hardline political news and analysis

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.


Sit-in On the House Floor

The floor of the House of Representatives is a long way from a North Carolina lunch counter or an Alabama bus depot, but there was John Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement of a half century ago, sitting down in the well of the chamber to demand action on gun violence.

Lewis was dramatically joined on Wednesday by a score of Democrats frustrated by the refusal of House Speaker Paul Ryan to allow consideration of any legislation in response to the Orlando massacre, the most recent example of automatic weapon mass murder in the United States. Over in the Senate, things were not much better this week, with four measures to keep weapons out of the hands of would-be terrorists going down in flames after a 15 hour filibuster aimed at pressuring the Senate to take up the legislation.

Even Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association are aware of the vulnerability of opposing any measure addressing the easy access to battlefield weapons, although one should take their expressions of concern with more than a grain of salt. When push comes to shove, it would take a miracle for the NRA to embrace any legislation that has a meaningful impact on the availability of weapons to deranged people.

This intractability is unlikely to increase public respect for the beleaguered Congress, which is fast returning to its status as the “sapless branch” of government decried by Sen. Joseph Clark in the 1964. Except that it appears to be filled with saps who cannot even figure out how to keep a military weapon out of the hands of people who are barred from flying on airplanes. Public support for tightened rules on gun purchases ranges into the 60% and 70% margin; the inability, or unwillingness in the case of the House Republicans, to even countenance a debate on the subject seems likely to push congressional disapproval even lower than the nadir at which it currently resides. That is not a major problem for the Freedom Caucus nihilists who welcome any evidence that the federal government is unworthy of public respect (even if they generate it), but for those who are looking for leadership, it is a decidedly depressing situation.

As inappropriate as it may seem, one must consider the political implications of the stand-off (or the sit-down) on the House floor. The issue, it seems to me, is not simply the urgency for responsible gun legislation itself, but rather what the intransigence of Paul Ryan and the GOP Conference says about who should be controlling Congress. Much of the political reform of the last half century focused on assuring the ability to have a full and open debate on contentious issues in committee and on the floor. The Freedom Caucus’ major complaint with former Speaker Boehner was his unwillingness to return to “regular order” and allow such full debate. But when the GOP leadership refuses to allow any discussion of gun violence and there is silence from the Freedom Caucus “reformers,” one must question the sincerity of their demands.

Circling the wagons to defend the NRA presents a distinct target for the Fall campaign. It allows candidates to ask voters whether they want a full debate or simply continued inaction and division from the Republicans which has produced a failed budget process, no immigration debate (let alone a bill), no responsible modifications to the Affordable Care Act (as would certainly have been considered and adopted by any reasonably operational House), and now, inaction on gun violence in the wake of mass slaughter.

If Democrats can make the election less a referendum on a litany of individual issues and more about who can provide responsible management of Congress and address urgent issues – budget, immigration, health, climate change, gun violence – the public might be willing to look past the controversies swirling around the policy questions and focus on the key issue: can anybody make this place work?

The 111th Congress, the last in which Democrats held a majority, has been called the most productive in the last three-quarters of a century. The last three Congresses, run by Republicans, have arguably been the least productive. As justified as today’s sit-in has been, the sad truth is that while it hasn’t made this Congress any more productive, it hasn’t made it any less productive either.

What Hath the GOP Wrought?

One can only imagine the anguish within the Republican Party leadership as they contemplate the next five months with Donald Trump as the GOP’s improbable, irascible and embarrassing nominee. It is as though the Party of Lincoln woke up in one of Trump’s casino hotel rooms after a bacchanalian night of gorging and drinking with a ring on its finger and next to a very unwelcome – and largely unknown – stranger. Happy days, most assuredly, are not here again.

If that isn’t bad enough, Mr. GOP picks up the morning paper to read that Washington Post Associate editor Bob Woodward has 20 staff people assigned to prepare “articles about every phase of his life” because even after a year of relentless coverage, “There’s a lot we don’t know.” How much more do you want, or need, to know?

Republicans may have one escape route left, and after this week’s hair-raising descent into racist attacks on a federal judge, I would be shocked if at least some party strategists aren’t thinking about alternatives to Trump. How can that happen, what are the costs of denying Trump the nomination he won at the ballot box, and are those costs less damaging to the Republican Party than proceeding with his nomination, a terrifying campaign season, and possible electoral disaster?

It is not a choice one relishes having to make, but given the awesome downsides of proceeding to Cleveland and beyond with Trump, all options have to be considered. Yes, denying Trump the nomination would doubtless still mean a November disaster as legions of his admirers refuse to vote for whomever the Republicans nominate.  Perhaps Trump even runs wherever he can as a third of fourth party candidate. But at least in such a scenario, the rest of the Republican Party would not have to labor to distinguish itself from the person at the top of the ticket. The party could enthusiastically embrace a nominee, raise money, mobilize the loyal base, and pretend the last year never happened. Under such a scenario, perhaps some Senate and House seats or state and local races might be salvaged.

Here is one possible scenario – by no means a prediction – that I have no doubt is being run around numerous GOP strategists. Implementing this approach wouldn’t be pretty and may still result in widespread electoral carnage, but at least would not saddle the party with an unpredictable, erratic and ideologically nominee for the next six months.

Once the Party starts partying in Cleveland, Trump’s forces likely will commandeer the convention, so any effort to head off the electoral apocalypse would have to prevent Trump from consolidating his power at the outset. How?

One way would be for the convention’s Rules Committee, before the machinery of the Party was turned over to Trump, to alter the rules that currently oblige hundreds of delegates from primary states won by Trump to vote for him on the convention’s first ballot, even if they do not personally support him. Instead, the Convention rules could be rewritten to allow delegates to choose any candidate on the first ballot. Under that admittedly controversial scenario, dozens, maybe hundreds of delegates uncomfortably wedded to a Trump first ballot vote would be free to vote for someone else, and Trump might fail to win on the first ballot.

The blow could be softened by delivering the nomination not to one of the pitiful also-rans whom Trump disposed of (that really be stretching everyone’s patience) but to choose, say, Mitt Romney, who was a consensus nominee and enjoyed broad party support, or Paul Ryan, whom the 21012 convention endorsed as well.   Pick John Kasich or Marco Rubio for Vice President, and give it your best shot. At worst, you lose, as you probably will with Trump, and you endure some horrendous press for your rules manipulation: but at least you emerge with a nominee who can credibly carry the party banner without inflicting down ballot carnage.

As I noted, it’s not an easy choice, sort of like a condemned person picking between hanging and a firing squad. But Republican leaders need to evaluate whether it is better to be criticized for altering the rules to save the Party or for preserving those rules and allowing a deeply flawed candidate to cost the party credibility and legislative seats for years to come. Far-fetched? Sure. Being considered? I bet one of Trump’s casinos would give you odds on it.

The Greatest: A Personal Reminiscence

On the evening of February 25, 1964, I lay in bed listening to a transistor radio which was broadcasting the epic battle for the heavyweight championship of the world, then held by the fearsome, scowling, ex-inmate Sonny Liston. No one wanted him to win. The eyes of the world bypassed Liston and his crushing left hook and approvingly settled on the 22-year old, movie-star handsome, irreverent Cassius Marcellus Clay, the pre-hip hop, poetry spouting “Louisville Lip.” “The Mouth that Roared.” “Gaseous Cassius.” You wanted him to win, but mostly, you hoped he wouldn’t be killed.

When Liston failed to answer the bell for the 7th round, Clay owned the planet; the radio station began to play Gene McDaniels’ hit, “A Hundred Pounds of Clay. “I’m king of the world,” the new champ declared, twelve years before Leonardo DiCaprio was even born, and he continued to fascinate, irritate and complicate the world right up to his dying breath on Saturday in Phoenix.

Not that he made it easy for a lot of people, including the unfortunate palookas and skilled pugilists he met in the ring over the next decade and a half.   He was a champion for less than a day when he announced his religious conversion, his embrace of the controversial Nation of Islam (later, mainstream Islam), and his decision to change his name, ultimately to Muhammad Ali (after briefly using Cassius X, in the manner of the Black Muslims). Much of the initial public jubilation evaporated as the wisecracking Clay morphed into the serious, Qu’ran quoting Ali; several years later, the ill-ease evolved into widespread disdain when the undefeated champion also declared himself a conscientious objector and refused induction into the army during the Vietnam war, earning a 5 year prison sentence in the process.

Ali’s death came as little surprise considering his long deterioration due to Parkinson’s Disease and other neurological damage. And even though in the last several decades he had shaken off the mantle of controversy and become a universally beloved national figure, the coverage of his life fortunately has not obscured the division he caused and the disdain he accepted in order to follow his beliefs. White America wanted Cassius to be a non-threatening, poetry emoting, convivial boxer; what it got was a racially conscious, occasionally confrontational fighter who defied the white power structure. Ali was content to take the scorn. “I’m not going to be what you want me to be,” he said. “I’m a free man. I can be who I want to be.”

People who hated boxing (my mother comes to mind) loved Ali for his defiance, his pride and his courage in defying expectations. His emergence was, like the arrival of the Beatles, part of the palliative process that helped America heal after the shock of John Kennedy’s assassination only three months earlier. Like the counter-culture excesses his conservative views rejected, he helped mold an era that was prepared to defy authority. Unlike most middle class white kids, who had the security of parents, college and money to return to, Ali put it all on the line; yes, some anti-war activists went to Canada and to jail for their beliefs, but most figured a way out of the draft. Ali turned the tables on the Selective Service and rejected it, and lost his title, his livelihood and tens of millions of dollars. Who better epitomized the era’s defiance of the establishment?

Ali was less angry than fed up, and his celebrity gave him the resources and attention to define himself and how he wished to live and be regarded. He had returned from the 1960 Olympics with a boxing gold medal, only to be refused service in restaurants in his hometown of Louisville. Whether he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River (as he claimed) or lost it (as others believe), Ali learned the hard way that fame and affluence did not eliminate prejudice, and he refused to allow that bigotry to define him, or to allow his celebrity status to permit him to ignore the pervasiveness of racism.

I never met Ali, one of my real heroes. He was up on Capitol Hill frequently, meeting with legislators and occasionally testifying about boxing legislation or medical research. Somehow, despite my admiration for him, our paths never crossed, and I always regretted it.

Well, they crossed once (to use the term extremely loosely) in May of 1977. Ali was still champion, though clearly in decline, in his last few years as a fighter. Although I had long been a fight fan, having watched matches on TV on Friday nights while in high school, I had never actually attended a boxing match. A lobbyist, I believe, dropped off some tickets to the contest between Ali and Uruguayan boxer Alfredo Evangelista, and George Miller and I grabbed the opportunity to see Ali in person. It was, without a doubt, the most extraordinary sporting event I have ever attended and one of the top spectacles in which I have participated.

Arriving during one of the exhibition matches, I quickly learned that being ringside was very different from watching a fight in my basement in Paterson, NJ on a black and white television. The smack of a glove smashing into someone’s midsection just over my shoulder made the “fight” aspect of a boxing match much more graphic.

Finally, the main event was set to begin. The announcer introduced Evangelista, and the Uruguayan dutifully shuffled down the long aisles and clambered between the ropes and into the ring with no crowd reaction whatsoever. Then he, and the crowd, waited. And waited. After perhaps 10 minutes, the lights of the old Landover stadium dimmed and a tremendous amplified drumming commenced. Almost immediately, the crowd took up the chant, “Ali, Ali,” and over the next few minutes, both the bone-rattling drumming and the chanting of thousands of adoring fans continued. Poor Evangelista continued to shuffle around in the dark in the ring.

Suddenly, a single spotlight shot across the cavernous venue, settling, at the furthest point, on a tiny figure in a brilliant white robe. The crowd exploded: “Ali, Ali”; the drums pounded even louder; the jubilation was overwhelming; the old building could barely contain it.  For the next five minutes – maybe more – Ali moved down the long aisle to the ring, enveloped in a frenetic mass of humanity more excited to be in the same room with him than by the forthcoming boxing match. When he finally clambered up the curtain and between the ropes to the canvas, the crowd was at full rock concert strength; and suddenly, there he was, dancing, throwing punches, the Greatest there ever was.

The fight itself was almost an afterthought, although it is worth noting that Evangelista, who wouldn’t have survived three rounds in Ali’s prime, lasted the entire 15 rounds. It was true, as sportscaster Chris Schenkel said while awaiting the inevitable outcome, that Ali was “a shell of what he was,” but it made no difference to the crowd at Landover. We had seen Muhammad Ali in the flesh, in the ring.

Ali would fight five more times, losing three of them, winning and losing the heavyweight belt, before retiring in 1981, the three-time heavyweight champion. With his departure, boxing itself was diminished. There were other fighters, powerhouses like Larry Holmes, flashy ones like Sugar Ray Leonard, even Vitali Klitschko, a heavyweight champ with a Ph.D. Stripped of Ali’s elegance, wit and innovative technique, it was just raw brutality. The sport shrunk in popularity and style, the “sweet science” of Marciano, Louis, Duran and Ali overwhelmed by the banal brutality of extreme fighting.

The unrestrained (and uniformly positive) outpouring as news of his death spread begs the question: what about the man and his life warranted such a response? Certainly part was due to nostalgia, the glory days of his career, his wit, his elegance. Part was empathy for bruises he endured inside the ring and outside at the hands of racists and the legal system and the boxing establishment. Partly, it was admiration for a guy who actually, and symbolically, never ducked a fight and was able to get up and keep battling when an opponent – pugilistic or legal or whatever – knocked him down. Partly, it was his sheer defiance, the embodiment of the in-your-face, the-hell-with-the-establishment attitude of the rebellious ‘60s. “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me,” Ali said. “Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.”

And another part, I think, was that Ali’s life reminds us that the world is more complicated than the simple ideal we would love it to be. Race is more difficult, sports is more complicated, religion is more convoluted. Ali’s strength was that he confronted and transcended the contradictions and somehow emerged without an enemy to be found. Ali had real skin in the game; what were momentary passions or short-terms causes to many of his early years were decisions that impacted his career, his legacy, his financial security, and even his personal freedom. The little black kid from Louisville who got into boxing because his bicycle was stolen, who defied the civil rights norms of his times, who flouted the U.S. government and rejected an unjust war, who aged ungracefully, ravaged with debilitating neurological damage came out on top: receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in the White House. Talk about long, strange trips.

It’s a little hard to imagine the world without Ali’s jab, his rhyming couplet, his sly smile when he knew he had come close to offending with a piercing tweak. Was the irrepressible extrovert just an act, a hype to sell the Ali brand?  In part, sure. Ali acknowledged he was subdued in private. “At home I am a nice guy,” he admitted, “but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.” He went further than he could possibly have dreamed. He was, they say, the best-known person in the world, and it’s a world he surely changed, only for the better.

Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee.

If you’re bettin’ your money, Better bet on me.

 That was a safe bet.


Forthcoming Soon: THE CLASS

An atypical edition of DOMEocracy today to announce that I’ve reached an agreement with Johns Hopkins University Press to publish my book on the House Class of 1974 and the dramatic impacts, and unintended consequences, of congressional reform.

As many DOMEocracy readers know, this historical study has been a major project over the past 3 years, and has involved interviews with over 40 members of the Class and others who worked in, reported on, and were involved with the House of Representatives during the crucial 94th Congress.  Thanks to their sharing with me unique recollections and insights into the reform efforts of the 1970s, THE CLASS contains substantial material never before included in any account of this crucial era of House history.

I have completed a draft of the book, but now will be editing it for presentation to JHUP by the end of the year.  There will still be inevitable editing and production time, but with any luck,  THE CLASS will be published next year.  I will keep you informed of progress, but wanted to share the good news with readers of DOMEocracy, and to thank you for your allowing me to use this blog to hone my research and writing skills over these past 3 years.



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