House News, Transportation

Would-be ban on first class air travel for members of Congress vetoed

An amendment on a bill that would have prohibited members of Congress from using taxpayer money to buy first class seating on airplanes has been tabled.

The House of Representatives’ Rules Committee on Monday declined to bring the amendment (which was to be attached to a bill appropriating money to Congressional operations) to the House floor. The amendment was proposed by two Republicans (Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona) and a Democrat (Rep. Gwen Graham of Florida).

According to a statement posted on his website, Rep. Blum said House members don’t need “perks like first class travel to do our job.” Below is the full statement:

“This is not a partisan issue: members of the House of Representatives don’t need special taxpayer funded perks like first class travel to do our job. By adopting this amendment, the House can take a concrete step towards showing the American people that we are serious about good stewardship of taxpayer money — while holding ourselves accountable at a time when approval ratings for Congress remain near all time lows.”

Rep. Gosar also made his feelings known with the following tweet:

It turns out this isn’t the first time the three representatives have tried to curb the use of taxpayer money to buy first class seats on airplanes.

According to The Hill, Rep. Gosar and Democratic representative Raul Ruiz of California proposed a bill earlier this month called the COACH (Coach-Only Airfare for Capitol Hill) Act. As the carefully-crafted name implies, the bill would have prevented lawmakers and their staffs from using money from taxpayers to secure first class seats on flights. However, it would have allowed for those lawmakers and staffers with to use public funds for such seats in the event of medical necessity. Reps. Gosar and Ruiz also were behind a bill proposed in 2014 titled “If Our Military Has to Fly Coach Then So Should Congress Act.”

Rep. Graham also introduced a similar bill a little earlier this year. This particular piece of legislation would have not only banned lawmakers from using public money for first class seats on flights, but also would have ended the use of those same funds for personal long-term car leases. That particular bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Blum.

According to The Hill, the amendment was not put up to a vote Monday because some on the Rule Committee doubted whether the abuse of such perks is a widespread issue.

“I don’t think members are going around buying first-class tickets,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts). “I just don’t think it’s a problem.”

Elections, White House 2016

Cruz announces presidential bid

The Grand Old Party has a brand new presidential candidate.

After reports surfaced late Sunday night that he would enter the race, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) officially launched his presidential campaign at a rally Monday morning in Virginia (the video of his speech can be seen above).

In his address, Sen. Cruz made an impassioned case for his mission aimed directly at the most conservative voters and members of the Republican party. The one-term senator said a potential Cruz administration, among other things, would seek a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the elimination of the IRS. Sen. Cruz also made his case that citizens need “to reclaim the Constitution of the United States” and encouraged conservative voters to “[rise] up and re-ignite the promise of America.”

(Photo by Getty Images)
(Photo by Getty Images)

In a nod to the conservative Christian/Evangelical sects of the party, Sen. Cruz also alluded to his desire to see pro-abortion and gay marriage laws scaled back. Cruz called for a defense of “the sanctity of human life and…the sanctity of marriage.” In the past, the senator has supported the Defense of Marriage Act and believes states should have the power to regulate if they want to allow abortions and to what extent.

The Texas senator has generated much controversy and anger from those on the left and even in his own party for his hardline conservative positions. Some on Capitol Hill have yet to forgive Sen. Cruz for his role in bring about a shutdown of the federal government two years ago, in which Cruz and other freshman Republican senators refused to fund the government without the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

(Editorial Note: THAB [yes, trying out this abbreviation of “To Hill and Back” for a bit] was actually in the middle of writing a piece on a potential Cruz campaign for the “Race to 45” series on presidential candidates. So expect that article, which will be more in-depth, on Sen. Cruz and other potential candidates in the coming days/weeks. Stay tuned.)

House News, News, Senate News, Spending/Taxes

Bill introduced that could lower interest on student loans

student-loan-default

A new bill introduced into Congress on Wednesday could give relief to millions of college graduates and their families (if passed, of course).

The bill- titled “The Bank of Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act”- would attempt to lower interest rates for a range of borrowers. Ivana Saric of DailyCal.org summarized the basic parameters of the bill nicely:

With the passage of the bill, certain existing undergraduate student loans could be refinanced down to a 3.86 percent annual interest rate, graduate student loans could be refinanced to 5.41 percent, and parent loans could be refinanced to 6.41 percent. This would save borrowers on average $2,000 per loan.

For reference, here are the current interest rates on student loans, as provided by StudentAid.ed.gov:

(Screenshot from StudentAid.ed.gov)
(Screenshot from StudentAid.ed.gov)

The bill was introduced on Capitol Hill by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) and Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney (D), and it is co-sponsored by over 100 other legislators (79 members of the House and 28 senators). In a statement released by his press office, Rep. Courtney said (in part):

Student debt—which surpassed $1 trillion last Congress—hinders our economy because it delays borrowers from major investments, including buying a home, starting a business, and saving for retirement. As higher education becomes more crucial than ever to secure a good-paying job, keeping college affordable must be a top priority in Washington.

According to Rep. Courtney’s statement, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that about $460 billion worth of current student loans would be eligible for refinancing if this proposal were to pass (which works out to about half of borrowers).

Sen. Warren introduced a similar bill in the Senate last September, but it was shot down by Republicans in the chamber. At the time, some members of the G.O.P. opposed the proposed bill because it would raise taxes on the wealthy through implementation of a 30% tax payment on income of people making $1-2 million (also known as the “Buffet Rule”). As of yet, it is not known if the latest version of the interest rate bill would be tied to the Buffet tax proposal.

Defense, Senate News

Senate confirms Ash Carter as Defense Secretary

Carter (Photo from Department of Defense)
Carter (Photo from Department of Defense)

In a 93-5 vote Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Ash Carter as the nation’s 25th Secretary of Defense.

Carter, 60, was nominated by President Obama in September of last year to replace outgoing Defense head Chuck Hagel, who reportedly was at odds with several members of the Obama administration concerning the plans to defeat ISIL in the Middle East.

Reaction on Capitol Hill to Carter’s confirmation was generally very positive:

And from Sen. John McCain’s (R-Arizona) speech on the Senate floor:

On Afghanistan, Dr. Carter told the committee he would consider revisions to the size and pace of the President’s drawdown plan if security conditions warranted. To achieve the success that is possible there, he urged the United States ‘continue its campaign and finish the job. Dr. Carter indicated he is very much inclined in the direction of providing defensive lethal arms to help Ukraine resist Russian aggression. He pledged to do more to streamline and improve the defense acquisition system that takes too long and costs too much. And Dr. Carter agreed it is time to roll back sequestration because ‘it introduces turbulence and uncertainty that are wasteful, and it conveys a misleadingly diminished picture of our power in the eyes of friends and foes alike.’

The new Secretary of Defense is returning to a familiar place, as he served as the Deputy Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013. Carter had also served in the Department of Defense going back to the first term of President Bill Clinton. He has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Yale University in 1976, and received his doctorate from Oxford in theoretical physics in 1979.

Analysis, Elections, White House 2016

Race to #45: Hillary Clinton

Ready for Hillary? (Photo by Gary Cameron of Reuters; photo from MSNBC.com)
Ready for Hillary? (Photo by Gary Cameron of Reuters; photo from MSNBC.com)

On Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, someone will raise their right hand, place their left hand on a Bible, and promise to uphold the Constitution as long as he or she serves as the 45th President of the United States. We obviously still have a long way to go before that moment happens, but potential players from both major parties are already starting to lay down foundations for possible runs to the White House. This series will profile some of those possible candidates and attempt to sift through the facts, fiction, and bias to show where each candidate really stands on the issues that matter to you- the citizen and voter- the most.

The first installment will discuss the person widely assumed (remember what happens when you assume?) to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination- Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Biography: Born Oct. 26, 1947 in Chicago, Ill.; Oldest of three children; married William Jefferson Clinton in 1975; Gave birth to the couple’s only daughter, Chelsea, in 1980; Became a grandmother in 2014

Education: Graduated in 1969 from Wellesley College; Graduate of Yale Law School, Class of 1973

Political Resume: Worked on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign; Served on the team that advised the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings in 1974; Worked for Jimmy Carter’s successful presidential bid in 1976; First Lady of Arkansas (1979-81, 1983-1992); First Lady of the United States (1993-2001); Led the 1993 Task Force on National Health Reform for President Clinton; Served as U.S. Senator from New York from 2000-2009; Selected by President Obama to be U.S. Secretary of State (2009-2013)

Where She Stands On: 

  • The economy/free trade
    • December 2007 debate (on if she would prioritize passing a balances federal budget each year): “Well, fiscal responsibility is a very high priority for me. We don’t have to go back very far in our history, in fact just to the 1990s, to see what happens when we do have a fiscally responsible budget that does use rules of discipline to make sure that we’re not cutting taxes or spending more than we can afford. I will institute those very same approaches. You can’t do it in a year. It’ll take time. But the economy will grow again when we start acting fiscally responsible. And then we can save money in the government by cutting out private contractors, closing loopholes, getting the health care system to be more efficient. We’ll do all of this at the same time, but the results will take awhile for us to actually see. “
    • January 2008 debate: “I regretted voting for the bankruptcy bill and I was happy that it didn’t get into law. By 2005, there was another run at a bankruptcy reform, motivated by the credit card companies and the other big lenders. I opposed that bill. There was a particular amendment that is very telling. It was an amendment to prohibit credit card companies from charging more than 30% interest. It was one of the biggest lobbyist victories on that very bad bill that the bankruptcy bill represented.”
  • Environment/energy
    • December 2007 debate: “I advocate a cap and trade system. What the auction of pollution permits is taking that money and invest in new technologies, new ways of getting to our objectives that I’ve outline inside my energy plan. I want to use some of it to cushion the costs tha will come on to the US consumer. It’s not just enough to tackle global warming, we’ve got to enlist the help of the next generation. My fifth grade teacher said it was to study math and science, but it gave me an idea of contributing to my country.”
  • Foreign policy
    • 2013 New York Magazine interview: “I thought it was essential that as we restore America’s standing in the world and strengthen our global leadership again, we needed what I took to calling ‘smart power’ to elevate American diplomacy and development and reposition them for the 21st century. That meant that we had to take a hard look at how both State and A.I.D. operated. I did work to increase their funding after a very difficult period when they were political footballs to some extent and they didn’t have the resources to do what was demanded of them.”
  • Immigration
    • From her 2014 book Hard Choices: “In 2009, more than 55 million Americans were immigrants or the children of immigrants. These first- or second-generation Americans were valuable links back tot heir home countries and also significant contributors to our own country’s economic, cultural, and political life. Immigration helped keep the US population young and dynamic at a time when many of our partners and competitors were aging. Russia, in particular, faced what President Putin himself has called a ‘demographic crisis.’ Even China, because of its ‘One Child Policy,’ was headed toward a demographic cliff. I only wish that the bipartisan bill passed the Senate in 2013 reforming our immigration laws could pass the House.”
    • According to OnTheIssues.org, then-Senator Clinton voted in 2006 to allow illegal immigrants to participate in Social Security and other social services, as well as to build a fence alongside the Mexican border.
  • Gun control
    • Wall Street Journal, May 2014: “”We’ve got to rein in what has become an almost article of faith that anybody can have a gun anywhere, anytime,” she said. “And I don’t believe that is in the best interest of the vast majority of people.”
    • April 2008 debate: “I respect the Second Amendment. I respect the rights of lawful gun owners to own guns, to use their guns, but I also believe that most lawful gun owners whom I have spoken with for many years across our country also want to be sure that we keep those guns out of the wrong hands.”

What Supporters Say: People who have supported Clinton in the past say her resiliency would make her a strong president, often pointing to the way she publicly handled the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990s. Other supporters say she has a leg up in reaching middle-income families when talking about the economy. The fact that she is a woman also seems to play a big factor in reasons why at least some people support her. Take a look at this March 2014 Gallup poll, which asked people what would be the best thing about Hillary Clinton occupying the Oval Office:

(Image from Gallup.com)
(Image from Gallup.com)

What Opponents Say: The area Clinton will likely be hit the hardest on (if she chooses to run) will be on foreign policy. She was the head of the state department during the deadly attack on the American embassy in Benghazi in 2012, and conservatives have routinely hit her hard on that security failure whenever an opportunity to do so presents itself. No matter what the actual facts are with Benghazi, Clinton and her team will surely spend much of their time addressing attacks and questions from the right relating to the matter. Her comments on her personal finances also seem like a sure bet to be brought up by Republicans as a way to portray her as out-of-touch with the needs and wants of average Americans.

Fundraising Ability: Democratic donors are apparently already lining up to give millions of dollars to a Clinton campaign. On the amount of money reportedly set to be given once the operation is a go, one donor was quoted as saying “it’s going to be like nothing you’ve seen.” If the past is any indication, Clinton would appear to have the support to back up such a lofty prediction. According to OpenSecrets.com (which tracks things such as political spending, re-election rates, voting numbers, etc.), then-Senator Clinton raised nearly $230 million by the end of May 2008 in her effort to secure the Democratic nomination for president. In spite of the lofty total, Clinton was left with over $20 million in debts after she left the race in June. Check out the table below, which shows how her fundraising efforts couldn’t keep up with what the campaign was spending over the last four quarters of the campaign (again, the table and stats are from OpenSecrets.org):

hillary funds

Likeliness of becoming party nominee: 75%*. This is assuming she runs (thus the asterisk). These odds are based more on a gut feeling rather than any complicated formula. Obviously a lot of unforeseen issues or scenarios can arise between now and primary season. It seemed everyone thought she would be the nominee in 2008, but then Barack Obama popped up from seemingly nowhere to claim the nomination. She seems to be the favorite for the Democrats right now, but that could change based on her performance and if she corrects her mistakes from 2008, as well as if other seemingly strong challengers such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vice President Biden, and others enter the fight.

(Writer’s Note: I have to say a big thank you to OnTheIssues.org, which tracks the positions and stances of American politicians. The site was a great help to me in writing this, especially with the quotes on various topics. I strongly recommend visiting the site to get a more in-depth look at the voting records and positions of politicians across a large variety of topics.)

Defense, House News, Senate News

Pres. Obama asks Congress to approve force against ISIL

President Obama speaking to military families in 2013 (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley)
President Obama speaking to military families in 2013 (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley)

In a letter sent to Capitol Hill Wednesday, President Obama has asked Congress to approve his request to use force against the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

According to the official AUMF (authorization for use of military force), the president is asking Congress to approve a plan that would allow military use against the group for up to three years, but would permit the U.S. military from putting actual boots on the ground. The AUMF also would require the president to give reports to Congress every six months regarding what specific actions have been taken against ISIL under the approval of the authorization (the official request can be found here).

The following is a portion of President Obama’s letter to request (as found on the White House website), where he details what approval of this AUMF would allow him to do:

My Administration’s draft AUMF would not authorize long‑term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our Nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Local forces, rather than U.S. military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations.  The authorization I propose would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership.  It would also authorize the use of U.S. forces in situations where ground combat operations are not expected or intended, such as intelligence collection and sharing, missions to enable kinetic strikes, or the provision of operational planning and other forms of advice and assistance to partner forces.

Shortly after the White House announced its request, the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) released a statement saying the president’s request falls short of “a robust authorization.” More below:

ISIL is at war with our country and our allies.  If we are going to defeat this enemy, we need a comprehensive military strategy and a robust authorization, not one that limits our options.  Any authorization for the use of military force must give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people.  While I believe an AUMF against ISIL is important, I have concerns that the president’s request does not meet this standard.  Now we will begin hearings and rigorous oversight so lawmakers and the public can provide their input.  Ultimately, our objective is to show the world that the United States is resolute in our commitment to destroy ISIL.

On the Senate side, majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said the Senate would review the president’s request “thoughtfully” and would seek the advise and consideration of military leaders. You can see Sen. McConnell’s full comments below from his YouTube channel (everyone has one nowadays it seems, don’t they?)

The request is the first formal presidential request to use military force sent to Congress since President George W. Bush asked and received permission back in 2002 to invade Iraq. According to Yahoo!News, there is no timetable as of yet for Congress to consider and approve President Obama’s request for authorization.

House News, Immigration

Dueling Pianos: President, Speaker battle over Immigration

This photo says it all about their working relationship, doesn't it? (Photo from OutsideTheBeltway.com)
This photo says it all about their working relationship, doesn’t it? (Photo from OutsideTheBeltway.com)

“You say yes/ I say no/you stay stop/ and I say go, go, go”

The Beatles were such a great band that they apparently could write a song in 1967 about American politics in the 21st century. Who knew?

Ever since President Obama announced his plans to allow millions of undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States through the use of executive action in November of last year, Congressional Republicans have bashed the action and have threatened to tie the funding for the immigration action to the finances of the Department of Homeland Security, which are scheduled to run out at the end of this month.

In recent days, the rhetoric coming from the White House and Republican leadership has increased (that increase is probably due to the president introducing his budget, which included the money to fund the executive action, to Congress last week). First, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hit the president’s action hard during a press conference last Tuesday. You can see it below (via the speaker’s YouTube account):

Not to be outdone, the White House released a video on its YouTube account of a meeting President Obama had with DREAMers. In the video, the president makes his case for why people like the DREAMers in the Oval Office that day should be allowed to stay in the country.

There you have it. The battle over immigration has spilled into cyberspace, and we’ll likely have more of these video battles in the weeks ahead. Or maybe the political duo will take the advice mentioned in another Beatles song:

“We Can Work It Out”