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What Washington did this week

Increased wages for construction workers. A new national monument. Two Supreme Court orders. And more from this week.
What Washington did this week
President Biden signing a proclamation establishing a new national monument on Tuesday. (White House)

Good morning! It’s Friday, August 11, 2023. The 2024 elections are 452 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here.

Thanks for reading Wake Up To Politics. If you learned something from the newsletters this week, I hope you’ll consider donating to support my work or setting up a recurring donation. It means so much to have you all as readers!

In case you missed it: Here’s one newsletter I was proud of this week, my analysis piece on Kamala Harris and the Democratic Party’s future.

As always, I like to close out the week by taking a break from politics and focusing on policy — specifically, walking you through the policy developments that are happening under the radar here in Washington. The city might be known for its dysfunction — but that doesn’t mean that substantive, impactful policy work isn’t taking place from week to week, as I try to show you.

Congress has been out all week, so this Friday edition will focus mainly on executive branch actions, with some news from the Supreme Court thrown in as well. Let’s dive in:

Construction workers get a raise.

When the federal government contracts workers for construction projects, the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 — signed into law by Herbert Hoover — requires the laborers to be paid a “rate of wage...not less than the prevailing rate of wages for work of a similar nature in the city, town, village, or other civil division” in which the project is taking place.

However, the law gives the executive branch considerable leeway to decide how that should be calculated. For the first five decades of Davis-Bacon, the federal government considered the local prevailing wage to be the wage paid to at least 30% of workers doing similar jobs in the area. In 1983, under the Reagan administration, that standard was increased to set the local prevailing wage as the wage paid to at least 50% of workers in the area.

The Labor Department finalized a regulation on Tuesday that will revive the original standards, once again defining “prevailing wage” as the wage paid to at least 30% of local workers, a lower standard that will lead to higher wages.

This is no small change: the department estimates that about 1.2 million workers are covered by Davis-Bacon, across roughly $220 billion worth of federal construction projects. In some cases, the new rule will lift these workers’ wages by as much as thousands of dollars a year. The regulation will take effect in October.

A key deadline for vets extended.

The Honoring our PACT Act turned one year old this week. The $797 billion law, which was approved with bipartisan support last year, significantly expanded access to health care for veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their military service.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, in the last year, more than 843,000 veterans and survivors have submitted disability claims under the PACT Act; about 458,000 of those have been processed and more than 360,000 of them have been approved.

There is no deadline to apply for PACT Act benefits, but veterans originally had to apply by August 9 in order for their benefits to be backdated to August 2022, when the bill was signed into law, which gives them access to the maximum amount of assistance available under the measure.

However, a high volume of submissions overwhelmed the VA’s website — about 18% of filers received error messages on Tuesday, the day before the deadline — leading the agency to extend the deadline to 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, August 14.

Veterans and survivors can submit their disability claims here, or file a letter of intent here, which also makes them eligible to receive backdated benefits. Typically, veterans can only receive VA disability benefits if they can prove that their disability stems from their military service. Under the PACT Act, more than 20 illnesses — including brain cancer, kidney cancer, and melanoma — will now be treated as “presumptive conditions,” meaning the VA will automatically assume for Gulf War-era and post-9/11 veterans that their condition is due to toxic exposure while in the military.

Two Supreme Court orders.

Most high-profile Supreme Court cases go through the court’s “merits docket,” which means they receive full oral arguments and signed opinions. But, in recent years, some Democratic lawmakers have stepped up their criticisms of the court’s so-called “shadow docket,” in which the justices rule on emergency requests without any arguments and often without even indicating which justices are in favor of the ruling. (Such rulings are generally just temporary, only applying for the period until courts reach a full decision on the merits.)

This week, however, the Biden administration received two victories on the “shadow docket.” On Tuesday, the justices allowed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to continue enforcing a regulation clamping down on “ghost guns,” weapons that are assembled homemade using kits. These guns don’t have serial numbers, making them untraceable. The ATF regulation states that they fit within the federal definition of a “firearm,” making them subject to the same background check and serial number requirements as other weapons.

A Texas district judge struck down the regulation last month, a decision that is currently being appealed. Chief Justice John Roberts and fellow conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court’s three liberals in allowing the ATF regulation to remain in place for the time being, while the legal challenge works its way through the courts.

Then, on Thursday, the court sided with the Justice Department in temporarily blocking a bankruptcy deal for the pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyCotin and other drugs. Under the deal, the Sackler family — which owned the company until recently — agreed to pay $6 billion to a fund for plaintiffs suing over the company’s role in the opioid epidemic. In exchange, the Sacklers would have been given full immunity from any civil lawsuits on the matter going forward.  

The deal was approved by an appeals court in May, but the DOJ challenged it, arguing that it provides a “road map for wealthy corporations and individuals to misuse the bankruptcy system to avoid mass tort liability.” The Supreme Court’s order, which did not indicate which justices agreed with it and which did not, temporarily pauses the settlement. The justices also announced that they will hear oral arguments over the case in December.

Restrictions on Chinese investments.

President Biden signed an executive order on Wednesday restricting U.S. private equity and venture capital firms from investing in China’s semiconductor, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing sectors.

Citing “significant national security risks,” the order aims to stem the flow of American capital and exercise into sectors that fuel the Chinese military. Under the order, two categories of investments in these sectors will be established: those that will be prohibited and those that will require notifying the U.S. government. The specifics of which investments will fall into which category will be fleshed out in a forthcoming Treasury Department regulation, which will be subject — like all regulations — to a public comment period. The order won’t take effect until that rulemaking process is complete, which will likely be sometime next year.

Democratic lawmakers applauded the move, but many Republicans said it didn’t go far enough: “This narrowly tailored proposal is almost laughable,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said in a statement. Rubio also called the restrictions — which have been in the works for years — “long overdue.”

A new national monument.

The Antiquities Act of 1906, signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt, gives presidents the power to declare “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on federal lands as national monuments, giving them similar protections as national parks. (National parks, however, must be approved by Congress.)

Biden invoked the Antiquities Act for his fifth time on Tuesday, signing a proclamation that creates the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument. (“Baaj nwaavjo” means “where Indigenous peoples roam” in the Havasupai language; “i’tah kukveni” means “our ancestral footprints” in the Hopi language.)

The new national monument covers nearly 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon, land that is considered sacred by the Havasupai, Hopi, and other Native tribes. “America’s natural wonders are our nation’s heart and soul,” Biden said. “That’s not hyperbole; that’s a fact. They unite us. They inspire us. A birthright we pass down from generation to generation.”

The move will protect the land from new uranium mining, although existing mining contracts will be allowed to continue. Like several of Biden’s previous national monument designations, it is likely to provoke legal challenges arguing that it is an abuse of the president’s Antiquities Act powers.

More news to know.

Justice Clarence Thomas. (Stetson University)
  • Clarence Thomas has accepted at least 38 destination vacations, 26 private jet flights, eight helicopter rides, a dozen VIP passes to sporting events, and two stays at luxury resorts from billionaire associates since joining the Supreme Court, ProPublica reports.
  • Robert Hur, the special counsel investigating President Biden’s handling of classified documents, is reportedly in talks with Biden’s attorney to interview the president.
  • Joe Manchin is “thinking seriously” about leaving the Democratic Party and becoming an Independent.
  • Tommy Tuberville, the Alabama senator, has sold his homes in Alabama; records indicate that his primary residence is now in Florida, per the Washington Post.
  • Jack Smith is pushing for Trump’s January 6th trial to begin on January 2, which would mean the trial would likely be taking place during the Iowa caucuses on January 15. Trump’s team is expected to propose a much later start date.

The day ahead.

The Iowa State Fair. (Phil Roeder)

On the campaign trail: The Iowa State Fair — home to the famous butter cow and presidential politicking galore — will be underway all weekend, with several GOP candidates stopping by. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will hold moderated conversations with many of the candidates: she’ll host chats today with former Vice President Mike Pence, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and Miami mayor Francis Suarez.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy will join Reynolds tomorrow. Donald Trump will also visit the fairgrounds tomorrow, although he won’t be participating in an interview with Reynolds, who he’s criticized in recent weeks. Instead, he’s bringing along nine House Republicans from Florida who have endorsed his campaign — a not-so-subtle message aimed squarely at DeSantis.

In the courts: The first hearing in Trump’s January 6th case will take place today at the D.C. federal courthouse. Attorneys for Trump and Special Counsel Jack Smith will spar over the scope of the protective order in the case, which will limit Trump’s ability to share evidence shared with him by prosecutors. It will be their first time arguing in front of Judge Tanya Chutkan, the Obama appointee randomly assigned to oversee the case.

At the White House: President Biden will travel to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where he will spend the weekend.

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