The new year is upon us and we are all wondering if the 113th Congress that convened for the first time on January 3 will be any better than the historically unproductive 112th Congress. With 82 new members of the House (47 Democrats and 35 Republicans), and 13 new senators (8 Democrats and 4 Republicans), let’s hope the new Congress will find ways to work together to solve the problems that loom before us as a nation. The diverse demographic makeup of this Congress, which is the closest thus far of any previous Congress in history to the demographic makeup of the American population, could very well make for less rigidity, less “us against them” attitude, and more of a spirit of “let’s work together to bridge all our differences and find ways to move forward and create legislation for the good of America.” One can only hope!
Financial Crisis Not Over Yet!
We can be grateful that we didn’t slide over the edge of the so-called “fiscal cliff,” but we came really close! In the wee hours of New Year’s morning in three of the four time zones in the Continental U.S., the Senate passed a bipartisan compromise, making permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for individuals earning less than $400,000 per year and couples earning less than $450,000. For those whose annual earnings exceed those levels, tax rates will be raised from 35% to 39.6%, which is expected to raise approximately $600 billion in new revenues in the next ten years.
Amongst numerous other provisions, the bill also extends unemployment insurance and delays federal spending cuts for two months. The measure passed in the House later on New Year’s Day.
Debt Limit Debate
The next battle lawmakers face in fixing the ongoing financial crisis is whether to increase the nation’s debt limit. As defined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury “[t]he debt limit is the total amount of money that the United States government is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, interest on the national debt, tax refunds, and other payments. The debt limit does not authorize new spending commitments. It simply allows the government to finance existing legal obligations that Congresses and presidents of both parties have made in the past.” (http://www.treasury.gov/initiatives/pages/debtlimit.aspx)
The debt limit is currently set at $16.4 trillion. If Congress fails to increase the debt limit, the government will run out of options to cover the nation’s debts and could begin defaulting on its legal obligations as early as mid-February. Some economists have warned that this could trigger a global recession. Congressional Republicans and Democrats will be consumed with hashing out their differences on how to raise the debt ceiling, specifically, whether or not to pair the increase with additional spending cuts beyond the $1.5 trillion in discretionary cuts passed by Congress in 2011, which does not include potential sequestration cuts built into the 2011 Budget Control Act. Republicans want to demand additional spending cuts in an amount equal to the debt limit increase. House Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi has stated that it does not make sense to link spending with increasing the debt limit because the debt has already been incurred. It’s like saying “I’m not going to pay my bills until you stop buying stuff,” she stated. Cutting spending for what lies ahead makes sense, but it is not connected to the debt ceiling issue.
Tax Holiday is Over
The Social Security payroll tax holiday expired at the end of 2012. For the past two years, the federal government has been collecting two percent less in social security taxes from wage earners to fund Social Security, and from railroad workers who pay Railroad Retirement Tier 1 taxes; however that has come to an end and workers’ take-home pay will be decreased as a result. An extension of the payroll tax holiday was not included as part of the negotiations over the fiscal cliff deal.
The United States Senate glossary of terms defines filibuster as “any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.” The only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter and thereby overcome a filibuster is by invoking the cloture rule. Under this rule, the Senate may limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by a vote of three-fifths, or 60 votes, of the full Senate. (http://www.senate.gov/reference/glossary_term/filibuster.htm)
Although the filibuster is an important tool that can be used by the minority to stop the tyranny of the majority in crucial cases, the current rules have made it too easy to abuse this rule and paralyze the Senate. For much of the nation’s history, the filibuster was used sparingly and only for the most important or heartfelt issues, in which case a senator had to stand up and talk around the clock to delay a vote, as was illustrated in the 1939 political drama film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which Jimmy Stewart played the character of a senator who rattled on for almost 24 hours to block a vote on a bill he strongly opposed. In many cases, the filibusterer would just rattle on about anything and everything, whether it was relevant to the issue or not.
According to current Senate rules, senators who want to filibuster legislation do not need to hold the floor by talking, but must only raise their hand to object, thereby forcing a cloture vote and putting the onus on the majority to win 60 votesbefore a topic can even be raised for debate. No speech on the floor is required and the filibusterer does not have to expend any time or energy on the effort. The same piece of legislation can be filibustered over and over again, causing endless delays.
Several internet sources I reviewed in my research on this subject stated that the filibuster was utilized nearly 400 times by the 112th Congress… no wonder they were proclaimed the least productive Congress since the 1940s! In any case, it has come to the attention of those in Congress and the American public that the filibuster rule is being seriously abused. The filibuster has been especially abused in recent years to stall the confirmation of judicial nominees, which has led to the creation of 77 vacancies on the federal bench and has caused a hardship for those seeking justice through the courts.
Senators Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley are currently leading the charge for Senate Rules changes to reform the filibuster rule by reinstating the “talking filibuster.” If the measure is passed, Senators who want to filibuster a bill or nomination will be required to actually show up on the Senate floor and voice their position to their colleagues and their country after cloture is filed on a motion, nomination, or piece of legislation. In each of the past three Congresses, Senator Frank Lautenberg has offered his version of a “talking filibuster,” which he calls the “Mr. Smith Bill,” named after the iconic 1939 movie mentioned above, to address the growing misuse of the filibuster.
The time for making changes to the rules in either the House or the Senate is the first day the chamber is in session for the year. However, no changes to the filibuster rule were made on January 3, the first day the Senate convened for 2013, and that is why Majority Leader Harry Reid chose to follow the precedents set in 2005 and again in 2011 to recess rather than adjourn the Senate’s first day in order to continue the same legislative day later this month so that the rules discussion can continue. Please contact your Senators now to persuade them to support reform of the filibuster rule.
Amtrak & High Speed Rail
On December 13, 2012, BLET Vice President and National Legislative Representative John Tolman testified in support of Amtrak and rail labor at a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee entitled “Northeast Corridor Future: Options for High-Speed Rail Development and Opportunities for Private Sector Participation.” In his testimony, Vice President Tolman expressed the BLET’s firm belief that, based on its prior successes in spite of budgetary and funding limitations, Amtrak should continue to be the rail service provider for the Northeast Corridor and across the United States. He pointed out that rail privatization in other parts of the world has led to systemic safety and reliability problems and that any current and future work to improve the Northeast Corridor must include a professional, unionized work force of rail employees.
Thank you Brother Tolman for representing the BLET at this hearing. A complete transcript of the hearing can be found at: