Iowa Congressional voting catch-up thread: Defense, trade, Medicare, chemicals, and power plants

While Congress is on recess until after July 4, it’s time to catch up on an unusually busy few weeks in June for U.S. House members. Bleeding Heartland previously covered how Iowa’s representatives voted on the failed and successful attempts to pass trade promotion authority, repeal of country-of-origin labeling requirements for meat, a bill to eliminate a tax on medical devices, and the Intelligence Authorization Act.

Follow me after the jump to find out how Democrat Dave Loebsack (IA-02) and Republicans Rod Blum (IA-01), David Young (IA-03), and Steve King (IA-04) voted on the latest defense budget bill, more trade-related policies, and legislation dealing with chemical safety, Medicare cost controls, and regulations of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Iowa’s representatives also voted last week on a matter relating to the growing national controversy over Confederate symbols.

Something you don’t see often when looking through Congressional roll calls: three of Iowa’s four House members crossed party lines more than once during the floor debate on the defense budget.

DEFENSE BUDGET

Deficit hawks don’t stand a chance against military hawks, as House members showed yet again when the Department of Defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016 came up for consideration this month. Republicans may complain about big government and overspending by President Barack Obama, but as during last month’s debate over the defense authorization bill, they are mostly eager to approve military spending far beyond what the Obama administration requested in consultation with Pentagon leaders. From the bill summary:

H.R. 2685 provides $578.6 billion in total discretionary budget authority for the Department of Defense for fiscal year (FY) 2016, an increase of $24.4 billion above the FY 2015 enacted level and $800 million above the President’s request. The bill provides $490.2 billion for the Department of Defense base budget, which is a decrease of $36.7 billion below the budget request and $88.4 billion for the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account to support the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), which is an increase of $37.5 above the budget request.

That Overseas Contingency Operations account, commonly known as the “war fund” and sometimes called a slush fund, has become a favorite Republican place to add spending. Conveniently, it “falls outside the budgetary ceilings” imposed by the 2011 deal that created “sequestration” spending limits.

Click here for a more detailed breakdown of how that $578.6 billion would be allocated over the next year. As we’ve seen for decades, Congress still funds military equipment that military leaders don’t want. The latest example: “Despite an attempt by the Air Force to retire the A-10 Warthog fleet, a Cold War-era jet that provides close air support for ground troops, the funding bill ensures that the aircrafts remain in service.”

On June 10, House members began debating a long list of amendments proposed to the defense spending bill. Cristina Marcos and Rebecca Shabad briefly summarized some of those amendments for The Hill.

As with other individual appropriations bills, the House considered the defense measure under a process that allows lawmakers to offer an unlimited number of amendments. But each amendment was restricted to 10 minutes of debate, resulting in remarkably short debates about major defense policies regarding Guantanamo Bay and the U.S. strategy to fight ISIS.

Three Iowans crossed party lines over amendments House Democrat Hank Johnson offered to the defense budget, which “would have prohibited funds from being used for the Pentagon to transfer flash-bang grenades and armored vehicles to local police departments.” Loebsack was among several dozen Democrats who voted against both amendments. King also voted against them both, as did most of his fellow Republicans.

When the amendment to defund flash-bang grenade transfers came up for a vote, Young was one of just eighteen Republicans to vote yes; Blum voted no. When the second Johnson amendment about armored vehicles came to the floor a few minutes later, both Blum and Young were among the seventeen Republicans who voted yes. I give them credit for standing up against the trend of militarizing local police forces. As for why Loebsack opposed those provisions, your guess is as good as mine.

The defense budget included language “prohibiting the use of funds to transfer or release detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison.” Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler proposed two amendments seeking to strike that language from the bill.  Most House Democrats, including Loebsack, voted for both of the Nadler amendments. Blum, Young, and King helped vote the amendments down, as did most of the House GOP caucus. The Iowans split along the same party lines in May, when the House considered language related to the Guantanamo Bay facility as part of the defense authorization bill.

GOP Representative Curt Clawson offered one of the higher-profile amendments to the defense budget. Cristina Marcos reported,

[Clawson’s] provision would have stripped out the $600 million allocated to assist vetted Syrian opposition groups to defend Syria from ISIS militants and use the money instead to reduce the deficit.

Clawson compared the Obama administration’s dependence on what he described as “untested” Syrian rebels to serve as “vicarious fighters” against ISIS to the U.S. providing assistance in the 1970s to mujahadeen fighters to combat the Soviet Union. Those militants ultimately became the Taliban.

Makes sense to me. Most House members disagreed, but the 107 votes for Clawson’s amendment reflected an unusual bipartisanship. Yes votes came from 56 Republicans (including Blum) and 51 Democrats; no votes came from 186 Republicans (including Young and King) and 137 Democrats (including Loebsack). Blum’s vote against funding anti-terrorist efforts in Syria could become fodder for a 2016 attack ad. On the other hand, if the Syrian rebels the U.S. now considers allies develop into anything like the Taliban someday, this vote may become fodder for future criticism of Loebsack, Young, or King.

For my money, the most embarrassing vote during the defense budget debate was on an amendment offered by Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Cristina Marcos reported,

His amendment, rejected 196-231, would prohibit the use of funds for the Pentagon military campaign, also known as Operation Inherent Resolve, that conducts airstrikes against ISIS, after March 31, 2016, unless Congress passes an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) that specifically authorizes it.

Congress first authorized $500 million in September for training and arming vetted Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. At the time, lawmakers predicted a formal debate on authorizing military force against the militant group after returning from campaigning from the 2014 midterm elections.

But that never happened. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) later said the White House should submit an AUMF to Congress for review.

President Obama sent Congress a draft AUMF in February, but it has since stalled due to opposition from Democrats who fear the request is too open-ended, along with Republicans concerned it restrains the military campaign.

Authorizing acts of war is one of the most important Congressional powers. Schiff’s amendment should have been a no-brainer. But just 33 Republicans and 163 Democrats voted for it. To their credit, Blum and Loebsack supported Schiff’s effort. Young and self-styled “constitutional conservative” King were among the 208 Republicans and 23 Democrats who apparently prefer to dodge a vote on authorizing the use of force in Syria and Iraq.

House members approved the defense budget on June 11 by 278 votes to 149 (roll call). Blum, Young, and King were among the 235 Republicans and 43 Democrats who voted for the bill on final passage. I was surprised to see Loebsack in the no column, because in some recent years he has crossed party lines to support defense spending bills.  

The White House has warned that Obama would veto the defense budget for various reasons.

TRADE

When Congress recently approved a bill on trade promotion authority, also known as “fast-track,” part of the horse-trading involved promises by House GOP leaders to consider trade adjustment assistance (traditionally a Democratic priority) in a future bill. They made good on that promise by bringing more trade legislation to the House floor on June 25. Vicki Needham and Cristina Marcos reported for The Hill,

In a 286-138 vote, the House approved a workers assistance program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) that helps workers who lose their jobs because of increased trade.

The program, which was combined with other trade measures, was approved with heavy support from Democrats. Only six Democrats voted no. […]

The legislation also includes the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which extends trade preferences for certain African countries for another decade.

The roll call shows that Blum, Loebsack, and Young all voted for this trade package. King voted against the bill, consistent with his longstanding opposition to trade adjustment assistance.

When House members considered trade adjustment assistance earlier in June, Blum and Young voted yes (as a way to facilitate passage of fast-track), Loebsack voted no (like many Democrats who were trying to block fast-track), and King voted no because he’s against trade adjustment assistance.

MEDICARE

Congressional Republicans’ ongoing crusade to repeal parts of the 2010 Affordable Care Act continued on June 23. Peter Sullivan and Cristina Marcos reported for The Hill,

Lawmakers voted 244-154 to abolish what is known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). The board is tasked with coming up with Medicare cuts if spending rises above a certain threshold, but has been criticized as outsourcing the work of Congress to unelected bureaucrats.

Repeal of the board has split Democrats, 20 of whom cosponsored the repeal bill. Eleven voted with Republicans on Tuesday to kill it.

Other Democrats say they oppose the board but object to the Republican offset in the repeal bill, which cuts $8.25 billion from a preventive health fund in ObamaCare.

Some Democrats have called the vote somewhat pointless, given that the board does not exist yet. Its members require Senate confirmation, which would set off a fight. The slowdown in healthcare spending growth has also meant that the thresholds have not yet been met that would trigger cuts from the board.

The roll call shows that Blum, Young, and King all voted for the Protecting Seniors’ Access to Medicare Act of 2015. Loebsack voted against the bill, as did most of the House Democrats.

CHEMICAL SAFETY

A potentially important bill flew under the radar last week. Although the rewrite of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) could affect the health of millions of Americans, this legislation has received very little media coverage. My guess on why the story wasn’t considered newsworthy: partly because the bill addresses complicated Environmental Protection Agency policies, and partly because it didn’t get bogged down in a partisan battle.

All four Iowans voted for the TSCA Modernization Act of 2015, which passed on June 23 by 398 votes to 1.

Andy Igrejas wrote the best analysis I’ve seen of this bill. His piece appeared on the blog of Safer Chemicals, Happy Families, a coalition representing more than 450 organizations and businesses. According to Igrejas, the “fundamentals” of the TSCA reform bill are as follows:

• The standard for EPA to act on a chemical will now be “health only” as opposed to a “cost benefit” standard.

• EPA is required to ensure that vulnerable populations- like pregnant women and children or heavily exposed communities- are protected when they act on a chemical.

• The “least burdensome” requirement in the current law – which played a major role in TSCA’s failure – has been removed.

• EPA can require toxicity testing on any chemical by the massively simpler process of an “order” versus the complicated process of a formal rulemaking.

• EPA is required to screen existing chemicals for the combined properties of persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity; publish a list of those; and then put them on a fast track for regulation.

• States are free to act to protect their citizens at any point until the EPA has either exonerated a chemical or taken action to restrict it. Even then, state actions that have already been taken are preserved and several categories of state regulatory activity are exempted.

• Rules for Confidential Business Information (CBI) are tightened going forward and the information can be shared with states, first responders, and health care providers.

I recommend clicking through to read the whole post by Igrejas; he discusses in detail some of the bill’s shortcomings as well as the key differences between the House bill and similar legislation pending in the Senate.

POWER PLANT REGULATIONS

Don’t let the chemical safety vote fool you: House Republicans are still at war with many EPA efforts to protect the environment and public health. Case in point: the June 24 vote to “delay the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate rule for power plants and let state governors opt out of complying.” Timothy Cama and Cristina Marcos reported,

The bill, passed 247-180, is a major blow to the main pillar of President Obama’s effort to reduce the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, although the White House has promised a veto to protect his legacy. […]

Under the bill, state governors could opt out of adopting state plans for the EPA’s regulation if such a plan would harm electricity rates, reliability or important economic sectors in the states.

The regulation’s enforcement would also be delayed until all court challenges are resolved.

The GOP believes that the rule will not withstand judicial review, so the delay is designed to ensure that the regulation never takes effect. […]

The EPA proposed the regulation last June, and plans to make it final this August. It seeks a 30 percent cut in the carbon emissions of the nation’s power plants by 2030, with specific targets assigned to each state.

The House approved the Ratepayer Protection Act of 2015 by 247 votes to 180. Blum, King, and Young all voted for it, even though Iowa shouldn’t have any trouble meeting the EPA targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Loebsack voted against this bill, as did most of the House Democrats. Good for him; the EPA power plant rules would be good for Iowa’s economy and for Iowans’ health.

CONFEDERATE SYMBOLS

Iowa’s Republicans helped House leaders avoid a speedy vote last week on a resolution introduced by the only African-American member of Congress from Mississippi.

[Representative Bennie] Thompson’s resolution would authorize the Speaker to remove any state flag on the House side of the Capitol complex that contains a portion of the Confederate symbol, other than a flag displayed by a lawmaker office. The removed flags would be donated to the Library of Congress.

The resolution would therefore apply to the Mississippi flag that hangs along the underground subway between the Capitol and Rayburn House Office Building. Flags of all 50 states, U.S. territories and the District of Columbia are displayed there.

Thompson noted that the Capitol has not displayed the flags of territories with whom the U.S. has engaged in battle.

“Congress has never permanently recognized in its hallways the symbol of sovereign nations with whom it has gone to war or rogue entities, such as the Confederate States of America,” Thompson said.

Cristina Marcos reported on June 25,

Thompson’s resolution is privileged, which forces the House to expedite its consideration. The House vote on Thursday of 240-184 sends his resolution to the House Administration Committee for further review, instead of immediately voting on the measure.

All three Iowa Republicans voted to punt the resolution to a committee, while Loebsack and every other House Democrat present opposed the motion to refer.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

Final note: All four Iowans in the House voted for another uncontroversial bill last week: the Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters Act of 2015 (DOTCOM Act of 2015) passed on June 23 by 378 votes to 25. That bill would give Congress more input as the government plans to give multiple stakeholders oversight over the Internet domain naming function later this year.

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