Causes Q&A: Your Questions Answered - April 2021
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by Ask Causes | 4.30.21
The month of April is drawing to a close, which means it’s time for us to dig into the monthly mailbag to answer some of your questions about bills and Congress! In keeping with the routine, you can submit questions we'll answer at the end of May here, but in the meantime let's dive into those questions:
Has a bill ever been submitted to limit the terms of Congress members? And if yes, what progress did the bill make, if any. ― B.R.
- While the U.S. president and many governors are subject to term limits, members of Congress are not. In each session of Congress there are typically several bills to enact term limits introduced by lawmakers in the House and Senate. So far in the 117th Congress there have been four term limits bills introduced.
- Term limits proposals tend to vary in the number of terms House members (who serve two year terms) and senators (six year terms), although most usually set the limit between three and six House terms and two or three Senate terms. Some term limits bills grandfather current lawmakers from the cap, while others would subject them to it.
- Bills to enact term limits are ordinarily formatted as constitutional amendments because of a 1995 Supreme Court case known as U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, which struck down term limits 23 states had imposed on members of Congress with a 5-4 ruling (current Justice Stephen Breyer was in the majority while Justice Clarence Thomas dissented).
- It appears that there has only been one vote in Congress on the issue of term limits in recent decades. During the 104th Congress in 1995, the House voted on a constitutional amendment to enact term limits which failed to get the two-thirds majority required on a 227-204 vote. The vote was largely along party-lines as most Republicans were in favor 189-40 and Democrats were mostly opposed 38-163.
Is there any momentum around a Balanced Budget Amendment/Debt Control? ― Brandon
- Much like a constitutional amendment to impose term limits, members of Congress typically introduce a handful of proposals in each Congress to enact a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) to the Constitution. Democrats have historically opposed BBA measures, so it’s unlikely to get a vote in the House during this Congress, although fiscally conservative senators may call for a vote on a BBA proposal in the amendment process in the Senate.
- While there has been a debate over adopting a BBA since the first half of the 20th century, the most recent House vote on a BBA proposal came just three years ago in April 2018, which failed to meet the two-thirds majority threshold on a 233-184 vote. The vote broke largely along party-lines with Republicans in favor 226-6 and Democrats opposed 7-178.
- During the 116th Congress, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) forced a vote on his Cut, Cap, and Balance Amendment during consideration of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019, which was rejected 23-70 in August 2019.
- Debt control as an issue comes up regularly when the federal government approaches the debt limit, or lawmakers propose measures to reign in deficits through spending cuts and entitlement reforms or tax hikes. While the Treasury Dept. can use accounting tools known as “extraordinary measures” to extend the debt limit, those can only delay matters for a few months, and eventually Congress has to vote to lift the debt limit.
- The next debt limit deadline is expected to occur this year, likely in the late summer or early fall depending on federal spending patterns in the meantime. Given that federal spending (and the deficit) hit an all-time high last year due to the surge of pandemic-related spending, it’s likely there will be renewed focus on the debt limit as it approaches due to concern about the national debt.
What’s the current status of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act? And any idea of how soon it will be voted on? ― Kenneth
- Neither chamber of Congress has indicated when, or if, they will vote on a standalone version of the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act.
- However, the House included a nearly-identical bill known as the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act within the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House on a narrow party-line vote of 220-212 in early March 2021. The Senate hasn’t considered that bill, but barring the incorporation of bipartisan amendments it’s unlikely to clear the chamber’s 60 vote threshold for legislation.
- While there are disagreements between Democrats and Republicans in the broader debate over police reform, there is considerable consensus over anti-lynching legislation, and both of the major police reform packages favored by the two parties in the last Congress included anti-lynching legislation.
- The Senate passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act on a unanimous voice vote during the last Congress in February 2019, which was sponsored by then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) with Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tim Scott (R-SC). The House passed the nearly identical Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act on a 410-4 vote in February 2020.
- At that point, the issue stalled after senators couldn’t come to an agreement over the final version of the legislative text, as Booker and Harris objected to revised language offered by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) when he tried to amend the bill and pass it by voice vote to send to the House.
How many members have ever been expelled for violating their Oath of Office? ― Ken
- The Congressional Research Service found that throughout U.S. history there have been 15 senators and five House members expelled for misconduct.
- Of the 20 total expulsions, all but three were related to disloyalty to the Union during the Civil War. One was retroactively rescinded by Congress, the 1861 expulsion of Sen. William Sebastian (D-AR). The Arkansas Historical Review noted Sebastian “did not resign, as did all the other southern senators save Andrew Johnson, but remained a melancholy and helpless spectator of events” until he was expelled on suspicion of supporting the Confederacy. He died in 1865, and the Senate posthumously revoked his expulsion in 1877 and paid compensation to his children.
- The non-Civil War related expulsions were of Sen. William Blount (Dem-Rep-TN) in 1797 for disloyalty to the U.S. after he conspired with the British to seize Spanish territories in Florida and Louisiana; Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers (D-PA) in 1980 for bribery, conspiracy, and violations of the Travel Act related to the Abscam scandal (he was charged with federal election fraud in 2020 with allegedly conspiring with a Philadelphia elections judge to stuff ballot boxes in 2014, 2015, and 2016 primary elections); and Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) in 2002 for illegal gratuity, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, defrauding the government, racketeering, and tax evasion after he used campaign funds for personal use (he later launched an unsuccessful run for Congress while serving a prison sentence).
Why aren't members of Congress required to hold in-person town hall events? Why does Congress make 4 times more than the average American, and yet get vast amounts of vacation and time off? ― Brian
- It’s up to lawmakers to decide how they want to engage with their constituents, whether through in-person town hall events, video conferences, or telephone calls. While they may receive some guidance from party leaders or colleagues on best practices, it’s ultimately up to the lawmaker and their constituents, who can register their opinion on the lawmaker’s service at the ballot box.
- Members of Congress typically use the “district work periods” when no floor business is scheduled to consider issues, engage with constituents, raise money, and, yes, take vacations.
- Both chambers of Congress typically take a two-week break from floor work in the spring, a four-to-five week break through August until Labor Day, and conclude the work session for the year in mid-December barring changes needed to address pressing legislative issues. Similarly, the weeks of Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving are designated as district work periods most years.
- While the schedule is variable, that general schedule allows members to plan on being in D.C. for two-to-four consecutive weeks, which are then broken up by district work periods.
- On the issue of congressional salaries, members of Congress were paid only on a per diem basis (i.e. they received a daily stipend rather than a salary) until 1855 when the first salary was established at $3,000 (or $82,318 in 2019 dollars).
- The salary for a rank-and-file member of Congress has been $174,000 annually since the last pay raise in 2009, as the House Republican majority that began in 2010 opposed pay raises and subsequent Congresses haven’t mustered the political will to vote to raise lawmaker pay.
- The amount of time that has elapsed since the last pay raise has led some members of Congress to call for a pay raise. In fact, just this week House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) sent a letter urging committee chairs to include a pay raise for members and staff in the fiscal year 2022 appropriations packages.
- Under the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, any change (be it an increase or decrease) in the pay rate of members of Congress cannot take effect until the beginning of the next Congress. This is intended to prevent lawmakers from voting to give themselves a raise at the expense of taxpayers. That means if the latest push to raise salaries for members of Congress succeeds it will not take effect until January 2023.
What happened to the STABLE GENIUS Act introduced by Rep. Brendan Boyle in 2018 and 2019? ― Vanguard
- As you noted, the bill was referred to subcommittees when it was introduced in the 115th Congress in 2018 and the 116th Congress in 2019, but it stalled in committee and never advanced. This is the same fate experienced by the vast majority of bills and resolutions introduced in Congress, and while the reasons may vary, ultimately it’s because the House leadership didn’t think it merited the floor time.
- So far, Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) hasn’t reintroduced the Standardizing Testing and Accountability Before Large Elections Giving Electors Necessary Information for Unobstructed Selection (STABLE GENIUS) Act in the 117th Congress. If it’s reintroduced and brought to the floor, we’ll be sure to summarize it!
- A closing note: you can find the May mailbag here, so feel free to ask more questions and we’ll try to address them next month!
— Eric Revell
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