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The Committee of Veterans' Affairs yesterday voted in favor of reporting legislation to expand collective bargaining rights for health care workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill would amend a section of U.S. law that Democrats say the Veterans' Department is misusing to block certain VA health workers from negotiating over basic pay issues, like overtime, weekend pay, and physician incentive pay.

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DREAM Act Gets Its First Hearing Ever

June 29, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The DREAM Act, a bill that would give citizenship status to some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, received its first ever Senate committee hearing yesterday. The bill has been stalled in Congress since 2001. Yesterday's hearing indicates that Democrats, with support from the White House, are launching a major effort to rally support around this ahead of the 2012 elections.

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The Week Ahead in Congress

June 27, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The House of Representatives is out of session this week and they'll be out for the better part of next week as well. Today is the House's 54th day off from legislating since convening in January, not including weekends. The Senate will be in session this week, but it's unclear at this point what they'll be working on. There will be no votes today. The only thing on the schedule for the afternoon is a floor speech from Sen. Bernie Sanders [I, VT], which is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET and last for up to 90 minutes.

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Just as new revelations are emerging about the possible link between the most widely-used pesticide in the U.S. and human birth defects, Congress is working to liberalize pesticide-use policy to allow farmers and local governments to spray near public waterways without having to seek special permission under the Clean Water Act. On Tuesday, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee unanimously approved H.R 872, a bill "to amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to clarify Congressional intent regarding the regulation of the use of pesticides in or near navigable waters, and for other purposes." The House of Representatives passed the bill on March 31st by a vote of 292-130.

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Another Jobs Bill Killed

June 23, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

On June 6th, the Senate opened debate on the Economic Development Revitalization Act of 2011, a bill to reauthorize and expand a long-running and consistently successful job-creation agency, the Economic Development Administration. The EDA has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, and this reauthorization bill was introduced with bipartisan co-sponsorship and passed out of committee without any dissent from Republicans. But after two weeks of debate, the bill was unanimously filibustered by Republicans and has been pulled from the floor.

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Richard Cohen at Politico has a piece this morning on what is probably the most important trend in Congress right now. According to the article, Republicans, from the leadership down, are warming up to the idea of raising revenue through increasing corporate tax rates and closing loopholes. "The targeting of long-protected tax breaks — for ethanol, research and development, manufacturing and foreign company income — is a sign that key House Republicans are ready to break with the orthodoxy of past tax debates while ditching special interests that have long held sway in tax reform discussions," Cohen writes. So what does it mean for the hottest issue among users of OpenCongress -- extending unemployment insurance for the very-long-term unemployed who have exhausted all available benefits without finding new work?

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The Week Ahead in Congress

June 20, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The House kicks things off this week with a handful of suspension votes -- mainly on renaming post offices -- and then gets down to more serious business starting Wednesday. On their schedule for the second half of the week is companion legislation to the Senate-passed bill to revamp the US patent system, a bill to reduce environmental protections so that oil companies can more easily obtain permits to drill off the coast of Alaska, and the 2012 Defense Department spending bill. Despite cutbacks in just about every other area of government, the Defense bill would actually increase the Department's budget by $17 billion over last year's level, from $513 billion to $530 billion. And that doesn't include the extra $119 billion that is being tacked on as "emergency spending" for continuation of the Global War on Terror.

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Announcing OpenGovernment Minnesota

June 17, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

We're proud today to announce the launch of our next state on OpenGovernment: Minnesota. Now folks in Minnesota can track with ease everything their state legislature does -- all the bills that are proposed, votesthat are taken, money that is raised, and more. We’ve timed the launch of this, the sixth U.S. state on OpenGovernment, to coincide with the Netroots Nation conference ongoing this weekend in Minneapolis / St. Paul. We’re pleased to share this new public resource for accountability in government and citizen watchdogging with all the political bloggers & issue-based activists there.

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With Congress gridlocked on everything the public actually cares about -- e.g. the unemployment rate and the federal debt -- they seem to have found at least one thing they can all agree on. Big media companies and the Obama Administration have been asking Congress to change the copyright laws so that people who stream copyrighted content on the internet, whether intentionally or not, can be put in jail or charged massive fines. The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the idea on June 1st and the Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee is moving forward with a mark-up of legislation to do so tomorrow. Don't you just love bipartisanship?

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The conclusions will probably come as a surprise exactly none of you, but a new study from the International Monetary Fund on the influence of campaign donations and lobbying politics is worth a mention because of the completeness of the research and the authority of its source. Two IMF economists, Deniz Igan and Prachi Mishra, have been examining how the targeted political activities of financial corporations between 1999 and 2006 affected how Congress voted on bills that strengthened or loosened regulation of Wall Street leading up to the 2008 crisis. They found -- surprise! -- that the more the corporations spent on campaign donations and lobbying, the more likely Congress was to vote in favor of deregulation. Furthermore, they found that the money Wall Street spent on lobbying members of Congress who were connected to Wall Street, either from having worked there in the past or through a former staff member who had gone through the revolving door to K Street, had a much stronger effect on their voting than on those who had no Wall Street connections

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Coburn vs. Big Corn

June 14, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Sen. Tom Coburn [R, OK] has stuck his neck out and is forcing a vote today on an amendment (identical to S.871) to repeal ethanol tax subsidies. Ethanol subsidies cost the government atlas $5 billion per year and they are opposed by groups like the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action on environmental grounds and by groups like Koch Industries on grounds that they distort energy market forces. On the other side, however, are Big Ag corporations like Monsanto, whose Roundup-resistant-corn-seed sales have skyrocketed under the subsidies, and they seem to be winning.

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We at the Participatory Politics Foundation are happy to have joined 29 other organizations in signing a letter asking Congress to restore funding for the Electronic Government Fund so that the government transparency projects that have been terminated due to budget cuts can be brought back online and expanded. As the letter notes, the open government projects managed under the E-Gov fund have a proven track record of improving government efficiency, increasing accountability, and fueling private job creation in the knowledge-based economy. With the relatively small amount of money needed to bring these projects back online (less than 0.001% of the budget), and with job creation and deficit reduction as top concerns, restoring the E-Gov fund should be a no-brainer. 

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Frank and His Wall Street Buds

June 13, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Given how extreme the failure of Wall Street was that caused the 2008 crisis, the financial reform bill passed by Congress last year, Dodd-Frank, is pretty weak tea. It's riddled with giant loopholes, defers many of the biggest decisions to the same regulatory agencies who failed us in the first place, and, most significantly, allows the banks that needed a $4.6 trillion bailout because they were "too big to fail" to become even bigger. Dodd-Frank was largely an exercise in passing a bill for the sake of appearing to have done something. Unfortunately, Congress seem to have fooled a lot of people out there, especially those who work for popular newspapers, into believing that they have fixed the problems.

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Senate Rejects Delay of Swipe Fee Reform

June 9, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The banking industry lost a vote on Capitol Hill yesterday for what seems like the first time since the first TARP attempt was rejected in 2008. The question was if the Federal Reserve's new rules limiting how much banks can charge retailers for debit transactions, as mandated by last year's financial regulatory overhaul bill, should go into effect this summer as scheduled or be delayed for a year, giving banks more time to lobby against it. In the end, a majority of the Senate voted in favor of the delay (54-45) but it wasn't enough to overcome a procedural hurdle and it was ultimately rejected.

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Yesterday I wrote about the Senate's latest attempt to actually do something about the unemployment crisis. Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] called on the Senate to proceed to the bipartisan Economic Development Revitalization Act of 2011, which reauthorizes the Economic Development Administration to make grants to struggling communities for the purpose of creating and retaining jobs. Yesterday the Senate did something they rarely do these days -- they actually agreed to drop a pending filibuster and move to debate the bill by unanimous consent. That's progress, but here's the problem. The bill has already been loaded up with dozens of unrelated, controversial amendments, and if senators exercise their right to insist on holding votes on them, there is almost no way this non-controversial, bipartisan jobs bill will survive.

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