House to spend last week before recess voting on bills targeted at White House

Ed O'Keefe joins Chris Cillizza and Jackie Kucinich from Capitol Hill to talk about GOP bills aimed at the IRS scandal and Obamacare. (The Washington Post)

With three days left on the calendar before lawmakers leave Washington for a five-week summer break, there is still no agreement on a farm bill, no plan on how to fund the government after September and little progress on immigration reform.

But House Republicans will spend much of this week voting on a collection of legislative proposals aimed mostly at embarrassing the Obama administration and scoring some political points.

“The whole purpose of these votes, in my opinion, is to show that when we see government abuses, we try to do something about them,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), who sponsored legislation that would place limits on non-military government travel spending and require detailed reports on conference spending by federal agencies.

Eager to call renewed attention to the troubled Internal Revenue Service and lingering doubts about the health-care law, Republican leaders have dubbed this “Stop Government Abuse Week,” a parting shot at the White House and a conversation-starter for GOP lawmakers as they travel home to their districts in August.

“The House will have had a very busy couple of days pushing legislation through — hopefully in a bipartisan manner — saying that it’s time for us in Washington all to remember that this town should work for the people and not the other way around,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said at a news conference Wednesday morning.

The themed week has been in the works for more than a month, and some GOP aides privately admit that House leaders rushed consideration of the farm bill in early July in order to make space on the calendar for the “scandal bills.” Several of the bills are similar to legislation that has already passed in the House in recent years, only to be ignored by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

While some of the bills are expected to get some Democratic support in the House, it is unlikely that any of the legislation will go anywhere in the Senate — making this push largely just for show. Votes are expected to begin Wednesday.

Many of these proposals were prompted by revelations earlier this year that IRS employees improperly flagged and scrutinized tax-exemption applications based on political ideology instead of using politically neutral criteria.

The IRS is also under scrutiny for spending $49 million on employee conferences from fiscal 2010 to 2012, including what has been described as a lavish three-day conference for 2,600 managers in Southern California in 2010. The General Services Administration faced similar scrutiny last year for hosting over-the-top conferences for employees, along with questions about compensation for top officials.

“We’re not going to let executive agencies go wild and go unchecked. And even if we can’t get the Senate to act, and even if the president won’t sign them, we have told the American people that the House of Representatives stands for good, responsible, transparent government,” Farenthold said

Not all Republicans agree. Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.) said he would have preferred to spend these final days working toward a resolution for the long-delayed farm bill, as current legislation is set to expire in late September, not long after lawmakers return from break.

“This is something that’s going to be slamming us in the face in September, and we have to address it,” Rooney said Tuesday evening. “I would have loved to go home, especially to my district, which is mostly agricultural . . . and been able to be like, ‘It’s a done deal. We’re good.’ ”

Representatives plan to vote on at least 10 bills connected to the theme of the week and featuring flashy titles such as “Keep the IRS Off Your Health Care Act” and “Stop Playing on Citizen’s Cash Act.”

The collection includes the STOP IRS Act — with STOP standing for “Stop Targeting Our Politics” — which is sponsored by Rep. James B. Renacci (R-Ohio), who wants the IRS to fire any employees “who take official actions for political purposes.” Another bill would allow federal agencies to place employees on unpaid leave if they are under investigation for certain serious offenses.

There’s a bill that would impose a moratorium on IRS conference spending until the agency implements recommendations made by its inspector general. Another bill would prohibit any pay bonuses for federal employees for the rest of fiscal year 2013 and to cap bonuses at a maximum of 5 percent of salary through the end of fiscal 2015.

Rep. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) is sponsoring the Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act — REINS Act, for short — that would essentially give Congress final say on the implementation of major new federal regulations. There are also proposals for mandating better communication with and fairer treatment of U.S. taxpayers, government-wide customer service standards and allowing Americans to record telephone conversations with most federal employees.

“Our constituents deserve the rights that the federal government seems to be taking from them,” said Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), who sponsored the conversation-recording proposal.

And there is a proposal to prohibit the IRS from implementing or enforcing any aspect of the 2010 health-care reform law, which could mark the 40th time in recent years that the House has voted to repeal, defund or deconstruct the new law.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), whose Northern Virginia district is home to thousands of current and retired federal employees, called the bills targeting the rank-and-file “another in a long set of assaults by the majority to denigrate, disparage, diminish federal employees.” Connolly and other Democrats were working to convince members of both parties not to back the bills targeting federal pay.

About two dozen associations that represent federal workers issued a letter Tuesday that urges lawmakers to not support “mean-spirited bills” that they view as “a petty and unfounded attack upon the dedicated men and women who comprise the nation’s federal workforce.”

“Federal workers may be a convenient scapegoat for the nation’s problems, but attacking their workplace and employment rights is unwarranted and counterproductive,” the letter states. “While each of these bills may have a superficial appeal, taken together their malicious intent is transparent.”

Many House Republicans are already planning to tout passage of these anti-abuse bills while meeting with constituents back home next month.

A planning kit compiled by the House Republican Conference tells lawmakers to follow a theme of “Fighting Washington for All Americans.” The guide urges GOP lawmakers to seek out groups “that may have experienced difficulty receiving tax-exempt status from the IRS” so that the groups can share their “first-hand accounts” and so that the lawmaker can “explain how House Republicans are conductive oversight hearings to hold the Administration accountable and stop government abuse.”

Another section of the guidebook urges congressional offices to hold events with “respected companies and businesses” that have cut jobs “because of the President’s healthcare law.” Participants in the meeting “do not have to be Republicans,” the guidebook said, but “they need to be able to discuss the negatives effects of Obamacare on their employees.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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