s former acting inspector general. His report, co-authored with Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, prompted DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to suspend the former top internal investigator.
While the committee has addressed immigration issues in the past, senators on this panel have not taken as prominent a role as their counterparts on the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the coming months, however, any administrative changes put in place by Obama are almost certain to be reviewed.
Georgia’s Johnny Isakson, 70, has stressed mental health needs of veterans and voted in favor a bill to provide two-year funding for veterans’ benefits, so veterans would continue to receive benefits even in a government shutdown.
Aides say Isakson’s priorities as chairman would include oversight of the new Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which was approved this past summer in response to a scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking health care and falsification of records to cover up delays.
Isakson strongly supports a provision in the law that makes it easier for veterans to seek Department of Veterans Affairs-paid care from local doctors. Bringing competition into the VA health care system will improve services, he says. Isakson also said the new law provides an opportunity for the VA to assess the quality of it leadership and management, and said underperforming executives and managers should be fired.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Kimberly Hefling, Joan Lowy, Alan Fram, Marcy Gordon, Matthew Daly and Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report.
By David HawkingsPosted at 8 p.m. on Jan. 5
Congress is reopening for business this week, to begin what President Barack Obama says “needs to be a year of action.”
When the president offered that call to arms for 2014, just as the Capitol lights were being dimmed for the holidays, the eye-rolling sentiment from so many lawmakers, aides, lobbyists and journalists amounted to: “Yeah, right. Good luck with that.”
The collective assessment is there’s no way that 2013, the least legislatively productive first year of an administration in six decades, is going to be followed by a more productive spurt from a divided Congress in an election year.
However, the next 10 weeks may hold some genuine prospects for rebutting the conventional wisdom, if only temporarily.
A trio of hallmark accomplishments in the second session of the 113th Congress have strong potential to get done before St. Patrick’s Day. Assuming the Republicans keep to their current course — confining their focus to avoid new, self-inflicted political wounds — lawmakers will be able to extend their current truce in the budget wars not only on the spending front but on borrowing as well. A food and farm bill that gives both sides a claim to victory is well within reach.
And, without traveling too far into optimistic fantasy-land, it’s possible to envision that bipartisan success on that trifecta by March would spawn interest in reaching for some additional deals in the spring. An immigration overhaul may still be the longest of viable long shots, but there’s some hopeful early talk about carefully calibrating compromise on a variety of second-tier issues left hanging at the end of 2013 — from sentencing disparities to water projects, patent lawsuits to online sales taxes, energy efficiency standards to physician reimbursement rates.
All those remain a ways off, but here’s a sketch of why each of the wintertime Big Three are likely to get done.
Appropriations. It sure sounds daunting, producing a single measure in five weeks that apportions all $1 trillion in discretionary spending for the rest of this fiscal year. But, in the current context, the omnibus spending package that’s supposed to be unveiled this week is more the legislative equivalent of a two-foot putt on the 18th hole, with the winner’s purse on the line. Yes, it’s possible to crack under the pressure and mess it up, but true professionals are supposed to approach the ball with confidence and make sinking the shot look easy.
Bipartisan majorities embraced last month’s budget accord in no small measure because it promised to end talk about government shutdowns until after the midterm elections. But this spending bill needs to get signed to make that promise a reality. Even a little flirting with the Jan. 15 deadline will prompt a revival of the cable TV countdown clock graphics, which in turn would threaten to drive congressional approval ratings back into the single digits from which they’ve just emerged. (And that was thanks entirely to the absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder phenomenon of the two-week holiday break.)
Although the Republicans have more to lose — because they have been blamed most for the last shutdown — neither party can afford to start the year looking like it might fail a test it has essentially told the public it’s already passed. So expectations are high that the bill will be cleared with only minimal fuss, mainly because the appropriations committees are warding off almost all the social, environmental and health policy riders that could threaten the whole process
Debt limit. If “failure is not an option” is the political watchword on the spending bill, the motto applies doubly to granting the Treasury permission to borrow more.
The last fiscal showdown ended only when the potential for a market-rattling default was just hours away. Republicans may have waited until the final hour before blinking in October, but they’re highly unlikely to make a return to brinkmanship this time. That’s because they know doing so would change the principal national political story — Obamacare’s rocky rollout — back into the tale of GOP extremism
Republicans will talk a while longer about demanding concessions from Obama in return for a higher debt ceiling, but the diverse list of hostages they’ll mention will signal they don’t have the stomach for a real confrontation. And Obama has left absolutely no room in his rhetoric for making the borrowing limit part of any deal. “It is not something that is a negotiating tool,” he said at his year-end news conference. “It’s not leverage. It’s the responsibility of Congress. It’s part of doing their job.”
Permission to issue new debt lapses on Feb. 7, but Treasury says it can stretch cash flow into early March, when the outstanding debt will stand at about $17.3 trillion. Rather than raise the dollar limit on borrowing, which was the legislative practice for decades, Congress will probably move instead to allow Treasury leeway to borrow what it needs until a specific date. Sometime during the lame-duck session, scheduled to start Nov. 12, is a decent bet.
Farm bill. Negotiators are signaling a breakthrough is imminent on an impasse that began 15 months ago. For farmers, the most important feature will be a new subsidy system to replace direct payments, which are widely derided outside rural America because they are delivered regardless of crop prices.
Politically, the No. 1 issue remains how much to pare nutrition assistance for the poor. House Republicans appear united behind the view that, with the economy on the mend, a 6 percent cut to food stamps is not unreasonable. A bipartisan majority in the Senate, viewing the safety net fundamentally differently, went for a cut of about half of 1 percent. Negotiators have settled on 1.5 percent, or $8 billion over a decade, combined with some of the stiffened work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients that GOP conservatives want.
The assumption here is that — as an extension of his newly short-fused approach to the tea partyers in his ranks — Speaker John A. Boehner will permit the House to debate such a package, knowing it would clear with far less than a majority of the majority.
The Ohio Republican’s rationale would be that, for the election-year good of the party, he needs to bring a belated end to at least one marquee piece of the class warfare debate. Plus, Boehner knows Republicans are going to dig in their heels elsewhere, starting with the future for the minimum wage and long-term jobless benefits.
One sure bet: Even if the farm bill doesn’t get done, Congress will make quick work of a yearlong stopgap. Lawmakers may still be gridlocked, but they’re not crazy — and the absence of a temporary farm bill, to make a complex story short, would threaten a doubling of retail dairy prices.
If there’s one way not to start a campaign year, it’s being blamed for a $7 gallon of milk.
Last week, both houses of Congress passed the Ryan-Murray budget deal put forth by the Budget Conference Committee. The House passed the measure on Thursday night Dec. 12th by a 332-94 vote, and the Senate followed suit by passing the deal the following Thursday Dec. 19th by a vote of 64-36, and the final measure was to be signed into law by President Obama before he leaves on holiday travels to Hawaii. The two year deal provides for $1.012 trillion in discretionary spending in FY2014, with a slight increase to $1.014 trillion for FY2015. The compromise deal sits essentially half-way between the $1.058 trillion passed by the Democratically controlled Senate in their budget bill this past spring and the $967 billion sequester level spending Republicans sought to continue.
The deal allocates $520.5 billion in military spending and $491.8 billion for domestic programs in 2014. The across the board spending cuts of sequestration have been lifted, with the moderately increased spending to be split evenly between military and domestic spending, which restores military funding nearly to pre-sequestration levels. However, Congress will still face tough decisions in allocating domestic spending through the appropriations process, but the impact on popular programs such as education and Head Start will be less severe. The compromise deal does not continue unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed which are set to expire three days after Christmas, as Democrats had wanted, and it removes the across the board spending cuts of sequestration in exchange for future savings, disappointing Republicans. In favor of reaching a deal in time to meet the January 15, 2014 deadline, the larger and more ideological issues of tax reform to raise more revenue and containing growing Medicare and Social Security entitlement spending were left largely unresolved.
Among other specific provisions, the deal raises airline fees, presumably to be dedicated towards costs of airport security, and extends the 2% reduction in Medicare payments under the Budget Control Act of 2011 for an additional two years through 2023. However, the largest impact will be felt by government employees and military veterans. Although federal workers will receive a 1% pay increase, that is below the 1.2% inflation rate recently published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and does not extend to the lowest paid tiers of wage grade federal employees. New federal employees will be required to contribute 4.4% of their income towards their government pension program, a continued increase from the .8% required pre-sequestration. Also contentious is the reduction of the cost-of-living adjustments by 1% for military retirees under age 62. Despite the increased spending, domestic programs may still face staff reductions through layoffs and early retirement or buyout offers.
Recognizing the challenging timetable to complete the appropriations process before the current stop-gap measure that ended the October federal shut down expires on January 15, 2014, the allocation levels for the twelve individual appropriations bills, known as 302(b) spending caps, were not made public as is customary. Each subcommittee was privately told it’s cap and given until January 2, 2014 to make detailed appropriations and policy changes. Negotiators will convene the following week with the goal of getting passage through the House by January 10, allowing the Senate to begin deliberations on January 13, in time to send a final bill to President Obama for his signature by the January 15 deadline. Assuming this two-year budget deal can be finalized in time to meet the January 15 deadline, Congress still faces revisiting the debt-ceiling issue as that short-term measure is set to lapse as early as March 2014.