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NPR Blogs: Watching Washington

Last Build Date: Thu, 22 Apr 2010 19:25:00 -0500

Copyright: Copyright 2010

What Do Congress And Wall Street Have In Common?

Thu, 22 Apr 2010 19:25:00 -0500

What do Wall Street and Congress have in common? Great power, surely, and a strong interest in money. They also share a rung at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to public trust. In the Pew Research Center polling that made everyone's news this week, government fared poorly. But the only part of government to be at its historic low point was Congress. Only one American in five professed faith in Congress' ability to do the right thing all or most of the time. Yet in the same poll, Pew found more than three in five wanted Congress to do something to rein in Wall Street and the excesses that led to the mortgage meltdown and the recession of 2008-2009. Americans have an instinctive distaste for elites and power concentrations. Always have. Yes, most of us go on abiding by the laws Congress makes and relying on the financial machinery the big banks dominate. But we tend to be wary of both, even in the best of times. And right now, with unemployment just below double digits, we are all in a less-forgiving mood. To see what's different about our current disillusionment, let's break it into three parts. First, you have the conventional revulsion at classic scandals and their perpetrators. This is the category for financiers such as Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi scheme billionaire, and powerful members of Congress such as Duke Cunningham, the subcommittee chairman who wrote out a price list for bribes. Both men are now in jail. Second, you have disillusioning effect of procedural maneuvers and strategies that smack of deceit. It is off-putting to many Americans to see House members vote both for and against a big bill on the same afternoon, or to see one senator hold up bills or nominations for utterly unrelated reasons. The average American does not understand how Goldman Sachs can sell one investment that bets on home mortgage loans and another that bets against them (especially if the portfolio of assets is amassed by someone who wants them to crash so he can make a billion dollars). Much of this is usually masked to the world by insider terminology, abbreviations and acronyms. Capitol Hill speaks of the "secret hold" and "deem and pass" while Wall Street speaks of credit default swaps (CDS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and naked short selling. Actually, the denizens of these worlds know perfectly well their lingo leaves people behind. That is largely the idea. There may be nothing wrong with some of these practices and procedures, or there may be very little about them that could stand the light of day. The point is that the rest of us can't tell one way or the other. And right now, after the bailouts and the fallout, we're less inclined to sit still for that. But there is a third category of disconnect in the current atmosphere, and it may be the most important. What really disturbs Americans right now is a growing sense that what goes on -- on the Hill or on the Street -- is not about the general citizenry or the general economy. Both institutions increasingly appear to be consumed with "trading on their own account." Too much of what goes on in Congress is about posturing for the next election (or committee chair or leadership post). The parties each weigh their moves with an eye on the next election, not just in the final months before November in an even-numbered year but all the time. The campaign never stops, and neither does the fundraising to fuel it. Similarly, too much of what goes on in the stock and bond markets is about constructing "plays" and "trades" to make money without regard to underlying economic values or real-world effects. Billions are invested not to build or buy things but to play the dynamics of the market, buying and selling contracts to buy and sell in the future or to hedge against bets yet to be taken. Think of a poker player who's less interested in his cards than he is in the other players' plays. The language and psychology of the casino has always been part of the financial world. Lately, it seems to be the part that matters most. An[...]

Measuring Distrust of Washington: Who Is That Fifth American?

Tue, 20 Apr 2010 11:20:59 -0500

The Pew Research Center on Monday released a poll on trust in government, finding precious little of it. Distrust of Washington is especially rampant, with four of out five Americans expressing discontent with the federal government. Is anyone surprised by this? Of course not. The first question you want to ask is, who is that fifth American? It's been years since we've seen a positive balance on the pollster's favorite question: Are things in this country going in the right direction or are we on the wrong track? It's been as bad as 20 percent right and 75 percent wrong in 2008, and now it's a barely better 35 percent right and 65 percent wrong. And when that ratio is bad, the government is always held responsible. The Pew data also found a general sense of disaffection with national institutions other than the government. Banks and financial institutions got a 22 percent positive ( 69 percent negative), while large corporations did only slightly better at 25 percent positive (64 percent negative). But no one expects banks and Big Business to be popular or reflect the will of the people. And their leaders don't have to face the voters, whose mood is likely to stay ugly for months to come. And why not? Even if the economy is out of so-called Great Recession, the jobless numbers are not. So neither is consumer sentiment. The stimulus, meant to be a psychological boost as much as a material one, has had meager yields on both counts. Reflecting distress from the economic meltdown of 2008, an increasing proportion of the populace believes it was ill-used in the bank rescue -- even it did keep the credit system working. That is why, with all the distrust in government, a clear majority stills wants Washington to do more to rein in Wall Street. Beyond that, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- both the works of Washington -- drag on. Tensions around the world remain uncomfortably high, achievement scores in the schools uncomfortably low. It seems that any time you hear about a federal agency, be it the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Mining Safety and Health Administration, they have somehow failed to prevent something. They may have their eye on Wall Street and the mining companies, yet Goldman Sachs and Massey Energy seem to let them do whatever they want. And Congress? The lawmakers who are in some sense responsible for the rest of the government are the least trusted of all. They are the ones who repealed the old restraints on the banks and the financial system, the ones who allow mines to operate despite stacks of citations for unsafe conditions and the ones who vote to wage war around the world without taxes to pay for it. A Sea Change On top of all this, the nation is sensitized to its relationship with Washington because it is still absorbing a shock. That would be the shock of having President Barack Obama replace President George W. Bush. The shock applies in different ways to those who voted for it or against it. The most fervent Obama backers may have had two shocks: Amazed that he won, they are now disappointed that Washington and the world did not change overnight. Those least supportive of the new president now say their worst fears are being confirmed. But all sides are right to feel the ground shifting beneath them. The coming of Obama was not just a course correction, it was a sea change. The previous three decades had been dominated by a public philosophy embodied by President Ronald Reagan, who liked to say government wasn't the solution but the problem. Reaganism rose in the late 1970s and conservatives went on the march. They won every presidential election except the Bill Clinton elections of 1992 and 1996 (both three-way contests won with a plurality). And if Clinton would never be confused with Reagan or the two Presidents Bush, his presidency often echoed their rhetoric of smaller government (as when he told the nation "the era of big government is over") and accomplished such goals as welfare cutbacks and a balanced fede[...]

Republicans Feel Southerly Winds Filling Their Sails

Fri, 09 Apr 2010 16:00:45 -0500

There may be more Republicans in New Orleans this weekend than at any time since the GOP held its convention in the city in 1988, but the conversation at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference is all about 2010 and 2012. The several thousand faithful attending probably won't want to talk too much about 2008, the year that cost them the White House, or 2006, the year they lost control of Congress and the last time the SRLC convened. (Time out for a quick question: At the 2006 SRLC meeting, who won the straw poll for president? Answer in a moment.) This year, everything seems different. To be sure, the power centers in Washington remain in Democratic hands and the hated health care bill is now law, but Republicans see each of these facts as eminently changeable. Sky-high Republican hopes for 2010 are nowhere higher than in the South. Polls show Republicans leading in seven of the eight Southern states electing governors this fall. Republicans are also favored to hold all but two of their Southern Senate seats (and those two, Kentucky and Louisiana, could well wind up in GOP hands as well). Beyond that, Republicans expect to gain House seats in most Southern states and expand their holdings in state legislative chambers as well. Next stop? Ousting President Obama in 2012 and repealing the health care law, of course. And if all that seems a hurdle or two premature at this point, it all looks downright inevitable from the standpoint of Southern Republicans. They know all about coming from nowhere to take over. In fact, if there is a year from the past that people will be talking about at the SRLC event, it's 1994 -- the best year Republicans have had in the South since Reconstruction. In an unbroken line stretching back to the 1800s, Democrats held the majority of Senate seats, House seats and governorships in the Southern states. Usually by wide margins. Until 1994. On one November day that year, Republicans captured the majority in all three categories. And they have remained on top ever since. Even the reversals of 2006 and 2008 did not dislodge their dominance in Dixie. That regional surge was the single largest factor in tilting control of the House and Senate from the Democrats to the Republicans. In the case of the House, it was the first Republican majority in 40 years. The leader of that House takeover was Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who then served four years as speaker and since has toured the country and airwaves as a freelance guru of the right. Gingrich was a featured speaker on the first night of this year's SRLC and told the crowd 2010 had all the earmarks of another 1994. It was a big hit. But the ultimate goal for attendees here this weekend is to seize back the White House. The South actually began voting Republican for president well before it did so for statewide offices or seats in Congress. Herbert Hoover carried the region in 1928 (against Catholic Al Smith) and Dwight Eisenhower did it in the 1950s. The habit really set in with Barry Goldwater in 1964, and the pattern held for Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and both Presidents Bush. As it has become the richest source of Electoral College votes for the GOP, the region has also become accustomed to deciding the party's nomination. That explains why the SRLC, begun in the 1980s, can now call itself the most significant party gathering taking place between the quadrennial nominating conventions. And it also explains why presidential hopefuls come to SRLC, or, in some cases, think better of it. A good showing here is great, but failing to meet someone's expectations can hurt. Among those testing their national appeal this week are host Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and neighboring Govs. Haley Barbour (Mississippi) and Rick Perry (Texas). But just as notable are those who are giving the expectations game a wide berth. Three men presumed interested in the 2012 nomination will not be on hand. Mitt Romney spoke to the Conservative Political A[...]

Just How Unpopular Is The Health Care Bill?

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 11:03:08 -0500

In the later phase of the health care debate, the argument most often heard from Republicans has been this: The American people have rejected this bill; we are only their messengers. The verb "rejected" is often amplified with words such as "overwhelmingly" or "resoundingly" or "again and again." How can President Obama and his Democratic Congress possibly move a piece of social change legislation comparable to Social Security or Medicare without the support of the American people? You can almost hear the deafening roar of response, even as you ask the rhetorical question. As the GOP has featured this line over recent weeks, Democrats have been thrown back on defensive arguments. They say the bill's components are popular, even if the bill itself is not. They say the popular judgment is mostly negative because the news has been dominated by the process in recent months, not by the substance of the bill -- which remains largely mysterious to the average voter. This recalls the judgment of some historians and political scientists that the Clinton administration's push to change health care in 1993-1994 ended badly not so much on substance as on image. The "optics," as political operatives would say, were awful. So the bill failed. Lately, the optics have been pretty awful again. The moves made in December to nail down 60 votes in the Senate (and forestall a Republican filibuster) looked sleazy and cheapened the underlying bill. And when Democrats talked for a time about using a "deem and pass" procedure in the House that would enact health care "without a vote," the optics got even worse. But with all that bad publicity and all the doubt generated by a year of debate and opponents' vituperation, the latest Gallup Poll showed 48 percent against the bill and 45 percent in favor. That does not look like overwhelming rejection. In fact, it's within the margin of polling error. Moreover, the 45 percent level of approval was achieved despite the same poll's finding that the respondents believed the bill would only improve health insurance and health care for two groups: those currently uninsured and those with low incomes. Clear majorities of respondents thought everyone else, including doctors and other health professionals and the middle class, would suffer. Yet even given that impression, more than 4 out of 10 were willing to approve the idea of an overhaul along the lines President Obama has proposed. What would happen if the bill's image were to improve, even slightly, in the days and weeks ahead? What if the passage, and the proliferation of positive details about the actual bill, were to lift its approval in the Gallup above 50 percent? What would be the primary Republican argument in that case? Would they say the bill was only popular at 60 percent or 70 percent or more? One thing is clear. Without the Democrats' narrow win in the House this past weekend, the Republicans would have won the health care argument in two ways. First, they would have blocked legislation they opposed. But beyond that, the snuffing out of the bill would mean all their arguments against it would be deemed true -- or successful, and therefore unchallenged. Was the bill a governmental takeover of health care? We would never really know, but the argument would be remembered in these terms. Would the bill have been a body blow to the economy? Would it have killed jobs, destroyed small businesses and undermined Medicare? Would it have bankrupted America? Without a bill in place, all these arguments would remain unproven and impossible to disprove. We would know only that these arguments prevailed, and that the bill, in defeat, would stand guilty as charged. Perhaps the bill in implementation will grow even less popular, as problems arise and receive extensive airing. But what would happen if, as consumers learn they will benefit, in many cases, from provisions of the bill, they start to feel better about it? Is it possible t[...]

Health Care Mission Accomplished: What Made Rove So Mad?

Mon, 22 Mar 2010 09:55:00 -0500

My, how that remark about the "Mission Accomplished" banner seemed to rile Karl Rove! David Plouffe, campaign manager for Barack Obama in 2008, appeared Sunday on ABC's This Week with the former political guru for President George W. Bush. After Rove predicted the health care bill would bankrupt America and cause the Democrats "significant losses in November," Plouffe had this rejoinder: "Well, listen, Karl and a lot of Republicans want to call the [2010] election all over. They ought to break out that 'Mission Accomplished' banner they put on the USS Abraham Lincoln, OK?" It was immediately clear Plouffe's step had landed on the sorest of Rovian toes. Rove had already been interrupting at high volume and in rapid-fire fashion, striving to dominate the discussion. He had a white board with numbers and a blizzard of charges about "Bernie Madoff accounting." But he went into overdrive at Plouffe's reference to the ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier, en route to home port at San Diego on May 1, 2003. "That is cheesy, David," Rove said, interrupting again. And moments later he was demanding an apology to the sailors who served on the Lincoln, saying the banner was their idea and referred only to their ship. One reason for Rove's choler was obvious. Two other reasons may be more subtle, but ultimately equal in importance. First, the "Mission Accomplished" banner unfurled on the Lincoln and featured in the immortal TV shot of the president set up by his staff began life as an emblem of triumph and soon became a highly ironic symbol of frustration -- even folly. Here was the president declaring "major combat" over when only about 100 Americans had been killed (en route to thousands). For many, there has never been a victory in Iraq, only the survival of the U.S. commitment there. But whatever one thinks of the current state of play, the Iraq of midyear 2003 was an unfolding fiasco. No one had yet taken the full measure of the insurgency, the sectarian violence and the political warfare that have continued in varying degrees for the ensuing seven years. Rove, of course, rejected any such implication out of hand on Sunday. But arguing with the national shared memory of 2003 and the drama on that carrier deck is a bit like disputing the message of President Jimmy Carter's 1979 "malaise" speech. The fact that Carter never actually used the word malaise in the speech scarcely alters the impact of that event. Rove, the man often called "Bush's brain," has never been able to tolerate the idea that the premature grab for victor's laurels in Iraq was a mistake. But there are two other ways in which this particular phrase, "mission accomplished," might have rankled Rove on this particular weekend. A moment before Plouffe landed his haymaker, Rove had been asserting that the high percentage of Americans who say "the process is broken" became disillusioned by the current president. Rove said the current president had been too detached and aloof from the country's problems. So, harking back to the days when Americans were being assured there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq suggested that the present disillusionment began before the election of 2008 -- and had much to do with its outcome. But at the bottom line, the idea that Rove and other Republicans are already declaring the November elections a referendum on health care smacks of the same premature certainty expressed by that banner on the Abraham seven years ago. Or perhaps the bluster of the statement Rove made on NPR in October 2006, when he said he had "THE math" that showed the GOP would retain control of the House and Senate in the elections to be held THAT fall. Given the way things turned out, neither prediction could be a happy memory for Rove.

The Real Problem With Earmarks and Congress

Tue, 16 Mar 2010 16:00:57 -0500

John Murtha, the legendary Pennsylvania Democrat who dominated House decisions on defense spending, died suddenly last month; and with him may have passed the Golden Age of the Earmark. The earmark was a favorite device of Murtha and a generation of members eager to funnel federal resources to meet the needs of the people back home. It was especially popular among members of the appropriations committees, and at times the resources went to private companies that also made campaign contributions. Sometimes those beneficiaries had other connections to the members, through business or family or political relationships. Often decried by Republicans in the past, earmarking actually increased substantially after the GOP captured the congressional majorities in the 1990s. This fact was often cited among the ethics exposures of the Republican majority when it was dethroned in 2006. Since then the issue of earmarking, especially the sneakier versions subject to little notice and less review, has become part of the assault on the restored Democratic majority in Congress. Republican Sen. John McCain made it a hallmark of his campaign for president in 2008. This month, with the House ethics committee sorting through various cases of alleged corruption in earmarking -- and with House Democrats eager to counter the bad optics of freshman Rep. Eric Massa's flameout on unrelated issues -- new efforts to rein in the earmark have emerged. Rep. David Obey, the venerable chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Norm Dicks, the successor to Murtha as chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said there would be no more earmarks on behalf of for-profit companies. House Republicans, not to be outdone, countered by saying there should be a moratorium on earmarks of all kinds, including those for nonprofits, schools or other governmental entities. Do they mean it? Many believe Congress will find other ways of pipelining money to favored constituencies, ways that don't meet the appropriators' definition of earmarks or that appear in bills passed by other committees. Would the transportation committees stop deciding which road and bridge projects were in line for federal money? Don't count on it. Few think Congress will permanently abandon its commitment to directing the funds it spends to the beneficiaries it holds most dear. And the larger question is whether it should. Is it wrong for Congress and its elected members to weigh in on the spending of billions of discretionary dollars? Surely the American spirit of populism will not be pleased to have all such decisions made by faceless bureaucrats or soulless computers. The function of the earmark comes close to the basic notion of representative government. Sure, we care about how our congressman votes on the big bills and philosophical questions. But we also want to know what he's done for us lately. And a new school or post office in our district has the great virtue of being visible. It means jobs. It means we see our tax dollars at work. It means we matter. The question also highlights the heart of the contradiction in Americans' relationship to their Congress. We may not like the stories we read about pork barreling, but we the voters still expect our representatives to bring home the bacon. And woe to those who fail. We want everyone else to be reasonable, just as soon as we've got ours. And we're pretty sure we've seen a lot of other places getting theirs ahead of us. The same sensibility informs the basic instructions Americans give Congress on budget and spending in general. We want them to balance the budget but also to vote for tax cuts, and never ever to cut Medicare or Social Security or defense spending or any program that benefits someone we know. Most of these men and women then come to Washington and do as they're told. That's why the vast majority of them get re-elected over and ove[...]

How Big A Deal Is Charlie Rangel's Fall?

Thu, 04 Mar 2010 10:30:13 -0500

In the larger scheme of national politics, the troubles of one House committee chairman are little more than a sideshow. But in the context of this political moment in this political year, the troubles of Rep. Charles W. Rangel (D-NY) are more than a mere distraction. Far larger forces are engaged in the struggle over health care and other issues before Congress, and Rangel has been less a key player this past year than he might have been. By November, the image of Rangel's fall may have faded. And certainly the battle for control of Congress will be won and lost on a broader playing field. Still, impressions of institutions are made of stories and personalities. People remember what they hear or read about cases such as Rangel's, which can easily become emblematic. And for the Democrats, that is problematic. The failure to contain such damage can cost a party its momentum, its mandate and -- under certain circumstances -- its majority. Rangel has stepped aside as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, pending the outcome of inquiries by the House ethics committee on a variety of charges, some of which could have legal repercussions beyond the House. He says he will be back; virtually no one outside his operation expects that to happen. Getting Rangel out of the spotlight for the moment is the best thing his beleaguered party can hope for. But he has already done more than enough -- and been unrepentant enough about it -- to affect perceptions of the Democrats who run the House. And that practically guarantees he will be featured in Republican attack ads in the fall. Rangel has already been admonished by the ethics committee, for vacationing in the Caribbean at corporate expense. Still out there are charges that he accepted the use of four rent-controlled apartments in New York City that were owned by a developer. Rangel has not been able to satisfy tax authorities on this matter, nor on unpaid taxes on his property in the Dominican Republic. All of which looks bad for a guy who runs the committee that writes federal tax law. It's especially embarrassing because the intramural watchdog panels in Congress are not known for their teeth. On the same day this group put the bite on Rangel, they gave a pass to half a dozen other lawmakers who were earmarking appropriations for contributors. For now, Hill Democrats and the Obama administration have to be grateful that Rangel was not a larger symbol of their party than he has been. When President Clinton was struggling through his first two years in office, he had to deal with the flaming out of another Ways and Means chairman, Dan Rostenkowski. The illustrious "Rosty" had been chairman for a dozen years, working sometimes with and sometimes against Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He was integral enough to the power structure of that time that he was known to say his committee and the House were one and the same. But when the Democrats of that era finally got a president of their own in Clinton, Rostenkowski was found to have been engaged in systematic (if relatively petty) abuses of House privileges such as free stamps. His beefy visage became the arrogant face of the 40-year Democratic majority -- the caricature of Washington that the Republicans needed in their campaign that ended that majority in 1994. Rostenkowski was among the Democrats defeated that fall, and he later served time in federal prison. Rangel had been chairman of Ways and Means for just three years, two of which were served with George W. Bush still in the White House and Washington at an impasse. In the past year, Rangel had engineered the tax-cut portion of the stimulus package and made himself important on the climate change bill. But the action on health care was elsewhere, and Rangel himself never became a household name on the national level. Of course, Rangel's reversal of fortune is a huge story [...]

Should We Thank Jim Bunning For His Knuckleball To The Senate?

Mon, 01 Mar 2010 10:59:41 -0500

Dysfunction in the Capitol has a new face this week, or at least a different old face. Say hello to Jim Bunning, the Republican senator from Kentucky who is retiring this year. He's chosen to go out in a blaze of what he surely regards as glory. Bunning, 78, is best known as a Hall of Fame pitcher who left baseball after 17 seasons with a Major League reputation for being competitive and cantankerous. Departing the Capitol later this year after 12 seasons, Bunning is likely to leave a similar legacy. Just now, the man is engaged in a lonely crusade to become a fiscal hero, using tactics likely to attract national attention. That he can do so all by himself, with the rest of Congress nearly powerless to stop him, is a reality few in the Senate want to talk about. It is a reality most Americans find hard to believe, when they become aware of it. Right now, Bunning is making millions of Americans aware of it for the first time. After two terms as one of the chamber's most conservative voices, Bunning remains far from a household name. But that may be changing, as he has found a way to hold up an extension of unemployment payments for millions of jobless Americans. The same stream that Bunning is damming is also blocking a fee adjustment that doctors performing Medicare services had been counting on. Bunning is likely to hear from a few doctors on that score. And if the interruption lasts long enough to disrupt services, he will hear from patients as well. Early in February, one of Bunning's Republican colleagues, Richard Shelby of Alabama, made himself a lot more famous overnight by placing a blanket hold on more than 60 nominations pending before the Senate. Plenty of senators have used their power to filibuster to place these holds on bills and nominees. But Shelby took it to a new level, attracted national notice and was soon the subject of a tete a tete between President Obama and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. The upshot was that Shelby removed the holds without getting the appropriations goodies for Alabama he was holding out for. Bunning, apparently, missed that message. Acting in the style of a lone wolf that characterized both his pitching and political careers, the Kentuckian went to the Senate floor on his own and blocked passage of an "extenders" package on Feb. 25. Because the Senate requires unanimous consent to proceed to a bill, Bunning's posture locked the package in limbo -- even though it is acknowledged to have the support of an overwhelming bipartisan majority in both Senate and House. Bunning admits this is so. But he says he is holding the Senate's feet to the fire because the cost of this bill, approximately $10 billion, is not offset by cuts to other programs. If the Senate is going to pride itself on passing "pay-as-you-go" legislation one day and then approve unfunded spending the next, the hypocrisy needs to be exposed. No argument there. Bunning has caught his colleagues in the kind of have-it-both-ways charade both parties have indulged in for decades. But Bunning's gambit here is objectionable in two significant ways. First, on the substance, his crusade reduces to a demand that others yield their priorities to his. His call for sacrifice would have more meaning if he were coming forward with one of his own. Instead, his prescription for lowering the deficit is to stop spending on programs he personally opposes (such as the economic stimulus program) to pay for others he supports. What senator wouldn't want the power to impose his or her own trade-offs by fiat? And why wouldn't another senator who hates the deficit and believes in fair share taxation take to the floor, Bunning-style, hold up the jobless benefits and insist the Senate vote a tax increase on Wall Street (or another popular target) to pay for them? The second objection is Bunning's presumptio[...]

Health Care Summit: All For A Few Points In The Polls

Thu, 25 Feb 2010 11:10:48 -0500

For all the angst and anger, and after all the billable hours and airtime, President Obama's health care summit comes down to this: moving the polls just enough to make a difference. That's what the White House hopes to gain, and what the Republican opposition fears. It's why the Blair House event is happening and why the GOP did not feel it could pull a boycott. Right now, the consensus of polling finds the legislation mired at less than 40 percent approval. And as long as that number is "under water," it's too large a lift for nervous Democrats and too fat a target for triumphant Republicans. So getting something done depends on making that something at least a little more popular than what Congress coughed up in 2009. Gaining even a handful of percentage points in the polls, say 5 to 10, is crucial to prospects for a bill this year. And gaudy double-digit increases in private health insurance premiums, like the 39-percent boost announced by Anthem Blue Cross in California, give the overhaulers a fresh way to press their case. How The Majority Lost Its Mojo At a minimum, the president wants to get back some of his bipartisan cred, tagging the Republicans as the partner less willing to tango. The public tells pollsters it wants the parties to work together, and both are loath to disrespect that desire. So that's a good place to start. Ergo the summit, and ergo the presence of all those Republicans checking their watches. But grabbing the bipartisan ring is not the biggest motive here. The White House is worried about polling on the bill itself -- or more precisely, the polling on people's notions of the bill. With all the Democrats' difficulties -- their own lack of discipline, their opposition's rigorous unity and the Senate's tendency to empower an organized minority -- the biggest hurdle of all has been the troubled public image of the legislation itself. Every time the president gave a speech and got people thinking they wanted his big overhaul to happen, the next story people read made them wonder: Is this really good for me? What are these people in Washington up to? The balance tipped perilously when the Democrats chose to isolate the balky Republicans with a 60-vote strategy. The idea was that 58 Democrats and two independents could stand together and take away the filibuster weapon. That strategy came to an end with the election of another Republican in Massachusetts, but "having 60 votes" had already proved to be a poisoned chalice. In pursuit of the 60-vote mirage, Democratic Leader Harry Reid found himself over a barrel every time one of his supposed 60 went rogue. And that's what they did, one after another, cutting special deals for the benefit of their states, for their favored constituencies and for their own personal standing back home. That not only robbed the majority of its mojo, it made an increasingly ugly spectacle of the process and left the bill looking like a pastiche of special deals. No wonder, then, that even those people who tell pollsters they want to cover the uninsured, accept the individual mandate and even support the public option to private health insurance wind up opposing the bill that's supposed to do all the above. Polls And The Will Of The People Polls such as the latest by ABC News and The Washington Post have found solid majorities favoring the major elements of the legislation, yet still unenthused about the whole. The bill has become something other than the sum of its parts. It is the sum of its flaws, or in some cases, the sum of the slurs against it. Such polls have been a tremendous boon to the Republicans, who oppose the component parts as well as the bill overall. The best argument they can muster has been the same since the Senate floor debate in December. In the oft-repeated phrase of Senate Republican Leader Mitch M[...]

Presidential Futures Market Downgrades Stock Of Current Governors

Mon, 22 Feb 2010 12:12:27 -0500

Members of the National Governors Association are meeting with President Obama today after a weekend black tie affair at the White House. It's fair to guess that more than a few of the guests took the opportunity to check out the place with an eye toward future occupancy. One or more of them may live at 1600 someday. Before President Obama, four of the previous five presidents were governors. As recently as the last presidential cycle, the major Republican contenders included two former governors: Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. A sitting governor, Sarah Palin, wound up as the vice presidential nominee. But if the NGA has long been a forest of presidential timber, the current crop seems suddenly rather sparse. Over the weekend, this gang of governors looked more like a battered raft of refugees than presidential contenders. Hard times are no kinder to governors than they are to presidents, and right now the sputtering recovery and stubborn unemployment numbers are weighing heavily on the state's most visible leaders. Consumed with problems close to home, the governors have not been big players in the health care debate or other national issues in the past year. And the same dynamic affects their own personal ambitions. Beyond the bad economic numbers, intraparty unrest and just plain bad timing seem to be putting the ultimate political prize beyond the gubernatorial grasp. Consider the usual suspects -- the governors from the 10 most populous states. Starting at the top, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger of California is foreign-born, and so constitutionally barred from the presidency (or vice presidency). Thinking down the road, the same applies to Democrat Jennifer Granholm of Michigan. But given that unemployment in their two states averages 13 percent, it's probably just as well. Normally, Republicans might be promoting their incumbents from hyperpopulous Texas and Florida. Instead, those two men are locked in tough primary fights. Rick Perry, seeking a third term in Austin, is forced to fend off a popular senator and a Tea Party favorite in his primary next week. The road is even rougher for Charlie Crist in Florida, who now trails his rival for the Senate nomination in the GOP's August primary. Democrats aren't looking for a presidential candidate these days, and that's lucky, considering their gubernatorial bench. Two of their current big-state incumbents are hobbled because they became governor via scandal. Democrat Pat Quinn of Illinois stepped in when Rod Blagojevich was impeached last year, and Democrat David Paterson took over in New York when Eliot Spitzer resigned over his use of call girls. Quinn has now been nominated for a gubernatorial term in his own right, while Paterson has been embroiled in imbroglios of his own. Somewhat happier Democrats are running the government in Ohio and Pennsylvania. But Ted Strickland is battling to hang on to his current job in Columbus while Ed Rendell in Harrisburg is term-limited after this year. Both have firmly turned down shots at the national ticket in the past, and neither shows any symptoms of Potomac fever right now. Rounding out the Top 10 most populous states are Georgia and North Carolina, both with governors named Perdue. Democrat Bev Perdue is just past her first year in office in North Carolina. Republican Sonny Perdue in Georgia (no relation) is winding up a sometimes troubled second term in office and, while he has been chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he has not made an overt move toward a national campaign. Looking beyond the megastates, there are several governors and former governors with thoughts of Iowa and New Hampshire in the near future. One even has an exploratory committee up and running already for 2012. He is two-term Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, [...]

Conservatives In D.C. Celebrate Comeback (Again)

Wed, 17 Feb 2010 14:57:35 -0500

The Conservative Political Action Conference comes to Washington this week, holding the winter conference it has held annually since the 1970s in good times for conservatives and bad. So which kind of times are we in now? When you look at the residents at 1600 Pennsylvania and the majorities in Congress, you would think the worst. But guess again. CPAC this year has moved to a bigger hotel and expects a record crowd. A year ago the CPAC gathering was rather downbeat, stunned by the breadth and depth of the Democrats' national victories in 2008. But this year will be something else again. Conservatives are no longer prostrate in defeat. Quite the contrary: Their blood is up, stirred by both the actions and the troubles of the Obama administration. Movement conservatives are also buoyed by signs of shifting political attitudes in the larger body politic. Polling results have trended to the right since mid-2009, and Republican Scott Brown's capture of the seat of Teddy Kennedy in Massachusetts is just the latest sign that 2010 election results will follow. That is why the CPAC meeting here this week will find itself far from the voice crying in the wilderness it was a year ago (when the Obama birth certificate issue was among the salient matters discussed). This year, in fact, the main burden for CPAC is not the setback of a devastating election, but the onset of a challenge from a new player in the world of conservative activism -- the Tea Party -- which held one of its first gatherings under the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) banner during last year's CPAC. Today the Tea Partiers remain a nascent and amorphous band of anti-tax and anti-government activists. But they are also the media darlings of the new decade, and their recent meeting in Nashville, Tenn., starring Sarah Palin, set the bar a bit higher for this year's CPAC show. That being said, CPAC's annual return to the capital still resonates as a rite of early spring. It recalls glory days from the heyday of Ronald Reagan and signifies a certain continuity for conservatism over generations. Deja Vu? It is also a reminder that the pendulum swings in our politics are highly regular. If those on the right are standing up to Washington right now, it is less a Second Revolution, as some Tea Partiers suggest, than it is a confirmation of a consistent pattern. For a half-century, we have seen the same left-right dynamic play out. Multiterm Republican administrations give way to younger, less well-known Democrats promising change. It has happened four times at precise intervals of 16 years. And each time, the new Democratic president has met a wall of resistance and conservative resurgence as soon as he tried to deliver on his ideas of change. Start with John F. Kennedy in 1960. Long before Obama broke the race barrier, Kennedy sent a shock through the body politic as the youngest president ever elected and the first Catholic. He said he would "get the country moving again," and his ascent met resistance not only from business interests but from active anti-communists and traditionalists of various kinds. Kennedy tried to go slow on civil rights but had his hand forced in 1963 by violent resistance to that movement. He agonized over the commitment to Vietnam but feared scaling it back in the face of conservatives eager for the fight. Among these was Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater, who emerged from the Western conservative wing of the GOP to pull the party rightward. His new thrust helped Richard Nixon win the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972. The next new Democratic face was Jimmy Carter, lifted to the White House in 1976 by Watergate and the disgrace of Nixon. Carter carried the South and considered himself a son of the soil. But when Carter came to office, the popul[...]

Presidents' Day: Why Things Aren't Going THE President's Way

Mon, 15 Feb 2010 10:46:47 -0500

One year ago, a lot of people thought Barack Obama had changed the fundaments of American politics. To hear all the transformation talk, you would think the war between left and right was over, or at least reduced to a mopping-up operation. So far at least, it hasn't worked out that way. Conservatives are back, with a vengeance. Yes, this new president did something amazing. He won with more of the popular vote than any Democrat in 44 years. He redefined the upside potential of public service for African Americans. And he helped carry into Congress the biggest Democratic majorities in 30 years. But he didn't end the political war. No election ever does. Even watershed elections with lopsided results do not. They often signal an upsurge for the minority that comes sooner than anyone would have expected. The litter from the National Mall on Inauguration Day 2009 was still in recycling when the pushback from the right began in earnest. Protests sprang up around the country, especially organized around Tax Day (April 15) by elements of what would come to be called the Tea Party. Those Republicans who initially tried to work with the new president on a big economic stimulus package -- including a few senators and governors -- were pilloried and punished. Next came a summer of discontent in which rising unemployment fears were compounded by anxiety about larger government and health care changes. The president's approval rating slid to the low 50s. Town hall meetings in August became hothouses of populist ire, both spontaneous and orchestrated, and the new Congress felt the heat. In the fall, the health care bill was hamstrung and held hostage in the Senate, along with all the other major initiatives of the administration. Republicans captured the governorship in New Jersey and Virginia. In January, they also took away the late Teddy Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts. The Democrats' temporary hold on 60 votes in the Senate, the threshold for ending filibusters, was gone. The Massachusetts result was widely seen as a harbinger for big GOP gains in the 2010 midterms, and the retirement of Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh is just one more sign of that trend. Should we be shocked at this fickle reversal of fortune? Hardly. It is worth remembering that nearly half the country voted against Barack Obama in November 2008, and since then very few of those who did have been won over to his side. Meanwhile, inevitably, some of those who did vote for the Democrat have had second thoughts. Some have concluded he's not the bipartisan breath of fresh air they had hoped he was. They think he's too liberal. Others say no, he's not nearly liberal enough. The wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, bonuses are still paid on Wall Street and prisoners remain at Guantanamo Bay. What happened to change we could believe in? And that's not to mention health care, the crux of the Obama presidency to date. It's the issue on which liberals have been most disappointed ("there is no real reform without a public option for health insurance") and conservatives most incensed ("it's a total government takeover of health care"). Attempts at compromise often wind up producing something no one really likes. Think of a couple with a new hybrid car: The guy really wants more horsepower and his eco-conscious wife hates the fact that the car still uses gasoline. The salient features of the health care overhaul still enjoy widespread public support, including the "individual mandate" requirement that everyone should get insurance so that no one need be denied it. People understand the concept and support the basic tradeoffs in the bill. But when you ask about "Obama care" or the "health bills being considered in Congress," the policy image [...]

Why All Americans Should Thank Sen. Shelby

Mon, 08 Feb 2010 12:31:42 -0500

Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Shelby, and 99 other U.S. senators should be furious at him. Late last week, the senior Republican from Alabama placed a blanket hold on 70 nominations pending before the Senate. He was not objecting to their qualifications or personal profiles, or even discussing them. His problem had to do with a couple of government contracts he wants to see benefit his home state. The contracts have not been resolved in the direction the senator prefers, and he felt he was getting stiffed. Of course, once he had made a few headlines with his shotgun-hold tactic, he was willing to let most of his hostages loose. Now he's just holding a handful of appointments he sees as relevant to his home-state focus. But the damage just may have been done. People who watch the Senate regularly know that holds are as common as colds. Senators use them to pressure the administration on any number of matters, from nuclear policy to petty personnel squabbles. Most of the time, only hardcore Hill mavens notice. But with his one act of singular senatorial arrogance, Shelby overstepped the usual bounds of caution. This time, the shenanigans went viral, and more than a few people were alarmed. That's why the rest of the Senate should be short of breath over this. Because if Shelby gets noticed with this extreme version of business as usual, other senators conducting similar hijackings on a smaller scale may get noticed, too. What is this mysterious power to place a hold on appointments and bills? How is it that one senator could delay or even cancel the filling of these jobs? The hold is simply a senator's way of notifying the majority leader that he or she intends to use the right to extended debate against that name or bill. It is an implicit threat to filibuster, in a time when such threats are as effective as filibusters themselves ever were. The holding senator may have an issue pertaining to the nominee or the bill at hand. Or there may be something else on the senator's mind. In this case, Shelby's communications director said, the issue was the coddling of terrorists. He then explained that the Obama administration had yet to resolve a certain contract for the building of tanker planes to refuel U.S. warplanes in midflight, a years-long battle between two defense consortia on opposite sides of the Atlantic. And the Obama administration has not yet let a contract for a lab that will analyze forensic evidence from bomb-making materials found in Iraq and Afghanistan. The communication from the senator's office suggested this shows a lack of commitment to anti-terrorism. It neglected to mention that both these contracts involve, or might involve, large business interests in the state of Alabama. This is what some call constituent service. Others call it earmarking, the practice of steering specific outlays in spending bills to benefit preselected parties. Still others call this plain and simple pork barrel politics, the pursuit of government largess benefiting one's friends and constituents and campaign supporters. Shelby was exercising his right to shut the appointment process down because he did not get what he wanted in the most recent round of appropriations for the Department of Defense. So why should Americans be grateful? They should be grateful to the senator for being so bold as to be blatant, so outspoken as to be outrageous. Most of his colleagues would be more subtle about manipulating Senate rules, so as to keep this ability down below the radar of the media and the voting public. A blanket hold on 70 nominees ought to be embarrassing to senators such as John McCain, senior Republican from Arizona, who ran for president twice emp[...]

Why Can't Democrats Run The Senate With 59 Votes?

Wed, 03 Feb 2010 15:42:12 -0500

President Obama met with Senate Democrats Wednesday to map strategy. But with cameras in the room, the working session quickly deteriorated into a series of individual senatorial commentaries in the guise of questions -- bids for TV news time back in their home states. What was to have been a meaningful exchange began to look like a typical Senate day on C-SPAN. And, no surprise, the first in line for the mike were the incumbents facing the iffiest re-election prospects this year. With the world of work Senate Democrats still have to tackle this year, nothing seems more important to Majority Leader Harry Reid and his cohort than their campaigns. The priorities, privileges and political survival of the individual senator remain the principal focus of the United States Senate. Nothing competes with the needs of the senators themselves. This is not just a matter of vanity; it goes to the basic problem that makes the Senate a dam in the governing stream. The primacy of the individual senator is what hobbles Congress on a regular basis. And that primacy's most effective tool is the threat of a filibuster. The real filibuster was once the nuclear weapon of Senate procedure. Senators had the right, but regarded it as an extreme form of behavior (see Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). It was reserved for big issues that at least a substantial portion of the Senate regarded as existential. Nowadays, the nuclear weapon has become a kind of sidearm. Every senator wears it on one hip, like a cowboy's six-gun in a Western saloon. So what changed? Going Nuclear Let's step back a bit. From the Constitution forward, the Senate has been a highly privileged organ that made its own rules and tended to operate independently of the few it made. Custom and courtesy, member to member, have been the essence of the process. That broke down in 1917, when isolationist senators filibustered a bill to arm merchant ships crossing the Atlantic in the months before the U.S. entered World War I. Incensed, President Woodrow Wilson demanded that the Senate find some way to limit debate. The Senate adopted Rule 22, providing for a cutoff of debate when two-thirds of the Senate agreed to it (the same vote needed to change the rules). For half a century thereafter, the filibuster was primarily the last resort of Southern senators fighting bills they saw as hostile to their region, especially anti-segregation bills. In these times, the filibustering minority would talk round the clock, while members on both sides kept watch and slept on cots. But such dramas came to an end in 1964, when a months-long filibuster was broken by a coalition of Republicans and non-Southern Democrats to enact the landmark Civil Rights Act. A decade later, the Senate mustered another two-thirds majority to change the rule itself, lowering the vote required for cloture from 67 to 60. It was meant to be a progressive reform but had unintended consequences. Now Everyone Is Armed When filibustering was nearly impossible to stop, its use for small matters was all but unthinkable. When it became easier to invoke cloture, the filibuster itself became more commonplace. In the mid-'80s, Sen. Al D'Amato (R-NY) held the floor for hours one night in defense of one military contractor with plants in his state. Such petty filibusters were a way to get attention or to leverage a better deal from a committee chairman. If enough senators were willing to join in, even temporarily, party leaders might decide against bringing a particular bill to the floor. It became standard operating procedure for majority leaders to seek cloture before taking up any bill of importance or any business involving controver[...]

The State Of Obama's Union: Is Realism The New Hope?

Thu, 28 Jan 2010 02:18:33 -0500

If you tuned in at certain points in President Obama's State of the Union address last night, you might have seen and heard a chastened chief executive sounding downbeat. It was clearly an impression the president wanted to convey, within limits. Nearing the end of his 70-minute address, the president spoke of "so much cynicism out there ... so much disappointment." A moment later he added: "I campaigned on the promise of change -- change we can believe in, the slogan went. Right now, I know, there are many Americans who aren't sure if they still believe we can change -- or at least that I can deliver it." That's pretty much telling it like it is. Independents have begun to wonder what they saw in the slender freshman senator from Illinois. Hard-core liberals, union activists and Democratic partisans have questioned whether their champion had the stomach for the fight. Addressing the misgivings of the former group was sure to add to those of the latter. One year into his improbable presidency, Obama seemed to acknowledge all that as he stood, cool and loose, before a House chamber filled with politicians who seemed far less relaxed. The Democrats looked sour much of the time, even while applauding. The Republicans seemed to be attending under duress, their Senate leader, Mitch McConnell so impassive as to appear embalmed. The Joint Chiefs of Staff sat in uniform, following their usual code of stony passivity. They did not applaud even when the commander in chief was praising the military. Nearby, most of the Supreme Court sat enrobed in their own uniform, implacable in their own way (except for Samuel Alito, who could be seen shaking his head and mouthing "That's not right" when the president criticized their decision to allow direct corporate spending on campaigns). The president himself was by turns defiant and self-deprecating. And as he neared his conclusion, he seemed almost to be reaching for a kind of bottom, a low point from which he his party might rebound after three months of almost unbroken bad news. "I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone," the president said. No, but much of the nation seemed to believe a year ago that change was coming -- big change -- and the new president was going to be able to make it happen. It was change that some embraced and others feared and loathed. But things were going to be different. More different than they have turned out to be. But moments after bringing the room down, the president was building to a conclusion with an entirely different tone. "We have finished a difficult year," he said, sliding into the cadence of the pulpit. "We have come through a difficult decade. But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don't quit. I don't quit. Let's seize this moment to start anew, to carry the dream forward and to strengthen our union once more." It was another of his signature finishes, emotional and full of confidence. And it allowed the president to leave the joint session on a high note, clutching the hands of well-wishers and smiling on his way out the door. The president gave a long speech, most of which had clearly been amassed well before the recent reversal of fortune in Massachusetts that cost the Democrats their 60-vote majority in the Senate. Historians will debate whether the months of 60 votes, a majority big enough to defeat a filibuster, were a blessing for the Democrats or a curse. One thing is clear: It was when the majority reached 60 that the minority stopped negotiating, hunkered down and began opposing everything of significance, forcing the majority to assemble its full 60 on a routine basis. It[...]