Gavel Down: Closing out the Year in Congress: 2015

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POPVOX Gavel Down 2015

A staggering amount of policy made its way through the Capitol Hill maze in the first session of the 114th Congress — including big bills on transportation, education, tax, and spending.


The funny term you've seen floating around refers to the BIG end-of-year spending bill. Think of it like a bus (hence the name). Several smaller spending bills that did not make it out of the appropriations process on their own try to catch a ride on the 'bus. In the end, several bills will ride together in one big spending bill. This can make voting difficult if a Member supports some policy riders but not others.

The $1.1 trillion omnibus included bills with levels and conditions on spending across the federal government, including: the intelligence authorization bill, the Cybersecurity and Information Sharing (CISA) bill, reauthorization of health benefits for 9/11 first responders and repeal of the ban on crude oil exports. Learn more about what was included in the appropriations bill.

How did your Senator vote?      How did your Representative vote?




New Speaker On The Block

John Boehner shocked everyone when he retired abruptly this October — after serving as Speaker of the House since 2011. "Last night I started thinking about this," he said. "I said my prayers as I always do, and I decided, you know, today's the day I'm going to do this. As simple as that."

After much back and forth between top GOP Representatives, Rep. Paul Ryan [R, WI-1] was persuaded to throw his name in the running and was elected with 236 votes. Paul D. Ryan took the oath of office as the youngest Speaker of the House since 1869. This is only the fifth time in the last century the House has voted mid-term to elect a new Speaker.



Bipartisan Budget Deal


Boehner made good on his pledge to "clean the barn" and led the House in passing a bipartisan budget deal. The Senate passed the budget deal at 3 am, delayed by objections from Presidential candidates Sen. Rand Paul [R, KY] and Sen. Ted Cruz [R, TX]. Sen. Pat Toomey [R, PA] also voiced concerns, saying the bill "fails to address our overspending problem." The Senate passed the deal 64-35, and it was quickly signed into law by President Obama.


Reconciliation Bill

You've heard the word reconciliation tossed around a lot this year — what does it mean? Reconciliation is an expedited process that offers some procedural advantages: it needs the support of a simple majority in the Senate, and cannot be filibustered. The reconciliation bill you've been hearing about is H.R. 3762 from Rep. Tom Price [R, GA-6]. This bill includes language to repeal key parts of the Affordable Care Act: the individual mandate, the employer mandate, and the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB). It would also defund Planned Parenthood for one year.

The bill passed the House on 10/23/15 with a vote of 240-189 and passed the Senate on 12/04/15 with a vote of 52-47. Speaker Paul Ryan said the House will put the Senate-amended reconciliation bill on the House floor the first week lawmakers return in January 2016. It is expected to pass and then head to President Obama, who has threatened to veto the legislation.

Reconciliation sentiment




Education Reform


Sens. Lamar Alexander [R, TN] and Patty Murray [D, WA] spearheaded the effort to overhaul the No Child Left Behind law. House and Senate lawmakers met in conference and agreed to a bipartisan, bicameral compromise, with a vote of 39-1 to endorse the deal. Sen. Rand Paul [R, KY] was the lone dissenter — not present but voting "no" by proxy — opposing any federal government role in public schools.

The Every Student Succeeds Act passed the House on 12/2/15 with a vote of 359-64 and passed the Senate on 12/9/15 with a vote of 85-12. President Obama signed the bill into law — marking a significant transfer of power and authority over public schools from the federal government to state and local governments. "Basically we're back to an era that encourages local and state innovation rather than Washington telling you what to do," said bill sponsor Sen. Lamar Alexander [R, TN].



Perkins Loan Program


House passed 2-year extension of Perkins loan program by voice vote. "Extending the Perkins Loan program ensures those in severe financial need will continue to have the certainty to help achieve their higher education goals," said the bill sponsor. The Senate agreed to the bill by unanimous consent. President Obama signed the bill into law on Dec. 18, 2015, making it Public Law No: 114-105.


Tax Extenders Package

Congress passed $622 billion "tax extenders" package on Dec. 18, 2015. "Tax extenders" are carve-outs in the tax code that give special treatment to certain activities. They are usually only authorized for one year and must be "extended" — giving way to a massive annual lobbying scramble for reauthorization from almost every corner of Washington.

This year's package many of the deductions and credits that are usually renewed each year and made some permanent, in addition to changes to some Treasury Department (and IRS) policies.

Permanent provisions include:

  • Child Tax Credit
  • Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Teacher's Out-of-Pocket expense deduction ($250/year)
  • Mass transit benefits excluded from income (same as parking benefits)
  • State and local sales tax deduction (for people who do not pay state income tax)
  • Research and Development (R&D) credit
  • Wage credit for employers of active duty military
  • 15-year straight-line cost recovery for qualified leasehold improvements (restaurant and retail)
  • Section 179 property expensing
  • 100% exclusion for gains on small business stock
  • Low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC)

Learn more about the tax extenders package. It passed the House with a vote of 318-109, with only three Republicans voting against the bill: Reps. Justin Amash [R, MI-3], Chris Collins [R, NY-27], and Walter Jones [R, NC-3].

How did your Representative vote

It passed the Senate with a vote of 65-33. How did your Senator vote?


Transportation Reform

After years of short term solutions, Congress passed the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act (H.R. 22) — the first long-term transportation bill to pass Congress in more than a decade. The bill combines elements from the DRIVE Act (S. 1647) and the STRR Act (H.R. 3763). From funding levels to policy provisions, the bill is far-reaching and spends $296 billion over five years. "I'm proud. I'm relieved. We are in dire need of this," said Sen. Barbara Boxer [D, CA].

The 1,300+ page bill includes several changes that affect anyone using the nation's roads, bridges, and transit systems, including:

  • Passenger rail operators can operate long-distance routes currently run by Amtrak
  • Auto employees and contractors who "whistleblow" safety violations may soon collect a percentage of penalties imposed by the government
  • States such as Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia have one year to determine tolls or be passed over in the pilot program, allowing other states to apply to the to apply
  • Raises the civil penalty the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can impose upon automakers who fail to report safety defects within five days to $105 million from $35 million


Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)

From beginning to end, 2015 has been marked by the term AUMF. You've heard it tossed around in presidential debates and used as a call-to-action in President Obama's Oval Office Address.

What is an AUMF and why is it needed? The President must notify Congress within 48 hours of ordering U.S. armed forces for a military operation overseas. These forces cannot operate in a deployed status for more than 60 days without a congressional declaration of war or an authorized use of military force (AUMF).

As the second half of the 114th Congress begins, several versions of authorization exist but none have been approved. The New York Times published an interactive tool to compare the various authorization plans. For example, the Graham bill authorizes "all necessary and appropriate force," with no restrictions on ground troops, whereas the president's draft expressly does not authorize use of forces in "enduring offensive ground combat operations." The drafts by the president, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Kaine-Flake all limit authorization to three years — the Graham bill has no time limits.

Despite recent calls from the President and lawmakers for a war authorization, both Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Congress is unlikely to pass a new authorization to fight the Islamic State — fearing a new authorization would constrain the next commander in chief.

Should Congress authorize the use of force against ISIS?

Weigh in now: President's draft, Graham bill, Kaine-Flake bill, Schiff bill, Kinzinger bill, Rigell-Welch bill


Medicare Deal

With overwhelming bipartisan support, leaders of both parties came together to produce a bill that would repeal the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) — a method used to control spending by Medicare on physician services. The long-awaited "doc fix" prevented a 21 percent cut in Medicare's physician fees. "This is what we can accomplish when we focus on finding common ground," said then Speaker John Boehner.


Mental Health Reform

Speaker Ryan called on Congress to pass mental health legislation — following shootings in both Colorado and California. "We want to see this process all the way through," said Speaker Paul Ryan. "We're really serious about our mental health legislation." Speaker Ryan cited the bill in multiple interviews when asked about gun violence.

When you read about the mental health bill, it's most likely referencing the Murphy bill (H.R. 2646). This bill includes provisions to increase the number of psychiatric hospital beds available (by lifting restrictions on Medicaid paying for certain care), to change health privacy law HIPAA (to allow caregivers and family members more information about a mentally ill person's care), and award a 2 percent increase in federal grants to states with assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) laws (where judges can mandate patients with serious mental illness seek treatment).

The Energy and Commerce health subcommittee advanced the bill last month, but consideration by the full committee has been put off until lawmakers work out new language. "I think that Dr. Murphy realizes that we're really not trying to kill the bill, we just have deep feelings that we've got to do something a little different to make it work right legally," said Rep. Morgan Griffith [R, VA-9].

The Senate quietly passed Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act (S. 993 / H.R. 1854). It received very little attention and reportedly, some some staffers weren't aware of the bill's passage. The lack of messaging surrounding the bill surprised many. The bill focuses on the criminal justice system — namely providing support for state and local officials in identifying people with mental illnesses within the criminal justice system.


Pope Addressed Congress

In a historical first, Pope Francis became the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress. He urged Congress to "move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity" — calling for a new era of bipartisanship. Speaker Boehner referenced "the awesome sight of Pope Francis addressing the greatest legislative body in the world" when announcing his decision to retire from Congress.



International Deals and Congressional Responses

2015 was also the year of the “deal”, with several significant announcements from the President and strong responses from Congress:

  • Iran Deal On April 2, President Obama announced that the United States and the other P5+1 countries reached a “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” with Iran. In September, a Congressional resolution to disapprove the deal did not advance in the Senate, prompting Majority Leader McConnell to say that the President "won the 'short-term battle' … but that the debate will continue until Americans 'render judgment' on Election Day 2016." (Source: Fox News)

  • Cuba Deal On July 1, 2015, President Obama announced a historic deal with Cuba to reopen diplomatic relations, building on efforts to thaw relations that started with loosened travel restrictions and some new economics ties have been established. The U.S. removed Cuba from its state sponsors of terror list in May.

  • Trade Deal (TransPacific Partnership) Congress voted to give the President authority to negotiate trade agreements (“Trade Promotion Authority”) in April. The TPP deal was announced October 5, and text released on November 1. While President Obama said he wants action on the trade agreement before the end of 2015, Congress did not take action and may end up waiting for a post-election “lame duck” session in 2016 to vote on the controversial deal.

  • Climate Deal On December 12, 2015, President Obama joined world leaders to announce a global agreement to combat climate change. The announcement capped a year of efforts by the Administration to implement climate provisions, including the “Clean Power” regulatory plan announced by the Administration in August. Both efforts have been met with resistance in Congress.

Major Court Cases and Congressional Responses

  • Gay Marriage On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that all state same-sex marriage bans violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection. Congressional responses

  • Voting Rights Should the entire population count when drawing electoral districts — or only the population eligible to vote? That's the question that has Supreme Court Justices stumped as they examine Texas's redistricting plan.

  • Parental Rights SCOTUS blocked an Alabama court from denying parental rights to a lesbian woamn who was granted adoption rights in Georgia.

  • Weapons SCOTUS declined to review whether cities and states can prohibit semiautomatic, high-capacity assault weapons.

State Events


The Year's Best Legislative Data Reports

  • When you think “average lawmaker” in America you may think white, male, Protestant, baby boomer with a graduate degree and business background – new study found that is not the case. See the legislator demographics of your state.
  • Millennials surpassed baby boomers as the largest share of the U.S. voting-age population.
  • New study from PEW found that women hold just under 25% of state legislative seats – women are more hesitant to seek political office and less likely to be recruited as political candidates.
  • The Lugar Center and Georgetown University released bipartisan index – ranking Members of Congress on how well they work across party lines.
  • The Guardian published an interactive graphic that displays gun deaths by district, along with congressional votes and campaign donations received from the gun lobby.
  • New website provides free, publicly accessible archive of 33,000 CRS research reports. New initiative is in response to complaints that Congressional Research Service reports are requested by lawmakers and then kept secret unless they choose to release the reports.