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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Kimberley Strassel

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Kimberley Strassel

Last Build Date: Fri, 13 Feb 2009 00:31:24 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

Don't Call It a Compromise

Fri, 13 Feb 2009 00:31:24 -0600

Then again, only in Washington could the word "powerful" be applied to three members who voted for a bill that they always intended to vote for, no matter how big, bad or ugly. Their real accomplishment this week wasn't "fixing" the stimulus; they didn't. Their real role was providing cover for moderate Democrats (smile, Messrs. Conrad and Nelson) who might have been reluctant to vote for an unpopular spending blowout, were it not for GOP back-up. A week ago the Capitol's phone lines were jammed with Americans -- half of them from North Dakota -- livid about "stimulus" waste. A number of Senate Democrats, several up for re-election in red-state America, were sweating dollar signs. Then Ms. Collins convened her group, which took very seriously its job of fiddling around the bill's edges. By the time they emerged, Conrad, Nelson & Co. were boasting that the final Senate product was a "bipartisan compromise" that demonstrated their continued commitment to "fiscal responsibility." Only in Washington can adding $20 billion to an $817 billion House bill earn you praise as a deficit hawk. Barack Obama meanwhile can thank them for providing cover for the fiction that the bill, post-"compromise," had somehow been shorn of its worst waste. Going into the Collins huddle, the "stimulus" contained $2 billion for a power plant in Illinois, $75 million for the Smithsonian, $300 million for government cars, and dozens of other embarrassing projects. Coming out of the Senate it contained $2 billion for a power plant in Illinois, $75 million for the Smithsonian, $300 million for government cars, dozens of other embarrassing projects, an additional $420 million for Maine's Medicaid program, and an additional $6.5 billion for the National Institutes for Health (courtesy of Mr. Specter). There's good reason why the Senate's true fiscal disciplinarians -- say, Tom Coburn or Jim DeMint -- didn't get down with the "compromise" party. And then there's the self-cover. Ms. Snowe had to be worried that someone might remember that she's spent 13.99 of her 14 years in the Senate publicly agonizing, usually in view of a camera, about the "deficit." Or that as recently as, oh, January, she was fervently devoted to "paygo" -- which she waived in deference to $839 billion in deficit spending. She might have even worried her enthusiasm for this bill might finally, after all these years, highlight that her fiscal responsibility only surfaces when it is time to oppose a tax cut, and that she's never met spending she didn't love. But no worries! Who has time to remember all those obvious facts? If there's one thing the Maine duo love and understand it's the press, which has a habit of forgetting everything in the face of a hearty, happy compromise. These days, the most dangerous place for Chuck Schumer in Washington is between Susan Collins and a camera. Still unclear is how all this cover will change the final stimulus votes. Now that Sens. Snowe, Collins and Specter have provided their "bipartisan" imprimatur, some House GOP and Democratic Blue Dog critics may well feel free to join in. If nothing else, this should tip the GOP to the melodrama it can expect with each new legislative item. Any one or two Republicans will have "power" to veto bills -- and will be feted for a willingness to bargain -- though these will be Republicans who would have voted with Democrats anyway, and who will demand little by way of principled change. As Mitch McConnell noted, the voting behavior of these folks is no different today than last year. All that's changed "is that 49 is more than 41." Nor will the GOP Three be alone. In a city where senators love to be relevant, Harry Reid will be offering lots of opportunity. Some Republicans had hoped the upcoming retirements of Ohio's George Voinovich or Florida's Mel Martinez might unleash their inner conservatives. Instead, both considered voting for the Senate package. To their credit, the rest of the GOP has played this well. The instinct would have been to bash on their colleagues, but that would have only focused att[...]

Congress Will Test Obama's New Tone

Fri, 23 Jan 2009 00:38:32 -0600

Over in the Senate, Carl Levin released a creative-writing report in December that purported to show the Bush administration's legal responsibility for "abusive" interrogations. This was designed to pressure the new administration to climb on board with "war crimes" trials of officials like former Justice official John Yoo, who were trying to keep the country safe. Senate Democrats are also busy snooping for Republicans to sign on to the "truth commission," to ward off a GOP filibuster. The name John McCain keeps popping up.

Truth commissions and special prosecutors are just the beginning of the left's demands. Congress is mulling document requests from agencies Mr. Obama now runs. They want the president to pressure Justice attorneys to produce prosecutions out of current investigations, like that of destroyed CIA tapes. They are using Mr. Obama's own words to push the president. America can't reclaim its "moral authority" without a commission, says Mr. Conyers. It's necessary to "move forward," says the ACLU.

Mr. Obama's own idea of moving forward, according to a recent interview, does not include "looking backwards." This was a tone the president first struck on the campaign trail, and as other problems have piled up, he's proven increasingly reluctant to commit political capital to an exercise in retribution.

And no wonder. Aside from the fact it's wrong, it holds no upside.

Mr. Obama has pledged, for starters, to set a new tone. He has publicly worried that Bush investigations would be viewed by Republicans as a "partisan witch hunt." (You think?) Any "truth commission" will undoubtedly pass on a strict party line vote, and with that passage will evaporate any good will.

Then there's the public. If Mr. Bush gets credit for anything, it's keeping the nation safe after 9/11. This helps explains why, despite all the left-wing outrage over Guantanamo, the facility to this day is supported by more Americans than those who oppose it. The sight of triumphant Democrats humiliating little-known Bush aides will not play well. As for a special prosecutor, Mr. Obama might want to ring Lawrence Walsh and ask him how well that Iran-Contra investigation played.

The president probably also knows that there is little left to know, and that any further discussion will come back to him -- and his party. We'll all get to hear again just how many times senior Democrats were briefed on interrogations, and just how many times they did nada. Mr. Obama will get to explain, again, why he voted for the Bush wiretapping program.

The probes could go deep and result in a purge of capable hands from his own national security structure. The CIA, already edgy over Leon Panetta, will view further investigations of their own as an excuse to mutiny. Mr. Obama presented a hawkish tone in his inaugural because he has a lot to prove. He's already sacrificing vital tools (Gitmo, CIA detentions) to placate the left. He's going to need what's left to function.

His problem is that this isn't an issue on which he can easily split the baby. He might be tempted (as might we all) to just keep Mr. Conyers busy with these investigations. He might think he can avoid administration entanglement. But unless checked, Democrats will keep on this road until he is presented with a "truth commission" bill. At which point Mr. Conyers will get his answer about Mr. Obama's civility, in front of the entire nation.

If Mr. Obama is as averse to this charade as he seems to be, he'd be better off making Rahm Emanuel earn his pay. The fellow Chicagoan was brought in to soothe his former congressional colleagues, or, barring that, scream them into submission. The president's best bet is shut this down soon, and quietly -- before he no longer can.

Democrats Are the New Ethics Story

Fri, 19 Dec 2008 00:34:21 -0600

The Blagojevich drama is titillating enough, and local Democrats' dithering over how to fill Mr. Obama's seat guarantees it will remain a storyline longer than is comfortable. But the Illinois drama has also thrust new light on the ongoing ethical controversies of House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel. At the rate the House Ethics Committee is receiving complaints -- over Mr. Rangel's real-estate problems, tax problems, his privately sponsored trips to the Caribbean, and donations to his center in New York -- this too will make headlines for a while. Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune published a new story about Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who racked up $420,000 through a series of suspicious real-estate deals. Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, came under scrutiny this fall for questionable earmarking. West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan has been under investigation for a separate earmarking mess. And then there's Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who has yet to answer questions about the sweetheart mortgage deal he received from Countrywide. One unfortunate side effect of Mr. Obama's long coattails was that they helped the party's more ethically challenged members get re-elected. Pennsylvania's Paul Kanjorski and John Murtha, who both struggled to keep their seats because of earmarking travails, will continue to answer questions about their actions. Mrs. Pelosi lost a problem when Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson -- with his $90,000 in freezer cash -- lost in November. Yet she has potentially gained a new headache with Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who may have wanted that Obama seat a little too much. There are more. Shockingly, this has happened despite all those campaign-finance laws, and Congress's legislation to ban lobbyist lunches. The members took credit for those publicity stunts, and went right back to their "culture" of earmarking. The speaker's reluctance to tackle these problems is odd considering she is a seasoned pol who surely knows nothing sucks the life out of a party more quickly than a good round of tittle-tattle. The Republican crew of Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney sank the GOP easily enough, quite aside from its other problems. Mrs. Pelosi must also know Republicans are belatedly getting their own house in order, at least in terms of optics. The GOP is lucky that most of its worst offenders, such as Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, have now been dealt with by federal prosecutors or voters. To further inoculate his side, House Minority Leader John Boehner also recently moved to strip Alaska Rep. Don Young -- allegedly under federal investigation -- of his top slot at the resources committee. He intends to turn Democratic infractions into a political story. He knows how easy it is to do. Mrs. Pelosi's problem is politics. Her refusal to temporarily remove Mr. Rangel from Ways and Means is in part a reticence to further anger the Congressional Black Caucus, which remains steamed that she worked for Mr. Jefferson's ouster from his seat on Ways and Means. Worse, next in line for Mr. Rangel's slot is Rep. Pete Stark, an off-the-charts liberal who Mrs. Pelosi would struggle to leash. Is Mr. Obama taking notes? The president-elect is discovering the limits of his campaign strategy of ignoring inconvenient questions. One of his great achievements this year was to convince voters that his meteoric rise was unconnected to the Chicago political machine. His silence in the Blagojevich scandal has mainly served to make people wonder if that was true. His Clinton-era appointments threaten to unleash their own round of stories, from a rehash of Eric Holder's role in the Marc Rich pardon, to Bill Clinton's foundation donors. And Mrs. Pelosi's congressional problems threaten to become his own. Mr. Rangel, Mr. Reyes and Mr. Murtha -- to name but a few -- all head bodies that will be central to Mr. Obama's agenda. One of President Bush's mistakes was his refusal to police the spending and earmarks that led his [...]

Nancy Pelosi's Motown Juggling Act

Fri, 14 Nov 2008 00:45:58 -0600

Democrats have been trying to shuffle money to Detroit since summer, but their timing has been off. The Michigan delegation's big push for auto funds coincided with September's financial crisis. With Washington in a panic, voters howling over $700 billion for banks, and an election in the offing, the leadership decided a Detroit bailout was one hot potato too many.

This decision was made easier by the fact that the Big Three's balance sheets have made even sympathetic Washington spenders worry about throwing money at a bankruptcy. Democrats decided it would be better to direct the funds in a way that allowed them to later deny fault.

The plan? Make it the Bush administration's responsibility to give Detroit cash -- namely by claiming after the event that the $700 billion rescue package for financial institutions was in fact a rescue package for auto makers. This was attempted with several hilarious "colloquys" -- pre-scripted dialogues between members that were quietly inserted into the Congressional Record after the vote, all aimed at rewriting the "intent" of the law. Say, this one, from Oct. 1:

Michigan Sen. Carl Levin: "As Treasury implements this new program, it is clear to me from reading the definition of financial institution that auto financing companies would be among the many financial institutions that would be eligible sellers to the government. Do you agree?"

Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd: "Yes, for purposes of this act, I agree that financial institution may encompass auto financing companies."

Fun. Meanwhile, Democrats passed $25 billion in aid for Detroit, though under the careful guise of "green" funds to help it meet new fuel-efficiency standards.

Alas! All for naught! Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has stubbornly insisted that -- whatever the dreamy "intent" of Sen. Levin -- the $700 billion is, indeed, earmarked for financial institutions. Even a last-ditch letter-writing campaign by Mrs. Pelosi and the Michigan members this weekend, begging the administration to let them off the hook, wouldn't budge Mr. Paulson.

If that weren't enough, the administration has had the temerity to take Democrats at their legislative word, and demand the auto makers actually use that $25 billion in green funds for . . . green retooling. Which, needless to say, isn't going to help the Big Three CEOs pay their upcoming health-care bills.

And so Mrs. Pelosi has been landed with Detroit, again. The auto makers have staged a brilliant PR campaign, tying their misfortunes to today's financial mess -- never mind those decades of mismanagement. They've warned that the ripple effect of a crash could cost three million to four million jobs. Democrats have also undoubtedly been reminded by UAW President Ron Gettelfinger that those come from his union, which recently helped Mrs. Pelosi win an election.

The problem is how not to offend the other groups that just helped her win an election. The White House has intimated that its price for Democratic legislation in a lame-duck session would be the passage of the Colombia trade agreement. Yet Mrs. Pelosi has successfully sat on that deal for months at the demand of the broader union movement, which just spent hundreds of millions to increase Democratic majority.

Meanwhile, another trial balloon -- a proposal to loosen the rules governing the $25 billion in green money -- sent Mrs. Pelosi's environmental friends bonkers. They also just spent big helping Democrats, and insist the money go to building clean cars, not digging out Detroit.

Mrs. Pelosi has since tasked Barney Frank with "drafting" a bailout bill. Yet by yesterday, Democrats were backing away from a vote, complaining they weren't getting help from Republicans. That might work now, though come January, a bigger Democratic majority will no longer have the GOP as an excuse. By the looks of this week, that's when the real fun begins.

Obama's Magic

Fri, 10 Oct 2008 00:37:44 -0600

Next up, Mr. Obama will re-regulate the economy, with no ill effects whatsoever! You may have heard that for the past 40 years most politicians believed deregulation was good for the U.S. economy. You might have even heard that much of today's financial mess tracks to loose money policy, or Fannie and Freddie excesses. Our magician will show the fault was instead with our failure to clamp down on innovation and risk-taking, and will fix this with new, all-encompassing rules. Presto!

Did someone in the audience just shout "Sarbanes Oxley?" Usher, can you remove that man? Thank you. Mr. Obama will now demonstrate how he gives Americans the "choice" of a "voluntary" government health plan, designed in such a way as to crowd out the private market and eliminate all other choice! Don't worry people: You won't have to join, until you do. Mr. Obama will follow this with a demonstration of how his plan will differ from our failing Medicare program. Oops, sorry, folks. The Great Obama just reminded me it is time for an intermission. Maybe we'll get to that marvel later.

We're back now. And just watch the Great Obama perform a feat never yet managed in all history. He will create that enormous new government health program, spend billions to transform our energy economy, provide financial assistance to former Soviet satellites, invest in infrastructure, increase education spending, provide job training assistance, and give 95% of Americans a tax (ahem) cut -- all without raising the deficit a single penny! And he'll do it in the middle of a financial crisis. And with falling tax revenues! Voila!

Moving along to a little ventriloquism. Study his mouth carefully, folks: It looks like he's saying "I'll stop the special interests," when in fact the words coming out are "Welcome to Washington, friends!" Wind and solar companies, ethanol makers, tort lawyers, unions, community organizers -- all are welcome to feed at the public trough and to request special favors. From now on "special interests" will only refer to universally despised, if utterly crucial, economic players. Say, oil companies. Hocus Pocus!

And for tonight's finale, the Great Obama will uphold America's "moral" obligation to "stop genocide" by abandoning Iraq! While teleported to the region, he will simultaneously convince Iranian leaders to peacefully abandon their nuclear pursuits (even as he does not sit down with them), fix Afghanistan with a strategy that does not resemble the Iraqi surge, and (drumroll!) pull Osama bin Laden out of his hat!


You can clap now. (Applause. Cheers.) We'd like to thank a few people in the audience. Namely, Republican presidential nominee John McCain, who has so admirably restrained himself from running up on stage to debunk any of these illusions and spoil everyone's fun.

We know he's in a bit of a box, having initially blamed today's financial crisis on corporate "greed," and thus made it that much harder to call for a corporate tax cut, or warn against excessive regulation. Still, there were some pretty big openings up here this evening, and he let them alone! We'd also like to thank Mr. McCain for keeping all the focus on himself these past weeks. It has helped the Great Obama to just get on with the show.

As for that show, we'd love to invite you all back for next week's performance, when the Great Obama will thrill with new, amazing exploits. He will respect your Second Amendment rights even as he regulates firearms! He will renegotiate Nafta, even as he supports free trade! He will.

Democrats Aim for a 60-Vote Senate

Fri, 22 Aug 2008 00:32:49 -0600

The nation has had prior almighty Senates, of course, and it hasn't been pretty. Free of the filibuster check, the world's greatest deliberative body tends to go on benders. It was a filibuster-proof Democratic majority (or near to it, in his first years) that allowed FDR to pass his New Deal. It was a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate that allowed Lyndon Johnson to pass his Great Society.

Note, however, that it could have been worse. These were days with more varied political parties. Rebellious Democrats teamed up with Republicans to tangle with Roosevelt. Johnson ran the risk that the GOP would ally with Southern Democrats. There was some check.

As Karl Rove pointed out to me recently, the real risk of a 2009 filibuster-proof Senate is that the dissidents are gone. According to Congressional Quarterly, in 1994 Senate Democrats voted with their party 84% of the time. By 1998, that number was 86%. CQ's most recent analysis, of votes during the George W. Bush presidency, showed Democratic senators remained united 91% of the time. Should he get his 60 seats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be arguably more influential than the president.

Sure, 60 votes isn't enough to override a presidential veto. But a filibuster-proof majority would put Mr. Reid in almost complete control of the agenda. That holds equally true whether we have a President McCain or a President Obama.

A lot of voters are drawn to Mr. Obama's promises of bipartisanship. But with a filibuster-proof Senate, what Mr. Obama promised will be of secondary concern. Even if the presidential hopeful is sincere about working across the aisle (and that's a big if), Ted Kennedy, Pat Leahy, Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold will prefer to do things their way. They'll be looking for opportunities to let their former rookie Senate colleague know who is in charge.

Mr. Reid won't necessarily need 60 votes to hold Washington's whip hand. With a contingent of blue-state Republicans (think Maine's Olympia Snowe), Mr. Reid could peel off votes and have an "effective" filibuster with just 57 or 58 seats. That may not be enough to accomplish every last item on his wish list, but close.

That wish list? Take a look at what House Democrats (who aren't burdened with a filibuster) unilaterally passed last year: The biggest tax increase in history; card check, which eliminates secret ballots in union organizing elections; an "energy" bill that lacks drilling; vastly expanded government health insurance; new powers to restrict pharmaceutical prices. Add to this a global warming program, new trade restrictions (certainly no new trade deals) and fewer private options in Medicare.

This explains why Congressional Democrats currently aren't moving spending bills, or energy bills, or anything. They are waiting for next year, when they hope to no longer have to deal with pesky Republicans. This also explains the Senate's paltry judicial confirmations this Congress. They want more vacancies. With a filibuster-proof majority, Democrats could reshape the judiciary under a President Obama, or refuse to confirm any Antonin Scalia-type appointments made by a President McCain.

Party leaders feel the Senate GOP can remain an effective opposition if it holds Democrats to 55 seats. If Republicans can continue to ride the energy debate, that just might be possible. As it is, they are feeling more confident about even tough fights in states like Colorado, Oregon or Minnesota.

Then again, it's a long way to November. Anything can happen. And if Congressional Democrats have their way, that "anything" will be undiluted power in Washington.

GOP Reformers Face a Tough Fight

Fri, 18 Jul 2008 00:28:08 -0600

Her sin is in fact to belong to that new mold of Republican - Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint - who know it's no longer enough to simply hawk lower taxes. In 10 years as a state legislator and treasurer, her target has been the slothful political favor factory that's led Republicans away from small-government principles and outraged conservative voters.

And, oh, the howls of misery. Ms. Steelman's Republican colleagues were livid with her attempt to strip them of comfy pensions, annoyed with her "sunshine law" requiring them to be more open in their dealings, furious at her attacks on their ethanol boondoggles, appalled that she criticized GOP state Speaker Rod Jetton for moonlighting as a paid political consultant. The final straw was her temerity to make her primary race about her opponent's Washington earmarking record.

For Mr. Blunt, this is also just a wee bit personal. His son, Matt, is the outgoing governor, and has been on the receiving end of a few Treasurer Steelman blasts. Last year she stopped payment on a $70,000 secret check his administration cut to settle a sexual harassment suit against an official. Her demand for transparency blew the case into the open, infuriating GOP colleagues.

There was also Ms. Steelman's attempted cleanup of an ethanol program. The treasurer announced her office would no longer provide below-market interest rates for ethanol plants that counted state officials or their relatives among investors.

Among companies barred was Show Me Ethanol, whose shareholders included Mr. Blunt's son Andy - one of the state's top lobbyists - as well as Republican state Rep. John Quinn and his wife, not to mention the wife of Republican U.S. Rep. Sam Graves. Instead of thanking Ms. Steelman for ridding it of this conflict, in May the Missouri state senate voted to overturn her policy. It did so with a head-count vote, so as to avoid a written record.

Undaunted, Ms. Steelman has made ethics reform the centerpiece of her campaign. Mr. Hulshof has been able to tout his own history as an ethics reformer, though the fervor with which his party's regulars have embraced him has undercut that message. His real weakness is that despite conservative credentials on taxes or social issues, he's run wild with the GOP crowd that just won't relinquish the pork. Which is of course why Mr. Blunt (who pioneered House earmarks) and Mr. Bond (who sits at earmark central, the Senate appropriations committee) love him.

Ms. Steelman's ads have noted Mr. Hulshof's support for the Alaskan Bridge to Nowhere, the Maine Lobster Institute, the Perfect Christmas Tree exhibit and the Woodstock concert hall. Their first debate last week centered on Mr. Hulshof's spending record. In an interview with a local reporter, he felt so cornered that he asked the interviewer what earmarks have "to do" with being "governor" anyway.

Mr. Hulshof's congressional protectors have proved equally amusing. In their statement, Messrs. Blunt, Bond and Graves, as well as Reps. Jo Ann Emerson and Todd Akin, told the public it was perfectly OK Mr. Hulshof had voted for earmarks - because they'd voted for them too!

Ms. Steelman has her own weaknesses - among them ties to the trial bar - which Mr. Hulshof is highlighting. He's also neatly spun his establishment ties into a formidable campaign war chest. Despite this, polls show he retains only a modest lead, and 30% of likely Republican voters have yet to decide. The winner faces Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon, who currently beats both in polls.

If Ms. Steelman's bid shows anything, it's how determined a wandering Republican Party, both nationally and locally, is to hold on to the bad habits that lost them their reputation. Beware to the reformer.