hardline political news and analysis

Looming CR Showdown Has Risks for Everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Deficit Doves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Promote Policy, Not Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sanchez’ Sanctimonious Misstep

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

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

Let’s unpack this contretemps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What to Watch for in TrumpTax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump Cuts a Better Deal

Today was, unexpectedly, one of the most consequential in the short, turbulent and unpredictable tenure of Donald Trump as President. In what must have been a demoralizing turn for congressional Republicans, Trump dismissed the debt crisis strategy advocated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan and instead threw in with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. There’s a better deal the Republicans didn’t see coming.

McConnell, Ryan, Pelosi and Schumer held their first “Big Four” meeting at the White House with Trump to game out the urgent items requiring congressional action. The debt ceiling needs to be raised within the next few weeks to prevent a default that would be catastrophic to the U.S.’s stature and scramble international finance. The government faces a shutdown on September 30th if a continuing resolution (CR) is not enacted to cover the beginning of the 2018 fiscal year. And billions of dollars need to be appropriated to assist the devastated residents of Texas and Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Must-pass bills always offer opportunities for congressional mischief and those who hold the balance of power enjoy their most prominent moments on the congressional stage. Ultimately, the responsibility for preventing a catastrophic outcome – a government shutdown or a default – lies with the majority. While it is often all fun and games for the minority to exploit the majority’s challenge, the majority cannot escape blame if legislation fails to pass, which is why shortly after assuming their current roles, both Ryan and McConnell offered assurances that they would not shut down the government (which had proven a huge political mistake for Republicans in 2013) or default on the debt.

While Democrats controlled Congress, there was never a real chance of a shutdown. Democrats need government open, operating and well-regarded in order to achieve policy goals that cannot succeed without governmental engagement. Knowing this, Republicans were happy to sit on their hands, proclaim their opposition to deficit spending and insist upon massive spending cuts as their price for supporting CRs or debt increases. Democrats enjoyed sufficient majorities that they did not need to make any compromises with the conservative hardliners.

Things became more complicated when Republicans won control in 2010. Suddenly, they had the responsibility to pass must-pass bills, but Speaker John Boehner lacked the votes to do so. The conservative caucus that had delivered him the speakership – the Tea Party activists – did not get the memo about behaving responsibly when in the majority, and regularly refuted Boehner’s pleas for votes to pass GOP versions of these bills. Boehner behaved like any responsible leader of a congressional majority: he cut a deal with those who had the votes, in this case, Nancy Pelosi, who naturally insisted that the bills include none of the devastating cuts or policy riders demanded by the conservative activists who had no intention of supporting the bills even if they included their demands. Boehner’s explanation to the Tea Party-Freedom Caucus zealots reflected his responsibilities as Speaker: if you won’t provide me 218 votes to pass the bill I (and you) want, then I have no choice but to get the votes wherever I can.

After Boehner quit in 2015, following years of aggravation from the hardliners, Paul Ryan faced much the same dilemma. Five years of being in the majority had done little to convince the Freedom Caucus that they bore any responsibility for governing. And their hostile view of government meant they cared little for the disdain heaped upon Congress for its failure to perform. After all, an unpopular Congress is unlikely to be entrusted by voters to empower government to act.

But what happened today was a very different outcome, and one that could hardly have been predicted. McConnell and Ryan arrived at the White House arguing for a debt ceiling extension that would extend beyond the 2018 election, minimizing the need for a succession of embarrassing votes and limiting the opportunities for Democrats to insist on policy riders.  Not surprisingly, Pelosi and Schumer argued for a short debt ceiling extension and Continuing Resolution, until only December, avoiding the short-term crisis but setting up another opportunity for leverage just before the Holidays.

In the meeting, Trump evidently assessed who had the capability to make a deal, and determined it was Pelosi and Schumer. Did the GOP majority leaders have the votes they needed for the long term fix, he asked? No, admitted Ryan and McConnell, both of whom have rebuked Trump and drawn his insults. And just like that, Trump threw in with Pelosi and Schumer, demonstrating yet again his unpredictability and affirming Pelosi’s hard-nosed tactical maneuvers. Meanwhile, the Democrats declared that their support for Hurricane Harvey relief was conditioned on the short-term debt and CR agreement.

Republican staff recoiled in horror at the affront to their bosses that, unlike Trump’s juvenile name-calling, has real policy and strategic implications. The inexperienced Trump, the staff believes, got rolled by the crafty Pelosi and Schumer team. Now, Republicans now will have to cast votes again, perhaps numerous times, on these prickly issues between now and the 2018 election, fueling anger from the base and potentially stimulating primary challenges. Moreover, the time that will invariably be devoted to these additional negotiations will likely consume all the oxygen on Capitol Hill that the GOP leadership had hoped would be devoted to tax reform or even another attempt at health care before the 50 vote threshold evaporates with reconciliation authority on September 30th.

Trump really did nothing that Boehner had not done previously, bowing to the inevitable and cutting a deal with Pelosi that reflects her demands. But it was one thing to endure that humiliation when a Democrat occupied the White House and could back up his congressional allies. But with a Republican in the Oval Office, the GOP leaders had every reason to believe a little presidential muscle would be flexed on their behalf.

No such luck. Trump lived up to his self-proclaimed reputation as a deal maker and he cut one with the people who had the power to make a deal. “We had a very good meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” the President told the press aboard Air Force One. “We agreed to a three-month extension on debt ceiling, which they consider to be sacred — very important — always we’ll agree on debt ceiling automatically because of the importance of it … [W] e had a very good meeting. We essentially came to a deal, and I think the deal will be very good. We had a very, very cordial and professional meeting. So we have an extension, which will go out to December 15th. That will include the debt ceiling, that will include the CRs, and it will include Harvey. So we all very much agree.”

Ryan and McConnell were removed from the account of the meeting like old Soviet apparatchiks who were excised from a photo after falling from favor. Pelosi and Schumer were reportedly delighted with the outcome and immediately began plotting to exploit the coming December deadlines. “Both sides have every intention of avoiding default in December and look forward to working together on the many issues before us,” they declared, adding that “as Democratic leaders, we strongly believe the DREAM Act must come to the floor and pass as soon as possible and we will not rest until we get this done.” No report on Ryan and McConnell’s mood but unquestionably, it was not a good day for the congressional majority.

Coddle or Censure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Are Hill Republicans Growing a Backbone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Is “Better” Good Enough for Congressional Democrats?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Did the System Actually Work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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