DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

The Passing of a “Public Man”

Former House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, who died on Wednesday, described himself in the title of the autobiography that sealed his downfall as “a public man.” As one who served in both state and federal government for more than 30 years, he surely was one. But he was also a man of contradictions and surprises whose rise to leadership in the House was a singularly discordant act amid the reform fervor of the 1970s.

Most of the obituaries focused on Wright’s assertiveness in foreign policy, particular his willingness to act largely independent of the pro-war Reagan Administration to negotiate with combatants in Nicaragua during the late 1980s. Some in Congress lacerated him for usurping the presidential role – even suggesting that he violated the 1790s Logan Act which bars private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments.

Wright’s aggressiveness embodied an important era in which Congress, reacting to the Imperial Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, sought to reestablish itself as what the Founders envisioned, a co-equal branch of government. The 1973 War Powers Resolution and the Budget Control and Impoundment Act of 1974 reflected a determination by young, reformist legislators to challenge automatic deference to the White House, regardless of party. The same sentiment was later espoused by Newt Gingrich who asserted, “ One of my goals is to make the House the co-equal of the White House.” The outgrowth of that bipartisan objective over the past 40 years can be witnessed in the current debate over trade and Iran.

Wright was not a product of the reform movement that swept the House in the 1970s. Indeed, as the number of young, progressive, reformist Democrats steadily rose after the 1958 election, Wright was a largely absent figure. He seemed almost out of touch with his times. In an era of expanding attention to equal rights, he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights bill (though he had supported anti-lynching legislation during his brief career in the Texas Legislature). As the country reeled from the Arab oil embargo and energy reform emerged as a powerful issue, Wright remained a loyal defender of his home state’s industry. As the Congress increasingly became critical of the war in Vietnam, Wright sponsored a resolution in 1969 endorsing Nixon’s escalation. During the great fights to challenge the power of the Conservative Coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans, Wright played no significant role, preferring to dole out pork barrel favors to helpful Members from his senior position on the Public Works Committee.

It was one of the great anomalous moments of the post-Watergate era when Wright, who held only a minor assistant Whip position, won the 1976 race to become Majority Leader, a position vacated by Tip O’Neill as he ascended to the speakership. Wright was not even supposed to be a factor in that election, let alone the winner. The main combatants were the decade’s two leading spokesmen for House reform: Phillip Burton of California and Richard Bolling of Missouri, and they detested each other.

Burton was the tactical genius, the Machiavellian, three-dimensional chess player who could rewrite Caucus rules, devise an amendment strategy, and redesign congressional district lines from his darkened Longworth building lair, a tumbler full of vodka firmly in hand at 5 pm. Burton relished placing expanded autonomy in the hands of younger subcommittees who could defy autocratic chairmen. He had no problem cutting deals with conservatives in pursuit of a larger good, although his willingness to do so raised suspicions among some young liberals. Burton envisioned the Democratic Caucus, which he conveniently chaired, as the legislative and strategic center of the House.

Bolling was a severe, cerebral reformer, author of manifestos of reform like House Out of Order (1965) that advocated a strengthening of the role of leadership and a tighter control by the Rules Committee, on which he conveniently served. If Burton was gratuitously insulting and confrontational, Bolling was universally perceived as arrogant and insufferable. In 1975, he asked Rep. Dave Obey (WI), a supporter, “If I ran for Majority Leader,” which everyone knew he would, “what’s first thing I should do?” Obey replied, “Stop being such a prick,” to which Bolling replied, “I think you are absolutely right.”

Burton and Bolling squared off against Wright, a late entrant (and Whip John McFall who had no chance whatsoever). In a series of votes that remain the subject of debate, accusation, counter-accusation and speculation to this day, McFall and then Bolling were eliminated, and Wright defeated Burton by a single vote on the third ballot. Who cast the decisive vote, who threw votes to whom, whose vote was deemed invalid, who double-crossed whom will be debated as long as there are congressional historians to write the story. Not even all the participants were sure what had happened. One report recalls Dan Rostenkowski, a Wright nominator, expressing amazement at the outcome to Burton and then bursting into tears.

The details of that crucial election were little discussed in Wright’s obituaries, but his victory had profound ramifications for the House. He served as Majority Leader for a decade under O’Neill, during which the New Republic called him the “last of the old-time Democrats.” But to the surprise of many, he largely shed his earlier reputation as a slick, smooth-talking Texan, emerging as a staunch defender of the House’s prerogatives. When he advanced to the Speakership in 1987, he made clear he was not interested in extending the bonhomie that sometimes characterized O’Neill’s relationship with Ronald Reagan. Instead, he acted and sounded like the toughest of the 1970s reformers, challenging the right of a president to again maneuver the nation secretly into a war, and he earned the liberals’ praise. George Miller (CA), one of Burton’s strongest allies, observed that by standing up for his Members, Wright ‘s “risk taking has given the House back some of its pride.”

Wright was also prepared to assert himself within the House itself. As a new generation of aggressive Republicans, their eyes on a future House majority, used the liberal floor rules to offer amendments that exposed vulnerable Democrats to district criticism, Wright began “tightening the screws,” according to his biographer, shutting off many of the legislative opportunities granted Members in the 1970s reforms. Wright’s action reduced the number of politically damaging votes, but gave credence to the Republican charges of autocratic Democratic rule that could only be remedied by ending their nearly 40 year control of the House. To this day, while most Democrats point to Gingrich’s hyperbolic tactics as the source of contemporary hyper-partisanship, many Republicans believe, as one senior GOP Member recently told me, that it was Wright who “really poisoned the well.”

When Wright was brought down in 1989 amid multiple charges of wrongdoing and vicious assault from Newt Gingrich and other Republicans, he gave a poignant farewell speech to the House. Yielding his gavel and his seat, he pleaded for a reduction in the partisanship and bitterness that had crept into House deliberations and interpersonal relations.

“It is grievously hurtful to our society when vilification becomes an accepted form of political debate and negative campaigning becomes a full-time occupation,” Wright said a quarter century ago, before the Koch brothers and Citizens United and screeching cable TV and talk radio obliterated most civil discourse. “In God’s name, that’s not what this institution is supposed to be all about. When vengeance becomes more desirable than vindication and harsh personal attacks upon one another’s motives and one another’s character drown out the quiet logic of serious debate on important issues … that’s unworthy of our institution and unworthy of our American political process. All of us in both political parties must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end!! We’ve done enough of it!”

One can only marvel that, less than a decade later, when Newt Gingrich – facing serious ethics charges of his own – announced his resignation as the first Republican speaker in 40 years, he similarly referenced his distaste for the “cannibals” who preferred defeat, in pursuit of unattainable victory, to compromise.

Wright remains a controversial, contradictory, complex figure in the history of the House, but his role in seeking to regain a co-equal place for the Congress in the crucial decisions of war and peace earn him our respect and admiration. He made mistakes, he admitted, as do we all; but he served his Congress and his nation with distinction.

Separation of Power Anxiety

The ongoing clashes between President Obama and Congress over issues like the pending Iran nuclear agreement or trade promotion authority are the kinds of inter-branch elbowing that historians and political scientists always enjoy immensely.

The uneasy relationship between the Executive and Legislative branches has a long history. In fact, the inevitability of tension is woven deeply into the very design of our system of government which distributes power amongst various branches and then allows each to trip up the others when they appear to exceed their proper role. Living with the results of a governmental system based on “separation of power” may be frustrating to most Americans, but it is downright mystifying to those not steeped in the American political tradition. When I explained the concept of checks and balances to a disbelieving class of embassy staff last year, the unanimous response was, “Well, no wonder nothing ever gets done in Washington!” Why would anyone design a system that virtually ensures chronic suspicion and conflict among segments of government that should work harmoniously?

Well, no time here for a history lesson on what the Founders thought they were doing: let’s just say it was largely intentional, we are living with the results, and the basic design seems unlikely to change. It bears reminding that this situation is anything but new, and especially common among re-elected presidents living with congressional majorities of opposite parties. Quite apart from the Watergate-related crimes, Congress was infuriated in the early 1970s by Richard Nixon’s unilateral actions in Southeast Asia and with his impoundment of appropriated funds. Ronald Reagan decided to unilaterally arm the Nicaraguan Contras without informing Congress following his huge 1984 victory, and George W. Bush hit on the dubious idea of partial privatization of Social Security early in his second term. Nor has the Congress always been the branch that has been surprised. Frustrated by decisions that ruled sweeping portions of the New Deal unconstitutional, FDR struck back by proposing his Court Packing scheme in 1937.

Congressional leaders of both parties, noting that theirs is, after all, the “first branch” of government, often assert a conviction that the power of the White House must be checked. Tip O’Neill, even before his days as Speaker challenging Reagan, noted in response to Nixon’s power grabs that “We have gained power and strength; the Congress has gained; and downtown, the Executive is on the ropes.” And Speaker Newt Gingrich, never one to downplay his appetite for power, famously declared, “The Congress in the long run can change the country more dramatically than the President. I think that’s healthy. One of my goals is to make the House the co-equal of the White House.”

Of course, the presidency has many inherent advantages in seeking to gain leverage over the Congress: there is, after all, only one President as contrasted with 535 individuals who only occasionally can assemble themselves into a unified alternative or message. The President commands access to press and the media, to send a single, clear idea, far superior to the ability of congressional leaders even in this day of constant new coverage. Moreover, the President has constitutional weapons to employ, such as the veto, which he can utilize unilaterally whereas Congress needs two-thirds of its membership to fight back successfully.

Little wonder, then, that Presidents so often try to color outside the lines and expand their power at the expense of the lumbering and often indecisive legislative branch. And that’s fine with people, including many in Congress, when they agree with the President. However, as we are witnessing currently, legislators become much more wary when they do not agree with the President on policy, and only then tend to reassert their constitutional role in certain areas. It is, however, a really bad idea to predicate the exercise of constitutional duties based on agreement or opposition to particular policies.   Power underutilized tends to be power unrecognized, and it is difficult to persuade people of the justification for what may appear to be interference rather than justifiable constitutional intervention.

The Iran negotiation is a good example. Congress cannot negotiate an agreement or a treaty, which is why there is an old saying that America can’t have 535 secretaries of state. But as one who spent many years committed to ensuring a substantive role in foreign policy for Congress, I have to say I am not troubled by Congress’ desire to take a hard look at the agreement and assess whether it makes strategic sense. Fortunately, President Obama decided to cut a quick deal with a unanimous Senate committee on the issue, but it is still worth noting that Congress is well within its rights to review complex agreements that have significant implications. Congress, after all, may have to address a host of issues emanating from this agreement down the road, including the funding of enforcement, revising sanctions, and regional military aid commitments. Better to be in on the take-off if you have responsibility for the landing.

Having won the right to conduct this review, of course, Congress now will be extremely hard pressed not to approve it since a collapse of an agreement would lay culpability for every single future Iranian nuclear overreach squarely on Congress’ doorsteps. Somewhere in the White House, a staffer is already writing the generic speech that declares that if only Congress had not mucked up the Iran agreement, “x” disaster would not have happened. This is the same “Pottery Barn” responsibility (“You break it, you own it”) Congress blundered into, and out of, when unwisely linking Department of Homeland Security funding to Obama’s withdrawal of his immigration orders.

Many of those who have argued one position on the Iran deal are simultaneously arguing the opposite point of view with respect to the trade promotion authority legislation. Trust the President on the Iran negotiations, they seem to say, but demand the right to scrutinize the trade deal that could jeopardize U.S. jobs; or, review the Iran agreement, but don’t interfere with an important trade agreement that is important for diplomatic and economic reasons.

Congress has an important and proper place in creating and reviewing national policy. In response to presidential overreach in the past, Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution and the Budget Control and Impoundment Act, both passed to interject a greater congressional role into areas usurped by the President (and both, incidentally, vetoed by President Nixon but overridden by Congress). Expanded oversight by Congress, also a 1970s post-Watergate reform, is another significant innovation for holding the Executive Branch accountable short of actual legislation.

President Obama is correct to say that if Congress disagrees with any of his many executive actions – including on education, immigration, non-discrimination or climate change – it can use its constitutional authority to pass a restrictive law, which he may veto, and which Congress can then try to override. Or Congress can go to the courts, as it unsuccessfully did in challenging Obama’s opposition to enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act.

It is all well and good to note that Congress possesses these options to challenge presidential initiatives, but as a practical matter, exercising them is a lengthy and generally unsuccessful strategy. And while presidents can, and do, grievously misinterpret election results and excessively expand their powers, Obama uniquely has had little alternative to acting imperially due to Congress’ chronic inaction on so many areas of urgent national policy.

It goes without saying that the whole process works best when Presidents and Congresses work collaboratively rather than by stretching the limits of their constitutional authority. There are some recent signs that some Republicans in Congress are recognizing the need for using their majority to legislate instead of simply castigate, including the recent deal on Medicare costs and perhaps soon on No Child Left Behind reauthorization and the Iran review.

Congress is more than justified in insisting on an appropriate role in the making of crucial national policy rather than just reviewing the handiwork of the President after the ink is already dry. We have tragic examples of what can happen when Presidents run amok, and there is more than sufficient historic justification for each branch of government to view the other warily. Voters and critics would be wise not to base their view of the appropriateness of the use of presidential power solely on one’s agreement with what any president uses that power to do. As President Kennedy reminded us in his Inaugural Address, history is filled with accounts of “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger [and who] ended up inside.”

Reconciled to Hillary

It is sometimes asserted that the shortest moment of measurable time in Washington, DC is between the light turning green and the driver behind you honking the horn. Not today. For today, that distinction belongs to the millisecond between Hillary Clinton’s announcement of her candidacy for president and the unleashing of a torrent of criticism, dismay, and anguish.   And that’s from Democrats.

Many have shared my experience of speaking with Democratic friends who are ambivalent about the Clinton candidacy, yet reconciled to her winning the nomination, and most certainly resolved to voting for her. In fact, I haven’t encountered a single Democrat who has any doubts whatsoever how they will vote should Clinton, as expected, win the nomination.

The Hillary hesitancy is due in equal parts to reservations about her opinions on particular policy matters (especially an inclination in favor of military interventionism and a disinclination towards intervention into Wall Street shenanigans) to concerns that she may have too many battle scars and raise too many ghosts of crises past, to a sense that it is time for a new generation of leaders to step into the national spotlight. Some, recalling the 1990s, also have reservations about the ability of the nation, and their own sanity, to withstand another eight year roller coaster ride on the Clinton-o-rama (although everyone secretly agrees it would be fun to have Bill Clinton around, just to see what happens).

In part because some knowledgeable people know, in their hearts, that Clinton is a prohibitive favorite, at least for nomination, they feel they can voice their innermost cautions without any fear of diminishing her chances of actually winning. Let’s have some competition, they say, so the primary race gets spiced up and Hillary gets honed to a fine edge. Let’s put her up against some impossible liberal decoy like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, or a party iconoclast like Jim Webb and expose all her deviations from leftist orthodoxy. The experience will move her to more liberal positions, it is argued, and tune her up for the fall campaign.

No, it won’t!  There is no value to foisting candidates on voters who have no plausible chance of winning and whose only role is to damage the inevitable nominee, divide the party, demoralize the base, and eat up hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign spending that could more productively go to the fall campaign, including to House and Senate candidates. In their wildest dreams, the liberal critics would move Hillary further left and jeopardize her ability to compete for the crucial swing vote that likely will decide the election. At worst, such efforts will squander valuable money and provide her opponents with quotable denunciations of the Democratic nominee by her fellow Democrats.

I am not going waste my breath on those purists who assert that a Clinton who fails to embrace an agenda that is far beyond the palate of American voters is not worth electing. If you are of the opinion that nothing is at risk if Democrats lose the 2016 presidential election, well, you are simply not paying attention.

Everything is at risk, because the Republican Party is deep in the clutches of slightly deranged ideologues who want to can the last 75 years of American history: the social contract, the safety net, Social Security, pre-school education, Medicare, ACA, aid to higher education, gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, student lunches, voting rights — the whole shebang. And a Republican president would doubtless be able to pack the Supreme Court with enough youthful Scalias and Thomases to render any hope for equity a hazy pipe dream.

Now, I am not arguing that one cannot make a coherent argument against Clinton. Many of the standard criticisms are familiar because they have been leveled at other candidates who defied the critics and won the Big Show:

  • at odds with the party base (Eisenhower),
  • been around too long (Nixon),
  • long in the tooth (Reagan),
  • cashing in on a famous name (Kennedy, FDR, Bush II, not to mention Adams and Harrison).

Guilty on all counts!

But here’s the bottom line. To be a successful presidential candidate, you need a lot of what Hillary Clinton does have in buckets:

  • fortitude ✔
  • name recognition ✔
  • a loyal base ✔
  • mega fundraising ability ✔
  • deep familiarity with both domestic and international policy issues ✔
  • smart people around you (including you-know-who)
  • the ability to take a serious punch, get up off the mat and get back into the fight ✔

We do not know if any of the other Democratic wannabes could stand up to a tenth of what’s been hurled at Hillary, and you know the Republicans and Fox News will waste little time digging up something to test their jaw. The two months between the convention and Election Day is a particularly bad time to find out they can’t take a punch.

One thing that is undeniable about Secretary Clinton: she is probably the most punched candidate in history. For nearly a generation, her opponents have poked and probed every aspect of her personal, professional and political lives. One is always hesitant to say so, but … if they can come up with something new at this point, it would be impressive.

Does she run the risk of over-confidence?  Sure. Hopefully she has people on her staff who are up to challenging her (or the big guy) when they go veering off into some weird place they shouldn’t go. And hopefully they will listen to them. Hopefully, also, she will assemble an inner circle without the reliance on some of the arrogant heavies and sycophants who have cluttered up past Hillary campaigns and turned off potential supporters.

Some on the left, in particular, will never warm up to Clinton because, by their standards (which may not, incidentally, be the standards of the mass of voters needed to win the election) she isn’t hostile enough to Wall Street, she’s made too much money, or she voted for the Iraq war (apology apparently never accepted, although it’s curious how forgiving Democrats were of people like George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy who voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, or Jim Wright and Robert Byrd who voted against the Civil Rights Act).

Can one construct an anti-Hillary message; sure, many have and it will become a full time sport of the nay-sayers. My guess is the critiques will have little impact. Even Republican congressional panels have admitted nothing Clinton culpable happened in Benghazi; the revelations about personal emails and private servers had no impact on her approval numbers; and she can easily launch a well-timed broadside to quiet most policy critics with a few chosen words like, “any Wall Street fat cat who tries to repeat what happened in 2008 will find themselves in prison during a Clinton Presidency.” The base will cheer, Walls Street fat cats will yawn, and the rationale for an alternative candidate will evaporate.

Purity is all very well and good for those who launch their missives from the security of editorial offices, tenured chairs or by pressing a “send” button. Governing, making tough decisions that are subjected to immediate scrutiny from critics and foes, assembling coalitions to pass the achievable and plan for the next initiatives, withstanding years of brutal assault and still maintaining broad respect and support: those are a bit tougher commodities to come by.

Americans have to stop voting for people for high office because they like the way a candidate delivers a speech or embraces a raft of gauzy platitudes. Those base-satisfying skills frequently have nothing to do with being a successful president (or legislator, for that matter). Let’s agree that all of the potential Democratic candidates are going to agree on 90% of the major policy issues and come close to agreement on the remaining 10%. Let’s see whether we can ignore all the chaff, chum and sparkly lights thrown up to distract us and instead focus on the issue at hand. I wouldn’t worry about the campaign season becoming too dull; Republicans seem intent on putting together a very entertaining three ring circus. Let’s pick the ringmaster and get on with the show.

Reflections on the Senator from Searchlight

Changes in congressional party leadership do not happen very frequently, and when they do, it is a time for reflecting on that leader and his or her impact on the institution.

Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Searchlight, NV, announced Friday that he would not seek another term in the Senate in 2016. Perhaps it was his fall from the Majority Leader’s office last November, or the fall on his exercise machine on New Year’s Day: both left him battered and doubtless contributed to the decision of this once-fearsome boxer that the time had come to hang up the gloves.

Having known and worked with Reid in a variety of capacities over a couple of decades, especially when I served as Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff, I have long felt that the quiet and diminutive Leader often did not receive his due from press and political observers alike. Some of the underestimation of the Nevadan is due not simply to his low key style (which is not altogether unwelcome in the rancorous halls of the Capitol, especially in recent years), but to a misunderstanding of the power that the Senate leader possesses, a handicap of which Reid was all too aware.

Reid and Pelosi would meet frequently – at least weekly – when the both led majorities in their respective chambers. The discussions were focused on legislative strategy for moving key Obama legislation. Reid, who spent three terms in the House before winning a Senate seat in 1986, sometimes expressed feigned awe at the ability of Speaker Pelosi under House rules to schedule a bill for floor action, control the terms of debate, and ensure its passage at a date and time certain.

“There are times,” Reid once remarked, “when I wish I were the Speaker of the House.” (I’m not sure I believed him, but I understood his musing given the procedural need of the Senate majority to assuage the minority.) “The Speaker doesn’t have to worry about the minority. They run over everybody.” Of course, that observation is a gross simplification of the many challenges Pelosi faced in passing bills like the 2009 stimulus and health care reform, but the ability of any Speaker to use the rules to set the parameters and timing of debate is certainly one advantage of running the House.

Reid’s lament was not original; it has been said that the Senate Majority Leader enjoys the most exaggerated reputation for power of any job in Washington since he must regularly cajole 60 senators to even agree to consider debating a bill that requires only 50 votes to pass. Former Leader Mike Mansfield once remarked, “I’m not the leader really. My Democratic colleagues are the leaders. My job is just keeping the party together, smoothing over the differences, keeping tempers [under control], and trying to achieve the possible despite the differences inherent in the party.”

The late Howard Baker sounded similarly resigned to his limited powers when Republicans ran the Senate during the Reagan Administration. “The leader of the Senate relies on two prerogatives, neither of which is constitutionally or statutorily guaranteed,” Baker noted, “the right of prior recognition … and the right to schedule the Senate’s business. These, together with the reliability of his commitment and whatever power of personal persuasion one brings to the job, are all the tools a Senate leader has.”

Reid has understood the inherent limitations in his powers, and has proven a wily and formidable Leader in the majority and the minority. He may not have Lyndon Johnson’s height and personality to employ “The Treatment” – a combination of towering over and onto a recalcitrant colleague, occasionally jabbing him in the chest – but Reid knew his members and his institution, and with strategic patience, he usually found the votes he needed.

Reid’s resourcefulness was operating on full throttle during the latter, and crucial, phases of the passage of health care in 2010. A Senate-passed bill, which had received the necessary 60 votes, contained several provisions that House Democrats found highly objectionable; that bill could not pass the House. Nor could Reid reproduce the 60+ votes margin to pass the companion House bill. Reid and Pelosi constructed a two-step process that would have the House pass the flawed Senate bill, which would have to be signed into law for the strategy to work, after which the Senate would agree to pass a new House bill making numerous corrections to the just-enacted Senate product. The procedural abracadabra of this maneuver rested on writing that second bill as a budget reconciliation measure which only required a simple majority to pass the Senate (not 60), and which could not be filibustered like a regular piece of legislation.

There was one fly in the ointment: if the Senate failed to pass the House’s reconciliation cleanup bill, the original Senate bill would remain the law of the land, flaws and all. House Members were therefore obligated to pass the Senate bill knowing of that possibility, with only the assurance of the Senate that it would, in fact, pass that second, reconciliation measure to correct the Senate flaws (which some in the Senate, naturally, did not view as “flaws.”) Of course, everyone understood the health care two-step, and saboteurs would doubtless be out in force to ensure that the cleanup bill was derailed. How to secure the approval of House Members for a strategy that rested 100% on the trustworthiness of the sly Senate? How to guarantee that House Members were not left holding the bag, and an empty one at that?

This was the dilemma on our agenda when Speaker Pelosi and I journeyed to Sen. Reid’s ornate office for our regular weekly strategy meeting in March, 2010. The details of that discussion will have to await another time and venue, but it was at that meeting that Sen. Reid proposed securing the signatures of 51 Senate Democrats pledging the take up and pass the reconciliation measure if the House would first pass the Senate health bill and send it to the President’s desk. Sen. Reid asked me what I thought of that plan and, as I recall, I let out a short laugh, having spent over 30 years among House Democrats who believed “Republicans are the opposition, but the Senate is the enemy.” I believe I told Sen. Reid that his plan would never be acceptable to a skeptical Democratic Caucus.

And yet only a day or so later, Sen. Reid came before House Democrats to lay out his plan and to assure them he had the 51 signatures he needed to pass that second reconciliation bill. The names, however, would have to remain confidential. “Here it comes,” I thought to myself, waiting for the certain raucous dismissal by the House Members.

Silence. Not one question. No catcalls, laughter, shoes flung at the podium. Reid simply presented his pledge, said “thank you,” and left; the Caucus endorsed the strategy, and I was left wondering how I had so totally misjudged the response of the Caucus that I thought I knew pretty well.

Now it is true, House Democrats were prepared to swallow a lot they didn’t like – no public option, no single payer, abortion restrictions, etc. – because achieving health care reform trumped nearly any objection. Still, I was mystified that Reid had pulled off this legislative legerdemain without a ripple of skepticism or dissent. That told me all I needed to know about his wiliness.

That was the second time Harry Reid flabbergasted me. Nearly two decades earlier, I was staff director of the House Natural Resources Committee and was locked in a nasty battle to raise the highly subsidized rates charged Western ranchers who fed their cattle on federal lands. Like most Western interests who benefitted from the resources of the federal government they denigrated, the ranchers were ballistic about the Clinton Administration proposal to raise fees to market rates, and a good number of them resided in Nevada.

Over in the Senate, I was involved in a staff meeting when the door opened and in walked Sen. Reid, whom I had known during his years in the House. Displaying the confrontational directness for which he is known, Reid accused me – he always referred to me as “Dr. Lawrence” — of promoting proposals that would severely impact his constituents in Nevada, an accusation that was completely inaccurate. I was both embarrassed to be upbraided by a senator in front of my staff colleagues, and incensed by the inaccuracy of the accusations. I fired back, telling Reid he was completely off-base with a directness that was, admittedly, inappropriate in speaking to a United States Senator, certainly during a public meeting. Reid withdrew and the meeting continued; shortly thereafter, Reid re-entered the room and I steeled myself for round two; instead, Reid said that he had checked with his staff, and that his original remonstrance was inaccurate. He apologized and left the room, and we went on and finalized a compromise agreement.

That incident stayed with me for years, both because I could not believe the inapposite tone of my response to his allegations, and especially because Reid had returned after speaking with his advisors and, to an entire room of staff people, admitted he had been wrong. Senators apologizing to staff, let alone to House staff, is – let us say – uncommon.

So it was with some trepidation that I awaited my first meeting with Reid as Pelosi’s chief of staff in 2005. I had had no contact with Reid in the ensuing decade and a half, during which time he had risen to the role of Senate Democratic Leader. I was looking forward to a good working collaboration, but lingering in the back of my head was our last conversation over the grazing fee dispute. As Reid walked into Pelosi’s office and shook hands with her, she motioned over to me and said, “Harry, I want you to meet…” Reid interrupted her to say, “Well, hello Dr. Lawrence, we haven’t seen each other since the grazing fee discussion.” My heart sunk as we shook hands, but it was the last time Reid ever mentioned the dispute. Instead, we had a fruitful and cordial working relationship and when we had a spare moment over the next 5 or 6 years, we would occasionally talk about the role of the Wobblies in the Nevada mining wars of the 1890s.

Postscript: Reid’s departure likely means as contest for his leadership position between New York Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. (Reid has endorsed Schumer.) The two aspirants have spent decades together both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives and as lodgers in a D Street SE house owned by mutual friend, recently retired Rep. George Miller.

A Strategic Step Towards Reconciliation

A stumbling start is never a great way to begin a race, political or otherwise. In both cases, it is urgent to regain your footing and your stability. After kerfuffles about foundation fundraising and secret emails, Hillary has some work to do to deflect attention from her mis-steps and recast herself and her campaign, as something new, original, and forward-looking. Otherwise, she risks being caught up in a storm of suffocating partisanship, second-guessing, and press animosity that could doom her candidacy before it even begins.

We don’t know whether these incidents are likely to have any impact on the uncommitted voters who will determine who will be the next President of the United States. What we do know is that the candidate who is able to think and act outside the narrow partisan cocoon may well have the best chance at winning that crucial , up-for-grabs, 10% of the electorate.

How does a candidate simultaneously sustain the engagement of the party’s ideological base (which provides most of the money, votes and energy) while also persuading disenchanted voters that his or her candidacy represents an alternative to the highly polarized state of American politics?

Forty years ago, Democratic sage Clark Clifford proposed a “government of national unity” to “transform … years of bitterness, divisiveness, and deterioration to years of healing, unity, and progress.”   Clinton could recast herself and shake things up by reaching across the partisan chasm to independents and reasonable Republicans who want to resume rational discourse. Such an initiative, early in the campaign season, would demonstrate a welcome desire to offer voters something truly unique: a commitment to include diverse but constructive views in the governance process. It also would help round off some of Clinton’s own partisan edges, and isolate the powerful Tea Party Republicans who stand only for extremism and inaction.

Now, how would you go about doing that? Please note: this is not a prediction, it is a suggestion – one option to avoid plunging into the dark, swirling waters of another presidential campaign only to emerge with a battered victor and an exhausted, demoralized and still polarized electorate.

Secretary Clinton would already make history by being the first woman nominated (or elected) President (not to mention as the first former Secretary of State to be elected since James Buchanan in 1856). Why not double down and go one historic step further by selecting former Congressman and former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood of Illinois as her running mate, offering voters a ticket of national reconciliation and pragmatic governance?

Did I mention that Ray is a Republican? Let me disclose all the damage up front. LaHood had a conservative voting record as a six-term congressman from Illinois’ 18th district. La Hood prides himself on sharing a district with historical figures known for their embrace of comity and collaboration while still upholding their GOP credentials including Abraham Lincoln, Everett Dirksen (who played a crucial role in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act) and LaHood’s former employer, GOP Minority Leader Bob Michel.

His selection certainly would provoke groans from key segments of the Democratic base who reject his votes on wedge issues like choice and guns. Absence of purity is the inevitable trade-off in coalition politics. But LaHood was no reflexive right-winger. He voted to preserve affirmative action in college admissions, he voted against taxpayer vouchers for private and religious schools, he voted “yes” on allowing reimportation of prescription drugs to reduce costs to consumers, and he voted to raise the minimum wage in 2007 – all positions strongly favored by liberals.

He was one of just three GOP candidates in 1994 who refused to sign onto Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” Most important, he was a Member who enjoyed the respect and trust of Democrats and Republicans alike, who rarely engaged in harsh partisan rhetoric, and who genuinely believes that the most important talent in governing is an ability to find common ground. And he had a working relationship with Mrs. Clinton during the time they both served in President Obama’s first term Cabinet.

Admittedly, LaHood’s selection would do little to placate those for whom Clinton herself is a stretch, either on the Right or among those discontented liberal purists who still want to punish her for her Iraq vote or her closeness to Wall Street.  And yes, she could demonstrate an openness to ideological diversity by selecting a moderate to conservative Democrat rather than by going all out and selecting a moderate Republican. But the left would be just as angry about a conservative Democrat on the ticket, and for the Right, well, any plausible moderate Democrat is bound to have a litany of liberal votes that earns as much approbation from conservatives as Clinton does herself.  Analysts have pointed out that the most conservative Democrat in Congress these days is still more liberal than the most moderate Republican.

Cross-party ticket balancing might appeal to crucial moderate and independent voters disenchanted with both parties and ambivalent about voting for anybody, let alone a polarizing figure like Clinton. LaHood fits the bill: fair-minded, non-ideological, and credible to people on both sides of the aisle. He was chosen to preside over Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the House because he exuded unfailing fairness. (Talk about Hillary sending a message of reconciliation!)

LaHood has a long history of trying to dampen down the partisan passions that have helped stagnate American politics. In the 1990’s, LaHood and former Rep. David Skaggs (D-CO) initiated several well-attended bipartisan retreats for fellow House Members designed to restore the dissipating comity that once allowed Democrats and Republicans to fraternize in the House gym, on the floor, or during international travel. The effort fizzled for a variety of reasons, but no one doubted LaHood’s sincerity, or the desirability of turning down the partisan heat.

Every progressive interest group or liberal activist can compose a list of LaHood votes with which they disagreed, and would point out the contradictory positions held by Clinton and LaHood. (I expect to hear from lots of them real soon.) But disagreements between running mates are not unusual either. Remember that Barack Obama selected Joe Biden who won his earliest legislative victory in the mid-1970s leading the Senate charge against school busing to achieve racial balance.

The point is this: if we are going to move beyond the partisan stand-off, we need to rebuild public confidence that government, and the people who run it, can function collaboratively. Many foreign parliamentary governments today are created by such cross-party alliances that our two party system effectively precludes. But the voters who will decide the next election pretty clearly want candidates who do not lock themselves into ideological rigidity that demonizes the opponent and complicates the chances for cooperation and collaboration after the voting is over. Whoever wins (with 50% of the vote, if he or she is lucky) will have no mandate to govern unless faith in government itself is first re-established.

Is it chancy to nominate a bipartisan ticket? Sure. Are these times that cry out for something unprecedented? Maybe. Great challenges demand significant risk, and voters want to see that the person who aspires to the presidency is prepared make tough decisions. Here’s Clinton’s chance.

Clinton-LaHood 2016: unity over purity, progress over posturing, a ticket of national reconciliation. Worth thinking about?

Resigned to Hillary?

Neither the squirreled away State Department emails, nor the Wall Street (and God knows who else) contributions to the Clinton Foundation, nor the acceptance of donations from troglodytic sheikdoms while promoting empowerment of women are likely to have enormous impact individually on either the determination of Hillary Clinton to run for the presidency, or on the electorate.

Rather than individual, the impact is cumulative, both on Clinton and on her party. The alleged mini-scandals add to the incessant drumbeat of charges culled from 35+ years of public life that fuel a pit-of-your-stomach uneasiness with putting all the Democrats’ eggs in this one basket.   Under the very best of circumstances (i.e., a successful campaign in 2016 and re-election in 2020) we are looking at nine and a half more years of implacable, often irrational combat, charge and countercharge, and innuendo certain to batter a politics-weary nation into greater and deeper despair.  We know it’s coming, and that’s if things go really well.

The issue, for many Democrats, may not so much be Hillary’s inevitability as the unavailability of a credible alternative.  At a recent dinner party chock full of fellow latter day yellow dog Democrats (as at many gatherings over the past year or so), there wasn’t a single person doubting they would vote for Hillary, but also not one who didn’t admit to some ambivalence. Lack of enthusiasm can translate into lack of turnout, and of course, that can be lethal in a campaign. Oy yi yi, the baggage, the enmity, the dismaying “beat[ing] on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Is there no way to both win the election and turn a corner in the nation’s political history in 2016? Sadly, the answer may well be “no.”  The press, interest groups, the partisan electorate all live to devour candidates and officeholders, the less confrontational, the more satisfying the destruction. Need proof? If ever a candidate descended on a golden beam of light, an altruistic alternative to the tempestuous tumult of rancorous politics, willing to embrace all who came to the negotiating table, of any party or ideology, that was Barack Obama, whose post-partisan eagerness to accommodate was met with unrelenting and unparalleled viciousness.   So why should we expect something different following the 2016 election, whether it is President Clinton II or President Whoever. The next commander in chief will rapidly become the target of pay-back and business-as-usual from cable TV, talk radio, social media and the 48% of the electorate who voted against her, or him and considers the winner the Anti-Christ.

It is the very inevitability of that poisoned atmosphere that, ironically, may be the most compelling argument for a Clinton candidacy.  Does anyone think the Republican/Tea Party machine of personal destruction that has eviscerated Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and any other Democrat willing to take them on, would suddenly regain its manners and sit quietly with hand folded for any other Democrat?  Not on your life.  Let’s not pretend the Republicans would revert to Sunday school manners for a candidate Elizabeth Warren or Mark Warner.   They have only one gear.

So, why not go with the willing candidate who doesn’t need to build her name recognition or fundraising base, who already has a loyal cadre of supporters and at least as compelling a resumé as any other contender?  (Okay, it’s hard to name any real accomplishment of Secretary Clinton, but so what? Who was the last Secretary of State who achievements you could reel off? Henry Kissinger?) Why not fall in line behind the probable nominee, save donors half a billion bucks that would be wasted in primary battles only to wound the eventual nominee, and get on with the inevitable, however ambivalent or fearful of another decade of incoming political artillery, backstabbing and caterwauling?

Not since Nixon in 1968 has a major party wandered into an election with a non-incumbent as scarred and battered as Hillary Clinton.  Why not nominate someone we know can take a punch and come back fighting, not fold like a cardboard suitcase? That’s not a bad attribute for someone who’s climbing into the presidential ring. The attacks will never end; the only real issue is whether Clinton, or Democrats, will allow the opposition strategy to succeed in its singular objective of knocking the strongest Democrat out of the race.

What Hillary needs to do is what any battalion under bombardment would do: create a diversion. Clinton needs to unveil a bombshell that resets her to encourage skeptics and non-acolytes to reconsider their perception of her. That suggestion will come in the next blog.

A Decision of Consequence

A decision by a key House Democrat last week could have major implications down the road for the shape and style of congressional politics for years to come. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the 56 year old budget wunderkind who enjoys broad respect in the Caucus, announced he would be leaving his safe Montgomery County seat to run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

In a number of ways, what could be good news for Van Hollen – there are things in life worse than a seat in the U.S. Senate, even in the minority – could create many uncertainties in the House. Van Hollen has played a crucial role in a range of ultra-high level negotiations as the seeming Ranking-Member-for-Life of the Budget Committee and House Democrats’ trusted point man during fiscal cliff and debt ceiling confrontations. A telegenic, articulate and passionate Democrat, Van Hollen is also an accomplished legislator, helping lead the fight on the Ways and Means Committee for last year’s ABLE Act, one of the few important bills to make it through the partisan minefield. (See my earlier blog on the ABLE Act which allows parents to create tax protected savings accounts for children with special needs.) He also has fashioned a progressive budget package, promoted climate change legislation, and was the longtime leader in the battle for the DISCLOSE Act to reveal the source of political donations.

Van Hollen’s easy manner and upbeat style camouflages a skilled and effective politician, traits he will need in his coming Senate campaign. He came to Congress via one of the most unusual paths a Democrat can imagine: he defeated a Kennedy (well, actually, Mark Shriver, a Maryland delegate, but close enough.) Van Hollen has deep roots into state politics; he served in the Maryland House of Delegates and State Senate before defeating eight term moderate Connie Morella in 2002 for a House seat. Doubtless he anticipates winning a huge margin in Montgomery County to help offset the votes of Democrats in Baltimore, home to some of his potentially most challenging rivals.

It seemed to many observers only a matter of time before Van Hollen found himself either chairman of the Budget Committee, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, or a top member of the House Leadership, an exclusive ensemble in which he has served as Assistant to the Speaker (Pelosi) and other appointive capacities for years. His name was surely on the short list of candidates for Democratic Leader, Speaker, or Whip whenever change came to the current Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn troika.

But Van Hollen prefers to roll the dice and try for a Senate seat, perhaps anticipating a quicker return to a majority in the so-called “Upper Body” than is likely in the House where gerrymandering and population concentration skew seats against Democrats. In all likelihood, he will not have a free ride across the Capitol. Already, some progressive groups in Maryland have begun touting Rep. Donna Edwards, an energetic and outspoken liberal who has joined with Leader Nancy Pelosi to announce the Maryland representative’s chairmanship of the House Democrats’ “Democracy Task Force: Restoring People-Powered Politics,” an initiative to “reduce the influence of big money in politics and provide key reforms to bring transparency to our country’s campaign finance and election laws.”

Other potential challengers for the Democratic Senate nomination include Rep. Elijah Cummings, an astute and respected member who has ably served as Ranking Member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and who recently teamed up with Sen. Elizabeth Warren on behalf of a “Middle Class Prosperity” initiative. Also, second term Rep. John Delaney might prefer to reach into his deep pockets of personal cash in pursuit of a Senate seat, and Rep. John Sarbanes, a five -term member who has focused on campaign finance reform and bears the famous surname of his father, Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

It goes without saying that Democrats are hoping that some of these candidates will look over the field and decide to stay put. (Former Gov. Martin O’Malley, while mentioned as a potential candidate, has already taken himself out of consideration for the Senate seat.) It would be an expensive proposition to have to spend money to ensure Democratic replacements in 4 or 5 Maryland seats – all of which are eminently winnable, but with non-incumbents, you never can take election for granted. And there would be the cumulative loss in next-generation talent with the likes of Edwards, Sarbanes, Delaney and Van Hollen dropping out of the House simultaneously.

With Van Hollen gone, attention will doubtless focus on likely aspirants like Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, who brings both an Hispanic background and potentially a big slew of California votes to any contest, Joe Crowley, a more moderate New Yorker who serves as Caucus Vice Chair, has close relations with the New York finance community, and plays a mean electric guitar, or someone not yet on the so-called “leadership ladder.”

Whatever happens in the Senate primary and future House leadership races, Van Hollen’s departure is going to leave a void in the House, if for no other reason that he enjoyed the confidence of Members as a thoughtful and savvy technician who also knew how to play the political and media games expertly.

Addendum…

Last December, I wrote a blog entitled @“Don’t Count Out the House Democrats” that pointed out the unappreciated power of a well-led, unified House minority in checking the exuberance of the new Republican minority. That strategic skill has been on full display this past week under the artful leadership of Nancy Pelosi who completely outmaneuvered Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans and got exactly the legislative outcome she wanted: a clean funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security, with none of the “defund the Obama immigration executive order” poison pills the majority had insisted be included. Of course, there was no way for the Republicans to succeed in their hostage-holding strategy, an outcome that was clear to virtually everyone (including, I have no doubt, the beleaguered Boehner who has yet to devise a strategy for containing the wing nuts in his party who intimidate many who do not share their nihilist agenda. As has generally been the case since Republicans gained the majority in 2011, Boehner had trouble cracking 180 Republican votes for anything but the ain’t-goin’-nowhere message bills his Conference loves to pass and watch flame out.). But as a slew of favorable stories (below) noted, no one should minimize the talent displayed by Pelosi, who proved again she can engender broad support from her disciplined troops.   When she does, President Obama is vastly empowered because the chances for overriding a presidential veto are nil. Observers would do well to recollect the unprecedented discipline of Democrats when Pelosi served as minority leader, especially in the 2005-2006 period, which served her Caucus well in challenging George Bush and the renegade Republican majority of Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert. This is a leader who has a firm grip on the levers of power, and knows how to work them to her, and her party’s, political advantage.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/pelosi-shows-democrats-how-to-wield-power-despite-house-gop-majority/2015/03/06/75a77308-c34a-11e4-9ec2-b418f57a4a99_story.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/07/us/politics/through-it-all-nancy-pelosi-keeps-sway-over-house-democrats.html?_r=1

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/03/02/boehners-problem-isnt-just-house-republicans-its-house-democrats-too/

The Big Kiss Off

When House Republicans were threatening to shut down the federal government back in 2013, many people asked me whether I thought Speaker John Boehner would cave in to his Tea Party extremists. “Absolutely,” I predicted, not because I thought Boehner wanted to shut the government (I’m pretty confident he thought it was a dumb idea), but because at some point, he had to demonstrate to the party’s insistent nihilist wing that no good would come of such an act.

That was an understatement. The Republican brand took a pounding as a result of that closure (not that the Party didn’t recoup in spectacular fashion in the 2014 election). And Boehner demonstrated to his troops that very few workable strategies emerge from legislative train wrecks, a lesson they learned only briefly, it appears.

Frankly, I was surprised Boehner did not let the Tea Partiers have their victory earlier in the 113th Congress. There was little doubt that, at some point, he would have to demonstrate that the shut down strategy would not produce the results the uber conservatives predicted, i.e., total capitulation by Senate Democrats and President Obama. So in some ways, it isn’t surprising that, with a new Senate majority and a new batch of freshmen Members, Boehner faced renewed demands to push Democrats and the Obama Administration to the wall on a key funding bill.

It is important to remember that with the exception of goofy bills that stand no chance of enactment, e.g., 56 variants on repealing the Affordable Care Act, Boehner has passed virtually nothing of significance without beseeching Democrats to help him prevent shutdowns or allowing middle class tax cuts to expire, or reneging on the national debt, or averting a number of other abysmally dumb, self-manufactured catastrophes that the hard Right has concocted. Rarely has Boehner been able to cough up more than 175 or 180 Republican votes for anything serious, requiring dependence on House Democrats to provide the supplemental 35-40 votes needed to pass must-pass bills. Just last week, the GOP leadership was forced to pull an education bill because they lacked enough Republican votes.

To his credit, Boehner has recognized on many occasions since becoming Speaker in 2011 that with the title and the impressive office comes an obligation to actually make the trains run on time, not simply allow them to plunge over the first available cliff. Because he was prepared to appeal for Democratic votes, however, Boehner is perceived as weak by a significant portion of his Caucus, as reflected by the 25 votes against his continuation as Speaker in January (a record since 1923) and his ineffectual efforts to cajole his Members into behaving like a governing majority.

Last week’s vote to fund the Department of Homeland Security for a week did not do much to alter the perception of a House Republican majority without the wherewithal to govern. As has regularly been the case, Boehner was far short of the number of Republicans he needed, although he did bump up past his prior numbers to 183 Republicans, still far short of the 208 (rather than a 218 majority) that he needed (because of absences). Those 183 votes represent just 77% of the Republicans casting a vote; to state it another way, a quarter of all House Republicans were prepared to close down DHS, or at least felt secure voting that way because once again, House Democrats made up the difference. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi sent out an urgent appeal to her Caucus urging support for the interim measure, and over 97% of all Democrats voting cast a “yes” vote.

So once again, the Tea Party was foiled by Boehner’s willingness to accept Democratic votes to do what he could not achieve with Republican votes alone. Even worse from the perspective of the far Right was the rumor that Boehner had pledged to Democrats that he would allow a vote this coming week on a clean bill that funds DHS through September, like the rest of the government, without a rider voiding Obama’s immigration Executive Order.

I cannot help but contrast this junior league leadership with the precision management of a contentious and divided Democratic Caucus by Speaker Nancy Pelosi back in her days as the most productive House leader in three-quarters of a century.  Few commentators or observers realize even now how difficult it was for Pelosi to round up the Democratic votes needed to pass hugely consequential bills like TARP, the 2009 stimulus, or the Affordable Care Act notwithstanding her commanding majority. Like Republicans today, Pelosi had factions within her Caucus who used their leverage to shape these bills in return for their votes. But Pelosi was skilled enough to give just enough ground to secure the votes she needed, and she was well positioned in her Caucus to keep the liberals on board while she made needed concessions to more moderate and conservative Democrats, without whom she could neither pass the bills nor hold the House majority.  Boehner, by contrast, is poorly positioned in his Conference with respect to persuading the recalcitrant right to act like a majority.

Nor can I imagine how the press and critics might have responded had Speaker Pelosi chosen to blow off serious questions about a government shutdown as did Speaker Boehner when asked how about Majority Leader McConnell’s clean DHS bill. Boehner responded with air smootches to the press corps, an incongruous and baffling un-Speaker-like response that left heads scratching throughout Washington. (http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/watch/boehner-offers-up-air-kisses-to-reporter-405105219937)

So the $64,000 question: what happens next? Well, I mean, don’t we all know? Boehner caves and passes the clean Senate DHS bill with Democrats providing the essential votes, as usual, to keep the government functioning. That is not a particularly risky prediction.   The perplexing question is why Boehner allowed the confrontation to get completely out of control, so that his only options were bad ones:

  • caving to Democrats: not good, angers the Tea Party troops, confirms the worst fears of the 25 anti-Boehner votes from January: he demonstrates a propensity to capitulate to Obama, Reid, and Pelosi, just like he did as Education Committee Chairman when he worked with Ted Kennedy and George Miller to pass No Child Left Behind, or when he worked with Pelosi to pass TARP.
  • holding out for a DHS bill that negates the immigration Executive Order, a futile act which results in a shut-down of the federal anti-terrorism department, thereby assuring that every security scare or incident for the next generation will be laid at the feet of the caviling conservatives who “shut down the Department of Homeland Security” back in 2015.

If Boehner has any interest in truly governing (an open question, in my book, since inaction constitutes success for many of his members), he is going to have to stand up to the nihilists. Doing so will likely mean negotiating with Democrats who hold the key votes for passing substantive legislation, and who can block (by a filibuster or by sustaining a veto) any Republican initiative they dislike, at least until 2017. How the GOP leaders respond will provide clear evidence whether they intend to move beyond partisanship and maneuvering in order to maintain their gavels. Challenging his nay-sayer caucus may cost Boehner his gavel (as acting decisively cost Pelosi’s hers, and many Democrats their seats), but the responsible exercise of power usually entails risk. Who knows? You could even inspire the country that Congress can function.

The Burdens of Governing

Now that the Republican majorities in the Senate and the House are settling into their new responsibilities of governing, it seems timely to look at a few indications of how successfully they have made the transition from a nagging, haggling, finger-pointing minority to mature legislators.

Speaker John Boehner declared he was “trying to get off to a fast start here.” Well, actually, not so much; but the session is young, so we can hope. There are a few early indications that the burden of actually governing (not necessarily an objective for some of the GOP) is beginning to encourage the emergence of factions as leadership presses for pragmatism (the burden of leadership) but the fringe (which in this case is a substantial one) clings to the old game plan of gumming up the works.

Rep. Charlie Dent (PA) is one of those middle level Republicans who might actually be interested in responsible governance. It didn’t take him long to criticize the chaos that enveloped the GOP conference in January. “Week one, we had a speaker election that did not go well,” said Dent, recalling the 25 GOP votes against John Boehner’s re-election as Speaker, a modern record. “Week two, we got into a big fight over deporting children. Week three, we are now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes and incest for minors. I just can’t wait for week four.”

C’mon Charlie: you know what had to happen in Week 4: Repeal the Affordable Care Act, #56! This time, they did include the Republican “alternative”: a mandate that committees go back and work on finding alternatives. It took Democrats a few decades to get to that point, so, good luck. Now that the law is in effect, of course, there are real consequences to repeal without replacement: 19 million of them, by the end of the year, according to the Congressional Budget Office – American who have gained health care from the ACA.

By the way, it was reported this week that despite all the bluster and bravado that they would never – never! – acquiesce in the ACA, Republican governors are lining up to participate in the Medicaid expansion program, which will bring health coverage to millions of lower income Americans. And we aren’t talking moderate Republicans: GOP governors in Tennessee, Indiana, Wyoming, Utah, Alaska and Montana are all negotiating with the Obama Administration, in some cases receiving waivers to allow states to charge some beneficiaries copayments (which isn’t the end of the world as long as they do not create a barrier to service). Who’s next: Idaho? Oh, yes, Idaho is negotiating, too. It was always difficult to believe that states would allow the 100% federal funding (declining down the road to a still-generous to 90%) for expanded Medicaid to slip through their fingers. Frankly, it is surprising it took them so long, since those sick poor people do not just disappear if the state refuses to participate. They keep arriving at the emergency rooms, pushing up the costs of care and insurance premiums for everyone in the state.

Not everyone has decided to put aside campaign rhetoric and concentrate on serious governing, however, which is good because the irreconcilably taciturn provide great copy for blogs. Hands down, so to speak, Sen. Thom Tillis, the NC freshman Republicans, wins the foot-in-mouth award for January for his bold opposition to intrusive government mandates that interfere with the sacred rights of free enterprise. Tillis declared that one business regulation we could dispense with is the mandate that restaurant employees be required to wash their hands before leaving the restroom. “As long as they post a sign that says ‘we don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom’,” Tillis said, no problem! “The market will take care of that.” Wait minute!! So, it is wrong to require restaurant workers to wash their hands, but it is OK to require restaurant owners to post un-sanitation notices?

And speaking of the Senate, Mitch McConnell is having his own problems as Majority Leader lining up votes on the Department of Homeland Security bill. Lacking sufficient votes, McConnell has decided to force senators to vote repeatedly, hoping to shake loose a few and reach the 60 votes he needs. But according to Fox News, some Republican senators aren’t any too pleased at being manipulated by their new leader, who is being pulled “every which way.” Sen. John McCain counsels, “No one has a strategy yet. We’re going to have to build consensus.”

Back in the House, they can pass bills all day long that are doomed in the Senate or invite a veto (that will always be sustained), but small numbers of Republicans are making it clear they have problems with the symbolic votes Speaker Boehner is throwing to the Tea Party to show he hears their grumbling. A number of Southwestern Republicans voted against the provisions to roll back President Obama’s executive order on immigration; unhappy Republican women forced Boehner to pull an anti-abortion bill.   And three Republicans even voted against the ACA repeal. These are small numbers, but they illustrate the dilemma that afflicts all House majorities: as the Conference (or Caucus) gets bigger as a result of winning marginal seats, factions develop because those marginal Members understand they did not get elected to march in lock step with the hard-core base. Those divisions will become even more pronounced as we get further into the year and Boehner has to start rounding up votes for appropriations bills, continuing resolutions, a debt ceiling increase or realistic legislative objectives.

One group that won’t be going out of its way to be helpful to Boehner, however, is the newly formed House Freedom Caucus which is on guard to ensure that no one – not a left-wing President or a suspect Speaker — sells out American freedom. The HFC looks like a group that will challenge Boehner regularly and prepare alternative leadership choices down the road. The HFC, which one Republican staffer “the craziest of the crazy,” sports leadership from the likes of Rep. Jim Jordan and Raúl R. Labrador, neither of whom is likely to make Boehner’s life any easier. “They’re not legislators, they’re just assholes,” Roll Call quotes a high-ranking Republican staff person as saying. “These guys have such a minority mindset that the prospect of getting something done just scares them away, or pisses them off.” Those kinds of comments are reminiscent of the searing analysis of former longtime GOP Senate staffer Mike Lofgren who warned a few years back that the Republican Party “is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult.”

And it isn’t even President’s Day yet!

Obama and Congress: The Battle Begins

President Obama’s sixth State of the Union address – and his first to a Republican-controlled Congress — was a smart, tactical speech that, for the most part, accomplished what little such an address can achieve. The President used his hour in the national spotlight to establish his values as well as to assert his policies, to cast himself as the reasonable conciliator rather than partisan-in-chief, and to invite the opposition to join hands for the common good or, failing that, tumble into the traps he artfully set for them.

The high points of the speech were the opening few minutes and the close that avoided the tiresome litany of presidential priorities (and standing ovations by delighted legislators) that generally are well into their half life before the SOTU speech has ended. Most presidents use the SOTU to describe such a program of initiatives, and nearly all pay a double price:

(1) the opposition party and commentators add up the cost of all the promises and translate the astronomical sum into a tax bill to be presented to the American people, or a prescription for additional debt, and

(2) the list of unenactables become check-list the following year’s SOTU commentary to remind viewers how little was achieved, and by extension, the futility of the list you are about to hear.

Having achieved a reasonable economic recovery, which Obama reminded the nation has dwarfed that recorded by Europe and Japan, the President did not need to propose a massive spending initiatives designed simply to return the country to a state of economic stability. Instead, he was able to focus on policies that improve the quality of life and security of millions of Americans by delivering measurable benefits to the middle class: affordable child care, free community college, improved infrastructure. He was able to note progress on issues that enjoy broad public support – global warming, energy independence, immigration reform – that highlight his own presidential initiatives while chiding Republicans for their inaction.

Indeed, a major goal of the speech was to legitimize his role as President, and his governance through Executive Order, contrasting his unilateral achievements with congressional inaction, and to claim the high moral, political and policy ground.

Nowhere is this truer than tax reform, where Obama focused attention on the need for the wealthiest to contribute more – not as punishment, but because protecting their super-affluence deprives the middle class of its own economic security. There is, Obama reminded Americans, a price of economic inequality that goes beyond simply moral outrage, and it impacts the vast majority of Americans, regardless of income, party or ideology. Naturally, Republicans interpret the call for higher taxes on the affluent as a revival of “class warfare” and promise a more even-handed approach to tax reform than is revenue neutral, but those promises belie the inaction of House Republicans on tax policy over the past four years during which they have controlled the House and run the Ways and Means Committee. (Incidentally, if I were advising the Democrats, I wouldn’t jump too quickly onto the “tax-cut-for-everyone” bandwagon; the Bush middle class tax cuts were made permanent only two years ago and took a major chunk out of the Nation’s revenues. Cutting taxes for the middle class again is a very expensive proposition which will exacerbate deficit concerns which will blow back with calls for additional non-defense discretionary cuts that impact lower income Americans, who get little from tax cuts.)

The speech became more routine in the middle as Obama recited the litany of initiatives he had initially said he would resist offering. This standard format yielded the standard result: Democrats rising to cheer every 30 seconds, Republicans sitting on their hands glumly as the President tossed off proposals most Americans think are no-brainers (paid sick leave, non-discrimination against LGBT Americans, protecting the right to vote). Presiding over the inert (though enlarged) Republican side of the room was the stony, tanned face of Speaker John Boehner who looked like he was glued to his chair and sucking on lemons. Boehner rarely bothered to stand up even when he was applauding, which understandably wasn’t very often.

The other Republican to share the evening with the President was Iowa’s new Sen. Joni Ernst who like most SOTU responders, has probably just registered the widest national audience of her career. Intent on denying Obama any credit, Ernst portrayed the economy as sputtering one step above calamity, completely missing the opportunity for Republicans to claim credit by having forced Obama and Democrats to accept major spending reductions (and making the case, however flawed factually, that spending cuts helped the recovery). Instead, she was left asserting the unprovable: that the economy remains in crisis, hauling out the old canard that we need to slash the deficit (i.e., cut programs she’d rather not enumerate because they are popular) despite a deficit reduction of more than two-thirds under Obama’s watch. For good measure, Ernst threw in the need for some tough new anti-abortion laws (which the House will vote on), further alienating the millennial voters whom Republicans are having trouble reaching on social issues.

Ernst did provide the memorable image, however, of walking to school in the rain with plastic bread bags covering her shoes in order to illustrate her family’s economic tenuousness and frugality. I wonder how many expensive federal farm programs – crop support, price support, USDA extension support, transportation infrastructure, farm tax credits, rural electrification, marketing orders, surplus crop supports, drought relief, soil improvement programs, disaster assistance, to name a few – the Ernst family was able to take advantage of before she (and many of her rural Republican legislative allies) decided it was time to attack free-spending federal programs.

The other memorable line of the evening, unquestionably, was President Obama’s rejoinder to Republicans who applauded his mention that he would not be running for office again. As he reminded them, that is because he won his two elections. It was a perfect put down of the reflexive Republican response to the mention of his inevitable departure from the stage in two years; I’d love to believe it was improvised, but I suspect the speechwriters had that one safely tucked into the address.

An inevitable part of any SOTU is the analysis which focuses on how much, if any, of the President’s program is likely to be enacted. In this case, the answer is pretty clearly, not much. Nor is there much prospect for collaboration in areas that there is consensus deserve attention, such as tax reform and immigration, because powerful forces want those issues alive for the 2016 campaigns, not neatly resolved with compromises that inflame the bases which are needed for turnout and fundraising.

But it is important to note that while the next two years are unlikely to produce the cornucopia of legislative achievements the country might deserve, such periods are relatively rare, which is why Congress has perennially been blamed for being a slow, unresponsive institution. Historian George Galloway called it “an oxcart in the age of the atom,” and that was in 1946. Even the massive bursts of legislative productivity – FDR’s first term, LBJ’s Great Society – occurred in periods of extraordinary political consensus and lasted far more briefly than most people appreciate.

The real issue to watch, as it plays out over the next two years, is the maneuvering between the Executive and Legislative branches of government. For four decades, since the congressional battles with the Imperial Presidencies of LBJ and Richard Nixon, Congress has been battling to reassert itself as a co-equal branch of government, as contrasted with former Pennsylvania Sen. Joseph Clark characterization as “the sapless branch.” The Ford Administration in the mid-1970s was able to assert itself against the 94th Congress by a vigorous use of the veto which frequently could not be overridden despite overwhelming Democratic numbers that far exceeded what Republicans now enjoy in the 114th Congress. Through the use of the veto pen and Executive Orders, President Obama has signaled that he will use his remaining two years to stretch presidential authority as far as he can if Congress continues to prove nonproductive, choosing consensus-based issues to maximize his authority while defying Congress to assert its own prerogatives. That is a classic, historic battle between the branches that will endure for two years and be vastly more consequential than one speech to the nation.

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