With Easter recess approaching, both chambers of Congress are once again making news for what they’re not doing. The Senate, which has already left for the month, is refusing to even consider the Supreme Court Justice nominee, Merrick Garland, sent by President Barack Obama. And the House, which breaks later this week and stays out through April 10th, appears to be failing on its top priority of passing a budget.
In both cases, New England’s predominantly Democratic members have had little to do but sit and grumble. They don’t even have to argue over which party’s fault it is, this time.
In the Senate, Republican leaders are refusing to hold hearings or a confirmation vote on Garland, insisting that the next President should get to appoint the next Justice. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley have reiterated this position in recent days, even as popular opinion has moved against them.
Senate Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren, have had the luxury of blasting the Republicans for being so obstinate—without being forced to take a potentially controversial position on whether they would actually vote to confirm the relatively moderate Garland. After all, they can’t be expected to make that decision without hearings, which the Republicans aren’t letting them hold.
Over in the House, Democrats are similarly left sitting on their hands regarding the budget.
It has been a top priority of new Speaker Paul Ryan, to pass a real budget, through a dozen separate appropriations bills, after the past few years of budgeting by continuing resolutions and across-the-board “sequestration” cuts.
That process begins with a spending limit resolution, that is supposed to pass the full House by mid-April. Late last week, the House Budget Committee approved a plan favored by Ryan and his leadership team—without agreement from any Democrats on the committee—that broadly outlines cuts to domestic spending, especially funding for health care and the poor, and includes no tax increases.
Every amendment offered by Democrats during last week’s mark-up process was rejected, including two from Seth Moulton seeking additional funding for Veterans Affairs and for the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Unfortunately for Ryan, most of the rank-and-file Republican members appear to oppose the plan, which has been rejected by the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Their problem: the plan adopts the $1.07 trillion spending limit for the coming fiscal year, agreed to in last fall’s big compromise between Congress and the White House. Conservative House members want to dial the figure down to $1.04 trillion, which would have been the level under the old “sequestration” across-the-board cuts.
With the spending limit looking unlikely to pass the full House, the process probably won’t even get started on the individual appropriation bills. And the new Speaker, despite his best intentions, will be unable to make the work of writing the government’s budget any smoother than his predecessor.
With relatively little going on in Washington, some area members have taken to the road. Some of their itinerary:
--Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and Representatives Jim McGovern, Seth Moulton, and David Cicilline are in Cuba this Monday and Tuesday, tagging along with President Obama’s historic trip there. They will reportedly attend a state dinner and other events on Obama’s schedule, but it is not clear who will be able to score tickets to Tuesday’s baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.
--Senator Jeanne Shaheen left for Belgium last week, to attend the Brussels Forum; from there she headed to Estonia where she is attending briefings on cybersecurity and other issues.
--Katherine Clark and Jim McGovern were among more than two dozen members of Congress who flew to Flint, Michigan earlier this month, to get a first-hand look and briefings about the water crisis there. The trip included Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus.
--Clark then went to Austin, Texas, to participate in an Online Harassment Summit at the annual South By Southwest conference. Clark spoke on a panel there and previewed a bill she filed to provide $20 million in grants to help train law enforcement on cybercrimes.
--In late February, Niki Tsongas spent a week in Japan with a Congressional Study Group, holding meetings on economic partnership opportunities and security issues.
HELP on the way
The headline activity on opioid abuse was the Senate passage on Thursday of the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, co-authored by Rhode Island’s Whitehouse. The bill, a version of which has already passed the House, seeks to clarify responsibilities of companies in the prescription-drug supply chain, to balance between keeping painkillers out of the black market and ensuring that patients can get the drugs they need.
But more action, led by the region’s Senators, took place the day before, at a session of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Three bills moved through that committee and can now be considered by the full Senate.
The Committee passed Ed Markey’s The Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment (TREAT) Act, which would increase the number of patients for whom each doctor can prescribe addiction-treating drugs such as bupenorphine.
The Committee also passed the Reducing Unused Medication Act, co-authored by Elizabeth Warren—with a companion bill led by Katherine Clark in the House—that would give states the authority to implement partial-fill policies to better control opioid painkillers.
And Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire got the committee to pass her National All Schedules Prescription Electronic Reporting (NASPER) reauthorization bill. It includes new grants to help states monitor prescription painkillers; Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts helped push the House version of that bill to passage in September.
Fishing industry woes are a perennial for Eastern New England’s delegations, and that includes New Hampshire, even though it has the smallest coastline of the group. The state also has Jeanne Shaheen, the lead Democrat on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. Shaheen made sure that New Hampshire’s interests got a substantial voice at a hearing earlier this month on The Impacts of Federal Fisheries Management on Small Businesses. Shaheen invited two New Hampshirites, a fisherman and a researcher, to testify.
Shaheen, along with other eastern New England members, are particularly angry over the decision of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to have fishermen take over costs of a monitoring program.
Their warnings were dire in the extreme; you can see some of the exchange here: