Heard on the Hill

Capitol-Cannon Tunnel Floods, Surprising Very Few

By Katherine Tully-McManus

Commenting after President Donald Trump’s performance in Helsinki, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell observed, “I have said a number of times, I’ll say it again: The Russians are not our friends. And I entirely believe the assessment of our intelligence community.”

Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said in a release, “There is no doubt that Russia interfered in our 2016 presidential election.”

Neither lawmaker directly criticized Trump, and neither senator castigated the president of the United States for believing Vladimir Putin over the assessment of his own intelligence agencies and experts.

Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, the majority whip, followed suit, and on the PBS NewsHour, Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul both defended Trump and bashed Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, one of the relatively few Republicans who has demonstrated real character over and over again.

What is lacking from these and most other Republicans is any sign of outrage at Trump’s performance in Helsinki. Yes, they said they believed the U.S. intelligence community, not Putin, but they wouldn’t criticize the president directly or express shock or disgust at Trump’s embrace of the Russian strongman.

It’s true that a handful of Republicans stepped up to criticize the president, including McCain, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, Texas Rep. Will Hurd and Mitt Romney, who is likely to be in the Senate when 2019 rolls around and who called Trump’s performance in Helsinki “disgraceful.”

But the list of Republicans who denounce the president by name is short.

For me, the greatest disappointment is Tennessean Alexander, whom I always regarded as a man of character, substance and dignity.

We all know that Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar and Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert aren’t the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, and nobody expects ideologues like Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton or Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson to put country ahead of party or personal ideology.

And McConnell cares primarily about getting power and keeping it, especially if that means enacting conservative policies.

But I expect more from Alexander, who recently turned 78 years old and isn’t up for reelection until 2020.

A former governor of Tennessee, president of the University of Tennessee and secretary of Education, Alexander graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vanderbilt and earned a law degree from New York University.

He worked for Sen. Howard Baker and for Bryce Harlow in the Nixon White House. I remember trailing Alexander (along with my colleague and friend Charlie Cook) around the Iowa State Fair once during one of his presidential bids.

Few people recognized him, but that didn’t stop him from trying to get attention so that he could talk about public policy and the nation’s top office.

He was a hard worker and a serious person, particularly when it came to addressing education issues.

I certainly understand why people like Alexander, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and South Dakota’s John Thune would rather hide in a foxhole than take shots at Trump.

The president always returns incoming fire, and few members of a president’s party want to take the abuse that Trump likes to dish out.

Moreover, Portman (62), Thune (57) and Gardner (43) are young enough that they can hope to have many more years in the Senate, possibly even higher office.

Criticizing Trump directly and with the outrage that the president’s behavior deserves could well end their electoral careers prematurely.

Trump’s standing among Republicans nationally is strong, and the president has spent the last two years rebuilding Putin’s reputation among the GOP grass roots.

According to the Pew Research Center, 25 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners in January of this year had a favorable view of Putin — a marked increase from 2015, when only 11 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners had a similar view.

But to understand why Republican officeholders with an ounce of integrity, intelligence and self-respect don’t tear into Trump for his lack of civility, dignity, integrity and embrace of authoritarians is not to excuse their silence.

At some point, everyone should agree that there must be a time to put country over party and ideology. We are at that point now.

I am not at all sure that Democrats would behave any differently than Republicans are now behaving if the shoe were on the other foot.

In fact, as I recall, few Democrats complained about Bill Clinton even after he said, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

But Clinton’s transgressions pale in comparisons to Trump’s.

The Democrat did not give aid and comfort to America’s longtime adversary or undermine institutions crucial to our freedom and national security.

Only Donald Trump has done that.

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Nineteen members of Congress spoke Tuesday against the Commerce Department’s tariffs on Canadian newsprint, telling the U.S. International Trade Commission the import tax hurt local newspapers.

The bipartisan group of legislators asked the ITC to reverse tariffs the Commerce Department imposed on Canadian newsprint imports. Opponents of the tariffs say they would deal a major blow to local newspapers, which already struggle to stay afloat, by increasing the cost of newsprint.

The tariffs already substantially increase the cost of newsprint, leading newspapers to shrink the size of their pages and plan for job cuts in response, the lawmakers said. The tariffs would hasten the decline of local news, they said, harming journalists and communities served by small local publications rather than major newspapers.

“In these communities, there are no big newspapers to bring people their local news,” said Rep. John Moolenaar, a Republican from Michigan. “These tariffs, if continued, would do lasting damage to these local institutions.”

The Commerce Department imposed tariffs in March on Canadian newsprint or uncoated groundwood paper. The department’s action came after the North Pacific Paper Company, a mill in Washington state, complained that Canadian manufacturers were harming their business by selling newsprint at non-competitive prices. The ITC held today’s hearing while it reviews the tariffs.

Tariffs have been a point of friction between the Trump administration and Congress, including some Republicans, who traditionally favor free trade with minimal government interference.

At Tuesday’s hearing, legislators said the news media’s shift to digital platforms is chiefly responsible for declining business for paper mills, not the cost of Canadian groundwood paper. The tariffs may create some jobs at North Pacific Paper Company, but would cause lost jobs across the country, lawmakers said.

Speakers against the tariffs included House Republican Conference chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Alaska and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. The group comprised 13 Republicans, five Democrats and independent Maine Sen. Angus King.

Collins was the first to raise the issue in Congress. Several of the testifying lawmakers noted it is unusual to find agreement across the aisle on economic matters.

A representative for the North Pacific Paper Company, the petitioner for the tariffs, said the tariffs have allowed paper mills to ramp up production and re-hire American workers.

But King said the tariff on newsprint is a cure “worse than the disease,” and asked the commissioners to think of the issue as the local newspapers “that will be one inch smaller next year.”

Lawmakers noted the issue of tariff-driven cost increases are particularly sensitive in the newspaper business, given the impact on independent journalism.

“The freedom of the press is one of the central tenets of the First Amendment,” Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., said.

The publishing industries employ about 600,000 people in the United States, according to Stop Tariffs on Printers & Publishers, a group of companies in the printing and publishing industry leading the charge against the newsprint tariffs.

The group says 11,000 people from all 50 states have signed a petition against the tariffs, and more than 80 members of Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, have raised concerns.

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Executives from the world’s top social media companies tried to reassure Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday that their platforms do not censor or control conservative content and commentary, contrary to assertions by some lawmakers about the companies’ practices.

While social media companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have been removing false accounts, fake ads, and banning foreign government-owned propaganda outlets, lawmakers said some of them also have been restricting conservative content.

There are “numerous stories in the news of content that’s still being unfairly restricted,” Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said in his opening remarks at the hearing to examine the content filtering practices of social media companies. “For example, Facebook automatically blocked a post from a Texas newspaper that it claimed contained hate speech” when in fact the newspaper had published the Declaration of Independence just before Independence Day on July 4, Goodlatte said.

In a committee hearing held in April to examine the same topic, Goodlatte said that while social media companies were “exercising great care and discretion to ensure that their services are not abused,” there is a “fine line between removing illegal activity and suppressing free speech.”

Goodlatte and other Republicans on the panel at Tuesday’s hearing also pushed company executives to say why content on their platforms cannot be considered as publishing or broadcasting and therefore subject to rules that apply to television and other broadcasting platforms.

Laws, including Sec. 230 of the Telecommunications Communications Act (PL 104-104) that says providers of internet services shall not be treated as publishers, may need to be reexamined, Goodlatte said. And operators of social media platforms need to “do a better job explaining how they make decisions to filter content and the rationale for why they do so,” he said.

Company executives said they use a combination of advanced artificial intelligence-based technologies and human operators to monitor and filter content that may violate company rules.

“Our policies do not target particular political beliefs,” Jennifer Downs, director of public policy and government relations at YouTube told the committee. “To determine when videos should be removed, demonetized, or age restricted, we look at the context, including whether content is clearly documentary, educational, or satirical.”

At Facebook, which has hired thousands of fact checkers, “discussing controversial topics or espousing a debated point of view is not at odds with our community standards,” said Monika Bickert, the company’s vice president for global policy told the committee.

Twitter, which has been removing hundreds of thousands of fake accounts and bots operated by Russian troll factories, is making sure legitimate voices can be heard, Nick Pickles, senior strategist at Twitter told the committee.

“Due to technology and process improvements during the past year, we are now removing 214 percent more accounts for violating our spam policies on a year-on-year basis,” Pickles said. “At the same time, the average number of spam reports we received through our reporting flow continued to drop — from an average of approximately 25,000 per day in March, to approximately 17,000 per day in May. We’ve also seen a 10 percent drop in spam reports from search as a result of our recent changes.”

Democrats on the committee said Republicans should be more concerned about President Donald Trump’s comments at the news conference in Helsinki where he backed Russian President Vladimir Putin while challenging U.S. intelligence agency assessments that the Kremlin had interfered in the 2016 election.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the panel, offered a motion that the committee hold a closed door hearing to examine evidence from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s latest indictment in light of Trump’s dismissal of U.S. intelligence findings. But the motion was rejected 10-12 on a party line vote.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said the hearing was “motivated by a sense of persecution by Republicans and conservatives, when they have a majority” in Congress, and won the White House. Lofgren cited analysis that showed conservative views have three times more user engagement on social media platforms than liberal views. She said Republicans have not provided any evidence of bias against conservative views on social media platforms.

Nevertheless, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Google’s practice of scraping information from sites like Wikipedia and others and offering it up to users searching for information, instead of just providing links, means that Google and others could be made responsible for content on their platform and should be subject “to litigation under the standards of care that other media are held to.”

Facebook’s Bickert and YouTube’s Downs said that the protection offered to internet and online companies under current law is essential and has enabled their companies and others to thrive. Both of them said that social media companies only enable content created by users to be disseminated through their platforms.

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The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee said Tuesday that public pressure in support of expanded work requirements for food stamp recipients could help move Senate negotiators on the 2018 farm bill toward accepting the House legislation.

“I need 70 percent of Democrats in this world who believe work requirements are a proper thing and 90 percent of Republicans in this world who believe work requirements are a proper thing to tell their senator, ‘Hey, that work requirement makes a lot of sense,’” Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway told the audience at an Axios forum.

The Texas Republican said he is ready to go to conference on the farm bill with the Senate soon. The schedule for voting on a motion to go to conference is shifting, he said, because ranking member Collin C. Peterson has to be in his district on Thursday. The vote could take place Wednesday or be delayed until July 23, Conaway said.

The vote on the motion would be to reject Senate changes to the House bill and request negotiations to develop a compromise bill. The goal is to produce a final bill that sets policies for farm, conservation, crop insurance, rural development and other programs before the current farm law expires Sept. 30.

Once the House votes to start negotiations, Conaway said the Senate is expected to respond quickly and agree to the motion. Each chamber would then name conferees, but Conaway, Peterson and their Senate counterparts, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, are expected to be the primary negotiators.

The Senate version of the farm bill, however, does not include new work requirements. Many states already have work requirements, Roberts and Stabenow said during a CQ on Congress podcast last week.

“The House bill takes $8 billion and sends it to the states,” Roberts said. “I don’t know who is going to implement this. I don’t know who in the Department of Agriculture has the capability to send that money out to states. ... Who is going to conduct the job training?”

[Listen: Two Senators on How They Got a Bipartisan Farm Bill]

In light of the ongoing trade disputes that are threatening U.S. exports, a new farm bill would provide anxious farmers and ranchers with a safety net, Roberts added. “Any other issue that comes up ... that has to come secondary to our overall mission, which is again to provide our farmers predictability and certainty.”

Roberts and Conaway agree that getting the farm bill done by September is important to provide a sense of stability to farmers.

The most sharply contested difference between the House and Senate farm bill versions is the treatment of work requirements under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program.

In the CQ on Congress podcast interview, Roberts and Stabenow said they believe they have found a pragmatic and workable approach to SNAP.

The Senate bill keeps the current 20-hour work requirements for able-bodied adults and would incorporate findings from 10 state demonstration projects that are trying to incorporate work and education requirements for working-age adults. The bill would fund an additional eight state pilot projects that focus on SNAP recipients with problems finding work.

The legislation would make it easier for state agencies to work with the private sector in training SNAP recipients for jobs. It would also end a bonus program that rewarded states with low error rates in benefit payments because of Justice Department concerns that several states manipulated data to collect rewards.

The House bill would expand work requirements to able-bodied adults ages 18 to 59 so that they keep their food benefits, requiring at least 20 hours a week of work that would be increased to 25 hours a week. The legislation also would tighten eligibility requirements, change the way monthly benefits are calculated and shift billions of dollars from food benefits into funding for state SNAP job-training and education programs.

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Heard on the Hill

Word on the Hill: What’s Buzzing on Capitol Hill?

By Alex Gangitano

House Republicans have abandoned a plan to vote on a Democrat-sponsored bill to terminate the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency after the bill’s authors said they and their colleagues would vote against it.

But GOP leaders are still planning to hold a vote on a resolution by Louisiana GOP Rep. Clay Higgins expressing the House’s support for all ICE officers and personnel and denouncing calls to completely abolish the agency.

The vote on Higgin’s resolution will occur Wednesday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. It will be brought up under an expedited procedure known as suspension of the rules, which requires two-thirds support for passage.

The other bill Republicans had been planning a vote on would have terminated ICE within a year of Congress enacting “a humane immigration enforcement system” to be designed by a commission the legislation would establish. The measure was introduced Thursday by Progressive Caucus Co-chair Mark Pocan and members Pramila Jayapal and Adriano Espaillat.

McCarthy said “it was very shocking” they would introduce a bill and then turn around and say they’d vote against it after he offered to bring it to the floor for debate.

Pocan, Jayapal and Espaillat had said they’d vote against their bill because Republicans were going to bring it up for political messaging purposes, not actually with intentions to pass it. They said they stood by the policy.

McCarthy suggested that Higgins’ resolution accomplishes the same goal in putting Democrats on record on whether they want to abolish ICE.

Speaking minutes before McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise said he wasn’t sure what had been decided or scheduled regarding the two ICE measures but that he supported putting Democrats on record on the matter.

“I know there is a lot of concern about what the Democrats are saying about their interest in abolishing ICE,” the Louisiana Republican said. “I think it’s a radical idea. It seems like they’re having an internal fight over where they really stand on it.”

Asked if Democrats saying they wouldn’t vote against their own bill was a reason not to vote on that one, Scalise said, “It’s one thing for them to say that, but to vote against your own bill on the House floor looks like you’re just playing political games with our national security. And I don’t think that’s a responsible place to be.”

In a sign that the ICE messaging votes were still fluid, McCarthy had not mentioned either on his weekly schedule released Friday evening.

A GOP aide said discussion had continued into the weekend and a final decision on scheduling was made Monday.

But GOP leaders had been monitoring the abolish ICE movement for weeks. McCarthy had brought it up during a GOP conference weeks ago as something they should keep an eye on and during last week’s conference meeting floated the idea of a floor vote.

When the Progressive Caucus members released their bill Thursday, Scalise brought up the idea of voting on that specific bill in various meetings held that day.

Later Thursday McCarthy told reporters that the House would have a debate on the Democrats’ bill before the August recess.

Democrats reacted quickly to that news saying they would vote against the bill and turn the debate into a discussion on family separations at the border and lack of legislation to permanently address that.

Watch: Pence: Democratic Leaders Must Stop ‘Spurious’ Calls to Abolish ICE

Some rank-and-file Republicans had questioned the wisdom of holding the messaging votes on ICE, particularly after Democrats said they’d vote against their bill. But others felt it still would have been useful to have Democrats on record voting against a measure they introduced.

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Capitol Ink | Meet the President

By Robert Matson
Heard on the Hill

Lawmakers Drop the D-Word After Trump and Putin Meet

By Maria Mendez

MJ Hegar, who is challenging Texas Rep. John Carter, outraised the incumbent nearly 4-1 in the most recent fundraising quarter, according to Federal Election Commission documents.

Hegar, a U.S. Air Force veteran, announced her campaign raised $1.1 million in the last fundraising quarter while Carter raised $265,725.

Hegar’s campaign said in a news release that $750,000 came in the 10 days after she released a video chronicling her experience in the military and facing sexism at the Pentagon.

In the ad, Hegar said Carter’s office told her that he was not able to help her when she was trying to lift a ban women serving in ground combat jobs because she was a woman because she wasn’t one of his donors.

Todd Olsen, a spokesman for Carter’s campaign, told Politifact that Hegar’s claims that she requested a meeting with Carter and that he refused because she was not a donor were “absolutely untrue.”

Hegar’s campaign also reported having $867,266 in cash on hand compared to Carter's $537,561 at the end of the quarter.

A news release from Hegar’s campaign said 94 percent of her donors were small donors.

“The thousands of people who are supporting our campaign show that it is time to show the door to politicians who care more about campaign donors and political parties than protecting our country,” she said.

But Hegar still has an uphill climb.

Carter won his last election in 2016 with 58.4 percent of the vote and his Democratic challenger only won 36.5 percent. President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the district by more than 12 points.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race for Texas’ 31st District as Solid Republican.

Watch: Five More Candidate Intro Videos Worth Watching

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A federal watchdog is recommending the Department of Health and Human Services recoup $341,000 associated with former Secretary Tom Price’s travel expenses.

The HHS Office of the Inspector General released Thursday an audit that found 20 of 21 trips Price and other HHS officials took during his time in office did not comply with federal requirements. Price, a hardline fiscal conservative during his time in Congress, resigned last September after it was revealed that he regularly chartered private planes for routine business trips.

The report suggests Price and his wife would have to reimburse the government for any of their personal travel taken on government aircraft that Price had not already repaid.

The 21 trips for Price and his staff cost taxpayers a total of $1.2 million, the OIG found, including “at least” $341,000 in wasteful spending. Price repaid nearly $52,000 for his seat on the planes and another $7,500 for bringing his wife on several trips.

The OIG found HHS often did not compare costs between taking chartered flights and commercial flights. When HHS booked chartered travel, the department occasionally did not use the lowest quoted price. For an Aug. 25 trip to Seattle, for example, HHS received one quote at $75,829, but booked another plane at $121,500.

OIG outlined a number of specific areas where HHS should “take appropriate administrative actions” to recoup spending. But HHS said it’s not clear that recouping the money is “legally appropriate” and that it’s continuing to review the matter.

OIG also recommended HHS institute better regulations and training for employees regarding business travel, to which the department agreed. Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan, who served as acting secretary after Price’s resignation, said HHS has since established the “most rigorous controls on travel in the organization’s history.”

“Reviews like this are an important part of any organization’s efforts to ensure that best practices are being utilized,” Hargan said in a statement. “The department understands the auditor’s concern that the processes and record keeping regarding travel could have been more comprehensive, and, since the period examined by the audit, HHS has instituted new travel review procedures applicable to all political appointees.”

Hargan noted, however, that Price did not break the law.

“As a matter of law, none of the travel at issue was unauthorized,” he said.

Revelations about Price’s travel triggered investigations into irresponsible expenditures from other Trump cabinet members, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and former Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Scott Pruitt, who resigned last week.

Democrats reacted quickly to the HHS OIG report.

“This report confirms Tom Price’s role as the poster child for the rampant waste of taxpayer dollars that has occurred on Trump’s watch — all while he was pursuing dangerous policies that increase families’ premiums and weaken their health care,” said Finance Committee top Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon. “This unseemly saga is a reminder of why public officials need to be carefully scrutinized before the Senate places them in positions of enormous responsibility.” 

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