GAVEL DOWN: Closing out the Week in Congress

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POPVOX Gavel Down_Closing Out the Week in Congress

Congress made moves this week, with plenty of policy and bipartisan legislation…

t House passed bill providing Puerto Rico with tools to restructure $70B debt. President Obama vetoed disapproval resolution blocking Labor Department’s fiduciary rule regarding retirement accounts and investment advice. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed Joint Meeting of Congress, discussing US-India relations. House Financial Services Chairman announced Dodd-Frank replacement legislation. Senators donned seersucker in annual tradition. Senate passed chemical safety overhaul — now it’s off to President Obama. Senate voted to go to conference to resolve Zika legislation, naming 19 conferees. Senate voked to invoke cloture on annual defense bill. Both chambers spent the week working on spending bills.

Top Search on POPVOX this week: gun

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House passed Puerto Rico debt bill


On June 9th, the House passed H.R. 5278 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) with a bipartisan vote of 297-127. The bill, which tackles the economic and humanitarian crisis of Puerto Rico’s inability to make payments on its $70 billion debt, is the result of large bipartisan compromises.  It gives Puerto Rico the tools to restructure its debt and creates an oversight board to manage Puerto Rico’s spending and tax policies.

The bill was largely unchanged on the House floor, from its original committee form, as the House Rules Committee ruled dozens of amendments filed on the bill as out of order.  However, the House did vote on Rep. Norma Torres’s [D, CA-35] minimum wage amendment, which House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop had previously ruled out of order. The amendment would have prevented Puerto Rico’s governor from lowering minimum wage for younger workers. However, the amendment failed on party lines, with a vote 225-196.  

Leaders from both parties have pushed for the highly anticipated bill. Speaker Paul Ryan urged the House to pass the bill on a humanitarian level, exclaiming, “The Puerto Rican people are our fellow Americans. They pay our taxes. They fight in our wars. We cannot allow this [humanitarian crisis] to happen.” It has also been promoted by the White House, which has urged the Senate to continue the bipartisan progress with haste, to meet the July 1st deadline, when Puerto Rico may default on $2 billion.

However, the bill’s fate in the Senate remains uncertain, as many GOP leaders do not express interest in hurrying the bill along. Additionally, the bill continues to receive criticism by those that characterize it as a bailout and by those that believe it deprives Puerto Ricans from self-government.

President Obama vetoed disapproval resolution to block Labor Dept. Fiduciary Rule

In early April, the Obama administration unveiled long-awaited Department of Labor "fiduciary rule." This rule requires brokers to act in the “best interest” of their clients when handling retirement accounts instead of their own. That’s to say, brokers would be allowed to earn sales commission and other income only if they disclose all “suitable” financial products, as well as any incentive agreements or conflicts of interest they have with products they recommend.

Before the rule’s passage, only Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) were considered fiduciaries and subjected to this higher standard, while brokers were exempt. The rule is meant to protect workers from receiving conflicting investment advice and improve disclosure, but its opponents say it would discourage financial firms from serving low-income clients.

Later that month, the House voted 234-183 to disapprove the rule.

Sponsor: Rep. Phil Roe [R, TN-1]

While disapproval resolutions are “rarely used and almost always veto-ed,” they have become more common in the current Congress. A similar resolution of disapproval was approved 56-41 by Senate in late May.

Sponsor: Sen. Johnny Isakson [R, GA]

By early June, financial and business groups filed lawsuits in three separate federal circuit courts. One of the petitioning groups is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which was among eight organizations that filed suit against the rule in a Texas federal district court. Filing lawsuits in multiple circuits may result in a split in lower court decisions, which could increase the likelihood that the issue will move to the Supreme Court.

Amid these lawsuits, President Obama vetoed H.J. Res. 88 on June 8, the 10th veto of his presidency.

“The outdated regulations in place before this rulemaking did not ensure that financial advisers act in their clients' best interests when giving retirement investment advice,” President Obama wrote in his veto message. “Instead, some firms have incentivized advisers to steer clients into products that have higher fees and lower returns — costing America's families an estimated $17 billion a year.”

Republicans do not have the two-thirds majority in Congress to overcome the president’s veto, but several have commented that they would continue their attempts to block the rule’s implementation.

“This veto threatens the retirement security of millions of working families,” said Rep. Phil Roe [R, TN-1], who chairs the Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee and introduced H.J.Res. 88. “We’ll continue to do everything in our power to protect access to affordable retirement advice for every American.”


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed Joint Meeting of Congress


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington this week to celebrate the relationship between India and the United States.

Just over a decade ago, Modi was denied a visa for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Since he became prime minister in 2014, he has visited the U.S. several times, forming a seemingly close relationship with President Obama. Wednesday, Modi addressed a Joint Meeting of Congress and celebrated the ties between India and the United States. He highlighted both the formal and informal relationships that bind the two countries, saying that “our thinkers impacted one another and shaped the course of our societies… Gandhi’s nonviolence inspired the heroism of Martin Luther King. Today, a mere distance of three miles separates the Martin Luther King Memorial at Tidal Basin from the statue of Gandhi at Massachusetts Avenue.”

Prime Minister Modi spoke of the US-India partnership in trade, defense, and climate change. Modi addressed past joint efforts to fight terrorism and urged the U.S. and India to continue to combat terrorism together. He stressed that counterterrorism policies must “[delink] religion from terrorism."

Beyond counterterrorism efforts, Modi called for continued American support in Afghanistan as a stepping stone for “a strong India-US partnership [that] can anchor peace, prosperity and stability from Asia to Africa and from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.” In an era of transition, complexity, and uncertainty, Modi said that “in every sector of India’s forward march, [he sees] the US as an indispensable partner.”

As Obama ends his time in office and Modi nears the halfway point of his term, the visit and the address to Congress highlighted the remarkable progress between the two countries over the last few decades, particularly the last few years. The Obama administration has called the US-India relationship the “defining partnership of the 21st century” and views India as an Asian ally to counter China. Modi’s visit served to underscore what President Obama considers one of the great foreign policy achievements of his administration.


House Financial Services Chairman announced Dodd-Frank Replacement

On June 7th, House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling announced his proposal to replace the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act with the Financial Choice Act. His plan promises to be the first of many Republican proposals for deregulation, part of Speaker Paul Ryan’s detailed Republican policy agenda.

Watch and read full speech.

The Dodd-Frank Act was enacted in 2010, with the purpose of increasing financial regulation and consumer protection, to avoid an economic crisis similar to that of 2008. However, Rep. Hensarling has criticized the Dodd-Frank Act as being too heavy handed in its control on the financial market.

On Tuesday, he proposed the following provisions in its place:

  • Repealing the Volcker Rule, allowing commercial banks to engage in what has been deemed risky investment for their own profit
  • Allowing big banks with capital of at least 10% of their assets to exempt themselves from liquidity requirements and other regulatory standards
  • Revoking power of the Financial Stability Oversight Council to deem which banks are too large and should be broken apart
  • Increasing fines for violating insider trading laws and other financial wrongdoing
  • Restructuring the Consumer Protection Bureau so single director would be replaced by a bipartisan commission, and the budget would be subject to congressional appropriations
  • Removing liquidation requirement designed to prevents bailouts, and replacing the provision with a new section of bankruptcy code to wind down financially weak firms.

Learn more.

Seersucker takes over the Hill

Easy, breezy, beautiful: the Senate looked especially dapper on Thursday as they celebrated nearly 20 years of National Seersucker Day. In 1996, former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott proposed that a warm day in the second or third week of June be designated Seersucker Day, and past hosts have included Sens. Bill Cassidy [R-LA], who revived the tradition in 2014 after a brief hiatus, and Diane Feinstein [D-CA], who encouraged female senators to take part in 2004 by gifting them with seersucker suits.  

Seersucker, which comes from the Persian words for “milk and sugar,” is a lightweight rumpled cotton fabric that is traditionally blue and white striped and was popularized in the Senate by southern legislators.  While modern air-conditioning has made seersucker suits less essential, Senator Lott started the holiday to show that congressional fashion need not only consist of dark suits with red or blue ties. Keep an eye out for seersucker every Thursday throughout the summer while the Senate channels its inner Kentucky Derby.


Congress passed chemical safety overhaul —
now bill heads to the White House


This week Sen. Rand Paul [R, KY] dropped his hold on chemical safety bill, after requesting more time to read the 180-page billSenate passed bipartisan chemical safety bill by voice voice, sending measure to President Obama for expected signature. 

Bill would overhaul 40-year-old toxic chemicals law, allowing Environmental Protection Agency to gather more information about a chemical before it is used in the United States. House approved the measure last month 403-12.

SponsorRep. John Shimkus [R, IL-15]

Obama administration “strongly supports” the measure, saying the bill would provide the EPA necessary power and resources to review new chemicals. Statement of Administration said the bill “represents a historic advancement for both chemical safety and environmental law.”

So what is the TSCA?

Toxic Substances Control Act (1976) is main law regulating chemicals in everyday products, from cleaning supplies to pesticides to laundry detergents. Despite the name, TSCA does not separate chemicals into toxic v. non-toxic, but rather existing chemicals v. new chemicals. When TSCA became law, all existing chemicals were considered safe for use and grandfathered in without examination. Out of roughly 85,000 chemicals in use today, the EPA has been able to ban or restrict production or use of five chemicals.

Senate voted to go to conference to resolve Zika legislation

On June 8, the Senate voted 93-2 to go to conference to negotiate with the House on a measure that would appropriate funds to fight the spread of the Zika virus. Ten Republicans and nine Democrats from the Senate were named to conference.


Both chambers passed legislation to combat the virus in late May. The House passed H.R. 5243 The Zika Response Appropriations Act, which provided $622 million to the Departments of Health and Human Services and State, $350 million of which were originally intended to fight the Ebola virus. The Senate added amendments to H.R. 2577 The Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act for FY 2016 that would allocate another $1.1 billion. Neither measure provided the $1.9 billion in funding President Obama requested in February.

Senate Invoked Cloture on Annual Defense Bill

On June 10, the Senate decided 68-23 to invoke cloture on a $602 billion defense bill. 50 Republicans and 18 Democrats voted to end debate on the bill. Three Republicans and twenty Democrats—including Minority Leader Harry Reid, who called the amendment process “unfair”— opposed the move.
A Friday vote is unusual for the Senate. However, because the NDAA had 500-plus amendments, most of which were likely to fail, the Senate moved to finish the debate.

Sponsor: Sen. John McCain [R, AZ]

The Senate’s 2017 NDAA contains several policy reforms, including:

  • Large-scale procurement and contracting overhaul.
  • 25% reduction in general and flag officers and DOD Senior Executive Service civilian employees
  • Reforms to the military health system
  • Including women in the requirement to register for selective service
  • Implementing the recommendations of the Department of Defense Military Justice Review Group

Read a summary of the bill here.

Debates over the bill and its amendments got heated this week. Sen. Mike Lee [R-UT] asked for a roll call vote on his amendment, which would prevent the US from detaining American citizens indefinitely. When his request was denied, he blocked a vote on an amendment that would protect Afghan translators who helped US troops during the war in Afghanistan. In response, Sen. John McCain [R-AZ] said, “[The translators] are going to die. They’re going to be killed. Doesn’t that somehow appeal to your sense of compassion for these people?”

The White House threatened to veto the Senate’s NDAA, remarking that it limits DOD’s flexibility, prevents the closure of Guantanamo, restricts US-Cuba relations, and puts an “arbitrary” cap on the size of the National Security Council.

Last month, the House version of the NDAA, HR 4909, passed 277-147 despite a veto threat from the White House. However, chaos erupted on the House floor when several Republicans switched their vote on an amendment that would have prohibited federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees, causing it fail.

Both Chambers Working on Spending Bills 

Both chambers of Congress are working on appropriations bills. Though Congress has not yet passed a budget for FY 2017, both chambers are working with targets roughly keyed to the amounts laid out in the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA).

This week: Speaker Paul Ryan proposed altering the floor process for appropriations bills, to stave off controversial amendments (like the ones that sank the .. appropriations bill). In the House, the Appropriations committee released the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) bill (no bill number yet) and sent the Financial Services Bill (H.R. 2995) to the Floor. The House passed the fiscal year 2017 Legislative Branch Appropriations (H.R. 5325) by a vote of 233-175. The normally uncontroversial bill includes a provision to reverse a decision made by the Library of Congress to stop using the term “illegal alien” in subject headings, which led all but 10 Democrats to oppose. The 2017 Senate Labor, HHS & Education Appropriations Bill (S. 3040) passed committee by a 29-1 vote. It now goes to the Senate Floor.

Learn more.

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