WASHINGTON – As the U.S. Senate tried to find compromise on gun legislation this week, the U.S. House put a spotlight on the human cost of a plague of mass shootings.
The House Government and Reform Committee invited victims and family members of those slain to testify on Wednesday, the same day the U.S. House teed up a series of votes on gun bills that, among other things would raise the minimum purchasing age for semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21; bar large-capacity magazines and strengthen a federal ban on bump stocks.
Yet the legislation will never see the light of day in the Senate because of GOP opposition. House Democrats are considering the votes on gun bills a “messaging” effort.
Kimberly Rubio, whose 10-year-old daughter Lexi was killed during the slaughter at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, pleaded with lawmakers to ban semi-automatic weapons like the one that killed Lexi and the one used in last month’s racially motivated massacre in Buffalo, N.Y.
“We understand for some reason, to some people … to people with money, to people who fund political campaigns, that guns are more important than children,” Rubio said as her husband wept besides her.
In pre-recorded testimony, 11-year-old Miah Cerillo told of the horror of witnessing her teacher and fellow classmates mowed down and of covering herself with a dead classmate’s blood to try to fool the shooter into thinking she was dead.
Most of the witnesses asked lawmakers to toughen gun laws.
But the witnesses Republicans on the panel invited had quite different solutions to the epidemic of shootings in the United States.
Amy Swearer of the Heritage Foundation said any effort to limit gun ownership or ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines are unconstitutional. She pressed Congress to allow states to use leftover federal COVID funding for school security and “remove unnecessary barriers to the exercise of Second Amendment rights by law-abiding citizens, who use their firearms in lawful defense of self or others.”
This week also featured the debut of public hearings by the special Jan. 6 committee that aims to distill a complex web of information – from more than 1,000 closed-door witness interviews and thousands of documents – into an understandable accounting of how the raiding of the U.S. Capitol a year and a half ago came about.
At least six sessions are planned, two of them televised in prime time. The first televised hearing was scheduled Thursday evening, featuring live testimony from a Capitol police officer injured in the melee and a documentary filmmaker who was with the far-right Proud Boys group as they breached the building. Some of the group’s leaders have been charged with seditious conspiracy.
After Thursday, hearings will be held throughout the next two weeks, on June 13, 15, 16, 21 and 23. The last hearing will also likely be in primetime.
The committee’s objective is to connect former President Donald Trump to a plan to disrupt Joe Biden’s Electoral College certification by a joint session of Congress.
Running out the clock
While the Jan. 6 committee is looking to connect the dots on the events that led up to the storming of the U.S. Capitol, prosecutors have scored few felony convictions given the more than 800 defendants charged in the riot. The Justice Department has about 50 felony guilty pleas since the mob breached the Capitol in January 2021 trying to overturn Joe Biden’s election, an event considered the most serious attack on American democracy in the modern era.
According to the Justice Department, eight people have been arrested so far in Minnesota on Jan. 6-related crimes. Only two – Daniel Johnson of Austin and Jordan Kenneth Stotts of Bemidji – have been sentenced, with Johnson receiving four months of jail time and a year of probation and Stotts sentenced to 24 months of probation and 60 days of home detention.
The rest of the cases are still making their way through the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In four of them, the defendants have entered not guilty pleas.
The FBI has a “most wanted” page seeking public information about dozens of unidentified people that were photographed during the Capitol’s breach.
Meanwhile, there are cries for the Justice Department to go after larger targets, including the organizers of the riot and the former president himself.
“There is some concern (the FBI) is going after the lower-level offenders but not the people who planned the event,” said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and senior adviser to a non-profit group called American Oversight.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department informed the special committee holding the Jan. 6 hearings that it would not indict two former Trump White House officials found in contempt by the committee. The Justice Department said Mark Meadows, former Trump chief of staff and Dan Scavino, former deputy chief of staff to Trump, won’t be prosecuted.
Nevertheless, Sloan said it’s important to continue to prosecute those who committed violent acts on Jan. 6. “We’re just lucky more people didn’t die,” she said.
She also said it’s likely the prosecutions will end if the GOP wins the White House in 2024.
“Some of these people may be able to run out the clock,” she said.
A booming farm economy?
The nation’s agriculture sector is gearing up for the next massive farm bill, legislation that is approved by Congress every five years or so that authorizes all U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.
The lobbying around this legislation is intense, as farmers seek more advantages from the USDA for their crops, often pitting one farmer against another who produces a different commodity.
The last farm bill was signed into law by President Trump in 2018. Hearings are underway for the 2023 farm bill, with two held in the House Agriculture Committee this week. One focused on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for food stamps. A second hearing, held Thursday, was about crop insurance and commodity programs.
At that hearing, lawmakers questioned economists about how farm bill programs are working during a period of high commodity prices and soaring input costs.
Robert Craven of the Center for Farm Financial Management at the University of Minnesota testified that farm income rose sharply across the nation in 2020 and 2021. He said median farm income in Minnesota in 2021 was $166,297, up from $108,781 in 2020. He also said the return on assets Minnesota farmers enjoyed in 2021 was “much improved” at 11%.
That’s quite a change from the slump in income that farmers suffered in 2013 through 2019, Craven testified.
Although commodity prices are increasing, the cost of farming has risen even higher, said Joe Outlaw, co-director of the Agriculture and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University. For instance, the cost of nitrogen fertilizer has increased more than 133 percent, Outlaw said in his written testimony.
“The news is full of stories about inflation that is averaging 8.5 percent so far this year for the average American. The lowest year-over-year inflation farmers are seeing is twice that on seed with most categories many times higher,” he said. “If not for the incredible productivity of the U.S. farmer, there would be a major financial crisis in agriculture.”
Glimmer of bipartisanship
Who says Democrats and Republicans can’t behave civilly and work together in the U.S. Congress?
Rep. Dean Phillips, D-3rd, is the new co-chair of the relaunched, bipartisan House Diplomacy Caucus.
The group’s other co-chair is Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Mich., and the caucus is evenly split, with three Democratic and three Republican members.
The caucus says its goal is “strengthening American diplomacy as America’s foreign policy tool of first resort, strengthening alliances, and exploring concrete ways to help the State Department recruit and retain the best possible workforce, while modernizing to meet new challenges.”
The caucus was first formed a couple of years ago but the pandemic kept it from holding any events, traveling overseas or connecting with diplomats. So, it was disbanded and now revived under new co-chairs.
“The world needs American leadership now more than it ever has in the modern history of our country,” said Phillips, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “With climate change, rising authoritarianism and our citizens feeling the global pressure of supply chain woes and rising gasoline prices, the stakes could not be higher.”
In another glimmer of bipartisanship, the U.S. House on Wednesday approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Peter Stauber, R -8th. Stauber’s bill, supported unanimously by House Democrats, would press federal agencies to ensure small business are fully represented when government contracts are awarded.
“Small businesses are the engines driving our economy, yet it’s becoming more difficult for them to compete for federal contracts,” Stauber said in a statement. “At a time when small businesses are struggling with inflation, a supply chain crisis, and a labor shortage, this legislation will provide them with a greater opportunity for success.”
The vote on Stauber’s bill was a lopsided 411-11. All of those who voted “no” were Republicans.