Forensic News Roundup: Parliamentarian rules and corruption news

March 1, 2021 8:13 am By

Covid relief package

The Senate parliamentarian ruled on Thursday that the federal minimum wage cannot be increased through the budget reconciliation process, dealing a blow to Democrats’ hope of including the provision in the Covid-10 relief package. Due to Republican opposition, there is no way to pass a standalone bill to raise the minimum wage. The reconciliation process allows legislation to pass with a simple 51-vote majority, avoiding filibuster attempts. In order to move forward with the increase as part of the relief bill, the parliamentarian will either have to be overruled or removed.

Who is the parliamentarian? Elizabeth MacDonough previously worked as a lawyer before joining the office of the Senate Parliamentarian in 1999. She was appointed to Parliamentarian in 2012 by then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and retained by Mitch McConnell when he became majority leader in 2015. Members of both parties have praised her ability and past rulings.

The ruling: Budget reconciliation is meant for legislation that changes spending, revenues, and the federal debt limit. The Byrd rule allows senators to block provisions of reconciliation bills that are “extraneous” to the budget – in other words, provisions that don’t change the level of spending or revenues. The parliamentarian ruled that the minimum wage increase violates the Byrd rule.

Recourse: Numerous Democrats have come out in favor of ignoring, overruling, or removing the parliamentarian.

  • Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) argued that the wage increase “would have a major budgetary impact and should be eligible for the budget reconciliation package.” She cited a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that found that raising the minimum wage would add to the federal deficit – which is, as she said, a major budgetary impact. “We can’t allow the advisory opinion of the unelected parliamentarian to stand in the way,” Jayapal wrote.
  • Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) pins Vice President Kamala Harris with the responsibility to overrule the parliamentarian, a power she has as the Presiding Officer of the Senate. “[Vice President Nelson] Rockefeller did it in 1975 and according to parliamentarian Robert Dove, Vice President [Hubert] Humphrey did routinely. There is no way any senator would sink the final [coronavirus] bill, despite what they may say now. This simply comes down to whether the VP will choose to include the $15 or not,” Khanna told WaPo. However, before the parliamentarian’s ruling, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain threw cold water on the idea, saying the administration had no plans to intervene.
  • Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) advocated for simply firing the parliamentarian, tweeting, “What’s a Democratic majority if we can’t pass our priority bills? This is unacceptable.” Omar’s suggestion is not without precedent: When Parliamentarian Robert Dover ruled against Republican priorities in 2001, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) fired him and appointed an individual more friendly to their agenda. The Senate was split 50-50, then, as well.

What’s next? Senate Democrats have explored the possibility of indirectly increasing the minimum wage in the same relief package by adding tax penalties on corporations that fail to pay $15 an hour. Even early proponents are abandoning the idea, however, after further research has shown it would be easy for companies to avoid and difficult to implement. According to the Washington Post, Democrats will attempt to include the wage hike in a separate package at a later date.

The House passed Biden’s Covid relief package early Saturday morning along party lines by a 219-212 vote. Two Democrats voted against the package: Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Jared Golden of Maine. The former said the bill wasn’t targeted enough and the latter complained of “unnecessary” spending. The House version included the minimum wage increase, which will have to be removed via amendment at a later date.


Equality Act

The House successfully passed the Equality Act, a bill that would amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Three Republicans – Reps. John Katko (NY), Tom Reed (NY), and Brian Fitzpatrick (PA) – joined Democrats in the final 224-206 vote. The process was not without drama, however, as several Republicans made loud, controversial objections to the act.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene took to the floor to give a transphobic speech masquerading as feminism, saying the Equality Act “put[s] trans rights above women’s rights, above the rights of our daughters, our sisters, our friends, our grandmothers, our aunts.” Later that day, Rep. Marie Newman (D-IL) displayed a transgender pride flag outside her office in support of her transgender daughter, who she spoke lovingly about on the House floor. Greene responded by hanging an anti-trans sign across the hall and tweeting a hateful message harassing Newman’s daughter.

Newman told New York her thinking in how to respond to Greene was simple. “I’m going to put this flag here so you can see it every day and see about your actions and your hate and your disrespect. So that’s all that was meant to do. It was just making a statement.” She added, “You only let a bully go so long, and then you have to be clear and direct and firm — and I was.”

The majority of Republicans who opposed the Equality Act cited religion in their arguments. Greene called the bill “evil” and “a direct attack on God’s creation”. Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) said the recognition of more than a male and female gender is a “rejection of God’s good design.”

Rep. Al Green (D-TX) passionately rebutted their attempts to justify hate using religion: “You used God to enslave my foreparents. You used God to segregate me in schools. You used God to put me in the back of the bus. Have you no shame?” He continued, “This is not about God, it’s about men who choose to discriminate against other people because they have the power to do so. My record will not show that I voted against Mr. Cicilline having his rights. My record will show that when I had the opportunity to deliver liberty and justice for all, I voted for rights for all.”


Corruption and other shenanigans

Last year, a leadership PAC attached to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) appears to have paid $1.2 million to a company that purchased copies of his book. Expenses listed in FEC flings of the Jobs, Freedom, and Security PAC suggest that the fund is using a shadowy company called Reagan Investments “as a pass-through to allow Cruz to keep the royalties”. Experts caution that the unusual and opaque classification of the expenditures as “sponsorship advertising” impedes a definitive conclusion that Cruz’s PAC broke the law.

If Reagan Investments is a means for Cruz to collect publishing royalties, the senator would appear to be converting donations to personal use and possibly filing false FEC reports… Sales for Cruz’s 2015 book, “A Time for Truth,” drew scrutiny after The New York Times refused to put it on the bestseller list, citing “strategic bulk purchases” that appeared inorganic…

Cruz is also under scrutiny for using both campaign funds and his taxpayer-funded Senate allowances for tens of thousands of dollars in security expenses, including for travel. At least $46,000 has gone to a security team to guard his Houston home while over $30,000 was spent on “security equipment installation” and protective materials to shield his house “in the event of an accident, break-in or violent storm.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) continues to fundraise off unfounded lies that the election was stolen from Trump, raking in record grassroot donations during the month of his electoral college objection. On Jan. 6, Hawley challenged the results of Pennsylvania’s presidential election, maintaining his objection even after the violent insurrection at the Capitol. Despite dozens of companies pulling their support for the senator, Hawley brought in nearly a million dollars, with a $52 average donation amount. If that wasn’t enough, Hawley bragged about his attempt to overturn the election at CPAC on Friday, receiving a standing ovation from the pro-Trump crowd (clip).

Lauren Boebert (R-CO) amended the campaign finance report that indicated she reimbursed herself $22,000 for 36,870 miles driven…but the changes don’t reduce her self-payment. According to the new filing, her campaign account reimbursed her $17,280 for mileage, or about 30,000 miles. $3,900 is now reclassified to specific reimbursements for hotel stays and Uber rides.

“If they thought that this amended report would clear up the mileage reimbursement issue, I’m afraid they were mistaken,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer with Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg in Washington, D.C…

“Either she didn’t keep the required mileage logs or her treasurer didn’t ask for documentation before he reimbursed her for all of these expenses,” said Michelle Kuppersmith, executive director with the Campaign for Accountability, a campaign finance watchdog group. Kuppersmith’s group filed a complaint with the FEC over the mileage reimbursement.

  • Further reading: “Lauren Boebert hints she’s still taking gun to Congress in spite of Pelosi rules.”

A Buzzfeed News investigation revealed numerous corroborated accounts of alleged sexual harassment and misconduct by Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) during his time in college circa 2016. Four women describe “aggressive, misogynistic, or predatory” behavior from Cawthorn while he attended Patrick Henry College, a small Christian school in Virginia:

Their allegations include calling them derogatory names in public in front of their peers, including calling one woman “slutty,” asking them inappropriate questions about their sex lives, grabbing their thighs, forcing them to sit in his lap, and kissing and touching them without their consent.

  • Related: Cawthorn has lied about everything from the accident that left him in a wheelchair to his past employment.

Social Security Admin

Sen. Sherrod Brown, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees Social Security, called for the “immediate replacement” of the top two political appointees at the Social Security Administration. Commissioner Andrew Saul and Deputy Commissioner David Black were both appointed by former President Trump for terms not slated to end until 2025. They have been subject to two employee association ‘no confidence’ votes, from the American Federation of Government Employees’ Council 220, which represents 26,000 SSA employees, and the Association of Administrative Law Judges, which represents administrative law judges who hear disability claims cases.

AFGE Council 220 president: “Under the Trump administration, SSA leadership has gone above and beyond to castigate and undermine public servants, leaving employees demoralized and out of the loop…As we transition to a new administration, it is essential that President-elect Biden not only removes SSA leadership, but clears the agency of all who were infected by Saul’s anti-employee bias.”

Among the harmful policies enacted under his leadership, the SSA has broken federal labor laws in an attempt to sabotage union negotiations, weakened collective bargaining, and canceled a popular teleworking program that was proven to increase efficiency. Furthermore, Saul has begun a process allowing “attorney advisors,” who answer to himself and Black, to hear disability cases instead of independent administrative law judges.

So, why haven’t they been fired yet? Prior to Seila Law v. CFPB, independent federal agencies run by a single director were protected from being removed by the president. Last year the Supreme Court ruled that Trump could fire the head of the CFPB without cause. Accordingly, Biden fired Trump’s CFPB director on his first day in office. The law is less clear when it comes to the SSA, as the Supreme Court does not mention it in its 2020 ruling, though it makes sense that the same principal that applies to the CFPB also applies to the SSA.


Hearings and votes

The Senate has two important votes this evening: To confirm Miguel Cardona to be Secretary of Education and to invoke cloture on the nomination of Gina Raimondo to be Secretary of Commerce.

The House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing next week on the fight to make D.C. the 51st state, with testimony from Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, among others.

  • Related: Puerto Rico statehood is much more complicated, as its fiscal control board advances “deadly austerity” measures and the pro-U.S. statehood party (PNP) promoting statehood provisions that favor the wealthy. Read more.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is accused of attacking transgender people during last week’s confirmation hearing for Dr. Rachel Ravine, Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary of health. In his questions, Paul tried to draw a connection between genital mutilation and transition-related surgery and medication for children. Instead of asking questions of Levine, who is a pediatrician, Paul went on a tirade (clip) about how children choose to be transgender because of pressure from peers and doctors, ignoring the American Academy of Pediatrics finding to the contrary.

“It is really critical to me that our nominees be treated with respect and that our questions focus on their qualifications and the work ahead of us, rather than on ideological and harmful misrepresentations like those we heard from Senator Paul earlier,” Sen. Patty Murray said.

The Senate confirmed Linda Thomas-Greenfield as UN ambassador, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm as energy secretary, and Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary. Thomas-Greenfield was confirmed 78-21, with the opposition being entirely Republican. The vote was delayed by Sen. Ted Cruz due to “concerns” that she would be too soft on China. Granholm was confirmed 64-34, the opposition again being entirely Republican. In contrast, Vilsack saw one non-Republican ‘nay’ vote from Sen. Bernie Sanders, though he was ultimately confirmed 92-7.

“I opposed his confirmation today because at a time when corporate consolidation of agriculture is rampant and family farms are being decimated, we need a secretary who is prepared to vigorously take on corporate power in the industry,” Sanders said in a statement.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said he will vote to confirm nominee Deb Haaland to be Interior secretary after initially saying he had doubts about her nomination. During her confirmation before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee last week, Republicans criticized her past tweets and opposition to fossil fuels. As the Huffington Post pointed out, “not a single Republican on the panel inquired about her vision for supporting tribal sovereignty and empowering Indigenous communities.” In fact, the most vociferous Republicans opposing her nomination all have ties to fossil fuel – the Republican ranking member, Sen. John Barrasso, most of all:

From 2015 to 2020, Barrasso’s campaign and leadership political action committee, or Pac, took in more than $480,000 from the pacs of oil and gas companies, more than from any other industry…In his full federal career, Barrasso has received nearly $1.2m from oil and gas firms and their employees, making him one of the Senate’s top recipients of such money.

  • Reminder: Former President Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke racked up 18 federal investigations into his misconduct and abuse of power. Former Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen even intervened to prevent federal prosecutors from moving forward with criminal charges against Zinke for making false statements to investigators.



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