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The Rules change that could end gridlock in the US House

Record dysfunction in Congress: it’s NOT just the Senate, and NOT just the filibuster.

Republican extremists in the House have also been using parliamentary tricks to block legislation – including bills that had bipartisan support and would have passed if our elected Representatives were actually allowed to vote.

“The use of ‘closed rules’ has excluded most House members from full participation in the legislative process,” Rep. Louise Slaughter, ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, wrote earlier this week.

“Under a closed rule, no amendments are allowed on the House floor. As a result, House Republicans are able to pursue a politically driven agenda without allowing commonsense amendments that could achieve bipartisan compromise.  This approach has also empowered the most extreme members of the House to pursue narrow policy goals at all costs.”

Like, say, the government shutdown.

“On Sept. 30 — the eve of the government shutdown — Republicans on the House Rules Committee changed the rule so only House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) could call up a Senate-passed clean funding bill — a bill that has the votes to pass the House and would end the shutdown, if it were given a vote.”

One man, standing in the way of a vote that impacts millions of Americans.  (Remind you of anything?  Such as: then-Senator Scott Brown single-handedly blocking an extension of unemployment benefits, back in 2010?  The Senate couldn’t vote until they added an extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.)

This is what’s REALLY wrong with Congress:  our elected Representatives aren’t being allowed to vote on legislation that has bipartisan support.

GOP leadership is using the “closed rule” process to keep the House from passing legislation.  Last year was the most “closed” year in House history.  “In fact, the House GOP passed as many closed rules in a single week in October as during the entire last year of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) speakership.”

The Senate is finally reforming the filibuster.

Isn’t it time for the House to reform the “closed rule” process?

Less than a month to go! Republicans are chasing wild geese while the federal government heads toward default

Canadian GeeseThere’s less than one month to go until the federal government can’t fudge its debt limit anymore. Last week, the US Treasury announced it could run out of artificially-created “headroom” as soon as mid-February.

Ever since then, Republicans have been trying to turn the debt-limit headlines to their advantage. But if you look closely enough at these “wild goose chases”, they just show the growing distance between GOP rhetoric and the reality the rest of us are living in.

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Their first idea? Wait things out. Then, once the Treasury runs out of headroom, just pick and choose which bills to pay. Or, in Republican-speak, “prioritize spending.” Their priorities, according to Reuters: pay the bondholders first; then pay Social Security and military salaries.

The first problem with this idea? The Treasury’s Inspector General has already told Congress that “prioritizing spending” is not – at this point in the crisis – actually possible.

Treasury noted that it makes more than 80 million payments per month, all of which have been authorized and appropriated by Congress… Treasury’s [accounting and computer] systems are designed to make each payment in the order it comes due.

In other words, the system simply isn’t set up to pay some bills and ignore others. How long would it take to completely restructure the federal government’s payment systems, in order to “prioritize” which bills get paid? Undoubtedly longer than the debt-limit “headroom” will last.

Second problem with this idea? How much money will it cost, to restructure the Treasury’s payment systems? Maybe some GOP campaign contributor would be the only IT vendor qualified to make those changes. But wouldn’t that money be better spent on other things?

Third problem with this idea? Stop and think about this, for a minute. Do we really want our country to stop paying its bills, even just some of its bills? Do we really want our country to fulfill its obligations to a select few, and ignore the rest? What would that say about America? (Maybe this is really the first problem with this idea. What are the Republicans thinking?)

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So then, the Republicans went off to a retreat at the Kingsmill Resort in Virginia. (I’m guessing the GOP missed the irony in starting Martin Luther King Day weekend at a former slave plantation. Whatever happened to the Party of Abraham Lincoln?)

There, among three championship-caliber golf courses, GOP members announced their newest idea to deal with the debt limit crisis. The House GOP will concede to a three-month increase in the debt limit, but only if Congress passes a budget within those three months.

Peter PanOk, it’s starting to sound like Peter Pan’s “Neverland” here. Congress created the debt-limit crisis by approving spending but refusing to authorize the debt limit increase. Now the GOP wants to postpone that crisis by creating another crisis.

If nothing else, this really ought to draw attention to just how dysfunctional Congress has become in recent years. They’re answering one failure of Congress with another failure of Congress.

Yes, passing a budget is one of the Legislature’s most fundamental responsibilities. And yes, it has been years since Congress actually passed a federal budget. But isn’t it time to ask, why?

Think about the usual budget process (which is very similar to the way New Hampshire’s Legislature passes the state budget). Usually, the House passes a version of the budget. Then the Senate passes a version of the budget. Then a conference committee figures out a compromise between the two versions. Then the conference version goes back to the House and the Senate for an up-or-down vote.

Do you really think the House and Senate are going to be able to agree on a version of the budget in the next three months?  Congress has been at a stalemate for years.  The last Congress was the most unproductive Congress since they started keeping records.  [Want to know what they did manage to agree on? 17% of the bills that were actually passed involved naming post offices or other public buildings].

But now, after a few days’ “retreat” at a plantation-turned-resort, House GOP members think they’re going to be able to turn this situation to their advantage.

No word yet on whether this latest Republican goose-chase is going to amount to anything more than just weekend headlines.

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Wondering what’s the latest on that “headroom”?

If you remember, our federal government hit the debt limit on December 31st, and the US Treasury started taking “extraordinary measures” to keep the country from defaulting on its obligations.

Smashed Piggy Bank RetirementLast week, the Treasury started starting paying government bills by using federal employee retirement funds to create “headroom” under the debt limit. The “G Fund” is a 401(k)-style retirement program with more than 3 million enrollees, including members of the military.

The law allowing retirement monies to be used to create “headroom” also promises to make members’ accounts “whole” after the crisis has passed. That’s what happened the last time there was a debt limit crisis, back in August 2011; and what happened after the debt-limit crises in 2006, 2004, 2003, and 2002. [Wait… am I just imagining there’s a correlation between debt-limit crises and the Bush-era tax cuts?]

But there’s no word on what happens if this particular debt-limit crisis isn’t solved.

And, no word on what happens if House Republicans decide they want to “reform” federal employees’ retirement benefits again.

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And yes, those unaffordable-but-Congressionally-mandated US Postal Service payments are part of the “extraordinary measures” the Treasury is now taking to keep our government from defaulting on our debt.

“The Postal Service would still have positive net revenue today except for … a requirement that Congress imposed on it in 2006. No other public or private business in America faces this onerous requirement.” Read the letter signed by 82 Members of Congress here.

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One last word about Paul Ryan: he must truly be a special guy. Ordinarily, he would have been replaced as House Budget Committee Chairman this year because of GOP “term limits”. It looks like at least three other GOP Committee Chairs will lose their positions, but Speaker Boehner has already decided to give Chairman Ryan a waiver and allow him to stay on. Read more here.

The Magical Math of Boehner’s Congress: tax cuts don’t ‘cost’ anything

House Speaker John Boehner
Another thing to remember, as you’re watching the Fiscal Cliff standoff:

When John Boehner was first elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, he changed the Rules.

Yes, the actual Rules that the House uses to structure debate on pending legislation.

One of those changes tells you a lot about Boehner’s priorities.

Boehner decreed that the House would not consider any additional federal spending without an identified “offset”.  For example, in order to increase spending on Medicaid, the House would have to “offset” that spending through cuts to other programs (for example, by cutting Food Stamps).

chart of factors contributing to federal debt

BUT – Boehner decided that tax cuts would be exempt from this. Under Boehner’s Rules, Congress could pass any tax cut proposal without having to “offset” – or even consider! – the revenue cost of the legislation.  [And yes, the Bush tax cuts are specifically mentioned, and specifically exempted from any Congressional consideration of their cost.]

In other words, under Boehner’s Rules, Congress will not add a dime to the deficit through increased spending.

But Congress can increase the deficit by any amount, as long as the money is being “spent” on tax cuts.

Yes, for more than a decade, our country has been borrowing to pay for the Bush tax cuts.  And under Boehner’s Rules, Congress can increase the deficit as much as it wants – as long as the borrowed money is paying for tax cuts, not spending.

Boehner’s “Magical Math” sheds a different light on the Fiscal Cliff “negotiations”, doesn’t it?

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