DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

Month: February, 2017

Budget Balderdash

One of the serious complications resulting from Donald Trump’s reliance on fabricated information is that, on those rare occasions when he says something truthful, many people dismiss it as balderdash. Trump’s unpredictability, his destructive refusal to comply with the norms of political etiquette, and his dangerous reliance on the mythical infallibility of his own judgment are astonishing, but every once and a while, he actually does say something with a ring of accuracy.

For example, today he shared some thoughts about the challenges of developing an alternative to the Affordable Care Act. Congressional Republicans seem intent on replicating their efforts in the last Congress – on nearly 60 occasions – to repeal the health law with no plan for repairing its admitted shortcomings (hardly surprising in a complex 6-year-old law) or replacing it. But as some GOP governors, especially those like John Kasich of Ohio who have opposed repealing the Medicaid expansion, have been warning that such action by the Congress would be devastating not only to those newly covered by ACA but to the hospitals, clinics, health care providers and state budgets that would be left to cope with the chaos. Even within the dysfunctional Trump White House, it is said, some senior staff are reportedly growing wary of dismantling a law that has expanded health care to over 20 million Americans – many in states that voted for Trump.

It is hard to know whether to be gratified or embarrassed by Trump’s admission that health insurance coverage is “an unbelievably complex subject,” as the President confessed. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Well, actually, everybody (except apparently Trump, who has never had to worry about his own health care) knows how complex health care is, which is why Democrats initially sought to create a simplified single payer system or, at least, a system including a public option that offered an alternative to reliance on private insurance companies. Republicans unanimously opposed those approaches, insisting on an alternative that would have extended coverage to one-tenth the number of people covered by the ACA.

Trump’s amazement at the complexity of governing should also be kept in mind when he delivers his initial speech before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. It seems that a portion of the audience will show up out of respect, while a significantly larger share will watch the speech just to see how he interacts with a suspicious Congress. The key initiative in the speech will likely be his budget proposal, which like most GOP budgets, strives for lower deficits on the backs of the middle and lower-income taxpayer. The most important feature, it is reported, will be a $54 billion increase in military spending with a corresponding reduction in non-defense spending. Not a dime will come from closing tax loopholes or compelling the most affluent to pony up their fair share of taxes; no sacrifice will be requested from entitlements that are responsible for 70% of government spending, including most of the unfunded deficits.

Instead, 100% of the cuts will come from the non-defense discretionary portion (NDD) of the budget which, incidentally, just took the brunt of the trillions in spending reductions imposed by the 2012 budget agreement and the subsequent sequestration. This NDD portion of the budget is just 12% of overall spending – education, health programs, law enforcement, energy, infrastructure, the environment – but it bears the overwhelming burden of sacrifice when the long budget slashing knives come out.

One area of the budget that won’t contribute much to deficit reduction is that old whipping boy that Americans love to hate: the foreign aid we lavish on those ungrateful countries that secretly hate us. Ask a deficit hawk where we should cut spending to balance the budget, and year after year, the leading target is foreign aid. In a poll last December by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average respondent estimated that more than a quarter of the entire federal budget was showered on other countries. It goes without saying that if we trimmed back that program, the deficits would dry up pretty quickly.

Well, unfortunately, foreign aid barely registers as an asterisk in the federal budget (where spending is rounded off to the nearest $100 million). The actual share of the federal budget spent on foreign aid: less than one percent. Reducing the alleged “waste” in the foreign aid budget, which feeds and clothes and shelters millions of people around the world, would be the budgetary equivalent of getting a haircut to lose weight. Indeed, when respondents were told that eliminating foreign aid would have a negligible impact on the federal budget, only 28% still believed the federal budget needs cutting.

Budgets are often a case of legislative legerdemain; the savings you get are often less than predicted while the spending is more. (One favorite sleight of hand: hide the ballooning cost of a program outside the ten year “budget window” to obscure the true cost of the initiative.) This year, in addition, the House Republicans changed the House rules to mandate that budget analysts use guffaw-inducing “dynamic scoring” to make income revenues unrealistically swell to achieve alleged deficit shrinkage.

Here’s the test for the seriousness of any budget proposal: Whom does it make squirm? From whom does it ask for “sacrifice?” If the response to the forthcoming Trump budget is a sigh of relief from the fat cats, you can be pretty sure that once again, the old bait and switch has been played on the unsuspecting voter. Count on it.

 

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The Harrison Award Winner for 2017

Although coming a day or two early, I am prepared to award the First Annual William Henry Harrison Award to President Donald Trump. The W.H.H. Award will be given to that political individual who records the very worst month in public office. It will be difficult to surpass the performance of the eponymous Award’s namesake; Harrison died just 30 days after taking the oath of office in 1841 (in part because of the horrendous cold he acquired delivering the longest Inaugural address in history). Trump seems likely to survive physically and politically his first month (having delivered one of the shortest, albeit, most vitriolic Inaugurals), but may well have simultaneously undermined his chances for a productive presidency, although to listen to him at Thursday’s press conference, you wouldn’t know it. “There’s never been a presidency that has done so much in so short a period of time,” Trump boasted. No, really; he said that. Really.

Not that the President lacked competition for the Award. No less than an Honorable Mention must be given to Gen. Michael Flynn, whom the President nominated and fired within three weeks as National Security Advisor. Flynn’s flare-out following disclosure of his secret conversations with Russian officials was spectacular for how it illuminates the care with which Trump has selected his close national security advisors (like Steve Bannon, whom he – perhaps unwittingly – appointed to the National Security Council).

Flynn’s actions are dangerously irresponsible and self-destructive, and reportedly, the recently-deposed spy chief just had his security clearance withdrawn. Everyone – and I mean, everyone – with a smidgeon of experience in intelligence and national security matters knows that when you are on the phone with another nation’s embassy, your conversation is (a) being overheard by someone other than the person with whom you are having a supposedly “private” conversation, and (b) probably being recorded by both sides for future use. Denying you had such a conversation or, implausibly, claiming you can’t recall the subject matter– say, whether you broached the topic of curtailing economic sanctions – is ludicrous.

The probable existence of tapes of the Flynn conversations raises the tantalizing question of when the contents will be splashed across the Nation’s newspapers and handheld devices. Note I said “when,” not “if.” The $64,000 question is whether Gen. Flynn also forgot that he might have mentioned the President-elect’s name in those conversations, and especially if he suggested he was calling at the behest of, or on the direction of, Mr. Trump. Such a revelation would be nothing short of cataclysmic, and congressional investigators (let alone the press) are certain to “demand access to the tapes to assess what the President knew, and when he knew it.” (That phrase has such an historic ring to it…)

Republicans in the House and Senate face a conundrum. If they block an inquiry into the Flynn scandal, they will share culpability for any and all violations of any national security procedures that might be documented when the truth inevitably tumbles out. Only the most hopelessly naïve observer could believe those who have been churning out national security information on Flynn would hesitate to steer a little more of it towards, say, the Washington Post, if it looks like a cover-up is being constructed to protect the President from the leaks. (Again, these words have such familiarity to them.)

Flynn’s was not the only stunning setback in the continuing horror show at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Right behind Flynn on his way out the door was Andrew Puzder, and he, admittedly, deserves a Special Mention. Puzder doubtless had been told that his nomination for Secretary of Labor was doomed following disclosure that he (a) employed an undocumented immigrant and failed to pay taxes on her compensation (i.e., cheated that person and American taxpayers), (b) worked for a lawyer who represented organized crime, and (c) abused his wife (although she later retracted the claim). Personally, I would like to think the fact that he opposes increasing the minimum wage, embraces automation as a reasonable way to address labor needs, and has had his fast-food empire cited dozens of time for labor law violations might have also influenced senators to advise Puzder to head back to flipping burgers.

Flynn and Puzder are only two of those selected by Trump who are manifestly unsuited to the jobs for which the President nominated them. One must stand in awe of the pure atrociousness of the vetting process for top government officials. For a guy whose television success was based on evaluating and “hiring” the right employees, Trump in real life (or as close to it as he ventures) has been exposed as a remarkably poor judge of character. And if you think these individuals have been stunningly unqualified and extreme, pay very close attention to the sub-Cabinet level deputy and assistant secretaries he will be appointing. Count on them emerging from extreme congressional offices, think tanks and industry hierarchies. By insinuating themselves into the rule-making and administrative processes of the departments agencies, they will do far more damage than the high-profile secretarial level nominees.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to play at being President, attempting to delegitimize every other source of power or information – the press, foreign leaders, the Judiciary. “The news is fake,” he declared, using the logic of a 3 year old, “because so much of the news is fake.” If the Republicans in Congress were doing anything other than watching the unfolding circus with gaping mouths and visions of electoral cataclysm swirling before their eyes, he’d be denouncing them, too. He barely has time for denigrating Democrats (although he did thoughtfully blame Hillary Clinton for the continuing instability in the Mid-East during his welcoming remarks for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu), but declares the rollout of his immigration and refugee ban was “very smooth.”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a DOMEocracy blog that argued the dysfunctional Trump Administration would be “a test for Congress, especially the Republican majority.” That test has expanded from a quiz to a mid-term in the ensuing weeks; will Congress fulfill its constitutional responsibilities to hold the Executive Branch accountable and to scrutinize mismanagement (or worse) at the White House, or will it abandon decades of effort to restore itself as a co-equal branch, uncowed by a reckless presidency intent on shredding not only the social compact, but perhaps even the Constitution?

So, to you, Mr. President, goes the William Henry Harrison Award for 2017. Based on your first month in office, I would predict you have a better than even chance of winning the 2018 Award as well.

Floor Fights Have Consequences

Observers may come to consider Sen. Mitch McConnell’s decision to invoke Senate rules to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday night as a misogynistic blunder that skilled politicians should instinctively avoid making. But there may have been more behind McConnell’s unusual maneuver to force the Massachusetts senator to relinquish the floor and sit down than is immediately apparent, and there may be multiple unforeseen consequences in the decisions of both senators.

Warren was reprimanded for supposedly violating one of those inviolable Senate rules – Number XIX – that admonishes members of “the greatest deliberative body in the world” not to impugn their colleagues. During her diatribe against the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, Warren read a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King in opposition to Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench. Sessions’ record as the longtime U.S Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama had displayed a consistent tendency, according to Mrs. King, to “chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens,” focusing on the kinds of “politically motivated voting fraud investigations” now favored by Donald Trump. Sessions allegedly had used his official powers to do “what local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods.” There were, Mrs. King intoned, “serious questions about his commitment to the protections of the voting rights of all citizens.” These were the kind of concerns that prevented Sessions from being confirmed for the judgeship.

Supporters assert that Sessions, elected to the Senate ten years later, is a changed man, and he may well be. The issue, however, is whether Sen. Warren should have been silenced for sharing with her fellow senators a 32-year old letter already in the public record whose content might upset Sessions. The merits of the ruling against Warren are dubious: she was not voicing her own opinion but quoting a highly respected source with solid knowledge of Session’s record as a public official in Alabama. Other could, and have, made the case that Sessions is an ardent defender of black Americans, but Warren is under no obligation to do so.

Notwithstanding Senate rules, the optics of McConnell and other male senators ordering Warren to “take her seat” and remain silent were nothing short of stupefying. An innumerable number of worse statements about other senators have been uttered on the Senate’s hallowed floor without triggering such a punitive response. Indeed, when Sen. Tom Udall (NM) admirably took up Warren’s cause and read the King letter, no Republican gaveled him silent.

Many observers immediately concluded that what occurred on the floor was a mini-drama related to including Warren’s 2018 re-election race or even the 2020 presidential campaign. Warren now has the material for her first commercial, thanks to McConnell’s blustering; indeed, she read the entire King letter into YouTube, which recorded millions of viewers (and likely, tens of thousands of contributors without spending a thin dime on fundraising). Meanwhile, McConnell stood up for Trump’s nominee and for a fellow Republican senator under assault, which burnishes his role as GOP Leader. Whether there are lasting consequences to the dust-up remain hard to predict.

Two years before Mrs. King penned her letter criticizing Sessions, an eerily similar to the McConnell-Warren spat broke out on the House floor resulting in the historic rebuke to a sitting Speaker and the elevation of hard-driving Republicans who already could envision one of their own holding the House gavel.

On May 15, 1984, Speaker Tip O’Neill, like Warren a Massachusetts legislator, was infuriated by the innuendos of treason leveled against Democratic House Members by the likes of Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, a perennial gadfly and irritating junior backbencher. Republicans had insinuated that their liberal colleagues were conniving with Nicaragua’s Sandinista rebels to undermine President Reagan’s efforts to displace the leftist government, and they used after hours floor speeches to dare Democrats to respond to their wild accusations. Since the House had completed its legislative business and the floor was empty, Gingrich and others knew full well no Democrats could respond, and used the opportunity to construct a contrived scene in which it appeared Democrats refused to respond to the hyperbolic accusations.

O’Neill, who had inveighed against televising the House floor for fear of just such theatrical abuses (he actually warned the cameras would catch Members “picking their nose or scratching their ass”) had enough. Taking to the floor, the Speaker condemned the Republicans’ incendiary, late-night attacks. “You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people and you challenged their Americanism,” thundered O’Neill, calling the tactic ”the lowest thing” he had ever seen in 32 years of decades of House service. He admitted he harbored ”much harsher thoughts” about the tactics and the language being directed against his Caucus colleagues.

Affront to the Speaker’s statements was taken by the Republican Whip, Trent Lott of Mississippi, who complained that ”a lot of people feel their integrity and motives have been impugned.” Lott asked that the Speaker’s words be “taken down,” a House procedure to expunge offensive language from the Congressional Record. Under the rules, the acting Speaker, an anguished Joe Moakley of Massachusetts, was compelled to side with Lott, and O’Neill was rebuked and silenced for the remainder of the day.

Gingrich famously crowed, “I am a famous person!” and a delighted Lott declared “our point has been made.” Although a press account noted, “leaders from both parties say they are getting tired of Mr. Gingrich and his allies, who openly prefer public clashes to private compromises,” the incident helped elevate the conservative activists. By securing a ruling that punished the Speaker, for the first time in history, they demonstrated their savvy knowledge of floor procedure, the kind of symbolic victory that earns admiration among your supporters. Even many moderate Republicans increasingly became enamored of the obnoxious Gingrich, who seemed more determined to oust O’Neill and the Democrats than the less vindictive GOP Leader, Bob Michel, who liked to travel and sing with O’Neill.

In the history of the rise in a polarized electorate, a more partisan atmosphere within the Congress, the ideological realignment of the parties, and the utilization of media to appeal to the hard-core base, the O’Neill-Lott confrontation has a special significance and symbolism. Time will tell if historians will look back on the Warren-McConnell clash as an important political drama, or if it is simply one more piece of evidence that the hallowed decorum and procedures of the Senate are heading for the proverbial dustbin.