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After a July 4 weekend celebrating independence and unity, members of Congress return to the Capitol this week with a full plate of partisan issues. Chief among their short-term priorities is highway funding, which runs out at the end of the month. No solution would mean trouble in the midst of the busy summer driving and construction season. Also likely to dominate much of the July session is a potential Iran deal. If a deal is reached by July 9, Congress will have 30 days to review it. This all comes against the backdrop of a government funding debate with a September deadline and lawmakers looking to avoid a shutdown at all costs. We take a look at priorities for Congress ahead of the August recess, and beyond.
- Manu Raju Senior congressional reporter, Politico.
- Juana Summers Congressional reporter, NPR.
- Charlie Cook Columnist, National Journal; editor and publisher, "The Cook Political Report."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Before the holiday weekend, Congress let the charter for the Export-Import Bank expire. The future of the bank is just one of a host of issues facing Congress when lawmakers return tomorrow. One particularly urgent matter is the federal highway fund, which runs out of money at the end of July. Joining me to talk about priorities for Congress ahead of the August recess and beyond, Manu Raju of Politico, Juana Summers of NPR and Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you all will feel welcome to join us, 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. It's good to see you all.
MR. CHARLIE COOKHi, Diane.
MS. JUANA SUMMERSThanks for having us.
MR. MANU RAJUGood morning.
REHMGood to see you all. Charlie Cook, talk about this biomedical research funding. What's that all about?
COOKThe chairman of the House energy and commerce committee, Fred Upton, has came up with an idea of let's, you know, reform the design and how clinical trials are carried out for drugs, the FDA approval process for drugs. And the idea was to -- and to pump in a lot of new money over five years. Upton points out that of the 10,000 known diseases we have, there are only 500 cures. And the ideas was to pump its $1.75 billion additional dollars of funding for health research, for research into curing diseases and the money would come over from making changes in how the strategic petroleum reserve is run.
COOKSo, you know, in a Congress where so much is negative and fighting, this was sort of a positive thing. Upton and Diana Degette, a House Democrat, are pushing on the House side. Lamar Alexander, Patty Murray, Cory Gardner and Bill Cassidy are pushing on the Senate side. So, you know, it's sort of something kind of upbeat and, you know, that hopefully can go through.
REHMLots of that money would go directly to NIH, I gather.
COOKRight. And to the FDA, yes.
REHMAnd to the FDA. Well, it's clear Congress has got a lot to do before the August recess. Juana Summers, what about highway funding? I know Congress is headed for a deadline there.
SUMMERSThey are, Diane. As you mentioned earlier, the highway trust funds authorization runs out at the end of July so if Congress doesn't do anything, that means you'll see construction projects across the country slow to a crawl and stop altogether, which during the summer, that's the busiest time for these kinds of projects. Right now, some House Republicans are weighing the idea of teaming up with Senate Democrats in order to fill the highway trust fund's coffers through a tax overhaul.
SUMMERSThat is, obviously, politically dicey. We've just seen a big bipartisan victory with trade. Who knows if they can actually do it again? My best guess, though, is if that effort to use tax overhaul and corporate tax changes fails, we're probably looking again at another short term fix for the highway trust fund, funding it for somewhere between six months and two years.
REHMWhat about a gas tax fund?
SUMMERSThat is one of the long term problems when we're talking about the highway trust fund. Federal gas tax is 18.3 cents per gallon hasn't changed for a long time and that has suffered because there are higher mileage cars now. People are driving less. There's inflation. So that's not a particularly politically palatable for -- as people are heading back to their districts and running for reelection. I don't know that there's a lot of appetite on Capitol Hill to change the federal gas tax, but it's certainly an option that you will hear from some lawmakers up on Capitol Hill.
REHMSo Manu, if highway funding doesn't go anywhere, what happens?
RAJUThere will be a short term fix. I mean, there is a bipartisan proposal in the Senate from Jim Inhofe and Barbara Boxer who are the two leaders of the environment and public works committee. It's a six-year bill that would cost about $275 billion. The problem, though, Diane, they don't have a way to pay for it. That is something that they have not resolved. The Senate finance committee, which comes up with how to pay for highway programs has not figured out how to do that.
RAJUAs a result, we're not going to get an agreement on how to fund it because Republican leaders have ruled out a gas tax increase, which is what Democrats are pushing. So what we're looking for is what will probably be the 33rd short term extension of highway programs since 2009. So this is a politically problematic issue and it's something that Congress will once again punt on.
REHMSo that's a short term issue. What about the long term, Charlie?
RAJUWell, part of the problem is that Republicans are convinced, maybe not erroneously, that if they vote for a gas tax increase, which is logical from my standpoint, but anyway, they will draw a Republican primary opponent, a conservative primary opponent. What they're trying to do is come up with some kind of funding mechanism that deals with taxation of foreign profits for U.S. corporations. And it's terribly complicated. I don't begin to understand it.
RAJUKind of a Rube Goldberg thing. But that it would, at least on paper, generate new revenue for the federal government, which could be then switched over and used for highway construction.
REHMAnd hasn't Paul Ryan come up with some ideas?
RAJUYes. And John Delaney, a Democrat from Maryland. There are all kinds of ideas. It's all -- the question is, does it pass the sniff test of is this real money or is this just, you know, moving money around a balance sheet.
REHMBut you know, in the meantime, I mean, I haven't been out on the big highways lately, but I hear lots of complaints.
RAJUYeah. I mean, the roads, bridges are, you know, you'll hear politicians say it, they're crumbling and they're not moving fast enough to resolve these repairs on these major roads, these bridges. We're seeing it all around Washington, D.C.
REHMIt's going to take another collapse.
RAJUYeah, and that's the fear. That is a real fear.
REHMThat's the fear.
RAJUAnd -- 'cause there is no political will right now, among the Republicans, to raise taxes and there's no real other way to do it unless you cut in other areas of the government, which Democrats don't want to do. So the two parties are just fundamentally divided over how to replenish the trust fund.
COOKAnd this is part of a larger infrastructure problem, that we have just been not skimping on investing. Think of how much our country drew back during the '50s, '60s, '70s and that infrastructure is getting old. It's tired. It needs replacing or fixing up and we simply have not been keeping up with that and it's adding up and up and up and soon we're going to be having more bridges fall down. We saw, what is that, Minneapolis in -- I mean, these are disasters waiting to happen if we don't start spending money on our infrastructure, but...
REHMYou don't see it happening right now.
COOKNot immediately, but...
REHMIt could. Charlie Cook is columnist for the National Journal, editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report. Juana Summers is congressional reporter for NPR, Manu Raju is senior congressional reporter for Politico. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Juana, before the July 4 holiday, Congress did not reauthorize the Export-Import Bank by their deadline. What happened?
SUMMERSThat’s correct. And that's important to note this is something that Congress did not do. There was no vote to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank on the floor of the House or Senate. And this is an agency that provides direct loans and guarantees with low interest rates to foreign entities that want to buy American products. And what happened now is the Export-Import Bank can't guarantee new loans.
SUMMERSI have spoke with a lot of small business owners who are really worried about their bottom line because if they can't get those loan guarantees, they say that it hurts their business. The people are going to go elsewhere and to other foreign companies, not here in the United States. Now, the Export-Import Bank's kind of a funny creature because it's kind of this obscure government institution that nobody's ever really heard of, but it's become a really big punching bag, particularly of conservatives who say that it's akin to Carnegie capitalism, that it favors big companies like Boeing and General Electric and that it's essentially a corporate welfare.
SUMMERSSo it's been a really interesting political situation to kind of watch this play out. We're hearing from leadership that they're -- that the Ex-Im Bank will likely be attached to another must-pass bill, perhaps the highway bill that we were just discussing in order to renew its charter.
REHMIs this surprising coming from Republicans, Charlie?
COOKYes and no. You know, Diane, when you and I were growing up, the Republican Party was considered a pro-business party. The Democratic Party was a pro-labor party. And what's happening is the Republican Party is becoming a conservative party and the Democratic Party is becoming a liberal party and some -- and which often is the same, but a lot of times it's not. And this is where conservative principles fly in contrast to what the business community is looking for.
COOKAnd from the business, you know, Boeing, Pratt Whitney, these kinds of entities, they're trying to compete in the international markets and if we can't be competitive and provide competitive financing, you know, they're going to be losing contracts to foreign manufacturers.
REHMAnd what's so surprising is that this is the first time since the Ex-Im Bank was created that this kind of push/pull is going on. But I understand the shutdown may end up being only temporary. They'll likely take it back up this week. We'll talk more after a short break, take your calls. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd we're back. We're talking in this hour about what the Congress needs to accomplish before the August recess. Who knows whether it will or not. But these are the really important issues that need to be taken up. Three people are here in the studio, Charlie Cook, columnist for the National Journal, editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report, Manu Raju of Politico and Juana Summers of NPR. Just before the break, we were talking about the Ex-Im Bank, Manu Raju, and some people think that that negotiation could get rolled into the Highway Trust Fund and what's going to happen there.
RAJUYeah, I think that's very possible. Remember when the trade bill passed, this was all tied -- Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, who opposes the Export-Import Bank, in order to get the trade bill through the Senate -- the fast-track trade deal -- he had to promise a vote on the Ex-Im Bank to several people who were holding out their support. I'm including Maria Cantwell from Washington State, where Boeing obviously has a big interest in Ex-Im Bank, Patty Murray, Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina who's worried about General Electric in his statement, who's also running for president, is pushing for the reauthorization of the bank.
RAJUIn order to get those three votes, McConnell had to promise that there would be a vote on Ex-Im on the floor of the Senate on a -- in probably a must-pass vehicle. That's what was demanded by those detractors. So as a result, what is sounds like, that there will be a vote as an amendment to the highway bill on the floor of the Senate sometime this month. And then it'll go over to the House. And that's going to be the real big question because of the conservative rebellion against the Ex-Im Bank. John Boehner has proposed an open amendment process, which means that it could be stripped out of the highway bill. And if it's stripped out of the highway bill, who knows what's going to happen to this bank. So that's another question.
REHMHow important is the Ex-Im Bank?
COOKWell, if you're in a state that has big manufacturers and even, as Juana pointed out, some small businesses. This is a big -- this is how they compete around the world as being able to provide lower-cost financing for some of these big-ticket items. So if you live in one of those areas, it's really, really important. And if you -- but to other people, they have no idea. It sounds something abstract.
SUMMERSRight. And if you just look at it from a purely numbers perspective, Ex-Im Bank backers say that it created more than 160,000 jobs, that last year the bank returned about $675 million to the U.S. Treasury based on the fees and interest it charges on loans. So people who support the bank and those who work for it say it is a really big deal, especially if you're a small business. Though, I think that the detractors do have a point that a lot of the places that are getting the biggest benefits are the Boeings and the Deltas and the General Electrics of the world that Manu talked about.
REHMBut at the same time, if you ask ordinary Americans, what's more important, a highway bill or the Ex-Im Bank, what are you likely to get?
SUMMERSExactly. No -- the average person, if we walked outside your studio and asked them about the Ex-Im Bank, they have absolutely no clue what it is or what it does. But, that said, there are conservatives in the House, in particular, have been very aggressive and outside groups have been very aggressive about making the Ex-Im Bank, something that no one knows anything about, synonymous with government greed and waste in their perspective.
RAJUYeah. And I would add, the outside groups have been very influential on this: People like Heritage Action, a conservative outside group that's influential among the right, particular House conservatives. The Americans for Prosperity, which is the Koch Brothers group, has aggressively come out against it. You know, so you're seeing those big, powerful forces on the right, which are influential in Republican primaries, not just presidential, but also congressional primaries.
REHMSo the (word?) campaign going in that...
COOKYeah, actually, the interesting thing is, while the Koch political operation is in opposition to the Export-Import Bank, the company -- Koch Industries -- actually benefits from it. So they're actually sort of doing their political action in contrary to their own economic interests. But, you know, I do wonder how much of this might be different if there were a Republican administration. That, you know, there are, you know, some Republican members of the House that are going to vote against doing anything -- allowing anything that the, you know, that would help the Obama administration in any way. And I'm not saying that's the bulk of what's going on. But that's a little bit of it. And it's enough to make it more complicated.
REHMAnd we're going to talk more about that. But, first, I want to ask you, Manu, about Iran, and if, in fact, there is a deal. Tomorrow is the deadline. But if there is a deal, what role will Congress play and how much time might be spent on that for the rest of the term before August?
RAJUThis week is very critical for the Iran deal. If there is not a deal by Thursday, Congress will have 60 days to review the deal.
RAJUBut if it's before, there will be 30 days. So that is significant for the administration that wants to sell this to the American public. Do they want a Republican Congress beating up about -- beating up this deal for a month or two months? That's very significant. But in order to get this through, the administration actually has a pretty low hurdle to clear in Congress because of the way the legislation was structured. It allows the president to essentially veto -- Congress will first have to vote in either on a motion of approval or disapproval on the deal itself. Assuming either of those passes -- let's say the Congress votes to disapprove the deal -- the president can veto that disapproval resolution.
COOKAnd then Congress has to have a two-thirds majority to override that veto. So, in a result, the -- in a sense, the president has a very low hurdle to keep the deal alive. He can easily do that if he convinces 34 Senate Democrats to stick with him in a caucus of 46 Senate Democrats. So probably he can do that. But the bigger question will be the other things that the Republicans can do to undermine the deal, either through the appropriations process, pushing more sanctions, particularly if public opinion is sharply opposed to this deal, which is what the party is going to try to do, ratchet up displeasure towards what they view is a very dangerous deal.
SUMMERSRight. And we already got a preview of that over the weekend. A number of Republican Senators, in particular, were on the Sunday talk shows saying -- Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee sticks out -- he said that the Obama administration and Secretary of State John Kerry are essentially more interested in getting a legacy accomplishment on the diplomatic front than actually imposing the most stringent requirements on Iran. And he kind of previewed what you're likely to hear from Republicans in terms of questions. Will this agreement allow any -- the so-called "anytime, anywhere inspections"? Will there be an acknowledgement of different military aspects of the nuclear program?
SUMMERSSo I think that the public relations campaign and kind of the -- put it -- how the Republicans sell this to the American public, how they talk about it, will be fascinating to watch, no matter when we get a deal.
COOKYou know, I think the opposition to a deal with Iran, you can sort of divide it into two groups. The first group -- and they don't admit this -- but they're basically against any deal, no matter what, no matter what's in it. They don't care what the content is. There can't be a deal that's favorable enough. And then there's the group, you know, folks that are -- have specific concerns that if this got addressed, or this, or this, or this, they might be in favor. And to be honest, I think the first group is a lot bigger than the second group.
REHMAnd why is the first group so strongly opposed?
COOKI think it tends to be the Israeli government is a million percent against any kind of deal whatsoever. And, you know, it's easy to throw up arguments and questions and raise doubts and things. You know, it's easier to stop something in the political process than to get something through oftentimes. And all you have to do is kick up dust and raise questions and some people will go with the doubt side rather than...
COOK...the trusting side.
REHMAnd as Secretary of State John Kerry said again, that getting a deal is not as close as they'd like. There are still many issues. So maybe that's something that Congress is going to have 60 days to debate. But what about Trade Promotion Authority? Congress passed that a week before the holiday break. So what remains on their agenda? Manu.
RAJUThere's this customs enforcement package that's remaining. This was part of a deal -- a larger -- just a step back here. Because the trade agenda is a very complicated thing because there's so many different pieces here. The larger deal that the administration is trying to negotiate right now is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Of course, that is a 12-nation deal that could affect 40 percent of the global economy. Now Congress has not weighed-in on that yet. But in order to get to that point, they needed to pass that Trade Promotion Authority, that fast-track bill which would allow Congress a chance to vote up or down on that, but not make any changes, which is very significant. So that fast-track bill passed right before the July 4th recess.
RAJUAnd as a condition of passing that, the Republican leadership had to agree to move separate pieces of trade legislation to appease Democrats. Those have -- some of those have already passed, like worker aid Trade Adjustment Assistance. In addition, there's one bill that's remaining, it's for customs enforcement. It's essentially legislation that would allow the United States government to crack down on what they view as unfair trade practices. Countries and companies coming in -- foreign companies coming in and dumping at artificially low rates in American markets. It includes efforts to retaliate against that. This is a big Democratic priority.
RAJUBut there are flashpoints in this legislation. In order to get that fast-track trade bill through, the Republican leaders had to make a lot of concessions to Democrats and to some of their own conservatives who were concerned. Part of it says that there can be no changes to immigration laws in any trade deal that's negotiated. There can be no changes to climate change...
RAJU...laws in any deal that's negotiated. And, to get some Democratic support, it included language aimed at cracking down on China as a currency manipulator. So the House and Senate will have to resolve some of these differences. And the idea is to push this through this month.
REHMAnd, Juana, one more issue on the docket is No Child Left Behind. Tell us about that.
SUMMERSRight. So both the Senate and the House this week will be starting work on bills that would rewrite No Child Left Behind, which of course was the signature President Bush law passed back in the 2000s. The bills look a little bit different. The bill in the Senate is a bipartisan bill by Senator Lamar Alexander and Senator Patty Murray. And what's really at the core of that legislation is it looks at testing. And it's -- children would still -- at third through eighth grades would still have to take those tests every year, one test in high school. But the tests would mean less.
SUMMERSOne of the biggest things, when you talk in education circles about laws like this, is the fact that these test results are used for teacher ratings, that they're used to determine whether or not a school is failing or not. You often hear the term "adequate yearly progress" thrown around. So these tests, they will sort of remove so many of those links. There is another bill over in the House that is moving that will also look at No Child Left Behind and rewrite some of the portions of that. This is a bill that House lawmakers, if you remember, tried to pass earlier in this year.
SUMMERSBut it did not have enough conservative support because they said it -- conservative Republicans said it did not go far enough to actually reign in federal government overreach into city and state schools. So they are hoping to bring this up this week again in the House and hopefully allow some amendments to it, to particularly get -- potentially get more conservative support so that it can go ahead and move on to the Senate. So two very different approaches we're looking at here.
REHMJuana, give me a sense of what a test looks like for a third grader.
SUMMERSThey're very, very complicated. If you remember back to the times when many of us were in school, there's no really simple reading, writing and arithmetic. They're very complicated tests that look at state standards. If you talk about the common core, that makes them a lot more complicated. And so the reason that -- these tests are so convoluted that many teachers tell us that they're teaching to the tests and they're not really teaching kids the very basic building blocks of what you need to know to be successful.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I mean, I can remember weekly tests...
REHM...in addition and subtraction or whatever it was in the third grade. But you're saying these tests are very complicated. What do they look like?
SUMMERSThey are very complicated. And it's hard to answer that question because they don't look the same everywhere necessarily. Depending on what kind of school system you're in, what you're in and whatnot, these tests are going to look a little bit different. But they're -- teachers say that they're very convoluted. If you remember back last year, the comedian Louis C.K. tweeted out one of his daughter's -- I think it was a fifth grade test, if I'm not mistaken -- just like, how do you teach kids math like this if you have these complicated word problems? You have to answer the question in a very specific way. It's a really meticulous process.
SUMMERSOne of our reporters at NPR, Cory Turner, did a really fun segment awhile back where he actually sat down and put himself to a third grade test and...
REHMOh, good. I want to hear about this.
SUMMERS...it's a great segment to listen to.
SUMMERSHe put himself to the test and it's just like, wow, these are really hard even as an adult with a college degree...
SUMMERS...it's hard to figure out what you're supposed to be answering and what these tests actually teach. Now, I don't have kids, so I don't sit at home with these all day. But a lot of parents say that they find it really hard to even help their kids with their homework because it's so completely mystical.
REHMI'm glad my kids are through college. Charlie.
COOKYou know, it's a classic question. First of all, we want to know, are our kids getting educated?
COOKAre our schools working?
COOKBut then, on the other side, there's, okay, how do you measure it? How do you objectively tell? And then you get into another thing is, everybody wants to believe that their schools are great. And any suggestion that they're not, some people react, "Well, there's something wrong with the test. I mean, you know, my kid's a genius. The school's obviously working. How could this test possibly suggest that my kids aren't learning a lot?"
REHMI want to talk at some point to somebody who's designed one of these tests. Because I think they're almost Machiavellian. I mean... ...how they sound. I want to take a call here from, before we go to a break, from Keith in Union, Ky. You're on the air.
KEITHYeah, hi. Thanks, Diane, for taking my...
KEITH...question here. Quickly, back to the Export-Import Bank issue, last week, the Justice Department announced a price-fixing or price-collusion investigation for the major airlines. And I may be a little bit off base here, I'm not sure, but I wonder if anyone's made the connection between those airlines and their opposition to the Export-Import Bank and this price-fixing investigation going on.
COOKI'm not familiar with the -- well, I'm not sure there is a connection. But I know that a lot of the U.S. airlines are upset with the Export-Import Bank because they say, we are subsidizing foreign airlines' purchase of airliners, if they were built in the United States, so that we're, you know, we're financing competitors to us. And Delta is sort of leading that charge of opposition. So...
REHMBut, on the other hand, Charlie, there was a news story that indeed United and some of the other big U.S. airlines are negotiating with the foreign airlines to stabilize and fix prices. So you don't know. Okay. We've got a short break coming up and more of your calls, your emails, when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. As we talk about what's ahead for Congress, when it returns tomorrow, and then leaves for its August recess, lots of work to be done. Here's an email and a tweet on the same issue. The email from Ben, I for one, am tired of hearing that Senate finance quote committee, quote, doesn't know where highway and transit money will come from. They know it could come from raising the gas tax and indexing it to inflation. Their unwillingness to do so is worse than ignorance. It's negligence.
REHMAnd then a tweet from Christopher on highway funding. Pardon my exasperation, he says, but weren't a trillion dollars authorized back in 2009 for shovel ready projects? Where'd it go?
COOKWell, a lot of it was spent. That was, of course, the stimulus project, that was the first big economic package passed by the President.
REHMBut did it go to improving highways?
COOKA lot of money went for infrastructure.
COOKBut not, it wasn't enough to scratch the surface of what was needed.
RAJUAnd Diane, that was the big criticism among, particularly folks on the left that it was not -- there was not enough money for those shovel ready projects. A lot of it went to tax breaks and other aspects, which was part of the reason why you heard some opposition from some of the progressive folks in the Democratic party.
COOKAnd big projects aren't necessarily shovel ready. I mean, there's a lead time.
COOKTo big stuff.
REHMAnd Bill in Flagler Beach, Florida and others have written in, asking why gun control legislation is not a top priority in Congress now, given our recent tragedies like the one in Charleston? Juana, do you see that happening?
SUMMERSI don't think it's very likely. It's worth noting, though, that a lot of lawmakers, both in the Senate and the House and in both parties have expressed an increased appetite for things connected to shootings like this. They want to see things in terms of mental health and looking at police brutality and other criminal justice linked issues. Gun control, though, is one that has not stopped this Congress, despite some very vocal members of the House and Senate who would like to see that happen. It's an issue that just has had a hard time gaining traction on Capitol Hill for a variety of reasons.
REHMAll right, Manu, what about defense authorization? What makes this year more contentious than in prior years?
RAJUSpending. In a word. The Defense Authorization Bill, of course, has passed Congress every single year for the past more than half century. This is big, major policy bill that authorizes weapons purchases and programs, pay raises, everything you can name that the Pentagon has done. So, it's obviously a pretty, typically, a bipartisan measure, but what this particular defense spending bill does is that it locks in a so-called sequestration levels of spending. Now, those were the across the board spending cuts that were enacted four years ago and that both parties have sparred over for years.
RAJUWhat the Republicans did was that they agreed to, under the bill, that they would lock in defense spending at those sequestration levels. But to pay for the additional war spending, they included, I believe, 38 billion dollars or so in overseas contingency fund. That's an emergency war spending that would not count against the budget caps. The Republicans say this is necessary, given the times that we're in. The Democrats say that they want to change the sequestrations so that not just defense spending would be raised, but also domestic programs that are being hit hard would also be increased.
RAJUSo, funding for that. So the President issued a veto threat over the Defense Authorization Bill. The Senate passed the bill over the President's veto threat. It actually had a veto proof majority. The House passed a bill which was just short of a veto proof majority. Now the House and the Senate have to conference that bill and the question's going to be whether there are the votes to override a Presidential veto. Which is something that we have not seen in this administration.
SUMMERSYeah, this is a new era for the defense bill. This is, as Manu noted, a typically bipartisan push. You see this every single year. This bill is passed. But a lot of Democrats, and even some of those who are so-called defense insiders say that using the overseas contingency account funding to kind of plus up what the Pentagon is able to spend in this authorization is kind of a budget gimmick. They don't see it as real money and that it's not going to help the Pentagon, which is an agency that has, for years now, been asking for more budget certainty. They say this gives it less.
REHMAnd Charlie, looking ahead a little further, any chance of a government shutdown?
COOKAny? Yeah. Likely? I don't think so. I mean, I think we're gradually seeing the place simmer down a little bit. Speaker Boehner has been able to marginalize, isolate some of the more exotic members of his conference. And is solidifying himself more. I think McConnell is starting to win over converts on most but not all things. He's allowing the regular order. He's allowing Senators to offer amendments on the floor. He's allowing the place to flow better than it did when Harry Reid was the majority leader.
COOKAnd to be honest, I think the McConnell/Chuck Schumer relationship, it will have its ups and downs, but I think it will be, it won't be as poisonous.
REHMA little better, yeah.
COOKThan the Harry Reid.
REHMBut on the other hand, isn't Schumer unafraid of being an obstructionist?
COOKWell, Schumer is a brilliant, devious guy. He could be an acquired taste. But I think the Chuck Schumer we're seeing now, as opposed to the Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, I think he wants to be Lyndon Johnson. I think he wants to do deals. I think he wants to move big things.
COOKNo, he wants to have his own imprint on them, for sure, but I don't think Chuck Schumer wants to be an obstructionist and will only use it every once in a while to better his own position. But one thing, on a couple of calls back, that sometimes, I think people don't look at the political realities that exist. And Ben was asking, why doesn't the Senate Finance Committee know where they're going to get the money? All they have to do is raise the gas tax and put it on a cost of living increase.
COOKThe thing is, Republicans know that if they back a tax increase that is something people can see at the pump, tangible, they know they're going to get primaries. And how many Democrats lost re-election over the years because Republicans whacked them for having voted for tax increases? I mean, these are real things. And in terms of gun control, I know lots of members of Congress that would love to see some form, some reasonable gun control measures passed, but they know that it is -- first of all, A, it will not pass.
COOKIn a Republican Congress. And B, people will lose their jobs because of it. So, they want to fight the fights that are winnable as opposed to the ones that -- where they'll just get slaughtered.
REHMAll right, let's go back to the phones to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Bridget, you're on the air.
BRIDGETGood morning, Diane.
BRIDGETI am an elementary school teacher here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and I just -- I'm pleased to see that they might reconsider No Child Left Behind. The Common Core and No Child Left Behind have left schools in a non-stop testing mode that -- this year, in Baton Rouge, from January to May, we were in non-stop testing. At the end of the year, one of my students, I teach kids that don't speak English, looked at me and said, is this the way it was when you were in school? They're becoming frustrated. It's really cruel to see how much testing is going on.
BRIDGETAnd how little learning is going on.
REHMWow. Coming from an elementary school teacher.
RAJUYeah, you're hearing -- this is one reason why Congress is engaging this.
RAJURemember, this is the first real education debate that the Senate has had since No Child Left Behind passed.
REHMIt's about time.
RAJUSince 2001. And I would say to the caller, the testing under the proposed Senate bill is not gonna be eliminated. In fact, I believe it's, I think, between the ages of third and eighth grade, there will be two tests per year for reading and math, one test per year during high school and science tests will total about three between the ages of -- between third grade and 12th grade. But the difference being that the idea is that this will be a bill that would create these federal, these benchmarks.
RAJUThat schools must meet. However, states will hold the failing schools accountable and figure out their own ways to do that. It's a compromise between the federal and the state approach and maybe it will alleviate concerns of the caller.
SUMMERSHe's exactly right. This is kind of huge moment. If you remember, No Child Left Behind actually lapsed back in 2007, but this has been such a thorny, fractitious issue for so many people on the left and right that Congress, up until this point, hasn't really made a serious attempt to act.
REHMProbably because they hadn't taken a test themselves.
SUMMERSIt would be very interesting to go to the Hill and just hand members of Congress a test, that third grader test you were talking about and ask them, can you solve this, because I can't.
RAJUIt's your next story, Juana.
REHMLet's go to Katherine in Sarasota, Florida. You're on the air.
KATHERINE...time to call. And I loved your last comment. I would love to see Congress take that test. I'm calling, actually, in regard to the highway signs.
KATHERINEWe need investment in our infrastructure, not just the highways, but also the levees and the trains for safety, would not only put people back to work, but it could save us a lot of money in the long run. Because, besides the human tragedy, it's more expensive to clean up after a disaster than to prevent it.
COOKYou know, I agree completely with Katharine. And the thing is, these are pretty good jobs. You know, if you're building railroad, you know, if you're laying railroad tracks, and I realize that's usually railroad company money and not public, but, you know, building bridges and sewer lines and all this, these are pretty decent paying jobs. And, you know, these aren't flipping hamburger jobs. And that's why I think a lot of the building construction trade unions are pretty upset with the administration.
COOKBecause they do not believe that notwithstanding the stimulus package, that enough money has been put into infrastructure. And that people, conservative and liberal can go along with, you know, some tangible concrete things that are happening in their own communities, that they could go along with.
REHMCharlie, given the amount of campaigning that's already going on, and certainly will ramp up, how much work is going to get done in Congress?
COOKI think there will be modest things. We'll be able to come up with a list at the end of the year of things that passed. And that most of your listeners will listen and say, well, okay, that should have been done in January. What about the next 11 months? And, you know, it's a place that never worked great, but used to work, you know, reasonably well. And it's not working very well.
REHMHow well is it working, Juana?
SUMMERSIt isn't working -- something that might be interesting to your listeners is the fact that if, just talking about this month, Congress isn't in session that many days. Sure, supposedly they're here a lot, but they fly in, they start their votes late on the first day of the legislative session. They fly out early, take off and go home from work around noon the last day that they're here. So, that doesn't leave a whole lot of legislative days to get things done. Of course, we're all staring down the August recess.
SUMMERSThey're gone all of August. They're not actually here making legislation these deals. So, while there is a long list of things and deadlines that they're approaching, there are very few actual days on the legislative calendar for them to do that work.
REHMSo, they come back tomorrow. They work Wednesday and Thursday. And they're out of here Friday?
SUMMERSOut of town on Friday, just in time to grab lunch, pretty basically.
RAJUYeah, I mean, they have to -- they're worrying about their constituents back home. I mean, think about this then. When you look at the Senate, some of the Senators who have lost their primaries over the years and lost in their general elections over the years, why did they get attacked? Because they lost touch with being back home.
RAJUAnd a lot of these members are very cognizant of that. And they want to be seen back home. They want to be visible, doing campaign events. Doing just their public events, as well, to show their constituents that they're there. So that means they're in Washington much less frequently.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But at the same time, you've got that push, pull. Because at the end of the year when, you know, somebody labels it a do nothing Congress, aren't you going to have the same reaction?
COOKBut half the things that Congress could do costs money and if there is a sizeable share of the American electorate that will vote against anyone who raises taxes at all, then, you know, these members of Congress, they can't make, you know, money come out of thin air. And people don't like deficits either. And so, you know, there's a certain amount of, you know, I think voters, I think Americans need to say, what do we want out of government and are we willing to pay for these things?
REHMWhat has Congress accomplished thus far, in this year?
COOKWell, let's see. They did, they renewed the Children's Health Program, insurance program, which was kind of -- that was a good deal. I mean, that was something that was worth doing. I'm looking at something that I wrote. But, you know, part of the problem is there's this legislative hostage taking. I mean, there was something as basic, earlier this year, as a anti-human trafficking bill. I mean, what could be, possibly be less controversial than that? And yet, it got wrapped up into an abortion fight. But we're, you know, it's thin stuff.
REHMWhat has Congress accomplished?
SUMMERSI mean, you point to the most recent victory and that's gonna be trade. That was a huge lift and obviously, you saw all of the last minute machinations, so I think that's one of the things. If you listen to both parties talk, especially Republicans, they say that they had a really successful year. If you were to just sit down and look at the list of bills that have passed the House, the House has actually passed quite a bit of legislation this year. Now, has any of that, has a lot of that actually become law?
SUMMERSOr passed the Senate? No. Not really. They've done a lot, but in terms of the big things that I would argue that most Americans care about and want to see out of their Congress and that are really the core dining room table kind of issues, not a lot of that kind of legislation making, crossing the trends and making it through the whole Schoolhouse Rock process.
COOKI left out the Medicare doc fix, which was kind of a big deal.
RAJUYeah, I mean there, I would say that, look, Congress is a marathon. It's not a sprint. And you have seen some accomplishments. You have to give the Republicans and the White House credit for getting trade done, even if you opposed that bill. They did get it to come together on that. The doc fix is a problem that has dogged Congress for a very long time. They found a way to resolve that. That human trafficking bill, even though it was wrapped up in that snafu, eventually that did pass Congress, as well.
RAJUSo, they have had a handful of bipartisan accomplishments, maybe education will pass. Maybe a cyber security bill could pass. But there are a lot of problems. The Patriot Act, that was forced to expire. Ex-Im Bank forced to expire. And I think that there could be a shutdown in the fall, because the two parties are on loggerheads over spending. So, there's a long way to go.
REHMQuickly, do you think there's going to be a shutdown?
SUMMERSI think there is a very, very big risk, whether or not, people, anyone wants that on their hands, I'm not sure.
REHMAnd what do you think, Charlie?
COOKIf there's a shutdown, it wouldn't be more than a day or two. If.
REHMLet's hope there's not. Charlie Cook, Juana Summers, Manu Raju, thank you all.
RAJUThank you, Diane.
SUMMERSThanks so much.
REHMGood to see you and thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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