The Rodney Report: What's Up, What's Down

This week: cranky_rodney_image.jpg

  • The cuts that built the wall
  • The amazing vanishing amendment
  • Lower grants for higher ed
  • That military policy tweet
  • Rodney gets his wish (just not the way he wished it)


The Bricks In The Wall: Priorities Emerge

How to view the $1.6 billion the House threw at the border wall Donald Trump’s been building in his mind since the primaries? An expensive pacifier? A fraction of the projected overall cost?

Both are decent guesses. But here’s another way to look at the wall funding, as well as the big price tag for Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE): lots of money coming out of other programs’ pockets. When there’s only so much to go around, legislators prioritize. And their spending priorities are becoming sadly clear. Take a look at some of what’s being sacrificed so more cash can flow toward the border wall and ICE:


These cuts are the tip of a big iceberg: $5 billion of total cuts in domestic spending were in the minibus bill passed last Thursday.

The wall has its share of doubters in both the House and the Senate--which is why the House slipped the funds into a package that included money for the Pentagon, energy and water, the legislative branch, military construction and Veterans Affairs. The wall becomes even more of a headache in the Senate, where Democrats remain opposed and where 60 votes are needed to pass spending bills.

Back in March, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen was something of a wall skeptic, telling listeners on a tele-conference call in March that he wanted to see  a clear overall plan for border security, and adding, “I’m not sure the wall’s the answer.” Now, in the dog days of summer, wall funds are in the spending bill, clear border plan or no, and the first spending package is off to the Senate. The House still has a lot of budget work remaining in September – an additional eight bills to be hammered out and reconciled with the Senate before October 1, when 2017’s funding officially runs out.

“September is going to be a very difficult month,” said Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. That, at least, seems like a pretty safe call.

Where’s My Amendment?

Surprisingly absent from the Defense portion of this minibus was Rep. Barbara Lee’s amendment repealing the Authorization for the Use of  Military Force (AUMF), a post-9/11 measure that authorizes military force against known or suspected terrorists. Lee’s amendment was passed by the full Appropriations committee by voice vote, and with such overwhelming bipartisan support on June 29th that Frelinghuysen’s avuncular “ho ho!” made it onto the Rachel Maddow Show that night.   

Weeks later, and without a vote, Speaker Paul Ryan and the Rules Committee pulled the Lee amendment, replacing  it with softer language from Rep. Tom Cole (R-CA), who also serves on the Defense Appropriations Committee and is house deputy majority whip. Cole’s amendment asks the White House for a new strategy and budget to fight Isis, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, and recommends sort of an assessment of the AUMF. But it stops short of revoking congressional authorization for the use of force, something Lee has been looking for since 2001, when she was the sole member of Congress to oppose it.  Having finally gained sufficient bipartisan support to realize her repeal dream, Lee tweeted of Ryan’s move, “This is underhanded and undemocratic. Ryan should be ashamed of himself...What is he afraid of?” Mr. Cole’s AUMF amendment is featured prominently on his website.

Higher Ed Is Dealt A Low Blow

In his e-newsletter, Frelinghuysen praises the expansion of the GI Bill that passed the House 405-0. We like it, too: After all, the expansion will enable even more veterans to use their hard-earned and well-deserved educational benefits to expand their minds and opportunities. Benefits no longer expire, Purple Heart recipients are exempted from minimum service requirements, and notably, STEM opportunities are enhanced.  

But this welcome news for vets comes alongside some bad breaks for millions of other young women and men, as his Appropriations gang shrinks their educational opportunities in the minibus package passed last week and those coming down the pike.

Frelinghuysen fails to mention the reduction in opportunities for many young people to attend college. Federal programs like Pell grants have failed to keep up with the spiraling costs of attending even a public college.  When the program started in 1973, the maximum grant covered about 80%  of a student’s cost for tuition, books, room and board at a public university.  The current maximum grant,  $5902, while up $100 from last year, covers just about 30% of those costs.  

Consider this: Although 40 percent of college students received Pell Grants last year, the Appropriations Committee voted to rescind a $3.3 billion pool from Pell Grants in the 2018 appropriations bill. And that’s on top of $1.3 billion that had been removed from the program in the 2017 omnibus.

In addition, as The Rodney Report previously reported, The Energy Appropriations bill eliminates research and development  programs in clean energy, even though renewable and green energy represent some of the fastest growing industries in the country for good STEM-based  jobs.  

If Frelinghuysen is serious about expanding STEM jobs and higher education opportunities to students with financial need, he’ll support and expand these programs, not raid and diminish them.

Don’t Ask, Do Tell

Amid the storm of tweets that rained down from the Oval Office this week--per usual--came this startling slap in the face to the LGBTQ community: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military." Apparently, the consultation didn’t include a lot of time for a free-ranging discussion. Defense Secretary James Mattis received twenty-four hours notice on the new policy and was reportedly “appalled” by it, as were many others in the military, Congress, and both parties.

Thousands of active-duty servicemen and women currently identify as transgender, and their jobs may be in jeopardy. Trump’s rationale? He cited the “tremendous medical costs” they incur. But the military doesn’t currently cover gender-transition surgery. (A measure proposed in the last week that would have barred the military from ever paying for such surgery was voted down.) Furthermore, even if the military were to pay, the price tag would be a maximum of $5.6 million dollars, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine--mere pennies in military budget terms, and, as many have pointed out, just a fraction of the $84 million dollars currently spent on erectile dysfunction drugs.

In the uproar that followed the announcement, several New Jersey Republican Congressmen voiced their concern about the proposed policy. Rep. Frank LoBiondo said, “Removing thousands of men and women from admirably and honorably serving is counterintuitive to strengthening our military.” This sentiment was echoed by two other Republicans, Reps. Leonard Lance and Tom MacArthur, who implied that the ban was not a done deal. All said it would be up to Mattis and the Department of Defense.  Frelinghuysen declined to comment--not surprising, since he voted “yes” on the failed House measure that would have banned payment for transgender surgery payments.

Frelinghuysen frequently reminds his constituents of his patriotism and his strong support for the military and those who choose to serve and protect. It seems clear that his support extends to some who choose to put themselves in harm’s way, but not to all.

How the Senate Granted Rodney’s Wish

And finally, the Republican health care bill died suddenly last week when two longstanding Republican opponents and one Johnny-come-lately gave the “skinny” option three thumbs down. Remember when Frelinghuysen said he was certain the Senate would improve the AHCA, for which he voted? We think the Senate did just that--by killing it altogether.

-- Elizabeth Juviler, Naomi Rand, Karen Rose, Liz Jarit, Susan Gifford and Liz Lynch