Poll says public losing patience with Congress

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A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that the American public is losing its patience with the new Congress and thinks that the debate over spending and the deficits has been “generally rude and disrespectful.”

The poll sampled 1,525 adults during the period March 8-14. McClatchy Newspapers reports that big losers so far have been Republicans, who rode a wave of discontent to win control of the House in November.

There’s even bipartisan agreement — 48 percent of Republicans and Democrats have that view, as well as 57 percent of independents. President Barack Obama signed legislation Friday to provide funding to keep the government open until April 8, the sixth such temporary extension in the 6-month-old fiscal year.

Pew surveyed 1,525 adults from March 8-14. The poll’s findings suggest the political losers so far have been Republicans, who rode a wave of voter irritation to win control of the House of Representatives last fall.

After the election, 35 percent said Republicans had a better approach to the deficit, expected to reach a record $1.65 trillion this year. This month, that number has plunged to 21 percent.

People don’t think Obama has better ideas, either — 20 percent found his approach better, down from November’s 24 percent. Total sample margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Read more in The Miami Herald

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N.Y. Congressman Christopher Lee resigns for misbehavior

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A New York congressman abruptly resigned his seat Wednesday, saying he was quitting because he regretted actions that have hurt his family and others.

New York Rep. Christopher Lee resigned immediately after he was caught trolling for dates on the Internet.

The gossip website Gawker reported Wednesday that Rep. Christopher Lee, a married two-term Republican lawmaker, had sent a shirtless photo of himself to a woman he met on Craigslist.

Lee said in an e-mailed statement that his resignation was effective immediately. The statement offered no confirmation or details of a Craigslist posting.

“I regret the harm that my actions have caused my family, my staff and my constituents,” Lee said. “I deeply and sincerely apologize to them all. I have made profound mistakes and I promise to work as hard as I can to seek their forgiveness.”

Added Lee: “The challenges we face in Western New York and across the country are too serious for me to allow this distraction to continue, so I am announcing that I have resigned my seat in Congress effective immediately.”

An anonymous woman described as a 34-year-old Maryland resident and government employee provided Gawker with e-mails she said were an exchange between her and Lee in response to an ad she placed in the “Women Seeking Men” section of Craigslist.

Gawker reported that Lee identified himself as a divorced lobbyist and sent a photo of himself posing shirtless. The woman eventually broke off the contact with Lee after becoming suspicious that he had misrepresented himself, according to Gawker.

Lee served on the House Ways and Means Committee and was active on economic revitalization issues.

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GOP slashes budgets of agencies, goes easy on itself

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Republicans now running the House are barely touching Congress’ generous own budget even as they take a cleaver to many domestic agencies. A new GOP proposal would reduce domestic agencies’ spending by 9 percent on average through September, when the current budget year ends.

If that plan becomes law, it could lead to layoffs of tens of thousands of federal employees, big cuts to heating and housing subsidies for the poor, reduced grants to schools and law enforcement agencies, and a major hit to the Internal Revenue Service’s budget.

Congress, on the other hand, would get nicked by only 2 percent, or $94 million.

Recent hefty increases to the congressional budget — engineered by Democrats when they held power in the House from 2007-2010 — would remain largely in place under a plan announced Thursday by the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky.

The plan, developed in close consultation with Republican Speaker John Boehner’s office, would cut Congress’ budget less than any other domestic spending bill, except for the one covering the Department of Homeland Security.

All 12 spending bills left unfinished by Democrats will go into a single, enormous measure that Republicans promise to bring up the week of Feb. 14.”Charity begins at home, and Congress should lead the way with cuts to their own budget,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group. “Instead they’re protecting their bottom line while slashing everyone else’s.”

The cut to Congress gets a little deeper, to 3.5 percent, if it were imposed for a full calendar year instead of the seven months that will remain in the current budget year. But so, too, would the cuts to other agencies — growing to 16 percent.

When Democrats took over Congress in 2007, they inherited a $3.8 billion budget for Congress. That includes money for members’ and leadership offices, House and Senate committees, and support agencies such as the Capitol Police and the Congressional Budget Office, which crunches numbers for lawmakers as they consider legislation.

Since then, that budget has risen to $4.7 billion, a 23 percent increase over four years. The biggest jump, 11 percent, occurred when President Barack Obama signed a Democratic-written spending bill just after he took office in 2009.

Among the first items of business when the GOP regained the House was to pass a bipartisan measure to cut office and committee budgets by 5 percent. That move that prompted much self-congratulation even though it would produce just $35 million in savings. For context, the deficit is climbing toward $1.5 trillion this year.

Republicans bristle at the suggestion that Congress is getting off easy. They promise further cuts when the Senate pitches in and when the two chambers work out joint items such as budgets for the Capitol Police, Library of Congress and the Government Accountability Office.

“Earlier this year, the House passed unprecedented cuts to its own budget, and we are cutting more … a total of nearly $100 million in House-related spending cuts,” said Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel. “The Senate has substantial responsibility for the overall legislative branch appropriations bill, and we hope to work with them to cut even more going forward.”

Republicans will provide more details about the spending bill in the week ahead.

Legislative branch cuts are hardly unprecedented. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich engineered an 8 percent cut in Congress’s budget when Republicans last wrested control of the House, in 1995.

When Democrats gained a majority in 2007, the budget for the office of the speaker’s office — considered the most powerful of any in Congress — exploded. As speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., engineered a $2 million, 71 percent increase immediately after that transfer of party control.

A Pelosi spokesman attributed some of the increase to her decision to consolidate a variety of leadership jobs within her office — as opposed to the power-sharing approach of her predecessor, Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Regardless, Boehner inherited a pretty flush office account, which permits him a sizable staff contingent, including a press and communications operation with a dozen people. Capitol Hill news coverage has increased considerably in recent years with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, the growth of niche publications and a range of new online media, including Twitter and Facebook.

The Associated Press

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House legislators using constitutional clause to stop corruption investigations

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A clause in the U.S. Constitution is causing concern at the Justice Department, as legislators under investigation on corruption charges are using it to defend themselves from federal prosecutors, according to a story in The Washington Post.

The clause, simply known as the “speech and debate” clause, shields legislative work from executive branch interference. House members have successfully used the clause in recent years in corruption probes to limit the FBI’s ability to search for evidence and install wiretaps on their phones.

A 2007 court decision ruled that government agents violated the constitutional rights of then-Rep. William J.  Jefferson when they conducted a search of his Washington D.C. office. At the time, the Justice Department warned that the decision would “seriously and perhaps fatally” undermine congressional corruption investigations by limiting the scope of federal investigators.

A few days before the office raid, FBI agents, searching his Washington, D.C. home, found $90,000 in cash hidden in his kitchen’s freezer.  Jefferson was eventually convicted of corruption using that and other evidence, and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Since the Jefferson court ruling, the speech and debate defense has killed off, or severely limited the investigations into potential corruption activities of former-Reps. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and veteran Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.).

Instead of any opposition to the constitution clause, House leaders of both parties have been supportive of the use of it by members under investigation by Justice Department officials. A recently-filed brief by House lawyers compared the extensive wiretapping of Renzi, who was accused of financially benefitting from a land deal, to the wiretapping of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Law enforcement officials say that the clause is used now in virtually every defense, because many involve legislative acts in which the lawmaker was involved. For example, a potentially illegal action might involve a  lawmaker who introduces legislation in exchange for campaign contributions or other favors.

In the Visclosky investigation, investigators sought to determine if the lawmaker used his influence on the House’s Appropriations Committee, of which he was a member, to steer government contracts to clients of lobbyist PMA Group. Over a period of 10 years, Visclosky took $1.36 million in campaign donations from PMA, while voting for over $137 million in purchases from PMA clients.

The lawmaker’s lawyers refused to turn over most of the documents requested by investigators, citing the speech and debate clause. The investigation has stalled, and sources say the congressman is unlikely to be charged based on a lack of evidence.

More at The Washington Post

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Government debt at a record $14 trillion

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The U.S. just passed a dubious milestone: Government debt surged to an all-time high, more than $14 trillion.

That means Congress soon will have to lift the legal debt limit to give the nearly maxed-out government an even higher credit limit or dramatically cut spending to stay within the current cap. Either way, a fight is ahead on Capitol Hill, inflamed by the passions of tea party activists and deficit hawks.

Today’s debt level represents a $45,300 tab for each and everyone in the country.

Already, both sides are blaming each other for an approaching economic train wreck as Washington wrestles over how to keep the government in business and avoid default on global financial obligations.

Bills increasing the debt limit are among the most unpopular to come before Congress, serving as pawns for decades in high-stakes bargaining games. Every time until now, the ending has been the same: We go to the brink before raising the ceiling.

All bets may be off, however, in this charged political environment, despite some signs the partisan rhetoric is softening after the Arizona shootings.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says failure to increase borrowing authority would be “a catastrophe,” perhaps rivaling the financial meltdown of 2008-2009.

Congressional Republicans, flexing muscle after November’s victories, say the election results show that people are weary of big government and deficit spending, and that it’s time to draw the line against more borrowing.

Defeating a new debt limit increase has become a priority for the tea party movement and other small-government conservatives.

So far, the new GOP majority has proved accommodating. Republicans are moving to make good on their promise to cut $100 billion from domestic spending this year. They adopted a rules change by House Speaker John Boehner that should make it easier to block a debt-limit increase.

The national debt is the accumulation of years of deficit spending going back to the days of George Washington. The debt usually advances in times of war and retreats in peace.

Remarkably, nearly half of today’s national debt was run up in just the past six years. It soared from $7.6 trillion in January 2005 as President George W. Bush began his second term to $10.6 trillion the day Obama was inaugurated and to $14.02 trillion now. The period has seen two major wars and the deepest economic downturn since the 1930s.

With a $1.7 trillion deficit in budget year 2010 alone, and the government on track to spend $1.3 trillion more this year than it takes in, annual budget deficits are adding roughly $4 billion a day to the national debt. Put another way, the government is borrowing 41 cents for every dollar it spends.

In a letter to Congress, Geithner said the current statutory debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion, set just last year, may be reached by the end of March – and hit no later than May 16. He warned that holding it hostage to skirmishes over spending could lead the country to default on its obligations, “an event that has no precedent in American history.”

The Associated Press

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House lawmakers create a mess by skipping swearing-in ceremony

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A number of votes cast by two Republicans who skipped Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony were nullified on Friday, helping to straighten out a procedural mess caused by their absence. Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas) were at a reception on late-Wednesday during the administration of the oath by Speaker John Boehner on the House floor.

The men took the oath watching the House ceremony on TV at the Capital Visitor Center, while attending a reception for several hundred of Fitzpatrick supporters. The Constitution requires that all members swear to the oath before taking office.

When House leaders learned that the two men had skipped the swearing-in ceremony to attend a reception organized by Fitzpatrick supporters elsewhere in the Capital, they were uncertain whether the motions the men voted on were invalid. House rules require the oath be administered in person by the Speaker.

A cleanup resolution was passed on Friday, 257-159, largely along party lines. It acknowledges the men were not sworn in according to the Constitution and House rules and nullifies their first five votes. Session’s work in a meeting of the Rules Committee, where he is the second highest member, was ratified.

On Friday, Fitzpatrick and Sessions sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, expressing their regret over the incident.

“We are deeply committed to fulfilling our role in our constitutional democracy by maintaining the integrity of the People’s House. Our absence on the House floor during the oath-of-office ceremony for the 112th Congress – while not intentional – fell short of this standard by creating uncertainty regarding our standing in this body,” said the letter.

One group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said they would ask the Office of Congressional Ethics to look into the reception organized by Fitzpatrick, saying that it was a fundraiser, and violated laws against campaign fundraising on federal property.

Participants at the reception paid $30 for a round-trip bus ride from Pennsylvania to D.C., and the form which they filled out listed the amount as a “contribution.” The form asks that checks be made out to Fitzpatrick’s campaign committee.

Fitzpatrick spokesman Darren Smith said the reception was free, and open to everyone, including those who drown down from Pennsylvania on their own. “The $30 was for the cost of the bus, that’s it,” he wrote in an email.

Others in Washington are taking it far more seriously. Meredith McGehee, policy director for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center said she believes that Fitzpatrick seems to have broken campaign finance laws. She said the House ethics committee should look at the reception and determine what type of events lawmakers are permitted on federal property.

“I don’t look at this and say, ‘My God, how venal,'” she said. “I say, ‘Here’s a guy who misses his own swearing-in and then goes and reads the Constitution.’ How ironic. It does show how much the money system has become wrapped up in being a member of Congress.”

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Incoming House Oversight head announces corruption investigations

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Incoming Republican leaders of the House announced Monday, their intentions to launch a series of six major investigations into waste and fraud in the first three months of the year. On Sunday, the head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), promised to closely examine actions of the White House and Democratic-controlled Congress and expose bloated bureaucracy and waste.

Included on the list is the “impact on government hyperregulation on job creation,” the release of classified cables by WikiLeaks, recalls at the Food and Drug Administration, the failure of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission to identify the catalyst of the economic crisis, the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the mortgage meltdown crisis, and business regulations and corruption in Afghanistan.

“I’ve always been fond of the saying that when it comes to oversight and reform, the federal government does two things well: nothing and overreact,” Issa said Monday. “Too often, a problem is allowed to fester until it reaches a crisis point. . ..and the American people are left asking the question: what went wrong and why?”

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is expected to be yet another distraction for the Obama administration, because of its ability to subpoena records it feels are needed to investigate wrongdoing. Most of its initial actions are directed at economic issues, although some committee members have said they plan to investigate the radicalization of Muslims in the U.S., and homeland security issues at airports, shipping container ports and chemical plants.

Issa’s Democrat counterpart on the committee, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), said he was concerned that Issa has already jumped to conclusions about the administration, even before having any facts to back up his claims. Cummings will be the chief person on the committee to defend the Obama administration from attacks by the GOP.

Cummings also singled out a statement made a few months ago by Issa, saying that the Obama administration was “one of the most corrupt in modern history.”

“Corruption basically says people are criminals, and I think that’s a pretty strong statement having not one scintilla of evidence, having not heard one hearing or had one testimony,” said Cummings. “I think that if we have concerns, then what we should do is in a bipartisan way bring witnesses before our committee, depose them and hear what they have to say, and then draw conclusions.”

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