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Congress

The Takeaway

A Look Back at This Week in Politics

Friday, August 03, 2012

Congress wraps up its session today before its members go home for a summer recess. Lawmakers have been furiously scrambling through legislation, trying to push through bills before the break, and trying to push themselves into better political standing heading into elections.

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The Takeaway

Is the Post Office Default Manufactured?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

With the United States Post Office about to default on its $5 billion debt, they haven't yet received any help from Congress. Representative Dennis Kucinich, a democrat from Ohio, explains why he believes the default is manufactured.

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The Takeaway

Congress Agrees on Budget

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Here are two words we don’t see too often in Washington these days: “Bipartisan agreement.” Congressional leaders reached one of those yesterday to fund the federal government for the next six months — and they did it two months ahead of time. 

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WNYC News

McCain Defends Clinton Aide, Tells Bachmann And Others To Back Off

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The 2008 GOP presidential nominee came to the defense of Hilary Clinton's longtime aide on the Senate floor. While Sen. John McCain didn't mention Rep. Michele Bachmann by name, he made clear he wants her to stop suggesting the aide is helping the Muslim Brotherhood.

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Transportation Nation

Interstate? Close Enough

Thursday, July 12, 2012

John Thompson, Polk County Judge and Chairman of the Alliance for I-69 Texas, presents an Interstate 69 sign to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (photo:  i69texasalliance.com)

A new riddle for you: when is an Interstate not an Interstate?

For decades, the criteria for designating new or improved roads as Interstate Highways were fairly straightforward. The Federal Highway Administration would certify “that the segment (a) is built to Interstate design standards and (b) connects to the existing Interstate System.” In short, Interstates had to be Inter-state.

But not any more. With the signing of MAP-21 last week, the law has been changed to do away with requirement (b) and allow disconnected pieces of floating “Interstate”—as long as the segment is “planned to connect to an existing Interstate System segment” in the next 25 years.

This might seem like a strange, even absurd, tweak to make, especially as part of such a contentious bill. But the provenance of the language makes its purpose clear. The change in definition was initially written as a special exception for Interstate 69, the so-called “NAFTA Highway, which has been in the works for twenty years. Congressman Blake Farenthold, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced matching bills last spring in their respective houses. Both are Republicans, but the entire Texas delegation supported the measure in lockstep.

Exceptions already existed to the standard Interstate designation. The non-contiguous states and territories of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico all have quasi-Interstates that were funded through the Interstate program despite the fact that they don’t meet the normal design criteria and, more obviously, will never connect to the rest of the system (unless we invade British Columbia and build some very impressive tunnels). But the new rule change is notable in that its reason for being is psychological, not geographical.

Existing freeway sections on I-69 route in Texas. Illustration / i69texasalliance.com

In practical terms, the relaxed criteria will allow Texas to erect Interstate 69 signs on about eighty miles of improved highway in the Lower Rio Grand Valley border region, despite the fact that these segments don’t actually connect to other Interstates. This new designation, local officials and businessmen believe, will enhance economic development opportunities, because developers, employers, and freight companies perceive an “Interstate” differently from a U.S. Highway, even if that U.S. Highway is built to Interstate standards.

This “Interstate” branding has been an obsession among the business community in the growing Lower Rio Grande Valley region, which bears the burden of being the largest metropolitan area in the country with no Interstate highway. Back in the mid-1990s, lobbyists for the Interstate 69 coalition (including Tom Delay’s brother Randy) won legislative approval to post “Future Interstate 69 Corridor” signs along U.S. 59, U.S. 281, and U.S. 77, from Texarkana through Houston and down to the Mexican Border.

The Interstate 69 project (about which I wrote a book) is the largest new construction project since the original interstate system, and has not been without controversy. Some states—such as Indiana, Arkansas, and Louisiana—are building Interstate 69 as a greenfield highway through untouched farms and forests. (And for about seven years, when Interstate 69 was part of Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor scheme, Texas was planning to do the same.) But other states—such as Kentucky and Texas—chose to upgrade existing highways to Interstate standards.

This is not the first time the rules have been changed to get Interstate 69 signs up faster. Last fall, the Federal Highway Administration made an exception and designated thirty-eight miles of the Western Kentucky Parkway as I-69, even though the road was not up to Interstate standards. Kentucky State Senator Dorsey Ridley told the Henderson Gleaner that the red white and blue signs held more magic than any actual roadwork could. “This will move economic development in a way people don’t realize,” he said “simply by putting up a shield called I-69.” Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez agreed, saying in a statement that "these improvements will create jobs now and encourage development in the future."

It’s a sign of our times—pardon the pun—that our public servants hope to create jobs by rebranding roadways, and that a reauthorization bill that failed to increase funding for real physical transformations to our infrastructure nevertheless lowered standards to allow more superficial transformations.

Now if we can just get the definition of “High Speed” rail down to 45 mph...

 

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.

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It's A Free Blog

Opinion: Party Loyalty is Overrated

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The American political system was constructed and remains a machine designed to slow down - not expedite - policy.

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The Takeaway

Health Care Politicking in Perspective

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

It's a slam-dunk in the House, but it's destined to die in the Senate. Would Republicans be wise to back off the healthcare debate?

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WNYC News

Who 'Owns' The Bush Tax Cuts?

Monday, July 09, 2012

Democrats opposed the Bush tax cuts in the early 2000s. But now President Obama is calling for a second extension of the cuts for some Americans, and Republicans are lining up in opposition. So whose tax cut is it anyway?

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Transportation Nation

Fed Transportation Conference Report: Not a Touchdown. More Like A Field Goal.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Now that the Transportation Bill conference committee has finally released a report (ongress has all of two days to pass it before the June 30th deadline on the current (ninth) extension. That’s not much time to fully analyze the entire 599-page Conference Report, but fortunately the committee provided a “brief” 91-page Joint Explanatory Statement.

It appears from first glance that the document is in almost every way a lukewarm compromise bill:

  • It covers two years, not six.
  • It lacks the most extreme provisions contemplated over the past months: Keystone pipeline approval, relaxing coal ash regulations, cutting mass transit spending from the Highway Trust Fund.
  • It includes reforms that enjoyed bipartisan support—program streamlining, accelerated environmental review.
  • It maintains current funding, adjusted for inflation, without indexing the gas tax or limiting spending to its revenue.

Spending on biking, walking, and beautification “transportation enhancements” remains, and half of those funds will be sent directly to metropolitan areas. That's a win for supporters. And half will be sent to the states, which are free to spend them on roads instead. That's a win for detractors.

Transportation For America, one of several organizations created around what many expected would be a transformative, next-generation transportation bill in 2009, made note earlier this week that the last major re-authorization had expired more than 1,000-days ago.

In the context of those last several years of gridlock, this conference report, by its mere existence, amounts to something of a breakthrough.

Something of a breakthrough. The conference report makes useful changes but fails to put the nation on the solid footing that transportation advocates of both parties have been yearning for.  For example, it doesn’t replace or significantly augment gas-tax funding. Nor does it create or even allow a visionary level of investment--public or private.

It’s better than another punt, but by no means a touchdown, for anyone. We’ll call it a field goal. A victory for minimal competence. Some conference report highlights:

  • Consolidates the number of highway programs by two-thirds, making more resources available directly to states and metropolitan areas.
  • Allows acceleration of environmental reviews while maintaining environmental protections.
  • Introduces performance measures to better focus spending on measurable outcomes such as reducing congestion, improving road and bridge conditions, and freight movement.
    Expands the TIFIA program to $1 Billion per year.
  • Creates a pilot program for transit-oriented development planning.
  • Increases (modestly) spending on public transportation in Appalachian region and on Indian reservations.

Key proposals that were not included:

  • NO Keystone oil pipeline approval, nor language to weaken restrictions on coal ash, as proposed by House Republicans.
  • NO permission for transit agencies to use federal capital funds for operating expenses during periods of high unemployment, as proposed by Senate Democrats.
  • NO funding reductions for states based on mileage leased to private concessionaires, as proposed by Senate Democrats.

Check back with us soon for more news and analysis.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.


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Transportation Nation

BREAKING: Congress Close to Deal on 18-Month Transportation Bill

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

UPDATED WITH BARBARA BOXER'S STATEMENT  Congressional negotiators appear to be locking down an 18-month transportation bill-- just before current funding expires at the end of the week.

Final numbers on the developing deal are not yet available, and aides stress none of its provisions are final until the whole package is inked. But aides from both parties  confirmed key details for Transportation Nation, and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) sent out an email indicating that it's basically a done deal.

“I am so glad that House Republicans met Democrats half way, as Senate Republicans did months ago," she wrote. “The bill is funded at current levels."

Politically-charged provisions forcing approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and rolling back EPA rules on coal ash will not be included in the final deal, according to aides. That could make it more difficult for House GOP leaders to secure votes for a final deal from Republicans, who have voted several times in favor of the measures and in many cases insisted on its inclusion in the highway bill.

In a concession by Democrats, extra money for land and water conservation looks to be left out of the deal. There are likely to be further reductions to transportation "enhancement" requirements forcing states to spend a certain portion of their highway funds on bike paths and other non-road projects.

Boxer's email referenced an agreement on the enhancement requirements.  "For the first time, we send half of the funds for bike paths and pedestrian walkways directly to local entities," she wrote, "and we protect those funds while giving states more flexibility on their share."

Republicans appear to have scored a victory on the pace of environmental reviews for projects. While the original Senate bill limited reviews to 15 years, the deal afoot among conferees limits reviews to eight years, aides said. The final deal also appears to include extra money for rural schools and for Gulf Coast states ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Lawmakers and aides are rushing to ink the deal and file it in the House before midnight Wednesday. That would allow the House to pass the agreement Friday and still comply with House Republicans' three-day preview requirement before bills can reach the floor. The transportation deal is likely to get paired up with a separate deal preventing a student loan rate hike.

Senate aides say it is unlikely senators would remain in town Friday to stamp the deal with an official vote. That means senators would have to have broad agreement to approve it by unanimous consent some time after the House acts.

Follow Todd Zwillich on Twitter @toddzwillich

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It's A Free Blog

Opinion: Washington Post Insider Trading Probe Shows Congress' Greed Knows No Bounds

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Many of these folks either enter wealthy already or are ensured a soft landing with a golden parachute. Given all the fully-legal and quasi-legitimate benefits, you'd think they wouldn't have to grab at any more.

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The Brian Lehrer Show

7th Congressional District: Meet the Democratic Candidates

Friday, June 22, 2012

Nydia Velázquez, U.S. Representative (D-12, Brookyn) and primary candidate, Erik Martin Dilan, New York City Council member, Daniel O’Connor, businessman, and George Martinez, OWS activist, discuss their campaigns in the Democratic primary race to represent New York's 7th congressional district, which includes parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens.

→ Redistricting Resources: Official LATFOR Maps | NYTimes Interactive Tool

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WNYC News

House Panel's Contempt Vote Against Holder Part Of Political Firefight

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

There's little evidence that the flap over Fast and Furious will make a difference to most voters come November. But there are a number of conservative gun owners in battleground states like Ohio who could be energized to oppose President Obama.

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The Takeaway

Jamie Dimon and the Art of Apologizing

Friday, June 15, 2012

Earlier this week JP Morgan chief Jamie Dimon went up to Capitol Hill. He sat in front of a Senate committee, and Dimon... apologized. This got Takeaway Washington Correspondent Todd Zwillich thinking about other instances of public figures apologizing to Congress.

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WNYC News

Public Still Mostly Hates Health Law With Supreme Court Ruling Just Weeks Off

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The latest major poll, commissioned by CBS News/NY Times just weeks before the Supreme Court is expected to deliver its ruling on the constitutionality of the health-care law. The survey found that nothing has happened to change the minds of a majority of the public that the law should be overturned.

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WNYC News

NYC Political Leaders Take Stop-and-Frisk Issue to Capitol Hill

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

For the first time, New York City leaders will make a concerted effort to formally bring the stop-and-frisk issue to the attention of Congress.

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The Brian Lehrer Show

NJ 10th Candidates

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Newark City Council member Ron Rice, Jr.Mayor Wayne Smith of Irvington, NJ, State Senator Nia Gill (D-34) and Donald Payne, Jr.Essex County freeholder-at-large, Newark city council president and the son of late Congressman Donald Payne Sr. of New Jersey's 10th district discuss their campaigns in the primary race to represent New Jersey's 10th district in Congress.

 

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It's A Free Blog

Opinion: Elizabeth Warren and the Problem with Racial Self-Identification

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Massachusetts -and recent head of the federal consumer protection agency - is in the middle of a nasty controversy that underscores the nefarious nature of racial politics in this country.

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It's A Free Blog

Opinion: No Surprise Best and Brightest Don't Wind Up in DC

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

If Washington could attract the same talent as Silicon Valley, maybe Congress wouldn't have the lowest approval ratings in history.

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The Takeaway

Is The Filibuster Unconstitutional?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It’s hard to imagine the Senate without the filibuster, but now the non-profit group Common Cause is filing a lawsuit against the Supreme Court claiming that the notorious senate procedure is, in fact, unconstitutional. The Takeaway talks with the plaintiff’s attorney Emmet Bondurant and filibuster scholar Gregory Koger to find out where the filibuster came from, what good it’s done us, and whether it’s going to stick around.        

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