Backseat Nuclear

Yesterday the Senate voted to change its rules to determine that a 60-vote supermajority requirement does not apply to Supreme Court nominations.  The decision means that it will no longer be possible to filibuster Supreme Court nominations, which now can be approved by a simple majority vote.  That reality, in turn, clears the way for Neil Gorsuch to take a seat on the nation’s highest court.

868d7f9c0a0d02b700028bdae62105edAlthough everybody has called the procedural change “the nuclear option,” this whole spiraling process has always struck me as less like a tense, world-threatening confrontation between countries equipped with atomic weapons and more like a dispute between two bored and bratty kids sitting in the back seat of the family car.  Things escalate, suddenly the kids are pushing and shoving and yelling while the parents in the front seat try to break things up and calm things down, and in the end each red-faced kid blames the other for starting it.

In this case, Republicans blame Democrats for being the first to exercise the nuclear option, and Democrats respond that Republican intransigence forced that decision.  Republicans blame Democrats for reflexively opposing President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, despite his obvious qualifications, and Democrats respond that the Republicans’ refusal to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, who also was qualified for the Supreme Court, is what created the current atmosphere.  You really wondered what the parties were going to do absent this procedural change — automatically oppose all Supreme Court nominations by the President of the opposing party until the Supreme Court itself has vanished through age and attrition?

During those grim family car trips, the squabbling kids calm down, the journey continues, and the parents breathe sighs of exasperation and then relief.  Is that going to happen here and — as the parents in this scenario — how are exasperated American voters going to react?  The filibuster was a means of preserving some modicum of power for the minority and of requiring at least a nod to civility and consensus-building, but it also was a self-imposed rule that allowed individual Senators to feel self-important.  If it’s gone, it means that Senatorial privileges have been reduced and that those depictions of the U.S. Senate as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” inhabited by statesman have been further undermined, because true statesmen, regardless of party, would never have allowed things to reach this embarrassing level.  

But, in this day and age, is anyone really surprised that the U.S. Senate is home to a bunch of partisan hacks, on both sides of the aisle, who have put party and interest groups ahead of the national interest?

Outsmarting Themselves

One of the more unappealing qualities of our political classes is the vicious, cover-your-ass mentality that you see from so many politicians and their anonymous staffers.  No one wants to get tagged with a failure.  Everyone wants to be seen as the smartest, savviest guy in the room, too.  So they leak, and back-stab, and give not-for-attribution quotes.

We saw that ugly side of the inside-the-Beltway mentality again this week, in a terrific piece in the Washington Post about how the Republicans swept to victory on Tuesday.  David Krone, current Senate Majority Leader’s chief of staff, basically laid the blame for the loss of control of the Senate at the feet of President Obama and his staff.  The President wouldn’t do enough to raise money for vulnerable Senate Democrats, he said, and in the meantime those Democrats were getting dragged down by an increasingly unpopular President who was increasingly seen as mishandling and mismanaging serious problems, like the healthcare.gov website and VA health care.

Of course, the Post piece doesn’t note that Harry Reid’s own strategy made it impossible for the vulnerable Democrats to separate themselves from the President, because Reid consistently refused to allow bills to come to the Senate floor for debate.  As a result, Democratic Senators weren’t permitted to offer amendments or articulate positions that differed from those of the President on controversial issues, and the vast majority of votes taken were of the party-line variety, such as to confirm judicial nominees.  That approach allowed Republicans to launch devastating TV ads noting that the vulnerable Democrats voted with President Obama 97, 98, or 99 percent of the time — percentages that wouldn’t have been so outlandishly high if Reid had actually allowed the legislative process to work as intended.  The “smartest guys in the room” outsmarted themselves.

If only Harry Reid and the other Beltway brainiacs had stopped trying to micromanage the messy political process, Democratic Senators might have avoided a near-total wipeout.  I hope that the Republican Senate leadership learns a lesson from this, loosens the spigots on legislation, and starts debating, amending, and voting on bills to send to the President.  Otherwise, the Republicans, too, might be needing to engage in a little CYA come 2016.

“Obamacare” And The Coming Elections

In 2014, every seat in the United States House of Representatives and 36 seats in the Senate — 21 held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans — will be up for election. Non-presidential election years are always unpredictable. In 2010, Democrats lost six seats in the Senate and 63 seats, and their majority, in the House of Representatives. Could 2014 see similarly significant swings in the makeup of Congress?

The wild card seems to be the Affordable Care Act, which everyone now seems to call “Obamacare.” In the past year, Obamacare has moved from concept to reality. The rollout of the law and its signature website have been beset by problems that have been well documented. The website hasn’t worked. Many of the deadlines have been delayed by executive orders that have angered conservatives who feel President Obama and administrators are bypassing the constitutional legislative process. Some individuals have been affected by the cancellation of their insurance policies or significantly increased premiums and other out-of-pocket costs. There is tremendous uncertainty about how, and when, and whether, other parts of the law may work.

As a result, Obamacare is not very popular with the public. According to the Real Clear Politics average of polling data, more than 50 percent of respondents oppose the law. Obviously, that’s not good news for Democrats who voted for the law. How will they respond?

According to a recent article in the National Journal, the plan for vulnerable Democrats is to distance themselves from President Obama, acknowledge difficulties with the law, but present themselves as working to fix its problems while Republicans just cross their arms and insist on a full-blown repeal. (Modern politics being what it is, I’m confident that the Democratic incumbents will be attacking their Republican challengers on a host of other issues, too, of course.) The National Journal article expresses some skepticism about whether the Democratic strategy is viable, and there is a special election for a House seat in Florida in March that may provide some clues about which way the electoral winds are blowing.

I think it’s still too early to draw hard and fast conclusions about “Obamacare” and its potential impact on the coming elections, because there are still pieces that have yet to fall into place. The deadline for individual enrollment is March 31, so we don’t know how many of the uninsured at whom the law was aimed will eventually sign up. We also don’t know how many people who have coverage under new health insurance plans purchased on the exchanges will fare as they seek health care at hospitals and with doctors, or whether a significant number of businesses might change their health care plans, or employee contribution requirements, in response to developments with the law.

I do agree with one point made by the National Journal article, however: messaging can only carry politicians so far. I think there is a broad understanding on the part of Americans of all political stripes that the rollout of the law and its website has been less than ideal — but by November 2014 the initial rollout problems will be many months old and the attention of the American electorate will likely be on more recent matters. Americans tend to be practical. If there haven’t been substantial new problems, the website crashes and error messages will seem like old news, and arguments that the President is governing by improper executive orders aren’t likely to gain much traction.

The broad awareness of “Obamacare” problems, however, has created a climate where many people are skeptical of the law and therefore receptive to more news about its problems. If the ultimate enrollment figures are well below what was forecast, if people start reporting that under their new plans they can’t get the health care they got before, and if the broad number of people who are covered by group plans through their employers start to see large increases in their premiums, deductibles, and co-payment obligations, no slick ad campaign is going to cure the sense that the law was a disastrous mistake. Carefully messaged TV commercials just won’t hold up if Americans are hearing about real Obamacare-related problems and costs from worried family members, neighbors, and friends.

Getting Out Of The Way

To the astonishment of many, Republicans in Congress did not make much of a fuss about raising the debt ceiling this past week. The leadership in the House let a “clean” bill — i.e., one that dealt solely with the debt limit — come to the floor, where it passed. In the Senate, Republicans cooperated in allowing the debt increase to be addressed by majority vote, rather than requiring a 60-vote threshold.

I’m not surprised. Many people are saying that House Speaker John Boehner is in trouble with conservative members of the Republican caucus for not insisting that the debt ceiling increase be coupled with debt reduction measures or other initiatives that are near and dear to tea party hearts — but I think, deep down, even conservative politicians are still politicians. And politicians know that one of the oldest rules in politics is that if your opponent is struggling and dropping in the polls, you don’t do anything that might interfere with that process.

The reality is that President Obama is struggling right now. Every week brings bad news for him — about problems with the Affordable Care Act, about his liberal and increasingly criticized use of executive orders rather than following the legislative process, about domestic spying, and about countless other foreign and domestic issues. The Real Clear Politics average of polling data shows the clear negative trend in presidential approval ratings. Why would Republicans want to pick a fight over the debt ceiling increase, threaten another governmental shutdown, and risk inviting that they receive some of the voter disapproval that is now being directed at the President?

Sherrod’s Softball

Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, was back on Capitol Hill today to testify about the Affordable Care Act and the troubled healthcare.gov website.  According to NBC News, was “grilled” by both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Finance Committee.

Except, apparently, for Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.  If the rest of the hearing was a grilling, Senator Brown must have been in charge of the backyard softball game.  NPR reports that Senator Brown asked Sebelius to talk about the law’s legacy:  “What are people going to say about the Affordable Care Act in five years and in 48 years?”

Huh?  The Secretary has presided over the most disastrous rollout of a federal program in living memory, the country is currently grappling with the fallout from that failure and other issues posed by the Act, and Senator Brown is channeling his inner Oprah and asking Secretary Sebelius to speculate about a legacy?

In fairness, these kinds of politicized questions aren’t unusual.  As the NPR story also reports, a Republican Senator used his entire allotment of time to make a critical speech, without asking Secretary Sebelius a single question.  What’s the point of having Cabinet officers testify if they aren’t asked questions?

These partisan antics are the kinds of things that drive me nuts about Congress.  There are dozens of entirely legitimate questions to ask Secretary Sebelius about how this landmark statute is working, why the website wasn’t better designed, and other topics of great interest to Americans who are trying to understand why the rollout of “Obamacare” could be so mishandled and what they must do to comply with a complicated statute.  Can’t members of Congress lay aside their party affiliations and their desires to make speeches, even once in a while, actually ask questions that should be answered, and get answers that will help them to decide how we can move forward?

Time To Activate The Sarcasm Font, America!

Our leaders have done it!  The Senate has approved a package of tax hikes, in order to keep our country from tumbling over the “fiscal cliff.”  The vote to approve the bill was 89-8.  Let’s all bask in that warm bipartisan glow!

The deal was brokered by negotiations between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Republicans.  We should all take comfort that such intellectual titans were doing the heavy lifting on this crucial matter!  Aren’t you relieved that brainy, detail-oriented statesmen like Biden and Senate leaders scrupulously evaluated the wording of the new taxes and their potential economic impact and the loopholes that inevitably must have been part of the deal?  There is every reason to be confident that this carefully considered legislation will not produce any unintended consequences.  After all, the Senate proudly calls itself “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.”  I bet they deliberated on this bill for a few minutes, and maybe even longer!  Oh, and Harry Reid is in favor of it.  What more do we need to know?

There’s lots of new taxes in this proposal:  increased estate taxes, increased capital gains taxes, and increased income taxes for those people who, purely through dumb luck and undeserved good fortune, make more than $400,000 a year.  What’s important, though, is that the draconian spending cuts that everyone wanted to avoid would be delayed for two months under this proposal.  Thank God!  That will allow the President, the Senate, and the House even more time to really roll up their sleeves and come up with meaningful spending cuts that wouldn’t be ruinous.  Once the tax increases take effect, of course, our leaders will be eager to make tough spending decisions that will incur the ire of government workers and the special interest groups that are invested in the continuation of every federal program, no matter how ill-conceived, bloated, or unsuccessful that program might be.  Maybe, after two months of thoughtful analysis, our leaders also might decide that what they should really do is impose more taxes on us, and further shore up the revenue side of the budget.  And we can be sure, too, that our leaders won’t wait until the last minute to take action.  Long before the two-month extension period expires, our leaders will have agreed upon well-reasoned spending reductions and program cuts and “revenue enhancements” that will delight every American.

Of course, this well-crafted Senate proposal still needs to be approved by the House of Representatives.  With this kind of quality legislation pending, though, why would any member of the House of Representatives vote “no”?

A Pox On All Their Houses

I’ve consciously refrained from writing anything about the “fiscal cliff” because I knew anything I had to say would come out as a vitriolic screed that wouldn’t accomplish anything.  But now that we’ve reached the last day before the automatic spending cuts and tax increases take effect and no deal has been struck, the time for the pointless yet heartfelt screed has come.

I say a pox on all their houses.  By that I mean the White House and both Houses of Congress; I mean the President and Congress, Republican and Democrat, “progressives,” liberals, conservatives, and “tea partiers.”  Congratulations to you all!  You’ve maneuvered us into a situation where tax increases and spending limits that were consciously designed to be so foolish and draconian that they would force a compromise look like they might actually take effect unless a lame duck Congress and a disengaged President strike some poorly thought out, last-minute deal that the American public has no opportunity to consider or voice an opinion on — just like the deal that got us into this stupid “fiscal cliff” predicament in the first place.  Your little plan about a “supercommittee” to reach a grand compromise failed, you frittered away the intervening months raising money from your pet interest groups and electioneering without doing anything to make meaningful progress on the tax policy changes and spending reductions that every conscious American knows must occur to avoid enormous impending debt problems, and now you are frantically trying to avoid the imminent, painful consequences of your years of stupid politicking, indolence, and irresponsibility.

What’s sad about this is that the President and the Republican and Democratic leadership probably all think they’ve got the other guys just where they want them; they likely think the opposing side is bound to knuckle under today and give them a huge, last-minute victory.  Here’s some news for you all:  we shouldn’t be governing through a process that sees us lurching endlessly from crisis to crisis.  Your failures to do things like propose, debate, and pass meaningful budgets, hold hearings on spending, tax and budget proposals that allow citizens to comment and thoughtful changes to be evaluated, and engage in the standard activities of government as our Constitution contemplates reflects badly on you all.  Even if an eleventh-hour deal is reached and everyone declares they won, you’ve achieved no victory.  The American people have come to realize that, unfortunately, we have no real political leaders — just political hacks, buck-passers, and pipsqueaks who don’t have the sense or courage to put the interests of the country ahead of their personal political interests and the narrow perspectives of the pressure groups that contribute to their campaigns.

I know most of the people reading this will say “hey, it’s not my guy’s fault!”  Supporters of President Obama will say it is the no-new-tax-pledge intransigence of the tea partiers that have brought on this ridiculous crisis; tea partiers will say it is the President’s and the Senate’s unwillingness to make meaningful spending cuts that is to blame; and everyone will point the finger elsewhere.  My response is that it is everyone’s fault.  In the past, when large problems have loomed, American politicians have managed to reach compromises that have allowed the country to move forward.  The difference is that, in the past, our political leaders included real statesmen.

There is a reason why there was a huge fall-off in the number of Americans who voted in the most recent election.  Naive notions about hope and change and broad social movements to achieve fiscal responsibility have given way to disgust and outrage at the continuation of politics as usual.  The “fiscal cliff” crisis will just exacerbate those feelings.  Having a disillusioned, disgusted, and angry electorate is not a good thing for our country.