5 min read

6 things the government did this week

6 things the government did this week
Illustration by DALL-E

Good morning! It’s Friday, February 23, 2024. Election Day is 256 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

If it’s Friday, it’s time to look at government dysfunction: what lawmakers and bureaucrats in Washington are actually getting done with their taxpayer-funded time.

Congress was on recess all week, so this edition will focus on the executive branch — but I also like to use these issues to spotlight legislative bipartisanship when I can, so let’s do a bit of that before we dive in:

* Reining in Big Tech, especially in the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence, continues to be one of the main areas to watch for bipartisan action on the Hill. On the Senate side, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has been working with Sens. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Todd Young (R-IN) on a series of “insight forums” to work towards an AI bill — although no legislation has emerged from their efforts yet.

They got their House counterparts this week when House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) unveiled an AI task force, a 12-member group charged with putting together bipartisan policy proposals on the issue. The task force will be led by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Jay Obernolte (R-CA), the only member of Congress with a master’s degree in AI.

* A related bipartisan crusade is the fight in the Senate to protect children from harms posed by social media, which was the focus of a recent hearing with the CEOs of Meta, X, and TikTok. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) recently released a new version of their Kids Online Safety Act, which would require that digital platforms turn on their highest privacy protections by default for minors, allow minors to opt out of algorithms that lead to compulsive app usage, refrain from advertising age-restricted products to minors, and allow parents to see and change their children’s privacy settings.

The measure now has filibuster-proof support from 62 Democratic and Republican senators, including Schumer.

* Finally, lawmakers will return to the Capitol next week with two priorities — funding the government and aiding Ukraine and Israel — that almost certainly would attract bipartisan majorities, as long as they can reach the House floor.

The clock to fund the government is ticking, with four appropriations bills expiring on March 1 and the other eight lapsing on March 8. Congressional leaders are expected to announce a bipartisan spending deal as early as Sunday, although the House Freedom Caucus is already making noise that they will oppose it without a raft of conservative policy riders.

Meanwhile, members on both sides of the aisle are still searching for a way to get Ukraine aid through; Democrats are moving towards using a discharge petition, which guarantees any bill a vote on the House floor if it is signed by a majority of members. Per Axios, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) has also begun floating a proposal to protect Speaker Johnson from a motion to vacate in exchange for Johnson allowing a floor vote on Ukraine.

And now, here’s what the executive branch did this week:

1. The Education Department cancelled $1.2 billion in federal student loan debt for almost 153,000 long-term, low-balance borrowers. The cancellation was the first loan forgiveness executed under the Biden administration’s Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) Plan, which erases federal student loan balances for those who originally borrowed $12,000 or less and have been making payments for at least 10 years.

The SAVE Plan is the centerpiece of a number of steps Biden has taken to relieve student loan debt after the Supreme Court overturned his original plan last year. Per the New York Times, the patchwork initiatives have wiped out $138 billion in debt for 3.9 million borrowers, compared to the $400 billion in debt that would have been cancelled for 43 million borrowers under his initial proposal. The Biden administration cites the Higher Education Act of 1965 as giving it authority to enact the SAVE Plan.

2. The Treasury and State Departments imposed more than 500 new sanctions against Russian targets, in response to the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “These sanctions will target individuals connected to Navalny’s imprisonment as well as Russia’s financial sector, defense industrial base, procurement networks and sanctions evaders across multiple continents,” Biden said in a statement. “They will ensure Putin pays an even steeper price for his aggression abroad and repression at home.”

3. Biden signed an executive order giving the Coast Guard expanded authority to respond to cybersecurity threats against U.S. ports. The Coast Guard also issued a directive requiring minimum cybersecurity standards for computer systems that operate ports, and took steps to impose even higher security requirements for Chinese-made cranes that are used to lift ships at strategic seaports. Nearly 80% of the ship-to-shore cranes currently used at U.S. ports are made by ZPMC, a Chinese manufacturer, which the Pentagon views as a potential threat to national security.

Alongside the executive order, the administration also announced a $20 billion investment in domestic crane production, to reduce reliance on ZPMC. That money will come from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package. U.S. ports employ about 31 million people and contribute $5.4 trillion to the economy, making a cyberattack against one of them potentially catastrophic.

4. The Commerce Department signed a deal with semiconductor manufacturer GlobalFoundries to provide $1.5 billion in funding to upgrade and expand chip factories in New York and Vermont. The money comes from the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act; it is the largest grant disbursed yet under the 2022 law.

5. The EPA announced $5.8 billion in funding to upgrade America’s decaying water infrastructure. $2.6 billion of the money will go to wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, while the remaining $3.2 billion will go to drinking water infrastructure. The money, which comes from the 2021 infrastructure package, will be distributed in varying sizes to every U.S. state and territory through an existing EPA program.

6. First Lady Jill Biden announced $100 million in federal funding for women’s health research, the first major action taken by the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research, which she launched last year. The money will come from the coffers of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), which was created by the 2022 bipartisan omnibus package.

Do you appreciate this weekly focus on what the government’s getting done? If so, I hope you’ll consider donating to help ensure WUTP can continue to be sent, free for all.

More news to know.

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden will deliver remarks to the nation’s governors, who are in town for the National Governors Association Winter Meeting. VP Harris will also be on hand.

Congress: Both chambers of Congress are on recess.

Supreme Court: The justices will meet for their weekly conference.

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