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Strange things are afoot at the Capitol

Defense policy, appropriations, judges and pizza made it interesting

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer conducts a news conference after the Senate luncheons in the Capitol on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer conducts a news conference after the Senate luncheons in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It is migratory tour bus season in Washington, with scads of bucket-hat-clad students clumping about the capital city and its environs for drop-ins at Arlington National Cemetery, Mount Vernon, the National Mall and, of course, the Capitol itself.

While it is sporting fun to poke Congress about its languid schedule, such as it is, with its Monday or Tuesday fly-in and Thursday jet-fume-fueled flurry of get-out-of-town activity, outlanders and insiders both were witness to legislative inflection points galore before bolting for the Memorial Day recess.

For starters, the House got started on a couple of mammoth pieces of legislation. The House Armed Services Committee marked up the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which sets policy for the Pentagon, on a 57-1 vote, sending it to the floor late on Wednesday with a minimum of fuss, at least for now.

Because a final version of the bill has been enacted for 63 years running, lawmakers annually try to lard it up with other priorities — and because of that, it always hangs out until the end of the year’s quitting-time theatrics. But the fact that the committee did its job is an important first step.

The House Agriculture Committee got around to a stalled five-year farm bill, which is operating on a one-year extension already, on a more partisan 33-21 vote on Friday. Every few years when the farm bill is due up, members of Congress try to pretend they can pass it without tending to a decades-old coalition of rural and urban interests.

Talks break down over subsidies or nutrition assistance or other key aspects of that coalition. Then they take it to the brink, someone blinks and they mostly pass a familiar-looking piece of legislation authorizing agricultural and related policies for another five years.

And appropriations season is in full swing, with the House Appropriations Committee approving its revised allocations and sending the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill to the floor. It’s early, and everyone is still arguing about, yes, money — but, again, it’s a start.

Over in the Senate, the White House and the chamber’s Democrats crowed about confirming the 200th judge appointed by President Joe Biden, Angela Martinez, to be a district court judge in Arizona. Then for good measure they tacked on the 201st, Dena M. Coggins, to be a district court judge in California.

The administration made a point of noting Biden’s picks have been a diverse slate and swath of Americans, setting up a contrast with the man who preceded him, Donald Trump, who tended to pick white men who had strong affiliations with the Federalist Society.

For those concerned about the makeup of the judiciary, the point was not lost, particularly with the news that Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. reportedly has a thing about flying flags that double as conservative-movement signifiers at his homes in Alexandria, Va., and on the Jersey Shore. Shortly after that news broke, the Supreme Court overturned a lower-court ruling that found South Carolina had discriminated against Blacks with its latest redrawing of congressional districts. Alito wrote the opinion for the 6-3 majority.

Meanwhile, Congress got a new member-in-waiting, chipping away at its backfill. On Tuesday, voters in California’s 20th District elected Republican Vince Fong in a special election to replace former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. When Fong is sworn in after the recess, that will set the partisan balance at 218 Republicans and 213 Democrats, with four vacancies remaining. Other special elections are scheduled in the months to come, suggesting that even with Congress’ not-great reputation, people still want to work there.

Maybe that’s because you can say whatever you want about pizza in the Congressional Record. Yes. That happened, too, when Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., declared “New Haven the pizza capital of the United States” on Wednesday. New York and Chicago would like a word, but they also have representatives who can further debate the matter.

There are enough slices of the legislative pie for everyone.

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