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Gov: The Ways of Congress

It is said that two things you never want to watch being made are sausage and laws.

However unpleasant the process might be to watch, the public policies that come out of Congress have real effects on you and your community. So at least some diligence is needed to ensure that the people you elect to represent you actually are doing that.

Here we explain some of the inner workings of Congress.

Related Issues

Assault on Regulations

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Long speeches in the Senate - and in the House

2018-Feb-16By: Barry Shatzman

The two-year budget just passed by Congress needed to be enacted by Feb. 8, or there would be no funding for the federal government. It would shut down.

But in the Senate, Sen. Rand Paul temporarily blocked it - pushing a vote past the midnight deadline (technically resulting in a several-hour shutdown for the wee hours of Friday morning).

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives - which limits debate - House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke for eight hours against the bill.

Why were these things allowed to happen?

Senate rules are complicated. Simply put, when the Senate agrees to end debate and vote on a bill, it must wait an "intervening day" before the vote can take place. That rule can be waived, but only by unanimous consent.

Paul, in an attempt to make a point about the process, objected. Therefore, consent was not unanimous and the vote was delayed.

Although debate in the House is strictly limited - a rule allows the House speaker and the Democratic and Republican party leaders to speak for as long as they wish.

How to unconstitutionally defund an organization constitutionally

2017-Jul-17By: Barry Shatzman

Congressional Republicans have attempted several times to eliminate funding to Planned Parenthood.

However, the Constitution prohibits bills of attainder - an act meant to punish a specific individual or group.

So how can a bill ban money from going to Planned Parenthood? By not mentioning Planned Parenthood. Instead, it prohibits federal money being made available to any entity if it is...

o A 501(c)(3) nonprofit

o An essential community provider that is primarily engaged in providing family planning and reproductive health services and related medical care

o An entity that provides abortions - except in instances in which the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest or the woman's life is in danger

o An entity that had expenditures under the Medicaid program that exceeded $350 million in fiscal year 2014

In its analysis of the 2017 proposed law to the replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) , the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) writes, "CBO expects that, according to those criteria, only Planned Parenthood Federation of America and its affiliates and clinics would be affected."

It takes a trick to eliminate the ObamaCare mandate

2017-Jul-17By: Barry Shatzman

Congressional Republicans' attempts to replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) have attempted to eliminate the law's mandate that most people are required to have health insurance, or else pay a penalty.

However, they are doing it using the budget reconciliation process. That makes it immune to a filibuster in the Senate, but also restricts the bill to items that directly affect the budget.

So how can they eliminate a simple provision of the law? Like this...



In other words, they don't eliminate the mandate. They merely set the penalty for not buying insurance to $0.

Deadline to revoke Obama-era regulations expires

2017-May-11  (Updated: 2017-May-30)By: Barry Shatzman

Congressional Republicans no longer can repeal regulations that took effect late in President Barack Obama's term without cooperation from Democrats.

The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to prevent new regulations from taking effect without being subject to a Senate filibuster. The deadline for late-term Obama administration regulations was May 10.

Republicans revoked 14 regulations, and came within one vote in the Senate of revoking a 15th.

There still are ways for Congress to repeal or limit regulations, but they now are subject to filibuster - meaning they will require 60 votes in the Senate.

The House of Representatives has passed three bills, however, that would give Congress significantly more power to prevent the implementation of regulations with a simple majority in the Senate. The bills themselves, however, are subject to filibuster and are not expected to pass the Senate.

The language of bills impedes democracy

2017-May-05By: Barry Shatzman

When the House of Representatives considered the American Health Care Act in March, 2017 - and when it passed the about a month later - changes to the bill were introduced virtually on the fly as a way to garner enough votes from various factions of representatives.

As a result, almost nobody knew exactly what was in the bill - from journalists (whose job it is to explain it to the public) to representatives (whose job it is to vote for legislation that would benefit their constituents).

It's a process that fails to foster informed votes and accountability to constituents.

Yet even a more deliberate and transparent process might not be enough to restore required trust in government. That's because the bills themselves often are written in language that is impossible to understand.

This Politico.com story explains how the language of bills makes it impossible for the public to understand, nearly impossible for most representatives to understand, and easy for a representative to slip in a seemingly innocuous clause that would have serious effects (possible to benefit a large contributor).

House grants itself special powers

2017-Jan-03By: Barry Shatzman

One of the first things the Senate and House of Representatives do at the start of each new Congressional term is to decide on the rules they'll operate under.

When enacting its rules this term, the representatives in the House bestowed onto themselves an interesting set of powers...

o If the government decides to sell off federal lands, it no longer has to consider the revenue the land was bringing in as part of the value. That allows Congress to sell federal lands for virtually free. Of course, we (since the revenue is public money) would have less to use for the public's benefit.

o House rules require that new legislation be scored - meaning that its effect on the budget must be analyzed for up to 50 years in the future. Bill that would increase the deficit by a certain threshold cannot even be considered. The House created an exemption to that rule this term. Any bill that would repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), can be considered regardless of how much it might cost.

o The House reinstated a provision that allows a representative to propose reducing any program's budget or any government employee's salary to $1 (to take effect it would require a majority of the House and Senate, as well as the president's signature). Known as the Holman Rule, it originally was introduced in 1876 as a way to combat nepotism and cronyism in awarding government jobs before the Civil Service came into being.

o Representatives can be fined for taking photographs or videos on the House floor.

Why would protecting firefighters extend unemployment benefits?

2014-May-01By: Barry Shatzman

There are two odd things about HR-3979 - the bill the Senate passed on April 8 to extend unemployment benefits.

One is that the bill had nothing to do with unemployment benefits when it was approved by the House of Representatives. It was called the Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act. After being passed by the House, the Senate added the provisions to extend unemployment benefits. They also changed the bill's name to the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act. Because the Senate and House versions of the bill are not identical, it must be reconsidered in the House before it can be sent to the president.

The other odd thing is that - in spite of its original name - it would do nothing to protect volunteer firefighters or emergency responders. Instead, it would have allowed rescue organizations to not count volunteer firefighters or EMTs as full-time employees for the purpose of determining whether the organization needs to provide health insurance benefits under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

Although the Senate version of the bill retains that provision (in addition to the unemployment compensation provisions), House Speaker John Boehner has said the House likely will not consider it now.

What's the fastest way to pass a bill?

2014-Feb-12By: Barry Shatzman

What's the fastest way for Congress to pass a bill? Pass one that's already passed.

That's exactly what Congress did in passing the bill that extended the debt ceiling without adding any other provisions.

Take a look at the bill and notice the name - An Act to designate the air route traffic control center located in Nashua, New Hampshire, as the "Patricia Clark Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center".

After stalling on the debt limit - hoping to attach other provisions to the bill - the Republican-controlled House of Representatives narrowly agreed on Feb. 11 to approve a "clean" bill allowing the government to pay its bills through March 15, 2015. The only problem was that Congress was set to leave for a vacation later in the week, and there was not enough time to pass a brand new bill.

The solution was found in S-540. The bill to change the name of the air route traffic control center already had passed the Senate. So the House decided to pass that bill instead - after removing all of the old wording and inserting the new wording to extend the debt limit. Because the text of the bill had changed, the Senate needed to pass it once again - which it did the next day before sending it to President Obama for his signature.

By the way, in case you're wondering about what to call the New Hampshire air traffic control center - it has the new name. The House already had passed its own bill to change the name - which the Senate later approved.

Former representatives become lobbyists

2013-Jan-23By: Rob Dennis

When Rep. Jo Ann Emerson resigned from Congress just a few months after being re-elected, she became one of many to take a job lobbying for private industry.

Other recent representatives also heading for lobbying firms include...

o Steven LaTourette, who will serve as president of McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies.
o Heath Shuler, who joins Duke Energy as senior vice president of federal affairs.
o Jason Altmire, who joins insurer Florida Blue as a government affairs executive.
o Geoff Davis, who resigned in July and has formed a public affairs firm, Republic Consulting, with lobbyist Hunter Bates.

Of the 373 former members of Congress, 301 now work as lobbyists or "senior advisers" performing similar work, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. See the complete list on OpenSecrets.org

Why does a senator change his vote after an issue is decided?

According to Senate rules, only a Senator who votes on the winning side of a cloture vote has the right to request at a later date that the motion be reconsidered. As a tactic, a senator who votes on the losing side sometimes will change their initial vote, in order to have that right.

For more, read the Washington Post story

What happens when a member of Congress leaves mid-term?

When a member of the House of Representatives leaves office in the middle of a term, it effectively leaves the district he or she represented with no vote in Congress.

Read more in this Huffington Post story.

Why does it take 60 votes for a bill to proceed in the Senate?

Because senate rules allow senators to speak for as long as they want on any topic, any senator or group of senators can block a bill by refusing to yield the floor. The filibuster can be ended by a vote of 60 senators (3/5 of the Senate).

However, under current Senate rules (each new Senate every two years may make its own rules), a filibuster doesn't require actually speaking. Senators wishing to block a bill merely have to state their intention to do so, and unless those wanting the bill to proceed can obtain the required 60 votes to end the filibuster, no debate or other votes on the bill will take place.

For more, read our discussion of the filibuster.

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