Watch in coming weeks for Congress’s top foreign-policy and national-security votes over the past two years at www.dailyitem.com.
By Richard G. Thomas
Voterama in Congress
WASHINGTON — As the GOP and Democratic presidential camps vent their policy disputes in attack ads and stump speeches, they are rehashing arguments heard many times before by anybody paying attention to the work of the current Congress.
Whether the issue splitting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama is Medicare, tax rates, reproductive rights, Wall Street rules, oil and gas drilling, China trade, clean energy, health care or payroll equity, it already has been debated on the House and/or Senate floors and now on the congressional campaign trail as well.
As a result, the White House race and many close-fought House and Senate campaigns across the country sound a lot like one another. But while the presidential candidates are mostly pointing to the future and talking in generalities, many congressional races are dealing with the recent past in a very specific way — haggling over incumbents’ voting records in the 112th Congress.
This report spotlights 24 House and Senate votes on domestic-policy issues that have become flashpoints in the presidential race. Many of these issues will or have been discussed in formal White House and congressional debates. Some might even ring a bell with hard-to-impress undecided voters. While most have been prominent in the news, others are less publicized but equally useful in illuminating where federal candidates stand.
One House vote covered here (Issue 8, below) put members on record on an issue that Romney has refused to discuss in specific, the question of whether the popular mortgage-interest and charitable-giving deductions would have to be ended to gain revenue needed to offset tax cuts.
According to an oft-quoted study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Romney as president would have to eliminate those and other breaks favored by the middle class to help pay the $456 billion annual cost of his economic plan, which is built around a 20 percent cut in personal rates on top of the Bush-era tax cuts. The conservative Heritage Foundation has debunked the study as based on flawed assumptions.
Asked by “60 Minutes” if “the devil is in the details” with respect to the home-mortgage and charitable deductions, Romney said: “The angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs.”
In another recent overlap of House business and presidential politics, the GOP leadership on Sept. 20 guided passage of a bill that would block the administration’s experimentation with work requirements for welfare recipients in a few states. This vote (Issue 9, below) provided fodder for the GOP to portray House Democrats as enablers of welfare dependency, a charge Romney has been leveling against Obama in ads that independent fact checkers have judged to be inaccurate.
With Rep. Paul Ryan campaigning both as the GOP vice-presidential candidate and to keep his House seat in Wisconsin, his voting record (below) faces scrutiny nationally and locally. And given Ryan’s status as the GOP thought-leader in Congress on fiscal issues, it’s not surprising that policies with which he is closely identified have become major points of disagreement in the presidential campaign.
This report covers a vote (Issue 2, below) on “the Paul Ryan budget,” which is best known for its plan to transform traditional Medicare into a voucher program. The report also covers the 2011 Budget Control Act (Issue 12, below), which is the force behind “sequestration” cuts in defense and domestic programs scheduled to start next year. Ryan and Obama are among several key players who hatched this draconian law in order to stave off a U.S. debt default that was only hours away. Ryan voted for it and praised it as “a big step in the right direction” of cutting spending. But he now decries the law in swing states for its impact on the Pentagon budget.
Ryan and other House Republicans voted (Issue 1, below) to repeal the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which was created by “Obamacare” to use expert advice from outside of government to slow the growth of Medicare costs. The repeal bid died in the Senate. Ryan refers to the board in the presidential campaign as “bureaucrats” who would unilaterally “ration care” for those on Medicare. In fact, the 2010 health law gives Congress control over the membership of the panel as well as veto power over its specific proposals to control costs.
Starting in 2015, the board will have power to restrain any annual spending increases for Medicare that exceed official per-capita projections tied to factors such as inflation and the Gross Domestic Product. Congress cannot reduce the sum of its proposed cuts but can change individual parts after clearing high parliamentary hurdles. The 15 panel members will serve fulltime for six years and require Senate confirmation. House and Senate leaders of both parties will recommend 12 of the 15 nominees and the president will choose the others.
Ryan likes to compare his “premium support” plan for voucherizing Medicare to the health plan for members of Congress and federal workers. Just as the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program offers a menu of commercial policies from which participants can choose, his plan would enable Medicare participants starting in 2023 to pick from an array of private plans or stay in what is left of government-run traditional Medicare.
Critics note a major difference in how the two approaches protect seniors from rising medical costs. By law, FEHB participants are entitled to have 72-to-75 percent of their premiums paid by taxpayers. By contrast, increases in Ryan’s vouchers are pegged to a formula based on GDP growth rather than the faster growth of healthcare costs.
A House Budget Committee report says the Ryan plan “will allow seniors to enjoy the same kind of choices in their plans that members of Congress enjoy.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in House debate the Ryan plan “does not give seniors the deal that members of Congress give to themselves, and that should be put to rest right now.”
The House has conducted 1,552 roll-call votes so far in the 112th Congress and the Senate 435. This report boils that activity down to the following important votes, all of which have split the parties both on the floors of Congress and in this year’s presidential and congressional campaigns.