Congress

Congress Nears Approval of Bipartisan Retirement Savings Legislation

Congress is on the verge of approving bipartisan legislation to make employer-sponsored retirement saving plans more attractive to small businesses. The legislation, which passed the House last week, has the strong support of the financial service industry and is in response to stunning data showing many Americans have little to no retirement savings. It also is a response to a growing number of state-sponsored retirement savings plans such as OregonSaves.

Congress is on the verge of approving bipartisan legislation to make employer-sponsored retirement saving plans more attractive to small businesses. The legislation, which passed the House last week, has the strong support of the financial service industry and is in response to stunning data showing many Americans have little to no retirement savings. It also is a response to a growing number of state-sponsored retirement savings plans such as OregonSaves.

Congress is on the verge of approving significant and bipartisan retirement savings legislation. The House passed its version last week by a 417-3 margin. The Senate is expected to act on its version in the next few weeks. A reconciled measure should pass and go to the White House by year’s end.

The SECURE Act in the House and the RESA Act in the Senate aim to make employer-sponsored retirement savings plans more attractive. The congressional bills, which enjoy broad financial industry and small business support, are in many ways a response to state-sponsored retirement savings plans such as OregonSaves.

The SECURE Act provides incentives for small businesses to set up their own 401(k) plans or join other businesses in multiple-employer plans (MEPs). It also increases opportunities for workers to save through automatic enrollment and escalation, access to plans by long-term part-time workers and portability of accounts. The employee features roughly parallel the key selling points of state-sponsored retirement saving plans.

Additional provisions would raise the age to 72 when savers must take minimum required distributions from their 401(k) accounts, prohibit distribution plan loans by credit card and allow withdrawals of up to $10,000 to repay student loans and up to $5,000 to cover adoption-related expenses.

There are numerous types of retirement savings plans, with a mix of advantages and drawbacks. Nerdwallet offers a review of options.  https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/investing/best-retirement-plans-for-you/

There are numerous types of retirement savings plans, with a mix of advantages and drawbacks. Nerdwallet offers a review of options. https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/investing/best-retirement-plans-for-you/

There was minor grumbling among Republicans during the House floor debate about a committee amendment that disallowed plan withdrawals to pay for K-12 school tuition, including at private and religious schools.

The SECURE Act ventures into the territory of offering in-plan investment vehicles such as annuities by creating a safe harbor for employer liability in the selection of an annuity provider. In-plan annuities also would be portable.

Critics of state-sponsored retirement savings plans have complained about competition with private-sector plan options. Congressional legislation will provide useful sales tools to financial advisers, especially in marketing to small businesses.

However, removing regulatory and liability obstacles may not change employer resistance to assuming the role of a retirement savings plan fiduciary. They may be content with a well-run government-savings plan that can provide easy access for employees and limited responsibilities for them. 

The rise of government-sponsored retirement savings plans and bipartisan congressional action to make employer-sponsored plans more viable for small businesses are reflections of shared concern about the existing and projected number of Americans who will enter retirement with few financial resources. 

Data indicates one quarter of adults have no retirement savings and one third of Baby Boomers have between nothing and $25,000 tucked away for retirement. Older adults are avoiding medical care because they lack money to pay for it.

 

NAFTA with a New Name

The Trump administration successfully negotiated an updated North American Free Trade Agreement with modernized provisions, concessions of value to farmers and automakers and, of course, a new name. However, politics could still undermine the deal when it goes to Congress and consternation remains among trading partners with continuing Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum.

The Trump administration successfully negotiated an updated North American Free Trade Agreement with modernized provisions, concessions of value to farmers and automakers and, of course, a new name. However, politics could still undermine the deal when it goes to Congress and consternation remains among trading partners with continuing Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum.

The Canadians agreed to final terms for a $1.2 trillion North American free trade agreement that gave President Trump a political triumph and NAFTA a new name. However, the deal doesn’t end a simmering trade war sparked by US tariffs on steel and aluminum and still faces a treacherous political road to passage.

Trade experts gave credit to the Trump administration for completing a three-way deal to update the 25-year-old trade that candidate Trump derided as terrible. Trump critics note the new trade pact is largely the same car with a rebranded nameplate to appease Trump. Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, said the foundation remains, but the superstructure is superior. 

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) still must be approved by Congress, which seems more likely after cliffhanger negotiations with Canada prevented Trump from submitting just a bilateral agreement with Mexico. The agreement also must be ratified by the respective legislative bodies in Canada and Mexico.

Most everybody agreed NAFTA needed a refresher, if for no other reason to account for a phalanx of digital industries and e-commerce that didn’t exist when it was signed. There also was a push to strengthen intellectual property protections, the underlying issue that has sparked a Trump-inspired trade war with China. There are reportedly 63 pages worth of provisions that address patents and trademarks, including two additional years of protection for biologic drugs, which Trump hailed as a key to US medical innovation.

A major sticking point was Canada’s barrier that prevents US dairy farmers from penetrating their market. The Canadians traded some of that protection to retain a trade dispute resolution provision that Trump wanted to scrap. Somewhat ironically, Canadians had agreed to a similar sized dairy concession in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump abandoned when he took office.

Domestic car manufacturing was a core reason why Trump pushed for a better North American trade agreement. The agreement reached earlier with Mexico increases the North American auto content requirements and requires more content from higher paid autoworkers to qualify for duty-free treatment. AFL-CIO leaders withheld their support for the change, saying they doubted the higher wages and better working conditions in Mexico can be enforced. The USMCA effectively requires unionization of Mexican autoworkers, which runs counter to state-level right-to-work laws, which political conservatives have pushed for in the United States.

Economists fret that higher wages will make North American vehicles more expensive and less competitive against vehicles imported from overseas, which face a nominal tariff. Trump is pledging to address the import tariff and potentially replace it with quotas. There also is a side letter to the agreement that preserves Trump’s ability to impose tariffs on automobiles assembled in Mexico or Canada. 

Trump sought a 5-year sunset clause on the deal. In the final agreement, the USMCA has a 16-year life span, with a review after six years.

A key element of the deal for the incoming Mexican president is a clause that restates Mexico’s claim of ownership of all hydrocarbons in its subsoil. The provision doesn’t prevent foreign companies from producing oil in Mexico.

While agreement on NAFTA modernization brought sighs of relief, there is still consternation over steel and aluminum tariffs – and their rationale: protecting US national security. The pretense for the tariffs has irked Canadians who don’t view themselves as security risks to the United States.

Looming elections that could flip control of the House to Democrats might complicate approval of the USMCA. Democrats may not want to bless a Trump achievement before the 2020 presidential election and Republicans may decide to poke the eye of unions, which have been a major force behind revamping NAFTA. That could leave the USMCA an agreement without a country and further muddy the waters on US trade policy.

 

Congress on Sidelines as Politics, Events Pass It By

Congress returns from its summer recess, but still will be mostly on the sidelines as Trump tweets, court rulings and midterm elections dominate the daily news cycle. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

Congress returns from its summer recess, but still will be mostly on the sidelines as Trump tweets, court rulings and midterm elections dominate the daily news cycle. [Photo Credit: Associated Press]

What goes on in Congress matters less these days than what goes on about Congress.

The five-day memorial for the late Senator John McCain drew attention to his lifelong dedication to duty, honor and principle, as well as a willingness to reach across the political aisle to compromise.

The mid-term elections have taken on amplified importance as a virtual referendum on President Donald Trump and as a contest for the heart of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Republican primaries are judged as battles between GOP moderates and Trump backers. Democratic primaries are viewed as tests of how far left the party may swing.

Trump’s hardline, nationalist approach to trade continues to ruffle feathers abroad and at home as farmers, manufacturers, workers and consumers fret over the end game. Congress ultimately will have to decide on any new trade deals, but for now is sitting on the sidelines. Congress is beginning to tackle the one-time subsidies Trump proposed to help farm producers cope with the impact of his tariffs.

The courts have played an outsized role in curbing Trump policies, including a ruling that forced reunification of families separated at the border, blocked blanket detention of asylum-seekers and elimination of DACA and delayed a rollback of fuel efficient standards.

The Robert Mueller investigation into Russian election meddling and potential Trump campaign collusion plugs along, with recent convictions, new grants of immunity and the pall of more indictments. Trump tells campaign rally audiences that a Democratic takeover of the House will lead to his impeachment. There are other investigations and lawsuits about Trump Organization business practices that also result in indictments, including of Trump family members.

Capitol Hill hasn’t gone completely quiet, however. This week will see the start of confirmation hearings on Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, amid Democratic complaints that documents have been suppressed that might shed light on Kavanaugh’s views about executive privilege and prosecution. While the hearings could be confrontational, it appears likely Kavanaugh will win confirmation.

As the end of the federal fiscal year approaches, which in recent times has been tense with the threat of a partial government shutdown, Congress has dutifully moved 12 appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2019. No shutdown will occur, even though Trump said it might be a good thing. Congress has even been upstaged by Trump on spending as the President unilaterally blocked scheduled federal worker pay increases.

Facebook and Twitter remain in the congressional line of sight. After being blamed for turning a blind eye to false-flag accounts, the social media platforms are being accused of putting the squeeze on conservative political voices. Trump has gone further and alleged Google has manipulated search results to play up critical news stories about him and downplay positive stories.

There is an eerie silence in the halls of Congress on efforts to denuclearize North Korea, advance a major infrastructure package, act on immigration reform or respond to the looming denouement of the Syrian conflict, which many observers believe will be a massive humanitarian crisis.

Trump tweets remain the dominant story in most daily news cycles, whether he chastises the FBI and his Attorney General, whines about his treatment by the press or insults US allies or his critics. Apart from the content of the tweets, what troubles Republicans on the Hill are their unpredictability and inconsistency, which makes pursuing a congressional agenda more difficult.

The long, smothering shadow of Trump’s tweets does give congressional Republicans more time to start their own digital firestorms. Ryan Gosling’s biopic of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon has drawn criticism from GOP Senators Ted  Cruz and Marco Rubio for failing to feature the astronaut planting the US flag.

Cruz, who is running for re-election this fall, and Rubio said Armstrong’s achievement was a distinctively American moment, paid for by US taxpayers. Gosling defended the omission by saying Armstrong’s achievement “transcended borders and countries.”

Of course, the back-and-forth sniping has nothing to do with Congress.

Nation’s Capital Waiting, Watching for Deadlines, Shoes to Drop

Turbulent clouds hovering over the US Capitol are apropos for the bevy of big issues and decisions that are pending, and for the prospects of more unexpected shoes to drop.   Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Turbulent clouds hovering over the US Capitol are apropos for the bevy of big issues and decisions that are pending, and for the prospects of more unexpected shoes to drop. 

Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Washington, DC is full of apprehension as big events loom. More West Wing staff changes. An omnibus spending bill. President Trump’s message to Congress explaining his steel and aluminum tariffs. A pending deadline on the Iran nuclear deal. Anticipated face-to-face talks with North Korea. Possible gun violence legislation. And new developments in the Russian meddling investigation.

Last week saw a continuation of the revolving door for the Trump team and rumors persist that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster may be the next to get the boot. Ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and McMaster have urged a more cautious approach toward Iran, which runs counter to what Trump wants. The President’s personal staff remains in flux, too.

Intensive bipartisan negotiations continue on a massive spending package, which Congress tasked itself with approving by this Friday as part of brokered deal last month to prevent another federal government shutdown. There was hope pieces of the $1.3 trillion spending measure would fall into place so it could be passed in something resembling normal order. That hope appears dashed, as disagreements persist on everything from women’s health to Trump’s border wall and from campaign finance to a major transportation project in New York and New Jersey. Negotiations are tricky because many House and Senate Republicans are expected to oppose the measure as fiscally reckless, which means it will fall to Democrats to approve it, so they have bargaining power to set the terms.

Trump’s abrupt decision to impose stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Within 30 days of when the tariffs go into effect, Trump must tell Congress formally why he imposed them – and whether and how he may exempt some nations from the tariffs. Many congressional Republicans aren’t keen on the tariffs because of their unintended effects on other parts of the economy and their potential to start a global trade war. Trump’s top economic adviser quit after Trump announced the tariffs. The European Union and some steel-producing countries have threatened trade retaliation, either through tariffs or shifting large purchases, such as commercial aircraft, from US to other suppliers. The tit-for-tat could result in one or more countries, including the United States, filing unfair trade complaints with the World Trade Organization.

The Tillerson firing (the former head of Exxon-Mobile learned he was canned while on the toilet, according to press reports) and the shaky status of McMaster are likely linked to the May 12 deadline Trump faces on whether to extend the waiver on Iranian sanctions lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear arms deal. Trump said he reluctantly waived sanctions in January, but has sounded more bellicose since then toward Iran. He has sided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who views the deal as weak. Trump also has aligned with Saudi Arabia in a conflict in Yemen that is effectively a proxy war between the Saudis and Iranians, which both seek greater influence in Middle East.

Trump said he wanted a secretary of state closer to his mindset as he approaches personal negotiations with North Korea.

Leader Kim Jong-un sometime this spring. Trump chose CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson, but that nomination could face trouble in the Senate as two GOP senators have already said they would oppose his confirmation. There is uneasiness that Trump and his administration may not be prepared to deal with Kim, but the talks appear on the road to happening as North Korea and Sweden, which is the American shadow voice, explore ways to find a peaceful resolution.

The Parkland, Florida school shootings sparked a vigorous, student-led national push for gun violence legislation. Florida lawmakers and GOP Governor Rick Scott approved a measure over objections from the National Rifle Association. The NRA subsequently challenged the constitutionality of one provision in the bill raising the legal age to buy long weapons from 18 to 21 years old. Trump has bounced around on what he would support, including support for arming some school teachers, but there are hints of a building bipartisan consensus in Congress to strengthen background checks before gun purchases – and possibly take further steps. For his part, Trump has asked his administration to find a way to ban bump stocks, a device used in the Las Vegas massacre to turn a semi-automatic weapon into a virtual machine gun.

Despite boastful predictions by Trump and his team that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation would wrap up soon, the opposite appears true. Last week’s news included subpoenas issued to the Trump Organization for documents relating to its dealings with Russian financial interests. The firing of Andrew McCabe from the FBI just before he was set to retire, which was celebrated in Trump tweets, may have added more propellant to charges of obstruction of justice. While the firing of McCabe may have been inspired as a way to discredit him as a witness against Trump, but it also removed any shackles McCabe may have felt to tell what he knows about Trump attempts to blunt the Russia meddling issue.

If that wasn’t bewildering enough, there also is the Stormy Daniels spectacle. The former porn star and her new attorney are keeping the story about a sexual encounter and hush money front and center. Trump has denied having a fling with Daniels, despite pictures of the two of them together and negotiations on Trump Organization email between his fix-it attorney and Daniels that resulted in a $130,000 hush money payment just before the 2016 election. Last week, Trump’s team baffled observers by declaring Daniels owed $20 million for violating terms of the non-disclosure agreement.

There is never a dull moment in the nation’s capital, and probably never an empty bar seat.

 

Murky Stew of Issues Face Congress as Election Season Approaches

Congress faces a daunting challenge to approve 12 appropriations bills before the March 23 deadline in the latest Continuing Resolution budget deal amid fiery debates over immigration and gun violence – and a fast-approaching primary election season in which both political parties will play to their respective bases.

Congress faces a daunting challenge to approve 12 appropriations bills before the March 23 deadline in the latest Continuing Resolution budget deal amid fiery debates over immigration and gun violence – and a fast-approaching primary election season in which both political parties will play to their respective bases.

Most Members of Congress are back in their states and districts for the President’s Day Recess, but here in DC leaders and staff are trying to make sense of the previous month’s legislative roller coaster and decide how to chart a path forward.

There are plenty of obstacles in the way – immigration, gun control and primary elections. The challenges Congress faces are a lot like the temptations of distracted driving. They will be trying to steer a final budget agreement to safe harbor, while fending off texts, tweets, marches and grandstanding that are sure to grab a lot of attention.

Over the last two weeks, Congress was able to avoid another government shutdown by passing a fifth short-term extension to March 23, increasing spending caps for FY18 and FY19 and debating, but failing to pass a comprehensive immigration bill out of the Senate. However, nothing has been fully resolved. 

Each of these three thorny items will need to be addressed or finalized over the coming weeks. It is likely these politically charged issues will start to intersect and cause further instability. Add to the mix the school shooting in Parkland, Florida along with related scheduled gun control marches in DC and the political landscape on Capitol Hill becomes even less predictable.

And that doesn’t factor in the effect of President Trump’s tweets.

Appropriators have been tasked with allocating an additional $63 billion to the 12 appropriations subcommittees that will be charged with writing a final FY18 budget by March 23. Bolstered spending should grease the skids for quick passage in Congress.

However, appropriations often get bogged down with controversial policy riders that can torpedo broad-based bipartisan deals. Gun control and immigration are two of the most highly charged political issues. It will be hard for both sides to restrain themselves and put a firewall between a final spending agreement and the enormous pressure to score points with their respective bases.

The final ingredient in the murky congressional stew is the 2018 primary election schedule that begins in less than a month and continues through mid-September. The earliest state primary will be held in Texas on March 6, just two weeks from now. Election activity will peak in June with 17 primaries. Oregon’s primary will be May 15.

Republicans are already feeling the pressure with GOP retirements nearly tripling those of Democrats (25 to 9). Historically, mid-term elections are bad for the party in charge of the White House and Republicans and Democrats will be looking for ways to mobilize their base. Immigration and guns are certainly two huge mobilizing forces for both sides.

At the end of the day, we don’t feel like these issues will torpedo the budget deal. However, this will be the biggest test for leaders on both sides of the aisle to steer the spending bill to safe harbor, while at the same time satisfying their respective constituents.

Joel prof photo.jpeg

Joel Rubin is a partner and leader of CFM’s federal affairs team based in Washington, DC. He has worked on Capitol Hill and now represents Pacific Northwest interests in Congress and with federal agencies.

 

Congress Faces Yet Another Spending Deadline

 In what might be an omen for this week on Capitol Hill as Congress faces yet another spending deadline, the train carrying Republicans to their West Virginia retreat site. Just as ominous, Democrats are scheduled to begin their 3-day retreat the day before this week’s deadline.

 In what might be an omen for this week on Capitol Hill as Congress faces yet another spending deadline, the train carrying Republicans to their West Virginia retreat site. Just as ominous, Democrats are scheduled to begin their 3-day retreat the day before this week’s deadline.

In the aftermath of President Trump’s first State of the Union Address and the hullabaloo over release of the GOP surveillance memo, the looming government spending deadline this Thursday almost slipped out of sight. Almost.

As bitter and battle-weary Members of Congress trudge back to Capitol Hill this week, the deadline will be anything but invisible. What’s hard to see is any compromise that can win enough support from Senate Democrats, House conservatives and the Trump White House. Before they resolve differences on spending, they need to agree on immigration.

Senate Democrats want protection for so-called Dreamers, but House conservatives object to granting them an eventual path to citizenship. Trump offered up long-term protection for Dreamers, but at the price of a $25 billion “trust fund” for his promised border wall, which Senate Democrats reject.

Republican Congressman Will Hurd, a former undercover CIA officer whose Texas congressional district includes the longest stretch of the US-Mexican border, has proposed a simple compromise, along with Democratic Congressman Pete Aguilar of California. Their proposal would protect Dreamers and provide for enhanced border security, but not necessarily a huge investment in a physical wall. It’s uncertain whether Trump or a majority of House Republicans would support their proposal.

immigration may be the roadblock to a compromise, but disagreements over spending, especially for defense and health care programs, are like a washed-out bridge. The inability to agree on spending in the current federal fiscal year has led to four continuing resolutions – stopgap funding measures that generally allow federal agencies to keep plugging along with the same budget as the previous year.

The disagreement isn’t just over on how to spend federal dollars, but how many federal dollars to spend. After Republicans pushed through a $1.5 trillion tax cut, which may add as much as $1 trillion to the federal deficit this year, House conservatives are wary of spending even more. Democrats are pressing for restoration of funding for community health centers and more generous disaster relief for states affected by hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

Stop-and-go spending authorization has prevented agencies from the Pentagon to the Centers for Disease Control to pursue new objectives and resulted in an added layer of government inefficiency. Defense Secretary James Mattis has warned that the inability of Congress to pass a budget has weakened US security.

While there is broad bipartisan agreement on the need for infrastructure investment, there is widespread disagreement on how much should come from direct federal spending – and how whatever level of funding is approved will be paid for. 

Since the three-day partial government shutdown that ended with another continuing resolution and the February 8 deadline, there isn’t much public evidence of productive negotiations. Most of last week was consumed by Trump’s speech and bitter partisan back-and-forth about the memo released by the House Intelligence Committee’s GOP majority. That’s not a great starting block for negotiations to avoid another government shutdown the end of this week.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead Democrat on the committee, said over the weekend he will press for a vote as soon as today on the Democratic rejoinder to Chairman Kevin Nunes’ memo. Nunes has hinted he may be working on additional memos that he says may show anti-Trump bias in the State Department.

Despite Trump’s plea for bipartisanship in his State of the Union speech, his administration continues to provide fodder to deepen partisan divides. He has virtually gutted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, refused to impose congressionally approved sanctions on Russian oligarchs and watched as his appointee to lead the Centers for Disease Control resigned after disclosures that she bought and sold tobacco stocks.

Still hanging around, but as far in the shadows as before, is the need to increase the national debt ceiling. Treasury officials say congressional action is needed in February. GOP congressional leaders almost certainly need Democratic votes in both the House and Senate to approve a debt limit increase, but that may prove politically complicated as well with so many other higher profile disagreements.

It will be an interesting week on Capitol Hill, which Vox chided will be punctuated by Republican and Democratic caucus retreats on the weekends before and after the latest spending drop-dead date. Perhaps as an omen, the train carrying Republicans to their West Virginia retreat site ran into a garbage truck. Just as ominous, Democrats are set to begin their 3-day retreat in Maryland the day before the spending deadline. Don’t bet against yet another temporary continuing spending resolution, as well as more political bickering. On the bright side, the Winter Olympics start this week.

 

Another Government Shutdown Deadline Approaches

Another federal government shutdown looms unless Congress can pass a spending bill before September 30 over the opposition of the 42-member House Freedom Caucus, which wants to make budget cuts before the November 8 general election.

Another federal government shutdown looms unless Congress can pass a spending bill before September 30 over the opposition of the 42-member House Freedom Caucus, which wants to make budget cuts before the November 8 general election.

If you think the presidential race seems repetitious, think about the prospect of another federal government shutdown. That might just happen on September 30 if Congress can’t pass legislation to fund continuing operations.

This potential shutdown has all the hallmarks of earlier ones – the right-wing faction of the House GOP caucus is balking at a short continuing resolution to push major budget decisions past the November 8 general election when a new president will be elected and Senate control could flip from Republicans to Democrats.

The 42-member Freedom Caucus wants to avoid an omnibus spending package in a lame-duck session of Congress. GOP House leaders, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have expressed support for approving a continuing resolution this month that would maintain existing spending levels until around Christmas.

If Freedom Caucus members hold firm, House Speaker Paul Ryan will be staring at the same dilemma that bedeviled and ultimately unseated his predecessor, John Boehner – turning to Democrats for the needed votes to approve a spending bill. Democrats have their own priorities and have stymied Republican proposals of late.

House Republicans are huddling to find a work-around after Congress returned earlier this week after a seven-week recess. Preventing a government shutdown is just one of many spending issues up in the air at this point.

Congress left town in July without approving a spending measure to combat the Zika virus, which has emerged as more of a threat in Miami and potentially other parts of the South than previously anticipated.

The presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is tightening up as the candidates seek to distinguish themselves on a range of issues, including national security, which will be the subject of an NBC-sponsored commander-in-chief forum tonight. Before the event, Trump said he favors releasing the Pentagon budget from the spending constraints that apply across the board to all federal agencies.

Some conservatives in Congress have echoed Trump's view, but they face the problem of what to cut to compensate for higher defense spending. Democrats, including President Obama, oppose selectively excusing defense spending from overall spending constraints.

Congressional Democrats and Obama appear in policy lock-step in support of a short-term spending bill that will push bigger budget questions beyond election day. That position is buttressed by the serious prospect that Democrats could regain control of the Senate though the GOP majority in the Senate hasn’t warmed up to the idea of closing down the federal government.

There is little question the budget priorities of a President Clinton and a President Trump would differ substantially, which makes the looming stalemate over a stopgap continuing resolution even stickier. It also raises the question of whether an actual government shutdown would help or hurt Trump or Clinton.

Trump has positioned himself as a political outsider with the personal experience of knowing how the system works and what needs to change. Clinton has a hard time escaping the “insider” label, but can be expected to argue that now is not the time to threaten or shutter the federal government, given the precarious momentum of the economic recovery and a flurry of foreign threats.

The Freedom Caucus may be wary of Trump in the White House, but they worry more about a Clinton victory in November, combined with a Democratic takeover in the Senate. They may argue now is potentially the last time they have the leverage for major cuts in federal spending and a budget boost for the military. What will be interesting to watch in the next three weeks is whether the Freedom Caucus actually has the leverage it imagines.

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com

The Arm of Congress That Doesn’t Sleep

Behind every successful Member of Congress is a hardworking, usually out of-camera-range district staff that advises on local projects, helps people get lost Social Security checks and makes sure their boss arrives at his appointments. Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio was a congressional staffer before he was elected.

Behind every successful Member of Congress is a hardworking, usually out of-camera-range district staff that advises on local projects, helps people get lost Social Security checks and makes sure their boss arrives at his appointments. Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio was a congressional staffer before he was elected.

While Congress is on frequent recess and routinely at odds, congressional district staffers operate in a starkly different reality. Unencumbered by the dysfunction and partisanship in Washington, they play a critical role in the communities they serve.

While those inside the beltway may think they’re at the center of the universe, sometimes the most meaningful congressional action happens at the hands of a local staffer. Every day, far away from the news cameras lining the Capitol Rotunda, district staff members solve important problems for hometown constituents. In fact, a congressman representing his district often takes the shape of a field representative unraveling Social Security tie-ups or helping a constituent navigate bureaucratic red tape.

CFM represents clients in Washington, D.C., many of which are municipalities in the Pacific Northwest. As federal lobbyists for municipal clients, congressional district staff are our valued partners. After we identify local projects and priorities, we coordinate to make the case for federal funding in Washington. They help us nudge along federal agencies when they’re moving slow, weigh in with support for a client’s grant project and advise their boss to shed light on a local issue when appropriate.

They are also the full-time eyes, ears and mouth of a member in the communities they represent. They attend community events, local government meetings and meet face-to-face with constituents and local stakeholders on a daily basis. As such, we often rely on their local knowledge as a barometer.

Members of Congress are often required to be two places at once. In order to be effective, they must spend significant time in D.C. to build relationships and increasingly, raise money for their next campaign. However, the more time they spend in D.C., the harder it is to stay in touch with constituents and keep abreast of their concerns. District staff help alleviate this inherent dichotomy, providing the political linkage lawmakers themselves have a hard time sustaining. 

Paralyzing partisanship has plagued Congress in recent years, and the public has taken notice. Approval ratings for the institution as a whole are at record lows. However, it’s reasonable to assume that district staff play a role when many of those same voters – despite feeling fed up with Congress – think their local representative is still doing a good job. 

While the district office may not be as prestigious as the Capitol building, it’s fertile ground for political victories. District staff aren’t hamstrung by D.C. dysfunction, and can routinely achieve results, like helping a city mitigate congestion by securing a federal transportation grant, or issuing press releases to bring national attention to local issues.

So, as Congress members return to Washington after extended visits to their districts over this historically long recess, it seems apt to salute the men and women who spend each day working in those district offices – they're some of the hardest working, most productive people in Congress.

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com

The Dids and Didn’ts of Congress

Congress is currently in the midst of one of its longest summer breaks in U.S. history. Before leaving, Congress managed to make several big accomplishments, but a number of other key spending issues were left unresolved. 

Congress is currently in the midst of one of its longest summer breaks in U.S. history. Before leaving, Congress managed to make several big accomplishments, but a number of other key spending issues were left unresolved. 

Due to earlier than usual presidential nominating conventions, federal lawmakers are in the middle of a seven-week recess – one of the longest summer breaks in the legislative branch’s history. With Congress out of town for another month, here is a look at some of the things it did and didn’t accomplish, and what to expect when it returns in September.

Congress Did:

Get Out of the Gates Early

The House typically kicks off the appropriations process, but that was held up by a GOP intraparty dispute over top-line spending levels. So the Senate took the wheel and got off to the fastest start in the modern budget era when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its first spending bill in mid-April. The full Senate made more history when it passed the first appropriations bill on May 12, the earliest official start to the appropriations process in the chamber’s history.

Find Success in Committee

Each chamber moved all 12 (24 total) annual spending measures out of committee for the second straight year and onto the full Senate and House floors for consideration. Things were looking good early on, however, much of their committee success is attributed to unofficial agreements to hold off on controversial policy riders until the spending bills reach the floor. Unsurprisingly, just eight of the 24 bills approved by appropriations committees have made it past a floor vote to date.

Address the Opioid Epidemic

Both the House and Senate, with overwhelming bipartisan support, cleared the final version of legislation aimed at combating opioid prescription and heroin abuse, which President Barack Obama quickly signed into law. In addition to a few policy provisions, the bill creates a number of new grant programs to be administered by the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. However, it may take some time for this new money to find its way to local health departments and law enforcement agencies. Funding for the bill’s grant programs is dependent on appropriators designating money for them. Although some spending bills include money to address opioid addiction as a whole, only the House measure to fund the Justice Department includes specific money for those programs.

Reauthorize the FAA

After months of negotiation and just two days before expiration, both chambers eventually came together on a package to reauthorize Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs at current funding levels through September 2017. This measure is the result of both chambers abandoning their original, more wide-ranging and controversial FAA bills in favor of a short-term continuation. In addition to continuing current FAA programs, the bill contains a variety of policy measures that aim to increase airport security while easing security lines and further regulating drone use. 

Congress Didn’t:

Return to ‘Regular Order’

With Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, party leadership vowed to restore “regular order” to the appropriations process and expected to spend this summer touting their successes to constituents. Unfortunately, there were too many partisan and intraparty hurdles to clear in fiscal year 2017 and “regular order” was nowhere to be seen.

One of the biggest obstacles from the start was the refusal of certain House Republicans to embrace the bipartisan budget agreement reached last December that set the top-line spending level at $1.07 trillion for FY 17 defense and domestic discretionary programs. Conservatives voted against the compromise measure in December, but the agreement passed because former Speaker John Boehner relied on Democratic votes to win passage. Conservatives still oppose the plan and spent recent months pressing the Republican Caucus to present a plan that reduces mandatory spending by at least $30 billion.

Without a budget agreement in place, House appropriators were procedurally allowed to move forward in May and began marking up spending bills at the $1.07 trillion level. Unfortunately, that turned out to be just the first obstacle. Repeated attempts by members of both parties to attach controversial policy riders to spending packages after they cleared committee proved to be the demise of the fiscal year 2017 appropriations process. Lawmakers spent days and weeks engaged in contentious debate over spending levels and policy issues, all while the White House issued veto threats on multiple measures should they eventually pass.

With time running out before the new fiscal year begins on October 1, “regular order” is now a fond memory. When lawmakers return in September, they’re expected to abandon the normal appropriations process and seek a continuing resolution to avoid another government shutdown.

Address the Zika Virus

Months ago, the Obama administration requested $1.9 billion from Congress in emergency funding to combat the Zika virus domestically. Congress did not promptly comply. After weeks of partisan bickering and disagreement, negotiations finally fell apart in June and Congress left town without approving any funding for the mosquito-borne virus. Now, both Democrats and Republicans have spent most of the summer blaming each other for the failure and remain no closer to an agreement.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has since shifted $589 million, most of which came from Ebola resources within the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of State/USAID, for Zika-related prevention and treatment.

Pass Gun Control Legislation

Following the Orlando massacre, House and Senate Democrats persistently demanded action to address the recent spate of gun violence. Their frustration culminated in an extraordinary sit-in on the House floor, refusing to yield until House Speaker Paul Ryan promised floor votes on a myriad of gun control measures.

Keeping in line with the theme of the 114th Congress, there was ultimately no legislative action taken. However, it may not be the end as some Democrats have promised to keep introducing gun-related amendments to future legislation until a version is passed.

Fill Supreme Court Vacancy

Republican leadership decided not to hold confirmation hearings on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the American people should  “appoint” a nominee by voting for a new president this fall. If Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the White House, McConnell may be tempted to allow confirmation of Garland to proceed in a lame-duck session.

What to Expect:

A Continuing Resolution

Congress is slowly coming to terms with the reality that the fiscal 2017 appropriations process is a goner and a continuing resolution (CR) will be needed to avoid a government shutdown on October 1. This will be lawmakers’ number one priority when they return in September, but there are a few things that could get in the way of a timely agreement.

A CR is a stopgap funding measure meant to fund the government temporarily in the absence of appropriated funding levels. Thus, the primary battle will likely take place over how long the CR will last. For the last two years, lawmakers have agreed on CRs extending to December 11, giving them enough time to put together a final omnibus appropriations package. That may not be an option this year as conservatives would rather push a CR push spending decision into March 2017 to bypass the lame-duck session and avoid a trillion-dollar omnibus.

Further, intraparty disputes over the top-line spending limit and partisan scuffles over Zika and gun control are also expected to complicate the CR discussions come September.

Criminal Justice Overhaul

Last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he will take up legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system this September. The Speaker has identified a number of bills being marked up by the Judiciary Committee as part of the package that will see the floor next month. These individual measures will come together in a package to change everything from sentencing requirements to federal criminal procedures.  

Zika Funding

Despite their failure before recess, recent Zika cases in the United States will surely highlight congressional inaction and may force some kind of political agreement. House and Senate Republicans agreed on a $1.1 billion conference report, but Senate Democrats ultimately blocked the measure citing controversial “poison-pill” amendments. Among them are provisions that would ease EPA regulations and prevent Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving any Zika money.

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com

Clinton Joins in Zika Finger-Pointing

After a newborn child died from a Zika-related illness in Texas, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of critics bashing Congress for not yet providing money to fight the disease.  

After a newborn child died from a Zika-related illness in Texas, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of critics bashing Congress for not yet providing money to fight the disease.  

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the Zika blame game as she condemned Congress for failing to provide funding to combat the deadly disease after a Texas infant died from Zika-related complications.

In Februrary, President Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to respond to the spread of the Zika virus abroad and prepare for its feared arrival in the United States. Despite multiple proposals from both chambers in the following months, Congress left town in July without an agreement on Zika funding. 

Negotiations came to a screeching halt when Senate Democrats blocked a last-ditch, $1.1 billion package to fight the virus. Democrats were on board with the funding level, but pulled their support when provisions were added in conference to relax EPA regulations, protect the flying of the Confederate flag and prevent Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving money to fight the virus.

With Congress in the middle of its seven-week summer recess, a newborn baby in Texas with Zika-related birth defects has died. The news comes alongside four new Zika cases reported in Florida.

While both parties have spent the past few weeks blaming one another for inaction, Democrats have taken a new approach. Several top Democrats, including President Obama, have urged Republican leadership to cut the recess short and return to Washington to pass a bipartisan measure at the funding level requested by the administration.

After the news in Texas broke, Clinton joined the blame game. In a speech in Florida, Clinton urged Republicans to come back to Washington and “pass the bipartisan funding package the Senate passed.” Clinton was referring to the original $1.1 billion compromise package reached by Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Patty Murray (D-WA), absent the controversial policy riders that emerged in the conference report.

Republicans have yet to budge and repeatedly point to the proposals Democrats rejected. In a recent op-ed, House Speaker Paul Ryan writes, “[Democrats] blocked our plan not once, but twice – a blatant ploy in an election year.” The Speaker added, “Because of their actions, this funding is in limbo. It shouldn’t be.”

Although the recent Zika cases may not cause Congress to trim its recess, Zika funding will certainly remain a hot topic when members return.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has shifted $589 million, most of which came from Ebola resources within the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of State/USAID, to be used for Zika-related prevention and treatment.   

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com

 

The 2016 Political Season Just Gets Whackier

A Virginia man who supports Donald Trump for president swears he saw his candidate’s face on a bathroom floor while sitting on his toilet. It wasn’t the weirdest thing in the whacky world of politics.

A Virginia man who supports Donald Trump for president swears he saw his candidate’s face on a bathroom floor while sitting on his toilet. It wasn’t the weirdest thing in the whacky world of politics.

Just when you thought the political season couldn’t get weirder, it did. House Democrats staged a sit-in over gun legislation, an Iowa congressman implied replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill was racist and a Donald Trump supporter said he saw his candidate’s face on his bathroom floor tile.

Somehow, that last story may be the least bizarre of these three.

Sit-ins were ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970s as a preferred form of non-violent protest. In an ironic revival, House Democrats, led by Congressman John Lewis -- a veteran of sit-ins of yore -- employed the technique to protest congressional inaction in the face of continuing gun violence. Some 40 participating congressional protesters chanted, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

The sit-in followed late-night votes in the Senate on four separate gun bills, all of which failed to get enough votes, even though two of them involved denying access to guns for people on terrorist watch lists.

Congressman Steve King blamed President Obama for a “divisive” proposal to place a black woman, who is one of America’s most famous abolitionists, on U.S. Currency. He said it would be “unifying” to leave the $20 bill alone. The House GOP leadership dismissed King’s idea.

A Virginia man sitting on his toilet swears he saw his man Trump’s face on his bathroom floor. Trump images apparently are everywhere. According to The Huffington Post, a Google engineer vacationing in California saw Trump in the image of a deep-fried churro with yellow frosting. And a series of pictures of droop-mouthed pooches sporting Trump gear are circulating on social media. They're called "Dogald Trumps." 

Ultimately, the sit-in, King’s proposal to scratch Harriet Tubman and The Donald floor tile are mostly sideshows to even weirder stuff. Such as the paltry $1.3 million the Trump presidential campaign has in the bank after a full month as the presumptive GOP nominee. Or spending records that show Trump has paid 10 percent or more of his campaign cash to his own companies. The records also reveal Trump’s campaign bought up $208,000 worth of hats in May, while spending just $48,000 on data management and $115,000 on online advertising.

Weirder still, after withering media coverage that Trump’s businesses have stiffed contractors, sent manufacturing jobs overseas, used bankruptcies to turn losses into gains and profited from huge debt, more Americans trust Trump to run the U.S. economy than Hillary Clinton.

An online group polled 1,000 adult Americans and discovered a majority of men and women wouldn’t sleep with Trump for $1 million. In Trump’s case, the average it would take to convince a woman to have sex with him was $1.35 million. Men only wanted close to $1.1 million. The numbers were a little better for Clinton but not much. Her average price for sex with women was $1.26 million and $1.16 million with men. Bernie Sanders didn’t have a lot of takers either for a mere $1 million.

The weirdest thing of all is that this all occurred outside of a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch. SNL definitely will have to up its game.

Congress Launches Nation into New Era for Public Education

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is part of a bipartisan coalition behind the new education proposal. Murray, a former preschool teacher, says the bill will help close the achievement gap between the highest performers and traditionally marginalized students. 

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is part of a bipartisan coalition behind the new education proposal. Murray, a former preschool teacher, says the bill will help close the achievement gap between the highest performers and traditionally marginalized students. 

Congress swiftly propelled America’s K-12 education system into a new era Wednesday, laying the groundwork to put the highly criticized No Child Left Behind Act to rest. 

In its place stands a bill that would hand over control of student and teacher assessments to the states, a historic move that would loosen the federal government’s grip on the public education system. Behind the plan is a coalition of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The bill easily passed the House last week before mustering an 85-12 approval vote in the Senate Wednesday. President Obama is expected to sign the measure – known as the Every Student Succeeds Act – into law on Thursday.

By name, it sounds like a rehash of No Child Left Behind. But the proposal represents a fundamental shift in how teachers, students and schools are evaluated and the funding they receive in turn.  

No Child Left Behind was ushered in 14 years ago with similar enthusiasm from Congress. Since then, it has devolved into a symbol of America’s stunted growth in education reform. Critics argue the act puts too much emphasis on standardized test performance at the cost of building crucial skills and fostering a deeper understanding of course material.

The new law would sever the tie between student test results and federal funding – a system that has long left the lowest performing (and usually poorest) schools with fewer resources to fix their problems. Parents, teachers and other critics of No Child Left Behind considered that response an unfair punishment for schools facing the most daunting struggles.

Under the new system, the federal government would be barred from directing states on how to assess school and teacher performance. Instead, that job would fall to the states, which would also be required to take action to buoy their lowest performing schools.

If you think of states as the perfect testing grounds for developing federal law, this shift presents an endlessly fascinating opportunity for experimentation.  

The new law does preserve some aspects of No Child Left Behind, though, like annual standardized testing requirements in reading and math for grades three through eight. However, it also urges states to cut down the time spent on testing overall.

In maintaining that provision, Murray said she and her cosponsors are protecting critical “guardrails” designed to fix ailing schools. Meanwhile, she is confident the changes will help narrow the gap between the highest achievers and traditionally marginalized groups – children living in poverty, racial minorities, special education students and English-language learners.   

"It takes away the high-stakes testing, which makes sure we know how our kids are doing, but allows us to creatively think and smartly think of better ways to make sure our kids are achieving what we want them to," Murray told Seattle media Wednesday.

On an international level, the U.S. ranks nowhere near the top in math and science testing scores. The picture is improving, but few Americans rate the country’s public education system as above average or among the best in the world.  

No Child Left Behind has been slated for renewal for the last eight years. Efforts to renew or reform the law stalled, though, as the country debated the federal government’s role in education. 

Get Ready for Speaker Paul Ryan

Congressman Paul Ryan speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore)

Congressman Paul Ryan speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore)

After weeks of speculation and uncertainty on Capitol Hill, the Republican House majority finally appears to have its next speaker in sight: Congressman Paul Ryan. 

Remember him? The conservative budget guru from Wisconsin who would have been vice president three years ago if Mitt Romney had won. He’s set to be selected for the position on Thursday, and now it looks like he has enough Republican votes to win the job.  
 
Ryan initially seemed disinterested in replacing Speaker John Boehner, who is retiring to avoid more infighting in his caucus and after he realized his dream of having a Pope address Congress.

Ryan's reluctance isn't surprising. Trying to run the House with his own troops in revolt is a tough job, especially for a guy who says he will only take the job if he still can go home to Janesville every weekend to be with his family.
 
Despite pressure from Boehner and Romney, Ryan said he was perfectly happy holding onto his dream job as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. But that changed late last week after it became clear no one else had a remote chance of stitching together a majority of the Republican caucus.
 
Ryan became a household name after rising to the top of the House Budget Committee in 2007. Since then, he’s proposed several budget plans with bold social service cuts, such as replacing Medicare with a voucher system and repealing the Affordable Care Act. 
 
Two years ago, Ryan emerged as the key Republican negotiator in a budget deal co-authored by Democratic Senator Patty Murray. It was a rare example of bipartisanship in a time increasingly marred by political polarization.  
 
A famously devout fan of controversial novelist Ayn Rand and heavy metal bands, Ryan stands in sharp contrast to the man he’s poised to replace. And maybe that would be a good change for Congress, but don’t get your hopes up that Ryan’s latest rise in the ranks will do much to sew the Republican Party back together. 
 
With 247 members today, House Republicans hold their largest majority in decades, and Ryan’s ascent makes him the de facto leader of a splintered party conference, which includes the centrist Tuesday Group, the larger, very conservative Republican Study Committee and the radical, anti-establishment Freedom Caucus.
 
Ryan, a member of the Republican Study Committee, initially struggled to gain the approval of the Freedom Caucus, which consists of a few dozen representatives who have generally put in less time on Capitol Hill. Last week, about two-thirds of them came around, cautiously giving Ryan their blessing, but not promising to make his job any easier than Boehner’s.
 
Comprised of many members of the Tea Party movement, the Freedom Caucus refused to support any spending bill that did not strip all federal funding away from Planned Parenthood. In cases like that, the faction’s opposition can be just enough to bring the legislative process to a halt.  
 
Ryan's path appears to be easier than expected, thanks to Boehner, who managed to push through a debt ceiling and spending deal Wednesday. Congressional leaders struck the crucial two-year budget deal Monday night following negotiations with the Obama Administration.

Leaders hope to move the proposal along for a vote in the Senate, getting the dirty work out of the way just in time for Ryan’s entrance to the speakership. The deal has already met some resistance from Sen. Rand Paul, who vowed to filibuster the proposal.   
 
Chances are good the Freedom Caucus will remain a thorn in the side of any Speaker. Chances also are good that Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, who is in charge of fundraising for House Republicans, will take on an expanded role since Ryan won't hit the road like Boehner did.

The challenge for Ryan will be to figure out clever ways to negotiate with the White House, a more stable GOP majority in the Senate and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Pushing for more job security, Ryan hopes to change a rule that allows a single member of the House to move for a vote to remove the speaker. In Boehner’s time, the rule has posed a constant threat to his hold over the speakership. That may be the only way to neuter the Freedom Caucus enough to get on with the business of legislating.

America Drifting Back to Cold War Paradigm

While trade, transportation and immigration legislation languishes in Congress, the nation seems to be drifting back into a Cold War mentality.

While trade, transportation and immigration legislation languishes in Congress, the nation seems to be drifting back into a Cold War mentality.

While trade and transportation bills languish in Congress, the United States seems to be slipping into a multi-front cold war as it returns to troops to Iraq, sends heavy arms to Baltic states bordering Russia and fends off cyberwar attributed to China.

The House spectacularly derailed fast-track trade authority legislation last week and House and Senate leaders have tried for months without success to find common ground on a long-term transportation funding measure. President Obama has pushed both. He says a trade pact with Asian countries will prevent China from ultimately writing the rules of commerce in that critical region. Obama says transportation investments are essential to support 21st century commerce and job creation.

However, foreign affairs keep drawing attention away from those priorities and toward a familiar destination. Islamic State gains in Syria and Iraq have sharpened sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Obama's attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran has shaken long-time alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is now engaged in its own military conflict with Houthi insurgents in neighboring Yemen.

Russian moves to seize Crimea and sponsor armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has made former Soviet states jittery, causing the United States to promise heavy military hardware. That prompted an escalation by the Russians who have put some of its remaining nuclear capability on alert.

Special operations forces and unmanned drones continue to carry out attacks to kill high-value targets, such as a top Al Qeada official in Yemen, as part of an effort to degrade terrorist organizations' abilities to attack the United States.

Meanwhile, Chinese computer hackers keep breaking into public and private databases to steal proprietary data and amass huge online personal information data banks.

By just about any definition, it seems like a world at war.

Recent polls suggest Americans may be willing to see troops dispatched to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS, which a majority views as a threat to the United States. GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker has said he would entertain sending ground forces back to Iraq.

The mood swing is very different from the atmosphere leading up to the 2008 election when Obama succeeded in drawing a sharp distinction with Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and Republican opponent John McCain in the general election over ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senate hawks such as McCain and GOP presidential candidate Lindsay Graham have pummeled Obama for failing to respond more decisively and engaging more deeply in removing Bashar al-Assad as Syria's ruler and arming Ukrainians to fend off Russians in the besieged eastern part of the country. There hasn't been a rush to support their views, but public opinion appears to be sliding in their direction.

The latest Gallup Poll shows Americans have very low confidence in Congress, which may influence their resignation at the institution's inability address major issues such as trade, transportation funding and immigration reform. The same poll showed Americans have the greatest confidence in the military.  

Americans Divided by Bipartisanship

Americans voice support for bipartisan solutions, but evidence suggests they really want outcomes that mirror their partisan viewpoints.

Americans voice support for bipartisan solutions, but evidence suggests they really want outcomes that mirror their partisan viewpoints.

Bipartisanship may be rare because Americans only pay lip service support to the idea while actually preferring compromises that favor their partisan perspective.

That's the conclusion of research out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business that suggests what Americans dislike is uncivil discourse. However, that dislike translates into hardened partisan views. "In politics, that kind of powerful party identification overrides any professed preference for the abstract concept of bipartisanship," according to the research.

Neil Malhotra, a professor in political economy, and his Stanford colleagues compare politics to sports. Fans may be shocked by athletes fighting or acting badly, but they still want their team to win.

Americans conflicted attitudes about bipartisanship aren't an isolated example, say the authors. There is broad support for civil liberties and free speech, but often intense intolerance for the exercise of those freedoms by groups that are unpopular or controversial. Americans want to see government shrunk, but not at the expense of programs they value or depend on.

The experiments Malhotra and his team conducted showed people recognize bipartisan solutions, but still favor outcomes that more closely mirror their views. That underlying reality may buttress resistance in Congress and state legislative bodies to resist calls for bipartisanship because it doesn't produce political attaboys.

“Our research demonstrates that even though citizens dislike the institution of Congress and profess abstract desires for bipartisanship, when it comes to the details, they prefer partisan fighting," Malhotra says. "Therefore, the behavior of members of Congress seems to be consistent with electoral incentives.”

"No matter what they say, people do not actually favor bipartisan policies over those that align with their personal political views – even though compromise is perceived as a virtuous quality," the study’s authors write. "In fact, when people become aware of the compromises made during the policy process, they are even less supportive of bipartisanship because they see it as a loss for their party."

The issues used in the Stanford research were relatively benign, not like the more emotion-charged issues that Congress faces. The research findings cast doubt on hopes that a spirit of bipartisanship will emerge in the halls of Congress for the ironic reason that it may be too politically risky.

Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill Unites Congress

In a rare display of bipartisan unanimity, Congress okays legislation aimed at preventing the rising number of suicides by military veterans.

In a rare display of bipartisan unanimity, Congress okays legislation aimed at preventing the rising number of suicides by military veterans.

Congress showed rare unanimous bipartisan support for legislation aimed at addressing the disturbing rise in military veteran suicides, which totals 8,000 deaths annually.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named for a Marine who took his life after serving tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, passed both the House and Senate without a single dissenting vote.

The legislation calls for external audits of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention programsadd a pilot program to pay the student debt of doctors who psychiatric medicine and commit to working with the VA, The bill also authorizes creation of a website that highlights mental health services available through the VA.

There is a $28 million price tag attached to the legislation, but Senate supporters said that amount could be found within the existing VA budget, which itself has been the subject of criticism as being inadequate to handle the growing caseload of returning veterans.

If people wonder what it takes for Congress to act in unison, they now know — more soldiers killing themselves than being killed by enemy fire.

Critics say it shouldn't have take this long for Congress to tackle a problem that has gained increased publicity for the rise in post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. They also contend more needs to be done than a website, audit or student debt repayments. Many charitable organizations, such as the Wounded Warrior Project, have stepped in to help, attracting contributions from businesses and private citizens and bringing fresh resources to the battle.

Beheadings May Unite a Divided Nation

Maybe it took the beheading of American journalists to unify a national divided on almost everything to confront the newest danger to world security.Most pundits predicted it would take a miracle to unsnarl partisan gridlock in DC. Maybe it will take something very non-miraculous, like the beheadings of two American journalists by Islamic radicals.

As Congress wanders back to the nation's capital, pressure is building on President Obama to take action against what is viewed as the fast emerging threat posed by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The threat is fresh enough, there is even disagreement over what to call it. Obama and others refer to the group as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Income Disparity Blamed for Slow Growth

Warnings about the ramifications of income inequality usually don't come from Wall Street. This week, they did.

Standard & Poor's chief economist says growing income disparity is retarding overall growth in the U.S. economy and poses a future threat of even deeper boom/bust cycles. The concentration of wealth by a few has stifled spending and saving by the many. 

The remedy urged by S&P involves redoubled commitment to quality education. The rating agency's report says more schooling translates into higher earning capacity. If the average American worker logged one additional year of education, S&P estimated it would add $105 billion per year to overall national economic activity.

S&P discouraged use of tax policy to cure income inequality. It said higher taxes could remove incentives to work and convince employers to hire fewer workers.

When worker wages lag, the S&P report concluded, lower wage earners tend to curb spending or go deeper into debt when faced with emergencies such as medical expenses or the need for a replacement vehicle to get to work. 

The report by S&P confirms the income disparity is expanding. While the top 1 percent of U.S. wage earners raked in an average of $1.3 million in 2012, the bottom 90 percent have seen their incomes erode after adjusting for inflation for the past 13 years.

VA Flap Door to Wider Health Care Debate

The current scandal over excessive waiting times at Veterans Administration hospitals is deeply perplexing to the men and women who served their country and are seeking medical care. But it soon may become an issue that affects an even wider population.

Regardless whether Eric Shinseki, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, stays or leaves, the big question looming on the horizon is whether it makes financial and medical sense to expand the VA system or migrate veterans into the broader health care delivery system.

Congressional hearings are terrific platforms to air concerns and identify inadequacies. Upcoming hearings on the VA system will be filled with high rhetoric, especially after an Inspector General report released this week indicated the average waiting time at the Phoenix VA Hospital was 125 days, not the 25 days VA officials there reported. 

But it will take a different kind of energy to assess whether veterans and the general public would benefit by integrating the VA system into the overall health care system. Key questions will involve whether the VA has the ability to hire and retain all the medical providers it needs, especially psychiatrists and psychologists to treat veterans experiencing symptoms of mental illness. But there also is a question of whether there is enough capacity anywhere in the health care system to address mental health needs. 

Escaping Congress for Radio

Michigan GOP Congressman Mike Rogers is surrendering the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee to become a radio talk show host.

Rogers told Mark Leibovich, writing for the New York Times Magazine, that he is tired of "brand identity politicians" who want to make waves instead of solve problems. Now Rogers will be making his own waves — on radio.

His departure from Congress is part of a larger exodus of Members who say they are weary of DC gridlock, which has plunged congressional confidence ratings into single digits. So far, 40 House members signaled they are quitting after this term. There also are high-profile Senate defections. And that's before involuntary departures as a result of disgruntled constituents.

As Leibovich notes, Rogers' exit is unusual because he is hardly an obscure Member flopping about in the backwaters of Congress. Given his role overseeing U.S. spy operations, Rogers appeared 27 times on Sunday talk shows last year, more than anyone else with a congressional voting card. Rogers appears popular in his House district. He's not leaving because he is disaffected; he is leaving for a better job.

Joe Scarborough left the House in 2001, practiced law for a bit, then joined MSNBC where he now commands the microphone on "Morning Joe." Few Americans paid much attention to Scarborough as an elected official. Now millions listen to him as a talking head.