Congressional Summer School
Shabooya Roll Call.
It may feel a little counterintuitive to slow things down with a Quickie but here we are. We’ve been on quite a roll lately, unpacking some big ticket items like Christian nationalism, the Convention of States movement, Hollywood and war, student debt, recessions. We’ve also had a couple of more direct political episodes covering conservative and moderate democrats, and progressive prospects for the midterms. I want to build on the latter theme this week to look more closely at the legislative progress in Congress because I feel like details get lost in ideological and political discourse.
We live in a world of headlines, algorithms that feed us information like pellets in a rat trap, sloganeering and propaganda machines. Sometimes, it’s important to stop, listen, recalibrate and organize.
Recently, we’ve been critiqued by listeners who rightfully point out that they live in areas of this country that are deeply entrenched in conservatism, or what is deemed that these days. As such, many of the ideas we promote aren’t all that palatable in red state America. Even under the most favorable of circumstances, crafting, amending and wrestling legislation across the finish line is an arduous task. And that’s by design.
But Congress is still a place where ideologue can meet intellectual can meet pragmatist and good things can happen. You’ve heard me talk optimistically about representatives like Ro Khanna, Jamie Raskin, Katie Porter, Pramila Jayapal, Ayanna Pressley, Earl Blumenauer and others who are putting in the work and have a lot to offer the nation. They’re not perfect, but it would be foolish to dismiss them in broad strokes as shallow and ineffectual. Even if it feels like it.
The 24/7 pundit class barking at the moon and shifting topics on a daily basis gives the impression to many of us that Congress is stuck in neutral. Then there are those moments when it moves quickly as it did to send relief to Americans during the pandemic, funds to Ukraine, or—sadly—tax cuts to the wealthy. When Congress is aligned and motivated, for better or worse, it demonstrates to us that it has the capacity to act quickly. This adds to the frustration when it just sits on bills that seem to make a ton of sense.
So in today’s Quickie we’re going to look at three different bills or groupings of bills that represent the array of legislation that exists. Something old, something big and something new. At the end I’ll run through several bills that should be on everyone’s radar and we’ll link some helpful ways to advocate. In terms of structure, I’ll provide a summary of the bill, tell you who’s behind it and who’s not, where it stands, what it does, what it theoretically costs and what’s at stake.
Hopefully by the end we’ll all be a little more informed, a little more appreciative of the challenges even the most courageous and skilled members of Congress face pushing an agenda forward and how best to organize our efforts to support our elected officials.
The 117th Congress
Congress has introduced anywhere between 7,000 and 26,000 bills per two-year session over the past 50 years. It’s a staggering amount of legislation. Of course, as we’ve covered before, most of the bills are procedural—small changes to the U.S. Code, updates to existing legislation, naming of post offices and other government buildings, etc.
The success rate, meaning enacted legislation signed into law by the President, is extremely low—anywhere between 4% and 9% when you consider bills incorporated into others. For example, there were literally hundreds of measures enacted through the tremendous Covid-era bills and the itsfuckedforsure (Infrastructure) bill. In terms of standalone bills, the percentage is even lower.
With respect to volume, the number of bills usually depends upon how much trouble we’re in. Like, there were a lot of bills in the 1970s. The success rate typically reflects control of Congress and alignment with the executive branch. That’s why the first few months of a new administration with control of both houses of Congress are so critical.
Outside of emergency situations, the two most important factors behind successful legislative periods are momentum and control.
Landmark pieces of legislation like the Voting Rights Act, The Affordable Care Act, the recovery bills under Trump and Biden are extremely rare. But when they come, they’re game changing. Consequential legislation on this scale has enfranchised millions of people. Given healthcare to millions more. Undergirded the entire U.S. economy during a pandemic. At this moment, there are a handful of really important bills that would also be historic.
If only we had a Congress willing to step up and make it happen. If only.
There are precious few productive weeks left in this, the 117th Congress believe it or not. About three weeks in June, the same in July. Then it’s pretty much recess time until Labor Day. But from Labor Day on, in the waning days of a Congress, there is typically little movement on the big stuff. Sure, we’ll name a few more post offices and update some expiring legislation or maybe authorize even more weapons for conflicts abroad. And who knows. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll sneak a few wins under the wire.
But for the most part, we’re staring down the barrel of intractability once the dog days of summer set in. Because by the end of summer recess, Congress will slowly downshift into lame duck status.
If you recall, last year when the Progressive Caucus lost the battle to pair the itsfuckedforsure bill with Build Back Better (BBB), we talked about splitting up some of the more pressing matters from BBB and setting them as standalone efforts. Package them up with patriotic titles, go all in with a concerted publicity campaign, dominate the airwaves for a cycle and put everything behind these bills one by one. Not pursuing this approach is just one of my criticisms of Pelosi and Schumer. It’s not like they can’t do it or don’t have desk drawers filled with model legislation ready to go.
You saw how quickly they were able to package up legislation to codify reproductive rights even though they knew it would fail. They did this to get every incumbent on record so they could use it against them in the midterms. I actually applaud that. Well, I applaud it with a slow clap because every democratic administration blew the opportunity to do this when they really had momentum and control so it’s a little late to say the least.
But that’s part of the rationale when a Congress reaches this near lame duck juncture. Even unsuccessful attempts to get something passed gives progressives campaign fodder to unseat conservative democrats in primaries and win out in the general.
So here’s how we’re approaching this episode. In all reality, it’s already too late to break apart some of the good stuff from Build Back Better. Mind you it’s not hard to do. Just impractical. But when you consider what non-emergency legislation has to go through in order to reach the President’s desk, we’re left with precious few options to move the needle before the midterms. That’s why I wanted to examine what bills, if any, theoretically had a shot. But I also wanted to dig into signature pieces of legislation that continue to be kicked down the road to remind us of what’s possible. Here’s how I went about putting this together and some key stipulations behind my arguments:
The selected bills originated in the House, made it through committee, include amendments and have passed the chamber.
Only bills were chosen. No resolutions or amendments.
Similar bills exist under different names and might also be making their way through committees, but these are further along.
Where appropriate, we have included remarks from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to reveal the projected financial impact but it’s important to understand that even CBO estimates can be manipulated and are only projections. Therefore, it’s best to view these estimates as a general guide and not set in stone.
In theory, the legislation we selected has a shot. At a minimum, bringing paired legislation to a vote in the Senate is a way to affirm how a senator feels about the subject so they’re on the record come election time.
Quickie One: A Two-Fer for First Nations
Alright. Let’s start with something old. As in the oldest problem in the nation. Our original sin. A substantial amount of funding progress was made during the pandemic to allocate funding to federally recognized Native tribes. It remains to be seen how much long-term impact the funding will have to help bring health and human services to reservations that almost universally experience high levels of poverty and a host of systemic health issues.
Sadly, there isn’t much pending legislation with a real shot at making a substantial difference to native people. But there are two bills—H.R. 1688 and H.R. 5444—that made it through the House and can easily be adopted by the Senate.
H.R. 1688 is titled the Native American Child Protection Act and is essentially a reauthorization and revision of programs that support the investigation of child abuse and neglect and relevant treatments.
One thing I like about this bill is that it pulls in tribal organizations to facilitate these services. So in this regard it’s less paternalistic than the legislation it seeks to update. Here are some of the key provisions:
(1) provide advice, technical assistance, and training to urban Indian organizations; (2) develop certain technical assistance materials for Indian tribes, tribal organizations, and urban Indian organizations; and (3) develop model intergovernmental agreements between tribes and states to prevent, investigate, treat, and prosecute incidents of family violence, child abuse, and child neglect involving Indian children and families.
The primary sponsor of the House bill is Representative Ruben Gallego, a democrat out of Arizona and the bill is somewhat unique in that it has a raft of bi-partisan co-sponsors, most of which come from states that are more heavily populated by native peoples. H.R. 1688 was introduced and passed in 2021 and reported to committee this year without amendment. Basically, a no-brainer that enjoyed popular support because it’s basically a better version of prior legislation that theoretically places more control in the hands of tribal services.
Regardless of how popular a bill might be, there is always a question of cost. Because, you know, we have to save as much money as we can for the Pentagon. Anyway, further proof this is a no-brainer, the CBO stated the “estimate of federal costs is unchanged.”
The bill does call for the establishment of an advisory board made up of tribal officials with expertise in child abuse and neglect to report on outcomes and advise on any policy changes in the out years of the bill. Again, it’s such a small thing but helps move in a less paternalistic fashion and puts more power in the hands of tribal organizations that understand how issues facing children on reservations are substantially different than what most children in the United States experience. There is also language that suggests that funding be allocated to hiring a caseworker in each tribal area, though it’s unclear how these funds were previously appropriated.
In a follow up to our residential schools episode from a couple of weeks ago, any legislative initiatives affecting native peoples in the U.S. should also incorporate H.R. 5444, The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act. Now, as we discussed in the episode and in conveying our friend John Kane’s sentiments, this is really a ceremonial bill with no teeth. It simply calls for guidance on how best to approach the process of uncovering and documenting marked and unmarked graves of indigenous and Alaskan and Hawaiian native children who died at residential schools. Or, as we said in the episode, the bare fucking minimum.
Quickie Two: Speaking of the bare fucking minimum… Restoring and improving the Voting Rights Act.
Let’s go big. A couple shows back we talked about how the country has been on a consistent and ugly trajectory since ushering in a wave of progressive reforms in the ‘60s and part of the ‘70s. Surge to the right. Hold. Surge to the right. Hold. One of the ways these forces have been able to drag the country steadily to the right is by chipping away at landmark legislation like the Voting Rights Act.
In 2013, the Supreme Court declared a portion of the original bill unconstitutional and eliminated it from the Act. In a nutshell, the court eliminated something called “preclearance.” Technically what it was killing was a specific formula that carved out areas of the country that had a historic proclivity to limit access to voting or outright disenfranchisement. The argument is that this provision was selective and unnecessary in the modern era.
I won’t argue that because the bottom line is that since its passage this provision has been updated several times and renewed for subsequently longer and longer periods of time. That was probably the biggest mistake. Knowing that someday a conservative court might look to target the selectivity of this provision, it should have been codified into permanent law across the board decades ago. Presumably, democrats couldn’t imagine a scenario where republicans would attempt to restrict access or roll back key provisions of such important legislation.
Before we get into the specifics of the bill, preclearance is an interesting topic. Essentially, this was a process that election boards had to go through to justify any changes in voting procedures. For decades it prevented states from substantial changes that weren’t widely communicated or created artificial barriers to voting. And it worked. In theory, Congress should have acted a long time ago to institutionalize this measure across the board. But for some reason they left it open to an extreme interpretation that this process was selective and therefore arbitrary.
Honestly, it’s not a bad argument. It shouldn’t be selective. It should be universal. I’m over simplifying things a bit, but the most important thing Congress can do is push aggressively to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021. The House version, H.R. 4 did indeed pass and it’s unconscionable that the Senate cannot get this done.
The political argument against it has little to do with the Supreme Court decision. Instead, Republicans have made it a “state’s rights” argument, saying that a federal arbiter of what’s fair is an infringement on a state’s ability to govern itself. It’s stupid. They’re stupid. But they’re clever because since 2013 the Democrats haven’t had enough control of Congress to do what’s needed to protect voting access.
That being said, the John Lewis bill codifies the circumstances under which the Department of Justice must approve changes to voting practices. And it’s pretty generous if you ask me.
According to the bill, the following criteria would invite DOJ intervention if:
15 or more voting rights violations occurred in the state during the previous 25 years; 10 or more violations occurred during the previous 25 years, at least 1 of which was committed by the state itself; or 3 or more violations occurred during the previous 25 years and the state administers the elections.
The Act would also allow the Attorney General to request federal observers in areas where there is a threat of racial discrimination. These and other provisions help to finally close the gap left open from the original act and named for a revered member of Congress who fought his entire adult life for voting rights.
Yet, even after Lewis passed, with the democrats in charge of both houses and the White House, the democrats were unable to move republicans in the Senate to a 60 person majority. Their argument is that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in elections…
The government shouldn’t be involved in how elections are managed in this country…
The federal government shouldn’t manage the national elections process.
The government. Doesn’t belong. In elections.
I thought saying it over and over would make more sense, but it doesn’t.
I’m not even going to bother with CBO estimates because this is about enfranchisement and democracy. Spend whatever you need.
Quickie Three: Reefer Madness.
No chance either of these marijuana bills passes and that’s a shame. Regardless of one’s public health stance on marijuana, these bills are really important in terms of justice and practicality.
The first Mary Jane bill that is a must and worth fighting for from a justice perspective is H.R. 3617. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, known as The MORE Act.
There are a few technical provisions in the bill and I always find this shit fascinating because it shows you how many chefs are in the kitchen when cooking up a bill. Things like replacing statutory references to marijuana to cannabis, publishing demographic data on cannabis business owners and directing certain offices to study the impact of recreational cannabis on things like driving and working.
The more important parts of the Act are the following provisions:
Establishes a trust fund to support various programs and services for individuals and businesses in communities impacted by the war on drugs,
Prohibits the denial of federal public benefits to a person on the basis of certain cannabis-related conduct or convictions,
Prohibits the denial of benefits and protections under immigration laws on the basis of a cannabis-related event (e.g., conduct or a conviction),
Establishes a process to expunge convictions and conduct sentencing review hearings related to federal cannabis offenses.
Of course, it also includes tax provisions to make sure the government gets something out of this but that had to be expected.
For context, here’s what the ACLU has to say about supporting the bill:
“The MORE Act addresses the collateral consequences of federal marijuana criminalization and Takes steps to ensure the legal marketplace is diverse and inclusive of individuals adversely affected by prohibition. The legislation begins by removing, or descheduling, marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. This provision alone will have a significant impact, as it will decriminalize marijuana at the federal level while enabling states to set their own regulatory policies without threat of federal interference. This facet of the bill is especially important given that 17 states have legalized adult use of marijuana and 36 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of medical marijuana.
“Descheduling also protects noncitizens from immigration consequences due to marijuana activity, including noncitizens working in state- legal marijuana marketplaces. The bill also prevents the government from using past marijuana use as a basis for denying federal benefits like SNAP and TANF, student financial aid, or security clearances needed to obtain government jobs.”
Jerry Nadler is the main sponsor of this and it has been really vetted on its way to approval in the house. Transportation, oversight and reform, natural resources, ways and means, education and labor, agriculture and energy and commerce committees have all put their grubby hands on this thing in the House and it still fucking made it through for a vote. On April first of this year it passed the House by a vote of 220 to 204.
As you can imagine, this was essentially along party lines although three republicans crossed over and two fucking democrats voted against it. Henry fucking Cuellar—of course—and some whack ass white dude from New Hampshire named Chris Pappas, which is Greek for “guy no one invites to parties.” Here’s a portion of his statement:
“I am disappointed that the full House was not given a chance to support the bipartisan amendment I submitted to address these issues, including explicitly preventing violent felons, organized crime leadership, or anyone who has been found guilty of trafficking fentanyl from being let out of prison or having their federal records expunged.”
This law doesn’t let violent criminals, gang leaders or dealers of fentanyl out of prison. Just another pandering dickhead who wants to look tough on crime. But there’s another thing you should know Unf*ckers. It’s about the Republicans.
One of the three Republicans that crossed over to vote yes on this bill was…
I know. I hate it. Anyway, the House version is a thoughtful and considered bill that will be taken up in its entirety at some point in the senate if the Democrats can ever get their shit together. More than likely, you’ll see this again in the next Congress and the one after that if we’re being realistic.
Before we get to the other important marijuana bill, I think it’s really important to review the CBO analysis. Here are just a couple of highlights.
CBO estimates that over the 2022-2031 period, H.R. 3617 would reduce time served by current and future inmates by 37,000 person-years.
H.R. 3617 would increase the number of people eligible for federal benefits, compared with current law. That change would increase direct spending for federal benefit programs by $344 million over the 2022-2031 period and reduce revenues by $6 million over that same period.
CBO and JCT estimate that H.R. 3617 would increase revenues, on net, by about $8.1 billion over the 2022-2031 period by creating an occupational tax on cannabis producers and warehouse operators and by increasing compliance with business income taxes.
H.R. 3617 would create a new Opportunity Trust Fund and would appropriate to the fund amounts equivalent to the net revenues received from the occupational tax and from excise taxes on cannabis products. CBO estimates that about $7.8 billion would be appropriated to the fund over the 2022-2031 period, of which the Department of Justice would spend about $3.4 billion to provide job training and legal aid, among other services, to people harmed by what was termed the war on drugs.
Finally, H.R. 3617 would reduce the Bureau of Prisons’ costs by reducing both the number of people in federal facilities and the amount of time they serve. CBO estimates that the provision would result in net savings of about $800 million over the 2022-2031 period.
I thought it was interesting to see how the CBO measured this in both budgetary terms and human terms by estimating the reduction in time served by current and future inmates.
So the MORE Act is mostly about the human and justice side of things, even though there are operational and business related aspects as well. Strictly from a business perspective, the other bill that is essential is H.R. 1996, known as the Safe Banking Act. This is the key ingredient to legalizing the business of weed. As it stands, marijuana businesses are technically all illegal. I think most Unf*ckers know this but it’s worth mentioning quickly.
Federal law supersedes state law except where specified. So while a number of states have legalized medical and/or recreational marijuana, it is still technically unlawful under federal statutes. But companies and states get away with it because the feds are essentially turning a blind eye while it figures out how they really want this to go. That’s your first hint that this is all a fucking joke.
The practical issue this act cures is that banking is a federal enterprise. Right now it’s nearly impossible for cannabis businesses to bank because federal regulations prohibit depository institutions from taking this money. And it’s not insured by the FDIC. Because there’s no banking transparency, it also makes these businesses ripe for money laundering, which is clearly an unintended consequence of leaving cannabis businesses unbanked. Without this, cannabis business owners who can only really deal in cash remain in danger of being targeted by violent criminal activity. So this bill proposed by representative Ed Perlmutter would bring the cannabis industry into the regular economy.
Obviously there are those who look at this and understand that this is also a way for the government to more closely track revenues and extract taxes. Yes. But that’s the cost of doing business. No one is clean here. Bottom line is that these two bills consider the angles and avenues necessary to bring weed fully into the mainstream.
The bill passed the House for the sixth fucking time by the way, but it’s unlikely to be considered in the Senate on its own until the MORE Act goes first.
By the way, did you know that the House has a Cannabis caucus?
And do you know who the co-chair of the cannabis caucus is?
Earl fucking Blumenauer baby. I’m telling you. Earl the Pearl. The Blumenator. I fucking love this guy.
I’ve decided to include a brief discussion of one piece of pending legislation at the conclusion of each episode for the rest of the summer. I think it’s super important to have an understanding of the sausage making process and see just how far and wide the interests in this country are. And I’m only coming at it from a left perspective. Remember that for every progressive legislative reform there are probably two shitbag policies being worked in Congress and in statehouses across the nation.
The one obvious takeaway to me is how shitty the Senate is. When you look at all of the work that goes into making, amending and passing a bill in the House it’s actually impressive. And we’ve talked about the senate as a deliberate cooling mechanism but it really has become the place where progress goes to die. It’s such a shame.
I get it on the big bills. H.R. 1 For the People, H.R. 3 Prescription Drug Reform, H.R. 4 Voting Rights, H.R. 5 for Equality, 6 for the Dreamers, 7 for Paycheck equality. These are the democracy salvation bills. The big fights for justice. But there are literally scores of smaller bills that do more than name a fucking post office that should make it through regardless of party affiliation.
If I could only pass two bills it would be H.R. 1 For the People and H.R. 4, John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Getting money out of politics and reducing barriers to voting is how all the other stuff eventually happens. Because for every “no” vote on something important to the working class, there’s usually a dollar figure behind it or perhaps thousands of disenfranchised people who weren’t able to have their voices heard. As a mentor of mine always used to say, it’s a process not an event.
Here endeth the Quickie.
GovTrack: Statistics and Historical Comparison
Congress.gov: H.R.1688 - Native American Child Protection Act
Indian Country Today: House passes Gallego and Young bill to protect Native American children
Congress.gov: H.R.1996 - SAFE Banking Act of 2021
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