9 min read

12 things Washington did this week

A new summer lunch program. A bill for working dogs. Expanding the definition of employee. And more from this week in Washington
12 things Washington did this week
(Illustration by DALL-E)

Good morning! It’s Friday, January 12, 2024. The 2024 elections are 298 days away. The Iowa caucuses are three days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Happy Friday. I hope you’re enjoying this brief respite before we jump into full-on campaign mode with the caucuses this coming Monday (!) in Iowa.

For those of you who are new around here, I like to set aside Friday’s newsletter to highlight (almost) everything the federal government did in the past week — from the big stuff to the lower-profile, quietly consequential bills and actions.

I also try to give a special focus to whatever instances of bipartisanship might have taken place in the past week. (Yes, there’s still bipartisanship in Washington, despite what you might have been told!) This week, there are three big areas I want to direct your attention to:

#1: Spending negotiations. The week started with an apparent win for bipartisan governance, when House Speaker Mike Johnson (R) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) announced a deal on topline funding levels on Sunday. The two men agreed for the government to spend $1.59 trillion in Fiscal Year 2024 (which technically started in October): $886 billion on defense programs and $704 billion on non-defense programs.

If those numbers sound familiar, that’s because they’re the same ones President Biden and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed to in May. (Then McCarthy tried to break the deal to please his right flank, then he was ousted by his right flank, and now Johnson has brought us right back to where we were eight months ago.)

However, by Thursday, the deal appeared to be unraveling. After conservatives tanked a routine vote to protest the agreement, Johnson met with right-wing members who claim he told them he would revisit the numbers. Johnson denies this, so it’s a bit unclear where we stand. It is very unlikely Democrats would agree to revisit a deal they just inked less than a week ago, especially when Johnson has no leverage and no control over his members.

Meanwhile, government funding will begin to expire on January 19. Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate agree that a(nother) stopgap funding bill will be needed to avoid a partial shutdown; Schumer took the first procedural step towards filing a continuing resolution on Thursday.

#2: Border negotiations. Sens. James Lankford (R-OK), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) have been working for several weeks now to strike a deal that would enact new border restrictions in exchange for tens of billions of dollars in aid to Israel and Ukraine. Lankford said Sunday that an accord would “hopefully” be finalized this week; those hopes did not come to fruition.

The biggest snag appears to be over parole authority. Parole is a tool used by the government to temporarily grant migrants permission to enter the U.S. for humanitarian reasons; the Biden administration has used it expansively to admit more than 500,000 Ukrainian, Afghan, and Latin American migrants into the country. Republican are pushing for an explicit cap on how many people the president can allow into the U.S. with parole; Democrats oppose any restrictions on the authority whatsoever.

On other areas, though, the negotiators seem to have made progress. According to the Washington Post, they are nearing agreement on “limiting asylum claims, allowing quick expulsions at the border when crossings are particularly high, and speeding up some types of deportations,” as well as other changes geared at stemming the flow of migrants. Speaker Johnson said this week that he is “cautiously optimistic” about a deal.

#3. Tax negotiations. Remember the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) from the 2021 Democratic stimulus package? It was a tax credit, made available as a monthly payment of up to $300, given to families regardless of income tax liability. (Families who don’t earn enough to pay income tax don’t receive full benefits under the standard CTC.) The payments were credited with helping cut the child poverty rate almost in half, but when they expired at the end of 2021, Congress opted not to renew them.

Now the expanded CTC might be revived as part of a $70 billion deal being brokered by Senate Finance Committee chair Ron Wyden (D-OR) and House Ways and Means Committee chair Jason Smith (R-MO). The agreement is expected to again temporarily expand the CTC so that families who don’t pay income tax receive the full benefits. In exchange, Senate Democrats are prepared to temporarily preserve a suite of Trump-era corporate tax cuts. (Many House Democrats don’t seem to be on board, however.)

Both the CTC expansion and the corporate tax cuts would expire in 2025, when a larger rewriting of the tax code is expected to take place as other Trump-era tax changes lapse. The cost of the Wyden-Smith deal is poised to be split evenly between the CTC expansion and the tax cuts for businesses.


OK, that’s your update on bipartisanship. I’ll have more details for you on all three of those agreements if/when they’re finalized. For now, let’s zoom out a bit more and look at what else your leaders in Washington managed to get done this week:

Biden administration

1. The Agriculture Department announced that 35 states will participate in a new program to combat children’s hunger while school is out during the summer. The initiative will provide low-income families with $120 per child to buy food over the summer. According to the department, nearly $2.5 billion in benefits are expected to be distributed, benefiting almost 21 million children. 15 states — all led by Republican governors — declined to join the program. (The announcement)

2. The Labor Department finalized a rule that will require companies to treat many gig workers as employees instead of independent contractors. As the Washington Post notes, the distinction is important because employees receive benefits like “the right to the minimum wage, overtime pay, unemployment insurance and Social Security benefits,” while contractors do not. The regulation, which could face legal challenges from Uber, Lyft, and other impacted companies, is set to take effect in March. (The rule)

3. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) signed off on allowing investors to buy or sell bitcoin as easily as they do stocks. The SEC approved the creation of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) for bitcoin; ETFs allow investors to trade on the performance of an asset, such as a class of stocks, a precious metal like gold, or — as of this week — a cryptocurrency.

With the decision — which the SEC has resisted for more than a decade — investors no longer have to use dedicated crypto exchanges to trade bitcoin; they can now do so on traditional stock exchanges. 11 bitcoin ETFs were quickly set up after the decision, including by prominent firms like BlackRock and Fidelity, generating more than $3.5 billion worth of trades on their first day. (The decision)

4. The Federal Aviation Administration opened an investigation into whether Boeing failed to meet federal safety standards when manufacturing its 737 Max 9 planes. The probe comes after a panel blew off one of the jets mid-flight, leaving a hole in the aircraft. (The investigation)

5. The Environmental Protection Agency launched a major initiative to replace diesel-powered school buses with clean energy alternatives. Using money from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, the agency divvied out more than $950 million to 280 school districts across the country, which will fund 2,700 electric, natural gas and propane-powered buses. Meanwhile, the Transportation Department divvied out $623 million in grants to fund electric vehicle chargers across the country. (The funding)

6. The Education Department announced $6.4 million in grants to increase access to mental health services at seven U.S. school districts. The funding comes from the bipartisan 2022 gun control law. (The announcement)

Senate

7. The Senate confirmed two district court nominees, by votes of 51-48 and 83-14. Biden has now added 168 judges to the federal bench. (The votes)

8. The Senate failed to override Biden’s veto of a measure that would have blocked an administration rule requiring financial institutions to report the race, ethnicity and gender of small business owners they loan money to. The regulation, known as the 1071 rule, has currently been put on hold by federal court pending the Supreme Court’s ruling on a challenge to the CFPB’s constitutionality. (The vote)

9. The Senate unanimously passed a bill to improve conditions for the 5,000 dogs working for the federal government, in response to a GAO report outlining neglect and abuse. Under the measure, agencies would be required to provide the canines with emergency medical care, food and water, exercise, and rest. (The bill)

House

10. The House passed a resolution to block a Biden administration policy that waives “Buy America” requirements so that federal funds can be used to purchase electric vehicle chargers that aren’t manufactured using U.S.-produced steel and iron. The resolution, which previously passed the Senate, will now be sent to Biden, who will likely veto it. The vote was along party lines, except two Democrats supported it and two Republicans opposed it. (The resolution)

11. The House passed the Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act, which would block the Justice Department from entering into settlement agreements that direct money to non-governmental groups. The tactic has been used in the past to direct money to environmental groups in pollution cases. The bill was approved along party lines. (The bill)

12. The House Oversight and Judiciary Committees both approved resolutions recommending Hunter Biden be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena to offer closed-door testimony last month.

Both panels approved the resolutions along party lines. If the resolutions are passed by the full House, it will be up to the Justice Department — which reports to Biden’s father — to decide whether to prosecute the First Son. Biden unexpectedly appeared at the Oversight Committee meeting as lawmakers were debating the resolution. (The resolution)

As always, if you like this feature — and especially if you learned something about your government — I hope you’ll consider donating to WUTP on a one-time or recurring basis so I can continue putting it together for free each week.


More news to know.

Hunter Biden, seen here with his sister in 2021. (Defense Department)

In the courts: Closing statements came to an end Thursday in New York’s civil fraud case against Donald Trump and his company. Judge Arthur Engoron already ruled in September that Trump had committed fraud; the trial that just ended was to decide what the penalty will be. New York has requested a penalty of $370 million.

Trump briefly spoke during the closing statements, unleashing a string of insults against the judge, who scolded Trump’s attorneys (“Control your client!”) and cut him off. Engoron’s decision is expected by the end of the month. Read more

  • Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Hunter Biden pleaded not guilty to nine felony and misdemeanor tax charges. A tentative trial date of June 20 was set. Biden also faces federal charges in Delaware for lying on a gun form. Read more

Around the world: The U.S. and British militaries carried out strikes against more than 60 Houthi targets in Yemen on Thursday, retaliating against the Iranian-backed militant group for its recent attacks on ships in the Red Sea. Read more

  • Taiwan is set to vote Saturday in a presidential election with potentially vast consequences. Lai Ching-te, the current vice president who opposes Chinese intervention in Taiwan, faces off against Hou Yu-ih, a mayor who is more friendly to Beijing. China’s decisionmaking on whether to invade Taiwan — as well as U.S. ties to the island — could hang in the balance. Read more

At the Pentagon: The Defense Department inspector general opened an investigation into the lack of transparency surrounding Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent hospitalization, which was kept from both the White House and the public for several days. Read more


The day ahead.

Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2022. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Biden will travel to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he will visit several small businesses to highlight his economic agenda.

Vice President Harris has nothing on her public schedule.

The House will vote on a measure to overturn a Biden administration regulation expanding the definition of “joint employers,” which will force more businesses operating together to recognize and bargain with unions. The chamber may also vote on a bill calling for the U.S. to advocate for increased exchange rate transparency from China.

The Senate is out until Tuesday.

The Supreme Court will meet for its weekly conference.


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— Gabe