This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of May 25, 2015. Subscribe (free!) here.
This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of May 25, 2015. Subscribe (free!) here.
Congress had a funky week before adjourning for the Memorial Day recess. Republicans were fighting Republicans, and Democrats were fighting Democrats.
The Republicans’ grudge match is over NSA spying and the USA FREEDOM Act. This bill, which has passed the House, would curtail the NSA’s spying programs, which include gathering data about all the telephone calls made in the United States.
Republican leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) want to see the authority for this data collection extended. Republican leaders like Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) don’t just want it reformed, as the USA FREEDOM Act would do. They want to see NSA spying go away.
Paul’s filibuster last week sent debate on USA FREEDOM into overtime, and he declined Senator McConnell’s efforts to extend NSA spying even for a short while. The Senate will return for a short time before the expiration of the NSA’s arguable legal authority to spy on Americans next week.
You can watch the video of Senator Paul refusing to allow Senator McConnell’s requests to extend the NSA spying program. It doesn’t look very exciting, but it happened after midnight, and it’s a big deal when senators stay up that late.
On the Democratic side, it’s trade promotion authority that has that party divided.
“Fast-track” authority would ease the path for the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership. That’s a major trade package, and the president would be empowered to send it to Congress for a strict up-or-down vote, with no amendments or filibusters. Passage would be on a simple majority—no requirement for a cloture vote requiring 60 ayes in the Senate.
If the president gets this authority, it could lead to the biggest free-trade pact in decades. It’s aggressively opposed by liberal Democrats and labor unions, some of President Obama’s strongest early supporters.
The Trade Act of 2015 is the bill. It passed the House in mid-April, and the Senate passed it last week with an amendment, which means it may go back to the House for final approval, or a House-Senate conference may produce a compromise version of the bill.
Here are the current WashingtonWatch.com votes on these two party-splitting bills.
This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of May 18, 2015. Subscribe (free!) here.
Government programs cost money. But the systems we’ve got for government oversight don’t make it terribly easy to follow the green thread.
A number of bills getting cost estimates in the last week help illustrate how taxpayer money is spent, though, so let’s review.
The annual budgeting and spending process goes on year over year (“appropriations”), but a different batch of laws establishes the legal authority for agencies’ existence and powers in the first place. Those laws also establish the government’s power to expend funds in support of agencies. This is called “authorization.”
Three authorization bills got cost estimates last week for different parts of the U.S. government. Getting a look at them can help you understand how much you pay for federal agencies.
H.R. 1735 is called the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016. It authorize appropriations totaling about $605.3 billion for FY 2016 for the military functions of the Department of Defense, certain activities of the Department of Energy, and a few other purposes. Separately, those funds will be appropriated, or spent, in the Department of Defense appropriations bill. This is the legal authority for the spending.
Here at WashingtonWatch.com, we take government estimates of the actual outlays that will occur each year under authorizations and calculate how much each American family would have to put in the bank to fund this spending. This “net present value” calculation finds the cost of H.R. 1735 to be about $5,400 per U.S. family.
Now you’re better positioned to decide whether military spending is too low, too high, or just right. Let your member of Congress and senators know how you feel—and your friends and neighbors, too. It’s all part of your civic duty.
Here is the current vote on H.R. 1735. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.
Now, how about NASA?
H.R. 2039 is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017. As you might guess, it allows for spending on NASA in the next two fiscal years—$18.5 billion in 2016 and $18.8 billion in 2017. That means spending of about $330 per U.S. family.
Worth it? Want more? Want less?
Here is the current vote on H.R. 2039. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.
Finally, let’s look at the Coast Guard.
H.R. 1987 is the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015. It authorizes appropriations totaling $17.5 billion for operations of the United States Coast Guard and the Federal Maritime Commission over the 2016-2017 period. $150 per U.S. family.
Here is the current vote on H.R. 1987. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.
Not every agency of the U.S. government gets reauthorized every year, and sometimes there are appropriations without authorization, which is one of many forms of congressional mismanagement.
But when Congress is doing its job, it gives you a chance to see particulars of how government programs cost money.
This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of May 11, 2015. Subscribe (free!) here.
If you supported section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act last week, you probably don’t this week. And if last week you wanted it to expire on June 1st, you may see things differently this week. It’s the USA FREEDOM switcheroo. Read on to see what it’s all about.
The first and still most discussed Snowden revelation was that the U.S. government was collecting data about all our calls from U.S. telecommunications companies. The authority to do this, according to the government, was section 215 of the Patriot Act.
A few times since public discovery of the NSA’s domestic spying program, significant factions in Congress have tried to rein it in without success. But there was always the expiration of section 215, which has long been scheduled for June 1st.
Until last week, the debate had been forming up around that June 1st expiration date. Folks on the extreme liberty wing wanted to let 215 die outright. Folks on the extreme security wing wanted to have 215 reauthorized same as before. And folks in the middle were trying to curtail the power given by section 215 so the National Security Agency can’t collect everything.
But the shape of the debate changed last week when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York ruled that section 215 doesn’t allow the NSA spying program at all.
Section 215 allows broad data collection, yes, but only in service of an existing, particular investigation. It doesn’t allow data collection and data warehousing in service of investigations that might happen in the future or investigations of crime and terrorism generally.
Section 215 doesn’t authorize the NSA’s phone spying program—at least according to one influential court.
That means opponents of section 215 last week probably like 215 today, because it doesn’t authorize all that data collection the government was doing. And supporters of 215 last Tuesday probably want to see section 215 amended this week, because the court found that it doesn’t allow the government to do enough.
The bill getting the most focus right now is the USA Freedom Act, which would prohibit bulk collection of records under section 215, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Pen Register and Trap and Trace Device statute, and under National Security Letter authorities. The bill would create a new program for the targeted collection of telephone metadata, provide greater privacy and civil liberties protections for Americans, expand existing congressional oversight provisions, and create greater transparency of national security programs operated pursuant to FISA. The cost of the bill’s passage would be about $0.13 per U.S. family.
At this point, passage of the USA FREEDOM Act could increase domestic spying, rather than reduce it.
Given the switcheroo, your vote for or against the bill is going to be hard to read by others in the WashingtonWatch.com community, so more than ever it’s important not only to vote, but also to explain your vote in the comments.
Here is the current vote on H.R. 2048, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring Act of 2015. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.
This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of May 4, 2015. Subscribe (free!) here.
Last week, we asked Congress sternly, “How’s that Quick Budget Deal Coming Along?”
With the deadline for a final congressional budget having passed on April 15th, their claim to be moving promptly toward finalizing a budget was dubious. Congress was in trouble with us!
To make amends—and assuredly you understand we’re being tongue-in-cheek about that—congressional leaders sat down last week and hammered out a final budget. The compromise went to the House and received a favorable vote. The Senate is likely to vote on it this week.
The compromise is fascinating, because the two houses of Congress didn’t come out where you might have expected.
Recall that H. Con. Res. 27, the House’s budget resolution, proposed spending of a little under $28,400 per family for fiscal 2016, which starts October 1st. The Senate’s budget, S. Con. Res. 11, proposed about $28,600 per U.S. family.
The compromise between the two spends $29,131 per U.S. family.
Yes, you read that right. The two houses of Congress were about $200 apart on how much money per family they should spend in fiscal 2016. So they took the high proposal, added $500 to it, and agreed on that!
There are a lot of interests competing for congressional dollars, and between the time the House and Senate put forward their proposals and the time they got together to forge a compromise, some of them must have convinced Congress to open the spigot just a little more. Maybe the money will go to good things. Maybe it’s better left with America’s individual taxpayers and businesses. That’s up to you.
But it’s not up to very many people, because most news outlets don’t report at all on basic numbers like the amount of spending Congress plans, proposes, or passes.
Will that change? Maybe if you ask for it. So this week, along with suggesting that you communicate with your member of Congress and senators, we suggest that you also call your local paper and television news station and ask them why they don’t give out the numbers!
Here’s the current vote on the now-larger Senate budget resolution, which is the vehicle for final passage of the congressional budget resolution. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.
This is the WashingtonWatch.com email newsletter for the week of April 27, 2015. Subscribe (free!) here.
Yes, we are all about that budget around here. It’s the national government’s most significant annual expression of values.
April 15th was the deadline for the House and Senate to decide on a budget for the federal government in fiscal 2016. But that deadline came and went without Congress finalizing an overall spending plan.
Budget leaders in the House and Senate promised to “strike a deal quickly,” but definitions of “quickly” appear to differ. The congressional budget resolution is nearly two weeks late now.
What has happened is a meeting. Last week, the conference committee on the FY 2016 budget got together. Members of the committee, appointed by the House and Senate to represent their respective sides, made statements about the budget, then they adjourned without undertaking any real work. (In fairness, pretty much all the work goes on behind the scenes.) You can watch it—all two hours of it—on C-SPAN.
When a budget is finalized, it is used to create what are called 302(b) allocations. Those are amounts assigned to each of the appropriations subcommittees for them to spend.
Makes sense, right? Once you’ve got a budget, you decide how to spend it.
But in the absence of a budget and their 302(b) allocations, the appropriations subcommittees are already starting to move bills. Late last week, two appropriations bills were introduced in the House.
H.R. 2028, is the energy, water development, and related agencies spending bill. It includes about $36 billion in spending, or about $340 per U.S. family.
H.R. 2029 makes appropriations for military construction, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and related agencies for the 2016 fiscal year. That bill has about $172.5 billion in spending. That’s $1,600 per family.
It’s not terrible to see the appropriations subcommittees moving forward. They are supposed to finish by mid-summer so that agencies can plan for the start of the fiscal year on October 1st. But that should happen after Congress has produced a final budget.
So how’s that quick budget deal coming along?
Here are the current votes on the spending bills introduced last week. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki articles on the bills.