Oct 1, 2021 - Podcasts

Understanding the action on Capitol Hill

We started this week talking about the possibility of a government shutdown, raising the debt ceiling and passing an ambitious new economic agenda for President Biden. By late Thursday, a government shut down had been averted -- but pretty much everything else was still on the table.

  • Plus, the pandemic backlog of cases.
  • And, a historic arts performance in New York City.

Guests: Axios' Margaret Talev, Alayna Treene, and Russell Contreras.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Friday, October 1st. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Here’s what you need to know today: the pandemic backlog of criminal cases. Plus, a historic arts performance in New York City. But first, understanding the action on Capitol Hill is today’s One Big Thing.

We started this week talking about the possibility of a government shutdown, raising the debt ceiling, and passing an ambitious new economic agenda for President Biden. But what actually happened? Well, to start the government didn't shut down, but pretty much everything else is still on the table. All week we've been talking to two members of Axios’ politics team, Margaret Talev and Alayna Treene, who are both here with us now. I am not going to say good morning, because we are speaking closer to midnight. Hello ladies.

MARGARET: It's almost morning. [laughs]

ALAYNA: Thank you for having us, Niala.

NIALA: Alayna, you've just left The Hill. Speaker Pelosi had promised she would bring the bill to the floor on Thursday. Why didn't that happen?

MARGARET: Everyone on The Hill was very skeptical that would happen. And it turns out it got delayed. And it's really because progressive Democrats have long said that they do not want to vote on the 1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed in the Senate over the summer. They don't want to vote for that until they have at a bare minimum, a strong and specific commitment between the House, Senate, and The White House on what the reconciliation package, which is President Biden's much broader spending package, will look like. At most, they want to vote in both chambers and obviously, they're just not there. And they're trying to work out some sort of agreement right now behind the scenes that'll get them closer, at least satisfy progressives that a deal could potentially happen in the future, but they just aren't there yet at this point.

MARGARET: I think there's-there's still two questions for these guys to resolve. And one is what's the price tag and to be, and the other is how do they get to that price tag? There are a lot of programs in play here, that for the average American who's watching all this play out and they're thinking, how does this impact me, it will impact in terms of, are you going to get free or subsidized childcare for your three or four year old? Are you going to get two years of free community college? Are you going to get an expansion of Medicaid benefits? Are you going to get tax credits on electric cars? What programs stay, what programs go, and what they're worth. That's a lot to bite off in the next few days, but even if just a fraction of these programs were implemented, it could be something that has a major impact for millions of Americans.

NIALA: Alayna, are we closer to a deal now than we were at the beginning of this week?

ALAYNA: That's the thing that's so remarkable. I think just when you think about Congress and when you look at the pace of these negotiations, they’ve really made a lot of progress just in the last 24 hours and trying to come together on, you know what this package could look like. Now, there's no way they're going to have a vote on the reconciliation package by the end of this weekend, but they're just trying to get to a place where everyone can feel comfortable that it's going to happen.

NIALA: Margaret, where does this leave President Biden?

MARGARET: It leaves them in the spot where he's always been, which is the potential to be the deal-maker and the downside potential to being completely helpless, to take his party into the midterms in a winning position. The question for Biden for Joe Manchin, for Kyrsten Sinema, for the progressives, for Nancy Pelosi, for Bernie Sanders, for the entire Democratic party is where do they meet in the middle? Everybody in the Democratic party establishment and kind of who's watching this play out, thinks that the answer's probably somewhere in the $2 trillion range, which by the way, would end up being what President Trump and the Republican party's 2017 tax cut cost. So it is now up to Biden to buckle down and pull this together. Statement from the press secretary late after it became clear there wouldn't be a vote: We're not there yet, and so we'll need some additional time to finish the work starting tomorrow morning first thing. That's what Jen Psaki said, she didn't say finishing tomorrow morning. There's probably days more to go here. If they can keep the momentum going, this is something where a deal could be reached in the next couple of days, in the next week. And it would be a huge deal for Joe Biden and the Democratic party.

NIALA: Alayna, Margaret, thank you for staying up late with me for this.

MARGARET: Thanks, Niala.

ALAYNA: Thank you.

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with how prosecutors are responding to the massive backlog of U.S. criminal cases.


NIALA: Courts across the U.S. are seeing major backlogs of criminal cases. It’s something we saw beginning earlier in the pandemic -- and the problem isn’t going away. Axios race and justice reporter Russell Contreras has been writing about these delays. Good morning, Russ.

RUSSELL CONTRERAS: Great to be here.

NIALA: Is this because of the pandemic?

RUSSELL: It's for a lot of reasons, I mean, the pandemic definitely slowed the criminal justice system to a crawl across the U.S. And now, there's an increase in violent crime and that’s straining the system even further, and district attorneys are having to respond to that.

NIALA: How are they responding to this?

RUSSELL: So what these prosecutors are doing are they're prioritizing cases and dismissing the smaller cases, the misdemeanors, and they're focusing on the most egregious, the murderers, the rapists, those cases. But it's been really hard because these dockets keep swelling and it looks like there's no end in sight right now.

NIALA: And so when we say no end in sight, how long could this backlog be?

RUSSELL: Well, it depends on where you are. Harris County, Texas, which is the home to Houston, has more than 94,000 cases. The Houston Chronicle reports it would take judges a year or more to clear those dockets without adding new cases. And of course that's not going to be possible. So we're looking at possibly a couple of years before we return to pre-pandemic levels, but you have to remember the criminal justice system was already strained then, like it is now.

NIALA: Are there any proposed solutions to try to fix this?

RUSSELL: Well, some state legislators are looking at: What do we do? Let's dismiss some of the most-uh, less violent crimes, drug offenses, for example. But it's going to take time. There were some cases like the prosecutor in New Orleans came into office and immediately dismissed marijuana cases or other lower offense drug cases to try to get it. Now, New Orleans has had a rise in violent crime. So although that gets rid of those smaller cases, now they have these other cases like assaults and murders to deal with. So in one case, you're throwing some out the door. And some are right there waiting to enter.

NIALA: Russ, we also recently got further confirmation, from the FBI, that there has been an increase in violent crime. Is it possible that these are related, that there's more violent crime because of the backlog in prosecuting other criminal cases?

RUSSELL: Some of the people I talked to said: look, the backlog has contributed to recent jumps in crimes. New Mexico auditor, Brian Colón, said if folks aren't being held responsible for crimes they commit, and there are no consequences, you might see an increase of activity. Others said, the system, as it is set up now, has measurements in place to help those who need services, like say, drug rehabilitation to get those services, to get them off the streets and prevent them from committing larger crimes. Last year we saw all those efforts be put on hiatus, and they're just now coming back. It is possible that all those things combined contributed to a rise in violent crime.

NIALA: Axios’ race and justice reporter Russell Contreras. Thanks Russ.

RUSS: Thanks for having me.

NIALA: Before we go -- we’ll leave you with a big cultural moment from this week: The Metropolitan Opera in New York City gave its first performance of the season on Monday...with a history-making show: Fire Shut Up in My Bones is the first opera at the Met by a Black composer since the company began in 1883. It also represented the first time many in the audience had seen live opera -- or live performing arts -- in months. Last weekend, I heard the National Symphony Orchestra’s first performance at the Kennedy Center since the pandemic began, and it was incredibly special to hear live, in person music again..for the first time in so long. We’d love to hear about YOUR experiences enjoying performing arts after a while away -- Share with us by texting a voice memo to (202) 918-4893 or emailing podcasts at axios dot com.

Axios Today is brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries. We’re produced by Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, and Sabeena Singhani. Our sound engineers are Alex Sugiura, Ben O’ Brien, and Zach Mcnees. Dan Bobkoff is our Executive Producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is our Editor In Chief. And special thanks to Axios co-founder Mike Allen. I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and have the best weekend.

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