hardline political news and analysis

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.


Congress Needs to Get Involved

Just eleven days into the troubled Trump presidency, a moment of truth has arisen for the Congress, few members of which (of either party) believed that elevating an inexperienced demagogue to the White House was an inspired thought. Republicans have largely fallen in line behind Trump’s vaguely sketched policy goals, although there was reported grumbling at the recent bicameral policy retreat in Philadelphia about insufficient consultation. Democrats, despite some pronouncements about working collaboratively, have largely condemned each action of the new President. Not a harbinger of bipartisanship.

With the stunning upheaval over Trump’s Executive Order on immigration and refugee policy, there is an opportunity – and an obligation — for the parties to unite on the common ground of standing up for the institution they have sworn to defend, and in which they serve. Although coming earlier in the Trump Administration than many had predicted (or thought possible), the crisis has arrived in the form of irrational policy, inadequate consultation with affected government leaders, amateurism at the highest staff levels, inexplicable rebuke to key foreign leaders and international colleagues, and, in all likelihood, a massive insult to the Constitution. In just 11 days. As Rahm Emanuel has advised, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” because it allows one to take steps that might have previously been impossible. This is such a moment for the Congress.

Those who care about the integrity of the House and Senate – and there are plenty on both sides of the aisle – have an opportunity to use their constitutional powers now to begin the task of regaining public respect.

Congress needs to find out who makes policy in the non-transparent White House, and how they do it, before more serious damage is done, perhaps involving nuclear weapons. The same diehard Republican inquisitors who set up special committees and spent many months investigating Benghazi and Planned Parenthood should convene oversight hearings and summon White House officials – there aren’t many in other departments of the Executive Branch as yet – to explain the decision-making that resulted in the Executive Order on immigration and refugees. Not only was the initial process cloaked in secrecy, but the aftermath has been chaotic: the White House policy director standing by the Order, the chief of staff reinterpreting it, and the Homeland Security Secretary clarifying (i.e., reversing) its impact on green card holders.

The purpose of such hearings should not be to fix blame – President Trump has been quoted as saying he thought implementation of the Order has been going just fine – but to clarify the lines of authority within the White House. Pulling in these officials and illuminating the decision-making process and players can be done this week, and it should be. One never knows when the next crisis will arise, although it seems safe to say it won’t be in the distant future.

Only the Republican majority can call an official hearing. Only the majority can issue subpoenas to those who decline an invitation to testify. If the Republican majority in the House and Senate decline to use their constitutional powers (not to mention their institutional responsibility) to initiate such oversight, they will have forfeited any legitimate claim to control the Congress, and will share fully in the culpability for the future blundering of an amateurish and insular White House. Oversight always drops precipitously when the White House and Congress are controlled by the same party; this time, however, that pattern needs to be reversed.

Although in the minority, Democrats have an opportunity to send a clarion message to Americans and the world by introducing legislation to reverse Trump’s unwarranted Executive Order. Such legislation could also establish clearer criteria for challenging or prohibiting entry of certain suspect classes of prospective immigrants or refugees, if that is even needed. True, as the minority, Democrats cannot schedule official hearings, compel the attendance of Administration witnesses, or mark-up legislation, but if Republicans refuse to exercise the prerogatives of the Legislative Branch, Democrats can file a discharge petition on their bill, bypassing the normal procedures to force their legislation to the floor. Republicans who refuse to sign onto that petition – it takes 218 signatures and therefore cannot succeed without majority co-signers – will have little basis for denying culpability for the aftermath of the current crisis, and will instantaneously become prime targets in the 2018 election.

The best outcome, of course, would be to pass a comprehensive immigration bill that addresses these and many other unresolved issues instead of continuing to govern by Executive decree and fulminating about a multi-billion dollar wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Such a bipartisan bill did pass the Senate just 4 years ago, but could not even get a subcommittee hearing in the Freedom Caucus-driven House. The atmosphere for a bipartisan solution to immigration may be among the casualties of Trump’s reckless blundering.

This is a test for the Congress, and especially for the Republican majority that alone has its hands on the steering wheel and its foot on the gas pedal. Either they follow the leadership of Republicans like John McCain and Lindsay Graham who dare to challenge the haphazard Commander-in-Chief (and who responded to their criticism by accusing both senators of “always looking to start World War III”) or, by their inaction, they diminish the Legislative Branch of our government and create a huge electoral opportunity for Democrats.  The disorder of the past week should be evidence enough that it is never wise for Congress to blindly defer to the Executive Branch, believing that loyalty is equated with patriotism or public service.

Playing at Being President

Donald Trump’s precise relationship to the Republican Party he putatively leads, and to its majorities in Congress, continues to be very much a work in progress. During his campaign, in his bellicose Inaugural address, and even in Thursday’s speech before the Republican congressional retreat in Philadelphia, Trump pointedly distinguished himself from the “politicians” he castigates.

In Philadelphia, he blamed those “politicians” for the failures of the federal government. He assured his colleagues that he was speaking of “not you here,” a curious dispensation since Republicans have been in charge of one or both houses of a largely somnambulant Congress since 2011, but to “others,” before menacingly adding, “Maybe.”

What Trump has said in his first week in the White House is less significant than what he has done. On a daily basis, Trump has signed Executive Orders to fulfill campaign pledges, ordering all federal agencies, for example, “to the maximum extent permitted by law,” to “waive, defer, grant ­exemptions from or delay” application of any provision of the Affordable Care Act that “imposes a financial or regulatory burden.”  Such a sweeping directive could apply to anyone compelled to buy insurance or to provide health services, it would seem, and likely constitutes an egregious over-reach by seeking to invalidate an existing statute.

With his trademark swagger, Trump has declared he will “reduce regulations big time,” and suspended all new regulations (including those intended to ease or modify earlier regulations on businesses) for months.  Developing replacement regulations will take months due to the laborious publishing and comment requirements, one reason that many companies are not happy with the regulation freeze.

Trump dubiously asserts that his orders will “save thousands of lives, millions of jobs and billions and billions of dollars.” He froze the hiring of new federal employees, which may result in greater reliance on non-unionized contractors who lack protections granted federal employees.  He reversed course on the controversial Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines (although final action will take months of hearings and rules proceedings), limited the admission of refugees based on religious considerations ((interestingly, not in those countries where the Trump Corporation does business), and withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which pleased Democratic labor leaders more than pro-trade Republicans and their business allies.  While boasting “our relationship with Mexico is going to get better,” he disinvited President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, a crucial ally on drugs, crime and immigration and one of our largest trading partners.  Such a visit to Washington would be “fruitless,” he asserted, if Peña Nieto refused to accept the responsibility of paying for the Great Wall of Trump. Peña Nieto’s decision to forgo his planned visit to Washington ranks as the most popular one of his troubled administration.

Trump and his supporters justify this torrent of Executive initiatives by pointing to former President Obama’s heavy use of such orders, but there is a difference.  Obama was slow to resort to unilateral action (his pace ran behind many recent presidents for most of his term) until it became evident that Republicans would block his  legislative proposals. Obama was left with little recourse if he wanted to implement the policies on which he had successfully campaigned in 2012.

“This Congress is going to be the busiest Congress we’ve had in decades,” Trump told the Retreat participants, but thus far, he has shown a preference for substituting his solitary judgment for that of the peoples’ representatives.  That circumvention of Congress’ deliberative procedures is particularly disturbing since his initial orders cover highly divisive and incendiary topics that represent a complete reversal of existing policy, a reversal not embraced by a majority of voters.

Had Trump received a genuine electoral mandate to effectuate such changes (as Obama arguably did on such early Executive Orders as the closing of Guantanamo), the precipitous action might be warranted. Instead, he is intent on making policy by spouting wildly fabricated notions, justifying his immigration restrictions on his belief that “if you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible.” (The numbers were effectively equal last year.)

Congressional Democrats have predictably reacted with anger to Trump’s cascade of executive actions, hardly a surprisingly response. The Republican response is of greater significance. According to one report, Republicans had no idea if Trump’s orders conflicted with the laws Congress has written “because they hadn’t reviewed them.” Neither have the departments that will have to implement them, including the National Security Council, the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. One man’s flawed impulsive and cartoonish judgment is being substituted for the entire policymaking process.

Only in the case of the military, where civilian presidential control is actually essential, does Trump appear willing to cede decision-making to congressionally approved leaders.  Reiterating his discredited belief in the effectiveness of torture, Trump agreed to bow to the views of Secretary of Defense Mattis, who discounts the value of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding.  “I don’t necessarily agree,” said Trump, but “he will override [me] because I’m giving him that power.” Still, the President, asserted, “I happen to feel that it does work. But I’m going with our leaders,” before adding the Trumpian coda, “We are going to win, with or without.”  (Trump ended his musings on torture with the frequent self-editing that marks his pronouncements, “But I do disagree.”)

In the 1960s, the Congress on a bipartisan basis began to push back against the steady accumulation of power in the hands of a more agile presidency.  Legislators and scholars agreed that Congress had withered into what Sen. Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania described as the “sapless branch” of government, helping to produce what James MacGregor Burns of Williams College memorably called a “deadlock of democracy.” Reformers demanded that Congress, created in the first Article of the Constitution, reassert itself as a co-equal branch rather than continue to defer to the Imperial Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Much of what Trump wishes to do will require the involvement and assent of the curiously quiet Congress, and securing agreement on issues from health care to energy to immigration and infrastructure will surely require vast stores of policy experience, personal relationships and patience — traits that Trump has not displayed to this point.  He can claim to have followed through on his campaign promises with his early Executive actions, but it is hard to escape the impression he is just sitting at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, playing at being President. It remains to be seen whether Republicans in Congress have the courage to challenge Trump when he veers towards the irresponsible, or the capacity to move beyond the nay-saying rhetoric of the past 6 years and produce effective legislation themselves.

The Trump Inaugural

As newly sworn President Donald Trump began his Inaugural speech, the dark rainclouds that had gathered all morning began pelting the new Chief Executive. It was, without a doubt, the brightest moment of the 20 minute tirade that followed, a gloomy diatribe that set an ominous tone for a new Administration.

Presidents have often assumed office in the midst of crisis – wars, depressions, scandals – but the incoming leader has always summoned up rhetoric intended to appeal to what Lincoln, in 1861, called “the better angels of our nature.” Trump missed the opportunity to strike a comparable note in an historic era far less dismal for the Nation, avoiding a message of reconciliation and common ground in favor of summoning the devils of division who dominated his campaign perorations.

Trump displayed none of the graciousness, none of the aspirational imagery, none of the optimism one generally hears at the outset of a new administration. While rattling off references to the men on the platform who had preceded him as President, he noticeably failed to acknowledge the former First Lady, senator and secretary of state who won nearly 3 million more votes from her countrymen than did the victor. A brief recognition of her presence, and her civility in accepting the twisted outcome of the election, would have sent a welcome message.

Instead, Trump chose to resurrect the imagery of a nation in crisis, an economy in shambles and a country at risk that he fatuously promoted throughout the campaign. Where Ronald Reagan spoke of a “shining city on a hill,” Trump referenced “American carnage” in the form of empty factories like tombstones and a landscaped scarred by wanton violence. Of course, Reagan’s inaugural rhetoric was theatrical, like much of his rhetoric; a few months later, the one-time union president fired the Nation’s air traffic controllers who dared to defy his invective, but on January 20th, he understood the importance of sending a message of calm and conciliation.

One can only imagine what foreign leaders will make of Trump’s embrace of the concept of “America First,” a term imbued with nationalism, isolationism and anti-Semitic overtones that politicians have avoided for seven decades even as they promoted their concept of “American exceptionalism.” One can only conclude that neither Trump nor his advisors spent much time consulting historians before preparing a speech that sends worrisome signals to allies and adversaries around the globe.

Trump, the billionaire businessman who salted his Cabinet with a Team of Tycoons committed to undermining the departments they will lead, missed an important – perhaps an irreplaceable – opportunity to send a message of fairness for all Americans and a willingness to consider the opinions and recommendations of those who do not share his own bombastic and distorted portrayal of the nation. From his studiously unbuttoned suit jacket to the thumbs-up signal of self-confidence, he did little to alter the image of the. swaggering, confrontational bully that incredibly persuaded tens of millions of Americans (though far from a plurality) to grant him the enormous power and responsibility he acquired today.

One can only imagine the response had Barack Obama closed his Inaugural eight years ago with campaign style rants and a fist lifted over his head. Instead, in the midst of genuine crisis – an economy in meltdown rather than recovery, unemployment skyrocketing rather than cut in half, two wars growing in intensity instead of radically pared down – Obama sent a very different message. “On this day,” the 44th President declared in 2009, “we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.  On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

If, in the end, Obama’s vision proved more optimistic than events warranted, it was designed to inspire hope and inclusiveness at a time of national crisis. Trump’s imagery painted a barely recognizable, Gotham City-like portrait of the nation that he now leads. Trump promises to “make America great again,” offered only a grim picture of a prostrate and divided nation that ignored the improvements since 2009. From this point onward, however, he will be judged on more than incendiary sloganeering, but little of what he has said since Election Day, including his remarks today on the Capitol steps, indicates a seriousness of purpose or an achievable agenda.

An Inauspicious Start

With an incoming president compromised by conflict-of-interest business dealings (and still refusing to release his income taxes) and a Cabinet composed of a Team of Tycoons whose financial scandals are waiting to erupt, House Republicans demonstrated impressive timing in their decision to eviscerate the House’s independent ethics office. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had created the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) in the wake of the 2006 Abramoff corruption scandal, a key component of her “6 for ‘06” pledge to “drain the swamp” of corrupt influence peddling on the Hill.

The Republicans’ quick decision to reverse course after the widespread negative reaction, including a Twitter-lashing from the President-elect, should not diminish attention to the significance of Republicans’ abortive frolic. Even though the attack on the OCE had a half-life of a half-day, there are important lessons to be learned from this comic misadventure. In politics as in medicine, the first rule is “do no harm,” but with its unprovoked, unwarranted and contradictory actions on opening day, House Republicans self-inflicted an avoidable injury that could well become emblematic of the newborn 115th Congress.

Not that the short-lived decision to repeal and replace the OCE is the lone example of GOP hubris and folly. Shortly after the election, the chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee proposed legislation to reduce benefits to the elderly, and the party leadership resurrected plans to privatize Medicare. Not to be outdone, a senior Republican in the House proposed eliminating the Appropriations Committee, trasferring its authority to the famously free-spending authorizing committees. (Both the appropriators and the Senate Republicans were astonished at this unworkable and utterly unachievable proposal).

But the OCE misadventure deserves special recognition. Admittedly, the OCE is not the most popular institution in the House; Democrats as well as Republicans have chaffed at its inquiries into potential official misconduct, and the ability of the public to file allegations with the OCE against officeholders has fueled its unpopularity on the Hill. For all the complaints, neither Speaker John Boehner nor Paul Ryan were willing to undo Pelosi’s post-Abramoff reform, recognizing the reluctance of the formal Ethics Committee to take action against colleagues except in the most egregious and indefensible of circumstances.

The attempted coup against the OCE was opposed by Ryan (and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy), but the GOP Conference members voted 119-74 to ignore their own leadership. This was no symbolic vote of protest, like the insignificant handful cast against Ryan (and Pelosi) in the speakership election, but defiant support for a substantive change to House rules that inadvertently confirmed the fears of many that the House (and perhaps the Senate) majority may be prepared to look the other way with respect not only to their own ethical violations, but to those of the incoming Administration. What does the anti-OCE effort say about the inclination of GOP hotheads to blow past their leadership on policy matters down the road?

The other startling aspect of the Republicans’ rapid retreat was the swift criticism the proposal elicited from President-elect Donald Trump. Those in Congress would seem to have “so many other things of greater importance” to do, Trump Tweeted, “do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog,” which he acknowledged might well be “unfair,” as their “number one act and priority?” The surprise decision by the GOP Conference also drew vigorous opposition from the conservative group Judicial Watch whose president observed it was a “poor way to begin draining the swamp.” What does the swift reversal say about the willingness of Republican stalwarts to defy the unpredictable Trump?

Anti-OCE proponent Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, had railed against the OCE’s alleged indifference to the legal rights of Members of Congress, an interesting observation from a chairman who refused to lift a finger to protect the rights of millions of our fellow citizens by repairing the severe damage done to the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court. Goodlatte asserted that his proposed amendment “does nothing to impede” the independent office’s operation, an absurd and inaccurate description of the provision’s impact.

The aborted effort to cripple the independent ethics office raises questions about the willingness of key GOP legislators like Goodlatte to defy their own leadership. How will the Republican troops react when Speaker Ryan gives them direction on issues like the budget, tax reform, appropriations or the upcoming debt ceiling confrontation? If chairmen like Goodlatte are prepared to flout the Speaker’s will on a rule change, how will they act when confronted with real policy questions that have substantial policy and political implications? And how significant a role did President-elect Trump’s critical Tweet play in persuading rebellious Republicans to settle down and not ruin the day’s message of unity and strength with an avoidable error like weakening the effort to “drain the swamp?”

The interactions among the Republican leadership, the hard-edged Conference faction, between the GOP majorities in the House and Senate, and with the new Republican President will be carefully scrutinized as Congress settles down and begins addressing a litany of complex issues that may prove as challenging for unified government to resolve as they have proven for divided government over the past 6 years.





Rules for Success on Capitol Hill

Today is the opening day of the 115th Congress, and dozens of new legislators will soon raise their hand to take the oath of office for the first time, along with their more seasoned colleagues. Here is an updated version of my “Rules for Success on Capitol Hill” for freshmen as they adjust to their new responsibilities, based on my own 38 years in senior positions in the House.

  1. Assume nothing!   Many embarrassing missteps occur when novices “assume” Congress works like things did back home in city hall, private business, or the state legislature. It doesn’t. Capitol Hill is unique, for good and bad, so learn how Congress operates: it is not likely to prove as malleable as you might expect.
  2. Don’t confuse “advocacy” and “politics.” Advocacy is telling people what you want; politics is getting other people to do what you want. These are completely different skills. The campaign is over. Your job in Congress is to get work done, not simply to score rhetorical points with people who already support you. If that is your preferred style, trade in your voting card for a soapbox.
  3. Don’t get discouraged.  Legislating is an ongoing exercise; you rarely win or lose entirely. Your opponents are waiting for you to give up. Our political system wasn’t designed to be efficient, and that goes doubly so for the legislative branch. After a few months of the molasses-like pace of legislating, you might agree with historian George Galloway who observed, “Congress is an oxcart in the age of the atom.” Keep in mind: Galloway said that in 1946.
  4. Don’t think that just because you changed the world it is going to remain that way.   Don’t be so impressed with a victory that you neglect dogging its implementation. Many statutes gather dust because disapproving bureaucrats simply ignore them. Also, keep in mind: there’s nothing wrong admitting a law needs improvements or updating once it encounters the complex real world outside Washington. That is where the terms “reauthorization” and “technical correction” come from.
  5.  Be dissatisfied.  If you aren’t, get dissatisfied; if you can’t, get out of the business.  Politics is about righting wrongs not managing programs or balancing numbers.  There is always something wrong to get angry about. And don’t complain about how hard the job is. No one wants to listen to some disenchanted, $174,000 a year officeholder complain about what’s wrong with being a Member of Congress.
  6. Take your work seriously but not your own importance.  As they say, “The graveyard is full of indispensable men.”   And women. An experienced politician once said, “Anytime you think you’re really important, take a ride down the freeway about ten minutes and see who knows your name.” If you work really hard and achieve some legislative victories, you might, might, make it to higher office. But you probably won’t, so enjoy what you are doing.
  7. Become the “go to” expert. Members seek out knowledgeable colleagues, so become one. Don’t try to master every issue or speak on every subject. As Speaker Sam Rayburn once said, “You ain’t learnin’ nothin’ when you’re talkin’.” You colleagues do not want to listen to someone who is (a) trying to flaunt their expertise, (b) delaying the adjournment of a meeting, or (c) repeating the key points in a speech that has already been delivered y someone else. As Mo Udall exasperatingly once observed during an interminable meeting, “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.”
  8. Always have someone on your staff who can tell you that you are wrong. Capitol Hill is full of people who will puff up your ego to serve their own self-interest. Have someone close to you who can challenge one of your dumb ideas (and you will assuredly have a few) without fearing for his or her job. Assemble a skilled staff and use them wisely: let your staff ask a question at a meeting. You pay them lots of money for their expertise and judgment, but too often, they stand silently like ornaments because Members don’t want to appear to be dependent on staff. Your people are your team in pursuit of a common goal, not just a cheering section designed to make you look good.  And don’t fill your Washington office with campaign staff. Select some people who know issues and how the Hill functions. They will make life a lot easier for you.
  9. Get to know your colleagues personally.   Congress worked a lot better when Members fraternized outside the legislative mosh pit.  Do some traveling with colleagues (making sure to schedule a stop at military bases or hospitals, and always get a country team briefing from the Embassy folks to prevent emails complaining that you blew off the diplomatic corps to do some site-seeing). Recounting your friendship with your new buddy from the other party helps to dispel constituents’ suspicions you’re rapidly becoming one of those partisan hacks everyone hates. And go meet the President (yes, even this President). As a successful politician once said, “When you begin your sentence with, “Well, yesterday at the White House, I told the President …” people listen, because you have demonstrated that you have access, which is more than 99.9% of the people with whom you are speaking.
  10. Don’t live in fear of defeat. Pay attention to your constituents’ needs and opinions, but don’t agonize over every vote. A member once advised a distraught colleague, “You can twist yourself into a pretzel with those kinds of political calculations.”  Few Members regret casting a vote of conscience, but a vote against your own best judgment can haunt you for a career.

Homework: Lastly, incoming Members often asked me to recommend some essential reading. I suggest Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly which recounts how well-intentioned leaders ignored evidence even when they knew doing so would yield catastrophic results. If you need advice on procedure, ask the Parliamentarian, but heed Tuchman’s findings about the misuse of power.



First Things First

In my first post-election DOMEocracy blog, I counseled anxious Democrats to “take a deep breath” and not overreact to the results. Nowhere is that advice more appropriate than in pausing before promoting presidential contenders for 2020.

Evidently, the editors at “The Hill” have a different perspective. Nearly a month before Donald Trump has even taken the oath of office, “The Hill” is speculating about his 2020 Democratic opponent, and in doing so, the newspaper has identified exactly why such an exercise is so ill-conceived. What we need is 20-20 vision about Party priorities, not an obsession with a 2020 nominee we cannot possibly predict.

“The Hill” identifies the “top 15 Democratic presidential candidates for 2020,” a list that is not only implausible but unlikely to contain whoever will emerge to lead the ticket. Hopefully, Democrats will waste less time on such far-fetched guessing games and more time fine-tuning the points of attack against Trump’s unsuitable “Team of Tycoons” who are qualified only to undermine the very agencies they have incomprehensibly been selected to manage.

Certainly, four of the prospective candidates can be safely crossed off the list. Michelle Obama has been a groundbreaking First Lady and is a highly effective speaker, but she undoubtedly has 100 higher priorities than plunging into politics. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden deserve tributes to their long careers articulating traditional (and still sound) Democratic themes, but neither septuagenarian is running for national office in 2020. Hillary Clinton may still have a great deal to do, but running for president a third time is certainly not one of them.

Elizabeth Warren has quickly emerged as a forceful and effective Trump critic, and her star is likely to rise as she sharpens her rhetorical knife for the upcoming confirmation hearings. Warren’s well-honed critique of Wall Street and Trump’s plutocratic resumé might well have produced a dramatically different outcome in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where Clinton’s empathy for working class whites proved ineffective. But Warren will be 71 in 2020 and while admirably combative, is not emblematic of the “new generation of leadership” many believe is needed to attract millennials and other young voters.

In the wake of the fragmentation of the Obama coalition in 2016, many question if Democrats can win a national election without a woman or minority on the ticket, a perspective that undoubtedly leads “The Hill” to place Sen. Cory Booker (NJ), Gov. Deval Patrick (MA), and Oprah Winfrey on the list. Winfrey is not running for anything. Patrick has had a reasonably successful two-term tenure as governor, but projects little of the magnetism expected of a presidential contender; also, a Harvard-educated governor of Massachusetts hardly sends a message of non-coastal diversity sought by many alienated Democratic voters. Booker remains largely untested in national politics, and his record as mayor of Newark has been the subject of skepticism. But Booker, who as mayor once ran into a burning building to rescue a constituent, has the panache of a prospective president and a willingness to self-promote that in and of itself suggests he should be watched.

Building a career in the vote-heavy Congress -– historically a weak presidential launching pad — is a current preoccupation of several of the remaining long-shots on “The Hill’s” list of potential candidates. Surely, attention will fall on Tim Kaine (VA) whose performance on this year’s campaign trail seemed underwhelming, marking him as better suited for a vice presidential nomination rather than the top of the ticket. Still, a successful, Spanish-speaking Democratic senator from swing-state Virginia (Kaine or his colleague, Mark Warner, who did not make “The Hill’s” list) cannot be dismissed.

Sen. Chris Murphy (VT) has struggled to find his balance after moving over from the House. His major issue – gun control – seems unlikely to serve as an effective rallying cry for a national campaign; indeed, Hillary Clinton’s emphasis on the issue, however meritorious, likely did little to enhance her appeal to the white working class. Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) have both been mentioned as future candidates, but may find it difficult to generate greater profile or achievement in the minority. Their performance in the confirmation processes may prove critical in generating greater interest from the press or attention from funders.

The inclusion of the widely anticipated, multi-ethnic, Sen.-elect Kamala Harris (CA) on a list at this point seems fanciful (although Barack Obama, it will be remembered, became the nominee after just four years in the Senate). Harris will face the formidable tasks of learning the ropes of the Congress, building national recognition, achieving something of substance in the minority, and fending off those who will be anxious to ensure she does not prematurely eclipse their own aspirations.

The last names on The Hill’s list are soon-to-be-former governors of important states – Andrew Cuomo (NY) and John Hickenlooper (CO). Both have the executive experience valuable to a president, and neither has the long voting record of legislators that often proves perilous to candidates seeking to move to the national stage. But Cuomo is a notoriously difficult personality who seems to generate little affection among those who know him best. Hickenlooper was twice narrowly elected in Colorado although he was previously a popular mayor of Denver, but he has no national profile and like Gillibrand, he may possess serious vulnerability over his support for gun control, an issue that roiled Colorado’s Democrats in 2013.

It may appear that I am simply pouring cold water on the most likely Democratic candidates, but that is not my intention. Rather, I want to make three points:

First, it is premature to think about 2020 candidates. We have no idea of Trump’s greatest vulnerabilities, or if he will even be the Republican candidate. Second, we should not vest overdue significance in identifying the “white knight” to lead Democrats out of the wilderness. The key steps in the months ahead are likely to be taken by a collection of people – in the Senate, the House, the state houses, the incoming DNC chair – and it is foolish to create expectations and launch campaigns when so little is known about what will be required to achieve victory in 2020.

Lastly, Democrats should not be distracted by presidential speculation and ignore the essential 2018 off-year elections that present both opportunity (in governorships) and jeopardy (in the Senate, because of the large number of incumbent seats to defend). As argued in earlier DOMEocracy posts, building the Party’s strength does not begin with picking a presidential candidate, but in building the Party’s foundation, winning back key gubernatorial and legislative seats that will dramatically impact the reapportionment process for the 2020’s, and allow Democrats to demonstrate the workability of progressive policies –- and the skills of potential presidential candidates – in running state governments which will serve as crucial prototypes over the next few years.

Team of Tycoons

The selection of an incoming president’s Cabinet often provides valuable insights into the direction of the new Administration on key policy matters. Lincoln had his “Team of Rivals”; Trump offers up his “Team of Tycoons”.

Early in the 2016 campaign, many questioned the sincerity of Trump’s full-throated embrace of conservatism. But Trump has left little room to question his current thinking, as illustrated by his embrace of some of the most extreme and dubiously qualified purveyors of hard-Right ideology.

There is nothing new about appointing friends, cronies, contributors and even relatives to positions for which they are dubiously qualified. John Kennedy once joked that he saw nothing wrong with appointing his 35-year old brother and campaign manager, Bobby, as Attorney General so he might gain some legal experience before beginning private sector practice. Historically, the need to give grandiose and undeserved titles to inexperienced political amateurs is why we had offices like Postmaster General or Ambassador to France.

Trump’s appointments add new and deeply troubling complications to the assembling of a management team for the Executive Branch. For someone without a voter mandate justifying so extreme a reversal in policy – he currently trails in the popular vote by 2.6 million, by far the largest deficit in history – Trump has selected uniformly extreme conservatives for his Cabinet. By contrast, Barack Obama, who won a healthy majority of the vote, bewildered Democratic congressional leaders by embracing bipartisan governance, an objective he soon discovered was not shared by the vanquished Republicans.

Trump’s appointments are not only disturbing because of the ideological rigidity, but also because of the designees’ appalling absence of governmental backgrounds. The common denominator of these appointments, beyond ideology, seems to be public sector inexperience, private sector executive skills, and vast amounts of personal wealth – none of which necessarily bear any relationship to the skills needed to implement complex policies or supervise and motivate intricate bureaucracies. Of course, neither the nominees nor Trump has demonstrated much interest in those responsibilities: the goals, instead, seem to be to vitiate most federal policies over which the agencies have jurisdiction and to ignore the deep experience of those with decades of experience in managing the agencies. It will doubtless come as a shock to these corporate leaders when bureaucrats refuse to roll over at the first contrarian command, as did reliable private sector underlings.

Trump’s appointments leave little doubt about his contempt for the very offices to which they are being proposed:

  • an Ambassador to the United Nations with no experience in foreign affairs or national security;
  • a Labor Secretary from the notoriously anti-union, low-paying fast food industry (his own company had a 60% labor violations rate) who opposes the most basic legal protections for employees and unions;
  • an Education Secretary with strong ties to religious education who embraces diverting taxpayer money to non-public schools with dubious records of academic achievement;
  • a Commerce Secretary whose background at Rothschild’s included representing Trump’s failed Taj Mahal casino and buying up bankrupt companies to flip them for a quick profit;
  • a Treasury Secretary from Goldman Sachs with a long history as a hedge fund manager, and for good measure, selection of the president of Goldman Sachs to run the National Economic Council;
  • an Attorney General once rejected for a federal judgeship because of his record on civil rights and who, as a senator, opposed passage of a domestic violence law because it extended protections to LGBT Americans;
  • a Housing Secretary with no experience on housing affordability or availability who admitted his unsuitability for running a federal department;
  • an EPA Administrator who rejects the scientific consensus on climate change and has a long history of suing the agency he would lead;
  • an Energy Secretary who is an unequivocal apologist for the oil and gas industry to head a department he once promised to eliminate (of course, the nominee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry also famously forgot that he wanted to eliminate the Energy Department, but then again, he also once named Juarez, Mexico as “the most dangerous city” in the United States.).

Few appointments could be more disturbing than naming the president of Exxon-Mobil as Secretary of State. Rex Tillerson will be the most inexperienced person to serve as America’s chief diplomat – by a long shot. His international experience is reflected in longstanding business relationships that earned him the Russian Order of Friendship in 2012 for sealing a $500 billion deal. Tillerson’s baggage includes decades of world-wide conflicts of interest that no one could purge from their thinking once entering public service.

Tillerson, along with many of the other plutocrats preparing to join the Trump Administration, will face questions from skeptical senators eager to expose their long records of hostility to what will soon become their public responsibilities. They also will have to reveal their intricate and extensive financial interests that may compromise their ability to act in ways that serve the public rather than their private interests. And they will face inquiries into their lack of experience in managing a large public agency with mandates to implement laws which they have long histories of opposing or flaunting.

One person in the Administration will avert such scrutiny, at least until 2020: the President-elect himself, who has yet to describe how he intends to divest himself of his own massive conflicts of interests, or to release his own tax records that may clarify the extent of his own involvement with foreign countries and foreign business leaders. Just five weeks from Inauguration Day, it is difficult to know what is more unsettling about the Trump Administration: what we already know about the special interest records of his Team of Tycoons, or what we do not.







Why Pelosi Won, and What It Means

Earlier this week, a reporter asked House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi if she would achieve the three-quarters vote she had predicted to retain her leadership position. “Two-thirds,” Pelosi corrected the reporter. On Wednesday morning, in a secret vote among 197 House Democrats, Pelosi won an eighth term as the House’s top Democrat, with 68% of the vote, as predicted.

Pelosi’s precise vote-counting skills explain a good deal about why her colleagues extended her tenure, already the second longest in House history after that of legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn. During her one term as Democratic Whip and throughout seven terms as Speaker or Leader, Pelosi has been a meticulous vote counter, losing only one key vote — the 2008 vote on TARP when a teary John Boehner was unable to persuade his quota of Republicans to support the Bush-Pelosi initiative. (TARP quickly passed when Pelosi produced additional Democratic votes).

Long after she had vacated the Whip’s office to others, Pelosi ran her own vote-counting operation. Late into the night before key floor votes, Pelosi and her lieutenants and staff would count their pledges, and then painstakingly recount them, before seeking out the wavering dissidents who still needed persuading. It was that kind of diligence and persistence that paid off on Wednesday; Pelosi knows her members, and she is assiduous in listening to their views and addressing their needs.

But vote-counting skill alone did not secure Pelosi’s victory. First and foremost, leadership decisions are driven not by the symbolic value or national profile of a particular candidate, but by the answer to the time-honored question: “What can you do for me?” Compared to Pelosi’s massive fundraising record, her years of strategically assigning minority and vulnerable Members to key committee positions, and her skills at maximizing the party’s leverage even in the minority, a substantial majority of Democratic Members chose her continued leadership not because they liked or feared Pelosi, but because she was good for them. Her challenger, Tim Ryan of Ohio, offered none of that experience, which is why it was a foregone conclusion that in the era of Trump and Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Members concerned with their own political futures would not turn to an unproven novice.

Still, the Caucus protests sent a powerful message to find ways to elevate the participation of more junior Members – a majority of the House Caucus – into the leadership and decision-making roles. Pelosi has long sponsored weekly meetings between the leadership and these newcomers, but she proposed additional innovations to address the serious stasis among the aging committee leaders that has obstructed many Democrats from achieving even subcommittee leadership well into their careers. Some of her proposals met with immediate resistance, especially among the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) that is among the most vigilant defenders of a seniority system that ensures that minority legislators secure and retain their committee positions. (Ironically, the 1974 revolt against seniority targeted aging southern conservatives who, like many of today’s CBC members, enjoyed long tenures and leadership positions thanks to their largely uncontested seats.)

One important signal emanating from Wednesday’s vote is that the next team of Democratic leaders will certainly come from a new generation. Pelosi, along with Whip Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, the Assistant Leader (a position Pelosi created), will all be in their late seventies by 2018. The prospects for either Hoyer or Clyburn advancing to the Leader’s position, long a goal of the former, are negligible. Ryan’s challenge demonstrated that a substantial portion of the Caucus is prepared to look outside the traditional “leadership ladder,” a sentiment likely to grow and impact Ranking Members as well if some do not choose to step aside voluntarily, as did Ways and Means’ 85-year old Sander Levin this week.

It is unclear as of right now who will possess the multiplicity of talents displayed by Pelosi when the time comes to replace her, although one potential prospect, termed-out Caucus Chair Xavier Becerra of California, just decided to accept an appointment as that state’s Attorney General rather than seek to replace Levin or await Pelosi’s retirement. His departure, like that of Chris Van Hollen (Pelosi’s all-but-presumed successor who opted for a Senate seat) leaves open the question of who can credibly step up whenever the Pelosi era ends.



Is Trump the Republicans’ Cowbird?


The fledgling Populist Party made a fateful decision 120 years ago to join forces with Democrats in supporting William Jennings Bryan for president. Populists and Democrats did not agree on many issues, but they shared a common enthusiasm for the free coinage of silver to boost the money supply. That was sufficient to persuade Populist leaders not to field their own candidate (as they had in 1892) but to throw in with Bryan. When the Democrats suffered a crushing defeat, the Populist Party was virtually obliterated as a significant entity in American politics.

Both contemporary observers and historians have questioned the wisdom of the Populist decision, a strategy of opportunism that linked the party to a dubious issue and subsequent campaign disaster. Henry Demerest Lloyd, the muckraking journalist who was sympathetic to the Populists, faulted party leaders for allowing themselves to be lured into their fatal political alliance. Lloyd called “free silver” the “cowbird of the Populist movement” after the fowl that lays its eggs in the nests of others and often fouls the host’s brood.

One question emanating from the shocking 2016 election is whether Donald Trump is the cowbird of the Republican Party. Historically, Trump is neither a Republican nor a conservative in the contemporary sense of those terms: Trump is a party unto himself, with positions on issues from immigration to LGBT rights to trade to tax policy that have distinguished him from Republican conservative orthodoxy. He abandoned central tenets of conservative thought dating back a half century.


After an initial hesitation (doubtless mingled with dread), most of the Republican establishment has opportunistically lined up behind Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan realized that withholding support from the party’s nominee was inconsistent with their obligations as Republican leaders and might also jeopardize their own candidates if Trump supporters sought payback at the polls.

Much of the Washington Republican community has loyally lined up behind the president-elect. He named the Republican National Committee chairman to be his chief of staff and he has tapped into the deep reserves of K Street lobbyists to staff his transition and likely his administration as well. Indeed, by the time Inauguration Day arrives, it is likely the distinction between Trump and the GOP will seem indistinguishable.

Which is where that cowbird analogy comes in.


Trump, whose conservative credentials are suspect, successfully bullied his way into the Republican roost, but how beneficial will his presence be for the other residents of the nest? After all, for better or worse, Trump’s misfortunes and setbacks will inevitably become those of the Republican Party, which has embraced him. But the GOP may well come to rue the day it invited such an unpredictable and volatile leader into its midst. A

s Trump pursues policies that clash with longtime Republican dogma and interests, will conservatives revolt? When he agrees to defer deportations and sanctions only a partial fence paid for by U.S. taxpayers, how will the wall proponents respond? If he declines to repeal the Affordable Care Act — “Obamacare” — entirely or reverse President Barack Obama’s executive orders on LGBT rights or rescind the Iran arms agreement or the Paris climate treaty, will conservative stalwarts suspect they have been duped?


We are only a week into the Trump pre-presidency, and there already are signs that this could be a fecund administration for intrigue and scandal. The reports of bloodletting within the transition team already are legendary, with the abrupt firing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as transition chief along with several top deputies, reportedly as retribution for Christie’s prosecution of the father of Trump’s son-in-law. The appointment of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to a top West Wing position stunned and worried observers on all sides of the political divide, including the oddly repentant Glenn Beck. And this is just the beginning.


Historians never like to make predictions, especially in circumstances as unprecedented as Trump preparing to occupy the Oval Office. But the early indications suggest that major embarrassments and scandals could easily overwhelm this amateur political operation that is rife with financial conflicts of interest, inflicting deep damage not only on Trump but on his fellow Republicans.


Is Trump the cowbird of the Republicans? It’s too early to say, but one fact is beyond doubt: It’s too late to kick him out of the nest without likely bringing the whole flock down with him.


(Reprinted from the Santa Fe New Mexican, November 18, 2016)