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“A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy”: Cruz Opposes Lame Duck Sessions Of Congress, But He Has Some Responsibility For Them

The Hill reports that Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz is leading an effort to ensure that Congress does not convene for a “lame duck” session at the end of the year. According to the publication, Cruz and “right-leaning groups see huge dangers in having a session after the November elections, which they think could be used to move legislation backed by President Obama or even to confirm his Supreme Court nominee.” As a rationale for the push, a letter organized by the Conservative Action Project states, “By promising now that there will be no lame duck session of Congress … the Republican-led Congress can take an important first step in restoring the American people’s trust in their government.”

The lame duck session of Congress has become a Washington, D.C. tradition. It takes place during election years after the votes are cast in November. Often the sessions are used to wrap up business that Congress didn’t get to before leaving to campaign for reelection, but the relative political vacuum of that time period can also provide members of Congress with the cushion necessary to take difficult votes they otherwise wouldn’t be able to cast. For those reasons, lame duck sessions of Congress often see the passage of large, sometimes expensive, and many times controversial pieces of legislation. Per The Hill, Cruz and his cohort seem to be concerned this year about the passage of trade legislation, the confirmation of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and passage of an omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government.

In some respects Cruz is right. Lame duck sessions of Congress are not the ideal way to legislate. The significant time constraints of these sessions mean that legislation is often rushed through without due time for consideration or amendment. Legislative packages that have been negotiated months ahead of time behind the scenes are presented to members of Congress as a fait accompli, leaving the legislators little choice but to vote for them or lose the opportunity for their consideration altogether. The situation is especially tenuous for omnibus spending bills, which contain the funding necessary to keep the federal government operating for the rest of fiscal year and are often considered “must pass” legislation (think the controversial 2014 “cromnibus” spending bill which narrowly averted a government shutdown). Other high profile examples have over the years included the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Superfund environmental cleanup law and, in 2010, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Given a choice, I think we’d all prefer that Congress consider these bills through regular order, with ample time to understand what’s in them, debate the merits and discuss necessary changes. It’s certainly the way the rules of both the House and the Senate envision the legislative process would take place.

However, the reason there often isn’t regular order in Congress is because of people like Ted Cruz, which makes his current crusade kind of ironic. The obstinacy of the hard right and obstructionist tactics, like Cruz’s drive to shut down the government over health care policy in 2013, have made it increasingly difficult for Congress to either consider policy in a substantive way or find ways to compromise and move bills forward. Thus, the lame duck sessions and the political shield they provide have become necessary to pass some key pieces of legislation. And often, it is only because of the possibility of a lame duck session and the ability to resolve matters without a political glare that federal spending hasn’t been altogether halted and the government completely shut down.

Bringing the legislative process out into the light of day is a laudable goal, but really that’s not the goal of Cruz or his colleagues here – they want to close off an alternative to their obstruction. And even if they were sincere in their intentions, shutting down the lame duck session of Congress is not the way to achieve it. As things stand right now, that session will probably be necessary for Congress to accomplish anything at all this year. Cruz and his fellow conservatives talk order and transparency in Congress but if they were serious about that they could change the role they play in it. By showing a willingness to negotiate on policy rather than blocking everything they don’t agree with, they would significantly lessen the need for lame duck sessions. By far, that would be the best thing they could do to restore Americans’ trust in their government.

 

By: Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog, U. S. News and World Report, April 15, 2015

April 17, 2016 Posted by | GOP Obstructionism, Lame Duck Congress, Ted Cruz | , , , , | 1 Comment

“How Conservatives Lost 2015”: Talked A Big Game But Ended Up Losing Almost Every Big Legislative Battle

Establishment Republicans had a miserable year on the campaign trail. But on Capitol Hill—far from Make America Great Again hats—they cleaned up.

Conservatives on the Hill, emboldened by Republican gains in the midterm elections, followed the battle cry of the Heritage Foundation’s powerful lobbying arm against their Establishment overlords. But over the past year, they’ve faced defeat after biting defeat.

Most of these wins were on wonky, unsexy issues—like funding for infrastructure construction and rules about how the president can negotiate trade agreements. Not exactly the most scintillating stuff.

But while these individual debates may not have galvanized national attention, they were hugely important to Tea Party-friendly conservative groups. And the cumulative losses these groups face suggest that their clout may have flatlined or they overplayed their hands.

Heritage Action, the lobbying wing of the powerful Heritage Foundation think tank, got a major shellacking in March during the fight over “Doc Fix” legislation, which overhauled how doctors who treat Medicare patients get reimbursed. Heritage Action key-voted against the bill, citing concerns that it would grow the national debt by half a trillion dollars over twenty years. Despite the group’s protestations, though, the Doc Fix passed the House with just 37 no votes (only 4 of whom were Democrats). In the Senate, just 8 members voted against it.

It was a tough loss for Heritage Action. And many more followed. Trade legislation drew significant opposition from the group in June, as members fought over whether Congress would give the president extra authority to negotiate trade deals, allocate funds to support Americans who lose jobs due to said deals. While issues like Trade Adjustment Assistance and Trade Promotion Authority may not roll off the tongue of your average Tea Partier (or, well, your average human being), Heritage Action’s key-voting against trade provisions helped energize grassroots conservative opposition. That, combined with Breitbart News and the Drudge Report’s liberal (and frantic) use of the “Obamatrade” moniker stoked opposition on the right.

And all those guys lost.

Congress gave the president additional authority to negotiate trade deals and allocated more funds to help Americans who lose jobs to overseas competition, and the president announced he plans to have the U.S. sign on to the new Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.

“Is Anyone Still Scared of Heritage Action?” wondered National Journal. It was a good question.

And it was a question that arose again in July, when legislation came up to change funding for the National Institutes of Health and the FDA. The bill was called the 21st Century Cures Act, and, well, was complicated. Heritage Action opposed it adamantly, for comparably complicated reasons. If NIH funding mechanisms get your juices flowing, check out Heritage Action’s release explaining its stance. If not, just rest assured that it was a big deal for the group, and the group lost. Seventy-seven House members voted against the bill, seventy of whom were Republicans.

And, of course, there’s perhaps the unsexiest issue of all: the highway bill! Next time you’re trying to get out of an unpleasant conversation, just bring up infrastructure funding and see what happens. The highway bill allowed more than $300 billion for transportation spending, and it reauthorized the Export-Import Bank—a program that gives loans to U.S. businesses that have overseas commerce, and that conservatives have long criticized as corporate welfare. Heritage Action’s denunciation of the bill said the highway projects were funded with “almost exclusively with embarrassing budget gimmicks.”

The Ex-Im bank’s funding expired this summer, and Congress couldn’t get it reauthorized—due in large part to conservative opposition—until the Highway Bill came up.

“Ending this bank was a major blow to the culture of crony capitalism festering in Washington,” said Heritage Action’s statement, “and reviving it now damages the conservative movement and the credibility of efforts to rid the federal government of favoritism for special interests.”

The president signed the bill early in December.

But there was one last loss to be felt: the year-end omnibus spending bill—a legislative package full of the kind of spending projects that make conservatives want to scratch their eyeballs out, including funding for Planned Parenthood. Heritage Action, naturally, key-voted against it. And the House, as was natural in 2015, passed it anyway.

It wasn’t always this way. During the 2013 government shutdown, Heritage Action exerted enormous influence to pressure members of Congress against supporting any funding for the Affordable Care Act. And members shivered at the prospect of facing primary challengers who would attack them over low marks on the group’s vote scorecard. But now, much of that fear seems to have abated.

“When Heritage key-votes against a bill now, it is almost guaranteed to get less conservative, and guaranteed to pass both chambers and become law,” said one former Republican House leadership staffer. “They have reverse Midas touch.”

Heritage Action didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story.

 

By: Betsy Woodruff, The Daily Beast, January 2, 2016

January 4, 2016 Posted by | Conservatives, Establishment Republicans, Heritage Foundation | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Government Problem”: The Central Issue Is Whom The Government Is For

Some believe the central political issue of our era is the size of the government. They’re wrong. The central issue is whom the government is for.

Consider the new spending bill Congress and the President agreed to a few weeks ago.

It’s not especially large by historic standards. Under the $1.1 trillion measure, government spending doesn’t rise as a percent of the total economy. In fact, if the economy grows as expected, government spending will actually shrink over the next year.

The problem with the legislation is who gets the goodies and who’s stuck with the tab.

For example, it repeals part of the Dodd-Frank Act designed to stop Wall Street from using other peoples’ money to support its gambling addiction, as the Street did before the near-meltdown of 2008.

Dodd-Frank had barred banks from using commercial deposits that belong to you and me and other people, and which are insured by the government, to make the kind of risky bets that got the Street into trouble and forced taxpayers to bail it out.

But Dodd-Frank put a crimp on Wall Street’s profits. So the Street’s lobbyists have been pushing to roll it back.

The new legislation, incorporating language drafted by lobbyists for Wall Street’s biggest bank, Citigroup, does just this.

It reopens the casino. This increases the likelihood you and I and other taxpayers will once again be left holding the bag.

Wall Street isn’t the only big winner from the new legislation. Health insurance companies get to keep their special tax breaks. Tourist destinations like Las Vegas get their travel promotion subsidies.

In a victory for food companies, the legislation even makes federally subsidized school lunches less healthy by allowing companies that provide them to include fewer whole grains. This boosts their profits because junkier food is less expensive to make.

Major defense contractors also win big. They get tens of billions of dollars for the new warplanes, missiles, and submarines they’ve been lobbying for.

Conservatives like to portray government as a welfare machine doling out benefits to the poor, some of whom are too lazy to work.

In reality, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, only about 12 percent of federal spending goes to individuals and families, most of whom are in dire need.

An increasing portion goes to corporate welfare.

In addition to the provisions in the recent spending bill that reward Wall Street, health insurers, the travel industry, food companies, and defense contractors, other corporate goodies have been long baked into the federal budget.

Big agribusiness gets price supports. Hedge-fund and private-equity managers get their own special “carried-interest” tax loophole. The oil and gas industry gets its special tax subsidies.

Big Pharma gets a particularly big benefit: a prohibition on government using its vast bargaining power under Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate low drug prices.

Why are politicians doing so much for corporate executives and Wall Street insiders? Follow the money. It’s because they’re flooding Washington with money as never before, financing an increasing portion of politicians’ campaigns.

The Supreme Court’s decision this year in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, following in the wake of Citizen’s United, already eliminated the $123,200 cap on the amount an individual could contribute to federal candidates.

The new spending legislation, just enacted, makes it easier for wealthy individuals to write big checks to political parties. Before, individuals could donate up to $32,400 to the Democratic or Republican National Committees.

Starting in 2015, they can donate ten times as much. In a two-year election cycle, a couple will be able to give $1,296,000 to a party’s various accounts.

But the only couples capable of giving that much are those that include corporate executives, Wall Street moguls, and other big-moneyed interests.

Which means Washington will be even more attentive to their needs in the next round of legislation.

That’s been the pattern. As wealth continues to concentrate at the top, individuals and entities with lots of money have greater political power to get favors from government – like the rollback of the Dodd-Frank law and the accumulation of additional corporate welfare. These favors, in turn, further entrench and expand the wealth at the top.

The size of government isn’t the problem. That’s a canard used to hide the far larger problem.

The larger problem is that much of government is no longer working for the vast majority it’s intended to serve. It’s working instead for a small minority at the top.

If government were responding to the public’s interest instead of the moneyed interests, it would be smaller and more efficient.

But unless or until we can reverse the vicious cycle of big money getting political favors that makes big money even bigger, we can’t get the government we want and deserve.

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, December 23, 2014

December 28, 2014 Posted by | Dodd-Frank, Federal Government, Wall Street | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Citigroup Becomes Its Own Self-Serving Lawmaker”: 21st Century Civics Lesson; How A Corporate Bill Becomes A Law

Congress, which has long been so tied up in a partisan knot by right-wing extremists that it has been unable to move, suddenly sprang loose at the end of the year and put on a phenomenal show of acrobatic lawmaking.

In one big, bipartisan spending bill, our legislative gymnasts pulled off a breathtaking, flat-footed backflip for Wall Street, and then set a dizzying new height record for the amount of money deep-pocketed donors can give to the two major political parties. It was the best scratch-my-back performance you never saw. You and I didn’t see it — because it happened in secret.

The favor was huge — allowing Wall Street’s most reckless speculators to have their losses on risky derivative deals insured by us taxpayers. Yes, such losses were a central cause of the 2008 financial crash and subsequent unholy bank bailout, which led to passage of the Dodd-Frank reform law, including a provision sparing taxpayers from covering future losses. But with one, compact, 85-line provision inserted deep inside the 1,600-page, trillion-dollar spending bill, Congress did a dazzling flip-flop on that regulation, putting us taxpayers back on the hook for the banksters’ high-risk speculation.

In this same spending bill, Congress also used its legislative athleticism to free rich donors (such as Wall Street bankers) from a limit of under $100,000 on the donation that any one of them can give to political parties. In a spectacular gravity-defying stunt, lawmakers flung the limit on these donations to a record-setting 15 times higher than before. So now bankers who are grateful to either party for being able to make a killing on taxpayer-backed deals can give $1.5 million each to the parties.

Perhaps you recall from your high school civics class that neat, one-page flow chart showing the perfectly logical, beautifully democratic process that Congress must go through to pass our laws.

What a bunch of kidders those chart makers were! To see how the sausage is really made, let’s take a look at that trillion-dollar budget bill that Congress squeezed out just before Christmas. It was crammed with special corporate favors, such as: reinstating a Bush rule allowing mining giants to explode the tops off ancient Appalachian mountains and then bulldoze the rubble down into the valley below, destroying pristine mountain streams; another letting long-haul trucking outfits require their drivers to be on the road more than 11 hours a day and up to 82 hours per week, filling our highways with highballing, sleep-deprived truckers; and cutting $60 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency, freeing up polluters to go unpunished for polluting.

None of these favors had anything to do with that “how a bill becomes law” flow chart in our civics textbook. No bill was filed, no public hearings, no debate, no vote. Just — BAM! — there they were, a thicket of benefits secretly slipped into the 1,600-page budget bill by … well, by whom? Largely by corporate lobbyists, though they get one of their for-hire congresscritters to do the actual dirty deed.

The taxpayer subsidy for Wall Street, for example, was written by Citigroup. The bank’s lobbyists then handed the provision to Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder, who slipped it into the bill. Thus, the Wall Street conglomerate that took a $50 billion bailout from us taxpayers just seven years ago to save itself from its own bad deals essentially was allowed to become an unelected, self-serving, do-it-yourself, backroom “lawmaker” to make sure that your and my tax dollars will be there to cover its next mess-up.

And that, boys and girls, is the real flow chart for making our laws. It’s always an amazing sight when Wall Street and Congress get together — especially when they get together out of sight.

 

By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, December 24, 2014

December 27, 2014 Posted by | Citigroup, Congress, Wall Street | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Heads We Win, Tails The Taxpayers Lose”: Wall Street’s Revenge; Dodd-Frank Damaged In The Budget Bill

On Wall Street, 2010 was the year of “Obama rage,” in which financial tycoons went ballistic over the president’s suggestion that some bankers helped cause the financial crisis. They were also, of course, angry about the Dodd-Frank financial reform, which placed some limits on their wheeling and dealing.

The Masters of the Universe, it turns out, are a bunch of whiners. But they’re whiners with war chests, and now they’ve bought themselves a Congress.

Before I get to specifics, a word about the changing politics of high finance.

Most interest groups have stable political loyalties. For example, the coal industry always gives the vast bulk of its political contributions to Republicans, while teachers’ unions do the same for Democrats. You might have expected Wall Street to favor the G.O.P., which is always eager to cut taxes on the rich. In fact, however, the securities and investment industry — perhaps affected by New York’s social liberalism, perhaps recognizing the tendency of stocks to do much better when Democrats hold the White House — has historically split its support more or less equally between the two parties.

But that all changed with the onset of Obama rage. Wall Street overwhelmingly backed Mitt Romney in 2012, and invested heavily in Republicans once again this year. And the first payoff to that investment has already been realized. Last week Congress passed a bill to maintain funding for the U.S. government into next year, and included in that bill was a rollback of one provision of the 2010 financial reform.

In itself, this rollback is significant but not a fatal blow to reform. But it’s utterly indefensible. The incoming congressional majority has revealed its agenda — and it’s all about rewarding bad actors.

So, about that provision. One of the goals of financial reform was to stop banks from taking big risks with depositors’ money. Why? Well, bank deposits are insured against loss, and this creates a well-known problem of “moral hazard”: If banks are free to gamble, they can play a game of heads we win, tails the taxpayers lose. That’s what happened after savings-and-loan institutions were deregulated in the 1980s, and promptly ran wild.

Dodd-Frank tried to limit this kind of moral hazard in various ways, including a rule barring insured institutions from dealing in exotic securities, the kind that played such a big role in the financial crisis. And that’s the rule that has just been rolled back.

Now, this isn’t the death of financial reform. In fact, I’d argue that regulating insured banks is something of a sideshow, since the 2008 crisis was brought on mainly by uninsured institutions like Lehman Brothers and A.I.G. The really important parts of reform involve consumer protection and the enhanced ability of regulators both to police the actions of “systemically important” financial institutions (which needn’t be conventional banks) and to take such institutions into receivership at times of crisis.

But what Congress did is still outrageous — and both sides of the ideological divide should agree. After all, even if you believe (in defiance of the lessons of history) that financial institutions can be trusted to police themselves, even if you believe the grotesquely false narrative that bleeding-heart liberals caused the financial crisis by pressuring banks to lend to poor people, especially minority borrowers, you should be against letting Wall Street play games with government-guaranteed funds. What just went down isn’t about free-market economics; it’s pure crony capitalism.

And sure enough, Citigroup literally wrote the deregulation language that was inserted into the funding bill.

Again, in itself last week’s action wasn’t decisive. But it was clearly the first skirmish in a war to roll back much if not all of the financial reform. And if you want to know who stands where in this coming war, follow the money: Wall Street is giving mainly to Republicans for a reason.

It’s true that most of the political headlines these past few days have been about Democratic division, with Senator Elizabeth Warren urging rejection of a funding bill the White House wanted passed. But this was mainly a divide about tactics, with few Democrats actually believing that undoing Dodd-Frank is a good idea.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to find Republicans expressing major reservations about undoing reform. You sometimes hear claims that the Tea Party is as opposed to bailing out bankers as it is to aiding the poor, but there’s no sign that this alleged hostility to Wall Street is having any influence at all on Republican priorities.

So the people who brought the economy to its knees are seeking the chance to do it all over again. And they have powerful allies, who are doing all they can to make Wall Street’s dream come true.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 15, 2014

December 17, 2014 Posted by | Dodd-Frank, Financial Crisis, Wall Street | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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