Congress

It's Lonely At the Top

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
Last week, congressional Republicans got together at a Chesapeake Bay resort to contemplate their political fortunes. In one presentation, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor delivered a bit of shocking news to his colleagues : Most people are not, in fact, business owners. It would be a good idea, he suggested, if they could find a way to appeal to the overwhelming majority of Americans who work for somebody else. Their aspirations don't necessarily include opening up their own store or coming up with an amazing new product, so the prospect of lowering the corporate tax rate or slashing environmental regulations may not make their pulses quicken with excitement. They're more concerned with the availability of jobs, the security of health care, and the affordability of education. "Could it actually have taken Republicans that long to realize they should address such problems, especially when Democrats have made huge gains appealing directly to middle-class voters?" asked conservative...

No, We Aren't Getting Closer to Immigration Reform

Flickr/Donna Burton
Yesterday, congressional Republicans released a set of principles on immigration reform which are supposed to guide the writing of an actual plan. This has led some optimistic people to say that perhaps some kind of compromise between the two parties might be worked out, and reform could actually pass. I'm sorry to say that they're going to be disappointed. I might be proved wrong in the end. But I doubt it, because the fundamental incentives and the dynamics of the issue haven't changed. You still have a national party that would like very much to pass reform, and individual members of that party in the House of Representatives who have nothing to gain, and much to lose, by signing on to any reform that would be acceptable to Democrats and thus have a chance of passing the Senate and being signed by the President. So it isn't going to happen. Now it's true that in the wake of the government shutdown and the various debt ceiling crises, House conservatives have slightly less power to...

Liberalism’s Legislative Genius Calls It Quits

AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin
AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin T wo things to know about Henry Waxman: First, during his 40 years in Congress, he authored and steered to enactment the legislation that provided health care to millions, that put nutritional labeling on food, that gave rise to generic drugs, that provided medical care to people with AIDS, that greatly reduced smog and acid rain, that strengthened the safety standards for drinking water and food, and that signally reduced the number of Americans who smoke. Second, in achieving all this, he acquired a sobriquet: “that sonofabitch Waxman.” “I thought Henry’s first name was ‘sonofabitch,” his colleague and friend George Miller once said. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Do you know what that sonofabitch Waxman wants?” “People think, ‘Of course, we have laws that keep the drinking water safe and the air cleaner,’” Waxman told me yesterday, on the day he announced that he’d retire at the end of the current Congressional session after 40 years in Congress. “But none of...

Obama Threads the Needle

For Democrats, for liberals, today’s political climate poses a singular challenge. On one hand, poll after poll shows the public believes the economy is rigged against all but the rich. On the other, poll after poll shows that the same public—particularly after the disastrous roll-out of Obamacare—doesn’t believe government is the answer to the failings of the market economy. Indeed, recent polls show that the public mistrusts big government more than it does big business (which does not mean it holds big business in high, or even middlin’, esteem). Now, there’s precious little that can mitigate the growing inequalities of the current American market other than government and unions. But government is in disrepute and unions, in the private sector, have all but vanished. To his credit, President Obama not only knows this but has on occasion delivered robust defenses of government’s ability to counteract the structural deficiencies of the market through programs like Social Security,...

The Six Constituencies the State of the Union Actually Mattered To

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
AP Images/Charles Dharapak I t was a strange State of the Union Address—mixing emotional tugs on the heartstrings with anodyne rhetoric that made it seem like everyone from Barack Obama to the angriest Tea Party Republican was bored with the annual exercise. The speech had no over-arching theme save (yawn) America’s enduring greatness. There were hard-hitting sentences and paragraphs, but no dramatic policy proposals nor even bold, if unattainable, dreams. The State of the Union address was unlikely to anger anyone whether it was financial titans fearing economic Kristallnacht or Bashar al-Assad. For all of Obama’s rhetorical gifts, it was another speech that was mangled beyond recognition by the State of the Union sausage grinder. Before the speech, the agony of White House wordsmiths struggling with the State of the Union was memorably captured by Jeff Shesol, a Bill Clinton alum, who described the standard text as “written by a flash mob—a sudden aggregation, inside and around the...

GOP to Working Poor: Drop Dead

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
In one of the better lines in last night's State of the Union address , President Obama chided House Republicans for their endless series of votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act: "[L]et's not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that's already helping millions of Americans ... The first 40 were plenty." He followed up by observing that "we all owe it to the American people to say what we're for, not just what we're against." As it happens, last week three Republican senators outlined a plan that can be fairly described as a Republican plan to replace Obamacare. (The basic features of the plan are clearly described by Sarah Kliff of Wonkblog here .) Because most of the Republican Party convinced themselves in 2009 that a tax penalty for people who don't carry health insurance was a grave threat to the American constitutional order, the plan does not include an individual mandate. But otherwise, in its general priorities the plan strongly resembles the Heritage Plan of the...

Daily Meme: The State of Our Union? Super-Stoked, Apparently

State of the Union addresses used to be no-frills affairs— in 1790, George Washington delivered one that was probably around 6 minutes long to a joint session of Congress in New York City, leaving him plenty of time to swill a couple mugs of cider with his boys and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Thomas Jefferson hated public speaking, so he did away with the addressing Congress bit and just sent the gentlemen a letter—presidents did this until Woodrow Wilson decided in 1913 that he'd reclaim the podium. The modern predidency is pretty damn enamored of the speech, though. It's the ultimate big-swinging-dick moment in politics, where members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, activists, and the American public must sit and listen without interrupting to what the president has to say, for, in the case of President Obama, an average of 1 hour . As the speech has gotten longer and more formalized over the years, so has the hype surrounding it, along with the theater of the main event...

The Penultimate Watergate Baby

georgemiller.house.gov
The 1974 midterm elections, held in the wake of Watergate, were a Democratic landslide. The party increased its strength in the House of Representatives by more than 50 new members, many from suburban districts that had previously elected Republicans. The Watergate Babies, as the new members were called, were a different breed of Democrat than the veterans who represented more urban districts. They were not only more liberal on cultural issues and more committed to environmental causes than many more senior Democrats, but many of them were also less committed to the kind of bread-and-butter New Deal economic policies with which the party had been identified. In 1974, Jerry Brown was first elected governor of California preaching that the nation had entered an “era of limits,” by which he meant, limits to social spending. Gary Hart was first elected senator from Colorado, disparaging the politics of old labor Democrats. Today, just two Watergate babies remain in Congress, both from...

The Government Guide to Screwing Poor Homeowners

AP Images/Carlos Osorio
AP Images/Carlos Osorio T he December 28 th expiration of extended unemployment benefits, which cut off payments to 1.3 million recipients—and will cut off 3.6 million more over the next year—has dealt a painful body blow to the most vulnerable members of our society. Rolling back unemployment insurance to a maximum of 26 weeks when the average duration of unemployment is still 36 weeks puts millions of families’ lives in jeopardy. Another recently expired provision could cause comparable damage to the same population, but it has yet to trigger similarly urgent attention from lawmakers. The end of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act, which lapsed December 31, means that any type of debt forgiveness on a mortgage will result in a giant tax bill—one that a stressed homeowner cannot usually afford. Even homeowners entitled to compensation for past abuse by the mortgage-lending industry would be subject to unfavorable tax treatment. This will lead to more economically debilitating...

We Haven’t Heard the Last of Liz Cheney

AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Across North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia Monday morning, members of Al Qaeda were popping the (non-alcoholic, of course) champagne corks. Why? Because the news had just broken that Liz Cheney would be dropping out of the Wyoming Senate race . With this bold warrior-patriot no longer standing guard, America moved one tick closer to sharia rule, and Al Qaeda closer to ultimate global victory. Nonsense, of course, though when one considers the way Cheney announced her candidacy as the urgent and necessary response to a president who “has so effectively diminished our strength abroad that there’s no longer a question about whether this was his intent,” (yes, she suggested that Barack Obama went to the trouble of entering political life, running for Senate, then running for president just to make America weaker ) one could be forgiven for wondering if she actually thinks that. Cheney’s stated reason for her withdrawal from the race was that “ serious health issues have recently...

The Year in Preview: Obama's Last Stand

AP Images/Evan Vucci
M argaret Chase Smith, the pioneering Republican moderate senator from Maine, was asked by a reporter in the early 1950s what she would do if she awoke to find herself in the White House. She replied, “I’d go straight to Mrs. Truman and apologize. Then I’d go home.” Anyone trying to concoct an agenda for Barack Obama during his remaining 37 months in office should approach the task with similar modesty. The rocky terrain of 2013 is a reminder that life in the Oval Office usually becomes more dispiriting even as the furnishings grow more familiar. After five years, every two-term president (not just unequivocal failures like George W. Bush) has assembled a lengthy list of if-only and had-I-but-known regrets. As Obama’s average approval ratings have dipped to just above 40 percent in the polls (eerily similar to Bush’s numbers at an analogous point in his Oval Office tenure), the president is being offered more free advice than a puzzled do-it-yourselfer at Home Depot. Everyone has...

The Busy Bees of Capitol Hill

Working deep into the night. (Flickr/KP Tripathi)
As anyone who has worked in pretty much any job knows, "working" and "getting things done" are most assuredly not the same thing. Take Congress, for instance. These days, do they get things done? No, not if by getting things done you mean passing laws, which is ostensibly their job. Now it's true that members of Congress do other things—they conduct investigations, they help constituents track down errant Social Security checks, and so on—but they're lawmakers first and foremost, and we've seen few Congresses that have done less in the law-passing department than this one. What's strange, though, is that this inability to pass laws is often transmuted into the idea that members of Congress are lazy . I was glad to see Alex Seitz-Wald point this out today, because it's bothered me for a long time: When the House releases its calendar for the upcoming year, as it did for 2014 a few weeks ago, it inevitably elicits headlines like this: "Congress Working Less Than 1/3 of Year in 2014,...

A Dubious Budget Deal

The years of Republican obstructionism and the corporate campaign for deficit reduction have taken such a toll that merely the fact of getting a budget deal at all looks like a great achievement. This one is better than continued impasse, but the deal itself is a stinker. Representative Raul Grijanva, co-chair of the House progressive caucus, put it well: “I feel like punching myself in the face, but I’ll vote yes.” The deal does override the automatic sequester for this year. It will restore some $31.5 billion in sequester cut over the next two years in domestic spending, and a like amount in military spending. But those increases are against a backdrop of more than a trillion dollars of cuts over a decade. The deal nominally is deficit-neutral, because it adds new budget cuts in Medicare in 2022 and 2023. Even worse, the deal did not even include an extension of expiring extended unemployment insurance, at a time when the share long-term unemployed is stubbornly stuck. That...

The Vindictiveness of the Vitter Amendment

W ith poverty stuck at a decades-high rate of 15 percent, food stamps have proven to be one of the best ways to stop low-income Americans from slipping deeper into poverty. So it’s under attack, of course. Last week, majority leader John Boehner warned that a deal on the farm bill, through which the food-stamp program is authorized and funded, was not coming together. The House and Senate have passed dramatically different bills and now leaders in both chambers are scrambling to come up with a compromise bill that can pass both chambers and be signed by the president before the current legislation expires at the end of this year. With the House scheduled to adjourn this Friday, time is running out. The biggest fight is over how crop subsidies are calculated and which crops they go to, but there is also disagreement on cutting food stamps. The question isn’t whether food stamps will be cut, but by how much. Food stamps are an entitlement, which means the program grows according to need...

Drone War Testimonials

A reporter sits down with one Pakistani family who traveled more than 7,000 miles to tell their story to Congress—only five representatives showed up to listen. 

Humna Bhojani
Humna Bhojani The Rehmans: Nabila, Rafiq, and Zubair. T wo beams of light came down from the drone lingering over the field where they had been gathering okra and hit Nabila’s grandmother, Mamana Bibi. The earth shuddered. Nabila fell; terrified, she stumbled into a run. Blood was gushing from her arm. She wrapped her red chaddar (head covering) around the shrapnel wound; moments later it was soaked through. Through the smoke, Nabila caught a glimpse of Mamana’s brown sandal. She passed out. The day Mamana was killed, October 24 th 2012, was a beautiful one in the North Waziristan village of Tapi in Pakistan. A few clouds sprinkled over the bright blue sky—perfect weather for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which was the next day. For Muslims, Eid al-Adha is the holiest day of the year, celebrating the sacrifice Abraham made. “They have told me that Eid is like Christmas,” Zubair, Nabila’s, 13-year-old brother said during his testimony at a Congressional briefing on October 29,...

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