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Food Safety Overhaul Faces Defunding

May 31, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Last session, one of the few truly bipartisan things Congress accomplished was enacting new food safety legislation, designed to increase the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory authority over the food chain in order to prevent food-borne illness outbreaks. It passed 73-25 in the Senate and 283-142 in the House. But under the House Republicans' proposed budget, the FDA would not receive the extra money authorized by Congress last year to start implementing the new food safety law. In fact, they would see their budget cut below current operating levels.

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The Week Ahead in Congress

May 31, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The House kicks things off this week with a vote on raising the debt ceiling by more than $2 trillion. But don't worry, it won't pass. The Republicans have put the bill on the calendar in order to prove a point. By allowing a vote on it and watching it get voted down, they hope to get more leverage over the Democrats in the battle over attaching spending cuts to the debt bill.

However, the fact that this debt ceiling bill is so clearly symbolic makes it a less effective bargaining move. Or at least it should. The Republicans have put it on the suspensions calendar, which means that it would take a 2/3rds majority to pass. That's just not realistic. Of the 11 times the debt ceiling has been raised since 1997, only once has it had 2/3rds support in the House. Furthermore, the Republican leadership is not whipping this, so there is no reason for anyone to vote for it. Raising the debt ceiling has always been something that the majority-party leadership forces their caucus to do, against the political instincts of individual members, for the common good.

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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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Just as the Senate is about to approve a long-term reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act's surveillance provisions, without any reforms, Sen. Ron Wyden [D, OR] warns that the government is secretly using the provisions to justify surveillance activities that go beyond what we have been told.

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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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You know what's sketchy? According to a new report, members of Congress who invest in the stock market consistently end up making abnormally high returns. Dan Froomkin reports:

Four university researchers examined 16,000 common stock transactions made by approximately 300 House representatives from 1985 to 2001, and found what they call "significant positive abnormal returns," with portfolios based on congressional trades beating the market by about 6 percent annually.

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If you want to break the partisan divide and get Democrats and Republicans in Congress to agree on something, just give them a bill that makes it easier for the government to spy on U.S. citizens without judicial oversight. Yesterday, the Senate voted 74-8, with 18 senators abstaining, in favor of moving forward with legislation to extend three of the most controversial PATRIOT Act surveillance powers for four more years, without any modifications. By contrast, the Senate has had to pull a small business jobs bill and two of Obama's judicial nominees from the floor after the Republicans mounted successful filibusters.

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Defense Bill Larded Up With Earmarks

May 23, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Republicans took over the House on promises to cut pork spending and eliminate earmarks. But according to Donna Casatta at the Associated Press, some of the Republican House freshmen whose elections were premised on these promises are now pushing additions to the Defense Authorization bill that are designed to direct federal funds to corporations and defense interests in their districts. "The additions look suspiciously like the pet projects that Republicans prohibited when they took over the House and that the new class of lawmakers, many with tea party backing, swore off in a promise to change Washington's spending habits," writes Casatta.

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The Week Ahead in Congress

May 23, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Back in February, Congress passed a three-month extension of three of the PATRIOT Act's most controversial surveillance programs, with Homeland Security Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman [I, CT] saying the short extension would give them time to hold a full-fledged debate before passing a longer extension. Well, the three-month bill is set to expire at the end of the month, and, sure enough, on the calendar for both chambers this week is legislation to extend the surveillance programs for four more years, without any modifications. Below is the ACLU summary of the programs, plus complete floor calendar information for the Senate and the House.

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We already know that the House Republicans support increasing the debt limit. All but four of them recently voted in favor of a budget blueprint that calls for adding $9 trillion to the debt subject to limit over the next decade. Yet somehow they have convinced Obama and the Democrats that they have to get something in return, like spending cuts that make tax increases less likely, in exchange for actually voting for the debt limit increase they've already endorsed.

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One might think the recent killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan would lead to more talk in Congress about winding down the war in Afghanistan, and to some extent it has. Rep. Chellie Pingree [D, ME-1], for example, is petitioning for an accelerated withdrawal. But the Republican House leadership, which is really the locus of Congress' decision-making as a whole, is pushing in the other direction. They are using the must-pass 2012 Defense Authorization Act as a vehicle to expand the President's authority to use military force against virtually anybody suspected of terrorism, anywhere in the world, at any time.

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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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Senate Moves to Bill Repealing Oil Subsidies

May 17, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate is set to begin debate this afternoon on the Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act. The bill repeal five tax breaks that Congress has enacted over the years to encourage oil companies to drill off of America's shorelines, and it would close a loophole that U.S. oil companies have been using to disguise foreign royalty payments as taxes and deduct them from their domestic tax bill. All savings would be used to balance the budget and pay down the debt. Despite expert analysis showing that the bill would not increase gas prices and may actually increase domestic oil production, Republicans are planning to vote against it. 

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Even as the economy slowly recovers and new jobs are created, millions of the hardest hit unemployed continue to be left behind. In April, the number of unemployed workers who have been without a job for more than two years increased by 21,000 to 14.5% of all unemployed. As Lauren Victoria Burke reported recently following a meeting between Barack Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus, the very-long-term unemployed are being shut out of the conversation because their growing numbers contradict the economic picture the President is trying to paint:

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The Week Ahead in Congress

May 16, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

After all the non-serious legislating the House of Representatives accomplished last week -- by that I mean passing bills that were designed purely for politics, not affecting policy -- they decided to just stay home this week. The House is taking their third week of vacation time in the past five weeks, and when they come back into session again they'll be there for just one week before going on vacation again Meanwhile, the debt ceiling has officially been surpassed. The federal government is now borrowing more money to execute the laws than the amount Congress has allowed it to borrow. The Treasury Department says they have a couple months worth of stalling tactics to make sure we don't actually default. But if Congress doesn't get to Washington and figure out a way to pass a debt ceiling increase soon, we risk defaulting on our international financial obligations and destroying our creditworthiness for decades to comes.

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