Tag Archives: congress

Corruption And The Piety Party

Over the past few years, surveys have documented the growth of the so-called “nones”–Americans who have abandoned religion. Some are atheists or agnostics, others simply see religion as irrelevant to their lives. For many, that irrelevancy is the result of distaste for the hypocrisy and amoral behaviors of many self-described “pious” people.

I thought about the distance between ostentatious religiosity and ethical behavior when I read a Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post, titled “The Unimpeachable Integrity of the Republicans.”The GOP, as we all know, has become the piety party–Vice-President Mike Pence is its perfect, smarmy embodiment.

Milbank wasn’t addressing Republican faux religiosity–he was just marveling at the efforts of deeply dishonest Representatives to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. As he noted, tongue-in-cheek, the charges are serious: inappropriately redacting lines in documents turned over to Congress by the Justice Department, and explaining the legal basis upon which the department is declining to produce others. Horrific behavior! I may swoon…

Redacting the price of a conference table is clearly a far more serious offense than those committed by other members of the Trump Team: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been accused by former associates of stealing roughly $120 million; former EPA Chief Pruitt got a bargain condo rental from a lobbyist’s wife, used his job to find work for his wife and had taxpayers buy him everything from a soundproof phone booth to  moisturizing lotion.

Who else doesn’t merit impeachment?

Not the former national security adviser who admitted to lying to the FBI,not the former White House staff secretary accused of domestic violence, not the presidential son-in-law who had White House meetings with his family’s lenders, not the housing secretary accused of potentially helping his son’s business, not the many Cabinet secretaries who traveled for pleasure at taxpayer expense, not the former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director who bought tobacco stock while in office.

And certainly not the president, whose most recent emolument bath was poured by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince: Bookings by his highness’s entourage spurred a spike in the quarterly revenue at the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan.

None of these “public servants” generated the indignation being focused on Rosenstein the Redactor.

Milbank helpfully described the pious paragons so determined to expel this scofflaw from governance–the same Republicans “so above reproach” that one of their first votes was an attempt to kill the House ethics office. He began by identifying some who are regretfully  no longer available:

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), an obvious candidate, resignedover his use of public funds to settle a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), another ideal choice, resigned after word got out of a sexual-harassment settlement with a staffer the married congressman called his “soul mate.”

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) also can’t be of use. He resignedover allegations that he urged his mistress to seek an abortion.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) likewise won’t be available. He quit when a former aide alleged that he offered her $5 millionto have his child as a surrogate.

But never fear–as Milbank demonstrates, the GOP has a truly impressive bench.

There’s Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who remains “tentatively available” despite his arrest this week for insider trading, along with the five other House Republicans who invested in the same company but haven’t been charged yet. There’s also Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), “assuming he has free time”–he’s battling allegations that he covered up sexual misconduct when coaching at Ohio State.

Others who could judge Rosenstein: Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), who pleaded guilty to assault after body-slamming a reporter; Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who is retiring after a naked photograph of him leaked online; and Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who is under investigation by the FBI over the alleged use of campaign funds for his children’s tuition, shopping trips and airfare for a pet rabbit.

Nunes himself is battling allegations that he got favorable terms on a winery investment and used political contributions to pay for basketball tickets and Las Vegas trips.

Eighty-one percent of white Evangelicals voted for Trump, and research suggests their support for him and his band of thugs and thieves remains strong. No wonder people who actually care about ethics and morality are repelled by “faith.”

The Real Constitutional Crisis

As anyone who reads my blogs and columns–or who has ever been a student in one of my classes–can attest, I have respect bordering on reverence for the American Constitution. But it is becoming painfully clear that some of the governing mechanisms required by that founding document no longer serve us. The Constitution was crafted, after all, to address the concerns of a very different age.

The dysfunctions of the system have been accelerating for some time, culminating in today’s parody of responsible government.

A recent article in Commentary Magazine focused on the undeniable fact that Congress is broken;

It is hard to avoid attributing every dysfunction of the moment to Donald Trump’s peculiar mix of reckless talk and often feckless action. But judged on a scale of institutional breakdown, the presidency—even this presidency—is not our biggest problem….

The budget process has never been so hobbled. Not only did we come close to an unprecedented government shutdown during single-party control of Congress and the presidency, but this year has also marked the first time in the four-plus decades since the modern budget process was created that neither chamber has even considered a budget resolution.

And the trouble didn’t start in just the past few years. Presidential hyperactivity in recent decades has masked a rising tide of dysfunction—giving us policy action to observe and debate while obscuring the disorder that was overtaking our core constitutional infrastructure. It kept us from facing what should be an unavoidable fact: Congress is broken.

As the author points out, whatever measure you apply–legislation passed, public approval, member satisfaction, even just committee work or each house’s ability to live by its own rules–will lead you to the same conclusion. And while there are many reasons for the institution’s abject failure to perform, the Constitutional language is among them.

The Constitution gives the Congress powers but not responsibilities. The president is required to execute the laws and tasked with responding to changing world events on the country’s behalf. The courts have to consider cases and controversies put before them and apply the laws accordingly. But while the general scope and reach of the Congress’s authorities are laid out in Article I, the institution is not really told what it must do within that scope. That’s because the assumption was that Congress would naturally seek to control things and run as far and as hard in pursuit of power as the Constitution allowed, so that only boundaries were needed.

As everyone who has studied the Constitutional Convention knows, the Framers worried most about the legislature (the “most dangerous branch”), and the prospect that it would run rampant.

Today’s Congress simply defies that expectation. It suffers from a malady the framers never quite imagined when they thought about politics: a shortage of ambition. Members are certainly eager to retain their offices, but they seem oddly indifferent to using those offices.

The article goes on, and I encourage you to click through and read it, but even though I think much of the analysis is accurate, I also think it is incomplete. The fecklessness of our current political class is also fostered by other structural defects required or permitted by the Constitution: the Electoral College and the primary authority of state governments for elections and redistricting, to name just two.

The problem is, if Americans were to engage in a redesign of the Constitution–if efforts to hold another Constitutional Convention (an effort currently underway) were to succeed–it is almost certain that the damage done would vastly outweigh any improvements. The people most eager to rewrite our national charter are precisely the people who shouldn’t be allowed near it. It isn’t just the theocrats and the “states rights” bigots, worrisome as they are, but well-meaning folks who have very limited understandings of economic and social realities–the “balanced budget” advocates and libertarian opponents of regulation and social welfare programs, among others.

Legal structures are inevitably reflective of deep-seated cultural assumptions, and cultural changes come slowly. Until such time as an effort to modernize the Constitution can be undertaken in a less politically toxic, uninformed and polarized environment–undertaken by civically-literate, knowledgable and public-spirited “renovators”–the best we can do is “eject and elect.”

We need to eject from Congress the sorry excuses who are currently failing to act responsibly, and we need to elect people who are willing and able to discharge their responsibilities.

We need to vote as if our futures depend upon it. Because they do.

 

Controlling Our Brave New (Digital) World

Now that Net Neutrality rules have been eliminated by Trump’s FCC, the question is: how will the repeal affect ordinary Americans? What consequences will be seen by the millions of Americans who turn increasingly to the Internet for everything from information to entertainment to commerce?

The Brookings Institution has at least a preliminary answer.

On June 11, 2018, the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of the Open Internet Order—the net neutrality rules—went into effect. In the wake of this change, Americans are wondering how the repeal will affect them, and what it means for the future of internet access. Though consumers may not see changes quickly, the shift on net neutrality undermines the nation’s history on network regulation, creating a new era in how these networks operate in America.

So–in this brave “new era,” what can we expect?

The “quick and dirty” answer is: it depends. For one thing, there is a pending court challenge to the FCC’s authority to repeal Net Neutrality. For another, the Senate has passed Senate Joint Resolution 52, officially disapproving the repeal.  (Under the Congressional Review Act,  Congress can undo recently created rules by federal agencies.)

It still has to pass in the House, and then be signed by the president, which makes its prospects dicey, but perhaps Mueller will have completed his investigation…

That said, the need for a vote in the House should make protection of Net Neutrality an issue in the upcoming midterms. Every Congressional candidate should be asked whether they will vote to reinstate the rules. In December of last year, the Hill reported that 83% of Americans support Net Neutrality.

The pending court case is a consolidation of twelve separate challenges to the FCC’s authority to repeal the rules. The 12 lawsuits were filed by more than three dozen entities, including state attorneys general, consumer advocacy groups, and tech companies.

(If there is a Justice Kavanaugh sitting on the Supreme Court, and the case reaches the high court, its prospects dim: Kavanaugh is on record opposing Net Neutrality on the grounds that Internet providers are publishers, and protected from government interference by the First Amendment. Equating companies like Verizon and AT&T with media outlets like the New York Times requires some convoluted logic. )

More encouraging, a number of states aren’t waiting for Congress or the courts. California, not surprisingly, looks to be first out of the gate with a “robust” protection of Net Neutrality, but a number of other states are in the process of crafting similar bills.

The latest version of the bill restores provisions that would prevent broadband providers from exempting some services from customers’ data caps and would ban providers from charging websites “access fees” to reach customers on a network or blocking or throttling content as it enters their networks from other networks, according to a fact sheet released by Wiener, Santiago, and state senator Kevin de León.

The enumerated practices are those that big telecom companies are expected to engage in now that the FCC has repealed national protections.

The new version of the bill needs to be approved by both houses of the California Legislature, then be signed by Governor Jerry Brown. From there, it could face legal challenges from the FCC, which prohibited states from adopting their own net neutrality protections when it repealed the national net neutrality rules. During the press conference, Santiago said the California bill would stand up to legal scrutiny. Legal experts have told WIRED they are unsure whether the FCC has authority to preempt state law on the issue.

As 83% of Americans understand (at least in this context), this administration’s indiscriminate war on all regulatory activity more often than not just favors big business over the rest of us.

How Bad Is It?

Two of the most clear-eyed and knowledgable observers of the American legislature have once again weighed in on the disaster that is the current Congress.

In the New York Times Sunday Review, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein explained how the Republicans “broke Congress.”

In the past three days, Republican leaders in the Senate scrambled to corral votes for a tax bill that the Joint Committee on Taxation said would add $1 trillion to the deficit — without holding any meaningful committee hearings. Worse, Republican leaders have been blunt about their motivation: to deliver on their promises to wealthy donors, and down the road, to use the leverage of huge deficits to cut and privatize Medicare and Social Security

Eleven years ago, we published a book called “The Broken Branch,” which we subtitled “How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.” Embedded in that subtitle were two assumptions: first, that Congress as an institution — which is to say, both parties, equally — is at fault; and second, that the solution is readily at hand. In 2017, the Republicans’ scandalous tax bill is only the latest proof that both assumptions are wrong.

Mann and Ornstein are blunt: today’s Republicans are to blame for destroying Congressional integrity and credibility. They point to three tactics that have brought us to this point: the constant demonization of government and the norms of lawmaking; the so-called “Obama effect”; and the use of the right-wing media echo chamber to keep their “troops” enraged.

As they described the “Obama effect”

When Mr. Bush became president, Democrats worked with him to enact sweeping education reform early on and provided the key votes to pass his top priority, tax cuts. With President Barack Obama, it was different. While many argued that the problem was that Mr. Obama failed to schmooze enough with Republicans in Congress, we saw a deliberate Republican strategy to oppose all of his initiatives and frame his attempts to compromise as weak or inauthentic. The Senate under the majority leader Mitch McConnell weaponized the filibuster to obstruct legislation, block judges and upend the policy process. The Obama effect had an ominous twist, an undercurrent of racism that was itself embodied in the “birther” movement led by Donald Trump.

My only quibble with this analysis is the use of the term “undercurrent.” From my vantage point, the racism was anything but subtle. And as numerous people have pointed out, Trump’s only discernible agenda is to reverse anything and everything his black predecessor did. Unlike many observers, however, Mann and Ornstein do not see Trumpism as a deviation from past GOP priorities and practices:

Mr. Trump’s election and behavior during his first 10 months in office represent not a break with the past but an extreme acceleration of a process that was long underway in conservative politics. The Republican Party is now rationalizing and enabling Mr. Trump’s autocratic, kleptocratic, dangerous and downright embarrassing behavior in hopes of salvaging key elements of its ideological agenda: cutting taxes for the wealthy (as part of possibly the worst tax bill in American history), hobbling the regulatory regime, gutting core government functions and repealing Obamacare without any reasonable plan to replace it.

Perhaps the most important point they make is that the chaos and incompetence of this White House, and the elimination or reduction of important government functions by disastrous cabinet and agency appointments, is being encouraged and enabled by Congressional Republicans.

The failure of Republican members of Congress to resist the anti-democratic behavior of President Trump — including holding not a single hearing on his and his team’s kleptocracy — is cringe-worthy. A few Republican senators have spoken up, but occasional words have not been matched by any meaningful deeds. Only conservative intellectuals have acknowledged the bankruptcy of the Republican Party.

We have never suggested that Democrats are angels and Republicans devils. Parties exist to win elections and organize government, and they are shaped by the interests, ideas and donors that constitute their coalitions. Neither party is immune from a pull to the extreme.

But the imbalance today is striking, and frightening. Our democracy requires vigorous competition between two serious and ideologically distinct parties, both of which operate in the realm of truth, see governing as an essential and ennobling responsibility, and believe that the acceptance of republican institutions and democratic values define what it is to be an American. The Republican Party must reclaim its purpose.

What Mann and Ornstein didn’t do in this hard-hitting and absolutely accurate article is tell readers how they are supposed to make the GOP “reclaim its purpose.” For my part, I can only see one way: the GOP must be crushed at the polls in November of 2018. Only a truly massive rejection by American voters will get the message across.

They don’t just need to be beaten; they need to be crushed. And then we all have to pray that democratic and constitutional norms and rational public policies can be salvaged.