8 min read

What Washington did this week

Major defense legislation. An overhaul of the U.S. organ transplant system. Changes to mental health care and more from this week in Washington.
What Washington did this week
“Function and dysfunction in Washington” (DALL-E)

Good morning! It’s Friday, July 28, 2023. The 2024 elections are 466 days away.

It was another busy week here at Wake Up To Politics, bringing you analyses of the GOP field, an update on the Hunter Biden case, and more pieces at the intersection of politics and process, delving into how the government is funded and how the Republican delegate system benefits Trump.

As I’ve written before, an animating theme of this newsletter is function and dysfunction in Washington. Every Friday, I try to focus on the “function” end of that equation, peeling back the curtain to give you a look at what your elected representatives in Washington actually did this week. Contrary to popular narratives, a fair amount does get done in D.C. from week to week — but sometimes it can be hard to follow every twist and turn or understand their real-world impact.

I hope these Friday newsletters, and every newsletter, help you navigate our complex political system and make you a smarter, more-informed citizen. If you learn something from WUTP, I’m always grateful if you’re able to donate to support my work on a one-time or recurring basis. You can also help out by spreading the word about WUTP and encouraging your friends to subscribe.

Thanks so much for reading WUTP and for your support. I hope you have a fantastic weekend. And now, here’s what Washington got done this week:  

The legislative branch

Defense policy: The Senate passed its version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in an 86-11 vote last night. The $876.8 billion package, which sets military policy, would increase service-member pay by 5.2% (their largest pay raise since 2002), extend the Ukraine aid program through 2027, and step up U.S. military activities in the Indo-Pacific.

Besides a provision freezing hiring at the Pentagon’s diversity office, the Senate bill largely sidesteps the culture war provisions that led to a much narrower NDAA vote in the House. The Senate voted on amendments, too (more than in any year since 2008), but they were largely bipartisan measures to counter China and boost AI oversight. The House and Senate will now have to reconcile their two very different versions of the legislation in order to continue Congress’ 62-year streak of passing the NDAA across party lines.  

Appropriations: While authorization bills like the NDAA outline Congress’ vision for government programs, it is appropriations bills that actually provide the money for those programs to be carried out. The House voted yesterday to pass its first of the 12 annual appropriations bills, the $317.4 billion legislation greenlighting spending for military construction and veterans benefits. The MilCon-VA package, as it is known, passed in a 219-211 vote, after being loaded up with Republican amendments blocking the VA from offering most abortion services or gender-affirming care or flying Pride flags at its facilities.

Like the NDAA, the appropriations process is moving at a more bipartisan clip in the Senate. This week, the Senate Appropriations Committee sent its last of the 12 bills to the Senate floor, each of which received significant bipartisan support. It is the first time in five years that the Senate appropriations panel has voted on all 12 individual bills instead of combining them in an “omnibus” package drafted largely by party leadership.

Organ donations: Both chambers of Congress unanimously approved the U.S. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network Act, which would overhaul the nation’s organ transplant system. For nearly 40 years, the non-profit United Network for Sharing Organs (UNOS) has had a monopoly on the system, maintaining the sole federal contract to coordinate organ donations and the 100,000+ people on the waitlist.

In light of a Senate investigation exposing fatal UNOS errors that led to 70 deaths last year, the bill passed this week would authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to split control of the organ system among several entities and solicit bids from new for-profit and non-profit organizations as competition for UNOS. The measure now goes to President Biden’s desk.

More: The Senate may have only been in session for three days this week, but the chamber still found time to unanimously approve resolutions marking National Blueberry Month and honoring Tony Bennett. The chamber also voted unanimously for the House-passed resolution declaring that Israel is “not a racist or apartheid state.” The latter measure was a concurrent resolution, which means that it was approved by both chambers of Congress but does not require the president’s signature.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House approved a pair of Senate-passed resolutions overturning federal protections for two endangered species, the lesser prairie chicken (passed 221-206) and the northern long-eared bat (passed 221-209). Biden is expected to veto both measures.

The executive branch

Mental health: Amid a growing mental health crisis, three Cabinet departments announced new regulations aimed at strengthening enforcement of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, a bipartisan 2008 law that requires insurance companies to offer the same coverage for mental health care as they do for physical health care.

The law is frequently ignored by insurers; the regulations would require companies to report data analyzing their level of compliance with the law, while also closing a loophole that allowed companies to skirt the law when offering health coverage to state and local government employees. The regulations, which will go into effect after a 60-day comment period, would also forbid insurance companies from getting around the law by having few therapists available in-network and charging much higher rates for out-of-network mental health care than they do for physical health care.

Sexual assault in the military: Biden will sign an executive order today that will overhaul the military’s process for handling sexual assault cases, formally implementing changes passed in last year’s NDAA. The reforms will create a new Offices of Special Trial Counsel (OSTC), staffed by independent prosecutors who will decide whether to bring sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, and murder charges against service members.

Under the current system, military commanders have been empowered to make such decisions; last year, just 37% of military sexual assault allegations substantiated by investigations resulted in criminal charges. Per the New York Times, Biden’s order amounts to the “most significant changes to the modern military legal system since it was created in 1950.”

More: The Defense Department signed off on $400 million in additional Ukraine aid, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced an $85 million grant program for communities lacking affordable housing. Biden created his fourth national monument, honoring Emmett Till, and signed a bipartisan law requiring federal regulations to come with 100-word plain-English summaries.

Judicial Branch  

Energy: In a brief, unsigned order handed down yesterday, the Supreme Court allowed work to resume on the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline. The 303-mile pipeline, which is set to carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia, was approved in 2017 but has faced years of legal challenges from environmental groups. The Supreme Court’s order, which included no noted dissents, reverses a decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that had blocked work on the pipeline.

Immigration: A U.S. district judge in California struck down the Biden administration’s new asylum restrictions, which disqualify most migrants from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border if they haven’t set up an appointment online or sought protection from another country first.

Judge Jon Tigar, an Obama appointee, sided with immigrant rights groups in ruling that the restrictions violate the Administrative Procedure Act, the 1946 law that governs federal regulations and has tripped up many presidents before. The law prohibits regulations from being “arbitrary and capricious” and requires administrations to subject proposed rules to a public comment period; Tigar said the 30-day period for the asylum restrictions was not long enough to satisfy the requirements.  

The Biden administration, which has credited the new restrictions with sparking a sharp decrease in illegal border crossings, has already appealed the ruling, which will not go into effect for at least two weeks as it works its way through the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Jack Smith’s head fake.

Yesterday, as rumors mounted that Special Counsel Jack Smith was preparing to indict Donald Trump on January 6-related charges, I raced over to the federal courthouse in downtown Washington to survey the scene.

Inside, according to news reports, the grand jury investigating Trump had assembled — as had a group of law enforcement officials, who were meeting to prepare security measures ahead of a possible indictment. Across town, Smith was meeting with Trump’s defense lawyers and reportedly advised them to expect a D.C. indictment soon, although Trump denied that report.

Outside the courthouse, sweltering in record heat, reporters were hungry for any scrap of news they could get. Eventually, though, a deputy clerk informed reporters that no indictment would be coming that day.

Media trucks parked outside the D.C. federal courthouse on Thursday. (Gabe Fleisher)

Well, not in D.C., that is. As it turned out, while the nation’s eyes were on the Prettyman courthouse in Washington, Smith filed a new superseding indictment against Trump in the ongoing classified documents case in Florida.  

Smith filed three new charges against Trump, accusing the ex-president of conspiring with two employees — his co-defendant Walt Nauta and a new co-defendant, Carlos De Oliveria — to attempt to delete Mar-a-Lago security footage that had been subpoenaed by prosecutors.

Trump also received a new Espionage Act charge, accusing him of illegally keeping a classified “presentation concerning military activity in a foreign country” after leaving office. That document is reportedly the same Iran attack plan Trump has been accused of showing to people without security clearance in a recorded conversation. Trump has claimed that he did not actually have the document and was merely pretending in the recording, a claim that would seem to be undercut by the new charge.  

More news to know.

Lawmakers from both parties have condemned Wisconsin Rep. Derrick Van Orden after reports that the Republican cursed out a group of Senate pages lying on the Capitol rotunda floor taking pictures. Van Orden has refused to apologize for calling the high school students “lazy shits” and telling them to “get the fuck up.”

Senate Republicans are privately expressing worries about Mitch McConnell after the GOP leader froze at a press conference this week. Several GOP senators told NBC News anonymously that they have noticed changes in the 81-year-old McConnell since he sustained a concussion in a fall earlier this year.

In other gerontocracy news: California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 90, appeared confused during a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting on Thursday. Feinstein had to be prompted three times when her name was called to vote on a $832 billion defense appropriations bill; after a long pause, the longtime Democratic senator began to read from prepared remarks instead of casting her vote. “Just say aye,” chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) could repeatedly be heard telling her, until Feinstein stopped reading and complied.  

The day ahead.

At the White House: President Biden will deliver remarks at a manufacturing plant in Auburn, Maine, on his “Bidenomics” agenda and the country’s recent manufacturing boom. Later, he will attend a campaign fundraiser in Freeport, Maine, before heading to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for the weekend.

In Congress: Both chambers of Congress are off until September.

On the campaign trail: Most major Republican presidential candidates will speak at the Iowa Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Dinner fundraiser in Des Moines, Iowa. Donald Trump, who has skipped several Iowa cattle calls, will be there, along with Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy, Asa Hutchinson, Larry Elder, and Perry Johnson.

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe