Saturday, July 23, 2011

Just do it, Mr. President !!

Eric A. Posner and Adrian Vermeule, professors of law respectively at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, have an op-ed in today's New York Times in which they encourage Obama to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally if he cannot get Congress to agree. They claim that he would be on sound constitutional grounds in doing so.

They base the constitutional argument, not on the 14th amendment clause, but on the principle established by Abraham Lincoln that sometimes a president has to violate one law in order to fulfill another, more necessary law. In this case, it would be violating the debt ceiling rules in order to carry out the presidential responsibility to see that the laws are faithfully executed. Here, that would be the obligation to pay our nation's debts.

I leave aside the constitution questions; what interests me more is the political position. Rather than being held hostage by Republican intransigence, this would free Obama from making any more concessions. As Posner and Vermeule point out:
Politically, he can’t lose. The public wants a deal. The threat to act unilaterally will only strengthen his bargaining power if Republicans don’t want to be frozen out; if they defy him, the public will throw their support to the president. Either way, Republicans look like the obstructionists and will pay a price.
That makes sense to me.

And, if Obama will only threaten to do it, Posner and Vermeule predict that the Repubs will then adopt the McConnell plan, whereby Congress in effect gives Obama "permission" to do just that, thereby wiggling out of the political hot water of being labeled obstructionists. Either way, Obama wins. It's the best bargaining chip he has right now.

So, just do it, Mr. President. And let the Repubs writhe in the political hot seat they bought when they elected the Tea Party crowd.


No, it doesn't

My title refers back to the title of my last post: "Does this signal a deal on the debt ceiling?"

Obviously, it didn't. I was too optimistic. Now Boehner has walked out of negotiations again, apparently completely unbending about revenue increases of any sort.

He is in a bind with the Tea Party muscle just saying no to anything, and with his less intractable base afraid to cross them.

Will there be a default? Probably not. My fear though is that Obama will cave in and agree to even further giving in just to get a deal. That's the way the game is played: it's called chicken and the one who holds out longest wins -- unless he holds out a bit too long, and then there is catastrophe.

My concern is that the Repubs care less about the disaster that default would bring than Obama does. So they think they have less to lose politically.

Whatever happens, the Dems have got to find a way to make this backfire politically on them in 2012.

What the American people should be feeling is outrage that politicians are skating this close to national disaster for cheap political gain, rather than doing what's good for the country.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Does this signal a deal on the debt ceiling?

Grover Norquist, the uber-conservative head of Americans for Tax Reform, is the one who made the now-famous slogan: shrink the government down to a size you can wrestle into the bathtub and drown it -- which has become the operating principle of Republicans.

He has promoted a pledge that nearly all Republicans in Congress have signed. It includes a pledge not to vote for any tax increase, nor close any loophole if it does not include using the money to reduce taxes elsewhere.

Today, Norquist told the editorial board of the Washington Post that letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire would not technically be voting for a tax increase. Therefore, it would not be a violation of the pledge.

In effect, he's giving conservatives in congress permission to allow the tax cuts to expire.

This is HUGE and could have real significance for reaching a bipartisan agreement on the budget fight that is holding up a decision about the debt ceiling.

Let's see how this plays out.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The president on raising the debt ceiling

"The bill would continue the authority of the United States Government to borrow funds which we must do to avoid the default on our obligations. . . for the first time in our 200-year history. . . .

"Unfortunately, Congress consistently brings the Government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility. This brinkmanship threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits. Interest rates would skyrocket, instability would occur in financial markets, and the Federal deficit would soar. The United States has a special responsibility to itself and the world to meet its obligations. It means we have a well-earned reputation for reliability and credibility — two things that set us apart from much of the world."

Spoken by President Ronald Reagen, September 26, 1987 in a radio address to the nation on why he was signing a bill that raised the federal debt ceiling even though it included other measures on the federal budget that he opposed. The debt ceiling was raised 17 times while Reagan was president, and 11 times the packages included some increase in taxes.

He was quoted as saying, on another occasion:
"The full consequences of a default, or even the serious prospect of a default, by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and the value of the dollar in exchange markets. The nation can ill afford to allow such a result."
Ronald Reagen would probably not be welcomed by the Tea Party crowd in the House. He was far too liberal for them.


Obama: "Repeal DOMA"

Obama supported the repeal of DADT. Now he thrown his support to the repeal of DOMA.

To refresh our memories: The Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996 -- an eon ago in the rapidly changing acceptance of gay relationships. Here's what DOMA did, and still does:

1. defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.
2. says that no state is required to recognize as a marriage a same-sex relationship considered a marriage in another state.
3. prevents the federal government from recognizing the validity of same-sex marriages.

Earlier this year, President Obama and his Attorney General decided to stop defending DOMA in court cases, based on the opinion of constitutional scholars that parts of it are unconstitutional, and have been so held in some court cases.

Now, Obama has taken the addition step of openly and actively supporting the Respect for Marriage bill, introduced by Senators Dianne Finestein (D-CA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on it tomorrow. Given its 27 co-sponsors, it clearly will pass in the senate. However, a similar bill introduced in the House faces a Republican majority and likely will not pass.

On another gay rights issue, the Senate today, by a vote of 80 to 13, confirmed the appointment of the first openly gay federal judge, J. Paul Oetken, to the U. S. District Court in New York.

The remarkable thing was that it was a non-issue.

Progress. More than I ever dreamed possible just a few years ago.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

NYT: "The Republican Retreat"

Ross Douthart is a conservative columnist for The New York Times, who seems to have retained his sanity along with his conservative credentials. Yesterday, this was the headline for his column: "The Republican Retreat."

The gist is that the Republicans in Congress were is a good position on the debt ceiling negotiations, but they blew the end game -- or, rather, they had no end game.

As I understand his point, they had gained the advantage by not giving an inch on an increase in taxes, which had forced Obama to move their way on spending cuts. Then, all they needed to do was give a little bit on closing some tax loopholes (like ethanol subsidies, or carry-over interest deductions, or even the no-brainer of eliminating tax breaks for corporate jets). And then they would have won the negotiations with all the spending cuts Obama gave in on.

They just needed to play that one more card, timed just right -- but they blew it. They allowed Obama to gain the high ground by portraying himself as the one who had conceded on spending cuts, and they wouldn't give an inch on taxes.

Douthart writes:
What went wrong? It turns out that Republicans didn’t have a plan for transitioning from the early phase of a high-stakes political negotiation, when the goal is to draw stark lines and force the other side to move your way, to the late phase, in which the public relations battle becomes crucial and the goal is to make the other side seem unreasonable, intransigent and even a little bit insane.

Winning the later phase doesn’t require making enormous compromises, or giving up the ground you’ve gained. But it requires at least the appearance of conciliation, and a few examples of concessions that you’re willing to (oh-so-magnanimously) make to those unreasonable ideologues in the other party.

Since they wouldn't even give the appearance of conciliation (either a modest scale-back on spending cuts or a accept closing one of those hard-to-defend tax loopholes), Douthart concludes that Boehner just didn't have the votes in his GOP caucus to accept any compromise. That is the demand the Tea Party makes: they will not yield on their promise to cut spending and refuse any tax increases.

So it looks like the Tea Party anti-tax zealots had their way, and the Republicans wound up with less than they might have gotten with more reasonable negotiations. As Douthart concludes:

. . . both the politics and the substance of such a deal would probably be worse for conservatives than the kind of bargain that might have been available otherwise — if more Republicans had only recognized that sometimes a well-chosen concession can be the better part of valor.

I certainly don't want to get in the way of a conservative criticizing the GOP, but I disagree with Douthart on one thing here. He doesn't give President Obama any credit for being the shrewd negotiator himself. Obama seemed to give in more than I wanted him to, but it looks like in the end, he may come out the winner. By playing the willing-to-compromise card early, he was able to maximize his opponents' intransigence to great advantage.

Not only in these negotiations, but perhaps in the 2012 elections too.


Monday, July 18, 2011


Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus has written to the Department of Justice, asking them to investigate President Obama for "apparent criminal behavior."

The alleged crime?'

The DNC filmed a fund-raising ad in the Map Room of the White House and sent it out to supporters. Well, it's true that there is a law against using government property for political purposes -- others have gotten in trouble for making fund-raising calls from their official congressional offices.

Perhaps Mr. Priebus is not aware that the Map Room is not in the West Wing, where the government offices are, but in the Executive Mansion where the President and his family live. It is actually inside their living quarters.

True, it is government property. But both Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush filmed ads in the executive mansion, and both concluded that using the residence spaces does not violate that law.

That makes sense. If this is illegal, then a president can't makes political calls from anywhere in the White House, East Wing, West Wing, Rose Garden, roof top, gym. So where is he to go? Secret Service won't let him walk along Pennsylvania while making calls, I'm sure. Lafayette Square? Ride around in a secret service car? That's government property too.

Criminal behavior? Come on, Reince. Lighten up. We all know that your party is losing big in the debt ceiling negotiations, and you're just trying to create a smoke screen. But you can do better than this. Or . . . well, maybe you can't.


"Elizabeth Warren for Senate"

That is a bumper sticker I hope to see. Elizabeth Warren is the Harvard law professor and the smart, tough, articulate start-up head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She has created it, developed it from a start-up idea to a fully formed and ready to function watchdog -- a key new regulating agency to prevent what got us in the financial mess we are in. CFPB will focus on protecting the interests of the middle class consumer -- credit card, mortgages, bank loans, etc.

Naturally, the Republicans are so opposed that it would be impossible to get her confirmed by the Senate as the first CFPB Director. They've already said they would use the filibuster -- and in fact they have threatened to block any appointment as Director unless the agency is weakened.

The CFPB is the key to regulating our financial system at the consumer level. As Warren writes:
The DNA of the new consumer agency is well established. Our mission is clear: No one should be tricked in any financial transaction. Prices and risks should be clear. People should be able to make apples-to-apples comparisons. Fine print should be mowed down, not used to hide nasty surprises. And, everyone -- even trillion dollar banks -- should follow the law.
This is what the Republicans want to block from ever being put in operation. Short of killing it outright, they want to reduce its authority, fail to approve a competent leader, and have it go the way of most of what really would work in Washington.

A grassroots petition campaign urged Obama to nominate Warren anyway, make the fight, force the Republicans to declare themselves opposed to sensible regulation of the fat cat banks and the obviously most qualified person to lead it. He finally chose not to put Dr. Warren through the charade (or maybe she decided); but he has nominated perhaps the next best person, Richard Cordray, personally selected by Warren to work along side her and develop the agency along with her. He is the former Attorney General of Ohio.

In announcing Cordray's nomination, Obama said this:
“I also want to thank Elizabeth Warren not only for her extraordinary work standing up the new agency over the past year, but also for her many years of impassioned leadership, and her fierce defense of a simple idea: ordinary people deserve to be treated fairly and honestly in their financial dealings. This agency was Elizabeth’s idea, and through sheer force of will, intelligence, and a bottomless well of energy, she has made, and will continue to make, a profound and positive difference for our country.”
Elizabeth Warren is the kind of public servant we need in every seat of government -- dedicated to doing what is right and making things work for the people, seemingly without being influenced by special interests with deep pockets to reward her for doing their bidding.

Let's hope the people of Massachusetts see fit to elect her to the Senate. She may be the one Democrat who could beat Scott Brown. She would be a formidable voice in the Senate, not only for regulation of our financial institutions -- but she is a forceful and unusually articulate voice for reason and effectiveness in government. She would be a terrific senator, worthy to occupy "the Kennedy seat."


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Passing the buck #2

The Atlanta Public Schools' teacher-cheating scandal has now hit the national news -- New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, USA Today.

And, with it, the focus expands to include the effect on the business community's efforts to recruit executives or even new businesses.

It seems that there was a strong alliance between Superintendent Hall and the business community. She spoke the language of corporate America, the business leaders respected her emphasis on data and marketing strategies, and they supported her efforts to get grants from corporate America -- most notably General Electric, whose chief executive became the head of an advisory committee that helped get big grants for scholarships and programs.

When the scandal first broke, it was the business community that organized and conducted the Blue Ribbon Commission that "investigated" the charges of cheating. It's report was mainly an attempt to finesse the issue as far as Dr. Hall was concerned, to whitewash her and blame it on the few bad apples lower down. There is an incriminating email that speaks of hoping that they can get Gov. Sonny Purdue to accept the report and put an end to the story.

It didn't work, mainly because Gov. Purdue did not accept the report and instead mandated a real investigation; and it is that investigative report that has just been released and blown the scandal wide open, bringing accusations against Dr. Hall and other higher officials.

Now the news is full of how the scandal is going to affect the business community and its recruitment efforts for years to come.

Education is vital to a community. It is one of the things people look at when they decide whether to choose Atlanta or Charlotte or Denver for their next location. It's the very reason the business community supported Dr. Hall in the first place and why they tried to help conceal it initially.

Cheating "worked" in the short term -- a national award for Dr. Hall and wide recognition of the dramatic turn-around of Atlanta schools. The business community reaped advantages too. But then it failed, mainly because Dr. Hall and her staff overshot the mark.

If the "results" hadn't been quite so spectacular and brought quite so much attention to Dr. Hall's "achievement," it might have snuck by for another year or two. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, began the investigation -- and deserves the main credit for exposing the scandal -- because the results were just "too good to be true" and hence aroused suspicion.

Isn't that the reason flawed leaders usually are brought down? By their own hubris leading them to reach too far, claim too much, and thereby expose the falsity of it all? That's what the Greeks knew in writing their tragedies. Aristotle knew it, Sophocles knew it.

But it seems that every generation has to learn it all over again.