Congress

The Summers Dossier

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
To: President Obama From: Your Political Team Re: Larry Summers Vetting Report Dear Mr. President, Welcome home. You have several immense challenges in the coming days and weeks: marshaling support for the Syria attack, dealing with the next artificial budget crisis contrived by the Republicans, and continuing to move forward with implementation of the Affordable Care Act against fierce partisan opposition. This memo on Larry Summers’s confirmation as Federal Reserve Chairman is written with all that in mind. The staff investigation of Summers in anticipation of a potentially bruising confirmation hearing is now complete, and you face a tricky decision. On the one hand, there is no single smoking gun that disqualifies him outright. With a lot of political heavy lifting, we might get Summers confirmed. On the other hand, it would eat up a lot of political capital and credibility at a time when we are seeking to rebuild both, not to incur political debts needlessly. Here are Summers’s...

How To Get Single-Payer Health Care, and More!

Based on Congressional Republicans’ apparently overwhelming opposition to President Obama’s proposal to strike Syrian military facilities in retaliation for the government’s use of chemical weapons, a new way to enact progressive legislation in the United States has become apparent. When he returns from Russia, the president should announce he is scrapping Obamacare and calling on Congress to outlaw all forms of public and private health insurance. Congressional Republicans will respond by extending Medicare to all. The president should call on Congress to repeal the 1938 legislation establishing the minimum wage. Congressional Republicans will respond by raising the wage to $15-an-hour. The president should call on Congress to outlaw unions. Congressional Republicans will respond by favoring card-check in union elections. The president should call on Congress to halve the federal government’s budget across the board, effective immediately. Congressional Republicans will respond by...

The Fundamental Problem with the Argument for Airstrikes

Nicholas Kristof has a column that exemplifies why the case for bombing Syria is so unconvincing. There's a fundamental bait-and-switch at the heart of the article, using the (uncontested) fact that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a monstrous tyrant to skate over the question of what exactly airstrikes against Syria would do about it. Over and over again, Kristof notes the death toll of the civil war in Syria: It’s all very well to urge the United Nations and Arab League to do more, but that means that Syrians will continue to be killed at a rate of 5,000 every month. So far, we’ve tried peaceful acquiescence, and it hasn’t worked very well. The longer the war drags on in Syria, the more Al Qaeda elements gain strength, the more Lebanon and Jordan are destabilized, and the more people die. It’s admirable to insist on purely peaceful interventions, but let’s acknowledge that the likely upshot is that we sit by as perhaps another 60,000 Syrians are killed over the next year. Today,...

Amid the Unwashed Masses

Flesh pressed, opinions heard. (Flickr/Rep. George Miller)
Over the next couple of weeks, we'll probably be seeing a lot of stories in which a member of Congress goes back to the home district and is confronted by worried/angry/surly constituents demanding we stay out of Syria. Here's a piece in today's New York Times about Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA) hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in today's Washington Post about Representative Gerry Connolly hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in Politico about John McCain hearing from skeptical citizens. This is almost invariably described as the politician "getting an earful." For some reason, we never refer to someone getting an earful of praise or support; the ears of our representatives can only be filled with displeasure or contempt. In the old days before polling, grizzled political reporters would literally go door to door and do their own informal polls to see what people thought about an election or a policy debate; they'd get a sense of the public will, along...

The Syria Debate Is Very Good for Some People

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
My assumption all along, one I'm still (uneasily) holding to, is that when the debate is over, Congress will give Obama the authority he's asking for to attack Syria, just as it has every other time a president has asked. (There have been a couple of occasions in which Congress voted against a military action, but in those cases the president hadn't actually requested the vote; they were congressional protests against something that had already begun.) But a congressional rebuke, particularly in the House, is starting to look like a real possibility. This is a Congress unlike any that came before it, and the unusual nature of this proposed action—offered mostly as a punishment for something that already happened, with barely a claim that it will do much if anything to stop future massacres so long as they're done with conventional weapons—may combine to set a new historical precedent. It was pretty remarkable to see Republican members of Congress yesterday yelling at John Kerry about...

Obama Punts to Congress on Syria—and Scores

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Evan Vucci P resident Obama just might pull off his proposed Syria attack. And a limited strike to punish Assad, take out much of his air force, and deter future chemical attacks just might be the least bad of the available options, none of which are good. The strategy might also be astute domestic politics, since it exposes the opportunistic fault lines in the Republican Party and could cast the president as a strong leader for once. One intriguing question that follows from the Syria politicking is why Obama occasionally seems so effective at foreign policy and the attendant domestic politics, and then appears so consistently feckless and disappointing when it comes to domestic policy and politics writ large. More on that in a moment. Six days ago, Obama looked like he’d wimped out again. He had overruled most of his staff, who were counseling a quick strike based on his commander-in-chief authority. Instead, Obama, a reluctant warrior, punted to Congress. The surprise move...

Information Sharing Is Caring

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster M any members of Congress are either yahoos who couldn’t find Syria on a map or partisan hacks who make policy choices purely based on political expediency. And yet: The best thing about President Barack Obama’s decision to ask Congress to authorize a strike against the government of President Bashar Assad is that it increases the chances that the eventual road taken by the United States in Syria will be a good one. In fact, cases such as this one demonstrate the advantages of a more democratic system when it comes to achieving smart policy over a system which relies purely on the rule of experts. The problem for the presidency is always one of information. How do presidents know what policy to follow? In almost all cases, the president cannot fall back on his own personal knowledge. And, as with most presidents, Barack Obama’s personal expertise was quite limited before he entered the White House. So in the first instance, Obama must turn to the departments...

Leave the Munich Pact Out of This, John Kerry

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster
Somewhat at odds with its place in western political lore as the ultimate symbol of appeasement and betrayal, Munich is actually a really nice city. (Really, how could any city whose cultural life is significantly arranged around the appreciation of beer not be?) Visiting in 2011 I was taken on a group tour of the city that terminated at the Konigsplatz, the plaza that’s become the center of Munich’s museum and art gallery district. Our guide led us past a group of breakdancing teens to the Fuhrerbau, the former Nazi Party Headquarters which sits at the edge of the plaza. Now home to a music and theater academy, the Fuhrerbau is the building where the infamous Munich pact —the 1938 agreement recognizing Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia, which convinced Adolph Hitler that European leaders were not willing to risk war to stop German expansionism—was signed. “And here,” our guide said, leading us inside, around the building’s grand staircase and into a...

Let's Not Give the White House a Blank Check in Syria

With Congress highly unlikely to take the initiative, Barack Obama did something unexpected and good for American constitutionalism: he asked for congressional approval for military action against Syria. His recognition that warmaking is fundamentally a shared rather than a unilateral presidential power is most welcome. But this victory for a more rational policy process will ring hollow if Congress gives the Obama administration everything it's asking for. Admittedly, not everyone sees Obama asking Congress to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities as a good thing. You may remember the second Bush administration from such events as ... oh, I don't know ... the several catastrophic foreign policy blunders that happened under its watch. Rather than permanently hiding their heads in shame, several architects of these military and human rights disasters are publicly complaining about Obama's turn from presidential unilateralism. John Yoo, the arbitrary torture advocate and producer...

The Republican Team Effort on Obamacare Obstruction

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, you have to give Republicans credit for sheer sticktoitiveness. They tried to defeat the law, but it passed. They tried to get the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional, but that didn't work. So now, as the open-enrollment period for the exchanges approaches on October 1, they're thinking creatively to find new ways to sabotage the law. Sure, at this point that means screwing over people who need insurance , but sometimes there's unavoidable collateral damage when you're fighting a war. Their latest target is the Obamacare "navigators." Because not just the law but the insurance market itself can be pretty complicated, the ACA included money to train and support people whose job it would be to help people get through this new system, answering consumers' questions and guiding them through the process. Grants have been given to hospitals, community groups, charities like the United Way, churches, and the like in the 34 states that are...

War Powers for Dummies

Nixon and Kissinger meet with John Wayne, probably to talk about how Congress is a bunch of no-good varmints. (White House photo)
Congress is now debating—informally until they return to session on Monday, formally thereafter—whether we should take military action against the Syrian government. But the Obama administration has made clear its belief that it doesn't actually need congressional approval for the strikes it plans to undertake. Are they right? Herewith, a brief explainer on presidents, Congress, and war powers: Doesn't the Constitution give Congress this power? The Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war, but it also says that the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. So the way presidents have usually responded is simply by not bothering to ask for a declaration of war when they want to begin a military undertaking. In fact, the last time Congress declared war was in 1942, when it did so against Romania, or as it was known then, Rumania. There were six separate war declarations in World War II, one for each country in the Axis (see here for more detail on our 11 war...

Will Congress Continue to Refuse Its War Powers Responsibilities?

AP Photo
Matt Duss has an excellent piece for the Prospect explaining why military action against Syria is probably a terrible idea on policy grounds. In addition to the question of whether the policy is wise, however, it's worth considering whether a unilateral decision to attack Syria by the president would be legal. At the outset, I should make clear that I'm talking purely about legality under domestic law; I'll leave the question of whether military action against Syria is justified under international law to others . I also don't subscribe to the the most formalist conception of the president's military power, which holds that any non-emergency action by the president requires a congressional declaration of war. Military action accompanied by a congressional authorization for military action (as with the second Iraq War) should be considered clearly constitutional, and I'm inclined to think that presidential initiations of military force in the face of congressional silence are...

Total Eclipse of the Fetal Heart

AP Images/Rogelio V. Solis
B y the end of July, it was clear opponents of abortion were going to have a banner year. In the first half of 2013, state legislatures across the country enacted dozens of restrictions on abortion clinics that will slim their hours or shutter them completely. States like Wisconsin and Indiana added requirements like ultrasounds and waiting periods for women seeking the procedure. After a high-profile debate , Texas passed a law that bars abortion after 20 weeks, bringing the total number of states with similar bans to 11. The show’s far from over. Earlier this month, at a press conference that featured the Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting fame, two Ohio state legislators announced they were restarting the fight for one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. House Bill 248, generally known as the “Fetal Heartbeat Bill,” was introduced on August 22 in the House Committee on Health and Aging, chaired by the bill’s co-sponsor, state representative Lynn Wachtmann. This...

Brian Sims Wants to Fix Pennsylvania

AP Photo
AP Photo Representative Brian Sims, a Democrat, is blocked from speaking on the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by a colleague citing "God's law." S ince he beat longtime incumbent Babette Josephs in the race to represent Philadelphia’s Center City, Brian Sims has made a name for himself as a strong supporter of LGBT rights. As one of the first openly gay representatives in the state—shortly after he was elected to office, Republican Mike Fleck also came out—he has introduced legislation to legalize same-sex marriage as well as an employment nondiscrimination bill protecting LGBT workers in the state. But Sims is also a strong progressive across the board: He’s voted against privatizing the state’s liquor industry , which he says would kill “good union jobs,” spoken against Republican efforts to restrict access to abortion, and fiercely criticized current Governor Tom Corbett’s massive cuts to education spending. He most recently made headlines after a scuffle on...

All the Pretty Little Districts

Why you need to stop whining about gerrymandering

flickr/Andy Proehl
Of all the good-government obsessions that keep people focused on process instead of substance, one of the very worst—and I know that lots of you reading this share it—is over the “unfairness” of how congressional district lines are drawn. Within that overrated problem, there’s nothing worse than the obsession with pretty and ugly districts. Really: let it go. If you care about politics and public policy, find something else to worry about. This paragraph of polite rage is brought to you by a current feature over at Slate ridiculing funny shaped House districts—such as one in Maryland which, as Chris Kirk tells us, has been called “’a crazy quilt,’ ‘a blood spatter from a crime scene,’ and a ‘broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.’” Kirk brings us through the most successful partisan gerrymanders of the last cycle—Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and a few more. And it’s true: In a handful of states, partisan gerrymanders really did cost Democrats (...

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