Parker Griffith can lose

Once upon a time, in 2008, an Alabama Democrat named Parker Griffith ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), a national party organization tasked with electing more Democrats to the U.S. House, spent over $1 million to help him. He won in November 2008.

Less than a year into office, in December 2009, lured by D.C. Republican leaders making false promises and facing a stiff challenge from a Republican candidate, Congressman Griffith abruptly switched parties and joined the Republican primary. Almost his entire Congressional staff, all the way down to the Washington intern, quit in protest. Key members of his re-election team bailed too.

(The DCCC formally requested their money back, but I don’t think that happened. Incidentally, Parker Griffith’s party switching, followed immediately by the DCCC doubling down on the soon-to-be-failed candidacy of ultra-conservative and dubiously-Democratic Alabama Congressman Bobby Bright, is why I stopped donating to the DCCC. They demonstrated a lack of vetting and a poor assessment of dollar allocation, in my opinion.)

In June 2010, Madison County Commissioner Mo Brooks resoundingly won the Republican primary against the newly-Republican incumbent, Parker Griffith, because Republican activists in the district refused to back the D.C. leadership in rewarding the switch. Brooks is now a member of Congress.

Three and a half years later (today), on the last day to do so, Griffith qualified* to run for Governor of Alabama in the … wait for it … Democratic Primary in June.

Should voters trust him?

Look, a lot of southern Democrats switched to the Republican Party starting in the late 1960s. Many had terrible, racist reasons for doing so, but they were longtime incumbents switching parties so they could stand by their convictions, however objectionable. At least that meant voters clearly knew where they stood. But, at any rate, the last big wave of reasonably sincere party-switching by Democrats was in the mid-1990s and most of them were re-elected easily — or even switched after being re-elected.

Parker Griffith was a freshman Congressman who switched parties because he was afraid he would lose. He had no convictions of being a conservative Republican — or else he would have run as one the first time — and he clearly had no convictions of being a Democrat — or he wouldn’t have left. His switch back to the Democrats makes both of those points clearer than ever.

I don’t live in his district or state but I’m still mad at him for switching parties in 2009 and voting against Democratic bills. Alabama Democrats shouldn’t — and probably won’t — trust him in this upcoming primary. He stands for nothing but himself. And who knows who that really is.

Plus, is he even committed to anything — including running for office? As summarized in a tweet by Alabama state government news reporter Mike Cason, despite throwing his hat in the ring…

Parker Griffith says he still has not made up his mind about his election plans. Discussing it with his wife outside Democrats’ office.

 
Hmmmm.

 
*For clarification, qualifying is similar to filing to run except a bit more intensive in Alabama, because “To qualify for elected office in Alabama, candidates must file documents with several entities: the Alabama Democratic Party (or local County Chair), the Alabama Ethics Commission, the Alabama Secretary of State or Probate Judge, and the IRS.”

Political bullying: Why Christie and LBJ aren’t at all the same

Leaving aside the obvious way they aren’t at all the same — President and Senator Lyndon Johnson was a statesman while Governor Chris Christie most certainly is not — I found this distinction by Michael Zuckerman in The Atlantic to be particularly compelling and important to understand: “Americans may admire a politician who can play hardball, but it matters whether his victim is a political opponent or an innocent citizen.”

Now, with the caveat (which Zuckerman acknowledges too) that Congressman Johnson was definitely not a statesman and his election campaigns to the U.S. Senate included not just bullying but outright ballot-box stuffing, and keeping in mind Johnson’s advocacy for some unsavory policies along the way, on balance Johnson is most notable, in terms of results achieved, for his bullying of other Senators and members of Congress into accepting civil rights legislation, voting rights legislation, anti-poverty programs, Medicare, Medicaid, and much more. These helped millions and continue to do so today.

In general, Gov. Christie’s bullying has been of average people — including citizens asking reasonable questions at town hall meetings — and of far less powerful politicians in the state who aren’t really blocking him from achieving policy goals but are just insufficiently supportive of him personally. That’s not helping people. And his staff certainly hurt a lot of ordinary people (via hurricane relief withholding and bridge closures) in their quest to bully the mayors of Fort Lee and Hoboken for failing to support Christie’s re-election bid in a timely manner.

More from Zuckerman:

Many politicians accept the slings and arrows of the game because they accept the basic Machiavellian premise: “not only that politicians must do evil in the name of the public good,” as philosopher-turned-politician Michael Ignatieff has argued, “but also that they shouldn’t worry about it.” It’s the recognition that the political space is one of conflict, and one where morality is limited in some ways.

Even so, morality is not—and never should be—absent from the equation: The key stipulation, which Machiavelli took seriously, is “in the name of the public good.” In other words: You may have to do ruthless things to your political opponents, but you do those things because they help your constituents. It matters, in politics, who benefits.

Such is the case with LBJ’s strong-arm tactics. Yes, he deceived, threatened, and browbeat colleagues—”That man will twist your arm off at the shoulder and beat your head in with it,” Dixiecrat Senator Richard Russell, a staunch opponent of civil rights, famously observed. But we are, rightly, most tempted to forgive LBJ these trespasses when he undertook them on behalf of his constituents, especially disenfranchised black people in the South and poor people across America—when he was bullying, you might say, for a cause.

 
Americans crave a strong executive who gets things done. We’re a people of action who created a system designed to accomplish little, slowly. But Christie is doing it wrong.

Replacing the War Powers Act

Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ) want to get rid of the War Powers Act — slogan: “Consistently Ignored by Presidents Since 1973!” — and replace it with something that might actually work and better reflect realities of U.S. military operations today. Here’s the Wikipedia summary of the existing law, which officially is called the “War Powers Resolution of 1973“:

The War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war. The resolution was passed by two-thirds of Congress, overriding a presidential veto.

 
The failed presidential veto was by Richard Nixon, the year before his resignation, but Congress was responding to significant public outrage about the secret, unauthorized bombings in Cambodia during the Vietnam War — which, while authorized by Congress, had also never been declared. (In fact, the last formal Declaration of War was part of World War II.)

Although it’s no surprise that Nixon rejected the legitimacy of the law — given his unusually heightened aversion to the legitimacy of applying any law to the U.S. Presidency — every president since then (except for possibly one incident in 1975 under President Ford, who had fairly recently been elevated directly from and by the legislative branch to the White House via the resignations of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon) has also officially refused to acknowledge its constitutionality as a general principle.

Even so, to be on the safe side, presidents have generally unofficially adhered to it by providing the proper notice to Congress more or less as a “courtesy” without acknowledging the resolution as the reason. A few instances are disputed as to whether this notice was provided. Congress has never been able to successfully enforce the resolution or end any conflicts with it, and the Supreme Court won’t get into the middle of that inter-branch fight.

Tim Kaine essentially feels this situation is absurd, as well as out of date, and he wants a compromise that preserves the ability of the executive to act quickly when necessary but also preserves the rights of Congress to have a say and maintain accountability. From the ThinkProgress article (linked above):

Rather than only having to notify Congress after launching military action, Kaine and McCain want the force presidents to consult with legislators prior to sending U.S. soldiers, sailors, and pilots into harm’s way.

Under current law, the president has to notify Congress whenever placing forces in areas where “imminent” hostilities are likely, and is given a sixty-day window to conduct the operation absent Congressional approval and another thirty-days allotted towards withdrawal. The new proposal would reduce that autonomy, requiring the Executive Branch to “consult with Congress before ordering deployment into a ‘significant armed conflict,’ or, combat operations lasting, or expected to last, more than seven days.”

That provision would exclude humanitarian missions and covert operations, and the initial consultation could be deferred in time of emergency, but must take place within three days after. The legislation would also raise a new joint committee composed of the heads of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Intelligence, and Appropriations in both Houses of Congress “to ensure there is a timely exchange of views between the legislative and executive branches, not just notification by the executive.”

Finally, the law, if passed and signed, would require a vote in Congress in support of or against any military operation within 30 days.

 
Now is a relatively good time to try to introduce such a revision, not too long after an angry Congress (and a well-timed revolt in the UK parliament) managed to talk down the Obama Administration from launching a major air campaign in Syria, proving that Congress still had at least a shred of influence on U.S. military actions after more than two decades of rubber-stamping.

But, in 2008, the Obama Campaign more or less signaled their opposition to a similar proposal. While unfortunate, this is not a huge surprise. Most presidents (or presidential hopefuls) reject out of hand any legal limitations on their powers as “commander-in-chief,” even despite the Constitution’s specific and intentional provision reserving the power to declare wars to Congress (a power typically previously wielded only by the monarch heads of state in the Europe of the day against which the Framers were comparing their system). President Obama doesn’t want to limit his own power (or that of his successors) to act decisively and quickly in the face of the “unknown unknowns,” as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously called them.

GOP vs. Health insurance lobby? Good luck.

Health-and-Human-ServicesSo now that 2 million Americans are about to be getting private health insurance under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act private plan exchange of next week — with another couple million already getting covered through their parents’ plans — anti-ACA Republicans in Congress are hitting up against the very hard, cold reality that the “repeal” of the law (which wouldn’t be possible for at least another three years) would suddenly take away a lot of people’s insurance coverage. And that would make people super mad at Republicans.

While some Republicans still won’t go quietly into the night, whether due to dogmatic delusion or excessive pandering, the result of this realization is largely another round of trying to say that there’s still a way to repeal-and-replace the legislation, leaving the “good” parts (and the now-immovable exchange) while abandoning the “bad” parts.

These “good” parts are the extremely popular sections of the “Patient Protection” side of the law, which do things like compel insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions and not drop chronically ill patients or cap their coverage, etc. etc. The “bad” parts seem to have been reduced down to the individual purchase mandate (and I guess probably some lesser things like the popular but more controversial contraception coverage requirements).

The one good thing about the crushing strength of the American private health insurance industry’s Washington lobby is that they will never allow through these idiotic Republican proposals to replace the Affordable Care Act. That lobby understands two key truths:
1. this law benefits their industry as currently written by providing lots of healthy new customers and,
2. the replacement proposals keep the most popular but most expensive parts in place, while stripping out the money-making purchase mandate that makes it financially feasible to keep the costly parts going.

The law is — and always has been — a big giveaway to the private health insurance companies. The Republican proposals to “fix” it would take that part away and make it financially unsustainable for the insurance firms (edit: as has already been demonstrated in U.S. overseas territories that lack the mandate).

Those firms benefiting from this law donate a lot of political money. If you’re a Republican in Congress right now, you don’t want to get into a political gunfight with the health insurance lobby, unless you’re a self-funding candidate.

Even the tea party wing is still dependent upon big business. They can’t afford to cross private health insurers at the moment. Plus, what kind of terrible, socialistic legislation would that be, to force private companies to provide many expensive services without subsidies, while taking away their revenue? No good tea partier in Congress worth his or her salt could vote for that.

Congress: Low bar, everybody down

Word on the street is that we’re supposed to be excited about the not-yet-passed budget deal between Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan (the 2012 VP nominee) of Wisconsin.

Not because it’s a good deal. It’s still bad on its internal merits, relative to the fiscal direction we need to take the government and the economy. It’s being hailed as a good deal more because:

  • it exists,
  • it’s relatively long-term (through fall 2015, not another short fix),
  • and it’s not quite as horrendous as the 2011 Budget Control Act, known commonly as “the sequester.”

The latter was a haphazard across-the-board slash-and-burn measure, rather than a thoughtful targeting that took into account economic conditions. This is a somewhat more considered set of cuts that partially considers economic conditions.

Or as the Washington Post WonkBlog put it: “The budget deal is good for the economy because it isn’t terrible“…

The budget deal that Sen. Patty Murray (D) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R) announced Tuesday night could be good news for the U.S. economy in 2014. Not for what it contains. Rather, for what it doesn’t contain — and for the fact that it exists at all.

[…]

In other words, at a time of high unemployment, falling deficits and low interest rates, budget-cutting is still making the economy worse than it otherwise would be. But with this deal, Washington policy will be less counterproductive than it otherwise would be.”

Congress really seems to be facing some “soft bigotry of low expectations” from the American public and media these days. But I’m not sure why we’re supposed to throw a parade when they fulfill their minimum required duties — such as passing budgets and funding the operations of our national government — like they’re supposed to (and kind of still do a bad job even when they do that).

I understand that it’s seen as “progress” that we’re close to getting an actual budget passed for the first time since 2010 — though let’s not count our chickens before they’re hatched — but it’s a dangerous path to travel too far down because it both emphasizes value in reaching any deal no matter how bad, and because it only encourages marginal cooperation rather than actually policy engagement by the Republicans.

We’re getting a deal that will continue to put a major drag on the economic recovery — just a little less of one — and we’re still making huge cuts in vital areas. Is it better than nothing or further artificial fiscal crises? Probably. But not by a lot.

Shutdown Myth 2: The Debt Ceiling Can Stop Spending

Reality: The debt ceiling is a limitation set by Congress (originally in World War I) on the executive branch’s ability to borrow money to pay for expenses Congress has already authorized. Failure to raise the debt limit does not prevent these authorized expenditures happening because the executive branch is constitutionally required to spend the money Congress has ordered to be spent. Instead the executive branch is forced to attempt to borrow more money while halting re-payments on existing debt. This wouldn’t work very well and the world financial markets would go into a panic, since it’s tantamount to the government of the largest economy filing for bankruptcy, i.e. inability to pay creditors (while still trying to buy things!). Again, no new money is being spent when the ceiling is raised so this doesn’t somehow rein in the spending. It’s merely a cap on the ability to borrow to pay for expenditures Congress already directed the executive branch to make. It’s an idiotic device to have in place outside of the wartime blank-check appropriation context for which it was created. But as long as it exists, Congress needs to vote to raise it. It shouldn’t be subject to negotiation, because there’s nothing to negotiate.

AFD Ep 36 – Progress Small and Large

Posted: Tues, 29 Jan 2013
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Description: Bill updates us on the Senate rules reform, discusses a strange Federal Appeals Court decision, talks to guest commentator Sasha about women in combat, covers a proposal to change the Electoral College to help Republicans, looks at protests in Egypt, discusses the tragic loss of the Timbuktu libraries this week, and previews the coming immigration reform battle in Congress.