hardline political news and analysis

Month: August, 2017

Coddle or Censure?

Congress is out of session for August, and it is a good thing for Republicans that it is. Were the House in session, Democrats would be crawling over each other to reach the hopper to introduce resolutions calling for the condemnation of President Donald Trump for his appalling defense of the Nazi terror in Charlottesville.

Come early September, when Congress reconvenes, you can bank on multiple resolutions being filed as members compete to author the most pointed language to condemn, censure or impeach Trump. It is unlikely that the Democratic leadership would, at this point, countenance a full-blown impeachment strategy, but they will surely exert no resistance whatsoever to full-throated resolutions that call for censure.

Republicans will find themselves in a highly compromised position. September is a do-or-die month for any majority party. The looming September 30th end of Fiscal Year 2017 means that, absent passage of over a dozen individual appropriations bills (no chance), Speaker Ryan will once again find himself in the same conundrum as did John Boehner for six years. Confronted with a resolute Freedom Caucus wing that relishes a government shut-down, the Speaker will have to seek votes from Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic Caucus for appropriations legislation as well as for raising the debt ceiling.

Democrats would love to leverage some policy concessions from the weakened Republicans, but they are never willing to shut down the government to achieve that end. Unlike Republicans, Democrats need to burnish the image of government, which is their instrument of policy implementation, and shutdowns do little to bolster public esteem in the institution. But don’t be surprised if the quid pro quo for Democratic buy-in on a Continuing Resolution is a demand that Ryan schedule a floor vote on a resolution censuring President Trump over his disgraceful and divisive language in the wake of the Charlottesville demonstration. You can bet that the Democratic resolution will be loaded up with language that will make the hair stand up on the back of Ryan’s neck.

Acquiescing to that Democratic demand will send the Freedomites and their Trumpian base into unbridled fury. Ryan might try to appease the Right by offering up instead his own resolution which is a lukewarm hand slap of Trump, daring the Democrats to vote it down. “You’ll get one opportunity to censure Trump,” Ryan might say, “and it is my resolution. Take it or leave it.”

Ah, but the Democrats don’t have to take it or leave it. They can elongate the fight and keep Ryan on the hot seat by initiating a discharge petition on their own hard-nosed censure resolution. If no action on that resolution is taken in committee within 30 days, the discharge process allows 218 House members to sign a petition that would bring the measure to the floor despite the opposition of Ryan and the Republicans. That layover period means that the censure debate would pervade the fall, which could not possibly please Ryan as he contemplates the appropriations and debt ceiling deadlines, let alone his planned pivot to tax reform.

Moreover, while every Democrat would eagerly sign such a petition, a discharge effort would put enormous pressure on vulnerable Republicans to sign the petition or be accused of protecting the embattled president. Voting for the Democratic measure will almost certainly ensure a primary challenge from an aggrieved Trump supporter in their district; if they won’t, they may be highly vulnerable to the charge of insulating Trump.

All of this may seem speculative at this point, but it seems a foregone conclusion that Democrats will demand an unprecedented censure of the President of the United States as soon as the House reconvenes That near certainty means that Ryan and the Republicans will be forced to make a decision fraught with political danger, whichever way they turn: coddle or censure.



Are Hill Republicans Growing a Backbone?

Congress, composed of 535 voting members, is often a plodding, indecisive, faction-ridden body. In contrast to the typical ability of a president to swiftly change the subject of discussion, Congress is inherently faction-ridden and inefficient, which is why Thomas Cronin of Brandeis once observed that the 535 member legislative branch “is never going to be fast on its 1,070 feet.”

Congress’ capacity for swift and decisive action has been further diminished by the deep partisanship resulting from the ideological realignment of the parties and the persistent struggle for control that marks American politics. Chosen by the ideological extremes that dominate the candidate selection process, and fearful of the unlimited resources that special interest groups can unleash on those who deviate from orthodoxy, increasingly few members venture near the political center, which is invariably where the votes are found to enact major legislation.

Many had anticipated that unified political control of the Congress and the Executive Branch that resulted from the 2016 election would enable Republicans to secure the key legislative victories that had eluded them so long as Barack Obama held the veto pen resolutely in his hand. And yet, the combination of having only 52 votes in the Senate, the remaining (if faint) factions within the Republican Party, and the sheer complexity of addressing issues from health care to tax reform have yielded no legislative achievements fully one-quarter of the way through the Congress (when significant legislative successes are typically achieved).

Of course, President Trump’s erratic governing style, his profound ignorance of the policies he promotes, the daily tweet storms, the melodramatic West Wing intrigues, and the dark cloud of scandal that hangs over the White House have undermined the White House’s ability to shape legislation or cajole fellow Republicans to fall into line. Perhaps even more significantly, Trump’s boorish personal style, including a startling contempt for legislators, has prodded a few Republicans, especially in the Senate, to stand up for the institution of Congress itself.

“Too often, we [in the Senate] observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying ‘someone should do something!’” Sen. Jeff Flake recently observed, “without seeming to realize that that someone is us.” Flake’s outspokenness – which is doubtlessly helping him sell his new book — so irritated Trump that the thin-skinned president has contemplated running someone against the Arizonan in next year’s primary. Flake’s fellow Arizonan, John McCain, memorably did do something by providing one of the key Republican votes that crumpled the Republicans’ decade-long obsession with ridding the country of the Affordable Care Act, at least for the present.

McCain’s defiant act was a stunning reminder of the political maxim that today’s adversary can easily be tomorrow’s friend, a truism about the collaborative give-and-take of the lawmaking process that many advocates and absolutists often fail to appreciate. In Trump’s view of politics, there aren’t many friends, and everyone is under suspicion of disloyalty, treason, and treachery. “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low,” Trump recently tweeted. “You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare”

Trump’s bizarre attack on his own congressional allies followed their decision to send him, with barely any dissent in either house, enhanced sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, including provisions to limit Trump’s capacity to modify or abandon the sanctions. The sanctions bill was just one of a number of recent actions that suggest that even some Republicans in the Congress – mainly in the Senate – are concerned not only about the future of their party, but the state of their branch of government as well.

There was the forceful push-back by Judiciary chairman Charles Grassley, among others, to suggestions that Trump might be considering the dismissal of his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who had properly recused himself from the Russia inquiry. Replacing Sessions might be the first step to removal of the highly regarded Special Counsel Bob Mueller, whom Trump has warned against undertaking a broad inquiry into Trump’s secretive financial empire. Such warnings have prompted bipartisan bills in the Senate, including by the reliably conservative Thom Tillis of North Carolina and the more unpredictable Lindsey Graham to restrict Trump’s ability to unilaterally dismiss Mueller. Under the influence of his new chief of staff John Kelly, Trump appeared to have momentarily stepped back from such a provocative challenge, but the Senate wisely decided to remain “in session” throughout August to block any recess appointments by the irrepressible President.

Senators have also sent clear signals that despite Trump’s exhortations to try yet again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they are unlikely to return to the ill-fated health debate, preferring instead to pivot to the equally challenging subject of tax reform (or more likely, tax cuts). In addition, some senators are discussing a bipartisan initiative to address the ACA’s deficiencies while warning Trump against executive manipulations designed to trigger a collapse that he could blame on the current law.

None of these actions constitute an abandonment of Trump by Senate Republicans. House members, including the sycophantic Speaker, who face potential Trump-inspired primary challenges next year, have almost unanimously remained loyal to the President, even after he condemned as “mean” the health bill he had urged them to pass. Small signs of institutional assertiveness, to be sure, but these minor pushbacks may reflect a growing unwillingness to simply defer to the executive branch, let alone to a White House led by an erratic novice who has done little to mask his contempt for Capitol Hill.