The background: Under the military justice system, if a service member is assaulted, the commander of the alleged perpetrator has the final say over whether charges should be brought.* Commanding officers are also allowed to overturn sexual assault convictions. Top military brass say that commanders need this kind of prosecutorial discretion to maintain order and discipline within the ranks.
Two members of the Senate armed services committee—Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)—disagree, and have put forward plans to reform the system. But they're at odds over how to fix it. Gillibrand heads up a coalition that believes military commanders should no longer have control over sexual assault cases, because current policy deters reporting of sex crimes and lets predators off the hook. McCaskill and her supporters in the Senate say Gillibrand's solution could actually increase retaliation against victims who report assaults, and could prevent some victims from bringing charges against attackers.
On Monday afternoon, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) delivered a speech on the Senate floor slamming those on Capitol Hill who want to cut Social Security in order to balance the budget and calling on Congress to expand the program instead.
"This is about our values," the senator said, "and our values tell us that we don't build a future by first deciding who among our most vulnerable will be left to starve."
Lawmakers have to come to an agreement to fund the government by mid-January, and some are floating Social Security cuts as a bargaining chip in a possible budget deal. Even President Barack Obama's last budget proposal contained cuts to the program.
Warren says slashing retirement benefits for elderly Americans is an absurd idea. Warren noted that Social Security payments are already stingy, averaging about $1,250 a month. Plus, an increasing number of Americans can no longer count on healthy pensions through their job. Two decades ago, 35 percent of jobs in the private sector offered workers a traditional pension that provided monthly payments retirees could rely on. Today, that number is only 18 percent. Some 44 million workers get no retirement help from their employers.
Because of the growing "retirement crisis" in America, Warren argued, "we should be talking about expanding Social Security benefits—not cutting them." She noted that several senators, including Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have been pushing for just that.
Seniors are not going to get more generous retirement benefits as long as the GOP-dominated House opposes the idea. But most Democrats have said they won't agree to entitlement cuts without new revenues, and Republicans refuse to raise revenues, so real cuts are unlikely, too. Rather than hashing out a grand bargain that includes cuts to the safety net, Congress will probably kick the can down the road, and come to another modest, last-minute, short-term budget accord early next year.
But Warren's speech was about more than staving off immediate cuts to retirement benefits. It was yet another move to cement her role as Congress' star defender of the middle class. Warren has said she will not run for president in 2016. But this is one of many issues on which she has staked out a position to the left of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is widely expected to run. In a speech at Colgate University last month, Clinton did not rule out the idea of limited cuts to entitlement programs as a means to reaching a budget deal.
The Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act, which was introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), passed the House 228 to 195, with only three Democrats voting in favor. It would require courts to fine attorneys for bringing suits that are intended to harass the defendant, or whose claims are not based on fact or existing law, or are not backed by a legitimate argument for establishing new law.
But Democrats say the bill would have dangerous side effects. Smiths' bill could also make it harder for people to successfully bring civil rights lawsuits, they say, because these cases often hinge on new types of legal issues—such as transgender rights—making them more vulnerable to being shot down as invalid by a court. (Earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner called discrimination lawsuits brought by LGBT individuals "frivolous".) Victims of discrimination may be less likely to file suit if they know they could be penalized for doing so.
The bill "will turn the clock back to a time when federal rules of civil procedure discouraged civil rights cases [and] limited judicial discretion," House judiciary committee ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) told The Hill after the bill passed, adding that the legislation would "have a disastrous impact on the administration of justice."
So, it's a good thing Smith's bill isn't going anywhere. The White House opposes it, and the Senate is unlikely to take the legislation up for a vote.
On Thursday morning, President Barack Obama announced a fix for the millions of Americans whose insurance plans are being canceled that will allow them to keep their plans for an extra year. But the president's proposal did not go far enough for many congressional Democrats, who are increasingly worried Obamacare's mounting problems are harming the party as a whole.
"There's lots of support for additional changes," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters Thursday when asked if he thought Senate Democrats would back further legislative fixes to Obamacare's cancellation notice problem.
Last week, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is up for reelection in 2014, introduced a bill that would allow Americans with plans that are noncompliant with the Affordable Care Act to keep those plans indefinitely; since then, five other Senate Dems have joined as cosponsors. One of them, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), told reporters Thursday that Obama's plan is a "good intermediate fix, but we still need the Landrieu bill."
On Thursday morning, the Senate banking committee held a hearing on Janet Yellen's nomination to chair the Federal Reserve—the US central bank charged with keeping unemployment low and inflation in check. A telling moment in the hearing came when Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) asked Yellen, the Fed's current vice chair, when the central bank would wind down its powers to bail out banks, as required three years ago by the Dodd-Frank financial reform act. Yellen wasn't sure.
Between 2007 and 2009, the Fed doled out $16 trillion in cheap loans to big banks that were reeling from the global financial crisis. To prevent Wall Street from expecting this type of cash infusion in the future, Dodd-Frank restricted the kinds of emergency lending the Fed can do. But the Fed still hasn't crafted these general provisions into specific regulations limiting its powers—and until it does, it's free to do as it sees fit.
At the hearing, Yellen told Vitter that regulations limiting the Fed's bailout powers are still "in the works" and that she'd "try to get it out soon," but said she was "not certain what the time frame is." During questioning at a financial services committee hearing in July, Fed chair Ben Bernanke said the Fed had "made a lot of progress" on in crafting enforceable limits on its bailout powers, and that he hoped to have the final regulations out by the end of the year. Yellen's lack of an answer for Vitter's question suggests that year-end deadline may be off the table.
As I reported in July, financial reform experts think the reason the Fed is dragging its feet is obvious: the central bank doesn't want to cede any powers it may want to use in the future. It's easier for the Fed to hand out money than to upend the way it operates, Marcus Stanley, the policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, told me at the time.
The Fed could be busy with other matters, of course. But Yellen's lack of an answer suggests that limiting its own powers isn't "a high priority for the Federal Reserve," says Mike Konczal, a financial reform expert at the Roosevelt Institute.