Hang On To Your Wallets

Here’s some news that should cause all taxpaying Americans to feel a cold, hard lump in the pit of their stomachs:  Congress has decided to focus on “tax reform.”

ap17306662049220Congress’ decision to pivot to tax reform has produced all kinds of news stories, most of which have headlines that can only stoke the angst.  What does the proposed tax reform bill means for the value of your home?  What kind of hidden tax brackets might be found deep in the dense language of the proposed bill?  How will small business owners be affected?  What company’s stock price took a dive because the bill proposes repealing a crucial tax break?  All of these stories, and more, can be found simply by running a google search on “republican tax bill.”

The stories are indirectly reflective of the key problem with the federal tax code, because the many different areas of potential concern they address shows just how wide and deep is the reach and impact of our federal tax structure.  Virtually every company, industry, form of property, job, trade, college, technology, and concept is affected by some form of federal tax or federal tax break.  At the founding of the republic, Alexander Hamilton may have devised a simple approach to raising revenue to fund the federal government, but those days are long gone.  Now, the tax code is a complicated morass far beyond the ken of the average citizen, with special rates and breaks and benefits and exclusions and surcharges that only experts and lobbyists understand.

So, given that reality, why should the average citizen be concerned that Congress has decided it’s time to mess around with the tax code?  Because our political class, Republicans and Democrats alike, have shown they are primarily interested in raising lots of money so they can be reelected . . . which means the risk that some special provision written specifically to help a large donor will be inserted in the dead of night simply can’t be ignored.  And with the Dealmaker-In-Chief in the White House, who’s going to really dive into the details of whatever gets passed, trying to make sure that the average citizen doesn’t get gored while the special interests get their perks and sweetheart deals?

Maybe it all will work out, and the tax code will be made more fair and equitable and easy to understand, and we’ll be able to file our tax returns on postcards like the photo op pictures are indicating.  Maybe — but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Until then, I’m hanging on to my wallet.

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When Not Even Early-Morning Baseball Practice Is Safe

Yesterday members of the Republican congressional baseball team met early in the morning for a practice session in advance of an upcoming game against a team of Democrats.  The annual game, which gets played in the stadium where the Nationals play and typically produces lots of money for charity, is one of the handful of remaining vestiges of civility and across-the-aisle cooperation that can still be found in our increasingly polarized national politics.

2017-06-14t131000z1lynxmped5d12artroptp4virginia-shootingBut the world being what it is these days, even an early-morning baseball practice is no longer safe.  A heavily armed gunman, who has been identified as James Hodgkinson, showed up and began firing — apparently with the intention of killing Republicans.  He shot  Congressman Steve Scalise, who remains in critical condition, and others as well before engaging in a firefight with authorities and sustaining fatal injuries.  In view of the fact that the gunman got off dozens of rounds, and the players practicing on the field were described as “sitting ducks,” it’s almost miraculous that more people weren’t killed or seriously injured.  Those who were present say that the heroism and prompt actions of police saved many lives.

The shooter is described as a Bernie Sanders supporter who hated Republicans — but in reality you could just call him a nut, based on what he’s written and posted to social media.  Senator Sanders immediately disavowed what the shooter did, because of course Sanders’ political positions don’t call for his supporters to engage in murderous violence.  And yet there are people out there on the fringes, at both ends of the political spectrum, who can’t simply content themselves with political opposition and have to take the next step, and the next, first into more vitriolic speech and imagery and ultimately into some kind of twisted mindset where going to a baseball practice and shooting whoever is out of the field seems like the right thing to do.

There have always been nuts out there.  What’s discouraging about the modern world is that there seem to be more of them ready to act out their disturbed impulses, heedless of who might get hurt.  And now we’ve reached the point where even a simple baseball practice isn’t safe.

The baseball game is going to be played, by the way.  That’s a good thing, I think, but it’s the only good thing about this whole ugly episode.  And you inevitably wonder:  how many more nuts are lurking out there, thinking the answer to what troubles them is a lot of indiscriminate killing?

 

Chickens, Meet Roost

Hang on to your hats, folks!  Yesterday, the new Congress was sworn in, and amidst the first-day activities — which featured an ill-considered effort by House Republicans to change the powers of an ethics investigative unit, that was abruptly reversed in the face of criticism from the media, Democrats, and Donald Trump — we started to get a sense of what might be coming in the next few months, after the new President is sworn in, too.

roostingchickensTwo things seem pretty clear.  First, President-elect Trump and the Republicans in Congress are serious about taking aim at some parts of President Obama’s agenda.  Second, some of the methods used by the Democrats over the last eight years to implement that agenda are now ready to be used by Republicans to reverse course.

For example, President Obama has been very active in setting policy through executive orders, rather than by obtaining changes through the congressional process.  In fact, the President is continuing to issue executive orders and probably will continue to do so until the Trump Administration takes office.  Similarly, the Obama Administration has issued regulatory guidance that changes the prevailing approach in a number of areas.  But what can be achieved through executive orders also can be undone by executive orders, and the Trump Administration has indicated that it plans to do precisely that.

In short, because President Obama was unable to convince Congress to enact many of his policy initiatives, those initiatives are ready to be changed at the stroke of a pen.  President Obama recognizes this; in fact, he recently urged Trump to try to govern through legislation, rather than executive order, for this very reason.  Republicans said President Obama’s advice against overuse of executive orders was “ironic,” but in any case it is clear that many of his executive orders are going to be reversed when President Trump takes office.  We don’t know yet exactly how extensive the changes will be, but don’t be surprised if the coverage of Trump’s first day in office includes footage of him signing a series of executive orders to change Obama Administration policies.

You’ll also recall that, during the Obama Administration, the Democrats who controlled the Senate exercised the “nuclear option” and changed certain internal rules about how many votes were needed to overcome filibusters.  Now New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the new head of Senate Democrats, regrets that the Democrats took that action — because it will make it tougher for Democrats to oppose and block confirmation of Trump’s selections for positions in his Cabinet.

It’s all pretty predictable.  You can think about chickens coming home to roost, sauce for the goose and sauce for the gander, and what goes around coming around — but the reality is that, with the pendulum swings we’ve seen in voting for President and for the Congress, anything that isn’t enacted into law through the legislative process contemplated by the Constitution will be immediately subject to change when the power shifts again, and that every procedural maneuver used to further one side’s agenda will be hauled out and used anew when the other side takes over.

It’s not a good way to govern.

A Gutless Wonder

Washington, D.C. is all agog about “Congressman X,” the Democratic member of Congress who has anonymously penned a 65-page book called “The Confessions of Congressman X” about how corrupt, cynical, and phony members of Congress are.  One chapter, for example, is entitled “Harry Reid’s a Pompous Ass.”

Well, of course he is.  In fact, so is every member of Congress.  And, for that matter, so is “Congressman X.”

5_122016_xman8201_c0-562-850-1057_s885x516Here’s what I want to know:  why doesn’t Congressman X confess for the record?  Why doesn’t he have the guts to identify himself and express those opinions for attribution?

In my view, the sad tale of “Congressman X” is the problem, writ large, with our “public servants” right now.  They’re gutless.  They’re so chickenshit, one and all, irrespective of party, that they gladly prostitute themselves for lobbyists and spend all of their time fundraising so they can be returned to the Washington merry-go-round next term.  And when “Congressman X” nears the end of his “service,” he writes an anonymous tell-all book so he can make even more money from his period of “public service.”  It’s tawdry and appalling — but it’s so Washington, D.C.

No one has the fortitude or the principles to stand up and be counted.  And that’s why we have a dysfunctional government in which the legislative branch — which the Founders designed to be the most powerful of the coordinate branches of government — has steadily yielded power to the executive branch and the judiciary, to the point where we now have a federal government that is largely governed by executive decree rather than legislation considered, drafted, and debated by the “people’s representatives.”

So I say that “Congressman X” can bite me.  A pox on his house, and a pox on all of their houses.  Won’t anyone in D.C. stand up and be counted for a change?

 

Guns, Doctors, Patients, And Medical Privacy

Yesterday the Obama Administration announced some new gun control measures.  Because President Obama issued executive orders, rather than proposing legislation to be debated and approved by Congress, most of the attention was on whether the President overstepped his authority and violated the intended constitutional balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

I’d like to focus on a different, substantive element of the changes announced yesterday:  namely, changes to a federal law protecting the privacy of certain health information to allow reporting of individuals who would fall within the mental health prohibitions of the federal gun background check law.  Politico reports that the new rule “enables health care providers to report the names of mentally ill patients to an FBI firearms background check system.”  Diagnostic information about the nature of the mental health condition being treated, however, would still be subject to privacy restrictions.

handgun_collectionThe announcement of the new rule by the Department of Health and Human Services uses the kind of dense, acronym-filled administrative jargon that makes ordinary people scratch their heads and throw up their hands, and it is not entirely clear the extent to which it applies to doctors — although the HHS announcement acknowledges that a number of comments it received about the rule expressed concerns about how the reporting issue would affect the “patient-provider treatment relationship and individuals’ willingness to seek needed mental health care.”

This is a difficult issue, because we’ve seen, over and over again, the carnage that can ensue when a mentally disturbed person builds an arsenal and then acts out their disturbed fantasies.  We want to keep those people from buying guns.  At the same time, however, notions of doctor-patient confidentiality are important — most states have laws or rules of evidence that protect such confidentiality — and exist precisely to encourage people to see a doctor and, in this example, seek treatment for their mental health issues.  New rules, even permissive ones, that could interfere with that confidentiality raise a legitimate concern, because if people who might otherwise seek treatment understand that by doing so they risk being disclosed to a federal database as mentally unfit, they may decline to seek treatment in the first place.  And if physician reporting of information that would disqualify a patient under the gun purchase laws is permissive, and a physician chooses not to report a patient who fits such criteria and the patient then acts on their fantasies, can the physician be sued for failing to report?  And, if the answer to that question is yes, won’t reporting become routine — and therefore the prospect of discouraging people from receiving treatment in the first place become even more likely?

No one wants to see mentally unbalanced people get their hands on guns, and we’ll have to see how these new rules play out, but this is a very sensitive area.  If the new regulations have the effect of discouraging people from seeking needed mental health treatment, they may unintentionally compound the problem.

 

The Speaker Of The House Impasse

Former Speaker of the House John Boehner quit the job with a tear in his eye, and for weeks House Republicans have been thrashing around, trying to find a replacement.  Political reporters have had a field day.  They’re speculating about the kinds of things pundits always speculate about — namely, what the impact of the inability to choose a replacement Speaker will be at the ballot box — without arriving at a clear answer.

Here’s the clear answer:  voters don’t care.  Seriously — we just don’t.  We’re so used to a dysfunctional Congress that an intraparty dispute about who should be the Speaker of the House really has no impact.  As a voter, you can’t help but think about how you might be affected by what Congress is doing, and leadership squabbles and political infighting have no plausible impact, period.  It may be full of nuances and backroom maneuvering that is fascinating to the punditry, but for the average Joe it’s just more background noise emanating from Washington, D.C., the capital of background noise-making.

It’s being reported today that Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Congressman who was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012, has answered appeals that he stand for Speaker by setting certain conditions in a meeting with fellow House Republicans.  According to the New York Times article linked above, Ryan said he would serve if House Republicans could unite behind him as a common force, if the “bomb throwers and hand wringers” would shut their yaps for a while, and if he could serve as a communicator and legislator rather than a peripatetic fundraiser.

Ryan says that he changed his mind about potentially serving as Speaker because he concluded that this is a dire moment for the country, with all kinds of budget issues lurking, including a fight about extending the federal debt limit — again — and an impending dispute about funding needed to avoid a governmental shutdown — again.  I’m not sure how “dire” all of this is, really, because we have seen these same issues, over and over, under Congresses and Administrations controlled by both parties.  It’s hard to conclude that the current state of affairs is any more dire than what we have seen before, where the inevitable result is a last-minute compromise that just delays the issue for a while longer.

Ryan says he thinks Congress has become the problem, and he wants it to become the solution.  Sounds good — but words are just wind.  If Ryan can really get Republicans to unite behind him, and can actually get Congress to act in a responsible way by making meaningful budget cuts, voters might actually sit up and take notice.  Until then, we’ll just ignore the stupid shenanigans and silly infighting and go on about our lives.

Putting The Process Back To Work

President Obama described the last Congress as one of the least productive in history — and he was right.  The last Congress passed only a handful of bills that were ultimately signed into law, and was characterized by constant backbiting and finger-pointing.

As of this week there’s a new Congress in town, one in which both the House and the Senate are controlled by large Republican majorities and have an ambitious legislative agenda.  And already President Obama has signaled that he would veto one of the bills that the Republicans want to pass first — an initiative that would authorize construction of the Keystone pipeline.

Oh, no!  More of that conflict and gridlock that commentators bemoan!  I guess that means the swearing-in of the new Congress won’t change anything, right?

Not so fast!  If I recall my civics lessons, what we’re seeing signs of now is how the process is supposed to work.  The House and Senate write legislation, hold hearings, have floor debates at which amendments are offered, and vote to pass actual, written bills, conference committees resolve differences between the Senate version and the House version, and the President then decides whether to sign or veto.  Public veto threats in advance are one method the President can employ to influence the course and content of legislation.  And if Congress passes the bill and the President carries through on his threat, Congress can decide whether to try to override that veto.

We’ve become so used to a shriveled, do-nothing Congress that seemed to exist simply to react to the initiatives of Presidents Bush and Obama that we’ve forgotten that the legislative branch is supposed to be a powerful, coordinate branch of government.  It’s early yet, obviously, and I certainly won’t agree with the full spectrum of the Republican congressional agenda, but I’m glad that the new Congress at least seems intent on doing what Congress is supposed to be doing — and thereby putting our constitutional process back to work.  After all, the system has worked pretty well for more than 200 years.