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The Speaker’s Grovel

We may not know how the ultimate budget impasse of 2018 will be resolved (the next shutdown deadline having been delayed six weeks). Nor do we know the resolution of the increasingly tense DACA dilemma – unnecessarily created by President Trump’s decision to rescind the broadly supported program. But as Congress inartfully stumbles through each of these artificially created crises, we have come to understand one incontrovertible fact about Speaker Paul Ryan: not only is he remarkably unskilled as a strategic leader, but he also fundamentally misunderstands the constitutional role of the institution over which he presides.

Granted, like John Boehner before him, Ryan has the misfortune of leading an agglomeration of factions ranging from hard-boiled conservatives to ideologically purist wing nuts who view their own leadership as perilously close to traitorous (to use a currently popular accusation). Boehner would compare the difficulty of assembling a working majority of 218 out of the diverse Republican Conference to herding chickens. A significant portion of those Republicans who strutted into Congress in 2010, as well as those who have followed them in three successive elections, has little interest in whether Congress operates in a responsible manner or garners public trust. Congress, to their way of thinking, is the enemy, along with the rest of the federal government, and actions that reduce public regard for these institutions are valued, not avoided.

The large dissident faction admittedly makes Ryan’s job more challenging. Indeed, with the exception of last year’s tax law, he has been unable to pass into law any bill that contained a whiff of controversy, and has been forced to rely on Democrats (as he did again with the latest CR) to pass anything at all. And, to state the obvious, passing a law that unloads tax cuts (even if skewed to the rich) is not the toughest sell to members, even if it does violate the Right’s anti-deficit mumbo-jumbo.

But Ryan should, at a minimum, demonstrate a dedication to the constitutional role of the institution he leads. For a half century, the congressional pushback against the Imperial Presidency and its dangerous tendency to vacuum up power from other branches of government has been a largely bipartisan effort. Even when both the presidency and Congress have been controlled by the same party, House and Senate members – who after all have a different constituency from a president – have asserted the prerogatives given them under Article I of the Constitution to promote their own agenda and check the exercise of executive authority.

Not Paul Ryan, who displays unequivocal loyalty to Donald Trump, who in October of 2016 dismissed the Speaker “a very weak and ineffective leader.” Trump may have been onto something, but it hardly should earn him the Speaker’s unqualified fealty. Yet loyalty is what Ryan has served up, including a virtual lack of oversight of Trump’s widespread use of executive authority in issuing regulations impacting pollution, environmental protection, financial institutions, health, education and dozens of other controversial topics. not to mention the stunning failure to conduct anything approaching competent investigations into the efforts of Russia to interfere in U.S. elections or the relationship of the Trump Administration to innumerable shadowy figures conducting dubiously legal activities.

The latest example of Ryan’s fecklessness and deference to the Tweeter-in-Chief came in response to Democratic demands that the Speaker follow the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and set a time to begin debate on DACA legislation. Senate Democrats secured such a promise from McConnell to put immigration legislation on the Senate floor in March, but no such pledge has been forthcoming from Ryan. Indeed, the Speaker has not even committed to take up legislation if sent over to the House by a bipartisan Senate vote, a disturbing reminder of the failure of the House to consider the Senate-passed bipartisan comprehensive immigration package in 2013.

Instead, the constitutional leader of the legislative branch has declared that he will schedule a vote on DACA legislation only if President Trump supports it.

Hello, Mr. Speaker, not the way the place is supposed to run. Legislation originates in Congress; that old, “President proposes, Congress disposes” slogan went out decades ago (remember: no Obama-proposed legislation was “disposed of” for 6 years!). Here is the crucial source material that might help you understand your responsibilities to the American people:; check out Article I. The job of members of the House (especially) is to listen to your conscience and the constituents you were elected to serve, not grovel before Donald Trump or any other president.


Courts Rethinking Gerrymandering

Whenever a discussion of the origins and causes of contemporary partisanship takes place, it doesn’t take long for the subject to turn to the pernicious topic of gerrymandering: drawing legislative district lines to enhance the probability that one party will win a larger number of seats than the partisan vote distribution in the state merits.

In the past, the courts have hesitatingly weighed into the frequent battles alleging manipulation of district lines, mainly in cases where the boundaries have been tortuously drawn to disenfranchise racial or ethnic minorities (typically by hyper-concentrating them into one district to purge adjacent districts of their influence). Now, however, it appears the courts are so offended by the excesses of Republican legislatures (for the most part, since the GOP dominates in the control of line-drawing legislatures) that they may impose a tougher standard that could play an enhanced role in diminishing the partisanship so decried by politicians and the general public.

On Monday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the congressional districts drawn after the 2010 Census by the Republican legislature for “cleanly, plainly and palpably” violating the state’s constitution. The court declared that if the Legislature does not redraw a plan that the Democratic governor agrees to submit by Feb 14, in time for the state’s upcoming primary election, the court will do the job itself. With an eye towards the ungainly, spindly districts concocted by the Legislature, the court insisted that the new districts reflect the common standards of being “compact and contiguous territory” composed of a roughly equal number of voters and that do not divide counties, cities towns or other subdivisions except to achieve numerical equity.

Pennsylvania is a prime candidate for such distortions because its sizeable Democratic population is hyper-concentrated in just a few areas of the state around Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton. As a result, it has been easy to give safe seats to a few Democrats like Bob Brady and Dwight Evans whose Democratic margins are nearly double those enjoyed by any other incumbent, Democratic or Republican. Providing these few Democrats with so many excessive, “wasted” votes (in the parlance of redistricting) bleeds enough Democrats out of nearby districts to give an advantage to Republican candidates. As a result, although Democratic candidates won over 50% of the combined votes for the U.S. House seats in the state, they were able to win just 5 of the state’s 18 seats in Congress.

The Pennsylvania decision is very timely. The U.S. Supreme Court is also weighing a significant gerrymandering case that ventures beyond race-based motives for disenfranchising voters to the less clear standard of deliberate distortion to gain disproportionate political advantage. Courts have been hesitant to rule on such cases in the past since the Constitution is silent on the issue of political parties and says little aboutthe overall issue of reapportionment and state elections.

But the concern about partisanship appears to have moved the courts to adopt a more pro-active stance and question whether drawing lines to favor one party over the other contributes to a poisoned political environment. Many believe drawing such safe districts has just such an impact by empowering more extreme elements who prevail in primaries where voter participation is light and skewed to the more ideological office-seekers.

Fixing the abuses of gerrymandering is not without risk, especially to minorities. Black voters in particular, long suffered from the “cracking” gerrymandering strategy that fragmented their votes (when they were allowed to vote at all. These communities benefitted from reapportionment changes in the 1990’s that allowed the creation of “majority minority” districts by hyper-concentrating minorities (and therefore, Democrats) into districts to ensure the election of a minority legislator. As a result, the number of minority-held seats swelled, but likely at a cost of many adjacent districts that were deprived of minority Democrats who had made those districts more competitive. Instead, those adjacent districts were now occupied by Republicans and often by hard line conservatives who win their primaries.

David Lublin of American University studied this conundrum in the 1990s, concluding that the benefits of ensuring the election of minorities to these safe districts was confounded by the increased probability that the resulting legislature in which they served was unlikely to have a majority sympathetic to the minority’s policy objectives. Courts have winked at this race-based gerrymandering in order to empower minorities, but the current round of reviews may result in some fine-tuning, perhaps by limiting the proportion of minority voters to ensure the election of a minority legislator. Is it 65%, or in the post-Obama world, is that figure closer to 45%?

Fixing gerrymandering alone is unlikely to significantly roll back the partisanship that is suffocating our politics, but it could make several dozen districts more competitive. That outcome might well reward legislators who fought for more moderate approaches, assuming moderate voters vote in primaries and help select those candidates. And purging Congress of grotesquely distorted districts would likely put control of the House itself in play more often, although the presence of more competitive districts and uncertain control may accentuate party discipline more than enhance collaboration. Still, how much worse could it get?


The Wrong Foot

Whatever Donald Trump mused about on New Year’s Eve, while gorging himself on ravioli pasta, beef tenderloin, and baked Alaska (apparently missing the irony of serving this particular dessert in a time of climate change), it decidedly was not how to improve his working relationship with the Democratic congressional leadership. Presumably, someone at the White House understands they are going to have to collaborate with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on a raft of urgent policy matters including an upcoming spending resolution, a new budget, and immigration reform.

But Trump began the New Year brimming with contempt for those he will likely need to avert a cataclysmic government shutdown and policy meltdown. A White House parley with the leaders is planned for tomorrow, and Trump not only set the agenda but also once again gratuitously insulted the Democratic participants.

“Democrats are doing nothing for DACA,” Trump tweeted on January 2, they are “just interested in politics.” He predicted that “DACA activists and Hispanics will go hard against Dems, [and] will start ‘falling in love’ with Republicans and their President!” However, all that will have to wait, since White House functionaries have declared that the DACA discussion is off the table for the January 3 meeting although Trump had promised the congressional leaders the issue would be imminently considered.

However, the discussion tomorrow will focus only on “setting budget caps, not immigration or some of these other issues which are on this month’s overall agenda but not driving the substance of this meeting.” In other words, Trump only wants to talk about cutting entitlements, especially Medicaid and Social Security, and slashing non-military domestic discretionary spending while busting through the 2012 military spending caps. You know, the Trump-McConnell-Ryan post-“tax reform” agenda. Pelosi and Schumer have been warned not to raise what the White House consider to be extraneous issues.

I could be misreading the situation, but if that is the way the West Wing meeting goes down, I will volunteer to be one of Santa’s elves next Christmas. It is inconceivable that Pelosi and Schumer would abide by the absurd ground rules laid down by the Trump White House. They certainly will raise DACA and perhaps other urgent issues on which the Congress failed to act in 2017. Those “DACA activists and Hispanics” would have every reason to become frustrated with the Democrats if the leaders did not insist that these topics be raised at the first face-to-face meeting of the year.

Which raises the question: why go through the charade of declaring the Democrats’ highest priorities to be off the table, while only Trump-McConnell-Ryan topics are fit for discussion? Is the goal to make Pelosi and Schumer seem impertinent by raising topics that the White House has declared off limits? Is it to send a signal that only Trump gets to decide what topics are suitable for discussion, and when?

Decoding Trump tweets is as impossible as discerning his strategy or decision-making processes, but it seems obvious that he is trying to create a tableau depicting Democratic insolence and ineffectuality that he will then trumpet as illustrating his superior capacity for determining the parameters of the debate. He is misjudging his adversaries. Pelosi, for one, gives enormous deference to the office of the President, but as she illustrated in her bare knuckles relationship with George W. Bush, she will not hesitate to forcefully confront the person occupying the office, and she certainly will not allow her position, or that of her party and constituents, to be misrepresented or belittled.

Trump closed off his tweet by declaring, “We are about RESULTS.” If he hopes to improve on the desultory legislative record of 2017, however, he is going to have to display sharper political acumen than simply baiting the opposition. Maybe his subcontractors in New York real estate were intimidated by his bluster and bankrolls, but it won’t work with Capitol Hill.




Here Comes Santa Claus (for the 1%)

Well, well, here comes the tax bill, all tied up in a nice red bow for Christmas. That’s “red” for the deficits its authors admit it will create (not to mention the much larger ones every other economist predicts it will generate). Also “red” as in “red-faced” for the duplicitous behavior of those behind this irresponsible law.

Not that the outcome was ever in doubt. As I have written before, tax cuts – especially for the wealthy and corporations – are the sine qua non of Republican governance: the essential reason the circus that is the Trump-McConnell-Ryan Express rolled into town. Unlike efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the “affected industry” in this case was gung-ho for passage, a sentiment shared by something around 25% of the rest of the country.

There is a certain absurdist quality to the intensity and obsessiveness surrounding passage of the tax bill. After all, when the only congressional response to madmen using automatic weapons to slaughter scores of people is to ease the interstate ability to carry concealed handguns into states that do not allow such a practice, one could reasonably wonder if the entire Republican legislative agenda is not intended as some kind of sick joke.

Any serious analysis of the tax legislation must begin and end with an evaluation of its distributional effects: how concentrated are the benefits? Of course, in sheer dollar terms, any law that grants benefits to the middle class is going to spend a lot of money doing so; but the benefits accrued by the middle class (maybe enough to buy a wide screen TV monitor) are miniscule compared to the largesse piled on the plates of the 1% (enough to buy a house to put the TV in). Indeed, more than 83% of the benefits of this absurd bill will flow to the top 1%.

The second act of this farce will be the looming cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and a vast array of discretionary spending, compelled by the language of the tax bill in order to address the $1.5 trillion deficit it acknowledges will be created. And don’t go to the bank that the $1.5 trillion number is a ceiling; baked into it are rosy economic scenarios endorsed by a small number of serious economists; actually, by none. Never the mind, count on Republicans suddenly rediscovering their inner deficit reduction mania sometime after January 3. Sort of like an arsonist torching a building and then complaining the fire department took too long to arrive.

“Couldn’t be better,” an exultant Mitch McConnell declared after ramming the little analyzed bill through on a party lines vote. Actually, it could have been, if Mitch had been able to keep the sweetheart arrangement he surreptitiously dropped in to benefit a college in his own state, but that provision (like the very title of the bill) was ruled out of order by the Senate parliamentarian.

There are many big lies surrounding this legislation, but none moreso than to label it “tax reform.” It is a tax cut, pure and simple, ill-timed since the economy does not require priming, and inappropriate since it fails to address economic challenges like infrastructure development, the effects of expanding automation, or offshoring of U.S. jobs. Nor does it slam shut the “carried interest” loophole that allows a tiny fraction of hedge fund billionaires to escape fair taxation – a tax reform Donald Trump had promised during the 2016 campaign. Instead, like all other Republican tax schemes, this bill promises that growth will eradicate the deficits the new law will create. But take it from Bruce Bartlett, who authored the “supply side” scheme for Rep. Jack Kemp. “It’s not true,” Bartlett has admitted. “It’s nonsense, it’s BS.”

Well, considering the circus analogy I used earlier, “BS” probably is as good a way to describe the new tax cut as any, and the people walking behind the GOP elephants are the supposed Senate hardliners who were going to oppose the bill unless it cracked down on the deficit, protected health care and addressed DACA students: Susan Collins, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and John McCain. McConnell delivered nothing to any of them but a wink and a nod, and they went for it like a 5 year old swallows the magic trick in a sideshow. Don’t think for a minute these clowns are going to clean up the mess left behind the Republican elephants; the bill, while admittedly flawed in their views, was “good enough.”

The people who do deserve credit are congressional Democrats who unanimously opposed this fatally flawed legislation that they were given no role in fabricating. Since passage was assured with Republican-only votes, it would have been easy for House and Senate Democrats facing difficult races next year to relieve themselves of having to explain why they voted against a tax cut for their constituents. But they didn’t: whether for policy or politics, they stuck together, banking that the bill’s low approval rating and long term consequences will prove them right for having opposed it.

In the short term, however, there will be more celebrating by Republicans in the Congress and Donald Trump (himself an enormous beneficiary of the new law), and to some extent, they are entitled to crow. After all, no one can say they hadn’t explained their intentions; too many voters either weren’t paying attention or thought it would all work out well for them in the end. Well, it won’t, nor for the economy of the country. Politico called the new law a “once-in-a-generation success,” and let’s hope they are right; we can’t afford too many “successes” like this one.



Alabama After-Action Review

Doug Jones’ slim victory in the Alabama Senate race last night was a gigantic event in American politics, but it remains to be seen whether it, like the Virginia election in November, was a genuine harbinger of an anti-Trump, Republican-rejecting mid-term course correction. Trump naturally was quick to diminish the significance of Jones’ astonishing victory in a state he won by nearly 30 points just 13 months ago. Predicting Jones’ tenure in the seat will not last beyond the 2020 election, the President commented, “It never ends!” Don’t we know it.

Democrats have every reason to be exultant by the outcome, but there are important lessons for party activists as we gear up for the 2018 congressional races. No one should be under the misimpression that the Alabama (or Virginia) results give license to Democrats to behave like, well, Democrats, chasing every sparkling light and divisive, identity-based cause and demanding absolute ideological fealty to “progressive” axioms. Republicans are unlikely to reliably provide a Bible-thumping molester as their candidate of choice, so the district-by-district, state-by-state battles next year will not necessarily provide the same kinds of opportunities that Roy Moore presented.

  • In an election decided by about 1.5%, only 35% of Alabamans voted despite a well-publicized recognition this would be a close and consequential contest. Some of the low turnout, common in special and off-year elections, was doubtless attributable to Republicans who (for whatever reason) voted with their feet and stayed home; GOP turnout in many key counties was low. But 2018 presents a challenge for Democrats who must sustain the anger and energy that propelled the Alabama and Virginia victories to generate atypical off-year turnout; whether they can, given the inevitability of disappointments over the next year (that may leave base groups indifferent to the party) will be crucial to seizing the House and/or majority.
  • Democrats did much better among white suburbanites, college educated and white women than they did in 2016, but those changes could prove ephemeral against candidates less toxic than Moore. Even with his hair-raising record of misconduct, Moore still won white women by 29 points last night.
  • Black turnout (along with other members of the Democratic coalition) will be crucial to victory in 2018 and 2020. Although black voters were faulted for not turning out sufficiently in the key Mid-Western states whose loss cost Clinton victory in 2016, they substantially outperformed white voters in Alabama; over 70% of black voters cast ballots, a constituency Jones won by 92 points. Will black voters be as engaged nationally in 2018? Will Hispanics be, if Democrats are not perceived as pushing the DREAM Act as hard as they can in budget negotiations?
  • Democrats showed some strategic discipline, overlooking Jones’ moderate views on some topics. Will they also forgive some moderate votes he will assuredly cast in the Senate? While Jones was upfront, and risked real dangers, in his support of abortion rights, he did not pledge fealty to every special interest in the Democratic catechism. He and others understood that if you make unreasonable demands of Dixie Ds, you get Dixie Rs. DNC Chair Tom Perez caught criticism earlier in the year when he asserted the party would reject any anti-abortion candidate (he was quickly rebuked by Nancy Pelosi and others). Democrats must realize that the most crucial (i.e., the ones that determine majorities) elections are won in the middle, and must accept candidates whose views actually reflect, rather than confront, their constituents. This fall in Alabama, the activist base showed signs of behaving like politicos instead of simply like protestors.
  • Electorally, Alabama shows any seat can be in play (well, there’s always Utah) with the right candidate and the right political atmosphere. Howard Dean was correct: you need to fight everywhere to win somewhere. As was the case in the 1974, 1994 and 2010 wave elections, you can win seats you never thought were in play.
  • At the same time, no one should come to the conclusion that the conservative political movement has suffered any type of deep organizational setback. The underlying machinery of the hard Right remains quite strong, although encumbered by the divisive primary challenges promised by Steve Bannon and others. The conservative infrastructure – organization, finance, media – is  deeply rooted in three generations of American politics, and it remains largely unaffected by Moore’s defeat. Absent the multiple morals charges and the abandonment by key GOP allies like Sen. Richard Shelby, Roy Moore, in all his holy roller, gun waving, Scripture spouting goofiness, would be heading to the United States Senate (as would virtually any other Alabama Republican).
  • Among the winners, Sen. Cory Booker, who came into the state touting his own roots in sweet home Alabama and seemingly demonstrated an impressive ability to rally black voters to show up and vote. National Democrats are unlikely to ignore his success (along with John Lewis and Barack Obama, neither of whom are looking at 2020 in quite the same way as Booker).
  • Potential winners: Susan Collins and Jeff Flake. With the GOP’s Senate majority now at 2 (since a tie means VP Pence gives Republicans a victory), Collins and Flake have enormous leverage to press the demands they made during the Senate vote on the tax bill, neither of which Mitch McConnell has any intention of keeping. Now we will see whether these two “mavericks” are, as they say here in Santa Fe, all hat and no cattle. House Democrats used to say that Collins was always there when we didn’t need her. Will she insist McConnell’s promises be kept, or fold like a cheap suitcase?

In the end, the Jones victory proved Nancy Pelosi’s longstanding observation that adherence to the 3 M’s wins elections, especially under difficult circumstances: money is crucial, and Jones outspent Moore 6-1 on television; message discipline is key: stick to core issues that resonate with the target electorate, like jobs and economic opportunity), and mobilization: mailings and TV/radio are nice, but organize an army of foot soldiers, as did Jones whose supporters knocked on over 300,000 doors. Good lessons, great campaign, and an upbeat ending to a year of disorienting political chaos.

NOTE: My forthcoming book, The Class of ‘74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship is now available for pre-order.

Some early reviews:

  • “I’ve never read anyone who ‘gets’ Congress and its characters as Lawrence does.” Chris Matthews, MSNBC
  • “A fascinating account of the Class of ’74 … Students of American politics must read this gripping story of these turbulent years on Capitol Hill.” Julian Zelizer, Princeton University
  • “A landmark volume on congressional history.” Norman Ornstein, AEI
  • “A fascinating account that sheds new light on Congress’ past and reveals deeper truths about its present.” E.J. Dionne, Brookings, Washington Post
  • “A remarkably vivid portrait … It is hard to put down and downright fun to read.” Frances Lee, University of Maryland




Barnes & Noble:


Looming CR Showdown Has Risks for Everyone

Media attention is focused on Congress for a number of reasons in the post-Thanksgiving period: Moore, Franken, Conyers, Barton. Also the Republican scramble to pass a partisan tax cut bill before the end of the year. Less noticed is the behind-the-scenes, bipartisan negotiation feverishly underway on an end-of-the-year spending package. The Continuing Resolution, or “C.R.,” presents enormous opportunities and risks for members of both parties.

Since Congress failed, as usual, to pass the appropriations bills by the October 1 deadline, legislators must extend existing spending levels to avoid a government shutdown. Despite the highly partisan atmosphere, virtually all extensions since 2011 have required the majority Republicans to seek Democratic votes because something less than 218 Republicans are willing to approve the essential spending.

Republican hardliners do not fear a shutdown; indeed, they insisted that John Boehner force one in 2013, a politically costly tantrum that cost the economy a stunning $24 billion in lost output, equaling 0.6% of projected annualized GDP growth, according to Standard and Poor’s. Pelosi regularly has delivered the votes to keep the government functioning, but only after exerting her leverage to remove every objectionable Republican provision. The acquiescence of the Republican speakers to her demands has infuriated the Freedom Caucus partisans who prefer a government shutdown to collaboration with Pelosi’s Democrats.

This time, Pelosi and Democrats are in a tricky position of their own. Democrats are feeling heavy pressure from core grassroots activists to withhold the votes needed to pass the CR unless Republicans agree to use the bill to resolve several high profile issues facing imminent deadlines: an extension (or replacement of) the DACA program for undocumented youth and the continuation of premium subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

GOP Leaders Ryan and McConnell (and President Trump, if he has a clue what this discussion is all about) doubtless believe they can resist making such concessions to their Democratic counterparts, confident that Pelosi and Schumer cannot abide withholding the votes that would result in a shutdown. They may be making a serious miscalculation.

Pelosi has recounted the discussion when Trump and other Republicans futilely attempted to bludgeon her and Schumer into accepting an 18 month budget/debt ceiling deal back in September. The GOP leaders glumly admitted they lacked the votes to pass their position, leading Trump to agree to Pelosi and Schumer’s 3 month extension. “Votes are the currency of the realm,” Pelosi noted, “maybe not on Wall Street or in New York real estate, but that is the case in Congress.” If McConnell and Ryan had the votes to go their own way, well, that’s what they would do. But if they didn’t, Pelosi reasoned, they would have to deal with her Democrats.

Using a stop-gap measure like a CR to resolve complicated policy questions like immigration or health policy is what political scientist Barbara Sinclair termed “unorthodox lawmaking.” But the stagecoach goes by the narrow point in the pass only so often, and you need to strike when it does. If Republicans call their bluff, Democrats can plausibly say, “We didn’t shut down government; we’re not in the majority. The Republicans have the responsibility to govern.” But they would find it more difficult to explain to core supporters that “We had them cornered and let them escape, so now Democratic constituencies face deportation and premiums spirals because we didn’t flex our muscle.”

While the negotiations continue in secret, it is essential that Democrats lay the predicate with the voters, the press and the media that the minority, has no burden to support a C.R. unless it is responsive to Democratic goals. As in 2013, Republicans might have to be allowed to fail at the most elementary of responsibilities – to keep government functioning. But can Democrats resist their instinctual urge to keep government open even at the expense of seriously disappointing their most loyal supporters on their highest priority issues?



Deficit Doves

Coverage of hurricane relief efforts perpetuates the conservative canard that congressional Republicans are genuinely concerned about budget deficits. A recent story in the New York Times (“White House Requests More Disaster Aid but Also Seeks Cuts as Deficits Rise,” November 17) restates that the longstanding argument that “Republican leaders [have] made fiscal rectitude a central organizing principle.”

But the conservative commitment to reducing deficits has been more of a campaign slogan than a governing principle. Attacks on federal spending since Ronald Reagan’s budgets have been thinly veiled strategies for undercutting domestic policies. As historians have demonstrated, the demand for deficit reduction is the wolf’s clothing in which conservative cultural values have long masqueraded. Little wonder so few Republicans are expressing deficit angst about the $1.5 trillion hole their proposed tax cut will create over the next decade, not to mention the following decade (which is conveniently excluded from cost projections).

The tax and spending agendas of President Trump and the Republican-led Congress follow a well-worn path of skyrocketing deficits notwithstanding frequent protestations of concern about overspending. Historically, the deficit rose more under Presidents Reagan and the two Bushes than under Clinton or Obama largely as a result of unpaid for tax cuts, exploding military spending and a refusal to reign in entitlements. Clinton and Obama were left the task of raising taxes to reduce the deficit holes dug by their anti-deficit predecessors (although George H.W. Bush’s later acquiescence to raising taxes despite a pledge not to do so fatally wounded his presidency.) When Democrats imposed a “pay as you go” requirement for new mandatory spending or tax cuts in the 1990s, the result was the first balanced budget in two decades. Once in the majority, however, Republicans rescinded the pay-for mandate for taxes, and then rescinded “pay as you go” altogether, leading to mushrooming deficits.

None of this comes as a real surprise to Republican leaders who were well aware of their duplicity. No less a deficit slouch than Dick Cheney admitted, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Even those who designed the supply side scheme have confessed their theory was ridiculous. “You’re kidding yourself if you think cutting taxes is really cutting taxes,” confessed David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget under Reagan. “We’re simply … and immorally putting huge debt burdens on future generations and that is just wrong.” And Bruce Bartlett, who crafted the “supply side” scheme for Rep. Jack Kemp, has admitted that tax cuts do not really pay for themselves. “It’s not true,” Bartlett said, “it’s nonsense, it’s BS.”

The real goal behind Republican deficit concern has been to create a rationale to do indirectly what they know voters will not sanction: direct cutbacks to domestic programs from education to economic development to environmental protection. “When a program is too popular to attack directly, like Medicare or Social Security,” former Republican Budget Committee staff Mike Lofgren acknowledged in 2011, “they prefer to undermine it by feigning an agonized concern about the deficit [that is] largely fictitious.”

This strategy explains the skepticism among Democrats in Congress that greeted the opposition of deficit hawks like Sen. Ted Cruz who demanded spending cuts to offset emergency aid for the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged East Coast. Cruz was echoing the concerns raised following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when then-Rep. Mike Pence admonished his House colleagues to “figure out how we’re going to pay for” the emergency aid, warning that “Congress must ensure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt for our children and grandchildren.” (Now Vice President and facing hundreds of billions in disaster costs, Pence hasn’t said a word about requiring offsets.)

Indeed, even when Congress was providing hundreds of billions of dollars to the financial services industry in 2008 to stave off total economic collapse, GOP Sen. Judd Gregg privately proposed cutting domestic spending to offset any costs not repaid by the Wall Street firms.

The cornerstone of modern conservatism is not the fiscal prudence that motivated earlier generations, but the fierce reassertion of traditional cultural norms that have been challenged not only by Democrats but by many independents and Republicans as well. “All the foundations had been pulled out” of a country long governed by white, Christian, conservative men, noted Andrew Hartman in A War for the Soul of America, and contemporary hard-line grassroots conservatism and nativism is the result. That movement is driven by evangelical hardliners for whom the deficit is little more than a convenient foil, easily and frequently discarded in pursuit of other policy objectives.


Promote Policy, Not Yourself

The good news coming out of Tuesday’s election is that the Democratic Party has a pulse and that progressive (and especially female) candidates can successfully push back against incumbent Republicans – even in districts contorted to favor those Republicans.

The bad news is that Democrats already show signs of tripping over their own feet, insisting on a focus on issues that repel the swing voters who deliver Election Day majorities. Successfully corralling these distracting controversies, as much as finding that magically appealing nominee for 2020, will determine whether November 7, 2017 was the beginning of the next era of Democratic dominance or a historically insignificant blip.

Three examples of such self-induced damage have marred what should otherwise have been a week of celebration for the minority party.

First was the release of Donna Brazile’s book, Hack, less than a week before an election so crucial for the political party she chaired a year ago. Regardless of one’s feelings about the management of the DNC, the favoritism allegedly given the Hillary Clinton campaign at the expense of Bernie Sanders, or the flaws in the 2016 general election gameplan, Brazile’s timing was disgraceful. Given the cataclysmic impact of James Comey’s last minute disclosures only a year before, Brazile might have worked with her publisher to defer release until after a fateful gubernatorial election in Virginia.

Brazile’s comments in innumerable interviews illustrate why that delay did not occur: a desire to maximize sales was understandable for the publisher but not for someone who, as a longtime party functionary, has responsibilities beyond pocketing profits gleaned from her access to inside information. Brazile regularly turns the conversation to herself — how she was treated in a “condescending and dismissive” manner by the Clinton campaign, and how she considered initiating a process to replace the nominated candidate.

No one can sanction interference in the primary campaign (though much of what Brazile describes occurred not against Sanders but in the general election against Trump). But because Brazile was the chair of the party, her admissions sound like confessions of her own ineffectuality. Nor is she a perfect messenger for unbiased party leadership, having admitted to leaking debate questions to Mrs. Clinton as well as leaking to Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Brazile claims that the Clinton campaign had, to her way of thinking, an “odor of failure” about it, but her own activities have a distinct aroma of self-promotion at the expense of hard-working candidates and volunteers.

Yet another example of self-promotion gone awry is the $20 million initiative of Tom Steyer to pressure Democratic candidates into pledging to impeach President Trump. A better example of the excessive influence of personal fortunes in politics is difficult to conjure than a California billionaire determining the acid test for those contemplating a run for Congress in 2018. Steyer’s egotism tracks that often found in the Golden State’s initiative process where well-heeled, single issue activists decide that the give and take of the regular legislative process is too plodding for their personal timetables and instead craft self-serving policy in the calm of their Malibu mansions, often with disastrous electoral or policy results.

We all get it, Tom: Trump’s a bad guy, but frankly, there are a few more urgent issues affecting those we need to persuade to vote for Democrats than parsing the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Our goals right now are recruiting good candidates, raising sufficient funds to ensure they are competitive (and by the way, our campaigns could use some of that $20 million you are burning to promote your impeachment obsession), and winning over skeptical suburbanites and other independents who might just be willing to give Democrats a shot at governing again. Flaring up partisan warfare isn’t the smart way to do that, which is why even as dedicated a Democrat as Nancy Pelosi is telling activists to focus on the plight of undocumented children and the health needs of poor Americans instead of confirming swing voters’ perceptions that Democrats would rather attack than govern responsibly.

And lastly, thank you Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP and longtime Democratic Party activist, for your prodigious research that discovered offensive lyrics in the never sung third stanza of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Ms. Huffman’s contribution to the national debate is to call for the replacement of the National Anthem. “This song is wrong,” she said this week. “It won’t kill us if it goes away.” No, but a gratuitous slap at a national icon is unlikely to impress those concerned about college affordability, health care, income equity and job creation. “The Star Spangled Banner” has long had its critics, and others have made reasonable arguments for something less militaristic like “America the Beautiful” or more inspiring like “God Bless America.” And, it isn’t especially singable (most get that last, three note “banner” wrong by inserting a fourth note). But right now, in the midst of the divisive kneeling controversy, do Democrats, perennially portrayed as weak on patriotism, have to take on a national symbol?

Running races and winning elections requires strategy, organization and discipline. Democrats are going to have to exercise greater self-regulation over the course of the next year, forgoing self-promotion in favor of promoting party effectiveness to avoid putting the Democratic Party on the same track as the Republicans’ Trump train wreck.


Sanchez’ Sanctimonious Misstep

Of all the puzzling, inopportune and injurious statements made in Washington recently – and there has been no shortage of them – few surpass comments by Rep. Linda Sanchez as she mused about the need for new leadership in the House of Representatives.

Sanchez, currently serving her 8th term in the House from a reliably Democratic district in California, made news on October 5th by telling a reporter, “I do think it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders” in the House. And she wasn’t talking about Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy. Sanchez’ remark contained a backhanded compliment as well. “Our leadership does a tremendous job,” she noted, “but we do have this real breadth and depth of talent within our caucus” that is restless and wants to begin the transition to the “new generation of leaders.” Not surprisingly, she added, “I want to be a part of that transition, I want to see that happen.” There’s a surprise.

Let’s unpack this contretemps.

Yes, the current Democratic leadership – Leader Nancy Pelosi, Whip Steny Hoyer, Assistant Leader Jim Clyburn – has been in positions for an unusually long time (by virtue, it should be noted, of their repeated overwhelming election by the Democratic Caucus). Yes, there are many younger and talented Democrats who, given the opportunity, could (and will) rise in the House leadership. Pelosi has even periodically mused about the end of her House service — for example, had Hillary Clinton been elected president. Earlier this year, the earnest if undistinguished Ohio representative Tim Ryan launched a challenge to Pelosi’s re-election as leader on similar “time for a change” grounds cited by Sanchez this week. Two-thirds of the Caucus disagreed with him.

Prior to her remarks, Sanchez was not considered to be among the co-conspirators periodically plotting a putsch against Pelosi or the other leaders. Indeed, as vice chair of the Democratic Caucus and a senior member of Hoyer’s Whip organization, she seemed an unlikely candidate to publicly chastise the party’s leaders.

Moreover, as a Californian, a woman and someone of Latino heritage, she would seem an improbable critic of Pelosi in particular.   Over the years, Pelosi has showered her with choice appointments, including as the highest-ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee and a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Unlike Tim Ryan or an earlier Pelosi critic, former Rep. Heath Shuler, Sanchez was not an outsider grumbling about the leadership, but a participant in and benefactor of their deliberations.

There is nothing new about more junior members voicing dissatisfaction with leaders who have an obligation to make the House function and a responsibility to work with the diverse Democratic Caucus. Sometimes dissatisfaction with leaders is well-placed: in the 1970s, liberals rebelled against chairmen who sided with the minority Republicans more frequently than with fellow Caucus members who gave them their gavels. But there are important distinctions between those rebellions and the challenges to Pelosi and today’s other leaders. Democrats currently serve in the minority and face a major battle to resume the majority. Pelosi plays a crucial role in the effort to regain the majority lost in 2010. Efforts to divide the Caucus against itself can inflict far greater damage in the battle to win majority control. Moreover, today’s leaders are in agreement on policy with the vast bulk of the Caucus and united against Republican initiatives, unlike the Conservative Coalition chairs of the 1970s who voted more often with the minority party than with those who elected them to leadership positions.

The truly stunning aspect of Sanchez’ apostasy lies in her timing. Pelosi is engaged (or will be) in high-level talks with the Trump White House and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to craft an extension of the DACA program that protects about 800,000 undocumented Americans who, in Sanchez own floor statement of September 27th, are “holding their breath” because of the imminent threat of deportation. That collaboration comes in the wake of Trump’s remarkable concession to Pelosi and Schumer over the debt ceiling and continuing budget resolution. There are even rumors of potential negotiations on health care.

Between now and the end of the year, a number of other crucial programs, including funding for premium assistance for low-income participants under the Affordable Care Act and the extension of the Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), await negotiations involving the congressional leadership and an erratic, unpredictable White House. My guess is that tens of thousands of people in Rep. Sanchez’ district desperately need Mrs. Pelosi is the strongest possible position to battle for their health and immigration rights, but their congresswoman’s intemperate remarks did little to strengthen Pelosi’s hand in the upcoming battles with Trump and House Republicans.

Moreover, the next two months are crucial in the timetable of dozens of Democrats who are considering risky races for Republican-held House seats, not to mention seeking the millions of dollars the party will need for those races to be sufficiently competitive. Pelosi, a masterful candidate recruiter and fundraiser, will be crucial to both such efforts. Absent success with those candidates and that funding, hopes of Democrats’ capitalizing on the dysfunction of House Republicans or Trump will dissipate.

If Linda Sanchez has a strategic game plan whereby undermining the strength of the Democratic Leader (and thereby millions of low income, Latino, Californians and other Americans, including many of her own constituents) makes sense, she certainly failed to explain it clearly to the rest of the political community. Without such an explanation, her statements raising questions about division in the House Democratic ranks invariably complicate every political and legislative objective the bulk of Democrats are hoping to achieve in 2018.

No one seems to know what prompted Sanchez’ sanctimonious statement, but there is little doubt it was ill timed and ill-advised. Changing House leadership in the middle of a Congress, at the height of fundraising pressure, in the midst of potential resolution of high priority Democratic legislative objectives, makes no sense, and therefore talking about it serves no interest other than to potentially weaken the leaders and the goals to which the Caucus aspires.

Why would Sanchez do that? Obvious reasons include self-promotion or a publicly unknown personal slight. Whatever it is, Sanchez’ attack on someone who is crucially positioned to aid the Democratic constituency, and who has steadily promoted the advancement of Sanchez’ own career in the House, reflects poorly on any aspirations she might have to lead the party.


What to Watch for in TrumpTax

After all the noise about Obamacare and football players on bended knee, after the obsession with a border wall and promises to wipe North Korea off the map, after all the bluster and bravado that has marked his improbable tenure in public office, Donald Trump gets down to the real business today, unveiling a tax cut plan that might be the signature achievement of his tenure as President.

This is not to suggest Trump and Republican legislators do not really care about all those other issues. But as I have written before, the real reason the GOP Circus rolls into town is to cut taxes, especially on the affluent and corporations. Wall Street hasn’t been booming of late because of Trump’s attacks on undocumented immigrants; it’s the prospect of windfall tax cuts that whets the appetite of the plutocrats with whom Trump feels most empathetic.

There has already been much speculation about this Republican-only tax plan – and the partisan nature of the proposal is more than sufficient reason to regard it with alarm and skepticism. But Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will use their remaining get-out-of-responsible-legislating-free card – the 2018 reconciliation bill – to try to slam through an irresponsible and debt-generating tax cut without any regard for (a) regular order, (b) the normal bipartisan tax-writing process, or (c) the all-but-certain ballooning of the deficit that will result from this ill-conceived plan.

Trump and his minions will try to sell this tax turkey based on several well-worn GOP promises: Everyone will get a tax cut. The cuts, especially to business and the affluent, will stimulate investment and hiring, boosting the economy. The deficit will shrink as a result of cutting taxes.

And it is true, everyone will get a tax cut, just as they did under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (and Barack Obama, for that matter, as part of the stimulus of 2009). But the key to tax policy isn’t the breadth of the cut, but rather the distribution, that is, what proportion of the cuts each quintile of the tax-paying public receives. While giving an across the board cut ensures that the gross amount going to the large middle class is sizable, it obscures the hugely disproportionate amount that will go to the extremely wealthy thanks to a lowering of the top rate and likely changes to the treatment of capital gains and estate taxes. And wait to see if Trump follows through on his campaign promise to rescind the obscene carried interest loophole that benefits no one but hedge fund multi-millionaires.

The other key point to watch will be the Congressional Budget Office score. CBO has been the bane of the Republicans’ plotting on health care because it has predicted massive benefit losses when reviewing each of their misbegotten plans. But Speaker Ryan was careful to include instructions in the House rules adopted in January that skew the scoring for tax policy, directing CBO to accept the disproven concept of “dynamic scoring” that assumes that tax cuts will generate growth rather than cause deficits. This perverse misrepresentation is based on Ronald Reagan’s “supply side economics” model that has been demonstrated to be worth barely the napkin the theory was sketched out on in the 1970s.

Indeed, the continued Republican reliance on the mythical impact of tax cuts is the major reason why deficits have been significantly higher under supposedly fiscally conscious Republican Administrations. Under Reagan, the national debt grew by 189 percent. George H.W. Bush was better; the debt rose by just 54 percent (but of course, he fatefully raised taxes to slow down the debt explosion). In between, during Bill Clinton’s Administration, the debt rose by just 32 percent and the annual budget was actually balanced; twice. Returning to the tax cutting model under George W. Bush, the debt soared by 101 percent. Barack Obama weighed in at 68 percent, but he, of course, inherited not only all of W’s irresponsible tax cuts but the worst recession in three-quarters of a century which necessitated massive countercyclical spending. Indeed, every Democratic president since Kennedy has produced a lower debt increase than his Republican predecessor.

There is, of course, a downside to this Democratic diligence. Confronted with the serious debt momentum set in place by their predecessors, most Democrats have acted responsibly and raised taxes, slowing the pace of the debt increase. Predictably, such action has provided grist for the Republican campaign machine to castigate Democrats as profligate “tax and spend” proponents, even though, for the most part, the tax raising was needed to clean up the mess left by the tax cutters.

While one might assume the Republican tax mantra was little more than smoke to obscure the real goal of fattening the wallets of the fat cats, there is a strategy behind their irresponsible behavior. Increased debt is a very convenient straw man to use to justify the other Republican obsession: cutting spending, and specifically domestic discretionary spending that benefits lower and middle income Americans. Reagan’s genius, in fact, was employing this indirect method for attacking Democratic policies without necessarily opposing the programs or their beneficiaries directly (as did Barry Goldwater, for example, when he called for elimination of Social Security and opposed Medicare). By pumping up deficits, Republicans create the rationale for spending cuts, even though those domestic programs have little to do with creating deficits and the cuts will have no significant impact on staunching the red ink. Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, so much as admitted the deception once he left office.

So watch the distribution curve and the debt projections to determine the real winners and loser from Trump Tax. And don’t be surprised if it looks like the same old bait and switch, because it will be.