hardline political news and analysis

Month: October, 2015

Saving Speaker Ryan

When the clock strikes midnight tonight, it may well toll the end of the best day in the speakership of Paul Ryan. During today’s ceremony, everyone had their “come let us reason together” faces on, but a few days from now – coincidentally right around Halloween – things might be getting a lot scarier for the new Speaker.

Not that I am wishing the new speaker ill, but as his speech to the House indicated, there are a lot of very challenging issues, particularly within the Republican Conference, that remain unresolved, to put it gently.

In his talk, Ryan tipped his hat to the Tea Party faction that brought down John Boehner due to his unwillingness to subjugate himself to its unrealistic and unrealizable goals. Ryan pledged a “return to regular order,” which roughly translated means allowing legislation to originate in committees rather than in the leadership. “If you know the issue, you should write the bill,” said Ryan, himself past chairman of two committees, an unusual background for one who has become Speaker.

But the Freedom Caucus does not stop at extolling the virtues of committee origination of legislation. However meritorious that process may be, it does tend to empower those who are very close to complex issues (and to the special interests who know the issues and work the committees) to the exclusion of others who may not share the same perspective as committee drafters. That is why the Freedom Caucus also demands an open amendatory process on the House floor. In other words, it wants every Member to be free to offer amendments.

That approach may sound like the personification of a truly democratic House, but it is a certain prescription for disaster, as Speaker Ryan almost certainly knows.   His former committee, Ways and Means, rarely allows many amendments to be offered to its bills on the floor because they would turn the legislation into unrecognizable mush. Bills coming out of committees often reflect strategic compromises that enabled complex bills to move through the panel. Open amendment processes risk unbalancing the legislation to the point that it either has difficulty passing the floor, or no longer reflects the policy so carefully crafted in committee.

Open rules also subject legislation to poison pills that are difficult to defeat or doom the bill, or gotcha amendments that are not designed to pass but only to force political opponents into casting impolitic votes. If the rules process shuts down the amendments that the leadership dislikes, you quickly run into the “neglected minority” about which the new Speaker warned, those who feel excluded from the process and who therefore feel they have little to lose by creating other forms of obstruction and disruption. It is worth remembering that during the 1970s, reformers pressed for more open rules so that amendments challenging committee-reported legislation could be offered. What resulted was a rapid escalation in the number of amendments, a slowing of House operations, and a rise in the number of message amendments designed for gaining political ammunition. In 1969, there were just 177 recorded voted on the House floor; a decade later, after a loosening of the amendment process, that number reached 834; even given the impact of electronic voting on reducing the time it took to take votes, the trend towards more, and more contentious amendments, was clear. Indeed, when Speaker Jim Wright curtailed the abuse of the amendment process by increasingly aggressive Republicans in the late 1980s, Newt Gingrich and his allies cited that constraint as evidence of the tyranny of the Democratic leadership.

The budget and debt ceiling agreement may defer the immediate crises that loomed over Speaker Ryan, specifically the shuttering of the government and default on obligations, but it did little to restore bonhomie within the Republican Conference. A few weeks ago, 151 Republicans were willing to shut down the government over the funding of Planned Parenthood; yesterday, 167 voted against the budget-debt ceiling compromise. Ryan denounced the process, but not the outcome, which was inevitable in order to avert shut-down or default. He will face the exact same choice in the months ahead, and his concessions to the Freedom Caucus today – committee drafting of bills, open amendments, regular order – will not change the choice he will confront: concede to the Tea Party and produce an unenactable bill, or cut them loose and cut a deal with Pelosi and the Democrats, enraging the very people who doomed the Boehner speakership.

One development that is unlikely to occur is the tempering of the Freedom Caucus. They have Mr. Boehner’s head mounted on the wall, and they have made it clear they expect fealty from the new Speaker. The outrage from the far Right is going to build over the next few months as appropriations legislation reflects the higher spending allowed in the budget agreement. That is why Heritage Foundation economist Stephen Moore called the budget agreement that Ryan supported an “ unconditional fiscal surrender to President Barack Obama and the left … that eliminates all of the checks on Washington’s spend-and-borrow binge by breaking the budget caps, ending the sequester and raising the debt ceiling by over $1 trillion.” If, as Moore declares, “House Speaker John Boehner has negotiated away his greatest legacy,” where does Ryan’s support for the compromise leave him in the eyes of the Right?

It seems pretty clear that having made some procedural concessions to the Freedom Caucus, Ryan now is going to have to pivot and stand up to their unreasonable demands. If he allows them to deprive him of the authority any Speaker needs to manage the House and govern the flow of legislation, he will never recover. One is tempted to remind him of the old maxim quoted by John Kennedy in his own Inaugural 54 years ago, that “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” Ryan cannot look to the Freedom Caucus for help. Saving Speaker Ryan is up to the new Speaker.


The Ryan Express

Now that Vice President Biden has ended one Washington waiting game, all attention turns to whether Rep. Paul Ryan will accept the speakership. If so, he will assuredly become a target of the same dissidents who made John Boehner’s speakership so vexing.  In the pantheon of “establishment leaders” whom the Tea Party enjoys excoriating, a niche has already been chiseled out for Mr. Ryan to occupy.

Back on October 3rd, four days before the end of the all-too-brief Kevin McCarthy “speakership,” I emailed a friend about the disintegrating House Republican Conference. “I wonder if they pressure Ryan to get into this,” I wrote. “This new crowd is ridiculous.”

In his briefing last night with the Republican Conference, Ryan told his colleagues that he was prepared to take “arrows in the chest but not in the back.” He should probably think long and hard about believing whatever representations are offered.

Ryan is the logical choice for rational Republicans. Beyond his experience as a chairman and national candidate (both unique for a prospective Speaker), Ryan speaks the language of contemporary American politics: budgets, spending, deficits, entitlements. Particularly in his years as Budget chairman, Ryan gathered valuable experience in negotiating with Democrats, the Senate and the White House, all talents that McCarthy and other GOP hopefuls lack that will potentially serve him and House Republicans, should he become Speaker.

But … ah, there’s always a “but.” Ryan would have to accept the job knowing that, assurances aside, he will assuredly become a target for the same dissidents who made John Boehner’s speakership so vexing. On tax increases, immigration, TARP, even the 2013 grand bargain, many view Ryan as a co-conspirator with Boehner.   Unless Boehner is somehow able to negotiate a long-term budget deal before his departure — and it would certainly be in Ryan’s interest to have those issues off the table — the new Speaker will confront the same deadline dilemmas that have flummoxed Boehner. Ryan may be too interested in legislating overall for the far Right which is satisfied with stasis.

Indeed, Ryan’s confidence in his ability to negotiate the elusive Grand Bargain that slipped through Boehner’s fingers in 2011 may make him appealing to the outgoing Obama Administration and terrifying to the Tea Party.   Addressing entitlement and tax reform, while lifting the sequestration caps, would be a major achievement, allowing the next Administration to begin without confronting immediate deficit and spending restraints. To achieve such a breakthrough, or any breakthrough, would require Ryan’s willingness to take a few of those arrows he hopes to avoid, and also the backbone to stare down those who demand he accept an eviscerated speakership.

The Freedom Caucus has issued a lengthy list of demands designed to assure every Member “the same influence on the legislative process as everyone else” in the words of Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC). It wants assurances that bills will come to the floor with open rules, that all Members will be allowed to offer amendments, and that restraints on debate time will be relaxed. They insist on further constraints on the Speaker, relocating power the fractious Republican Conference.

Ryan’s counteroffer insists that House rules require a supermajority to remove a Speaker from office, enabling him to defy his irritant caucus while he cuts inevitable deals. Rep. Raúl Labrador, one of the incurable intractables, has already dismissed that demand a “non-starter.”

If Ryan accepts the speakership under such constraints, he deserves all the heartache he will surely get. If the last few years prove anything, it is that in order to govern any House majority, you need to possess the skills to listen to everyone, but the fortitude to act despite the threats of retribution. That means being respectful of your Members, but not letting them put a ring in your nose and drag you around like a bull at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Boehner learned that lesson the hard way, taking a laid back approach to leadership that empowered junior conspirators. “I don’t need to be out there beating the drum every day,” Boehner declared. “It doesn’t need the heavy hand of the Speaker all over everything.”  Boehner was caving to hardliners like Rep. Lynn Jenkins (KA) who declared, “Gone are the days when the leaders decide what the conference is gonna do,” and she was Vice Chair of the House Republican Conference! When he employed the “heavy hand,” to punish Republicans who opposed his re-election as Speaker, he looked clumsy and ineffective.

Ryan will likely reach an accommodation with the Freedom Caucus because there really is no “Plan B,” and time is running out. “Judge me against the alternative, not the Almighty,” candidates often ask their voters. In this case, even the Almighty cannot save the Republicans if they opt for the alternative. Given the prospects for a Ryan speakership, they probably should try to stay on His good side.

The Democratic Debate

The Cubs should certainly sign up their #1 booster, Hillary Clinton, because in her first at bat during last night’s debate, she blew one out of the park. Every other Democrat on the stage needed to do something to slow her inexorable drive to the Democratic nomination, and none of them came close.

Since there are analyses to spare all over the press, media and internet, just a few observations are in order from DOMEocracy today.

The debate certainly had its highlights. I suspect this was the very first time the words “massage therapist” were uttered in a presidential debate (by Sanders); the way the Republican debates have been going, I sincerely hope it is the last.

More importantly, however, Clinton demonstrated a command of knowledge and ease of delivery that clearly set her apart from her competitors. She was able to deliver her attack lines – on Sanders’ less-than-persuasive explanation for his votes against gun legislation – without any hint of the strident tone that could annoy undecided voters.

Sanders … not so much. He was lecturing more than debating, displaying an aggressiveness that undermined the accuracy of many of his arguments. Americans must like their candidates in order to support them, not simply for superficial reasons, but because likeability is related to trusting their judgment when dealing with complex issues. Regardless of how one feels about Sanders’ analysis of the U.S. economy or his plans for remaking the economic order, his argumentative tone undercuts his message fatally for all but the true believers One can be both resolute and likeable (think Ronald Reagan) but not resolute and angry.

At times, Sanders sounded like he was more engaged in a late night dorm discussion than a presidential debate. Citing Denmark and Sweden as examples of where his approach to public policy works? It did not take Clinton long to challenge Bernie’s naiveté. (And Bernie may want to check into current challenges facing the Scandinavians, for example, on deficits, entitlements and immigration before putting them up on too high a pedestal.)

Indeed, Clinton has expertly checked the Vermont senator on most of his signature issues, and has moved the debate from disagreement on policy to who possesses the skill to achieving those mutual goals. Still, give Sanders the credit he deserves for pressuring Clinton to not take progressives for granted: on trade and the Keystone pipeline, Clinton has pivoted left to dilute Sanders’ appeal and in doing so, reduced the hesitation some of his supporters might feel about transferring loyalty after the convention. He also has elevated a level of discourse about the malevolent aspects of the American economy and tax system that deserve action from the next Administration and Congress.

Sanders fell into the trap laid by Anderson Cooper concerning his ideological leanings. As a general rule, it is a pretty safe bet that in American politics that if you have to explain just what kind of democratic socialist you are, you are not having a good night outside certain campuses, a few swell homes in the Bay Area and the upper West Side, and, well, Denmark. Clinton cleverly deflected the question about the her attitudes towards capitalism into an homage to small business.

Sanders weakness on his economic record, rather than his economic rhetoric, was highlighted when he described his opposition to TARP, the 2008 law that prevented the collapse of the world economy. No one really needs reminding that the taxpayers bailed out the very perpetrators of the misbehavior that triggered the crisis. But Sanders failed to explain what he would have done at that moment, in that crisis, to prevent a cataclysmic worsening of the catastrophe-in-the-making. Both he and Clinton seemed oblivious to a crucial fact that should never be forgotten about TARP: it was only because of Democratic leadership in Congress that the Wall Street firms had to repay the public dollars that they received – with interest. At last count, I believe, taxpayers actually made about $12 billion in profit off TARP, making it one of the better investments into which the government has dumped money. Democrats should talk about standing up for the taxpayer when this subject arises again.

Clinton’s impressive performance probably represents the end of the non-existent Biden campaign. The chances of his launching a challenge that would necessitate an aggressive attack on the former Secretary of State was always negligible; even if he won, he would lose in the process. A far more plausible (though still highly unlikely) scenario would entail his lingering in the shadows in the event she stumbles and falls, providing Democrats with an alternative to Sanders or one of the other candidates. Clinton’s adroit debate in Las Vegas significantly diminishes the possibility any understudy will get to take the stage, unless something calamitous occurs in the e-mail or Benghazi inquiries.

The other candidates on the stage merit little discussion because they are unlikely to either influence the direction of the campaign or to be elevated into the role of serious contenders. Of the three, O’Malley performed well, not only demonstrating knowledge of issues and a record of achievement, but also the kind of likeability and absence of guile that more politicians would benefit from emulating. His problem, however, is there is really only room on the stage for Clinton +1, and he isn’t the one because Sanders is willing to speak more boldly and play to the base in a way in which O’Malley is not.

As Yogi Berra has said, “it ain’t over till it’s over,” and it ain’t over by a long shot. But after last night’s debate, it is a little closer to the end.

Amateur Hour

At receptions in her conference room, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi periodically will tap a glass with a piece of silverware to hush the crowd so that she can announce the arrival of Members of her Caucus. Such introductions had already occurred several times on Thursday afternoon when once again, the clinking sounded, heralding another announcement. This one was a doozy.

Pelosi’s disclosure that Kevin McCarthy had just withdrawn from the speakership election stunned a crowd of Members, staff and retirees – “What did she say??” – into astonished silence. Even this politically savvy, feeling-the-pulse, inside-the-Beltway, ear-to-the-ground crowd was caught off-guard. It was a surprise that it took Pelosi’s tapping on a glass to get peoples’ attention; one might have thought the explosion from the Republican Conference would have been heard throughout the Capitol.

For several days, I have been suggesting that one plausible outcome of the Republicans’ musical chairs could be imposing the mantle of Speaker on the demurring Paul Ryan (who, to my knowledge, has never said he wouldn’t accept the gavel, only that he was not a candidate). The current batch of hopefuls, as well as those being mentioned, are so pathetically unqualified and unsuitable as to represent genuine risks to Republicans should they become national spokespeople, as was true of the tongue-tied McCarthy. Like him or not, the pressures will build to put a “trusted,” “senior” leader at the top of the House dais, and Ryan’s the only one in town. Which says a lot.

Ryan is understandably reluctant to accept the honor. As the past Budget chairman, he knows something about deadlines and certainly appreciates that the December 11th CR date is fast approaching. Whoever occupies the Speaker’s office is going to have to either twist Republican arms to force through a Continuing Resolution that the Senate will pass and the President will sign, or he will have to follow that familiar trek down to Nancy Pelosi’s office and ask her for the votes, agreeing to whatever concessions she demands for delivering the needed Members.

The former option has not worked well for Boehner; time after time, his troops have refused to provide him with the votes he needs for CRs, debt ceiling increases, tax extenders and other must-pass bills. The latter option is the one that enraged the wing nuts and drove John Boehner into early (and doubtless blissful) retirement. Why would Paul Ryan want to do that, especially when he can continue his present fun job of chairing the Ways and Means Committee?

Ryan might want to be Speaker someday, but this probably isn’t the day. Unfortunately the shambles into which the Freedom Caucus has thrown the Republican Conference may leave him no choice if the party comes knocking. In this case, it isn’t so much taking one for the team that is so objectionable; it’s the team.

There are, of course other options, none very promising:

  • One of the other current candidates: Daniel Webster or Jason Chaffetz. Both non-entities, maybe not even team players. No gravitas to maneuver through churning waters over the next year. Not likely.
  • One of the retiring Members, such as John Kline, might serve as an interim Speaker. (The Republicans had one of those in Denny Hastert for nearly a decade.) The next Speaker to going to have to throw a little weight around. A departing Member does not send that message. He can’t even make good on retributions he might threaten to impose at the beginning of the next Congress. Makes little sense.
  • Cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi to choose a Speaker acceptable to both parties without having to depend on the Freedom Caucus, and in return, promise her floor votes on something she wants: an immigration bill, a budget Grand Bargain including taxes and entitlements that lifts the sequestration caps, the Highway Trust Fund, the Ex-Im Bank. Hmmm, I really do not see Mrs. Pelosi running into this burning building to save the barking dog who’s been keeping her awake for the past 5 years. Even if the Republicans could deliver on their promise to bring such legislation to the floor, such concessions are meaningless unless the promise is enforceable all the way to putting a signable bill on the President’s desk. And no one can make that promise. Besides, why would Nancy Pelosi want to cosign a mortgage on this House with these Republicans as cosignatories?

No, I think this is one dilemma the Republicans are going to have to figure out all by themselves, and the carnival atmosphere of the past two weeks does not inspire much confidence in their strategic skills. But it should be entertaining to watch.

A Tribute to Don Edwards

One of the unfortunate realities about the reputations of great men and women who serve in Congress is that, among the vast majority of Americans outside their districts (and unfortunately, many within their districts), their good works – even their great works – rarely are recognized beyond their own lifetimes, if then. Former congressman George Miller’s father, the state senator of the 1960s, used to advise officeholders with exaggerated senses of self-importance, “Anytime you think you’re a big deal, drive 10 miles down the road and see who ever heard of you.”

Partly that anonymity is a factor of the public’s disinterest and disengagement in real political activity, as opposed to the pontificating that passes for “politics” by many these days. Partly it is because there are so many legislators that it would be challenge for the press to educate people about their contributions, if the press were even remotely interested in doing so. So the task falls to historians and political scientists, most of whom prefer to focus on the more manageable presidential level of political studies.

Don Edwards reminds us of the extraordinary contributions one member of the House can make to the Nation, as well as of the effective role the Congress itself can play in the life of the Nation. For twenty years, Don passed up opportunities to move to positions that might have accorded him great power or profile, choosing instead to remain as the chairman of the Subcommittee on the Civil and Constitutional Rights, a conscientious gatekeeper who ensured that no topical obsession of the Right or Left maneuvered its way into Nation’s governing code. It is source of constant amazement that this low-key but resolute legislator could engage in some of the most controversial and discordant debates of the 20th century without raising his voice or losing his equanimity. Perhaps it was his evenhandedness that so exasperated his opponents as much as his intelligence and resoluteness.

Don wasn’t a doctrinaire left-winger, as some might have thought from his record in the House; he actually began life as a Republican and served as chairman of California’s Young Republican organization during the rise of Richard Nixon. Of course, he also had that singular, if brief, career in the Federal Bureau of Investigation which he unfailingly cited as evidence that he was no do-gooder pushover, although if J. Edgar Hoover could have excised his tenure from the FBI’s records, Don would have been hard-pressed to prove he had served there.

I first became aware of Don Edwards in college when he had become recognized as one of the earliest opponents of America’s growing involvement in Vietnam and, as National Chairman of the Americans for Democratic Action, helped sponsor the early anti-war march in 1965. (In 1965, Edwards declined a plea by anti-war activist (and future congressman) Allard Lowenstein to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination, a role eventually assumed by Gene McCarthy.) I didn’t know anything about him or his district, I wasn’t aware if this was a particularly courageous stance for him to take politically or a response to constituent pressure; all I knew was that at a time when virtually everyone in the House of Representatives seemed utterly tone-deaf to the protests from the campuses and the warnings of the doubters, Don Edwards’ name kept popping up on key votes to end funding for the war that provided rare evidence that all hope was not lost in finding courage in Congress. Being introduced to him when I came to work in the House in 1975 was like meeting a prophet of peace.

No tribute to Don would be complete without mentioning his beloved wife, Edie Wilkie, a person as warm, friendly and deeply committed to compassionate public policy and peace as Don himself. Edie ran the influential Members of Congress for Peace Through Law which provided information and analysis on issues from Central America to weapons systems to military reform and the campaign against nuclear weapons. In an institution where many viewed her as an invaluable intellectual asset and, I presume, many others dismissed her as a hopelessly idealistic pacifist, Edie was always a dependable source of vital, complex data while maintaining an unparalleled sense of humor and even-handedness. You couldn’t have created a more perfect companion for Don, and Edie’s untimely passing could not have upset her friends and colleagues more deeply.

Hopefully, the insult of anonymity will not befall Don Edwards, who died last week at the age of 100, more than two decades after leaving the House where he presided like a resurrection of the Founding Fathers over the preservation of the United States Constitution. But eventually, it probably will, as those who served and worked with him, whom he knew as constituents and friends, who covered and admired him during his long career themselves shuffle off the stage. We are indeed fortunate to have shared that stage in one fashion or another with a man who should be remembered by history as the embodiment of devotion to the Constitution and an exemplar of dedicated public service.