|This post is not an exhaustive review of everything Congress has voted on since Labor Day. Many low-profile bills and resolutions passed this month with no controversy and little discussion (for instance, a bill "that gives Apollo-era astronauts full ownership of artifacts they kept from the missions they flew"). I am focusing on the most newsworthy bills considered.
The 2008 Farm Bill expired last night. Although the food stamp and crop insurance programs will continue to operate, and many "working lands conservation programs" were previously extended until 2014, the lack of a new farm bill or temporary extension of the 2008 bill creates a lot of uncertainly in the agricultural sector, especially for commodity producers.
The failure of the U.S. House to vote on a new farm bill is already an issue in Iowa's Congressional races, especially in the third and fourth districts. The U.S. Senate approved its version of a new farm bill in late June, and Iowans Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin both supported the measure. The House Agriculture Committee completed its work on a farm bill months ago. However, U.S. House leaders declined to bring the farm bill up for a floor vote in September. Many conservative Republicans who don't represent rural districts consider the farm bill too expensive, making it harder than ever before to pull together a majority supporting this legislation.
In July, Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley (IA-01) started circulating a "discharge petition" to try to force a House vote on a farm bill. He filed the petition on September 13, well short of the 218 signatures that would bring the legislation to the House floor. Leonard Boswell (IA-03) and Dave Loebsack (IA-02) quickly signed the petition. As of September 21, 67 members had signed, including a few farm-state Republicans.
Representative Tom Latham, who now represents IA-04 but is running for re-election in the new IA-03, is a close friend of House Speaker John Boehner. In a WHO Radio interview, he blamed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for the lack of a vote on the farm bill. After hesitating for several days, Latham signed Braley's discharge petition on September 19.
Representative Steve King, who now represents IA-05 and is seeking re-election in the new IA-04, is the only member of Iowa's delegation not to sign the farm bill discharge petition. Democratic challenger Christie Vilsack has been blasting King since July for his failure to push harder for a farm bill. She has brought up the issue in each debate and many campaign appearances and press release. For example, Vilsack's campaign has repeatedly cited a Dubuque Telegraph-Herald report from September 16, quoting Grassley in support of Braley's discharge petition.
King is feeling pressure on this issue, because he skipped out on a Sioux City fundraiser with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on September 20 in order to lobby House leaders for a farm bill vote after the election. King announced in a campaign press release that day,
"Continuing to work to pass a Farm Bill is my priority at this time," said King. "I'm pleased the House Agriculture Committee was able to put politics aside and pass a bipartisan Farm Bill out of committee. Now it appears Nancy Pelosi is whipping a 'nay' vote for her own political gain. There is no chance to bring a Farm Bill to the floor before the election. It is my goal here in Washington this week to secure a 100 percent commitment from Speaker Boehner to bring a Farm Bill to the floor as soon as we come back after the election. I plan to work across the aisle to get a Farm Bill passed giving farmers in the heartland the stability they need."
Senators Grassley and Harkin both spoke out during September on the need for Congress to pass a new five-year farm bill, although Grassley would settle for a one-year extension of current law if necessary.
To avoid a federal government shutdown following the end of the 2012 fiscal year on September 30, Congress passed a continuing spending resolution to keep the government funded. Such continuing resolutions have been a recurring feature of the Obama presidency, sometimes postponing doomsday by only a few weeks at a time. In contrast, the latest spending resolution funds the federal government for a full six months. That's one fewer task the lame-duck Congress will need to address.
The House approved the resolution making continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2013 on September 13 by 329 votes to 91 (roll call). All five House members from Iowa supported this bill, some reluctantly. Boswell, Braley, and Loebsack preferred the Democratic alternative, which failed on a mostly party-line vote. Loebsack later released a statement urging House Speaker John Boehner to "deal with the looming 'fiscal cliff' in a substantive way instead of kicking it down the road for another six months."
The Senate passed the continuing resolution on September 22 by 62 votes to 30 (roll call). Harkin voted yes, along with most Senate Democrats, while Grassley voted no, as did most Republicans.
Obama signed the six-month spending bill into law on September 28.
Under the Budget Control Act approved in August 2011 as a condition for raising the debt ceiling, a "sequester" of federal spending looms in early 2013 if Congress can't agree on some other deficit-cutting plan before then. Defense spending would not be spared under the "sequester," so many Congressional Republicans are scrambling to find an alternative. The House approved the National Security and Job Protection Act, H.R. 6365, on September 13. Pete Kasperowicz reported for The Hill,
The House approved a new version of a sequester replacement bill on Thursday that would require the Obama administration to propose an alternative to the $55 billion in defense cuts scheduled to take effect in January. [...]
While Republicans favor spending cuts, they have also argued that defense cuts should be spared, or at least be subject to less budget trimming, because of the critical functions that military spending serve. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) hinted at that argument again today.
"Treating every line item the same is a mistake," he said. "Every part is not the same in our budget."
But Democrats questioned why, if sparing defense from cuts is so important, Republicans ever agreed to the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which set up the possibility of steep cuts. Van Hollen and other Democrats noted that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he got 98 percent of what he wanted with the BCA, but now he and other Republicans are saying they are opposed to the sequester.
"To hear our Republican colleagues today, you'd think they had nothing to do with the Budget Control Act," Van Hollen said.
House passage sends the bill to the Senate, but because Democrats there are not expected to consider it at all, House Democrats labeled it a "messaging vote" for Republicans.
House Republicans also prevented Democrats from getting a floor vote on their alternate proposal, which would replace the "sequester" spending cuts with revenue increasing measures.
This bill passed on a mostly partisan 223 to 196 vote (roll call). Iowa's five House members split on party lines: Latham and King supported the bill, while Braley, Loebsack, and Boswell voted against it.
In other budget-related news:
Loebsack was a sponsor of a bill to "prohibit the use of public funds for political party conventions." All five Iowans were part of the 310 to 95 majority that passed this bill.
Senate Democrats failed to gain the 60 votes needed to waive budget rules and pass a veterans jobs bill. While Democrats said the bill was fully paid for with various forms of new revenue over 10 years, Republicans said it violated the 2011 Budget Control Act. Grassley was one of the 40 Senate Republicans who successfully blocked this bill. Harkin was part of a unanimous Democratic caucus voting to move the bill forward.
One of the last pieces of Senate business before adjournment was to pass a bill introduced by Grassley, the Government Charge Card Abuse Prevention Act. Grassley's office released this statement on September 24 summarizing the bill's purpose and provisions.
A bill that will require federal agencies to put new controls on government charge cards and enforce more stringent penalties for violations by federal employees is on its way to the President for his signature, following final passage by Congress over the weekend.
The reform measure was sponsored by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and it first won Senate approval in July 2011. The House of Representatives passed it during the summer. The Senate needed to act again for final passage, which it did very early Saturday morning.
"This bill is about accountability," said Grassley. "The public trust has been violated by abusive use of government charge cards. By putting some common-sense controls into the law, we can make certain the federal bureaucracy improves the way it responsibly manages the use of these cards." [...]
Below is a summary of the reform legislation. The Senate also had passed the reform measure in 2009, but it was never taken up by the House of Representatives.
Summary of the Government Charge Card Abuse Prevention Act
The bill would require all federal agencies to establish certain safeguards and internal controls for government charge card programs, and to establish penalties for violations, including dismissal when circumstances warrant. The bill would also increase oversight by providing that each agency Inspector General periodically conduct risk assessments and audits to identify fraud and improper use of government charge cards. These reforms are based on the experience of Grassley and other members of Congress, the GAO, and agency Inspectors General in investigating the weaknesses in agency policies and procedures that have lead to instances of waste, fraud, and abuse in government charge card programs.
The required safeguards and internal controls include:
· performing credit checks for travel card holders and issuing restricted cards for those with poor or no credit to reduce the potential for misuse
· maintaining a record of each cardholder, including single transaction limits and total transaction limits so agencies can effectively manage their cardholders
· implementing periodic reviews to determine if cardholders have a need for a card
· properly recording rebates to the government based on prompt payment, sales volume, etc.
· providing training for cardholders and managers
· utilizing effective systems, techniques, and technologies to prevent or catch fraudulent purchases
· establishing specific policies about the number of cards to be issued, the credit limits for certain categories of cardholders, and categories of employees eligible to be issued cards
· invalidating cards when employees leave the agency or transfer
· establishing an approving official other than the purchase card holder so employees cannot approve their own purchases
· reconciling purchase card charges on the bill with receipts and supporting documentation
· reconciling disputed purchase card charges and discrepancies with the bank according to the proper procedure
· making purchase card payments promptly to avoid interest penalties
· retaining records of purchase card transactions in accordance with standard government record keeping polices
· utilizing direct payments to the bank when reimbursing employees for travel card purchases to ensure that travel card bills get paid
· comparing items submitted on travel vouchers with items already paid for with centrally billed accounts to avoid reimbursing employees for items already paid for by the agency
· submitting refund requests for unused airline tickets so the taxpayers don't pay for tickets that were not used
· disputing unauthorized charges and tracking the status of disputed charges to proper resolution
Energy and environment
I've lost count of how many bad votes the U.S. House has taken on energy policy this year. Adding to the list, House members approved H.R. 6213, the No More Solyndras Act, by a vote of 245 to 161 on September 14. Iowa Democrats Boswell and Loebsack joined almost the entire Republican caucus in supporting this bill. Braley was one of the no votes. Pete Kasperowicz and Ben Geman explain the concept behind the bill:
The House passed legislation Friday afternoon that would curtail a Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantee program that backed a $535 million federal loan to Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar-panel maker.
Members approved the No More Solyndras Act, H.R. 6213, in a 245-161 vote. Republicans have held the failed green-energy company as proof that the Obama administration has funneled billions of dollars to undeserving firms. [...]
If it were to become law, the bill would prevent DOE from approving any loan guarantee applications filed after 2011. Applications sent in before 2012 could only be approved after a review by the Treasury Department that affirms the loan guarantee makes financial sense.
On September 21, the House approved a bill seeking to deregulate the coal industry.
The Stop the War on Coal Act, H.R. 3409, was approved in a 233-175 vote, although as usual, the bill many Democrats described as anti-environmental still found some Democratic support - 19 Democrats voted for it.
The legislation is a combination of five bills that would overturn or prevent an array of regulations that Republicans say would harm the coal industry and the economy. Among other things, it would block the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other sources, and prevent rules on the storage and disposal of coal ash and limit Clean Water Act rules.
It would also prevent potential Interior Department rules to toughen environmental controls on mountaintop removal coal mining, and thwart other air emissions rules, including air toxics standards for coal-fired power plants.
Yet again, both Loebsack and Boswell were among the small group of House Democrats who supported a terrible Republican bill.
Boswell and Loebsack did vote for some Democratic amendments that would have mitigated the harm done to the environment or public health. All of those amendments failed. Click here to view the individual roll calls on the amendments, starting with number 592.
Latham and King also voted for the coal industry deregulation bill. Braley was the only member of the Iowa delegation who had the good sense to vote no.
House members demonstrated that they can occasionally be moved to act to protect public health. By voice vote, the House passed a bill to force labeling of drywall and limit the levels of contaminants like sulphur in drywall. That bill was a response to health problems linked to drywall imported from China. I highly doubt anything like that legislation would pass if U.S. manufacturers would be affected.
All five Iowans supported a bill extending the E-Verify Program for checking immigration status, which passed the House with just three dissenting votes. The Senate had already approved the bill in August, so it went straight from the House to the president. Obama signed the E-Verify bill into law on September 28.
On September 20, the House failed to pass a different immigration bill under unusual circumstances. Pete Kasperowicz explains:
The House on Thursday voted down a Republican bill that would reallocate thousands of U.S. visas to foreign nationals with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, known as STEM skills.
While Republicans won a clear majority, they called it up under a suspension of House rules, which required a two-thirds majority for passage. As a result, the House failed to pass the bill despite the 257-158 vote that saw 30 Democrats vote with Republicans.
GOP leaders have occasionally called up bills under suspension of the rules when they know they do not have the support of two-thirds of the House. But the move is rare, and seems to be reserved for bills that they want to have a vote on for political reasons, but don't necessarily want to pass.
Boswell was one of those 30 Democrats who voted for the visa bill. King and Latham supported it too. Braley and Loebsack were among the no votes.
In other immigration-related news, King announced last week that he will wait until after the election to file a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration's new policy on deportations.
Countering Democratic rhetoric about the "Buffett Rule," which holds that the super-wealthy should pay at least 30 percent in federal income taxes, House Republicans passed by voice vote their own "Buffett Rule Act." Their bill would simply allow tax filers to pay extra, as much as they want beyond taxes owed, in order to help reduce the federal deficit.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was a hotly debated political topic a few years ago, but I saw hardly any media coverage of the vote to extend the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 for another five years. This bill passed the House by 301 votes to 118 (roll call) on September 12. Almost all the Republicans present voted yes, including Latham and King. The Democratic caucus was split with 74 yes votes, including Loebsack and Boswell, and 111 no votes, including Braley.
Pete Kasperowicz summarized those FISA amendments:
The House approved legislation Wednesday that extends for five more years the government's authority to launch overseas surveillance operations on terrorists without first getting permission from a court. Current authority expires at the end of 2012. [...]
Under the bill, U.S. intelligence agencies could continue to surveil terrorists overseas without a court order. Supporters of the bill noted that both Presidents Bush and Obama have expressed support for this policy. [...]
Several Democrats spoke against the bill and said there have been reports that in the process of collecting data on non-U.S. terrorists overseas, some data is being collected on U.S. citizens. The Democrats said this problem means Congress should be demanding more oversight of this process, which is absent from the GOP bill that was approved.
Boswell voted for these amendments in 2008, but at that time Loebsack was against the legislation. Will Loebsack's Johnson County fans please remind me why they think this man stands up for progressive principles? Facing re-election in a slightly less Democratic district, he's been voting with Blue Dogs and Republicans more and more often.
The House approved a resolution disapproving of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department's new policy on waivers for states regarding welfare reform. Fact-checkers have repeatedly debunked Republican claims that the Obama administration "gutted" work requirements for welfare recipients. Because the Senate will not act on this resolution, it's only a political statement, which will not affect administration policy. I find this vote interesting mainly because yet again, Boswell and Loebsack were among a small group of 19 House Democrats who joined Republicans in voting yes. Kudos to Braley for not going along with this misleading GOP spin.
In foreign affairs, Grassley was one of only ten senators (all Republicans) to vote for Rand Paul's bill "to end foreign aid to Egypt, Libya, Pakistan and Yemen unless they met certain conditions."
Meanwhile, a Republican senator blocked consideration of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Harkin is a leading advocate of the Senate ratifying that treaty, proposed by the United Nations.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) pointed out that the treaty was written years ago and the administration has been giving U.S. agencies time to determine if the treaty would require any additional action from Congress. Harkin said the agencies spent an entire year determining that the United States is already in compliance with the treaty and that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been looking at the treaty for months. [...]
Durbin and Harkin stressed that the bill would benefit Americans with disabilities who travel to other countries that don't have the same ADA standards.
"We live in a very mobile society," Harkin said. "People with disabilities should be able to live, travel, study abroad freely just as they do here in the United States."
Harkin stressed that the reason the United States would not have to pass any additional laws to comply is because the country has been the leader for the world on disability issues. He added that 116 other countries that would have to pass laws to comply have signed onto the treaty, include the European Union.
King made news in mid-September by introducing a "No Hungry Kids Act." I was surprised, given that King has advocated substantial cuts to food stamp (SNAP) benefits. Turns out that King's bill is designed to overturn the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new calorie limits in school lunches.
King's No Hungry Kids Act, H.R. 6418, would eliminate new USDA guidelines that say children in kindergarten through fifth grade can be served meals containing up to 650 calories, while meals for sixth through eighth graders can have 700 calories, and meals for high schoolers can have 850 calories.
"For the first time in history, the USDA has set a calorie limit on school lunches," King said last week. "The goal of the school lunch program was - and is - to insure students receive enough nutrition to be healthy and to learn.
"The misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama's 'Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act,' was interpreted by Secretary [Tom] Vilsack to be a directive that, because some kids are overweight, he would put every child on a diet. Parents know that their kids deserve all of the healthy and nutritious food they want."
Final note: King chose a strange issue to focus on in a September 20 speech on the House floor.
"There I am driving down the road looking at cornfields, which I love to look at, at 55 miles an hour. I thought, 'Why am I doing this?'" he said. "Well, it must be the nanny state that has imposed this on me."
King pointed out he could have gotten to his destination faster if he drove 65 miles per hour, instead of wasting time on the road.
"You calculate that each one of us on the day we were born was granted the actuarial number -- at that time I figured it at 76 years -- when you figure those hours that you have in your lifetime at 76 years and then you figure out how many hours you spend unnecessarily looking out the windshield at 55 miles an hour, and you calculate the lifespan, and you divide it into the time saved and the miles that are traveled on rural roads in Iowa each year," he said.
"And it came down to this: that if we drive 65 instead of 55, we will have saved 79.64 lifetimes of living, in other words, getting to our destination, doing something productive. That has value too," he said.
There's no longer a federal speed limit, so I don't know why King brought this up in Congress. But for the record, getting somewhere faster has a lot less value if you end up being killed or seriously injured in a speed-related highway crash. While overall traffic deaths have declined in Iowa, highway deaths have increased here and in other states since speed limits started going up in the mid-1990s.
Rural interstate fatalities are up by 10 percent, running counter to overall safety statistics on Iowa's road system, which saw statewide traffic deaths drop last year to the lowest level since World War II.
The rural interstate speed limit was raised from 65 to 70 mph on July 1, 2005, after the Iowa Legislature approved the change and Gov. Tom Vilsack signed it.
Iowa Department of Transportation records show a total of 250 people were killed on the rural interstate system between July 1, 2005, and Dec. 31, 2011. That compares to 227 fatalities for the 6½ years prior to the speed limit increase. In contrast, overall Iowa traffic deaths have dropped by 6 percent when compared to the seven years prior to 2005. [...]
The worst year for Iowa's rural interstate fatalities since the speed limit increased was 2008, when 49 people died. That was the most since 1970, when the speed limit was 75 mph, cars didn't have airbags, and many motorists didn't use seat belts.
Many of those deaths have involved drivers losing control or driving too fast for existing conditions, both of which are speed-related factors, said Michael Pawlovich, a DOT traffic safety and crash data engineer.
A report by the American Journal of Public Health in 2009 examined the long-term effects of the 1995 repeal of the national speed limit. It found a 3 percent increase nationwide in road fatalities attributable to higher speed limits on all road types, with the highest increase of 9 percent on rural interstates. The authors estimated 12,545 deaths were attributed to increases in speed limits across the U.S. between 1995 and 2005.
This post covered a wide range of topics; please share any relevant thoughts in the comments.