DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

Month: July, 2017

Is “Better” Good Enough for Congressional Democrats?

A dozen years ago, a bicameral group of Democrats labored for months to devise a compelling message to persuade voters to reject George W. Bush and the Republican congressional majority. Members of the House and Senate, as well as a wide range of consultants were consulted, from both the political and private sectors, in crafting a frame to highlight Democratic objectives that clearly differentiated the party from the GOP.

Some early enthusiasm built around the phrase, “Together, We Can Do Better,” but as Democratic Leader Pelosi’s staff member in the discussions, I was not persuaded. “It sounds like a ‘C’ grade,” I argued. Twenty years earlier, Jimmy Carter had sought the presidency asking, “Why not the best?” Did we really want to ask the American people to ratchet down their expectations to a vision that was merely “better?”

For the past several months, pundits and party activists have been clamoring for Democrats to move beyond confronting Donald Trump and articulate an pro-active policy vision. Trump won the presidency promising to “Make America Great Again.” The Democratic appeal, it was argued, should convey an inspiring alternative that could challenge Trump’s audacious vision of American supremacy.

This week, House and Senate Democrats are rolling out their plan, “A Better Deal — Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.” “Better” is back. Perhaps given the blundering and bumbling inaction and incompetence of Republicans – “better” is enough for right now.

Senate leader Chuck Schumer describes the Better Deal as “quite different than the Democratic Party you heard in the past,” although the details of the plan sound fairly familiar: creation of 10 million jobs over the next five years, a new tax credit to encourage employers to train and hire workers, an expanded paid apprenticeship program for non-college graduates, “cracking down” on corporate mergers that ill-serve consumers, and an end to “price-gouging” on prescription drugs. In addition, the plan promises “high-speed Internet to every community in America,” paid family leave and efforts to “encourage innovation.”

In fact, not much in the plan sounds much different from earlier agendas that included a major infrastructure/jobs plan, a $15 minimum wage and paid family and sick leave, plans that Schumer now characterizes as “too cautious … too namby-pamby.” In fact, when they were in the majority, they passed legislation that addressed many of these topics, which didn’t stop the pitchfork-and-torch-toting mob from ungratefully tossing Mrs. Pelosi out of the Speaker’s chair in 2010 (with Harry Reid following in 2014).

As with any Democratic wish list, every candidate embracing the “Better Deal” agenda is going to be grilled on how all this expensive policy will be paid for. The private sector? Spending cuts? Tax increases? The deficit? An inability to answer these legitimate inquiries, other than by falling back on the old “cutting waste, fraud and abuse” or “tax the 1%” bromides, can seriously undermine the marketability of the proposed policies. The Republicans’ fumbling of a health care replacement policy after years of articulating homilies about cheaper premiums and expanded service offer a cautionary note to Democrats: don’t set yourself up to fail if you are lucky enough to catch the bus. Figure out the “pay-fors” now, even if you don’t broadcast them.

Democrats seem to have learned to echo the applause lines of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign that energized the Democratic base. The “Better Deal” agenda, Nancy Pelosi states, contrasts with “the toxic special-interest priorities at the core of the Republican agenda.” The message team assembled by Pelosi to develop the plan similarly pledged it would “make government responsive to all hardworking Americans, not just a select few.” That boilerplate progressivism may soothe Party hardliners who were holding out for single payer health care or other unachievable (and potentially divisive) planks, but it could prove tricky for candidates in swing districts who hold the key to reaching a House or Senate majority.

The impact of such exercises in congressional platform writing is far from determined. From Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” to the Pelosi-Reid “New Direction: 6 for ’06,” such agendas are more successful at disciplining the messaging of the rambunctious caucus than on exciting the public. With rare exceptions, the political environment owned by the majority has greater impact on the election outcome. Indeed, for all the sound policy included in the “New Direction/6 for ‘06” agenda in 2006, public anger towards George W. Bush over the war in Iraq and towards congressional Republicans embroiled in the Jack Abramoff-Mark Foley corruption scandals likely had greater influence on the Democrats’ regaining the majority.

Congressional platforms like the “Better Deal” can help to keep the Caucus in line, and that is a valuable achievement. Working with the party’s many factions to fashion and promote such a program helps to enforce messaging discipline that often challenges House and Senate leaders. The “Better Deal,” like its predecessor programs, allows Pelosi, Schumer and others to urge their members to stick with the agreed upon program rather than careening off in the advocacy of issues that might alienate the more centrist voters who will determine whose hand holds the Speaker’s gavel in 2019.

 

 

 

 

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Did the System Actually Work?

There is a lot of snickering – and even more relief – going around in the wake of the failure of the long running Republican “repeal and replace” Obamacare farce. After seven years of pledging instantaneous repeal, Senate Republicans were exposed as clueless gasbags on health (as well as on deficit reduction, tax “reform,” immigration reform, and a host of other grandiose but unfulfilled promises).

The relief may be premature. McConnell could resurrect a health bill at any point up until January, 2019, with the current Senate. And the next Congress could be worse because of the disproportionate exposure of Senate Democrats facing re-election. Drop a couple of those seats without compensating by taking out a few Republicans and Mitch McConnell begins the 116th Congress even stronger than he is today.

Demoralizing as the health care debate has been of late, two observations provide some measure of optimism. In a somewhat perverse, distorted and infuriating way, the failure of Trumpcare illustrates a success for the American political system as it was designed 230 years ago. A multi-layered system with divided powers and checks and balances provided the time needed to expose the flaws and implications of a poorly conceived idea. Moreover, the collapse of the Republican plan illustrated that even in this era of super PACs, 501c3s and hyper-partisanship, enraged and engaged voters were able to rise up and influence (and occasionally intimidate) their elected leaders. It’s not a model of government efficiency, but it actually worked.

Lamentations about the failures of Congress as an institution are nothing new. “Congress,” declared George Galloway, is “an oxcart in the age of the atom,” hopelessly incapable of functioning efficiently within the modern world. It is worth recalling that Galloway’s obituary for the First Branch of government was written in 1946. Political scientists and historians, not to mention columnists and the general public, have generally agreed. Sen. Joseph Clark (D-PA) labeled Congress the “sapless branch” in 1965, and Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein coined the term “the broken branch” nearly a half-century later.

Unquestionably, there is a lot about Congress that doesn’t work, which makes it even more important to make note of when the system functions as intended. To balance a competition of views that they knew would be inevitable (even more so in an 18th century legislature that lacked permanent parties to impose discipline), the Founders created a multi-tiered system of entities with distinct but also overlapping functions to check each other, slowing the process of law-making, ensuring the rights of the minority and in doing so, compelling compromise. At least, that was the general idea.

What happened to the Republican health scare is that it fell prey to the delays, accountability and criticism that the Founders intended would prevent popular but ill-conceived proposals from swiftly becoming law. True, the design of the House may encourage such ill-conceived lawmaking on occasion because its members, due to their two-year terms, are constantly accountable to constituents. That is why the Senate, with terms three times longer, was described by George Washington as the saucer that cools the hot tea of the House, slowing down the momentum, empowering the minority time to compel debates, compromise, and even CBO scores (OK, that arose slightly after Washington’s time.)

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of black lung-ravaged, opioid-overwhelmed West Virginia heard from constituents who would be devastated by a “yes” vote on McConnell’s travesty. “My position on this issue is driven by its impact on West Virginians,” she declared. “With that in mind, I cannot vote to repeal Obamacare without a replacement plan that addresses my concerns and the needs of West Virginians.” Ditto for Lisa Murkowski in Alaska and Susan Collins in Maine. They also undoubtedly heard from Republican governors who warned them of the cataclysm awaiting their states should expanded Medicaid be rescinded.

The collapse of the Republican strategy also illustrates that despite all the fundraisers and commercials, hit pieces and targeted attacks; the power of the grassroots was again affirmed. Yes, the opposition of the American Medical Association played a role, as well as AARP and other health care organizations. But so did individual citizens, and groups of constituents, who wrote the letters and emails, made the phone calls, signed petitions and attended (or demanded) town halls and public discussion with their elected officials. At their core, representatives and senators are people who need approval (and enjoy admiration); they do not enjoy having to listen to a distraught parent who, in a public setting, castigates them for jeopardizing their child’s access to life-saving care.

Still, Mitch McConnell is not going to go quietly into the darkness with a well-earned besmirched reputation. He will force the Senate to vote on legislation to repeal the entire ACA, a brazen act of political petulance that would deprive 34 million Americans of health care. McConnell will, for no particularly good reason, force his conference members either to vote to rescind health insurance for millions of their constituents or to expose themselves to relentless condemnation by conservative activists who will be enraged by a vote against repeal.

Such heavy-handedness exposes McConnell’s frequent nastiness, though this time, turned against his own party colleagues. In meetings at the White House during the Obama Administration, during which party leaders would at least fake pledges of cooperation, McConnell – who often spoke last – could always be counted on to deliver a pointed and partisan rebuke of the president. One can only imagine his unspoken sentiments towards the three female senators who consigned Trumpcare to the well-deserved dustbin of history, taking with it McConnell’s reputation as a savvy floor leader.

But this is no time for celebration. Almost certainly, McConnell will try again, and the House GOP budget, revealed this week, proposes additional health care (as well as Social Security) cuts. Moreover, Trump has announced his intention to undermine the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, harkening back to Newt Gingrich’s proposal to allow Medicare to “wither on the vine.” All the more reason for health care beneficiaries and proponents to recall John Philpot Curran’s admonition in 1790, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” Public engagement and a complex legislative system served our country well this time; undoubtedly, both will be called upon in the near future.

 

 

 

 

Trump’s Train Wreck

It is perfectly understandable that any sane human being would prefer spending the next two months or so lounging on the beach, hiking in a park, or perfecting their high school foreign language in some international destination. Anything but hanging around and watching the inexorable, slow-moving train wreck that is the U.S. federal government. As a service, therefore, I will once again stick my neck out and make a few predictions about the next few weeks under the hapless Trumpians and their Republican henchmen in Congress.

There is the inevitable drama of September 30th, the end of the fiscal year, which means that either the 12 individual appropriations bills are signed into law or whatever remains without an enacted bill necessitates a Continuing Resolution. One of the stunning examples of Republican legislative ineptitude since regaining the majority in 2010 has been the party’s inability to conduct the basic responsibilities of governing: appropriating money, raising the debt ceiling, preventing the termination of desirable policies including tax cuts.

In each case, the resolute obstructionism of the Tea Party-Freedom Caucus zealots in the House has prevented the GOP majority from writing those bills on the party’s terms. No matter, the ideologues on the Right remain dug into their absolutism and will not vote for essential legislation even if loaded down with conservative trinkets, obstinacy that has forced both John Boehner (who lost his job for such behavior) and the hapless Paul Ryan to seek Democratic votes to reach 218. Those Democratic votes come with a price: no riders, and the resulting clean CRs and debt ceilings cause the Freedom Caucus fringe to explode into even deeper fulminations about their leadership’s collaboration with Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats.

If you feel like you have seen this play before, it is because you have, with regularity, and you will see it again this fall. Ryan inevitably must make concessions to reality that will widen the chasm in his Conference, compounding the challenge in reaching a consensus on health care, immigration, tax policy and infrastructure. It is unlikely anything will happen before midnight on September 30th that will resolve this conundrum, unify Republicans, and strengthen that party going into the end-of-the year fundraising/candidate recruitment season. Indeed, failure on the policy front will encourage stronger Democrats to challenge sitting Republicans and may well lead some in the GOP to opt for retirement, creating alluring open seat pick-up opportunities.

It may not be all smooth sailing for Democrats. Although I had predicted the House would inevitably approve some health care bill and then apologized when it did not, my prognostication eventually came true with approval of the travesty that even Donald Trump – after the sophomoric beer bash on the South Lawn of the White House with gleeful Republicans – deemed “mean.” Similarly, it seems difficult to believe that Senate Republicans will fail to pass something to avoid culpability for failing to address the Affordable Care Act. But with two-thirds of the Senate not up this fall, Republicans in the upper house may not feel the electoral pressure to pass a bill that will prove unpopular in states that are far more diverse than the carefully crafted conservative House districts. Cutting off Medicaid has real consequences in many Republican states where House members didn’t think twice about taking a scalpel to health services for poor children, those with disabilities and the elderly.

A major motivation for dropping health care is that it is getting in the way of Mitch McConnell’s real objective, which are tax cuts for the affluent. True, Republicans need those health “savings” to “pay for” the tax cuts; but don’t think for a moment they won’t find a way around that dilemma. Cutting taxes for rich people, as I have written before, is the reason this circus came to town, and if only one “major” bill passes in the 115th Congress, McConnell will ensure that it is tax cuts – not to be confused with tax reform.

The great unknown remains the toll on the legislative process from multiple investigations of the Trump Administration. Over six months into the term, Trump and his cranky pranksters show no signs of learning the ropes of governing or avoiding weekly missteps that brake any gathering momentum. The country had no sooner recovered from Ivanka’s audaciousness in substituting for her meandering father at the G-20 head of state table than another Trump spawn — Don Jr. – admitted to participating in a mid-campaign meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton. No less than Richard Painter, a George W. Bush ethics lawyer, observed “We do not get our opposition research from spies, we do not collaborate with Russian spies … This is unacceptable. This borders on treason, if it is not itself treason.”

Making predictions about where we will be two and a half months – or two and a half days from now – is a perilous exercise in an environment where the Trump regime seems to be unraveling like a golf ball at one of the President’s high-end resorts. All the more reason to slap on the suntan oil and go on a hike.

 

A Fraudulent Commission

There are a lot of problems with how elections take place in the United States, not the least being the perverse outcomes that sometimes occur. Fraudulent voting isn’t one of them.

For purely strategic reasons, Donald Trump spent a considerable amount of time last fall excoriating the failures and corruptibility of the voting process and warned that the election outcome would be “rigged.” Although his allegations ceased when he improbably emerged as the winner, his emphasis on rooting out so-called “voter fraud” has now been elevated to official status with the appointment of the Orwellian-sounding Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. That such a panel could be appointed by President Donald Trump rates very high in the pantheon of bad political jokes.

First of all, there is no consequential “voter fraud,” and certainly none that is altering the outcome of elections. There is something fascinating about Trump’s willingness to embrace allegations that have been so thoroughly discredited while at the same time he and key members of his administration refuse to accept peer-reviewed scientific studies establishing humans’ contributions to climate change. One might almost conclude that facts do not matter to the most powerful person in the world, which would be, of course, a chilling thought.

Serious researchers have examined the allegations of so-called voter fraud in recent years and have concluded such arguments are little more than hyperbolic fairy tales employed to disenfranchise voters. In 2014, Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles examined every case of voter impersonation fraud going back to 2000 (a memorable year for dubious vote counting procedures). Levitt did find cases of irregularities in over a billion votes cast in federal, state and local elections. He found 31.

Zoltan L. Hajnal, a political scientist at the University of California (San Diego) examined the voter identification laws that have proliferated in many states – especially in the South – coincidental with the expanding minority electorate and concluded that such restrictive policies “double or triple the gap in turnout between whites and nonwhites.” Indeed, 14% of Americans lack the government-issued photo ID cards required for voting in many areas, and a significantly higher number of minorities lack such credentials.

The barriers to voting are created not only by voter ID requirements. As documented in the study “Democracy Diminished,” produced by the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, there are numerous cases of local officials closing voting locations in minority communities, locating polls in buildings that share law enforcement offices (which can be intimidating to certain populations), and purging voter lists with disproportionate impact on Hispanic surnames. Despite the highly consequential outcomes of these insidious actions, many of which occurred in states once impacted by the suspended provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, neither Judiciary Committee chairman — Bob Goodlatte in the House or Chuck Grassley in the Senate – have deigned to hold hearings on the issue.

Trump has decided, however, to move aggressively to get to the bottom of this non-existent problem, naming an Advisory Commission on Election Integrity and appointing as a member Hans von Spakovsky – a chief proponent of “the voter-fraud myth,” according to The New Yorker. Von Spakovsky, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, has “been accused of masterminding widespread efforts to suppress voting by marginalized populations, particularly African Americans and immigrants,” reports the Washington Post. Von Spakowsky has reportedly devoted his career to fabricating such obstacles, opposing renewal of the Voting Rights Act, trying to block the League of Women Voters from disseminating voter information materials, and challenging the distribution of voter materials in Spanish.

It should come as no surprise that a President who named a climate denier as head of the Environmental Protection Agency would appoint a vote suppression activist to serve on a commission charged with investigating voting fraud. Nor should anyone be shocked that half of the states are refusing a request from the commission to provide some or all of the voting registration data, including names, addresses, party affiliation and voting histories, to this panel. “What are they trying to hide?” Trump tweeted on July 1st, apparently clueless that many state laws prohibit the sharing of such information with anyone, including Trump’s voter suppression commission. Indeed, even the chairman of the Commission, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is evidently barred by his own state’s law from turning over data — to himself.

The emerging confrontation between Trump and state officials over access to election data is yet one more example of serious policy discussions being reduced to farce and cynicism. An administration official solemnly assures that the commission requires the information because its “goal is to protect and preserve the principle of one person, one vote.” No, it isn’t. The goal here is to enshrine “voter fraud” and “rigged elections” in the way some embrace creationism as “science.” The objective is pretty clear: creating even more effective ways to obstruct millions of Americans from casting their ballots. Only a fool would provide these treacherous suppression activists with the raw material they require for further disenfranchisement.

If Trump and his acolytes are sincere in wanting to address the problems with voting, they would be aggressively supporting efforts to expand participation by promoting absentee voting, early voting, and an end to discriminatory requirements and polling operations that complicate exercise of the right to vote. Such initiatives would encourage voter turnout among the 40% to 50% who don’t even bother to cast a ballot. If the Commission, or Trump, wants to devote themselves to revitalizing our democracy, start there.