Category Archives: Politics: US

Somebody is Having a Good Week

An amazing barrage of good headlines for someone in the news:

  • Ukraine:
    • CNN, Biden’s trip to Kyiv delivers the starkest rebuke possible to Putin:

      “One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” he declared. “The Americans stand with you and the world stands with you.”

      Biden’s words might have lacked the poetry of “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” But Biden’s visit instantly went down in history alongside two defining trips to divided Berlin by Presidents John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan that were flashpoints of the Cold War and each of which sent their own image of US resolve to the Kremlin.

    • The Atlantic, Biden Just Destroyed Putin’s Last Hope:

      “Simply by taking the hazardous trip to Kyiv, Biden made a strategic move of cardinal importance.” […]

      This is a gut punch to Russia’s leader. The Russians received word of the trip, we are informed—and presumably the threat, stated or implied, that they would get a violent and overwhelming response if they attempted to interfere with it. For a leader obsessed with strength, like Putin, that is a blow. His own people will quietly or openly ask, “Why could we not prevent this?” And the answer, unstated, will have to be, “Because we were afraid.”

      The visual contrast between an American president with his signature aviator sunglasses walking in sunny downtown Kyiv with the pugnacious and eloquent president of Ukraine and a Russian president who has yet to visit the war zone is also striking.

    • CNN, Biden’s Ukraine visit upstages Putin and leaves Moscow’s military pundits raging: “‘Biden in [Kyiv]. Demonstrative humiliation of Russia,’ Russian journalist Sergey Mardan wrote in a snarky response on his Telegram channel.”
  • The Border Crisis: Daily Beast, Biden’s Plan to End the Border Crisis Is Already Working:

    [C]haos is already dramatically on the decline, as President Biden’s Jan. 5 immigration actions were the first major step in decades to get the border under control.

  • Domestic Policy: NYT, Rick Scott Drops Social Security From Plan as G.O.P. Retreats From Entitlement Cuts:

    Senator Rick Scott of Florida finally recognized this week what leading figures in his party had been telling him for a year: Most Republicans no longer wish to discuss cutting Social Security and Medicare as a way to balance the federal budget and bring down the soaring debt.

    After decades of talk of scaling back the popular — and increasingly expensive — federal entitlement programs for older Americans, Republicans have for now abandoned that approach. It is an acknowledgment of the political risks of shrinking benefits relied on by millions of voters.

    The capitulation by Mr. Scott, who on Friday relented and explicitly walled off Social Security and Medicare from his proposal to terminate all federal programs every five years and subject them to congressional review, was the latest evidence that Republicans would be looking elsewhere for savings in a coming showdown with the White House and congressional Democrats.

The guy just might be tough to beat in 2024…

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Read it and Prepare to Weep

The proposed rules for the new session of the House of Representatives are something else indeed.

Yes, they do the headline stuff you likely heard about, but there are real devils in the details.

At least one of the changes is a good one: requiring 72 hours advance notice for spending bills instead of dropping giant documents on members with a take-it-or leave it vote.

Another change sounds good in principle, but is in fact warped to be only unhelpful.  And it is likely to be a disaster in practice.  In principle the idea of allowing any member to propose floor amendments to spending bills is a good thing. Unfortunately, the practice got corrupted by political posturing well over a decade ago. At one point, then-minority Republicans seized on the amendment process to propose various amendments designed not to succeed but cause painful sound bites for vulnerable Democrats (“Smith voted against controlling spending on {whatever} TEN times”).  Others started introducing rafts of amendments mainly designed to create delay. So the leadership of both parties started either rationing or eliminating amendments.  That’s not very democratic, and returning to ‘regular order’ might in theory be good, although the weaponization of amendments is sure to return.

The real evil here, though, is that only amendments cutting spending will be allowed.  Any amendment raising spending without an off-setting cut will be ruled out of order.  Since the new leadership also contemplates returning to the practice of having multiple spending bills divided by subject matter, I’m guessing that it will not be possible to, say, propose more money for childcare at the expense of military spending on golf courses because those come in different bills.  Even if cross-subject offsets are possible, it means that every bill that comes to the floor in effect will be a ceiling on expenditures.

The rule sets up lighting consideration for two concurrent resolutions: “(H. Con. Res. 4) expressing support for the Nation’s law enforcement agencies and condemning any efforts to defund or dismantle law enforcement agencies”  and “(H. Con. Res. 3) expressing the sense of Congress condemning the recent attacks on prolife facilities, groups, and churches.”

The rule also creates lightning procedures – no amendment, little debate – for some pet projects (hypocrisy anyone?) such as bills to allow more oil leases, cut appropriations to the IRS designed to reduce tax cheating by rich people, “(H.R. 7) to prohibit taxpayer fund-ed abortions,” and so on.

And then there are the witch hunts.  A Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic would be a great idea if it were not to be stuffed with people who think Dr. Fauci is the devil.  A Select Committee on the “Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party” just sounds weird–isn’t the competition with the People’s Republic, not the CCP? A Select Subcommittee (of the Justice Committee) on the “Weaponization of the Federal Government” — this will be Jim Jordan’s revival of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, now with more classified documents and a bonus helping of Congresspersons who are being investigated for crimes doing their best to muck up the investigations.

Fun times a-coming.

Update: Neglected to mention the trashing of the (already quite tame) House Office of Congressional Ethics.

Posted in Politics: The Party of Sleaze, Politics: US | 1 Comment

Coalition Government in the US House — It’s Not an Analogy, It’s a Strategy

Apparently the idea we should view the House GOP as a coalition rather than a party is much more than an analogy: it’s actually a strategy outlined by one of their gurus:

The next Congress, influential activist Ed Corrigan said, could be a “European-style coalition government” run by three groups: “The Democrats, the Republicans and the Freedom Caucus.”

The forum was convened by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., and attended by several other lawmakers, including two others who helped block Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) this week from becoming House speaker: Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Victoria Spartz, R-Ind.

The strategy outlined by Corrigan went beyond just extracting concessions from House leaders — it amounted to a game plan for the House Freedom Caucus to operate as a third party in a de facto parliamentary system, essentially co-governing the chamber with mainstream Republicans. As lawmakers prepared for a seventh round of voting on Thursday, House Republicans appeared to be on the precipice of allowing that to happen.

“What would coalition government look like in practice?” Corrigan asked the group, which was filmed and livestreamed but has attracted little notice beyond conservative media. “I would recommend the Freedom Caucus would be granted a specific number of committee assignments, and committee and subcommittee chairmanships,” as well as a variety of other new powers, including putting a Freedom Caucus member as chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee.

Posted in Politics: US | 1 Comment

Not Over Yet

The man of the (late) hour.

So we have a 15th-ballot Speaker, or maybe it’s a Silenced Speaker, and maybe it’s only for a while, who knows. But that isn’t what I care about: What I want to know is what is the ‘rule’ for the new Congress going to be. When things petered out in the early hours of the morning they either didn’t have a text or didn’t have the votes. (Does this mean CSPAN gets to keep actually covering the House for a bit longer?)

The rules governing the new House matter for all sorts of reasons, e.g. how much freedom members will have to propose amendments to spending bills. Critically, the rule will show how much effort will be needed to get bills to the floor in the face of the “Hastert Rule” (nothing gets to the floor without a majority of the GOP’s support), and especially what the pathways will be to pass a debt ceiling change, and a budget, over the ultra-obstruction wing of the GOP. It may also tell us how the members of what likely will be the all-important conference committees will be selected–all-important becasue differences between House and Senate bills seem likely, assuming there are House bills at all.

One of the smartest comments I’ve heard on the mess was relayed to me by a relative, so I can’t credit the source. The way to look at the House, it said, is to think of the GOP not as one party but a coalition government like Lab-Lib in the UK, or like in Italy or Israel. Indeed, Israel strikes me as a decent metaphor, in which the larger GOP faction is something radial right like Likud, and the smaller one something like Noam with dashes of Benghazi and nihilism.

Fun times a-coming.

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Wake Me When It’s Over

I so don’t care about the comedy on the hill regarding the Man Who Would be Speaker. (Recall that Aristotle defined tragedy as being about those greater than us, and comedy about those less than us.)

It seemed likely McCarthy would sell out all his authority for the title, and that became certain when he caved on his last firewall of requiring five votes to force a vote to remove the speaker, and accepted that any Representative could do it single-handedly.  Amazingly, even that might not get him elected, a fitting tribute to the high esteem in which he is clearly held by all.

My expectations for the House this term are minimal: They must raise the debt ceiling in the next couple of months, and pass at least a continuing resolution to keep the government’s doors open towards the end of the year. Failure to do so, which seems all too possible, will become a tragedy.

By the way, google sent me to an essay by Prof. David Simpson of DePaul on Aristotle’s view of comedy, which may be encouraging the the Speakerette:

According to Aristotle (who speculates on the matter in his Poetics), ancient comedy originated with the komos, a curious and improbable spectacle in which a company of festive males apparently sang, danced, and cavorted rollickingly around the image of a large phallus. (If this theory is true, by the way, it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “stand-up routine.”)

Accurate or not, the linking of the origins of comedy to some sort of phallic ritual or festival of mirth seems both plausible and appropriate, since for most of its history–from Aristophanes to Seinfeld–comedy has involved a high-spirited celebration of human sexuality and the triumph of eros. As a rule, tragedies occur on the battlefield or in a palace’s great hall; a more likely setting for comedy is the bedroom or bathroom.

On the other hand, it’s not true that a film or literary work must involve sexual humor or even be funny in order to qualify as a comedy. A happy ending is all that’s required.

I refuse to make the obvious joke.

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The Government You Deserve?

Back in November, right after it became clear that Democrats would keep a tiny grip on the Senate, and Republicans would have a small majority in the House, but only subject the hardest core rump of the ultra-rightist ‘Freedom Caucus’, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote a column (now paywalled) on 5 ways to ‘crazyproof’ the country against the chaos of a GOP House.

The five measures Sargent recommended were:

  1. Remove the debt ceiling
  2. Fix the method by which Congress ratifies the electoral vote
  3. “Avert chaotic gridlock on immigration”
  4. Prevent defunding of aid to Ukraine
  5. Protect investigations of Trump via a long-term appropriation for the Justice Department

The lame-duck Congress only managed one in full, although it did two in part. Unfortunately, the most critical short-term fix got almost no traction at all.

Congress did pass the Electoral Count Reform Act. So that is #2 taken care of, and future Vice-Presidents should not have to worry about their boss encouraging others to threaten to kill them if the Veep doesn’t reject a state’s slate of electors.

And Congress did pass a spending bill that will fund the Justice Department for the coming year, and also has more aid for Ukraine in it. So there’s #5 good for a year, and #4 sorted until we use up the money and need more.

But there was no action on immigration, not even the DREAM Act, and worst of all the insane man-made debt limit crisis is due to raise its ugly head again fairly soon.

The debt ceiling currently stands at around $31.4 trillion, and we’re getting closer (I’ve inserted a copy of the real-time debt clock.) As we get very close the Treasury has a few games it can play to stretch things out a few weeks. There is no science to the ‘limit’ — it is just an arbitrary statutory limit, enacted to force votes to allow the US Government to pay for borrowing mandated by the gap between enacted spending and enacted taxes (aka “deficit spending”, aka “charging future generations for expenditures (some of which) pay future benefits). The original idea was to create painful votes for Democrats that lent themselves well to campaign commercials.

But the current crazies, as Sargent euphemistically describes them, have a different plan. They have vowed not to raise the debt ceiling unless Congress first cuts spending in general, and Social Security and/or Medicare in particular. You might not think this is winning politics, although it’s clear that a decent chunk of the GOP is all in for it (example).

So what happens if 41 Democrats in the Senate won’t budge and filibuster any bill that would cut bedrock entitlement plans? Then, at some point, the US can’t issue new debt, some of which would be needed to pay bills including interest on old debt, and the ‘full faith and credit’ of the US is shot. This could upend the economy and destabilize the world financial markets:

The Treasury Department is projected to hit its borrowing limit next year, though it is unclear exactly when the agency will run out of so-called extraordinary measures to ensure payments continue for a few months.

Failure to act could result in staggering consequences for the U.S. economy, forcing American officials to choose between the continuity of assistance like Social Security checks and the payment of interest on the country’s debt. The threats from Republicans recall brinkmanship in 2011, when congressional Republicans sought to pressure President Barack Obama to accept similar spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit.

That standoff led to the downgrading of the credit of the United States and rattled American investors and the economy.

Goldman Sachs economists warned in an analysis this week that bipartisan support to raise the debt limit “will be necessary, but hard to achieve,” and that the United States could veer the closest it had come to the economic tumult of 2011 since that standoff. The analysts also noted that less than a quarter of Republicans and less than a third of Democrats who will serve in the House in 2023 were there in 2011.

Why is that Democrats didn’t push harder to fix this? I think there are two reasons. First, the votes in the Senate needed to overcome a filibuster just were not there. There were not ten Republicans willing to go out on that limb without allowing some brinkmanship first. Second, I suspect that some Democrats, noting the wild unpopularity of previous partial government shutdowns in the face either of looming debt ce4iling or the failure to pass a budget, have decided that if the ‘ultra-MAGAS’ crowd takes it the mat they will be cutting off their own political heads.

This calculation, however, has two problems. First, it is entirely possible that the GOP as whole might get punished badly, but the instigators, who tend to come from very safe districts, will not feel the pain directly. Second, if we do have an actual default, anyone who isn’t shorting Treasuries, which is to say almost everyone, is going toe get hurt. It’s that second fact that has in the past caused either GOP leadership or rank and file to find the votes to prevent a default. If, however, Kevin McCarthy finds a way to get elected Speaker it will only be due to such major concessions to his rabid right flank that it likely will be impossible for the party leadership to act. And whether there is a handful of members willing to defy their caucus and cast a vote that might well get them the Liz Cheney treatment – expulsion from any party role, and a well-funded primary opponent — is maybe too much to hope for.

Posted in Econ & Money, Politics: US | 2 Comments