Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

A Power Congress Grabbed, Then Rarely Used

By David Hawkings, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Twenty years ago, it was enacted as a classically obscure legislative rider, an opaquely worded few paragraphs, crafted by both parties, which each side agreed to keep quiet before its insertion into sprawling must-pass legislation focused on a wholly different issue.

Fifteen years ago, when the provision was first put to use, some lawmakers decried the unleashing of an “atom bomb” that would topple the balance of powers and neutralize the authority of federal regulators.

Now, though, it’s widely understood to have proven a legislative damp squib. And that reputation was reinforced on the final Senate roll call of last week, which brought an anticlimactic end to a fight Republicans have been pursuing for a year against the Obama administration’s efforts to subject more small waterways to environmental regulation.

The vote was the last parliamentary move the GOP had at its disposal under the clunky procedures of that 1996 measure, grandly dubbed the Congressional Review Act, which in theory gives the legislative branch the power (if it acts quickly) to rip from the Federal Register new rules written by the executive branch.

After two decades on the books, the score from the dozen publicized and sustained showdowns waged using that law is: Presidents 11, Congress 1.

The only time the lawmakers prevailed was the first time the process was tested, in the winter of 2001. Republicans newly in control of the Capitol, in something of a surprise attack, passed legislation to repeal regulations on repetitive motion injuries and other workplace ergonomics issues that had been made final in the closing days of the Clinton administration. And the new GOP president, George W. Bush, was happy to sign a measure that got the last word on his Democratic predecessor, overjoyed his friends in the business community and infuriated organized labor.

“It’s only the beginning!” crowed the House majority whip, Texan Tom DeLay, predicting the GOP would swiftly apply its unheralded Contract With America win to undo a range of rules set at the end of the Clinton era. Many Democrats used the nuclear weapon analogy to reflect their anxiety about the law’s lasting legacy of damage: It prohibits regulators from coming up with replacement rules that are “substantially the same” as what Congress has undone. (This frustration was despite the fact that a main player in getting the language inserted into a bill raising the debt limit was Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, then just starting up the rungs of the Democratic leadership ladder.)

Neither dramatic prediction has come true, in part because the Washington power structure and timing of the controversial rule making have never again been so advantageous: A regulation imposed by a president of one party at the end of his term is left vulnerable to dismantling in the early days of unified government under the opposite party.

That scenario looms in a year, of course. If the GOP wins the White House while holding the Senate as well as the House, then any regulations finalized during or after the lame-duck session would remain vulnerable into the spring of 2017. In this case, the law gives a new Congress 75 legislative days to make its move.

Absent that scenario, however, President Barack Obama’s regulatory legacy is safe from further efforts on the Hill at outright and lasting nullification. (De facto congressional deregulation through the denial of appropriations, albeit just one year at a time, is a different matter. And there’s no stopping the steady flow of litigation hoping to negate many rulemaking decisions.)

Republicans have used the law to go after a range of Obama’s labor, health care and environmental regulations, and four of their crusades during the past year have pushed legislation as far as the desktop in the Oval Office — where they’ve accounted for almost half the vetoes of this presidency.

Given that the GOP is currently 13 members short of veto-proof majority in the Senate and 44 short in the House, there was never any doubt that Obama would prevail. Last May, Republicans abandoned their effort to repeal a National Relations Labor Board rule designed to speed the timetable for holding union organizing elections, joining a 96-3 vote against even debating a veto override.

And there are no known plans for symbolic votes to countermand Obama’s December rejections of twinned bills cleared last fall. One would have repealed his EPA rules for curbing greenhouse gas emissions from new coal-fired power plants, the other would have thwarted his regulations of existing energy generators.

(The chamber where a vetoed bill originated gets the first shot at mustering the two-thirds vote required to re-pass the measure, and all the anti-Obama-regulation efforts started in the Senate. There’s no constitutional mandate Congress consider an override, but that has been the practice with few exceptions in recent decades.)

But Republicans decided to stick with tradition last week. At issue was what’s come to be known, from farm country to sprawling suburbia, as the WOTUS rule — for “waters of the United States.” Regulations issued by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers would put perhaps 3 percent more of the nation’s streams and wetlands under federal jurisdiction, meaning permit requirements for potential polluters — a farmer wanting to dam a brook to create a livestock pond, for example, or a developer planning to build houses in a marshland.

Bigger rivers and lakes are already covered by the Clean Water Act, but a series of Supreme Court rulings have created uncertainty about how far upstream that law reaches. The rules are supposed to give clarity. Conservatives see them as usurping the rights of states and private property owners.

The original House and Senate votes to repeal WOTUS were closely along party lines, meaning not close to sufficient for an override. And even deliberating the veto in the Senate effectively requires 60 votes. The Republicans mustered just 52, with 49 of their own joined by three red-state Democrats. Underscoring the Quixotic nature of the moment, the senators missing included both leading GOP presidential candidates, Texan Ted Cruz and Floridian Marco Rubio.

©2016 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: The U.S. Capitol dome and U.S. Senate (R) in Washington, August 2, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst   

Obama Preps Last Prime Time Address To Congress

By David Hawkings, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Perhaps the surest prediction about the next State of the Union Address is that it’s going to be the last speech afforded that lofty title for fully two years.

The second reliable forecast is that on the night of Jan. 12, President Barack Obama will take a nontraditional approach to his final annual appearance before a joint session of Congress.

The first of those expectations is borne of modern precedent; the second comes from the White House itself.

Gerald R. Ford was the last lame duck who came to the Capitol to deliver a State of the Union in the waning days of his presidency. (“There is room for improvement, as always, but today we have a more perfect union than when my stewardship began,” he declared on Jan. 12, 1977, the last time the speech was as early on the calendar as it is this year.)

Four years later, Jimmy Carter sent an exhaustive written report to Capitol Hill a week before leaving office. But the four subsequent presidents all allowed their final election-year addresses to stand as the last word.

And so, while this will be the first State of the Union with Paul D. Ryan looking over the president’s shoulder from the speaker’s chair, it will very likely be the final time Obama stands on that rostrum.

And there will be speculation about the identity of the most notable person missing — the so-called designated survivor, an official in the presidential line of succession who’s taken safely far from the Capitol and guarded by the Secret Service for the night, so there’s some continuity in the American government if the unthinkable happens. (If no Cabinet secretary gets tapped, the assignment could fall to 81-year-old Republican Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who as the longest-serving current member of the majority is Senate president pro tempore, No. 3 in the pecking order after the men seated behind the president.)

Like so much else in Washington, the whole thing used to be on a fundamentally smaller and simpler scale.

For more than a century, the president fulfilled his responsibility by delivering a thick and bureaucratic report that also amounted to his budget request. Woodrow Wilson decided it was a smart idea to use the State of the Union to sell his agenda in person — and a joint session once a year to hear him out has been the default setting since 1913.

The bully pulpit has expanded as technology has changed. Since Calvin Coolidge in 1923 the speech has been on the radio. It’s been on national television since Harry Truman’s address in 1947. Lyndon B. Johnson moved the proceedings to the evening in 1965, while webcasts began early in the tenure of George W. Bush.

Now the audience may have maxed out. The Nielsen ratings don’t include those digital live streams, but they nonetheless show steady and steeps drop in viewership for Barack Obama’s speeches. He got 20 million fewer sets of eyeballs last year than in his first speech to Congress — a drop of 40 percent, to 31.7 million people in 2015, the smallest audience in 15 years.

Next week’s speech is Obama’s final chance to reverse the trend, which seems like a decided long shot.

©2016 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama announces steps the administration is taking to reduce gun violence while delivering a statement in the East Room of the White House in Washington January 5, 2016.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque 

 

After The Revolution, A Single New Spot Of Influence For The Freedom Caucus

By David Hawkings, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — If you’re a member of the House Freedom Caucus, are you better off now than you were a dozen weeks ago?

That question is worth asking in light of last week’s down-ballot House Republican leadership election. It was a sort of insiders-only coda to all those months of turmoil in the ranks that climaxed with Speaker John A. Boehner’s resignation announcement at the end of September.

On the one hand, the most avowedly combative conservatives were granted one of their most prominent demands before quieting their uprising. As he’d promised them, new Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., arranged an opening for the Freedom Caucus to secure a significant voice at his top table.

But on the other hand, those lawmakers were only able to make minimal use of their hard-won opportunity. They significantly underperformed in the elections for the six openings Ryan created on the Steering Committee, the group of lawmakers who dole out the committee assignments that do more than anything to define the public prominence, legislative influence and fundraising ability of their peers.

Four Freedom Caucus members were among the 11 lawmakers who wanted a spot. Only one of them won.

At the same time, two of the victors were the anointed choices of the Tuesday Group, which bills itself as the caucus of the most moderate Republicans. Another had been one of Boehner’s closest allies at the Capitol, while the final two are squarely positioned in the pro-business GOP mainstream.

To be sure, the Freedom Caucus winner is as good a poster child as anyone for the philosophies of the group and the antagonism it focused on the previous House administration: Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who was swept in on the 2010 tea party wave and has remained true to its no-more-business-as-usual spirit ever since.

One of his early apostasies was to vote in the Budget Committee against the fiscal blueprint advanced for the party by Ryan, then the panel’s chairman. And Huelskamp bucked the caucus power structure so many more times as a freshman that as soon as he’d won his second term he was removed from both the Budget and Agriculture panels by the very same Steering Committee to which he now belongs.

His triumph can fairly be portrayed as a sign that defying the leadership on questions of public policy, and deriding its internal management tactics, no longer risk a political death sentence within the House GOP. “My colleagues have sent a strong message that they’re listening to the conservative heart of the party,” declared Huelskamp, who’s also chairman of the Tea Party Caucus.

But at the same time, his win effectively revealed the limits of influence for those most emphatically on the right. Huelskamp got 33 votes, finishing second in the balloting. But the Freedom Caucus has only 39 members, suggesting that while he may have consolidated the group’s support, he was unable to expand his appeal to any new corners of the GOP conference. (The other Freedom Caucus members who came up short were Steve Pearce of New Mexico and Ted Yoho of Florida, while David Schweikert of Arizona dropped out just before the secret ballot.)

And other than plotting to get his old committee assignments back — he’s now consigned to Small Business and Veterans Affairs — it’s not clear what else Huelskamp can accomplish on behalf of his fellow confrontationists. The Steering Committee now has 33 members, with he and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming (already on board to represent the 17 states with one or two GOP members) the only ones aligned with the Freedom Caucus.

The Tuesday Group, in contrast, overperformed in the election. It has 55 members, but a combined 72 votes (or 29 percent of ballots cast) went to the two candidates it formally endorsed, Fred Upton of Michigan and Susan W. Brooks of Indiana.

The other winners were Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a devoted Boehner lieutenant for many years; Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, one of the most outspoken advocates at the Capitol for lifting all caps on defense spending; and Jason Smith of Missouri, at 35 the second-youngest House Republican and the recipient of a Ways and Means seat in his first full term.

(The others who lost were John Culberson of Texas and Darrell Issa of California, who’s been looking for a new avenue for influence since his term ended as Oversight and Government Reform chairman.)

To be sure, other factors may have factored in the outcome. Brooks was the only woman on the ballot, for example, while Upton, as chairman of Energy and Commerce, and Cole, a previous chairman of the House GOP campaign committee, were essentially bidding to reclaim seats they had until recently on the Steering Committee but which were declared open as part of Ryan’s promise fulfillment to the Freedom Caucus.

But the results — also welcomed by the most influential group advocating for centrist GOP policies, the Main Street Partnership — nonetheless support a central claim of the Hill’s corporate conservatives: Their strength in numbers is ultimately more of a force than the rhetorical volume of the small-government purists.

The next and more lastingly important piece of evidence is due this week, in the form of the final consequential vote of the first session of the 114th Congress. When the House passes its comprehensive and overdue appropriations package for this budget year, $50 billion more spending will be allocated than originally proscribed — under a law the “hell no” caucus once hailed as a singular triumph for their cause, but which is now being consigned to the ash heap of revolutionary history.

©2015 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Newly-elected U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) holds his first news conference at Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington November 3, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

 

Sanders Pursues Next Job With Interest In Post He Has Now

By David Hawkings, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Unlike most of his Republican analogues, Sen. Bernie Sanders is overtly trying to harness his senatorial work this fall to the service of his presidential campaign.

The evidence goes beyond his presence on the Senate floor, though on that front he stands out. Of the five senators trying to win the White House, the Vermont independent running as a Democrat has missed the fewest votes: just 14 this year, as of Tuesday, for a 95 percent attendance rate. Three of his colleagues running for the GOP nomination have missed 75 or more roll calls. (The exception is Kentucky’s Rand Paul, who’s only skipped five more ballots than Sanders.)

Merely showing up for work is hardly a predictor of success, of course. (Barack Obama made only 62 percent of the Senate votes the year before winning the presidency.) But it’s part of what helps Sanders to ward-off the sort of the criticism that has dogged Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, who’s missed the most votes by far, and Ted Cruz of Texas, whose campaign has emphasized his disdain for the Senate’s ways under the management by his own party.

In contrast, Sanders is using the power of Senate incumbency to advance causes that highlight themes of his national campaign — that the Washington game is rigged to benefit the moneyed heavyweights at the expense of the little guy, and he’s the candidate to turn that balance of power on its head.

“That’s kind of what I’m paid to do,” he said on MSNBC last week about his attendance, adding that, “while it is difficult and very time-consuming to be a full-time candidate and to be a full-time senator, that is at the moment what I’m trying to do.”

To that end, fresh off a campaign rally in Cleveland on Monday afternoon, Sanders was on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee dais Tuesday morning, injecting a note of populist drama into what’s expected to be the relatively straightforward promotion of Robert M. Califf to head the Food and Drug Administration.

“People are dying and not buying the food they need because they have to pay outrageous prices for medicine,” Sanders told Califf, reiterating opposition he announced last month. “We have been extraordinarily weak at taking on the pharmaceutical industry that has been ripping off the American people. I believe we need a commissioner who is going to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry and protect American consumers. You are not that person.”

Califf became deputy FDA commissioner in February, after running a center at Duke University that conducts clinical trials for drug companies. It’s a background Sanders views as disqualifying, though almost all Democrats disagree and look highly likely to provide sufficient votes for confirmation.

The senator has more senatorial allies for the other cause that’s won him a spurt of “earned media” from the congressional press corps in recent weeks: His effort to obtain higher wages and union representation for the cafeteria workers on the Senate side of the Capitol.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour is a centerpiece of the Sanders platform, and when selling that idea he often points to the economic hardship of Senate food service workers trying to live on less in the Washington area.

And last week, he got 32 Democratic senators to sign his letter urging the Compass Group — which owns Restaurant Associates, the company that runs the food service _ to embrace unionization without requiring the workers to complete the usual petitioning process.

The past year of protests by the cafeteria workers “against low wages and poor working conditions,” the Sanders letter said, “have attracted negative publicity not only to your company but also to the institution of the Senate.” He added that the Senate “should serve as a model employer, and the workers who support the work of the U.S. Senate must be given the respect and opportunities they deserve.”

The senator has also used the bully pulpit of the Senate floor on several occasions in the past month to highlight differences with his main rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, mainly to position himself to her left on social issues.

In late October, only hours after Clinton told a New Hampshire town hall she supports the death penalty in “certain egregious cases,” Sanders went to his desk in the well and declared “the time is now for the United States to end capital punishment” because the government “should itself not be involved in the murder of other Americans.”

And two weeks ago, Sanders introduced a bill to end the federal criminalization of marijuana and permit states to decide whether to legalize its recreational or medicinal use. Clinton has proposed loosening federal restrictions and increasing research into pot’s medical benefits, but she remains opposed to legalization.

On that front, the former secretary of state and senator from New York remains closer to the sentiment of Senate Democrats, not one of whom has endorsed the Sanders legislation. None of the Vermonter’s Senate colleagues has endorsed his presidential campaign, while 33 of the 45 others in the Democratic caucus are formally backing Clinton. (So are 124 House Democrats, compared with just two in the Sanders camp, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona.)

Those rosters of supporters underscore a continuing truth about the Sanders campaign: He’s a lifelong political independent who’s running as a Democrat for entirely practical reasons, and all his efforts to use his standing as a congressional insider to promote his personality as an establishment outsider may only carry him so far.

Photo: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders pauses to talk to the media before the start of the Milford Labor Day Parade in Milford, New Hampshire September 7, 2015. REUTERS/Mary Schwalm

The One Candidate Who Did Something In Congress

By David Hawkings, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — When the expansive presidential field tops out the week after next, five current and six former members of Congress will officially be in the hunt. Only one can claim to have driven the enactment of landmark legislation.

Jim Webb, who announced his bid for the Democratic nomination a week ago, spent just a single term as a senator from Virginia and realized his crowning achievement as a freshman. The bill he introduced on his first day in office in 2007, the most comprehensive update of the GI Bill in 25 years and the biggest expansion of educational aid to veterans since World War II, became law a year and a half later.

Voters continue to say they’re hungry for a president who can conquer gridlock. The question is whether a proven ability to get a really big bill into law with broad bipartisan support — and one expanding the social safety net under more than a million ordinary Americans — will be enough to propel Webb’s candidacy over a gauntlet of significant challenges and into the zone of viability.

Three years after giving up his spot in the Senate, he has low national name recognition, hardly any organization and a professed disinterest in (and limited aptitude for) raising the enormous sums required for a traditional campaign.

He is launching his run as the most conservative Democrat in the race, but at a time when his dominant rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is already edging to the left in response to spurts of enthusiasm for the liberal ideals voiced loudest by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

He’s an ideological iconoclast — a Republican for much of his adult life who delivered the official Democratic response to President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address.

Webb remains hawkish on national defense yet vigorously opposed to the Iraq War. He’s an economic populist when it comes to globalization and excess corporate profits but a free-marketer in opposing many environmental regulations. He’s for higher capital-gains taxes but against higher income taxes. He’s always been an advocate for gun rights, but is a relative newcomer to backing gay rights. He’s passionate about criminal sentencing limits but sympathetic to those who would fly the Confederate flag. He was a crucial “yes” vote for the 2010 health care law, but has been a scold about it ever since.

Such maverick behavior rarely fuels sustained success in this polarized area in modern American politics. Neither is it a reliable recipe for an easy life at the Capitol. Webb has only complicated matters with his prickly and no-nonsense personality, which leaves no doubt that he’s got little patience for the glad-handing and small talk required on the campaign trail at least as much as in a Senate cloakroom.

His July 2 candidacy announcement, unsurprisingly, came in the form of a policy-rich 2,000-word statement online – without any accompanying stage-managed rally or other photo op. “We need a president who understands leadership, who has a proven record of actual accomplishments, who can bring about bipartisan solutions, who can bring people from both sides to the table to get things done,” he said.

Webb’s singular calling card for proving he is the man he describes is the 2008 expansion of the GI Bill, which prompted Esquire to label him one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century for doing “more to repair his party’s relationship with the military” than anyone since the Vietnam War. His measure provides tuition for a public university undergraduate degree, plus a housing allowance, to veterans who served at least three years on active duty after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

To get there, Webb had to overcome the resistance of the Bush administration, which worried the generosity of the package would create big retention problems for the armed forces. He had to beat back a campaign by budget hawks, who wanted to deny the new benefits unless taxes were raised or spending was cut to offset their projected $63 billion cost in the first decade. And he had to outflank the Senate’s most prominent veteran, John McCain of Arizona, who was promoting a less generous alternative as part of his campaign as the GOP presidential nominee that year.

Photo: Jim Webb via Wikimedia Commons

New Congress, New Round In Senate Fight Over Obama’s Judges

By David Hawkings, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In the long-running judicial wars between the Senate and the White House, the first skirmish of the year is flaring into the open this week.

How it plays out will offer insight about whether the new Republican majority plans to continue making the federal bench a venue for venting displeasure with President Barack Obama, or whether he’ll be allowed to refashion the courts a bit more during his final two years in office.

The locus of the new fight is L. Felipe Restrepo, chosen by the president six months ago for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He’s the only person Obama has picked for eight current vacancies on the regional appeals courts. The seat has been open for 18 months, and as a result, the caseload recently became so backlogged that the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts declared a “judicial emergency” for appeals out of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee is convening its third hearing of the year Wednesday afternoon to hear from judicial nominees, and Restrepo is not invited. His supporters say efforts to spur his progress behind the scenes have been frustrated at every turn.

“This is just slow-walking a totally qualified nominee,” said Kyle C. Barry of the Alliance for Justice, which advocates for a more liberal judiciary. “There’s no substantive reason, and it’s unconscionable.”

Progressive advocacy groups and some Senate Democrats suspect Restrepo is being held hostage by the GOP as the latest act of retribution for Obama’s executive action on immigration last fall, which sought to grant an indefinite reprieve from deportation to millions of people in the country illegally.

The initial Republican approach — withholding funding from the Department of Homeland Security unless the president reversed course — ended up as a high-profile collapse this winter, and the Senate GOP’s fallback effort to deny Loretta Lynch’s confirmation as attorney general after she said she would support Obama’s policy has come to naught this spring. Now, some on the right are suggesting the best possible Plan C is preventing new judges on the appeals courts.

“There is little risk of the public outrage that might accompany a DHS shutdown or even a fight over a Cabinet nominee,” Curt Levey of the conservative Committee for Justice legal think tank wrote in the Wall Street Journal in March.

“Nonetheless, denying Mr. Obama the power to shape these all-important circuit courts would give Republicans nearly as much leverage as a broader approach,” he continued. “If Republican senators stick together, this is a no-lose strategy. Either the president relents by rescinding or substantially modifying his immigration orders, or Republicans halt his leftward transformation of the circuit courts and keep judicial vacancies open for a possible GOP president in 2017.”

The staff for Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley said the Iowa Republican is not embracing this approach. Instead, they say the committee is still reviewing the latest background check — something of a curiosity, given that only two years ago the FBI conducted a thorough review of the 56-year-old Restrepo’s life before he was confirmed (on a voice vote) for his current job as a federal trial court judge in Philadelphia.

“You can see by the numbers that there is no strategy,” spokeswoman Beth Levine said, offering statistics suggesting the GOP timetable on judges at this point in Obama’s presidency is comparable to the Democrats’ pace during President George W. Bush’s seventh year in office.

Adding to the mystery behind the Restrepo delay is the fact that one of the judge’s most important public supporters, Republican Patrick J. Toomey, has not returned the endorsement form (known as a “blue slip”) that the committee requires from each home-state senator before a judicial confirmation process begins. He and Pennsylvania’s other senator, Democrat Bob Casey, jointly recommended Restrepo for the lower court, and last fall Toomey declared “he will also make a superb addition to the Third Circuit.”

Toomey’s office declined to discuss the missing blue slip, but spokeswoman E.R. Anderson said Toomey still supports confirmation “and hopes it gets done this year.”

The senator is at a politically difficult moment in his career. A favorite of free-market and social conservatives, he will stand for a second term in a presidential year in a state that’s voted Democratic for president in six straight elections. So far, at least, Toomey has done little to shift his agenda or his voting record toward the middle ahead of 2016.

Professing his support in public for a prominent home-state figure — while withholding his formal endorsement behind the scenes for a time as a gesture of solidarity with fellow conservatives — would count as only the slightest feint to the middle.

A native of Colombia who came to the United States as a toddler and became a citizen in 1993, Restrepo would be the second Latino ever on the Third Circuit. But he would be the first judge on that court who’s been a public defender, having done that work in state and federal court for six years after law school.

He then spent 13 years in private practice, focused on civil rights and criminal defense, before becoming a federal magistrate in 2006, where he ran a program that assisted federal convicts newly released from prison to finish high school, clear up bad credit and find employment.

Restrepo might still end up as a symbol of the immigrant success story and a reminder that the poor oftentimes benefit from good court-appointed lawyers. Or he could become the latest high-profile victim of partisan brinkmanship in the shaping of the judicial branch. This early in the year, it’s still too early to predict.

Photo: Jeffrey Beall via Flickr

Sanders Asks Democrats To Pick Proud Non-Democrat

By David Hawkings, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — When Bernard Sanders declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, he joined a lengthening roster of gadflies who have run in order to push the party to the left.
So will it matter that he is not now, never has been and does not plan to become an actual Democrat?

The Vermont senator’s official objective is to become the first presidential nominee of a major political party who’s officially and steadfastly independent of both major political parties. His much more realistic goal is to do well enough in the debates and run credibly enough in the early contests to give Hillary Rodham Clinton a scare that prompts her to take a more progressive populist tack.

(Assuming Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts sticks with her stated decision to sit out 2016, Sanders is positioned to be the most prominent voice from the left in the Democratic field. He starts with 6 percent support among Democrats, according to the Real Clear Politics average of five national polls conducted in the past month. That’s a shadow of the former secretary of state’s 62 percent _ but still a statistical notch above the less-than-2-percent showing from three other potential rivals: former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a former senator and governor.)

Sanders is entering the fray in a posture fundamentally different from his most famous iconoclastic predecessors from the Senate. Eugene McCarthy, who ran to force President Lyndon B. Johnson out in 1968, and fellow Minnesotan Paul Wellstone, who challenged Vice President Al Gore briefly in 2000, both hugged the liberal edge of the American ideological spectrum but made their presidential plays as proud card-carrying Democrats and uncomplaining cogs in the two-party system.

Sanders, in contrast, has spent more than four decades in public life publicly biting the partisan hand he now wants to feed him.

He made his first mark in Vermont politics in the early 1970s as founder of the Liberty Union Party, which argued the Democratic and Republican organizations were equally in the pocket of corporate interests and disinterested in either economic or social justice. In 20 subsequent bids for mayor of Burlington, governor and Congress, Sanders never once sought the Democratic nomination _ and he actually turned it down the one time he received it anyway, when he first ran for the Senate in 2006.

Sanders won his first election in 1981, ousting the Democratic mayor of the state’s largest city after giving up the third-party label and running as an independent. Only since arriving in Washington a decade later did he begin cultivating the slightly standoffish relationship of mutual convenience with the Democrats that lasts to this day.

Party leaders back home have effectively gotten out of his way ever since he outperformed their 1988 nominee and almost won the state’s solitary House seat. But after winning on his second try, Sanders’ relationship with congressional Democrats got off to a rocky start. Describing himself as a socialist was so off-putting to conservative Democrats (who held much more sway then than now) they initially blocked his application for admission to the House Democratic Caucus. And it took several years before he was permitted to begin advancing in seniority above “actual” Democrats who arrived after he did.

During his 16 years in the House, Sanders’ verbal combustibility and lone-wolf approach isolated him as often as not. He’s been less marginalized in the Senate, where the Democrats have allowed him to be chairman of several subcommittees as well as their new ranking member on Budget this year. And, although his proposals and rhetoric continue to test the party’s limits on the left, his partisan loyalty and presidential support voting records have stayed within the Democratic mainstream.

Along the way, Sanders, 73, has set a record as the longest-serving independent in congressional history. And he continues to keep a plaque on his office wall honoring Eugene V. Debs, the founder and five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America.

Tad Devine, the veteran Democratic consultant who will be directing the presidential campaign, says Sanders is planning no overt steps designed to limit ambiguity about his partisan home — such as formalizing his caucus affiliation in the Senate — because he’s not worried the electorate is confused.

“Clearly, he’s supportive in general of the central priorities, principles and agenda of the Democratic Party, and our view is that’s what’s required of the presidential nominee,” Devine told CQ Roll Call. “At the same time, he was elected in Vermont as an independent and he feels obligated to serve in the Senate that way.”

(c)2015 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: 350.org via Flickr

Analysis: Why The GOP Will Likely Attack The Fake White House

By David Hawkings, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — If budget resolutions are aspirational, sketching the big picture Congress envisions for government, then spending bills are the polar opposite: blueprints that lawmakers micromanage down to the smallest line item.

As arguments began over budgetary targets measured in multiples of billions, another annual ritual climaxed elsewhere on the Hill last week: Appropriations subcommittees were picking nits measured in the low-end millions (sometimes less) at 30 different hearings. A dozen more are planned before spring recess starts at the end of this week.

The sessions are supposed to be pure fact-finding, but in reality they’re about something else this spring. That’s a predicate for the now all-Republican Congress to go further than at any time in the previous six years to make detailed decisions contradicting the spending President Barack Obama wants.

Which brings us to this guidance: Keep your eye on the fate of the fake White House.

The Secret Service wants $8 million to create an ersatz executive mansion, the better to train its agents and officers in presidential protection. If Congress provides the money, it will be a signal of bipartisan belief the agency is getting its act together — and also a sign the GOP is avoiding the temptation of making granular spending cuts based entirely on their headline-grabbing appeal.

In other words, the project doesn’t stand a great chance of surviving. That’s only partly because dissatisfaction with the Secret Service is among the precious few things about which there’s bipartisan agreement these days. Mainly, it’s because Republicans are itching to poke at Obama almost every chance they get — and trying to make a mockery of the White House mockup may prove impossible for them to resist.

Every year, lawmakers hone in on a handful of relatively small-beer items that pack a decent symbolic punch, hoping to convince constituents of their fiscal prudence by excising a couple of million dollars in easy-to-understand spending from a budget that’s a tough-to-comprehend six orders of magnitude bigger. When such a program or project gets targeted, its merits quickly become beside the point.

So this point in the process — well before the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee releases its draft of legislation to fund that sprawling department in fiscal 2016 — may be the best time to appreciate the arguments in favor of constructing a phony White House complex just 20 miles from the real thing. Since an agency as beleaguered as the Secret Service is pursuing the money with a straight face before a chorus of already raised eyebrows on the Hill, it’s a rebuttable presumption there’s some merit to the idea.

The reasoning is not quite as many cynics describe: Having so clearly revealed recently that it’s not up to protecting the real thing, the Secret Service is hoping to do better with a forgery.

The actual rationale is a more sober take on the same concept. Training, then training some more, is the best way for law enforcement agents to get ready for the incredible tensions and minimally predictable situations they must confront. The more realistic the simulations, the better. And, since it would be pretty unsettling for agents and their dogs to stage exercises at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (the public, staff and first family might all get freaked out), a mockup is the next best thing.

“Right now, we train on a parking lot, basically,” Joseph P. Clancy, the new Secret Service director, said in explaining the proposal to House Appropriations last week. “We put up a makeshift fence and walk off the distance between the fence at the White House and the actual house itself. We don’t have the bushes. We don’t have the fountains. We don’t get a realistic look at the White House.”

That would be rectified at the Secret Service training center by erecting a full-scale model of the residence, the East and West Wings and the surrounding 18 acres. It’s not clear just how detailed the grounds would be replicated or whether the interiors would be copied, because the design hasn’t been made public. (Two months ago a drone crashed, undetected, on the south lawn. Six months ago, an intruder got over the wrought-iron fence, ran across the North Lawn and sprinted through the front door and into the East Room before officers tackled him.)

The 500-acre campus, a wooded compound abutting the Baltimore-Washington Parkway just outside the Beltway in Beltsville, Md., already features a Potemkin Village where agents practice protecting the president in many types of places. Aerial photographs show a pretend strip mall, an urban street-scape that might belong at Universal Studios, a tarmac with mockups of Marine One and the front end of Air Force One, a highway overpass and a tunnel to nowhere — all connected by an elaborate six-mile road network for the practice of defensive driving.

Congress has paid for all that fakery in the past, but the end of the Obama years may well be different. The “new” White House may survive subcommittee, where genuine needs generally triumph over political point-making. But that won’t stop efforts to block it in the full committee, on the House floor and then in the Senate.

To be fair, Democrats have pursued the same sorts of petty punishments for past Republican administrations. One of the classics was in 2001 when Jay Inslee, now the governor of Washington state, demanded a House vote on cutting off federal funds to pay the utility bills at the vice president’s official residence. His amendment, which would have saved all of $134,000, received only 141 votes, but it got enormous coverage as a window into the surging partisan antipathy toward Dick Cheney.

It’s also true that Republican lawmakers are eager to deny themselves anything that might sound frivolous. (Last year, they voted as a bloc to pare back the Capitol Visitor Center’s budget by $243,000.) So don’t expect to hear any talk of constructing a Hill replica for Capitol Police training, either.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

2020 Census Might Offer Hope For Democrats

By David Hawkings, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Even at the center of the Beltway’s echo chamber, the preoccupation with a presidential election almost two years away is starting to sound a bit crazy. So maybe the best antidote is to start talking about an important political occasion more than five years in the future.

It’s the next census, on April Fools’ Day 2020. Just a handful of the numbers will have a significant effect on the congressional power structure, most importantly whether Democrats gain a better shot in the next decade at controlling the House.

And unlike the race for the White House, a fundamentally human drama with the potential to take more unpredictable turns than any previous such contest, the census story is all about mathematics and the basic plotline already is pretty easy to predict.

The main reason for a nationwide headcount at the beginning of every decade, the Constitution says, is so seats in the House can be allocated among the states. This reapportionment is a vital prerequisite to redistricting, the “R” word that gets so much more attention. That’s because the political cartographers can’t draw new congressional district lines until they know how many districts they’re allowed to draw.

We’ve reached the midpoint between the last census and the next one, and three more Election Days will pass before the next national House map is in place. But population trends paint a clear big picture of the coming changes: More seats will be stripped from the colder parts of the country and assigned to the warmer regions. And states that are either politically competitive or reliably Democratic, and where the Hispanic population is already important and growing, dominate the list of likely winners.

Using population estimates the Census Bureau released at the end of the year, the first reapportionment forecasts are out from Election Data Services, a nonpartisan consulting firm specializing in political demographics with a strong track record for such predictions. EDS now expects Texas, which is growing at the rate of half a million people annually, will be awarded three more seats. California, Colorado, Florida and North Carolina can each look forward to adding a district. Arizona, Oregon and Virginia are still in the hunt for an additional seat if their population growth is on the high end of estimates.

The states on course to lose a seat, because they’re not growing as fast as the nation, are Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia. New York is on the bubble.

The projections are cause for some optimism from the Democrats. Moving seats mainly to solid “blue” or “purple” states gives the party at least a shot at decent gains in 2022, though that’s far from certain given the myriad variables in redistricting — which include control of state legislatures, the makeup of the federal courts and the views of the Justice Department. (It’s way too early to predict, for example, how many new Texas districts will be drawn to elect a Hispanic Democrat from around San Antonio or Houston instead of a conservative Republican from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.)

There’s also a chance reapportionment would slightly strengthen the 2024 and 2028 Democratic presidential nominees’ hands a bit in the Electoral College, where a state’s strength equals the size of its total congressional delegation. (Keep in mind by the time reapportionment is announced in December 2020, America will have had two presidential elections.)

The reason reapportionment is a zero-sum game has nothing to do with the Constitution. The current size of the House was fixed in a law enacted in 1909. Every state is guaranteed at least one seat, and the remaining 385 are parceled out using a formula requiring advanced knowledge in statistics to explain. (It goes by the benign name “method of equal proportions.”)

If fewer than ten seats shift next time, as seems likely, it will be the smallest reapportionment since before World War II, suggesting the enormous demographic shift of the last half-century is slowing down.

After all, over the last few decades as air-conditioning ducts filled the new homes and office buildings of the South and West and assembly lines shut down across the Midwest and Northeast, millions of people picked up stakes in the Rust Belt and put down new roots in the Sun Belt. And the political clout of the states has moved accordingly.

When John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, just 12 percent of House members were from either California or Texas. In the next decade, that share looks to crest at 21 percent. If Arizona gets a 10th seat, its House strength will have quintupled since the 1950s. Florida’s delegation has more than tripled thanks to the previous five reapportionments. Getting a 28th seat next time would cement its status as the third most populous state ahead of New York, which has seen its House strength shrink steadily from its peak of 45 seats in the 1940s to 27 today.

If Pennsylvania loses its 19th seat, its delegation will be exactly half what it was at the height of the industrial age a century ago. If the predictions hold true, Ohio’s 15 seats (17 pivotal electoral votes) will be only three more than those for Virginia, another swing state. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, Ohio had twice as many electoral votes.

The only state looking to lose population during this decade is West Virginia, so it’s sure to shrink from three House districts to two. And Rhode Island, which has been assigned a pair of seats for all but 20 years since the 1790s, is on the cusp of becoming the eighth state represented by an at-large member. That would be an all-time high.

All this will come true, of course, only if population trends hold steady and the Census Bureau’s count reflects the gains and losses accurately. And here’s where this year’s legislative politics come in. Already, demographers are fretting about reduced appropriations leading to serious census corner-cutting.

“It would be ironic,” said EDS President Kimball Brace, if “Republican-led efforts in the new Congress to cut government spending could cause Republican-leaning states like Texas to lose out in apportionment.”

Photo: ehpien via Flickr

Deep-Sixing 529s Could Add Up To Zero For Tax Overhaul

By David Hawkings, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In divided government, it’s nothing special for a presidential budget to be immediately dismissed as dead on arrival in Congress. It’s much rarer for the president himself to whack an important piece of his budget a full week before delivery.

President Barack Obama’s swift killing of a proposal to effectively eliminate the college savings accounts known as 529s is instructive about this year’s legislative dynamic because it connects two emerging story lines: the efforts by both parties to be perceived as doing the most for the middle class and the drive toward the biggest overhaul of the tax code in a generation.

Obama’s abandonment was forced on him by lawmakers in both parties. The lesson is that the relatively affluent, if they don the mantle of the middle class, have bipartisan clout to block changes in tax law they don’t like. That could force a tax overhaul down a very narrow track.

To make college more accessible, the president announced in the State of the Union address his budget would call for consolidating and simplifying tax breaks for tuition, in part by ending the tax advantages for new deposits in 529s. (For 14 years, parents have used the accounts to save for their children’s college without paying a tax on the investment profit.) Obama would have used the projected revenue, $50 billion over a decade, to expand and extend the $2,500 tax credit all families may claim for education expenses.

Administration officials called it an equitable tradeoff: sacrificing a break that helps a relatively small number of better-off families to help many, many more people of modest means.

Senior members of Congress from both parties immediately declared they didn’t see it that way at all. Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said “middle-class families” would be harmed by ending the tax preference for 529s, a somewhat predictable position for a top Republican inclined to resist most things the president proposes.

But Obama reversed course so fast because three leaders of his own party went public with the same view: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen of Maryland in the House, and Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Democrats’ No. 3 leader in the Senate. (Obama’s 529 plan remained in the budget proposal the White House delivered to the Hill on Monday because the giant volumes had been printed before Obama gave up on the idea.)

The takeaway is there’s bipartisan agreement in Congress that the middle class is a larger and wealthier slice of the population than most economists describe.

The lawmakers’ expansive definition is influenced by how their constituents view their own situation. Very few Americans see themselves as rich, even when they’re making and spending plenty of money. But some are wealthier than others, at least in relative terms, and they are mainly clustered in cities and suburbs along the coasts, where Democrats have more political sway.

The wealthiest 10 percent of congressional districts in 2013, according to the Census Bureau, had median family incomes above $75,000; the national median is $53,000.

All but four of those 43 districts are in solidly blue states Obama carried in both of his presidential victories. Seven are in Schumer’s New York. And 25 are currently represented in the House by Democrats, including not only Pelosi of San Francisco, but also Van Hollen and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, who represent Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.

None of the Democrats from the richest districts sit on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, but four of the 18 Republicans do: Peter Roskam of suburban Chicago, Erik Paulsen of suburban Minneapolis, Tom Price of suburban Atlanta and Sam Johnson of Plano, Texas.

Loud complaints about Obama’s proposal came from such areas, where living expenses can be high enough that two-income professional couples making more than $200,000 a year see themselves as having limited means. The White House says such families are the richest 8 percent and about half of them have 70 percent of the money invested in college accounts.

That such upper-middle-class people could quickly save the 529s is a warning about the inherent difficulty of engineering the first big tax overhaul since the 1980s.

The president, along with Hill leaders on tax policy from both parties, agree the goal should be to sufficiently broaden the tax base — by weeding out a host of preferences for relatively small groups — to lower overall rates without a loss of revenue.

But such an IRS rulebook simplification, with or without special budget rule protections, will be impossible if Democrats and Republicans in Congress agree it’s politically imperative to shield the tax preferences relied on by their more affluent constituents. The 529 break is a drop in the bucket compared to deductions for state and local taxes, mortgage interest or employer-paid health insurance, all of which disproportionately benefit those with very good, if not enormous, incomes.

In the short term, it’s difficult to imagine how lawmakers could devise policy changes that bolster the middle class when the emerging definition of that economic bracket ranges from people who earn a little less than average to families with triple the median income.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

The Real Big Speech? The Pope Might Visit Congress

By David Hawkings, CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Hours before he took the podium, whatever President Barack Obama said Tuesday night was getting eclipsed on the Hill by all the excited chatter about the next person likely to speak before a joint meeting of Congress.

Expectations are growing that Pope Francis will be ascending the House rostrum this fall, becoming the first pontiff ever to visit the Capitol and the most important voice of worldwide moral authority to address lawmakers in person since Nelson Mandela two decades ago.

If the congressional appearance comes off, the pope would be guaranteed more than an enormous American television audience — likely surpassing the numbers that tuned in for this year’s State of the Union address. More importantly, Francis would gain a unique opportunity to present his ideas for a more socially just society while making direct eye contact with one of the world’s most influential groups. For all its partisan dysfunction, Congress has an unequaled capacity to either impede or manifest the papal vision with the legislative proposals it chooses to rebuff or enact.

The pope has already committed to being in Philadelphia the last weekend of September for a global conference on Roman Catholic family values. Vatican officials have signaled strongly in recent days that Francis’ first papal trip to the United States would begin the previous week, with stops in Washington as well as New York, and that a final itinerary would be announced at the end of February.

The likeliest date is Sept. 24, the day after Yom Kippur, even though the House is scheduled to be in recess surrounding the Jewish High Holy Day. (The Senate plans to be in session except on Sept. 23.)

Still, there’s no doubt the House chamber would be filled to overflowing. Most politicians are unambiguously eager to bask in the reflective glow of an international celebrity, and the opportunity to be seen listening to the first Latin-American pope would prove irresistible to lawmakers wanting to solidify their appeal to the burgeoning Hispanic population. Beyond that, the Holy Father would be a big draw because he’s the spiritual leader for more members of Congress than anyone else.

Catholicism has been the plurality religion in both the House and Senate for more than half a century. And the number of Catholics in Congress has been on the increase: They accounted for about 20 percent of all lawmakers in the 1960s and early 1970s, but their ranks have grown steadily to just above 30 percent now. That includes three of every eight freshmen and four of the nine top leaders: Speaker John A. Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Majority Whip Steve Scalise in the House, and Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin in the Senate. (Like the pope, the House chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, is a Jesuit.)

Francis has had a standing offer to address Congress since March, when a formal invitation was delivered bearing the signatures of Boehner and Pelosi. At first blush, it appeared to be one of the rare instances when they sounded like they were singing from the same philosophical hymnal. But a closer reading of their statements reveals how each was seeking to apply a different political tone to the meaning of this relatively new papacy.

The pope’s calls for protecting “the ailing, the disadvantaged, the unemployed, the impoverished, the unborn” along with his championing of “human dignity, freedom and social justice,” Boehner wrote, “are among the fundamentals of the American Idea. And though our nation sometimes fails to live up to these principles, at our best we give them new life as we seek the common good.”

“Many in the United States believe these principles are undermined by ‘crony capitalism’ and the ongoing centralization of political power in the institutions of our federal government,” the Ohio Republican continued. “They have embraced Pope Francis’ reminder that we cannot meet our responsibility to the poor with a welfare mentality based on business calculations. We can meet it only with personal charity on the one hand and sound, inclusive policies on the other.”

Boehner’s conservative message was offset by Pelosi. The California Democrat hailed the pope as someone who “has lived his values and upheld his promise to be a moral force, to protect the poor and the needy, to serve as a champion of the less fortunate and to promote love and understanding among faiths and nations.”

There’s no guarantee, of course, that Francis would seek to define social justice for this particular polarized audience. An alternative might be to reprise themes from his bluntly critical annual message in December to the political organization he knows best. That would be the Curia, the team of administrators who run the Holy See while engaged in legendary bouts of barely secretive infighting.

Francis cataloged 15 “ailments and temptations” weakening their service — several of which might readily be diagnosed in members of Congress.

First on his list was the “disease of feeling immortal or indispensable,” a “pathology of power” that could entice the priestly bureaucrats into believing “they are superior to others and not here for the service to others.”

The pope also described diseases of “excessive planning and functionalism,” vainglory, rivalry and “bad coordination,” all of which he said come into view when one faction becomes obsessed with avoiding collaboration with another.

The final affliction he identified? It is, he said, “a disease of people who seek tirelessly to multiply power only aimed at calumny, and to defame and discredit others.”

AFP Photo/Alberto Pizzoli

Democratic Committee Assignments Less Than A Zero-Sum Game

By David Hawkings, CQ Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The House Democrats undeniably remain the fourth and smallest wheel in the congressional machine. And they’re still struggling to apply enough internal political grease to get their pieces of the legislative engine out of neutral.

The party now has its smallest share of House seats in almost nine decades — just 188, or 43 percent. In reality, its disadvantage is even more pronounced. That’s because Republicans have stuck with the custom that the party in control claims more than its fair share of the seats on committees, where the bulk of the chamber’s policy battles are effectively won or lost.

It’s easy to see the difficulties as Democratic leadership fills all the shrunken number of slots available to them, a prerequisite for the panels to begin the year’s workaday business of conducting hearings and marking up bills.

Assignments for the 19 freshmen (one committee each) and upgrades for just 13 others were unveiled only last week. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi conceded it may take several more meetings to complete the final rounds of duck, duck, goose.

It has been the equivalent of figuring out how to stuff 99 pounds of sugar into a 100-pound sack without any spillage or the bag bursting. Dozens of returning members — urged on by their pent-up ambitions and parochial dictates — bucked for promotion to more influential assignments, while the freshmen pressed for an initial posting that’s a plausible match for their interests and sounds prestigious enough to their new constituents. Lobbyists inveighed for or against lawmakers with certain ideologies being given certain assignments. Governors and senators argued their delegations are underrepresented in the top committee suites.

And every decision has to be ratified by the 51 members — a demographically and regionally diverse assemblage of more than one-quarter of the Democratic Caucus — on the Steering and Policy Committee. (As a practical matter, much of the horse-trading is engineered by the chairwomen of that group, Donna Edwards of Maryland and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, with Pelosi’s blessing.)

Since no magic formula of committee assignments will be able to outvote the GOP to produce a burst of progressive legislating, the process in a macro sense is reminiscent of the old adage about academic politics: The passions run so high because the stakes are so low.

But that’s not true for the individual members, because the assignments remain the main drivers for their legislative agendas, media reputations and fundraising focus. That explains why some lawmakers resort to signaling to the leadership, without ever quite threatening, that if their aspirations remain unmet for too long they’ll decide to leave rather than keep toiling in the weakest among the quartet of partisan camps. (At this stage, there’s no realistic expectation the Democrats can reclaim the House before the next post-redistricting election in 2022, nor is there any plausible chance one party in the Senate will fall below 40 seats and lose its significant minority clout.)

The clearest Democratic winners so far are the five given seats on Energy and Commerce, which has jurisdiction over an extraordinary swath of domestic industry, from telecommunications to trash hauling. Yvette D. Clarke will be the panel’s third New Yorker, but its only African-American woman; fellow fifth-termer Dave Loebsack will take the “Iowa seat” left open by Bruce Braley’s unsuccessful Senate bid; Class of 2008 member Kurt Schrader of Oregon will fill the Blue Dog Coalition void created with the departures of Georgia’s John Barrow and Utah’s Jim Matheson; Tony Cardenas is replacing Henry A. Waxman as the panel’s Los Angeles lawmaker; and his second-term colleague Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts becomes the only member from New England.

Of the handful of other veterans permitted to trade up so far, three stand out for having just survived some of the closest re-election scares of 2014. Ann Kirkpatrick will be able to stick up for Arizona’s farm economy on Agriculture, Scott Peters will be able to put his expertise in environmental regulatory law to work on Judiciary, and his fellow southern Californian Julia Brownley will now promote her suburban constituents’ interests on Transportation and Infrastructure.

There’s no evidence that any of the four caucus members who voted for somebody other than Pelosi for speaker last week will be punished through the committee assignment process, a fate being confronted by some of the Republicans who opposed John Boehner.

The one consolation for Democrats is that the paucity of plum postings isn’t nearly as bad as four years ago. The 2010 elections swept away more than one quarter of all the committee slots they’d commanded, and several dozen lawmakers who survived in the GOP takeover tide were nonetheless kicked off panels where they’d planned to make their careers. Eighteen of them were bounced from the three premier legislative panels: Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Energy and Commerce.

Because of the departures and defeats in the next election, all but a handful were able to get back on those exclusive panels in 2013, while the leadership arranged for a pair of Marylanders to hold ranking member jobs elsewhere: Chris Van Hollen on Budget and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger on Intelligence.

Van Hollen is staying where he is, while Ruppersberger is readying his return to Appropriations now that Pelosi has exercised her prerogative and chosen Adam B. Schiff of California to be the new top Democrat on Select Intelligence. Steve Israel of New York — who didn’t have any committee assignments while running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — also is expected to pick up where he left off on the spending panel.

That leaves just one spot for a committee newcomer, and the safe bet is it will be Derek Kilmer of Washington. (The Pacific Northwest hasn’t had a Democratic appropriator since the 2012 retirement of his predecessor, Norm Dicks.)

Those musical chairs mean a single veteran lawmaker is without the prestigious policymaking post he once called home. Brian Higgins of Buffalo, N.Y., who got on Ways and Means in his third term in 2009, was forced off two years later and has been plotting his return ever since while trying to make the most of life on Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs. And that’s where he’ll stay for at least the next two years. As Ways and Means prepares to take the lead on two of the year’s hottest issues, corporate taxes and trade liberalization, not a single Democratic spot is available.

Their one potential opening, created when Allyson Y. Schwartz had to leave the House after losing her bid for governor, was taken by the Republicans — yet another spoil of their enormous victory.

Photo: House Democrats via Flickr

Obama’s Push For Political Ambassadors Reaching Lame-Duck Limit

By David Hawkings, CQ Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Perhaps the last important contribution Max Baucus made to the culture of the Senate, where he spent 35 years, was to offer a blunt truth before becoming the American envoy in Beijing.

“I’m no real expert on China,” the Montana Democrat confessed during the January hearing on his nomination to be ambassador to the nation with the most people and the biggest economy in the world. But six days later, his colleagues voted, 96-0, to confirm him anyway.

The candor of that episode offered a glimpse into a debate that’s been underway for a century, and which brewed in the background all year before bubbling into public view this week. What should be the limit on a president’s ability to use ambassadorships as rewards for his political allies?

President Barack Obama won the latest round Tuesday, when senators voted almost straight down party lines to confirm two new diplomats whose most obvious calling cards were raising a combined $4 million to elect and re-elect the president. That would be Colleen Bell, a Hollywood soap opera producer who will now spend the next two years running the U.S. embassy in Budapest; and Noah Mamet, a public relations consultant who got his start as a fundraiser for House Democrats two decades ago and is off to take the corner office in Buenos Aires.

Starting next year, the advantage in the argument will go to the Republicans, because once they take over the Senate they’ll have total power to ignore into oblivion any diplomatic choice they view as unqualified.

The mystery is what happens in the next week. Beyond the big-ticket legislative items, Majority Leader Harry Reid is confronting a mountain of routine bills and nominations, knowing he can’t possibly get it all done even if he stretches the lame duck beyond Dec. 12. He’s not tipping his hand on how hard he’ll push for action on would-be ambassadors — although in the short time available the Nevada Democrat will have more success with the 13 career diplomats waiting in the wings than with the dozen political appointees.

By recent historic standards, Obama is starting to test the ceiling for putting friends and campaign supporters in U.S. diplomatic posts. Altogether, 35 percent of Obama’s assignments so far have gone to political people. But in his second term, the number has grown to 41 percent according to research by the American Foreign Service Association, the union representing career diplomats that would like more strict enforcement of a 1980 law that says campaign donations may not be considered a qualification for any foreign posting.

Even assuming the GOP Senate won’t countenance confirming many more big-money bundlers in the next two years, Obama looks to have assembled the most political diplomatic corps since Ronald Reagan, whose grand total was 38 percent. Thirty percent of George W. Bush’s ambassadors were from outside the ranks of the foreign service, as were 28 percent of Bill Clinton’s, 31 percent for the elder George Bush and 27 percent for Jimmy Carter.

Beyond the greater numbers, though, is the intensifying annoyance of Senate Republicans, who agree with the careerists’ view that too many of Obama’s political selections aren’t even tenuously connected to the countries they’re being dispatched to — and have been given minimal apparent preparation by the White House for the diplomatic challenges they’d face. Mamet, for example, had never visited Argentina before his nomination and doesn’t speak Spanish, while at her hearing Bell was unable to articulate any sense of Hungary’s strategic or geopolitical importance between western Europe and Ukraine.

“Rewarding supporters with cushy jobs in the Caribbean is something both parties do,” Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who as the 2008 GOP presidential nominee aspired to be filling ambassadorships himself, said during Tuesday’s floor debate. “I understand how the game is played. But here we are, a nation that is on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin and we’re going to send the producer of The Bold and the Beautiful as the ambassador. … Put a stop to this foolishness.”

All 12 Obama friends hoping for confirmation before the 113th Congress adjourns would represent the United States to its allies — and all but two would be packing for tropical or Scandinavian weather. Only four appear, at least on the surface, to have any sort of foreign policy credentials. On that list are Isobel Coleman, a senior official at the Council on Foreign Relations who’d get an ambassadorial-rank United Nations job; Mari Carmen Aponte, a Latino activist who’s already envoy in El Salvador and would move to the Organization of American States; Maria Echaveste, picked to be the first female U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who coordinated global disaster relief for the Clinton administration and was Obama’s special envoy to Bolivia; and Richard Rahul Verma, slotted for India, who recently was legislative affairs director at the State Department and who, a decade ago, spent five years as Reid’s foreign policy and national security adviser.

Another, Cassandra Butts, is a genuinely longtime friend of Obama’s who would be rewarded with the Bahamas after serving as his first-term deputy White House counsel.

The other seven are all campaign bundlers of the first rank, and except for two, their names have — until recently — been wholly unfamiliar in the diplomatic community.

One exception is investment banker Mark Gilbert. The man picked to be posted in New Zealand would be the first U.S. ambassador who played major league baseball — seven games in the outfield in 1985 for Obama’s Chicago White Sox. The other is Long Island attorney George Tsunis, whose jaw-dropping confirmation hearing performance last winter left him with no hope of ever accepting Obama’s offer of Oslo. Not only did he confess he’d never been to Norway, but he referred several times to the prime minister as its “president” and labeled leaders of the center-right coalition government’s dominant party as “fringe elements” that “spew their hatred.”

“It’s a tight community and we heard from them,” Sen. Al Franken told Minnesota Public Radio in explaining how he and the state’s other Democratic senator, Amy Klobuchar, would oppose confirmation at the urging of the one in six Minnesotans who trace their heritage to Norway. “We want diplomats to be pretty good under pressure anyway and he seemed not to be, and he displayed a tremendous amount of ignorance.”
___
Senior Editor David Hawkings writes the Hawkings Here blog for rollcall.com.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a group of business leaders at the quarterly meeting of the Business Roundtable in Washington, DC on December 3, 2014 (AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

Why Freshman Week Is A Lot Like College Orientation

By David Hawkings, CQ Roll Call (MCT)

WASHINGTON — The notion that Congress is like college usually gets highlighted a few times each year: When members are rushing to meet several legislative deadlines before a lengthy recess, they tend to act very much like students at the end of the semester — pulling all-nighters to cram for exams and churn out papers assigned months ago.

But never is Capitol Hill more like a collegiate campus than in the middle of every even-numbered November, when all the newcomer lawmakers arrive — embodying a yeasty mix of wide-eyed naivete and intensely competitive focus — to begin learning how dramatically their lives are about to change. It may be officially dubbed New Member Orientation, but those who have lived through it routinely describe it as “freshman week.”

Indoctrination into the formalities and folkways of life as a member of Congress begin Wednesday on both sides of the Hill. Six Republicans who have never held federal office before, joined by four Republicans and a single Democrat preparing to decamp from the House, will spend until Friday being instructed by their new Senate colleagues and some senior staffers on the parliamentary procedures, ethical expectations and bureaucratic necessities of their new workplace. (Two potential GOP Senate freshmen won’t be there because their fates won’t be know for certain for some time, thanks to slow ballot counting in Dan Sullivan’s Alaska race and the runoff in Rep. Bill Cassidy’s Louisiana.)

A similar series of bipartisan orientation meetings, starting with a massive cocktail party Wednesday evening and lasting until a lottery for office assignments on Nov. 19, is in store for at least 42 Republicans and 17 Democrats who have secured seats in the House. (Hope is still alive for GOP challengers to five Democratic incumbents in races that remain too close to call, and a pair of seats won’t be filled until the Dec. 6 Louisiana runoff.)

Those officially sanctioned sessions, truth be told, will probably prove to be the least interesting (albeit essential) lessons of the coming week. They are the functional equivalent of learning how the cafeteria meal plans work, when the IT help desk is open in the library or how the goofy football mascot got its name.

Much more useful, for most college freshmen as well as congressional freshmen, will be all the informal connections and back-channel communications that start getting made.

Theoretically, every one of them will show up for convocation (or swearing-in day) on an equal footing — the valedictorian who gets admitted via early-decision (or the primary victor in an open district drawn safely for her party) has the same standing at the start as the kid taken off the waiting list at the last minute (or the winner of the razor-close race decided days after the election).

But in Congress, as at every topflight institution of higher learning, the social stratification gets started as soon as each new class assembles for this first time — and so does the intellectual and political culling of the herd.

Thanks to saturation midterm elections coverage, and with virtually every debate and 30-second TV spot preserved on YouTube, new members won’t need to wait for their first introductions before starting to form opinions of the other newbies — just as teenagers put their social media skills to work sizing up their future roommates long before move-in day.

(Does North Carolina Democrat Alma Adams always wear a hat? Does West Virginia Republican Evan Jenkins really look like Dennis Quaid? Can one of the newcomers from the Northern Virginia suburbs, Democrat Don Beyer or Republican Barbara Comstock, help me find a cheap place to crash during weeks when there are votes?)

The initial round of face-to-face encounters still offer the best insights for taking the measure of potential collaborators, competitors or plain old pals — and one of the last chances for those with the most outsized reputations to try selling an alternate persona.

That’s why it will be worth watching out to see if a clutch of senators-in-waiting sets off down a cordoned-off Capitol corridor, hoping to locate the fabled 19th century marble bathtubs hidden in the basement. Or if every House member-elect from Michigan (there are five) or California (at least six) ends up at the same restaurant on Eighth Street one evening — and remains together until last call at a bar on H Street early the next morning. Or if a duo from different generations or backgrounds (hoping they might be from different political parties would be too big a stretch) decides to share the rent on an English basement apartment. Or if a similar such pair gets into a clenched-teeth ideological argument while assembled for the official freshman House class photograph on Monday.

Such moments of bonding even before the markups (or the classes) begin can translate into useful (maybe even genuine) friendships that last an entire congressional (or collegiate) career. But at the same time the freshmen are sussing out their classmates, the savviest members of the Class of 2014 (and that’s most of them) also will be working the angles with the members of their leadership, the elders in their delegation and the chairmen of their preferred committees.

Just as the science nerd has figured out that waiting for registration is too risky a strategy for securing a spot in the organic chemistry section being taught by a Nobel nominee, the incoming member from a district where military installations generate tens of thousands of jobs knows it’s foolish to wait passively for assignment to the Armed Services Committee. While the student may hope to improve his odds by importuning and flattering the professor, someone like Tom MacArthur of New Jersey may spend some of freshman week doing the same with members of the House Republican Steering Committee.

And just like the soccer recruit who posts on Facebook about the squad’s flaws last year, and concludes she’d better apologize to the coach long before the first practice, those who expediently distance themselves from their own partisan team when they’re candidates have only a short time after winning to decide whether to make amends or remain on the outside. And so someone like Joni Ernst of Iowa’s biggest decision during orientation will be whether to declare her support for Mitch McConnell as he prepares to run unopposed on Thursday for Senate majority leader.

While freshman days include plenty of policy briefings segregated by party and grounded in Democratic or GOP orthodoxy, and while legions of job-seekers and lobbyists will be ready to make their none-too-subtle introductions at a moment’s notice, freshman week is about as disconnected from partisan hardball as life ever gets in Washington. Just like those who have just started college, it will behoove all the congressional newcomers to make the most of the moment — and to realize they will never get a second chance to leave a first impression.

(Senior editor David Hawkings writes the Hawkings Here blog for rollcall.com.)

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

Analysis: Voter Engagement Gap Hits At GOP Turnout Edge

By David Hawkings, CQ Roll Call

WASHINGTON — Twenty days out, and the sum of all the polling, computer modeling and intangibles says that both Senate storylines are still possible. The headline defining the midterm elections could end up being written by a few thousand people scattered west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies — voters who may not decide until the afternoon of Nov. 4 whether to head to the local library or school cafeteria to cast the decisive ballots.

The Democrats can still retain their majority by holding their losses to five seats — the number of turnovers currently projected by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call race ratings. But the GOP can still realize a decisive takeover; if all our current tossup races end up falling to the Republicans, their net gain would be eight seats, two more than the six they need to reclaim control.

Turnout will drive the outcome. And polling in the past couple of weeks has sent strong signals that Republicans are more motivated to get to the polls and so will show up in potentially dispositive numbers.

Democratic voters are less interested in the elections than Republicans, according to survey results released over the weekend by the Wall Street Journal, NBC News and the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The poll found that while all registered voters prefer a Democratic Congress by a narrow 48 percent to 43 percent, the number is more than reversed when it comes to the voters who say they’re very interested in the elections: 51 percent are hoping for a GOP sweep, while just 44 percent are rooting for the Democrats.

Similar, albeit more detailed, numbers were reported a week ago by Gallup. It found that, overall, voters have thought less about the elections, are less motivated to vote and are less enthusiastic about their choices than in the previous two midterms. But the Republican numbers on all three fronts are much better than for the Democrats: 12 points higher on attention paid to the campaign, 19 points higher on motivation to vote and 18 points higher on excitement about voting. “As a result, even if overall turnout is depressed compared with prior years, Republicans appear poised to turn out in greater numbers than Democrats,” Gallup concluded.

The Democrats are keenly aware of this voter engagement gap, which the pollsters say is about what it was before the GOP won control of the House in 2010 — then, just as now, voters were casting ballots to show their dissatisfaction with the job performances of Congress and President Barack Obama.

Hoping to minimize this troublesome shortcoming in enthusiasm, the Democrats have started investing substantially in get-out the-vote efforts in states with the closest Senate contests, including Iowa, Colorado and Louisiana. And the president is using his limited time on the stump this fall to underscore the problem. “Democrats have a congenital disease: We do not vote in midterm elections,” he said at an Oct. 7 fundraiser in New York. “In state after state, what ends up happening is, is that we have more folks who agree with us, but all too often, (Republicans) end up winning some of these elections.”

What the Democrats are banking on is that the GOP enthusiasm advantage is at least partly attributable to Republicans’ expectations of victory, which could still get tamped down in the campaign’s closing act. Many are motivated to vote more than anything by the prospect that they’re going to punch the ticket for the winning candidate. (Conversely, many decide to stay home once they’re convinced pulling the lever for their guy is a lost cause.)

So both sides will be working in the final weeks to cultivate the notion that Senate momentum has swung irreversibly their way. Republicans will be promoting the perception that state Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Reps. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Cory Gardner of Colorado are accelerating through the finish, while the Democrats will be insisting that Rep. Bruce Braley and Sens. Mark Udall and Mary L. Landrieu have applied the necessary brakes well before the finish. (The dynamic is different in the fourth tossup, in Kansas, where Sen. Pat Roberts is out to show he’s stopped his slide in time to save his seat for the GOP while independent businessman Greg Orman tries to keep his boomlet aloft.)

Almost three in five adults eligible to vote did so in the past two presidential elections (57 percent in 2008 and 58 percent last time), but only two in five voters showed up in the most recent midterms (40 percent in 2006 and 41 percent in 2010). Mathematically speaking, that means ballots cast for Congress in a midterm have more impact than in a presidential year.

In the five states that featured competitive Senate contests in each of the previous two elections, turnout was fundamentally greater in 2012 than in 2010. The smallest growth, 35 percent, was in Nevada, where Majority Leader Harry Reid eked out his 2010 re-election with just 363,000 votes but Republican Dean Heller needed 458,000 votes to survive two years later. In Florida, 8.2 million votes were cast in Democrat Bill Nelson’s 2012 re-election race — a whopping 52 percent more than the number of ballots cast when Republican Marco Rubio had won his seat two years before.

Low congressional approval ratings usually foreshadow a relatively high-turnout midterm, but this time could be different. That’s because there’s no chance that a surge of anti-incumbent sentiment would end divided government. Since the House is sure to remain Republican and the presidency Democratic for the next two years, the stakes in the 2014 battle for the Senate can’t plausibly be labeled as historic. And so the urge to get to the polls in Galena, Kan.; Greeley, Colo,; Grinnell, Iowa; or Gretna, La., might be easy to resist.

If this isn’t going to be a change election, what’s the point in changing your routine on Election Day?

Photo: Neighborhood Centers Inc. via Flickr

A Senator To Replace Holder?

By David Hawkings, CQ Roll Call

WASHINGTON — The latest round of Cabinet handicapping is well underway — a welter of uninformed speculation (mixed with some White House trial balloons) about who might be nominated as attorney general. And the names of three Democratic senators keep getting bandied about — although they’ve all, with varying degrees of intensity, denied interest in the appointment.

From President Barack Obama’s perspective, it would arguably make sense for him in the short term to return to the congressional well for one of the final topflight, polarizing positions he’ll ever get the opportunity to fill. But the long-term downsides appear far greater — not only for his legacy but also for the already wobbly balance of power at the Capitol.

Besides, taking the job at this time doesn’t look like a smart career move for any of the Senate trio meriting recent mention: Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Pressing one of them into service anyway would almost guarantee a successor to Eric H. Holder Jr. is confirmed without much fuss during the lame-duck session — no matter which party wins senatorial control for the next Congress. If Republicans triumph, they will push to minimize what gets done between Veterans Day and Christmas, but they’d very likely make an exception for a nominee who’s standing with them in the well of the chamber.

It’s been a quarter-century since the Senate rejected one of its own for a Cabinet post — the voluble retired Sen. John Tower of Texas to run the Pentagon in 1989 — and the current possibilities are all members of the club in good standing. (The three Cabinet secretaries Obama has plucked from the Senate so far (Hillary Rodham Clinton, John F. Kerry and Ken Salazar) were confirmed with a combined total of five “no” votes.)

While their Republican colleagues wouldn’t have much nice to say about any of their liberal records on the extensive array of issues in the Justice Department’s portfolio, it’s hard to see any being labeled as either unqualified or outside the ideological mainstream.

All have been members of the Judiciary Committee since early in their Senate tenures, which in each case was preceded by extensive prosecutorial experience. Blumenthal and Whitehouse have been both attorney general and United States attorney for their states, while Klobuchar was the district attorney in Minneapolis for eight years.

No matter whom he selects, Obama will surely point to the precedent of eight years ago, when Democrats won control of the Senate in President George W. Bush’s second midterm but were unanimous in voting to confirm Robert M. Gates as defense secretary during the lame duck. (His White House already is noting the statistic.)

And, given how the filibuster has been neutralized as a weapon for thwarting nominations, at least until December the president has the muscle to brush past GOP entreaties that he wait on an attorney general nomination until next year.

Smart money says Obama will wield that power, and that he won’t decide to mitigate the sting by nominating a senator.

No one in the trio being mentioned is particularly close to the president, and for his second-term Cabinet he’s shown a pattern of turning to people he’s worked with closely. Former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Solicitor General Donald M. Verrilli Jr. would better fill that bill.

But Obama also has shown desire to name “firsts” to his senior team, and none of the three senators embody any sort of path-breaking diversity. Plenty of other people getting mentioned do: Either California Attorney General Kamala Harris or the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Loretta Lynch, would become the first African-American woman to run Justice; the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, would be the first Indian-American member of the Cabinet; the just-departed U.S. attorney in Seattle, Jenny Durkan, would be the first openly gay Cabinet secretary.

For any of them, becoming the 83rd attorney general would be the capstone on a distinguished legal career and could become the launching pad for any additional aspirations to be in public life — in elected office or on the bench.

So it’s highly likely each would jump at the chance to take on what will likely turn out to be a thankless job lasting no longer than two years. On an enormous collection of hot-button issues — voting rights, criminal sentencing, terrorist interrogations, drones and telephone records collection, to name just a few — the next attorney general’s overriding task will be to do what’s possible to tamp down the controversies begun on Holder’s watch. Any initiatives he or she might dream up won’t even be worth unveiling because they would have such little chance of winning over congressional Republicans.

The three senators certainly don’t need the hassle. If this were 2017, each would be wide open to getting in on the ground floor of a new Democratic administration — especially if the alternative is hanging on to their seemingly very safe seats but enduring a long stretch in the senatorial minority. (Blumenthal, who’s tamped down the recent speculation less emphatically than the others, will turn 70 when his current term is up in two years. Whitehouse will be 63 and Klobuchar 58 when they next face the voters, in 2018.)

At the moment, there is also the Senate balance of power to consider — no small matter given how close the partisan split looks to be.

Only promoting Klobuchar would guarantee no shrinkage in the Democratic ranks during the 114th Congress. That’s because Minnesota’s Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is cruising toward re-election and is empowered to appoint a senator to serve two full years. In Connecticut, even if Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wins his toss-up contest, his appointee could serve only until a hotly contested special election 32 weeks later. And Rhode Island is among the four states where the governor has no Senate appointment power, meaning one of its seats would be vacant until the voters filled it in the spring.

Senior Editor David Hawkings writes the Hawkings Here blog for rollcall.com.

AFP Photo/Alex Wong