gun violence

Some Hate, But Most Love the FY 2018 Spending Spree

Overriding fiscal hawks and rebuking President Trump, the bipartisan congressional FY 2018 spending package sweetens a lot of federal funding pots and will set up a shopping spree to get the money spent before the fiscal year ends this fall.

Overriding fiscal hawks and rebuking President Trump, the bipartisan congressional FY 2018 spending package sweetens a lot of federal funding pots and will set up a shopping spree to get the money spent before the fiscal year ends this fall.

Fiscal hawks hated it. President Trump said he would never sign another bill like it. Pundits said it was a rebuke to President Trump’s priorities and reflected poorly on his reputed negotiating prowess. Just about everyone else thought it was great.

The $1.3 trillion Fiscal Year 2018 spending bill gave new meaning to the word “omnibus.” Not only did it cover the waterfront of federal activity, it sweetened most of the federal spending pots, which is expected to energize efforts to get the money out the door by September 30, the end of the fiscal year, with the eager assistance of Members of Congress facing tougher-than-usual re-election battles.

Defense spending went up sharply, but there also were significant spending bumps for a variety of programs from community development block grants to funding for buses, a priority for The Bus Coalition. Rural areas will benefit from a tripling of grant money for rural TIGER projects, nearly $1 billion for rural water and sanitary waste projects and $685 million for rural broadband. The Secure Rural Schools program, almost given up for dead, was extended for another two years, benefiting Pacific Northwest interests.

Despite giddiness over the spending spree anticipated by passage of the spending package, there is a sober recognition this could be the last significant action by Congress until after the mid-term election in November. Results from special elections and President Trump’s lagging popularity have excited Democrats while alarming Republicans that control of one or both houses of Congress could flip, creating even more roadblocks to Trump’s agenda.

The combined fiscal effects of the GOP tax cut and the FY2018 spending measure may pour cold water on what will likely be equally generous FY2019 appropriations. In February, Congress agreed to similarly large topline spending levels for both defense and domestic discretionary spending for FY2019. A budget in hand this early typically greases the wheels of the appropriations process, but some congressional observers predict Congress will punt major spending decisions until after the November election to avoid defending an unpopular vote on the campaign trail.

The President complained the omnibus spending package contained a lot of “giveaways” to gain Democratic votes. In addition, the measure didn’t include a lot of Trump priorities, from his border wall to steep cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency, State Department and National Institutes for Health. It did include provisions blocking private school vouchers and increasing the budget for after-school programs and student mental health services and violence-prevention initiatives. And several regional projects were salvaged, such as $300 million to remove toxic sediment from the Great Lakes and $73 million to restore Chesapeake Bay, both of which were Target administration targets.

Major policy issues, including action on the tenuous situation for so-called “Dreamers,” were notably absent. The package managed to sneak in two provisions related to gun violence, presumably to forestall a more public discussion of the issue. One provision will increase incentives for federal agencies and the military to upload records into the background-checking system used for gun purchases. The second lifts the ban on Centers for Disease Control conducting research on gun violence, but provides no funding for it. Such research has been blocked by the Dickey Amendment, named after a GOP congressman who sponsored it, but later changed his mind.

The negotiations that led to the spending package became a focal point for criticism. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter ripped Trump for failing to achieve his primary priorities even though he touted his negotiating skill in his presidential campaign. Coulter’s criticism was echoed by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer who clucked that Trump had been out-negotiated. Earlier, he compared negotiating with Trump to Jell-O.

In an odd postscript to the spending deal, Trump has privately pressured the Pentagon to divert some of its enlarged budget to build his border wall.

 

 

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.

 

Two Under-the-Radar Issues Attract Solutions, Not Slogans

As Congress bogs down on how to resolve immigration and gun violence challenges, no less serious problems of sex trafficking and paid family leave have attracted solution-searching instead of sloganeering and raise hopes for bipartisan compromises that could pass into law before the end of this year.

As Congress bogs down on how to resolve immigration and gun violence challenges, no less serious problems of sex trafficking and paid family leave have attracted solution-searching instead of sloganeering and raise hopes for bipartisan compromises that could pass into law before the end of this year.

As appropriations, immigration and guns dominate congressional headlines, two issues seem to be picking up bipartisan traction on Capitol Hill – paid family leave and sex trafficking.

President Trump has opened the door to paid family leave legislation. First daughter Ivanka Trump and GOP Senator Marco Rubio are teaming up on a proposal that would allow people to tap into their future Social Security benefits to pay for family leave. Congressional Democrats are pushing a more aggressive plan that would increase employee and employer payroll taxes to cover the cost of paid family leave.

Five states, including Washington, already require paid family leave. Eight states, including Oregon, have expanded the length of unpaid family leave. Most US workers are covered by the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off for a newborn child or care for an aging parent. The City of New York expanded its family leave policy to include recuperation from domestic abuse.

Paid family leave is an issue that has attracted bipartisan interest because it impacts business productivity, employee satisfaction and family structure. The conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Brookings Institution undertook a joint look at the issue of paid family leave and have been  blogging  about what they jointly concluded for the past year.

Paid family leave is an issue that has attracted bipartisan interest because it impacts business productivity, employee satisfaction and family structure. The conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Brookings Institution undertook a joint look at the issue of paid family leave and have been blogging about what they jointly concluded for the past year.

Supporters of paid family leave point to data showing only 14 percent of US workers have access to paid family leave through their employers. Most employees, they suggest, cannot afford to take off long amounts of unpaid leave. 

Opponents say mandating paid family leave will make it more expensive to hire employees and lead to fewer jobs. Businesses are caught in the middle and disapprove of what has become a patchwork of family leave policies state to state and, in some cases, community to community.

NPR ran a story that included a vignette about Joe Fain, a Washington state senator, who took an unpaid leave when his son was born and became an advocate for the benefit. At the time, the City of Seattle had adopted expanded leave policies, which led businesses to push the state legislature to act. Fain says, in the same way, states are now pushing for federal action.

While the various sides of this issue aren’t close to a compromise, there is broad agreement that paid family leave is important to getting newborns off to a good start and to helping families cope with illnesses by aging parents.

Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, is pushing hard for legislation to protect potential sex trafficking victims and make online websites liable if they enable sex trafficking. His bill, called Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, has attracted 60 congressional cosponsors and is supported by law enforcement, civil rights and faith-based groups.

Portman says he became interested in the subject after meeting with Ohio constituents who described incidents of sex trafficking in their communities, in many cases associated with opioid abuse. Portman says sex trafficking is big business that has increased, despite tougher penalties, because of what he called the “ruthless efficiency” of the “dark side of the internet.” He blames an 850 percent increase in sex trafficking since 2015 on the “emergence of companies like Backpage.com, which probably has about 75 percent of the commercial sex traffic on one site.”

Some technology companies have pushed back on Portman’s cure of removing legal immunity for online platforms, claiming it would expose the companies behind those platforms to lawsuits for content their users post. Loss of legal immunity, they say, could chill continuing development and expansion of online platforms.

While paid family leave and sex trafficking solutions will require answering significant policy questions, they may provide Congress with an easier avenue to address serious social problems plaguing America than trying to reform immigration policy or agree on ways to stem gun violence. If nothing else, these complex issues have not been reduced to polarizing slogans, which is allowing for collaborative conversations and potential bipartisan compromises.