Welcome to the weekly QuizCap, a fun way to test your knowledge on what’s going on in Washington. This week we have some fishy bills, some wacky taxes, and a ludicrous latrine. Let’s get started!
The biggest news this week is President Trump’s announcement of Brett Kavanaugh to replace Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. Where did Mr. Kavanaugh go to law school?
Every single justice on the Supreme Court attended either Yale or Harvard law school, continuing a span of dominance for the two Ivy League universities. In fact, every justice appointed since the 80’s has attended either Harvard or Yale (though Ginsburg transferred and received her degree from Columbia).
Widespread, bipartisan concern (with dashes of outrage) has been expressed about the President’s use of national security authority to unilaterally impose tariffs on imports such as automobiles, steel, and aluminum. The Senate finally struck back, by voting 88-11 on a motion related to Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 (the national security tariffs). What is the motion’s effect?
Why I ought-a! The Senate did the equivalent of the “hold me back” charade to show anger without actually wanting to fight. Rather than using a bill that could change law and take back authority, they took a show vote on a non-binding motion to instruct conferees in negotiations between the House and Senate (in this case a spending bill that has nothing to do with trade.) Congress frequently uses non-binding measures to express a message, such as congratulations to Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles or Happy Corrugated Pipe Day.
In 1995, Congress passed the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act, a bill that was intended to provide more deliberation and transparency around federal laws that impose costs on state and local governments and the private sector. How many unfunded mandates did Congress pass in 2017?
In 2017, Congress passed 36 unfunded mandates contained in 15 bills – though only three of the mandates exceeded the statutory limit of $78 million for state and local government costs and $156 million for private sector mandates that necessitates a formal process. The House will likely pass the Unfunded Mandates Information and Transparency Act (UMITA) today, a bill seeking to improve and expand upon the 1995 law – primarily by applying it to more agencies and providing a stronger role for the courts to review new regulations’ compliance with UMRA rules. Most Democrats oppose it as hamstringing the regulatory process, while most Republicans support it as a way of acknowledging and limiting the costs that federal laws impose on non-federal entities.
This week, the House also authorized $1.4 billion over the next 5 years for the Magnusson-Stephens Act. What issue does the Magnusson-Stephens Act cover?
The Magnusson-Stephens Act is the main federal fisheries law whose primary purpose is to avoid overfishing. In a nearly partisan 222-193 vote, the House Republicans passed the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act. Some Democrats chose to refer to the bill as the Empty Oceans Act. The main thrust of the bill, and its cause for controversy, is the removal of some quotas and catch-limits for sport fishermen. Many amateur and fishing tour guides complain about the low limits that prematurely end fishing season for popular fish such as red snapper and sea bass. Some opponents contend this will lead to overfishing that will deplete the fisheries. The Magnuson Stevens Act’s authorization expired in 2013 but has continued to receive nearly $400 million in appropriations since then.
That’s right, programs with expired authorizations can still receive funding. How much funding was provided to programs with expired authorizations in 2018?
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report this month that found 410 programs whose authorizations have expired received a whopping $318 billion in 2018! That is nearly a quarter of the discretionary spending budget. Congress can still appropriate (i.e. fund) a program even if its authorization has expired, “as long as there is legislative history that shows that Congress intended for the program to continue (and not terminate), or ‘at least the absence of legislative history to the contrary.’” But, if programs are not reauthorized, that means they have not been updated and likely have not received adequate Congressional oversight to ensure the programs are working as originally intended and the taxpayers are getting the bang for their buck. They just keep getting the money. Senator Paul’s Legislative Performance Review Act would wind down the funding for programs whose authorizations have expired over a multi-year period – forcing Congress to pass a new bill if the program is to continue.
France and Croatia are set to square off in the World Cup final on Sunday. How much taxpayer funding has gone to these two countries in the last two years?
That’s enough to patch 35 million potholes! These expenditures include $125,000 to a French youth sailing camp called Yes Oui Can and a Croatian style Shark Tank. Speaking of which, after taking this quiz, go vote on who should be crowned the World Cup of Waste champion!
While European countries have dominated the World Cup this year, President Trump is less than impressed with our European allies. Why is President Trump upset?
President Trump made a huge splash this week when he called out NATO allies for falling short of their defense spending goals. Participants are supposed to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense by 2024. Trump wants NATO allies to get to 2% of GDP now and spend 4 percent by 2024 (the U.S. is already at 3.6%). The United States spent $686 billion on defense last year. All NATO allies combined to spend $271 billion. All that spending contributes to our greatest security threat, the national debt.
In other defense spending news, what defense expenditure was Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) upset about this week?
The Senator sent a letter questioning why it costs $10,000 to make a toilet seat cover. This stunning price tag came to light during an interview with the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force last month, who says that the costs are so high because the manufacturer has to shut-down production of other items to make replacement parts. Alternatively, 3-d printed versions would cost $300. Arguments that the DoD is strapped for cash ring hallow while they are shelling out $10k for toilet seats without even thinking about it.
In other outrageous spending news, what does the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally owned corporation, use its two private planes for?
The TVA purchased a jet and a turboprop for $17.7 million in 2015. TVA’s Office of Inspector General examined whether there was anything illegal about the 76 trips taken to and from the CEO’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. While the IG report did not find any wrongdoing, as all the trips were related to travel for business or board meetings, they did flag a suspicious change in the TVA’s rules for using the private jet - the costs do not need to be compared to commercial travel options. While TVA officials may make the case that the use is in line with other regional power entities, if they want to live the jet-setting style of their peers, they need to drop their federal status.
The Inspector General Act, which created the unsung heroes of government accountability, turned 40 this month. There are supposed to 73 Inspectors General – but 12 of them are vacant. What is the longest vacancy?
The Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General has gone since February 23rd, 2009 (two months into the Obama administration) without a confirmed Inspector General. As a report by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) making recommendations to improve the IG community points out, lack of permanent leadership can do damage to the effectiveness of an IG’s office. Taxpayers need our Inspectors General to be effective, as their oversight efforts returns billions to the Treasury every year. Pstt...if Congress enacted all the IG’s recommendations, we could save $67 billion.
Why did Verizon make 8 years’ worth of mandatory contributions to its pension plans in April?
Verizon, and many other corporations, are taking advantage of an interim period provided by the new tax law where they can deduct their pension contributions based on the old, higher corporate tax rate of 35 percent rather than at the new 21 percent rate. This perk expires in September. For Verizon, their $1 billion contribution will cut their tax bill by $350 million rather than $210 million if they made the contributions after September. Pepsi also made a $1.4 billion contribution to take advantage of this period. Hurray for tax breaks!
What is the difference between corporate tax collection this June compared to last year?
The Treasury Department reported yesterday that all tax receipts are down by 7 percent this year, including a 33 percent drop in revenues from corporate taxes. Its too early to tell what impact the tax cuts will have on the deficit, but it is still a major and irresponsible gamble to dramatically cut taxes without paying for them with spending cuts or closing loopholes.
Tax loopholes were supposed to go away as part of tax reform, but nearly all of them stuck around in the final product. Now, Republicans in Congress are trying to create more. What did a House committee pass tax breaks for this week?
Remember when every Republican talked about clearing out tax loopholes and broadening the base. Well, a House committee just approved a bill that would allow for tax-privileged gym memberships at a cost of $3.5 billion. America may be going broke, but at least we’ll do so with terrific abs.
What did Congress do to address the unsustainable $21 trillion in rising national debt this week?
Come back next week to see if that’s changed!