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Senate Takes Up Controversial Patent Legislation

February 28, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate has begun debating a bill that would fundamentally alter an important area of U.S. intellectual property laws, and it's pitting small businesses and independent inventors against a broad coalition of powerful interests like drug companies, big software companies and some unions. The bill, known as the Patent Reform Act of 2011, would amend several areas of patent law, the most significant of which would be a change from the current application system that awards patents to the fist person to invent something to a new system that would award a patent to the first person to file an application.

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The Week Ahead in Congress

February 28, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Congress comes back from their week off today, and it appears that the Republicans in the House and the Democrats in the Senate have just about struck a deal to keep the government operating, at least temporarily. On Friday, Republicans proposed a two week continuing resolution with $4 billion in cuts from the current funding level and on Sunday Senate Budget Committee Chaiman Sen. Kent Conrad [D, ND] sounded ready to work with that offer. "It is acceptable to me to have $4 billion in savings in a two-week package, sure. The makeup of that, you know, is up for discussion and negotiation. That negotiation is ongoing. And I'm confident we'll achieve conclusion on that," Konrad said. His comments follow a positive reaction to the Republican proposal from Majority Leader Harry Reid on Friday.

While the final details of this are being worked out, here's how the House and Senate will be keeping themselves busy on the chamber floor. First, the House schedule:

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Shutdown Averted?

February 25, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

It's looking like the government may not be shutting down after all, at least not on March 4. House Republicans today unveiled their bill to extend government funding for two weeks, and the response from Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid's office is considerably more positive than what we've been hearing lately. The bill would cut a little more than $4 billion from the current funding level over a two week period and it does not include any of the controversial language that the Republicans included in their full-year funding bill, like defunding Planned Parenthood or blocking the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.

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Still Worlds Apart

February 24, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

If progress is being made on keeping the government up and running beyond the March 4 deadline, it's not being shared with the public. Both Democrats and Republicans have spent the week digging in their heels and pledging to move forward on their separate, conflicting paths, virtually guaranteeing that we will see a government shutdown while things are being worked out.

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Should Congress Be Exempt From a Government Shutdown?

February 23, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Unlike just about all other federal employees, the salaries for members of Congress ($174,00) and the President ($400,000) are paid from permanent mandatory spending accounts that are not subject to annual renewal from Congress. They are, by law, effectively exempted from shutdowns. In case you're wondering who decided that Congress's pay should be immune to Congress failing to fund the government, the answers is, of course …Congress! Funny how that works.

With a government shutdown now looking very likely in early March, some members of Congress want to end their special salary protections. Barbara Boxer [D, CA] in the Senate and James Moran [D, VA] in the House have introduced legislation that would deny basic pay to Congress and the President if there is a more than 24-hour lapse in government funding as a result of a failure to enact appropriations bills or if the statutory debt limit is reached because is was not increased in time.

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The Looming Government Shutdown

February 22, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Congress may not be in session this week, but the negotiations on how to fund the government are continuing. At this point, however, we're still looking at two sides that disagree and are unwilling to budge -- a Democratic Senate that wants to pass a clean short-term continuing resolution to forestall a government shutdown until the year-long budget can be worked out, and a Republican House that will go along with a short-term solution, but only if it includes cuts. The most likely scenario still seems to be a government shutdown.

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With the self-avowed nonpartisan Tea Party fueling the surge of activism that helped Republicans win the House in the 2010 elections, most pundits assumed the freshmen class would be more independent of party leadership and steer the Republican caucus in a new, more traditionally conservative, direction. However, a month and a half into the 112th Congress, the data suggests that the freshmen class has in fact made the House Republicans a more loyal caucus than it would be without them.

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House Votes to Defund Planned Parenthood

February 18, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Republican House of Representatives took their latest shot at limiting access to abortions today by passing an amendment to their 2011 government funding bill that would defund Planned Parenthood. There amendment has some big problems, however, and it's very unlikely that it will become law.

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GOP Blocks Vote on Unemployment Extension for 99ers

February 18, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Job losses in the recession peaked almost exactly two years ago, and the situation has barely improved since. Current law allows unemployed workers to receive a maximum of two years of unemployment insurance benefits, so millions of people who lost their jobs in the recession are getting cut off from government support right now with little chance of finding work. These folks are often referred to as "99ers," 99 being the maximum number of benefit weeks. Despite the situation, House Republicans yesterday used an arcane rule to block an amendment that would have provided 14 more weeks of benefits for th

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Sen. Cardin Resumes His Fight Against Leaks

February 17, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Wikileaks may have moved few notches lower in the headlines recently, but members of Congress haven't forgotten. Sen. Ben Cardin [D, MD], the former Chairman of the Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee, has reintroduced a bill from late last session that would make it a felony for government employees and contractors to disclose any information in violation of their nondisclosure agreements, regardless of whether or not the discloser was trying to help a foreign government or harm the U.S. Needless to say, whistleblower right advocates are worried.

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On Monday I wrote about a provision in the Republicans' continuing resolution that would spend $450 million on a redundant DoD project that is and opposed by the Pentagon, but is included because, as it appears, it benefits defense contractors in House Speaker John Boehner's [R, OH-8] district. As long-time Appropriations Committee staffer Scott Lilly concluded, the provision "looks, feels, and smells very much like an earmark." Remember, the Republicans claim to have banned earmarking this session. Thanks to Rep. Tom Rooney [R, FL-16], the provision has been removed from the bill, saving $450 this year from a bloated military budget that rarely scrutinized by members of Congress from either party.

 

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Senate passes PATRIOT Act extension, 86-12

February 16, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Senate last night took the 10-month extension of the PATRIOT Act provisions, whittled it down to 3 months, passed it and sent it back to the House for a follow-up vote. Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate agreed to the shorter extension in order to assuage members who want to reform the government surveillance powers, but still keep the authority for the powers in effect in the meantime. This bill, which will now expire in May, gives Congress more time to hold hearings and a full floor debate on the PATRIOT Act, the leaders say.

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As expected, by a 275-144 vote, the House of Representatives has passed a 10-month, unmodified extension of the most controversial surveillance provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act by a simple majority vote. The House had failed to pass the bill last week when the Republican leadership tried to push it through quickly under a procedure that limited debate and amendments, but required a 2/3rds majority to pass. In the end, 65 Democrats and 210 Republicans voted in favor, sending the bill to the Senate where it's likely to be approved quickly so it can be signed into law before the provisions expire. 

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Boehner Gets His Earmark

February 14, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

Amid all the cuts in the Republicans' continuing resolution is a provision that would spend millions on a program that nobody besides the defense contractors who benefit from it seems to want. Why? As Sott Lilly at CAP reports, "The item is a down payment that would obligate the federal government to future payments that could well be three or four times the increased spending added to this particular piece of legislation, with a big portion of the funds flowing to two cities in Ohio—Cincinnati, where Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) grew up, and Dayton, the largest city in his congressional district." That "looks, feels, and smells very much like an earmark."

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The Week Ahead in Congress

February 13, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The House kicks things off this week with a quick vote on extending three government surveillance powers from the PATRIOT Act. It's going to be done under a closed rule so it's expected to pass without any hiccups, though it's going to be interesting to see what kind of motion to recommit the Democrats go with on this. Once that's all set, the House will transition to budget land, with debate beginning on the Republicans' budget proposal for the rest of the year just one day after President Obama is scheduled to officially his preferred plan for next year. The 2011 budget was left unfinished by the Democrats last year and is being handled as a continuing resolution. A copy of the cuts Republicans are proposing can be downloaded here.

The Senate, meanwhile, will continues debating that left-over FAA Authorization bill that they've been on for two weeks already. Remember, this passed the Senate last year by a vote of 93-0. It's not a controversial bill, it's just taking forever because Majority Leader Harry Reid [D, NV] has left it open to amendments as a test run of his gentlemen's agreement with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell [R, KY]. There's no way of knowing how long this "debate" will last.

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