hardline political news and analysis

Month: June, 2016


The sight of Members of the House sitting in the well of the chamber to demand action on gun legislation was stirring, especially since the unprecedented demonstration was led by the iconic civil rights veteran, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. Frustrated by the refusal of Speaker Paul Ryan to schedule votes on gun reform, Democrats employed techniques unparalleled in congressional history to halt House proceedings and focus attention on unaddressed measures including immigration reform, the annual budget, and climate change, as well as gun violence.

The options available to Democrats to seize control of the House floor are limited. The House is a majority-run institution. Unlike the Senate, individuals and even the entire minority party are nearly incapable of affecting the schedule of bills that come before the chamber. Whatever the accusations against the sit-in, or the accompanying effort to block Republicans from reaching the microphones, one would be hard-pressed to argue they slowing down the productivity of the House.

Yet a note of caution is warranted. While the sit-in was successful in focusing public attention on the inaction on gun policy, Democrats (and Congress in general) should be cautious about embracing so-called “reforms” that may appear momentarily attractive but might contribute to the dysfunction of the House over time.

Indeed, a long history of reform actions have had not only beneficial impacts but also unintended consequences, and careful consideration should be given to proposals to upend traditions that have served the House well over the decades.

One particularly poor idea emerging from the sit-in experience, for example, was proposed by Rep. Eric Swalwell, a second term Democrat from California. Intrigued by the use of smart phone cameras and the Periscope app to broadcast the sit-in after C-SPAN’s cameras were shut off, Swalwell has suggested changing the House rules to allow such live streaming of floor activities on a regular basis. “What is the harm if the members have Periscope open on the House floor?” Swalwell asked. “It’s the people’s house, and as many windows as can be opened so they can be let in – it’s a good thing.”

Actually, no, it is not. Having Members wandering around the floor with cell phone cameras, filming private discussions, meetings and off-hand comments between Members would be a supremely bad thing. It is reminiscent of another recent “transparency” proposal to require Members to wear mini-cameras to record everyone with whom they met or spoke during the day.

Not only do some “reform” ideas violate the privacy of Members and the public, but they create a false sense of accountability. Many conversations would simply be driven into private areas; the floor would become even more empty than it is already; suspicion and distrust between Members would grow at the very time greater initiative is needed to break down the partisan and personal barriers that have obstructed communication and trust.

This is not to say that transparency is bad. Unquestionably, Congress is better for the reforms of the 1970s that opened the proceedings of committees, subcommittee and conferences to the press and public. Members are more accountable to their constituents because recorded votes are more easily achieved. And surely, the public has a greater access to observe congressional deliberations since television coverage began in the late 1970s.

But it is one thing to have C-SPAN covering the official debate in committee or on the floor, and quite another to have Members wandering the floor like so many Michael Moores. Many senior leaders long opposed televising floor proceedings for fear coverage would focus on Members’ unsuitable behavior (Tip O’Neill famously warned they might be caught scratching unmentionable parts of their anatomy). Another concern was that Members would stop speaking to each other in substantive debate and instead focus on the wider television audience, turning the floor into extended messaging sessions for firing up voters and publicizing the foibles of the opposite party.

Those concerns have been borne out over time; the use of one-minute speeches at the beginning of the legislative day – often little more than partisan harangues — tripled in the five years after the beginning of TV coverage, and the use of Special Orders, which can last an hour for much the same purpose, have similarly ballooned. Other reforms that loosened the rules on offering amendments generated strategies to force votes on divisive, unpassable measures simply to score politically damaging points against vulnerable representatives. Members of the Republican minority, led by Newt Gingrich, exploited expanded access to the public via C-SPAN very successfully throughout the 1980s and early 1990s to building public recognition and support.  When Speaker Jim Wright dialed back some of the liberalizations in the late 1980s to constrain partisan maneuvers, Republicans decried “autocratic” management of the House and called for a change in party control.

Swalwell is right when he notes that Congress is “an institution slow to upgrade itself,” and reformers are right to press for accountability and transparency. But legislators should consult congressional history before proceeding too quickly to embrace any change in the name of “reform.”   The results do not always make Congress a more open, accountable or effective legislative body.



Sit-in On the House Floor

The floor of the House of Representatives is a long way from a North Carolina lunch counter or an Alabama bus depot, but there was John Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement of a half century ago, sitting down in the well of the chamber to demand action on gun violence.

Lewis was dramatically joined on Wednesday by a score of Democrats frustrated by the refusal of House Speaker Paul Ryan to allow consideration of any legislation in response to the Orlando massacre, the most recent example of automatic weapon mass murder in the United States. Over in the Senate, things were not much better this week, with four measures to keep weapons out of the hands of would-be terrorists going down in flames after a 15 hour filibuster aimed at pressuring the Senate to take up the legislation.

Even Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association are aware of the vulnerability of opposing any measure addressing the easy access to battlefield weapons, although one should take their expressions of concern with more than a grain of salt. When push comes to shove, it would take a miracle for the NRA to embrace any legislation that has a meaningful impact on the availability of weapons to deranged people.

This intractability is unlikely to increase public respect for the beleaguered Congress, which is fast returning to its status as the “sapless branch” of government decried by Sen. Joseph Clark in the 1964. Except that it appears to be filled with saps who cannot even figure out how to keep a military weapon out of the hands of people who are barred from flying on airplanes. Public support for tightened rules on gun purchases ranges into the 60% and 70% margin; the inability, or unwillingness in the case of the House Republicans, to even countenance a debate on the subject seems likely to push congressional disapproval even lower than the nadir at which it currently resides. That is not a major problem for the Freedom Caucus nihilists who welcome any evidence that the federal government is unworthy of public respect (even if they generate it), but for those who are looking for leadership, it is a decidedly depressing situation.

As inappropriate as it may seem, one must consider the political implications of the stand-off (or the sit-down) on the House floor. The issue, it seems to me, is not simply the urgency for responsible gun legislation itself, but rather what the intransigence of Paul Ryan and the GOP Conference says about who should be controlling Congress. Much of the political reform of the last half century focused on assuring the ability to have a full and open debate on contentious issues in committee and on the floor. The Freedom Caucus’ major complaint with former Speaker Boehner was his unwillingness to return to “regular order” and allow such full debate. But when the GOP leadership refuses to allow any discussion of gun violence and there is silence from the Freedom Caucus “reformers,” one must question the sincerity of their demands.

Circling the wagons to defend the NRA presents a distinct target for the Fall campaign. It allows candidates to ask voters whether they want a full debate or simply continued inaction and division from the Republicans which has produced a failed budget process, no immigration debate (let alone a bill), no responsible modifications to the Affordable Care Act (as would certainly have been considered and adopted by any reasonably operational House), and now, inaction on gun violence in the wake of mass slaughter.

If Democrats can make the election less a referendum on a litany of individual issues and more about who can provide responsible management of Congress and address urgent issues – budget, immigration, health, climate change, gun violence – the public might be willing to look past the controversies swirling around the policy questions and focus on the key issue: can anybody make this place work?

The 111th Congress, the last in which Democrats held a majority, has been called the most productive in the last three-quarters of a century. The last three Congresses, run by Republicans, have arguably been the least productive. As justified as today’s sit-in has been, the sad truth is that while it hasn’t made this Congress any more productive, it hasn’t made it any less productive either.

What Hath the GOP Wrought?

One can only imagine the anguish within the Republican Party leadership as they contemplate the next five months with Donald Trump as the GOP’s improbable, irascible and embarrassing nominee. It is as though the Party of Lincoln woke up in one of Trump’s casino hotel rooms after a bacchanalian night of gorging and drinking with a ring on its finger and next to a very unwelcome – and largely unknown – stranger. Happy days, most assuredly, are not here again.

If that isn’t bad enough, Mr. GOP picks up the morning paper to read that Washington Post Associate editor Bob Woodward has 20 staff people assigned to prepare “articles about every phase of his life” because even after a year of relentless coverage, “There’s a lot we don’t know.” How much more do you want, or need, to know?

Republicans may have one escape route left, and after this week’s hair-raising descent into racist attacks on a federal judge, I would be shocked if at least some party strategists aren’t thinking about alternatives to Trump. How can that happen, what are the costs of denying Trump the nomination he won at the ballot box, and are those costs less damaging to the Republican Party than proceeding with his nomination, a terrifying campaign season, and possible electoral disaster?

It is not a choice one relishes having to make, but given the awesome downsides of proceeding to Cleveland and beyond with Trump, all options have to be considered. Yes, denying Trump the nomination would doubtless still mean a November disaster as legions of his admirers refuse to vote for whomever the Republicans nominate.  Perhaps Trump even runs wherever he can as a third of fourth party candidate. But at least in such a scenario, the rest of the Republican Party would not have to labor to distinguish itself from the person at the top of the ticket. The party could enthusiastically embrace a nominee, raise money, mobilize the loyal base, and pretend the last year never happened. Under such a scenario, perhaps some Senate and House seats or state and local races might be salvaged.

Here is one possible scenario – by no means a prediction – that I have no doubt is being run around numerous GOP strategists. Implementing this approach wouldn’t be pretty and may still result in widespread electoral carnage, but at least would not saddle the party with an unpredictable, erratic and ideologically nominee for the next six months.

Once the Party starts partying in Cleveland, Trump’s forces likely will commandeer the convention, so any effort to head off the electoral apocalypse would have to prevent Trump from consolidating his power at the outset. How?

One way would be for the convention’s Rules Committee, before the machinery of the Party was turned over to Trump, to alter the rules that currently oblige hundreds of delegates from primary states won by Trump to vote for him on the convention’s first ballot, even if they do not personally support him. Instead, the Convention rules could be rewritten to allow delegates to choose any candidate on the first ballot. Under that admittedly controversial scenario, dozens, maybe hundreds of delegates uncomfortably wedded to a Trump first ballot vote would be free to vote for someone else, and Trump might fail to win on the first ballot.

The blow could be softened by delivering the nomination not to one of the pitiful also-rans whom Trump disposed of (that really be stretching everyone’s patience) but to choose, say, Mitt Romney, who was a consensus nominee and enjoyed broad party support, or Paul Ryan, whom the 21012 convention endorsed as well.   Pick John Kasich or Marco Rubio for Vice President, and give it your best shot. At worst, you lose, as you probably will with Trump, and you endure some horrendous press for your rules manipulation: but at least you emerge with a nominee who can credibly carry the party banner without inflicting down ballot carnage.

As I noted, it’s not an easy choice, sort of like a condemned person picking between hanging and a firing squad. But Republican leaders need to evaluate whether it is better to be criticized for altering the rules to save the Party or for preserving those rules and allowing a deeply flawed candidate to cost the party credibility and legislative seats for years to come. Far-fetched? Sure. Being considered? I bet one of Trump’s casinos would give you odds on it.

The Greatest: A Personal Reminiscence

On the evening of February 25, 1964, I lay in bed listening to a transistor radio which was broadcasting the epic battle for the heavyweight championship of the world, then held by the fearsome, scowling, ex-inmate Sonny Liston. No one wanted him to win. The eyes of the world bypassed Liston and his crushing left hook and approvingly settled on the 22-year old, movie-star handsome, irreverent Cassius Marcellus Clay, the pre-hip hop, poetry spouting “Louisville Lip.” “The Mouth that Roared.” “Gaseous Cassius.” You wanted him to win, but mostly, you hoped he wouldn’t be killed.

When Liston failed to answer the bell for the 7th round, Clay owned the planet; the radio station began to play Gene McDaniels’ hit, “A Hundred Pounds of Clay. “I’m king of the world,” the new champ declared, twelve years before Leonardo DiCaprio was even born, and he continued to fascinate, irritate and complicate the world right up to his dying breath on Saturday in Phoenix.

Not that he made it easy for a lot of people, including the unfortunate palookas and skilled pugilists he met in the ring over the next decade and a half.   He was a champion for less than a day when he announced his religious conversion, his embrace of the controversial Nation of Islam (later, mainstream Islam), and his decision to change his name, ultimately to Muhammad Ali (after briefly using Cassius X, in the manner of the Black Muslims). Much of the initial public jubilation evaporated as the wisecracking Clay morphed into the serious, Qu’ran quoting Ali; several years later, the ill-ease evolved into widespread disdain when the undefeated champion also declared himself a conscientious objector and refused induction into the army during the Vietnam war, earning a 5 year prison sentence in the process.

Ali’s death came as little surprise considering his long deterioration due to Parkinson’s Disease and other neurological damage. And even though in the last several decades he had shaken off the mantle of controversy and become a universally beloved national figure, the coverage of his life fortunately has not obscured the division he caused and the disdain he accepted in order to follow his beliefs. White America wanted Cassius to be a non-threatening, poetry emoting, convivial boxer; what it got was a racially conscious, occasionally confrontational fighter who defied the white power structure. Ali was content to take the scorn. “I’m not going to be what you want me to be,” he said. “I’m a free man. I can be who I want to be.”

People who hated boxing (my mother comes to mind) loved Ali for his defiance, his pride and his courage in defying expectations. His emergence was, like the arrival of the Beatles, part of the palliative process that helped America heal after the shock of John Kennedy’s assassination only three months earlier. Like the counter-culture excesses his conservative views rejected, he helped mold an era that was prepared to defy authority. Unlike most middle class white kids, who had the security of parents, college and money to return to, Ali put it all on the line; yes, some anti-war activists went to Canada and to jail for their beliefs, but most figured a way out of the draft. Ali turned the tables on the Selective Service and rejected it, and lost his title, his livelihood and tens of millions of dollars. Who better epitomized the era’s defiance of the establishment?

Ali was less angry than fed up, and his celebrity gave him the resources and attention to define himself and how he wished to live and be regarded. He had returned from the 1960 Olympics with a boxing gold medal, only to be refused service in restaurants in his hometown of Louisville. Whether he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River (as he claimed) or lost it (as others believe), Ali learned the hard way that fame and affluence did not eliminate prejudice, and he refused to allow that bigotry to define him, or to allow his celebrity status to permit him to ignore the pervasiveness of racism.

I never met Ali, one of my real heroes. He was up on Capitol Hill frequently, meeting with legislators and occasionally testifying about boxing legislation or medical research. Somehow, despite my admiration for him, our paths never crossed, and I always regretted it.

Well, they crossed once (to use the term extremely loosely) in May of 1977. Ali was still champion, though clearly in decline, in his last few years as a fighter. Although I had long been a fight fan, having watched matches on TV on Friday nights while in high school, I had never actually attended a boxing match. A lobbyist, I believe, dropped off some tickets to the contest between Ali and Uruguayan boxer Alfredo Evangelista, and George Miller and I grabbed the opportunity to see Ali in person. It was, without a doubt, the most extraordinary sporting event I have ever attended and one of the top spectacles in which I have participated.

Arriving during one of the exhibition matches, I quickly learned that being ringside was very different from watching a fight in my basement in Paterson, NJ on a black and white television. The smack of a glove smashing into someone’s midsection just over my shoulder made the “fight” aspect of a boxing match much more graphic.

Finally, the main event was set to begin. The announcer introduced Evangelista, and the Uruguayan dutifully shuffled down the long aisles and clambered between the ropes and into the ring with no crowd reaction whatsoever. Then he, and the crowd, waited. And waited. After perhaps 10 minutes, the lights of the old Landover stadium dimmed and a tremendous amplified drumming commenced. Almost immediately, the crowd took up the chant, “Ali, Ali,” and over the next few minutes, both the bone-rattling drumming and the chanting of thousands of adoring fans continued. Poor Evangelista continued to shuffle around in the dark in the ring.

Suddenly, a single spotlight shot across the cavernous venue, settling, at the furthest point, on a tiny figure in a brilliant white robe. The crowd exploded: “Ali, Ali”; the drums pounded even louder; the jubilation was overwhelming; the old building could barely contain it.  For the next five minutes – maybe more – Ali moved down the long aisle to the ring, enveloped in a frenetic mass of humanity more excited to be in the same room with him than by the forthcoming boxing match. When he finally clambered up the curtain and between the ropes to the canvas, the crowd was at full rock concert strength; and suddenly, there he was, dancing, throwing punches, the Greatest there ever was.

The fight itself was almost an afterthought, although it is worth noting that Evangelista, who wouldn’t have survived three rounds in Ali’s prime, lasted the entire 15 rounds. It was true, as sportscaster Chris Schenkel said while awaiting the inevitable outcome, that Ali was “a shell of what he was,” but it made no difference to the crowd at Landover. We had seen Muhammad Ali in the flesh, in the ring.

Ali would fight five more times, losing three of them, winning and losing the heavyweight belt, before retiring in 1981, the three-time heavyweight champion. With his departure, boxing itself was diminished. There were other fighters, powerhouses like Larry Holmes, flashy ones like Sugar Ray Leonard, even Vitali Klitschko, a heavyweight champ with a Ph.D. Stripped of Ali’s elegance, wit and innovative technique, it was just raw brutality. The sport shrunk in popularity and style, the “sweet science” of Marciano, Louis, Duran and Ali overwhelmed by the banal brutality of extreme fighting.

The unrestrained (and uniformly positive) outpouring as news of his death spread begs the question: what about the man and his life warranted such a response? Certainly part was due to nostalgia, the glory days of his career, his wit, his elegance. Part was empathy for bruises he endured inside the ring and outside at the hands of racists and the legal system and the boxing establishment. Partly, it was admiration for a guy who actually, and symbolically, never ducked a fight and was able to get up and keep battling when an opponent – pugilistic or legal or whatever – knocked him down. Partly, it was his sheer defiance, the embodiment of the in-your-face, the-hell-with-the-establishment attitude of the rebellious ‘60s. “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me,” Ali said. “Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.”

And another part, I think, was that Ali’s life reminds us that the world is more complicated than the simple ideal we would love it to be. Race is more difficult, sports is more complicated, religion is more convoluted. Ali’s strength was that he confronted and transcended the contradictions and somehow emerged without an enemy to be found. Ali had real skin in the game; what were momentary passions or short-terms causes to many of his early years were decisions that impacted his career, his legacy, his financial security, and even his personal freedom. The little black kid from Louisville who got into boxing because his bicycle was stolen, who defied the civil rights norms of his times, who flouted the U.S. government and rejected an unjust war, who aged ungracefully, ravaged with debilitating neurological damage came out on top: receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in the White House. Talk about long, strange trips.

It’s a little hard to imagine the world without Ali’s jab, his rhyming couplet, his sly smile when he knew he had come close to offending with a piercing tweak. Was the irrepressible extrovert just an act, a hype to sell the Ali brand?  In part, sure. Ali acknowledged he was subdued in private. “At home I am a nice guy,” he admitted, “but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.” He went further than he could possibly have dreamed. He was, they say, the best-known person in the world, and it’s a world he surely changed, only for the better.

Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee.

If you’re bettin’ your money, Better bet on me.

 That was a safe bet.