hardline political news and analysis

Member Departures Not Prompted by November Prospects

Political analysts are always quick to impute motives to the career decisions of politicians, and Capitol Hill observers are having field day with the recent retirement announcements of top Democrats John Dingell, George Miller, and Henry Waxman.  Predictably, commentators interpret such decisions from an institutional perspective that emphasizes the impact on Congress.  More specifically, they conclude that the decisions were predicated on the Members’ estimation of the likelihood of Democrats regaining the House majority this November.  

Republicans also are quick to interpret retirement decisions in optimistic electoral terms.  “The House Democrats don’t think they’re going to be wielding the gavels,” chortled Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), who chairs the Republican Congressional Committee. Walden and other Democratic doomsayers conveniently overlook the fact that half of those retiring from the House in November are Republicans, including former chairmen and other senior Members like Spencer Bachus, Buck McKeon, Doc Hastings and Frank Wolf.

My point is not so much to predict what will happen this coming Election Day – winning back control is always tough and the sixth year of a presidency presents special challenges – but to point out that decisions to run or retire are more often motivated by personal timetables and agendas than by trying to read political tea leaves eight months down the road.  Two months is a lifetime in politics.  I remember telling a Republican friend in the fall of 1994 that he was about to become the majority and he was shocked; similarly, until the Member scandals hit in mid-2006, the chances of Democrats taking back the House were far from certain, even with the 6th year curse and President Bush’s helpful proposal to privatize Social Security. 

Making the decision to retire can be a tough one even for people who have spent decades in the turmoil of Capitol Hill.  Leaving the familiarity and support structure of the House is a very challenging decision (I know because I did it a year ago after 38 years, albeit as staff, not a Member).  For veterans like Dingell, Miller and Waxman, who will be highly valued in the private or non-profit sector, the specter of losing that familiarity must still be daunting.  They have spent their entire lives in electoral office and currently rank 1, 29, and 30 in terms of historical longevity out of 10,156 men and women who have ever served in the House.  Being a senior Member of Congress isn’t just a job; it is a big part of who you are and how you conceptualize every aspect of your life, and I don’t mean the glory and prestige, of which there is surprisingly little, especially after decades.

Sure, it is gratifying to have the room applaud when you are introduced, to have audiences rapt with attention as you describe the intricacies of the budget process, and to grill uncooperative witnesses at hearings and write laws on issues of great significance.   But the novelty and glamor quickly wears off , while the job, especially in a contentious political environment, remains filled with stress and uncompromising personal demands.

Disapproving constituents often ask about Members’ limousines or other amenities, and many are disbelieving of the lack of luxury that goes with public office.  Members face the same personal and financial burdens as regular citizens whether it be the costs of college and child care, or the difficulties of scheduling family time.  Many worry about the financial sacrifices their families are making, if not now then in retirement, so that they can pursue a very gratifying career that while comfortable, is unlikely to make one wealthy.  Most Members are working around the clock in Washington and their districts, with incessant demands for personal appearances, meetings and fundraising.  When district appearances require weekly transcontinental flights (as Miller has undertaken every week for 40 years) or plane changes in unpredictable hubs with long car rides afterwards, the commute is brutal.  And then the town hall meetings start. 

Now, no one needs to feel sorry for Members of Congress; they chose the jobs, and they can leave anytime they want with plenty of people anxious to walk into the meat grinder that is House politics.  So it should not be surprising when some who have enjoyed decades of achievement, while enduring decades of stress, decide to explore other options while there is time to do so.  Dingell declared he didn’t “want people to say I stayed too long,” and at age 87 with 58 years in the House under his belt, he is probably pushing that rationale to the limit.  Waxman, who will be 75 when he departs, decided, “if there is a time for me to move on to another chapter in my life, I think this is the time to do it.”  And Miller, who arrived with Waxman in 1975, says, “I look forward to one last year in Congress fighting the good fight and then working in new venues on the issues that have inspired me. 

With the exception of Dingell, who termed serving in the current House “obnoxious,” (while nevertheless endorsing his wife, Deborah, to replace him), those who are departing have been remarkably uncritical of the institution (although understandably disapproving of the current, dysfunctional  management).  Among the former chairmen, all enjoyed lengthy periods in the majority as well as in the minority; all put their names on historic (and bipartisan) legislation; all know that politics runs in cycles that are both favorable and frustrating.  Sure, if they were sitting in the big chair with gavel in hand, they might not walk off; but deciding now to leave, with the inevitable uncertainty about the majority next January but no doubt about the sacrifices and stresses of two more years in the job, is not the same as writing off the party’s chances eight months out. 

What undoubtedly will suffer is institutional memory, particularly the recollection of the traditional, orderly legislative process where subcommittees and committees actually met, conducted serious hearings, drafted and marked up legislation that predictably went to the floor, and where House-Senate conference committees resolved differences – the quaint old textbook flow chart of legislation, long since consigned to piles of undistributed official “How Our Laws Are Made” pamphlets.  That process has largely vaporized over the past 20 years as the closeness of party margins, the existence of intra-party schisms, the chronic fight for control, and the emergence of the perpetual campaign have necessitated tighter discipline and more strategic maneuvering by the leadership on both sides.  Today, what political scientist Barbara Sinclair once termed “unorthodox lawmaking” has become the new normal, and many of those who will serve in the 114th Congress will never have known anything different in Washington.  David Goldston, a former skilled Republican staffer now works at the Natural Resources Defense Council (and doesn’t that make you sit up straight?) laments for all of us, “Congress is increasingly left with people who not only don’t know how to do those things; they don’t know that they can be done.”

“I was never in awe of the ‘indispensable man’ theory,” George Miller recently told a reporter, and one of the other retiring Members – not one of those I have mentioned – recently told me that the only truly indispensable Democrat is Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose skills at managing the diverse Democratic Caucus and securing funds to run competitive races is simply unparalleled.  And she recently announced she is running again.  Those who might think she is unconvinced of her ability to pull of an electoral victory in November, that she might simply be going through the motions, don’t understand her unquenchable dedication to her mission: money, message and mobilization.  If and when she resigns herself to another two years in the minority – and don’t hold your breath waiting for that – the pundits will have the material they need to conclude Democrats are faltering.  But when Members decide that after 40 years, or 58 or similarly extended service they would like to just do something else, to escape the pressure cooker, regardless of the possible outcome on Election Day (and with reasonable expectations their successors will also be Democrats), I am inclined to take them at their words, and wish them well.  They’ve earned it.


The Republican Reliance on Mendacity

The dust-up over the recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) illustrates a well-documented truth: underlying a substantial proportion of Republican policies is a persistent absence of truthfulness. Ultimately, one challenge conservatives will confront in improving their miserable brand is that so many of their policies and arguments are insincere, hypocritical or downright misrepresentations.  And sooner or later, a political platform constructed on a foundation of mendacity will crumble, although I wouldn’t place a bet on when that might happen.

The response to the CBO report offers a dramatic illustration of the longstanding Republican reliance on the twisting of truth in pursuit of political objectives.  “By 2017, CBO projects that people will be working fewer hours precisely because of the incentives created in this law,” Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan breathlessly noted, “and these changes disproportionately affect low-wage workers.”   The Wall Street Journal similarly intoned on February 4 that “the new health law is projected to reduce the total number of hours Americans work by the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time jobs in 2021.”

“ Translation,” Ryan helpfully explained, “Washington is making the poverty trap much worse.” 

If Ryan is going to add “translator” to his many skills, he needs a good “English to English” dictionary.  His explanation is not what the CBO said at all.  Rather, CBO noted that some workers would no longer feel compelled to stay at a job simply to qualify for the health insurance the employer provided.  Instead, workers – whether low income or not – could look for other jobs, increase volunteer activities, retire, take care of their children or elderly parents, or elect to do many other activities that help their families and their communities without being trapped by the very “job lock” that Ryan and other conservatives decried only a few years ago.  Eviscerating those who seek to escape the “job lock” that conservatives identified as a goal of any health reform plan is sort of a first cousin to Republicans decrying the socialistic “individual mandate” in the ACA which originated with the Heritage Foundation as an alternative to the Clinton health care bill in the early 1990s.  Besides, I thought conservatives wanted Americans to spend more time strengthening their family units.

Hypocrisy and mendacity are the sine quo non of Republican rhetoric.  Sure, Democrats exaggerate and tweak the truth, but not with the reliability and venality that has come to be the hallmark of the Right.  Indeed, the underlying (and highly successful) strategy of Newt Gingrich, Frank Luntz and Karl Rove is to apply an ominous appellation to a Democratic target and hammer relentlessly, regardless of the  inaccuracy or hyperbole of the accusation).  The strategy is hardly novel, but no group in American politics has played it as cunningly or uninterruptedly as the Hard Right. 

The Right’s obsession with prevarication is not limited to misrepresenting what Democrats say or do, e.g., alleging “death panels” as a central tenet of the ACA, or asserting that a tax on estates that kicks in at $3 million would pose a danger to small business owners and farmers.  The most central tenets of conservative thought are premised on ideologically inspired balderdash that persists despite years, even decades, of disproof.  Think: lower taxes will cut deficits, or the corollary, slash discretionary spending to reduce deficits (while preserving low tax rates for the wealthiest.  I won’t even reiterate the shameless hypocrisy of Republicans who castigate federal spending, including the 2009 stimulus, while simultaneously pulling strings to ensure their districts secured funding from the law.

Which brings me to a new outrage that is even more stunningly egregious than the misrepresentation of the CBO report.  Not content with raising vast sums of money from fat cat right wing special interests, Republicans have now embarked upon a cynical strategy to mislead Americans into funding efforts to defeat Democratic candidates.  The plan is almost stunning in its cynicism and deceit. 

The clever conservatives of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) have been quietly buying up dozens of URLs to confuse contributors who intend to donate to Democratic candidates.  In fact, the money will be used against the very same candidates.  Hilarious!  Worthy of Dick Tuck, a master political trickster of the 1950s – but not the agent of a national political party.   To date, the Republicans have created at least 15 deceptive sites featuring large photos of Democratic officeholders or candidates, and including the candidate’s name.  Even a careful reader could be forgiven for believing that a web page that screams, for example, “Kirkpatrick for Congress,” is likely to be raising money for Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat.

But according to the fine print, the money will be used against Rep. Kirkpatrick, who is described as “a huge embarrassment to Arizona.” If you read the fine print.  Which many do as often as they read the “terms and policy” on other websites before clicking “accept.”

An NRCC spokesperson not only confesses to the orchestrated deception, but promises to roll out many more misleading URLs during the election season, siphoning needed funds away from Democrats and into the pockets of their GOP opponents.   One need not be a Democratic sympathizer to be appalled by the NRCC ruse; Time magazine asserts that the “NRCC has set up that are clearly designed to trick the viewer.”  Not to be deterred, GOP spokesperson Daniel Scarpinato responds by asserting that Democratic websites are similarly “deceptive” — because they do not acknowledge a candidate’s support for President Obama’s programs.  Scarpinato declares he is “proud of this program.”

Fortunately, the NRCC’s deceptive behavior is receiving the legal response it warrants.  The Democratic Committee of Atlantic County (NJ) will file a complaint challenging ads being run against Bill Hughes, Jr., who is running against longtime incumbent Rep. Frank LoBiondo.  Expect more lawsuits to follow.

But it should not take litigation to shut down such blatantly deceptive tactics.  Federal Election Commission regulation 102.14 prohibits an unauthorized committee like the NRCC from using a candidate’s name in an advertisement like the websites.  Former FEC general Counsel Larry Noble, who now runs the bipartisan Americans for Campaign Reform, has little doubt the phony websites violate FEC rules.  But Republicans have obstructed enforcement actions by the equally balanced FEC which, under the best of circumstances, is unlikely to act during the current election season as the fake websites proliferate and siphon off Democratic dollars.

If lawsuits and regulatory action are unlikely to halt this latest example of the NRCC’s reliance on deception, maybe Democrats should offer Republicans the old bargain devised by Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 presidential campaign. If Republicans stopped telling lies about him, Stevenson offered, he would stop telling the truth about them.  Not a bad bargain, but then again, it would leave Republicans without much to say.



California Needs Water Reform, Not Hot Air


It might come as a surprise that House Republican leaders, who have wasted hundreds of hours (and millions of tax dollars) “repealing” the Affordable Care Act 45 times have a more cynical way to waste the time of our nation’s legislators while ignoring the urgent needs of the American people.   If all goes according to plan, sometime next week, Republicans will pass a bill to end the drought plaguing California, overturning decades of balanced, negotiated, collaborative legislation and judicial opinions on which modern water law is based. 

Now what makes this exercise in hydropolitics especially ludicrous is that this bound-for-oblivion bill — H.R. 3964, the   Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act – has never been the subject of Committee consideration.  Or subcommittee consideration, for that matter.  That’s because it was introduced … two days ago.  By 15 Republican House members who, with one exception have never been even marginal participants in the hair-pulling world of California water politics.  You know this all-GOP maneuver is doomed from the get go when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who can be overly sympathetic to the Valley’s water barons, dismisses the legislation in the strongest terms. (Sen. Barbara Boxer probably won’t even waste her breath commenting on the atrocity.) 

For the vast majority of Americans, water has little to do with politics.  But in the arid West, beyond the 100th meridian, and especially in California, hydropolitics are the political equivalent of a schoolyard knife fight, with big knives.  Government can always print more money to address the deficit, but you can’t create more water to address a drought.  For over a century, engineers, ranchers, farmers, city planners, and others dug, drilled, diverted and dammed their way to bigger and bigger supplies. In the middle part of the last century, environmentalists successfully entered the fray, demanding that proper water management reflect more than simply maximizing diversions.  Reformers during Democratic and Republican Administrations were able to legislate and litigate protections for sensitive estuaries and fisheries that had been decimated by the inability of politicians to say “no” to irrigators (who use over 80% of the state’s water).

What makes the misallocation of water in California so absurd is that the heaviest users are also the most heavily subsidized – by taxpayers (yes, like the legislators they elect, these welfare famers are also conservatives who love to denounce government spending and federal involvement in private industry, but let’s let that hypocrisy go for the moment).  Over the years, often with the compliance of a somnambulant (if not complicitous) Bureau of Reclamation, irrigators gobbled up the lion’s share of the state’s water as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in annual subsidies.  Water was used to irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of low-quality lands (the Bureau, asleep at the switch again), to grow crops that were either ill-suited to desert cultivation or that taxpayers were paying farmers elsewhere not to grow. Or both.

Congress finally started getting its hands around the crisis in the 1970s and over the next 20 years wrote laws to reduce subsidies, protect the areas where the water originates, improve water quality, rejuvenate fisheries, and create balanced mechanisms for modernizing water management and planning future development.  The response of the big irrigators was less than cooperative; fat with taxpayer subsidies, they remain content to spend a tiny percentage of their annual profits on legal fees that obstruct implementation of reform laws, challenge judicial decisions, and complicate essential federal-state cooperation.  One can walk away from California water politics for a number of years (as I did last decade), return, and find the players and the positions virtually unchanged, and the problems unsolved.

One of the reasons hydropolitics is so fascinating is that it is, in microcosm, an illustration of so much of what is wrong with our political system, especially the malevolent and pernicious influence of big money on behalf of unworthy causes.   If Valley irrigators did not have the billions dollars in profits provided by taxpayer subsides, they could not afford to perpetuate decades of litigation to prevent reforms that have been approved on a bipartisan basis in Congress, by the courts and by regulatory agencies.  In the past, when Members of Congress tried to push their irrigation constituents to accept reasonable changes, they were literally ordered to walk away from the negotiating table.

California, and much of the West, have serious water misallocations, no question about it. Unlike other states, however, California remains obdurate about initiating necessary reforms. 

  • Unlike almost every other Western state, there is no effective groundwater management program, so aquifers are being mined faster now than before construction of the massive state and federal water projects that were designed to relieve groundwater overdrafts. 
  • Poor quality land is still irrigated without any drainage plan decades after the discovery of serious biological hazards linked to drainage contamination.  
  • Low-quality lands are being irrigated, mainly to pump up their “value” in hopes that if the federal government buys out the farmers, the land will be considered “productive” and therefore, cost taxpayers more to retire.
  • Some urban areas still refuse to install water meters to measure consumption. 
  • Twenty year old efforts by Congress to promote waste water reuse are drastically underfunded by the Bureau of Reclamation, which equates the pouring of concrete with success. 
  • Farmers who were supposed to pay off their interest-free loans for water projects not only are decades late in doing so, but will remain several hundred million dollars short when the new due date is reached in two decades. 

Nor has the state government been much of a help.  Gov. Jerry Brown, whose father concealed the real costs of the State Water Project he built as Governor in the 1950s, continues to promote a multi-billion expansion that will damage the environment and fisheries but leave in place many of the wasteful practices of the past; and his cost estimates are highly suspect, too.

So next week, House Republicans will offer up their drought “solution,” having involved none of the state’s multiple interests in developing or approving their ridiculous, doomed proposal.  At least they are straight-faced about their real goals.  Right up  there, in sections 101 and 103, H.R. 3964 directs the Secretary of the Interior to “renew any existing long-term repayment or water service contract that provides for the delivery of water from the Central Valley Project for a period of 40 years.” At the “lowest reasonable cost.”  Translation: ignore decades of laws, court opinions, negotiations, state-federal collaborations, investigations, exposes, scandals and environmental nightmares.  Keep doing exactly what we have been doing for another 40 years, at the cheapest rates possible, regardless of the fiscal, environmental and political chaos that has roiled the state for a half century. 

It is safe to predict that after the House passes H.R. 3964, each of those 15 Republican congressmen will send out press releases extolling their extraordinary achievement in securing vast additional water guarantees for their districts.  But it is all a bunch of hooey.  H.R. 3964 is simply the latest in a long series of deceitful maneuvers that substitute symbolism for the hard work it takes to address a tough environmental, economic and political challenge.  California needs water, not hot air; what’s coming next week is a lot of the latter, and it will not deliver a thimble of additional water to anyone.




State of the Union 2014: Obama’s Opportunity

In the midst of those halcyon days between his election as the 44th President in November, 2008 and his inauguration on January 20, 2009, President-elect Barack Obama came up to Capitol Hill to discuss his early legislative goals, including his commitment to constructive collaboration with Republicans in Congress.  I listened to his proposed agenda and strategy and offered a pessimistic prediction.  “Mr. President,” I volunteered, “I know these guys in the House really well.  They hate you. They aren’t going to cooperate.”  The nascent President responded, “You may be right, John, but I’m going to try.” 

A few weeks later, things were definitely leaning more my way than his. Invited to meet with Republican House members on the stimulus bill, now-President Obama arrived as GOP leaders completed an impromptu news conference at which they announced Republicans would refuse to support the stimulus — regardless of what the President said.  Most of these Republicans had been less categorically negative when George W. Bush crafted a stimulus package with Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid in 2012; and the new one, probably unwisely, was more heavily skewed to the tax cuts Republicans love rather than towards the job-creating infrastructure jobs favored by most Democrats. (Republicans weren’t kidding; not one voted for the stimulus bill.) 

In his first White House press conference, Mr. Obama declared, “I’m going to go in there with a spirit of bipartisanship.” And so he did.  Time after time, both he and congressional allies have encountered the solid opposition of House Republicans. Even before the infusion of the nihilist Tea Party contingent of 2010, Republicans voted solidly against the stimulus, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms, and – with a single exception – health care reform.  The record of cooperation has not improved over time. 

As the President prepares to deliver his State of the Union message, one must believe the past five years of stultifying hostility from Republicans has pierced the unwarranted Obama optimism and suggested that a new approach is needed.  Some would argue that the President articulate a lengthy list of initiatives to address  unmet priorities, assuring that various factions within the Congress will reliably  bob up and down in mini-standing ovations.  That approach would make some happy, but it would be counterproductive and self-defeating.

Of course, Republicans (especially in the House) have no intention of passing any of the President’s priorities.  If the past three years are any indication, they will not even hold hearings on them and will instead content themselves to repeal the Affordable Care Act several dozen more times, at least in the House.  Reciting a litany of legislation that is stone cold before arriving at the House hopper would only afford the press the opportunity to regularly report how Congress ignores or defeats the President’s priorities, quantifying his diminished stature.

The President has a unique opportunity on Tuesday night to remind Americans what he stand for and, especially important, how his priorities dovetail with their own while differentiating himself from the obdurate Republican majority.  But it is not enough to contrast the aspirations of the American people from Republican goals: President Obama has to use the State of the Union to send a clear message to Congress and the country, and it isn’t a very complicated one:

I will work with you without surcease, but I will not allow your partisan inaction to injure this country.  Where I can act using the lawful exercise of my Executive Authority as permitted by statute and the Constitution, I will do so if the Congress proves unwilling, or unable, to do its job.  (The unstated last line of that declaration would be, “Try and stop me.”)

Now, as a 38 year creature of the Congress, I am hardly in favor of unrestricted Executive Authority, the kind of Imperial Presidency that helped launch the careers and reforms of the 1970s.  But President Obama is simply running out of time, and he surely now understands that not only will Republicans not cooperate, but that persisting in a futile effort to encourage them behave responsibly damages his own image and authority.  Time to reach for the crown and scepter and not, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi likes to say, to wait for the slowest ship.

Fortunately, there is growing optimism the President is thinking along these lines, albeit cautiously and methodically, as one would expect from Barack Obama.  During the press spray prior to the year’s first Cabinet meeting, he declared his intention to flex his executive powers if Congress proves resistant or indifferent.  He possesses, he noted, a “pen and a phone,” and he pledged to work with interested parties outside Congress to generate support for Executive Orders that bypass the congressional roadblock.

Already the President is moving to demonstrate his willingness to circumvent congressional obstructionists.  His administration has announced Executive action on climate change, education, child care, public-private manufacturing initiatives and college affordability.  Not surprisingly, Republicans are chagrined.  Obama’s alleged buddy, the soon-to-depart Sen. Tom Coburn, grumbles that the President’s actions are “getting perilously close” to warranting impeachment, reported the impeachment, Tulsa World.  Not to worry.

Obama remains wary of presidential over-reach, and that is probably good, just like his reasoned restraint in over-exercising his war-making powers in Syria or Iran.  “Where I can act on my own without Congress,” Obama says,  “I will do so.”  While some well-meaning Democrats are frustrated he will fail to exercise Executive authority as much as they would counsel, he knows that over-reach can be checked by an appropriations amendment his order on a bill he can’t afford to veto.  “There is no shortcut to politics,” he recently told a crowd charged up by a heckler demanding more Executive initiatives.  “There’s no shortcut to democracy. 

With business leaders joining others in frustration with the inability of Republican congressional leaders to manage their Tea Party factions, Obama has genuine possibilities to secure broad support for judicious use of his Executive powers.  A collection of such leaders joined others recently is advocating presidential action to implement the climate change agenda the Administration announced last year. According to the group, the President has nearly 200 opportunities to initiate real action to address climate change under authority provided by existing law.

Congress will huff and puff, of course, but Presidents do have broad authority, often because it was provided by the very same huffers and puffers in Congress who opted to “punt” when drafting legislation and leave delicate implementation details to the Executive agencies.  The loudest squawking typically emanates from those who didn’t support the law in the first place.

So when you watch the SOTU on Tuesday night, don’t expect a long list of presidential priorities presented for Congress’ consideration.  My bet is that the President uses this nationally televised opportunity, in measured Obama fashion, to remind the Congress he can and will act without waiting for the Capitol Hill molasses to defrost. 

President Obama has no choice if he wishes his last three years in office to be productive.  However inimical to his personality, he must demonstrate a willingness to advance what he views as national priorities in spite of congressional inaction of obstructionism; history will grant him little succor for merely blaming Republicans for the next three years.  Obama will have to not only be willing to incur Republican efforts to block his Executive actions and the clucking of the chatter journalists who bemoan his end run around the stalled lawmaking process, but also the inevitable sniping of dissatisfied Democrats who want more than the President can deliver. 

In his recent words and actions, President Obama seems to have come to recognize the unjust hand history has dealt him by saddling him for at least half of his presidency with an uncooperative and obstructive Congress.  History will measure him by how he employs the awesome powers at his command to craft the best record of achievement possible.  The State of the Union is a good time for him to explain his intentions to a public desperate for leadership and accomplishment.



Tribute to a Great Political Leader: George Miller

For my first 30 years on Capitol Hill, I worked for the congressman on whose initial campaign I had volunteered and with whom I came to Washington in 1975, George Miller of California. 

George Miller announced last Monday that his current term in the House, his 20th, would be his last.  Having arrived on Capitol Hill at the age of 29, thinking, as he often said, that “back East meant Reno,” Miller will depart Dean of the California delegation, the 5th most senior Member of the House, and the most accomplished legislator of his generation.

He had a long political pedigree — his dad was a very prominent California state senator and his grandfather a local official.  His formidable physical presence enhanced his questioning of a hostile witness before one of the three committees he chaired. But George never morphed into the dreaded  congressional prima donna. True, he could reduce a witness (or a staff person) to a quivering mass of jelly (he once threw a heavy book at me when I challenged him on an issue), but the tantrum never lasted long, often ending with a grudging hug.

The fanatical loyalty of his long-serving staff is due, in large part, to a conviction that George is one of us, not just “the boss.”  He was not hesitant about exercising his office, but he never completely shed the staff persona he developed working in Sacramento for Majority Leader George Moscone.  He made the office coffee, sorted the mail, respected staff members’ family needs, and maintained a novice staffer’s healthy dose of outrage.

He repaid that loyalty by backing his staff 100%, reliably shouldering the Member’s burden of turning a staffer’s obsession, if reasonable, into public law.   When a staffer came up with a good idea for a bill, George would invariably declare, “Let’s do that!” And whether it took an afternoon or five years, as it sometimes did, Miller stuck with the issue, and usually prevailed, often with strong bipartisan support.   

Many have asked why George never sought a leadership position or ran for higher office.  Such ideas were occasionally entertained.  In 1984, I speculated about a John-Glenn-George Miller ticket (think of the slogan: “In the mood for Glenn-Miller ’84″).  Wisely, he did not encourage that line of thinking.  Others encouraged him to challenge Dick Gephardt for Democratic Leader to provide a more aggressive alternative to Newt Gingrich.  He declined, and Gephardt elevated him to the leadership, both to mine his active intellect and, I suspect, to keep an eye on a potential rival.

George chronically shunned self-promotion for a Senate seat the governorship or Leadership in the House, all of which were encouraged by others.  The incessant travel and heavyweight fundraising was unappealing, and he preferred to devote his time to the issues that fired his blood: children, families, workers, health care, family policy, the environment, a sensible foreign policy.  He aspired for his friends to rise in power, and many did, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Barbara Boxer, and longtime D.C. roommates Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin.

And so decade after decade, George remained in the turbulence of the House, plunging into battles including the minimum wages, enhancing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, expanding early childhood services and reforming oil and gas leasing, battling student loan companies and subsidized irrigators, challenging human rights abuses at home and around the world.  He has been fearless, never flinching from challenging hometown oil companies, deep pocket agribusinesses, sweatshop operators or even South American dictators (one of whom once sent an agent to track Miller in California).

Miller is a congressional workhorse, not a show horse, and a formidable amount of the legislation he authored became law.  His chairmanship of the Education and Labor Committee (2007-2010) is the most productive Committee record in U.S. history, according to the Congressional Research Service, belying the assertion that Congress is an unworkable institution.  (He also chaired Natural Resources and Select Committee on Children he persuaded Speaker Tip O’Neill to create.)

Contrary to the “tax and spend liberal” label which twenty challengers tried to pin on him, George was a pioneer in targeting the deficit and documented the cost effectiveness of early intervention with children — good science and good economics.  He reads the business sections of newspapers first, and his admiration for business discipline prompted him to originate Pay As You Go deficit reduction in 1982, which helped balance the budget in the 1990s before the new GOP majority chucked it out, with disastrous results. 

His long career has produced innumerable memorable moments, and anyone with whom he has served has a favorite. One, which seems emblematic to me, was a late night floor speech against a restrictive Republican floor procedure.  Recognized for a brief speech, George excoriated the majority for promoting “fascism” on the House floor, ignoring the presiding officer who was energetically banging the gavel with increasing vigor as George exceeded his allotted time.  George’s voice escalated in tandem with the acting Speaker’s incessant hammering until the top of the gavel broke off and somersaulted into the well of the House. With a sly grin, George mischievously ended his extended speech with the standard caveat, “I yield back the balance of my time.”  

Thirty years ago, George’s mentor Rep. Phil Burton died suddenly and as we drafted his remarks for the memorial service, George declared, Phil always liked to say his ‘balls roared with injustice.’  I want to include that in my remarks.”    

“No,” I demurred. “That isn’t appropriate for a funeral.” Unhappily, George relented and the words went unspoken.  But as I consider summarizing his outstanding career, the words not only ring true but singularly appropriate to George Miller himself.  Indeed, his balls do “roar with injustice,” which is why there is little doubt that George continue to promote solutions that improve the lives of millions of Americans who will never know his name or how effectively he has served his nation.

50 Years Ago: A Year of Cataclysmic Change

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy provoked a cavalcade of memories. But serious change was just beginning in November of 1963, and over the next twelve months, Americans will commemorate anniversaries of events that unalterably changed U.S. politics, society and culture and thereby defined the remainder of the 20th century.

 Even in a decade of change like the ‘60s, a startling number of key historical events occurred in 1964.  Noting each would require nearly round-the clock commemorations throughout 2014. 

The Kennedy assassination remade American politics. Lyndon Johnson exploited the post-assassination unity to expand federal leadership in social, economic and legal policies.  On January 8, 1964, LBJ declared a “War on Poverty,” followed by his “Great Society” battle plan.   By August, Johnson signed bills into law including the Economic Opportunity Act.

1964 also saw a major acceleration of Kennedy’s stalled civil rights legislation.  The poll tax, which had disenfranchised generations of blacks, was banned by ratification of the 24th amendment in January.  Soon, Johnson demanded a sweeping anti-discrimination statute. After a three month Senate filibuster, the Civil Rights Act became law in June. Yet racial hatred was far from ended; also in June, three civil rights workers – Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney – went missing in Mississippi.  Their bodies were found in an earthen dam in August. 

Growing militancy marked the civil rights struggle. In early March, the charismatic Cassius Clay improbably defeated Sonny Liston to become boxing’s Heavyweight Champion.  Within two weeks, Clay announced his conversion to Islam.  Later in the year, violence exploded in numerous cities fueling anxious discussions about urban policy, black nationalism, and black militancy.  To many, it seemed that the civil rights debate had taken an ominous turn, even as the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Republicans awarded their presidential nomination to Sen. Barry Goldwater, a leading conservative whose reputation for extreme views was enhanced by the infamous “Daisy” commercial depicting a nuclear explosion. Johnson landslide victory masked the Democrats’ loss of the once Solid South (a result of the Civil Rights Act, which LBJ had had predicted), growing marginalization of the GOP’s traditional Northeastern moderates, and the significant rise of cultural and political conservatism in the South and Sun Belt.

Not all events were as weighty. Only three days into 1964, Jack Paar played “She Loves You” on his TV show, and by early February, the Beatles had the #1 song in America, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”  Their arrival in New York on February 7 and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show produced an optimistic bonding for the nation’s youth that contrasted with the profound shock of the Kennedy assassination 10 weeks earlier.  Soon, a cultural revolution overthrew the 1950s order, marked by the British invasion that altered the music, clothing, and hair styles.   

Technology and medicine were advancing at a rapid pace.  In April, 1964, IBM launched the System/360, foreshadowing a market for personal computers rather than simply large business models. NASA developed space hardware that would fulfill JFK’s promise to land a man on the moon by 1970. In January, the Surgeon General linked smoking and serious illness, prompting the Federal Trade Commission to require warning labels on cigarette packages.  

In international affairs, Nelson Mandela received a sentence of life imprisonment in South Africa in June; few could have anticipated his re-emergence decades later as President of a reborn South Africa, guiding a transition to black majority rule free of the cataclysm many anticipated.

Late in July, North Vietnamese gunships patrolling the South China Sea reportedly fired on the U.S.S. Maddox.  On August 7th, Congress overwhelmingly approved the Gulf on Tonkin Resolution that launched a decade of warfare abroad and social disruption at home.  Uncertainties in U.S. foreign policy were further heightened when Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown in Moscow by hard liners.  And few could have foreseen the international implications when, on September 10, the Palestine Liberation Organization was formed. 

The year following JFK’s death saw a host of dislocating developments that reshaped our politics, our security, our music, and even the way we looked.  We can only speculate what Kennedy might have made of the embrace of the drug and hippie counterculture, the rise of the New Left and the a conservative revival that seemed highly improbably in the wake of the Goldwater defeat, or even personalized computer technology – all of which trace their origins to events occurring within a year of November 22, 1963.

Happy New Year 2014!   And thanks for reading DOMEocracy.



Change We (Just Might Be Able to) Believe In

Three important developments in Washington this week deserve recognition because, individually and collectively, they provide a hint that we might be beginning to stagger our way out of the obstructionism, stalemate and partisanship that has been frustrating both the American public and most elected officials.

In some ways, the fairly modest agreement in Congress to pass a budget plan that replaces the next two years of the sequester is the least significant.  Of course, it is important to legislate pro-actively instead of letting the government careen from crisis to crisis.  And the deal fashioned by the respective Budget chairs retained an essential balance in the 2011 budget deal that requires equivalent savings from domestic discretionary spending and military spending.   Significantly, the agreement establishes, contrary to some public opinion, that the parties are capable of acting in the national interest when it is absolutely essential to do so (as it did when the FAA was exempted from sequestration, or when an agreement was found to prevent a debt ceiling default).  In Washington these days, that counts as  progress!

It should be noted, however, that as with almost every significant budgetary vote over the past three years of Republican rule, including a series of Continuing Resolutions in 2011-2012, the mid-2011 budget agreement (which created the select committee and the sequester fallback) and the 2013 tax bill, a substantial contingent of the House Republican Conference refused to acquiesce in the agreement fashioned by its leaders.  In most of those earlier votes, fewer than 180 Republicans voted “yea,” forcing Speaker Boehner to rely repeatedly on Democrats (who often played no role in fashioning the agreement and were not thrilled with the bill) to make up the difference to reach the 218 votes needed for passage.  Boehner’s continued reliance on Democratic votes in the 112th Congress is one reason he came within just three votes of losing the Speakership last January.

The syndrome repeated itself this week as the House voted overwhelmingly, 332-94, for the Murray-Ryan budget bill.  But it is important to read deeper into the numbers.  Of the 332 “yea” votes, only 169 were Republicans.  That means that 30% of the Republican Caucus – over 70 Republicans – voted “no,” which happens to comport with the generally accepted number of Tea Party acolytes in the Chamber.  (Democrats, by contrast, voted 85% for the budget deal.)  For all the work that went into writing and marketing a bipartisan budget plan to avert another government shutdown and relieve the pressures of sequestration, it appears the Hoping-for-Doomsday Caucus remained unmoved and, therefore, a continuing thorn in Speaker Boehner’s side.

Which is why the second major development of the week merits careful attention.  Coincidentally, earlier in the week, I was giving a talk at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, focusing on the current state of stasis affecting the Congress.  Noting the notable achievements of Congress just a few years ago (which counters the frequent assertion that the institution is incapable of functioning), I placed blame mainly on a minority of the majority for whom failure is success, a band of nihilists who are enthused, not demoralized, by any evidence of government’s incompetence – even if they are happily the source of the dysfunction.  The current situation would change, I noted, not when Congress implements some extravagant internal reforms (which its inaction makes it pretty clear it won’t), but when Republican leaders tire of allowing the Tea Party minority to dictate strategy and policy.

“Politics isn’t going to become more efficient until politicians become more invested in effectiveness rather than obstruction,” I said at Princeton.  “And, frankly, that means Republicans are going to have to rescue the Grand Old Party from the Tea Party.  There is still too much deference to those who are dedicated to gumming up the works.  Serving in the majority carries with it an obligation to govern responsibly, to address serious challenges, and to find common ground, and that simply has not been happening.”

In past blogs, I have criticized Boehner for “cuddling up to the nullifiers” and predicted, last March, that we would eventually arrive at a “moment when Speaker Boehner will have to decide whether he is leading a cycle that marks the rise of Republican reasonableness, or if he is content to be a partisan obstructionist happy to continue the cycle of Republican electoral losses.” (Boehner: Embracing the Cycle or Fighting It?, March 2013)

Seemingly on cue (maybe a little late, actually), Speaker Boehner rose up this week against the conservative advocacy groups (and by implication, their funders) that have been whipping the Right into a destructive fury since they won back control of the House in 2010.  Elected leaders who serve in the majority tend to be deferential to those whose victories elevated their party into the majority – Nancy Pelosi termed the wave of incoming Democrats the “majority makers” in 2006, but the group that played the crucial role in 2010 for Boehner was largely the product of grassroots activism with little deference, before or after the election, to the party establishment.  Repeatedly over the last few years, this faction (and the groups egging them on) have rejected compromises fashioned by Boehner (a devoted dealmaker for most of his congressional career), plunging the country into manufactured crisis after crisis.

“They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Boehner told his Republican Conference on Wednesday.  “They are not fighting for conservative policy.  They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it.  It’s ridiculous.”

Boehner’s outburst was provoked no doubt not only by the opposition to the budget deal and the loony rhetoric of his eccentric colleagues, but by a growing frustration with outside interests – who never have to produce 218 votes for anything – who are threatening incumbent Republicans with primary challenges from the Right. Such threats not only make his role as Speaker more challenging, forcing him to rely on Democratic votes to govern (thereby further infuriating the Right), but simultaneously force him to spend more of his time raising vast sums to protect his loyal Republican Members from special interest, right wing spend-a-thons.  In the last few weeks, traditional pro-business groups have also issued a challenge to the Tea Party right, threatening to raise money to protect operational conservatives who do not equate good faith deal-making with abandonment of moral principles.  The business groups scored an early victory in last month’s Alabama primary for an open House seat.

The obvious question is how Boehner’s challenge to the Right plays out both legislatively over the next year on such crucial issues as immigration and the farm bill, and in January, 2015.  Should Democrats regain the majority next November, Boehner probably doesn’t need to worry much about his fate as Republican Leader because his colleagues likely would look for someone new (especially since the seats he would lose would be more centrist, leaving the Tea Party activists in even stronger position within the Conference). However, should Republicans retain the House majority, some of those GOP House Members who grudgingly gave Boehner a vote earlier this year might, in light of his str9ng condemnation of the hard right, be less likely to be generous a year from now.  And when you win the speakership by a 2 vote margin, you obviously don’t have a lot of votes to give away.  So, good for Boehner for looking beyond his own self-interest and wrapping a few knuckles that deserved to be hammered.
The last important development of the week was the overdue decision by the White House to shake up the President’s insular crew by bringing in some seasoned hands to right the badly listing ship of state.  The always constructive Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell characterized the staff change as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” but that’s a little strong. 

Congressional players will welcome the return of longtime senior House strategist Phil Schiliro, who also worked for Sen. Tom Daschle and served as director of the White House legislative office during the first term of the Obama Administration.  Schiliro will help with House and Senate communications, which has not been a strong suit for the White House.  Schiliro also is a policy powerhouse who played a key role in the development and sale of the Affordable Care Act, and bringing him back, belatedly, will undoubtedly help with the formidable task of reversing public skepticism about the law and erasing the black marks against its flawed rollout.  Tellingly, Obama this week also replaced the director of congressional relations, Miguel Rodriguez, whose tenure was not well received on the Hill, with Katie Fallon, an aide to Sen. Charles Schumer. 

In addition to adding Schiliro and Fallon, Obama will benefit from the recruitment of John Podesta as counselor.  Podesta, highly-regarded as the founder of the Center for American Progress think tank, will add some mature and experienced presence to a staff that could profit from some outside mature and experienced presence.  Podesta managed Bill Clinton through the Lewinsky disaster and helped him improbably emerge as a highly regarded President only a couple of years after impeachment.  Both Schiliro and Podesta have the chops to perform a vital staff function for any elected official: tell the boss when he’s wrong, when he is being led adrift by the acolytes, and when he needs to be more engaged in explaining policies and priorities to the American people.

So on three counts, an important, consequential week that might – might – signify one of those sometimes-imperceptible shifts in Washington politics.  Since much of the press this week seemed more obsessed with the President taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, I thought it made some sense to point out the more consequential changes that might be in the offing. 

The Bargain-Rate Grand Bargain

We had the Square Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Deal, and now we have the Budget Deal (December 2013 version). It isn’t likely to stick in the historical lexicon as long as the earlier policies, but it is significant, and here’s why. 

The agreement reached by the respective Budget Committee chairs – Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray – demonstrates that when necessary, political leaders figure out a way to avoid calamitous results.  That is not to be confused with good governance, but it also illustrates that the mournful hand-wringing about “stalemate” and a failed political system is less than accurate.

The bargain-rate Grand Bargain makes a dent in the deficit and staves off cuts looming because of sequestration.  Perhaps most importantly, the plan obviates yet another nail-biting drama over a government shutdown early in 2014 which, being an election year, is a dangerous time to be provoking nail-biting dramas. 

While the Ryan-Murray plan combines about $85 billion in spending cuts and non-rate revenue raisers, it is not without controversy.  New federal workers will have to pay more for their pension benefits, which reduces their disposable income, and military retirees under the age of 62 will receive lower COLAs which ill impact their personal budgets.  Trimming benefits and establishing a precedent for restricting COLA growth sounds a lot like warming up for the Chained CPI reform President Obama and some Democratic leaders have embraced for Social Security (a change I argued earlier this year should be strongly considered in the context of a comprehensive budget agreement, which this is not).

Expect some Democrats to approach the Ryan-Murray deal warily, especially House Democrats who undoubtedly will be called upon to supply crucial votes Boehner-Cantor-Ryan can’t drum up on their side of the aisle.   Their willingness to provide those votes might be tempered by the continued refusal of House Republicans to agree to extend Unemployment Benefits which are scheduled to expire. 

Certainly there are good points to this plan.  It will allow a restoration of some of the cuts sequestration imposed on high-priority Democratic programs like Head Start and medical research.  And it retains the balance between military and non-military spending that many considered a silver lining in the sequestration plan.

True, it only provides two years of sequestration relief, and it ignores the dual 800 pound gorillas in the room: tax and entitlement reform.  But the savings attributable to the 2011 deal, combined with the cuts mandated by sequestration and the repeal of the Bush upper income tax cut last January, have combined to save trillions already, diminishing the sense of urgency that was driving the Grand Bargain a year and a half ago.

What this budget agreement demonstrates is that when the pain of sequestration bites too deeply, legislators will invent an alternative that relieves the pressure, even if it lacks enough heft to carry bigger policy changes.  And without a big package, it is probably wishful thinking to believe serious tax or entitlement reform is likely to occur anytime soon.

The agreement also demonstrates the intention of the increasingly unamused business community to send a signal to Republican leaders to stand up to Tea Partiers who are merrily fomenting unshirted chaos.  Various traditional Republican business groups have been promising to weigh in during GOP primaries to promote more centrist candidates, and did so successfully in a key Alabama special election last month.  I would bet dollars to donuts that business leaders have made clear to Boehner and company that the monkey business on shutdowns, debt ceilings and massive defense cuts has to end, even if that means collaborating with Democrats. Baby steps toward bipartisanship? 

In fact, throughout the 112th Congress, Democrats reliably supplied votes for a series of Continuing Resolutions and other urgent legislation that Tea Party activists refused to support, leaving GOP leaders short.  Often, Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats were called upon to supply votes to prevent shutdowns and other crises even when they had played no role in developing the legislation and had grave doubts about what they were asking their members to vote for.  Don’t expect Democratic House leaders to rush to agree to anything they haven’t been privy to negotiating.

Some Democrats are understandably wary that supporting this deal will ensure malicious ads and hit pieces from local Republicans and national smear groups accusing them of cutting retiree or veterans benefits, for example.  As is always the case, any early Democratic vote for the bill frees another Republican to climb up on a white horse to denounce the deal, for whatever reason suits him or her.  Democrats will be wise to withhold their support and let Speaker Boehner wring every possible vote out of his Conference before riding to the rescue yet again. 

And read the fine print.

Passing the Buck on the Minimum Wage

A dozen years ago, John Boehner was chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor and I was the staff director for the panel’s Democratic majority.  For five years, I participated in regular planning meetings with Chairman Boehner and the Committee’s Ranking Democrat, George Miller, my long-time employer on Capitol Hill, and Boehner’s staff director, Paula Nowakowski, with whom I had a good working relationship.

Despite deep differences of opinion on many issues before the Committee, Miller and Boehner were able to find common ground and produce major legislation, including the signature legislative achievement of President Bush’s first term, the No Child Left Behind education reform law.  The two congressmen had a friendly and candid relationship based around the proposition that each would tell the other how far he could realistically go in search of a compromise.  

Part of our regular meetings involved Miller proposing areas of legislation in which the Committee should become engaged.  Somehow, with regularity, it fell to me (the resident labor historian of the group) to raise the issue of hearings and legislation  on the seemingly frozen minimum wage whose withering value was leaving millions of workers in deepening poverty.  

Boehner, an old school, small business Republican who entered politics because he was furious about taxes and regulation, good-naturedly dismissed the routine request with a dismissive hand wave.  “Not gonna do that,” he would say.  And he wasn’t kidding.  Boehner refused to consider action on the minimum wage throughout his tenure as chairman, consigning millions of hardworking Americans to years of poverty.

In 2005, I had become chief of staff to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and spent the better part of a year and a half developing and promoting the “6 for ‘06” agenda that Democrats pledged to pass if voters returned them to the majority.  After nine years of Republican neglect, the buying power of the minimum wage had fallen to a 51 year low.  Although there was some initial hesitancy from some in the Senate, Pelosi insisted that an increase in the minimum wage be included as a plank in the “6 for ‘06” platform.  Pelosi prevailed, and the first increase in over a decade was one of the bills passed within the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress under Speaker Pelosi and was signed by George W. Bush.

The embarrassing chasm in income equality coming out of the Great Recession has once again elevated the profile of the minimum wage and the refusal of congressional Republicans, now under the leadership of Speaker John Boehner, to support a modest increase in the seven year old, unindexed wage.  Boehner had no problem approving the TARP legislation that provided hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars to corporate miscreants who had brought economic catastrophe upon themselves, but he drew the line when it came to Congress directing employers to pay their workers enough to help raise them (barely) out of poverty.

Nothing in politics is more effective than an alliance with an unexpected ally, and just such an alliance has recently emerged on the minimum wage question.  Ron Unz, a hardline California conservative, has built a political career around immigrant-unfriendly proposals to cut social services and to promote English-only instruction which have helped the California Republican Party implode into irrelevance.  But on the minimum wage, Unz has become a fervent advocate for a generous increase based on the precise rationale Miller and Pelosi have long employed: why should taxpayers underwrite the inadequate wages of low-pay employers by providing health, food, housing, legal and other financial supports for their employees?

“We have all these low-wage workers who are getting $7.50, $8 or $9 an hour,” Unz explains, “and because they earn such small wages, the government subsidizes them with billions or tens of billions of dollars of social welfare spending that comes from the taxpayer.  It’s a classic example of businesses’ privatizing the benefits of their workers while socializing the costs.”  Right on, Ron!

Unz argues that conservatives should support compelling businesses to pay their employees enough to afford essential goods and services in order to reduce the need for government to provide services, which creates a rationale for government involvement, spending and taxes.  If a conservative’s real goal is to reduce government and spending, then require that employers pay their workers’ livable wages and stop passing the bill on to taxpayers to pick up the essential expenses of life that the employers’ wages don’t cover. 

With the coming of the Season of Charity (and the mortifying news about WalMart asking for contributions to help their employees – sorry, their “associates” – afford a Thanksgiving turkey), the minimum wage has become a hot topic.   Major stories in the New York Times and Washington Post, as well as on the Sunday morning talk shows, focused on the inadequacy of wages and the growing income gap, neither subjects that are likely to change the mind of someone who is ideologically hostile to the government dictating wage rates.  (If the Wal-Mart story doesn’t disturb you, consider McDonald’s advice to its sub-poverty-level employees whom it advises to  reduce stress by singing to themselves and breaking food into smaller pieces.)

But the point Unz makes (and that Miller and Pelosi consistently raised) has the potential to make skeptics think twice about the economic costs of keeping sub-poverty wages in place.  In addition to the issue of requiring taxpayers to subsidize low-wage employers through public assistance programs, Unz also notes the stimulative value of putting more money into the hands of low-income workers who will surely spend rather than save the additional income.  This stimulative effect was also a compelling reason for extending unemployment insurance benefits during the worst of the Recession.

Unz is now sponsoring an initiative for the California ballot that would boost the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2016.  He will face the same opposition such efforts always do in Congress or other jurisdictions: employers will not hire workers or will fire them; high minimum wage areas will be less attractive to employers than low-wage regions; government shouldn’t be intruding into the “free market” to dictate wage rates.  Such arguments just led Washington, D.C.’s Mayor Vincent Gray to veto a bill to require big box stores like Wal-Mart – which is planning a number of discount stores within the city – to pay a higher minimum wage.  Wal-Mart, displaying its reliably acute sense of public relations, threatened to drop plans for the new stores if the higher wage law were enacted, so Gray folded like a cheap suitcase.  He might alternatively have reminded voters that the Walton family that owns the low-price chain has more money than the cumulative wealth of  40 percent of American families, including those working at their stores who need charity to feed their children.  Indeed, research by the Economic Policy Institute recently concluded that although the wealth of the median American family fell by nearly 40% in the years 2007-2010, the Waltons’ wealth increased from $73.3 billion to $89.5 billion. 

The idea that one family could control such vast amounts of wealth is outlandish enough but when contrasted with the persistent poverty of those on whose labor the wealth is generated – their employees and their contractors’ wages in China – the hostility to paying a decent wage is disgraceful.  As Congressman Miller has pointed out, the average low-wage worker isn’t a high school kid with a paper route (how quaint), but an adult woman for whom the value of the minimum wage has lost a third of its buying power since the 1960s even with periodic increases.  Under the $10.10 an hour wage proposed in the Miller-Harkin bill (belatedly endorsed by the Obama Administration which had proposed a more parsimonious version in last year’s State of the Union), more than 30 million people would receive a pay raise, including 17 million women.  Had the minimum wage been indexed, like Social Security benefits, that 1960’s wage would today be worth $10.56, so the Miller-Harkin $10.10 is in effect a bargain. 

Raising the minimum wage is not exactly socialism run amok.  Many states and even counties, defying the danger of losing investment to skinflint neighbors, have minimum wages above the national level, and some are planning even higher minimums.  Massachusetts is considering an  $11 an hour rate, Montgomery and Price Georges Counties in Maryland are contemplating $11.50, and SeaTac airport in Washington State is discussing a $15 rate.  Voters of every age and income group support an increase as well, by a 65% to 29% overall margin.  Even conservatives support a raise by a 59% to 37% margin.

So where is the barrier to a serious discussion of raising the minimum wage?  You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s House Republicans who are not troubled by pushing low wage workers onto federal benefits, because they favor getting rid of those benefits, too (note the pending $40 billion cut in food stamps)!   Speaker Boehner, who frustrated efforts to raise the minimum wage as chairman a decade ago, hasn’t been moved by the economic studies, the Great Recession, or the opinions of conservatives like Ron Unz.  “When you raise the price of employment, guess what?” Boehner rhetorically asks.  “You get less of it.”   Independent studies do not confirm the job-killing effects of the minimum wage, but one fact is incontrovertible about the minimum wage policy imposed by Republicans: when you pay sub-poverty wages, workers get less of it.  And taxpayers foot the bill.

Hats off to Harry

Harry Reid may be a long-retired boxer, but on Thursday, he played more the referee – laying down the rules to the long battling Senate factions.   After years of delay, compromise and kvetching, Reid did what he had long threatened, and altered the filibuster rules to allow a simple majority to approve most presidential nominations.  Good for him!

Of course, we know the justifications for continuing to coddle the Republican obstructionists – Democrats will live to regret this alteration of the sacrosanct Senate “rules.”  Sen. Charles Grassley offered just such a warning before yesterday’s vote, promising, “When we have the majority … we [will] put more people like Scalia on the court.”  Uh, isn’t that the point, Senator?  You did put Scalia on the Court.

Whenever there have been discussions of limiting the filibuster, the old canards are dragged out to try to make reformers feel guilty about altering a solemn Senate tradition.  The tradition is over 200 years old, we are reminded, and has served the country well by preventing hasty enactment of half-baked nostrums cooked up by the constituent-driven House.  But for the right to unlimited speech, we are told, our system of government would have foundered generations ago.

Nonsense.  A disturbingly high number of Americans think the filibuster is protected by the Constitution, or was sanctified by Jimmy Stewart (which is almost as worthy).  But the filibuster was invented in the nineteenth century and was actually used more frequently in the House until Henry Clay got fed up with the histrionics and instituted tougher Previous Question (PQ) rules to limit debate in 1811.  Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a student of congressional history, decried the adoption of the revised rule as “the most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them.”  (Actually, Senator, Jefferson had recommended adoption of a rule to discourage  long-winded and irrelevant speeches.)

The Senate, not surprisingly, went in the opposite direction, dropping its PQ rules in 1806 and opening the way for two centuries of blowhards to read recipes, magazine articles and otherwise delay the legislative process.  Despite the shock and dismay with which Reid’s reform was greeted as an unprecedented assault on the sacred right of bloviating, changes in the filibuster rule are not all that uncommon, and have occurred in 1949, 1959, 1975, 1979, 1986 and last year, and I’ve probably missed a few.

Senators often assert their tradition of unrestricted speech is part of a strategy to secure changes to a legislative vehicle.  Sen. William Plumer (F-NH) knew better, acknowledging in 1806 that “speeches in the Senate in most cases have very little influence upon the vote.”  More than a century later, Sen. Carter Glass (D-VA) agreed, “I have never known a speech to change a vote.”  Perhaps the most honest explanation of Senate loquaciousness was the admission of  Sen. William Mason (R-IL) who confessed in 1903, “I love to hear the sound of my own voice.”  As Professor Sarah Binder of George Washington University, a renowned expert on the filibuster, has shown, the real motivation behind the use of the filibuster has little to do with high principle or the sanctity of the Senate: it is used to further one’s political agenda.

Of course, senators through the eras have defended the filibuster for more substantive reasons.  Certainly, the practice was used often by Southern segregationists to block consideration of civil rights legislation, although it was rarely described in such blatant terms.  “I ask for the right of unlimited debate in the defense of my people,” declared Sen. Russell Long (D-LA), “in defense of their customs, traditions and society.” He wasn’t talking about defending the right to eat etouffee.  Nor was Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) who, in his maiden speech to the Senate, waxed eloquent about the body’s “freedom of unlimited debate” which he would unleash to defend the South from “the tyranny of momentary majorities.” 

That’s all well and good, but as Harrah Arendt noted (and most halfway unbiased observers would agree), “a minority of totalitarians can use the instruments of democratic government to undermine democracy itself.”   And so they have, which is why Reid had to act to end the “unprecedented, unbelievable obstruction,” as he put it yesterday.

The problem is, in some ways, less the filibuster than the radical expansion of its use.  Filibustering was a rare phenomena in the 19th century, and as recently as the 20 years following World War II, there were fewer than a half dozen.  In his tenure as Majority Leader of the Senate, LBJ faced one cloture vote to end a filibuster.

As with so many other aspects of American politics, the use the filibuster substantially expanded with the rise in partisanship in the 1970s, and has continued to grow as has the enmity between the parties.  Still in the 24-year period 1970-1994, there were only 191 cases by Democrats and Republicans alike.  In the 1990s, Neil McNeil and Richard Baker note in The American Senate, Sen. Robert Dole “adopted the filibuster as his party’s weapon of choice. This was new. Never before had a party leader adopted the filibuster as an instrument of overall party policy. Filibusters had always been the tool of party minorities, decade after decade, but not this way. Dole’s filibusters came on measure after measure.”

Democrats unleashed their own fusillade of filibusters in the early 2000s, eventually exceeding 100 before regaining Senate control in 2007.  And then, things got really out of control, particularly after the election of President Obama signaled for Republicans that the old constraints on obstruction, vilification and denigration were off.  As the New York Times noted, half of all filibusters against presidential nominations have occurred since President Obama took office.  Twenty district court nominees have been filibustered under Obama, compared to just 3 before he took office.  Little wonder that Sen. Reid has repeatedly chastised Sen. McConnell at congressional leadership meetings at the White House for using the filibuster over 400 times to delay legislation high-level appointments of competent individuals. 

Predictably, Republicans are now warning that they will exploit the new majority vote rule when their turn in the majority comes, as it eventually will.  If and when it does, Democrats will doubtless chafe under the Republicans’ strong-arm tactics.  But let’s not pretend there was a better outcome here than Reid chose.  It is all well and good for critics like the Washington Post editorial board to intone that “a filibuster should be rarely invoked,” but the Post offered no solution for discouraging chronic filibustering by Republicans.   So what is the alternative: grin and bear it?

Some bemoan that ramping up a partisan battle in the Senate will jeopardize the progress made on bills like farm reauthorization and immigration reform.  Unlikely.  Republicans didn’t let those bills pass because they wanted to be buddies with Democrats.  They passed a farm bill for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks – that’s where the money is; and they passed an immigration bill because Republican senators, unlike their clueless House colleagues, have faint hopes of again becoming a nationally competitive party.  When they want to gum up the works, of course they will attribute it to the Reid power grab, but the likelihood is they would have done it anyway.  As former Sen. Byron Dorgan noted, “the Senate is 100% human break pads.”

I would not be all that surprised to see the Senate revisit the issue of the filibuster in the next few weeks, after passions have cooled and interest revives in finding a compromise.  Such accommodation, after all, is what the Senate intuitively seeks.  If that happens, Leader Reid will have been even more justified in taking the step he did to end chronic obstructionism by the minority.  In the meantime, hats off to Harry Reid and Senate Democrats who had the fortitude to declare what most Americans believe: enough is enough.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 92 other followers