hardline political news and analysis

Month: January, 2015

Obama and Congress: The Battle Begins

President Obama’s sixth State of the Union address – and his first to a Republican-controlled Congress — was a smart, tactical speech that, for the most part, accomplished what little such an address can achieve. The President used his hour in the national spotlight to establish his values as well as to assert his policies, to cast himself as the reasonable conciliator rather than partisan-in-chief, and to invite the opposition to join hands for the common good or, failing that, tumble into the traps he artfully set for them.

The high points of the speech were the opening few minutes and the close that avoided the tiresome litany of presidential priorities (and standing ovations by delighted legislators) that generally are well into their half life before the SOTU speech has ended. Most presidents use the SOTU to describe such a program of initiatives, and nearly all pay a double price:

(1) the opposition party and commentators add up the cost of all the promises and translate the astronomical sum into a tax bill to be presented to the American people, or a prescription for additional debt, and

(2) the list of unenactables become check-list the following year’s SOTU commentary to remind viewers how little was achieved, and by extension, the futility of the list you are about to hear.

Having achieved a reasonable economic recovery, which Obama reminded the nation has dwarfed that recorded by Europe and Japan, the President did not need to propose a massive spending initiatives designed simply to return the country to a state of economic stability. Instead, he was able to focus on policies that improve the quality of life and security of millions of Americans by delivering measurable benefits to the middle class: affordable child care, free community college, improved infrastructure. He was able to note progress on issues that enjoy broad public support – global warming, energy independence, immigration reform – that highlight his own presidential initiatives while chiding Republicans for their inaction.

Indeed, a major goal of the speech was to legitimize his role as President, and his governance through Executive Order, contrasting his unilateral achievements with congressional inaction, and to claim the high moral, political and policy ground.

Nowhere is this truer than tax reform, where Obama focused attention on the need for the wealthiest to contribute more – not as punishment, but because protecting their super-affluence deprives the middle class of its own economic security. There is, Obama reminded Americans, a price of economic inequality that goes beyond simply moral outrage, and it impacts the vast majority of Americans, regardless of income, party or ideology. Naturally, Republicans interpret the call for higher taxes on the affluent as a revival of “class warfare” and promise a more even-handed approach to tax reform than is revenue neutral, but those promises belie the inaction of House Republicans on tax policy over the past four years during which they have controlled the House and run the Ways and Means Committee. (Incidentally, if I were advising the Democrats, I wouldn’t jump too quickly onto the “tax-cut-for-everyone” bandwagon; the Bush middle class tax cuts were made permanent only two years ago and took a major chunk out of the Nation’s revenues. Cutting taxes for the middle class again is a very expensive proposition which will exacerbate deficit concerns which will blow back with calls for additional non-defense discretionary cuts that impact lower income Americans, who get little from tax cuts.)

The speech became more routine in the middle as Obama recited the litany of initiatives he had initially said he would resist offering. This standard format yielded the standard result: Democrats rising to cheer every 30 seconds, Republicans sitting on their hands glumly as the President tossed off proposals most Americans think are no-brainers (paid sick leave, non-discrimination against LGBT Americans, protecting the right to vote). Presiding over the inert (though enlarged) Republican side of the room was the stony, tanned face of Speaker John Boehner who looked like he was glued to his chair and sucking on lemons. Boehner rarely bothered to stand up even when he was applauding, which understandably wasn’t very often.

The other Republican to share the evening with the President was Iowa’s new Sen. Joni Ernst who like most SOTU responders, has probably just registered the widest national audience of her career. Intent on denying Obama any credit, Ernst portrayed the economy as sputtering one step above calamity, completely missing the opportunity for Republicans to claim credit by having forced Obama and Democrats to accept major spending reductions (and making the case, however flawed factually, that spending cuts helped the recovery). Instead, she was left asserting the unprovable: that the economy remains in crisis, hauling out the old canard that we need to slash the deficit (i.e., cut programs she’d rather not enumerate because they are popular) despite a deficit reduction of more than two-thirds under Obama’s watch. For good measure, Ernst threw in the need for some tough new anti-abortion laws (which the House will vote on), further alienating the millennial voters whom Republicans are having trouble reaching on social issues.

Ernst did provide the memorable image, however, of walking to school in the rain with plastic bread bags covering her shoes in order to illustrate her family’s economic tenuousness and frugality. I wonder how many expensive federal farm programs – crop support, price support, USDA extension support, transportation infrastructure, farm tax credits, rural electrification, marketing orders, surplus crop supports, drought relief, soil improvement programs, disaster assistance, to name a few – the Ernst family was able to take advantage of before she (and many of her rural Republican legislative allies) decided it was time to attack free-spending federal programs.

The other memorable line of the evening, unquestionably, was President Obama’s rejoinder to Republicans who applauded his mention that he would not be running for office again. As he reminded them, that is because he won his two elections. It was a perfect put down of the reflexive Republican response to the mention of his inevitable departure from the stage in two years; I’d love to believe it was improvised, but I suspect the speechwriters had that one safely tucked into the address.

An inevitable part of any SOTU is the analysis which focuses on how much, if any, of the President’s program is likely to be enacted. In this case, the answer is pretty clearly, not much. Nor is there much prospect for collaboration in areas that there is consensus deserve attention, such as tax reform and immigration, because powerful forces want those issues alive for the 2016 campaigns, not neatly resolved with compromises that inflame the bases which are needed for turnout and fundraising.

But it is important to note that while the next two years are unlikely to produce the cornucopia of legislative achievements the country might deserve, such periods are relatively rare, which is why Congress has perennially been blamed for being a slow, unresponsive institution. Historian George Galloway called it “an oxcart in the age of the atom,” and that was in 1946. Even the massive bursts of legislative productivity – FDR’s first term, LBJ’s Great Society – occurred in periods of extraordinary political consensus and lasted far more briefly than most people appreciate.

The real issue to watch, as it plays out over the next two years, is the maneuvering between the Executive and Legislative branches of government. For four decades, since the congressional battles with the Imperial Presidencies of LBJ and Richard Nixon, Congress has been battling to reassert itself as a co-equal branch of government, as contrasted with former Pennsylvania Sen. Joseph Clark characterization as “the sapless branch.” The Ford Administration in the mid-1970s was able to assert itself against the 94th Congress by a vigorous use of the veto which frequently could not be overridden despite overwhelming Democratic numbers that far exceeded what Republicans now enjoy in the 114th Congress. Through the use of the veto pen and Executive Orders, President Obama has signaled that he will use his remaining two years to stretch presidential authority as far as he can if Congress continues to prove nonproductive, choosing consensus-based issues to maximize his authority while defying Congress to assert its own prerogatives. That is a classic, historic battle between the branches that will endure for two years and be vastly more consequential than one speech to the nation.


Ten Rules for Success on Capitol Hill

Every two years, the voters of the United States send 535 men and women to Washington, D.C. to serve as their representatives in Congress (with 5 more elected to the House as non-voting delegates and one Resident Commissioner).

As our civics teachers used to say, “Anyone can be elected to Congress,” and we prove that truism biennially. In the ranks of the Peoples’ House have served the predictable lawyers, farmers, educators, former congressional staff, doctors and state and local officials, but also professional athletes, actors, house painters, hairdressers, journalists, singers, pizza shop owners and a professional Santa Claus.

All arrive with varied experiences, opinions and aspirations. Few arrive with a pragmatic understanding of how Congress works or how to be an effective Member of the House or Senate.

That is where this guide hopefully comes in. These ten rules summarize decades of observations, experiences and lessons that can help Members and staff adjust to a role in which they will be judged immediately, mercilessly and ceaselessly by their constituents, the press, and their competitive colleagues.

  1. Assume nothing.   More screw-ups occur because someone “assumed” things would work in Congress like they do back home in Kansas City or Sheboygan than because of malevolence.  Capitol Hill is unique, for good and bad.  The sooner you figure out how to be effective, the more satisfying your career will be.
  2. Learn the difference between “advocacy” and “politics.” Advocacy is telling people what you want; politics is getting other people to agree with what you want. These are completely different skills. Your job in Congress is to get work done, not simply advocate idealistic viewpoints to satisfy the base that contributes to your campaigns and writes letters to the editor saying how great you are. If that is your preferred style, trade in your voting card for a soapbox. Notwithstanding the popular image of the bloviating congressional motor mouth, nobody likes a windbag.  To accomplish something and get ahead, be a workhorse, not a show horse.
  3. Don’t get discouraged.  Legislating is an organic, ongoing, mutating exercise; you rarely win or lose entirely, and you hopefully live to fight anther day. You aren’t running to complete a race. You are part of a relay and you will hand off the baton to someone new who needs to keep up the pace as well.  Your opponents are waiting for you to give up after a setback. Keep in mind the system was designed to be slow, deliberative and to protect the minority. After a few months of the molasses-like pace of legislating, you might agree with historian George B. Galloway who observed, “Congress is an oxcart in the age of the atom.” Keep in mind: Galloway said that in 1946.
  4. Don’t think that just because you changed the world it is going to remain that way.  Laws and policies need oversight, tweaking and periodic reconsideration. Don’t get so committed to the perfection of your idea that you lose the ability to see its flaws. And don’t get so caught up in the sense of victory after a win that you forget that the detailed work is writing regulations and enforcing that law you just passed. Many well-intentioned and well-written statutes gather dust waiting to be implemented by bureaucrats who disagree with its intent. Also, keep in mind: there’s nothing wrong with a law needing modifications or updates. That is a part of the process and helps explain where the terms “reauthorization” and “technical correction” come from.
  5. Be dissatisfied.  If you aren’t, get dissatisfied; if you can’t, get out of the business. Politics is about righting wrongs not managing programs or balancing numbers. There is always something wrong to get angry about. If you can’t think of something, think harder. And don’t complain about how hard the job is. No one wants to listen to some disenchanted officeholder complain about how difficult it is to be a congressman or senator, or how screwed up Washington is.  Your job is to fix it, or at least take a stab at it. However frustrating or maddening a day you had, it is probably nothing compared to the lousy day lots of your constituents endured at their job, so don’t expect sympathy. You probably have the best job you will ever have.
  6. Take your work seriously but not your own importance.  As they say, “The graveyard is full of indispensable men.”  95% of people serving in the House will never be known by a significant number of people outside their own districts, and only briefly by their own constituents.  An experienced politician once said, “Anytime you think you’re really important, take a ride down the freeway about ten minutes and see who knows who you are.” If you work really hard and achieve some difficult legislative victories, you might, might, make it to the Senate, or higher. But you probably won’t, so enjoy what you are doing and be good at it.
  7. Become the “go to” person on some issue. Members seek out other Members who know what they are talking about. Master a couple of issues; pass an amendment or introduce a bill to demonstrate your effectiveness. Don’t try to be an expert or have something to say on every subject. Nothing is worse than a politician making speeches to other politicians, especially if the speaker is (a) trying to show how much he or she knows about a topic, (b) is delaying the adjournment of a meeting that has already gone on too long, or (c) has already spoken and it doubtless repeating the earlier speech. As Speaker Sam Rayburn once said, “You ain’t learnin’ nothing when you’re talkin’.”
  8. Let your staff ask a question or make an observation at a meeting.  You pay them lots of money for their opinions and expertise, and then they sit or stand around silently at meetings like ornaments because Members don’t want to appear to be dependent on staff. Think of your people as your team in pursuit of a common goal, not just a cheering section designed to make you look good. And by the way: don’t fill your Washington office with campaign staff. Being a Member is different than running to be a Member; you need to do both, and you need both kinds of staff.
  9. Get to know your colleagues.   What makes the place really function efficiently, when it does, is that Members know each other and can interact and make some old-fashioned horse trades. Spending time together outside the legislative mosh pit is time well invested. You will learn more, expand your vision, get to know your colleagues, and become a better legislator.  Yes, constituents could get angry that you flew off to some far-flung destination on a CODEL, but they can always find an excuse to throw you out of office.  Throw in a stop or two at military bases or hospitals, and always get your official country team briefing so some smart aleck in the embassy doesn’t write a note to files that you blew off the diplomatic corps. Nothing impresses a cynical constituent more than your description of a good heart-to-heart with your buddy from the other party, which helps to dispel the notion that you might be becoming one of those pontificating partisan hacks everyone hates. And go meet the President at your first opportunity, no matter how briefly. As a successful politician once told me, “When you begin your sentence with, “Well, yesterday at the White House, the President told me…” people are going to listen to the rest of the sentence, even if they dislike the President. It shows you have access and got in the door, which is more than 99.9999% of the other people in Washington that day.
  10. Don’t live in fear of defeat. Of course, you need to pay attention to your district and to your constituents’ needs and opinions. Do everything you can to facilitate close communications, and hire a competent district staff that can be your eyes and ears when you are in Washington or elsewhere. But don’t agonize over every vote based on anticipated constituent reaction. As a member I know once advised a distraught colleague, “It simply isn’t worth it to calculate how each vote will sell or be attacked in the next election.   You can twist yourself into a pretzel with those kinds of political calculations.” I also knew a congressman who ran a state-of-the-art constituent operation who lost his re-election just because it was a bad year for incumbents; his recommendation to his colleagues: “If they want to get rid of you, it won’t matter what a good job you’ve done.”  By the time of your next campaign, you will definitely know enough to be able to explain your vote to any constituent. Sure, the other party may come after you with a fat bankroll and all guns blazing, but that can happen these days on almost any vote. Figure out what you really believe, develop your rationale for your constituents, and do what you think it right. If it is any consolation, I know many Members who lost their seats over a controversial vote but very, very few who regretted having voted as they believed was right. But a vote cast against your own best judgment and conscience can haunt you for a career.

Congratulations! And for the good of the country, I hope you have a very successful 114th Congress.

Show Time

On a surprisingly snowy morning in Washington, D.C., the 114th Congress convened, including the first House and Senate Republican majorities in 8 years which intend to bedevil Barack Obama during his final two years in the White House. Although the chambers rang out with the obligatory “My dear friend” and “the distinguished senator from” wherever, as well as heartfelt aspirations for ending the partisan gridlock, the deep division between the parties was only thinly disguised during the opening day ceremonies.

Certainly, the high drama of the day was the vote for Speaker, with John Boehner seeking his third term. A predictable chorus of GOP dissidents cast votes for everyone from Rand Paul to Colin Powell (no, you do not need to be a member of the Congress to serve as Speaker), and the 25 votes against his re-election constituted the largest “revolt” against a sitting Speaker in nearly a century. (Even most of the dissidents blanched at casting a vote for Boehner’s extremist opponents, Ted Yoho of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas, who spends evenings pontificating to an empty floor or giving tourists guided tours of the Capitol building.)

The press went wild when a much smaller number of votes were cast against then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2009, so it will be interesting to see how the pundits analyze the sputtering challenge to Boehner, who has always faced skeptics in his party who doubted the reliability of his conservative credentials. Crafting education reforms with Ted Kennedy and George Miller, working with Nancy Pelosi to pass TARP, and cooperating with Barack Obama to keep the government open and America’s credit sound – as Boehner has done — are incompatible with more members in Boehner’s conference than actually voted against him today.

While the 25 Republican dissidents do represent an historically high number, it bears recalling that such contests were not that uncommon for much of our history. In fact, some early Congresses were so divided over the Speakership that members of the minority party were elected! By the late nineteenth century, however, the general rule was that you stuck with your own party’s nominee in organizing and leadership votes, regardless of political or ideological differences.

The record eclipsed by the anti-Boehner revolt was the decision of twenty progressive Republicans to challenge Frederick Gillett at the opening of the 68th Congress. The progressives lost that fight, but they did secure reforms designed to limit the ability of a chairman to bottle up legislation with which he disagreed.

Two years later, Republicans had bolstered their numbers in the House. The man who had led the fight against the 1923 insurgents as Majority Leader, Rep. Nicholas Longworth, now was the candidate for Speaker, and he also faced dissidents in his own party. This time, only thirteen progressives dared to oppose Longworth, some of whom had also angered the party hierarchy by supporting Wisconsin’s progressive Republican Sen. Robert LaFollette for President against incumbent Calvin Coolidge. Longworth, whose wife was the daughter of Progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt, was unamused and he struck back, tossing the Progressives out of the party conferences and removing them from committees. For good measure, he rescinded the prior Congress’ reforms against the chairmen’s veto.

Two years ago, a handful of Republicans also voted against Boehner’s re-election as Speaker, and he punished several by removing them from their committees. (Pelosi did not take similar action against those who opposed her either for Speaker or Minority Leader.) Other than a few gratuitous votes in opposition to Boehner priorities in the 113th Congress, it is difficult to see what the Speaker gained by his punitive response, and it will be interesting to see whether he bothers to repeat the retribution this year.

As much as commentators will focus on the Boehner backlash, other early votes by the incoming Congress that merit scrutiny by voters. One of the most significant actions on opening day is the adoption of the House Rules package by which the majority establishes the formal procedures that will govern the institution for the next two years. In the past, the Rules package has played a significant role in implementing reforms that altered the operations of the House in order to democratize the institution, and in the small print, one can often find illustrations of the values and strategies of the majority.

The 2015 Rules package contains several provisions that signal that Boehner intends to maintain a combative relationship with Democrats, and especially with President Obama. The package allows for the continuation of the Select Committee investigating the events in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012, an event that has been inflated and inflamed for two years as a surrogate assault on presumed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.   Still, the black helicopter crowd will not be denied their three-ring circus for the 114th Congress, so taxpayer money will be wasted on re-investigating the attack.

Republican leaders also defied requests from Democrats to restore the right of the 6 territorial representatives to cast votes in the Committee of the Whole House. The delegates are Constitutionally barred from voting in the House of Representatives, which takes final action on legislation, but have long been granted voting rights in Committees, where their votes can shape, but not determine, final legislation. Under Speaker Pelosi, the delegates were also allowed to vote in the Committee of the Whole, where substantial legislative craftsmanship occurs prior to final House action, but Republicans rescinded that authority when they assumed the majority in 2011. One might have thought Republicans would make an effort to find a compromise, at least, rather than just negating the participation of six minority delegates (one of whom, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, is elected by more American citizens than the representatives of 20 U.S. states) but then again, no one is surprised by the Republicans’ tin ear on the subject of minority rights.

The Republican Rules also allow Speaker Boehner to continue to sue President Obama’s use of Executive power. Boehner’s use of taxpayer funds to hire high-priced attorneys to sue the President has a bit of a history, going back to his controversial decision to defend the Defense of Marriage Act after the Obama Administration refused to continue to do so. The controversy stems not only from the substance of the suits, but the fact that Boehner initiates the legal action in the name of the House, with the purported agreement of a bipartisan committee that is supposed to approve such legal action. But Boehner does not even ask Democratic Members of the BLAG to vote anymore; he just depends on his reliable GOP majority to launch costly and futile legal challenges.

The lawsuits, however, serve to focus attention on what might well emerge as the historically significant issue of the 114th Congress: the struggle between the White House and the Congress over the appropriate balance of power. Even many Democrats who support President Obama’s expansive use of Executive powers on health care, immigration, the minimum wage and marriage equality have quiet concerns about resurgence in Executive authority at the expense of the Congress. Since the days of the Imperial Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, congressional leaders in both parties have bristled at presidential overreach as they sought to re-establish equity among the branches of government. There is understandable concern that Obama’s actions, unless cautiously undertaken, could undermine much of the progress made on restoring Congress to its Constitutional role as the first branch of government.

Yet two points deserve to be noted on this subject. While Obama has indeed acted unilaterally on a number of high-profile issues, his use of Executive Orders actually is the lowest of any President in a half century. Obama has averaged just over 33 orders a year since entering the White House, compared to Gerald Ford (nearly 69 times per year) and Richard Nixon (over 62). Even Ronald Reagan, who supposedly disdained actions by the federal government, dwarfed Obama’s use of Executive Orders by 47.6 to 33.6 per year.

Secondly, no other President has faced the steadfast, even zealous, hostility from the other party as has Obama since the moment he entered the White House. The relentless attacks have involved not only substantive issues but ludicrous and baseless personal attacks on his religion, his birthplace, even his citizenship. If Congress is incapable of passing legislation to address hot-button issues, many of which like immigration and marriage equality enjoy broad bipartisan national support, Obama is left with few options unless he simply wants to concede the management of government to Republicans who cannot even pass the policy goals they propound. Abandoning Executive authority would also represent a blow to the proper balance of power. The failure of Congress to send the President legislation has largely abrogated its right to assert claims about presidential usurpation. Yet Obama will have to be measured in order to be sure he avoids giving credibility to the irresponsible charge made against his Constitutional exercise of political authority.

One final thought for this opening day of the 114th Congress. Few House members were more influential in resurrecting the role of Congress as a coequal branch of government back in the 1970s than Don Edwards of California. Quiet, thoughtful, honest, direct, and widely respected on both sides of the aisle, Edwards was among the earliest opponents of the war in Vietnam and among the most diligent critics of Watergate. On this opening day, Don Edwards turns 100 years old at his home in California, and as the cards and emails pour in to pay him well-deserved tribute, everyone who still believes – or wants to believe – that Congress can be a constructive force on behalf of the American people, and the world, should take a moment and say a word of thanks to Don … and “Happy Birthday,” too.