Congress

The House Takes Mass Incarceration to Task

Wikimedia Commons
AP Photo I n 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-...

You've Got Sales Tax

flickr/Chris_Hancock
flickr/ Mr. Boger I n 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. That number represents about 5 percent of the $4 trillion in...

The Isolationists Are Coming!

AP Photo
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File A sk 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. Further illustrating the crazy isolationist fever infecting the American people, the article quoted poll...

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: The GOP...

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...

Barack Obama Asks Press to Maybe, Possibly Hold Republicans Responsible Sometime

Wikipedia
During this morning’s press conference , President Obama got a question from ABC News’ Jonathan Karl on whether he still has “the juice” to get the rest of his agenda through Congress. Obama’s response came in two parts. First, he noted the extent to which Republicans are unwilling to play ball. On sequestration, for example, the GOP has adopted two, mutually exclusive positions: That it isn’t a big deal, and that it’s causing terrible pain to ordinary Americans. As Obama points out, this allows Republicans to reject any effort at replacing the sequester—citing their opposition to new revenues or higher taxes—and it gives them a hammer with which to hit the administration. He didn’t say it, but he was clearly exasperated—how, exactly, is he supposed to deal with this behavior? His answer is that he can’t, and moreover, that it’s not his responsibility : [Y]ou know, Jonathan, you seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow...

The Utter Irrelevance of "Personal Charm"

President Obama exercising his charm, to no avail. (White House photo)
You'd think that if you're an experienced political reporter for The Washington Post , after a while you would have acquired a sense of how things happen in the nation's capital these days—how legislation gets passed, how the different power centers in town relate to each other, and what factors do and don't matter in determining the outcome of events. Yet for some unfathomable reason, we're still talking about whether Barack Obama can exercise his "personal charm" or "powers of persuasion" on members of the Republican party, convincing them to vote for things they're otherwise inclined against. Here's an article from today's Post : There was little time to mingle Tuesday night at the White House. Five minutes after greeting them, President Obama ushered 20 female senators into the State Dining Room and invited each to offer her thoughts on the issues of the day. And that was about it. That took up our entire two hours, to go around the table, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), recalled...

A Lesson in Who Actually Matters to Washington

Jamelle Bouie/The American Prospect
Jamelle Bouie Last night, after just several days of complaints from flyers—who had to deal with airline delays—the Senate rushed to pass the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, which give the Federal Aviation Administration the power to avoid sequestration by shifting money and avoiding furloughs for air traffic controllers. The House did the same today . Given the number of flights, and the time lost from delays, it’s a decent solution to a real problem. It’s also incredibly frustrating. The sequester has been a disaster. The indiscriminate cuts to discretionary spending have harmed kids in Head Start, workers on unemployment benefits, and families in Section 8 housing. It’s on track to remove tens of billions from the economy, both in spending cuts and in lost output, as people lose jobs and cut back on their consumption. But none of this has moved Congress to act. Instead, Republicans continue to use the sequester as a political tool, attacking Obama for cutting spending they like...

The Xenophobe Party

Flickr/MikeSchinkel
The xenophobia has already begun. Senator Rand Paul in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today urged him to reconsider immigration legislation because of the bombings in Boston. “The facts emerging in the Boston Marathon bombing have exposed a weakness in our current system,” Paul writes. “If we don’t use this debate as an opportunity to fix flaws in our current system, flaws made even more evident last week, then we will not be doing our jobs.” Senator Chuck Grassley, senior Republican senator on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is responsible for an immigration reform bill, is using much the same language—suggesting that the investigation of two alleged Boston attackers will “help shed light on the weaknesses of our system.” Can we just get a grip? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a naturalized American citizen. He came to the United States when he was nine years old. He attended the public schools of Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from where I once lived. Immigration reform...

The Unending War on Obamacare

Flickr/Fibonacci Blue
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: No, my biggest concern is what happens after 2014. No big law is ever perfect. But what normally happens is that it gets tweaked over time. Sometimes this is done via agency rules, other times via minor amendments in Congress. It's routine. But Obamacare has...

Banking Regulation: Closed for Business

Flickr/Vittorio Ferrari
T hese are heady times for the bipartisan group of reformers seeking a safer and more manageable U.S. financial system. The leaders of this movement, Senators Sherrod Brown and David Vitter, introduced legislation yesterday to force the biggest banks to foot the bill for their own mistakes by imposing higher capital requirements. The bill would increase equity (either retained earnings or stock) in the financial system by $1.1 trillion and incentivize mega-banks to break themselves up, according to a Goldman Sachs report . Brown and Vitter previewed the legislation earlier this week at the National Press Club, insisting that the new regulations on risky mega-banks would diminish threats to the U.S. economy and prevent taxpayers from having to bail out banks in the future . Vitter also said the legislation would “level the playing field and take away a government policy subsidy, if you will, that exists in the market now favoring size.” With momentum, broadening support, and tangible...

The Gun Lobby's Raw Power

The Sunlight Foundation
The New York Times weighs in on the failed push for expanded background checks with a familiar take: Congress didn’t pass the Manchin-Toomey gun compromise because President Obama failed to “twist arms.” As with its columnist Maureen Dowd, the Times makes no mention of the GOP’s near-unanimous decision to filibuster the proposal; in this narrative of Washington, the choices made by individual lawmakers are irrelevant—only the president has any agency. As such, the Times —and various Beltway reporters—can focus their stories on why Obama failed to win GOP votes, and not on the calculations that led Republicans to oppose expanded background checks, even as they earned wide support from the public. For that, you have to look at the broader political landscape. President Obama won reelection by nearly five million votes, but he didn’t win a majority of congressional districts, and only won half of all states. For a large chunk of Congress, there’s no particular reason to support Obama’s...

Obama Is a Supporting Character

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) President Barack Obama makes an opening statement during his news conference yesterday in the East Room of the White House. The president says the economy cannot afford a tax increase on all Americans and is calling on congressional Republicans to support an extension of existing tax rates for households earning $250,000 or less. “Why couldn’t Barack Obama pass gun control?” is a bad question. Not because there isn’t a story to tell about the new push for gun regulations, but because Obama isn’t the main character. On broad questions like gun control and immigration reform, the president has a say, but the show belongs to Congress and all of its dysfunctions. The Manchin-Toomey plan for expanded background checks hit familiar barriers—the filibuster, near-unanimous Republican opposition, skittish red state Democrats—and failed as a result. The president can’t “pass” legislation—the most he can do is influence, pressure, and cajole. And even that depends on...

Why Did Gun Control Fail?

Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Gage Skidmore/Flickr Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. With near-unanimous support from the public, how did President Obama’s plan for expanded background checks fail? The easy answer is it ran into the same barriers that have kept Democrats from passing any legislation over the last two years: Hyper-partisanship, joined with malapportionment in the Senate, routine filibusters, and a 60-vote threshold for cloture. Writing at Buzzfeed, Ruby Cramer and Evan McMorris-Santoro offer a more granular take , critiquing the particular political strategy pursued by the White House: But others said the White House’s campaign was encumbered by allowing urgency to fade; pursuing too many issues at once; overreaching in the early stages of the gun debate; and fundamentally failing to mobilize Obama’s legendary grassroots to pressure lawmakers. Each is a fair point, though it’s hard to see how they...

Torture Report

Flickr/Shrieking Tree
As Americans grapple with the tragic bombings in Boston on Monday and the U.S. government works to track down those responsible, a new report on detainee treatment after 9/11 sheds important light on some of the measures adopted by the U.S. government in response to that attack. Issued by a panel convened by the Constitution Project , and chaired by two former members of Congress, Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat James R. Jones, the 577-page report looks at the broad range of policies and practices that were adopted by the U.S. to deal with detainees after the September 11 attacks. “Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel,” the report’s opening states , “is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.” The new report states that in addition to methods that qualify as torture, “American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading’ treatment. Both categories of...

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