7 min read

What Washington did this week

From a new oil drilling project to a gun control executive order, here’s what your government did this week.
What Washington did this week
An oil drilling project in Alaska. (Interior Department)

Good morning! It’s Friday, March 17, 2023. The 2024 elections are 599 days away.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day and congrats on making it to the end of the week. As always, we like to mark Friday here at Wake Up To Politics by giving you a sense of what your government is actually getting done behind closed doors, taking a look at the policy news out of Washington from the past week.

If you appreciate this weekly feature — as well as analyses like my pieces on the divides in the Republican Party and the Eric Garcetti confirmation fight this week — it’s always appreciated in turn if you’re able to support the newsletter.

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What Washington did this week

Here’s your weekly roundup of the policy developments in Washington:

  • Environment

President Biden angered liberals by signing off on the Willow Project, an $8 billion oil drilling venture in the federally-owned National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.

Biden’s move marked a reversal from his 2020 campaign promise: “No more drilling on federal lands,” he said at the time. “Period. Period. Period. Period.”

Per CNN, “by the administration’s own estimates, the project would generate enough oil to release 9.2 million metric tons of planet-warming carbon pollution a year – equivalent to adding 2 million gas-powered cars to the roads.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who has been lobbying for Willow’s approval for years, promised in a statement that the project would soon be “creating thousands of new jobs, generating billions of dollars in new revenues,” and “improving quality of life on the North Slope and across our state.”

Progressives are expected to sue over the decision, which Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) decried as “an environmental injustice.” At the same time as he approved Willow, Biden also sought to mollify his critics by formally ruling out future oil and gas leasing in the Arctic Ocean.

More: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first-ever federal limits on harmful per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water. More than 200 million Americans are estimated to have tap water contaminated with these “forever chemicals,” which increase the risk of testicular cancer, liver tumors, and other health problems.

The EPA also finalized a new regulation requiring states to sharply reduce the smog-causing pollution released from power plants. According to the agency, the rule will “improve air quality for millions of people living in downwind communities, saving thousands of lives, keeping people out of the hospital, preventing asthma attacks, and reducing sick days.”

  • Health care

Biden took a victory lap after the top three insulin producers in the U.S. — Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi — all announced plans to slash insulin prices for Americans with private insurance.

The president has been pushing the companies to make such a move; his Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year, capped the monthly price of insulin at $35, but only for Americans on Medicare.

  • War powers

In a bipartisan 68-27 vote, the Senate advanced a bill to repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs) against Iraq.

Although intended to greenlight the Gulf and Iraq Wars, the AUMFs technically remained in effect after those conflicts ended, allowing presidents of both parties to use them to legally justify ordering unrelated airstrikes in Iraq and Syria without congressional approval.

The White House also announced its support for the repeal effort this week.

  • Gun control

President Biden signed an executive order aiming to “move the U.S. as close to universal background checks as possible without additional legislation,” although it was light on substantive new actions.

With the order, Biden directed Attorney General Merrick Garland to clarify the legal definition of who is “engaged in the business” of selling firearms, hoping to close unspecified loopholes that might exist in the background check system.

Garland was also directed to develop a plan to prevent firearms dealers whose federal licenses have been revoked from continuing to sell weapons.

  • Border

The House was on recess this week, but Republicans in the chamber held their second hearing in south Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border. As with the first hearing, Democrats refused to attend.

On the ground: Breyer on the Dobbs leak, confirmations, and more

(Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

Former Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer spoke at Georgetown on Thursday, participating in a moderated conversation with Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin. Here are some highlights:

  • Breyer said he doesn’t believe the person who leaked the first draft of the majority opinion in Dobbs will ever be found, noting that the Supreme Court doesn’t have a “CIA-type operation” to investigate.
  • Without speculating on who the leaker was (or their intent), Breyer also said that he believe the leak had the effect of “freezing” the conservative justices in their stance to overrule Roe.  
  • The Clinton appointee revealed that he watches Fox each day at 5 p.m. while he works out — and sometimes talks back to the TV. “I have to hear them, but they can’t hear me,” he joked.
  • Although sticking to his trademark moderate style, Breyer let the veil drop at times and expressed exasperation with his conservative former colleagues. “Oh, God,” he said at one point when asked to explain his objections to originalism.
  • Later, he dismissed the so-called “Major Questions” doctrine the court has used to strike down regulations. “Justices can [add] as many capital letters as they want, but that doesn’t mean there’s a special capital letter power,” he complained.

Circling back.

Every once in a while, I like to revisit previous newsletters and offer an update on new developments:

This piece, which offered a defense of the polling industry’s performance in the 2022 elections, received quite a bit of feedback at the time. Still, whenever I post polls in the newsletter, I inevitably receive emails from readers asking why I still trust the polls.

Well, here’s why. FiveThirtyEight dug into the data this week, and here’s what they found: “The polls were more accurate in 2022 than in any cycle since at least 1998, with almost no bias toward either party.” Their full piece is worth reading.

Politico’s Playbook tugged on this same thread on Wednesday, writing: “We’re barely into the 2024 Senate cycle, and already some Republicans are feeling a sense of deja vu.”

Most notably, as their piece flagged, losing Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano is mulling a run for the Senate in 2024 — and even leading the GOP establishment’s preferred pick for the seat, Dave McCormick, in one poll.

Two other developments I’d note: In my original piece, I wrote about the Michigan Republican Party selecting a far-right election denier as its chair. The Colorado GOP recently followed in its footsteps, electing a chair who once attempted to have his name appear as “Dave ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ Williams” on a ballot.

In another lesson-not-learned, the House GOP has also stepped up its messaging around January 6th, launching a probe this week of the Democratic-led select committee that investigated the Capitol riot. (Kevin McCarthy also recently reignited conversations about the riot by handing security footage from the day to Tucker Carlson.)

It is unclear that any renewed focus on January 6th would provide an electoral boon for Republicans.


White House

President Biden will host Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) H.E. Leo Varadkar at the White House, an annual St. Patrick’s Day tradition.

Biden will meet with Varadkar, then both will attend the annual Friends of Ireland Caucus St. Patrick’s Day Luncheon at the Capitol, followed by the traditional Shamrock presentation at the White House. Later tonight, Biden will travel to Wilmington, Delaware, where he will spend the weekend.

Vice President Harris will host Varadkar for breakfast at the vice presidential residence and join Biden for the Shamrock presentation.


The House and Senate are not in session.


The Supreme Court will meet for its weekly conference.

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Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe