hardline political news and analysis

Month: February, 2013

Sequester Hits: Doom and Gloom, or Ho Hum?


Dawn will break on March 1, and with it, the most earthshaking event on that date since the great avalanche of 1910 in Washington State that killed 96 people.  One of two results will almost certainly occur, each with significant political ramifications for both parties in Congress and for President Obama as well.

 One result is the cataclysm that many in the House, and the Obama Administration, have been warning of: 700,000 jobs lost, according to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi who cites the findings of the Congressional Budget Office, including layoffs of teachers, TSA agents, and meat inspectors; an anchor dropped on the fiscal foot of a tentative recovery; a gaping wound in the national defense capability.  And without doubt, there will be impacts on these and other programs since $85 billion dollars will be sliced out of the budget, across the board, with little regard for need, waste or merit.

 But the other possibility is that not very much happens, at least, not right away.  Many believe the Administration has unspecified capability to maneuver around the sweeping nature of the cuts and soften the blow temporarily until a longer term solution is reached at the end of March, when for good measure, the authority for all federal spending expires.  Many could be left wondering why there was such caterwauling, such predictions of dire gloom, should the sequester take effect.  Some will be quick to assert that the absence of a cataclysmic reaction proves the extent of wasteful spending in the federal budget.

There is no way to take $85 billion out of federal programs without there being an impact.  And in one respect, a painful outcome, one affecting an array of federal programs, state and local governments, urban and rural constituencies, as well as the Defense Department, could be educational since voters will realize  that welfare and foreign aid –perennially the only federal programs voters want cut – do not constitute a significant component of federal spending. 

 It is reasonable to have believed that Congress would sail into the sequestration storm with sails at full mast.  The impact, while far from insignificant, is unlikely to be immediate and devastating  either to individuals or to the economy.  Sequestration will not have the instantaneous dire consequences of recently confronted, and therefore avoided, crises like the Fiscal Cliff, the Debt Ceiling, or Government Shutdown.  In each of those cases, markets were trembling, the economic reputation of the country was at stake, and the frail recovery was jeopardized by the failure to enact some type of stand-by measure.

But sequestration does not stir comparable fears.  Witness the stock market – not a failsafe bellweather to be sure, but if we were facing the downgrading of our bond rating or a new recession, it is unlikely the Dow Jones would be parked around 14,000.  Part of the lack of panic is due to the lack of surprise – after all, we have known for over a year and a half this day could (and likely would) arrive.  And in part, the lack of panic is the result of most serious observers knowing that the cuts are unlikely to be devastating in the short run, and that if their impact is greater than might be anticipated, then Congress will likely respond as it has with other imminent crises and devise an alternative

Congress’ unwillingness to work with the Obama Administration to find an alternative to sequestration lies predominantly with House Republicans who have two major reasons for their well-documented ambivalence.  First, sequestration means securing spending cuts without having to accept the tax increases that the President and congressional Democrats have rightly insisted be components of all deficit reduction efforts.  Republicans live to cut taxes, especially for the rich, and have demonstrated repeatedly over the past two years that there is almost nothing they will not sacrifice to realize that goal, including the country’s bond rating and the post-recession economic recovery.

A second reason Republicans do not fear embracing sequestration is that like going over the Fiscal Cliff, defaulting on the debt, or shutting down the government (all avoided in the 112th Congress only because House Democrats provided the votes when Boehner couldn’t), sequestration “proves” that government does not work. And nothing is closer to the Tea Party’s heart than demonstrating the inability of the federal government to avoid a manufactured crisis.  So employing an Orwellian motif, failure equals success, by heightening public disgust and cynicism, thereby undermining the credibility of those who favor greater government action, be that spending, raising revenues, regulation or whatever. 

Congress always likes to play close to the edge.  The most exciting period in any session is the last night or two when increasingly angry, determined or frantic legislators clash with their colleagues to construct the passable compromise before the clock runs out.  And in the past, usually they found that middle ground (or that set of trade-offs), because that is the nature of the process: the cliff heightened the game, but no sane person wanted to plunge over.   Not so the lemming-like Tea Party Republicans. For them, running close to the edge is not a maneuver, it is warming up.  Plunging over the cliff, with whatever consequences, is an accomplishment because they know few critics will distinguish between those with their lead foot on the accelerator and those frantically grabbing or the wheel to steer back towards reason.

While Democrats have been nearly uniform in their desire to avoid sequestration, some may be willing to take a wait and see attitude for two reasons.  First, many low-income programs are protected from sequestration and will not have to absorb punishing cuts.  (Yes, Social Security Administration salaries will be impacted, but not benefits, and seniors do not typically rise up in arms because the pay of office workers is docked.) Second, sequestration imposes cuts in military spending that many liberals have advocated for a half century.  And sequestration does not require liberals to give up a dime in entitlement benefits or risk low-income programs to secure tens of billions in Defense Department cuts. 

So is the impact of sequestration being hyped for political benefit? No, there are genuine reasons for concern, though the massive impact might take a while to manifest itself.  And that is why despite all the finger-pointing and rhetoric, it is more likely that we will live with sequestration for a while and assess its real impacts before rushing to fix it.  Polling suggests President Obama and congressional Democrats have won the message war; the public is likely to blame Republicans by an 18 point margin if damaging effects are felt from unleashing sequestration.  Now what remains to be seen how damaging the impacts are after Friday and whether Republicans are motivated to revisit their opposition to a balanced alternative to indiscriminate across-the-board cuts.


Under the Dome Today: Righting Historical Wrongs

Rosa Parks “returned” to a place of honor under the Dome today in a ceremony unveiling her statue, which will be on permanent display in the Capitol. She had previously been honored in October, 2005, when she was the first woman, and one of a handful of individuals lacking military or elected service, to lay in state or repose in the Capitol’s Rotunda.

Today’s ceremony, attended by President Obama and congressional leaders as well as many prominent civil rights activists, comes during Black History Month and just weeks after the 100th anniversary of Ms. Parks’ birth in the segregated South. Defying the mores and statutes of segregation in 1955 was dangerous business when she refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus; there was no assurance that Ms. Parks’ defiance of the law in Alabama would have a more peaceful outcome than the lynching that ended the life of young Emmett Till just months earlier.

Of course, most who endured the tyranny of racial discrimination or risked their lives in the battle for equal rights remain anonymous to history. Part of the greatness of this country is that, in spite of the tragic record of slavery and segregation, we are able to confront these legacies and correct wrongs, even if long after the fact and grossly inadequately.

Fourteen years ago last week, President Bill Clinton took such a long-overdue step and issued a pardon to the late Col. Henry O. Flipper, a former slave who in 1877 became the first African American to graduate from West Point. Flipper, a decorated Army officer, was wrongly charged with pilfering from Army accounts and drummed out of the Army in disgrace. His prosecution has long been recognized by historians as having been attributable to racism, not inappropriate behavior.

Later in 1999, at the request of Congressman George Miller (D-CA), Clinton also pardoned the African American sailor Pvt. Freddie Meeks for his wrongful mutiny conviction in 1944 following the devastating ammunition explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine near Concord, California. Both actions by Clinton helped address a longstanding act of discrimination against blacks who risked their lives in defense of the nation, only to fall victim to the pernicious racism of their time.

Clinton deserves great credit for reaching back into the historical record and helping to address these past abuses. But the anniversary of the Flipper pardon, together with today’s dedication of the Parks statue, are timely reminders that righting these past wrongs, and correcting the historical record, is an unfinished and ongoing process. President Obama should now extend similar Executive Clemency to the other 49 sailors who, like Meeks, were so wrongly mistreated by the military they selflessly served.

When Rep. Miller (on whose staff I worked at the time) began peeling back the decades of concealment about the Port Chicago explosion and subsequent mutiny trial, the story had been all but forgotten by historians, despite the involvement of luminaries like Thurgood Marshall and Eleanor Roosevelt,. Few were aware of its role in accelerating the decision to desegregate the military four years later. As a result of the congressional hearings and the creation of a new feature of the national park system at the site, the incidents surrounding Port Chicago have become the subject of books, movies, and numerous websites.

But the Port Chicago story is far from over. In addition to Mr. Meeks, 49 other men were railroaded into convictions and prison in a racially prosecution. Neither the sailors, many of whom lived in fear of their convictions becoming public for the rest of their lives, nor the Navy pressed for reviews of the cases for decades. Many of the men went to their graves without telling even their family members of their involvement in the alleged mutiny.

As the years have passed and the scholarship on the case has become more substantial, it is clear that a severe miscarriage of justice occurred in that Treasure Island courtroom. Yes, there are formalistic excuses why it is difficult but not (as illustrated by the Flipper case) impossible to grant posthumous pardons. As White House Counsel demonstrated during Miller’s effort to secure a pardon for Freddie Meeks, sometimes justice requires that we look past the formal procedure and do what is right, and overdue.

In the veteran’s cemetery in San Bruno, California, there are several tombstones for people killed in the Port Chicago explosion on July 17, 1944. The tombstones have no names carved on them; those who lie below are anonymous. The men who faced dishonorable discharge and prison following the explosion are nearly as anonymous, but they need be no longer. Their names are well documented, as are the wrongs they suffered. What a great step it would be if President Obama were to grant each a pardon from the nation they served.

Welcome to DOMEocracy Blog by John Lawrence

Welcome to DOMEocracy, a new blog on American politics with a strong focus on Capitol Hill.

February 4, 2013: For the first time in 38 years, I am not an employee of the United States House of Representatives.  Last Friday, I concluded nearly 8 years serving as chief of staff to Speaker (and Democratic Leader) Nancy Pelosi; for 30 preceding years, my employer was Congressman George Miller (D-CA), whom I served as chief of staff, and as staff director of the two House Committees he led — the Committee on Natural Resources, and the Committee on Education and Labor.

Throughout my long career in the Congress (I was, upon retirement, the longest current serving House staff person), I was deeply involved in a broad variety of public policy and political issues, helping to write legislation in such varied areas as child and family policy, budget reform, energy, natural resources, labor safety and worker compensation, health care, and education.  I helped lead investigations into abuses in the foster care system, mistreatment of children in group homes, underpayment of oil and gas royalties to federal taxpayers, evasion of federal water laws, exposure of thousands of workers to asbestos hazards, misuse of federal agricultural marketing orders, and Dickensian exploitation of garment workers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S territory.

In the Speaker/Leader’s office, I was deeply involved in developing the message and strategy that won back control of the House for Democrats in 2006 and then produced two of the most legislatively significant Congresses of the modern era — one under a Republican President, and one under a Democratic President.  In this Leadership role, my responsibilities included close coordination with Senate colleagues and the top staff at the White House as we passed House Democrats’ “Six for ’06” reform agenda, addressed the 2008-2009 fiscal crisis, enacted historic health care reform in 2010, and faced innumerable other challenges during the New Direction Congress of 2009-2011.

To these experiences, I brought not only decades of congressional experience, but the perspective of a trained historian who earned a Ph.D. in American history at the University of California at Berkeley.  The training in historical background and analysis often proved invaluable as I engaged in, and observed, history-changing moments in our recent national experience.

These perspectives will serve as the background for this new blog — DOMEocracy — which will review and assess national politics with a special focus on the Congress, our national history, and most important, the realism born of nearly 40 years in the world of pragmatic, hard-nosed politics.  This is not a blog for those who are preoccupied with the ideal or who are contemptuous of the political system.  It is designed to discuss frankly the practical challenges facing those who come to politics with strong beliefs and values, and who are prepared to work within a convoluted, inefficient, partisan and combative process to achieve their goals.  I welcome readers as I begin this new phase of my career, and initiative the DOMEocracy blog, and I look forward to your comments.  Don’t hesitate to tell me what you think: after 38 years on Capitol Hill, I have thick skin, and I enjoy nothing so much as a good discussion!


For additional background on my career and views, see: