Tag Archives: congress

From Soup To Nuts

Gazpacho..Gestapo… let’s call the whole thing off….

In case you missed it, The Guardian has the story.

The extremist Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene triggered a wave of viral jokes on Wednesday after ranting about the “gazpacho police” patrolling the Capitol building in Washington DC.

Greene was apparently mixing up the famously cold Spanish soup gazpacho with the Gestapo – the brutal Nazi-era secret police in Germany….

“Not only do we have the DC jail which is the DC gulag, but now we have Nancy Pelosi’s gazpacho police spying on members of Congress, spying on the legislative work that we do, spying on our staff and spying on American citizens,” she said, referring to the Democratic speaker of the House.

Greene seems unperturbed by the fact that she’s become a joke–a punch line–for  previous, widely-reported accusations that being made to wear a mask is equivalent to what Jews suffered during the Holocaust, and that California’s forest fires were started by “space lasers” funded by George Soros.

What is truly sad is that she is not an anomaly in today’s GOP.

The RNC has just labeled a violent insurrection meant to overturn an election as “legitimate political discourse.”

A Republican Congresswoman has quoted Hitler–approvingly–in a recent speech.

Billionaire Peter Thiel, a Trump ally, who is funding an effort to elect Trump-aligned candidates in 2022 says he “no longer believe[s] that freedom and democracy are compatible,” and has deplored the extension of the franchise to women.

In one of her recent “Letters From An American,” Heather Cox Richardson detailed the increasing hysteria of  statements issued by various Republicans as the investigation into the insurrection tightens around them.

Richardson reports that Peter Navarro responded to receipt of a subpoena from the committee investigating January 6th with “a fire-eating statement “calling the members of the January 6 committee “domestic terrorists” engaged in a “partisan witch hunt.”  He also tried to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi  and the Capitol Police for the violence on January 6, and accused Mike Pence of treason for saying he lacked authority to overturn the election.

it isn’t just at the federal level.

In Nevada, that state’s “most notorious pimp” just won a Republican  primary in a campaign for the state legislature.

In Utah, a bill to create a digital driver’s license program was derailed when dozens of protestors flocked to a House committee to share fears that the measure would result in a United Nations takeover or establishment of concentration camps.

One woman invoked the New Testament’s Book of Revelation when she called digital driver’s licenses “moving one step closer to the mark of the beast.”

In Florida, Senator Marco Rubio has apparently decided to join DeSantis in pandering to the GOP’s irrational and racist base.

On Face the Nation, he said: “This commission is a partisan scam. They’re going after—they’re—the purpose of that commission is to try to embarrass and smear and harass as many Republicans as they can get their hands on.”

Yesterday, he released a video saying “Biden is sending free meth & crack pipes to minority communities in the name of ‘racial equity’…. There is no end in sight for this lunacy.“

Well, there certainly doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for GOP lunacy.  No one--and certainly not Biden–is sending “free meth and crack pipes” to anyone, and suggesting that such items are being directed to “minority communities” is clearly intended to play to the Republicans’ increasingly racist base.

Per Richardson:

Exaggeration and demonization of their opponents has been part of politics for years, as Republicans tried to fire up their base by describing their opponents as socialists, lazy “takers,” baby-killers, and so on. Now, though, these over-the-top attacks on the committee and on the Democratic administration seem to be part of a new political project.

The frantic edge to them suggests concern about what the January 6th committee might uncover.

But statements like those yesterday of Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who claimed the Department of Justice was reading his mail; Nehls, who claimed that Pelosi was using the Capitol Police to spy on him; and Greene, who claims Pelosi has a “Gestapo,” normalize the practices of authoritarian government.

“Back in the day,” as we old folks might say, it would simply have been unthinkable that embarrassments like Greene, Gohmert, Gosar, Boebert and numerous others of their ilk would be elected to Congress. There were certainly undistinguished, patently ignorant and even evil people who brought shame and disrepute upon that body, but I am aware of nothing approaching the current multitude of profoundly unserious, bat-shit-crazy bigots that has aptly been dubbed (by former Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, if memory serves)  “the lunatic caucus.”

From soup to nuts…..

 

Some Very Good Ideas

One of the (depressingly few) public servants I really admire is Adam Schiff, who comported himself with dignity during Trump’s four years of monkey-poo-throwing antics. Schiff is highly intelligent and measured–attributes too few Congresspersons these days seem to share.

For example, rather than focusing solely on accountability for Trump, Schiff is trying to change the flaws in the system that enabled Trump’s authoritarianism and grifting.

According to columnist Jennifer Rubin, Schiff is proposing a bill to address the longtime accretion of executive power at the expense of Congress.

“While Donald Trump is no longer president, the fault lines he exposed in the foundation of our democracy remain — ready for a future unethical president to exploit,” Schiff said in a statement. “These weaknesses continue to erode the American people’s trust in our democratic institutions and the norms that are essential to a functioning democracy.”

The bill is chock-full of very good ideas. For one thing, it addresses the absolute nature of the Presidential pardon power, requiring the Justice Department to “provide materials to Congress concerning any self-serving presidential pardon or commutation in cases involving the President or his/her relatives, contempt of Congress, or obstruction of Congress.” it also makes it clear that pardons are “things of value” for purposes of federal bribery statutes. And it explicitly prohibits self-pardons by the President.

The bill goes well beyond the pardon power, however. It would suspend the statute of limitations for crimes committed by a president in office. In a move I find particularly important,  it clarifies the reach of the Emoluments Clause would specifically allow Congress to enforce its provisions.

The bill also seeks to end the sort of stalling we saw in the last administration that paralyzed congressional investigations, codifying “a cause of action for Congress to enforce its subpoenas, including those issued to government officials.” The bill also “expedites the judicial process for congressional subpoena enforcement actions; empowers courts to levy fines on government officials who willfully fail to comply with congressional subpoenas; and specifies the manner in which subpoena recipients must comply.

In response to such unilateral action as a president withholding previously appropriated aid (in Trump’s case, to extort Ukraine to produce dirt on his political opponent), the bill strengthens the Impoundment Control Act and beefs up disclosure requirements. Efforts to politicize the Justice Department would be limited by a requirement to keep a log of contacts with the White House and a reporting obligation for the inspector general.

Rubin points out that the bill has provisions that address nearly every Trump offense:  it requires both the president and vice president to disclose the last ten years of their tax returns, and  requires presidential campaigns to disclose foreign contacts. Other provisions protect inspectors general and whistleblowers, and increase penalties for Hatch Act violations.

I can only hope this bill passes. The odds of such passage would seem to be much greater with a Democrat in the White House–the spineless Congressional Republicans who enabled Trump would be likely to balk if a Republican was President, but will arguably be happy to vote for constraints that–at least initially–will apply to a member of the other party.

What is particularly positive about Schiff’s proposal isn’t just the obvious merit of the various provisions. It’s the recognition that the danger posed by Trump’s Presidency weren’t all attributable to his personal inadequacies and corruption. The lack of  sufficiently specific legal constraints made it much simpler for him to act in ways that enriched him and his family. Trump, fortunately, was incompetent. If a smoother, smarter version were to come along, that person could do inestimable harm.

Schiff understands the importance of legal clarity and enforceability. In a very real sense, his bill proposes to amend  James Carville’s famous admonition to read: “it’s the system, stupid!”

 

An Inside Assessment

Those of us who are Democrats, ex-Republicans and/or Never Trumpers often encounter allegations of bias. The charge is that our criticisms are unfair to the GOP members of Congress–that we are exaggerating their flaws for political reasons.

John Boehner’s new book rebuts that accusation.

No one can accuse Boehner of being a “lib.” He was–for those who may have forgotten–the Speaker of the House when the Republicans controlled that legislative body, and his scathing description of its members rings true.

In the 2010 midterm election, voters from all over the place gave President Obama what he himself called “a shellacking.” And oh boy, was it ever. You could be a total moron and get elected just by having an R next to your name—and that year, by the way, we did pick up a fair number in that category.

Retaking control of the House of Representatives put me in line to be the next Speaker of the House over the largest freshman Republican class in history: 87 newly elected members of the GOP. Since I was presiding over a large group of people who’d never sat in Congress, I felt I owed them a little tutorial on governing. I had to explain how to actually get things done. A lot of that went straight through the ears of most of them, especially the ones who didn’t have brains that got in the way. Incrementalism? Compromise? That wasn’t their thing. A lot of them wanted to blow up Washington. That’s why they thought they were elected.

 Boehner quotes Ronald Reagan for the sentiment that getting 80 or 90 percent of what he wanted was a win, while the “new guys” wanted 100 percent every time. “In fact, I don’t think that would satisfy them, because they didn’t really want legislative victories. They wanted wedge issues and conspiracies and crusades.” When Boehner tried to get legislation passed, they considered him a sellout, a dupe of the Democrats, a traitor–a “liberal collaborator.”

Boehner pulls no punches when it comes to the hatred House Republicans felt for Obama.

What I also had not anticipated was the extent to which this new crowd hated—and I mean hated—Barack Obama.

By 2011, the right-wing propaganda nuts had managed to turn Obama into a toxic brand for conservatives. When I was first elected to Congress, we didn’t have any propaganda organization for conservatives, except maybe a magazine or two like National Review. The only people who used the internet were some geeks in Palo Alto. There was no Drudge Report. No Breitbart. No kooks on YouTube spreading dangerous nonsense like they did every day about Obama.

He’s a secret Muslim!”

“He hates America!”

“He’s a communist!”

And of course the truly nutty business about his birth certificate. People really had been brainwashed into believing Barack Obama was some Manchurian candidate planning to betray America.

Most of us saw that hatred, and understood the racism that motivated it. What was truly eye-opening, however, was Boehner’s description of Roger Ailes’ metamorphosis from a politically conservative media person to something else entirely.

At some point after the 2008 election, something changed with my friend Roger Ailes. I once met him in New York during the Obama years to plead with him to put a leash on some of the crazies he was putting on the air. It was making my job trying to accomplish anything conservative that much harder. I didn’t expect this meeting to change anything, but I still thought it was bullshit, and I wanted Roger to know it.

When I put it to him like that, he didn’t have much to say. But he did go on and on about the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, which he thought was part of a grand conspiracy that led back to Hillary Clinton. Then he outlined elaborate plots by which George Soros and the Clintons and Obama (and whoever else came to mind) were trying to destroy him.

“They’re monitoring me,” he assured me about the Obama White House. He told me he had a “safe room” built so he couldn’t be spied on. His mansion was being protected by combat-ready security personnel, he said. There was a lot of conspiratorial talk. It was like he’d been reading whacked-out spy novels all weekend.

And it was clear that he believed all of this crazy stuff. I walked out of that meeting in a daze. I just didn’t believe the entire federal government was so terrified of Roger Ailes that they’d break about a dozen laws to bring him down. I thought I could get him to control the crazies, and instead I found myself talking to the president of the club. One of us was crazy. Maybe it was me.

The excerpt at the link also has juicy stories about Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz, among others.

This excerpt from Boehner’s book demonstrates two things: (1) there were once sane Republicans who cared about governing (and knew how to spell it), and (2)the degree to which they have been replaced by members of the lunatic caucus.

 

Past Time For These–And Other–Reforms

Americans shouldn’t allow Trump’s COVID diagnosis to become the ultimate distraction from the  electoral choices that face us, or the structural challenges we will face even in the best of electoral circumstances.

The bottom line is that, even If America rids itself of Trump and his GOP enablers, citizens will still have a lot of work to do. We can no longer pretend that our electoral and legal systems are working as intended– for that matter, several are not working at all.

The Democrats, at least, have noticed.

On September 23d, the Washington Post ran an opinion piece authored by several Congressional Democrats, including Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler. Noting that Trump was the first President to ignore the reforms passed in the wake of Watergate, they wrote that

With a lawless president in office who acts as if rules are for suckers, political norms for losers and governing for chumps, it is clear we need a new series of reforms to protect our democracy.

On Wednesday, we are introducing such reforms, which we began drafting more than a year ago not only to address the president’s unique abuses, but also to go beyond them to restore accountability, root out corruption and ensure transparency in government for future White House occupants.

The reforms these lawmakers are proposing include amending the pardon power to make it clear that a President cannot pardon himself or his immediate family, adding teeth to the emoluments clause by adding explicit enforcement provisions and enhanced penalties, and increasing financial disclosure rules.

The bill also addresses the need to strengthen accountability and transparency. The op-ed notes that Trump has “obstructed congressional oversight, targeted whistleblowers who speak out against him and fired officials whose responsibility is to objectively investigate wrongdoing in the federal government,” and states the obvious: that  Congress needs access to documents and  the ability to compel testimony from witnesses in order to conduct that oversight. Their bill strengthens Congress’ right to enforce its subpoenas in court, and has other provisions aimed at improving congress’ ability to discharge its duties as  a co-equal branch of government.

The bill also contains measures that are a direct response to Trump’s contempt for the rule of law and for democratic norms:

We must also reclaim Congress’s power of the purse from an overzealous executive branch, increase transparency around government spending and ensure there are consequences to deter the misuse of taxpayer funds. Our bill will prevent the executive branch from using nonpublic documents or secret legal opinions to circumvent Congress and unilaterally enact its agenda behind closed doors. Our bill will impose limits on presidential declarations of emergencies and any powers triggered by such declarations, unless extended by a congressional vote, and require the president to provide all documents regarding presidential emergency actions to Congress.

These and the other reforms enumerated in the bill are welcome and probably overdue. The ability to pass the measure rather obviously depends upon turning the Senate blue on November 3rd.

But here’s my problem.

So long as most Americans don’t understand the rules we already have, or the reasons we have them–so long as they fail to recognize the profound effect legal structure exerts on the mechanics of government, we are ignoring one of the most dangerous threats to ethical and constitutional governance: widespread civic ignorance.

Far too many Americans vote for presidents and governors and mayors without understanding either the skills required for those jobs or–even more importantly–the constraints applicable to those positions. They evidently assume that they are electing temporary kings and queens–people who will take office, issue decrees, and change reality. (Trump’s base, for example, evidently thinks his constant stream of “Executive Orders” all have legal effect, although few do.) Worse, they fail to recognize the ways in which structures that were useful (or at least, less harmful) in the past have distorted the exercise of the franchise and given us a system in which rural minorities and thinly populated states dominate an overwhelmingly urban country.

When you don’t understand how a system works–or why it is no longer working properly–your ability to make informed choices at the ballot box is impaired.

The reforms listed in the linked op-ed are among the many changes we need to make. But a thoughtful discussion of those needed reforms requires a voting public that understands why America’s systems aren’t functioning properly–and what “properly” looks like.

Tomorrow, I will address additional needed reforms.

 

 

 

 

A Cure For Gerrymandering?

I recently received a provocative email from James Allison, a retired Professor of Psychology, suggesting an approach to the elimination of gerrymandering that I had never contemplated.

After noting the Supreme Court’s unconscionable refusal to find extreme gerrymandering a constitutional violation (ruling 5/4 that partisan gerrymandering was a “political question” best left to the political process!), Allison quoted a recent proposal for just such a political solution.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Lee Hamilton, William S. Cohen and Alton Frye served notice: Although partisan gerrymanders may lie beyond the reformist reach of federal courts, and beyond the conscience of gerrymandering statehouse legislators, they are well within the grasp of Congress (July 17, 2020). Specifically, the House can “refuse to seat a state delegation achieved through excessive gerrymandering.” They propose to gauge the amount of gerrymandering in terms of the difference between the number of districts won by each party and its share of the statewide popular vote. They take the example of North Carolina’s 2018 elections, where Republicans won 50% of the popular vote for House members, but 77% of the state’s 13 seats. And the gerrymandering authors of those maps came right out and confessed proudly that their motive was to guarantee their party’s supermajority control.

The constitutional basis for direct Congressional oversight is in Article 1, Section 5, which says that “each House shall be the judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.” It has been used, albeit rarely, to exclude representatives chosen under questionable election procedures. And it was used after the Civil War against state intimidation of black voters and unconstitutional election laws.

There are a couple of obvious problems with this solution. One of those– political abuse of the power to deny delegations a seat–can probably be prevented by carefully crafted legislation. The other, as Allison points out, is how a determination is made that extreme gerrymandering has occurred.

For a number of years, the lack of a reliable “standard”–that is, a tested and dependable method for determining that disproportionate results were attributable to partisan redistricting and not simply to the voting sentiments of constituents–was the Supreme Court’s excuse for not addressing the issue. In the most recent case, however, that excuse no longer applied; in Rucho v. Common Cause, the Court was supplied with statistical tests developed by scholars for just that purpose. One test–called the “efficiency gap” was based on a calculation of “wasted votes.”  Wasted’ votes are those cast for a losing candidate or for a winning candidate beyond what he or she needed — divided by the total number of votes cast.

I personally prefer the tests developed by Sam Wang at Princeton. Be that as it may, there are now indisputably accurate statistical tests available to determine whether the number of votes cast translate fairly into the number of seats won.

Allison cites Robert X. Browning and Gary King, “Seats, Votes and Gerrymandering: Estimating Representation and Bias in State Legislative Redistricting.” Law and Policy, Vol. 9, No. 3, July, 1987 for the proposition that this approach to determining the fairness of electoral results isn’t new. I have personally done a fair amount of research into partisan redistricting, and written a couple of academic articles on the subject, and I can confirm the accuracy of this assertion.

The virtue of this approach, as Allison notes, is that– if adopted by Congress– its potential threat alone could create a powerful incentive toward nationwide redistricting reform.

If America truly cares about fair and equal representation–an open question in a country that makes it hard rather than easy to cast a ballot–this is an approach worth considering. It should be one more agenda item to be taken up by a (fingers crossed!) Democratic House and Senate.