In case it slipped your mind during all this talk of scandal and impeachment, official Washington has spent the last couple of years gnashing its teeth about the budget deficit. Even as European austerity policies threw the continent into a period of extended despair, Republicans and their allies in the well-appointed conference rooms of "centrist" think tanks told us sternly that unemployment would have to wait; the most immediate crisis was the deficit.
As we're learning more about the IRS giving heightened scrutiny to conservative groups filing for tax-exempt status, we should make one thing clear: If what we've heard so far holds up, the people involved should probably get fired, and new safeguards should be put in place to make sure nothing like it happens again. And let it be noted that liberal publications, at least the ones I've seen, have all taken that position and have been discussing this story at length.
Now, let's see if we can understand the context in which this happened. There's an irony at work here, which is that it may well be that the IRS employees involved were trying to obey the spirit of the law but ended up violating the letter of the law, while for the organizations in question it was the opposite: they were trying to violate the spirit of the law, but probably didn't violate the letter of the law.
Over the weekend, the Internal Revenue Service faced criticism for targeting Tea Party organizations and other conservative groups for heightened scrutiny. This included nonprofits that criticized the government, as well as groups involved in educating Americans on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
At some point this year, Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling, as well as deal with a host of out-standing budget issues. But rather then try to discuss them in good faith—free of a manufactured crisis—Republicans have all but announced their decision to take some kind of legislative hostage, as soon as they can find one. Here’s Lori Montogomery, reporting for The Washington Post:
Last week, President Obama announced he would nominate his good friend and venture capitalist Tom Wheeler to lead the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Wheeler will replace another Obama good friend and venture capitalist, Julius Genachowski, who leaves in his wake an agency more embattled than ever.
In announcing the nomination, the president noted that Wheeler is “the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame. So he’s like the Jim Brown of telecom or the Bo Jackson of telecom”; Wheeler was president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) from 1979 to 1984, and Chief Executive Officer of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) from 1992 to 2004. He is currently managing director of Core Capital Partners, a venture-capital firm, and he has been a prolific fund-raiser for the president. By all accounts Wheeler—one of the very few FCC nominees who is not a lawyer—has been a successful businessman. But the larger question is: Can he make good on the president’s early promises to make the U.S. a 21st Century digital nation that reflects the diversity of our country?
Last summer, Congress passed a law reducing the number of executive-branch positions that require Senate confirmation. One hundred and sixty-six offices would now be able to be filled without endless hearings, anonymous "holds," and everything else that slows down the process of getting people to do the work of government. So, did that streamline hiring and make the executive branch more nimble? Hardly. The problem is that there are still an incredible 1,200 positions that have to go through the "advise and consent" process.
The decision by Senate Democrats last week to restore funding to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—which was cut when the “sequester” took effect in March and led to flight delays that angered a wide swath of Americans—was a clear loss for Democrats in the ongoing budget wars. Rather than cave and reverse the cuts, Democrats should have used the public discontent about budget cuts as leverage to pressure Republicans. They squandered this opportunity.
Today we learn that New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich has penned a book called This Town: The Way It Works In Suck Up City, exposing all the awfulness of our nation's capital. As Politico reports, "Two people familiar with the book said it opens with a long, biting take on [Tim] Russert's 2008 funeral, where Washington's self-obsession – and lack of self-awareness – was on full display. The book argues that all of Washington's worst virtues were exposed, with over-the-top coverage of his death, jockeying for good seats at a funeral and Washington insiders transacting business at the event." Sounds about right.
In the past, I've offered Washington some gentle ribbing, employing colorful phrases like "moral sewer" and "festering cauldron of corruption." In truth, D.C. is a complicated place, and like any city it has its virtues and flaws. But you don't find many other cities where the inhabitants regularly write about how despicable the place is. Obviously, there's "Washington," an actual city where people live and work, and "Washington," a rhetorical construct that embodies the things people don't like about government and politics. But is Washington really worse than anyplace else? It's a tough call, but here are some reasons I think D.C. comes in for more of this kind of criticism:
I'm not a historian, so maybe there's something I don't know, but it seems to me that there may never have been a piece of legislation that has inspired such partisan venom as the Affordable Care Act. Sure, Republicans hated Medicare. And yes, their rhetoric at the time, particularly Ronald Reagan's famous warning that if it passed, "We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free," was very similar to what they now say about Obamacare. But once it passed, their attempts to undermine it ran more to the occasional raid than the ongoing siege.
I bring this up because Kevin Drum makes an unsettling point today about the future of Obamacare:
Throughout American history, whenever the United States has felt threatened, our response has been repression. In hindsight we come to realize that the nation was not made any safer from the loss of civil liberties. This is a crucial lesson to be remembered as the country deals with the terrible tragedy of Monday’s bombings in Boston. The impulse to take away constitutional rights to gain security must be resisted because, in reality, complying with the Constitution is not an impediment to safety.
The lead Politico story today is on President Obama’s rhetoric of “class warfare” and its implications for showdowns on guns, immigration, and budget politics. Politico takes an odd tone throughout, treating Obama’s push for higher taxes on “millionaires and billionaires” as opportunistic rhetoric, and not as a (half-hearted) response to yawning income inequality and tax policies skewed to favor the wealthiest Americans.
Since New York Times columnist David Brooks is the very model of the sentient conservative, his acknowledgements of social reality are often more than just personal—they signal that a particular state of affairs has become incontestable to all but the epistemically shuttered.
The mysterious Mr. Kerry has come to the Middle East and gone. The secretary of State promises to return soon, but does not tell us exactly when. In Jerusalem and Ramallah, he says, he listened to leaders' suggestions for restarting peace talks. He does not say what those suggestions were. Curiously polite things happen while he in in the neighborhood. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for instance, postponed his previously announced trip to Gaza, lest he cause Israel grief. Kerry does not explain how he inspires such thoughtfulness.
There is something seriously off about the mission of the new Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, to Europe. Secretary Lew has been visiting European capitals to persuade leaders there to ease up on the austerity. He has not had a good reception.
Speaking at a joint press conference with the chagrined Lew in Berlin, Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister and uber-austerity enforcer, dressed down Lew thusly: “Nobody in Europe sees this contradiction between fiscal consolidation and growth.”
Nobody among the elite, that is.
Ordinary people in Greece, where output has declined by nearly 25 percent since the austerity tonic began, surely see the contradiction. So do young people in Spain, where the youth unemployment rate has reached 56 percent.
At the moment, there are 45 Republicans in the United States Senate, a number sufficient to give them the ability, should they so choose, to filibuster anything and everything. And choose they do, with only the rarest of exceptions. But we may be about to see one of those rare exceptions, on a piece of legislation regulating guns. Maybe.