by Gabe Fleisher
Good morning! It’s Thursday, February 10, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 271 days away. Election Day 2024 is 999 days away.
A guide to what Congress is working on right now
The other day, I came across a tweet from the journalist Matt Yglesias that sparked my interest. Referencing another tweet on a recent House vote on postal reform, Yglesias wrote: “Ever heard of this bill? Me neither.”
Then, he expanded on the point:
I happen to agree! That’s why here at Wake Up To Politics, I try not to get distracted by the shiny objects: for example, you’ve yet to see the words “Whoppi Goldberg” in this newsletter, and you won’t see anything about gazpacho either. Instead, my focus is exactly what Yglesias described: giving you a sense of what your elected representatives are actually doing with their time, day in and day out.
In fact, readers of this newsletter had heard of the postal reform bill — because they’ve heard of every bill that Congress is scheduled to vote on, through the “Daybook” section each morning.
But today, inspired by Yglesias, I want to go even further and give you a deeper dive into some of the substantive issues dominating discussions on Capitol Hill right now. They may not all be attention-grabbing, but they’re all important, so I think it’s worth delving into them. If you like this, let me know and I’ll try to include similar in-depth roundups of what Congress is doing at other points of high activity in the future. With that, let’s take a look at what lawmakers are working on right now:
Postal reform. Let’s start with the bill I referenced earlier, the Postal Service Reform Act. The largest-scale reform of the U.S. Postal Service in 15 years, this measure aims to rescue the USPS from a financial crisis pegged to the most recent postal reform bill (passed in 2006). That bill instituted a requirement that the USPS pay a lump sum each year to pre-fund health benefits for future retired employees, a whopping 75 years in advance. No other federal agencies face such a requirement, which has led to billions of dollars in losses for the USPS.
The House voted 342-92 on Tuesday to approve the new reform bill, which will eliminate that requirement and instead require retired postal workers to enroll in Medicare when they are eligible. Per a USPS estimate, the legislation will save the agency almost $50 billion in the next decade. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has promised that the Senate will vote on the bipartisan bill in the coming weeks.
Funding the government. Theoretically, Congress is supposed to pass 12 appropriations bills funding various parts of the government each year by September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. But in reality, lawmakers often lag behind that deadline — which is why they pass stopgap “continuing resolutions” that keep government funding at its current levels for a short period of time until the two parties can strike a broader deal.
Lawmakers have kicked the can down the road twice now this fiscal year — first in September, and then in December — and the most recent measure is set to expire on February 18. If Congress doesn’t pass a third CR by then, the government will shut down, which means a range of services (from national parks to issuing new Social Security cards) grind to a halt.
However, the House voted 272-162 on Tuesday to approve a new CR that will extend funding through March 11. The Senate is expected to take up the measure next week, averting a shutdown. Plus, the top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Appropriations Committee announced on Wednesday that they have reached a “framework” to finally begin crafting the full 12 appropriations bill.
No further details were released, but according to Roll Call, the two sides agreed the funding deal would have “parity,” which means defense and nondefense spending will be increased by the same amount. Lawmakers hope to have the appropriations bills done by the new mid-March deadline.
Ending forced arbitration for sexual harassment and assault. The House voted 335-97 on Monday to pass a bill that will change how claims of sexual harassment and assault are processed in the workplace. Right now, many businesses require their employees to sign contracts that close off the employee’s ability to sue if they have allegations of sexual harassment or assault; instead, these contracts require that the victims go through private arbitration processes that can make it very difficult to win damages.
The measure passed by the House would void all contracts with forced arbitration clauses for sexual harassment or assault claims, giving victims the ability to publicly sue their abusers and press their case before a jury of their peers. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill today and send it to President Biden’s desk.
Banning lawmakers from trading stocks. Last month, I covered the growing bipartisan push to ban members of Congress from owning or trading stocks. Currently, under the STOCK Act of 2012, lawmakers are prohibited from engaging in insider trading and required to disclose their stock trades within 45 days — but many members have flouted the law, and there isn’t much of an enforcement mechanism.
Covid-era allegations of insider trading against senators from both parties have pushed the issue to the fore. And it has gained even more steam this week: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who was opposed to a ban on lawmakers trading stocks as recently as December, announced on Wednesday that she was now in support.
Pelosi told reporters that she’s tasked the House Administration Committee to review the various proposals on the issue, and expects a bill will be ready to be voted on sometime this year. Pelosi added that she wants the final measure to be “government-wide,” covering federal judges as well.
In the Senate, Schumer also endorsed the push this week, while Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters he would “take a look.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) had previously expressed openness to a ban, meaning all four congressional leaders have given some sort of blessing to the efforts.
Unionizing congressional staffers. An Instagram account called “Dear White Staffers” has captivated the Capitol in recent weeks, as congressional aides post anonymous horror stories of poor working conditions and harrasment in their jobs on the Hill. Those stories, plus a recent report that found 1 in 8 congressional aides don’t even make a living wage, has spurred on an effort to unionize the staffers that work for members of Congress.
There has actually been a mechanism for this to happen for decades: under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, legislative branch staffers have the right to form a union — as long as both houses of Congress pass a resolution greenlighting the union first. That process was kicked off in the House on Wednesday, as Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) introduced such a resolution.
Schumer and Pelosi have both given their support to the efforts, but Republican leaders have indicated skepticism so far — as has Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — so the resolution might have difficulty picking up the 10 Republican votes in the Senate it would need to overcome a filibuster. Plus, a lot of questions still abound on how exactly the union would work, considering Congress is effectively comprised of 535 different employers under the same roof.
And that’s not all. That pretty much covers the pieces of legislation that have seen major action at the Capitol this week — either being voted on, or picking up significant new supporters in leadership. But I also want to quickly touch on a few topics that have been advancing in the background, many of which will move to center stage in the weeks ahead:
→ Electoral Count Act reform. A bipartisan group of senators continue to meet behind the scenes to craft an update to the Electoral Count Act, the 1887 law governing Congress’ certification of Electoral College votes that former President Donald Trump sought to subvert on January 6 of last year. As they zero in on a deal, their efforts received a boost on Tuesday when McConnell told the Washington Examiner that he was “inclined to support” it.
→ Sanctions on Russia. The leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are also working on a bipartisan package of sanctions against Russia. Their talks have dragged on amid a number of sticking points, including what the sanctions should target and whether they should go into effect only if Russia invades Ukraine.
→ Domestic violence. The landmark Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which expands protections for domestic violence victims and boosts funding of investigations into those accused of committing violent crimes against women, expired in 2018 and has not been renewed since. A bipartisan group of senators came together on Wednesday to announce a deal to reauthorize the legislation. Negotiations had been held up over a debate on whether to include a controversial provision to close the “boyfriend loophole,” which would restrict access to firearms for dating partners convicted of assault. Gun rights advocates had opposed the provision, which did not end up in the reauthorization bill that was introduced.
→ Supreme Court nomination. The White House has reportedly begun reaching out to potential Supreme Court nominees, ahead of President Biden’s self-imposed deadline of naming a successor to retiring Justice Stephen Breyer at the end of the month. Expect the confirmation push to take up a lot of time and energy in the Senate come March.
→ Competing with China. Both the House and Senate have now passed bills aimed at funding scientific research, subsidizing semiconductor manufacturers, and boosting America’s competitiveness with China in the technology sector. The two measures are quite far apart, however, meaning the two chambers are expected to set up a conference committee to settle their differences.
→ Biden’s economic agenda. Manchin once again declared Biden’s signature “Build Back Better” package to be “dead” last week, but he has also expressed openness to considering some of its provisions in a smaller bill. Negotiations between the West Virginia centrist and the White House have yet to resume, however, and many Democrats are losing hope that any of the president’s child care, health care, education, or climate change priorities will become law.
Covid. Seven Democratic governors have now announced plans to ease their Covid mask restrictions this week — in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island — continuing a trend I covered on Tuesday. The Republican governor of Massachusetts joined in as well.
- President Biden may soon join the chorus: per the New York Times, the White House has been meeting with outside experts behind closed doors “to plan a pandemic exit strategy and a transition to a ‘new normal.’” Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Financial Times on Tuesday that restrictions could be eased “soon,” adding that the U.S. is moving “out of the full-blown pandemic phase of Covid-19.”
Trump. The National Archives has asked the Justice Department to investigate former President Donald Trump’s handling of his White House papers. Trump reportedly ripped up some records and brought others with him to Mar-a-Lago, including documents containing classified information, a possible violation of the Presidential Records Act. (New York Times)
- Per Axios, in her highly anticipated biography of the former president (due out in October), the Times’ Maggie Haberman will report that while Trump was in office, “staff in the White House residence periodically discovered wads of printed paper clogging a toilet” — and believed it was because the president had tried to flush the pieces of paper.
- Also: Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, reportedly asked a Republican prosecutor in Michigan to pass his county’s voting machines to the Trump campaign after the 2020 election. The prosecutor declined the request. (Washington Post)
Ukraine. The White House has approved a plan to evacuate the remaining Americans in Ukraine if Russia moves forward with an invasion. Under the plan, the Americans would go through Poland and be assisted by U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division. (Wall Street Journal)
Iran. U.S. officials told senators on Wednesday that Iran could be “weeks” away from having enough material to create a nuclear bomb. (Politico)
Each morning, WUTP’s team of contributors rotate to offer a briefing on the latest news in a different policy area. It’s Thursday, so Anna Salvatore is here with the week’s top legal headlines:
Democratic senators are reportedly divided over whom President Biden should appoint to the Supreme Court. The fastest-rising candidate is Michelle Childs, a district judge from South Carolina with a background in corporate law. While Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are skeptical about her liberal bona fides, Politico reports that Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) convinced progressive Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to lend his support on Tuesday.
Though perhaps not as liberal as Judges Leondra Kruger or Ketanji Brown Jackson — the other main candidates for the Supreme Court vacancy — Childs would likely be confirmed by the Senate given that Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has already pledged his vote.
In a unanimous ruling on Monday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court expanded the privacy rights of social media users in the state. The court rejected the argument that once someone posts content on social media, they have no expectation of privacy from the police. “Each case must be resolved,” the justices wrote, “by carefully considering the totality of the circumstances,” meaning that police cannot always use evidence in court that they collect from private social media accounts.
“Government surveillance of [social media]...risks chilling the conversational and associational privacy rights” enshrined in the Fourth Amendment, the justices added.
The FBI arrested a man on Tuesday who was already facing first-degree murder charges when he stormed the Capitol on January 6. According to NBC News, the North Carolina man now faces felony charges of assaulting and impeding federal officers. He was first publicly identified last March by the Huffington Post, which found his mugshot online using facial recognition software and then confirmed his identity using his father’s Facebook page.
Video from the insurrection shows him poking at officers with an American flag, throwing a metal object at them, and seemingly give them the Nazi salute.
And here are a few more legal stories to watch, via Anna:
-- Poor and rural districts in Pennsylvania are suing to receive more federal funding, the Wall Street Journal reports.
-- UCLA will pay more than $243 million to women who alleged that they were sexually abused by a former school gynecologist.
-- Recommended read: “How to Lose a Supreme Court Nominee in 24 Days,” via Politico
All times Eastern.
President Joe Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 9:30 a.m. Then, at 10:45 a.m., he will travel to Virginia, touching down at 11:15 a.m. Once there, at 12:30 p.m., he will deliver remarks at Germanna Community College on his administration’s “work to lower health care costs, including prescription drug costs.”
While in Virginia, Biden will also sit for an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, continuing the presidential tradition of granting an interview to the network airing the Super Bowl. Parts of the interview will air on “NBC Nightly News” tonight, with the rest airing during the NBC pregame show on Sunday.
Biden will depart Virginia at 2:55 a.m. and arrive back at the White House at 3:25 p.m. Finally, at 4:45 p.m., Biden will host the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the White House to discuss the Supreme Court vacancy.
- Vice President Kamala Harris will also attend the meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats. At 7 p.m., she will participate in a virtual Lunar Near Year celebration hosted by the Democratic National Committee.
The Senate will convene at 10 a.m. Then, at around 11 a.m., the chamber will vote on passage of H.R. 4445, the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act, which would invalidate any contracts that require employees alleging sexual assault or harassment to go through an arbitration process. The bill, which passed the House this week, would give victims the option to publicly sue in court instead of participating in secretive arbitration proceedings.
At 11:45 a.m., the Senate will hold a cloture vote to advance the nomination of Max Vekich to be a Federal Maritime Commissioner. If cloture is invoked, the chamber will hold a confirmation vote on Vekich sometime at 1:45 p.m.
- The Senate Aging Committee will hold a 9:30 a.m. hearing on improving Medicare and Medicaid.
- The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold a 10 a.m. hearing on the health care worker shortage. The House is not in session.
- The House Democratic Caucus will hold a virtual messaging summit today. Per NBC News, former President Barack Obama will address the meeting, one of his few political appearances since leaving office.The Supreme Court is not in session.
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