Opinion

7 Ways the Senate Can Spend the Rest of August

A few real problems have bubbled up while senators were away

There’s no shortage of things for senators to do while in town this month, Murphy writes. Above, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., arrives at the Capitol for a vote in April. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Welcome back to the grind, senators and staff. If you were only watching cable news over your abridged recess, you might have been lulled into the idea that the only messes in Washington you would come back to were Omarosa’s habit of recording conversations in the Situation Room and what we’ve learned so far about Paul Manafort’s choice of outerwear from his trial — ostrich. So gross.

But while some in the D.C. media were caught up in the Trump train wrecks of the day, a few real problems bubbled up while you were gone. Somebody has to deal with them, so as long as you’re here — why not you?

Among the looming, and still unaddressed, catastrophes that went mostly ignored in your absence were:

1. Elections and candidates (still) under attack by Russia

Election hacking seems so 2016, but Tom Burt, the vice president for customer security and trust for Microsoft, said last month that the company knows of at least three candidates on the 2018 ballot whose staffs and campaigns have been targeted in phishing scams (one of whom has been revealed to be Sen. Claire McCaskill). That’s on top of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coat’s warning last month that Russia is consistently hacking into American nuclear plants, aviation assets, businesses, banks, and state and local governments. Are we worried yet?

2. Russia threatens over “Space Force”

Speaking of Russia, the country is none too happy about Vice President Mike Pence’s pitch for a new military command in the cosmos. According to the Air Force Times, Victor Bondarev, the head of the Russian Parliament’s Upper House Committee on Defense and Security, has said that “militarization of outer space is the path to disaster.” He added that if the U.S. followed through on the plan, “then, of course, not only ours, but also other states, will follow with a tough response aimed at ensuring world security.” Could someone flag that for their committee staff to follow up on?

Watch: Pence Outlines Need for U.S. Space Force, Says Space No Longer Peaceful

3. Farm country struggling under tariffs

The Des Moines Register reported from the Iowa State Fair this weekend that falling prices of commodities — not the famous butter cow — were the talk of the fair this year. Farmers, tractor suppliers, and even people farming unrelated produce all said the Trump tariffs were dragging down the prices of their goods, while pork producers were talking about how long they can hang on without going under. Gregg Hora, the president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, told the paper the tariffs are clobbering Iowa pork exports: “We’ve built an industry on those foreign market opportunities. …We rely on those exports.”

4. VA being run out of Mar-a-Lago 

A blockbuster of an investigation by ProPublica found that a trio of members at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach have been having daily input, including conference calls, on decisions at the Department of Veterans Affairs, including recommendations to fire high-ranking officials. None of the three members have military or government experience, but all enjoy (and make the most of) access to President Donald Trump when he’s in Florida. Paging the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. 

5. Department of Education lifting protections from ‘diploma farms’

Under the Obama administration, abusive for-profit colleges could have lost federal funding if they were found to be defrauding students by charging high tuition, but delivering poor employment opportunities after the diplomas were awarded. Last week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos moved to end the funding threat and replace it with more data and success-rate handouts for students as they’re considering attending a for-profit college. Not only would the new rule potentially leave students open to fraud, critics have pointed out it won’t come without a cost, literally. The change would have an estimated price tag of $5.3 billion over 1o years.  

6. Turkey trouble

In retaliation for recent U.S. sanctions against Turkey, a group of pro-government lawyers in that country wants to raid Incirlik air base there and arrest American Air Force officers associated with the base on charges of working to overthrow the Turkish government in 2016. Not only is Incirlik a key staging base for U.S. operations against ISIS, relations with Turkey have been deteriorating quickly with little mainstream attention in the States. Even a threat to arrest American military members would change that for the worse. 

7. More money, more problems

When the Senate considers the combined Defense and Labor-HHS-Education spending package this week, which will tally up to an all-time high of $857 billion for fiscal 2019, in the back of your minds, you might want to consider the Congressional Budget Office report from this month warning that if current tax and spending rates continue, the national debt would be on track to balloon to 165 percent of GDP within 20 years. Running up obscene deficits and debts used to be a problem for at least some people in Washington. It’s about to be a problem for the entire country.

The to-do list is long, but for once the Senate is in town in August. Welcome back.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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