DOMEocracy

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Sanchez’ Sanctimonious Misstep

Of all the puzzling, inopportune and injurious statements made in Washington recently – and there has been no shortage of them – few surpass comments by Rep. Linda Sanchez as she mused about the need for new leadership in the House of Representatives.

Sanchez, currently serving her 8th term in the House from a reliably Democratic district in California, made news on October 5th by telling a reporter, “I do think it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders” in the House. And she wasn’t talking about Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy. Sanchez’ remark contained a backhanded compliment as well. “Our leadership does a tremendous job,” she noted, “but we do have this real breadth and depth of talent within our caucus” that is restless and wants to begin the transition to the “new generation of leaders.” Not surprisingly, she added, “I want to be a part of that transition, I want to see that happen.” There’s a surprise.

Let’s unpack this contretemps.

Yes, the current Democratic leadership – Leader Nancy Pelosi, Whip Steny Hoyer, Assistant Leader Jim Clyburn – has been in positions for an unusually long time (by virtue, it should be noted, of their repeated overwhelming election by the Democratic Caucus). Yes, there are many younger and talented Democrats who, given the opportunity, could (and will) rise in the House leadership. Pelosi has even periodically mused about the end of her House service — for example, had Hillary Clinton been elected president. Earlier this year, the earnest if undistinguished Ohio representative Tim Ryan launched a challenge to Pelosi’s re-election as leader on similar “time for a change” grounds cited by Sanchez this week. Two-thirds of the Caucus disagreed with him.

Prior to her remarks, Sanchez was not considered to be among the co-conspirators periodically plotting a putsch against Pelosi or the other leaders. Indeed, as vice chair of the Democratic Caucus and a senior member of Hoyer’s Whip organization, she seemed an unlikely candidate to publicly chastise the party’s leaders.

Moreover, as a Californian, a woman and someone of Latino heritage, she would seem an improbable critic of Pelosi in particular.   Over the years, Pelosi has showered her with choice appointments, including as the highest-ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee and a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Unlike Tim Ryan or an earlier Pelosi critic, former Rep. Heath Shuler, Sanchez was not an outsider grumbling about the leadership, but a participant in and benefactor of their deliberations.

There is nothing new about more junior members voicing dissatisfaction with leaders who have an obligation to make the House function and a responsibility to work with the diverse Democratic Caucus. Sometimes dissatisfaction with leaders is well-placed: in the 1970s, liberals rebelled against chairmen who sided with the minority Republicans more frequently than with fellow Caucus members who gave them their gavels. But there are important distinctions between those rebellions and the challenges to Pelosi and today’s other leaders. Democrats currently serve in the minority and face a major battle to resume the majority. Pelosi plays a crucial role in the effort to regain the majority lost in 2010. Efforts to divide the Caucus against itself can inflict far greater damage in the battle to win majority control. Moreover, today’s leaders are in agreement on policy with the vast bulk of the Caucus and united against Republican initiatives, unlike the Conservative Coalition chairs of the 1970s who voted more often with the minority party than with those who elected them to leadership positions.

The truly stunning aspect of Sanchez’ apostasy lies in her timing. Pelosi is engaged (or will be) in high-level talks with the Trump White House and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to craft an extension of the DACA program that protects about 800,000 undocumented Americans who, in Sanchez own floor statement of September 27th, are “holding their breath” because of the imminent threat of deportation. That collaboration comes in the wake of Trump’s remarkable concession to Pelosi and Schumer over the debt ceiling and continuing budget resolution. There are even rumors of potential negotiations on health care.

Between now and the end of the year, a number of other crucial programs, including funding for premium assistance for low-income participants under the Affordable Care Act and the extension of the Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), await negotiations involving the congressional leadership and an erratic, unpredictable White House. My guess is that tens of thousands of people in Rep. Sanchez’ district desperately need Mrs. Pelosi is the strongest possible position to battle for their health and immigration rights, but their congresswoman’s intemperate remarks did little to strengthen Pelosi’s hand in the upcoming battles with Trump and House Republicans.

Moreover, the next two months are crucial in the timetable of dozens of Democrats who are considering risky races for Republican-held House seats, not to mention seeking the millions of dollars the party will need for those races to be sufficiently competitive. Pelosi, a masterful candidate recruiter and fundraiser, will be crucial to both such efforts. Absent success with those candidates and that funding, hopes of Democrats’ capitalizing on the dysfunction of House Republicans or Trump will dissipate.

If Linda Sanchez has a strategic game plan whereby undermining the strength of the Democratic Leader (and thereby millions of low income, Latino, Californians and other Americans, including many of her own constituents) makes sense, she certainly failed to explain it clearly to the rest of the political community. Without such an explanation, her statements raising questions about division in the House Democratic ranks invariably complicate every political and legislative objective the bulk of Democrats are hoping to achieve in 2018.

No one seems to know what prompted Sanchez’ sanctimonious statement, but there is little doubt it was ill timed and ill-advised. Changing House leadership in the middle of a Congress, at the height of fundraising pressure, in the midst of potential resolution of high priority Democratic legislative objectives, makes no sense, and therefore talking about it serves no interest other than to potentially weaken the leaders and the goals to which the Caucus aspires.

Why would Sanchez do that? Obvious reasons include self-promotion or a publicly unknown personal slight. Whatever it is, Sanchez’ attack on someone who is crucially positioned to aid the Democratic constituency, and who has steadily promoted the advancement of Sanchez’ own career in the House, reflects poorly on any aspirations she might have to lead the party.

 

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What to Watch for in TrumpTax

After all the noise about Obamacare and football players on bended knee, after the obsession with a border wall and promises to wipe North Korea off the map, after all the bluster and bravado that has marked his improbable tenure in public office, Donald Trump gets down to the real business today, unveiling a tax cut plan that might be the signature achievement of his tenure as President.

This is not to suggest Trump and Republican legislators do not really care about all those other issues. But as I have written before, the real reason the GOP Circus rolls into town is to cut taxes, especially on the affluent and corporations. Wall Street hasn’t been booming of late because of Trump’s attacks on undocumented immigrants; it’s the prospect of windfall tax cuts that whets the appetite of the plutocrats with whom Trump feels most empathetic.

There has already been much speculation about this Republican-only tax plan – and the partisan nature of the proposal is more than sufficient reason to regard it with alarm and skepticism. But Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will use their remaining get-out-of-responsible-legislating-free card – the 2018 reconciliation bill – to try to slam through an irresponsible and debt-generating tax cut without any regard for (a) regular order, (b) the normal bipartisan tax-writing process, or (c) the all-but-certain ballooning of the deficit that will result from this ill-conceived plan.

Trump and his minions will try to sell this tax turkey based on several well-worn GOP promises: Everyone will get a tax cut. The cuts, especially to business and the affluent, will stimulate investment and hiring, boosting the economy. The deficit will shrink as a result of cutting taxes.

And it is true, everyone will get a tax cut, just as they did under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (and Barack Obama, for that matter, as part of the stimulus of 2009). But the key to tax policy isn’t the breadth of the cut, but rather the distribution, that is, what proportion of the cuts each quintile of the tax-paying public receives. While giving an across the board cut ensures that the gross amount going to the large middle class is sizable, it obscures the hugely disproportionate amount that will go to the extremely wealthy thanks to a lowering of the top rate and likely changes to the treatment of capital gains and estate taxes. And wait to see if Trump follows through on his campaign promise to rescind the obscene carried interest loophole that benefits no one but hedge fund multi-millionaires.

The other key point to watch will be the Congressional Budget Office score. CBO has been the bane of the Republicans’ plotting on health care because it has predicted massive benefit losses when reviewing each of their misbegotten plans. But Speaker Ryan was careful to include instructions in the House rules adopted in January that skew the scoring for tax policy, directing CBO to accept the disproven concept of “dynamic scoring” that assumes that tax cuts will generate growth rather than cause deficits. This perverse misrepresentation is based on Ronald Reagan’s “supply side economics” model that has been demonstrated to be worth barely the napkin the theory was sketched out on in the 1970s.

Indeed, the continued Republican reliance on the mythical impact of tax cuts is the major reason why deficits have been significantly higher under supposedly fiscally conscious Republican Administrations. Under Reagan, the national debt grew by 189 percent. George H.W. Bush was better; the debt rose by just 54 percent (but of course, he fatefully raised taxes to slow down the debt explosion). In between, during Bill Clinton’s Administration, the debt rose by just 32 percent and the annual budget was actually balanced; twice. Returning to the tax cutting model under George W. Bush, the debt soared by 101 percent. Barack Obama weighed in at 68 percent, but he, of course, inherited not only all of W’s irresponsible tax cuts but the worst recession in three-quarters of a century which necessitated massive countercyclical spending. Indeed, every Democratic president since Kennedy has produced a lower debt increase than his Republican predecessor.

There is, of course, a downside to this Democratic diligence. Confronted with the serious debt momentum set in place by their predecessors, most Democrats have acted responsibly and raised taxes, slowing the pace of the debt increase. Predictably, such action has provided grist for the Republican campaign machine to castigate Democrats as profligate “tax and spend” proponents, even though, for the most part, the tax raising was needed to clean up the mess left by the tax cutters.

While one might assume the Republican tax mantra was little more than smoke to obscure the real goal of fattening the wallets of the fat cats, there is a strategy behind their irresponsible behavior. Increased debt is a very convenient straw man to use to justify the other Republican obsession: cutting spending, and specifically domestic discretionary spending that benefits lower and middle income Americans. Reagan’s genius, in fact, was employing this indirect method for attacking Democratic policies without necessarily opposing the programs or their beneficiaries directly (as did Barry Goldwater, for example, when he called for elimination of Social Security and opposed Medicare). By pumping up deficits, Republicans create the rationale for spending cuts, even though those domestic programs have little to do with creating deficits and the cuts will have no significant impact on staunching the red ink. Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, so much as admitted the deception once he left office.

So watch the distribution curve and the debt projections to determine the real winners and loser from Trump Tax. And don’t be surprised if it looks like the same old bait and switch, because it will be.

Trump Cuts a Better Deal

Today was, unexpectedly, one of the most consequential in the short, turbulent and unpredictable tenure of Donald Trump as President. In what must have been a demoralizing turn for congressional Republicans, Trump dismissed the debt crisis strategy advocated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan and instead threw in with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. There’s a better deal the Republicans didn’t see coming.

McConnell, Ryan, Pelosi and Schumer held their first “Big Four” meeting at the White House with Trump to game out the urgent items requiring congressional action. The debt ceiling needs to be raised within the next few weeks to prevent a default that would be catastrophic to the U.S.’s stature and scramble international finance. The government faces a shutdown on September 30th if a continuing resolution (CR) is not enacted to cover the beginning of the 2018 fiscal year. And billions of dollars need to be appropriated to assist the devastated residents of Texas and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Must-pass bills always offer opportunities for congressional mischief and those who hold the balance of power enjoy their most prominent moments on the congressional stage. Ultimately, the responsibility for preventing a catastrophic outcome – a government shutdown or a default – lies with the majority. While it is often all fun and games for the minority to exploit the majority’s challenge, the majority cannot escape blame if legislation fails to pass, which is why shortly after assuming their current roles, both Ryan and McConnell offered assurances that they would not shut down the government (which had proven a huge political mistake for Republicans in 2013) or default on the debt.

While Democrats controlled Congress, there was never a real chance of a shutdown. Democrats need government open, operating and well-regarded in order to achieve policy goals that cannot succeed without governmental engagement. Knowing this, Republicans were happy to sit on their hands, proclaim their opposition to deficit spending and insist upon massive spending cuts as their price for supporting CRs or debt increases. Democrats enjoyed sufficient majorities that they did not need to make any compromises with the conservative hardliners.

Things became more complicated when Republicans won control in 2010. Suddenly, they had the responsibility to pass must-pass bills, but Speaker John Boehner lacked the votes to do so. The conservative caucus that had delivered him the speakership – the Tea Party activists – did not get the memo about behaving responsibly when in the majority, and regularly refuted Boehner’s pleas for votes to pass GOP versions of these bills. Boehner behaved like any responsible leader of a congressional majority: he cut a deal with those who had the votes, in this case, Nancy Pelosi, who naturally insisted that the bills include none of the devastating cuts or policy riders demanded by the conservative activists who had no intention of supporting the bills even if they included their demands. Boehner’s explanation to the Tea Party-Freedom Caucus zealots reflected his responsibilities as Speaker: if you won’t provide me 218 votes to pass the bill I (and you) want, then I have no choice but to get the votes wherever I can.

After Boehner quit in 2015, following years of aggravation from the hardliners, Paul Ryan faced much the same dilemma. Five years of being in the majority had done little to convince the Freedom Caucus that they bore any responsibility for governing. And their hostile view of government meant they cared little for the disdain heaped upon Congress for its failure to perform. After all, an unpopular Congress is unlikely to be entrusted by voters to empower government to act.

But what happened today was a very different outcome, and one that could hardly have been predicted. McConnell and Ryan arrived at the White House arguing for a debt ceiling extension that would extend beyond the 2018 election, minimizing the need for a succession of embarrassing votes and limiting the opportunities for Democrats to insist on policy riders.  Not surprisingly, Pelosi and Schumer argued for a short debt ceiling extension and Continuing Resolution, until only December, avoiding the short-term crisis but setting up another opportunity for leverage just before the Holidays.

In the meeting, Trump evidently assessed who had the capability to make a deal, and determined it was Pelosi and Schumer. Did the GOP majority leaders have the votes they needed for the long term fix, he asked? No, admitted Ryan and McConnell, both of whom have rebuked Trump and drawn his insults. And just like that, Trump threw in with Pelosi and Schumer, demonstrating yet again his unpredictability and affirming Pelosi’s hard-nosed tactical maneuvers. Meanwhile, the Democrats declared that their support for Hurricane Harvey relief was conditioned on the short-term debt and CR agreement.

Republican staff recoiled in horror at the affront to their bosses that, unlike Trump’s juvenile name-calling, has real policy and strategic implications. The inexperienced Trump, the staff believes, got rolled by the crafty Pelosi and Schumer team. Now, Republicans now will have to cast votes again, perhaps numerous times, on these prickly issues between now and the 2018 election, fueling anger from the base and potentially stimulating primary challenges. Moreover, the time that will invariably be devoted to these additional negotiations will likely consume all the oxygen on Capitol Hill that the GOP leadership had hoped would be devoted to tax reform or even another attempt at health care before the 50 vote threshold evaporates with reconciliation authority on September 30th.

Trump really did nothing that Boehner had not done previously, bowing to the inevitable and cutting a deal with Pelosi that reflects her demands. But it was one thing to endure that humiliation when a Democrat occupied the White House and could back up his congressional allies. But with a Republican in the Oval Office, the GOP leaders had every reason to believe a little presidential muscle would be flexed on their behalf.

No such luck. Trump lived up to his self-proclaimed reputation as a deal maker and he cut one with the people who had the power to make a deal. “We had a very good meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” the President told the press aboard Air Force One. “We agreed to a three-month extension on debt ceiling, which they consider to be sacred — very important — always we’ll agree on debt ceiling automatically because of the importance of it … [W] e had a very good meeting. We essentially came to a deal, and I think the deal will be very good. We had a very, very cordial and professional meeting. So we have an extension, which will go out to December 15th. That will include the debt ceiling, that will include the CRs, and it will include Harvey. So we all very much agree.”

Ryan and McConnell were removed from the account of the meeting like old Soviet apparatchiks who were excised from a photo after falling from favor. Pelosi and Schumer were reportedly delighted with the outcome and immediately began plotting to exploit the coming December deadlines. “Both sides have every intention of avoiding default in December and look forward to working together on the many issues before us,” they declared, adding that “as Democratic leaders, we strongly believe the DREAM Act must come to the floor and pass as soon as possible and we will not rest until we get this done.” No report on Ryan and McConnell’s mood but unquestionably, it was not a good day for the congressional majority.

Coddle or Censure?

Congress is out of session for August, and it is a good thing for Republicans that it is. Were the House in session, Democrats would be crawling over each other to reach the hopper to introduce resolutions calling for the condemnation of President Donald Trump for his appalling defense of the Nazi terror in Charlottesville.

Come early September, when Congress reconvenes, you can bank on multiple resolutions being filed as members compete to author the most pointed language to condemn, censure or impeach Trump. It is unlikely that the Democratic leadership would, at this point, countenance a full-blown impeachment strategy, but they will surely exert no resistance whatsoever to full-throated resolutions that call for censure.

Republicans will find themselves in a highly compromised position. September is a do-or-die month for any majority party. The looming September 30th end of Fiscal Year 2017 means that, absent passage of over a dozen individual appropriations bills (no chance), Speaker Ryan will once again find himself in the same conundrum as did John Boehner for six years. Confronted with a resolute Freedom Caucus wing that relishes a government shut-down, the Speaker will have to seek votes from Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic Caucus for appropriations legislation as well as for raising the debt ceiling.

Democrats would love to leverage some policy concessions from the weakened Republicans, but they are never willing to shut down the government to achieve that end. Unlike Republicans, Democrats need to burnish the image of government, which is their instrument of policy implementation, and shutdowns do little to bolster public esteem in the institution. But don’t be surprised if the quid pro quo for Democratic buy-in on a Continuing Resolution is a demand that Ryan schedule a floor vote on a resolution censuring President Trump over his disgraceful and divisive language in the wake of the Charlottesville demonstration. You can bet that the Democratic resolution will be loaded up with language that will make the hair stand up on the back of Ryan’s neck.

Acquiescing to that Democratic demand will send the Freedomites and their Trumpian base into unbridled fury. Ryan might try to appease the Right by offering up instead his own resolution which is a lukewarm hand slap of Trump, daring the Democrats to vote it down. “You’ll get one opportunity to censure Trump,” Ryan might say, “and it is my resolution. Take it or leave it.”

Ah, but the Democrats don’t have to take it or leave it. They can elongate the fight and keep Ryan on the hot seat by initiating a discharge petition on their own hard-nosed censure resolution. If no action on that resolution is taken in committee within 30 days, the discharge process allows 218 House members to sign a petition that would bring the measure to the floor despite the opposition of Ryan and the Republicans. That layover period means that the censure debate would pervade the fall, which could not possibly please Ryan as he contemplates the appropriations and debt ceiling deadlines, let alone his planned pivot to tax reform.

Moreover, while every Democrat would eagerly sign such a petition, a discharge effort would put enormous pressure on vulnerable Republicans to sign the petition or be accused of protecting the embattled president. Voting for the Democratic measure will almost certainly ensure a primary challenge from an aggrieved Trump supporter in their district; if they won’t, they may be highly vulnerable to the charge of insulating Trump.

All of this may seem speculative at this point, but it seems a foregone conclusion that Democrats will demand an unprecedented censure of the President of the United States as soon as the House reconvenes That near certainty means that Ryan and the Republicans will be forced to make a decision fraught with political danger, whichever way they turn: coddle or censure.

 

Are Hill Republicans Growing a Backbone?

Congress, composed of 535 voting members, is often a plodding, indecisive, faction-ridden body. In contrast to the typical ability of a president to swiftly change the subject of discussion, Congress is inherently faction-ridden and inefficient, which is why Thomas Cronin of Brandeis once observed that the 535 member legislative branch “is never going to be fast on its 1,070 feet.”

Congress’ capacity for swift and decisive action has been further diminished by the deep partisanship resulting from the ideological realignment of the parties and the persistent struggle for control that marks American politics. Chosen by the ideological extremes that dominate the candidate selection process, and fearful of the unlimited resources that special interest groups can unleash on those who deviate from orthodoxy, increasingly few members venture near the political center, which is invariably where the votes are found to enact major legislation.

Many had anticipated that unified political control of the Congress and the Executive Branch that resulted from the 2016 election would enable Republicans to secure the key legislative victories that had eluded them so long as Barack Obama held the veto pen resolutely in his hand. And yet, the combination of having only 52 votes in the Senate, the remaining (if faint) factions within the Republican Party, and the sheer complexity of addressing issues from health care to tax reform have yielded no legislative achievements fully one-quarter of the way through the Congress (when significant legislative successes are typically achieved).

Of course, President Trump’s erratic governing style, his profound ignorance of the policies he promotes, the daily tweet storms, the melodramatic West Wing intrigues, and the dark cloud of scandal that hangs over the White House have undermined the White House’s ability to shape legislation or cajole fellow Republicans to fall into line. Perhaps even more significantly, Trump’s boorish personal style, including a startling contempt for legislators, has prodded a few Republicans, especially in the Senate, to stand up for the institution of Congress itself.

“Too often, we [in the Senate] observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying ‘someone should do something!’” Sen. Jeff Flake recently observed, “without seeming to realize that that someone is us.” Flake’s outspokenness – which is doubtlessly helping him sell his new book — so irritated Trump that the thin-skinned president has contemplated running someone against the Arizonan in next year’s primary. Flake’s fellow Arizonan, John McCain, memorably did do something by providing one of the key Republican votes that crumpled the Republicans’ decade-long obsession with ridding the country of the Affordable Care Act, at least for the present.

McCain’s defiant act was a stunning reminder of the political maxim that today’s adversary can easily be tomorrow’s friend, a truism about the collaborative give-and-take of the lawmaking process that many advocates and absolutists often fail to appreciate. In Trump’s view of politics, there aren’t many friends, and everyone is under suspicion of disloyalty, treason, and treachery. “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low,” Trump recently tweeted. “You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare”

Trump’s bizarre attack on his own congressional allies followed their decision to send him, with barely any dissent in either house, enhanced sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, including provisions to limit Trump’s capacity to modify or abandon the sanctions. The sanctions bill was just one of a number of recent actions that suggest that even some Republicans in the Congress – mainly in the Senate – are concerned not only about the future of their party, but the state of their branch of government as well.

There was the forceful push-back by Judiciary chairman Charles Grassley, among others, to suggestions that Trump might be considering the dismissal of his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who had properly recused himself from the Russia inquiry. Replacing Sessions might be the first step to removal of the highly regarded Special Counsel Bob Mueller, whom Trump has warned against undertaking a broad inquiry into Trump’s secretive financial empire. Such warnings have prompted bipartisan bills in the Senate, including by the reliably conservative Thom Tillis of North Carolina and the more unpredictable Lindsey Graham to restrict Trump’s ability to unilaterally dismiss Mueller. Under the influence of his new chief of staff John Kelly, Trump appeared to have momentarily stepped back from such a provocative challenge, but the Senate wisely decided to remain “in session” throughout August to block any recess appointments by the irrepressible President.

Senators have also sent clear signals that despite Trump’s exhortations to try yet again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they are unlikely to return to the ill-fated health debate, preferring instead to pivot to the equally challenging subject of tax reform (or more likely, tax cuts). In addition, some senators are discussing a bipartisan initiative to address the ACA’s deficiencies while warning Trump against executive manipulations designed to trigger a collapse that he could blame on the current law.

None of these actions constitute an abandonment of Trump by Senate Republicans. House members, including the sycophantic Speaker, who face potential Trump-inspired primary challenges next year, have almost unanimously remained loyal to the President, even after he condemned as “mean” the health bill he had urged them to pass. Small signs of institutional assertiveness, to be sure, but these minor pushbacks may reflect a growing unwillingness to simply defer to the executive branch, let alone to a White House led by an erratic novice who has done little to mask his contempt for Capitol Hill.

 

 

 

Is “Better” Good Enough for Congressional Democrats?

A dozen years ago, a bicameral group of Democrats labored for months to devise a compelling message to persuade voters to reject George W. Bush and the Republican congressional majority. Members of the House and Senate, as well as a wide range of consultants were consulted, from both the political and private sectors, in crafting a frame to highlight Democratic objectives that clearly differentiated the party from the GOP.

Some early enthusiasm built around the phrase, “Together, We Can Do Better,” but as Democratic Leader Pelosi’s staff member in the discussions, I was not persuaded. “It sounds like a ‘C’ grade,” I argued. Twenty years earlier, Jimmy Carter had sought the presidency asking, “Why not the best?” Did we really want to ask the American people to ratchet down their expectations to a vision that was merely “better?”

For the past several months, pundits and party activists have been clamoring for Democrats to move beyond confronting Donald Trump and articulate an pro-active policy vision. Trump won the presidency promising to “Make America Great Again.” The Democratic appeal, it was argued, should convey an inspiring alternative that could challenge Trump’s audacious vision of American supremacy.

This week, House and Senate Democrats are rolling out their plan, “A Better Deal — Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.” “Better” is back. Perhaps given the blundering and bumbling inaction and incompetence of Republicans – “better” is enough for right now.

Senate leader Chuck Schumer describes the Better Deal as “quite different than the Democratic Party you heard in the past,” although the details of the plan sound fairly familiar: creation of 10 million jobs over the next five years, a new tax credit to encourage employers to train and hire workers, an expanded paid apprenticeship program for non-college graduates, “cracking down” on corporate mergers that ill-serve consumers, and an end to “price-gouging” on prescription drugs. In addition, the plan promises “high-speed Internet to every community in America,” paid family leave and efforts to “encourage innovation.”

In fact, not much in the plan sounds much different from earlier agendas that included a major infrastructure/jobs plan, a $15 minimum wage and paid family and sick leave, plans that Schumer now characterizes as “too cautious … too namby-pamby.” In fact, when they were in the majority, they passed legislation that addressed many of these topics, which didn’t stop the pitchfork-and-torch-toting mob from ungratefully tossing Mrs. Pelosi out of the Speaker’s chair in 2010 (with Harry Reid following in 2014).

As with any Democratic wish list, every candidate embracing the “Better Deal” agenda is going to be grilled on how all this expensive policy will be paid for. The private sector? Spending cuts? Tax increases? The deficit? An inability to answer these legitimate inquiries, other than by falling back on the old “cutting waste, fraud and abuse” or “tax the 1%” bromides, can seriously undermine the marketability of the proposed policies. The Republicans’ fumbling of a health care replacement policy after years of articulating homilies about cheaper premiums and expanded service offer a cautionary note to Democrats: don’t set yourself up to fail if you are lucky enough to catch the bus. Figure out the “pay-fors” now, even if you don’t broadcast them.

Democrats seem to have learned to echo the applause lines of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign that energized the Democratic base. The “Better Deal” agenda, Nancy Pelosi states, contrasts with “the toxic special-interest priorities at the core of the Republican agenda.” The message team assembled by Pelosi to develop the plan similarly pledged it would “make government responsive to all hardworking Americans, not just a select few.” That boilerplate progressivism may soothe Party hardliners who were holding out for single payer health care or other unachievable (and potentially divisive) planks, but it could prove tricky for candidates in swing districts who hold the key to reaching a House or Senate majority.

The impact of such exercises in congressional platform writing is far from determined. From Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” to the Pelosi-Reid “New Direction: 6 for ’06,” such agendas are more successful at disciplining the messaging of the rambunctious caucus than on exciting the public. With rare exceptions, the political environment owned by the majority has greater impact on the election outcome. Indeed, for all the sound policy included in the “New Direction/6 for ‘06” agenda in 2006, public anger towards George W. Bush over the war in Iraq and towards congressional Republicans embroiled in the Jack Abramoff-Mark Foley corruption scandals likely had greater influence on the Democrats’ regaining the majority.

Congressional platforms like the “Better Deal” can help to keep the Caucus in line, and that is a valuable achievement. Working with the party’s many factions to fashion and promote such a program helps to enforce messaging discipline that often challenges House and Senate leaders. The “Better Deal,” like its predecessor programs, allows Pelosi, Schumer and others to urge their members to stick with the agreed upon program rather than careening off in the advocacy of issues that might alienate the more centrist voters who will determine whose hand holds the Speaker’s gavel in 2019.

 

 

 

 

Did the System Actually Work?

There is a lot of snickering – and even more relief – going around in the wake of the failure of the long running Republican “repeal and replace” Obamacare farce. After seven years of pledging instantaneous repeal, Senate Republicans were exposed as clueless gasbags on health (as well as on deficit reduction, tax “reform,” immigration reform, and a host of other grandiose but unfulfilled promises).

The relief may be premature. McConnell could resurrect a health bill at any point up until January, 2019, with the current Senate. And the next Congress could be worse because of the disproportionate exposure of Senate Democrats facing re-election. Drop a couple of those seats without compensating by taking out a few Republicans and Mitch McConnell begins the 116th Congress even stronger than he is today.

Demoralizing as the health care debate has been of late, two observations provide some measure of optimism. In a somewhat perverse, distorted and infuriating way, the failure of Trumpcare illustrates a success for the American political system as it was designed 230 years ago. A multi-layered system with divided powers and checks and balances provided the time needed to expose the flaws and implications of a poorly conceived idea. Moreover, the collapse of the Republican plan illustrated that even in this era of super PACs, 501c3s and hyper-partisanship, enraged and engaged voters were able to rise up and influence (and occasionally intimidate) their elected leaders. It’s not a model of government efficiency, but it actually worked.

Lamentations about the failures of Congress as an institution are nothing new. “Congress,” declared George Galloway, is “an oxcart in the age of the atom,” hopelessly incapable of functioning efficiently within the modern world. It is worth recalling that Galloway’s obituary for the First Branch of government was written in 1946. Political scientists and historians, not to mention columnists and the general public, have generally agreed. Sen. Joseph Clark (D-PA) labeled Congress the “sapless branch” in 1965, and Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein coined the term “the broken branch” nearly a half-century later.

Unquestionably, there is a lot about Congress that doesn’t work, which makes it even more important to make note of when the system functions as intended. To balance a competition of views that they knew would be inevitable (even more so in an 18th century legislature that lacked permanent parties to impose discipline), the Founders created a multi-tiered system of entities with distinct but also overlapping functions to check each other, slowing the process of law-making, ensuring the rights of the minority and in doing so, compelling compromise. At least, that was the general idea.

What happened to the Republican health scare is that it fell prey to the delays, accountability and criticism that the Founders intended would prevent popular but ill-conceived proposals from swiftly becoming law. True, the design of the House may encourage such ill-conceived lawmaking on occasion because its members, due to their two-year terms, are constantly accountable to constituents. That is why the Senate, with terms three times longer, was described by George Washington as the saucer that cools the hot tea of the House, slowing down the momentum, empowering the minority time to compel debates, compromise, and even CBO scores (OK, that arose slightly after Washington’s time.)

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of black lung-ravaged, opioid-overwhelmed West Virginia heard from constituents who would be devastated by a “yes” vote on McConnell’s travesty. “My position on this issue is driven by its impact on West Virginians,” she declared. “With that in mind, I cannot vote to repeal Obamacare without a replacement plan that addresses my concerns and the needs of West Virginians.” Ditto for Lisa Murkowski in Alaska and Susan Collins in Maine. They also undoubtedly heard from Republican governors who warned them of the cataclysm awaiting their states should expanded Medicaid be rescinded.

The collapse of the Republican strategy also illustrates that despite all the fundraisers and commercials, hit pieces and targeted attacks; the power of the grassroots was again affirmed. Yes, the opposition of the American Medical Association played a role, as well as AARP and other health care organizations. But so did individual citizens, and groups of constituents, who wrote the letters and emails, made the phone calls, signed petitions and attended (or demanded) town halls and public discussion with their elected officials. At their core, representatives and senators are people who need approval (and enjoy admiration); they do not enjoy having to listen to a distraught parent who, in a public setting, castigates them for jeopardizing their child’s access to life-saving care.

Still, Mitch McConnell is not going to go quietly into the darkness with a well-earned besmirched reputation. He will force the Senate to vote on legislation to repeal the entire ACA, a brazen act of political petulance that would deprive 34 million Americans of health care. McConnell will, for no particularly good reason, force his conference members either to vote to rescind health insurance for millions of their constituents or to expose themselves to relentless condemnation by conservative activists who will be enraged by a vote against repeal.

Such heavy-handedness exposes McConnell’s frequent nastiness, though this time, turned against his own party colleagues. In meetings at the White House during the Obama Administration, during which party leaders would at least fake pledges of cooperation, McConnell – who often spoke last – could always be counted on to deliver a pointed and partisan rebuke of the president. One can only imagine his unspoken sentiments towards the three female senators who consigned Trumpcare to the well-deserved dustbin of history, taking with it McConnell’s reputation as a savvy floor leader.

But this is no time for celebration. Almost certainly, McConnell will try again, and the House GOP budget, revealed this week, proposes additional health care (as well as Social Security) cuts. Moreover, Trump has announced his intention to undermine the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, harkening back to Newt Gingrich’s proposal to allow Medicare to “wither on the vine.” All the more reason for health care beneficiaries and proponents to recall John Philpot Curran’s admonition in 1790, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” Public engagement and a complex legislative system served our country well this time; undoubtedly, both will be called upon in the near future.

 

 

 

 

Trump’s Train Wreck

It is perfectly understandable that any sane human being would prefer spending the next two months or so lounging on the beach, hiking in a park, or perfecting their high school foreign language in some international destination. Anything but hanging around and watching the inexorable, slow-moving train wreck that is the U.S. federal government. As a service, therefore, I will once again stick my neck out and make a few predictions about the next few weeks under the hapless Trumpians and their Republican henchmen in Congress.

There is the inevitable drama of September 30th, the end of the fiscal year, which means that either the 12 individual appropriations bills are signed into law or whatever remains without an enacted bill necessitates a Continuing Resolution. One of the stunning examples of Republican legislative ineptitude since regaining the majority in 2010 has been the party’s inability to conduct the basic responsibilities of governing: appropriating money, raising the debt ceiling, preventing the termination of desirable policies including tax cuts.

In each case, the resolute obstructionism of the Tea Party-Freedom Caucus zealots in the House has prevented the GOP majority from writing those bills on the party’s terms. No matter, the ideologues on the Right remain dug into their absolutism and will not vote for essential legislation even if loaded down with conservative trinkets, obstinacy that has forced both John Boehner (who lost his job for such behavior) and the hapless Paul Ryan to seek Democratic votes to reach 218. Those Democratic votes come with a price: no riders, and the resulting clean CRs and debt ceilings cause the Freedom Caucus fringe to explode into even deeper fulminations about their leadership’s collaboration with Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats.

If you feel like you have seen this play before, it is because you have, with regularity, and you will see it again this fall. Ryan inevitably must make concessions to reality that will widen the chasm in his Conference, compounding the challenge in reaching a consensus on health care, immigration, tax policy and infrastructure. It is unlikely anything will happen before midnight on September 30th that will resolve this conundrum, unify Republicans, and strengthen that party going into the end-of-the year fundraising/candidate recruitment season. Indeed, failure on the policy front will encourage stronger Democrats to challenge sitting Republicans and may well lead some in the GOP to opt for retirement, creating alluring open seat pick-up opportunities.

It may not be all smooth sailing for Democrats. Although I had predicted the House would inevitably approve some health care bill and then apologized when it did not, my prognostication eventually came true with approval of the travesty that even Donald Trump – after the sophomoric beer bash on the South Lawn of the White House with gleeful Republicans – deemed “mean.” Similarly, it seems difficult to believe that Senate Republicans will fail to pass something to avoid culpability for failing to address the Affordable Care Act. But with two-thirds of the Senate not up this fall, Republicans in the upper house may not feel the electoral pressure to pass a bill that will prove unpopular in states that are far more diverse than the carefully crafted conservative House districts. Cutting off Medicaid has real consequences in many Republican states where House members didn’t think twice about taking a scalpel to health services for poor children, those with disabilities and the elderly.

A major motivation for dropping health care is that it is getting in the way of Mitch McConnell’s real objective, which are tax cuts for the affluent. True, Republicans need those health “savings” to “pay for” the tax cuts; but don’t think for a moment they won’t find a way around that dilemma. Cutting taxes for rich people, as I have written before, is the reason this circus came to town, and if only one “major” bill passes in the 115th Congress, McConnell will ensure that it is tax cuts – not to be confused with tax reform.

The great unknown remains the toll on the legislative process from multiple investigations of the Trump Administration. Over six months into the term, Trump and his cranky pranksters show no signs of learning the ropes of governing or avoiding weekly missteps that brake any gathering momentum. The country had no sooner recovered from Ivanka’s audaciousness in substituting for her meandering father at the G-20 head of state table than another Trump spawn — Don Jr. – admitted to participating in a mid-campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton. No less than Richard Painter, a George W. Bush ethics lawyer, observed “We do not get our opposition research from spies, we do not collaborate with Russian spies … This is unacceptable. This borders on treason, if it is not itself treason.”

Making predictions about where we will be two and a half months – or two and a half days from now – is a perilous exercise in an environment where the Trump regime seems to be unraveling like a golf ball at one of the President’s high-end resorts. All the more reason to slap on the suntan oil and go on a hike.

 

A Fraudulent Commission

There are a lot of problems with how elections take place in the United States, not the least being the perverse outcomes that sometimes occur. Fraudulent voting isn’t one of them.

For purely strategic reasons, Donald Trump spent a considerable amount of time last fall excoriating the failures and corruptibility of the voting process and warned that the election outcome would be “rigged.” Although his allegations ceased when he improbably emerged as the winner, his emphasis on rooting out so-called “voter fraud” has now been elevated to official status with the appointment of the Orwellian-sounding Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. That such a panel could be appointed by President Donald Trump rates very high in the pantheon of bad political jokes.

First of all, there is no consequential “voter fraud,” and certainly none that is altering the outcome of elections. There is something fascinating about Trump’s willingness to embrace allegations that have been so thoroughly discredited while at the same time he and key members of his administration refuse to accept peer-reviewed scientific studies establishing humans’ contributions to climate change. One might almost conclude that facts do not matter to the most powerful person in the world, which would be, of course, a chilling thought.

Serious researchers have examined the allegations of so-called voter fraud in recent years and have concluded such arguments are little more than hyperbolic fairy tales employed to disenfranchise voters. In 2014, Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles examined every case of voter impersonation fraud going back to 2000 (a memorable year for dubious vote counting procedures). Levitt did find cases of irregularities in over a billion votes cast in federal, state and local elections. He found 31.

Zoltan L. Hajnal, a political scientist at the University of California (San Diego) examined the voter identification laws that have proliferated in many states – especially in the South – coincidental with the expanding minority electorate and concluded that such restrictive policies “double or triple the gap in turnout between whites and nonwhites.” Indeed, 14% of Americans lack the government-issued photo ID cards required for voting in many areas, and a significantly higher number of minorities lack such credentials.

The barriers to voting are created not only by voter ID requirements. As documented in the study “Democracy Diminished,” produced by the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, there are numerous cases of local officials closing voting locations in minority communities, locating polls in buildings that share law enforcement offices (which can be intimidating to certain populations), and purging voter lists with disproportionate impact on Hispanic surnames. Despite the highly consequential outcomes of these insidious actions, many of which occurred in states once impacted by the suspended provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, neither Judiciary Committee chairman — Bob Goodlatte in the House or Chuck Grassley in the Senate – have deigned to hold hearings on the issue.

Trump has decided, however, to move aggressively to get to the bottom of this non-existent problem, naming an Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and appointing as a member Hans von Spakovsky – a chief proponent of “the voter-fraud myth,” according to The New Yorker. Von Spakovsky, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, has “been accused of masterminding widespread efforts to suppress voting by marginalized populations, particularly African Americans and immigrants,” reports the Washington Post. Von Spakowsky has reportedly devoted his career to fabricating such obstacles, opposing renewal of the Voting Rights Act, trying to block the League of Women Voters from disseminating voter information materials, and challenging the distribution of voter materials in Spanish.

It should come as no surprise that a President who named a climate denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency would appoint a vote suppression activist to serve on a commission charged with investigating voting fraud. Nor should anyone be shocked that half of the states are refusing a request from the commission to provide some or all of the voting registration data, including names, addresses, party affiliation and voting histories, to this panel. “What are they trying to hide?” Trump tweeted on July 1st, apparently clueless that many state laws prohibit the sharing of such information with anyone, including Trump’s voter suppression commission. Indeed, even the chairman of the Commission, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is evidently barred by his own state’s law from turning over data — to himself.

The emerging confrontation between Trump and state officials over access to election data is yet one more example of serious policy discussions being reduced to farce and cynicism. An administration official solemnly assures that the commission requires the information because its “goal is to protect and preserve the principle of one person, one vote.” No, it isn’t. The goal here is to enshrine “voter fraud” and “rigged elections” in the way some embrace creationism as “science.” The objective is pretty clear: creating even more effective ways to obstruct millions of Americans from casting their ballots. Only a fool would provide these treacherous suppression activists with the raw material they require for further disenfranchisement.

If Trump and his acolytes are sincere in wanting to address the problems with voting, they would be aggressively supporting efforts to expand participation by promoting absentee voting, early voting, and an end to discriminatory requirements and polling operations that complicate exercise of the right to vote. Such initiatives would encourage voter turnout among the 40% to 50% who don’t even bother to cast a ballot. If the Commission, or Trump, wants to devote themselves to revitalizing our democracy, start there.

 

The Important Take-Away in Ossoff’s Loss

Democrats and pundits need to be very careful about drawing the wrong conclusions about Jon Ossoff’s defeat in Tuesday’s special election in Georgia. The balloons at Ossoff headquarters have not even deflated and already we are being told he should have run a more left-leaning, progressive campaign (in a traditionally Republican Georgia district), he should have tied his opponent more to Donald Trump, he was weakened by charges he was a toady of Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and his defeat – in what many had presumed would be a welcome victory – foreshadows a grim 2018 election season for Democrats.

All of those conclusions might be correct; but more likely, they are wrong. Elections at their bottom line are a grim, cold business, and people who want to be involved in campaigns need to face facts. So here are a few facts about the George 6th race and what it might say about next year’s off-year election.

The most important piece of news out of Georgia, in my view, was not that Ossoff lost, but that he lost by only 4 points in a district that 8 months ago re-elected a Republican congressman by nearly six times that margin. Less noticed was the similarly close election in South Carolina on Tuesday where last fall’s GOP margin also was shrunken to a few points in a race virtually no one was even watching. These close calls track races earlier this spring in which Democrats came close in Montana and Kansas House races, neither ones that the party had any reason to believe would be competitive.

One of the cruel truths of politics is that you can’t win by losing. But special elections can send significant signals even if they do not produce victories, and this group of four specials in heavily Republican districts are very revealing because each of the districts was so unqualifiedly weighted against a Democratic victory, which is why House strategists resisted pouring money into what they reasonably knew were long shot races.

There are 94 House seats currently held by Republicans where the margin of victory in 2016 was closer than the margin won by Tom Price in Georgia 6 last November. Democrats need to win just 24 of those seats to win the majority (assuming they hang onto their current seats). If you are angling for a House majority, go fishing where the fish are. (Or, as Willie Sutton reportedly replied when asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.”)

One often overlooked consequence of the gerrymandering practiced so effectively by Republicans is that in order to fashion such manipulated districts, the margins tend to be relatively close. States that look solidly Republican actually are chock-full of seats that the GOP wins by narrow margins. To squeeze 6 Republican seats into a state where registration would suggest 4 or 5 is appropriate, the seats need to have a fewer number of Republicans, making them more vulnerable to Democratic challengers. This is where the GOP could face across-the-board problems in 2018: seats that are not quite Republican enough to insulate incumbents from an anti-Trump wave. And there are a lot of them.

It is always important to remember that House races are largely determined by conditions on the ground, in the district, and less impacted by national trends than many believe.

Yes, it would have been satisfying to win Georgia 6th, but the loss is a reminder of one of the rules House tacticians must live with: some seats are just too tough to win. There is a long litany of races where a Democrat pulls down 47% and comes to party leaders explaining how a tweak here or there will produce 50%+1 in the next election if only the campaign committee can spare a million dollars or so. In many cases, that just isn’t true: yes, in a wave, all bets are off, but those familiar with the rhythm of House campaigns know that some seats can inch agonizingly close to victory without ever quite getting there. My guess is (and was throughout the Ossoff campaign) that Georgia 6 was probably one of those.

Of course, it didn’t help that our candidate was facing an experienced campaigner who had won statewide office and run for governor and senator. True, Clinton lost the district by only a couple of points (NOTE: However, she did lose it, see previous paragraph), but one should not be surprised that women repelled by Trump’s misogyny might come home to an established, Republican, female House candidate who avoided mentioning the president’s name. While the avalanche of money for Ossoff was impressive, it certainly didn’t help that the vast majority of it came from outside Georgia, bolstering Karen Handel’s characterization of Ossoff as a outsider-financed, carpetbagging interloper (who incidentally lived with his girlfriend outside the district).

So, what does this disappointing, if predictable, outcome tell us about 2018? Actually, the closeness of these races leaves me fairly optimistic, although it will still be a grueling path back to 218 for House Democrats. It is still very early in the cycle to assume these four losses spell doom for Democrats, who won a string of special election victories in 2009 only to suffer a massive loss in 2010. Events still unknown will likely shape the outcome 16 months from now, and if congressional Republicans cannot deliver legislative victories that demonstrably benefit independent voters, or if Trump continues his bull-in-the-china-shop approach to governing, the close races in 2018 may well swing towards the Democrats.