Congress

Do Drones Work?

AP Images/Eric Gay

Last week, the Congressional Progressive Caucus hosted an ad hoc hearing on the implications of U.S. drone policy. It was a follow-up of sorts to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April examining the counterterrorism implications of drone strikes.

Ted Talk

The Tea Party doesn't expect its politicians to get things done; it sends them to Washington to previent things from being done. 

Early this spring, when rumors began circulating that freshman Senator Ted Cruz of Texas might run for president in 2016, liberals found the idea just as delightful as their Tea Party counterparts did—though for different reasons. What could do more to hurt the Republicans’ comeback chances than a candidate who’s so extreme that his own caucus-mate, John McCain, publicly labeled him a “wacko bird”? If Cruz ran and lost in the primaries, he could either become a disruption and embarrass the party or force the eventual nominee to move way to the right. If he somehow won the nomination, he’d surely be the second coming of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Run, Ted, run!

Scandal Makers

AP Photo

In case you didn't notice, over the last few days we entered a new phase in the Obama presidency: the scandal phase. What happened? It wasn't evidence of a crime being unearthed, or a confession from a conspirator. There was no sudden revelation, no arrests, no cancer on the presidency. Indeed, just a few days ago it looked for all the world like Benghazi would take its place with Solyndra and "Fast and Furious" as one more wished-for scandal that, despite the best efforts of Republicans, failed to take flight. Yet all it took was ABC News getting passed some emails between the CIA, the State Department, and the White House detailing how the administration argued over how exactly to talk about the attack in Benghazi to get things underway, and now we have calls for special committees and ramped-up coverage. There may not be anything particularly shocking in those emails—just the time-honored tradition of people trying to cover their asses—but some internal deliberations being revealed, no matter what they contain, has given the media enough of a prod to start that scandal train moving, and before you know it everyone's going to jump onboard.

So suddenly it looks like this isn't going away, not because there was appalling malfeasance (or any malfeasance at all), but because once the train is moving, it's almost impossible to stop. Put together the right's desperate longing for an Obama scandal—turn on Fox News or listen to conservative radio, and you'll see eyelids fluttering in ecstasy as this story gains momentum—with congressional Republicans' helplessness in the face of pressure from their base, and the media's inability to resist a presidential scandal story, and this whole thing might not end unless and until Barack Obama is impeached.

Is Impeachment Only a Matter of Time?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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.

Hillary Clinton Gets Brief Preview of 2016 (If She Runs)

Titanic Belfast / Flickr

One thing I neglected to mention in today’s post on “demand-side scandals” was the attention Republicans gave to Hillary Clinton during yesterday’s hearings over Benghazi.

Benghazi Fizzles

A New York Post cover from back when Benghazi was hotter.

Conservatives want, so very desperately, for Benghazi to be Barack Obama's undoing. And you have to give them credit for trying. Yesterday's hearing, hyped like it was the Super Bowl by Fox News, wasn't actually the first or the second or the fifth on the topic, and each one is supposed to deliver the blockbuster revelation that will finally show America just how evil the Obama administration really is. But if you look at the way they've been talking about it, you can see some faint glimmers of doubt. Sure, you can always find somebody to come on Fox and take the speculation to an absurd level ("Did Hillary Clinton order the consulate to be unprotected because Ambassador Stevens knew she's an al Qaeda operative and she wanted him killed? We just don't know"). But I think all that speculation is sapping their spirits. After a while it gets tiresome to keep harping on what might have happened or why, when it would be so much more satisfying if there were some actual incriminating facts you could bring to bear. For instance, they know there was a cover-up, because every good scandal has a cover-up, but they can't even say just what was being covered up. That's kind of an important part of the story. For god's sake, they're still going on about Susan Rice's inaccurate Sunday show talking points, not because they feel like that's the heart of the nefarious conspiracy, but because they haven't come up with anything more damning.

I'm not saying conservatives don't believe that something sinister happened, because they surely do...

It’s All about the Primaries

AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt

He’s already given political culture one of the great euphemisms ever for having an affair. And now the Appalachian trail walker, Mark Sanford, has become a terrific example of one of the core ideas of political parties and democracy: It’s all about the primaries.

Sanford won back his old House seat in a special election on Tuesday. Smart liberal commentators noted that Republicans had little choice. Paul Krugman:

No, Syria Is Not Iraq

AP Photo/Hussein Malla

For those advocating greater intervention in Syria by the United States, the memory of Iraq has turned into a real inconvenience.

“Iraq is not Syria,” proclaimed the headline of New York Times editor Bill Keller’s op-ed on Monday, by way of arguing for greater U.S. involvement in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Because of Iraq, Keller wrote, “in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.”

Let’s grant that it’s possible to over-learn the lessons of Iraq. The Iraq war, as costly a blunder as it was, should not discredit any and all military interventions, but it should—and has—raised the bar for when such interventions are necessary. What appears to persist, however, is the belief that “bold” U.S. moves—nearly always assumed to be military action—can change the situation for the better, and produce the outcomes that we would like to see.

And of those outcomes aren’t produced? Well, then it will be time for even bolder moves.

Underfunded and Under Five

AP Photo/The Hawk Eye, John Lovretta

As we contemplate the possibly bright future of pre-K laid out in Obama’s state of the union address this year, in which the feds work together “with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,” along comes a sobering glimpse of what public preschool looks like now. It’s not quite as rosy.

Rather than charting progress toward getting all four-year-olds ready for kindergarten, the National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual survey of programs, just issued last week, shows a system in disrepair—or perhaps even retreat. Even as recognition of the benefits of preschool for four-year-olds has grown, the actual implementation of it has stalled – and, in places, lost ground. Meanwhile state funding for pre-K has gone down by more than half a billion dollars in the last year, according to NIEER. In 2012, state spending per child fell to well below what it was ten years ago.

The House Takes Mass Incarceration to Task

Wikimedia Commons

In today's Washington, the formation of a bipartisan committee and/or commission is generally reason to cringe. Today, however, Congress created a bipartisan committee that could deserve optimism. The House Committee on the Judiciary Over-Criminalization Task Force will address an extremely severe problem: mass incarceration in the United States.

There is very good reason for the formation of the committee. The rates of incarceration in this country are staggering. The United States imprisons more people per capita than any country in the world—not only far more than any comparable liberal democracy, but more than the world's authoritarian regimes as well. Even worse, this mass incarceration reflects and exacerbates racial and economic inequalities. As scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Becky Pettit have shown in chilling detail, mass incarceration has taken a massive toll on racial minorities. One in every 36 Hispanic men over the age of 18—and one in 15 African-American males over the age of 18—are in prison. In many states, convicted felons continue to be formally sanctioned by the state, losing the right to vote or to join certain professions. The informal effects of having a felony conviction are even greater; particularly in a buyer's market for labor, the economic prospects of convicted felons attempting to get a job and put their lives in order are generally bleak.

You've Got Sales Tax

flickr/Chris_Hancock

In 1984, CompuServe launched the first “Electronic Mall,” a Pleistocene-era Amazon with which owners of a TRS-80 personal computer could browse and buy goods over the Internet. Such modern retailers as “The Record Emporium” and “The Book Bazaar” were given prominent virtual storefronts. A full page ad in the May 1984 issue of Online Today boasted, “By the year 2000, the world may catch up with the way CompuServe’s new Electronic Mall lets you shop today.” The world took less time to catch up than that: By 1995, eBay and Amazon had been incorporated; in Amazon’s first two months as an online bookstore, it averaged $20,000 per week in sales. Americans would go on to spend around $700 million online in 1996, and by 1999 sales had grown to $20 billion. Figures released earlier this year by the Commerce Department revealed that Americans spent $225 billion online in 2012—a 400 percent increase in only a decade.

The Isolationists Are Coming!

AP Photo

Ask yourself: Do you oppose putting U.S. troops everywhere, all the time? If you answered yes, you might be an isolationist, according to the word’s new definition. A piece in Tuesday’s New York Times, based on a new NYT/CBS poll, warned that “Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria right now.”

In the very next paragraph, however, we are told that, “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”

In other words, if you only support bombing unspecified foreign countries with flying robots, you're exhibiting an isolationist streak.

House of Representatives Now a Scene from "Life Of Brian"

The People's Front of Judea holds a meeting.

Here in America we have a long tradition of candidates who run for office telling voters that they'll be good at making laws because they know nothing about making laws. This is a longtime pet peeve of mine, particularly the "I'm a businessman, not a politician" variant (see here, for example), but the idea that "outsiders" who aren't beholden to the ways of the Capitol can be successful in curing it of its less appealing habits is almost as old as the republic itself. In ordinary circumstances, people who don't know anything about legislating are usually equally unfamiliar with what it takes to run a successful campaign, so most of them get weeded out by election day. The last couple of elections have not, however, been ordinary.

I bring this up because of a story today in Politico that makes the Republican House of Representatives look like even more of a mess than you might have imagined. I'll get to the issue of "outsider" politicians in a moment, but here's an excerpt:

On Immigration, Gay Community Should Take One for the Team

Flickr/Phil Davis

In July of 2010, Russ Feingold did the principled thing. After weeks of markup and debate, the liberal Wisconsin senator voted against Dodd-Frank. "My test for the financial-regulatory reform bill is whether it will prevent another crisis," Feingold said at the time. "[The bill] fails that test." Ironically, Feingold's fortitude only served to further weaken the legislation. In order to break a filibuster, Dodd-Frank's sponsors had to appease conservative Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who opposed a "bank tax" that would have made financial institutions pay for the new regulatory regime. The provision was stripped from the legislation, costing taxpayers $19 billion.

Gay-rights advocates should keep this scenario in mind as the Gang of Eight tries to push immigration reform through the Senate. Given that more than a quarter million undocumented immigrants are LGBT, the movement has a broad interest in seeing comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship succeed. But gay-rights supporters have also been pushing for a specific provision in the bill recognizing LGBT families, who under current law are ineligible for family-based immigration. President Obama's immigration proposal, released in February, contained such a provision. But few were surprised that the bill unveiled by the bipartisan group earlier this month contained a legalization program for the undocumented but made no mention of LGBT families. This is no doubt a shortcoming in the current proposal, and one that groups like Immigration Equality, which advocates on behalf of gay and HIV-positive immigrants, should fight to fix. Immigration Equality has already said that the current Senate bill "does not reflect the values or diversity of our country" and that "we are watching—and we will remember—which lawmakers stand with us, and which stand to the side, when this critical vote happens." The Human Rights Campaign and other prominent gay-rights groups have similarly condemned the current Senate bill.

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