Time is running out on federal highway funding

The Washington Post
By Ashley Halsey III
5/7/15

With Congress on the brink of another failure at the end of this month, the usual bickering over who is to blame for not passing a promised long-term transportation bill was in full bloom Thursday on Capitol Hill.

“Our friends on the other side of the aisle haven’t issued a peep about what to do about it,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, flanked by four Democratic colleagues at an afternoon news conference. “Please tell us how you intend to avoid a highway shutdown.”

The only plausible answer appears to be extending the current extension, which expires May 31.

Another extension would be the 33rd time in six years that Congress has faltered when faced with the need for a new transportation authorization measure…
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Obama’s Trade Bill Gets Boost as Mitch McConnell Vows Vote ‘Soon’

The Senate majority leader says he has been working with the White House on passing the deal.

Bloomberg.com
By Billy House
5/5/15

The U.S. Senate will take up legislation to give President Barack Obama the trade negotiating authority he wants “very soon,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

“It’s been almost an out of body experience but we’ve been working closely with the White House,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday as he said the trade bill would follow action on two other measures. “We’re working together to try to get it across the finish line.”

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, a foe of “fast-track” trade authority, called on Republicans to first consider measures to extend federal highway funding and modify U.S. surveillance laws…
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Mayors to Washington: Do Something!

Mayors to Washington: Do Something!
Education, infrastructure top mayors’ wish list, POLITICO Magazine survey finds.

Politico.com
By Eva Rodriguez
4/27/15

The cities’ CEOs are disgusted with Capitol Hill. Sure, we’ve known the American people have little regard for Congress, which has been experiencing record-low approval ratings. Yet fellow elected officials working in America’s cities also hold Washington in disfavor, and they had a clear message for their representatives on Capitol Hill: Gridlock has gone too far.

Some 82 percent of mayors queried said they had very little or no confidence in Washington lawmakers to address the nation’s most pressing problem, according to Politico Magazine’s inaugural Mayors’ Survey. What did mayors find most grating? Was it lawmakers’ almost genetically-encoded aversion to solving important challenges? Their tendency to grandstand? Their inability to resist kowtowing to powerful special interests? All of the above, nearly half of the respondents reported.

“We must do what we can on our own, locally and regionally,” said…
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Senate uniqueness: Filibuster and Cloture

Cartoon of Senate Filibuster, ca. 1870s
19th Century Filibuster

U.S. Senate History
Filibuster and Cloture

Using the filibuster to delay or block legislative action has a long history. The term filibuster — from a Dutch word meaning “pirate” — became popular in the 1850s, when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill.

In the early years of Congress, representatives as well as senators could filibuster. As the House of Representatives grew in numbers, however, revisions to the House rules limited debate. In the smaller Senate, unlimited debate continued on the grounds that any senator should have the right to speak as long as necessary on any issue.

In 1841, when the Democratic minority hoped to block a bank bill promoted by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, he threatened to change Senate rules to allow the majority to close debate. Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton rebuked Clay for trying to stifle the Senate’s right to unlimited debate.

Three quarters of a century later, in 1917, senators adopted a rule (Rule 22), at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, that allowed the Senate to end a debate with a two-thirds majority vote, a device known as “cloture.” The new Senate rule was first put to the test in 1919, when the Senate invoked cloture to end a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles. Even with the new cloture rule, filibusters remained an effective means to block legislation, since a two-thirds vote is difficult to obtain. Over the next five decades, the Senate occasionally tried to invoke cloture, but usually failed to gain the necessary two-thirds vote. Filibusters were particularly useful to Southern senators who sought to block civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching legislation, until cloture was invoked after a 60 day filibuster against the Civil Right Act of 1964. In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 of the current one hundred senators.

Many Americans are familiar with the filibuster conducted by Jimmy Stewart, playing Senator Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but there have been some famous filibusters in the real-life Senate as well. During the 1930s, Senator Huey P. Long effectively used the filibuster against bills that he thought favored the rich over the poor. The Louisiana senator frustrated his colleagues while entertaining spectators with his recitations of Shakespeare and his reading of recipes for “pot-likkers.” Long once held the Senate floor for 15 hours. The record for the longest individual speech goes to South Carolina’s J. Strom Thurmond who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Town Hall Meetings: When did your congressman last hold one?

By Russ Phillips

My Congresswoman (Jackie Walorski), in her second term, has not held a town hall meeting, thus far. She does meet with special interest groups as well as with businesses and industries and does regularly appear on a local radio show. However, she has not held a town hall meeting where any citizen is welcome to attend and engage her in conversation. This is most unfortunate.

In a previous article it was pointed out that the House will be in recess for eighteen weeks – yes, 18 – during this year and the Senate for thirteen weeks – yes, 13. And this does not account for individual Mondays and Fridays when sometimes they are not in session. Yet, my Congresswoman has not held even one town hall meeting.

My Congresswoman has recently announced she will be running for a third term. However, she has not announced any plans to hold a town hall meeting.

Recently I ran across the following article:

Congress out of session does not mean it isn’t working

The Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University
By Josh Huder (Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute)

The Fix blog at the Washington Post has an article arguing that since 1978, Congress has only worked a full week 14% of the time. This is a common—and extraordinarily misleading– jab at Congress. While it is easy to criticize an institution that frequently makes itself an easy target, it’s a disservice that unnecessarily undermines trust in government.

First, it oversimplifies lawmakers’ jobs. Members of Congress really have two jobs: represent their constituents and govern. These responsibilities do not always go hand in hand. Representing constituents means speaking with them in person, holding town hall meetings, organizing rallies, attending to casework, and otherwise being present in the district or state they represent. This is not easily done from a Washington office. Supporting or opposing legislation is an important part of a Member’s job. However, it does not come close to capturing Members’ range of responsibilities. This is why even when Congress is out of session, Members are at work. Most Members of Congress work a 5-6 day week. The representative aspect of Congress’s job is almost completely ignored in these statistics.

Second, the chambers rarely work in concert. The article concludes on this note: “It is hard to escape the implications of Friday being the weekday on which the House and Senate are least commonly in session.” Actually, both chambers do not need to be in session at the same time. It is not a requirement to legislate nor are the chambers routinely working on the same issues.

The House and Senate are independent, uncoordinated bodies. They work on different issues at different times and most often do not coordinate their schedules. For example, last Thursday (September 18th) the Senate passed 19 bills on its final work day of the week. Among the bills it passed were the Debbie Smith Re-authorization Act (H.R. 4323), Paul D. Wellstone Muscular Dystrophy Amendments (H.R. 594), and the Prevent Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (H.R. 4980). Those bills passed the House on April 7th, July 28th, and July 23rd, respectively. The House did not need to be in session for those bills to pass the Senate, then go to the President. The only time the two chambers need to be in session at the same time is if there is a pending deadline Congress needs to meet (e.g. the debt ceiling, avoiding government shutdown, etc). Otherwise, being in Washington at the same time is not a prerequisite to enacting laws.

Lastly, there is no evidence to suggest more legislative days lead to more legislation. The 111th Congress was in session fewer days than the 112th Congress. Having fewer legislative days did not prevent the 111th Congress from being among the most successful in congressional history while the 112th Congress was the least productive since the Civil War. Similarly, the Senate has often worked more days than the House. However, the Senate routinely passes fewer bills than the lower chamber. It is in session longer because its legislative process requires more time for bills and motions to move through the legislative process.

Congress has a lot of problems. Being in session at the same time or holding longer work weeks isn’t one of them. The 113th Congress has been extraordinarily unproductive, but fewer days in session have little to do with that.

(Did you note in the above article, “Representing constituents means…holding town hall meetings…”? BTW, do your Congressmen and Senators hold town hall meetings? – Admin)

IRS chief: Budget, staff cuts lead to service that can’t get much worse

The Washington Post
By Joe Davidson
4/12/15

Not many federal administrators would so bluntly acknowledge the failure of their agencies to serve taxpayers.

But when 60 percent of taxpayers can’t reach a customer service agent by telephone, even as the IRS is collecting $3 trillion from them, the situation is obvious.

“We certainly can’t afford to have taxpayer service be any worse than it is,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in an interview, “although it’s hard to imagine it being much worse than it is.”…

…Years of punitive budget cuts have led to hiring freezes, understaffing and the poor service many taxpayers are experiencing…

…We continue to do whatever we can to become more efficient and to maximize the use of our resources. But when you lose 13,000 employees, which we’ve had to do because of the budget cuts, and we expect to lose another 3,000, you run up to physical limits of no matter how efficient you get, you clearly are becoming much less effective…
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How Much Americans Really Pay in Taxes

How Much Americans Really Pay in Taxes
It’s more – and less – than you think

Bloomberg.com
By Ben Steverman

4/10/15

Some $1.4 trillion in individual income taxes are due to the IRS on April 15. But for many Americans, that’s only the half of it. A new report from the U.S. Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation shows that looking only at income taxes misses most of what we pay to the federal government each year. 

The average American pays an income tax rate of 10.1 percent, the Joint Committee shows, although that varies quite a bit depending on income: 

Ten percent seems low, doesn’t it? The official income tax rates start at 10 percent and go all the way to 39.6 percent. The Joint Committee is also accounting for lots of income that never gets taxed, such as Medicare and Social Security benefits, employer-paid insurance, and the employer portion of payroll taxes. Also, taxpayers pay the highest rates, above 28 percent, only on earned income above $200,000 or so. The IRS takes far less from the first $200,000 earned, especially after deductions, and from investment income. Finally, as the chart shows, many poor Americans pay zero taxes and even get money back: About 32 million people benefit from that Earned Income Tax Credit. 

Just looking at income taxes can be misleading, however. All salaried workers also pay a 7.65 percent payroll tax to cover Social Security and Medicare, and higher earners owe another Medicare tax. Their employers also must pay the same amount in payroll taxes for each worker. The government collected $1 trillion from payroll taxes last year:

Wealthy Americans end up paying taxes at a lower rate than poor and middle-class Americans, because the government collects Social Security tax only on annual wages up to $118,500. 

On top of individual income and payroll taxes, the federal government collects $93.4 billion in excise taxes on such things as fuel, cigarettes, alcohol, and plane tickets. The feds take 7.5 percent of every airline fare, plus $4, for example; the gas tax is currently 18.4¢ per gallon.

Add up all the categories of taxes paid by individuals—income, payroll, and excise—and this is what each income group will end up paying this year, the Joint Committee estimates: 

The tax burden rises progressively with income, with the wealthiest paying a third of their income to the federal government. One exception to the tax rate’s steady rise through the income brackets: Americans who earn less than $10,000 per year, who don’t get enough from their earned income tax credits at tax time to make up for the payroll and excise taxes they pay all year. 

IRS: Our collections staff is depleted. But don’t get the idea we’re not pursuing tax cheats

(Two days ago, “In Dallas, the IRS says it can’t chase tax cheats who owe less than $1 million” was published on this site after first appearing in The Washington Post. It appears the IRS noticed the article. – Admin)

The Washington Post
By Lisa Rein
4/10/15

The Internal Revenue Service says it has been forced to curtail enforcement against tax cheats, a fallout from five years of budget cuts.

But after the Federal Eye reported this week that a team of revenue officers in the Dallas area does not have the resources to go after taxpayers who owe less than $1 million — so it can focus on high-rolling delinquencies of $1 million or more — the IRS found itself in a predicament.

The agency does not want to give the public the impression that it is not even attempting to collect from cheaters unless they owe huge sums.

In fact, thousands of revenue officers across the country, and hundreds in Dallas, are still pursuing lower-dollar tax cheats. Just not as many of them as before.

Here’s a statement the IRS sent us late Wednesday:

“The IRS enforcement workforce has declined more than 5,000 positions since 2010, and that includes a reduction of revenue officers who collect money owed by taxpayers. Given these limitations, we must make difficult decisions on where and how to collect tax revenue based on the amount of taxes owed, available staffing resources and the best collection options available. This can vary by office and other factors.  There is no doubt that we have cut back on personal visits to those who owe money.  While the amount of money owed is significant factor in the workload that is assigned to our revenue officers, it’s inaccurate to suggest that we only pursue cases above $1 million and simply ignore collection in other cases.  We have a variety of collection tools available to collect tax debts; personal visits are just one of the options available.

The group manager interviewed in Dallas oversees a group of revenue officers that specialize in cases with a balance due of more than $1 million. It’s important to note that we have other collection groups that work other less complex cases that have balances due of less than $1 million. Regardless, it is clear with our diminished funding that we do not have enough staffing resources to reach all of the delinquent tax accounts.

It’s important to keep in mind last year these collection efforts recouped more than $33 billion in tax debts from taxpayers. That’s more than three times the IRS budget of $10.9 billion.”

(Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.)