9 min read

What Washington did this week

The House contends with “the sturdy ox of legislation.” Plus: the FDA approves over-the-counter birth control and more.
What Washington did this week
“The sturdy ox of legislation.” (DALL-E)

Good morning! It’s Friday, July 14, 2023. The 2024 elections are 480 days away.

I hope you all had a great week. We covered a lot of ground in WUTP this week, from an explainer on NATO expansion to an analysis of the GOP primary to an overview of Supreme Court ethics law.  

Now, like every Friday, I want to close out the week by taking you inside the halls of government and walking through some of the most important policy actions that took place this week.

I’ve also been taking a moment every Friday to ask you for your support, either by donating to WUTP, setting up a recurring donation, or encouraging your friends to subscribe. I can’t tell you how lucky I’ve felt this summer to be working full-time on something that I love, a privilege I don’t take for granted.

In turn, I hope you’ve noticed a continual improvement in the quality of the newsletter and feel that I’ve made your support up to you by helping broaden your understanding of our politics and our political system. None of this would be possible without your readership and support.

OK, enough about me. Let’s get to what you came here for: a look at the substantive policy news you should know from this week...

One big thing: “The sturdy ox of legislation”

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is one of Congress’ longest-running legislative traditions. At a time when lawmakers have stopped taking part in many major national debates, they’ve continued to work together to pass the NDAA on an annual basis, every year since 1961.

While the Defense Department — like other agencies — is funded through the annual appropriations process, it’s the NDAA that sets the policies under which the Pentagon spends that funding, from outlining top defense priorities to adjusting service member salaries. The package is seen as Congress’ main opportunity to put an imprint on national security policy; because it is one of the few pieces of legislation that legislators know will pass each year (and that involves a more open amendment process), they often use it as a vehicle to pass any number of pet projects.

The NDAA process generally plays out on a bipartisan basis: “The NDAA may well be the last vestige of traditional legislating of the sort we learned about in school,” former House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX), for whom the 2021 NDAA was named, wrote in a Harvard paper, referring to the NDAA as “the sturdy ox of legislation.”

Indeed, this year’s NDAA started out on a conciliatory note, with the House Armed Services panel passing its version last month in a 58-1 vote. The $886 billion package includes bipartisan priorities like raising military pay by 5.2%, reducing service member childcare fees, creating new programs for AI innovation, and taking steps to counter China. However, the package took a turn after reaching the House floor this week, as Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) bowed to pressure from conservatives to allow a number of right-wing amendments to be tacked on.

When the House votes on the full NDAA today, here are some of the amendments that will be included:

  • A provision blocking the Pentagon’s policy of reimbursing service members who have to travel to obtain abortions because of where they are based. (Passed 221-213)
  • A provision eliminating the Defense Department Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (Passed 214-213)
  • A provision barring the military health care plan from covering gender-transition surgeries and medications. (Passed 222-210)
  • A provision prohibiting Defense Department schools from teaching critical race theory. (Passed 227-201)

Some other right-wing proposals were defeated, including an 89-341 rejection for an amendment from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) that would have stricken the $300 million authorized for Ukraine aid in the package.

In protest of the conservative add-ons, House Democrats plan to vote against the full package today, a change from the typically bipartisan NDAA votes of the past. “What was once an example of compromise and functioning government has become an ode to bigotry and ignorance,” House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-WA) said in a statement.

The minority-party opposition will create a tight margin for McCarthy: if all Democrats vote against the legislation, he can only afford four defections from his own ranks to pass the package. Some moderate Republicans have expressed frustration with McCarthy’s inclusion of conservative demands — while some right-wing members, like Greene, are upset that amendments weren’t approved going far enough on Ukraine and other issues.

No matter what happens today, there is little chance that the NDAA that eventually becomes law — assuming one does, for the 62nd straight year — will mirror the one being voted on by the House. Any final package will also have to receive approval from the Senate, where a less divisive process is playing out.

The Senate Armed Services Committee passed its version of the NDAA by a vote of 24-1; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Thursday that he plans to work with his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), this weekend to sketch out a bipartisan amendment process. The Senate is set to hold its first votes on the NDAA on Tuesday.

More policy news to know

  • The Food and Drug Administration approved the oral contraceptive Opill to be sold over-the-counter, the first time a birth control pill will be made available without a prescription in the United States. The pill is expected to be on pharmacy shelves by early 2024, significantly expanding access to contraception across the country.
  • The Federal Trade Commission is investigating OpenAI over whether its popular ChatGPT program has harmed consumers by publishing false information about some people. The news comes as several high-profile court losses have raised questions about FTC chair Lina Khan’s crusade against Big Tech companies.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new regulation setting steeper requirements for lead-based paint dust to be removed from homes and childcare facilities built before 1978. After completing the rulemaking process, the EPA estimates that the regulation will reduce the lead exposures of approximately 250,000 to 500,000 children under age six each year.
  • The Centers for Disease Control unveiled a “bridge access program” that will keep vaccines free for the 25-30 million uninsured adults in the U.S. as the shots move to the commercial market this fall. The program is meant to be only temporary, with a scheduled stop date in December 2024.

Here’s what else I’m watching:

Warning signs for DeSantis.

As Ron DeSantis’ poll numbers continue to spiral downward, he received two new signs this week of crumbling support from the media and financial titans that once bolstered his campaign:

  • Per the New York Times, the influential conservative media properties owned by Rupert Murdoch — Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the New York Post — have started to sour on DeSantis. Murdoch himself has reportedly begun considering whether Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) wouldn’t be a better Trump alternative.
  • Per Politico, a number of top Republican donors are also looking in another direction. Billionaire businessman Ronald Lauder, a top backer of DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaign, recently met with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), one of several wealthy Republicans giving Scott a second look as DeSantis falters.

On the other hand: An Iowa state senator who previously endorsed Trump has flipped to supporting DeSantis after the former president’s attacks on Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA).

Democrats fret about Biden.

More than two months after announcing his re-election bid, President Biden’s 2024 campaign still has no finance director, no headquarters, and no staff on the ground in competitive states.

CNN reports that the slow start has led some top Democrats to reach out to other possible presidential candidates, warning them to prepare for the possibility Biden won’t follow through with his campaign:

Get ready, they urge, in conversations that aides to several of the people involved have described to CNN: Despite what he has said, despite the campaign that has been announced, President Joe Biden won’t actually be running for reelection. They feel like time is already running out and that the lack of the more robust campaign activity they want to see is a sign that his heart isn’t really in it.

A key test of Biden’s fledgling campaign will come on Saturday, when candidates will be required to release their second-quarter fundraising numbers. In the same quarter in 2011, Barack Obama’s re-elect raised $86 million — the number Biden will be judged against in Democratic circles.

On the other hand: Biden’s campaign is brushing off the bedwetting, pointedly noting that the president has been underestimated by his own party many times before. The White House is also feeling emboldened after a week of both domestic and international successes, as wage growth outpaced inflation for the first time in 2+ years and Sweden moved towards admittance into NATO.

A DOJ paradox.

In a sharp piece, Politico notes the “bizarro-world” dynamic of the Biden Justice Department both prosecuting Donald Trump — while also shielding him from other lawsuits at the same time, in order to protect the institution of the presidency:

If the Justice Department were a private law firm, the conflict would be inherent. Lawyers can’t ethically advocate for a client who is simultaneously being sued or targeted by another division within the same firm... But when it comes to defending the office of the presidency itself, there is no firm other than the Justice Department.

More news to know.

1️⃣ A New York appeals court ordered a bipartisan redistricting commission to redraw the state’s congressional map on Thursday. The decision will be appealed to the state’s highest court — but, if it holds, the redrawing could tilt as many as six Republican-held seats in a Democratic direction. Along with the recent redistricting decisions by the Supreme Court, the move could boost Democratic odds of retaking the House, in a chamber currently controlled by a slim five-seat GOP majority.

2️⃣ Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced that he will oppose Julie Su, Biden’s nominee for Labor Secretary, due to “deep concerns” over her “more progressive background.” With no Republicans planning to support her, Su can only afford to lose one more Democratic vote to be confirmed.

3️⃣ Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, has testified before the federal grand jury probing Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. According to the New York Times, Kushner testified that it was his impression that Trump truly believed he had won the election — important testimony as prosecutors examine whether Trump was acting with corrupt intent and knew his efforts were based on a lie. Other witnesses have said that Trump was aware he lost to Biden.

4️⃣ If you voted in the 2018, 2020, and 2022 elections, you are in a distinct minority. Although 70% of Americans voted in at least one of those contests, only 37% of those eligible cast ballots in all three, according to new data from Pew Research Center. The data also includes fascinating demographic breakdowns from the 2022 vote, revealing that Republicans boasted a turnout advantage — but that Democrats performed better among independents.

Chart shows most Americans are not consistent voters
(Graphic by the Pew Research Center)

The day ahead.

President Biden has no public events scheduled today. He will receive his daily intelligence briefing in the morning and travel to Camp David in the afternoon.

Vice President Harris will travel to Coppin State University in Baltimore, Maryland, where she will deliver remarks on the Biden administration’s climate investments.

The Senate is off until Tuesday.

The House is expected to vote on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024.

On the campaign trail, six Republican presidential candidates — Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott — will attend a summit hosted by The FAMiLY Leader, a top evangelical group, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Each of the candidates will be interviewed on stage by Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News anchor who is now creating his own media company. Former President Donald Trump notably decided not to attend.

Also at the summit, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) will sign a new six-week abortion ban into law. The Iowa measure has quickly become a litmus test in the 2024 GOP field, with Pence announcing his enthusiastic support but Trump and DeSantis offering more tepid backing.  

Before I go...

One more policy change that happened this week, on the state level: It is no longer illegal for unmarried couples to live together in Michigan.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) signed a repeal of a 1931 state law that prohibited men and women from cohabitating while “lewdly and lasciviously” associating with each other.

The former law, which came with a penalty of up to one year in prison or a $1,000 fine, had not been enforced in decades. Just one more state now has an (also unenforced) ban on unmarried cohabitation on the books: Mississippi, where such behavior is punishable by a $500 fine and a six-month jail sentence.

Read more via Michigan Advance.

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