Thursday, March 23, 2017

Congress

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Porky Politicians get a taste of the Trump Diet

In March of last year, the Heritage Foundation released their recommendation for a 2017 federal budget in a document titled, “Blueprint for Balance.”

According to numerous reports, President-Elect Trump plans to use the blueprint for his incoming administration and push Congress to pass the plans that include a $1.3 trillion tax break.

The Left is up in arms about the plan as it cuts programs preferential to minorities, women and the arts.

But the plan doesn’t just target the pet projects of Democrats, it cuts spending for non-combat research within the Department of Defense as well as subsidies to military commissaries.

The word “eliminate” occurs 230 times in the 180 page document.

As a reference, “reduce” occurs only 107 times.

The plan is an ambitious attempt to curb government spending and reduce its size and as such, is likely to face significant resistance in Congress.

A similar plan was proposed in 2015 and lost the House vote by a significant margin.

President Elect Trump will have to brow-beat pork-barrel politicians to give up their special projects and ear marks if he wants to abide by the spirit of the blueprint and make progress towards creating a smaller government.

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Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton today made the following statement regarding the proposed change to House rules that would eliminate its Office of Congressional Ethics:

It is shameful that House Republicans are trying to destroy the Office of Congressional Ethics, the most significant ethics reform in Congress when it was established nearly a decade ago. This drive-by effort to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics, which provides appropriate independence and transparency to the House ethics process, is a poor way for the Republican majority to begin “draining the swamp.” The American people will see this latest push to undermine congressional ethics enforcement as shady and corrupt. The full House should seriously consider whether it wants to bear the brunt of public outrage and go through with the rule change this afternoon.

Background: Judicial Watch worked with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Special Task Force on Ethics Enforcement to push for an independent body to help handle ethics investigations of House members. This effort led to the establishment of the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008. Today’s proposed rule change by the House majority would eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics and create a new entity under the complete control of the House Ethics Committee that is less transparent and subject to severe restrictions on any investigations of allegations of misconduct by House members.

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congress

No sooner had the election results rolled in late last Tuesday night, heralding a Donald Trump victory and continued Republican control of both houses of the Congress, than many Republicans began calling on Speaker Ryan to get the House ready to start passing Trump’s agenda. The better call would have been to remind both Ryan and Trump that it is not when the House of Representatives serves as a rubber stamp for the President, that good and fiscally conservative actions result. Rather, it is when there is a degree of positive tension between the House majority and the President of the same or a different party that the system constructed many decades ago by our Founders, actually works best.

It is a team effort, to be sure, and President Trump has every right to press for enactment of his legislative and fiscal agendas. But Paul Ryan, as Speaker and Leader of the House of Representatives, has an equally important responsibility to ensure that the President’s agenda fits within the budgetary and legislative agendas of the House and of the majority of members elected thereto. Truly, the last thing President Trump should want, is a Speaker who salutes and says “Yessir” whenever the President calls.

While many students of history focus on the differences between the House and the Senate in terms of their procedural powers; the perhaps more relevant focus should be on the relationship between the House of Representatives and the President.

Recent history is full of examples of the bad things that happen when the House forgets or willfully ignores its separate responsibility to carefully consider and amend a president’s legislative proposals; or blindly pushes a president’s budgetary proposals simply because that president happens to be of the same political party as the majority. President George W. Bush’s vaunted “No Child Left Behind Act,” sent to the House in January 2001 and rushed though both houses with little real consideration, turned out to be a law widely panned by educators and many Republicans as costly and unworkable.

Just a couple of years later, Bush demanded the GOP-controlled House pass the prescription drug benefit bill, despite cries by conservatives that its projected costs were drastically and artificially under-estimated. It passed, and has in fact turned out to be hugely more expensive than the Bush Administration’s projections.

The good news is that in Trump and Ryan, there appears to be the ingredients for success in this regard. For one thing, and unlike the current President who almost never dismounted from his high horse to climb the steps of Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress (even of his own Party), Trump shows no such arrogance. In fact – and as he notes in his books – Trump enjoys the art of negotiating; a critical component of good legislation. Moreover, he respects a tough and informed adversary and is disposed to run roughshod over weak opponents – a characteristic some of his early GOP Primary opponents recognized too late.

Ryan, too, seems to have a good head for negotiating; although his job in a Trump-Ryan tete-a-tete will be more difficult since Trump only has one point of view (his) to worry about, while Ryan has many to keep in mind and in line.

The House and its leadership must never forget that its fiscal responsibility is owed not to the incoming or any president, but to the people and the future of our country. Thus, and here again unlike during the first Administration of George W. Bush, if President Trump asks the House to pass a budget that, for whatever great reasons he cites, busts the budget and increases the federal deficit, Ryan must say “No.” As we recall, it took less than two budget cycles for new President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress to bust the balanced budget so laboriously crafted in 1997 between then-Speaker Gingrich and then-Democratic President Bill Clinton; and Washington has never looked back since.

The runaway budget deficits that became a hallmark of the George W. Bush Administration were a primary factor in the GOP losing control of the House in 2006 for two cycles; and it was in those few years that Obamacare became law, Dodd-Frank was enacted, and all manner of other legislative and executive actions decisions made, which now are ripe to be addressed and undone.

America is on the cusp of an historic opportunity to once again enact constitutionally- and fiscally-sound legislative and budget measures. While it may appear counter-intuitive, to aid in accomplishing this, President Trump should resist demanding a House of Representatives that rubber stamps his every decision. Instead, he should welcome one that will sometimes challenge him and occasionally say “No” – because that’s a recipe for real change, good change, and long-lasting change.

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illegal teen

The Department of Homeland Security told Congress that, during the entire Obama Administration, it deported just six percent of minors entering the United States illegally.

Those illegal teens are catching on–and now they’re bragging about it to their friends back home.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a leading group that fights against illegal immigration, these illegals are also urging their friends from back home to come over to the United States illegally too.

“Border Patrol agents have confirmed that the new arrivals are saying that they know they will be released after they are processed,” explained Jessica Vaughan, the Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies.

“They have heard this from family and friends who have gone before and shared their experience. They use social media to communicate this, sometimes even texting pictures of what they call their ‘permiso,’ which is the document they get showing them to appear for a court date years in the future.”

According to DHS, they caught 122,700 unaccompanied minors crossing the border. And yet, they only sent 7,700 back–just barely 6 percent. That’s a clear failure of DHS’s ability to do their job–or, considering Barack Obama’s attempts to force the so-called DREAM Act through with executive orders, an unwillingness to do so.

Even more surprisingly, this seems to be a problem that’s getting worse, not better. In 2015, up to 3,000 unaccompanied minors a month have come across the border–and most of them have been allowed to stay.

A 100+ page report from Congress, released by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) last month, was blunt and scathing about DHS’s failures to keep illegals out:

“America’s borders are not secure,” said the report. “This current state of affairs is clearly unacceptable. A secure border is not only a prerequisite to a functioning legal immigration system, but it is essential to maintaining national security and protecting public health and safety.”

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social-security-insolvent

Washington D.C. has been telling America for years that the Social Security system is headed to inexorable demographic doom. Typically, though, the estimates have been far enough into the future for present politicians to safely ignore what has been called “the third rail of American politics.”

That illusion of safety in distance from the event was shattered Wednesday, as trustees of the Social Security disability trust fund reported that the program will be insolvent next year. The retirement fund will make it longer – until 2035, according to the trustees – but calls are already emerging for congress to take action to prevent the bankruptcy of the disability portion of the Social Security programs.

Of course, congress’ actions are limited. They can either raise taxes which is never a winner in an election year, they can borrow money from the retirement fund, they can take on more debt, or they can cut the programs. All of these options are bad for individual politicians who have to answer to voters, and the temptation to simply take on more debt and allow the Federal Reserve to Quanititatively Ease our way out of the immediate emergency is surely powerful.

President Obama advocates a different path of little resistance, that of raiding the retirement fund to prop up the disability fund. “The president has proposed a common-sense solution to improve the solvency of this fund in the short run so that Americans who rely on it will continue to receive the benefits they need,” Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said.

Meanwhile, the two houses of congress are fighting over proposed highway funding bills that advocate taking that same Social Security money. There is no clear indication of how many programs that are not Social Security the Social Security funds are actually expected to finance.

Currently, 11 million Americans receive Social Security disability benefits to the tune of $1,017 per beneficiary per month. Insolvency triggers an automatic 19% cut in benefits. In a rational world, insolvency would end the program entirely. Regrettably, our politicians left rationality far behind.

Untrammeled entitlement spending is a huge part of the financial meltdown currently ongoing in Greece, and the US would do well to learn some lessons from the Greek situation. The population stopped working, government programs paid them to do so, Greece borrowed money to fund its unsustainable programs, and eventually ran out of other people’s money.

Some parallels are evident in America’s current economic situation. Since Obama’s election in 2008, home ownership has declined across all demographics, childhood poverty has jumped from 18% to 22%, dependence payouts have doubled to $74 billion annually, the national debt has doubled to $18 trillion, the median household income has declined almost $3,000 annually, and 17% of the middle class fell out of the middle class. In short, we’re earning less, owning less, working less, borrowing more, and living more off the government. Too bad we don’t have an oppressive Euro Zone to blame.

Another huge similarity between the US and Greek situations is immigration. In America, illegal immigration across a porous border leads to pockets of mostly Mexican illegals associated with lower employment, higher rates of violent crime, and increased drug use. In Greece, illegal immigration across a porous border leads to pockets of mostly Islamic illegals associated with lower employment, higher rates of violent crime, and increased drug use. In both countries, the influx of illegals also strained the government entitlement systems, leading to more borrowing and, in the case of the USA, more taking from Social Security.

It’s hard to see the Social Security crisis as the tipping point for the American economy entering a Greece-like death spiral. After all, Greece has a debt-to-GDP ratio over 200%, while America’s is only at 104%, about the same as Cyprus when Cyprus… entered a Greece-like death spiral.

Clearly, the country must make some difficult changes in how it approaches Social Security. A great first step would be to stop raiding the funds for whatever harebrained scheme needs a few bucks. Another good idea is to crack down on fraud, which cost the program $14 billion over the last decade according to one study.

Whatever is done, kicking the can down the road and letting the next person deal with the problem is not going to make it easier. It’s just going to make it less painful for the Obama administration and the present congress.

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Here’s one Democrat who wants to help the “poor”: by giving himself (and the rest of Congress) a raise, apparently.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat from Illinois, said that Congressmen like himself are underpaid–and that they deserve a raise, right away!

All Congressmen, including Hastings, make $174,000 per year. The average American earns just $42,693 per year.

“We are entering our seventh year without a pay raise,” the well-paid public servant complained. “Now, I think we’ve proven to the American people that we are responsible. And I know that it has impacted me personally.”

Hastings continued: “We have more than 50 [Members of Congress], probably as many as 75 or more, living in their offices. They’re not there because of any other reason than they can’t afford it. Now if people want us in sackcloth and ashes than they will get what they rightly deserve as representation.”

In short, Hastings wants the American people to pay up or shut up about our horrible representation in Washington.

Aside from the brazen idea that Congress has “proven [they’re] responsible” enough to get a big raise–they’re not–it’s ridiculous to insist that someone making well into a six-figure salary is somehow “in sackcloth and ashes.” Of course, that’s the typical liberal response: rich Republicans are evil; rich Democrats are underpaid martyrs.

An income of $174,000 per year means Hastings and his colleagues earn more than 92% of American households. Many of which are, like Hastings, not even close to poverty.

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IRS-Building

The House Ways and Means Committee released a report yesterday saying that the IRS “deliberately” cut public information services to make this year’s tax season more frustrating and painful than it needed to be.

According to House Republicans, the IRS cut customer service personnel and phone capacity budgets rather than cuts in the millions of dollars the IRS spent on pet projects, “performance” bonuses and other discretionary spending. The report said that:

“…close review of the agency’s spending shows the IRS deliberately cut $134 million in funding for customer service to pay for other activities. Spending decisions entirely under the IRS’s control led to 16 million fewer taxpayers receiving IRS assistance this filling season.”

With respect to Congresses role in funding, the report revealed that:

“Congress made these cuts in part to lower unsustainably high federal spending, but also in response to waste and misconduct at the IRS.”

The report suggested that IRS spending choices were driven by a desire to retaliate against Congress revealing that call wait times averaged 34.4 minutes and that roughly half of all calls were never answered because they were dropped by the automated IRS phone system.

Rep. Peter Roskam, (R-IL), Chairman of the Ways and Means oversight committee said that “Fiscal year 2014 bonus money could have been used to answer 7.2 million additional phone calls” – a charge that irked IRS Commissioner John Koskinen who said he was forced to make customer service cuts because Congress reduced his agency’s budget.

Koskinen added that filings were up and that the IRS had taken on more duties including enforcement of Obamacare’s individual mandate fines and penalties.

Mr. Koskinen also bristled at what he called “deeper targeted cuts” imposed by Republican law makers in retaliation for the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups and conservative organizations leading up to the 2012 elections – targeting that many believe sidelined conservative groups that spent time and resources dealing with politically motivated delays, paperwork and costs.

According to the report:

“In May 2013, it was revealed that the IRS was targeting organizations applying for tax-exempt status solely because of their names and policy positions. According to an audit conducted by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), targeted groups were subject to extraordinary delays and intrusive questioning, including wholly inappropriate demands for donor lists.”

“An internal IRS document discovered in the course of the House Ways and Means Committee’s investigation revealed that the IRS flagged groups for special scrutiny if their case files included any of the following: the name “tea party” or “patriot,” references to issues such as “government debt or taxes,” or criticism of “how the country is being run.”

Rep. Mike Kelly, (R-PA) said Koskinen made things worse himself when he told IRS employees they would have to do “less with less.” Kelly added:

“You cannot go to the troops and tell the troops that things have never been darker, days have never been longer, the winters have never been colder, but you know what, we have a solution to that, we’ll just do less with less.”

In response, Koskinen, who was characterized as arrogant, sarcastic, uncooperative and less than truthful during Congressional hearings into the IRS targeting scandal, spent $1.2 billion on implementing Obamacare over the last four years – money that could have been better spent in other areas.

Republicans also questioned why the IRS was paying salaries to federal employees for doing labor union work on “official time” – a widespread practice among federal agencies where public employees perform union work on the taxpayer’s dime – an indirect subsidy to public employee unions.

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The American people have been led to believe that the U.S. Capitol is the most secure airspace in the country especially following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the nation that almost took out the White House and Congress – and they couldn’t be more wrong.

Proof was supplied on Wednesday when a Florida man used remote control to fly a gyrocopter – capable of carrying a pilot – from the Lincoln Memorial at one end of the Capitol Mall to the other end before landing the craft on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

It could have been loaded with explosives, deadly pathogens or even nuclear material but not this time. Rather, it carried 535 letters protesting campaign finance laws addressed to every member of Congress.

And while some might describe the stunt as an effective way to bring attention to a weighty public issue, the Capitol police, Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation and clandestine security forces weren’t impressed.

Upon arrival at the scene, Capitol Police arrested Florida resident Doug Hughes while the Capitol Police bomb squad inspected the aircraft declaring it harmless. Authorities removed the craft from the Capitol grounds to a secure location.

In a statement shortly after the incident, the Capitol Police said “the U.S. Capitol Police continues to investigate with one person detained and temporary street closures in the immediate area,”

According to Ben Montgomery reporting for the Tampa Bay Times, Hughes, who works for the U.S. Post Office, transported his gyrocopter from Florida to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where it took flight at noon landing at the Capitol building about 90 minutes later. Hughes protest letters read in part:

“I’m demanding reform and declaring a voter’s rebellion in a manner consistent with Jefferson’s description of rights in the Declaration of Independence”…”As a member of Congress, you have three options. You may pretend corruption does not exist. You may pretend to oppose corruption while you sabotage reform. You may actively participate in real reform.”

Hughes did not conduct his protest without warning. Reports indicate that Hughes notified the U.S. Secret Service of his plan and was questioned about it by service agents last year. Hughes added:

“I don’t believe that the authorities are going to shoot down a 61-year-old mailman in a flying bicycle”…”I don’t have any defense, okay, but I don’t believe that anybody wants to personally take responsibility for the fallout.”

The Capitol Police is leading the investigation with the assistance of the FBI who will carry out a search of Hughes’ home outside of Tampa.

Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said in a statement that it is working to investigate the incident. According to airspace security rules that govern the National Capitol Area, private aircraft flights are barred without prior coordination and permission from the FAA that was not obtained in this instance.

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wasting-money

It is no secret that ObamaCare – President Barack Obama’s “doomed to fail” government run health care scheme – is an expensive bureaucratic behemoth that spends more on paperwork, top-down control and IRS enforcement than it spends on healthcare itself.

So much so that 87% of Obamacare enrollees need federal aid to pay their premiums according to the Department of Health and Human Services – more than planned for through the annual appropriations of Congress suggests House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, (R- WI).

So how did the lawless Obama Administration make up the shortfall? Rep. Paul suspects the U.S. Treasury Department was ordered – in violation of federal law – to pay out more than $3 billion to health insurers even though Congress did not authorize the spending.

According to a letter Rep. Paul sent to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Paul explained how the Committee on Ways and Means is responsible, in part, with conducting oversight into the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA” a.k.a. ObamaCare) and the implementation of the PPACA’s cost-sharing (premium subsidy) reduction program.

Paul pointedly states:

“Congress has never appropriated any funds to permit the administration to make any”. . . “payments to insurance companies.” Despite lacking an appropriation, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner informed the (committee) in December 2014 that insurers ”have been paid a cumulative total of $2.7 billion in advance”. . .”payments through the November 2014 payment cycle.”

Taking Treasury Secretary Lew to task, Rep. Paul explained:

“Article I of the U.S. Constitution expressly prohibits the expenditure of public funds without an appropriation made by law. Accordingly, it appears that the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) has directed the Treasury Department to make payments to insurers”…”even though no funds are lawfully available to do so.”

Philip Klein writing for The Washington Examiner writes that the issue is turns on “payments to insurers known as cost-sharing subsidies”…”because President Obama’s healthcare law forces insurers to limit out-of-pocket costs”… and “capping consumer expenses, such as deductibles and co-payments, in insurance policies. In exchange for capping these charges, insurers are supposed to receive compensation.”

House Speaker John Boehner believed that the appropriations issue was of such importance in law and principal that he included unauthorized cost-sharing payments in his lawsuit against the Obama administration’s executive actions and overreach on Obamacare.

In response to Rep. Ryan’s inquiry, the Treasury Department sent a letter describing the program while avoiding a detailed explanation of how and under whose authority Treasury decided to make cost-sharing payments.

The letter was remarkable in this respect.

According to the letter, “$2.997 billion in such payments had been made in 2014” – more than the $2.7 billion originally believed. The letter directed Rep. Ryan to the Department of Justice for further explanation.

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Congress in Scandal

They didn’t fess up willingly. But after we applied the appropriate pressure, government officials responsible for operating the Washington D.C. Obamacare “Small Business Exchange” have finally admitted that Congress is taking advantage of health benefits its members and staff are not entitled to claim.

At least 12,359 members of Congress, congressional staffers, and their spouses and dependents currently purchase health insurance in D.C.’s Small Business Exchange even though Congress far exceeds D.C. law’s 50-employee limit for participating in the exchange. That’s why we filed a lawsuit in October on behalf of Kirby Vining, a D.C. taxpayer, against the D.C. Health Exchange Authority.  In a court filing, the D.C. government conceded that, under D.C. law, the U.S. Congress is not permitted to obtain insurance through the District’s Small Business Exchange. But members of the political class, true to form, do not believe the rules apply to them. How do we know?

Our lawsuit cites applications filed by the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate with the D.C. Exchange Authority.  The applications, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, show that the House and Senate claimed to have only 45 employees each. They also show that the House and Senate attested to having “50 or fewer full-time equivalent employees.”  Congress employs upwards of 20,000 people.  D.C. law limits participation in the exchange to small businesses having fewer than 50 full-time employees.  The applications also falsely state that the House and Senate are “local/state governments.”  The “electronic signature” section of the application includes the following language:

I’ve provided true and correct information to all the questions on this form to the best of my knowledge.  I know that if I’m not truthful, there may be a penalty.

The actual names of the signatories were blacked out by the D.C. Exchange in the documents Judicial Watch obtained. If nothing else, the political class knows how to cover its tracks. But on November 7, 2014, the Exchange Authority filed a Motion to Dismiss in which it clearly admits that the law does not allow Congress to participate in its Small Business Exchange. Here’s the key paragraph:

The Health Benefit Exchange Authority was created by the District of Columbia Council under the ACA, and authorized to operate a SHOP Exchange [“Small Business Health Options Program”] in the District through which qualified small businesses could access health coverage for employees. By limiting the SHOP Exchange to “small employers” with an “average of not more than 50 employees during the preceding calendar year,” D.C. Code 31-3171.01 prevents Congressional enrollment in the D.C. Shop Exchange because Congress does not fall within the definition of “small employer.” [Emphasis added]

But just because the D.C. government now admits it knows what’s right doesn’t mean it intends to do what’s right. Remarkably, District officials now argue that federal bureaucrats in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) could override the District’s laws (and, implicitly the Affordable Care Act).  As our attorneys point out in the JW response, Congress plainly knows how to block or reverse D.C. laws. The D.C. law that created the Small Business Exchange is completely consistent with, not preempted by, federal law. And if it is “preempted,” it can’t be undone by a bureaucrat ignoring the Affordable Care Act at the Office of Personnel Management. This Obama power grab is not constitutional and cannot be used to change federal law or “force” a local government to ignore the rule of law.  Unfortunately, from the D.C. government’s point of view, this case is not about logic, reason and honesty.

We are asking the court, on behalf of Mr. Vining, to:

(a) declare the House and the Senate’s participation in the Small Business Exchange to be unlawful; (b) enjoin Defendants from continuing to allow the House and the Senate to participate in the Small Business Exchange, or at a minimum, from expending further taxpayer funds on the House and Senate’s participation in the Small Business Exchange; (c) issue a writ of mandamus ordering [District officials] to deny the House and the Senate further participation in the Small Business Exchange . . .”

We are pushing ahead even as the opposing side pushes back.  On December 12, 2014, we filed an Opposition to the Motion to Dismiss on behalf of Vining.  The D.C. Exchange then filed a Reply to the Opposition on December 22, 2014. So, the legal battle continues to rage. And you can rest assured that your JW will continue to go to toe-to-toe with the D.C. government that is undermining the rule of law.  In the meantime, you might want to check with your local congressman and senators about what they think about the possible fraud now being committed to provide illegal health insurance to Congress.  You can point them to our documents and demand accountability.

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