Congress

Simpler Is Better

(Flickr / James Milstid)
On Saturday, The Wall Street Journal ran one of its trademark editorials making fun of government red tape—the massive regulations required to implement the Affordable Care Act; the 398 different rulemakings necessary to carry out the Dodd-Frank Act, and a great deal more. I seldom agree with the Journal ’s editorial page, but it makes an unintentional point: Government regulations have become so complex that they can’t do their job. Or at best, the sheer complexity makes the government sitting ducks for the mischief of industry lobbyists looking to further complicate the rules with loopholes. But where does the complexity come from? It comes from the metastasized abuses of the private sector and the success of the business elite in getting government to pass laws with plenty of room for industry to maneuver. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, by contrast, was simplicity itself. It ran just a few pages and didn’t need 398 different rulemakings to carry it out. The act provided that you...

Under Water Pressure

Nearly 400 years after the first Thanksgiving, the Navajo and Hopi are fighting the coal industry for rights to their land.

(Canadian Press via AP Images)
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, center, accompanied by Senator Jeff Bingaman, right, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, October 1, 2009, to discuss future activities relating to the Navajo-Gallup water supply project. F ive years after the Wampanoag tribe shared a three-day feast of maize, venison, eel, and shellfish with a hapless group of English separatists in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Dutch governor of New York bought the island of Manhattan from the Canarsie tribe for $24 worth of gold. This week, thousands of New Yorkers will fly out of La Guardia for Thanksgiving, and those fortunate enough to do so in the evening will enjoy a spectacular view of the return on that investment; phosphorescent skyscrapers and over a hundred-thousand streetlights trace a real-estate market valued at just under $1 trillion. Nowhere else has the memory of conquest been so thoroughly blotted out, and perhaps as an extension, nowhere else...

Goodbye to Barney Frank

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
For The Advocate , I conducted an exit interview with Barney Frank, the first voluntarily out LGBT member of Congress. I needn't tell Prospect readers that Frank has had an incredibly distinguished career as a legislator on behalf of the downtrodden, progressive attack dog, gay advocate, and master of the withering soundbite. Before I went, I told my wife that my goal was to be told a particular question was "stupid" fewer than three times. In fact, I didn't hear that once. Do we need any more evidence that imminent retirement has mellowed the man? Frank said a couple of things that I found immensely moving, and which I'll excerpt here. I asked him why, when he spoke with Jason Zengerle of New York Magazine , he listed progress on LGBT issues as the first of the accomplishments he was proud of—before financial reform. Here's what he said when I asked him why: [Financial reform] may be important to more people—but it’s not as important as your own personal dignity and rights. We went...

Colorado Voters' Power of the Purse

Current and former lawmakers are taking the Taxpayer Bill of Rights to court for a second opinion.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski) Workers install a large U.S. flag and a Colorado State Seal on the west side of the Capitol in Denver on Friday, January 7, 2011, as part of the decoration for the inauguration of Governor-elect John Hickenlooper. M any states have provisions designed to limit the amount of taxes their legislatures can raise, but only Colorado has gone so far as to pass the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Known as TABOR, Colorado’s unique constellation of confusing laws prevents the state legislature from raising taxes without public approval and caps the amount the government can spend in a way that’s designed to shrink it over time. All levels of government—city, county, and state—are limited in what they can spend by a complicated formula, which basically indexes revenue to inflation plus population growth. If the tax revenues the state and local governments collect in any given year are higher than the cap, which happens in good economic times or when there is an influx of new...

Is Mitch McConnell the Worst?

Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Gage Skidmore / Flickr I think most people can agree that Kentucky's Mitch McConnell is one of the most innovative Senate Minority Leaders in recent memory. His insight—that the opposition party can obstruct and force the majority party to bear the public’s discontent—helped give Republicans a House majority in 2010, and gave the GOP a fighting chance in this year’s presidential election (see: Mitt Romney’s late-game promise to bring bipartisanship to Washington). If Romney had won—and if Republicans had taken the Senate—you could credibly argue that McConnell was one of the most successful minority leaders in modern history. Indeed, he would have been one of the chief architects behind a massive political comeback. In the real world, however, Barack Obama won reelection and Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate. And in the same way that Obama’s legacy would have been tarnished had he lost reelection, is it the case that McConnell’s is harmed because he failed to deliver the...

Give It Up, John Kerry

Center for American Progress Action Fund/Flickr
Center for American Progress Action Fund/Flickr J ust this morning , incoming Maine Senator Angus King, an independent, announced that he would be caucusing with Democrats, giving the party a working majority of 55 members—53 Democrats and two independents (the other is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders). Among many other things, this makes it more likely that Massachusetts Senator John Kerry will be plucked from Congress and given a job in the administration, where he would likely serve as Secretary of Defense. Indeed, as the Washington Post reported yesterday, administration officials see the larger Senate majority as an opportunity to grab a candidate that they like: [A]dministration officials, one of whom described Kerry as a “war hero,” said his qualifications for the defense job included not only his naval service in Vietnam but also his knowledge of the budget and experience in the diplomacy that has increasingly become a part of the defense portfolio. They said the Democrats’...

Nancy Pelosi, Same Job, Different Coalition

(Flickr/Talk Radio News Service)
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference with newly elected Democratic House members on Capitol Hill. N ancy Pelosi has confounded expectation before. Following the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans recaptured the House on a wave of Tea Party indignation, Pelosi was widely, and unjustly, criticized for leading House Democrats to debacle. She had played a key role in enacting Obamacare, a program that the Obama administration chose not to defend as Election Day drew nigh. She had not paid enough attention to solving the recession, critics argued, though in fact House Democrats had passed additional stimulus measures that failed to surmount Senate filibusters. It was time, the critics said, for her to go. But Pelosi disagreed, and her House colleagues turned out to be in no mood to challenge her decision. Now, once again, she has surprised the Washington conventional wisdom by signing on for another two years atop the House...

Why Obama Needs to Restart the Conversation on the Economy Now

When the applause among Democrats and recriminations among Republicans begin to quiet down—probably within the next few days—the President will have to make some big decisions. The biggest is on the economy. His victory and the pending “fiscal cliff” give him an opportunity to recast the economic debate. Our central challenge, he should say, is not to reduce the budget deficit. It’s to create more good jobs, grow the economy, and widen the circle of prosperity. The deficit is a problem only in proportion to the overall size of the economy. If the economy grows faster than its current 2 percent annualized rate, the deficit shrinks in proportion. Tax receipts grow, and the deficit becomes more manageable. But if economic growth slows—as it will, if taxes are raised on the middle class and if government spending is reduced when unemployment is still high—the deficit becomes larger in proportion. That’s the austerity trap Europe finds itself in. We don’t want to go there. This is why...

Why the House Didn’t Flip

(AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)
Here’s a paradox. The networks’ exit poll taken yesterday shows that 50 percent of voters cast their vote for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives, while just 48 percent said they voted for Republican candidates. Yet even as President Barack Obama won re-election and Senate Democrats not only didn’t lose their majority but picked up one or two seats, House Republicans suffered no diminution of their power and may end up losing just a handful of seats, if any. The Democrats had hoped to pick up the 25 seats they needed to retake the House, but they fell depressingly short. This paradox grows starker when we look at individual states. Obama carried Pennsylvania, for instance, by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent, and Democratic Senator Bob Casey defeated his Republican challenger by 53 percent to 45 percent. But Democrats won just 5 of the state’s 18 House seats, losing one incumbent in the process. In neighboring Ohio, the president carried the state by two points...

The Only Mandate That Matters

On Wednesday, we'll begin talking about whether whoever gets elected has a "mandate." We'll talk about it even more if Barack Obama is re-elected, because when a new president takes office we accept that he'll be doing all kinds of new things, changing course on almost every policy, replacing all the members of the other party who populate the executive branch with members of his own party, etc. With a re-elected president, on the other hand, there's a real question about where he goes from here and how much he can try to accomplish. There's a fundamental problem with the mandate idea, however, that makes it almost meaningless in today's Washington. The mandate notion assumes that the larger the president's margin of victory, the greater the proportion of the public has signed on to his policy agenda. That's not completely unreasonable, though in practice most voters have only the vaguest notion of what the person they're voting for wants to do. But the idea of the mandate is about...

In Nevada, Will Demographics Trump Ethics?

(AP Photo/Nevada Appeal, Chad Lundquist)
(AP Photo/Nevada Appeal, Chad Lundquist) Representative Shelley Berkley of Nevada during a news conference prior to her speech to the state legislature in Carson City, Nevada I f Democrat Rep. Shelley Berkley still has a shot at ousting Republican Dean Heller from one of Nevada’s two senatorial seats next Tuesday, she should get none of the credit. Mired in scandal, under investigation by the House Ethics Committee, Berkley shouldn’t have a prayer in next week’s election. Yet she does—because Nevada’s burgeoning Latino population is moving the state leftward, because Heller trumpets his anti-immigrant stance, and because Barack Obama and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid both have fearsome get-out-the-voter operations in the state that will get those Latinos to the polls. The Nevada race is one of five senatorial contests this year in which the Democrats have a chance to flip a seat that’s currently Republican. (The other four are in Maine, Massachusetts, Indiana, and...

Ohio's Brown Revolution

(Flickr/SEIU)
United States Senator Sherrod Brown is wearing Velcro strap sneakers. They are distinctly geriatric in flavor, black and sturdy-looking, the sort that might be found in the “Mall Walking” section of the shoe wall at FootLocker. Brown is wearing them with a suit. On stage. At a big Teamsters rally a couple of weeks before Election Day. Say what you will about Brown—and plenty has been said about the liberal bête noire of national conservatives during this election cycle—but the man certainly has his own distinct brand of business casual. And in his fierce race to maintain his Senate seat against Republican State Treasurer Josh Mandel, it just might be Brown’s brand of who-gives-a-hoot sartorial schlump and off-the-cuff crankiness that is winning Ohio voters over. His opponent is a trim, smooth-faced 35-year-old Iraq War veteran who favors pin-neat suits and a crisp haircut reminiscent of a Marine buzz. Mandel stands in stark physical contrast to the 59-year-old Brown, who sports an...

Paul Ryan's Other Opponent

(Flickr/Rob Zerban for Congress)
Flickr/Rob Zerban for Congress) Rob Zerban giving a speech in early October as he delivered 50,000 petition signatures to Paul Ryan's office requesting a debate. Paul Ryan's congressional district should be prime swing territory for Democrats. The party held the seat from the 1970s through the mid '90s, and it switches its allegiances during presidential years, voting for Bush in '04 but flipping to Obama in '08. Yet for some reason Democrats haven't bothered lately to field a serious opponent against Ryan. Ryan—the boyish-faced Rage Against the Machine rocker who wears a backwards baseball cap to workout—might look like he just stepped out his college frat house before joining Mitt Romney on the Republican national ticket, but he's actually be in office since 1998, with nary a threat to his seat. This time, Rob Zerban just might be up to the task. Zerban, who formerly owned a catering business in the area, is a staunch liberal, supporting the Congressional Progressive Caucus's budget...

Turning the Cliff into a Launch Pad

One part of the dreaded fiscal cliff actually presents an opportunity that could be good politics and good economics. The temporary two-point cut in the payroll tax expires January 1 (along with the Bush tax cuts). The $1.2 billion sequester also kicks in. Deficit hawks of both parties have been saying that it’s irresponsible to extend the payroll tax cut, while defenders of Social Security like the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) are opposed to an extension for fear of diverting revenue from the Social Security trust fundsand adding ammo to the crusade for cutting back the system’s benefits. But there is a nice opportunity here to turn a lemon into lemonade. The economy is hardly robust enough to inflict a two-point tax increase on working people. For two-income households, that’s a four-point increase. That means, say, a $2,400 tax hike on a $60,000 family income. Nobody is going to remember that this was temporary; they will simply experience it as a tax increase on...

Does God Want You to Be Raped?

You gotta love these heartland Republicans. From a Blue state point of view, the kinds of things that Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin, et al . have been saying are so eye-rollingly over the top that they seem designed precisely to keep Comedy Central and MSNBC in business. You know what I’m talking about, right? Akin started our heads spinning when he mansplained that if a woman gets pregnant, it couldn’t have been legitimate rape—because a woman’s bodies can only wash in those little swimmers if she was hot to trot to begin with. In this week’s installment of repro rights funnies, Mourdock explained on television that he was against abortion, even in the cases of rape and incest because: I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. ... And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen. The choking-on-thin-air sounds started immediately from women all over...

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