This week’s Washington Report! To sign up for the direct email, click here.
NSA Reform and A-M-B-I-G-U-I-T-Y … Water Projects … NDAA-Palooza Over For Now … Surprise — Congress is Trying to Have it Both Ways … How to Fix the Broken VA … Pressing “Reset” on the U.S. Military … and other news of the week.
Have a happy Memorial Day holiday and hey, let’s be careful out there (h/t Sergeant Phil Esterhaus)!
Joyce Rubenstein and the Capstone Team (John Rogers, Alan MacLeod, Steve Moffitt, Diane Rogers, Erik Oksala, Kate Venne, Kathryn Wellner, Maggie Moore and Jodi Hrdina)
TODAY President Obama will announce his nomination of San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro to be his next secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Current HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan will be named OMB director, replacing Sylvia Mathews Burwell who is on her way to an easy confirmation as HHS secretary. Both Castro and Donavan will also require Senate confirmation.
CLOSE THE REVOLVING DOOR ACT OF 2014 “Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) is planning to reintroduce his lobbying reform bill this Congress. …The ‘Close the Revolving Door Act of 2014’ would permanently ban members of Congress and senators from lobbying for life. For senior staff, committee staff and leadership staff, the bill would increase the cooling-off period from one year to six years. For lobbyists, the proposal would prohibit them from working in Congress for six years from the date of their last lobbying registration. The proposed bill would also increase the disclosure threshold to include consultants who were former members or top staffers – a big loophole in the current law. Lobbying disclosure penalties would increase from $200,000 to $500,000. And finally, the bill would overhaul the current disclosure system, by combining the House and Senate disclosure websites into a new lobbyists.gov portal. Bennet’s proposal has been floating around for a few years now.” (Politico)
A-M-B-I-G-U-I-T-Y AP writes, “In an overwhelming vote, the House moved the U.S. closer to ending the National Security Agency’s (NSAs) bulk collection of Americans’ phone records Thursday, the most significant demonstration to date of leaker Edward Snowden’s impact on the debate over privacy versus security. But the final version of the legislation, “watered down” in the words of one supporter, also showed the limits of that impact. The bill was severely weakened to mollify U.S. intelligence agencies, which insisted that the surveillance programs that shocked many Americans are a critical bulwark against terror plots.
‘WE DID SOMETHING’ The final bill was approved 303-121, which means that most House members can now say they voted to end what many critics consider the most troubling practice Snowden disclosed – the collection and storage of U.S. calling data. …Though some privacy activists continued to back the bill, others withdrew support, as did technology companies such as Google and Facebook.
SOME DETAILS Provisions that were dropped from the bill included requirements to estimate the number of Americans whose records were captured under the program, and the creation of a public advocate to challenge the government’s legal arguments before the secret surveillance court. NSA officials were pleased with the bill for another reason: The new arrangement will give them access to mobile calling records they did not have under the old program.”
BI-PARTISANSHIP NYTimes writes, “[it was] a rare moment of bipartisan agreement between the White House and Congress on a major national security issue.”
CAN’T SEEM TO CATCH A BELTWAY BREAK Politico writes, “Silicon Valley just can’t win in Washington this week. A surveillance reform bill that easily survived a House vote Thursday barely resembles the measure that Google, Facebook and others once touted as a way to restore Americans’ trust. Quick changes to patent law now seem impossible after the Senate shelved the issue a day earlier. And immigration reform and the industry’s pursuit of more high-skilled visas long ago devolved into a war of words between congressional Democrats and Republicans. The tech set – a batch that increasingly has cozied up to lawmakers, lobbying and donating more than ever before – seem to be D.C.’s biggest losers.”
IN DC … If you were on the Hill this week you couldn’t have helped bumping into some of the Capstone Team — Steve, Alan, Erik and Diane — seem to have been everywhere. In Congressional offices, hearing rooms, at meetings with the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees … busy week.
WATER-PROJECTS BILL AP writes, “Congress sent the White House a $12.3 billion water projects bill half the size of its last one seven years ago – before the economy sank into a deep recession … and before lawmakers swore off cherry-picking pet projects for folks back home. With a 91-7 vote Thursday, the Senate passed the bill authorizing 34 new projects over the next 10 years. The bill also defunds some $18 billion in old, inactive projects authorized in prior legislation. The House passed it Tuesday after key lawmakers spent six months blending separate House and Senate versions approved last year.”
The IRS “said Thursday that it has delayed and is revamping new rules intended to curb political activity by tax-exempt groups and that were proposed after the agency was accused last year of targeting Tea Party groups.” The IRS “said it made the decision after receiving 150,000 comments — both positive and negative — about the proposal, the biggest public response to any proposed rule in its history.” (New York Times)
NDAA-PALOOZA OVER FOR NOW Politico writes, “The House approved its measure, 325-98, defying a White House veto threat. …The $601 billion measure, which sets defense spending next fiscal year at levels agreed to under December’s bipartisan budget deal, rejects a number of proposals put forward by the Pentagon to rein in its own spending, from base closures to troop benefits cuts to the retirement of the Air Force’s A-10 Warthog attack jets.”
AND THEN THE SENATE Politico writes, “The SASC on Thursday blocked many of the Pentagon’s cost-cutting proposals in its defense authorization measure, but it may be an easier bill for the Pentagon to swallow than the just-passed House version. The Senate panel’s legislation, approved 25-1 in a closed session, reverses the Pentagon’s proposals to retire the Air Force’s A-10 attack jets, close bases and cut compensation costs. But it doesn’t go as far as the House did on the programs and other budget-cutting moves, presenting a potential compromise for the Pentagon to look toward as the bills move along.”
NO BI-PARTISAN NDAA “But there were limits to any idea of a new season of accord in the capital. A Senate panel voted to allow President Obama to create a plan to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and to reduce military forces, even as the House passed a defense policy bill that would continue to bar the closing of the prison and resisted the administration’s proposed reductions to Pentagon spending on personnel, weapons and benefits.” (NYTimes)
YOU CAN’T GET SOMETHING FOR NOTHING Politico writes, “By forcing the Department of Defense to maintain a larger force and, above all, more pet weapons systems than its budget can support, Congress is creating a military that is increasingly hollow, unfocused and unable to respond to the very real dangers facing the United States from Europe to East Asia. How did this happen?
SEQUESTRATION, of course. The Pentagon, of course, does not want to make these cuts—it simply has no better alternative given the budget constraints Congress established in the 2013 Bipartisan Budget Act and 2011 Budget Control Act.
SURPRISE … CONGRESS IS TRYING TO HAVE IT BOTH WAYS by cutting defense spending and expecting the Defense Department to continue with business as usual. But the savings will have to come from somewhere.
QUICK TUTORIAL The Pentagon’s budget consists of four big categories of spending: compensation, procurement, research and development and readiness.
COMPENSATION For the coming year, the Pentagon assumed compensation costs would decline due to a combination of a smaller Army and Marine Corps and compensation reforms such as slower growth in housing allowances and higher fees for retiree medical care. The cost per active duty service member grew 76% in real terms from 1998 to 2014. Without compensation reform, this growth will continue unabated and force cuts elsewhere in the budget.
ACQUISITIONS AND R & D The Pentagon proposed making some strategic choices. It would slow down purchases of some weapons to save money and stop buying other systems not urgently needed for the kinds of operations the military expects to do in the near future and therefore can wait until more funding is available. [Congress] reversed several of these reductions, though, and under its plan procurement and research and development will together get more money next year than DoD proposed.
READINESS This is the other place in the budget to go for the money to pay for more compensation and more acquisition. Readiness funding pays for the training, maintenance, parts and supplies that enable U.S. forces to do everything from nuclear deterrence to disaster response. But readiness is difficult to defend, in part because it isn’t measured very well. …we know how much money goes to training, maintenance, and so on, but we do not have good measures of the output—the ability of forces to perform in real-world operations. As a result, it is hard to set a “red line” for readiness funding or even know the impact of cutting it.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME? “THAT WHICH WE CALL A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME WOULD SMELL AS SWEET” (h/t William Shakespeare) With two Armed Services Committee chairmen retiring, the official title of this year’s NDAA is up in the air. The Senate version is being named after Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and the House bill is named after Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA). Clearly, this will be the most important issue to clear up when the bill goes to conference.
CYBERSPYING USA Today writes, “Following the Justice Department’s cyberspying charges on Monday, China suspended a joint working group on cybersecurity with the U.S.”
USING THE INTERNET TO COMBAT VIOLENT EXTREMISM Yesterday, John Rogers attended the Concordia Summit in New York. His Blog Post on a very complex set of issues.
SMOKIN WEED The Wall Street Journal writes, “If the U.S. is going to keep up with cyber criminals, the FBI may have to ease its restrictions against hiring people who smoke marijuana, according to FBI Director James Comey.”
LEGAL JUSTIFICATION FOR KILLING AMERICAN TERRORISM SUSPECTS OVERSEAS, Politico writes, “To help secure the confirmation of one of its judicial nominees, the Obama administration – in an about face — is agreeing to make public an edited memo the former Justice Department official wrote to justify the legality of killing an American terror suspect overseas.”
MEANWHILE, THE CIA’s VERSION OF THE BAY OF PIGS IS BEING KEPT SECRET “The CIA has the right to keep secret a draft history of its involvement with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion more than five decades ago, a split federal appeals court panel ruled Tuesday.”
HOW TO FIX THE VA: SPOILER ALERT – NONE OF THEM INVOLVE FLOOR SPEECHES OR FINGER-POINTING National Journal writes, “The scandal over unacceptable care and delays in Veterans Affairs health clinics is escalating quickly, and Washington is responding in typical fashion: with finger-pointing and calls for leadership resignations. A chorus of Republicans and Democrats alike have called for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. President Obama vowed accountability in the scandal, but has thus far declined to fire Shinseki, saying further review is needed. Shinseki, in turn, has defended the VA, and vowed to stay on the job and address the allegations. But the problem–and solution–is not as simple as a change in management. Yet despite a long and complex history of problems with the system, the increased attention and the recent wave of veteran deaths that have resulted from delayed care create an impetus and opportunity to actually fix the problem.
FOCUS ON POLICY INSTEAD OF POLITICS Here are four steps Washington could take now to fix the VA health system.
1. Congress could ask doctors—not veterans—to handle the paperwork. So what would it take to relieve veterans of the responsibility for filling out forms that most privately insured patients are free of … an act of Congress and a signature from Obama.
2. Congress could require the VA to give more veterans the benefit of the doubt. If Congress wanted to they could also scratch the VA’s policy of going through each and every claim filed. The IRS doesn’t, so why does the VA investigate each and every claim that veterans file?
3. The VA could start rewarding its employees for quality, not quantity. The current system awards work credits to employees when they take a step on a claim—be it a denial or an acceptance which pushes an employee to focus on speed, and leaves few penalties for mistakes. Changing the incentive structure needs no act of Congress, or an executive order from Obama—the VA has the power to start making those changes the moment it decides to.
4. Congress can pressure the Pentagon and the VA to share electronic files. Claims routinely stall as the VA waits to get service records from the Pentagon, as VA staffers use those records to help determine if an injury is related to a veteran’s time in the military. The Pentagon is now putting out a contract for a Defense Department-wide health record system, and the VA is among the bidders. Congressional … power of the pulpit pales in front of the power of the purse, and Congress has both. If lawmakers want to force both the Pentagon and the VA to better coordinate, that gives them plenty of pressure points: either by writing specific requirements into the budget or freezing bonuses and other fiscal goodies until the officials get the job done.”
CAN SHINSEKI SURVIVE? No one doubts VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s sincerity that he’s “mad as hell” about the scandal that’s rocking his department, but his expression of outrage last week before the Senate may not be enough for him to keep his job, reports Politico.
“Shinseki Says He’s Not Quitting: ‘There’s More to Be Done'” (The Hill)
“John Boehner ‘Closer’ to Demanding Shinseki Resign From VA” (The Hill)
“Poll: Shinseki Gets More Blame Than Obama for VA Woes” (The Washington Post)
BENGHAZI 2012, LOOK AT WHAT’S HAPPENING THERE NOW BBC writes, “Over the weekend, violence in Libya grew worse, with a no-fly zone being established over the city of Benghazi. The move follows clashes between a paramilitary force and Islamist militants which resulted in 43 deaths and more than 100 injuries. … While fears of civil war grow, the Marines are on standby in Italy.
BENGHAZI HEARINGS House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is “leaning toward” appointing five Democrats to the Benghazi committee, according to a Democratic aide. Pelosi (D-CA) and Speaker John Boehner met for an hour Tuesday, and continue to negotiate over the probe.
PRESSING “RESET” ON THE U.S. MILITARY Interested in Defense issues, check out John Rogers’ blog post.
SUPERCOOL INTERACTIVE INFOGRAPHIC From the Mendoza Line Tumblr – visual way to grasp the rise of the “professional politician.” Click here.
POWER OF INCUMBENCY Politico writes, “…despite the climbing cost of defending a seat, Tuesday night’s primaries “reassert[ed] a once-iron law of politics: It’s awfully hard to oust a sitting member of Congress who’s willing to fight for his seat. If that law was not set in iron, no one told past incumbents. While winning Senate races has gotten more expensive over time, incumbents have been reelected 88% of the time on average since 1990. Incumbents are likely to win by a wider margin, too. Since 2004, incumbents have won by an average of 29%. Overall, Senate winners have won by about 19%.”
OREGON AP writes, “Pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby defeated state Rep. Jason Conger in the Oregon Republican Senate primary on Tuesday. Wehby will challenge first-term Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in the fall. A political newcomer, Wehby enjoyed frontrunner status despite stories that surfaced late in the race about harassment complaints against her in past romantic relationships. She faces tougher odds in the general election in blue Oregon, where Democrats have dominated recent statewide and presidential contests.
KENTUCKY Mitch McConnell easily defeated primary challenger Matt Bevin in Kentucky. The AP called the race almost immediately after the polls closed. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes won the Democratic nomination handily. McConnell and Grimes will face off in one of the most closely-watched Senate races this cycle.”
MISSISSIPPI MUD: NOW FOUR ARRESTED FOR COCHRAN VIDEOTAPING CRIME The Clarion-Ledger writes, “Authorities say the vice chairman of the Mississippi Tea Party and two other men conspired with Clayton Kelly to photograph U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s bedridden wife in her nursing home and create a political video against Cochran. Mark Mayfield of Ridgeland, an attorney and state and local tea party leader, was arrested Thursday along with Richard Sager, a Laurel elementary school P.E. teacher and high school soccer coach. Police said they also charged John Beachman Mary of Hattiesburg … All face felony conspiracy charges. Sager also was charged with felony tampering with evidence, and Mary faces two conspiracy counts. …”Cochran’s opponent in a bitter GOP primary race, tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, continued to deny any involvement with Kelly or the video and to accuse Cochran of gaming the incident for political points.” …BUT, BUT, BUT one of the suspects, John Mary, “is a political activist who once co-hosted The Right Side Radio Show with Jack Fairchilds – and occasionally with Chris McDaniel.” [You cannot make this stuff up!]
NO SIN CITY FOR 2016 GOP CONVENTION Playbook writes, “The four cities still in the hunt are Dallas, Denver, Kansas City and Cleveland. Officially, Vegas “withdrew” … conservatives celebrated the news as a victory.
ODDS Watch Dallas, which can probably cobble the most money together. This counts since fundraising is a perennial problem for these affairs and there’s less public money on the table than in the past. Ohio and Colorado are both swing states, which gives them a boost. Kansas City also carries symbolism: the last competitive national convention was at the Cow Palace in 1976.”
DEMS ASK 15 CITIES TO BID Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Miami, Nashville, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City (!). Initial proposals are due back in the next few weeks.”
SENATE TO NFL…CHANGE THE WASHINGTON REDSKINS NAME Washington Redskins owner, Daniel Snyder has vowed to never change the name of one of the NFL’s most historic franchises. But a letter from 50 senators is a sure sign that the Senate isn’t going to accept Snyder’s “no” as the last word. [Stay tuned.]
Capstone Public Affairs is a full-service public affairs firm with offices in Washington, D.C and Milwaukee, WI, with more than 20 years of experience developing effective ways to tell their clients stories. Specialties include social media, crisis communication, advocacy campaigns and government relations.
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