Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Daily Strike-3/11/09-Earmarks/Women/Other Items

Good Wednesday evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Be sure to stay tuned to our blog over the next couple of days, as we'll bring you Part II of our series on The Employee Free Choice Act, as well as a review of Obama's first 50 days in office.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Another busy day at the White House. The President first signed the $410 billion spending bill into law, which will keep the government running through September. To respond to critics (like John McCain and the mainstream media), the President used the signing as an opportunity to lay out new rules for Congressional earmarks. He signed the spending bill despite the 8000 or so pet projects.

I have to mention how tired I am about all this earmark squawking. Earmarks make up about 1% of the Federal budget, first of all. Second of all, they do not significantly change overall spending levels. If Congress didn't earmark the money, federal departments would spend it anyway. It makes sense to have individual members of Congress, who have intimate knowledge of their districts, to be able to spend 1% of the federal budget on pet projects.

Obviously, the system is often abused, and I'm glad that the President has recommended some reforms. Earmarks are certainly worthy of suspicion, because they money has not been authorized in the course of the normal legislative process. It instead is thrown into giant spending bills at the last minute. Also, earmarks are used as part of pay-to-play schemes. But all of this talk about funny sounding spending items, which the mainstream media just goes crazy for, is getting on my nerves.

Anyways, the President said that from now on earmarks must have "a legitimate and worthy public purpose." He also claimed that earmarks should be posted on members' websites before they are included in bills, they should be given a full public hearing, and they should be given out by a competitive bidding process. My gut reaction is that he doesn't care too much about earmarks, and just made this announcement to shut up his critics a little bit. All of these "reforms" seem toothless, especially because Congress can make it's own rules.

The other big announcement today from the White House was the formation of the White House Council on Women and Girls, to be led by Obama's friend and advisor Valerie Jarret. First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined the President at the announcement, which coincided with "International Women's Day." This marks the President's second major action in regards to women's rights. The President has already signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, which makes it easier for women to sue for sexual discrimination. Today's event was another reminder that not only does the President care about women's issues, but he's surrounded by some of the most admirable women leaders of our time.

Obama also today met with Democratic members of the House and Senate budget committees to plan strategy for the upcoming budget fight. There is already major resistance to Obama's budget from old bulls on the committees, who want to do things their way. We'll talk more about this disturbing dynamic in the next couple of days. The House should be passing a budget resolution, an annual non-binding measure that sets spending targets, in the next few weeks. We'll have full coverage when it happens.

THE HOUSE: The House had a busy day voting on bills under suspension of the rules. As we've mentioned before, votes on so-called "Suspension" bills are usually non-controversial measures. They require a 2/3rds majority for passage. Sometimes, House leaders will bring up regular bills under suspension of the rules for a variety of reasons. First, these bills can not be amended, so members won't have to take tough votes against poison pill amendments. Second, leaders often put bills on the suspension calendar that they know require a veto-proof majority. If you know the President is going to veto a bill, you'll need a 2/3rds vote to override it. A suspension vote is a good way to test whether you have the necessary votes.

Anyways, today House leaders decided to put the "Omnibus Land Management" bill under suspension of the rules. This bill consists of various measures previously blocked by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. He had put holds on the bills because he objected to the authorization of more government spending. The Democrats in the Senate finally had the 60 votes necessary to break Coburn's holds, so they passed the bill in early January.

House leaders did not want to get this bill sidetracked by amendments, so they decided to gamble and try and pass the bill under suspension of the rules.

The House took up the bill today with an amendment offered by Rep. Altmire of Pennsylvania to "clarify that nothing in the bill could restrict access for hunting, fishing or trapping activities that are otherwise allowed by law, and also that it would not affect state authority to regulate these activities." So even if the bill had been passed, it would have had to return to the Senate. (thanks to our friends at CongressMatters for the information on this).

Even with this amendment, House Democrats couldn't muster a 2/3rds majority to suspend the rules and pass the bill. 34 Republicans joined all but 3 Democrats (Boren (OK), Marshall (GA) and Peterson (MN)) in voting for the bill, but it still fell about 8 votes short.

Democrats will now have to bring up the bill again under a special rule (most likely one preventing amendments). If they can hold together and defeat a Republican motion to commit the bill (which will surely be of the gotcha variety, probably having to do with guns or abortion or something), they know they've got the votes to pass it by a simple majority. My guess is that they'll bring the bill up again next week.

A few other House-related items:

-Something happened today that you rarely see on the House floor. Rep. Culberson (R-TX) was complaining in debate about how Speaker Pelosi was trying to circumvent the legislative process, and said this:

"The arrogance of power of Speaker Pelosi -- Nancy Pelosi's beginning to remind me of Marie Antoinette. With her attitude towards the people of France she couldn't be driven around Paris in anything but the very finest carriages. The contempt that the leadership of this Congress has for the American people's input for transparency --"

Rep. Rahall (D-WV) who was managing the bill on the Democratic side requested that the "words be taken down." Having words taken down is a way of punishing a member for saying something inappropriate. If the chair rules that the words were out of order, the member could be banned from talking for the rest of the day (oh the horror!). Rep. Culberson requested that his words be "withdrawn." Here's a video of the whole scene. I've also included the other two incidents I can remember of words being taken down. Enjoy. (the best part of this one is when former Rep. Harold Ford goes nuts and charges to the Republican side)

The House will take up the bill tomorrow dealing with water pollution. Still no word on when they'll bring up the DC Voting rights bill.

THE SENATE: No votes in the Senate today. They're dealing with some executive nominations tomorrow. A vote is expected on David Ogden, nominee for Deputy Attorney General, and Thomas Perelli, nominee for Associate Attorney General.

That's it for tonight. See you tomorrow!

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