Government

Want to Rock the Vote? Fill the Election Assistance Commission.

AP Images/The Roanoke Times/Joel Hawksley
J ust days after the 2013 elections, former Congresswoman Mary Bono and I were on MSNBC discussing voter-ID laws. A moderate Republican, Bono tried hard to shift the focus to a universally hated aspect of American elections—the lines. “There should be no reason there should be long lines, ever,” she said. “Why [can’t they] orchestrate and engineer a solution that you get to the polls, and there’s 15 minutes, guaranteed in and out, and you vote?” It’s a good question. Even if we forget about the disturbing rash of voting restrictions—the ID laws, the cutbacks to early voting, the efforts to make it harder to register—a basic problem remains: We don’t invest enough in our elections. Across the country, machines are old and breaking down, and we’re failing to use new technology that could clean up our voter rolls and make it easier to predict—and thus prevent—those long lines. The odds of Congress allocating the billions it would take to help localities buy new voting machines and solve...

The Doomed Wars

White House photo by Pete Souza.
Washington loves few things more than a tell-all memoir. Even if a memoir doesn't tell very much, the media will do their best to characterize it as scandalous and shocking. So it is with the book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates which will soon be appearing in airport bookstores everywhere. From the excerpts that have been released, it sounds like Gates has plenty of praise for President Obama, and some criticisms that are not particularly biting. Sure, there's plenty of bureaucratic sniping and the settling of a few scores, but his criticisms (the Obama White House is too controlling, politics sometimes intrudes on national security) sound familiar. Gates' thoughts on Afghanistan, however, do offer us an opportunity to reflect on where we've come in that long war. The quote from his book that has been repeated the most concerns a meeting in March 2011 in which Obama expressed his frustration with how things were going in Afghanistan. "As I sat there," Gates writes, "I...

Is It Already Too Late to Stop the NSA?

The revelations about the scope of National Security Agency surveillance from the documents released to the public by Edward Snowden have been so numerous and so extraordinary that I fear we may be becoming numb to them. That's partly because there's just been so much, one revelation after another to the point where the latest one doesn't surprise us anymore. It's also partly because mixed in with the genuinely distressing surveillance programs are some things that seem almost ridiculous, like the idea of NSA agents trying to unearth terrorist plots in World of Warcraft . But there are some basic facts about this whole affair that should make us all frightened. We can sum it up as follows: 1. The scope of the NSA's surveillance is far greater than almost anyone imagined. 2. Barack Obama is not only perfectly fine with that surveillance, he was perfectly fine with it being kept secret from the American public. 3. As much discussion and consternation as Snowden's revelations produced,...

The Year in Preview: The EPA Levels Up

Press Association via AP Images
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite Protesters ask President Obama to deny granting permission for TransCanada to build the 1,700-mile long pipeline gathered at the White House in August. P roposals that make it as far in Washington as cap-and-trade did rarely die cleanly; they suffer and bleed and seed the ground with a new generation of mutant offspring. Some of the planted ideas aren’t strong enough to thrive in the harsh conditions of politics; others turn out to be surprising hardy. Building a campaign around the Keystone XL pipeline was one of the latter type. Born out of cap-and-trade's failures, it thrived, fed by two theories—that you can’t trust D.C. politicos to react responsibly to climate change and that victory in the next legislative bout would require gathering power outside the capital. As as issue, Keystone XL has grown so big that, whatever decision the Obama administration finally makes about it in 2014, it will be brandished as an omen of this country's future (and,...

The Year in Preview: Dates of Judgment in the Middle East

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Pool)
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite I n front of the United States State Department, two large digital screens should be erected by New Year's, showing the countdown to the Obama administration's looming foreign-policy deadlines for 2014. One screen would flash the days left before March 29, when the nine months allocated by Secretary of State John Kerry for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations run out. By then, the two sides have to reach agreement, or at least show enough progress to have reason to keep talking. On the other screen, we'd see the time remaining until May 24, when the six-month interim accord on Iran's nuclear program ends—with a longterm accord, or well-founded hope of one, or a return to an unpredictable confrontation. In principle, the only thing that links success on the two tracks is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that peace with the Palestinians depends on removing the Iranian nuclear threat. But the two diplomatic challenges do share common...

A Dubious Budget Deal

The years of Republican obstructionism and the corporate campaign for deficit reduction have taken such a toll that merely the fact of getting a budget deal at all looks like a great achievement. This one is better than continued impasse, but the deal itself is a stinker. Representative Raul Grijanva, co-chair of the House progressive caucus, put it well: “I feel like punching myself in the face, but I’ll vote yes.” The deal does override the automatic sequester for this year. It will restore some $31.5 billion in sequester cut over the next two years in domestic spending, and a like amount in military spending. But those increases are against a backdrop of more than a trillion dollars of cuts over a decade. The deal nominally is deficit-neutral, because it adds new budget cuts in Medicare in 2022 and 2023. Even worse, the deal did not even include an extension of expiring extended unemployment insurance, at a time when the share long-term unemployed is stubbornly stuck. That...

The Year in Preview: Post-Preclearance Voter Protection

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Lots of things happened in 2013. President Obama was sworn in for a second term. We got a new pope and a new royal baby. Two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon and scared a nation. The Supreme Court stripped power from the Defense of Marriage Act and the Voting Rights Act. But these are all stories we've heard before, and if you haven't, you certainly will in the millions of "Year in Review" pieces set to be posted between now and New Year's. Over the next two weeks, our writers will instead preview the year ahead on their beats, letting you know far in advance what the next big story about the Supreme Court—or the environmental movement, immigration reform, reproductive rights, you get the picture—will be. You're welcome in advance for not making you read a dozen more retrospectives on Ted Cruz and Twerking and fiscal cliffs and shutdowns and selfies. Below, we tackle voting rights. AP Photo/Tony Dejak A nyone concerned about voting rights will remember 2013 as the year the...

Daily Meme: Mission Unpassable

Congress has until December 13 to pass a budget. If they don't, we could have another shutdown when funding dries up on January 15. Given their track record of late (Exhibit A , B , and C ), this may be a tall order. Much of the media seems to agree. For example, this shade-throwing New York Times headline: " Underachieving Congress Appears in No Hurry to Change Things Now. " Once again leading the charge are Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray and House Budget Chair Paul Ryan. Their budget prowess has won them the profile treatment in sessions past , if you want a dose of character study with your fiscal news. The two sides' biggest demands? Well, Democrats would like to see some of the sequester cuts on their favorite programs fade away—especially Head Start and low-income housing cuts. Republicans don't want to see any tax increases, and probably wouldn't mind if the defense cuts that went into effect after sequestration were banished. The worries about the deficit are a little funny...

But What Does Iran Mean for 2016?

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
AP Photo/Lior Mizrahi, Pool T here are two things to say about the electoral effect of the Iran deal. Barck Obama isn’t going to be up for re-election. Still, his approval rating will matter for Democrats in both 2014 and 2016. The first thing—and it’s correct, as far as it goes—is that the deal won’t have any electoral effect, whatever happens. Smart analysts know that voters just don’t care very much about foreign policy. And this one … well, it’s pretty distant from the concerns of most voters. Iran’s nuclear program has been in the news for a long time, but it’s not headline stuff for the most part. No matter how much of a fuss there is about it in the press this week, most voters won’t engage. The blunt truth is that this too will be gone from the headlines before very long, anyway. Without most voters paying any attention to it, that leaves only the most politically attentive, and they’ll divide the way they always do: as long as the balance of the coverage isn’t radically...

Daily Meme: The West's Nuclear Options

Over the weekend, we finally worked out a nuclear deal with Iran. Here's the plan. And if you'd rather not waste time reading the agreement, here's a pretty chart from The New York Times that breaks it all down. If you'd rather dive even deeper into the process, Reuters has a good tick-tock of the negotiations. Why is the deal merely a six-month deal, rather than a permenant arrangement? Let Obama's former arms-control coordinator explain: "The reason for an interim deal rather than a permanent agreement is because Iran is not willing to accept the limits on its nuclear program demanded by the P5-plus-1 as a condition for permanently lifting nuclear-related sanctions. In particular, the U.S. wants Iran to accept physical limits on the scope and scale of its enrichment program so that Iran cannot produce significant quantities of highly enriched (weapons grade) uranium quickly and to halt construction of the heavy-water research reactor or replace it with a type that would produce less...

The Latest Lie in the Push For Voter ID Restrictions

To the Republican supporters of laws that would treat the poll booth like an exclusive nightclub that asks for photo ID and other qualifications before allowing entry, the answer to why anyone would oppose this is simple: They must not want to vote badly enough. This was the logic for Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothman who last week on MSNBC said , "I really don't think they care that much about voting in the first place, right?" in response to a question about how African-American voters might be impacted by voter ID and early voting cuts. This is not anomalous thinking among Republicans. Similar comments have been made by Republican state legislators in Nevada , Pennsylvania , and Florida . In fact, they say these things so often publicly that you have to wonder if it’s some kind of dog-whistle to the more racially polarized portion of their voting base. The idea that people of color don't "care" about voting ignores how expensive it can be to meet the qualifications of voter ID...

Four Reasons the Nuclear Option Was a Liberal Win

The detonation of the "nuclear option" against the filibuster for executive branch and most judicial-branch appointments was an obvious win for progressives . If, as seems likely, the use of the nuclear option puts the filibuster on the road to complete oblivion, this is an even bigger win for progressives, as the filibuster is a reactionary device both in theory and in practice . And yet, many people on all parts of the ideological spectrum have resisted this conclusion. Here are some of the major arguments being made against the deal from a Democratic perspective—and why they're wrong. 1. Democrats Will Be Sorry, Because This Means Republicans Will Keep Doing What They've Been Doing Since the Reagan Administration As I discussed in my initial reaction to the historic action of Reid and the Democratic caucus, the debate over whether to end most judicial filibusters has involved numerous threats by Republicans to keep appointing the same kinds of judges that conservative presidents...

Bibi's Agreement Anxiety Disorder

T o explain Benjamin Netanyahu's frenzied reaction to the Geneva agreement on Iran's nuclear program, let me begin with the stack of brown cardboard boxes under my wife's desk. Each of the five cartons contains a gas mask and related paraphernalia for a member of my family to use in the event of a chemical-weapons attack. They were delivered last January, as part of the gradual government effort to prepare every household in Israel for a rain of Syrian missiles. I suppose that having "defense kits" in the house could be macabre, but what we usually notice is that they're a nuisance: another thing on which to bang your toe in an overstuffed city flat. What's more, they're apparently an obsolete nuisance. A couple of weeks ago, the usual nameless military sources told the local media that the Defense Ministry would recommend ending production of gas masks for civilians. According to the leaks, intelligence assessments said that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons...

Daily Meme: A Trip Down Memory Lane with the Nuclear Option

"To prevent Democrats from blocking President Bush's judicial nominees, Senate Republicans are considering a parliamentary maneuver with potentially explosive consequences called ''the nuclear option.'" "The Republicans see the filibuster as an annoying obstacle. " Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist : "One way or another, the filibuster of judicial nominees must end. The Senate must do what is good, what is right, what is reasonable and what is honorable." Senator Harry Reid : "I think they would be making a huge mistake to try to mess with the rules." Jonah Goldberg : "Whoever it was on the Republican side who coined the term 'nuclear option,' you should forever be banned from coining clever phrases. This has always struck me as an idiotic phrase on every level. First, it concedes that changing the rules would be radical and dangerous, which plays perfectly into the Democrats’ hands. Second, it’s factually untrue. Changing the rules wouldn’t have blown up the Senate." Vice President...

Harry Reid's Triumph

At least when it comes to executive branch and (most) judicial branch appointments, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, democracy is coming to the United States Senate. Senate Democrats responded to the Republican minority's blockade against any Obama appointments to the D.C. Circuit by eliminating the filibuster for most presidential nominations. This vote will likely be the most important congressional vote of President Obama's second term, and Senate Majority Harry Reid and most of the rest of the Democratic caucus deserve immense credit for pulling it off. I have explained at length why I believe that the filibuster is an indefensible practice. The short version is that the American political system already has an inordinately high number of veto points, so anyone favoring additional extraconstitutional ones should face a very high burden of proof. The filibuster, with its long and dismal history of allowing overrepresented minorities to prevent Congress from addressing the interests of...

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