CFM Federal Affairs

A Perpetual GOP-Controlled Senate May be in Nation’s Future

Senate GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may act like he is politically invulnerable. He may be right.

Senate GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may act like he is politically invulnerable. He may be right.

On OPB’s Livewire radio show over the weekend, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley said America’s democracy is threatened by gerrymandering, voter suppression and dark money. He left off the growing dissimilarity of makeup of the US Senate to the US population.

Court cases are swirling around seeking to level the playing field on politically motivated gerrymandering, bar voter suppression of communities of color and restrict campaign contributions, or at least bring them fully into the sunshine. 

There is no viable challenge afoot to Senate representation that is becoming more distorted from the one-man, one-vote principle.

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie paints a picture of a permanent GOP majority in the US Senate, despite growing Democratically leaning populations on both coasts.

“The Republican coalition of rural whites, exurban whites and anti-tax suburbanites may not be large enough to win the national popular vote in a head-to-head matchup with Democrats,” Bouie writes “But it covers a much larger part of the country’s landmass, giving it a powerful advantage in the Senate.”

When the Constitution was drafted, less populated states feared the dominance of Virginia, the California of its time. Virginia’s population of 747,610 dwarfed Delaware’s 59,094 residents, which led to the Madisoneque compromise giving every state, regardless of its population, two senators.

Fast forward to today and you have California with 40 million residents and Wyoming with fewer than 600,000 each represented by two senators. That’s “a disparity that gives a voter in Wyoming 67 times the voting power of a voter in California,” observes Bouie. 

The disparity is on track to get wider. “By 2040, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, half the population will live in eight states, with eight other states representing the next 20 percent of the population. The remaining 34 states will hold 30 percent of the population. In the Senate, this would give them 68 seats. Overall, half the country’s population would control 84 of the 100 seats in the chamber.”

The upshot, based on current red state/blue state trends, is a perpetual Republican asset, serving a GOP president and thwarting a Democratic president. Mitch McConnell is not an aberration; he is an avatar of the future.

The distortion that perpetuates GOP control also bedevils the Electoral College, which has delivered victory to more than one candidate, including the current incumbent, who lost the majority vote nationwide. This has led to calls for abolition of the Electoral College and electing presidents by majority vote. Not surprisingly, Republicans and red-state leaders have been cool to the idea.

As the 2020 presidential election comes into focus, Democratic strategists have begun to explore ways to offset the growing predominance of Republicans in the Senate. Bouie reports some of the ideas, inspired by David Faris’ “It’s Time to Fight Dirty,”  have a ring of truth as well as novelty.

One idea is to add more states such as DC and Puerto Rico and break up California into six states, which presumably would give Democrats a net of 14 more or less permanently Democratic senators. Of course, Republicans could respond by following suit in GOP-leaning mega-states such as Texas and Florida.

The Roosevelt Institute offers a similar, but distinctly different alternative – add representatives to the Senate from the Atlantic territories, Pacific territories and Native tribes. A mix of nations – Australia, Brazil, France, Finland and Denmark – have set aside seats in their parliaments for indigenous peoples. Again, it would be hard to imagine Republicans and red states falling for this logic and undoing their home-field advantage.

The underlying conclusion Bouie reaches is that even if Democrats somehow manage to unseat President Trump in 2020, retain control of the House, overcome gerrymandering, thwart voter suppression and blunt dark money, Republicans will still be in the captain’s chair in the Senate, obstructing Democratic initiatives and blocking Democratically appointed judges. The story of Merrick Garland will be repeated and become the norm.

With 22 seats to defend, Senate Republicans would seem vulnerable in 2020. However, only two are in Democrat-leaning states. Democrats hold an Alabama Senate seat, which is likely to flip back to form. In other words, unless Democrats win the Senate against the odds, Bouie says everything else they win may be for naught.

 

 

Coffee Mugs Wake up America, Portray Prexy Preferences

Every 2020 presidential candidate, and even a few who aren’t running, have commemorative coffee mugs to make their supporters swoon over a hot mug of java. No one better befits the coffee mug motif than Cup of Joe Biden.

Every 2020 presidential candidate, and even a few who aren’t running, have commemorative coffee mugs to make their supporters swoon over a hot mug of java. No one better befits the coffee mug motif than Cup of Joe Biden.

Twitter is thick with tweets about trade problems with China, escalating Iranian threats and congressional subpoenas. You also can order your favorite mug from a 2020 presidential challenger.

Other than campaign buttons, coffee mugs are the most common medium to convey your current political convictions. And candidates are more than willing to oblige.

What might have been outrageous in 2016 seems placid in 2020. Trump’s re-election offers platinum contributors a ceramic coffee cup with the pedestrian “Trump 2020/Keep America Great.” You also can get a Trump bobble-head with an extra-long red tie or a Manhattan glass with “Give me another.”

John Delaney, one of the lesser known Democratic presidential hopefuls, offers a coffee mug where you can improvise your own text. Like, “Are you crazy. John Delaney for President.”

Bernie Sanders has the second-most quoted campaign slogan that emblazons his coffee mugs, “Feel the Bern/2020.” There is a subliminal alternative that features The Bern with Nixon “V” signs and a Trump-like extra-long tie. There also is the clever, “Hindsight is 2020.”

Beto O’Rourke can be celebrated with a mug that creatively says, “Beto.” The coffee mug for Mayor Pete Buttigieg is slightly more exciting, “Pete/2020.” On trendier websites, you can find “Pete is Neat” mugs and more mugs that say “Beto.”

For the less particular, yet highly motivated voter, there is the “Literally Anyone Else” coffee mug. Other options include “He’s not my President” and “Impeach Donald Trump.” 

The Kamala Harris mug echoes her campaign stump speech, “Kamala Kamala Kamala Kamala.” To show her Twitter cred, there is also a mug that says, “Kamala for Ptus.”

Elizabeth Warren’s presidential coffee mug is actual a set of encyclopedias. For the politically incorrect crowd, there is a Warren/2020 mug with an Indian arrow. For the true Warren believers, there is the mug, “PERSIST, Elizabeth Warren/2020.”

The Jay Inslee presidential mug is a disappointment because it doesn’t come with a Starbucks sleeve. 

To please people who will be distracted through much of the 2020 presidential contest, there are special mugs – “November is Coming” and “Pratt/Reynolds.” For self-medicating voters, you can grab a mug that says, “Kanye for President.”

The coffee mug motif is built for Biden. Despite the funny mugs with Biden’s name and a pair of hands groping the 0s in 2020, there are some cabinet-ready candidates, though none better than “Cup of Joe.” It is reminder of those Folger coffee and Dunkin’ Donut ads.

Of course, votes, not coffee cups determine the outcome of elections. Maybe none do as much justice to that ideal than cups bearing “Save us, Michelle” and “Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio.2024.” Sometimes coffee just needs to age.

Presidential candidate coffee mugs.jpg

 

 

Executive Orders Could Give New Hope to Coal Terminal

Recent executive orders signed by President Trump seek to relax federal rules that have been used by states such as Washington to block fossil fuel export terminals, sparking speculation the proposed coal export terminal in Longview could be resurrected.

Recent executive orders signed by President Trump seek to relax federal rules that have been used by states such as Washington to block fossil fuel export terminals, sparking speculation the proposed coal export terminal in Longview could be resurrected.

A coal terminal in Longview, Washington may not be fully buried and gone, according to Carl Segestrom, an editorial fellow at High Country News.

In a piece carried by Mother Jones, Segerstrom speculates that Trump administration executive orders issued April 10 could lead to a rewrite of Section 401 rules under the Clean Water Act. States and tribes rely on existing rules to deny permits for facilities that release pollutants into federally protected waters such as the Columbia River.

“Trump’s directive declares that the current process ‘cause(s) confusion and uncertainty, leading to project delays, lost jobs, and reduced economic performance,’” Segerstrom asserts. The administration’s goal, he adds, is to tip the scales more in favor of extractive industries and away from states such as Washington and Oregon that have blocked fossil fuel export facilities.

“In the name of energy dominance, the federal government is looking to curtail state environmental reviews and promote fossil fuel exports. By doing so, it’s wading into an ongoing fight between coastal and Interior West states over permit denials for export facilities on the West Coast,” he writes. 

The effort to locate a 44 million ton coal expert facility in Longview was blocked when the Washington Department of Ecology declined to issue a water quality permit as required under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.

The effort to locate a 44 million ton coal expert facility in Longview was blocked when the Washington Department of Ecology declined to issue a water quality permit as required under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.

Segerstrom questions whether the federal Environmental Protection Agency will weaken rules enough to resurrect the proposed 44 million ton Millennium coal terminal in Longview. While he doesn’t say so directly, turnover in the White House after the 2020 election could scuttle the rule changes Trump seeks.

The Washington Department of Ecology denied Millennium a water quality permit In September 2017, citing Section 401 rules intended to protect federal waterways. US District Court Judge Robert Bryan rejected an appeal last month that argued the water quality permit denial interfered with the Constitution’s Commerce Clause provision.

Energy industry officials and elected officials from energy-producing inland states have pushed for rule changes that will give them an opportunity to site West Coast terminals to export crude oil, liquified natural gas, propane, methanol and coal to Pacific Rim markets. They argue these fossil fuel exports will in many cases substitute for fuels that produce higher level of greenhouse gas emissions. They also say the exports occur anyway through US ports on the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in longer, more expensive ocean trips to their Asian destinations. 

Fossil fuel export terminals have failed to gain critical Clean Water Act permits, but there are other objections that have played a role, most notably concern over more unit-train traffic and a heightened threat of spills and explosions.

Segerstrom cites Diane Dick, a Longview activist who has fought the coal terminal for nearly a decade. “From the beginning, she said the fight over the terminal felt bigger than just one project; she’s watched it become a poster child for a national debate over energy infrastructure. Now, as the executive branch tilts the scales against local environmental protection, Dick sees a larger question looming: When and based on what can a community protect itself?”

 

Best Bipartisan Opportunity: Lowering Prescription Drug Prices

The best opportunity in a fractious Congress for bipartisan legislative success appears to be in an effort to curb prescription drug prices, which critics say are higher than charged in other Western countries and are forcing some Americans to ration prescriptions or even avoid treatment.

The best opportunity in a fractious Congress for bipartisan legislative success appears to be in an effort to curb prescription drug prices, which critics say are higher than charged in other Western countries and are forcing some Americans to ration prescriptions or even avoid treatment.

If a bipartisan deal is going to be struck this year, it will deal with lowering prescription drug prices, according to an Axios report.

“The White House and top lawmakers from both parties think a bill to lower drug prices has a better chance of becoming law before the 2020 election than any other controversial legislation,” says Caitlin Owens of Axios. “Republican politics on drug prices have changed rapidly. The White House has told Democrats it has no red lines on the substance of drug pricing – a position that should leave pharma quaking.”

The only red line for the White House is tying drug legislation to revisions of the Affordable Care Act. But Trump officials have given the green flag to using Medicare negotiations as leverage to lower drug prices.

Axios indicates momentum is growing for legislative action before the August recess, viewed by many as the last fertile moment for compromise before the start of the 2020 presidential election political desert when nothing can get approved. Bills are already moving in Congress aimed at influencing drug prices by limiting extended monopolies and expanding access to generic prescription drugs.

Republicans are introducing bills that previously would have been viewed as liberal. Texas Senator Mike Cornyn proposes giving the Federal Trade Commission the power to bring antitrust suits against pharmaceutical companies that use patents to discourage competition. House GOP leader Mark Meadows is part of a bipartisan group exploring a proposal to tie Medicare reimbursement rates to the international price of prescription drugs. Florida Senator Rick Scott introduced legislation preventing US drug companies from charging higher list prices than in Canada, France, Britain, Japan and Germany.

This spate of activity around drug pricing has put the pharmaceutical industry on high alert. Drug company officials have warned proposed legislation could slow investments in promising new drug treatments and upset the “pharmaceutical ecosystem.” That is an appeal aimed at President Trump who has expressed strong support for drug therapy advancement. 

Getting anything of significance accomplished in Congress is never easy. Partisan fights over what to do in response the Mueller report, health care and border security could derail any bipartisan effort on prescription drugs. The embrace by Democrats for a single-payor Medicare for All system could be a particular problem in that it could exacerbate the existing price differences between Medicare and private health insurance.

“Anything that gets done would need to be passed before the August recess, which itself is growing more unlikely as time passes and fights over the ACA and other issues erode whatever bipartisan collaboration that might have existed," a former Trump administration official told Axios.

The prospect of legislative action on drug pricing, supported by the Trump administration, has taken its toll on the stock prices of major pharmaceutical companies – and sharply lowered the multi-million compensation of their CEOs.


The Privacy Project Seeks to Inform Deliberate Digital Choices

From wondering if your smart speaker is eavesdropping on you to learning your online data has been sold to advertisers, the digital world has become a scarier place, even as technology has made it more inviting and inevitable. Privacy has suffered, but does it matter? The Privacy Project aims to inform readers, stimulate conversation and move us toward deliberate choices.

From wondering if your smart speaker is eavesdropping on you to learning your online data has been sold to advertisers, the digital world has become a scarier place, even as technology has made it more inviting and inevitable. Privacy has suffered, but does it matter? The Privacy Project aims to inform readers, stimulate conversation and move us toward deliberate choices.

Is Alexa an electronic intruder in your home? Can you go anywhere, including your Airbnb rental, without showing up in a surveillance camera video? Are your social media sites conduits to reveal your behavior patterns and preferences to advertisers – and politicians?

All are questions relating to the privacy we have forfeited without realizing it in the digital age.

The threats to privacy and a level playing field have provoked strong proposals from the likes of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. As a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Warren has called for the break-up of big tech monopolies and regulation to prevent self-dealing – and often opaque – privacy policies.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has led the way for many years on net neutrality, the policy that would prohibit internet providers from manipulating access and online speed to favor their own prime customers and disadvantage competitors. He also has criticized Facebook and other digital leviathans for cashing in on the data they collect, often without express user consent or knowledge, that is sold to advertisers or political advocacy groups.

However, breaking up big tech companies and guaranteeing net neutrality don’t exactly address digital privacy concerns. Those policies don’t litigate the fundamental question of whether consumers unwittingly surrender their privacy for the convenience of tech devices. They don’t rise to the level of asking where the boundaries are between what’s private and what’s fair game.

We live in an increasingly digital world, in which privacy has been clearly compromised and few policies exist to protect privacy. The New York Times has launched the Privacy Project to inform and stimulate conversation toward more deliberate choices.  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/opinion/internet-privacy-project.html

We live in an increasingly digital world, in which privacy has been clearly compromised and few policies exist to protect privacy. The New York Times has launched the Privacy Project to inform and stimulate conversation toward more deliberate choices.
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/opinion/internet-privacy-project.html

The New York Times has launched a month-long initiative called the Privacy Project, which will examine issues surrounding privacy. In its Sunday opinion section, the Times published pieces from various points of view. Author Samantha Irby said her love of connectivity outweighed any concerns about loss of privacy. Law professor Tim Wu said corporate greed has stripped away privacy for financial gain. The Times publisher writes about how the newspaper views its responsibility in the digital age.

Other articles discussed the safety of women online and how insurance companies can track Fitbit data to use in determining your health insurance rates. Recode editor Kara Swisher wrote that Americans have surrendered too much control over their digital lives and need government regulation to get it back. Columnist Ross Douthat said the solution to compromised privacy is relying less on the internet. Author KJ Dell’Antonia urged people to pull back from social media, which can be an accomplice in sacrificing privacy for families and children.

Serious and stimulating stuff, which the Times intends as conversation-starters. “In recent years, as we’ve been blurring the boundaries between what’s public and what’s private,” Times Editor James Bennet wrote, “we’ve been doing so largely by accident, or by leaving the decisions to the vagaries of innovation and the pull of market incentives.” 

“As consumers and citizens,” Bennet said, “we need to understand the benefits and the costs and make deliberate choices. Rather than hurriedly consenting to someone else’s privacy policy, it’s time for us to write our own.”

Ironically, this conversation is likely to occur online. We are that digitally dependent. But where the conversation occurs is less significant than whether it occurs. Technological giddiness and laissez-faire attitudes aren’t adequate substitutes for what Bennet refers to as “deliberate choices.”

A good place to start in forming your own views is the Times Privacy Project. Some of the articles may enrage you. Others may alarm you. All of them seek to inform you of the choices we all may need to make – sooner than later.

 

A Website Devoted to Data-Driven Facts, Imagine That

When billionaire Steve Balmer’s wife urged him to step up his philanthropy, his first step was to create a nonprofit to conduct a deep dive into available data to find how tax money is spent, who gets help and who needs help. The result was usafacts.org.

When billionaire Steve Balmer’s wife urged him to step up his philanthropy, his first step was to create a nonprofit to conduct a deep dive into available data to find how tax money is spent, who gets help and who needs help. The result was usafacts.org.

At a moment in US political history when facts are under assault, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has created what he calls a “data-driven portrait of the American population, our government’s finances and government’s impact on society.”

Usafacts.org was launched on Tax Day in 2017 after Ballmer’s wife, Connie, challenged him to use more of his estimated $41 billion net worth on philanthropy. That triggered Balmer’s curiosity in exactly how US government programs help Americans who need financial assistance. He quickly discovered the combination of federal, state and local government is enormous – and enormously complex. The information he sought about where governments get their money and how they spend it was not readily available.

That led Balmer to invest $30 million to create a non-partisan nonprofit with a team of economists, researchers and writers to find out by analyzing publicly available data streams.

The metrics Balmer chose to evaluate data are drawn from the preamble to the US Constitution. It describes the role of the federal government – “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The metrics Balmer chose to evaluate data are drawn from the preamble to the US Constitution. It describes the role of the federal government – “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The result is a website that features “our nation, in numbers.” Lots and lots of numbers. And fascinating charts and maps. Some of the current topics include how the US economy is performing, what happens with the Social Security deductions from our paychecks and how money flows in and out of the US government.

More provocative topics include why immigrants come to America, who benefits from food stamps and how close the country and individual states are to eliminating fossil fuel emissions. 

Ballmer’s vision was to create a set of documents that parallel what publicly trade corporations are required by law to file. The 2018 annual report serves up a potpourri of interesting facts such as:

  • Incarceration rates have climbed faster than population growth since 1980;

  • There are fewer Americans serving in active duty today than in 2016;

  • US GDP growth has averaged 2.7% since 1980 despite changing approaches in taxation, interest rates and economic stimulus; and

  • Border apprehensions are down 80% since 2000 while the number of border agents has increased from 4,139 in 1992 to 19.437 in 2018. 

The 2018 USAFacts 10-K Report includes a staggering section on risk factors. Some of the risks include:

  • Even though the federal government discourages unhealthy behavior, Americans still have the right to smoke, speed and ignore warning labels.

  • There are “personnel security clearance processing challenges” that create national risk.

  • Government revenue and spending are significantly affected by swings in the economy because of the reliance on personal and corporate income taxes.

  • Failure to control budget deficits can impede the government’s ability to provide needed services over the long run.

  • Government has significant fiscal exposure associated with a changing climate.

  • Constitutional objectives may be significantly affected by social unrest.

  • The financial future of retirees is threatened by insolvency of Social Security trust funds and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

  • Promoting good health, especially for the elderly, faces challenges.

When fully considered, usafacts.org is more than a stiff set of stats. It is eye-opening, deep-dive into America’s box score. There is even a section devoted to American’s interest in and belief of facts.

If facts still matter to you, usafacts.org could be a website worth bookmarking to find a trove of them.

 

Calling Balls and Strikes in the Supreme Court

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is unequivocally conservative, but as only the 17th chief justice in US history and after 16 years as chief justice, Roberts is in a position to tip the high court in either direction on highly partisan cases such as extreme gerrymandering, the citizenship question on the Census and, once more, on the constitutionality of Obamacare. (Photo Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is unequivocally conservative, but as only the 17th chief justice in US history and after 16 years as chief justice, Roberts is in a position to tip the high court in either direction on highly partisan cases such as extreme gerrymandering, the citizenship question on the Census and, once more, on the constitutionality of Obamacare. (Photo Credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Congress may be deadlocked, but the conservative slant of the US Supreme Court is undeniable with a distinctly conservative chief justice and four ready followers.

Yet, Chief Justice John Roberts, only the 17th chief justice in the history of the country, remains an enigmatic, even secretive figure who broke the hearts of conservatives in 2016 by confirming Obamacare was constitutional. Now, the court he oversees will be faced with deciding seminally partisan cases involving political gerrymandering that could test his ideological leanings. Oral arguments in the cases were made on Tuesday.

The cases involve extreme gerrymandering by Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland that good-government advocates are opposing, with electoral results in the pivotal 2020 election in the balance. Both cases, experts say, will test Roberts to see if he is more ideologue than institutionalist. 

Without a lot of fanfare, Roberts has served as chief justice for 16 years. At just 64, he could serve for in his role for another 20 years.

Coincidentally, a biography of Roberts has just been published that confirms advocates from both the political left and right are wary of him, despite his privileged upbringing and a clearly conservative record on voting rights, affirmative action, campaign contributions, abortion rights and same-sex marriage. 

Joan Biskupic, in her biography The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts, describes him as the son of a steel company executive and product of an upper-class, all-white suburban Catholic prep school education. Roberts then went to Harvard for his undergraduate and law school degrees.

As an attorney, Roberts argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court before his nomination by President George W. Bush to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. When Chief Justice William Rehnquist died before his confirmation, Bush upgraded Roberts’ nomination to chief justice. In his confirmation hearing, Roberts compared the role of judges to baseball umpires who calls balls and strikes. 

Now, the chief justice, who also doubles as the adult-in-the-room swing vote on the court, must decide on a pair of mirror cases that reflect unvarnished political gerrymandering. He also will deal with a case involving the citizenship question on the 2020 US Census, which also pits GOP ideology against a clear violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act.

Biskupic thinks these cases could expose a side of Roberts often overlooked – his eagerness to avoid civil division. Citing Roberts’ vote in the Obamacare ruling, she says: “Viewed only through a judicial lens, [Roberts’] moves were not consistent, and his legal arguments were not entirely coherent. But he brought people and their different interests together. His moves may have been good for the country at a time of division and a real crisis in health care, even as they engendered, in the years since, anger, confusion and distrust.”

Roberts has shown a willingness to cross swords with his conservative soul mates, such as when he admonished President Trump for trashing a federal court judge. However, conservatives will expect Roberts to stay at his ideological home on seminal cases involving raw politics. The question is whether Roberts will stick to his ideological roots or, in cases involving partisan issues, perform like his proverbial umpire calling balls and strikes.

 

Congressional Drug Pricing Strategy Begins to Emerge

Polls indicate high prescription drug prices are a top congressional priority for a majority of Americans. The Senate Finance Committee held a high-profile hearing to pummel pharmaceutical executives for price gouging. Now the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to advance two bills aimed at anticompetitive actions that block or delay the introduction of lower-cost generic drugs, which will be a prelude to a later, more controversial effort to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.

Polls indicate high prescription drug prices are a top congressional priority for a majority of Americans. The Senate Finance Committee held a high-profile hearing to pummel pharmaceutical executives for price gouging. Now the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to advance two bills aimed at anticompetitive actions that block or delay the introduction of lower-cost generic drugs, which will be a prelude to a later, more controversial effort to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices.

The Senate Finance Committee pummeled seven pharmaceutical executives a week ago about price gouging. Next week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee begins considering two bills to lower drug prices that may attract bipartisan and bicameral support.

The House bills are the CREATES Act and “pay for delay” legislation. Both aim to limit anticompetitive actions by pharmaceutical companies to block or delay introduction of lower-cost generic versions of their brand name drugs.

A version of the CREATES (Creating and Restoring Equal Access to Equivalent Samples) Act passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last summer on a solid bipartisan vote. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the legislation, if passed into law, could save consumers and private insurers billions of dollars, while also contributing to reduce the federal budget deficit.

“The bipartisan CREATES Act is a free-market solution that respects intellectual property rights and encourages greater competition that will inevitably lower the price of prescription medications for the American patient,” Iowa GOP Senator Charles Grassley said. 

The “pay for delay” legislation also has a Senate counterpart introduced last December by Grassley and Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is a 2020 presidential candidate. The measure seeks to limit pharmaceutical companies from striking deals to prevent or delay biosimilar and interchangeable biologics to generic versions.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has made the issue of high-cost drugs a legislative priority, believes it is smart strategy to get a couple of wins before tackling the more controversial issue of allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies. Her strategy of starting small is a reflection of the political clout drug companies have on Capitol Hill.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the Ranking Democrat on Senate Finance, took the lead last week in lambasting pharmaceutical company executives as “morally repugnant” for their inability to explain why prescription drugs are more expensive in the United States than overseas. “You’re willing to sit by and hose the American consumer while giving price breaks to consumers overseas,” Wyden said. 

Independent healthcare analyst Joshua Cohen, writing for Forbes, said drug companies aren’t entirely to blame. He explained that health plans, pharmacy benefit managers and employer health insurance sponsors negotiate sizable rebates on listed drug prices. Insureds don’t always see the benefits of those rebates, Cohen added, because their coinsurance is based on the list price, not the lower rebate price. The result, he said, is a “public outcry aimed at the drug companies for high prices.”

“To be constructive, [Congress] should not only probe the pricing of prescription drugs by pharmaceutical manufacturers, it should also investigate the billing and pricing practices of hospitals, physicians, and insurers. Ultimately the problems related to the relentless rise of overall healthcare costs are not going to be solved by putting blinders on and solely targeting the pharmaceutical industry,” Cohen concluded.

While high drug prices may be the result of a complex set of circumstances, Bloomberg says the underlying truth is that Americans pay more per capita for prescription drugs than anyone else in the world.

While high drug prices may be the result of a complex set of circumstances, Bloomberg says the underlying truth is that Americans pay more per capita for prescription drugs than anyone else in the world.

Bloomberg story last month summarized the issue simply. “Americans spend more on prescription drugs – average costs are about $1,200 per person per year – than anyone else in the world. It’s true that they take a lot of pills. But what really sets the United States apart from most other countries is high prices. Cancer drugs in the United States routinely cost $10,000 a month. Even prices for old drugs have spiked, as companies have bought up medicines that face no competition and boosted charges.” 

Sensing congressional action is at hand, pharmaceutical companies are taking actions or expressing a willingness to do so. Eli Lilly announced it will sell a cheaper generic version of its rapid-action Humalog insulin.

"We don't want anyone to ration or skip doses of insulin due to affordability. And no one should pay the full Humalog retail price," Eli Lilly Chairman and CEO Dave Ricks said. He described the generic drug as "a bridge that addresses gaps in the current system until we have a more sustainable model."

Senate Breaks Century-Old Precedent in Approving Seattle Judge

Seattle attorney Eric Miller was confirmed this week to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over the objections of Washington’s two Democratic senators, breaking a precedent dating back a century and foreshadowing a continuing attempt by President Trump to place more conservative judges on the federal bench. [Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo]

Seattle attorney Eric Miller was confirmed this week to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over the objections of Washington’s two Democratic senators, breaking a precedent dating back a century and foreshadowing a continuing attempt by President Trump to place more conservative judges on the federal bench. [Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo]

A Seattle-based Assistant US Attorney was confirmed this week by the Senate to a lifetime appointment on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It was the first time in a century that a federal judge was confirmed without the endorsement of at least one US senator from the nominee’s home state.

Eric Miller, 43, a presidential nominee who formerly clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was confirmed on a party-line vote over the objections of Washington Democratic Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. They declined to return “blue slips” indicating support for Miller because of what they called his “hostility toward tribal rights.” Murray and Cantwell also complained Miller’s confirmation hearing was a sham because it was scheduled during a Senate recess and only two Republican senators attended.

Last summer, the White House withdrew a similar nomination of Assistant US Attorney for Oregon Ryan Bounds over objections by Oregon’s Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. The Bounds’ nomination to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was withdrawn after Republican Senators Tim Scott and Marco Rubio refused to vote for his confirmation. 

Placing conservatives on federal courts, especially the liberal-leaning 23-judge Ninth Circuit, has been a political goal of President Trump’s administration. Trump has often complained about unfriendly, liberal and “Obama” judges that have imposed legal impediments to his policy initiatives such as a Muslim travel ban and family separation on the US-Mexican border.

Ironically, Republican senators used the “blue-slip” prerogative to veto Obama judicial nominees. Under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate rules on judicial appointments were changed to allow simple majorities, instead of the previous 60-vote threshold, to confirm federal judges. Ignoring the absence of “blue slips” is another step down a slippery path of politicizing federal judicial confirmations.

Murray called the confirmation of Miller a “dangerous first.” Cantwell said it set a “damaging precedent.” California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Washington Post, “It is regrettable and likely will result in more ideological nominees who don’t reflect the values of their home states. It’s hard to not see this action coming back to bite Republicans when they’re no longer in power in the Senate.”

On the Senate floor, Murray charged, “Abandoning the blue slip process and instead, bending to the will of a president who has demonstrated time and time again his ignorance and disdain for the Constitution and the rule of law is a mistake.” She noted Miller’s confirmation hearing included less than five minutes of questioning – “less questioning for a lifetime appointment than most students face for a book report.” 

According to Roll Call, more nominees are in the wings that lack endorsement by home-state senators in New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. “I think it’s going to be very hard for folks who allowed the blue slip to evaporate to complain if wonderful New York judges start getting appointed into South Carolina, or Nebraska, or Louisiana or other places, because you’ve disarmed the one thing that gives you the ability to do something about that,” Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told Roll Call.

McConnell praised Miller, who holds undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from the University of Chicago. During his abbreviated confirmation hearing, Miller said as a US solicitor general he has argued a case before the Supreme Court defending tribal lands. Subsequently in private practice, he said he represented a client that opposed tribal interests. He described his previous roles as an advocate “not to advance my own views but to advance my client’s views.”  

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said the blue slip tradition is more of a courtesy than a veto. Graham did say it was his intention to retain the blue slip process for US District Court judicial appointments.

 

Wyden Comments on Green New Deal, China Trade and Tax Breaks

In an expansive interview with the  Portland Business Journal , Oregon Senator Ron Wyden defended the Green New Deal, questioned the effectiveness of tariffs to influence China trade policy and urged the IRS to waive penalties for federal income taxpayers who failed to withhold enough for their 2018 taxes.

In an expansive interview with the Portland Business Journal, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden defended the Green New Deal, questioned the effectiveness of tariffs to influence China trade policy and urged the IRS to waive penalties for federal income taxpayers who failed to withhold enough for their 2018 taxes.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden defended the Green New Deal, questioned tariffs on China trade and touted legislation to unmask shell company ownership in an expansive interview with the Portland Business Journal published this week.

Oregon’s senior senator also urged the Trump administration to waive IRS penalties on taxpayers who failed to withhold enough money to cover their 2018 income tax and called for a review to determine if opportunity zones are being used as intended to encourage investment in impoverished areas.

Wyden called criticism of the Green New Deal “nonsense.” “It is a resolution. It is aspirational, not a legislative text,” he said. Wyden, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said he is looking at “throwing more than 40 separate tax breaks for energy…, which are basically dirty energy relics that cost billions of dollars a year, into the trashcan and substituting three new ones: one for clear energy, one for clean transportation and one for energy efficiency.”

On trade with China, Wyden said there is agreement “tariffs should be part of the trade toolbox, but we don’t share the view that every time there’s an issue, you drop another tariff. It has not worked particularly well with China.” He said strong measures are necessary to stop China from “ripping off our technology.”

Wyden said bipartisan support is growing for legislation he and Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio have introduced to require shell companies to disclose their beneficial owners. Failing to require ownership disclosure, he explained, would mean “you’re playing catch-up ball.”

Taxpayers who face penalties for their 2018 federal income taxes deserve a break, Wyden said, because the IRS didn’t properly update its withholding tables and forced taxpayers to deal with “complicated online calculator, which had its own problems.” He added that multinational corporations “are not sweating it today [because] they’ve got their tax breaks locked in.”

Wyden agreed a review is needed to see if opportunity zone tax incentives are being mis-applied. PBJ reporter Matthew Kish noted Oregon has used an expansive definition for opportunity zones, which include Portland’s downtown area, prompting Bloomberg  Businessweek to call it “Tax Breaklandia

Wyden said the goal of his Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act is to “promote innovation and focus on small guys.” He also touted his ELEVATE Act that aims to “connect the dots” between training dislocated workers for thousands of available jobs.

In upcoming days, Wyden said the Senate Finance Committee will invite seven CEOs from major pharmaceutical companies at a hearing to “get an agreement to stop some price-gouging.” “What I want to know is whether they're going to get beyond the blame game. Everything they always do with respect to pharmaceutical prices and health care costs generally is blaming the other guy,” he said.

 

Green New Deal is More of a Signal Than a Statute

The optics were unmistakable. A 29-year-old freshman member of Congress was a leading voice at the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution, which has little chance of passage, but presages an important political moment when the fears and wishes of a younger generation push up against the pessimism and patronization of an older generation in politics.

The optics were unmistakable. A 29-year-old freshman member of Congress was a leading voice at the introduction of the Green New Deal resolution, which has little chance of passage, but presages an important political moment when the fears and wishes of a younger generation push up against the pessimism and patronization of an older generation in politics.

The Green New Deal resolution just introduced in Congress is less a plan of action and more a barometer of a new political wind.

The incoming Democratic majority in the House radiates the energy and activism of younger voters who will face the perils of climate change and are demanding bold action now. The Green New Deal is the Democratic response.

The incoming Democratic majority in the House radiates the energy and activism of younger voters who will face the perils of climate change and are demanding bold action now.

Because the Senate remains in Republican control and the White House is occupied by someone who denies the science of climate change, Democrats can only point to policies that wean America off fossil fuels and accelerate a renewable energy future. It will be up to states such as Oregon, where Democrats are in solid control, to advance specific climate change legislation, whether in the form of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade regime.

The optics of the Green New Deal nonbinding resolution’s introduction were unmistakable. Long-time environmental crusader Ed Markey, D-Mass, shared the platform with freshman phenom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Markey said, “Our energy future will not be found in the dark of a mine, but in the light of the sun.” Ocasio-Cortez added, “All great American programs, everything from The Great Society to the New Deal, started with a vision for our future.”

Critics called the plan unrealistic, lacking in specifics and too costly. They said advocates of the Green New Deal need to do a “whole lot more homework.” To youthful supporters, the criticism sounds a lot like patronizing parental pessimism.

Ocasio-Cortez shot back: “For 40 years we have tried to let the private sector take care of this. They said, 'We got this, we can do this, the forces of the market are going to force us to innovate.' Except for the fact that there’s a little thing in economics called externalities. And what that means is that a corporation can dump pollution in the river and they don’t have to pay, but taxpayers have to pay."

To be sure, there would be huge technical and significant economic challenges to reach a zero-carbon target in 10 years. For example, cars are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, but many people hold onto their cars as long as 10 years. One of the biggest sources of methane emissions are cows.

"Even the solutions that we have considered big and bold are nowhere near the scale of the actual problem that climate change presents to us," Ocasio-Cortez told NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Youthful supporters are undaunted by those challenges. Sunrise Movement held a web meeting with supporters from all over the country and pledged to amp up lobbying for the Green New Deal during February. One of the group’s leaders said sit-ins may occur in the offices of Members of Congress who don’t endorse the Green New Deal.

But “old-timers” chimed in, too. “The Green New Deal resolution is essential in building and sustaining momentum to deal with the climate crisis,” Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer wrote his constituents. “Its message is one of ambitious, achievable and necessary hope. That’s why I’m excited to partner with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to help write this resolution and define its goals for this Congress.”

Congressional insiders recognize the Green New Deal won’t move in any significant way in this Congress. What they miss is that Ocasio-Cortez is a Member of Congress with a voting card and someone with an outsized following on Twitter who is driving the progressive political agenda. The only US political figure with more Twitter interactions if President Trump.

“When a 29-year-old former bartender of Puerto Rican descent beats a senior Democratic leader of the House, and then proceeds to set the political agenda during her first week in office, it’s more than a cute social media story," wrote Antonio Garcia Martinez in Wired. “She’s a harbinger of a new American political reality.”

This is what separates the Green New Deal from other legislative initiatives. It has become a generational anthem, not just a piece of legislation.

 

Historically Significant Leaders Guide Senate, House

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already cemented their congressional legacies. Now those legacies may be tested as they face another deadline to forge a border security compromise that can pass Congress and President Trump will accept, avoiding another potential government shutdown.

We may be witnessing historically significant congressional leaders in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What they do next in response to continuing demands by President Trump to fund his controversial border wall may affect their legacies.

History-making by McConnell, the Republican, and Pelosi, the Democrat, is as different as night-and-day and as the Senate and the House. Pelosi is known for muscling major legislation on health care and consumer protection through Congress. McConnell’s legacy is laying the groundwork for a GOP agenda outside Congress in the scores of conservative judges he has ushered through the Senate. 

The New York Times Magazine featured McConnell over the weekend, noting he recognized the parliamentary obstacles in the Senate to passing any kind of major legislation, so he turned his focus on federal judgeships. He has steered through two new Supreme Court justices and 83 lower-court judges. And he famously blocked the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during President Obama’s last year in office.

“When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court on October 6, after McConnell played a key role in ushering him through a month of arguments over and investigations into allegations of sexual assault, the scope of the majority leader’s influence on American governance snapped into focus.”

A similar epiphany occurred when Pelosi stared down Trump over his demand for funding for his border wall that led to a record-shattering five-week partial federal government shutdown. Pelosi was hailed by supporters and critics alike as the most powerful female elected official in America.

McConnell is following in the tracks of legendary Senate majority leaders such as Lyndon Johnson, who passed the first modern-day civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960 and Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving majority leader who steered through the more famous Voting Rights and Civil Rights legislation, as well creation of Medicare and Medicaid as part of Johnson’s Great Society.

While McConnell admires Mansfield, NYT magazine says, “McConnell is the first majority leader whose career has been built on the assumption that the Senate could produce the great legislative works of his predecessors is a thing of the past.” 

He is partially responsible for his own view. As minority leader and then majority leader during the Obama presidency, McConnell was a fortress of obstruction. Or as NYT Magazine described it, “He fashioned himself as the essential impediment to Obama’s vision of a sequel to the Great Society, using tactics that were once the province of Senate factions as a strategic blueprint for the entire Republican caucus.” 

McConnell admits to being an obstructionist. “Far be it from me to complain about obstruction when I’ve been involved in it,” he said. McConnell justifies his obstruction by adding, “There was a point to it.”

His obstruction stretched beyond Obama-backed legislation to include blocking a pre-2016 election warning about Russian interference. Armed with US intelligence about Russian meddling, Obama said he would only release the information if all four of the Senate and House caucus leaders agreed to avoid any appearance of politicizing the intelligence data. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed. McConnell said no. 

McConnell may seem an unlikely obstructionist-in-chief. Not especially photogenic or charismatic, McConnell has used “this blankness to his advantage, made it a carrier for designs greater than himself.” NYT Magazine reports McConnell was willing to take positions viewed as politically distasteful such as opposing campaign finance reform with a “shrugging willingness to play a villain when a villain was required.”

Pelosi is a more electric figure. She is the first woman elected House Speaker, the first woman to lead a party in Congress and the first Speaker to lose, then win back the position since Sam Rayburn in 1955. Her leadership in the 2018 midterm election resulted in a record-setting number of women winning election to Congress. All that cements her legacy as a historical congressional figure.

She is best known – and most often demonized – by her leadership in passing the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote. A Republican congressional observed her effort “as masterful a piece of legislating as I have ever seen.”

Her relentless drive to push a progressive agenda, which included a climate change bill, gets part of the blame for the GOP congressional takeover in the 2010 midterm election. 

Pelosi became Speaker in 2007 toward the end of President George W. Bush’s second term and growing public frustration with the Iraq war, which she opposed, and deepening economic recession. In the face of potential economic collapse, Pelosi mustered the needed votes for a Wall Street bailout plan in the House. 

Her steadfast opposition has posed an insurmountable obstacle, at least so far, to Trump’s border wall. Her hardball tactic of denying Trump a congressional stage during the prolonged government shutdown underscored her image as a “force of nature.” Or as Pelosi herself observed about Trump that he may unfamiliar dealing with “women in power.” [After the shutdown ended, Pelosi extended an invitation to Trump to give his State of the Union speech on February 5.]

Congress faces a three-week deadline to resolve the border security issue. Trump has resumed his demand for $5.7 for the border wall, threatening to block any legislation without it and declaring a national emergency. 

There is a bipartisan consensus in the congressional shadows that would agree to $5.7 billion or more for border technology, additional border agents, modernized ports of entry and increased Coast Guard drug interdictions. A sliver of money might even be included for physical barriers where appropriate, but not the full-fledged border wall Trump wants. 

That presages another showdown and potential shutdown, even though the one that just ended cost the nation an estimated $11 billion in lost economic activity and $3 billion in federal revenue, not to mention stress and loss of morale for federal workers who went without pay for a month. 

The odds in the showdown may be in favor of Pelosi whose approval rate has soared while Trump’s have sagged.

This time around, the fate of border security and heading off another punishing government shutdown may revolve around the historically significant figures who lead the Senate and the House. It could boil down to a battle between a skilled obstructionist and an equally skilled legislative tactician with their legacies on the line. Or, it could blossom improbably into a bicameral, bipartisan push-back for a troubled President. That certainly would be history-making for both.

 

Brexit, Border Wall Throttle Leading Democracies, Delighting Putin

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Maybe it is coincidence or a case of bad karma extending across the pond as the United States and United Kingdom find themselves in shutdown mode – with seemingly no clue how to escape, despite enormous economic consequences.

The partial federal government shutdown is simple to understand. President Trump wants $5.7 billion for a border barrier and Democrats refuse, calling it wasteful spending on an ineffective deterrent to illegal immigration.

Trump has said the budget stalemate could be resolved in 15 minutes, which is true. The Democrat-led House has passed a nearly identical spending bill to what the Senate approved unanimously last year after Trump signaled his support. Then Trump changed his mind and demanded border wall money. He has refused to budge, other than to acquiesce to a steel instead of concrete barrier.

Federal employees and contractors caught in the cross-hairs of the border wall fight have been furloughed, forced to work without pay, not paid or encouraged to find new jobs. National parks have closed, airport security lines have lengthened and farmers haven’t gotten their subsidies to compensate for losses they incurred from the Trump trade war. Pre-season forest thinning and hurricane forecasting has been disrupted. A workplace training session for Oregon lawmakers was postponed. Federal income tax refunds could be delayed. 

As bad as all that is, it may pale in comparison to Britain’s predicament. The British Parliament on Tuesday rejected the Brexit deal that took Prime Minister Theresa May two years to negotiate with her reticent European Union counterparts. The 432-202 parliamentary defeat of the May Brexit plan is the most lopsided loss for a sitting government in British history.

Britain faces a March 29 deadline to withdraw from the EU. May, who survived a no-confidence vote by her own Conservative Party last year and faces another one by an opposition party, was given until next Monday to come up with a plan.

Unlike the US government shutdown that is stuck on a single issue, the UK is trying to disengage from an alliance. It is similar to a state like California trying to secede from the United States.

May faces a Rubix Cube of options, none of which is very promising. EU leaders have shown little inclination to grant further concessions to Britain. Asking the British people to vote a second time on Brexit risks having a second vote in favor of the pullout, with no more clarity on how to achieve it. Extending the deadline for the EU exit without a consensus game plan would be like a prisoner asking for more torture.  

That leaves Britain with the somber prospect of slipping out of the EU without a deal and without substitute bilateral trade deals with key trading partners such as the United States. The plan-less exit also would pose serious internal problems, such as how to manage the border between Ireland, which would still be in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which wouldn’t. This is a border that has a troubled history as a true humanitarian crisis. Many worry it could return to that troubled history.

From a wider angle, this is an awkward time for the world’s two leading democracies to indulge in self-inflicted combat. As one veteran traveler told a news reporter, this is bad time to visit either the United States or Britain because both appear to be in the middle of civil wars. Add to that the yellow vest protests that have rocked France and what you see is not a pretty picture of economic, social or political stability.

British unrest stems from a nationalist drive to maintain Britain’s sovereignty. French discontent pivots on restive attitudes about persistent income inequality. The US stand-off centers on an unmet campaign promise.

The US political stalemate would seem the easiest to resolve, but has been elevated to a larger political battlefield. Supporters have warned Trump, who brags about his deal-making prowess, that his presidency could effectively end if he fails to get money for the border wall. The newly elected Democratic majority in the House is disinclined to toll over to Trump demands. Trump’s threat of a presidential declaration of emergency that would go around Congress to find the money to build the border wall could trigger a constitutional crisis.

What seems missing in the United States and Britain is a sense of the bigger picture – a more aggressive Russia, China’s ascendancy as a world power and the rise of right-wing authoritarian governments. Any one of these could be the tinder box that sparks a major conflict engulfing the bickering and compromised democratic powers. It has happened before when there have been voids in international leadership.

Commentators are beginning to point to Russia as a culprit in both seasons of discontent. Sowing division among the major world democracies is a much cheaper foreign policy than a military build-up, and perhaps a defter strategy to undermine NATO, a major objective for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shadow of Russia will grow longer as Special Counsel Robert Mueller moves to wrap up his investigation into Russian election meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign in 2016.

Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt Brexit and the border wall stalemates are causing economic pain, with little relief in sight.

 

A ‘Fringe Idea’ to Apply Term Limits to the Supreme Court

A ‘new’ debate is emerging on reforming the Supreme Court, including imposing term limits on justices. What has been a fringe issue may be moving into the mainstream and even the 2020 presidential race. Debating the size and composition of the Court could be a refreshing dip into a rich part of American history that has occurred when the nation was founded, grappled with nationhood, recovered from civil war and addressed the ravages of the Great Depression.

A ‘new’ debate is emerging on reforming the Supreme Court, including imposing term limits on justices. What has been a fringe issue may be moving into the mainstream and even the 2020 presidential race. Debating the size and composition of the Court could be a refreshing dip into a rich part of American history that has occurred when the nation was founded, grappled with nationhood, recovered from civil war and addressed the ravages of the Great Depression.

While the Capitol is buzzing with news about averting a government shutdown, criminal justice reform and a resolution to exit the Yemeni civil war, a new debate is quietly entering the stage that could radically change the US Supreme Court.

With two new conservative justices appointed by President Trump sitting on the high court, liberals are talking about ideas to apply term limits to justices, restrict when presidents can appoint new justices and add more justices to the court. Fivethirtyeight calls the conversation a “fringe idea” that is gaining mainstream attention.

As Fivethirtyeight recalls, court-packing isn’t new or novel. The Supreme Court’s size was shrunk by outgoing Federalists from six to five to prevent incoming President Thomas Jefferson from making an early appointment. Republicans quickly returned the Court to its original size and later added a seventh justice so another Republican could be named.

The Court was increased to nine justices to give President Andrew Jackson two additional seats to fill as part of his battle to end the national bank. Following President Lincoln’s assassination, a Republican Congress reduced the Court to seven to deny his successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson, any nominations that could interfere with their reconstruction plans. Franklin Roosevelt tried court-packing to remove judicial obstacles to his New Deal, but his transparent objective sank his attempt.   

The impetus for the latest spasm of interest in Supreme Court “reform” was the decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to deny a hearing or confirmation vote for President Obama nominee Merrick Garland in 2016. The spectacle surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings earlier this year didn’t squelch interest in reforms.

“The whole idea was born out of bleakness,” says David Faris who wrote “It’s Time to Fight Dirty,” which Fivethirtyeight describes as a “highbrow manual” to achieve institutional change. His book includes a chapter on changing the trajectory of the Supreme Court, with ideas Faris credits to Fix the Court, a group that says it is dedicated “to open up the most powerful, least accountable part of government.”

One of the group’s main ideas is to end lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices and impose 18-year term limits. It says that idea was originally suggested by none other than current Chief Justice John Roberts, who has served on the court since 2005.

“To paraphrase a John Roberts' 1983 memo, term limits would restore an important check on the most powerful, least accountable branch of American government, would increase the rotation of justices serving and would broaden the pool of potential nominees – all positive outcomes no matter where you stand politically.” He wrote the memo while working as associate counsel to White House counsel Fred Fielding during the Reagan administration.

According to Fivethirtyeight, the only elected official to express vocal support for Supreme Court justice term limits is freshman California Congressman Ro Khanna, who took his law degree from Yale University, has taught law and co-authored an amicus brief to the Supreme Court to allow race discrimination suits under the Fair Housing Act. Khanna, who worked in the Obama administration, doubts his former boss would favor the idea, but he thinks American voters might. “Americans love term limits,” he says.

For the idea to have any political legs, Khanna explains, it must be bipartisan. He and others who are intrigued by the idea of court reforms expect the issue to rise up in the 2020 presidential election as part of a broader debate over rehabilitating American democracy.

“Every presidential candidate should talk about their relationship to the Supreme Court, what they would do to reform the court, if anything, how they would go about selecting justices, and what they would do if there was a constitutional crisis,” Khanna told Fivethirtyeight. Polling has shown that candidate Donald Trump’s promises to appoint conservative justices was a factor in securing critical support, including from evangelical religious groups.

One of the other ideas being tossed around is limiting Supreme Court nominations to the first and third year of a presidential term, an idea ironically spawned by McConnell’s defense of ignoring Garland’s nomination in Obama’s final year in office. It also has been suggested to increase the size of the Supreme Court from nine to 11 or 13 justices – “depending on how many justices Trump winds up appointing.”

Term limits can cut both ways. Political conservatives might be thrilled to see Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined the Court in 1993 and the subject of a new film, gone. Political liberals would feel likewise about Justice Clarence Thomas, who took his seat in 1991 following a contentious confirmation hearing that featured Anita Hill and charges of sexual harassment.

A current-day debate over the Supreme Court would be like a refreshing dip into American history. The reforms would be newly expressed, but bound to the nation’s ever-evolving democracy over issues such as judicial review, racial discrimination and gender equality.

 

GOP Faces Unexpected Complications in Lame Duck Session

GOP congressional leaders were already struggling to meet a Friday deadline on a spending bill to avoid a partial federal government shutdown. The death of President George H.W. Bush, who will lie in state at the Capitol until a memorial service Wednesday, may extend negotiations a week or more.

GOP congressional leaders were already struggling to meet a Friday deadline on a spending bill to avoid a partial federal government shutdown. The death of President George H.W. Bush, who will lie in state at the Capitol until a memorial service Wednesday, may extend negotiations a week or more.

Congressional lawmakers have important work left to do before they head home for the holidays later this month, most notably completing the Fiscal Year 2019 spending legislation needed to avoid a government shutdown. 

Congress faces a Friday deadline to resolve disputes that include border wall funding in a spending package, but that date might be extended following the passing of former President George H.W. Bush. 

Bush 41 will lie in state at the Capitol before a memorial service is held Wednesday at the National Cathedral, complicating any efforts to hammer out a large-scale funding deal before Friday. GOP leaders, who remain in control of the lame duck session, are considering extending government funding for a week or two.

President Trump has said he is open to a short-term extension of spending talks if congressional leaders request one. But nevertheless, leaders will still need to reach an agreement to avoid a partial government shutdown of the agencies funded under seven out of 12 spending bills that haven’t been finalized.

Back in September, Congress approved five bills providing funding for defense, energy and water, labor, health and human services, the legislative branch and veterans affairs. Trump signed those measures, marking the first time in more than 20 years that Congress has passed a labor/health/human services funding bill prior to the end of the fiscal year, and the first time in more than 10 years it has passed a defense funding bill prior to the end of the fiscal year 

But Congress punted on the seven other spending bills with passage of a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the remaining federal government sectors open until December 7. Those bills include funding for the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, Interior, State, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, as well as several smaller agencies. If Congress is unable to avoid a government shutdown this month, those are the departments and agencies that would be affected.

The main issue at hand is whether or not to include $5 billion in border wall funding requested by Trump. House Republicans have backed Trump's call for $5 billion – the House Appropriations Committee approved the spending in July, but the Senate’s bill earmarked only $1.6 billion for the wall with bipartisan support.

Democrats have signaled that they’re not budging, arguing they already have reached bipartisan agreement in the Senate’s bill. But Trump has ratcheted up shutdown talk indicating he would “totally be willing” to shut down the federal government if Congress does not approve the full $5 billion for construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall. In response, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has blamed Trump for intransigence on the issue.

Meanwhile, Republicans are also looking to pass another tax package before they cede power to Democrats in January when the next Congress convenes. Last week, House Republicans offered a bill that would combine corrections to their 2017 tax bill along with extensions of more than two dozen expired tax breaks and a revamp of the IRS.

Republican leaders had planned a vote on the tax bill last week, but pulled it to shore up support within the Republican caucus after hearing concerns over some provisions within the bill and its overall price tag. Getting the measure through the House now appears to be in question. And Senate Republicans have been lukewarm at best toward the measure, with some suggesting it may need to get scaled back. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not yet named a tax bill as part of his year-end agenda. 

Congressional leaders also are working to wrap up work on a “Farm Bill,” which authorizes various Department of Agriculture programs including welfare (SNAP and WIC), crop insurance and federal forest management policies that House leaders have been trying to expand.

Senate and House leaders reportedly reached an agreement last week, several months after authority expired at the end of September. No text or details have been released yet, but indications are that it will largely pare back additional work requirements for receiving food benefits and forest management reforms that House Republicans had pushed in their version of the bill.

Dark Corners, New Lights Loom for Nation’s Capital

As the new year nears, darker economic possibilities lurk as a result of President Trump’s trade war with China, his threats to shut down the US-Mexican border and his kneecapping of Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to negotiate an exit from the European Union. The new year means Democrats regain control of the House, but a new bright light from Queens is already causing a stir in the nation’s capital as she pushes her agenda, fends off critics and waits for the keys to her congressional office.

As the new year nears, darker economic possibilities lurk as a result of President Trump’s trade war with China, his threats to shut down the US-Mexican border and his kneecapping of Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to negotiate an exit from the European Union. The new year means Democrats regain control of the House, but a new bright light from Queens is already causing a stir in the nation’s capital as she pushes her agenda, fends off critics and waits for the keys to her congressional office.

Congress returned for its lame duck session and faces a December 7 deadline to pass a spending bill to avoid a partial federal government shutdown. However, deeper economic rumblings presage more difficult times ahead, and there is a new tweeter in town.

General Motors stunned its workforce – and the White House – with a pre-holiday announcement that more than 14,000 employees will be laid off and five factories (four in the United States and one in Canada) will be shuttered. The news undermines President Trump’s boast that his economic policies will bring manufacturing jobs back to America. GM said it was restructuring as Americans abandon passenger cars and Trump’s tariffs eat into profitability.

Trump is threatening to shut down the US-Mexican border over continuing attempts by thousands of migrants to enter the United States and seek asylum. Even though US law permits migrants to enter the nation legally at ports of entry and apply for asylum, Trump is trying to prevent them from gaining entry, including use of force such as tear gas. A complete shutdown of the border would have severe economic consequences on the daily $1.7 billion movement of goods between the two countries.

A longer-term threat involves the United Kingdom’s unexecuted exit from the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated a complex pull-out deal that still must be approved next month by the British Parliament, which is not a foregone conclusion. Trump weighed in and undercut May’s bargaining position by raising doubt the agreement with the EU would permit a US-British bilateral trade deal, something the prime minister has touted as a positive payoff for Brexit. British officials deny the EU-exit agreement bars Britain from entering into bilateral trade deals.

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t waited for the keys to her congressional office to stir the waters in DC with forceful advocacy of her progressive agenda and a savvy pushback to conservatives who seem mesmerized by her growing national prominence as a symbol of the new wave of women and more diverse political representatives.

Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t waited for the keys to her congressional office to stir the waters in DC with forceful advocacy of her progressive agenda and a savvy pushback to conservatives who seem mesmerized by her growing national prominence as a symbol of the new wave of women and more diverse political representatives.

The United States is still on a glide path to impose even more tariffs on Chinese goods on January 1, which would likely result in reciprocal tariffs on US exports to China. Trump trade officials insist China must act to end what amounts to an escalating trade war. Ahead of a summit this week, Trump’s officials also poured cold water on a suggestion that the G20 group of industrialized nations could play a role in resolving the dispute. For its part, China says it is opening up key markets such as banks, automobiles, aircraft, telecommunications and medical. It calls many US demands “unrealistic.”

While no one is exactly predicting an economic downturn, there are some cracks surfacing in the current economic boom. The US stock market has plunged from its dizzying record heights. There has been a slight uptick in unemployment filing. Interest rates continue to inch up, which could cool hot housing markets. Millennial trends away from car and homebuying are beginning to disrupt traditional industries and their extensive supply chains. In addition, China’s economy may be weaker than most economists thought. All of which suggests the international economy may be fragile and capable of slowing US economic growth.

Another drag on the US economy is higher-than-promised national deficits, mostly attributable to the GOP-backed tax cut. The beneficial effects of the tax cut may be mostly used up as the country heads into a new year.

In January, Democrats regain control of the House, which may add more complications to charting an economic path to avoid a downturn.

Then there is Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who as the youngest member of the new Congress is already stirring the DC pot with Twitter posts about Medicare-for-All, a Green New Deal, immigration and reducing student college loan debt. She has fended off criticism from conservatives, who have singled her out because of her potential political stardom. She has tried to avoid irking Democratic leaders while still extoling her more left-leaning positions (she announced she will vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker). She has traded tweets with Senator Lindsey Graham and the tweeter-in-chief. 

Ocasio-Cortez, who started the year working bar in New York, is part of a wave of more diverse congressional newcomers, but her quick rise to political prominence – matched by her quick wit and knowledge of social media – make her a force beyond her years, experience or congressional seniority.

 

Political Discourse from Dog Whistles to Intersectionality

Democrats poised to run for President in 2020 are embracing language and concepts from the racial justice movement in part as a response to what they view as racial dog whistles and attacks on political correctness. At issue is whether blunter racial language will attract or repel white working-class voters in states that can give a candidate an Electoral College edge. [Illustration Credit: Melissa Joskow/Media Matters]

Democrats poised to run for President in 2020 are embracing language and concepts from the racial justice movement in part as a response to what they view as racial dog whistles and attacks on political correctness. At issue is whether blunter racial language will attract or repel white working-class voters in states that can give a candidate an Electoral College edge. [Illustration Credit: Melissa Joskow/Media Matters]

Racial dog whistles, criticism of ‘political correctness’ and eyerolling at identity politics have become election staples in our hyper-partisan political environment dominated by President Trump. Despite that – or because of that, Democrats poised to run for President in 2020 are embracing a blunter lexicon borrowed from the racial justice movement.

An example reported by Politico from a Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren speech earlier this year: “Let’s just start with the hard truth about our criminal justice system: It’s racist.”

Trump’s presidential campaign and his ‘Hail Mary’ stumping on the eve of the midterm election have pushed racially charged issues to the forefront, in a fairly naked attempt to drive a wedge between traditionally Democratic black voters and up-for-grabs white working-class voters.

The backlash started immediately after Trump’s inauguration with a women’s march in Washington, DC that emphasized unified resistance, inclusiveness and “intersectionality” – the concept that America faces overlapping prejudices against races, religions, genders, sexual orientations and citizenship status.

While Trump and his GOP supporters have seen the path to victory as black and white, Democrats see a rainbow opening that not only appeals to minority voters, but also to suburban women and younger progressive voters. 

“Intersectionality feels obvious to younger progressives in the way that LGBTQ rights do,” Amanda Litman, co-founder and executive director of Run For Something, which recruited thousands of young progressives to run for local and state office in the aftermath of the 2016 election.

Not everyone in the Democratic Party is on board with the shift. Democratic moderates, including some newly elected House members who unseated GOP incumbents in swing districts, want to focus on bread-and-butter issues. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is toying with a presidential run based on what he calls a “pro worker” message.

However, the horses may already have left the corral. Warren publicly dismissed the idea that “Democrats have to choose between being the party of the white working class and the party of Black Lives Matter.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, in his aptly named new book titled “Where We Go From Here,” credits Black Lives Matter and the ACLU with raising awareness about the racial inequities of the US criminal justice system. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told her supporters “Resistance is female, intersectional and powered by our belief in one another.”

Politico reported, “Many progressive grassroots organizations are instituting new training and programs to improve their approach to race. Indivisible, the largest ‘resistance’ group of the Trump era, recently held its first mandatory virtual training; more than 300 group leaders across the country tuned in. The topic: ‘Direct Voter Contact through a Racial Equity Lens.’”

Maria Urbina, Indivisible’s national political director, said, “We expect candidates in 2020 to commit to an inclusive and motivating message that addresses both economic and racial inequality.”

A message of inclusiveness and intersectionality may appear incongruous with polling results showing three white men leading the way in the 2020 Democratic presidential sweepstakes – Joe Biden, Sanders and Beto O’Rourke, who lost a high-profile bid to unseat Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Other potential candidates include Warren, Gillibrand, California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Senator Corey Booker.

There is a pragmatic reason for identity politics. African-Americans are a critical voting bloc in southern states, Latinos are turning Texas and Arizona purple and Asians are transforming red parts of California such as Orange County into Democratic enclaves. Young Democratic voters also gravitate to younger candidates with more progressive views on sexual orientation, reproductive rights and income equality. Minorities and young people are among Americans most concerned about access to affordable health care.

Pundits might sum up this trend as Culture Wars 2.0 with Democrats advocating an agenda with the equivalent emotion of GOP policies on immigration, abortion and gun rights. It is a trend unlikely to lower the temperature of political debate.

However, that doesn’t mean common ground is impossible. Trump has signaled a willingness to support criminal justice reforms proposed by a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill. Reform legislation could pass Congress in the lame duck session when Republicans are still in control.

 

Divided Government Could Lead to Infrastructure Collaboration

There has been lots of talk and even more anticipation over the last two years of a mammoth infrastructure initiative. The ascendancy of Democrats in control of the House will put Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio back in charge of the committee that deals with transportation and infrastructure. He wants a $500 billion package with “real money” sewed up in the first six months of 2019.

There has been lots of talk and even more anticipation over the last two years of a mammoth infrastructure initiative. The ascendancy of Democrats in control of the House will put Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio back in charge of the committee that deals with transportation and infrastructure. He wants a $500 billion package with “real money” sewed up in the first six months of 2019.

Infrastructure investment is one of the most promising areas of bipartisan collaboration in the new Congress. Oregon Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio is poised to explore the boundaries of that possibility.

With the Democratic takeover of the House, DeFazio is expected to assume the chairmanship of the House Transportation and infrastructure Committee. In that pending role, DeFazio is touting a $500 billion measure to fund highways, transit, airports and marine projects.

Unlike President Trump’s $1.5 billion infrastructure initiative that relied heavily on private investment, DeFazio is contemplating a measure backed by actual federal funding. Under DeFazio’s plan, Treasury would issue $500 billion in a new type of 30-year bonds that would be repaid by increased federal gasoline and diesel taxes to account for highway construction cost inflation and from lower fuel usage because of federal fuel-economy standards.

In 2017, the 30+year veteran on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced a “Penny for Progress” bill that would pay for a $500 billion infrastructure package over 13 years. DeFazio says he isn’t wedded to that idea, but insists he wants to move an infrastructure investment bill before the middle of 2019. “I’m open to any and all options on how we get real funds for infrastructure. But it has to be real money.”

“Infrastructure has been delayed too long,” DeFazio says. “We’ve got to get it done. We’ve got to maintain it. We’ve got to modernize it and we’ve got to move people and goods more efficiently.”

DeFazio suggests airport improvements could be paid for by an increased passenger facility charge. The charge has been pegged at $4.50 per flight since 2000. He wants Congress to mandate spending the balance that exists in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to maintain harbors and shipping channels.

There has been a lot of post-election commentary favoring bipartisan collaboration. Infrastructure investment has the support of mainstream Republicans and Trump, so could be an early test case for finding common ground to pass meaningful legislation in a divided government.

Congressman Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican who could become the Ranking Member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has expressed interest in “presenting my vision for our transportation network” and might emerge as a partner to DeFazio in fashioning bipartisan legislation.

A wide array of transportation advocacy groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, have applauded the idea of a bipartisan infrastructure measure and federal funding to pay for it. 

“We see this as good timing if Congress and the President can come together,” said Bill Sullivan, American Trucking Association’s executive vice president of advocacy. “Everybody knows that we need to invest in infrastructure, but they just haven’t hit that magic moment that Congress is willing to do it.” Maybe that time has arrived.

DeFazio’s position should be the good break needed to revive conversations to replace the I-5 Columbia River Bridge as part of the 2020 reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Act, which his committee will oversee.

Dems Manage Only Blue Ripple in Midterm Election

The projected blue wave was reduced to a blue ripple as Democrats regained control of the House, but Republicans retained their hold on the Senate, setting the stage for split government and potentially more partisan bickering.

The projected blue wave was reduced to a blue ripple as Democrats regained control of the House, but Republicans retained their hold on the Senate, setting the stage for split government and potentially more partisan bickering.

What was perhaps the most anticipated midterm election in recent memory went largely as polls and pundits predicted it would – a sharp contrast from two years ago. Democrats leveraged their fury over President Trump to recapture the House, while Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate, a split verdict presaging divided government and partisan conflicts for the rest of Trump’s first term.

The campaign efforts of Trump and GOP members mobilized enough Republican voters to reduce a projected Democratic blue wave to something closer to a blue ripple. Presidential campaigning helped Republicans win hotly contested Senate races in Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas. Trump proclaimed the election outcome a “tremendous success” as Republicans held their grip throughout the South and in rural and exurban areas.

But Democrats – propelled by a rejection of Trumpism in the nation’s suburbs, and especially from women and minority voters – notched victories in areas that just two years ago helped Trump reach the White House. Incumbent Republicans fell in an array of suburban House districts, including one held by House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions in the Dallas area. And in West Virginia – where Trump is wildly popular and campaigned heavily for Republicans – the reelection of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin delivered a personal blow to the president.

In Washington’s 3rd District, 4-term GOP Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler squeaked out a victory over Democratic challenger Carolyn Long, who mounted a serious, well-funded challenge and sounded like she will try again in 2020.

Democrat Kim Schrier, a pediatrician making her first political run, defeated two-time GOP gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi in Washington’s open 8th District. Republican Congressman Dave Reichert chose not to seek re-election. The Schrier-Rossi contest was one of the most expensive House races in the nation. Her victory bumps up the double-digit Democratic margin in the House and further increases the number of women who will serve in the 116th Congress. The 8th District has never sent a Democrat to Congress before Schrier.

In the high-turnout election, Democrats picked up at least seven governorships, performing well across much of the upper Midwest and even in ruby-red Kansas, where Laura Kelly was elected governor over the President’s handpicked candidate, Kris Kobach.

In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers bested Governor Scott Walker, once a Republican star who ran for president in 2016. Walker survived a hard-fought recall vote in 2012 and was reelected in 2014. Democrats failed to take over the Florida governorship left open by Rick Scott, who challenged incumbent Democrat Senator Bill Nelson and held a slight edge in a tight race that may be headed for a recount. Trump-backed Ron DeSantis narrowly defeated progressive Democrat Andrew Gillum in a race that might be a preview of the 2020 presidential election if Trump faces one of the more left-leaning challengers eying the race. 

House of Representatives 

As expected, Democrats regained control of the House for the first time since Republicans took the majority in 2010. Returns early Wednesday show Democrats poised to pick up more than the 23 House seats they needed to gain a foothold in Congress from which to counter Trump.

Democrats were projected to flip at least 29 districts currently held by the GOP, while they were on track to surrender only a few seats in the chamber. As of now, Democrats have taken 220 seats (enough for the majority) and Republicans have 194 seats. That leaves 21 seats still on the board, including the two close races in Washington. 

With Democrats in charge, Trump will face a different set of committee chairmen who seem poised to investigate alleged administrative corruption and will have subpoena power to push their investigations. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff will ascend to the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, which will translate into more discerning oversight into the potential of Trump team collaboration with Russian operatives in the 2016 presidential election, a sharp turn from the sycophantic role of GOP Congressman Devin Nunes. The Mueller investigation also will have a solid firewall.

Maybe the biggest irony of the 2018 midterm election was that defending Obamacare may have propelled Democrats back into control of the House after costing them their majority in 2010 following its passage.

Senate 

In the Senate, the GOP was able to take advantage of a favorable map heavily tilted toward Republican-friendly states where Trump remains popular. The GOP scored a series of wins in those states, with only a few setbacks. Incumbent GOP Senator Dean Heller of Nevada was unseated by Jacky Rosen. And in West Virginia, a state Trump carried by 42 points in 2016, incumbent Democrat Senator Joe Manchin retained his seat. 

But with GOP pickups in Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota, and likely Florida, the GOP expanded its grip on the Senate for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, increasing the GOP’s narrow 51-49 seat majority. We can expect McConnell’s Senate to retain a focus on confirming Trump’s appointments to the judiciary over the next two years and ignore legislation sent over from the Democratic House that would undermine the Trump agenda.

It’s important to note that in 2020, the Senate map is nearly the exact opposite of this year with 21 Republican-held seats up for election compared to just nine Democratic seats.

Oregon and Washington Elections

There were no shockers in Oregon. The state’s five incumbent members of Congress were swept back into office. Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden, who have served a collective 69 years in the House, will return for another two years, but in a House chamber markedly different than in the previous eight years.

Perhaps the most interesting result was in Oregon’s 2nd District where Republican Greg Walden won his 11th term by defeating Jamie McLeod-Skinner 57.5 percent to 38.06 percent. Though he still won comfortably, the tally was a sharp decrease from the 69.9 percent Walden posted in 2016.

Senator Maria Cantwell cruised to victory as did GOP Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and the remainder of Washington’s Democratic congressmen.

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera-Beutler is expected to eke out a victory in the 3rd District, while Democrat Kim Schrier leads Dino Rossi by 53 to 47 percent margin.

Legislative Prospects in the Next Congress 

With little chance of getting major legislation through the Senate, congressional Democrats will remain on the sidelines for federal judicial confirmations in the Senate, play the role as pesky thorn in the side of Trump in the House and, in turn, serve as a predictable foil in Trump’s anticipated 2020 re-election bid. 

Democrats may get an early start on their fall-guy role with a vote to restore Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, who has become a familiar political piñata at Trump campaign rallies.

Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio is on track to become chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which raises hope of a more serious effort to push a major infrastructure package in the next Congress – one of the few possible bipartisan legislative projects in a split Congress. 

Strong voter interest in health care expressed in the midterm elections might prompt bipartisan efforts to shore up popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act. 

It seems less likely bipartisan common ground can be found in the next two years on Medicare and Medicaid and on immigration reform, which may be headed for the 2020 presidential election as political wedge issues.

Walden will lose his chairmanship of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee, but will continue as the Ranking Member. Walden has a track record of advancing legislation in divided government and may look for bipartisan wins to shore up support back home. 

With the GOP retaining control of the Senate, Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley aren’t expected to take on any new committee assignments. But they will enjoy increased bargaining positions over appropriations and other legislation where they have a Democratic partner to dance with on the House side. 

The “lame duck” Congress now becomes very important to Republicans who will try to accomplish some political objectives before the 116th Congress convenes in January. An aggressive GOP push on contentious issues in the lame duck session could poison the well for any possible collaboration in the next Congress, but it could bolster Republican efforts to satisfy their political base.

  

Washington House Races Could Punctuate Blue Wave – Or Not

fivethirtyeight.com  indicates a high probability of Democrats regaining control of the US House in next Tuesday’s midterm election. Three tightly contested House seats in Washington now held by Republicans could punctuate a Democratic blue wave or sustain GOP control.

fivethirtyeight.com indicates a high probability of Democrats regaining control of the US House in next Tuesday’s midterm election. Three tightly contested House seats in Washington now held by Republicans could punctuate a Democratic blue wave or sustain GOP control.

Three contested US House races in Washington that will be decided on Tuesday could punctuate a national Democratic blue wave or confirm continuing control of Congress by Republicans.

Flipping control of the House has emerged as a major storyline of the 2018 midterm election. Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to regain control. More than half of the midterm elections since 1994 have featured a 24+ seat swing. In the 2010 midterm election that produced the current run of Republican control, 64 House seats went from blue to red.

Fivethirtyeight.com gives Democrats an 85.5 percent chance to win back control of the House with the highest probability gain of 39 seats. A Washington Post poll shows projected Democratic voters slightly outnumber Republicans in key House races.

However, elections are like football games. It matters who comes out to play. Voter turnout remains the key, especially in roughly 30 or so swing districts that either a Democrat or Republican has a chance to win. 

The three House races in Washington are all in Republican hands.

  • Four-term Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler faces a stiff challenge from Carolyn Long in the 3rd District, which includes Vancouver and Southwest Washington.

  • Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rogers is being tested in the GOP-dominated 5th District in Eastern Washington by a well-funded Democratic challenger, Lisa Brown.

  • In the open 8th District seat in the Seattle suburbs, former GOP candidate Dino Rossi is trying to hold onto the seat held for seven terms by fellow Republican Dave Reichert, but is being significantly outspent by Democrat Kim Schrier.

Herrera Beutler and McMorris Rogers won election in 2016 with decisive margins in their respective districts, but aggressive Democratic challengers have amassed sizable war chests to contest their re-election this year. As of October 17, Long had reeled in $2.7 million in mostly individual contributions while Brown secured $4.6 million against an entrenched incumbent. In the open House seat race, Schrier has raised $6.1 million compared to Republican Rossi’s $3.9 million.

What makes individual House races – and to a lesser degree Senate races – more competitive this year is the national character of the midterm elections, largely turning on the oversized personality of President Trump. In many ways, the midterm election in toss-up districts and states is being viewed as a referendum on Trump. Trump is campaigning in states and congressional districts where he hopes his popularity and political agenda persuade voters to retain Republicans.

Democratic control of the Senate is possible, but not likely. Of the 35 Senate seats up this year, 26 are held by Democrats or Independents who caucus with the Democrats. Democrats hold Senate seats in Montana, Indiana, West Virginia and Missouri, which are states Trump carried in the 2016 presidential election. Incumbent Democrats in Montana, Missouri and Indiana are trailing or are running neck-and-neck with their GOP challengers. Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson also is in a close race with his Republican challenger, current Governor Rick Scott. 

Democrats have mounted spirited Senate campaigns against GOP incumbents in Texas and Nevada and they are hopeful to pick up the Arizona Senate seat held by Jeff Flake who isn’t seeking re-election.

If Democrats manage to take control of one or both chambers, the lame duck Congress becomes very important to Republicans. The GOP will likely try to accomplish as much as possible between November and next January when the 116th Congress is sworn in and its majority dissolves.

After January, Democrats would likely exercise their newfound power to halt the Republican legislative agenda and initiate oversight investigations into Trump and his administration. There is some hope a Democratic House and the Trump administration could work together on one big major legislative item – an infrastructure package.

What If?

If Republicans retain majorities in the House and Senate, it will be full speed ahead. A new speaker of the House to replace the outgoing Paul Ryan will join Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in tackling several remaining legislative initiatives Republicans weren’t able to accomplish in the last two years.

What About Earmarks?

We’ve heard for months of certain prominent House Democrats intentions to bring back earmarks if they regain the majority in the House. It’s unclear what it would look like, especially with a Republican Senate and Democratic House. Senate Republicans could resist a return to earmarks, but it’s entirely possible for the House to go it alone and Senate Republicans may be forced to go along. 

The new earmark system will likely be limited in scope compared to the old process, featuring stricter guidelines and requiring committed local match funding for any earmark project. Several popular grant programs would likely remain, but a return to earmarks would open up federal funding for an array of municipal and public-sector projects that don’t fit the guidelines of existing federal grant programs.