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This week in Washington, Republicans finally passed their tax legislation after an exhaustive process of debating, reviewing, and amending the legislation, which has all taken place since the last time I got a haircut. (I got a haircut recently.)
This week in Washington
Alright, readers: buckle up for your last D.C. Memo in calendar year 2017.
It’s official: after talking about making big tax changes for years, Republicans in Congress have passed their overhaul of the tax code. They rammed their legislation, titled the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, through the process at a remarkable pace: though Republicans had worked on a framework for the plan behind closed doors for months, the bill was only introduced on November 1 in the House of Representatives.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCAJA… nice ring to it) now awaits the signature of President Donald Trump. Though POTUS said he wanted to deliver a big tax cut to the American people by Christmas, due to an obscure law governing Medicare payments, he likely won’t sign it until January 1. If he signed it before then, $120 billion in automatic cuts to Medicare would be set to take effect in 2018.
But this president has never let technicalities stop him, so he held a grand, rally-style ceremony at the White House on Wednesday celebrating the bill’s passage. Flanked by dozens of Republican lawmakers, a jubilant Trump soaked in his first major legislative achievement as president.
“It’s always a lot of fun when you win,” POTUS said. (He’s got a point?) In true Trumpian fashion, he then went and called by name individual lawmakers who helped with the bill: “Susan Collins, we want to thank. Susan is around someplace. Susan?”
In the end, it was Susan, and other on-the-fence GOP lawmakers like Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, formerly a no on the legislation, who came around and delivered Republicans their big win. The Senate ultimately passed the plan with 51 Republican yea votes; the House passed it (which they had to do twice, due to a drafting error) with the final tally there being 224 to 201.
Twelve Republicans in the House, nearly all from the states of New Jersey, New York, and California, voted no on the bill. It was a party-line vote in the Minnesota delegation. Note that this is a career-making moment for one Speaker Paul Ryan, and the Beltway press could not resist wrapping up the bill’s passage into his wunderkind mythology. (The guy toiled away at a restaurant near the Capitol in his 20s… dreaming of the day he could one day double the standard deduction and phase out the estate tax.) As I noted last week, buzz is that the GOP’s success here will prompt Ryan to retire next year, and work hard to cut spending (a.k.a. welfare and entitlement programs) on his way out.
We’ve covered process and policy with tax stuff closely in this newsletter, but I wanted to link to a few illuminating things from elsewhere: New York Times on how this will shock the health care system by repealing the ACA’s individual mandate, FiveThirtyEight on what happened politically the last time the GOP passed major tax cuts, and Washington Post on how the president himself might benefit from the plan.
While we’re done talking about the legislative process for now, the GOP’s tax cuts could become what Obamacare was for Democrats: an election-year bogeyman and a central issue in congressional campaigns across the country. Most folks won’t feel most of the bill’s changes until they file their 2018 taxes in 2019, but expect to hear about this bill all next year in attack ads and mailers near you — particularly in the three Minnesota congressional districts held by Republicans, who were all enthusiastic yes votes on the bill.
With passage of the tax bill complete, Congress had to scramble to fulfill its most basic job: keeping the lights on in the federal government — before funding runs out on Friday at midnight.
To recap: Congress still has not passed legislation to fund the government through the end of this fiscal year. (It was supposed to do this by the end of September.) Lawmakers passed a short-term extension through early December, and when that deadline came, Republican leadership got their colleagues to vote on another short-term extension through December 22.
This week, GOP leaders asked for another short-term extension, which would fund the government through January 19. The House voted 231 to 188 on Thursday to approve Speaker Ryan’s so-called “clean” continuing resolution, which doesn’t have any controversial dealbreaker provisions for Democrats or Republicans. The Senate followed suit, passing the CR 66 to 32.
The measure adds much-needed funding to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which ran out at the end of fiscal year 2017. (Read Vox’s Dylan Scott on why this bare-minimum move, three months late, is hardly an achievement.)
Not included in the bill are two things Democrats, and some Republicans, really wanted by the end of the year: a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers legal status to undocumented youth brought to the U.S. as children, and bipartisan-supported subsidies to shore up the ACA’s insurance exchanges next year.
The CR also includes a short-term reauthorization of a key foreign intelligence surveillance statute, averting debate over a long-term approval of the law that many lawmakers in both parties wanted. House Republicans are mad because they wanted the year-end spending vehicle to lift caps on defense spending, but they put aside their reservations to advance the legislation. Leaders say debates on fuller solutions for surveillance, DACA, and more topics will happen in the new year.
There is an official departure date for Sen. Al Franken: on January 2, he will resign his seat in the U.S. Senate. Lieutenant Gov. Tina Smith is slated to be sworn into office on January 3 by the president of the Senate, his veepness, Mike Pence.
This week, in an attempt to deliver the most Minnesotan goodbye possible, Franken gave a series of farewell speeches on the Senate floor. On Wednesday, he talked about two topics he worked on frequently in the Senate, education and net neutrality. His final speech in the Senate chamber was on Thursday, and it was a 30-minute-plus greatest hits reel for the senator: he talked about why he’s a Democrat (the story of his wife Franni’s upbringing), spoke often of the values of Paul Wellstone, and hammered Trump and the Republicans on issues from taxes and health care to climate change and voting rights.
The author of “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” ended with a lament about the state of truth in today’s political culture: “I admit it feels like we’re losing the war for truth,” he said. “Maybe it’s already lost.”
This was a quiet and surreal end for one of the Democrats’ brightest stars, and a notable eight-and-a-half year career in the Senate. But if his series of farewell speeches is any indication, Franken intends to remain vocal in politics as a private citizen — and he appears to believe that his voice and involvement won’t hamper the causes he cares about.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar seems to agree: in a brief tribute praising Franken’s politics and sense of humor, she said “When Al leaves here he will not be quieted in any way… His voice will be stronger than ever.”
Franken’s successor won’t have much time to settle in: Smith will hit the ground running in a partisan battleground of a Senate that will be divided by a razor-thin 51-seat GOP majority. Nationally and in Minnesota, Republicans see a target on her back and a chance to hold a Senate seat for the first time in nearly 10 years. Smith hasn’t even started yet and has already drawn a Republican challenger: Karin Housley, a state senator from Washington County.
In POTUS news: on Monday, the president gave a big address on national security policy in front of intelligence, military, and law enforcement officials in Washington. His speech was accompanied by the rollout of a polished, 48-page national security document that the administration had been working on for a year. Aides hoped that it would give some clarity and consistency to a Trump outlook on national security and foreign policy that has frequently vexed the world.
As usual, Trump did Trump, and skipped a lot of the policy to give a campaign-style address that hit on the 2016 high notes: America isn’t winning anymore, our rivals are smart and have taken advantage of us, we need to be tougher, Trump is tougher, etc.
Notably: while his administration’s document made a pass at the attempt of Russia to influence the U.S. elections, Trump himself did not. The document reads: “Today, actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies.” CNN with a rundown of a few key things to know about the policy.
This week’s essential reads
Congress’ failure to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program has gotten a lot of press coverage. Getting less coverage is its failure to sustain a smaller initiative that is no less vital to thousands of families: the Special Diabetes Program, which has done essential research on causes and treatment of a disease that affects tens of millions of Americans. The Daily Beast’s Sam Stein has the story on how the program has slipped through the cracks during this end-of-year funding debate:
The uncertain future of the Special Diabetes Program has received scant attention outside a small and dedicated universe of advocates who have begged the press to cover the matter for months. One reason it has fallen under the radar is that, compared to other federal health care initiatives that have gone unauthorized by Congress—mainly the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—SDP is a drop in the bucket. The program relies on a mere $300 million over two years.
But even that small amount of money has had a tangible impact. By funding research through the National Institutes of Health, the program has backstopped technologies to combat Type 1 diabetes, been instrumental in the development of the first-ever artificial pancreas, and done exhaustive, year-long studies into what triggers Type 1 diabetes in kids.
Advocates were shocked to see Congress had not reauthorized the SDP when its funding ran out in September as their attention was turned to Obamacare (its sister program, the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, did get a three-month funding reprieve at the time, but it too now needs a $300 million, two-year authorization).
Democrats have talked a lot about how the GOP tax bill will disproportionately benefit the wealthy. That may be true, but benefits are concentrated on the super-wealthy: meanwhile, the ranks of the two-to-five percent, toiling away in salaried jobs in finance and law, stand to get soaked by the tax plan, thanks to the elimination of some key deductions. Bloomberg with the story:
One trader, sipping a Bloody Mary on a morning flight to somewhere more tropical, said he’s going to stop registering as a Republican. En route, he sent more than a dozen text messages ripping the tax bill. A pair of hedge fund managers said they’ll stop donating to Republicans they’ve long supported. One of them said he spent weeks berating a politician who’s taken his money, arguing the tax bill is too tilted toward corporations, rather than individuals who should get more relief.
“My clients are hard-working young professionals on Wall Street. I don’t have a lot of good news for them,” said Douglas Boneparth, a financial adviser in lower Manhattan who counsels people throughout the industry. Most are coming to terms with it. “I don’t think anyone is going to be surprised by the economic reality.”
In other news at the Dept. of Crocodile Tears: the Internal Revenue Service, which has had a rough go of it the past few years. The passage of the GOP tax bill means the beleaguered IRS now faces the task of adapting to a sweeping overhaul of the tax code, enforcing the new law and explaining it — all while facing steep budget cuts from the Trump administration. The NYT’s Patricia Cohen with a lament for the IRS:
Even before Congress began revising the tax code, the I.R.S. was struggling to keep up with an expanding workload. Since 2010, its budget has been cut by $900 million — or 17 percent, after adjusting for inflation — and its staff reduced by 21,000, or 23 percent. In the meantime, it has had to process roughly 10 million more individual returns.
The agency has been a favorite target of Republicans, who have complained that it unfairly investigated conservative organizations and reveled in irritating taxpayers…
Although Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has acknowledged the importance of sufficiently funding the nation’s revenue collector, Mr. Trump’s budget proposed deep cuts. Referring to enforcement, taxpayer services and cybersecurity, Mr. Koskinen said, “We don’t have enough people to do all the work that needs to be done as a general matter,” let alone grapple with an overhaul of the tax code.
The prospect of nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea is terrifying to a lot of people, and for good reason. But, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explains, a war with North Korea would not only be awful but is looking increasingly likely, as both countries move to escalate toward conflict, not away from it. A good and sobering read about how both sides are on a path to stumble into a devastating war:
The North’s nuclear missiles could easily reach Tokyo; most major American cities are also within their range. Imagine a nuclear strike on New York City — hundreds of thousands of Americans dead or irradiated in a catastrophe that would dwarf 9/11 by multiple orders of magnitude — and you start to understand what’s at risk here.
But here’s the genuinely scary thing. Numerous conversations with US policymakers, former US government officials, and experts all point to one disturbing conclusion: Far from being unthinkable, a war with North Korea is becoming more likely by the day…
Kim Jong Un’s provocations, and Trump’s angry and unpredictable responses, have combined to make the situation genuinely more dangerous than it has been in the past. And there seems to be virtually no serious public debate going on over how to stop things from going wrong.
The week in takes
State Rep. Pat Garofalo: Karin Housley is such a good U.S. Senate candidate that it will scare Democrats into calling for Franken’s un-resignation
Axios’ Mike Allen: Despite all his problems, 2017 was a win for Trump because of the tax thing
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V.: Watching Democrats call for Franken’s resignation and then hug him after he gave his farewell speech is the “most hypocritical thing I’ve ever seen”
Splinter’s Hamilton Nolan: It’s time to make life hard for the rich
New York’s Abraham Riesman: The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars movie for the 99 percent
Your weekend longread
One of the biggest stories of 2017 in media and politics was the way white supremacists and white nationalists co-opted the infrastructure of the internet to achieve their political goals, from Charlottesville, Virginia, to liberal democracies in Europe and elsewhere.
We often think of these people as fringe characters, but BuzzFeed News’ Henry Gomez has a great investigation that illustrates the opposite: he tells the story of Vincent Harris, a conservative new media guru who has worked for Trump and countless establishment Republicans… and found his way to taking on as clients far-right European conservative parties with roots in Nazism.
Vincent Harris taught Mike Huckabee how to talk to bloggers. Sharpened tea party–insurgent Ted Cruz into a national brand. Created memes for Mitch McConnell, the dullest of senators. Evangelized for the phone over television. Along the way he became, in the words of one publication, “The Man Who Invented the Republican Internet.” And he did it all before his 27th birthday. …
With Harris Media’s assistance, Marine Le Pen’s National Front — a party that has struggled to distance itself from Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitism — has ridden anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments to more mainstream success. More recently, and most alarmingly to many who respect Harris’ talents, the firm’s efforts for Alternative für Deutschland helped nationalists win seats in Germany’s parliament for the first time in more than half a century. It’s a party that can’t seem to shake its Nazi roots. At one rally earlier this year in support of AfD, attendees chanted that they would “build a subway” to Auschwitz for political opponents.
“I doubt,” one former Harris Media employee told BuzzFeed News, “that many people started working there to work for neo-Nazis.”
What to look for next week
Do not look for anything next week out of Washington — if not for your sake, for mine. (Please.) I’ll spend the holiday in temporary hibernation in MinnPost’s California bureau.
On that note, a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you. Thanks for sticking with me through what was a wild year in D.C. news, and I hope you’ll join me back here for the first D.C. Memo of 2018 on January 4.
Until then, please send your thoughts, takes, whatevers, to firstname.lastname@example.org.