Dispatch from Washington: September 2023

Congress returned from August recess to a daunting “to do” list. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has instructed several Republican-run Congressional Committees to proceed with an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. A landmark anti-trust trial between the Department of Justice and Google begins. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hosted a “AI Insight Forum” where over twenty of the most prominent tech leaders, builders of artificial intelligence (AI) models and systems, civil rights advocates and labor leaders briefed Senators on AI development and deployment. After several public “freeze-ups,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s health comes under scrutiny. Eight Republican presidential candidates took to the stage for the first debate of the 2024 Republican presidential primary; one candidate was noticeably absent but his presence was certainly felt. The schedule for former President Donald Trump’s various criminal trials is getting set. Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville continues to hold up hundreds of military nominations and promotions. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell continues his hawkish stance, while it begins to look like the US economy will stick the “soft landing.” The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) released its annual report, finding a record number of transactions reviewed in the past year for national security risks.

Congress Returns to a Packed Agenda

The Senate and House returned from their summer recess on September 5 and 12, respectively, and both chambers have a lengthy task list. First on the agenda is government funding, which expires at the end of September. One senior House Republican Member of Congress has said that there’s a 75% chance of a shutdown after federal agencies run out of money on Sept. 30. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) wants to pass a temporary funding measure, called a “continuing resolution,” to keep the government open beyond the end of the month, perhaps until November. McCarthy’s reasoning is that this will provide the House more time to pass appropriations bills, and give them move leverage with the Senate, which has been passing appropriations bills with large bipartisan margins. Nevertheless, to pass a continuing resolution, McCarthy will need a sizable number of Democrats to support the measure, which will certainly draw opposition from the House Freedom Caucus and other conservatives. Beyond the standard appropriations bills, and further complicating the picture, are supplimental and emergency spending. The White House wants $16 billion for the recent domestic natural disasters in Hawaii, Florida, Vermont and elsewhere, as well as $24 billion for Ukraine. Additional funding for Ukraine is generating growing opposition among House Republicans—McCarthy is currently planning on including the disaster funding in a continuing resolution and putting forward a separate measure with Ukraine funding. In all likelihood the Senate will include money for Ukraine in their continuing resolition, and send the legislation back to the House creating a shutdown showdown. Even if a continuing resoliton were passed, the House and Senate are divided on spending levels–the Senate is adhering to the levels contained in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, whereas the House wants more reductions in spending. This tension sets up more budgetary brinksmanship. 

In addition to government spending, lawmakers will continue to debate the next Farm Bill, an omnibus, multiyear bill that governs a broad range of agricultural and food programs. The current Farm Bill expires on September 30 and the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have not yet released their legislative text. It is highly likely that an extension will be required to avoid the expiration of critical agriculture programs and subsidies. Congress is also working to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). FAA programs, currently authorized under the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, are also set to expire on September 30. Over the coming weeks, the House and Senate leaders will move to reconcile different versions of the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). House Republican lawmakers included a number of hot-button provisions to the annual defense policy bill that will complicate the conference process. The NDAA has passed 62 years in a row and negotiators will have to find compromise around a number of complicated provisions.

McCarthy Launches Impeachment Inquiry into Biden

Immediately after returning from the summer break, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy directed House committees to launch an impeachment inquiry into President Biden. The move is widely believed to be designed to appease hard-right lawmakers, specifically members of the House Freedom Caucus, who are eager to intensify investigations of the president amid his reelection campaign. Those same hard-liners have been a complicating factor for moving government spending packages forward, openly threatening a government shutdown, and threatening to push for a move to vacate the chair presenting an existential challenge to McCarthy’s Speakership. Announcing the move, McCarthy said Biden “used his official office to coordinate with Hunter Biden’s business partners about Hunter’s role in Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company.” Notably, House Republicans have not produced any evidence directly showing that Biden benefited from his son’s business dealings in Ukraine and elsewhere. These alledged mis-deads would also have occurred before Biden was President, thus drawing into question the temporal jurisdiction of the investigation. An impeachment inquiry would give Republicans broad new powers to request documents and testimony about the Biden family.  The inquiry will be led by House Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-KY) in coordination with Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason T. Smith (R-MO). While the process is currently in inquiry form, far-right lawmakers could eventually demand an impeachment vote for political purposes. The US Constitution states that “The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” thus impeachment was intended by the framers as a move of last resort to remove someone unfit for office. Throughout American history, only three Presidents have been impeached by the House, and subsequently aquited in the Senate: Andrew Johnson in 1868, William Jefferson Clinton in 1998, and Donald John Trump in 2019 and 2021. Nevertheless, impeachment is increasingly becoming a partisan political tool, and as such, moves like McCarthy’s devalue impeachment as a meaningful measure to deal with genuine presidential misconduct and denigrate the integrety of the process.

Justice Department Takes Google to Trial in Largest Anti-Trust Case in Decades

In mid-September, a federal judge began hearing claims from the Department of Justice and a group of states that Google abused its power as a monopoly over online search services. The case, US et al. v. Google, first filed in 2020, is the biggest anti-trust case in decades, perhaps since the Justice Department took Microsoft to court in 1998, and the first major monopoly trial of modern internet era. In the Microsoft case, the judge ordered the company be split in two, but that ruling was largely reversed on appeal. This case centers on claims that Google illegally squashed competition and stifled rivals by paying Apple and other companies to make its internet search engine the default on the iPhone and other devices and platforms, further cementing its dominance. The Justice Department argues that Google maintained a monopoly through such agreements, making it harder for consumers to use other search engines. For its part, Google says that deals with Apple and others were not exclusive and that consumers could alter the default settings on their devices to choose alternative search engines. The trial is expected to last around two months. If the court rules against Google, the firm could face financial penalties, conduct mandates, or other remedies, but legal experts say that an order to “break up” the tech giant is unlikely.

AI & Tech Leaders Meet with Senate on AI

On September 13, over twenty of the most proment tech leaders, builders of artificial intelligence (AI) models and systems, civil rights advocates and labor leaders gathered in Washington to participate in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s AI Insight Forum and briefed members of the United States Senate on the development and deployment of artificial intelligence. More than 60 senators showed up to the forum, which featured tech giants such as: Elon Musk of Tesla and X, current and former Microsoft CEOs Satya Nadella and Bill Gates, respectively, Alphabet’s (the parent company of Google) Sundar Pichai, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna, OPEN-AI chief Sam Altman, Nvidia’s Jensen Huang, and labor leader and AFL-CIO labor federation President Liz Shuler. Many of the companies participating in the forum had already endorsed President Biden’s voluntary commitments governing the use of AI. During the Forum, all of the stakeholders present were in unanimous agreement that the government should intervene to avert the potential pitfalls of the evolving technology – but industry and the Senators have stark differences on the shape and scope of future legislation and regulation. During the six-hour closed door session there was little apparent consensus about what a congressional framework should look like to govern AI. Nevertheless, the convening demonstrated an emerging Washington agreement that government must take a strong hand with the new technology — even as the likelihood of immediate action remained low. Schumer stated to reporters following the Forum that “We are beginning to really deal with one of the most significant issues facing the next generation and we got a great start on it today.” Forum co-host, Republican Senator Todd Young, said he believes the Senate is “getting to the point where I think committees of jurisdiction will be ready to begin their process of considering legislation.” Schumer emphasized the need for regulation ahead of the 2024 US general election, particularly around deep fakes… but there is a long way to go.

McConnell Health Comes Under Scrutiny

The 81-year-old Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has had several public health episodes, freezing up in front of reporters, raising questions about his overall health and ability to run the Senate Republican Conference. McConnell first froze up during a July news conference on Capitol Hill, going silent for 19 seconds before he was escorted away from the cameras. He then had a similar episode during a public event in Kentucky over August recess. Both incidents occurred after McConnell’s recovery from a concussion following a fall at a fundraising dinner in March. In a letter following the latest health scare, Dr. Brian Monahan, the Capitol attending physician, found that there is “no evidence” McConnell has a seizure disorder or “experienced a stroke, TIA or movement disorder such as Parkinson’s disease.” Nevertheless, the dissent from some Senate conservatives presents a rare public display of party disunity. 

First Republican Presidential Debate

Eight presidential candidates squared off in the first 2024 Republican presidential primary debate on August 24. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, former Vice President Mike Pence, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott were on the stage – notably absent was former President Donald Trump, the clear frontrunner. Governor DeSantis received the highest average grade for his performance, followed closely by Haley and Ramaswamy, according to the New York Times’s FiveThirtyEight. Ambassador Haley, Vice President Pence and former Governor Christie were aggressive when given the opportunity. Ramaswamy grabed the spotlight and was repeatedly subjected to biting attacks form his rivals. When asked whether they would support Trump, who is facing more than 90 criminal counts in separate cases across four jurisdictions,  if he was convicted, most of the participants raised their hands. There was some daylight between the candidates on issues such as a federal abortion ban, the war in Ukraine, US policy toward China, the economy and government spending. None of those participating in the debate seemed to damage Trump’s strong frontrunner position. Republican candidates will next take the stage in California  for the second GOP primary debate on September 27 – it is not yet certain whether Trump will participate.  


Trump’s Trial Calendar

The schedule for former President Donald Trump’s various criminal trials is coming into focus. While the initial dates set by the judges in each case could still shift, they present a daunting schedule, especially when overlayed with the political calendar. The first of two criminal trials in Washington, involving charges of federal election interference, is set to start on March 4, 2024. The next day, March 5, is Super Tuesday, the largest delegate prize of the primary season, when Texas, California and a dozen other states hold their primaries. Trump’s criminal trial in New York, where he is facing 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to hush-money payments and falsification of New York business records, is slated to begin on March 25. The federal case concerning Mr. Trump’s retention of classified documents, for which he is charged with 37 criminal counts, is scheduled to commence on May 20, 2024. The case in Fulton County, Georgia, where Trump and 18 of his associates face conspiracy charges related to attempts to overturn the state’s results and subvert the will of voters, has not yet been scheduled.  

Tensions Mount over Tuberville’s Holds on Military Nominations

Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville has been holding up hundreds of military nominations and promotions for months, as he wages an unprecedented campaign to try to change Pentagon abortion policy. Thus far, more than 300 top military nominees have been delayed. The three US military service secretaries – Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth – went on the offensive against Tuberville over his ongoing holds in an interview with CNN on September 5 and a joint op-ed in the Washington Post that same day. The Service Secretaries said the Senator was aiding communist and autocratic regimes and being used by adversaries like China against American interests, compromising national security. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said that holding up the promotion of military leaders, most of whom have dedicated their lives to protecting the country, “is one of the most abominable and outrageous things I have ever seen in this chamber, witnessed by the fact that no one has ever had the temerity, the gall to do this before.” Democrats have repeatedly gone to the Senate floor to try and call up the nominations but Tuberville has objected each time. It is possible to confirm each of the nominees one by one, but Senate Democrats have argued that would take up valuable floor time. Nevertheless, Tuberville shows no signs of surrendering in spite of the fact that a majority of his constituents want the Senator to drop his holds, which could balloon up to nearly 700 by the end of the year. 

Can the US Economy Stick the “Soft Landing”?

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell struck a hawkish tone in remarks delivered at the annual Kansas City Fed’s Jackson Hole Symposium. Powell sent no signals about the central bank’s immediate next interest rate move, which will be determined following the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting in mid-September, but his comments set the stage for the Federal Reserve to hold rates steady, or raise them further in the months ahead. Inflation continues to challenge central bank policymakers, and while inflation has come down from its peak of just over 9 percent in June of 2022, “it remains too high,” says Powell. The remarks come after a string of good news for policymakers with data showing a solid employment picture alongside cooling inflation. This combination of factors leads some economists, as well as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, to be more confident of the US economy achieving a “soft landing,” a slowdown in economic growth that avoids recession, after the aggressive rate-hiking campaign that began nearly a year-and-a-half ago.

CFIUS Releases 2022 Annual Report

In July, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) released its Annual Report to Congress, which found that the Committee reviewed a record number of transactions for national security risks in the 2022 calendar year. The volume of CFIUS filings remains at a historic high, reporting 440 covered transactions, up from 436 transactions in 2021, with a 36% increase in CFIUS-imposed measures to mitigate national security concerns compared to 2021. The Annual Report illustrates continued scrutiny of foreign investments in the United States and demonstrates that the Committee has increased its review of transactions across the economy, with a particular focus on businesses in finance, manufacturing, and the information and services sector. In releasing the report, Paul Rosen, the Assistant Secretary for Investment Security who heads the Treasury Department’s role on CFIUS, said the transactions reviewed “are increasingly complex and result in more national security agreements to resolve the risks identified.” The Treasury Department said that the Committee’s workload remained high with a record number of filed transactions based on the expanded jurisdiction provided by the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA). The report comes as Congress recently advanced various legislative proposals that would curtail Chinese investment and expand CFIUS’s powers.

“Who’s Who” – Personnel Updates from the Biden Administration

Department of CommerceCristina Killingsworth is now the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and External Affairs in the Economic Development Administration. Margaret Jackson is Chief of Staff in the Office of the Under Secretaryat the International Trade Administration 

Department of Health and Human ServicesJeff Nesbit is now the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. Susan C. Kim is now Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at Office of Global Affairs (OGA). Mike Beard is the Chief of Staff in OGA.

Department of Homeland SecurityMatthew F. Ferraro is now Senior Counselor for Cybersecurity and Emerging Technology. Johnny Walsh is now the Chief of Staff in the Office of the Deputy Secretary.

Department of State – It is reported that Kurt Campbell, the coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs at the National Security Council, has emerged as a leading candidate to serve as deputy secretary of state. Erik John Woodhouse was nominated to serve as Coordinator for Sanctions Policy. Former Treasury Secretary Jacob J. “Jack” Lew has been nominated as Ambassador to Israel. Penny Pritzker was named the Special Representative for Ukraine’s Economic Recovery. Courtney O’Donnell was nominated as US Permanent Representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Dr. Eileen C. Donahoe is now the Special Envoy and Coordinator for Digital Freedom in the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy.

The White HouseEd Siskel is now Assistant to the President and Counsel to the President. Daniel Z. Hornung is now Deputy Director at the National Economic Council (NEC). Brendan Joseph Danaher is also a Deputy Director at the NEC. Victoria “Tori” Taylor is now Director of Political Outreach in the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach.

United States Trade RepresentativeEllen S. House is now the Director for Europe at Europe and the Middle East. Katie Hendrickson is the Deputy Chief of Staff.



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© 2022 Created by ABCPRODUCTION.digital