Update on Congressional Actions Regarding Cuba 

A June 12th post reviewed the status of appropriations bills relating to Cuba in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now we look at what happened last week in Congress on these and other measures.

National Defense Authorization Act FY 2016[1]

On June 18, the Senate passed its version of the spending authorization for the Department of Defense for Fiscal Year 2016.

The White House threatened to veto the bill. The main bone of contention is the bill’s continuation of sequestration of funds and use of so-called budget gimmicks. The White House opposes also opposes the bill because it contains language that it claims would make it hard to shutter the U.S. prison facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It calls the process for winning congressional approval of closing Guantánamo “unnecessary and overly restrictive.”

The same day, however, Senator John McCain (Rep., AZ) said that Defense Secretary Aston Carter had pledged to come forward to Congress with a plan to close the Guantanamo prison facility. Even if the administration hands over a plan to close the facility, however, it’s unclear if it could get passed through Congress. McCain’s proposal divided Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee and he faces opposition from House lawmakers.

Now the Senate and House have to confer and negotiate a bill that can pass both chambers. One of the major challenges are the different provisions regarding the Guantanamo detention facility and detainees:

  • The Senate’s version of the bill provides the President with a path to close the prison in Guantanamo if Congress signs off on the plan.
  • The House version does not include an option for closing the prison, but instead would maintain restrictions on transferring prisoners. The House bill also adds additional certification requirements, bans detainees from being transferred to “combat zones” and blocks any transfers of prisoners to the United States including for medical purposes.

Intelligence Authorization Act, FY 2016 (H.R.2596)[2]

On June 16 the House passed, 247-178, the Intelligence Authorization Act FY 2016 (H.R.2596). It outlines policy for 16 federal intelligence agencies, including the CIA and .the National Reconnaissance Agency. After the vote, John Boehner (Rep., OH), the Speaker of the House, said, “This bill sustains and strengthens our capabilities to combat terrorism, cyberattacks, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, while making every taxpayer dollar count.”

The bill’s sections 321 would ban the transfer of certain Guantanamo detainees to the U.S.; section 322 would ban the construction or modification of U.S. facilities to house certain Guantanamo detainees; and section 323 would ban transfer of Guantanamo detainees to combat zones. Sections 331 and 333 would require certain reports to Congress regarding such detainees.

Rep. Adam Schiff (Dem., CA), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, criticized the bill’s banning the government from transferring such detainees to the U.S. or a recognized “combat zone.” Schiff said, “We are not safer because of Guantanamo’s existence. In fact, it makes us more vulnerable by drawing more recruits to the jihad.” Moreover, the definition of “combat zone,” Schiff added, is “so broad as to include allies and partners such as Jordan.” An amendment from Schiff to eliminate the new restrictions failed 176-246.

Before the vote, the White House said, “While there are areas of agreement with the committee, the administration strongly objects to several provisions of the bill,” and “If this bill were presented to the president, the President’s senior advisors would recommend to the president that he veto it.”

Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act FY 2016[3]

On June 17 the House Appropriations Committee approved the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act FY 2016 on a straight party-line vote, 30 to 20.The Committee’s press release states the bill provides $20.2 billion in funding for “critical national programs to enforce U.S. laws , maintain a fair and efficient judicial system, and help small businesses grow” while reducing or eliminating lower-priority programs and cutting “poor-performing agencies—including an $838 million reduction to the Internal Revenue Service.”

One of the most controversial provisions of the bill was the temporary blocking of the newly implemented net neutrality rules, which was criticized by the White House without a threat of a veto.

As noted in a prior post, according to the Committee’s press release, the bill contains prohibitions on (a) “travel to Cuba for educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program;” (b) “importation of property confiscated by the Cuban Government;” and (c) “financial transactions with the Cuban military or intelligence service.” I, however, am still unable to find these provisions in the bill. I solicit comments identifying these provisions.

In the Committee Rep. Nita Lowey (Dem., NY), the top Democrat of the full committee, offered an amendment that would have removed what she called “20 veto-bait riders” or policy provisions, including these Cuba-related measures. The proposal was blocked on a party-line vote.

Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (S.299)[4]

A prior post discussed the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 that was introduced by Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ). In addition, it now has 44 cosponsors: 36 Democrats, 6 Republicans and 2 Independents.

A recent New York Times editorial endorsed the lifting the ban on travel to Cuba. It said, “The ban — the only travel prohibition American citizens are currently subjected to — never made sense, and it’s particularly misguided in an era of broadening engagement between the United States and Cuba.” Now, “the trajectory is unmistakable. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Cubans on the island and Americans favor engagement. Congress should wait no longer to do its part.”

Cuban Military Transparency Act (S.1489)[5]

On June 3 Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) introduced the Cuban Military Transparency Act (S.1489) with seven cosponsors (Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), Orrin Hatch (Rep., UT), Tom Cotton (Rep., AR), Ted Cruz (Rep., TX), Cory Gardner (Rep., CO), David Vitter (Rep., LA), Mark Kirk (Rep., IL). It was referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.

The bill would prohibit a U.S. person from engaging in any financial transaction with or transfer of funds to: the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba or the Ministry of the Interior of Cuba (or any of their subdivisions); a senior member of such Ministries; any agency, instrumentality, or other entity that is more than 25% owned, or that is operated or controlled by, such a Ministry; or any individual or entity for the purpose of avoiding a prohibited financial transaction or transfer of funds that is for the benefit of that individual or entity. Excluded from these bans are the sale to Cuba of agricultural commodities, medicines, and medical devices; remittances to an immediate family member; or assistance in furtherance of democracy-building efforts for Cuba.

The bill would also require (a) the U.S. Attorney General to coordinate with the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) in order to pursue the location and arrest of U.S. fugitives in Cuba, including current and former members of the Cuban military and (b) the U.S. President to provide reports on the role of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba and the return of property that has been confiscated by the Government of Cuba.

In his press release about the bill, Senator Rubio said, ““It is not in the interest of the United States or the people of Cuba for the U.S. to become a financier of the Castro regime’s brutality. The Cuban Military Transparency Act would prevent U.S. dollars from getting into the hands of the Cuban military and would demand accountability from the Obama Administration regarding fugitives of American justice in Cuba, the return of stolen and uncompensated property and the role of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba.”

The Center for Democracy in the Americas opposes this bill. It admits “that in Cuba, a socialist state with a largely state-owned economy, the military is invested in state-owned businesses, and several of those . . . are dominant players in Cuba’s tourist industry. Given the military’s broad role in Cuba’s economy, any expenditure by U.S. travelers and businesses – including the cost of hotel rooms, telephone calls, airport taxes, the hotel occupancy tax, sales taxes on tourist purchases, resort fees – could be prohibited presumptively unless the traveler or company could persuade [the U.S. Treasury agency] they spent their money in Cuba some other way.” But “how could they prove the negative? Who in Cuba will hand out the forms that say “that hotel room” or “that painting” or “that serving of ropa vieja” didn’t come from an enterprise owned or controlled by Cuba’s military?”

Therefore, according to the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the true purpose of this bill is “to shame, harass, and try to stop every American from visiting Cuba or seeking to do business in Cuba, and to return U.S. policy to its pre-December 17, 2014 goal of starving the Cuban economy and the Cuban people along with it.”

Conclusion

These latest congressional developments reinforce the need for continued vigilance by supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation to pay attention to what is happening in Congress and to continue to express their opinions on these issues to their representatives in that body and to the larger community.

I take pride in the strong support for such reconciliation in the State of Minnesota, so far away from Cuba. A recent article in MINNPOST explored this apparently strange phenomenon. Eric Schwartz, Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and a non-native Minnesotan, believes there are three main reasons for this fact. First, two of Minnesota’s biggest industries — agriculture and medical devices — have massive potential exports to Cuba. Second, Minnesota’s lack of a large Cuban-American community and its distance from the island mean our lawmakers are not subject to the same pressures as representatives from states like Florida and New Jersey. Third, many of Minnesota’s federal legislators are reasonable people.

I concur in that opinion, but believe Schwartz has missed the fundamental reason for strong Minnesota support for this reconciliation. Many people in this State are interested in what goes on in the world and are actively engaged with the rest of the world through their churches like Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, the Center for Victims of Torture, Advocates for Human Rights, the Minnesota Cuba Committee and various programs at the University of Minnesota and through Minnesotans’ welcoming immigrants and refugees from around the world, especially from Somalia, Viet Nam and Laos, and through major multinational corporations headquartered here like Cargill, which is leading the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba,3M, Medtronic and General Mills.

I was pleased to read about the change of heart of a prominent Cuban-American Republican who was U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the George W. Bush Administration, Carlos Gutierrez. In an op-ed essay in the New York Times, he said,” it is now time for Republicans and the wider American business community to stop fixating on the past and embrace a new approach to Cuba.” He added, “Some of my fellow Cuban-Americans insist that continuing to squeeze Cuba economically will help the Cuban people because it will lead to democracy. I wonder if the Cubans who have to stand in line for the most basic necessities for hours in the hot Havana sun feel that this approach is helpful to them.”

Gutierrez concluded, “America must look to the future instead — and pursue this opportunity to assist Cubans in building a new economy. There is a lot of work to do, and progress will be slow. However, the business community and my fellow Cuban-Americans and Republicans should not ignore the possibilities ahead. The Cuban people need and deserve our help.”

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[1] Matishak, White House threatens to veto Senate’s defense spending bill, The Hill (June 18, 2015); Carney, McCain expects Pentagon plan on closing Guantanamo, The Hill (June 18, 2015);Carney, Five challenges for the defense bill (June 21, 2015).

[2] This section of the post is based upon Hattem, House passes intel bill over White House objections, The Hill (June 16, 2015).

[3] This section of the post is based upon the following: House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: Appropriations Committee Approves Fiscal Year 2016 Financial Services Bill (Jun 17, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Financial Services Appropriations Act FY 2016 (June 9?, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Report: Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill, 2016, No. 114- —( 2015);Trujillo, House panel advances rider to block Internet rules, The Hill (June 7, 2015); Trujillo, Obama administration knocks net neutrality riders in funding bill, The Hill (June 17, 2015)  Shabad, Bill with $838M IRS cut advances in House, The Hill (June 17, 2015).

[4] Library of Congress THOMAS, S.299 Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (Cosponsors)

[5] This portion of the post is based upon the following: Library of Congress THOMAS, Cuban Military Transparency Act; Rubio, Press Release: Senators Introduce Bill To Deny Resources To Castro’s Military and Security Services (June 3, 2015); Center for Democracy in Americas, The Cuban Military Not So Transparent Act (June 19, 2015).

More U.S. Senators Visit Cuba

Over the U.S. Presidents’ Day holiday (February 14-17), Democratic U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (MN), Claire McCaskill (MO) and Mark Warner (VA) visited Cuba. They met with government and religious leaders and people on the street. [1]

Bruno Rodriíguez Parrilla
Bruno Rodriíguez Parrilla
Josefina Vidal
Josefina Vidal

Cuba’s only newspaper, Granma, in its English-language edition, had a prominent article about the senators’ meeting with Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, [2] and Josefina Vidal, General Director of Cuba’s U.S. Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the official in charge of Cuba’s current negotiations with the U.S. Granma stated that the meeting “addressed relevant topics, such as the process of reestablishing diplomatic relations between both nations and the lifting of the economic blockade [embargo].”  Cuba’s official statement about the meeting emphasized that Senator Klobuchar had “presented a legislative bill to Congress which aims to eliminate blockade restrictions.”

Senators McCaskill, Klobuchar and Warner (Granma photo)
Senators McCaskill, Klobuchar and Warner (Granma photo)

The English-language edition of Granma had a longer article featuring this color photograph of the three senators at their concluding press conference in Havana and a video of the conference. It reported that the senators had “expressed optimism in regards to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and progress toward normalization.” One of the Cuban journalists asked if the senators thought they had visited a terrorist state, and the answer was “no.”

After identifying Senator Klobuchar as the author of a bill to end the embargo, the Cuban newspaper reported the she expressed “confidence that the visit would help to broaden the prevailing view of Cuba in Washington, which should strengthen the bipartisan effort to eliminate blockade restrictions on trade and maritime transport, among others.” She also noted “that changes will not be immediate, but emphasized the need to hold a discussion involving both major U.S. parties.”

According to Granma, Senator McCaskill said there are “no problems which could not be addressed, and expressed optimism in regards to the [current U.S.-Cuba] talks.” She also reported that “the delegation had visited the Port of Mariel and the adjacent Special Development Zone, emphasizing the possibilities opening up for U.S. imports to Cuba.” (A prior post discussed this deep-sea port development to accommodate larger container ships going through an enlarged Panama Cana while a 11/07/14 comment to that post mentioned difficulties Cuba was experiencing in attracting foreign investment in the project.)

Senator Warner, according to Granma, mentioned the need to eliminate U.S. restrictions that made it more difficult for Cubans to buy goods under exemptions from the embargo.

As the three senators prepared to leave Cuba, they learned that the second round of talks for the two countries would take place in Washington, D.C. on February 27th., and according to U.S. press coverage of the press conference, they so announced to the journalists. Senator Warner said, “We look with hope and expectations to the meetings next week in Washington between the Cuban government and the American State Department to make progress.” [3]

McCaskill added, according to the U.S. journalists, “Frankly I’m optimistic because the negotiators are two women and we know how to get things done.” Perhaps more importantly, she said, largely Republican agricultural interests in the Midwest supported lifting the embargo as “they really want to sell rice [and other agricultural products] down here. So it is the business community and agricultural community who I think might have the most influence on helping us make this effort more bipartisan.”

McCaskill said right-wing opposition to other bills has been overcome when House Speaker John Boehner had allowed the entire House to vote on them, contrary to the so called Hastert Rule or Practice that would not allow a bill to come to floor of the House for a vote unless it had the support of a majority of the Republican caucus. McCaskill hoped, “This could be one of those times, especially if the Chamber of Commerce and the commodities groups and the Farm Bureaus of the world really start putting political pressure on their own party.”

Afterwards Klobuchar told a Minnesota journalist that the Cuban people often mention the date “December 17th,” the day Presidents Obama and Castro announced their countries’ agreement to pursue reconciliation, and she saw people selling artwork using the newspaper’s front page of Obama’s decree. “We met with every-day people who had started businesses who are excited. There is a real interest in buying American products.” Indeed, with U.S. trade restrictions removed, she said, Minnesota could be selling more pork, poultry, corn and soybeans, farm machinery and perhaps renewable energy technology to Cuba that could easily double its current $20 million in annual agricultural exports to the island.

These conversations led Senator Klobuchar to conclude that Cubans have a couple of top priorities: normalizing currency and getting better access to high-speed Internet and cell phones. “Once they get Internet and once they get communications,” she asserted, “ I believe there will be improvements to everything else.”

News of Senator Klobuchar’s bill to end the embargo with her photograph had appeared on the front page of Granma, causing many Cuban people to recognize her as she walked down the street. She felt like a celebrity.

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[1] This post is based upon Press Release, Klobuchar in Cuba to Discuss Economic Opportunities for Minnesota (Feb. 17, 2015); Sherry, Sen. Klobuchar spends weekend in Cuba hearing out locals, StarTribune (Feb. 17, 2015);  Assoc. Press, Amy Klobuchar, in Cuba, sees opportunity for Minnesota, Pion. Press (Feb. 18, 2015); Ikowitz, Why Sen. Klobuchar felt like a celebrity on Cuba trip, Wash. Post (Feb. 17, 2015); Assoc. Press, Senator: Next round of US-Cuba Talks Next Week, N.Y. Times (Feb. 17, 2015);  Reuters, U.S., Cuba to Meet February 27; Senators See Path for End of Embargo, N.Y. Times (Feb. 17, 2015); Cuban minister receives U.S. senators, Granma (Feb. 17, 2015); Gomez, US senators expect better relations with Cuba, Granma (Feb. 17, 2015).

[2] Last October Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla presented Cuba’s resolution condemning the U.S. embargo to the U.N. General Assembly, which approved it 188 to 2.  

[3] In a separate, very short article, Granma’s Spanish-language original reported the second round of talks would take place in Washington on February 27th. (Second round of cuba-US talks, Granma (Feb. 17, 2015)(English by Google Translate).) 

Congress Passes Violence Against Women Act of 2013

U.S. House of Representatives
U.S. House of Representatives

On February 28th the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The vote was 286 to 138. The majority was comprised of 199 Democrats and 87 Republicans. All of the 138 negative votes were Republicans while 7 other Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner, did not vote.

This House action came immediately after the House had rejected a weaker version offered by Minority Leader Eric Cantor, 166-257. The prevailing negative votes came from 197 Democrats and 60 Republicans.

This action is significant in several respects.

First, the Act includes for the first time protection of gay, bisexual or transgender female victims of domestic abuse and of Native American women who are victims of certain kinds of violence by non-Indian men.

As discussed in a prior post, I have been most concerned about the jurisdictional “black hole” that has prevented investigation and prosecution of abuse of Native women by non-Indian men, and the bill now passed by Congress remedies that defect.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

Novelist and Native-American Louise Erdrich highlighted this jurisdictional problem in her novel The Round House, and she recently penned an op-ed article in the New York Times that countered criticisms of the tribal courts jurisdictional provision in this bill.

Erdrich said the “Justice Department reports that one in three Native women is raped over her lifetime, while other sources report that many Native women are too demoralized to report rape.  Perhaps this is because federal prosecutors decline to prosecute 67 percent of sexual abuse cases, according to the Government Accountability Office. [In addition’] . . . a Native woman battered by her non-Native husband has no recourse for justice in tribal courts, even if both live on reservation ground. More than 80 percent of sex crimes on reservations are committed by non-Indian men, who are immune from prosecution by tribal courts.”

Moreover, according to Erdrich, the “Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center says this gap in the law has attracted non-Indian habitual sexual predators to tribal areas . . . [and another source] has found that rapes on upstate reservations increase during hunting season.”

Erdrich also defends the abilities and fairness of tribal courts against the charge that they would be unfair to non-Indian defendants. She says,“Most reservations have substantial non-Indian populations, and Native families are often mixed. The Senate version guarantees non-Indians the right to effective counsel and trial by an impartial jury.” In addition, “[t]ribal judges know they must make impeccable decisions . . . that they are being watched closely and must defend their hard-won jurisdiction. Our courts and lawyers cherish every tool given by Congress. Nobody wants to blow it by convicting a non-Indian without overwhelming, unshakable evidence.”

Erdrich’s comments are echoed in a New York Times editorial that stated, “Violence and crime rage unchecked in Indian country, yet the federal government, the primary law enforcer on reservations, is investigating and prosecuting fewer violent felonies, and reducing financing for tribal courts and public-safety programs. That is a scandal . . . . [and]  a moral atrocity.”

Second, the House Republican leadership permitted the Senate version to come to the floor even though it did not have the support of a majority of the Republican members. This was a “violation” of the so-called unofficial Hastert Rule established by a previous Republican Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, whereby the Republican majority would only bring to the floor for a vote measures that were supported by a “majority of the majority.” Moreover, this was the third time this year that the Hastert Rule has not been followed. The other occasions were a bill to avert automatic tax increases and a bill providing relief for states hit by Hurricane Sandy.

John Boehner
John Boehner

Although this three-time refusal to follow the Hastert Rule upsets at least some of the more conservative Republican Representatives, I applaud Speaker Boehner’s acting as a Speaker of the entire House of Representatives, not just the Republican caucus. I hope that he continues to do so or that a truly bipartisan Speaker replaces him.

It must also be noted that allowing the VAWA bill to come to the floor for a vote and to be passed is a reversal of  longstanding House Republican opposition to the bill. This change is seen as a recognition by at least some of the House GOP leadership that the party needed to try to repair its standing among women, who gave the Democrats a substantial margin of victory in the 2012 election. Apparently 13 Republican Representatives who are announced or likely candidates for the Senate in 2014 disagree with this political judgment as they voted against VAWA on Thursday.

President Obama
President Obama

Immediately after the House action President Obama expressed his approval of the House action:“Today’s vote will go even further by continuing to reduce domestic violence, improving how we treat victims of rape, and extending protections to Native American women and members of the LGBT community.  I want to thank leaders from both parties . . . for everything they’ve done to make this happen.  Renewing this bill is an important step towards making sure no one in America is forced to live in fear, and I look forward to signing it into law as soon as it hits my desk.”

Joseph Biden
Joseph Biden

 

Vice President Biden also applauded the House and thanked “the leaders from both parties . . . and the bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate” for passage of the bill.

Jurisdictional Black Hole for Certain Violent Crimes by Non-Indian Men Against Indian Women on Indian Reservations

Louis Erdrich in her prize-winning novel, The Round House, tells the story of the violent rape of a Native woman by a white man on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in 1988, and the resulting legal problem as to whether the federal or Native American courts had jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the crime. This was discussed in a prior post.

This jurisdictional conundrum is not just a subject for fiction. It is a real problem in the U.S. today that would be addressed by a law now being debated in the U.S. Congress.

Introduction

In recent years a Southern Ute Indian woman married a white man, and they lived on the tribe’s reservation in southern Colorado. There she was subjected to frequent beatings and threats. Because her husband was white, the Southern Ute Tribal Police could not investigate and prosecute him. Because she was a Native American on tribal land, state authorities were powerless as well. Federal law enforcement did have jurisdiction, but they declined to do anything.

Later the husband came with a gun to the Southern Ute woman’s office at the federal Bureau of Land Management and opened fire and wounded a co-worker. The state officials arrested him, but only after a tape measure was used to determine the distance between the barrel of the gun and the point of the bullet’s impact in order to establish state jurisdiction.

This jurisdictional problem is addressed in a Senate bill (S.47), the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act 2013 (VAWA 2013). This legislation would, for the first time, allow Native American police and courts to investigate and prosecute non-Indians who commit certain violent crimes against Native women on tribal land. The details are in section 904 [204(b)] of the bill.

The bill, in section 904 [204 (d)], also provides protections for the rights of those non-Indians who are accused of such crimes.

U.S. Senate Proceedings Regarding S.47

Last Thursday, February 7th, the Senate defeated, 65 to 34, an amendment to this bill offered by Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. It would have placed more federal prosecutors and magistrates in Indian country for domestic violence and sexual assault cases and would have allowed tribes to petition a federal court for protective orders to exclude an abuser from Indian land. This was S.Amendt.14 to the bill.

On February 11th, the Senate rejected, 59-31, an amendment to the bill offered by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to delete the bill’s provisions granting additional powers to Indian courts. This was S.Amendt.13 to the bill.

Finally yesterday (February 12th) the Senate passed, 78-22, the bill with the support of 23 Republicans. Now it will be sent it to the House of Representatives.

President Obama
President Obama

Immediately afterwards, President Obama released a statement saying,  “This important step shows what we can do when we come together across party lines to take up a just cause.” He added, “The bill passed by the Senate will help reduce homicides that occur from domestic violence, improve the criminal justice response to rape and sexual assault, address the high rates of dating violence experienced by young women, and provide justice to the most vulnerable among us.”

Senator Leahy
Senator Leahy

I want to thank Senator Leahy and his colleagues from both sides of the aisle for the leadership they have shown on behalf of victims of abuse. It’s now time for the House to follow suit and send this bill to my desk so that I can sign it into law.”

Proceedings in the House of Representatives Regarding S.47

Many of the House Republicans are believed to be opponents of the bill’s provisions on Indian courts.

However, 17 House Republicans on February 11th sent a joint letter to Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor urging the House to “immediately” reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. The letter also said, “Now is the time to seek bipartisan compromise on the reauthorization of these programs” and such a bill “must reach all victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking in every community in the country,”

In addition Republican Representatives Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Darrell Issa of California have proposed an amendment to the bill that would offer non-Indian defendants a right to remove their case to a federal court in certain circumstances.

We now await House action on the bill. Its supporters should urge their Representatives to support the bill.

Conclusion

In my opinion, the current jurisdictional “black hole” is outrageous and needs to be eliminated as soon as possible. I have not seen any indication that anyone believes otherwise.

Instead, the opposition to this proposed legislation regarding violent crimes against Indian women purportedly is based on concern for the due process rights for any non-Indian man who is accused of such crimes in a tribal court.

I share those due process concerns as I would for any defendants under any new criminal statute. However, I do not know enough about the procedures and practices of tribal courts and of the quality of their judges to come to a reasoned conclusion on whether and how the bill might be amended to address any legitimate concerns on this issue. For an outsider, this should be something that Congressmen and women of all persuasions should be able to agree upon.

The U.S. Congress Continues To Demonstrate Its Dysfunctionality

Both houses of Congress continue to demonstrate their disgusting dysfunctionality in failing to agree on measures to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” at midnight on December 31, 2012.

The U.S. Senate

Already I have commented extensively on what I believe is the absurd Senate’s filibuster rule. Once again it is affecting how the Senate can take action before the end of the year on extending the current federal income tax rates on those earning less than $250,000 per year.

Actually the obstacles presented by the Senate’s filibuster and other rules to the chamber’s actually accomplishing something are worse than what I previously have described.

The  New York Times’ Jonathan Weissman starts his illustration of the current situation with the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid’s, hypothetically moving this afternoon (December 27th) “to bring up legislation that would extend expiring Bush-era tax cuts on incomes under $250,000, set dividends and capital gains tax rates at 20 percent, ensure the alternative minimum tax does not expand dramatically to hit more of the middle class, extend expiring unemployment insurance and temporarily stop across-the-board cuts to military and domestic programs.”

If only one of the 100 Senators “objects to a request to move straight to voting [on the merits of  the bill] by unanimous consent, the Senate would then vote [on Saturday morning] at 9 a.m. to cut off debate on that motion to proceed to the bill.”

Weissman continues, “If that [cloture] motion got 60 votes Saturday morning [to end debate], there would then have to be 30 hours of ‘post-cloture ripening’ before the Senate actually votes on the motion to proceed to the bill. That would take the Senate to 1 p.m. Sunday. If again that procedural motion received 60 votes, the Senate would be on the “fiscal cliff” bill itself. Mr. Reid would then immediately file to cut off debate on the bill itself.”

“At that point, under Senate rules, the earliest possible vote on final passage would be Tuesday, Jan. 1. By then, the 112th Congress would have disbanded and efforts to pass the bill would have to start all over again — this time on the other side of the ‘fiscal cliff.'”

The U.S. House of Representatives

The recent inability of John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to obtain sufficient Republican votes to support his so-called “Plan B” for resolving the “fiscal cliff” problems is only the latest example of his ineffectiveness as the Speaker. This is due, in my opinion, to the inflexibility of Republican Representatives who are supported by the right-wing “Tea Party.”

The resulting inability of the House to participate in governing our country is yet another example of the dysfunctionality of the U.S. government.

One way out of this impasse would be for the House to elect a Speaker who has the support of the centrists in both political parties. Based upon his public appearances, John Boehner, in my opinion, does not have the intelligence or gravitas to be such a Speaker. Because the Republicans have a majority in the House, presumably someone else from that party would have to step forward or be called forward to take on the responsibilities of such a coalition-backed Speaker. I do not know who that could be.

There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prevents such a Speakership. Its Article I, § 2(5) merely says, “The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers . . . .”

Norman Ornstein, a noted Washington political commentator who has written about many of the current woes of our government, agrees that John Boehner is not able to wield the typical power of the Speakership.

Ornstein also notes that the just-quoted constitutional provision “does not say that the speaker of the House has to be a member of the House. In fact, the House can choose anybody a majority wants to fill the post.” Ornstein then goes on to suggest two centrist Republican who are not members of the House for this important position: Jon Huntsman, Jr., the former Governor of the State of Utah, U.S. Ambassador to Singapore and China and unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, and Mitch Daniels, the Governor of the State of Indiana.

This is an intriguing idea, but it would be difficult enough to elect someone from the House itself to be a centrist Speaker. To go outside the House membership for a Speaker in any circumstance, in my opinion, would make the task that much more difficult.

I invite suggestions for Republican Representatives to take on the role and responsibilities of a centrist Speakership. Also please add comments with any historical examples of Speakers who have had de facto coalition-backing.

Dysfunctional U.S. Congress Careens Towards U.S. Default

Yesterday’s actions in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate regarding the U.S. debt ceiling were depressing signs of the dysfunctionality of our system of government.[1]

In the House Speaker Boehner rejected my advice to craft a truly bipartisan bill to increase our debt ceiling.[2] Instead he added another provision to his bill to gain additional support from the Tea Party members for passage of the Republican measure to increase the debt ceiling. That new provision would require Senate and House approval of a balanced budget amendment to our Constitution before there could be a second increase in the debt ceiling, presumably next year. Even with that provision, the bill was only approved 218 to 210. (In the House, a simple majority is necessary; that currently is 217.)[3]

This is not any way to go about amending our Constitution, in my opinion. Such action should be done calmly and cautiously, as suggested by the constitutional requirement for a two-thirds vote in each house for such amendments.[4] There should be fair and open hearings in both houses of the Congress for careful consideration of the pros and cons of any proposed amendment, including this one. Such has not happened on this proposal. Although I have not studied this particular proposed amendment, I am very skeptical of the merits of the idea for two main reasons. First, I believe it would be difficult to run the federal government under such a system. Second, Keynesian economics suggests the need for the federal government to run deficits during economic recessions.

Now attention turns to the U.S. Senate which yesterday immediately tabled this House bill, 59-41.

Thus, we now enter the world governed by the abominable Senate Rules.[5] Yesterday Majority Leader Reid made a motion to limit debate, and under Senate Rules the earliest that motion can be voted upon is tomorrow (Sunday) at 1:00 a.m. Passage of that motion requires 60 votes, meaning that if all 53 Democratic and Independent Senators support the motion, seven Republican votes are needed for that motion to be adopted. Yesterday Senator Reid said he did not yet have the 60 votes needed for cloture. If the cloture motion is adopted, then under the Senate Rules there has to be 30 hours available for debate, meaning that the earliest the Senate could vote on the merits of the Reid debt-ceiling bill would be 7:30 a.m. on Monday (August 1). (In the unlikely event of unanimous consent, the measure could be voted on before then.)[6]

If somehow the Senate actually adopts a debt-ceiling bill, then it has to go back to the House for its approval by 217 votes. If all the 193 Democratic representatives supported such a bill, then at least 24 Republican representatives would have to join them in order for it to pass the House. Is that possible? (I shudder to think that the House would pass a slightly different bill that would require a conference committee and subsequent votes by the two houses.)[7]

World financial markets already are signaling the adverse impact of an U.S. failure to increase the debt ceiling and an U.S. default on its obligations.

I pray that my analysis is wrong and that somehow by next Tuesday both houses of Congress can pass a debt-ceiling bill that President Obama can sign into law.


[1] See Post: Disgusting U.S. Political Scene (July 23, 2011).

[2] See Post: A Message for Speaker Boehner (July 29, 2011).

[3] Hulse & Pear, Senate Quickly Kills Boehner Debt Bill, N.Y. Times (July 29, 2011).

[4]  U.S. Const., Art. V. Actually such action by the two houses of Congress would result in a proposed amendment that would have to be approved by three-fourths (or 38) of the states in order for the constitutional  amendment to be adopted. (Id.)

[5] See Post: The Abominable Rules of the U.S. Senate (April 6, 2011).

[6] Helderman, Senate headed for critical vote Sunday, Washington Post (July 30, 2011).

[7] Yesterday, the House Republicans said that they would have a symbolic vote today to show that the Reid approach to debt ceiling cannot pass the House. (Hulse & Pear, Senate Quickly Kills Boehner Debt Bill, N.Y. Times (July 29, 2011).)

A Message for Speaker Boehner

Time is running out on increasing the U.S. debt ceiling by our Congress. The latest spectacle of the increasingly dysfunctional Congress is the inability of John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, to muster a majority vote by his fellow Republicans for his plan to raise the debt ceiling.

As a result, last night I sent the following email message to the Speaker:

  • In your recent speech to the nation, you said that you were Speaker of the House, not of the Republican Party or its Tea Party component.
  • The time has come for you to rise to the occasion, to in fact be the Speaker of the entire House.
  • You need to craft a truly bipartisan bill on the debt ceiling and budget that garners the support of responsible members of the Republican Party and of the Democratic Party. Immediately!
  • I obviously am not in your District, and I am not a Republican. But our country needs to avoid a default on its debt. I think you know that such a default would have catastrophic consequences for the U.S. and global economy and financial markets.
  • Do the right thing.