In this wild presidential year, it can feel like nothing is happening but Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
But on Wednesday, Congress somehow managed to get itself back into the spotlight. Both the House and Senate approved a series of measures before clocking out for recess — legislation that will keep the government open, bring federal aid to lead-plagued Flint, Michigan, provide flood relief to thousands in Louisiana, and return a 9,000-year-old man to his rightful ancestors.
It’s a lot to make sense of. So here’s a look at the major players, dead and alive, who came out ahead after yesterday’s congressional sweepstakes — and who got left holding the short end of the legislative stick.
Winner: The fight against Zika
The biggest impact of yesterday’s frenetic dealmaking might be Congress finally ending its “will they or won’t they” deliberations over providing funding to fight the Zika virus, signing off on a $1.1 billion aid package to combat the disease as part of an agreement to keep the government running.
Now, it’s hard to feel like lawmakers deserve to be lavished with praise for the accomplishment. President Barack Obama first told Congress he needed the money to fight a public health emergency in February, more than eight months ago. Obama also asked for $1.9 billion — much more than what Congress authorized.
Moreover, as Congress dilly-dallied, doctors, public health experts, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made as clear as possible that the Zika funding was desperately needed. Meanwhile, the virus has continued to spread; in Florida, more than 900 residents have contracted the virus, and Zika-carrying mosquitoes have popped up across Miami Beach.
But though the funding package is late and far from complete, Congress did still manage to push it through. It wasn’t a sure thing: Senate Republicans had objected to provisions that would have given a portion of the Zika aid to abortion providers in Puerto Rico, and to the idea that an emergency “continuing resolution” is the right vehicle for this kind of spending push.
They managed to break through by essentially capitulating to the Democratic positions on both fronts. (The restrictions on funding for Planned Parenthood were scrapped, and the bill did pass as an emergency measure.) In the states most besieged by the virus, even Republicans expressed relief at the compromise, particularly Sen. Marco Rubio, who is up for reelection:
Today we passed $1.1 billion in Senate to fund the fight against #ZIKA. Headed over to House. Took too long but finally got done.— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) September 28, 2016
The agreement has two main components. As NPR explains, the deal dedicates $394 million to controlling mosquitoes carrying Zika. (That will help both the National Institutes of Health and the CDC, which said they needed an immediate injection of cash to both fight and track the disease.) The second main piece is allocating $397 million to help develop a vaccine for Zika. The rest of the money includes an additional $66 million to help Zika victims in Puerto Rico, where the infection rate is alarmingly high.
It’s still baffling that Congress didn’t act earlier. Doctors in Puerto Rico are just now beginning to grapple with trying to treat the nearly 2,000 infected pregnant women in Puerto Rico. (The disease is most dangerous by attacking fetuses’ early neurological developments, causing infants to be born with unusually small brains, which will likely cause them to need lifelong care.) For these Puerto Ricans, the Zika funding package doesn’t come a moment too soon.
Winner: Flint, Michigan
Earlier this week, Democrats announced that they would shut down the government unless Republicans agreed to some emergency response to the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan.
It proved a stand worth taking. The Democrats really did get Republicans to buckle on helping Flint — at least in part.
In exchange for getting Democrats to agree to avert the shutdown, House Republicans agreed to authorize $170 million for infrastructure projects in cities like Flint that have had emergency declarations for “water contaminants.” (The Senate has passed a $220 million bill that would do more for Flint; the House and Senate leadership will meet through what’s called a “conference” to hash out a compromise between the two.)
At a minimum, the House bill would allow Flint to begin replacing the city’s lead-ridden water pipes, according to Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents Flint. It would also allow Flint to begin investing in the installation of a new pipe system that fits the city’s new infrastructure requirements.
"This system is so compromised it could happen again,” Kildee said in an interview. “This is a big down payment on fixing our broken water pipes.”
This is not all of what Kildee or Flint’s advocates wanted, to put it mildly. They had preferred passing the Flint aid as an emergency measure, rather than continuing to let it wind through the conference process, where it can still be gutted. And they wanted much more aggressive measures to not only get clean pipes for the future but provide support — special schooling, health programs — for the upward of 8,000 kids who have may have already consumed water filled with lead.
Still, this is the first time Congress has meaningfully moved on the issue. And as Kildee noted, Republicans are now on record as supporting disaster relief for Flint.
“This helps people feel more optimistic — to know that all of the work they’ve done, all of the visiting Congress and meetings and hearings, have finally led to a step forward,” Kildee said. “Seeing this vote on the floor — that recognizes the pain that people in Flint have gone through, and that they need help.”
Winner: Victims of Louisiana flooding
The national media may have moved on, but Louisiana still hasn’t recovered from torrential storms in August that public health experts have called “the worst natural disaster” since Hurricane Katrina.
More than 100,000 homes were destroyed in the historic rainfall. Tens of thousands of people are reported to have been displaced in the flooding. To this day, reporters are going through homes almost entirely submerged in water.
Both the state’s governor and President Obama have said Louisiana will need $2.8 billion to really recover from the flooding. They didn’t get that last night, but Congress took its first step in that direction by authorizing a $500 million emergency measure to provide relief.
The money will be used for “emergency housing repairs” done by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. It’s a cause for celebration for those ravaged by the devastation that hit Louisiana.
"I just feel pumped," Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy told the Times-Picayune after the vote. "We're excited for the people of Louisiana. We're excited we were able to accomplish this."
Louisiana residents may not feel great about getting $500 million if they’re estimated to need six times that amount. But the state’s lawmakers say the federal government won’t even be able to spend the $500 million until December, and that congressional leadership has promised to take up the question again once they’re back in session.
Winner: Native tribes and “the Ancient One”
For about 9,000 years, the skeleton of a prehistoric man remained hidden on the banks of a river in eastern Washington state. For the past 20 years, it’s been the subject of a lengthy custody battle that may have finally come to an end Wednesday night on the floor of Congress.
In 1996, two college students out on a hike discovered “the Kennewick Man” — some of the oldest remains ever recovered, in North America or anywhere else.
Almost ever since, there’s been a debate over whom the remains should really belong to. Several Native American tribes of the Northwest have claimed the Kennewick Man as their ancestor, citing DNA tests suggesting as much. They’ve asked the US Army Corps of Engineers to turn him over for a proper Native American burial.
But several American scientists had successfully sued to prevent that from happening, contending that the Kennewick Man is actually of Pacific Islander or maybe European ancestry and that the remains should be further studied by the government to unlock whatever other mysteries his bones contain.
Last night, Congress intervened on the side of the tribes. (All of the evidence suggests that the Kennewick Man really was of Native American origin, according to a news release from Washington Rep. Denny Heck, who was involved in the legislation.)
So the Kennewick Man’s long journey is finally nearing its end. “The Ancient One,” as the Native Americans call him, is going to the tribes for a final burial.
Loser: People who care about money in politics
The 2010 Citizens United ruling helped unleash a huge amount of untracked private money flowing to Super PACs in order to influence elections. This is incredibly unpopular — even Republicans have nominated a presidential candidate who decries this as “corruption” on a regular basis.
The executive branch could, legally, pass a rule to force corporations to disclose their political donors. But thus far, they haven’t due to a clever workaround advanced by congressional Republicans — the GOP has forced through a measure that prevents the Securities and Exchange Commission from spending any money to draft and create the corporate disclosure rule, according to Lisa Gilbert, director of Congress Watch for the nonprofit watchdog Public Citizen.
“They just can’t spend the money to finalize the rule,” Gilbert says. “So it’s a joke.”
Democrats had called for an end to this arrangement. But House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted that the lock on the SEC was “nonnegotiable” and worth shutting down the government over, according to Morning Consult.
McConnell won. More than 1.2 million Americans have signed on to the SEC’s early drafts for a rule requiring disclosure of corporate political donations — 10 times more signatures than any other draft regulation has received, according to Gilbert. “They know there’s intense interest,” she said.
Interest or not, it didn’t stop McConnell from getting what he wanted. And that means — even in the best-case scenario — we’re in for several months of unlimited secret political spending by American corporations and wealthy individuals.
Loser: Democratic Senate candidates in battleground states
Since taking the Senate as well as the House in 2014, Republicans have wanted to demonstrate that they can be trusted to manage the federal government responsibly.
Throughout the beginning of the Obama administration, the party had forced a series of high-profile and reckless series of confrontations with the president, risking a default on the US debt in both 2011 and 2013.
“Now that the Republicans are running both branches of Congress, they don’t want people saying they can’t keep the government open,” says Sarah Binder, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. “If there was a messaging war over a shutdown right before an election, Democrats would win that battle.”
That was a narrative that some Senate Democratic candidates may have latched onto. Projections vary, but Democrats appear on track to fall just short of retaking the Senate on Election Day. In large part, that’s because Republican senators like Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Marco Rubio of Florida are running far ahead of their party’s presidential nominee.
A protracted battle over the government shutdown might have helped Democrats running for Senate portray their foes as just as reckless as Donald Trump. (Indeed, candidates like Portman’s opponent, Ohio Democrat Ted Strickland, had already begun trying to do so even before the government shut down.) The fact that Republican leadership averted such a catastrophe takes away one potential line of attack for Democratic challengers to claw back into the race.
“McConnell really seemed to have the eye on his endangered Republicans running in 2016,” Binder says. “It’s in McConnell’s incentive to make the problems go away, and it looks like he did so.”
Loser: Pro-life conservatives
The new Zika funding may be welcome news for those fighting the virus, but it marked the end of what looks to pro-life advocates on the Hill like an embarrassing Republican cop-out.
A small portion of the Zika funding will wind up going to two Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico that need money to screen the virus. For months beforehand, Republicans had held up Zika funding by insisting that any new money dedicated to fighting the virus not be directed to Planned Parenthood.
As Vox’s Emily Crockett has written, that position may have had disastrous consequences for rural and low-income families.
“Planned Parenthood is a major reproductive health provider, especially in rural areas that have no other family planning options, and failing to give them Zika prevention funding could mean failing to reach a significant number of vulnerable women,” Crockett said.
But it was a hill that many pro-life advocates wanted Republican leaders to die on. Ben Domenech, editor of the right-wing news site the Federalist, had a bit of a Twitter meltdown over the news last night:
This CR is why the pro-life movement needs to change its strategy completely.— Ben Domenech (@bdomenech) September 28, 2016
So once again, I urge pro-lifers to break away and form a Party of Life. You've got to Freedom Caucus this shit. https://t.co/nEnenxr1hM— Ben Domenech (@bdomenech) September 28, 2016
For now, pro-life advocates are stuck with the Republican Party — and Donald Trump.