6 min read

What Washington did this week

Congress takes on real problems — and agrees to bipartisan solutions.
What Washington did this week
The gears of government keep turning. (DALL-E)

Good morning! It’s Friday, November 17, 2023. The 2024 elections are 354 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Congress will be off all next week for Thanksgiving — and so will Wake Up To Politics. I hope you all have a nice holiday; I am incredibly thankful for each and every reader of this newsletter. See you on Monday, November 27. 🦃

A lot of the news from Washington this week could fit into one of two categories: fight or flight.

There were the stories about several aggressive incidents on Capitol Hill: the former House speaker allegedly elbowing a colleague; the Oklahoma senator challenging a union boss to a fight.

And then, maybe as a result of those embarrassing flare-ups, there was a lot of reporting about the many lawmakers fleeing for the exits and announcing their retirements.

All of that deserves coverage — but not as much coverage, in my opinion, as the actual pieces of legislation working their way through Congress, which is what I try to focus on each Friday.

What I love about a lot of the bills in this week’s newsletter is that they are examples of what government can do at its finest: identify problems, and then fix them.

Problem: Many veterans are unable to access their personnel files. Problem: There is a deep backlog of untested rape kits. Problem: Some vets don’t know about the benefits available to them.

These problems may not be sexy or the cause of partisan debate, but they are real and they matter to a great many Americans. So I think it’s worth highlighting when lawmakers are able to agree on solutions to them — including across party lines. You’ll notice that every single piece of legislation mentioned in this newsletter was bipartisan.

With that, let’s look at what Washington got done this week:

Signed into law

A government shutdown was averted relatively painlessly last night, as President Biden signed the Further Continuing Appropriations and Other Extensions Act into law, one day before government funding was set to run out.

The measure — which passed 336-95 in the House and 87-11 in the Senate — will fund the Agriculture, Energy/Water, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, and Transportation/Housing and Urban Development appropriations bills through January 19. The other eight appropriations bills will be extended through February 2.

The “laddered CR” also extends a number of other key programs that were set to expire, including the farm bill (which authorizes agriculture programs and nutrition programs like food stamps) and the National Health Service Corps, and a key anti-terrorism authority that lapsed in July.

Biden also signed a pair of bipartisan bills to assist veterans. The Wounded Warrior Access Act will require that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) establish a secure online tool to allow veterans to request copies of their “C-File,” which contains all the important documents related to their military service.

Veterans need access to their C-Files to ensure they are getting the right VA benefits, but obtaining the file can take months — and often requires an in-person visit to the VA. Until now, some veterans had been forced to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for their own personal information; this law will finally give veterans an easy way to make the C-File request online.

The Korean American VALOR Act will grant full VA health benefits to veterans of the South Korean army who served alongside the U.S. in the Vietnam War and have since become naturalized U.S. citizens. The U.S. has long given similar benefits to veterans who served with allied countries during both World Wars; this bill will extend such health coverage to approximately 3,000 Korean-American vets.

Both veterans bills passed both chambers of Congress unanimously.

Passed by the House

The House unanimously passed the Debbie Smith Act of 2023, which would extend a program that seeks to address the “rape kit backlog” by providing funding for state and local governments to more speedily analyze DNA evidence collected at crime scenes, especially in cases of sexual assault.

The program is named for a Virginia woman who had to wait five years for her DNA evidence to be tested after being raped. Since the program’s creation in 2004, it has directly resulted in the processing of nearly 1.8 million DNA cases. This bill, a separate version of which has also passed the Senate, would extend funding for the program through 2029.

The House also unanimously passed the No Stolen Trademarks Honored in America Act, intervening in a long-running trademark dispute involving the rum company Bacardi. The dispute is over the trademark for “Havana Club,” a brand of rum which was originally sold by a family in Cuba before being seized and nationalized by the Castro government in 1960.

The family then gave the recipe to Bacardi, which sells “Havana Club” rum here in the U.S., while the Cuban government-backed company sells it everywhere else and continues to fight Bacardi for the U.S. trademark. Congress has gotten involved before, passing a law in 2008 known as the “Bacardi Act,” directing courts to protect the company’s rights to the U.S. trademark. That law has since been ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization (WTO); more recently, in 2016, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted the trademark to the Cuban government, as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to improve relations with Cuba.

But the story isn’t over. This new bipartisan bill — which technically applies to any trademarks confiscated by the Cuban government — fixes issues with the “Bacardi Act” to bring it in line with the WTO, and directs government agencies (not just courts) to side with the original trademark owner in such disputes.

Passed by the Senate

The Senate unanimously passed the Armenian Protection Act, which would prohibit the U.S. from giving security assistance to Azerbaijan, in response to the country’s September offensive in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is populated by ethnic Armenians.

Technically, this prohibition is already on the books: a 1992 law aiding other post-Soviet states specifically banned the U.S. from giving assistance to Azerbaijan. However, a post-9/11 law allowed the president to waive that prohibition, which every president since has done. This bipartisan Senate-passed bill would block presidents from issuing such waivers in the future.

The Senate also unanimously passed the Commitment to Veteran Support and Outreach Act, which aims to reverse VA under-enrollment by funding programs to inform veterans and their families about the benefits available to them.

Currently, out of 19 million veterans in the U.S., only about 9.6 million are enrolled in VA health care; other VA programs see similarly low levels of enrollment.

Executive actions

Finally, let’s run through some Biden administration actions from the week:

  • President Biden inked agreements with Chinese president Xi Jinping to reopen communications between their two militaries and crack down on fentanyl. The U.S. and China — the world’s two biggest polluters — also made joint commitments on climate change, with China promising for the first time to try to curb all greenhouse gas emissions, not just carbon dioxide.
  • The Federal Communications Commission adopted new regulations prohibiting broadband companies from discriminating on the basis of income, race, or ethnicity, in an attempt to bridge the “digital divide.” The agency called the move — which was authorized by the bipartisan infrastructure package — the country’s first digital civil rights policy.
  • Biden announced $6 billion in funding to improve America’s climate resiliency, including to modernize the U.S. electric grid to be able to withstand exterme weather.
  • The U.S. and Indonesia elevated their relationship to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” a higher level of diplomatic ties.
  • Biden announced the first Muslim appeals court nominee in U.S. history.

More news to know.

Ethics report finds Santos used campaign funds to pay for OnlyFans, Botox, Sephora / NPR

For Biden, a subtle shift in the power balance with China’s Xi Jinping / NYT

Supreme Court says Florida can’t enforce anti-drag law / CNN

FDIC Chair, known for temper, ignored bad behavior in workplace / WSJ

New York judge lifts the gag order that barred Trump from maligning court staff in fraud trial / AP

Eric Adams attended nearly 80 events celebrating Turkey / Politico

The day ahead.

President Biden is in San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. He will meet with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and host the APEC Leaders Retreat, before departing for Delaware later this afternoon.

Vice President Harris is in Los Angeles. She has no public events scheduled.

The House and Senate are on recess.

The Supreme Court will meet for its weekly conference.

Before I go...

Here’s something that made me smile this week: Comedian Leslie Jones meeting her election nerd crush, NBC political guru (and Friend of the Newsletter) Steve Kornacki...

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— Gabe