Congress

The Return of the Balanced Budget Amendment

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
S enate minority leader Mitch McConnell says Senate Republicans will unanimously support a balanced-budget amendment, to be unveiled Wednesday as the core of the GOP’s fiscal agenda. There’s no chance of passage so why are Republicans pushing it now? “Just because something may not pass doesn’t mean that the American people don’t expect us to stand up and be counted for the things that we believe in,” says McConnnell. The more honest explanation is that a fight over a balanced-budget amendment could get the GOP back on the same page—reuniting Republican government-haters with the Party’s fiscal conservatives. And it could change the subject away from social issues—women’s reproductive rights, immigration, gay marriage—that have split the Party and cost it many votes. It also gives the Party something to be for , in contrast to the upcoming fights in which its members will be voting against compromises to avoid the next fiscal cliff, continue funding the government, and raising the...

The President's Dream State

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Obama at last night's State of the Union address B y any measure, President Obama’s first term was consequential. In four years, he signed an $800 billion stimulus program into law, laid the foundation for universal health insurance, secured new regulations governing the financial sector, repealed "don't ask, don't tell," and put the United States on the path back to economic recovery. For his second term, he has an agenda that’s just as ambitious and—reflecting the coalition that re-elected him—unambiguously progressive. Other than a de rigeur nod to deficit reduction—he mentioned “the deficit” ten times—the speech ticked off a litany of liberal policies: Universal pre-school, a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions, a higher federal minimum wage (set at 9$ an hour, the highest it’s been since 1981), and billions more in new infrastructure spending to repair roads and bridges. That’s to say nothing of comprehensive immigration reform (with...

Anonymous Is Interested in You

Hacktivists continue to carve out new modes of political action.

Flickr/tsevis
Michael Gottschalk/dapd O n January 25, Anonymous, the international hacktivist collective, declared war on the U.S government. In the past two years, more than 20 Anonymous acolytes have been arrested in a string of high-profile operations, most notably disrupting online service of PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa in retribution for blacklisting WikiLeaks, and hacking a defense intelligence firm’s server and using the company’s credit card records to donate $1 million to war-related charities. Aaron Swartz, a figurehead of the Free Internet Movement who was facing 35 years in prison for downloading the online academic library JSTOR, committed suicide last month. Now, in honor of its fallen brethren, members of Anonymous say they have hacked and downloaded reams of compromising government documents, and likened the stolen data to “fissile material for multiple warheads” aimed at the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s the latest escalation in an unpredictable rise. Without formal...

Still Waiting for That GOP Fever to Break

Photo of Bay Bridge construction courtesy of Caltrans
Word is that in tomorrow's State of the Union address, Barack Obama is going to propose some new infrastructure spending. Not only as a way of boosting the economy in the short term by creating jobs in areas like construction, steel, concrete, those little plastic anchors you put around screws when you're putting them in brick, and so on, but also as an investment that pays long-term dividends in the form of bridges that work and sewer pipes that don't burst. As Neil Irwin points out , given the large number of construction workers sitting idle and the incredible fact that the United States can now borrow money at negative interest—something that won't be true forever—it would be crazy for us not to take advantage of this moment and start doing some long-overdue repairs. "One can easily imagine a deal," Irwin writes. "Democrats get their new infrastructure spending, and Republicans insist on a structure that requires private sector lenders to be co-investors in any projects, deploying...

Tomorrow's Republican Post-SOTU Whining Today

Here's a heads-up: After President Obama delivers his State of the Union address tomorrow, Republicans will wave their hands in front of their faces and whine that it was viciously, horribly, frighteningly "partisan." And what will this partisanship consist of? Hold on to your hat here. He's expected to argue for the same policies he has been arguing for and pursuing for the last four years . If the Republican members of Congress restrain themselves from shouting "You lie!" during the speech, it'll only be because of their superior breeding and manners. This, of course, is a follow-up to Obama's inauguration speech, which was condemned by Republicans not because he said anything mean about them, but because he talked about some of the policies he prefers. That, you see, is "partisanship," and when the other side does it, it's beyond the pale. So in today's Politico , under the headline "Obama's State of the Union: Aggressive," we read , without any particular evidence for the...

How Hard Will It Be to Find a Gun Dealer for Your Background Check?

Flickr/xomiele
According to some news reports out in the last day or so (see here and here ), a bipartisan group of senators, including two pro-gun Republicans (Tom Coburn and Mark Kirk), one pro-gun Democrat (Joe Manchin), and one not-so-pro-gun Democrat (Chuck Schumer) are making genuine progress in coming up with legislation to approach universal background checks for gun purchases, to close what is commonly known as the "gun-show loophole," but would be more properly known as the private-sale loophole, that when one person sells another person a gun, no background check is required. Never one to pass up an opportunity to make a graph or two, I thought I'd offer some data on federally licensed gun dealers, since they're going to be key to solving this problem. Despite the fact that around 90 percent of Americans in every poll support universal background checks, the NRA says that requiring checks in private sales will impose a terrible burden on law-abiding gun owners. So will it? Right now, if...

The Moderate's GOP Survival Guide

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta Former Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, who made waves in her 2010 campaign when she said she "dabbled into witchcraft." K arl Rove and big Republican donors are trying to rescue the GOP from more Christine "I am not a witch" O'Donnell-type embarrassments by funding a new group dedicated to stopping terrible candidates from winning Republican nominations . The impulse is a healthy one, but it’s going to take a lot more than some attack ads to stop extremist candidates. After all, most of the ugly Republican candidates from the last two cycles were relatively underfunded in their primaries; a little more money thrown into the pot against them is unlikely to make a difference, and it might, as Salon columnist Steve Kornacki has argued , even backfire if it winds up drawing Tea Party activists into a fight they might otherwise have ignored. At best, it will help on the margins. The larger question is what Republicans who want to...

Darrell Issa's Tight Spot

AP Photo/Nelvin Cepeda, Pool
Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on the status of the undocumented produced a united front of Republican support for legalizing those immigrants, but not allowing them to become citizens. Well, an almost united front. As Kitty Felde of Los Angeles public radio staton KPCC reported , one GOP Committee member dissented from his peers’ halfway-house stance. Darrell Issa, the sole Republican committee member from California, told Felde that he believes the undocumented should be allowed to become citizens. “I believe that that’s the inherently American thing to do,” he said. Issa is nobody’s idea of a Republican moderate—to the contrary, he’s a doctrinaire right-winger. As chair of the House Oversight Committee, moreover, Issa has consistently endeavored to inflate various Obama administration contretemps into full-blown scandals (Fast and Furious, Benghazi) despite the absence of supporting facts. But Issa also represents a district that, according to the 2010 Census, is 26...

No More Saturday Mail? Blame Yourself.

Flickr/hajee
Later today, the Postal Service will be releasing a plan intended to deal with its ongoing financial difficulties, the most headline-grabbing part of which is that they want to end Saturday delivery. People will be displeased, no doubt. Who among us doesn't like getting mail on Saturdays? But there may be no way out, because the agency's financial situation is so dire. Why did it come to this? There are three reasons: politicians, technology, and the greedy American public. First, Congress has screwed the Post Office, imposing rules that make it almost impossible to balance its books. Second, the rise of electronic communication has drastically reduced the volume of mail it handles, cutting its revenues. And third, we all expect to get fast, efficient, and universal postal service at absurdly low prices. So if mail delivery ends up being just five days a week, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves. Since I'm guessing you're not particularly inclined to peruse the Postal Service's...

A Shiny New GOP?

(Flickr/republicanconference)
Flickr/republicanconference O n Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor swung by the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to offer yet another "rebrand" for Republicans—the latest in a string of efforts to reinvent the struggling party. Speaking on the top floor of AEI's office in downtown Washington, D.C., Cantor steered clear of culture-war issues and refrained from talk about lowering taxes, which has become the party’s sole policy prescription over the past several years. His speech—focused on education, workers' woes, and immigration—lacked details behind the broad goals he outlined. But Cantor's vision for the Aggrieved Old Party showed a shift in emphasis, a way forward for a party that has failed to convince voters that it has an economic vision for the middle class. The biggest news from Cantor's speech was his oblique endorsement of the DREAM Act. "A good place to start is with the kids," Cantor said while discussing the need for immigration reform. "One of...

Citizens? They Want to Be Citizens?

Flickr/willpix
House Republicans convened their first hearing on immigration reform on Tuesday and made clear that they were scared to death of immigrants actually getting the vote. Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia set the tone when he made clear he was looking for a mid-range position somewhere between deporting and granting citizenship to the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. A nice, safe legal “resident” status, he suggested, never to be upgraded to that of citizen and voter. San Antonio’s Democratic Mayor Julian Castro took understandable exception to this idea in his testimony before the committee. “I just cannot imagine an America where we assign these folks to an underclass status,” he told the congressmen. Then again, Southern whites—the core of the modern Republican Party—have had historically high comfort levels with just such arrangements. Perhaps they should propose counting these non-citizen residents as three-fifths of a person in the next...

How the NRA Is Helping to Pass Gun Control

We're in the early stages of a lengthy process that will involve hearings, competing bills, horse-trading, and the usual ugliness of life in the Capitol Hill sausage factory, but the contours of gun legislation are beginning to take shape. Though President Obama is out campaigning for the full package of reforms he has been advocating, there are indications that the assault weapons ban may get dropped in order to forestall a Republican filibuster in the Senate, and a bipartisan group is about to introduce a bill in the House on gun trafficking and straw purchases. (I'll discuss the assault weapons question in a later post). In other words, the actual legislative process is getting underway. And though it's by no means assured that some gun measures will pass Congress, if any do, we'll partly have the NRA to thank. That's because, I believe, the organization fundamentally misread the role it plays in the minds of the average voter. They've become more extremist in the last two decades...

Going Back Too Soon

Without pay, many new parents can’t take the time off granted them by the FMLA.

AP Photo/Greg Gibson
Rex Features via AP Images P erla Saenz went back sore and exhausted just four weeks after giving birth—and two weeks after the incision from her C-section reopened. (She had heard her older child cough in the night and instinctively tried to pick him up, forgetting for a moment her doctor’s warning against lifting anything heavier than ten pounds.) Weak and sometimes feverish, she often found herself clutching the counter for support. Bernadette Cano was back on the job five weeks after giving birth. Though she was in better physical shape, she wasn’t ready to be apart from her son. “I was thinking about the baby all the time,” she told me tearfully from the break room of Walmart, where she worked in the dressing room. Under normal circumstances, she enjoyed the job tidying up the dressing rooms and returning clothes to the racks. But with her newborn son at home, she couldn’t think of anything else and even broke the company policy against texting so she could check in with her...

The Nullification Crisis, Part Deux

Wikipedia
Wikipedia John C. Calhoun, former vice president and senator from South Carolina. From its inception as part of Dodd-Frank financial, Republicans have been opposed to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency meant to protect consumers from predatory financial practices. In a sane political world, Republicans would register through the usual channels, including elections. If you want to change Washington—or even just an agency—the first order of business is winning elections. In the world as it exists, however, Republicans have decided to simply block any attempt at enforcing laws they don’t like. For the CFPB, this means blocking confirmation for its director—former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray—until the administration agrees to gut the agency and leave consumers more vulnerable to predatory financial practices: Senate Republicans are renewing their vow to block any nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) unless major changes are made to its...

He's Not Here to Make Friends

President Obama meeting with grim-faced members of Congress. (White House/Pete Souza)
If you walked into the home of an acquaintance and found yourself facing a wall of dozens of pictures of him shaking hands with powerful people, you'd probably think, "What a pompous ass. And how insecure do you have to be to put these things up on your wall? I get it, you're important. Sheesh." In Washington, however, these "brag walls" can be found all over town, particularly on Capitol Hill, where nearly every member of Congress has one. Maybe some offices do it just because that's what everyone else does, but you'd think that if you're a senator or member of Congress, the fact that you're an important person would be self-evident, and it wouldn't be necessary to make sure everyone who comes into your office knows that you've been in the same room as presidents and other high-ranking officials. There are some commercial establishments, like your local deli, that might put up pictures on their walls with the celebrities who have stopped in, but that's an understandable marketing...

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