hardline political news and analysis

Month: June, 2015

Capital Time for a House Cleaning

Every year on the anniversary of the birth of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a ceremony was held at his statue in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Incantations were uttered to the great general’s glory, and flowers were laid before the marble effigy, recalling his role in our Nation’s history. A few years ago, it was noticed that Lee’s statue was situated so as to peer over the shoulder of anyone speaking at a podium often set up in the Hall for ceremonial occasions. The next day, one of the speakers was to be Martin Luther King III.

A phone call was placed from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and Lee’s statue was relocated from its prestigious place in the Old House Chamber to a site with a lower profile (both figuratively and architecturally) within the Capitol. Whether the annual tributes continue to honor the man who led Confederate forces in rebellion against the flag he was sworn to defend, I am not sure.

The issue of the statues within the Capitol is an inevitable corollary to the current debate about the inappropriateness of flying the flag of the Confederacy over public buildings in the South. Statues in the Capitol, in general, are donated by state legislatures; each state gets two statues to represent the state’s history or the contributions of a favorite son or daughter. The statues range from pre-Independence Native Americans to modern political figures. Some states have chosen to replace dated figures with more recent natives: Presidents Ford and Reagan, Helen Keller and Apollo XIII astronaut Jack Swigert (who was elected to the House but died before being sworn in) have all been newer additions.

Occasionally Congress will decide that an individual deserves to be in the Capitol regardless of a state’s preferences. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, is represented in the Rotunda, a site usually reserved for presidents; Frederick Douglass is in the Visitor’s Center representing the District of Columbia, which had been denied the statuary privileges granted to the states; Rosa Parks, a former congressional staff member in addition to her historic role in the civil rights movement, was recently added.

From time to time, like Lee, statues are moved in response to changing attitudes and preferences. A marble statue of suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, long banished to the netherworld of the Capitol’s vault, was moved up to the Rotunda in May 1997 in response to a resolution pushed by women Members.

The decision of where in the Capitol it is appropriate to honor the sculpted images of the men and women of our past is therefore open to discussion. Specifically, it is time to remove the two highest ranking officials of the Confederacy from Statuary Hall.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ statue was donated by his home state of Mississippi in 1931. Granted, Davis served as a senator (twice), as well as serving as Secretary of War, and he voiced concerns about secession, as did Lee and many others who went on to mount a 4 year rebellion against the country they had taken an oath to defend. But Davis, like many southerners of that era, was not apologetic about the issue of slavery, or the appropriate role for African-Americans to play in our society. “African slavery, as it exists in the United States,” Davis famously opined, “is a moral, a social, and a political blessing. You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.”

OK, right there, get out the dolly: that statue has to go. I’m an historian; I understand that attitudes and perspectives change, that we should not base our contemporary attitudes on the mistakes of the past, no matter how deplorable (although it is worth noting that at the time, there were plenty of Americans who were engaged in vigorous activities to end the “peculiar institution,” as slavery was euphemistically described). But just because we understand the errors of the past does not mean we have to honor them, and leaving the statue of a treasonous and racist leader of a rebellion in an honored place in the U.S. Capitol is an insult that should be corrected.

Davis famously requested that the South be allowed to secede without a war, pleading, “All we ask is to be let alone.” I suggest we honor his request and leave him alone somewhere other than in one of the most honored of sites in the Capitol.

While we have the dolly in Stat Hall, it should also pick up Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ statue for relocation. Stephen’s seated statue was presented by his home state of Georgia in 1927. Like Davis, Stephens served in the Congress, and he also was the post-war governor of Georgia. Like Davis and Lee, Stephens had reservations about the wisdom of secession and he even had defended black clients as an attorney.

But Stephens’ legacy is irretrievably damaged by his vigorous defense of slavery. His most famous address, known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” helped to define the entire rationale for the Confederacy not simply as an assertion of states’ rights, but the right to sustain the institution of slavery. The Confederate government was “founded…its cornerstone rest[ed],” Stephens declared a few weeks before the war erupted at Fort Sumter in 1861, “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man …[S]lavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition … This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” The fight over slavery, Stephens asserted, “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

Key word: “revolution.” We should not grant a place of honor to men who fomented, supported, rationalized and conducted “revolution” against the government they had sworn to defend. Americans who are understandably insulted by the views of such bigots should not be asked to acquiesce so that the statues of those who committed treason can continue to reside in the Capitol.

So far, the momentum to remove the Confederate flag from official buildings in the South does not appear to have made it to the halls of the Capitol, where these marble and bronze vestiges of the Confederacy remain ensconced in places of honor. Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for his home state legislature to remove Davis’ statue from the state Capitol grounds, he has not yet offered up an opinion about the appropriateness of the statue down the Hall from his Capitol office. And senators like Lindsay Graham, Thad Cochran, Jeff Sessions and Tim Scott have all indicated they are not interested in moving, or removing the statues of the secessionists. It’s as though their feet are planted in stone.


Raisin Redux

Nearly two years ago, in one of the earlier blogs on this site, I focused attention on Marvin Horn, a California raisin farmer who had insisted on his God-given (and legally protected) right to grow grapes for raisins in unlimited quantities.

Horn had run afoul of Marketing Order 989 which gave the autocrats of the shriveled grape industry, aka the Raisin Administrative Committee, the extraordinary power to restrict how he could sell his own crop. (“The Raisin Mavens,” Aug. 21, 2013)  Horn, like Carl Pescosolido, an independent orange grower on whose behalf I had worked in Congress decades ago, was fighting back against a 1937 federal law that allows growers of certain agricultural commodities to order growers to limit sales in order to keep prices high (or, laughably, to protect consumers from unwholesome fruit).

In my blog, I noted, “So, over 30 years later, here is Marvin Horn and the raisin revolt.  According to the reports on NPR, the raisin politburo is not taking Marvin’s protest lying down; they’ve gone to war with him, hiring detectives to spy on his activities, and hauled him into federal court.”

Well, they may have hauled Horn into court for defying the raisin bran, uh, ban, but it was all in vine, I mean, in vain. In a remarkably clear and unambiguous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 8-1 that the flow-to-market restrictions exercised by the raisin regulators is an unconstitutional taking of private property. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the majority decision, declared that the government must pay “just compensation” when it sanctions the seizure of private property, even if it is little shriveled-up fruit. (He didn’t exactly put it that way, but that was the general thrust of the decision.)

Many of those doing a happy dance over this ruling are conservatives who cheer the limitations imposed on government’s ability to take private property. But it should be remembered that the orange litigation three decades ago was promoted by progressive consumer activists including San Francisco’s Public Advocates. As a result of the battle of the oranges (which included serving the alleged “inferior quality” fruit in the House Members’ Dining Room), the quantity portions of the orange ban were terminated. Now, raisins must live in the free market world as well, unprotected by federal laws that are, in other cases, so roundly condemned by the agriculture industry. However, our nation’s farms are still not free: quantity restrictions still might apply on several remaining products including prunes, dates, and almonds from California (the latter slurping up a gallon of precious water for every nut), as well as tart cherries, walnuts and spearmint oil. We will watch carefully to see if Congress or USDA acts to end these market restrictions based on the Horn case.

Meanwhile, there was one other important feature of the Horn decision. Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted with the majority, took exception to a suggestion by his Brethren, Stephen Breyer, who called for a lower court to review whether money might have been owed to Horn. Thomas, not known for his witty sayings, or any sayings, for that matter, opined that sending the case back to a trial court would be a “fruitless exercise.” Hopefully, when the Court issues its upcoming opinions on marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act, we will all still be inclined to smile.

Trading Insults

There have been no shortages of forced comparisons of Barack Obama to presidents of the past – Lincoln and Kennedy, in particular – but the parallel which has always struck me has been to the Democrat who served in the White House exactly one century ago: Woodrow Wilson.

Like Obama, our 28th President had moved to his new “home state” as an adult, and came to the White House with a slim political resumé (Wilson had served less than two years as governor of New Jersey, his adopted state, before his 1912 election). Like Obama, Wilson conceived of himself, in the words of biographer John Morton Blum, as “an outside force in politics.” The two men share a skeptical attitude towards the Legislative Branch, which is all the more remarkable in Wilson’s case since his Ph.D. dissertation promoted Congressional Government, a concept he hastily abandoned once ensconced in the executive’s chair.

Both men were elected on the promise of peace and found themselves involved in a radically altering international tableau that dragged the country into a war they had opposed entering. Both shared careers as university-based intellectuals and endured criticisms for arrogance and detachment from the messiness of hand-on politics. Wilson, as Blum noted, strongly identified himself with “change, with challenging entrenched corporate interests who sought to dominate the political system, ” and with modernizing the Democratic Party. And like the current occupant of the White House, Wilson viewed America as having “a special moral as well as historical basis … a predestined obligation to bring constitutionalism to the world.”

Wilson famously (and contemptuously) castigated the Senate as a “little band of willful men” after a filibuster against his effort to arm merchant ships on the eve of America’s entry into World War I. That “little band” also scuttled Wilson’s high priority second term initiative, the League of Nations treaty following World War I. We can only imagine Obama’s subliminal assessment of a hostile Congress perennially determined to undo his major legislative achievements and resist his remaining policy goals.

Which brings us to the subject of Friday’s vote in the House on several trade bills that Obama has characterized as crucial to America’s international security and economic competitiveness, as well as his own legacy. There are interesting parallels between the vote on Trade Adjustment Assistance and Trade Promotion Authority last week with the 2008 effort to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) under President George W. Bush. In both cases, a President in the waning months of his presidency had to deal with a Congress in the hands of the other party, and encountered difficulties rallying his own party’s membership to support legislation he considered urgent. In the case of TARP, then-Minority Leader John Boehner, who had been an active participant in the development of the legislation to prevent the collapse of our economic system, faced a petulant, pre-Tea Party Republican Conference that had little taste for legislation promoted by their own President. Despite his pleas (and tears) on the floor on behalf of a bill he famously castigated as a necessary “crap sandwich,” Boehner was unable to produce the Republican votes needed to pass TARP, which failed on its first vote and then passed (after the Dow Jones average dropped 777 points) because the Democratic majority, under Speaker Pelosi, cranked up the necessary additional votes.

But there are a number of important differences between the TARP and TAA/TPA votes. Unlike TARP or the Bush stimulus, the Obama Administration has been negotiating the trade agreement without congressional involvement. The President has been calling upon House Democrats to sanction a complex plan, as yet not even completed, which they had had no role in designing and would have no ability to modify. Moreover, while key Republican constituencies – particularly the business community – strongly endorsed TARP as essential to the nation’s economic security, key Democratic constituencies vigorously oppose the current trade agreement. The AFL-CIO, the longtime supporter of TAA, which provides assistance to trade-displaced workers, was vigorous in its opposition to the extension of the program, which would have facilitated passage of the despised TPA bill.

Unable to persuade more than a couple dozen pro-trade Democrats to support the TPA, despite weeks of staff and personal exertions, Obama made a dubious visit to the Hill on Friday to call upon the members of the Democratic Caucus to reverse position and support the bills. His decision to cast the vote as one of support for him personally, and his unwillingness to take questions after his talk, compounded a sense by many Democrats that Obama was overly personalizing the vote and not responding to concerns about the merits of the issues at hand. The voluble Peter DeFazio pronounced himself “insulted” by the President’s tone, and it seems likely others found the lateness of the personalized message off-putting. Nor, it is likely, that those unhappy with the trade policy, many of whom feel Obama has neglected House Democrats in past campaigns, find much succor in the President’s promise to help them respond to criticism in next year’s election.

There will be, in years to come, a healthy amount written about the nature and effectiveness of Mr. Obama’s rapport with the Congress. Many who have served in the Administration are rankled by the allegations of aloofness or unwillingness to engage as exuberantly as past presidents supposedly have with legislators. If only Obama had invited more Members down for a beer or a movie; if only he had the Boehners over for dinner in the private quarters; if only he had held more frequent leadership meetings or adopted a more consultative relationship with key chairmen and ranking Members.

Maybe, but probably not. Obama is hardly the first President to be accused of a less than cuddly relationship with Congress. But frostiness or not, Democrats have generally loyally supported Obama initiatives about which many were half-hearted (the 2011 budget agreement) and Republican opposition to President Obama has little or nothing to do with the level of White House fraternizing. Many Republicans have gone to social events at the White House, eagerly sought autographs and photographs with the President, and then continued to excoriate him and his policies without surcease. And high-ranking White House aides certainly have been meeting with Democratic leaders and key committee members in recent weeks.

What cannot be doubted, however, is that many Members of both sides feel inadequately consulted by the President, and any White House needs to deal with perceptions as well as realities. There was no hesitation by Democrats, even highly vulnerable ones, when they were called upon by the President and Speaker Pelosi to cast votes on legislation they deeply cared about and had extensive hands in writing such as the 2009 stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. Many knew their votes could jeopardize the extended political careers they had assiduously planned, and many suffered defeat in large part because of those votes (which, incidentally, very few have said they regretted). Of course, that was all in the early glow of the Obama era, and perhaps Members thought the schmoozing and White House ice cream socials would come later.

But there was a different attitude towards the trade bills, not because Mr. Obama is in the 7th year of his presidency or even because he allegedly does not socialize enough with legislators. Democrats did not run embracing free trade agreements that would offend key constituencies, but they did run promising jobs, economic recovery and health care. When those bills came to the floor, they supported them, largely regardless of political consequences.

Moreover, the trade agreements run counter to the longstanding trend of Congress, since the mid-1970s, to look skeptically on presidential initiatives that involve legislative deference to the Executive Branch, even in the area of international affairs. When you mix the periodic need for an re-assertion of congressional equity with a politically unpopular trade policy, as well as an absence of involvement in the development of the policy itself, one can hardly be surprised at the lack of enthusiasm. No clinking of beer steins at the White House was going to impact that decision.

Much has been written about the role of Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who had declined to commit herself on the trade bills over the past several months. Doubtless, she instructed the White House to do what she always tells people seeking her assistance: go get the votes. She can help tweak a tight outcome, but she cannot move mountainous opposition. In the end, the President was unable to persuade Members with either substantive or personal entreaties. No one should have been surprised that Leader Pelosi stuck with the vast majority of her Members and voted “no.” Her vote was not a repudiation of the President, but an act of solidarity with the Caucus that elects her.

Suggestions that Pelosi somehow failed to deliver the votes as she did in the case of TARP or ACA miss the point: those were bills Democrats had fashioned and were invested in seeing enacted. Pelosi spared no effort to ensure passage of such Democratic priorities, and proved herself willing to take unremitting abuse from Republicans, the press and even some of her own obdurate Members to achieve her (and the President’s) goals. But Democrats have no such allegiance to enactment of trade legislation, and absent a more compelling case from the White House or a better vote count, Pelosi had little reason to urge Members to act against their deep-seated beliefs and political self-interest.

Some assert that it was cynical of Democrats, who have long supported the trade assistance program, to vote it down because they knew its passage would ease the way for the TPA, which they opposed. But their opposition was surely no more cynical than was the strategy to link the two votes in the first place, which was designed to make it all that much more difficult for Democrats to oppose TPA. What the White House and House Republicans missed was the willingness of TAA’s perennial supporters both on and off the floor to allow the program to disintegrate rather than extend it in order to ease passage of the hated trade authority bill. It may be difficult to explain the complex floor maneuvers that sunk TAA and TPA on Friday, but whatever it was, it was certainly not the “procedural snafu” described by Obama press secretary Josh Earnest.

However, my guess is that, like Mark Twain’s passing, the death of TPA is greatly exaggerated. Speaker Boehner moved to reconsider the TAA vote and has announced a revote as early as next week. TPA proponents also have the option, although it may be a thin one, to figure a way to move the House-passed clean TPA bill through the Senate, perhaps by offering senators a separate TAA vote that is not linked to TPA. Creative parliamentary minds are surely at work here; it is difficult to see the underlying bill, having been approved by both houses, wither and die because no one could figure out how to structure a rule or floor procedure to achieve the desired outcome. That is how health care ultimately became law: smart strategists figured out how to end-run the implacable opponents.

Even Pelosi hinted on Friday that a defeat of TAA could set in motion forces that might yield a better trade bill down the road, which does not sound like the funeral oration over a moribund bill. Whether an enactable trade bill can be salvaged from the wreckage remains to be seen. But if it is to enjoy greater Democratic support in an era of concern about grotesque wealth disparity, the trade bill will have to reflect not only the interests of the business community, but a greater resemblance to the same goals embodied by Woodrow Wilson’s New Nationalism a century ago, a national policy that “promote[s] the welfare of those groups which ha[ve] not as yet shared adequately in the richness of national life.”