hardline political news and analysis

Month: December, 2013

50 Years Ago: A Year of Cataclysmic Change

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy provoked a cavalcade of memories. But serious change was just beginning in November of 1963, and over the next twelve months, Americans will commemorate anniversaries of events that unalterably changed U.S. politics, society and culture and thereby defined the remainder of the 20th century.

 Even in a decade of change like the ‘60s, a startling number of key historical events occurred in 1964.  Noting each would require nearly round-the clock commemorations throughout 2014. 

The Kennedy assassination remade American politics. Lyndon Johnson exploited the post-assassination unity to expand federal leadership in social, economic and legal policies.  On January 8, 1964, LBJ declared a “War on Poverty,” followed by his “Great Society” battle plan.   By August, Johnson signed bills into law including the Economic Opportunity Act.

1964 also saw a major acceleration of Kennedy’s stalled civil rights legislation.  The poll tax, which had disenfranchised generations of blacks, was banned by ratification of the 24th amendment in January.  Soon, Johnson demanded a sweeping anti-discrimination statute. After a three month Senate filibuster, the Civil Rights Act became law in June. Yet racial hatred was far from ended; also in June, three civil rights workers – Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney – went missing in Mississippi.  Their bodies were found in an earthen dam in August. 

Growing militancy marked the civil rights struggle. In early March, the charismatic Cassius Clay improbably defeated Sonny Liston to become boxing’s Heavyweight Champion.  Within two weeks, Clay announced his conversion to Islam.  Later in the year, violence exploded in numerous cities fueling anxious discussions about urban policy, black nationalism, and black militancy.  To many, it seemed that the civil rights debate had taken an ominous turn, even as the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Republicans awarded their presidential nomination to Sen. Barry Goldwater, a leading conservative whose reputation for extreme views was enhanced by the infamous “Daisy” commercial depicting a nuclear explosion. Johnson landslide victory masked the Democrats’ loss of the once Solid South (a result of the Civil Rights Act, which LBJ had had predicted), growing marginalization of the GOP’s traditional Northeastern moderates, and the significant rise of cultural and political conservatism in the South and Sun Belt.

Not all events were as weighty. Only three days into 1964, Jack Paar played “She Loves You” on his TV show, and by early February, the Beatles had the #1 song in America, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”  Their arrival in New York on February 7 and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show produced an optimistic bonding for the nation’s youth that contrasted with the profound shock of the Kennedy assassination 10 weeks earlier.  Soon, a cultural revolution overthrew the 1950s order, marked by the British invasion that altered the music, clothing, and hair styles.   

Technology and medicine were advancing at a rapid pace.  In April, 1964, IBM launched the System/360, foreshadowing a market for personal computers rather than simply large business models. NASA developed space hardware that would fulfill JFK’s promise to land a man on the moon by 1970. In January, the Surgeon General linked smoking and serious illness, prompting the Federal Trade Commission to require warning labels on cigarette packages.  

In international affairs, Nelson Mandela received a sentence of life imprisonment in South Africa in June; few could have anticipated his re-emergence decades later as President of a reborn South Africa, guiding a transition to black majority rule free of the cataclysm many anticipated.

Late in July, North Vietnamese gunships patrolling the South China Sea reportedly fired on the U.S.S. Maddox.  On August 7th, Congress overwhelmingly approved the Gulf on Tonkin Resolution that launched a decade of warfare abroad and social disruption at home.  Uncertainties in U.S. foreign policy were further heightened when Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown in Moscow by hard liners.  And few could have foreseen the international implications when, on September 10, the Palestine Liberation Organization was formed. 

The year following JFK’s death saw a host of dislocating developments that reshaped our politics, our security, our music, and even the way we looked.  We can only speculate what Kennedy might have made of the embrace of the drug and hippie counterculture, the rise of the New Left and the a conservative revival that seemed highly improbably in the wake of the Goldwater defeat, or even personalized computer technology – all of which trace their origins to events occurring within a year of November 22, 1963.

Happy New Year 2014!   And thanks for reading DOMEocracy.




Change We (Just Might Be Able to) Believe In

Three important developments in Washington this week deserve recognition because, individually and collectively, they provide a hint that we might be beginning to stagger our way out of the obstructionism, stalemate and partisanship that has been frustrating both the American public and most elected officials.

In some ways, the fairly modest agreement in Congress to pass a budget plan that replaces the next two years of the sequester is the least significant.  Of course, it is important to legislate pro-actively instead of letting the government careen from crisis to crisis.  And the deal fashioned by the respective Budget chairs retained an essential balance in the 2011 budget deal that requires equivalent savings from domestic discretionary spending and military spending.   Significantly, the agreement establishes, contrary to some public opinion, that the parties are capable of acting in the national interest when it is absolutely essential to do so (as it did when the FAA was exempted from sequestration, or when an agreement was found to prevent a debt ceiling default).  In Washington these days, that counts as  progress!

It should be noted, however, that as with almost every significant budgetary vote over the past three years of Republican rule, including a series of Continuing Resolutions in 2011-2012, the mid-2011 budget agreement (which created the select committee and the sequester fallback) and the 2013 tax bill, a substantial contingent of the House Republican Conference refused to acquiesce in the agreement fashioned by its leaders.  In most of those earlier votes, fewer than 180 Republicans voted “yea,” forcing Speaker Boehner to rely repeatedly on Democrats (who often played no role in fashioning the agreement and were not thrilled with the bill) to make up the difference to reach the 218 votes needed for passage.  Boehner’s continued reliance on Democratic votes in the 112th Congress is one reason he came within just three votes of losing the Speakership last January.

The syndrome repeated itself this week as the House voted overwhelmingly, 332-94, for the Murray-Ryan budget bill.  But it is important to read deeper into the numbers.  Of the 332 “yea” votes, only 169 were Republicans.  That means that 30% of the Republican Caucus – over 70 Republicans – voted “no,” which happens to comport with the generally accepted number of Tea Party acolytes in the Chamber.  (Democrats, by contrast, voted 85% for the budget deal.)  For all the work that went into writing and marketing a bipartisan budget plan to avert another government shutdown and relieve the pressures of sequestration, it appears the Hoping-for-Doomsday Caucus remained unmoved and, therefore, a continuing thorn in Speaker Boehner’s side.

Which is why the second major development of the week merits careful attention.  Coincidentally, earlier in the week, I was giving a talk at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, focusing on the current state of stasis affecting the Congress.  Noting the notable achievements of Congress just a few years ago (which counters the frequent assertion that the institution is incapable of functioning), I placed blame mainly on a minority of the majority for whom failure is success, a band of nihilists who are enthused, not demoralized, by any evidence of government’s incompetence – even if they are happily the source of the dysfunction.  The current situation would change, I noted, not when Congress implements some extravagant internal reforms (which its inaction makes it pretty clear it won’t), but when Republican leaders tire of allowing the Tea Party minority to dictate strategy and policy.

“Politics isn’t going to become more efficient until politicians become more invested in effectiveness rather than obstruction,” I said at Princeton.  “And, frankly, that means Republicans are going to have to rescue the Grand Old Party from the Tea Party.  There is still too much deference to those who are dedicated to gumming up the works.  Serving in the majority carries with it an obligation to govern responsibly, to address serious challenges, and to find common ground, and that simply has not been happening.”

In past blogs, I have criticized Boehner for “cuddling up to the nullifiers” and predicted, last March, that we would eventually arrive at a “moment when Speaker Boehner will have to decide whether he is leading a cycle that marks the rise of Republican reasonableness, or if he is content to be a partisan obstructionist happy to continue the cycle of Republican electoral losses.” (Boehner: Embracing the Cycle or Fighting It?, March 2013)

Seemingly on cue (maybe a little late, actually), Speaker Boehner rose up this week against the conservative advocacy groups (and by implication, their funders) that have been whipping the Right into a destructive fury since they won back control of the House in 2010.  Elected leaders who serve in the majority tend to be deferential to those whose victories elevated their party into the majority – Nancy Pelosi termed the wave of incoming Democrats the “majority makers” in 2006, but the group that played the crucial role in 2010 for Boehner was largely the product of grassroots activism with little deference, before or after the election, to the party establishment.  Repeatedly over the last few years, this faction (and the groups egging them on) have rejected compromises fashioned by Boehner (a devoted dealmaker for most of his congressional career), plunging the country into manufactured crisis after crisis.

“They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Boehner told his Republican Conference on Wednesday.  “They are not fighting for conservative policy.  They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it.  It’s ridiculous.”

Boehner’s outburst was provoked no doubt not only by the opposition to the budget deal and the loony rhetoric of his eccentric colleagues, but by a growing frustration with outside interests – who never have to produce 218 votes for anything – who are threatening incumbent Republicans with primary challenges from the Right. Such threats not only make his role as Speaker more challenging, forcing him to rely on Democratic votes to govern (thereby further infuriating the Right), but simultaneously force him to spend more of his time raising vast sums to protect his loyal Republican Members from special interest, right wing spend-a-thons.  In the last few weeks, traditional pro-business groups have also issued a challenge to the Tea Party right, threatening to raise money to protect operational conservatives who do not equate good faith deal-making with abandonment of moral principles.  The business groups scored an early victory in last month’s Alabama primary for an open House seat.

The obvious question is how Boehner’s challenge to the Right plays out both legislatively over the next year on such crucial issues as immigration and the farm bill, and in January, 2015.  Should Democrats regain the majority next November, Boehner probably doesn’t need to worry much about his fate as Republican Leader because his colleagues likely would look for someone new (especially since the seats he would lose would be more centrist, leaving the Tea Party activists in even stronger position within the Conference). However, should Republicans retain the House majority, some of those GOP House Members who grudgingly gave Boehner a vote earlier this year might, in light of his str9ng condemnation of the hard right, be less likely to be generous a year from now.  And when you win the speakership by a 2 vote margin, you obviously don’t have a lot of votes to give away.  So, good for Boehner for looking beyond his own self-interest and wrapping a few knuckles that deserved to be hammered.
The last important development of the week was the overdue decision by the White House to shake up the President’s insular crew by bringing in some seasoned hands to right the badly listing ship of state.  The always constructive Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell characterized the staff change as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” but that’s a little strong. 

Congressional players will welcome the return of longtime senior House strategist Phil Schiliro, who also worked for Sen. Tom Daschle and served as director of the White House legislative office during the first term of the Obama Administration.  Schiliro will help with House and Senate communications, which has not been a strong suit for the White House.  Schiliro also is a policy powerhouse who played a key role in the development and sale of the Affordable Care Act, and bringing him back, belatedly, will undoubtedly help with the formidable task of reversing public skepticism about the law and erasing the black marks against its flawed rollout.  Tellingly, Obama this week also replaced the director of congressional relations, Miguel Rodriguez, whose tenure was not well received on the Hill, with Katie Fallon, an aide to Sen. Charles Schumer. 

In addition to adding Schiliro and Fallon, Obama will benefit from the recruitment of John Podesta as counselor.  Podesta, highly-regarded as the founder of the Center for American Progress think tank, will add some mature and experienced presence to a staff that could profit from some outside mature and experienced presence.  Podesta managed Bill Clinton through the Lewinsky disaster and helped him improbably emerge as a highly regarded President only a couple of years after impeachment.  Both Schiliro and Podesta have the chops to perform a vital staff function for any elected official: tell the boss when he’s wrong, when he is being led adrift by the acolytes, and when he needs to be more engaged in explaining policies and priorities to the American people.

So on three counts, an important, consequential week that might – might – signify one of those sometimes-imperceptible shifts in Washington politics.  Since much of the press this week seemed more obsessed with the President taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, I thought it made some sense to point out the more consequential changes that might be in the offing. 

The Bargain-Rate Grand Bargain

We had the Square Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Deal, and now we have the Budget Deal (December 2013 version). It isn’t likely to stick in the historical lexicon as long as the earlier policies, but it is significant, and here’s why. 

The agreement reached by the respective Budget Committee chairs – Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray – demonstrates that when necessary, political leaders figure out a way to avoid calamitous results.  That is not to be confused with good governance, but it also illustrates that the mournful hand-wringing about “stalemate” and a failed political system is less than accurate.

The bargain-rate Grand Bargain makes a dent in the deficit and staves off cuts looming because of sequestration.  Perhaps most importantly, the plan obviates yet another nail-biting drama over a government shutdown early in 2014 which, being an election year, is a dangerous time to be provoking nail-biting dramas. 

While the Ryan-Murray plan combines about $85 billion in spending cuts and non-rate revenue raisers, it is not without controversy.  New federal workers will have to pay more for their pension benefits, which reduces their disposable income, and military retirees under the age of 62 will receive lower COLAs which ill impact their personal budgets.  Trimming benefits and establishing a precedent for restricting COLA growth sounds a lot like warming up for the Chained CPI reform President Obama and some Democratic leaders have embraced for Social Security (a change I argued earlier this year should be strongly considered in the context of a comprehensive budget agreement, which this is not).

Expect some Democrats to approach the Ryan-Murray deal warily, especially House Democrats who undoubtedly will be called upon to supply crucial votes Boehner-Cantor-Ryan can’t drum up on their side of the aisle.   Their willingness to provide those votes might be tempered by the continued refusal of House Republicans to agree to extend Unemployment Benefits which are scheduled to expire. 

Certainly there are good points to this plan.  It will allow a restoration of some of the cuts sequestration imposed on high-priority Democratic programs like Head Start and medical research.  And it retains the balance between military and non-military spending that many considered a silver lining in the sequestration plan.

True, it only provides two years of sequestration relief, and it ignores the dual 800 pound gorillas in the room: tax and entitlement reform.  But the savings attributable to the 2011 deal, combined with the cuts mandated by sequestration and the repeal of the Bush upper income tax cut last January, have combined to save trillions already, diminishing the sense of urgency that was driving the Grand Bargain a year and a half ago.

What this budget agreement demonstrates is that when the pain of sequestration bites too deeply, legislators will invent an alternative that relieves the pressure, even if it lacks enough heft to carry bigger policy changes.  And without a big package, it is probably wishful thinking to believe serious tax or entitlement reform is likely to occur anytime soon.

The agreement also demonstrates the intention of the increasingly unamused business community to send a signal to Republican leaders to stand up to Tea Partiers who are merrily fomenting unshirted chaos.  Various traditional Republican business groups have been promising to weigh in during GOP primaries to promote more centrist candidates, and did so successfully in a key Alabama special election last month.  I would bet dollars to donuts that business leaders have made clear to Boehner and company that the monkey business on shutdowns, debt ceilings and massive defense cuts has to end, even if that means collaborating with Democrats. Baby steps toward bipartisanship? 

In fact, throughout the 112th Congress, Democrats reliably supplied votes for a series of Continuing Resolutions and other urgent legislation that Tea Party activists refused to support, leaving GOP leaders short.  Often, Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats were called upon to supply votes to prevent shutdowns and other crises even when they had played no role in developing the legislation and had grave doubts about what they were asking their members to vote for.  Don’t expect Democratic House leaders to rush to agree to anything they haven’t been privy to negotiating.

Some Democrats are understandably wary that supporting this deal will ensure malicious ads and hit pieces from local Republicans and national smear groups accusing them of cutting retiree or veterans benefits, for example.  As is always the case, any early Democratic vote for the bill frees another Republican to climb up on a white horse to denounce the deal, for whatever reason suits him or her.  Democrats will be wise to withhold their support and let Speaker Boehner wring every possible vote out of his Conference before riding to the rescue yet again. 

And read the fine print.

Passing the Buck on the Minimum Wage

A dozen years ago, John Boehner was chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor and I was the staff director for the panel’s Democratic majority.  For five years, I participated in regular planning meetings with Chairman Boehner and the Committee’s Ranking Democrat, George Miller, my long-time employer on Capitol Hill, and Boehner’s staff director, Paula Nowakowski, with whom I had a good working relationship.

Despite deep differences of opinion on many issues before the Committee, Miller and Boehner were able to find common ground and produce major legislation, including the signature legislative achievement of President Bush’s first term, the No Child Left Behind education reform law.  The two congressmen had a friendly and candid relationship based around the proposition that each would tell the other how far he could realistically go in search of a compromise.  

Part of our regular meetings involved Miller proposing areas of legislation in which the Committee should become engaged.  Somehow, with regularity, it fell to me (the resident labor historian of the group) to raise the issue of hearings and legislation  on the seemingly frozen minimum wage whose withering value was leaving millions of workers in deepening poverty.  

Boehner, an old school, small business Republican who entered politics because he was furious about taxes and regulation, good-naturedly dismissed the routine request with a dismissive hand wave.  “Not gonna do that,” he would say.  And he wasn’t kidding.  Boehner refused to consider action on the minimum wage throughout his tenure as chairman, consigning millions of hardworking Americans to years of poverty.

In 2005, I had become chief of staff to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and spent the better part of a year and a half developing and promoting the “6 for ‘06” agenda that Democrats pledged to pass if voters returned them to the majority.  After nine years of Republican neglect, the buying power of the minimum wage had fallen to a 51 year low.  Although there was some initial hesitancy from some in the Senate, Pelosi insisted that an increase in the minimum wage be included as a plank in the “6 for ‘06” platform.  Pelosi prevailed, and the first increase in over a decade was one of the bills passed within the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress under Speaker Pelosi and was signed by George W. Bush.

The embarrassing chasm in income equality coming out of the Great Recession has once again elevated the profile of the minimum wage and the refusal of congressional Republicans, now under the leadership of Speaker John Boehner, to support a modest increase in the seven year old, unindexed wage.  Boehner had no problem approving the TARP legislation that provided hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars to corporate miscreants who had brought economic catastrophe upon themselves, but he drew the line when it came to Congress directing employers to pay their workers enough to help raise them (barely) out of poverty.

Nothing in politics is more effective than an alliance with an unexpected ally, and just such an alliance has recently emerged on the minimum wage question.  Ron Unz, a hardline California conservative, has built a political career around immigrant-unfriendly proposals to cut social services and to promote English-only instruction which have helped the California Republican Party implode into irrelevance.  But on the minimum wage, Unz has become a fervent advocate for a generous increase based on the precise rationale Miller and Pelosi have long employed: why should taxpayers underwrite the inadequate wages of low-pay employers by providing health, food, housing, legal and other financial supports for their employees?

“We have all these low-wage workers who are getting $7.50, $8 or $9 an hour,” Unz explains, “and because they earn such small wages, the government subsidizes them with billions or tens of billions of dollars of social welfare spending that comes from the taxpayer.  It’s a classic example of businesses’ privatizing the benefits of their workers while socializing the costs.”  Right on, Ron!

Unz argues that conservatives should support compelling businesses to pay their employees enough to afford essential goods and services in order to reduce the need for government to provide services, which creates a rationale for government involvement, spending and taxes.  If a conservative’s real goal is to reduce government and spending, then require that employers pay their workers’ livable wages and stop passing the bill on to taxpayers to pick up the essential expenses of life that the employers’ wages don’t cover. 

With the coming of the Season of Charity (and the mortifying news about WalMart asking for contributions to help their employees – sorry, their “associates” – afford a Thanksgiving turkey), the minimum wage has become a hot topic.   Major stories in the New York Times and Washington Post, as well as on the Sunday morning talk shows, focused on the inadequacy of wages and the growing income gap, neither subjects that are likely to change the mind of someone who is ideologically hostile to the government dictating wage rates.  (If the Wal-Mart story doesn’t disturb you, consider McDonald’s advice to its sub-poverty-level employees whom it advises to  reduce stress by singing to themselves and breaking food into smaller pieces.)

But the point Unz makes (and that Miller and Pelosi consistently raised) has the potential to make skeptics think twice about the economic costs of keeping sub-poverty wages in place.  In addition to the issue of requiring taxpayers to subsidize low-wage employers through public assistance programs, Unz also notes the stimulative value of putting more money into the hands of low-income workers who will surely spend rather than save the additional income.  This stimulative effect was also a compelling reason for extending unemployment insurance benefits during the worst of the Recession.

Unz is now sponsoring an initiative for the California ballot that would boost the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2016.  He will face the same opposition such efforts always do in Congress or other jurisdictions: employers will not hire workers or will fire them; high minimum wage areas will be less attractive to employers than low-wage regions; government shouldn’t be intruding into the “free market” to dictate wage rates.  Such arguments just led Washington, D.C.’s Mayor Vincent Gray to veto a bill to require big box stores like Wal-Mart – which is planning a number of discount stores within the city – to pay a higher minimum wage.  Wal-Mart, displaying its reliably acute sense of public relations, threatened to drop plans for the new stores if the higher wage law were enacted, so Gray folded like a cheap suitcase.  He might alternatively have reminded voters that the Walton family that owns the low-price chain has more money than the cumulative wealth of  40 percent of American families, including those working at their stores who need charity to feed their children.  Indeed, research by the Economic Policy Institute recently concluded that although the wealth of the median American family fell by nearly 40% in the years 2007-2010, the Waltons’ wealth increased from $73.3 billion to $89.5 billion. 

The idea that one family could control such vast amounts of wealth is outlandish enough but when contrasted with the persistent poverty of those on whose labor the wealth is generated – their employees and their contractors’ wages in China – the hostility to paying a decent wage is disgraceful.  As Congressman Miller has pointed out, the average low-wage worker isn’t a high school kid with a paper route (how quaint), but an adult woman for whom the value of the minimum wage has lost a third of its buying power since the 1960s even with periodic increases.  Under the $10.10 an hour wage proposed in the Miller-Harkin bill (belatedly endorsed by the Obama Administration which had proposed a more parsimonious version in last year’s State of the Union), more than 30 million people would receive a pay raise, including 17 million women.  Had the minimum wage been indexed, like Social Security benefits, that 1960’s wage would today be worth $10.56, so the Miller-Harkin $10.10 is in effect a bargain. 

Raising the minimum wage is not exactly socialism run amok.  Many states and even counties, defying the danger of losing investment to skinflint neighbors, have minimum wages above the national level, and some are planning even higher minimums.  Massachusetts is considering an  $11 an hour rate, Montgomery and Price Georges Counties in Maryland are contemplating $11.50, and SeaTac airport in Washington State is discussing a $15 rate.  Voters of every age and income group support an increase as well, by a 65% to 29% overall margin.  Even conservatives support a raise by a 59% to 37% margin.

So where is the barrier to a serious discussion of raising the minimum wage?  You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s House Republicans who are not troubled by pushing low wage workers onto federal benefits, because they favor getting rid of those benefits, too (note the pending $40 billion cut in food stamps)!   Speaker Boehner, who frustrated efforts to raise the minimum wage as chairman a decade ago, hasn’t been moved by the economic studies, the Great Recession, or the opinions of conservatives like Ron Unz.  “When you raise the price of employment, guess what?” Boehner rhetorically asks.  “You get less of it.”   Independent studies do not confirm the job-killing effects of the minimum wage, but one fact is incontrovertible about the minimum wage policy imposed by Republicans: when you pay sub-poverty wages, workers get less of it.  And taxpayers foot the bill.