Politics

A LOT OF ink is being spilled about the speakership drama in the US house of representatives, the demands by members of the conservative Freedom Caucus and the turmoil besetting the Republicans who run Capitol Hill. There is a pervasive sense in Washington that congress has gone, at least temporarily, off the rails.
Even members of congress are saying it. “I think the house is bordering on ungovernable right now,” one prominent Republican told NBC last month. I’ve been around congressional politics for more than 50 years and I can’t ever remember hearing a member of congress say such a thing.
All this attention on the crises of the moment suggests that resolving them will fix congress. It won’t. There are three deep-seated issues that have to be addressed before it can play a constructive role in sustaining our place in the world and tackling the tough economic and social issues we face at home.
The first sounds simple, but it is not – congress should work its will by letting its members vote on the major issues of the day. In legislatures, whoever controls procedure usually controls results. For years in congress, leaders – and sometimes followers – in both parties have manipulated the process to obtain the results they want.
Omnibus bills and continuing resolutions are part of this. Leaders try to avoid tough issues if their caucus members don’t want to vote on them. The 60-vote requirement to avoid a filibuster in the senate plays a role. So does the Hastert rule in the house, a rule under which a majority of the majority caucus has to give its approval before a measure moves forward.
These all carry a cost. Crucial issues facing the American people are not addressed. Congress moves from crisis to crisis. Americans give up on the institution. And members become frustrated when they can’t vote on issues they know their constituents want congress to address. Giving members of the house and the senate a fair shot at addressing the nation’s challenges would deal congress back into the policy-making arena.
The second is that, over the years, congress has developed several bad habits that it needs to fix. These include: huge bills that become vehicles for special-interest provisions and leadership wish lists; bypassing the committee process; concentrating power in the leaders; curbing the participation of most members; and limiting debates and amendments.
The most pernicious of these is the practice of legislating by omnibus bills. These consist of hundreds of provisions – usually drafted in the dead of night by leadership staff, not members of congress – brought to the floor with scant time for anyone to read them, limited time for debate and few amendments allowed. They’re usually timed to come up just before a key deadline on a single up-or-down vote so that the leadership can threaten a government shutdown if the bill fails.
The sad part here is that there are a lot of members of congress who’ve never known anything different. An entire generation on Capitol Hill thinks that enacting bills they had no part in shaping, are unable to debate and have no choice but to pass is the way that congress runs.
It’s not. There’s another way and it brings me to my third point. We have more than 200 years of experience on Capitol Hill that have taught us how to run a legislature so that the voice of the people can be better heard, several viewpoints are considered and ordinary legislators are given a fair shot at influencing the results.
It’s called the “regular order” and it involves committees with authority holding hearings, debating issues and reporting bills to the floor, where members have several chances to shape the legislation through amendments.
The regular order requires negotiation and compromise, and gives members a fair crack at crafting policy for the nation.
The American people want congress to work. They don’t expect a solution to everything and they certainly don’t expect miracles. But they do expect a congress that tries to make progress and that’s capable of developing creative approaches to the major problems of the day.
The frustration for me is that we know how to do things better with a time-tested process, but members of congress simply ignore it.
Lee Hamilton is director of The Center On Congress At Indiana University and was a member of the US house of representatives for 34 years.

By Lora-Marie Bernard

TED CRUZ has begun a political hardball effort to ramp up penalties for deported illegal aliens who return to the USA after two previous congressional efforts went nowhere.
In wake of the Democrats’ most recent opposition to conservative immigration bills, Texas’ junior US senator entered a bill to stop illegal re-entry last week and had it placed directly onto the senate calendar for floor debate.

Cruz,Ted web ready
Cruz, left, who is among the Republicans vying for for their party’s 2016 presidential campaign nomination, was frustrated by the lack of progress of Kate’s Law, a measure spurred in July just days after Californian Kate Steinle was shot and killed in San Francisco. Later, Francisco Sanchez, an illegal alien who had returned from Mexico after being deported, admitted to the shooting but said Steinle had not been a target and that her death had been accidental. He has yet to be tried for the incident.
Since its introduction, Kate’s Law’s rocky journey has been fraught with tension.
“This ought to be a clear choice – with whom do you stand?” Cruz said as he stumped for his new bill. “I hope my colleagues in the senate will support this bill and stand with the American people – the people we should be protecting – rather than convicted felons like the murderer of Kate Steinle.”
US representative Matt Salman of Arkansas introduced HR 3011 as Kate’s Law in the US house of representatives on July 9. It went to committee where it has languished since July 29. A companion bill that Cruz entered in the senate was never assigned to committee.
Both bills called for stiffer penalties for illegal entry and re-entry, with punishment set at anywhere between five and 20 years in prison.
Senate supporters tied to keep the provision alive by tying it into S 2146, a bill that sought to withhold federal funding from cities that do not allow municipal money to fund enforcement of federal immigration laws, earning them the nickname “sanctuary cities”. The bill, which had 16 cosponsors including Cruz and fellow Texas Republican senator John Cornyn when introduced on October 6, died on October 20 after Democrats launched a filibuster.
The move infuriated Cruz, who re-introduced the provisions as S 2193 the following day with senator Mark Rubio of Florida among its cosponsors. Others included David Perdue of Georgia, David Vitter of Louisiana and Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
“When it comes to stopping sanctuary cities and protecting our safety, we need some governing,” Cruz said after introducing the bill. “We need to actually fix the problem.”
The new bill seeks to amend the immigration and nationality act by calling for previously deported illegal aliens to face stiffer penalties than at present.
Those with no criminal record would face up to five years in prison and unspecified fines if they try to re-enter the country.
For previously deported illegal aliens with three or more previous misdemeanor convictions, the bill seeks up to 10 years of imprisonment, while those with a felony record or a history of attempting to re-enter the country after deportation would face up to 20 years in prison.
Among supporters who believe the provisions will curb the tide of the nation’s growing illegal-immigration problem is television commentator Bill O’Reilly, who hosted Cruz on his show after the filibuster and blasted the Democrats for their opposition.
Overcrowding
He also interviewed Steinle’s family and implied he would pay for their travels to Washington to assist the senator.
Opponents of Kate’s Law’s various incarnations say it would separate families and exacerbate prison overcrowding and the nation’s illegal-immigration problem.

By Lora-Marie Bernard

MORE THAN 1,400 business and homeowners will fall under a clean-water testing program in January as their city attempts to stay off the state’s environmental blacklist.
Almost 1,000 businesses and more than 400 residences connected to untreated-water systems will be affected by the program, in which the Texas environmental quality commission requires an annual test to avoid contamination of the domestic water supply by water used for other purposes.
On Tuesday, League City’s council unanimously approved an ordinance that mandates the cross-connections control program after being told that failure to adopt it could have subjected the city to escalating fines.
The test involves an annual check on backflow preventers, which are mechanisms that prevent cross-contamination of treated and untreated water systems used on the same premises.
Owners of backflow preventers in other cities are already tested annually under the TCEQ program.
Assistant city manager John Baumgartner told the League City council members: “That type of program is intended to protect the domestic water supply from inadvertent contamination from different processes that exist out there.
“They could be industrial processes or as simple as irrigation water that’s on top of the ground that intermixes with, perhaps, a septic system or chemicals.”
At present, 994 businesses will fall under the city’s new ordinance, while 300 homes in the Whispering Lakes subdivision that are connected to septic tanks are also affected.
So are the city’s 90 homeowners who have larger irrigation systems. A further 17 homeowners whose well service systems connect to the city’s wastewater service must also adhere to the new regulations.
State-licensed inspectors must perform the annual tests. Their fees cost between $69 and $175 per test, according to city documents. Larger commercial-system testing could cost between $100 and $200 per test.
On top of the annual fees, a $35 one-time registration fee is required to record each backflow-prevention system with the city. That fee will be paid through the water bill.
After city staff recommended giving the affected businesses and homeowners a 45-day notice of the new requirements, councilmember Nick Long asked for more notification to avoid startling them.
“I’d like to maybe see that extended a little bit to explain to people, particularly the homeowners and the subdivisions and the homeowner associations that it affects,” he said.
“I’d like to give them maybe, if we could do it, 60 days. I would like to send them multiple letters because it’ll be something new. You know me, as a homeowner I wouldn’t understand what it was the first time. I’d probably trash the letter.”
City staff said the notification extension could be handled administratively.

By Lora-Marie Bernard

A COUNCILMAN has ended his opposition to a proposed 0.25 per cent sales-and-use tax his city has put on Tuesday’s ballot and now wants citizens to vote for it.

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Keith Gross, left, said he is advocating passage of the tax after deciding that League City’s proposed sales tax would shift some of the burden for city revenues onto people who live outside the city.
“With this consumption tax, while I won’t argue numbers, there’s no doubt that people outside League City would share that burden when they come into League City to buy stuff,” he said.
That understanding has led him to see the tax in a different light, he said.
“Initially, when this was proposed, like myself and other people, we had looked at it as just one more tax,” Gross said. He said it seemed as if “we’re getting taxed again”.
Gut feeling
He admitted that he had run for election on a platform that he would not support a new tax but said this particular tax is being put to a vote. That, he said, means the will of the people will prevail.
“My gut feeling was when I ran for office and I campaigned I said I would not support another tax until I felt we have streamlined our budget and I was convinced we were using money as judiciously as possible,” he said. “So initially I didn’t favor this particular tax.”
He said he had to wrestle with himself to adopt his new position. One of the most compelling points, he said, was the understanding that property taxes are paid by every homeowner and renter, while consumption tax is based on the purchases a buyer chooses to make.
“No one avoids property taxes,” he said.
Gross said he now believes councilmembers devised an ingenious swap when they voted for reduced property taxes in exchange for a consumption tax. They didn’t need to have done that as it was possible to keep the taxes at the same level, he said.
“When you look at it that way, the council acted in good faith,” he said.
He said he has also noticed that cities with the sales tax, like Webster, have resources and development that League City misses.
“They are using that money to generate economic development,” he said. “We would do the same.”
If the city’s residents do not approve the tax, Gross said they should brace for a property-tax increase to meet future needs.
“And then you might wish we could go back and have the consumption tax,” he said.

By Lora-Marie Bernard

A COUPLE’S argument with a neighboring church forced a city council to appoint attorneys this week in defense of a lawsuit over water and sewer lines.
The city is hoping its bill will not exceed $5,000 for a case that involves a claim for $100,000 and an allegation that one of its officials demanded $20,000 from the couple.
During its meeting on Monday, La Marque city council sought outside legal counsel to represent the city in the lawsuit, which began after the couple claimed a deal they had with the church to install the utility lines went bad.
William and Margaret Bunch filed suit against the city and New Hope Bible church in Galveston’s 212th district court in June.
They are suing for inverse condemnation, claiming the church has reneged on a 2013 agreement to allow them to install the water and sewer lines on an easement, causing the city to refuse to issue permits for the work.
The trouble has been percolating since the Bunches bought a property next to the church at 3900 McKinney Extended. The property has an encumbered easement that the Bunches admit is owned by the church, but they contend in their lawsuit that its use is a matter of goodwill.
The suit states: “The easement… is an encumbrance upon property owned by the defendant church, for the benefit of all of the owners of adjacent or neighboring properties, including plaintiffs, to ensure access to those properties for utility services to be subsequently provided by the city of La Marque.”
After they purchased the property, the Bunches applied for a permit to install water and sewer lines. The city, they claim, has refused to act on the permit because their agreement with the church has gone sour.
In the court documents, the Bunches say they and the church reached an agreement about the utility lines around October 2013. In the agreement, the church would let them install the water and sewer lines in exchange for connecting the church’s sewer lines into the new lines.
“Since that time, the church, acting through a subsequent board, has refused to honor that agreement and thus has breached such agreement,” the suit claims.
Instead, the Bunches allege, the church used an unnamed city official to demand $20,000, payable over 10 years. They also claim the church has threatened to block the installation of the utility lines if the city ever issues the permits.
They say the city is now concerned that a riot or other violence could occur, which could be causing the delay in their permit application.
In the city’s answer to the lawsuit, city attorney Ellis Ortego says the city denies every allegation and that the Bunches aren’t owed anything. The answer also asks to recoup the city’s court costs.
After a brief executive session on Monday evening, the council unanimously approved a motion to hire law firm Olson & Olson for an amount not to exceed $5,000.
A status conference in the case is scheduled for November 12.