Editorial August 2, 2013



When they return

The Senate and House are adjourned until September 9th and are scheduled to adjourn again on September 20thand return to work on September 30th, the last day of the fiscal year.  That leaves Congress with less than two weeks to complete the remaining 7 of the 12 appropriation bills before the end of the fiscal year on September 30th.

It is not unusual for Congress to pass appropriation bills after September 30th but the delay usually requires a continuing resolution to fund the remaining Departments at last fiscal year’s level until the current year is completed.

 And it is there that some see political advantage being taken; Republicans have said they will not agree to a continuing resolution (or an increase in the debt coming up in October) unless the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care) is repealed or otherwise not implemented. Some question the sincerity of the Republican threat, others conclude it is a foregone conclusion that such an ultimatum gives them the opportunity to highlight other fiscal concerns with the Administration and Senate Democrats even if legislation to that end fails. The risk of carrying out the threat is being sidled with the blame should the US default on its debts.

Whatever strategy unfolds, or if there is no strategy at all, the likelihood of Congress agreeing to any of the appropriation bills, shy of  Defense and Homeland Security, is very low because, if the HUD/Transportation is any example,  the House and Senate will bring competing versions. While competing versions are not new and the differences are usually ironed out in a House/Senate Conference, Republicans in the Senate and House have shown little or no interest in conferences. The bills may not differ much in content but will significantly differ dollar-wise because the Senate is basing its cuts on the $1.058 trillion spending cap agreed to and made law in the Budget Control Act and the House is basing its caps on the $971 billion spending cap put forth in the Ryan (House) budget that passed the House but was not considered in the Senate.

The outcome of that distance is that majorities in both bodies will continue to produce legislation catering to their bases. It is our opinion at TheWeekinCongress.com that both parties understand that the $30 to $40 billion difference in spending caps will not be reconciled. Further it seems evident in the Republican legislation put forth that it is simply continuing to produce legislation acceptable to its base on the assumption that it will retain control of the House and gain control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections without ever having to compromise. It is extremely rare that the Party holding the White House does not lose seats on the Hill in the midterms.

Besides the farm bills that may go to conference, other significant bills are appropriations for Agriculture; Commerce, Justice, and State; Energy and Water; Financial Services; Legislative Branch; and State and Foreign Operations.

Hamilton on Congress

It’s Time to Quell Excessive Partisanship

by Lee Hamilton

“There is very little reason for a candidate to consider the views of people across the political spectrum or to move to the center. “



There are lots of ways in which members of Congress differ from the American people. They are wealthier, whiter and older. Proportionally more of them are men, and far more are lawyers. All of these differences can affect congressional deliberations, but none matches another yawning gap that has opened up between Congress and average Americans: Congress, unlike the country at large, is noxiously partisan.

Yes, there are partisan divisions among voters. But most Americans want to see our challenges addressed pragmatically. They are not especially interested in ideologically driven legislative maneuvering, and have almost no patience for political leaders who zealously seek partisan advantage. They want politicians to find common ground — not dwell on their differences, promote special interests or place party loyalty ahead of national progress. Americans see the value in compromise, accommodation, and civility.

Congress, on the other hand, is filled with people who barely talk to each other, do their best to undermine the other side, and seek partisan advantage at every turn. There are exceptions, but I’m always struck by news stories outlining efforts to bridge the partisan divide — that these are news, rather than commonplace occurrences, highlights the problem.

How did Congress get to the point where partisan polarization has become the most prominent feature of American politics? There’s no single reason.

The gerrymandering of congressional districts certainly has hurt. More often than not, people running for Congress do so in districts drawn to favor one party or another. This means that if there’s a political threat, it’s from members of their own party. There is very little reason for a candidate to consider the views of people across the political spectrum or to move to the center. Instead, the candidate must focus on the small number of partisan activists who dominate primaries.

As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg points out, good transportation hasn’t helped either. Instead of going to restaurants together or going to their kids’ birthday parties, members of Congress leave Washington on Thursday and spend as much time as possible in their districts. They have few opportunities to get to know one another.

The partisan divide is also exacerbated by changes in the media. The 24-hour news cycle and instant analysis have forced politicians to take positions before they really have time to think them out. Social media, for its part, creates a referendum virtually instantly on every issue. Politicians need time to study and ponder issues; instead, it’s as if they face an election every day on every issue before them.

The result is that the sheer intensity of our politics has been ramped up — with money, lobbyists, interest groups, reporters, bloggers, and countless ordinary-citizen commentators adding to the pressure politicians feel, raising the stakes and amplifying the feelings on every issue.

Just as there’s no single cause for Washington’s out-of-control partisanship, there’s no single solution. We need to find ways of reducing the outsized role of money in politics, eliminating the partisan gerrymandering of districts and opening up state primaries, so that interest groups and partisan activists have a harder time dominating elections. Congressional leaders need to expand opportunities for members to get to know one another and their families, principally by paying attention to the work schedule; it’s hard to get mad at someone you know well, much less demonize him or her.

But perhaps the most important effort would be to expand the electorate. Low turnout in our elections greatly enhances the power of highly partisan voters. More voters would force politicians to listen to a wider range of views. It would tilt the balance toward where most Americans are — somewhere around the middle.

Too often, “debate” these days is just the two parties’ talking points hammering at each other in a mean-spirited, strident tone — not a genuine dialogue that searches for common ground and a solution to the problem. Changing this will require you and me to make it clear to our political friends that we do not like divisive name-calling, constantly attacking an opponent’s motivation or blatant partisan calculation. Let them know that we all pay the price for excessive partisanship, and we’re tired of it.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.


 Filibuster: the Pot and the Kettle

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) recently made some progress in curtailing filibusters against judicial and other Obama nominees by threatening the nuclear option, a parliamentary procedure that simply requires a majority of votes to agreed to a nominee rather than the 60 votes currently needed.

Republicans have been called obstructionists due, in part, to their extensive filibuster activities and there is reason to believe that at least some of the filibusters are, in fact, intended simply to obstruct the reasonable operating conditions a president in his second term should have; a full Executive Branch staff and a well staffed judiciary. Those things are important to a president getting things done and obstructing those nominations does have such an impact.

So, bad Republican obstructionist are mucking up the works. That’s fairly true but not the first time the works have been mucked up and it is not only the Republicans who behave that way. We picked up this accurate historical note in Wikipedia that supports the consideration;

“The history of the “nuclear” option, though not the name, has been traced to an opinion written by then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957, while he held the title President of the Senate. Nixon’s opinion stated that the Constitution grants the presiding officer of the Senate the authority to override Senate rules by making a ruling that is then upheld by a majority vote.[7] Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.) first used the term “nuclear option” for this maneuver in March 2003.[8][9]

“A series of votes in 1975 have been cited as a precedent for the nuclear option, although some of these were reconsidered shortly thereafter.

“The maneuver was brought to prominence in 2005 when Majority Leader Bill Frist (Republican of Tennessee) threatened its use to end Democratic-led filibusters of judicial nominees submitted by President George W. Bush. In response to this threat, Democrats threatened to shut down the Senate and prevent consideration of all routine and legislative Senate business. The ultimate confrontation was prevented by the Gang of 14, a group of seven Democratic and seven Republican Senators, all of whom agreed to oppose the nuclear option and oppose filibusters of judicial nominees, except in extraordinary circumstances.

“The nuclear option was raised again following the congressional elections of 2012, this time with Senate Democrats in the majority (but short of a supermajority).[10] The Democrats have been the majority party in the Senate since 2007 but only briefly did they have the 60 votes necessary to halt a filibuster. The Hill reported that Democrats would “likely” use the nuclear option in January 2013 to affect filibuster reform,[11] but the two parties managed to negotiate two packages of amendments to the Rules concerning filibusters that passed on January 24, 2013, by votes of 78 to 16 and 86 to 9,[12] thus avoiding the need for the nuclear option.[13]

“In July 2013, the Senate came within hours of a use of the nuclear option by the Democratic majority in order to win confirmation of seven of President Obama’s long-delayed executive branch appointments. The ability of the minority party to filibuster appointments was preserved by a last-minute deal in which the White House withdrew two of the nominations in exchange for the other five being brought to the floor for a vote, where they were confirmed.”

 So, complaining about the minority filibuster in the Senate is not a matter of the pot calling the kettle black, it’s only a question of who, this time around, is the pot and who is the kettle? ##