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The Week Ahead in Congress

September 6, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Can Washington do anything to help create jobs? The August recess is finally over and it's time for Congress to take up their promised "pivot to jobs." If there is a will in Washington to put aside the partisanship and pass legislation to get the hiring cycle churning again, they'll make some progress this work period. But don't hold your breath -- despite the terrible August jobs numbers, all signs still point to gridlock.

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Keeping Up With Zero

September 2, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The August jobs report is out -- the first since the debt deal passed and the S&P downgraded the U.S. credit rating -- and the key number to the whole thing is zero. Zero jobs were created in August. The private sector produced a measly 17,000 jobs, but those gains were entirely erased by the 17,000 jobs that were lost in the public sector due to state and local government budget cuts. Hours worked were down, wages were down, and the unemployment rate for blacks jumped by nearly a full percentage point to 16.7% nationally. There's basically nothing good in the report to point to.

When Congress comes back next week, the focus is going to be on competing jobs bills from the Republican House and the Obama Administration. Unfortunately, it looks like none of them are going to pass. Both sides have decided that their best move is to try to use the gridlock to their advantage politically. They're not willing to do for the jobless what they did for the banks with TARP -- throw the political concerns aside and do what it takes to save them. But it's not just jobs bills that Congress will be fighting over when they come back. They also have some important authorization bills up for renewal that have so far been stymied over partisan battles on union-organizing rules and other issues. If they're not going to pass a job-creation measure they should at least find a way to pass these bills so they can prevent millions of of private and publica jobs from being lost.

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New Jobs for America

September 1, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Over the next few weeks, as Congress returns and the discussion shifts to unemployment, I'll be highlighting bills in Congress that have already been introduced to create jobs and help those who have been hurt by the crisis. Rather than focusing on the proposals that have been vaulted into the media spotlight by party leaders, I'll be looking mainly at bills that represent alternative ideas that have been mostly ignored. Today, I'll start with Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee's [D, TX] New Jobs for America Act of 2011, which would create a jobs training program for the unemployed focused on helping people update their skills for emerging industries. 

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On jobs, Congress is probably not going to do anything. On deficits, however, expect Congress to act. It's an unfortunate situation. Without congressional action on jobs, the unemployment rate is expected to stay around 9% -- or even get worse -- until 2014 or so. But on deficits, if Congres doesn't act the problem will basically take care of itself. As the CBO explained recently, under current law, annual deficits are on track to shrink from where they are today (8% of GDP) to about 1% of GDP by 2015. That's because Congress' of the past created policies with expiration dates and controls that were designed to prevent them from being perpetual drains on the budget. For example, the 2003 Bush tax cuts were passed under special rules that make it easier for the majority party to overcome minority opposition for controversial legislation, but, in exchange, require the legislation to expire after 10 years. Other examples include the Alternative Minimum Tax and the formula the government uses to reimburse doctors under Medicare, both of which are "patched" by Congress year after year so that they don't end up raising taxes too much or reducing doctor pay.

The problem, however, is that doing nothing and letting these sunsets and budget controls do their job is that it would mean more of the burden would get shifted to people and interests groups with money and political influence. For that reason, Congress is not likely to keep their hands off.

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Republicans Unveil Fall Jobs Agenda

August 29, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Since Congress has been on August recess, the U.S. has lost its prime credit rating for the first time in history, the Congressional Budget Office has dramatically lowered their unemployment recovery expectations, and more economists have come out with predictions of a double-dip recession. Given all that, it seems reasonable to think that Congress might come back from recess ready to put aside the partisanship and forge a compromise to create jobs and begin stabilizing the economy. The Republicans in the House of Representatives today unveiled their fall agenda -- let's take a look at what kinds of fresh ideas they've come up with over the past month.

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Contact-Congress: Your Letters

August 25, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

As congressional approval reaches new lows, it's more important than ever that people have a reliable public forum for communicating with their members of Congress. Yet, as we've seen during this August recess, communicating with Congress is actually getting more difficult. Less than half of senators and represntativs are holding public town hall meetings this year. Constituents trying to speak with their members are being threatened with arrest, and those fortunate enough to be able to attend meetings are having their rights to document the public events violated by police. Clearly we need better channels for open discourse between the public and their elected officials. That's what motivated us to build our free and open-source suite of OpenCongress v.3 tools, which put engaging with Congress at the center of the site experience.

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The Trigger

August 24, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

As has been the fate of every other bipartisan congressional sub-group that has met recently to talk about cutting deficits, the most likely outcome for the supercommittee is gridlock. The supercommittee is split evenly between the parties, and the members that have been chosen are probably too partisan to achieve a grand bargain on taxes and spending that can win a majority vote. If gridlock occurs, an automatic spending cut trigger that Congress created in the debt ceiling bill will go into effect. Let's take a look at how that would work.

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GOP Lining Up Against Obama Jobs Plan

August 22, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The big tax idea being put forth by the Obama Administration, extending the payroll tax holiday for employees that is set to expire in January, is already running into opposition from congressional Republicans.

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A Bipartisan Attack on Democracy

August 18, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The supercommittee on deficit reduction that Congress created in the debt ceiling bill is an absurdly anti-democratic institution. The vast majority of Americans do not have a representative serving on it, yet it's responsible for making enormous decisions about the allocation of public resources that will profoundly effect every American for decades to come. Furthermore, Congress gave it special powers that no other member or committee in Congress enjoys. Their proposal will be guaranteed a vote in both chambers of Congress, no amendments, points of order, or motions to reconsider will be allowed, and it will not be susceptible to filibusters in the Senate. That's right, the Senate couldn't reform filibuster rules at the beginning of the session because doing so would violate minority rights, but they still managed to change them for the supercommittee. But that's not all. The 12 members that have been chosen to serve on the supercommittee appear to have been picked in order to limit electoral accountability as well.

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Secrecy Concerns in the Defense Bill

August 17, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Project on Government Oversight has flagged a potential government secrecy concern in the Defense Authorizations bill the Senate is expected to vote on when they come back from recess. The issue is a provision three-quarters of the way through the 539-page bill that would give the Department of Defense broad authority to exempt unclassified information from public disclosure via the Freedom of Information Act, including information that may be relevant to public health and safety.

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Will Dodd-Frank Prevent New Megabanks?

August 16, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Last year's Dodd-Frank financial reform bill didn't directly fix the too-big-to-fail problem that necessitated the 2008 bailouts. Instead, it allowed the big banks to grow even bigger, but gave regulators new authority to require the big banks to report more information to the government and force them to follow stricter rules. It also gave regulators new guidelines to consider when deciding whether or not to allow bank mergers that could create new too-big-to-fail entities. Basically, the bill took a noncommittal approach to addressing issues of bank size and interconnectedness. Congress punted the big decisions off to regulators and made it possible for regulators to take drastic action, but gave them a lot of leeway to maintain the status quo if they so choose.

These provisions of the bill are about to get their first test. Capital One, currently the ninth largest bank-holding company in the U.S., has reached an agreement with the Ducth ING Groep to purchase their U.S. arm, ING Direct. They are planning to then turn around and leverage assets gained in that deal to purchase HSBC's subprime credit card division. The acquisitions would make Capital One the fifth largest bank in the U.S., right behind such infamous too-big-to-fail giants as Bank of America, Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo. It would mean that financial assets and power in the U.S. would become even more concentrated in a small group of top corporations.

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The deficit reduction supercommittee that was created by the debt ceiling bill is going to have an extraordinary amount of power. All areas of federal spending and revenues will be on the table when they meet, and whatever proposal they come up with will be guaranteed a vote in both chambers of Congress with no amendments and no filibusters allowed. Now that the 12 supercommittee members have been named, here's a look at some of their key votes on budget, spending and tax legislation over the past few years, as well as some information on their party loyalty.

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A Supercommittee for Jobs

August 11, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

We saw during the debt ceiling standoff that the political-party-driven, filibuster-choked Congress is basically incapable of passing deficit reduction legislation. That's why they created the "joint select committee on deficit reduction" (a.k.a. the "Super Congress") and established special rules and a spending-cut trigger that make their proposal more likely to pass. But Congress has been equally ineffective when it comes to addressing another important problem plaguing the economy -- unemployment. Even very mild, traditionally bipartisan job creation plans are being caught up in the gridlock and killed. So, if Congress actually wants to fix unemployment, why not create a "joint select committee on job creation" and give them special powers just like the deficit committee? That's exactly what Rep. John Larson [D, CT] is suggesting.

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First up in the big pivot to jobs that's going to sweep Washington when Congress comes back from August recess is H.R.1249, the "America Invents Act." The bill isn't exactly a response to the current unemployment crisis; it's designed to streamline the U.S. patent system, and it's been sitting around in Congress in various forms since 2005. Supporters of the bill even admit that job creation would be a "happy byproduct," not the main focus.

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Good luck with that pivot

August 5, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

With the debt ceiling debate over for now, the Obama Administration is promising a "pivot to jobs." Given that the trillions in cuts in the debt bill are going to cause higher rates of unemployment than what we would have had otherwiset, shifting to job creation makes sense. But the Administration can't create jobs on their own, they need legislation from Congress. Given Congress' recent history with handling jobs bills, don't be surprised if the pivot doesn't result in anything but bitter feelings.

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