hardline political news and analysis

GOP Division Won’t End Nov.8

(reprinted from Santa Fe New Mexican, October 19, 2016)

NOTE: While in Santa Fe for the fall, I will be writing occasional commentaries for the local newspaper on the election and its aftermath, and will post them on DOMEocracy once published.

Predicting election outcomes is a tricky business, but not when a presidential campaign is self-immolating. Here are certain signs of trouble: when the candidate, less than a month from the election, denounces his own party’s leadership, his allies are fleeing like he is the Walking Dead, and the press refers to the campaign as a “murder-suicide mission,” there’s trouble brewing on Election Day.

Even if Hillary Clinton is victorious, she may face a daunting task as President: dealing with a Congress in which Republicans are likely to control the House and will have enough votes in the Senate to obstruct her legislative priorities. Concern about those wishful priorities is why both parties are focusing so much attention on the “down ballot” races for the House and Senate.

As Donald Trump’s campaign spins alarmingly out of control, Republicans confront the unenviable challenge of encouraging voters to support their down ballot candidates even if they disapprove of the presidential nominee. Infuriated by the refusal of Speaker Paul Ryan to campaign for the ticket, Trump has launched unprecedented vitriol at those who are vacillating on, or abandoning, his campaign, tweeting “Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary.” As for the House Speaker, Trump tweeted, “I don’t really want his support,” dismissing Ryan as a “weak and ineffective leader” and suggesting an undisclosed “sinister deal” is influencing Ryan. There are still congressional Republicans embracing the Party’s nominee, like Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold who recently admitted he would “consider” withdrawing his support if Trump “said he liked raping women,” but the ranks are getting thinner daily.

The GOP’s internecine warfare is escalating at a rate unprecedented in American presidential politics. Independent conservative campaign funders like the Koch brothers have decided to bypass Trump, pouring money instead into the races of endangered GOP incumbents. Loyal Trump voters are retaliating by threatening to boycott candidates who decline to embrace the top of the ticket. Meanwhile, GOP strategists are appealing to voters who blanche at voting for the Trump-Pence ticket to turn out to vote for other Republican candidates. As one who spent four decades in congressional politics, I know how difficult it is to persuade voters to focus on candidates even when they enthusiastically embrace the top of the ticket; when voters are deeply riven about the nominee, the task of enticing them to focus on the “down ballot” becomes even more formidable.

Few recognize this problem more than Ryan. Like his predecessor John Boehner, Ryan has been unable to persuade about 70 of his most conservative Members to support legislation he favors, depriving him of the 218 Republican votes he needs to pass bills designed by Republicans. Instead, like Boehner, he has had to negotiate with President Obama and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to secure the Democratic votes to make up the deficit.   Indeed, virtually every major bill enacted during Boehner’s speakership had been passed with less than a majority composed of House Republicans (the supposed “Hastert Rule”) and with the strong support of Democrats. Ryan has not even tried to move forwarded with complex reforms on immigration, criminal justice and tax policy because of the deep GOP divisions and an unwillingness to be accused of compromising with Democrats.

Republicans may be able to sustain their House majority in 2016, largely because many districts have been drawn to disproportionately favor GOP candidates. But with Trump potentially running more than 10 percentage points behind Clinton in several bellwether states, Ryan may lose as many as 20 seats from the dwindling “moderate” wing of the Party, the only seats to remain marginally competitive despite the best gerrymandering efforts of state legislatures. As a result, in the next Congress, any majority Ryan enjoys will likely be much smaller and include an even larger proportion of irreconcilable conservatives than at present. Ryan would once again have to rely on Democrats to pass essential laws simply to keep the government functioning, and Democrats will continue to insist that the price of their support is keeping bills “clean” of conservative riders, like abolishing Obamacare. Ryan’s inevitable capitulation to that political reality will only outrage the Freedom Caucus further.

Such a likely dynamic is certain to spell continued turbulence for the Republican Party nationally, and renewed headaches for Speaker Ryan who would rather promote his ambitious policy agenda and perhaps pursue a 2020 campaign for the White House. One more reason to keep a close eye on the outcome of the congressional balloting next month.

A Microcosm of the Campaign

The first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump served as a microcosm of their characters, styles and campaigns. Clinton arrived prepared, poised and ready to bait Trump into responding to her most provocative attacks: his temperament, his tax records, his dubious business practices, and his lack of preparation. Trump arrived undeservedly confident of his debating skills and ability to do one-on-one to Clinton what he had done to a shelf-full of Republican primary opponents: bluster, intimidate and spew half-truths (at best).

Let’s be clear that what is important about the debate aftermath is not who scored the most points; this isn’t a high school state championship after all. What matters is (a) how voters – especially undecided voters, who hopefully watched – evaluate the candidates’ performances; (b) how the media describe what happened for those who didn’t watch or who need some guidance in sifting the wheat from the chaff; and (c) what the polls reflect in the days to come.

The immediate reactions were mixed, as they always are. CNN, whose commentators gave Trump’s performance higher marks than did MSNBC, ran a quick poll that found viewer evaluations favored Clinton by nearly a 2-1 margin. Democratic commentators naturally gushed over Clinton’s performance, especially James Carville who appeared nearly giddy in the debate’s aftermath. Importantly, Republican commentators, most notably Steve Schmidt (a former McCain strategist), was almost as apoplectic about Trump’s undisciplined behavior.

They key question for me, as with all issues related to campaigns, is whether the performance of each candidate persuaded voters to move out of the undecided category. It is difficult to believe that Trump’s vintage performance would move an undecided voter into his camp, whereas it is reasonable to conclude that Clinton’s measured, serious demeanor and exhibition of detailed information might well persuade some undecideds that she is the superior candidate. In that regard, rather than parsing each statement or answer, she was the winner.

The climax of the debate for me, hands down, was Trump’s unwise foray into a discussion of his temperament. In my earlier blog last weekend, I highlighted the temperament issue as the one I would have Hillary focus on; as it turns out, Trump did it for her. To be honest, I nearly dropped my pen when he claimed his greatest asset is his temperament. OK, let’s be clear: when your opponent hands you the line you can run with till Election Day, it’s been a good evening. Trump may be able to lay claim to some strengths as a candidate – the articulator of lower income white angst comes to mind – but no reasonably intelligent person would conclude his temperament is an asset, let alone his “greatest” asset. I could practically hear the film editors rushing to the editing room to re-cut all those commercials showing a volatile, explosive, vulgar Trump to insert his absurd statement as the introductory overlay. I wasn’t disappointed: it showed up within 12 hours, and it’s a doozy; plan on seeing it non-stop from now to November.

Clinton’s performance was not perfect by any means; occasionally she slipped into demonstrating that she was the smartest person in the room, reeling off acronyms and the names of obscure foreign leaders or adversaries. Her comeback on his charge that she lacked stamina was good – highlighting her globetrotting as Secretary of State and her 11 hour testimony on Benghazi before a House committee — but he had a good response (“wrong experience”).  More importantly, her answer opened what could have been a devastating segue into a discussion, in the hands of a more skilled debater, of her shortcomings as Secretary of State. But she also projected voluminous knowledge, an ability to parry Trump with a gentle put-down instead of an off-putting battering ram, and a willingness to sustain a smile on the split screen during Trump’s venal attacks. She skillfully raised differentiating issues that will cut against Trump with that undecided portion of the electorate –- equal pay, minimum wage, student loan relief – and found opportunities to remind viewers of his vile and un-presidential attacks on women, his shoddy business practices and his refusal to release his tax returns: all issues a voter not immersed or interested in policy nuances would easily understand. But she missed an opportunity to follow-up on his charges about manufacturers exporting jobs by pointing out that all of the products bearing his name are made overseas.

Trump showed some strength early on, but quickly dissipated into an angry, uncouth loudmouth who lacked both the substantive knowledge and – sorry, Donald – temperament to be President. He was doing pretty well attacking Clinton’s positions on trade, ISIS and deficit spending, and he forced her into what was unquestionably her worst stumble of the night, a full-throated defense of NAFTA. (You can be certain that mistake will be replayed exhaustively in battleground states hard-hit by job losses including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.) But Trump missed numerous opportunities to return to the issue and remind viewers what Clinton had just said, an amateur’s mistake. Meanwhile, he displayed an incredible tin ear to middle income voters, boasting he had paid no taxes on over $600 million in income last year (“That was smart”), hoping for a collapse in the 2008 housing market (“That’s called business, by the way”) and defending his refusal to pay contractors working on his construction projects. (Clinton should have mentioned there are thousands of such suits). As an attorney, Clinton should have pounced on Trump’s implication that he was innocent of racial discrimination in his rental practices because the Department of Justice suits were settled without an admission of guilt, which is no exoneration or dismissal of the charges. I was fascinated by Trump’s persistent assertion that he knew about foreign nations because he owned properties in various locales, and his admission that he took advantage of bankruptcy laws because he could.

Perhaps his most revealing statement all evening is one that voters should carefully consider. “My obligation right now” (note “right now,” in the midst of a presidential campaign) is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies. And that’s what I do.” The American voter has reason to expect a little more attention to their well-being and security from a candidate for President.

Overall, a decent night for HRC, but not a knockout.  She deserves credit for being knowledgeable, managing Trump’s adolescent behavior and finding multiple opportunities for reminding voters of Trump’s unsuitability. Also, I give her and her team great credit for taking the debate deadly seriously, preparing assiduously, and not assuming that she could simply rely on experience and knowledge. She will have to demonstrate the same discipline in the two remaining debates and not fall prey to the assumption that because she vanquished Trump once, he will prove similarly inept in their future encounters.


Eve of Destruction

A few random thoughts the day before THE DEBATE, between book editing, exploring Santa Fe and deep anxiety over the presidential election.

The Debate

 OK, everyone’s heart is in their throat, realizing that all Trump need do is not foam at the mouth (a possibility) and he will be judged the equal of Clinton’s 40 years of public service and expertise.

My advice to the Clintonistas is simple: the only issue in this campaign is whether Trump has the temperament to be President. Sure, there are policy differences as well, but the gut question for rationale people even contemplating voting for Trump is whether he can be trusted to act responsibly. So Clinton should simply find as many opportunities as she can (and there will be many) to say to Trump: “Donald, that comment reflects exactly why you lack the temperament and judgment to be President. It is obvious your words and decisions would threaten the security of the people of this country.”

When Clinton is hit with provocative questions about emails, Benghazi or her supposed evasiveness, her response should not be to refute them substantively, but to dismiss them by saying, “The real issues are Mr. Trump’s complete lack of experience and his temperament that will endanger the safety of the people of this country.”

I also would not be opposed to finding an opportunity for this: “You know, I don’t think Mr. Trump would hire and architect or an engineer or a welder to work on one of his casinos of hotels if that person had never spent an hour doing such important work, regardless of whether he agreed with their opinions (or whether he intended to pay them for their work). Why would we entrust the safety and security of this country, and the American people, to someone without any demonstrated experience in dealing with the most complex national or international challenges?”

Gary Johnson: Will He Be Missed at the Debate?

Johnson’s absence increases the chances that Trump will be the candidate most likely to say something truly jaw-dropping. Here is a recent offering of the Libertarian’s musings that will not be offered on stage at Hofstra on Monday night:

“I mean, the plate tectonics at one point, Africa and South America separated, and I am talking now about the Earth and the fact that we have existed for billions of years and will going forward. We do have to inhabit other planets. I mean, the future of the human race … is space exploration.”

OK, as Bernie Sanders says: this is no time for a protest, 3rd party vote.

Congress: Who Is Driving This Train?

 End-of-the-session continuing resolutions and pre-election maneuvering are always fascinating (and a little unsettling) to watch, and this year proves no exception. As I have long noted, the conflict is within the House Republican Conference where the Freedom Caucus threatens to withhold support for a CR that might become law unless Speaker Ryan, House Democrats, the Senate and President Obama all do what the Freedomites demand. Not going to happen. So Ryan again likely will have to pass a CR with Democratic votes, although even that is looking problematic because Republicans are balking at providing assistance to Flint, Michigan residents following the water contamination debacle.

Some Republicans seem to have figured out they are doing grave damage to their party in battleground Florida by delaying the provision of the $1.9 billion requested by President Obama last February for addressing the spread of the Zika virus. Still, the Republicans are insisting on unrelated riders as the price for Zika funding, including a ban on the Securities and Exchange Commission requiring that public entities reveal their political spending. There’s a connection most voters would immediately appreciate: no money to stop a deadly virus unless you also agree to cover up special interest campaign spending! Every Zika case in the country – 19,000 so far — should be ascribed to Republican procrastination. Coming from the same people who profess so much concern for the unborn, one might have thought a more timely and compassionate response would have been in order.

Of course, Louisianans who are desperate to secure money from the federal government – which they disparaged when the Northeast required emergency aid – also wanted help responding to recent flooding. The willingness of these anti-Washington zealots to demand handouts (and not paid-for handouts, as they demanded in the past for Hurricane Sandy and other catastrophes) is really a marvel of self-serving hypocrisy, notable even by Louisiana standards (which are impressive). Perhaps they would have more time to consider the inconsistency of their appeal if some of the very same players were not also focused on trying to impeach IRS commissioner John Koskinen, who was not even in office when alleged (and disproven) investigations of conservative organizations were taking place.

Ryan’s “Relief”

 The beleaguered Speaker Paul Ryan has been spending the summer and early fall trying to avoid association with his Party’s presidential nominee. With an eye towards his own likely campaign four years from now, Ryan has been sweating the details of his own policy program to contrast with that of a possible President Clinton (and distinguish himself from his Party’s current nominee). Ryan is often given undeserved creds as a policy and budget genius, based largely on his ability to craft a House budget that passes only with Republican votes, needs no Senate agreement or presidential approval and thus demonstrates no particular political or legislative skill whatsoever.

What is important to note is that the tax plan embraced by this strategic and policy maven is decidedly reminiscent of every other Republican tax scheme for the past 40 years: high-minded talk about evening out the inequities in the tax laws, but stuffed full of policy that delivers most of the benefits to the very rich.

Under Ryan’s proposed tax rewrite, 99.6% of the tax cuts will go to the richest 1% of Americans. Before the masses take to the streets to celebrate Ryan’s tax relief plan, they might want to check who gets the relief. It isn’t them. No surprise.

By the way, this proposal is not quite the sharp reversal of policy Ryan would have us believe. In addition to being warmed over trickle down economic hooey, it tracks the tax laws approved by Republicans over the past decade that have showered $269 billion in tax breaks, not just on their favorite 1% of Americans, but on the wealthiest two-tenths of one percent!   That translates to 5,400 families! No report on how the trickling is going.

But the vast bulk of Americans aren’t ignored in the Ryan plan; at least not the poorest Americans who probably wouldn’t gain anything from tax cuts anyway. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens can look forward to $6.5 trillion in cuts to programs like Medicare, Medicaid and nutrition assistance.

Quick Quiz

OK, here is a quiz you might want to take the day before THE DEBATE.

Both of the following stories have been reported in the (loosely defined) press.   One is true; the other, I honestly believe, is not. Take a guess, and the answer will appear in the next DOMEocracy. Meanwhile, enjoy the debate.

o Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby

In June 1993, shortly after entering the White House, the Clintons adopted the infant survivor of a UFO, whom they named John Stanley Clinton. An observer told the Weekly World News, “He will almost certainly be educated and groomed for a life in public service.”

o One-fifth of Trump Supporters Disapprove of Lincoln Action

According to a January 2016 poll by YouGov, 20 percent of Trump supporters disagreed with Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. No word on whether they disapprove because it only applied to slaves situated in states in rebellion (i.e., Trump states), because they thought it should not have been issued at all, or because they think Lincoln’s Executive Order paved the way for President Obama’s unilateral actions.


Fire and Smoke

After a 4 day drive across much of the country and a week settling into our temporary housing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I am ready to resume writing DOMEocracy while completing my book on the House Class of 1974 and the impacts of congressional reform. There has been a lot of fire and smoke since the last DOMEocracy post – similar to the Zozobra festival torching of a 60’ high marionette I witnessed here – but after the smoke has cleared, does anything solid remain?

A number of earlier observations have proven accurate, at least in this still early point in a turbulent political year: Trump remains a profoundly disturbing, undisciplined, divisive and improbable (but not unelectable) candidate; Senate Democrats might narrowly win control, but (in my view), that is no certainly; House Republicans are putting a lot of partisan irons in the fire for use in early October; and Speaker Paul Ryan is confronting the same extremists within his Conference who doubt his fealty to conservative principals and his inclination to compromise with Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi.

The Clinton campaign remains a careening force barely capable of staying on the tracks between non-issues (including her health), unresolved issues (the endlessly evolving emails), and inexplicable issues (why would Bill Clinton accept $17 million to glad-hand dubious for-profit educators at a time they are under investigation in Congress and his wife is contemplating a run for President)? One can only imagine the state of the polls if Secretary Clinton were running against virtually any other Republican.

House Democrats appear likely to pick up a number of seats – perhaps 15 or more – but predicting down ticket outcomes is very tricky, even when the outcome of the presidential race is a good deal clearer than it is today. Leader Pelosi continues to raise money and is adding races to her Red-to-Blue competitive list of challengers. The upbeat former Speaker refuses to rule out winning the House majority, which would unquestioningly return the gavel to her hand. The single biggest factor in that outcome and the election in general is the question of Republican turnout. Will GOP voters be so disenchanted with Trump that they stay home, or will they defy historical voter behavior and flood to the polls to support congressional candidates even if they intend to skip the presidential race? If Libertarian Gary Johnson continues to offer the kind of uninformed musings he uttered this past week (“What’s Aleppo?”), Republican voters may not even come out to vote for him in protest. GOP turnout will be crucial to Democratic prospects in the House.

While the rhythm of the presidential campaign will likely impact the House outcome more than any specific strategies hatched by the party leaders, Republicans have unwittingly provided Pelosi and Democrats with precisely the target that could resonate with voters. I downplay the significance of attacks referencing poor legislative performance or low numbers of votes; I don’t imagine such allegations influence undecided voters very much, and many, in fact, may be delighted that this Congress, for which so many Americans have only contempt, is passing few new laws. But the Republican inaction is providing a winning theme for Democrats: Republican mismanagement and extremism threaten the well-being and security of the American people. When voters feel there is something at risk, particularly for them and their families, they pay attention; when the risk is to an institution for which they have little regard, there will be minimal impact.

By failing week after week, month after month, to approve legislation sought by President Obama and Democrats to attack the Zika virus threat, Republicans are putting Americans at risk. By insisting on inclusion of irrelevant riders like defunding Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico, Republicans are sending a message that their extreme agenda is more important than the health and safety of the American people. The same argument holds true for inaction on gun safety legislation and immigration reform. Republicans would rather promote division, inaction and extremism than do what they are being paid to do: protect you, me, and millions other Americans who pay their salaries. So get rid of them and let someone else bring forward a reasonable gun bill, a balanced immigration bill, and a Zika control bill that will pass with overwhelmingly bipartisan votes. That is precisely the strategy successfully pursued by Democrats in 2006; the problem isn’t the institution, it is the people who are running it. So change the leadership by changing control.

Instead of addressing these urgent issues, Republicans continue to engage in the circular firing squad that was once the signature formation of Democrats. (As political scientists have noted, large majorities by definition contain more disputatious factions than relatively homogeneous minorities.) As I had anticipated, the Freedom Caucus zealots are thinking of spending September planning the impeachment of the IRS Commissioner, a fairly low priority for most Americans. Some are also discussing plans to censure the Democrats who sat in on the House floor in June to protest inaction on gun violence. Waste of time. And they are surely planning a few privileged votes holding Hillary Clinton in contempt for emails, Benghazi, and probably coughing. All designed to force Democrats into defending their nominee (which virtually all are unhesitatingly doing already).

They also are throwing up resistance to any long term budget deal that would lock in the agreed spending formula from a year ago, preferring either a government shut-down or a bloody fight over additional cuts and Obamacare riders that will once again leave their Speaker no alternative but to cut an unsavory deal with Pelosi and Obama. “How’d that work out for John Boehner,” asked Freedomite Paul Gosar of Arizona. Another GOP dissident recently told Politico that “the question many of us have is whether [Ryan’s] leadership is any different than Boehner’s.” The answer to that, as I predicted some months ago, is “no,” if Republicans refuse to back his budget and appropriations strategy to free the beleaguered Speaker from pleading with Pelosi for votes.

Accepting a deal to avoid what would be a cataclysmically harmful government shutdown five weeks before the election now seems likely to produce challenges to Ryan’s re-election as Speaker. So will bowing to reality and dropping the riders to the Zika bill, an absolute certainty unless Ryan wants to kiss off several GOP seats in Florida, including Marco Rubio. Acquiescing in an effort to ram the TPP trade deal through the Lame Duck session, as some are predicting (but I think unlikely) would create yet another dilemma for the pro-trade/business money dependent Ryan. Accepting any one of these scenarios could mean a real challenge for Ryan reaching 218 votes for Speaker, assuming Republicans are even in the majority. Recall that Boehner had two dozen “no” votes from the Right wing in 2015, and with a diminished GOP Conference including a higher proportion of nay-sayers in 2017, Ryan could face trouble for being anything but an obstructionist.

All of this maneuvering is understandably far beyond anything the average voter will follow. The question will be whether citizens remain so discouraged and fatalistic that they just give up on the whole operation and stay home playing Pokemon Go or watching Netflix. How much more ludicrous can it get? Sometimes it feels we are simply doomed to repeat the most demoralizing political experiences in recent memory:

  • Newt Gingrich diagnosing Hillary Clinton’s coughing spell and launching into a coughing spell of his own before hinting she might have a more serious problem than allergies. Sounds a bit like Bill Frist diagnosing Terri Schiavo’s coma, having never examined the patient.
  • Donald Trump asserting that had he rather than Obama been confronted with the Chinese failure to allow use of the official airplane stairs, he would have simply refused to participate in the G20 meeting. (“If that were me, I would say, ‘You know what, folks, I respect you a lot but close the doors, let’s get out of here.’”) That undiplomatic possibility revived memories of Newt’s own fit when he shut down the government because Bill Clinton didn’t talk with him enough on Air Force One, prompting one of the great Daily News front pages in history.
  • Or Trump assuring voters he has a “secret plan” to defeat ISIS, but he doesn’t want to talk about it before he is Commander in Chief.   Sounds a lot like Nixon’s 1968 secret plan to end the war in Vietnam, which continued until 1975.   At least Trump inspires confidence with his explanation of his ISIS strategy: “When I do come up with a plan that I like and that perhaps agrees with mine or maybe doesn’t.” Oh, good grief.

We have two months to go and we are three weeks from the first debate in what is already an interminable and inexplicable election season. I will be interested to see if the Southwest offers a different perspective as events unfold.

Excess of Democracy?

Although the United States has been an active promoter of democratic governance around the globe for decades, here at home, there has always been skepticism about the public’s ability to make informed decisions. Most people periodically come away from discussions with friends and family members with their faith in universal suffrage severely in doubt, and events in 2016 are illustrating why.

Our Founding Fathers qualified their enthusiasm for “representation” as the means for governing. Obviously, we all know the inherent limitations presumed in the 1776 phrase, “All men are created equal.” The Constitution, written a dozen years later, not only excluded women and slaves (except for purposes of assessing population), but incorporated many other features to guard against majority rule.

The best known of such limitations include the indirect election of U.S. Senators (until 1913) and the use of the indirect Electoral College to determine the presidency. Nor were voters given the ability to elect federal judges, who were given life terms to insulate them from retribution.

It should be noted that the Founders didn’t have much inherent trust for the people who would be elected by such a system either. “Where annual elections end,” wrote James Madison in Federal 53, “tyranny begins.” (Anti-Federalists actually favored a one-year term for the House of Representatives.) “The greater the power is,” Madison (or perhaps Alexander Hamilton, founder of Paterson NJ) wrote in Federalist 52, “the shorter ought to be its duration.” Since the awesome power of initiating taxation lay with the House of Representatives, its term of office was the shortest, and its Members the most accountable, in the federal system.

Over time, suspicion of government and those who select its members has generated demands for reform. In the early 20th century, progressives within both political parties embraced a series of reform both to inject more public will into the political process, to limit the role of bossism and urban political machines, and to facilitate lawmaking outside the legislative process altogether. The initiative gave voters the ability to propose and vote on legislation drafted by private citizens; the referendum allowed voters to assess the work product of elected officials; and the recall gave voters the ability to remove officeholders without having to go through the messy business of proving high crimes or misdemeanors. An additional reform allows voters themselves instead of bosses in smoke-filled backrooms, to select party nominees.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, actually, quite a bit. Few axioms of politics or history are as certain as that of unintended consequences, and political reforms certainly have proven no exception. Take primaries, which have allowed tiny minorities of voters to select the candidates who will appear in general elections, increasingly open primaries that allow voting by those who are not even members of the political party whose mantle the candidate will carry and whose policies he or she presumably would espouse.  The vast majority of voters are too uninterested, disgusted, or disengaged to bother casting a vote in a primary.  This year, just 9% of eligible voters selected Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump respectively, a phenomenon that regularly occurs in congressional and other primaries where pluralities rule, allowing the most extreme base elements to exercise hugely disproportionate influence in the selection process. It doesn’t matter why the other 91% stayed home; the candidate selected by the hard base represents the Party in the fall campaign. This primary process is one reason we end up with officeholders beholden to the intense base that they are loath to offend.

The initiative process is just as loaded with problematic consequences. Designed to circumvent corrupt legislatures bought by special interests, the initiative process has spawned what may be a far worse process for decision-making, one in which opinionated oligarchs find it much quicker, and cheaper, to buy the voters than to buy the legislature. When I worked on Capitol Hill, virtually every election cycle would produce some advocate explaining why my boss had to support their cockeyed initiative that ignored every other point of view. When I explained we could not endorse their pie-in-the-sky initiative (no matter how resplendent its contrived name) because it was unbalanced and couldn’t even make it out of a subcommittee mark-up, we faced outrage from the rich benefactor or special interest who thought their idea should become law undiluted by opposing viewpoints.

Others had fewer qualms, which is one reason that California spent much of the last quarter of the 20th century reeling from crisis to crisis, many instigated by misinformed zealots who were able to entice voters into approving a pleasingly-named tax and budget initiatives they neither read nor understood. As documented in his excellent 1988 study, Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future, Peter Schrag noted the extensive damage to the State’s economy and political system resulting from a mistaken notion that direct democracy was superior to the messiness of the legislative process. The exploding role of private money in initiative campaigns complicates the problem. Voters continue to make snap judgments based on slick advertising promoting initiatives that promise painless policy nirvana without regard for how the proposal might actually be implemented of whether it might conflict with other policy directives. “We all want a free lunch,” said former Gov. Gray Davis, who was unceremoniously tossed out through a dubious recall and replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger, “but unfortunately, that doesn’t exist.” As Davis noted, California has spent decades “papering over this fundamental reality.”

This coming November, California might be an Election Day snorer except for the presence on the ballot of 17 initiatives that would impose the voters’ will on everything from state bonding priorities to public education to safe sex in the pornography studios.  (Local activists can cram the ballot with additional measures; in San Francisco this fall, there will be an additional 25 items for voters to decide.) Qualifying for the ballot just got easier because the number of signatures required — only 365,000 this year for a state initiative – is tied to the turn-out in the last gubernatorial election, in which voter participation was low. Professor Thad Kousser of UC-San Diego, a political scientist, characterizes the panoply of 2016 proposals as “Sex, Drugs, Guns, and Death”; now, there’s a litany of issues we certainly want millions of minimally informed voters to be deciding.

Voters will get lots of help between now and Election Day in “understanding” these measures. Thus far, supporters of one health care proposition affecting hospital fees have spent $59 million, and it’s just August. Those promoting a measure to regulate prescription drug prices – also arguably an issue legislators should address within the broader context of health care – have spent nearly $10 million, but opponents have shelled out $70 million, and counting. By the time it is all over, experts estimate, as many as eight initiatives could cost more than $40 million apiece, outstripping the cost of Senate races in many states. And unlike congressional and legislative races, there are no limits on contributions. Some recent reports indicate that some legislators raise vast sums for “ballot measure committees” that, in addition to promoting their pet projects, skirt contribution limit laws and pay for new wardrobes and foreign travel.

Citizens’ cynicism about the electoral system, fed by both the Right and the Left, may well be justified by the low productivity of many in policymaking positions, but the low participation exacerbates public disenchantment with politics: growing polarization, special interest domination of the debate, and the exploding effect of money in campaigns. Every step that cedes influence to the fringes, the wing-nuts on both ends of the spectrum, and those with the big dollars for whom an investment of a few million dollars represents an intelligent investment further diminishes our democracy and the legitimacy of the political system. Simply tossing the tough decision-making into the hands of amateurs who are utterly unskilled (and often uninterested) in the complexity of policy and the need for balance in any functioning democracy may be intended to empower the people against special interests, but too often, it has exactly the opposite effect.

Real power lies in the hands of voters (which is why some interests are so busy trying to discourage or obstruct voter participation). Magic pills that attempt to circumvent the messy and time-consuming nature of politics often fail or have perverse, unanticipated consequences. As a political friend once said, “You can’t take politics out of politics.” Hold elected officials accountable, sure; cede power to small, unrepresentative factions of the electorate, and you get what you ask for. Pretending that direct democracy will solve the problem is disproven by the historic record: excessive reliance on initiatives, referenda and low-turnout primaries has made the political system, the campaign finance crisis, and polarization even worse.


The Canary in the House Chamber?

“What are the odds,” I was often asked following the collapse of the Boehner speakership, “that Paul Ryan will be more successful?” Without a hesitation, I always answered, “Zero,” because the fundamental problem that Boehner confronted also looms over Paul Ryan. Denied solid support from his own Conference to secure the 218 votes needed to pass legislation, Ryan (like Boehner) has no choice but to solicit votes from Democrats. By collaborating with Democrats, he alienates the same Freedom Caucus faction that compelled him to seek Democratic assistance in the first place. This has been the circular scenario with virtually every major piece of legislation – must-pass appropriations, tax bills, and policy measures – since Ryan reluctantly ascended the podium to the Speaker’s chair.

Freedom Caucus members have fumed furiously about Ryan’s behavior. While the Speaker has little option but to seek the votes wherever he can find them to prevent very bad outcomes (e.g., repeated government shut-downs), the Freedom Caucus absolutists have no such responsibilities, in their view.   Not only do they not care if must-pass bills pass, but they embrace shutting down the government and besmirching the reputation of the Congress, which serves their objective of reducing confidence in government. The voices that now chant “Lock her up!” are the same as those that chanted “Shut it down” in the past.

But Ryan, like Boehner or any Speaker, cannot go there. When Boehner bowed to the Tea Party’s demands for a shutdown in 2013, the Republican Party’s favorability plummeted more than 20 points. There is no chance Ryan will opt for that strategy as we head into votes on the Continuing Resolution needed to keep the government functioning just weeks prior to the election. Of course, the Freedomites will insist on amendments to void the Iran nuclear agreement, repeal Obama Care (for the 60+ time), or send Hillary Clinton to Guantanamo. But since such amendments cannot pass the Senate or secure a presidential signature, Ryan will turn them down, and the fury of the Freedom Caucus will be on full display as the September 30th fiscal year deadline – and the election — close in.

This coming conflagration was previewed in Tuesday’s landslide defeat of Tea Party/Freedom Caucus/Boehner-detesting Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KA) in his primary. Numerous other GOP hardline followers of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in the state legislature also went down to defeat. Boehner had grown so irritated with Huelskamp, a Tea Party zealot elected in 2010, for opposing leadership directives on key votes like Paul Ryan’s budget resolution and the farm bill that he removed the Kansan from the House Agriculture Committee in 2012.

Huelskamp was pounded mercilessly for his failure to secure a reappointment to the Committee and for his extremist, non-cooperative positions. Significantly, as occurred in a Louisiana special election a few years back, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce weighed in on behalf of Huelskamp’s inexperienced challenger, Roger Marshall, a self-described conservative who nevertheless promises to be less irreconcilable than the incumbent, who had the backing of the Club for Growth and the Koch brothers.

Although Donald Trump is getting most of the attention in this political season, the Huelskamp defeat deserves to be discussed. The primary battles illustrate the possible emergence of a division between pragmatists and purists within the GOP, with the former increasingly able to secure financing to successfully compete. The factionalizing of Republican groups providing key financial support to candidates can only complicate efforts to ensure the functioning of the House under Ryan’s leadership.

Ryan, who likely hopes for a productive Congress to boost his standing as a 2020 presidential candidate, must be gratified by Huelskamp’s loss. A leadership staff member who worked with the Kansan recalled that he was “often untrustworthy and rarely worked as a team player.” Party leaders must accept hard-liners in order to ensure a House majority, but they will cut them off at the knees when an opportunity presents itself to replace the dissenter with a loyalist. That opportunity presented itself Tuesday in the case of Rep. Huelskamp. His loss, and the potential setbacks that might affect the GOP this November,  are unlikely to make for a collegial or productive lame duck session in November, but they might be the canary in the House Chamber foretelling a reassertion of leadership by more responsible and operational Republican forces, inside and outside the Congress, in 2017.




Trump’s Ado About Nothing

National polls are looking a little grim for Republican nominee Donald Trump. Given his one-man political tsunami, with attacks on Gold Star parents, Speaker Paul Ryan, ex-POW John McCain – really, against just about anyone other than what’s-her-name – his deteriorating numbers are hardly surprising. Let’s just say that when Party leaders begin poring over the rule books to see how one might go about withdrawing a nomination, there’s not much “grand” in the Grand Old Party.

Which may be why Mr. Trump has decided to open a new line of attack: impugning the electoral process itself. Trump has still not finished condemning the unfairness of the primary procedure, even though it ended in his nomination. But now, perhaps anticipating a drubbing in November, he has decided to blame the manipulation of the election returns three months from now.

Now, there’s little question there has been partisan manipulation of the election process, as documented by three federal court decisions this past week. However, those rulings all focused on electoral hanky-panky designed to prevent Americans from casting votes, leaving little doubt that the voter ID laws enacted by Republican legislatures were ill-disguised efforts to obstruct minority voters from casting what will likely be overwhelmingly Democratic votes.

Trump, not surprisingly, chooses to look through the other end of the telescope and predictably sees a very distorted image: voter fraud. Is there a genuine issue that justifies not only the spate of voter ID laws but also the millions of dollars spent on examining allegation of vote manipulation? Or is this simply a trumped up charge designed to damage the credibility of both the elections and those who prevail?

“If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised,” Trump said this week. “The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times.” In fact, there have been multiple, exhaustive studies of voter fraud allegations, and no one has been able to point to a single case where the miniscule cases of fraudulent voting (generally accidental, not intentional) has impacted a single race.

 Two years ago, Justin Levitt of Loyola (Los Angeles) Law School conducted a study of alleged voter fraud since 2000 in local and federal elections. Out of one billion votes cast during that 4-year period, he found: 31 cases. “Usually, only a tiny portion of the claimed illegality is substantiated,” Levitt concludes from his empirical research, “and most of the remainder is either nothing more than speculation or has been conclusively debunked.”

Another study by Lorraine Minnite of Columbia University found that most assertions of fraud (which Minnite agreed were “exceedingly rare”) fall into one of three categories: mischief and administrative or voter error, unsubstantiated claims, or false claims by the loser of a close race.” Although we love to hear the stories of Mayor Daley turning out the graveyard vote, Minnite found that in 95% of so-called ‘cemetery voting’ instances in the 2010 South Carolina mid-term vote, “human error accounts for nearly all” of the “fraud” alleged by the state’s law enforcement chief.

 Similarly, a study of the 2012 general election by professors at the University of Wisconsin and Stanford examined allegations of repeated or fraudulent voting and vote buying, and concluded, “The notion that voter impersonation is a widespread behavior is totally contradicted by these data.”

Nor are these studies just being conducted by liberal professors committed to discrediting Republican allegations of fraud.   When Iowa’s Republican secretary of state examined 117 allegations of fraudulent voting, there were 6 convictions. In 2011, Wisconsin investigated charges about the 2008 election and charged 20 people, most of them ineligible because they were felons.

When the press dove into the allegations, it similarly came up dry. A New York Times review of the George W. Bush Justice Department’s five year investigation found just 26 convictions, mostly attributable to people who filled out voter registration forms incorrectly or “misunderstood eligibility rules.” In other words, people who did not intend to deceive officials or steal elections. The Times reported that the Justice Department found “virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.” In Arizona, a student journalism project similarly concluded that “while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal.”

Those findings have not dissuaded 37 state legislatures – overwhelmingly Republican — from passing laws that create barriers to voting, mostly voter ID requirements.   And what might be the actual impact of those dubious laws enacted to address non-existent problems? Professor Zoltan L. Hajnal of the University of California, San Diego concluded that “strict voter ID laws double or triple the gap in turnout between whites and nonwhites.”  Admittedly, that conclusion should not be a major surprise, since discouraging minority turnout is precisely what the laws were designed to do (as the federal courts agreed this week). About one in seven voters lacks a government issued ID, and disproportionately, those without IDs are poor, old, disabled, rural and non-white minorities.

So the problem with suffrage in America is not fraud, which impacts election outcomes, but rather barriers created by politicians to keep voters they dislike from voting. When Greg Abbott was Texas’ Attorney General in 2005, he was determined to investigate what he called “an epidemic” of voter fraud. Two years later, Abbott’s investigation found no evidence of voter impersonation. There were 26 prosecutions – every one of them a black or Hispanic person – against people who helped the elderly with mail-in ballots but failed to sign their names and addresses on the envelopes, as required by state law. Abbott rode such unsubstantiated hysteria into his current job: Governor of Texas. By the way, Abbott paid for this witch-hunt with $1.4 million in federal funds, doubtless while lecturing about the need to cut down on wasteful federal spending.

Now, there are real problems with voting in America that Congress and the next President should focus on, but they don’t have to do with fraud; they have to do with access. Congress should make it simple to vote – Oregon uses all mail-in ballots and has reported no problems with fraud – instead of forcing voters to line up for 6 or 7 hours in the freezing cold in November. Expand early voting (politicians hate it because it messes up ad buys); allow same day registration, or, like California, make registration automatic when you get a drivers’ license.

But we also have to recognize that the biggest barrier to voting is likely indifference, often disguised in the language of being “too busy” to vote. In a close Texas race in 2014, nearly 26% of those who did not vote cited as a reason that they were “too busy,” as compared to just 6% who lacked a proper ID. Indeed, when I asked my undergraduate students this spring about their intention to vote, several told me it was just too difficult and they were “busy.” Voters are influenced in decisions about going to the polls, of course, by their confidence in the system, in its fairness and the likelihood that their vote will make a difference. There isn’t much question about the latter; a vote per precinct is more than enough to impact many legislative races around the country.

This is where disparaging the political system is part of the GOP strategy. Denigrating those in office, and the government itself, discourages participation, and likely reduces voting by those least likely to vote in the first place: young voters and minorities who would overwhelmingly vote Democratic. When over 60% of the electorate just decides to stay home – and we can’t blame that on voter ID laws – we have an electoral crisis in this country; requiring voter IDs is not likely to fix it.



After the Balloon Drop

The polls assessing Hillary Clinton’s post-convention “bounce” have yet to come out – I expect something modest, but ephemeral, just like the Trump bump last week – but there are a few take-aways worth noting from the 4-days of Democratic hoopla in the City of Brotherly Love.

For a meeting of hard-nosed politicos, there sure was a lot of talk about “love” — brotherly, sisterly, grandmotherly, and every other kind as well, which cast a message of acceptance and diversity much wider than at most conventions. Philly ’16 was all about playing to the base: making the substantial number of Sanders people feel appreciated, listened to, and courted, and for the most part, it seems to have been effective.

At the outset, it appeared as though the Sanderistas were adamantly cruising for a fight, even if they had to start one themselves. There is a “protest tradition” at Democratic conventions that seems to require that someone play this role, even when it has little rationale, like now, since the Clinton forces essentially capitulated on the platform, recognizing that a platform is short-lived, unread and unenforceable especially if (a) you lose or (b) you don’t win the down-ballot races essential to implement your platform. The main goal of any convention is to get the family together and charge them up for the fall campaign, and in that respect, you’d have to say the Democratic Convention was a considerable success (particularly compared to the Goth GOP gathering in Cleveland).

The major question for the Sanders forces, including Sanders himself, is their role going forward. This was Bernie’s first Democratic convention (unbelievably), and he has never been active in trying to elect Democrats to Congress or any other public office to effectuate his policy objectives. In Philadelphia, he promised to do so, but it remains to be seen whether he steers his supporters to more conventional political objectives. Will the Sanders supporters dive into grassroots political efforts to influence elections, as did the Tea Party following the 2008 election, or will they devolve into the role of critics who are more frustrated than effective? There is a big difference between “advocacy” and “politics”: “advocacy” is your telling me what you want; “politics” is your convincing me to do what you want. The former is easy, the latter a bit more of a challenge.

One effort emerging from the convention suggests some Sanders folks are heading down the road of self-satisfaction and ineffectuality. A group branding itself “Brand New Congress” has declared its intention “to spread the word about their goal to replace most members of Congress in two years. That means Democrats, as well as Republicans.” Presumably, this objective entails defeating any Democrats insufficiently wedded to far-left politics, regardless of the politics of their districts or their own personal views. Other than fostering the kind of polarizing, intemperate, adversarial politics that most Americans detest, such an effort wastes time and money that should be spent trying to build the Democratic congressional majority that produced two highly effective Congresses in 2007-2010 notwithstanding the inevitable diversity that comes with any congressional majority. The good news is that Politico reports “roughly 20 volunteers” involved with Brand New Congress; with any luck, their numbers and influence will remain right where they are today.

There was a fascinating dichotomy at the Convention: although the platform and most of the political speakers were decidedly from the Party’s left, the most riveting speeches were from three people who pretty clearly stated they were not particularly wedded to the Democratic Party but supported Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy anyway: Michael R. Bloomberg, a former Democrat, former Republican and now independent; Gen. John Allen, a four-star Marine general who warned that a Trump presidency represented “a dark place of discord and fear”; and Khizr Khan, whose Muslim son died fighting in Iraq, who thoughtfully offered Trump his personal copy of the U.S. Constitution.

These three speakers made the kind of compelling case for Clinton that invariably eludes politicians, who reflexively speak to their base. Their appeal signals the smart way for Sec. Clinton and Democrats to proceed this fall: don’t get too deeply into the policy weeds, differentiate between a tested, respected and mature leader and a dangerously inexperienced egotist, and most importantly, let others take the lead in trashing Trump, especially his fellow Republicans and, of course, Trump himself, through his own words.

When  Republicans like David Brooks, Paul Ryan, John Kasich, Joe Scarborough and Ted Cruz are excoriating the GOP nominee, stay out of the way and sound presidential! Asked if Trump was sounding perhaps a little too autocratic, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute – a group not normally associated with progressive politics – agreed: “I really don’t think that’s too over the top,” noting that Trump is “not even pretending — he is promising to be a one-man ruler.” Most importantly, David Boaz noted, Trump’s obsessive egotism and flippant dismissal of facts has the potential to encourage voters far beyond the Democratic base to choose Clinton.

As Trump demonstrated this week, he cannot restrain himself from saying things that, ideology aside, are shockingly inconsistent with someone running for President of the United States. While there was much coverage of the new email scandal – Russians hacking Democrats and leaking information, perhaps to assist Trump – a truly eye-blinking statement from the Republican nominee went virtually ignored. Asked if he would tell Vladimir Putin to stop hacking into American servers, the would-be President said, “I’m not going to tell Putin what to do. Why should I tell Putin what to do?” I’ll bet they drank an extra Stolichnaya in Moscow to that one!

Scene: The White House Situation Room, 2018

 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Mr. President, the Russians are expanding their threats against Poland and Croatia. We recommend a sharp rebuke to Putin. Remind him that we will respond to any violation of section 5 of the NATO treaty.”

President Trump: “I’m not going to tell Putin what to do. Why should I tell Putin what to do? Let’s fly Air Force One to Mar-a-Lago and hit the links.”

Trump seems unlikely to learn from such errors. Before the GOP convention, one Republican senator warned Trump he needed to change his style because “it wasn’t working for him.” Somehow, I think that message will have trouble penetrating Trump’s orange-encrusted head: his style seems to have “worked” effectively enough to vanquish 16 more skilled politicians (give or take a few, depending on how you characterize Ben Carson), win the Republican nomination, and draw pretty close to even with Clinton in current polls.

Trump’s unflagging faith in his own infallibility and his inability to present a presidential demeanor likely will be his undoing, much more than policy issues or ideology. The two commercials the Clinton campaign is running in battleground states, one showing adorable children appalled by Trump’s obscene public utterances, and other of the Republican hierarchy dismissing him as a know-nothing and dangerous braggart will do far more to influence independents and Republican voters than any critique Democrats could conjure up. When the conservative Republican Speaker of the House denounces the remarks of his own party’s nominee as racist, there’s a problem. Believe me, as Trump would say.

I was up on Capitol Hill yesterday walking past the Republican Club. In recent elections, the windows have been festooned with campaign posters: “Fire Pelosi,” “McCain-Palin,” “Romney-Ryan.” But yesterday, there weren’t any posters in the dozens of windows. Not one. The windows were as empty as Donald Trump’s ideas for how to govern, and just as transparent as his cynical and egotistical ambition. Let Trump be Trump, take nothing for granted (especially the debates), and hopefully (but not certainly), the American voter will make the intelligent choice.




Drawn to the Flame

When FBI Director Richard Comey and then Attorney General Loretta Lynch concluded there was no sound basis on which to prosecute Hillary Clinton over the email controversy, there was the expected sigh of relief from most Democrats. While I shared that sense with other Clinton supporters, my long experience on Capitol Hill told me it was unlikely to mark the end of the controversy, as many commentators predicted (and, no doubt, as the Clinton campaign mightily wished).

My concern was that House Republicans, frustrated by the unwillingness of the Justice Department to undertake a politically charged and unwinnable prosecution, would utilize procedural options within Congress’ purview to ensure that the controversy remain prominent throughout the remainder of the year, tainting the Democratic convention and dogging the Democratic nominee through Election Day. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, my concerns proved well founded.

There is an old rule of politics, written in the Watergate era and revisited with annoying regularity, that the cover-up is invariably worse than the crime. In the case of the Clinton emails, the issue is less a cover-up than the accusation that if she did not break a law in the handling of her emails, then perhaps she did when she testified before Congress about how she handled her emails. With the criminal accusation disposed of, one might presume Congress would not drag the issue kicking and screaming back into the limelight; but one would be wrong. The chant of this political season is less “keep hope alive” than “keep controversy raging.”

As if on cue, Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)  have asked the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to investigate whether “evidence collected by the FBI during its investigation of Secretary Clinton’s use of a personal email system … directly contradict[s] several aspects of her sworn testimony” before the Select Committee on Benghazi.   Chaffetz and Goodlatte know the U.S. Attorney, Channing Phillips, will likely have to respond to their inquiry, thereby ensuring that the controversy endures, either because Phillips decides Clinton did commit perjury (highly unlikely since the standard requires a witness knowingly lied to Congress, which is hard to prove) or Phillips decides not to act, in which case Republicans will heap accusations on the U.S. Attorney for making a “politically motivated” decision. Either way, the Republicans live to issue another press release condemning Clinton, the Obama Administration, and the Justice Department.

Well, at least that would be the end of it. Actually, no. If the request to Phillips comes up dry (as it almost certainly will; prosecutors are loathe to delve into congressional antics), Republicans still have other options. Speaker Paul Ryan threw some red meat to the Right last week by suggesting his Members might “have to ask [FBI Director James] Comey to look at” whether Clinton had lied to the Benghazi panel.   “That’s something we should look at,” the Speaker mused. Of course, Comey would welcome such a request about as much as Phillips; his likely response, at least on the record, would be to suggest that if Congress was upset about Clinton’s behavior, it should utilize its own procedures rather than continually call upon the legal system to prosecute politically charged and hopeless cases.

And that is precisely what House Republicans might do, bringing a resolution to the floor declaring that Clinton perjured herself before the Benghazi Committee. Speaker Paul Ryan likely would not relish such a debate since he will certainly need Democrats to help pass the Continuing Resolution (CR) to avoid a government shutdown on October 1st.   It is a pretty safe bet that the Freedom Caucus Republicans will insist that the CR contain poison pill policy riders that cannot be enacted (e.g., the 978th repeal of the Affordable Care Act). Or, they might simply refuse to vote for must-pass spending laws because they object to the spending levels Congress and Obama agreed to last year. Either way, Ryan needs Democrats just as John Boehner did. A knock-down, drag-out bloodletting on the floor over a contempt of Congress resolution is unlikely to foster the sense of collaboration needed to craft a bipartisan CR, so Ryan will doubtless try to discourage his Right flank from insisting on such a move.

Unfortunately, such a motion is privileged, and a motion to table it – the only line of defense – would be very difficult to pass without inciting the Freedom Caucus. My expectation would be that few Republicans would dare vote against such a sanction in the heat of the political season in September, ensuring yet another round of headlines declaring that Clinton has been “found guilty” of some nefarious email crime although the standards of evidence and burden of proof on the floor of the House are somewhat less rigorous than in a court of law.

If this scenario has a certain familiar ring to it, it is because of the similarities to the Republican House’s decision to press an impeachment resolution against then-President Bill Clinton in 1998 despite widespread public (and legal) sentiment that doing so was unwise and motivated purely by political maneuvering. The obsession with impeachment damaged Republicans in the 1998 off-year election, allowing Democrats to pick up 5 seats despite its being the sixth year of a Democratic presidency. Shortly after the election, Gingrich was challenged for the Speakership and quit, having also been founded in violations of House ethics rules and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.   After the Senate acquitted Clinton, most analysts concluded Republicans had damaged their standing by pursuit of so patently partisan a prosecution.

But the ability to wield pseudo-judicial power through resolutions accusing officeholders (or candidates) of wrongdoing is the flame to which congressional Republicans seem implacably drawn. If Comey won’t act, and Lynch won’t act, and Phillips won’t act, well, then, House Republicans are a-gonna pin on the sheriff’s badge an’ damn well enforce the law themselves. In fact, they have already begun the politicization of their prosecutorial powers by filing an impeachment resolution against IRS Commissioner John Koskinen for supposedly targeting conservative organizations. If they are going after Koskinen, can the Clinton resolution be far behind?

Republicans likely believe a privileged resolution that forces Members to vote on whether Clinton mislead the Benghazi Committee is a heads-we-win, tails-you-lose proposition. Once it passes, with solid Democratic opposition, Republicans can spend October trumpeting both the successful “prosecution” and the Democrats’ willingness to “overlook” Clinton’s alleged indiscretions. On both counts, they have extended the life of an issue that should wither in the August heat, assured a common theme with nominee Donald Trump for the fall, and created an issue for some Democrats whom they can hammer for having voted to exonerate Mrs. Clinton. If there is a downside, Republicans probably don’t see it, but then again, they didn’t see any dangers in going after Mr. Clinton’s evasiveness in 1998 either. Like Mr. Trump, they relish the notion of re-litigating that sorry chapter in presidential behavior this fall. It’s a bright flame for Republicans that they likely cannot help but fly towards.


The sight of Members of the House sitting in the well of the chamber to demand action on gun legislation was stirring, especially since the unprecedented demonstration was led by the iconic civil rights veteran, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. Frustrated by the refusal of Speaker Paul Ryan to schedule votes on gun reform, Democrats employed techniques unparalleled in congressional history to halt House proceedings and focus attention on unaddressed measures including immigration reform, the annual budget, and climate change, as well as gun violence.

The options available to Democrats to seize control of the House floor are limited. The House is a majority-run institution. Unlike the Senate, individuals and even the entire minority party are nearly incapable of affecting the schedule of bills that come before the chamber. Whatever the accusations against the sit-in, or the accompanying effort to block Republicans from reaching the microphones, one would be hard-pressed to argue they slowing down the productivity of the House.

Yet a note of caution is warranted. While the sit-in was successful in focusing public attention on the inaction on gun policy, Democrats (and Congress in general) should be cautious about embracing so-called “reforms” that may appear momentarily attractive but might contribute to the dysfunction of the House over time.

Indeed, a long history of reform actions have had not only beneficial impacts but also unintended consequences, and careful consideration should be given to proposals to upend traditions that have served the House well over the decades.

One particularly poor idea emerging from the sit-in experience, for example, was proposed by Rep. Eric Swalwell, a second term Democrat from California. Intrigued by the use of smart phone cameras and the Periscope app to broadcast the sit-in after C-SPAN’s cameras were shut off, Swalwell has suggested changing the House rules to allow such live streaming of floor activities on a regular basis. “What is the harm if the members have Periscope open on the House floor?” Swalwell asked. “It’s the people’s house, and as many windows as can be opened so they can be let in – it’s a good thing.”

Actually, no, it is not. Having Members wandering around the floor with cell phone cameras, filming private discussions, meetings and off-hand comments between Members would be a supremely bad thing. It is reminiscent of another recent “transparency” proposal to require Members to wear mini-cameras to record everyone with whom they met or spoke during the day.

Not only do some “reform” ideas violate the privacy of Members and the public, but they create a false sense of accountability. Many conversations would simply be driven into private areas; the floor would become even more empty than it is already; suspicion and distrust between Members would grow at the very time greater initiative is needed to break down the partisan and personal barriers that have obstructed communication and trust.

This is not to say that transparency is bad. Unquestionably, Congress is better for the reforms of the 1970s that opened the proceedings of committees, subcommittee and conferences to the press and public. Members are more accountable to their constituents because recorded votes are more easily achieved. And surely, the public has a greater access to observe congressional deliberations since television coverage began in the late 1970s.

But it is one thing to have C-SPAN covering the official debate in committee or on the floor, and quite another to have Members wandering the floor like so many Michael Moores. Many senior leaders long opposed televising floor proceedings for fear coverage would focus on Members’ unsuitable behavior (Tip O’Neill famously warned they might be caught scratching unmentionable parts of their anatomy). Another concern was that Members would stop speaking to each other in substantive debate and instead focus on the wider television audience, turning the floor into extended messaging sessions for firing up voters and publicizing the foibles of the opposite party.

Those concerns have been borne out over time; the use of one-minute speeches at the beginning of the legislative day – often little more than partisan harangues — tripled in the five years after the beginning of TV coverage, and the use of Special Orders, which can last an hour for much the same purpose, have similarly ballooned. Other reforms that loosened the rules on offering amendments generated strategies to force votes on divisive, unpassable measures simply to score politically damaging points against vulnerable representatives. Members of the Republican minority, led by Newt Gingrich, exploited expanded access to the public via C-SPAN very successfully throughout the 1980s and early 1990s to building public recognition and support.  When Speaker Jim Wright dialed back some of the liberalizations in the late 1980s to constrain partisan maneuvers, Republicans decried “autocratic” management of the House and called for a change in party control.

Swalwell is right when he notes that Congress is “an institution slow to upgrade itself,” and reformers are right to press for accountability and transparency. But legislators should consult congressional history before proceeding too quickly to embrace any change in the name of “reform.”   The results do not always make Congress a more open, accountable or effective legislative body.