hardline political news and analysis

Month: December, 2015

A Retrospective, and Look Ahead

When I was growing up, Esquire magazine used to publish a year-end feature that conferred the tongue-in-cheek “Dubious Achievement Awards” on individuals whose statements and activities over the preceding 12 months earned them this doubtful distinction. For most of the 1960s, the Awards included a picture of a buoyant Richard Nixon, who had lost both the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California governorship, with the caption, “Why is this man laughing?” Not surprisingly, Esquire stopped asking the question after Nixon’s resurgence in the 1968 presidential election, although I suspect it was resurrected after Nixon’s ignominious downfall.

Well, here we are at year’s end and it seems like an appropriate time to recognize some trends that seem to be emerging and that we might well find amusing, or dismaying, a year from now. I will avoid the temptation to make predictions, although I must say that I had a pretty good track record in 2015.

I foresaw congressional acceptance of the big budget agreement, the Iran agreement, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I don’t consider these predictions to warrant any particular recognition since each was predicated on the fact that Congress had little alternative, after offering up some bluster, but to accept these policies. In an era of near-gridlock among the 535 representatives and senators, the President’s power expands exponentially since he can move swiftly and command press and media attention for a carefully honed message – something a diverse and divided Congress is incapable of doing. The aggressive use of executive power by President Obama – something many were encouraging after the 2012 election, made it clear his legislative initiatives would confront massive resistance on the Hill – demonstrates once again that however much the Legislative Branch may attempt to reassert its equality with the Executive Branch, a divided Congress faces enormous difficulties in challenging the singular power of a determined President.

Almost immediately after Speaker John Boehner announced his retirement, I advised that once the internecine Republican warfare subsided, a Speaker Paul Ryan might well emerge from the rubble on the Right. My observation was not based on my enormous respect for Ryan’s still-undetermined leadership skills, but on the painfully obvious inadequacies of other pretenders to the Speakership. I also noted that while Ryan might enjoy a brief respite from the caterwauling of the conservative Conference, inevitably he would confront the same Hobbesian choice that faced, and doomed, Boehner: acquiesce to the intemperate demands of the Freedom Caucus, including a national default and government shutdown, or cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi to pass legislation without the nefarious riders demanded by the conservative irreconcilables. Of course, Ryan would choose the latter course, and thereby earn the same condemnation that drove Boehner to retirement on the golf links in Florida. Ryan performed as predicted, abandoning the most noxious riders (defunding Planned Parenthood, repealing the Affordable Care Act, creating barriers to Muslims entering the country) because he knew he would ultimately be judged not on how well he catered to the extremists, but by how well he made the institution function.

Predictably, such bursts of responsible stewardship have not earned Ryan the approbation of the Right. The snarling Ann Coulter called for another Republican to challenge Ryan in his 2016 primary much as David Brat successful ousted Majority Leader Eric Cantor two years earlier. The hardliners at declared “Paul Ryan Betrays America,” and on Twitter, there were numerous assertions that Ryan’s newly grown beard provided evidence of his sympathy for Muslim extremists.

Ryan has had a fairly good first act: a multi-year highway bill, a new K-12 education bill replacing No Child Left Behind, a major increase in spending reflecting the higher levels permitted by the budget agreement’s sidestepping of the sequestration caps, and a major tax bill that included high Democratic priorities such as making both the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit permanent at stimulus levels. Before anyone credits Ryan’s extraordinary legislative legerdemain too fulsomely, let’s recall that increasing spending and cutting taxes are not exactly the stuff of which legislative legends is made. The tax bill created about $800 billion of new debt (as much as the Obama stimulus or TARP, though the latter was repaid with interest) which Republicans typically decry, except when handing out tax breaks to the business community. Moreover, the Omnibus spending bill was loaded down with dozens of special-interest riders (also known as the now-banned “earmarks”) for Democrats and Republicans alike – defense spending the Pentagon didn’t want, a tax break for casinos and hotels that Harry Reid did want – that boosted its cost and greased its way to enactment.

Not that there’s anything wrong with such typical legislative logrolling; what is offensive is Ryan and Company’s gross hypocrisy about forswearing deficits and earmarks while hungrily employing them. Ronald Reagan used to say that the difference between Democrats and an intoxicated sailor was that at least the latter was spending his own money. That statement needs to be updated to include the profligate Republicans, whose longstanding addiction to deficits is a matter of record, even if their recurring habits are obscured by their purported fealty to fiscal restraint.

I also anticipated that Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi would continue to exercise outsized influence in the House’s legislative product, particularly if Republicans proved unable to consolidate their majority to ensure the 218 GOP votes needed to pass bills to avoid having to appeal to Democrats. Pelosi has demonstrated the skill first exhibited a decade ago that achieved unparalleled party unity in voting on the floor. Pelosi (like Boehner and Ryan) found it harder to command a similar level of unity once in the majority, when the inclusion of more marginal seats (whose capture created the majority) created more intra-party factions. Her enduring power in shaping legislation, notwithstanding her party’s status in the minority, must be vexing to Republican leaders and infuriating to the GOP’s far Right which had hoped to maneuver her and President Obama into accepting their radical demands.  Instead, they have had to acknowledge, as did the San Francisco Chronicle during one recent debate, that if “anyone was in control of the House floor, it was San Francisco Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, not the Republicans who won full control of Congress.”

Lastly, I had anticipated that over time, Republican governors would abandon their resistance and choose to participate in the expanded Medicaid benefits permitted under the Affordable Care Act, a trend that is now gathering momentum. Any governor, given the large number of uninsured who remain the state’s responsibility, would be guilty of malfeasance, malevolence or mendacity to turn down the 100% federal reimbursement (until 2016) and 90% thereafter. As the New York Times has recently reported, a growing number of conservative governors are accepting the expansion, notwithstanding the opposition of the state’s congressional delegations. Recently, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard endorsed the Medicaid expansion, as have Republican governors in Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and Ohio. In Tennessee, GOP Gov. Bill Haslam ran into a hail storm of opposition from conservatives like the Koch brothers when he tried to expanded Medicaid to an 280,000 people. You can be sure the Kochs and other opponents won’t be kicking in any money to help Haslam pay 100% of the costs of covering those sick Tennesseans when they show up in clinics and emergency rooms.

Other Republicans are similarly facing reality and endorsing the expansion like Utah’s Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Wyoming’s Matt Mead of Wyoming, who had earlier sued to challenge the ACA, but now acknowledges, “It’s the law of land … so now I’m trying to be pragmatic.” Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson similarly has agreed to continue the expansion to include 220,000 residents begun under his Democratic predecessor. These conservatives have found that their rhetoric does little to match the benefits conferred by the ACA, just as congressional Republicans have yet to come up with a credible alternative despite years of promising to “repeal and replace” the health care law.

It is not altogether clear what all this means for the second session of the 114th, an abbreviated schedule due to a combination of the election season and a minimalist agenda by congressional Republicans. Certainly all eyes will focus on Speaker Ryan and his strategy for managing his fractious Conference which cut him some slack on the recent Omnibus spending package and tax bills, but is unlikely to continue to roll out the Welcome Wagon in 2016. The prominence of the far Right base in the GOP presidential primaries will exert constant pressure on House and Senate Republicans to also demonstrate their fealty to issues like repealing the ACA and defunding Planned Parenthood, neither of which has a chance of success. Those failures will inflame the Right which will make continual, unachievable demands on Ryan. All that means the dynamic that promoted factionalism within the GOP Conference is likely to continue, which could either energize or exasperate Republican voters, whose turnout will be determinative of the nation’s political direction following the November elections.

How will it all turn out? Who knows? But don’t be surprised if next year’s Dubious Achievement Awards include a grinning Paul Ryan with the caption, “Why is this man laughing?”


‘Tis the Season


Well, it’s mid-December, and you know what that means: a whole lot of money is being spent. But I’m not talking about holiday presents: I am referring to two massive bills very quietly grinding their way through the Congress, out of view of the public which is going to both give and receive when the final legislation is signed.

Yes, squirreled away in the back offices of the Capitol, and over the 456-, 225 – and 224- prefix phone lines, complex negotiations are taking place on the end-of-the-year appropriations and tax bills that will help shape the politics and the pocketbooks of a few hundred million Americans in coming years. Not that many Americans would know: search the front pages of today’s major newspapers including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune and you will find nary a mention of the offers, counteroffers and dealings.

As always, there will be winners and losers; meritorious policy changes, and real stinkers thrown in to satisfy and powerful legislator or cobble together a few needed votes. Some will be relatively minor (remember: Congress rounds off to the nearest $100 million!); some will have lasting impacts (yes, appropriations are annual but tax changes can, and will, be permanent, or at least until the next “tax reform” bill occurs).

Without putting readers to sleep, let me run through the process here; true, people tell you “process is boring” and “no one cares.” Well, actually, the people who control the process – who happen to be the same people who write the laws – most certainly do care, and they are delighted that so few other people are willing to invest in following the intricate maneuverings. Sometimes legislating, like card tricks, is all in the wrist. Remember the warning of former Rep. John D. Dingell (who knew something about card tricks): “If I let you write the substance and you let me write the procedure, I’ll screw you every time.”

There are two deadlines fast approaching (actually we already went past a few, but who’s counting?). Last fall’s budget agreement only established the parameters for the bill that really counts: appropriations (a/k/a, the money). Since we have long since passed the beginning of the fiscal year (October 1) without new appropriations bills in place, we are operating on Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that extend last year’s spending levels. But the budget agreement allows much more spending – tens of billions more – above the so-called “sequestration caps,” and legislators are anxious to spend it, Republicans and Democrats alike. Although for different priorities. Hence the dealing. Congress will keep extending the deadline for the final CR (or Omnibus) until all the final appropriations deals are cut, thereby avoiding the dreaded government shutdown that occurs when the spending deadline passes.

The second deadline applies to provisions of the tax code that expire on January 1, provisions that result in every bit as much “spending” as appropriations, although Republicans don’t do their budget that way, which allows them to rack up cascades of unpaid-for tax spending without having to provide the “offsets” that new appropriations require. (They rationalize this exception by assuring naïfs that revitalized economic growth resulting from the tax cuts will more than compensate for the up front losses; how quaint a theory.)

The looming expiration of many tax provisions presents opportunities to leverage new policies as trade-offs; refuse me what I want, and your tax provision dies. This tax cliff is why, back in 2012, Democrats were able to kill the extension of the Bush upper income tax cut by carving it out of the permanent extension of the middle class cut; had Republicans balked, the tax cuts would have expired for everyone, which would not have been received well back home.

The procedural thicket is where things get problematic, especially for the new Speaker. Ryan has the fancy office because John Boehner infuriated the far-Right Freedom Caucus, which refused to sign off on Continuing Resolutions that could pass the Senate and be signed into law, preferring government shutdowns. They demanded either lower spending (a no go with the Dems) or policy changes (also known as “riders,” supposedly not allowed on appropriations bills by widely permitted by mutual agreement; incidentally, they are the first cousin to the banned “earmarks’), similarly unacceptable to Democrats.

As a result of Freedom Caucus intransigence, Boehner was compelled to cut deals with Democrats to avoid the disaster of government shutdowns, and Democrats naturally demanded — and got — spending and no policy riders (like killing the health care law, for example, or ending funding for Planned Parenthood). That combination of Democratic victories, over and over again, infuriated the Freedom Caucus, which branded Boehner an Obama-Pelosi-Reid collaborator, and you know the rest of that story.

Well, here’s the thing: Ryan is basically facing the same choice. The Freedom Caucus isn’t happy about the higher spending allowed in the budget agreement (which many of them opposed) and reflected in the CR under discussion, and even if Ryan were able to sneak in a few conservative riders, most of them probably won’t vote for the CR because they want to be able to preserve their anti-spending purity. So Ryan has no choice but to get to know Mrs. Pelosi real well and real quickly, which will genuinely exasperate his Conference.

Simultaneously, however, the former Ways and Means chairman is dragging along a big tax bill (which is anything but “tax reform”) that Republicans (and many Democrats) want despite its being unpaid for, and despite its projected impact on the deficit. How big, you wonder: at last count, $700 billion … and climbing. That is nearly as big as (a) the upper income tax cut – and guess who gets most of the benefits of this tax bill; (b) the much reviled Obama stimulus bill that no Republicans voted for because it wasn’t paid for; and (c) the TARP bailout, which Republicans also opposed because it wasn’t paid for (although it did make a tidy profit for taxpayers once the money got paid back, thanks to Democratic insistence).

So, here’s the problem: Ryan probably can’t get enough Republicans to vote for the CR, so he needs Democrats. Ryan probably can get Republicans to swallow their anti-deficit pride and vote for the tax bill, but many Democrats don’t like it. Separately, each could pass; together, as Ryan would like to pass them, not so sure. And Sen. McConnell is saying the will only consider the bills as a unified package.

Procedurally, this is not a good scenario: the bills must pass identically, of course; Members cannot pass bills sequentially and have them magically reunite before travelling down to the White House. Well, actually, they can, and have, and maybe that’s how all this happens. This is where mastery of the Rules becomes essential. Ryan also could decide to pass his two bills, with different “yea” votes for each, and get out of Dodge, leaving McConnell to figure out to pass them and avoid a shutdown and expiration of the tax cuts.

Now it is worth remembering the caterwauling of John Boehner and his Republican Conference when similarly complex bills appeared on the schedule and were passed hours after being finalized. Remember him dropping the health care bill on the House floor with an enormous thud; recall the merciless excoriating of Pelosi for saying no one would know for certain what was in the health bill until it was passed (a perfectly reasonable statement, given the back and forth negotiations, skillfully twisted into an allegation that Members did not know what they were voting on). Recall the promise of the new Republican majority in 2011 to follow “regular order” and not allow bills to be brought to the floor without a 72 hour layover so every Member could read every fascinating line?

Well, forget all that. The 72 hour rule has gone the way of the disappearing quorum (RIP 1889) and regular order is essentially irregular order. The combination of complexity, deadlines and deal-cutting ensures that when ever the package is sewn up, it will move like lightening so legislators can vote, rush out of town, and get on with spending their own money for Christmas presents. Only then will reporters, bloggers and budget geeks “know what is in the bill” and who – oil companies, casinos, tech industries, etc. etc. – filled their silk stockings.




How Many Deaths Will It Take…

How many 747 jumbo airliners would have to crash, with a total loss of life, before the United States Congress would act? I am guessing that after a couple of such disasters, the Congress call a hearing or two, drag everyone from the aircraft designers to the window washers up, and require that they answer questions for 11 hours.

Well, we lose to gun violence every year the same number of fatalities as if 77 fully loaded 747s crashed with a total loss of life. About 32,000 deaths annually – every year. We have had a mass shooting almost every day this year. Yet Congress has done little but continue to succumb to intimidation by the Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association.

The reluctance to act on gun legislation reflects fear of campaign contributions and grassroots campaigns rather than responsiveness to the 70+% of the public that supports reasonable gun restrictions such as expanded background checks. Congress, it seems, would prefer to let the children in elementary schools, worshippers in churches, women seeking reproductive health care, disabled people seeking supportive services, and all of those who love them, live in terror rather than face down the gunslingers.

It doesn’t really matter, or so it seems, if the victims are in Sandy Hook or San Bernadino, John Kennedy or John Lennon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mrs. Martin Luther King, Sr. – or hundreds of thousands of lesser known victims. The United States, alone in the world among so-called “advanced nations,” sanctions the virtually unregulated ownership of weapons of destruction by private citizens, hunters and lunatics alike.

There is plenty of blame to go around. It is true; former Rep. John Dingell was a patsy for the NRA throughout his entire record tenure in Congress. And there are plenty of other Democrats, including many very decent people like Bernie Sanders, who can come up with one rationale or another for inaction. But what they can’t do is say they haven’t been warned, because every year, year after year, the gruesome statistics and horrific images are reliably reported.

Now here’s a headline that should cause grave concern to anyone not on a terrorist watch list:

 Republicans Kill Amendment That Would Have Prevented Suspected Terrorists From Buying Firearms

The story reported that House Republicans unanimously blocked a vote (yes, it was a technical “Motion to Recommit”) on the bipartisan “Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act” that would tell even members of a “well-regulated militia” that they can’t buy guns if they are on the federal no-fly list.

Surprisingly, that headline actually appeared on May 12, 2011 – that’s four and a half years ago: before Sandy Hook, before San Bernadino, before Planned Parenthood or Umpqua College or Emanuel AME Church. That vote occurred following release of a Government Accountability Office report documenting that individuals on the federal terror watch list were able to purchase firearms from licensed dealers more than 1,000 times. More recently, the Government Accountability Office  reported that between 2004 and 2014, people listed on one terror watch list – over 2,000 of them — were allowed to buy weapons 91% of the time.

Now here’s the question for Congress: if you aren’t prepared to debate how to stop people identified as potential terrorists from buying guns, what possible claim to leadership can you make? All that hot air about the Second Amendment’s sanctity is just so much bloviating: we have already violated that “sanctity” by restricting the sale of guns to ten categories of people including convicted felons and those with severe mental illness. Why can’t we have a conversation about adding “potential terrorists” to that list?

Well, we all know why: because the GOA and NRA have money to burn, sophisticated grassroots organization, skilled political operatives, and can run circles around most elected officials. Many still believe the main reason Democrats lost the House in 1994 was because of the assault weapon ban, and that questionable connection is more than sufficient to temper the willingness of many to revisit the issue.

But let’s be clear: this is a Republican problem. Sure, there are a few outliers among Democrats who would vote the NRA line, but many of the old line gun group toadies like Dingell are gone and some who once quaked before the NRA have turned around on the issue. Hillary Clinton deserves real credit for stepping into the gun debate despite the wariness of many Democratic officeholders.

It is the leadership of the Congress, which is Republican, that won’t even let the vote happen; won’t even let the debate occur. Nancy Pelosi recently suggested that the House create a Select Committee on Gun Violence instead of a new committee to investigate women’s health providers, but that suggestion has been ignored.

If murdering kids in an elementary school or people in a movie theater or worshippers in a church or students on a campus — if all that horror isn’t going to move the craven politicians to consider how we might reduce the availability of guns, then the answer does not lie in more data or in appeals to reason. It will be very difficult to beat the NRA unless people in Congress, and individuals and organizations outside Congress, are prepared to engage in the same intense level of political activism to which the gun groups devote themselves.

Three steps are essential:

  1. Take advantage of a high level of public outrage and immediately convene a bipartisan, high-level summit of political, business, police, military, religious and other leaders to develop an appropriate response to the torrent of gun violence.
  2. Identify a limited number of discrete, achievable steps that enjoy broad public support – ban large ammunition magazines, mandate universal background checks, ban all gun sales to people on no-fly lists — and hold candidates accountable on these issues at every public appearance, publicizing their responses.
  3. Perhaps most importantly, identify a small number of pro-gun candidates who are most vulnerable and throw whatever resources that can be mustered at them to defeat them. Nothing will demonstrate effectiveness like replacing gun lobby loyalists with more courageous members of Congress who listen to public opinion.   The effort must be surgically targeted to the few races where the chances for success are most promising.

Maybe there are better strategies, but whatever has been tried to this point has not been enough to move the debate, or even start the debate, in Congress.  Indeed, it is likely, especially under the current management, it’s a bad idea to demand votes in a Congress that clearly is geared to support the gun lobby.  A new strategy and a renewed determination needs to come from the millions of Americans who are appalled by the endless massacres in our country, and disgusted by the gutless passivity with which the Congress acquiesces.   Gun reformers demonstrate they can inflict political damage by wrenching some of the pro-gun proponents out of their seats, thereby  proving it is possible to compete with the NRA at their own game and beat them. Nothing less will likely have the slightest impact.