Congress

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...

The Senate Kills Background Checks, and Obama Gets Angry

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza "The President reacts as John Brennan briefs him on the details of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Yesterday, a Republican filibuster killed the Senate compromise on expanded background checks, which had support from 54 senators, including its authors, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Skittish red-state Democrats like Montana’s Max Baucus, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, Alaska’s Mark Begich, and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor joined the opposition, voting to uphold the filibuster and defeat the proposal. Lawmakers are risk averse, and congressional cowardice is the norm, but this was a particularly shameful instance of doing the wrong thing. No one expects red-state Democrats to vote for new gun regulations, but there’s no reason to support a filibuster and prevent a vote. As for arguments against the bill itself? Manchin-Toomey was a modest package designed to keep guns away from...

The Fed’s Foreclosure-Relief Fail

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File
AP Photo/Don Ryan L ike far too many Americans, Debbie Marler of South Point, Ohio has her own foreclosure horror story. It involves one house, seven fraudulent mortgage assignments, three foreclosures, as many states, and five years. It ruined her career prospects, threatened her retirement security, and turned her life into what she calls “a living nightmare.” This week, Debbie walked to her mailbox and found what the federal government considers appropriate compensation for this odyssey of suffering at the hands of JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank. A check for $800. “I was speechless, just a complete shock,” Debbie said. “That doesn’t even pay for the damn U-Haul from when I moved out of the house in the first place.” The money is a product of the Independent Foreclosure Reviews, part of an enforcement action against 14 banks for crimes committed in the foreclosure process. The IFRs, shepherded by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Reserve...

The Filibuster Strikes Again!

Google
Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid brokered a “gentlemen’s agreement” on the filibuster with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats wouldn’t try to seriously reform the filibuster if Republicans would limit use of the procedure on “motions to proceed” to legislation or nominations. The problem with this agreement is that there was never a political incentive for McConnell to keep his part of the deal. As we saw during President Obama’s first term, Republicans can filibuster legislation without consequence—the public is indifferent to the details of congressional procedure. And so, as soon as it became inconvenient, McConnell ditched the agreement. First with the filibuster of Caitlin Halligan’s nomination to the DC circuit court, and now, with the Manchin-Toomey compromise on gun control : The Senate plans to vote on nine proposed changes to a gun control bill Wednesday, with a centerpiece proposal on background checks appearing headed for defeat. The chief...

Reinhart and Rogoff's Theory of Government Debt is Dead

NBER
Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff wrote a wildly influential book four years ago called This Time Is Different .* The thesis of the book is that when a government has a debt-to-GDP ratio above 90 percent, it is terrible for economic growth. The authors also followed up with a couple of papers arguing the same thing. Pro-austerity forces here and elsewhere in the world have seized upon the book to push their favored policies. From the beginning, the paper was met with extreme skepticism among the left. The theory could have gotten the causation backwards: perhaps low growth drives high debt, not the other way around. The theory also seemed hard to understand within any macroeconomic frame. It would follow from it that a government that holds assets instead of selling them to reduce debt somehow caused growth to decline, which is just a very confusing idea. The conceptual problems could iterate on and on. Beyond those problems, other researchers also had a hard time replicating their...

What Does "Balance the Budget" Even Mean?

Flickr/ferntech
This is a story about the deficit scolds who substitute attitude for argument and how they use the public’s ignorance about the federal budget to their advantage. It comes from sparring over the House Republican budget, which Republicans claim will achieve a balanced budget within ten years, and Barack Obama’s budget, which he will be submitting to Congress this week. Neither gets us to a zero deficit. The White House spin has been that balancing the budget isn’t an important goal by itself—deficits, surpluses, or balance are only means to the end of a growing economy or creating jobs. In line with that thinking, last week White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said, “You don’t want to balance the budget for the purposes of just balancing the budget.” As Slate’s Matt Yglesias points out , the White House is correct: There's no magic economic reason to run a balanced budget every year. Reducing the debt really is only a good idea if it is done in the service of some other goal. Less debt...

Marco Rubio Commits to Immigration Reform

Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been involved with immigration-reform talks since the beginning of the year, but there’s always been a question of his commitment—does Rubio want to pass a bill, or does he just want the political benefits of advocacy without the substantive trouble of legislating? If this sounds cynical, recall that—at almost every turn over the last few months—Rubio has threatened to derail talks over a series of non-issues, accusing Democrats of supporting amnesty and rushing negotiations, though neither has happened. But with the announcement of a bill from the Senate “Gang of Eight,” Rubio has moved from wavering critic to straightforward ally. As Pema Levy reports for Talking Points Memo , Rubio took center stage on several talk shows yesterday, making a full-throated pitch to his fellow Republicans on the need for a comprehensive bill, and the advantages of the one on the table: To Sen. Lee’s preference for a piecemeal approach, Rubio argued that the...

Bi-Partisanship We Don’t Need

Flickr/BeckyF
John Boehner, Speaker of the House, revealed why it’s politically naive for the president to offer up cuts in Social Security in the hope of getting Republicans to close some tax loopholes for the rich. “If the President believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there’s no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes,” Boehner said in a statement released Friday. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor agreed. He said on CNBC he didn’t understand “why we just don’t see the White House come forward and do the things that we agree on” such as cutting Social Security, without additional tax increases. Get it? The Republican leadership is already salivating over the president’s proposed Social Security cut. They’ve been wanting to cut Social Security for years. But they won’t agree to close tax loopholes for the rich. They’re already characterizing the president’s plan as a way to “save” Social Security—even though the cuts would undermine it...

Closing the Gun Show Loophole: Better Than Nothing?

Flickr/Brittany Randolph
Ah, bipartisan compromise, just what the country is yearning for. We saw some yesterday, as NRA favorite Pat Toomey and NRA favorite Joe Manchin got together to see if they could come up with a plan for universal background checks, which as everyone knows are supported by 90 percent of the public in just about every poll that's been taken on the subject. What they produced, however, wasn't anything like "universal." Is it better than nothing? Sure. Should it be celebrated? Eh. Toomey and Manchin's proposal would close the "gun-show loophole," meaning if you buy a gun at a show you'll have to submit to a background check. It also covers sales over the Internet. What it doesn't cover is private sales between one person and another. You've probably heard the figure that 40 percent of gun sales happen outside licensed dealers, and while the evidence for this figure is thin , nobody really knows if it's too high or too low. Furthermore, nobody knows what proportion of that 40 percent...

The New Deal That Could Have Been

Courtesy W. W. Norton and Company
I nvoking “dysfunction” is now the basic black of punditry about American politics. As the British political theorist David Runciman recently observed in the London Review of Books , “Commentators find it almost impossible to write about American democracy these days without reaching for the word ‘dysfunctional.’” Consider the lowlights of our political culture in just the past 15 years: a puerile impeachment; the subsequent president elected via a Supreme Court filled with political allies; a radicalized Republican Party, convinced that taxation and domestic government spending are a form of socialism; a failure by bipartisan elites even to prioritize, let alone tackle, continued high unemployment and the looming catastrophe of climate change. As Runciman’s editors titled his own essay on America’s lumbering democracy, “How can it work?” Courtesy of W. W. Nortn and Company It is one measure of the power of Ira Katznelson’s important, overstuffed new book, Fear Itself: The New Deal...

Is Gun Control Out for the Count?

Flickr/HellerDK
Crashmaster0007/Flickr I mmediately after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the conventional wisdom was that Congress would act to pass new gun-control laws. How else, after all, would you respond to the massacre of 20 children? But while Sandy Hook galvanized gun-control supporters—including President Barack Obama—to act, it didn’t dissolve opposition. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies in Congress have had great success in intimidating lawmakers and weakening proposed regulations. It’s because of the NRA that an assault-weapons ban is off the table, as are proposals that would place limits on magazine sizes. As of yet, however, the NRA hasn’t been able to kill a proposal for universal background checks. It’s the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s push for gun control, and the main point of the president's activism on the issue. What’s more, as reported yesterday by The Washington Post , several lawmakers are working on a deal to move forward with the...

Obama Pleads for Empathy on Guns

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has portrayed himself as Washington's last reasonable man, pleading that we can find some common ground on almost any issue despite our disagreements if we just listen to each other and open our hearts a little. Republicans complain that it's all just an act—he's just trying to look like the reasonable one, to make his opponents look more intransigent and stubborn and gain the upper hand politically. That may be partly true, even though they don't need his help to look unreasonable; they do a fine job of it all by themselves. The latest narrative on the gun issue is that the prospects for meaningful legislation are slipping away as the tragedy of Newtown fades from our ridiculously short memories and members of Congress feel little of the public pressure required for them to stand up to the NRA. So Obama has been campaigning for his favored legislation, and yesterday he gave a speech in Colorado, the centerpiece of which was a plea to both sides...

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