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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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Senate Moves to Economic Development Bill

June 7, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

After renewing the PATRIOT Act and taking some time off, the Senate is ready to try again to do something related to the unemployment crisis we are stuck in. In April they spent weeks working on asmall business jobs bill, only to see it filibustered in the end over a controversial amendment. Now they're going to try the Economic Development Revitalization Act of 2011, which would reauthorize and expand the grant-making Economic Development Administration through 2015. Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] has filed for cloture on the bill, but he's hoping to reach a unanimous consent agreement to proceed to it this afternoon.

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Sen. Rand Paul [R, KY] has introduced several amendments to the PATRIOT ACT reauthorization bill that would add oversight to the government's spying powers and rein in their abuses, but it's his amendment to give gun owners special protections that he seems to care about most. According to reports, Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] and Paul are closing in on a deal to allow a vote on the gun amendment, and another minor one on suspicious activity reports, in exchange for Paul dropping his filibuster of the bill and letting it come to a final vote. All of the amendments to reform the PATRIOT Act for all citizens, from Paul and other senators, will be left out of the deal.

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No matter how hard rank-and-file members of Congress may try to reform it, the PATRIOT Act always seems to get special protection from the leadership. In February when the last PATRIOT Act extension was passed by Congress, the House Republican leadership did all it could, including violating a major campaign pledge on procedural openness, to prevent representatives from having their amendments voted on. Now that it's up for extension again, it's the Senate Democrats this time who are using special procedural maneuvers to block senators from offering amendments.

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Dems' Oil Subsidy Bill is Unconstitutional

May 17, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Senate Republicans may be using a faulty argument about gas prices going up if we end oil subsidies as an excuse for protecting some of their biggest corporate donors, but Democrats don't seem to be taking the issue much more seriously. By bringing up a bill to end subsidies and effectively increase the corporate tax rate on U.S. oil companies, they're only setting up a campaign talking point, not doing actual policy work. The bill is flat-out unconstitutional, and they know it.

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Balance the Budget, But How?

April 28, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Should taxes be on the table for balancing the budget, or should we look at spending cuts only? This is they key partisan debate right now in Congress, and it's going to come to a head in the next few weeks when the House and Senate vote on the debt limit and, likely, some kind of structural enforcement mechanism for bringing annual deficits down to zero.

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The Senate began debating legislation to reauthorize and extend the the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technical Transfer (STTR), two of the federal government's largest research and development programs, on March 10. More than a month later, the Senate is still not finished with the bill. That's slow even by Senate standards, especially considering that we're in the middle of a jobs crisis and it's about as close to a "jobs bill" as we've seen recently. So what's the problem?

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The Real Problem With Funding the Government

April 7, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

After meeting late Wednesday night with House Speaker John Boehner [R, OH-8], Senate Majority LeaderHarry Reid [D, NV] took to the floor this morning and said that agreeing on a topline budget number isn't the thing blocking a deal on preventing a government shutdown Friday night, it's social policy. “Our differences are no longer over the savings we get on government spending, Reid said. “The only thing holding up an agreement is ideology.”

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Two More Weeks of Federal Government

March 2, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate has followed up on the House's action yesterday and passed a two-week stopgap spending bill that cuts about $4 billion from the current funding level, mostly by eliminating some of last year's earmarks. The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 91-9, with 3 Democrats5 Republicans and 1 Independent-Democrat voting against. President Obama will sign the bill, averting a government shutdown that would have taken place otherwise beginning this Friday. But don't be fooled -- this is a temporary agreement and the negotiations to fund the government beyond these two weeks are extremely contentious. A government shutdown is still the most likely scenario.

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Filibuster Reigns

January 28, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

For the past four years, Republicans have used the Senate rules to delay all action, even on the most mundane of matters, to an extent far beyond what has ever been seen before. Still, the Democrats made it clear yesterday that they don't have the willpower to reform the rules so they can maybe actually get some stuff done this session. Some members of the Democratic caucus, mostly junior members, have been advocating for reforming the filibuster rules to at least bring some integrity back to the process by requiring senators who want to block stuff to actually stand up and block it. Instead, the Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV], chose to keep the silent filibuster alive and pass only a couple minor changes to inconsequential rules.

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The first ten bills of the 112th Senate

January 26, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate held their first real legislative day of the session yesterday, which means they finally began formally proposing legislation to deal with over the next two years. In total, senators from both parties introduced 201 bills on the first day. Among them were Senate bills 1-10, which are customarily reserved for the Majority Leader to use for laying out the majority's legislative goals for the session, ordered by priority from highest (S.1) to lowest (S.10). Take a look.

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Senate Dems Abandon Filibuster Reform

January 25, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Democrats' cave-in on reforming the filibuster in the Senate appears to be complete. According to reports, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Schumer [D, NY] is bringing a proposal to his fellow Democrats this afternoon that would do nothing to address the recent explosion in senators using procedural rules to kill bills just by threatening to filibuster. It apparently includes three minor changes in the Senate rules and is accompanied by a gentlemen's agreement to start behaving more reasonably, sometimes. Here's what's in it.

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Later today, the House of Representatives will vote on a bill to repeal health care reform, and it is expected to pass (UPDATE: the repeal bill passed by a vote of 245-189). But don't be fooled -- it is purely symbolic and there is no chance that it will become law. Here are three reasons why.

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From Earmarking to Lettermarking

December 28, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Disclosure in the earmarking process has never been state-of-the-art. Earmark requests and funds secured for projects are released to the public in clunky, non-machine processable PDF files that are often more than hundred pages long and are not sortable in any way, for example by sponsor, recipient, or amount. The disclosures are a far cry from being truly open government data.

But at least it's something. As Ron Nixon at the New York Times reports today, when there's not a formal earmarking process (e.g. the earmark-free government funding arrangement we're operating under right now), Congress' work to direct federal funds to their pet projects doesn't actually stop, it just becomes much more secretive.

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As things were coming together for Democrats on the tax bill in the House, the omnibus appropriations bill was falling apart in the Senate. Last night, Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] announced on the Senate floor that nine Republicans who who had said they would support the bill had changed their minds and were now planning to vote against it. That left the Democrats with too few votes, and Reid with no choice but to pull the bill from the floor.

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