hardline political news and analysis

Managing the Modern Speakership: Pelosi and Boehner

My article on the two most recent former Speakers of the House had just been published in “Extensions,” the journal of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma (Winter, 2017).  The paper is based on the talk I gave at the June, 2016 Congress and History Conference in Norman, OK.

The article is on pp. 20-25 of the journal, which can be found at the following web site for the Carl Albert Center:

Budget Balderdash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Harrison Award Winner for 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Floor Fights Have Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.