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The House Hits Russia on Trade
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The House Hits Russia on Trade

Plus: Congress acts to stop 'brain drain' among staffers.

Good morning. We hope you’re enjoying March Madness (and I don’t mean Baby Lewis’s unique version of it, which may or may not involve refusing to sleep between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. for a week straight.)

House Approves Russia Tariffs Bill 

The House overwhelmingly approved legislation Thursday afternoon ending permanent normal trade relations with Russia in response to its bloody assault on Ukraine.

The bill revokes Russia’s trade status, along with Belarus’ trade treatment in retaliation for its assistance to Russia. It also gives President Joe Biden the authority to hike tariffs on the two countries even further, without the need for congressional action, through the end of 2023. The legislation includes provisions expanding the Global Magnitsky Act, which grants the president authority to impose human rights sanctions around the world, and eliminating that law’s upcoming December 2022 expiration date.

It must now pass the Senate, then be signed into law by Biden. He has announced his support for the measure, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed optimism Thursday morning that it will advance soon in that chamber with broad bipartisan backing.

Before passage, Rep. Victoria Spartz, the only Ukrainian-American member of the House, said the bill sends a strong message to Russian leader Vladimir Putin that business cannot continue as normal while his troops murder civilians. 

Members passed the bill, effectively hiking tariffs on many Russian products, with a vote of 424-8. All votes against it came from Republicans: Reps. Lauren Boebert, Andy Biggs, Dan Bishop, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Glenn Grothman, Thomas Massie, and Chip Roy.

Massie told The Dispatch he took issue with the bill primarily because he does not want to expand presidential sanctions powers by making Magnitsky authorities permanent. The House bill repeals a six-year sunset on the law, rather than reauthorizing it with a later sunset.

The vote on the Russia trade status bill came after it was delayed last week, when the Biden administration asked House leaders to halt it as they sought to build support for the idea among allied countries first. (Read more about that back-and-forth here.)

Members on Thursday questioned the delay on account of the Biden administration. GOP Rep. Jodey Arrington called on Biden to be more resolute and “act with a sense of urgency,” bemoaning what he called a piecemeal approach to the crisis thus far. 

And Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett, one of the original sponsors of legislation to end Russia’s trade status, said he was dismayed that provisions codifying a ban on Russian oil products had been removed from the legislation. He said he hopes those details “will be restored.”

Members also acknowledged the bill is just one more step in the United States’ response.

“So much more is required of us to end this war in Ukraine and to aid the Ukrainian people in their victory over Russia,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee and one of the main sponsors of the trade bill.

Lawmakers this week continued to contemplate further moves to inflict pain on Putin and his allies, especially after witnessing a stirring appeal by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for more help. Members of both parties urged additional defense aid to Ukraine and considered Zelensky’s request to sanction members of the Russian legislature.

One option would place more pressure on U.S. companies: Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, with Schumer’s support, is working on legislation to block tax credits from American companies that pay taxes in Russia.

“American companies that continue to do business in Russia should not receive U.S. tax benefits that offset taxes paid to Putin’s regime,” they said.

Daylight Saving Surprise

In the few years I’ve been covering Capitol Hill, there are several moments I remember especially vividly for opening my eyes to how absurd our Congress—and particularly the Senate—can be.

One of them came in early 2018, when the Senate spent three (3) whole days voting on a few doomed immigration bills, and then several Republican senators told reporters they had already spent too much time on the issue and the chamber had to move on to other problems.

Another was less political and more procedural, a few months later. I watched it play out in real time: North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr came to the Senate floor to request unanimous consent to advance a measure of his. And then, because he expected one of his colleagues to block it but none were there to do it, Burr objected to his own request. 

Unanimous consent is exactly what it sounds like: For a bill to pass through the expedited process, there must not be any opposition within the Senate. 

As a courtesy (and convenience for both parties) this does not involve surprise requests. The Senate floor is often empty; there is ample opportunity for any individual senator to sneak a measure through the chamber without opponents knowing they should be there to object to it, but senators have a system to prevent this kind of procedural free-for-all. 

Senators alert all of their colleagues in advance to the expected timing of a given request and the legislation they will try to pass, so those who have concerns can let the sponsor’s office know and opponents will be kept aware of when to be on the floor to stop it. Both sides adhere to this convention because neither is super interested in having to camp out on the floor around the clock to keep their colleagues in check. (Hence Burr’s gentlemanly self-objection a few years ago.)

But when the Senate approved a bill by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio making daylight saving time permanent earlier this week by unanimous consent, many senators were shocked. Paul McLeod, a Buzzfeed News reporter, published an absolutely delightful account yesterday of the procedural chaos behind passage of the bill. Read the whole thing here.

“Asked to recreate his reaction to the news, Sen. Chris Coons issued a series of shocked stammers that is impossible to phonetically translate,” McLeod writes. In hindsight, observers might have realized passage of the bill was a surprise to some when Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who was in the chair at the time, let out an audible reaction—“Yes!”—when nobody shot it down.

Per McLeod’s reporting, somebody would have if their staff had told them it was coming up. Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton opposes the legislation, but he wasn’t aware of the timing of Rubio’s request. Rubio went through the typical process of informing offices, but his request for passage was bumped a day to accommodate a different senator who was planning to object to it—Sen. Roger Wicker—after he had a delayed flight this week. But, unexpectedly, Wicker didn’t go to the floor to block it. From McLeod’s piece:

Wicker said he has concerns that children will be at increased danger going to school during dark mornings, but said he ultimately declined to get involved because he is more focused on issues like the war in Ukraine.

“I chose not to stand in the way. I’m more interested in fighting other battles,” he said.

The daylight saving time bill will still have to pass the House and be signed by the president in order for it to become law, neither of which is guaranteed. Read more details of the kerfuffle in Paul’s piece, here.

Staff Pay Bump Included in Omnibus

My colleague Harvest took a look at the omnibus spending package’s provisions allowing for higher staff pay:

President Biden signed a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill Tuesday that funded the government for the remainder of fiscal year 2022. 

One item, a $134.4 million increase for Members Representational Allowance (MRA) is particularly welcome news for congressional staffers. Expenditures that fall under the allowance include airfare and transportation for district travel, and “habitation expenses” such as office furniture and decorations. It is also the pool of money used for paying staff salaries.

There has been a push to address issues related to staff compensation for years, but it’s gained steam recently. Staff retention is important on the Hill: Experienced staff keep the place running. But, contending with a painful cost of living and stagnant pay, staff often leave for lobbying shops or other private sector jobs where they can make more competitive salaries.

The MRA has “failed to keep up with increasing district populations, higher amounts of casework and correspondence, and cost of living for staff. That has made it difficult for members to recruit and retain staff,” Rep. Derek Kilmer, chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, told The Dispatch. He said increasing the MRA will “go a long way” toward stopping the brain drain on the Hill.

The total amount of the MRA for fiscal year 2022 is a bit over $774 million, a 21 percent boost over the previous fiscal year. According to a House Appropriations Committee summary, that is the biggest increase in the MRA appropriation since its creation in 1996. Unspent MRA balances can be used for two additional fiscal years. After that, unspent funds are returned to the U.S. Treasury. 

The funds cannot be used for personal, political, campaign, or committee expenses. The MRA is also distinct from the money that pays lawmakers’ salaries. Most members make $174,000 annually, with leadership making more. 

In August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced in a letter to colleagues that she would raise the cap for the maximum salary congressional aides could make. The new cap sits at $199,300. Prior to that, individual office staff could not make more than lawmakers. Members disburse salaries in their own offices as they see fit. (For a closer look at the situation, read this Roll Call story on staff pay, with a study on how a decent chunk of them aren’t making a living wage.)

Some of the credit for delinking member and staff pay has gone to the House’s Select Committee on Modernization of Congress, which recommended the move. (You can read The Dispatch’s Q&A with the co-chairs of the Committee here.)

The legislation also sets aside money to pay congressional interns, something that legislators say will allow lawmakers to draw from a wider talent pool, especially from people who can’t afford to live and work in Washington, D.C., unpaid.

Of course, there is no guarantee that lawmakers will designate the new money to staffers, something advocates say they want to address in the next fiscal year budget.

“Congress needs to push for more resources for itself. Not investing to strengthen its capacity—that weakens legislation, that weakens oversight, that weakens representation and constituent services,” Taylor J. Swift, a policy advisor at Demand Progress, told The Dispatch

He said low investment has “created the congressional brain drain over the past two and a half decades where a lot of people that come in, they can’t afford to work on the Hill for long periods of time, or they get burnt out because they’re working second jobs.”

Swift previously worked on the Hill as well and found himself working two jobs to afford rent. He’s known many staffers who have also had side hustles or second jobs.

He said the MRA increase is significant but falls short of making up for years of underfunding, rising costs of living in D.C., and the burden of inflation. “This is long overdue but it should just be the beginning,” he said.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.