Let’s briefly recap Congress’ busy day yesterday, as they head out for a two-week recess (Spring Break ’12 Cancun?):
• I already mentioned the passage of the Paul Ryan budget. If you believe that politics have anything to do with policies, it is confounding for House Republicans to mostly walk the plank again, passing a budget that ends the Medicare guarantee and replaces it with a voucher that will weaken the system and drive up costs over time. Not to mention what it does to Pell grants, Medicaid, food stamps, and pretty much every item on the domestic non-defense menu. And all of it pays for tax cuts for the rich and a bloated military, because Ryan thinks the generals are lying about budget cuts, as if they’re being held captive in the Pentagon by a horde of angry socialist pacifists.
The Ryan budget did have an impact in at least one House special election last year. Democrats will certainly try to make the label of Medicare-cutters and rich folk-humpers stick again this year. The town hall meetings over the next two weeks should be revealing.
• The House went for their 90-day extension on the transportation bill and got passage. By that time the clock had run out, and Senate Democrats weren’t willing to call the House’s bluff. So they quickly followed suit, passing the 90-day extension on a voice vote after some minor grumbling. Basically, transportation funding will continue at the same level until the end of June. The question is where things will go from there; I don’t get the sense that the Senate is willing to do anything but demand passage of their bipartisan bill.
• The Senate tried to pass cloture on the bill that canceled oil and gas subsidies and used the proceeds to invest in renewable energy, which they had been debating all week. But although the bill sailed through on the motion to proceed, Republicans and a few Democrats predictably blocked cloture on the bill. It garnered “only” 51 votes. Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe voted for cloture, while Democrats Mary Landrieu (oil state), Mark Begich (oil state), Ben Nelson (retiring) and Jim Webb (retiring) voted against it. Webb said he didn’t like handing out tax credits to renewable companies, that the free market should be allowed to work. I’m too tired to go back over the literally hundreds of times he’s voted for tax expenditures for businesses over the past six years.
• In a bit of a surprise, the Senate broke the logjam on Presidential appointments by confirming dozens of Obama Administration nominees. Senate Republicans had resisted confirmations after the recess appointments at CFPB and the NLRB at the end of last year. But they basically threw in the towel on this. Among the confirmations were Thomas Curry to run the OCC, and Jeremiah Norton, Thomas Hoenig and Michael Gruenberg as commissioners of the FDIC.
Curry replaces the terrible John Walsh at OCC, among the worst regulatory agencies in the federal government, a totally captured regulator. Curry cannot help but be an improvement, and he comes with decent credentials. I don’t think he’ll change that culture overnight, but hopefully he can make a mark in some manner. As for Gruenberg and Hoenig, they were supposed to get confirmations as chairman and vice-chair, respectively, but the Senate reduced those positions in an unusual move:
Before leaving for recess Thursday, the Senate confirmed Martin Gruenberg, Thomas Hoenig and Jeremiah Norton to seats on the board of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. while also approving Thomas Curry as comptroller of the currency.
But in an unusual move, the Senate did not confirm Gruenberg as chairman of the FDIC, or Hoenig as the agency’s vice chair. Instead, the chamber left Gruenberg as the agency’s vice chairman, allowing him to continue to lead the agency in an acting capacity.
The situation sparked immediate head-scratching as Washington, as industry observers tried to dissect what was going on. The move, which occurred by unanimous consent of the Senate, represents a middle ground between the across-the-board approval of financial regulatory nominees that Senate Democrats were seeking and a refusal to move forward on any nominees by Senate Republicans given lingering anger over President Obama’s controversial recess appointment of Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Basically, if Senate Republicans allowed the confirmation of Gruenberg as chair, he would have held the position for five years, regardless of the outcome of the election. So they changed it, allowing the next President to select a chair himself. For the moment, however, the FDIC has a full slate of five commissioners again. There are still financial regulatory vacancies, however. The Senate did not confirm the nominees for two vacant seats on the Federal Reserve Board, or the nominee for the brand-new Office of Financial Research.
• Finally, the Senate teed up their next vote, for after the recess. It will be on the Buffett rule, legislation that sets a minimum tax rate for millionaires. The vote will take place on April 16, the day before Tax Day (which was extended to April 17 this year because April 15 is on a weekend).