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D.C. Memo: Biden has document troubles, House GOP on the march with its agenda

Plus: Fischbach trades Ag committee for Ways and Means, D.C. lawmakers allowed housing subsidies

Attorney General Merrick Garland announcing on Thursday the appointment of former U.S. Attorney Robert Hur as a special counsel to investigate President Joe Biden's handling of classified documents.
Attorney General Merrick Garland announcing on Thursday the appointment of former U.S. Attorney Robert Hur as a special counsel to investigate President Joe Biden's handling of classified documents.
REUTERS/Leah Millis

WASHINGTON –In a blow to President Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel Thursday to investigate the handling of classified documents found at an office used by the president and at his Delaware home.

The number of classified documents in question are fewer than those found at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence and the circumstances are different.

But the discovery of classified material at the Washington-based Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, a think tank Biden started after leaving the vice presidency in 2017, and Biden’s home unleashed Republican complaints that there is a double standard at the Justice Department when it comes to Biden and Trump.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Thursday that Congress should probe Biden’s handling of classified documents.

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“This is what makes America not trust their government,” Republican McCarthy said at a press conference.

Shortly afterwards, Garland announced that Robert K. Hur, a former U.S. Attorney in Maryland who served as a senior Justice Department official during the Trump administration, would investigate the matter. Hur’s investigation will determine whether “any person or entity violated the law,” Garland said.

In November, Garland assigned veteran prosecutor Jack Smith to oversee the criminal probe into Trump’s handling of classified documents after he left the White House.

Biden said he and his team are “cooperating fully and completely with the Justice Department’s review” of the documents that date back to his time vice president in the Obama administration.

“As I said earlier this week, people know I take classified documents and classified material seriously,” Biden said.

‘On a roll’

House Republicans rushed this week to make up for time lost in the chaos over electing a new speaker by quickly passing partisan bills that would cut money for the Internal Revenue Service and set up a new, wide-ranging investigative panel to probe what Republicans call the “weaponization of government.”

With their razor-thin margin majority, Republicans also adopted a resolution that carries no legislative weight that condemns attacks on “pro-life facilities, groups and churches.” The GOP-led House also passed the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which would compel doctors to provide care to infants who survive abortion, a rare occurrence which some legal experts say is already mandated by other laws.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th District, on the House floor called the resolution condemning attacks on pro-life facilities “a political move by extreme Republicans.”

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“This resolution only focuses on protecting pro-life pregnancy facilities and faith-based women’s health centers, which are not medical facilities,” McCollum said. “In clinics that provide abortion services, attacks are on the rise.”

Many House Democrats, like McCollum, wore white outfits in what they said was a silent protest of the abortion-related votes.

Meanwhile, the GOP flip of the House allowed Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-7th District, the co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, to hold the gavel – for the first time – during the votes on the legislation.

The flip of the House also prompted several GOP members to say they were “on the roll” to move on the priorities House GOP McCarthy has laid out in his “Commitment to America.”

But the highly partisan bills approved by the House this week are not likely to be considered by the Senate, which is still under Democratic control.

 Fischbach wins new job, loses old ones

The GOP takeover of the U.S. House has also resulted in a major shakeup in Fischbach’s duties in the 118th Congress. This week, she was given a seat on the powerful, and coveted, tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. But serving on that committee, which usually boosts a lawmaker’s ability to raise campaign cash, comes at a price.

The Ways and Means Committee is considered an “exclusive” committee, which means those who serve on it cannot sit on other panels.

So Fischbach will lose her seats on the House Agriculture Committee and the House Judiciary Committee. She may, however, keep her seat on the House Rules Committee, which unlike other committees that are organized by Republican and Democratic steering committees, is under the jurisdiction of the Speaker of the House.

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In a statement, Fischbach said she was “honored” to serve on the Ways and Means panel, the oldest committee in the House, established in large part by the Constitution’s mandate that “all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.”

“The communities I represent understand that agriculture benefits from a competitive tax code and robust market access,” Fischbach said. “The Ways and Means Committee is the strongest platform by which Congress can pursue both of these goals.”

Fischbach’s new, prestigious job may carry some political risk, however.

In his “handshake” deal with GOP hard-liners who opposed his speakership, McCarthy promised to slash federal spending and rein in deficits, something that is considered almost impossible to accomplish without cutting “entitlement” programs like Medicare and Social Security. The Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over these very popular programs for elderly Americans.

GOP House members are divided over touching this political third rail. Some of them are walking a fine line by saying proposed changes to Medicare and Social Security –  which include raising the age to qualify for these programs for seniors and implementing means testing – are necessary to keep the programs solvent, instead of saying they are seeking cuts to the programs.

Lawmakers to be able to subsidize housing costs

There’s another big change in the new House of Representatives – lawmakers will now be able to subsidize the cost of their housing and meals in Washington, D.C.

Lawmakers must keep two residences, one in their districts and one in the nation’s capital, which is a financial strain for many, even with the $174,000 a-year salary rank-and-file members receive.

Lawmakers have complained for years they can’t afford to spend money on two households. But it was a final report by the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a panel that was dissolved at the end of the last Congress, that finally did the trick.

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“Unlike their counterparts in the executive branch and private sector, members do not receive a per diem or reimbursement for their out-of-pocket living expenses when they are at work in Washington,” the report said.

The House Administration Committee approved the reimbursement policy in late December, but lawmakers were notified of the change this week.

Funding for housing and other out-of-pocket expenses will come out of the lawmakers’ Member’s Representational Allowance, which covers the staff salaries, office rentals and other official expenses.

“Holding public office has a hefty price tag, and if high costs of living, dual residences, and travel expenses are keeping the next generation of public servants from fulfilling their potential, the American people, and our democracy, suffers,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, D-3rd District, who was a member off the a member of the Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

Phillips, one of the wealthier members of the House, owns a townhouse on Capitol Hill, besides owning a home in his district.

Other lawmakers have a tougher time finding a place they can afford in Washington, D.C., where the price of homes and the cost of rent is even pricier post-pandemic. A freshman lawmaker who drove an Uber before being elected to Congress, 25-year-old Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, D-Fla., brought the high cost of living in D.C. to national attention by documenting the tough time he had renting an apartment here.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-5th District, said she is able to rent an apartment 20 minutes from the U.S. Capitol, but said her search for affordable housing was difficult. When she was first sworn in to the House, in 2019, Omar said her family had to help her pay the rent.

She said the ability to subsidize housing costs could help bring more diversity to Congress by attracting people with more modest resources. According to Open Secrets, a majority of the members of the House and Senate are millionaires.

“We could reshape the kind of members we get,” Omar said.

And some lawmakers are known to live out of their Capitol Hill offices, “to make things work” financially, Omar said. The new policy could help those lawmakers, she said.

Rep. Pete Stauber, R-8th District, who shares a rented townhouse with other lawmakers, is also supportive of the new policy.

“It will help us out,” Stauber said. “I haven’t met a lawmaker who would not approve.”

 This and that

Inspired by the four days of intra-party fighting by House Republicans over McCarthy’s speakership, which delayed the start of the new House session, Rep. Angie Craig, D-2nd District, introduced a bill called the No Pay for Disarray Act.

The legislation would dock lawmaker’s pay for every day they are not able to vote for a new speaker.

“The folks we represent have to show up to work every day and actually do the job on time in order to get paid, and Congress should be no different,” Craig said in a statement. “My bill would protect our constituents’ tax dollars and discourage Members of Congress from playing politics when they should be working for the American people.”

The 15 ballots it took to elect McCarthy was historical and very unusual. Only a session held before the Civil War holds the record for a greater number of ballots being cast before a speaker was elected. In any case, it’s fairly certain House GOP leaders will not allow a vote on Craig’s bill.

Meanwhile, Stauber, who in the past two Congresses won House support for a bill that was ignored by the Senate, may get more traction for his legislation after an outage of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system this week that led to more than 1,300 canceled flights and chaos at the nation’s airports.

Stauber’s legislation would create a new panel to seek reforms of the NOTAM system, which alerts pilots of potential hazards along a flight route or at a location that could affect the safety of the flight. He reintroduced it this week with a slight change; he added a new mandate for the NOTAM task force, to ensure  “the stability, resiliency, and cybersecurity of the NOTAM computer system.”

The FAA said that a “damaged database file,” was at fault for the massive grounding of aircraft on Wednesday. The agency said there was no indication of a cyberattack, but its investigation is ongoing.