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This Week on the Hill

U.S. Capitol; photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Members of Congress showed up late, because of fog (though in San Francisco they may have called it a clear day) and left early, but we dutifully reported, scraped and beat our heads against the wall (just kidding — sadly, we live for this stuff) to bring you another edition of This Week on the Hill.

Editor’s note: The publication of this edition of This Week on the Hill was delayed due to the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., Friday.

U.S. Budget Blues

Your obligatory fiscal cliff negotiations update

The White House and House Republicans exchanged deals on Monday, Dec. 10. We know the White House deal is (slightly) less ambitious than the original proposal — reducing expected revenues from $1.6 trillion to $1.4 trillion with cuts at about $600 billion. The Republicans’ latest offering is almost the opposite — $800 billion in revenue with $1.4 trillion in cuts.

Both sides spent the remainder of the week accusing the other not being specific enough and “slow walking” the negotiations.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged a deal would most likely not be done (legislatively) before Christmas. “I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to get it done before Christmas, but it could be done.”

And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told his Republican colleagues to settle in for the holidays.

Speaker Boehner and President Obama had another meeting Thursday evening at the White House where the two men were able to agree on one thing: the discussion was “frank.”

Beat It On Down the Line

John Boehner at his weekly press briefing discussing the so-called fiscal cliff. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., raised the idea that Speaker Boehner may be the one slow-walking the fiscal cliff negotiations. At a meeting with reporters Wednesday morning, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee suggested Boehner may be delaying the negotiations because he is fearful of the impact a compromise would have on his political aspirations, specifically the pending election of the next speaker of the House on Jan. 3.

“I’m getting increasingly concerned that one of the reasons the speaker is trying to, I think, string out these discussions is that he wants to wait until Jan. 3 when the elections for speaker take place,” Van Hollen said. “I hope he wouldn’t avoid the tough decisions simply to take us into January after his swearing in, but I’m becoming increasingly worried that that’s exactly what’s going on.”

Van Hollen went on to mention the ‘Hastert Rule‘ as another reason the speaker may be dragging his feet on a potential debt reduction vote. The guiding principle of the ‘Hastert Rule,’ named for former speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is that the majority rules. And the way that happens is by only introducing legislation that can pass with a majority of the majority, neutering the minority and dissenting members of the speaker’s party.

Van Hollen’s thinking seems to be that Boehner, after reaching a deal with the White House that would potentially be unpopular with the more conservative wing of his party, would hold off announcing his final position (and holding a vote) until he was certain to have a majority of House Republicans on board, or until he had been sworn in as speaker for the 113th Congress.

The response to Van Hollen’s thesis by the speaker’s office: “That’s nutty.”

With Recession Sort-of ‘Over,’ No More Unlimited FDIC Protection

In the event of a financial crisis, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation insures depositors’ accounts, protecting them from teetering banks and skeptical markets. But those deposits are only insured up to $250,000 (which should sound like a familiar number these days). These are the accounts we all keep our money in and, more importantly, this insurance is what keeps our money in the banks rather than under our mattresses in a recession.

In 2008, Congress approved additional, unlimited F.D.I.C. protection for transaction accounts, non-interest bearing accounts most often used by businesses and municipalities to cover short-term, recurring expenses like payrolls. The legislation was originally needed to help keep banks solvent, protecting them from capital flight (love that phrase), and to keep money in smaller banks, thereby preventing money from fleeing to the ‘too big to fail’ banks and supporting local economic growth.

Now, with the economy recovering — sort of — the Senate voted Thursday to allow the Transaction Account Guarantee program to expire at the end of the year.

“We’re not in a financial crisis anymore,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said. “I don’t understand how you can justify it now, in an environment that doesn’t even faintly resemble the crisis circumstances of 2008.”

“There’s no question our economy is lousy, but it’s not a financial crisis,” Toomey said.

The extension fell victim to a provisional motion in the Senate which would have required 60 votes to allow it to come to the floor for an up or down vote. There were 50 “ayes” and the expiration is in sight.

Commercials to Become Quieter and CALMer

The next time you find yourself watching “Armageddon” on your couch and those home cleaning supply ads seem a little less perky, thank Congress.

There was a press conference this week to trumpet in a new law taking effect which turns down the volume on loud television commercials. The law, known as the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act, or CALM for short (clever, Congress), requires broadcast, cable satellite and other video providers to keep the volume of commercials at a level consistent with regular TV programming.

“Earsplitting television ads have jolted and annoyed viewers for decades”, said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif, the bill’s original author. “With this new law, loud TV commercials that make consumers run for the mute button or change the channel altogether will be a thing of the past.”

Loud commercials have been the top consumer complaint to the Federal Communications Commission for decades. According to a 2010 Harris poll, almost 90 percent of TV viewers are bothered by high commercial volumes, prompting 41 percent of viewers to turn down the volume, 22 percent to mute the TV and 17 percent to change the channel altogether.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who sponsored the bill in the Senate, acknowledged this is a small issue compared to the many challenges facing our nation, but called it an unnecessary annoyance in the daily lives of many Americans.

Congress Gets Nostalgic for Exiting Senators

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., walks down a hallway in the U.S. Senate building.
How do you say good-bye? If you’re a U.S. senator, you take to the floor of the upper chamber and graciously thank your colleagues who, in turn, eulogize your fruitful career. Extolling the virtues of a few and acknowledging the contentiousness of others, you stand tall, beaming as your hair gently reflects the golden hues from the lights above.

“He has hair like a 15-year-old,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said of retiring Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. “I have to acknowledge I am a little envious.”

The light-hearted comments from Reid were the exception rather than the rule as a pack of retiring and defeated statesmen took turns giving speeches and bidding farewell to their fellow senators Thursday.

“Governance requires adaptation to shifting circumstances,” Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., said. “It often requires finding common ground with Americans who have a different vision than your own.”

“None of the challenges we face today, in a still dangerous world, is beyond our ability to meet,” said retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. He went on to describe the greatest obstacle to confronting those challenges as “the partisan polarization of our politics which prevents us from making the principled compromises on which progress in a democracy depends.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, thanked her constituents, saying, “Serving my magnificent state over the past 34 years in the halls of Congress has been the greatest privilege of my life.”

Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Herb Kohl, D-Wis. and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., all spoke this week on the floor. Most said how grateful they were for the opportunity to serve and how they looked forward to whatever life has in store for them next.

One other did not seem quite so ready to go quietly into the night.

“Defeat is temporary,” said Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.

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