Commentary Magazine


Topic: Congress

Grading Congress: A Bipartisan Failure

“The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday,” the Washington Post reports, echoing the conventional wisdom about this Congress: it’s terrible because of how rarely it legislates its nosy way further into your life. Yet this is also a good opportunity to point out that while this narrative is wrong in how it measures the value of a Congress, it’s not completely wrong. That is, an un-legislating Congress is not as inactive as it seems, and this tends to fool not only the left but also limited-government conservatives as well.

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“The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday,” the Washington Post reports, echoing the conventional wisdom about this Congress: it’s terrible because of how rarely it legislates its nosy way further into your life. Yet this is also a good opportunity to point out that while this narrative is wrong in how it measures the value of a Congress, it’s not completely wrong. That is, an un-legislating Congress is not as inactive as it seems, and this tends to fool not only the left but also limited-government conservatives as well.

First, the obvious. Passing few laws is better than passing bad laws. Grading a Congress by how “productive” it was would be like grading a war by how many bombs were dropped. As the legislative branch, Congress should have goals. Those goals should not be numerical, and members of Congress should not be engaged in federal busywork. Yesterday, CBS’s White House correspondent Mark Knoller tweeted out some last-minute governing done by Congress and the president. For example, he tweeted: “By Act of Congress and Presidential Proclamation, tomorrow is Wright Brothers Day.”

According to the media’s scorecard, this Congress would have been better had it used every day of the year to make such proclamations. We wouldn’t even need a classical calendar anymore: “The president is scheduled to attend a fundraiser this coming Led Zeppelin Day, followed by a speech in Iowa on Dunkin Donuts Iced Dark Roast Blend Day.” Thanks Congress!

And though it wasn’t an act of Congress, a second proclamation was noted by Knoller: “Also by presidential proclamation, today marks the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.” If there is anything that so ably demonstrates the obsessive delusions of the governing class, it is that basic math now must be affirmed by presidential proclamation.

We don’t need, and shouldn’t want, legislating for its own sake. On a more serious note, bad legislation results in far worse than such proclamations. As I and others have noted, the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of police came about because he was engaged in commerce in a market created by the government’s nanny-state regulations run amok. (As James Taranto points out, while liberals initially scoffed at this plain truth it appears Mayor Bill de Blasio “implicitly” acknowledges it.)

Another example: studies show mandatory calorie counts in restaurants are ineffective in changing eating habits, but Reason magazine this week drew attention to “the deleterious effect of this mandate on the estimated twenty million women and ten million men who struggle with eating disorders during their lifetimes (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, and Hudson, 2011). For those working toward recovery, this policy impedes a foundational part of their efforts.”

The government’s “just do something” instincts often take the form of experimenting on the citizenry. They usually turn out to be bad laws, poorly conceived and detrimental to the people. But they stay on the books. We don’t need a Congress that believes it has a responsibility to legislate as an end in itself.

However: a total lack of legislating can have deleterious effects on the effort to keep government limited and transparent as well. As the Economist noted last year in an article on the wordiness and complexity of modern laws:

As the number of new laws has fallen, their average length has increased (see chart). Because relatively few bills pass, a congressman with a proposal will often try to hitch it to an unrelated must-pass bill. When 500 lawmakers do this at once, the result is laws that make “War and Peace” look like a haiku. …

If longer bills were merely a byproduct of cleaner government, that would be a reason to celebrate. But they also reflect a more open form of corruption. Complex systems reward those who know how to navigate them. Over the past decade, Washington has added more households whose income puts them in the top 1% than any other city in America. Many of them made money from government contracting in the defence and security boom the (sic) followed September 11th 2001. But plenty made their money lobbying to slip clauses that benefit their clients into mega-bills that no one can be bothered to read. Long laws suit them rather well.

The Economist puts some of the blame on the anti-earmark crusade, which removed one tool for lawmakers to corral votes, especially from those on the other side of the aisle. But even aside from that issue and the one of lobbying, it remains a fact that–as conservatives rightly point out–there are very few “must-pass” bills.

This is one way to create a Cromnibus. Shoving a year’s worth of legislating into one bill isn’t limited government. It’s binge governing. Liberals are wrong to assume that the number of bills passed by a Congress tells you how valuable that Congress has been. But conservatives make a similar mistake. A year’s worth of legislating is a year’s worth of legislating, no matter how you slice it. And if you’re going to do such an amount of lawmaking, it’s far better to do so in pieces, when there is transparency and debate on what is actually being voted on.

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The Last Day of Congressional Democrats

The outcome of tomorrow’s Louisiana Senate runoff election is not in much doubt. With the most recent state poll showing Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy with a whopping 26-point lead over incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, it is a virtual certainty that the last vote of the 2014 midterms will ensure that the GOP will have a 54-46 Senate majority in January. Even before the votes are counted, the result is being rightly touted as the end of the Democratic Party in the South. But while the reasons for this are worth examining, it’s also important to point out that the implications of this trend have more than a regional impact. Just as the Democrats have developed a built-in advantage in the Electoral College in presidential elections, a new solid South in the hands of the Republicans means they have now acquired an equally potent edge that should allow them to retain control of Congress for the foreseeable future.

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The outcome of tomorrow’s Louisiana Senate runoff election is not in much doubt. With the most recent state poll showing Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy with a whopping 26-point lead over incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, it is a virtual certainty that the last vote of the 2014 midterms will ensure that the GOP will have a 54-46 Senate majority in January. Even before the votes are counted, the result is being rightly touted as the end of the Democratic Party in the South. But while the reasons for this are worth examining, it’s also important to point out that the implications of this trend have more than a regional impact. Just as the Democrats have developed a built-in advantage in the Electoral College in presidential elections, a new solid South in the hands of the Republicans means they have now acquired an equally potent edge that should allow them to retain control of Congress for the foreseeable future.

As Nate Cohn writes in the New York Times’s Upshot section, though most put the shift of the South into the GOP column down to race, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Democrats survived and even thrived at times in the Deep South decades after Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” enabled Republicans to flip the region into the GOP column in presidential elections. But the steady drift of the Democratic Party to the left on social, cultural, and economic issues has now alienated most voters in these states and left moderate Democrats like Landrieu increasingly isolated from both their constituencies and their national party.

As Cohn notes, blaming this solely on alleged white racism or on a backlash against President Obama ignores the fact that Democratic losses in the South can be traced to the way the party has embraced liberal issues that energize its northern and urban base but which alienates southerners:

Yet nonracial factors are most of the reason for Mr. Obama’s weakness. The long-term trends are clear. Mr. Kerry, for instance, fared worse than Michael Dukakis among most white Southerners, often losing vast swaths of traditionally Democratic countryside where once-reliably Democratic voters had either died or become disillusioned by the party’s stance on cultural issues. It seems hard to argue that the Democrats could have retained much support among rural, evangelical Southern voters as the party embraced liberalism on issues like same sex marriage and abortion.

The loss of so many House seats in the South for Democrats is often also blamed on gerrymandering. But there, as much if not more than anyplace in the country, it’s the Voting Rights Act that is at fault. By piling as many black voters as possible into absurdly shaped majority-minority districts, the legislatures have obeyed the law’s mandate and ensured the survival of a large number of black Democrats. But given the fact that southern whites now vote for Republicans in the same kind of uniform manner as blacks do for Democrats, the practice has also made it impossible to create swing districts in the South.

It is true that the two southern states where a majority of the population was born elsewhere—Virginia and Florida—remain competitive for the Democrats. But elsewhere, white Democrats are becoming a rarity.

This changes nothing in presidential elections since Republicans have been winning most of the South since Lyndon Johnson was president. But the collapse of support for moderate southern Democrats gives the GOP a built-in advantage in retaining both House and Senate majorities. Many have claimed the Republicans’ 2014 victory will be short-lived since the 2016 election map forces them to defend so many seats, including a number in states where Democrats should be expected to prevail especially in a presidential year. But the losses of seats in West Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Louisiana strips away the Democrats’ firewall that might have enabled them to mount a quick comeback in 2016 with what is expected to be a strong presidential candidate on the top of the ticket.

Pundits have spent most of the last two years focusing exclusively on the problems Republicans have experienced with minority voters in an electorate that gets less white every year. But, as I noted yesterday, the Democrats’ decision to expend all their political capital on ObamaCare when they controlled Congress from 2008 to 2010, rather than concentrating on economic issues, made a return to power for the GOP inevitable. They appear to be making the same mistake now by enacting policies—now via lawless executive orders issued by President Obama rather than legislation—on immigration that alienate more white middle and working class voters while not significantly improving their already dominant position with minorities.

All of this presents serious problems to a Democratic Party that is no longer competitive in southern states. By tying their fate so firmly to a strategy based on black and Hispanic voters, Democrats are telling a large portion of the nation to go jump in a lake. Though whites are no longer as numerous as they once were, they still are a large majority of the population. That means the GOP’s hold on white males in particular is so great as to now make their abandonment of the Democrats a far greater demographic disaster than the problems Republicans have with Hispanics.

In a sense today may be the last day of the Southern Democratic Party. But it may also be the last day when the national Democratic Party had any hope of returning to power in the Senate for some time to come.

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Netanyahu Chooses the Lesser of Two Evils

Some observers were a bit surprised by the relieved tone with which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the news that the Iran nuclear talks were being extended for another seven months. While most skeptics of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran were rightly angry about the decision to send the talks into a second overtime period, Netanyahu played it cool saying that “no agreement was preferable than a bad agreement.” After months of heightened tension between Israel and the United States, in the willingness of the prime minister to opt for a low-key approach to this crucial issue Netanyahu is clearly opting to avoid another open breach with the U.S. But the question hanging over this is why the Israelis have chosen to downplay what everyone knows is a disagreement that is threatening to tear the U.S.-Israel alliance apart and what he hopes will happen in the next few months while Iran continues to run out the clock on the West.

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Some observers were a bit surprised by the relieved tone with which Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the news that the Iran nuclear talks were being extended for another seven months. While most skeptics of President Obama’s push for détente with Iran were rightly angry about the decision to send the talks into a second overtime period, Netanyahu played it cool saying that “no agreement was preferable than a bad agreement.” After months of heightened tension between Israel and the United States, in the willingness of the prime minister to opt for a low-key approach to this crucial issue Netanyahu is clearly opting to avoid another open breach with the U.S. But the question hanging over this is why the Israelis have chosen to downplay what everyone knows is a disagreement that is threatening to tear the U.S.-Israel alliance apart and what he hopes will happen in the next few months while Iran continues to run out the clock on the West.

Despite not criticizing the extension, Netanyahu made it clear that he is appalled by the direction in which the talks are heading. Had the Iranians accepted the West’s current offer, “the deal would’ve left Iran with the ability to enrich uranium for an atomic bomb while removing the sanctions.” He believes the only deal with Iran that makes sense is one that “will dismantle Iran’s capacity to make atom bombs,” a formula he takes to mean no uranium enrichment of any kind rather than the compromise put forward by Secretary of State John Kerry which would for all intents and purposes allow them to become a nuclear threshold state.

Seen from that perspective, the Israeli relief about the continuation of the talks seems misplaced. If Netanyahu doesn’t like the deal Kerry put on the table over the past weekend that Iran rejected, he should expect to be even less pleased with subsequent offers that the West will make in order to entice Iran to finally sign even a weak nuclear agreement that will give President Obama the sham foreign-policy success that he so badly needs.

Indeed, as Dennis Ross, the longtime State Department peace processor and subsequently a special advisor to the Obama administration on Iran and the Persian Gulf said today, Iran has showed no flexibility in the nuclear talks. The history of the last two years of discussions that led up to the interim deal signed last November (which relaxed sanctions and gave tacit recognition to Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium in exchange for measures that did little to halt the Islamist regime’s nuclear progress) and the subsequent standoff in the current talks has been marked by a steady Western retreat from its positions. Throughout this period, the U.S. has shown “flexibility” rather than standing up for its principle and as a result has thrown away the considerable economic and political leverage it had over Tehran.

There’s little question that any negotiations in the seven more months that have been added to the yearlong quest for a final agreement are likely to yield even more concessions. Indeed, why should the Iranians who have stood their ground throughout this process, demanding and getting a steady stream of Western retreats on issues such as enrichment, the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate, and the future of its stockpile of nuclear fuel, and allowed other issues such as the need to divulge the extent of its nuclear military research, the future of its plutonium plant at Arak, its ballistic missile program, and support for international terrorism to be kept off the agenda of the negotiations?

So what possible good can come out of the delay?

One obvious possibility is that Iran is so now so confident in their ability to string Obama, Kerry, and company along that they will never sign any deal. In one sense that would be a disaster since it would mean the West had wasted two more years on futile negotiations while Iran got even closer to realizing its nuclear goal. However, another failure to get Iran to sign would force the president to come face to face with the fact that his policies had failed and drop his push for appeasement in the hope of creating a new détente with Iran.

Clearly, Obama would not abandon his hopes for a rapprochement with Iran without a struggle. But it remains possible that Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will never agree to any deal no matter how favorable it might be for his country. If so, that sets the stage for the imposition of the sort of tough sanctions—amounting to an economic embargo on Iran and the halting of all oil sales—that could bring the country to its knees.

But for that to happen, it will be necessary for Congress to ignore Obama and Kerry’s pleas and enact the next round of sanctions now in order to have them in place and ready when the negotiations fail. By piping down now, Netanyahu is rightly adding weight to the bipartisan majority in Congress in favor of increasing the economic restrictions on doing business with Iran. Moreover, by not publicly opposing the administration’s decision, the Israelis are making it clear to both Congress and the American public that their goal is not the use of force but rather an effort to recreate the strong position the West held over Iran before Kerry folded during the interim talks last year. Another pointless spat with Obama would be a needless distraction that would undermine support for sanctions.

A choice between a “terrible” agreement and a postponement that also seems to play into Tehran’s hands is not one anyone outside of Iran should relish. Yet a lot can happen in seven months. Though there is a very real possibility that the next round will yield more concessions and an even weaker deal, the chance exists that a combination of Iranian rejectionism and congressional action will create a turnabout that will force the U.S. to stop appeasing the Islamist regime and return to a policy based on strength and common sense. If so, Netanyahu’s decision to choose the lesser of two evils and keep his powder dry this week will turn out to be a smart move he won’t regret.

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Pass an Immigration Bill? What’s the Point?

Republicans are still fulminating about last week’s presidential power grab, and with good reason. President Obama’s executive orders granting legal status to 5 million illegal immigrants were contrary to proper constitutional order as well as the will of an American people that had just issued a rebuke to his policies and his party in the midterm elections. But the onus right now seems to be on the GOP to come up with a coherent response to the president on immigration, whether a strategy to push back on his orders or on the issue itself. In particular, the president has challenged Republicans to “pass a bill” if they don’t like what he’s done. But while that sounds logical, the president’s actions are nothing more than a partisan trap. By effectively neutering the rule of law via mass “selective prosecution,” what Obama has done is to vindicate the positions of the most extreme opponents of immigration reform.

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Republicans are still fulminating about last week’s presidential power grab, and with good reason. President Obama’s executive orders granting legal status to 5 million illegal immigrants were contrary to proper constitutional order as well as the will of an American people that had just issued a rebuke to his policies and his party in the midterm elections. But the onus right now seems to be on the GOP to come up with a coherent response to the president on immigration, whether a strategy to push back on his orders or on the issue itself. In particular, the president has challenged Republicans to “pass a bill” if they don’t like what he’s done. But while that sounds logical, the president’s actions are nothing more than a partisan trap. By effectively neutering the rule of law via mass “selective prosecution,” what Obama has done is to vindicate the positions of the most extreme opponents of immigration reform.

The genius of Obama’s amnesty for illegals via executive orders is not that he has somehow championed the underdog or ensured the Hispanic vote for the Democrats for generations to come, as many Democrats are saying. The orders, which can be reversed if the GOP wins back the White House in 2016, won’t permanently change anything for the illegals. And Hispanics weren’t flipping to the Republicans even if the House had passed the Senate immigration reform bill last year. What the orders have done though is dashed the House and Senate GOP leadership’s hopes for setting a governing agenda by making bipartisan cooperation a toxic phrase in the majority caucuses next year. While there may be deals to be made on trade, taxes, or the use of force in the Middle East, Obama has ensured that much of the Republican Party’s energies will be wasted on futile attempts to stop his unilateral immigration policies. Even more to the point, immigration reform is dead on arrival for the next two years.

It should be remembered that Republicans were divided on immigration in the Congress that is just reaching the end of its term. A significant faction in the Senate backed the comprehensive bipartisan reform bill passed by the upper body. There were significant numbers in the House GOP caucus that favored tackling border enforcement even if the majority wanted no part of the Senate bill.

Opponents of even going that far had two standard replies to those favoring such measures. The first argued that any deal promising a free pass to illegals already here would generate another surge of illegals coming in. The second said that it was impossible to trust President Obama to actually carry out border enforcement measures if his real agenda here rests with granting legal status to illegals.

In response, reform advocates made points about the current problem being de facto amnesty and pointed to the advantages of strengthening the border and then dealing with the issue of those already here.

Those opposing immigration reform are wrong in terms of the big picture since this is an issue that requires attention and legislation to deal with a problem that won’t go away by itself. But they were right about both the impact of amnesty and the president’s reliability on enforcement. Last summer’s surge of illegals at the Texas border put to rest the notion that there is no connection between talk of granting amnesty and the rate of illegal entries. That is true even if Obama’s measures wouldn’t actually apply to those coming over the border. And now that Obama has single-handedly eviscerated the notion that the rule of law applies to immigration matters, he has handed reform advocates an irrefutable argument that any legislation on the matter is impossible since the president has no credibility on enforcement matters.

Even more to the point, Obama has placed Republican leaders in the position where they must respond to his end run around the Constitution even though there is little likelihood that anything, whether a lawsuit or even selective funding cutoffs that will impact the government’s ability to carry out the amnesty plan (though this is the most promising idea), will stop him from doing whatever he likes until January 2017. That will allow the White House and its media cheering section to label the new Congress as a pack of obstructionists even if the president is the one who has needlessly provoked the argument by going back on his past promises to refrain from acting like an emperor rather than a president.

Thus, the president’s challenges to “pass a bill” aren’t merely unpersuasive. Rather than an effort to prompt needed legislation, they are taunts that are actually intended to foment more obstruction and partisan warfare.

Those who know the country needs a legislative remedy to a broken immigration system knew that the odds were against success even before the president’s moves. But by acting in this manner he has made it certain that no such efforts can possibly succeed in the next Congress and also silenced those who tried to answer the arguments of those opposed to reform. The appropriate response to “Pass a bill” is that the president should try enforcing the law first. Obama has not only damaged the cause of immigration reform, he has done something that seemed impossible a couple of years ago: made anti-immigration advocates look smart.

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Congress Must Rescue Administration Held Hostage by Iran

This morning’s announcement that the West has formally agreed to extend its nuclear talks with Iran for another seven months confirms something that we already knew about Obama administration attitudes on the issue: it is far more afraid of disrupting any chance for détente with the Islamist regime than in sticking to its principles or its promises about halting the threat posed by Tehran’s program. But while sending the talks into a second overtime period allows Iran to keep moving ahead with its nuclear program and lets Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiators to relax a bit, this decision should wake up Congress. The failure of the administration to escape the trap that it has set for itself by letting the next stage of the talks drag on endlessly should re-energize the existing bipartisan coalition in favor of toughening sanctions on Iran to get back to work and pass a new bill.

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This morning’s announcement that the West has formally agreed to extend its nuclear talks with Iran for another seven months confirms something that we already knew about Obama administration attitudes on the issue: it is far more afraid of disrupting any chance for détente with the Islamist regime than in sticking to its principles or its promises about halting the threat posed by Tehran’s program. But while sending the talks into a second overtime period allows Iran to keep moving ahead with its nuclear program and lets Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiators to relax a bit, this decision should wake up Congress. The failure of the administration to escape the trap that it has set for itself by letting the next stage of the talks drag on endlessly should re-energize the existing bipartisan coalition in favor of toughening sanctions on Iran to get back to work and pass a new bill.

It should be remembered that a year ago in the aftermath of the signing of a weak interim deal with Iran, the administration successfully fended off efforts to increase sanctions on the Islamist regime by claiming that doing so would disrupt the negotiations. President Obama and Kerry both promised that the next round of talks would have a limited time frame that would prevent Iran from continuing the same game that it has played with the West for the last decade.

Tehran has been trying to run out the clock on the nuclear issue since George W. Bush’s first term in the White House. It has easily exploited two administrations’ efforts at engagement and diplomacy during this time frame and has gotten far closer to its goal of a bomb as a result. Even more importantly, with each round of negotiations it has forced Obama and America’s allies to retreat on its demands. Last year its tough stance forced Kerry to give up and ultimately agree to tacit Western acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium.

In the last year, it has also successfully gotten the U.S. to retreat on issues such as the number of centrifuges it is allowed to operate and the future of its stockpile of nuclear fuel, and kept other issues such as the need to divulge the extent of its nuclear military research, the future of its plutonium plant at Arak, its ballistic missile program, and support for international terrorism off the agenda. Proposed Western concessions have grown to the point of the absurd, such as the suggestion about disconnecting the pipes between the centrifuges. At the same time Iran has also stonewalled the International Atomic Energy Agency on demands for more inspections and transparency.

After last year’s interim deal was signed, the administration easily fended off congressional efforts to toughen sanctions by saying they weren’t needed to strengthen the hands of Western negotiators and openly talked of the danger of demonstrating ill will toward Tehran that would scuttle the talks. The president and his foreign-policy team also labeled skeptics about this deal and advocates of more sanctions as warmongers.

But a year later it’s clear that the skeptics were right and everything the administration promised about the next round of talks was either mistaken or an outright lie. Though Kerry claimed that the interim deal had achieved its goal of halting Iran’s progress, the truth is that nothing it accomplished can be easily reversed. In exchange for dubious progress, the U.S. sacrificed its considerable economic leverage in the form of loosening sanctions. Iran now believes with good reason that it can end the sanctions without giving up its nuclear ambition.

By turning the promised six months of talks to pressure Iran into a year plus seven months, the president and Kerry have broken their word to Congress and played right into the hands of the ayatollahs. It’s possible that seven more months of ineffectual pressure on Iran will yield another weak deal that will ensure it will soon become a threshold nuclear power while at the same time allowing Obama to announce a much-needed foreign-policy success and the fulfillment of his campaign pledges on the issue. But given the promises that were made about the previous two deadlines, what confidence can anyone have in America’s willingness to draw conclusions about the talks if Iran doesn’t yield?

Even if we are operating under the dubious assumption that any deal reached under these circumstances could be enforced or achieve its goal, the failure of the president to enforce the current deadline telegraphs to Iran that it needn’t worry about any other threats from the West. If the U.S. wouldn’t feel empowered to push Iran hard now with oil prices in decline and the current sanctions (which Obama opposed in the first place) having some impact on the regime’s economy, why would anyone in Tehran take seriously the idea that there will be consequences if they don’t make concessions or sign even another weak deal? Though Kerry talked about building trust with Iran, the only thing that can be trusted about this process is that the Islamists have played him and his boss for fools.

That is why Congress must step in now and immediately revive the bipartisan bill proposed by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Republican Senator Mark Kirk that would tighten the noose around Iran’s still-lucrative oil trade. Just as the current sanctions that Obama and Kerry brag about were forced upon them, the only way this administration will negotiate a viable deal with Iran is to tie its hands by passing a new sanctions bill.

It should also be pointed out that the alternative to Kerry’s appeasement of Iran is not the use of force. Tougher sanctions that will return the situation to the point where it was last year before Kerry caved on the interim deal provide the only chance to stop Iran by means short of war.

It may be that outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will block a sanctions bill in the lame duck session just as he did last year despite the support of an overwhelming majority of members from both parties. But if he does thwart action, the new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican majorities in both houses should act quickly to pass a bill that will impose real penalties on Iran.

The commitment of Obama and Kerry to détente with Iran has made them, in effect, hostages of the Islamist regime in these talks. The only way they can be rescued from their own folly is action by Congress.

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Obama’s Dangerous Race for an Iran Deal

With only two weeks to go before the deadline for the end of the current round of nuclear talks with Iran, the Obama administration has been conducting what can only be considered a full-court press aimed at producing a deal before November 24. This is in marked contrast to the relaxed attitude toward the previous deadline for the talks that passed in June and was extended to the fall. It also seems to contradict the behavior of Washington’s European negotiating partners who seemed to be reconciling themselves to yet another extension in the familiar pattern of stalling that has always characterized Iran’s conduct of the negotiations. But though the latest talks in Oman ended without agreement, the flurry of diplomatic action raises the question of whether President Obama believes he needs to get a deal done now before Republicans take control of the Senate in January.

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With only two weeks to go before the deadline for the end of the current round of nuclear talks with Iran, the Obama administration has been conducting what can only be considered a full-court press aimed at producing a deal before November 24. This is in marked contrast to the relaxed attitude toward the previous deadline for the talks that passed in June and was extended to the fall. It also seems to contradict the behavior of Washington’s European negotiating partners who seemed to be reconciling themselves to yet another extension in the familiar pattern of stalling that has always characterized Iran’s conduct of the negotiations. But though the latest talks in Oman ended without agreement, the flurry of diplomatic action raises the question of whether President Obama believes he needs to get a deal done now before Republicans take control of the Senate in January.

The end of the talks in Oman without an accord is likely not a sign that the deadline won’t be met. The Iranians are past masters of the art of wearing down their Western interlocutors. A year ago, the Iranians’ tough tactics resulted in Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to sign onto a deal that tacitly endorsed the Islamist regime’s “right” to enrich uranium and keep their nuclear infrastructure. Now they are similarly hammering Kerry in sessions where he continues to demand that Tehran accept what President Obama referred to yesterday as “verifiable lock-tight assurances that they can’t develop a nuclear weapon.” But since Iran has no intention of giving such assurances, they believe Kerry will, as he has before, decide that Western demands are just too difficult to achieve and accept far less in order to produce a deal.

But while the deadlines were originally sold to the U.S. public as evidence that the administration was serious about stopping Iran, the potential for a cutoff in the talks seems to be affecting Obama and Kerry far more than it is the Iranians. With sanctions already having been loosened and Europeans clamoring for an end to all restrictions on doing business with the regime, Tehran seems unmoved by the prospect of an end to the negotiations. By contrast, the administration seems genuinely fearful that November 24 will pass without diplomatic success.

Selling the U.S. public and Congress on yet another extension would be embarrassing but, given Obama’s success in squelching past criticisms of his Iran policy, would not be that much of a stretch. So long as he could pretend that the Iranians were negotiating in good faith, skeptics could be put down as warmongers who oppose diplomacy. But instead of slouching toward another round of seemingly endless negotiations, the Obama foreign-policy team is acting as if the deadline matters this time.

It is theoretically possible that this means the president intends to treat an Iranian refusal to sign as the signal for ratcheting up pressure on Tehran. Tightening rather than loosening of sanctions might recover some of the ground the president has lost in the last year. But few in Washington or anywhere else think this is likely. Years of on-and-off secret talks with the Iranians, including the recent revelations of the president’s correspondence with Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, show that Obama’s goal centers more on détente with the regime, not halting its nuclear project.

That leads to the inevitable conclusion that the motivation for the diplomatic frenzy is not so much fear of having to get tough with Iran as it is fear that a Republican-controlled Congress will prevent the implementation of another weak deal. There’s little doubt that without outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid to help the president stall advocates of tougher sanctions, Congress will pass a new bill that will hold the administration and Tehran accountable. A deal that allows Iran to become a threshold nuclear power—something that seems almost certain given the administration’s habit of accepting Tehran’s no’s as final and then moving on to the next concession—will set off a major battle in the Senate even if Obama does try to evade the constitutional requirement of submitting it to the Senate for a vote.

But the president’s fear of having to present such a dubious deal to the public seems to be inspiring him to present a weaker, not a tougher position to Iran. The Iranians know this and are standing their ground in the expectation that rather than walking away from the table, Obama will accept another bad deal in order to get it all done before McConnell is running the Senate.

But rather than treating this as a partisan matter, both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress should be alarmed at the prospect of the president holding a fire sale of vital American interests merely to avoid having to carry on his appeasement of Iran while being held accountable by a GOP-run Senate. No matter what terms the president presents to the public, there seems little chance that any of them can be enforced in the absence of more United Nations inspections of Iranian facilities, which are still being denied by the ayatollahs or an end to ongoing cheating on the interim agreement. Nor should either party be comforted by the idea that the president will be relying on the trustworthiness of his pen pal Khamenei at the same time the latter is tweeting out a steady barrage of anti-Semitic and genocidal threats toward Israel.

If there is anything more dangerous than a deliberate campaign of engagement with Iran, it is the current race to a deal that can’t be verified and won’t put an end to the regime’s nuclear ambitions. This should be a signal for responsible members of both parties that it is time to pass the tougher sanctions that Obama successfully defeated last winter.

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What’s Wrong with the American Economy?

Growth in the American economy since the year 2000 has averaged 1.7 percent per annum. That’s about half of what it averaged in the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton years. Unemployment, especially in the broader measures, remains stubbornly high five years after the recession of 2007-2009 ended. What’s going on?

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Growth in the American economy since the year 2000 has averaged 1.7 percent per annum. That’s about half of what it averaged in the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton years. Unemployment, especially in the broader measures, remains stubbornly high five years after the recession of 2007-2009 ended. What’s going on?

According to Peter Morici, an economics professor at the University of Maryland (and the bow-tied star of TV commercials for Kyocera office equipment) the problems lie in five key areas. 1) Poorly enforced trade agreements that allow China to manipulate its currency and export more goods to the United States, costing U.S. jobs. 2) Counterproductive energy policies that reduce domestic production, and therefore jobs, and cause more oil to be imported. 3) Burdensome regulations and taxation, such as restrictive licensing requirements and the highest corporate tax in the developed world. 4) Crony capitalism that reduces competition in the private sector in exchange for political contributions. 5) Disincentives to work, such as ever-expanding entitlements.

The good news is that, unlike the economic problems faced by many countries, all of these problems are amenable to reform. The bad news is that reforming the status quo, which always has determined defenders, requires strong presidential leadership and a Congress capable of acting in the national interest, not just in its members’ interests.

Right now, of course, we have neither. Even Democrats are beginning to notice that the Obama presidency is notably lacking in leadership. And Congress is more dysfunctional than it has been in a very long time. The latter problem can be at least partially ameliorated in a month. The former will have to wait until 2017.

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The Constitution and the War on ISIS

When President Obama announced last night that the United States was now committed to the destruction of the ISIS terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria, there was one conspicuous omission from the speech. He will not ask Congress for a vote authorizing the campaign. That suits most members of the House and Senate—who are not eager to cast a vote for or against war on the eve of the midterm elections—just fine. But it begs the question of whether his decision is constitutional or wise.

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When President Obama announced last night that the United States was now committed to the destruction of the ISIS terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria, there was one conspicuous omission from the speech. He will not ask Congress for a vote authorizing the campaign. That suits most members of the House and Senate—who are not eager to cast a vote for or against war on the eve of the midterm elections—just fine. But it begs the question of whether his decision is constitutional or wise.

In his speech, the president brushed over the question of a congressional vote when he said:

I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL, but I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.

While he’s right about the majority of Congress supporting action at this moment, many in the House and Senate believe they must be formally consulted. While agreeing with the president’s dubious assertion that the terrorists were not Islamic, Senator Rand Paul believes Congress needs to authorize any military action against the group. The libertarian called for “an up or down vote” on the use of force and said authorizing strikes without one was “unconstitutional.”

Is he right? The president’s position on this is precarious but it is not completely illogical.

Last year when the president flirted with taking action in Syria against the Bashar Assad regime after it crossed the “red line” he had enunciated on its use of chemical weapons, he deferred to Congress saying he could not take action on his own. Now he claims he has the authority to order the use of force that he didn’t have last year. The difference is that the administration believes a conflict with ISIS falls under the rubric of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force voted by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda whereas a fight with Assad would not.

That makes some sense but ironies abound.

The first is that, as the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake writes today, fighting ISIS on the basis of a resolution against al-Qaeda makes no sense. The two groups are not the same thing and are actually in conflict with each other so how can a congressional resolution against one allow the president to fight the other?

Even more embarrassing for Obama is the recollection that, as Lake recalls, Obama specifically eschewed the right of the president to act in this manner in the absence of “an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Though the president can assert, with some justice, that ISIS potentially does pose such a threat, given that he repeated his boasts about defeating al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden in his speech, using the resolution from a war he has pretended to have won to fight a new one against a different group is absurd if not illegal, as Lake asserts.

The fact that in May 2013 the president also asked Congress to repeal this very same resolution and vowed never to sign laws to extend that mandate only adds another layer of hypocrisy to the discussion.

Yet even if we were to assume that the president is right that the 2001 law applies to the new conflict, his decision not to ask Congress for a vote is a mistake.

The reasons for his choice are obvious.

First of all, the president was burned last year when it was clear that he didn’t have support for a Syria resolution even though his initial inclination to strike Assad was correct. The president has always been uncomfortable working with Congress and after nearly six years in office has more or less given up on the idea. Even though the odds would be in his favor after the universal revulsion felt by Americans about ISIS atrocities, Obama simply hasn’t the patience or the ability to cajole the House and the Senate to back him.

Moreover, though many members of Congress are unsettled by this usurpation of authority, they are more than happy not to be asked to cast a difficult vote sending the nation to war in the weeks before the midterm elections. Outside of critical voices like Paul, few in either the House or the Senate are upset about being given a pass by the White House.

But both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are wrong.

The president would be immeasurably strengthened by a new vote, especially when you consider that he would be almost certain to win it. Having called the nation to take part in war, albeit on the cheap without ground troops, choosing to avoid a vote while weakly welcoming the legislative branch’s support smacks of the same cavalier attitude toward the Constitution that animates his stands on immigration and the environment. Avoiding the controversies that have embroiled the administration on those issues would lift this conflict out of the partisan squabbles that characterize virtually everything that happens in Washington these days.

Even more important is that such a vote would make it clear that the nation was united and ready to pay the price, be in treasure or blood, to defeat ISIS. Arming himself with that support would be what a true wartime president—one that was able not only to articulate the reasons for fighting but also prepared to stick out a long hard fight—would do.

But this risk-averse president who has been dragged kicking and screaming into this fight by an American people who are outraged and fearful about ISIS rather than his own judgment isn’t willing to do it. A call for a vote would be a sign of respect for the separation of powers in the Constitution as well as a unifying gesture as the U.S. embarks on a new chapter of a war on terror that began 13 years ago today on 9/11. But Obama appears as indifferent to the former as he is uninterested in the latter. While it is to be hoped that his half-hearted approach to this conflict will be successful, this is not a good start to a war that may prove more difficult than he thinks.

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Congressional Residency Scandals Are Bunk

It’s hard to muster much sympathy for U.S. Senators. But let’s pause for a moment and commiserate with Mary Landrieu and Pat Roberts, two senators who apparently don’t own homes in the states they represent. While the symbolism of their decisions resonates in an era in which the public rightly resent Washington and the political class that call it home, the residency gap actually tells us more about changing public expectations of members of Congress than it does about their connection to home.

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It’s hard to muster much sympathy for U.S. Senators. But let’s pause for a moment and commiserate with Mary Landrieu and Pat Roberts, two senators who apparently don’t own homes in the states they represent. While the symbolism of their decisions resonates in an era in which the public rightly resent Washington and the political class that call it home, the residency gap actually tells us more about changing public expectations of members of Congress than it does about their connection to home.

Roberts, who has represented Kansas in the Senate since 1996, had a near political death experience in a primary against a Tea Party challenger largely because of revelations that his official Kansas residence is the home of a supporter to whom he only pays rent when he is there campaigning. His Freudian slip in which he said he only lived in the state when he had an election challenge understandably didn’t sit well with fellow Kansans. Indeed, the 78-year-old is so unpopular these days that he might actually be in danger of losing a safe Republican seat in a 3-way general election race in which an independent rather than the Democratic nominee is the bigger threat.

Facing a similar barrage of criticism is Democrat Mary Landrieu who is also one of the most endangered of a group of red state incumbent senators up for re-election. It turns out Landrieu doesn’t own a residence in Louisiana but instead sleeps in her old room in her father’s home in New Orleans when in the state. The fact that she and her husband list their Capitol Hill home as their residence in official documents doesn’t help her persuade voters that there is nothing fishy about bunking with dad.

Like Roberts’s opponents, GOP challenger Bill Cassidy is making a meal out of these revelations and arguing that this proves that the senator is not only part and parcel of the DC liberal establishment but also out of touch with Louisianans.

For Landrieu, who is already dealing with a scandal about her use of government funds to pay for campaign expenses and the overall burden of being a member of Barack Obama’s party in a very red and conservative state, this might really be the tipping point in a race that already seemed to be going against her. In a year in which the GOP may be on the verge of taking back control of the Senate, Landrieu’s failure to have her own place to crash in while in Louisiana may prove to be a very expensive mistake.

But while not having your own home in the state you represent is a perfect metaphor for the idea that politicians go native once they roost in the Capitol, let’s also understand that this is more than a bit unfair.

For most of our history, members of the House and Senate were not expected, as they are today, to race back and forth between their districts and states and Washington every week to show constituents they care. Instead, they simply moved themselves to Washington for the duration of each lengthy session. Their children (such as former Vice President Al Gore, the son of a Tennessee senator) were educated in Washington and only saw “home” in the summers. But in the age of jet travel and increased media attention, members of Congress are now generally expected to spend weekends at home and tend only to stay in the Capitol during the week.

That requires them to have two places to live. Though they make far more than the average American, it’s not enough for those who are not wealthy to maintain themselves in two homes. That leaves them with the choice of whether their main residence is going to be in their states or in Washington. Many opt for the former and bunk in Spartan style in shared apartments or even their offices during the week. Others, whether because of a desire to keep their families together or because of their spouse’s career, have their main home in the DC area and have a less substantial arrangement in their constituency. This is an especially tough decision for those who don’t hail from states that are in easy commuting distance from the capital.

There’s nothing immoral about either choice. As long as we expect these people to live in two places and pay them only enough to live decently in one, we can’t expect anything else. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not in favor of a pay increase for Congress (or at least not until they pass a balanced budget and stop spending our money like drunken sailors). But the question of residency is about symbolism not substance.

In the case of Roberts, it does look like he hasn’t actually lived in Kansas much but given that these days Congress is pretty much in continuous session (as opposed to previous eras when recesses were far longer), can his lack of a home there really be held against him in the absence of proof that he doesn’t perform adequate constituent service or speak up for the interests of his state? The same applies for Landrieu who at least can say she actually grew up in the place she stays in when in Louisiana.

We do have a right to expect our representatives and senators to retain a primary allegiance to their districts and states and resentment of those politicians who have largely abandoned their constituents and aligned themselves with lobbyists and party establishments deserve the criticism they get. Politicians should be smart enough to maintain a credible proof of residency in the places where they vote, a test that Roberts may have failed. But such scandals are strictly gotcha politics. There may be good reasons for citizens of Kansas and Louisiana to oust their senators but this isn’t one of them.

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Why AIPAC Matters and Its Critics Don’t

Critiques of AIPAC that predict the end of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress and the nation are old hat. After the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby smear campaign and the subsequent media offensive seeking to prop up the left-wing J Street alternative, one would have thought the well had run dry in this genre. But the editors at The New Yorker thought otherwise and commissioned Connie Bruck to rehash some of the same tired material about an out-of-touch Jewish establishment in service to an extremist Israeli government in a lengthy new article. But the bad timing of the publication of the piece illustrates exactly why Bruck’s thesis about AIPAC’s loss of influence is wrong.

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Critiques of AIPAC that predict the end of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress and the nation are old hat. After the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby smear campaign and the subsequent media offensive seeking to prop up the left-wing J Street alternative, one would have thought the well had run dry in this genre. But the editors at The New Yorker thought otherwise and commissioned Connie Bruck to rehash some of the same tired material about an out-of-touch Jewish establishment in service to an extremist Israeli government in a lengthy new article. But the bad timing of the publication of the piece illustrates exactly why Bruck’s thesis about AIPAC’s loss of influence is wrong.

The pro-Israel lobby has had its ups and downs and as Bruck’s article, which devotes a great deal of space to the history of the organization, demonstrates. The problems generally occur when Israel’s friends run into confrontations with sitting presidents and those stories always end the same way. Whether it was Ronald Reagan and his decision to sell AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia or Barack Obama’s attempts to head off plans for tough sanctions on Iran, no matter how much support AIPAC can amass on Capitol Hill, no lobbying group can beat the occupant of the mansion at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue if they go all in on a specific issue.

But even an attempt to write a critical history of AIPAC must acknowledge that it has helped forge a U.S.-Israel alliance whose enduring strength transcends party loyalties as well as the changing names of presidents and cabinet secretaries. As Bruck is forced to acknowledge in the lede of her piece, this summer’s congressional action to give Israel more funding for its Iron Dome missile defense system in the midst of the ongoing war in Gaza was a triumph for the lobby. It as also a timely rebuke from the leadership of both congressional caucuses to an Obama administration that had gone out of its way to try and delay the delivery of ammunition supplies to the Israel Defense Forces as part of its strategy to pressure the Jewish state into halting its counterattack on Hamas in Gaza and agreeing to unsatisfactory cease-fire terms. That two bitter foes like Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell who normally couldn’t agree to back a resolution saying the sky was blue would unite on behalf of Israel in this manner, with the Senate agreeing to delay its summer recess in order to get the measure passed, shows that AIPAC’s clout is undiminished. The fact that this is so despite the fact that, for all of its reputation as the most powerful lobby in Washington, AIPAC hasn’t nearly the money or the influence of other lobbies such as that of the oil or pharmaceutical industries only makes their achievement even more amazing.

But Bruck’s main point in a piece where she tries hard to work in quotes from the organization’s critics is not so much as to try and make a weak case about it losing ground on Capitol Hill. Rather it is to claim that AIPAC is out of touch with liberal American Jews who are increasingly distancing themselves from the Jewish state and who view Israel’s center-right government with distaste.

This is the same argument put forward over and over again by people like author Peter Beinart, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, and was rehashed in the same newspaper on Sunday in another lengthy rant by British analyst Antony Lerman. They believe Israel’s refusal to make peace and insistence on occupation and rough treatment of the Palestinians disgusts most liberal Jews in the Diaspora, especially the youth that has grown up in an era in which the Jewish state is seen as a regional superpower rather than as the one small, besieged nation in the midst of Arab enemies determined to destroy it.

But the problem with this argument is that no matter how many times liberal critics of Israel tell us how disillusioned they are with the reality of a Jewish state at war, they invariably neglect, as did Lerman and Bruck, to discuss why it is that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews see things differently. The point is, no matter how unsatisfactory the status quo may seem to most Israelis, unlike their Diaspora critics, they have been paying attention to events in the Middle East during the last 20 years since the Oslo Accords ushered in an era of peace negotiations. They know that Israel has repeatedly offered the Palestinian Authority peace deals that would have given them an independent Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem and that it has been turned down flat every time.

Rather than Israel needing to finally take risks for peace, as liberal critics keep insisting, the Jewish state has done so repeatedly. It brought Yasir Arafat and the PLO back into the territories and empowered them and rather than trading land for peace, it got the terrorism and horror of the second intifada. It withdrew every last soldier, settler, and settlement from Gaza in 2005 and instead of creating space for a productive and peaceful Palestinian state, it got a Hamas-run Islamist state that has rained down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities and used international aid funds and materials to build tunnels to facilitate terrorism.

This cruel reality has destroyed the once dominant left-wing Israeli political parties, but American liberals haven’t paid much attention to it or anything the Palestinians do or say. This is especially instructive this summer as Hamas launched a terror war that illustrated even for those not paying close attention that when it says it wants to end the “occupation,” it is not discussing the future of the West Bank but reasserting its goal to eradicate Israel and slaughter and/or evict its Jewish population.

It is true that American Jewry is changing in ways that may eventually cripple its ability to be a coherent force on behalf of Israel as well as its other vital interests. But, contrary to the liberal critics, that has little to do with the policies of Israeli governments and everything to do with statistics about assimilation and intermarriage that speak to a demographic collapse of non-Orthodox Jewry.

That’s a serious problem as is the ongoing tension with an Obama administration whose barely concealed hostility to the Netanyahu government is making mischief on several fronts, including negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran that seems headed toward appeasement of the ayatollahs rather than a fulfillment of the president’s campaign pledges to prevent Tehran from acquiring a weapon.

But it doesn’t point toward the irrelevance of AIPAC, let alone the ascendance of J Street, its left-wing rival that has gained virtually no ground on Capitol Hill or anywhere else during an administration that should have been their ally.

AIPAC counts because it is connected to the reality of a Middle East where Israel remains the sole democracy and a vital American ally while the Palestinians continue to embrace terror and reject peace. So long as that is the case, Congress and the overwhelming majority of the American people will remain firmly on Israel’s side and, by extension, AIPAC. Though we should expect that its critics will continue to carp away on the sidelines and predict its doom, so long as they ignore what the Palestinians do or say, they will remain irrelevant or sink into the same kind of conspiratorial anti-Semitism that sank Walt and Mearsheimer.

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Border Mess Won’t Help Democrats

Yesterday was a bad day for congressional Republicans. With the summer recess looming, both the House of Representatives and the Senate were working on bills relating to the crisis in which huge numbers of illegal immigrants have surged across our southern borders. But while both houses failed to pass a bill, the fiasco in the GOP-controlled House was particularly humiliating.

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Yesterday was a bad day for congressional Republicans. With the summer recess looming, both the House of Representatives and the Senate were working on bills relating to the crisis in which huge numbers of illegal immigrants have surged across our southern borders. But while both houses failed to pass a bill, the fiasco in the GOP-controlled House was particularly humiliating.

Speaker John Boehner wound up having to cancel a vote on a measure aimed at providing extra funding for the situation at the border due to a revolt from conservatives within his own caucus that was incited, according to some reports, by Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Though the Democrat-controlled Senate also failed to pass its own bill about the crisis, the spectacle of Boehner being once again thwarted by a major revolt from within his own party had returned.

That was bad enough. But even worse, as Charles Krauthammer noted last night on Fox News’s Special Report, was the fact that Boehner compounded matters by then saying that President Obama taking unilateral action could address the lack of funding. As Krauthammer said:

“It is ridiculous to sue the president on a Wednesday because he oversteps the law, as he has done a dozen times illegally and unconstitutionally, and then on a Thursday say that he should overstep the law, contradict the law that passed in 2008 and deal with this [the border] himself.”

Krauthammer is right. Boehner’s stance was “ridiculous.” But no more ridiculous than the spectacle of a new GOP leadership team finding itself unable to manage its caucus even on an issue when Republicans should been eager to act so as to maintain the pressure on the administration over a situation that Republicans have aptly criticized as a man-made crisis largely the fault of President Obama.

This fiasco revived talk about the incompetence of congressional Republicans as well as the way their Tea Party faction still seems to call the tune on difficult issues such as immigration. It was enough to set liberal pundits and Democrats boasting that Boehner’s disaster could change the narrative of the midterm elections and help cost the GOP their chance to win control of the Senate this fall.

But while Boehner’s bad day won’t help Republicans, the claim that this will alter the course of the midterms is, at best, an exaggeration, and, at worst, a misperception that will lead the Democrats to misread the seriousness of the threat to their hold on the Senate.

First, it should be understood that as bad as Thursday was for the GOP, their ability to rebound from this confusion and craft a new compromise that will enable them to pass a bill today that will undo some of the damage. By passing a bill that will make it easier to deport illegal immigrants and fund the crisis on the Rio Grande, Republicans can at least depart Washington saying they have done no worse than the Democrats who weren’t even able to pass their own version of a bill on the issue.

But while President Obama railed at them for producing a bill that couldn’t pass the Senate, he is just as guilty of refusing to compromise as Boehner’s crew. The Democrats may have gained a bit of an advantage this week but if they think the border crisis is going to help them this fall, they are dreaming.

In the long run, a failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform will hurt the Republican Party with Hispanics and make their path to an Electoral College majority in 2016 even more steep than it already is. But in terms of the midterms, this is an issue that does enormous damage to the Democrats in many of this year’s battleground states. Support for a more lenient approach to the influx of illegal aliens may exist but the debacle at the border lends strength to the argument that security must precede any path to legal status for those who cross it without permission. If Democrats in red states think they can run by defending a failure to secure the border or to deport illegals, when that is something that has been encouraged by the president’s misjudgments and statements, they are mistaken.

As foolish as Boehner looked yesterday, Democrats must face up to the fact that the only national theme to this year’s elections will likely be the lack of confidence in the president. After all, no matter how incompetent the GOP House looks, the president is still the president. It will take more than a ridiculous day on Capitol Hill to erase that fact from the voters’ memory.

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Kerry’s False Iran Talks Narrative

Who are the obstacles to a new nuclear deal between the West and Iran? According to the New York Times, it’s the extremists on both sides: Iranian mullahs and members of Congress, both of whom are said to want the negotiations to fail. But the problem here is that both the newspaper and the anonymous U.S. officials who were the sources for the piece assume the object of the exercise is a deal of any sort. Their American critics have a different goal: stopping Iran from getting a bomb.

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Who are the obstacles to a new nuclear deal between the West and Iran? According to the New York Times, it’s the extremists on both sides: Iranian mullahs and members of Congress, both of whom are said to want the negotiations to fail. But the problem here is that both the newspaper and the anonymous U.S. officials who were the sources for the piece assume the object of the exercise is a deal of any sort. Their American critics have a different goal: stopping Iran from getting a bomb.

The Times article advances the administration’s agenda in which it has sought to portray critics of the Iran talks as warmongers determined to thwart progress in the same way that hard-line ayatollahs might. But the facile analogy tells us more about Kerry’s mindset than anything else. Like Cold War-era liberals who urged the U.S. not to be too tough on Moscow, lest the real hardliners in the Kremlin get the best of the liberal Communists, the assumption that there is any real support in Tehran for reconciliation or willingness to give up their nuclear quest is probably a pointless diversion. Contrary to the Times, the recent statements of Iran’s supreme leader–in which he stated that his country intends to increase the number of centrifuges enriching uranium, not reduce them–did not so much blindside his envoys as it made clear that the belief that they would accommodate Western demands was always a delusion. The supposed leader of the Iranian moderates, President Hassan Rouhani, is a loyal servant of Ayatollah Khamenei and helped deceive the West in the past. Whatever issues divide the Iranians, they are united in an effort to bluff the Obama administration into giving them another diplomatic victory.

On the other hand, the members of the House and the Senate that have warned the White House that they will oppose any deal that leaves Iran with a nuclear capability are not the problem. There is no difference between the stated positions of Democrat Robert Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and President Obama. Both have said they will not settle for an agreement that will allow Iran to get a bomb. Menendez and the broad bipartisan majority of both Houses of Congress have put on record their opposition to a weak deal that would leave Iran’s infrastructure in place with no credible guarantees to stop them from resuming their nuclear quest. But the motivation for the congressional critiques is not opposition to diplomacy per se so much as their understanding that administration diplomats have succumbed before to their zeal for a deal and may yet again.

At the heart of this dynamic is not the meme of extremists on both sides opposing compromise but the direction that the negotiations have taken. Kerry threw away the West’s formidable economic and military leverage over Iran last fall and signed an interim nuclear deal that tacitly recognized its right to enrich uranium and loosened sanctions in exchange for concessions that could be easily reversed. The Iranians had every expectation that this pattern would be repeated in the current round of talks and have understandably refused to back down and agree to anything that would really limit their ability to go nuclear.

This places Kerry in a bind. The administration desperately needs an agreement because neither President Obama nor America’s European allies have any appetite for continuing the existing sanctions on Iran’s economy, let alone toughening them (as Congress would like to do) in order to bring Tehran to its knees. Having started the process of unraveling support for sanctions last fall, getting the international community to agree to a genuine boycott of Iranian oil may be beyond the capacity of this administration.

That’s what Iran is counting on as it plays out the clock on the talks denying they will give Kerry any extra time during which he can somehow craft a deal. That leaves the U.S. vulnerable to a nuclear shakedown in which an agreement that would place no real obstacles in Iran’s place might be presented to the American people as proof that Obama kept his word to stop Iran. While most Americans are hazy about the details of these talks, they should not be deceived into thinking this is an issue on which reasonable people can split the difference. An agreement that allows Iran to keep its nuclear program (something that the president specifically vowed not to let happen) and gives it access to its nuclear stockpile with only a brief “break out” period standing between the ayatollahs and the bomb is not a compromise. It is a Western surrender that will put nuclear weapons within reach of the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism.

As time winds down toward the moment when another Kerry cave-in becomes the only way a deal gets done, it is imperative that Congress sends a clear message that it will never pass any bill lifting sanctions on Iran unless the negotiations produce an accord that is something more than a Western fig leaf covering Iran’s nuclear ambition.

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Obama’s Climate Laughs No Substitute for Sound Economics

President Obama had a good time mocking congressional Republicans yesterday for being skeptics about climate change. But even he seems to know that selling his radical proposals that will cause serious economic pain will not be as easy a sell as jokes about Flat Earth Republicans.

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President Obama had a good time mocking congressional Republicans yesterday for being skeptics about climate change. But even he seems to know that selling his radical proposals that will cause serious economic pain will not be as easy a sell as jokes about Flat Earth Republicans.

As Politico noted, Obama’s speech to the League of Conservation Voters was notable mainly for the president’s comedy routine aimed at depicting those who haven’t bought into every aspect of the radical environmentalist agenda as extremists with a screw loose. The reason for this strategy is easy to understand.

If Obama’s talking about regulations, he’s losing. If he’s talking about carbon caps for power plants or energy emissions for air conditioners, no one cares. But if he’s talking about crazy Republicans who don’t make any sense—and by the way, are putting children at risk, he charges—well, that’s an argument he can wrap his arms around.

Given the stranglehold that the global warming crowd has on the mainstream media and, even more importantly, in popular culture, the president’s confidence that a majority of Americans may agree with him on climate issues is well founded. But the gap between a general belief that the earth may be warming and a suspicion that human activity may be causing it and support for some of the administration’s prescriptions to address these issues is considerable.

As even the president acknowledged in his speech, his attempt to get rid of coal-fired power plants and force car manufacturers to alter their plans will have economic consequences. But the disconnect here isn’t merely a matter of marketing and better communication, as the White House seems to think.

As I noted back in March, polls have consistently shown that while the American people may believe the climate is changing, they don’t consider this to be a priority when it comes to government action. Liberals tend to think the reason for this is that the public is not yet sufficiently alarmed by the prospect of global warming. But instead of attempting to make a reasonable case for changes that will send electricity and gas prices skyrocketing and the refusal to undertake projects, like the Keystone XL Pipeline, that would increase America’s available resources, they engage in scare tactics that, generally, backfire.

That’s because what the public wants is not so much mockery of skeptics or hysterical and wildly exaggerated predictions of a warming apocalypse but a measured analysis of the cost/benefit ratio of climate legislation. And that is exactly what is lacking in the president’s comedy routine. Even if the courts have given the president the power to enact far-reaching changes without benefit of congressional approval, that doesn’t translate into widespread approval for carbon regulations that will damage the economy and cause genuine economic hardship. Nor will that problem be solved be reports filled with alarmist predictions funded by wealthy activists like Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg that liberals cite to justify the suffering that will be imposed on the public. Though most Americans may think the climate is changing, they don’t think the apocalypse is at hand and aren’t interested in lowering their standard of living merely to gratify extremist ideology.

Merely branding his opponents as crazy won’t resolve this problem. Nor will the usual amorphous rhetoric about the power of green jobs that never seem to materialize and new technologies that will leapfrog over current difficulties that may take decades before they can take the place of fossil fuels, if, in fact, they ever do. In the meantime, they are left facing the prospect of Obama’s proposals creating economic havoc. As some Democrats in energy-producing states are learning, Obama may be getting laughs from coastal elites but his backing for environmentalist extremism may cost his party some Senate seats to the same Republicans he’s been mocking. While he may be thinking in terms of his 2008 boast about turning back the oceans, that seems a poor exchange for unpopular policies even if most Americans don’t agree with the skeptics.

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Proroguing the Congress

The Supreme Court wimped out on the recess appointment power today.

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The Supreme Court wimped out on the recess appointment power today.

It ruled, unanimously, that President Obama had overstepped his powers when he made three recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board while the Senate was holding pro-forma sessions. In other words, the Senate, not the president, gets to decide when it is in session.

I have not yet read the opinion, which is a long one, but five justices (the four liberal ones and Justice Kennedy), decided to sustain the long-standing practice of presidents making appointments during intra-session recesses (for holidays, etc.) not just inter-session recesses when the Senate has recessed sine die (Latin for “without a day,” i.e. without setting a date to resume). It also ruled that vacancies don’t need to occur during the recess to be filled by the recess appointment power. Again, this is long-standing practice, but it is not what the Constitution says.

The recess appointment clause (Article II, Section 2) says that “The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, …” and the D.C. Court of Appeals had ruled that it meant what it said: “the recess,” not “a recess,” and vacancies must occur during the recess, not simply exist during the recess. In today’s world, the recess of the Senate is very short. They rarely adjourn before the middle of December and the next session begins, under the 20th Amendment, on January 3. Had the Supreme Court followed that reasoning, and four justices led by Justice Scalia argued forcefully that it should have, the recess appointment power would have been, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Now the long-standing but unconstitutional practice has the imprimatur of the Supreme Court. All sorts of mischief can occur as a result. If the presidency and the two houses of Congress are in the hands of one party, there’s no problem. But if the Senate is in the hands of the other party, it can prevent recess appointments only by staying in pro-forma sessions. If the Senate is in the hands of the president’s party, but the House is not, as is the case presently, then the House can prevent a recess by simply staying in session itself. Neither house can adjourn for more than three days without the agreement of the other house (Article I, Section 5).

But there’s a little noticed clause in the Constitution (Article II, Section 3) that says, “… in Case of Disagreement between them [the two houses], with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he [the president] may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; …” As far as I know, this power has never been exercised. But here’s a scenario. Obama wants to appoint someone who would have trouble being approved by the Senate, so Harry Reid moves to adjourn the Senate for a week, the House refuses to go along, and the president then adjourns them for two weeks, and appoints his man.

The king of England lost his power to prorogue Parliament in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Supreme Court may well have given it back to the president of the United States.

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Suing the President

Speaker of the House John Boehner has announced that he will ask the House to sue the president. “My view is the president has not faithfully executed the laws,” he said. “What we have seen clearly over the last five years is an effort to erode the power of the Legislative Branch.”

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Speaker of the House John Boehner has announced that he will ask the House to sue the president. “My view is the president has not faithfully executed the laws,” he said. “What we have seen clearly over the last five years is an effort to erode the power of the Legislative Branch.”

What Boehner is referring to is such presidential actions as unilaterally rewriting large sections of the Affordable Care Act, and ordering the Immigration service to not enforce the portions of immigration law that would have been repealed had Congress passed the “Dream Act,” which it did not. All presidents, other than, perhaps, James Madison, sought to extend their powers, but President Obama has been far more aggressive than most.

But it is difficult to rein in a president through legal action, as no one, including individual members of Congress, has standing to sue to get the courts to require the president to faithfully execute the laws as Congress passed them. As far as I know, neither Congress nor either of its houses has ever sued the president as a body. But that is what Boehner is now proposing. It will be interesting to see how far it gets as the courts have always been notably reluctant to decide a “political question.”

But as George Will writes, “Congress cannot reverse egregious executive aggressions such as Obama’s without robust judicial assistance.” Without it, Congress’s only weapon to protect its constitutional powers is the thermonuclear one of impeachment. He writes,

David Rivkin, a Washington lawyer, and Elizabeth Price Foley of Florida International University have studied the case law and believe that standing can be obtained conditional on four things:

That a majority of one congressional chamber explicitly authorizes a lawsuit. That the lawsuit concern the president’s “benevolent” suspension of an unambiguous provision of law that, by pleasing a private faction, precludes the appearance of a private plaintiff. That Congress cannot administer political self-help by remedying the presidential action by simply repealing the law. And that the injury amounts to nullification of Congress’s power.

But Lyle Denniston of the National Constitution Center has his doubts the courts will get involved:

The courts can be jealous guardians of their notion of what the Constitution allows, or does not allow, in terms of judicial review. The resistance to resolving political disputes is quite deeply set.  One might suggest that it would take an inter-branch controversy of monumental proportions to cause them to give up that reluctance. Is the feud over President Obama’s use of his White House powers of that dimension? That may well be debatable.

This should be interesting.

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Senate Iran Letter Ends Sanctions Fight

Supporters of tough sanctions on Iran hailed the publication of a letter from 83 members of the U.S. Senate to President Obama calling on him to negotiate a deal with the Islamist regime that would preclude any chance that it could gain a nuclear weapon. The letter said that any agreement reached with Iran must deny it the right to uranium enrichment, dismantle its enrichment and nuclear military research facilities as well as its plutonium plant, and be subjected to the kind of inspections that would prevent it from evading detection of violations and receive no further sanctions relief until the other terms are satisfied. AIPAC praised it as an “overwhelming demonstration by the U.S. Senate of its determination to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.”

But those who are dismissing the letter as the last gasp of a once formidable congressional coalition on behalf of sanctions on Iran are right. As the Al Monitor crowed in the headline of its article on the letter, what had happened was not so much a reaffirmation of principle but recognition that Congress had given the president “a window for Iran talks.” The terms laid down in the letter for an Iran nuclear deal are sufficient to stop Tehran. But the amorphous language it employs about what would happen if the agreement the administration produces with Iran falls short of that standard left considerable doubt as to whether failure would result in the passage of the crippling sanctions that the Senate tried but failed to pass earlier this year. Combined with the weaker language of a similar Iran letter signed by 395 members of the House of Representatives, the administration will interpret these developments as a green light to pursue a deal with Iran that will fall considerably short of the standard set in the Senate letter.

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Supporters of tough sanctions on Iran hailed the publication of a letter from 83 members of the U.S. Senate to President Obama calling on him to negotiate a deal with the Islamist regime that would preclude any chance that it could gain a nuclear weapon. The letter said that any agreement reached with Iran must deny it the right to uranium enrichment, dismantle its enrichment and nuclear military research facilities as well as its plutonium plant, and be subjected to the kind of inspections that would prevent it from evading detection of violations and receive no further sanctions relief until the other terms are satisfied. AIPAC praised it as an “overwhelming demonstration by the U.S. Senate of its determination to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.”

But those who are dismissing the letter as the last gasp of a once formidable congressional coalition on behalf of sanctions on Iran are right. As the Al Monitor crowed in the headline of its article on the letter, what had happened was not so much a reaffirmation of principle but recognition that Congress had given the president “a window for Iran talks.” The terms laid down in the letter for an Iran nuclear deal are sufficient to stop Tehran. But the amorphous language it employs about what would happen if the agreement the administration produces with Iran falls short of that standard left considerable doubt as to whether failure would result in the passage of the crippling sanctions that the Senate tried but failed to pass earlier this year. Combined with the weaker language of a similar Iran letter signed by 395 members of the House of Representatives, the administration will interpret these developments as a green light to pursue a deal with Iran that will fall considerably short of the standard set in the Senate letter.

It was no accident that the overwhelming bipartisan turnout for the Senate letter had one significant omission: Majority Leader Harry Reid. While Reid had previously been a stalwart supporter of AIPAC and the pro-Israel community, the majority leader was able to exercise an effective veto on further Iran sanctions legislation this year. Reid’s opposition combined with a threat of a presidential veto of new sanctions on Iran sent many Democrats running for cover, despite the fact that 58 members of the Senate had endorsed the bill.

What happened this year surprised many in the pro-Israel community who assumed that a bipartisan coalition in favor of tougher sanctions on Iran could not be stopped. With Democrat Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, championing the bill and a clear majority of the Senate ready to vote for legislation that had already been passed last year by the House, opponents seemed outgunned.

The new sanctions would have tightened the noose around Iran’s still booming international oil sales, but they would not have gone into effect until the next stage of diplomacy had clearly failed. Yet even that was too much for President Obama, who claimed that even sanctions that were based on a hypothetical would “break faith” with his Iranian partners. The administration, which had fought the sanctions that brought Iran to the table tooth and nail in his first term, wanted nothing that would strengthen the hands of the Western negotiators in the P5+1 talks.

The refusal to even contemplate more sanctions has sent a message to Iran that they have little to fear if they stand their ground in the talks and insist on retaining their nuclear program. The Senate letter won’t change their minds. They already know the president will ignore the Senate’s advice on acceptable terms for a nuclear deal since the interim agreement signed by Secretary of State Kerry last November already flouted those principles by tacitly recognizing an Iranian right to enrichment and beginning the process by which international sanctions will start to unravel. The failure to include language that would ensure that Congress would pass the additional sanctions if the deal fails to meet those standards tells Obama and the Iranians the letter can be safely deposited in the circular file and forgotten.

Those worried about an administration push for diplomacy that seems more like a drive for détente with Iran than an effort to stop their nuclear program should take no comfort from these congressional letters. What has just happened is the end of an important fight that ended in defeat for the forces most concerned with averting the peril of an Iranian bomb. The president has been given all the time he needs to reach a deal with Iran that will keep his promise to halt their nuclear quest. If, as is most likely, he breaks his promise, it will be up to Congress to take up the issue again and not be talked out of doing the right thing by a president who is willing to do anything to avoid accountability on this vital issue.

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Could Republicans Govern in 2015?

This past weekend the panic being felt on the left about the 2014 midterms reached epic proportions with a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times about how fear of the “Obama Factor” was sapping Democratic morale. The story rehashed what has long been obvious about this year’s campaign: Democrats are at a huge disadvantage defending red-state Senate seats won in the 2008 Obama-fueled “hope and change” election. The unpopularity of ObamaCare and its disastrous rollout combined with the sinking poll numbers of the president may all combine to bring both houses of Congress under GOP control in January 2015.

With several months left for Republicans to pull defeat from the jaws of victory (as they did in 2010 and 2012 when golden opportunities to take winnable seats were sacrificed by terrible candidates and their gaffes), it’s way too early for the Democrats to give up or the GOP to start celebrating. But it isn’t too early to ask what exactly the Republicans would do if they did control Capitol Hill next year and to ponder what that would mean for the last two years of the Obama presidency. At the Washington Post’s Plum Line column, Paul Waldman takes up these questions and argues that the GOP’s possible 2014 triumph would be short-lived, if not entirely Pyrrhic. Waldman believes the basic antagonism between the House and the Senate will make any cooperation between the two impossible even if Republicans ran them both. Differing approaches to ObamaCare would provoke bitter and unwinnable fights between the varying GOP factions or “unrealistic bills that he [Obama] can veto without worrying about any backlash from the public.” In short, he predicts having the Senate as well as the House would do Republicans no good and maybe even help the Democrats heading into 2016.

Waldman is right that a 2014 win might well lead to plenty of internecine GOP warfare. He’s also correct that the 2016 Senate math (with a host of seats won in the 2010 GOP landslide up for grabs) might give Democrats a golden opportunity to snatch the upper House back, especially if they have a strong Democratic presidential candidate at the top of their ticket. But liberals who imagine that a GOP Congress would be no big deal are delusional. A Republican Senate will make the next two years a nightmare for Obama and give the GOP a chance to undermine his liberal agenda while setting the stage for what they hope will be a return to the White House in 2016.

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This past weekend the panic being felt on the left about the 2014 midterms reached epic proportions with a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times about how fear of the “Obama Factor” was sapping Democratic morale. The story rehashed what has long been obvious about this year’s campaign: Democrats are at a huge disadvantage defending red-state Senate seats won in the 2008 Obama-fueled “hope and change” election. The unpopularity of ObamaCare and its disastrous rollout combined with the sinking poll numbers of the president may all combine to bring both houses of Congress under GOP control in January 2015.

With several months left for Republicans to pull defeat from the jaws of victory (as they did in 2010 and 2012 when golden opportunities to take winnable seats were sacrificed by terrible candidates and their gaffes), it’s way too early for the Democrats to give up or the GOP to start celebrating. But it isn’t too early to ask what exactly the Republicans would do if they did control Capitol Hill next year and to ponder what that would mean for the last two years of the Obama presidency. At the Washington Post’s Plum Line column, Paul Waldman takes up these questions and argues that the GOP’s possible 2014 triumph would be short-lived, if not entirely Pyrrhic. Waldman believes the basic antagonism between the House and the Senate will make any cooperation between the two impossible even if Republicans ran them both. Differing approaches to ObamaCare would provoke bitter and unwinnable fights between the varying GOP factions or “unrealistic bills that he [Obama] can veto without worrying about any backlash from the public.” In short, he predicts having the Senate as well as the House would do Republicans no good and maybe even help the Democrats heading into 2016.

Waldman is right that a 2014 win might well lead to plenty of internecine GOP warfare. He’s also correct that the 2016 Senate math (with a host of seats won in the 2010 GOP landslide up for grabs) might give Democrats a golden opportunity to snatch the upper House back, especially if they have a strong Democratic presidential candidate at the top of their ticket. But liberals who imagine that a GOP Congress would be no big deal are delusional. A Republican Senate will make the next two years a nightmare for Obama and give the GOP a chance to undermine his liberal agenda while setting the stage for what they hope will be a return to the White House in 2016.

Let’s concede that the combative spirit of the House GOP caucus won’t be made any less confrontational by a victory in November. But the dynamic of Congress isn’t only defined by the institutional rivalries that Waldman discusses. By controlling the Senate, Democrats have exercised a pocket veto on everything the House produces, whether the product of centrist consensus or Tea Party fantasy. The unrealistic nature of much of the debate that has taken place on the House side is in no small measure the product of a situation in which nothing they do really matters so long as Harry Reid can frustrate them at will. If Reid is replaced by Mitch McConnell at the majority leader’s desk, that changes. At that point, the House caucus stops being a glorified debating society and becomes part of a governing majority. That won’t magically transform them or their Senate colleagues into a collection of legislative geniuses, but it will mean that suicidal gestures born in despair at their inability to pass bills will be a thing of the past.

Nor should Republicans fear—and Democrats anticipate with glee—the prospect of debates about fixes or alternatives to ObamaCare. Contrary to the liberal talking points echoed by many in the media, there are a number of realistic GOP proposals on health care out there that have been ignored because a Democratic Senate makes any new approaches to the misnamed Affordable Care Act impossible.

It is true that the continued presence of Barack Obama in the White House will mean the GOP will still not be governing the nation. He may well use his veto power more than before and frustrate Republican legislative initiatives. But by the same token, the ability of Republicans to hamstring Obama’s liberal agenda and subject his administration to probes will be enhanced.

The president may respond by accelerating his effort to bypass Congress and to govern by means of executive orders. But doing so as a lame duck will not only strike most voters as problematic from a constitutional point of view; it will also place a burden on Democrats in 2016 that they will be hard-pressed to cope with.

Most importantly, a Republican Senate would end any chance that Supreme Court retirements would allow the president to create a liberal court that could stand for decades or to continue his project of packing the appeals courts with like-minded jurists.

A Republican Congress won’t be able to undo everything Barack Obama has done or impose a Tea Party agenda on the nation. But it will act as a far more effective break on a liberal president than the current split Congress and also give Republicans more forums from which they can promote their ideas as they look to 2016. Any Democrat who doesn’t think that will materially damage his party or its leader will learn differently if the GOP vindicates the pundits and sweeps the board this November.

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Will Obama Bypass Congress on Iran?

Over the past several weeks, the White House has been waging an increasingly nasty fight to stop congressional action to put new Iran sanctions in place in the event that the current round of nuclear talks fail. Although 58 senators have co-sponsored the proposed legislation that would tighten the restrictions on doing business with the tyrannical Islamist regime, the Obama administration seems to have acquired the upper hand in the battle. This is largely because of specious arguments claiming those who want to give the president more leverage in the next round of negotiations are actually seeking war rather than a diplomatic solution when the reality is just the opposite. The only hope for a deal that would avert an outcome in which the U.S. would have to choose between the use of force and a nuclear Iran is the adoption of tougher sanctions that would force the ayatollahs to give up their nuclear dreams.

But the current uphill struggle by a majority of the Senate to ensure that the end of the current talks doesn’t lead to a collapse of the sanctions may be only a sideshow to the real fight over Iran that lies ahead in 2014. As the Washington Free Beacon reports, the administration is thinking ahead to the next step in the debate over Iran and exploring the possibility of lifting sanctions without congressional approval.

Congressional insiders say that the White House is worried Congress will exert oversight of the deal and demand tougher nuclear restrictions on Tehran in exchange for sanctions relief.

Top White House aides have been “talking about ways to do that [lift sanctions] without Congress and we have no idea yet what that means,” said one senior congressional aide who works on sanctions. “They’re looking for a way to lift them by fiat, overrule U.S. law, drive over the sanctions, and declare that they are lifted.”

Although only Congress has the power to revoke the sanctions it has enacted, this is not a far-fetched scenario. It is entirely possible that the president may wish to end sanctions on his own. That could come as the result of a nuclear deal that failed to satisfy those who rightly worry about the possibility of an agreement that left Iran with its nuclear infrastructure intact. Or it might be part of a further effort to appease Tehran by scaling back sanctions in order to entice it to sign a deal. And the president believes he can achieve these ends by executive action that would come dangerously close to unconstitutional behavior, but for which Congress might have no remedy.

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Over the past several weeks, the White House has been waging an increasingly nasty fight to stop congressional action to put new Iran sanctions in place in the event that the current round of nuclear talks fail. Although 58 senators have co-sponsored the proposed legislation that would tighten the restrictions on doing business with the tyrannical Islamist regime, the Obama administration seems to have acquired the upper hand in the battle. This is largely because of specious arguments claiming those who want to give the president more leverage in the next round of negotiations are actually seeking war rather than a diplomatic solution when the reality is just the opposite. The only hope for a deal that would avert an outcome in which the U.S. would have to choose between the use of force and a nuclear Iran is the adoption of tougher sanctions that would force the ayatollahs to give up their nuclear dreams.

But the current uphill struggle by a majority of the Senate to ensure that the end of the current talks doesn’t lead to a collapse of the sanctions may be only a sideshow to the real fight over Iran that lies ahead in 2014. As the Washington Free Beacon reports, the administration is thinking ahead to the next step in the debate over Iran and exploring the possibility of lifting sanctions without congressional approval.

Congressional insiders say that the White House is worried Congress will exert oversight of the deal and demand tougher nuclear restrictions on Tehran in exchange for sanctions relief.

Top White House aides have been “talking about ways to do that [lift sanctions] without Congress and we have no idea yet what that means,” said one senior congressional aide who works on sanctions. “They’re looking for a way to lift them by fiat, overrule U.S. law, drive over the sanctions, and declare that they are lifted.”

Although only Congress has the power to revoke the sanctions it has enacted, this is not a far-fetched scenario. It is entirely possible that the president may wish to end sanctions on his own. That could come as the result of a nuclear deal that failed to satisfy those who rightly worry about the possibility of an agreement that left Iran with its nuclear infrastructure intact. Or it might be part of a further effort to appease Tehran by scaling back sanctions in order to entice it to sign a deal. And the president believes he can achieve these ends by executive action that would come dangerously close to unconstitutional behavior, but for which Congress might have no remedy.

The key to any unilateral action by the president on sanctions is effective enforcement. It has long been understood by insiders that the U.S. government has only selectively enforced the existing sanctions on Iran. In 2010, the New York Times reported that more than 10,000 exemptions had already been granted by the Treasury Department to companies wishing to transact business with Iran. Since then there have been worries that the administration has been slow to open new cases by which suspicious economic activity with Iran could be proscribed.

As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted in a paper published in November 2013, the president can legitimize a policy of non-enforcement by the granting of waivers that could effectively gut any and all sanctions enacted by Congress. The only effective check on such a decision would be the political firestorm that would inevitably follow a relaxation of the sanctions that would be accurately viewed as a craven offering to the ayatollahs and also an affront to both Congress and America’s Middle East allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia that rightly fear a nuclear Iran.

The administration has already made clear on other contentious issues, such as the application of immigration law, that it will only enforce laws with which it agrees. This is clearly unconstitutional, but as we have already seen with the president’s unilateral actions on immigration, Congress cannot prevent him from doing what he likes in these matters. The same might be true on Iran sanctions, especially if he is prepared to double down on inflammatory arguments falsely labeling sanctions proponents as warmongers.

Having begun the process of loosening sanctions on Iran with the interim deal signed in November and seemingly intent on promoting a new détente with Tehran, it requires no great leap of imagination to envision the next step in this process. Unless the president produces a deal that truly ends the Iranian nuclear threat—something that would require the dismantling of Iran’s facilities and ensuring it could not possibly continue enriching uranium or building plutonium plants—a confrontation with Congress is likely. In that event, it appears probable that the president will choose to run roughshod over the will of Congress and the rule of law.

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Will GOP Rescue Obama with Debt Fight?

Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threw down the gauntlet again on the debt ceiling. Speaking to reporters in Washington, McConnell made it clear that Senate Republicans wouldn’t consider putting through a “clean” debt ceiling bill that would merely rubber stamp the latest installment of out-of-control government spending. The issue was specifically left out of the pragmatic deal cut between the two parties by Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray that eliminated the possibility of another government shutdown for two years. But are Republicans really sanguine about the prospect of another bruising fight about the debt ceiling as well as of the attendant dire and somewhat self-fulfilling prophecies about default and the collapse of the economy?

The budget agreement seemed to indicate that the GOP—or at least House Speaker John Boehner—had learned its lesson from the series of debilitating and largely self-destructive fights they’ve engage in over both the budget and the debt in the last two years, but McConnell’s comments seem to indicate that we may be in for another one sometime early in 2014. But given the beating Republicans have taken over previous attempts to exact concessions from Democrats in such situations, the White House may be hoping that McConnell makes good on his threat. While McConnell and other conservatives are right to believe extending the debt ceiling ought to be accompanied by some gesture from the government that indicates a move toward reform, they need to consider whether another skirmish of this sort will do more to harm their cause than help it.

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Yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threw down the gauntlet again on the debt ceiling. Speaking to reporters in Washington, McConnell made it clear that Senate Republicans wouldn’t consider putting through a “clean” debt ceiling bill that would merely rubber stamp the latest installment of out-of-control government spending. The issue was specifically left out of the pragmatic deal cut between the two parties by Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray that eliminated the possibility of another government shutdown for two years. But are Republicans really sanguine about the prospect of another bruising fight about the debt ceiling as well as of the attendant dire and somewhat self-fulfilling prophecies about default and the collapse of the economy?

The budget agreement seemed to indicate that the GOP—or at least House Speaker John Boehner—had learned its lesson from the series of debilitating and largely self-destructive fights they’ve engage in over both the budget and the debt in the last two years, but McConnell’s comments seem to indicate that we may be in for another one sometime early in 2014. But given the beating Republicans have taken over previous attempts to exact concessions from Democrats in such situations, the White House may be hoping that McConnell makes good on his threat. While McConnell and other conservatives are right to believe extending the debt ceiling ought to be accompanied by some gesture from the government that indicates a move toward reform, they need to consider whether another skirmish of this sort will do more to harm their cause than help it.

After a year in which a string of scandals and then a disastrous rollout of his signature health-care bill have caused President Obama’s approval ratings to collapse, the White House is looking for a way to change the subject from broken promises and dysfunctional websites.

Their strategy appears to be one in which the president finally makes good on the promises of his 2013 State-of the Union speech and pivots hard left. That’s part of the reason veteran liberal strategist John Podesta has been drafted to help shore up the team of presidential advisors. Obama’s recent speech attempting to make income inequality the fulcrum of the national political debate was largely unpersuasive ideological cant. That’s what the Democratic base wants to hear, but it’s not the sort of thing that will do much to help reelect vulnerable Democrats in red states and keep the Senate out of Republican hands. Nor will it divert the public or even the mainstream media from coverage of the ongoing fiasco that is ObamaCare. But if Republicans throw Obama a lifeline in the form of another debt ceiling crisis, they might provide him with just the opening he needs to both bury the ObamaCare story and to resurrect his favorite campaign theme about GOP extremists who are willing to sacrifice the nation in pursuit of partisan goals.

Such a characterization of Republican efforts to rein in government spending and taxes before agreeing to go on expanding the debt is patently unfair. Tea Party activists and some of their GOP congressional hostages, like McConnell, are in the right on this issue. Raising the debt ceiling isn’t merely paying the bills, it’s a gesture that enables more irresponsibility and has done just that every time it has been raised.

But it needs to be reiterated that with control of only one half of one third of the government, neither House Republicans nor the GOP minority in the Senate have the ability to force Obama and the Democrats to agree to any of the commonsense ideas they propose. Going to the brink over this is a political loser. It is a given that neither Speaker Boehner nor Senator McConnell is really willing to see the nation go over the fiscal cliff over this. Whether the dire predictions heard from liberals are false or not it can’t be denied that the uncertainty will hurt the economy and that Republicans will take the brunt of the blame. Doing so in an election year will only help Democrats reframe the issues in a way that could revive Obama’s increasingly dismal second term and give their party the boost they need to hold onto the Senate.

Conservatives and Tea Partiers will dismiss such warnings as cynical political gamesmanship and brand, as they’ve done every commonsense thing congressional Republicans have done in the past year (like ending the government shutdown or passing the Ryan compromise budget), as a sellout. But the same realism that pushed them to abandon suicidal tactics in the past shouldn’t be ignored now. If conservatives are serious about changing Washington, they are going to have to start by winning the 2014 midterms. A debt-ceiling crisis, like the shutdown, will be a gift to Democrats allowing them to evade questions about presidential misrule and the devastating impact ObamaCare is having on millions of Americans.

Its understandable that McConnell and other Republicans who face stiff primary challenges from the right this year don’t want to be called RINOs and thus are talking about going to the brink again. But if McConnell wants to win in November and move to the majority leader’s desk, he’s going to have to find a way to avoid a debt debacle.

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Kerry May Play by the Rules; Iran Won’t

In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, Secretary of State John Kerry had two objectives. One was to justify the nuclear deal he signed with Iran that gave the Islamist regime some sanctions relief and tacitly recognized their “right” to enrich uranium and continue their nuclear program in exchange for a six-month freeze on various actions that could be easily reversed and more intrusive inspections of their facilities. But his real goal was to try and head off efforts by some in Congress to toughen the sanctions already in place to make it even harder for the Iranians to sell their oil and thereby keep their government and its nuclear enterprise funded. He was met with widespread skepticism from both sides of the aisle, as Republicans and Democrats expressed worry that he had set in motion a process that will not stop the Iranians and might undermine the economic restrictions that had already been put in place. The members of the committee also were puzzled as to why passing a bill that would not go into effect until after the six-month period that is covered by the interim accord signed in Geneva would in any way inhibit the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Indeed, a number of them pointed out that having these sanctions in place and ready to be enforced if the talks failed would actually strengthen Kerry’s hand in talks with Iran.

Kerry’s answer to these well-taken points was to say that passing sanctions now would “break faith” with Iran as well as with the other members of the P5+1 group that had negotiated the deal. It would, he said with a tone that clearly illustrated his disdain for his critics, show that the U.S. “wasn’t playing by the rules.” Though he continued to insist that the deal wasn’t based on trust but rather on an interest in testing the intentions of the Iranians, he seems to think they would either be scared away from talks or use the sanctions as an excuse to break off negotiations. Given that the only reason the Iranians have been forced to the table was their worries about the impact of the existing sanctions, this makes little sense. If their goal were to lift the sanctions, why would the threat of more cause them to give up the only way of causing the West to drop the ones they are already struggling to deal with? The real answer to the question would likely undermine support for his diplomacy.

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In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, Secretary of State John Kerry had two objectives. One was to justify the nuclear deal he signed with Iran that gave the Islamist regime some sanctions relief and tacitly recognized their “right” to enrich uranium and continue their nuclear program in exchange for a six-month freeze on various actions that could be easily reversed and more intrusive inspections of their facilities. But his real goal was to try and head off efforts by some in Congress to toughen the sanctions already in place to make it even harder for the Iranians to sell their oil and thereby keep their government and its nuclear enterprise funded. He was met with widespread skepticism from both sides of the aisle, as Republicans and Democrats expressed worry that he had set in motion a process that will not stop the Iranians and might undermine the economic restrictions that had already been put in place. The members of the committee also were puzzled as to why passing a bill that would not go into effect until after the six-month period that is covered by the interim accord signed in Geneva would in any way inhibit the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Indeed, a number of them pointed out that having these sanctions in place and ready to be enforced if the talks failed would actually strengthen Kerry’s hand in talks with Iran.

Kerry’s answer to these well-taken points was to say that passing sanctions now would “break faith” with Iran as well as with the other members of the P5+1 group that had negotiated the deal. It would, he said with a tone that clearly illustrated his disdain for his critics, show that the U.S. “wasn’t playing by the rules.” Though he continued to insist that the deal wasn’t based on trust but rather on an interest in testing the intentions of the Iranians, he seems to think they would either be scared away from talks or use the sanctions as an excuse to break off negotiations. Given that the only reason the Iranians have been forced to the table was their worries about the impact of the existing sanctions, this makes little sense. If their goal were to lift the sanctions, why would the threat of more cause them to give up the only way of causing the West to drop the ones they are already struggling to deal with? The real answer to the question would likely undermine support for his diplomacy.

Kerry’s line dovetailed with the threats issued by the Iranian foreign minister who has already warned the U.S. that he will walk away from the process if Congress votes for more sanctions. Kerry fears the Iranians will torpedo negotiations because, contrary to his characterization of the talks, they are not acting out of weakness or fear. By getting sanctions relief of any sort without giving an inch on enrichment or dismantling a single centrifuge, let alone giving up their stockpile, they have operated as if they, not the U.S., are in the driver’s seat. By expressing the worry that the Iranians will “race” to a bomb if more sanctions are passed, Kerry is accepting this equation in which it seems as if they are doing the Americans a favor by deigning to negotiate with him. Like the president, Kerry believes it is impossible to force Iran to give up its nuclear program. Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to believe the follow-up talks have much chance of helping the administration make good on its promise never to allow Iran to get a bomb.

The disconnect between the secretary and his congressional critics is clear. Kerry thinks the only point of sanctions was to create room for diplomacy, not to put Tehran’s feet to the fire. As a number of committee members noted, they did not pass sanctions merely for the sake of negotiating but to pressure Iran to give up their nuclear ambition.

Kerry’s only coherent argument was an appeal for more time. In six months, he said, we would see whether he was right that a serious process that would make the world safer had been initiated. Indeed, we shall. But given his less-than-candid briefing on the terms of the agreement in which he exaggerated the difficulties Iran would have in re-converting its uranium stockpile to dangerous levels, Congress should be prepared to be told that diplomacy was still viable next summer no matter what actually happens in the months to come. Indeed, if, as Kerry says, the Europeans abandon sanctions merely because of the possibility that the U.S. will toughen them, how can he argue that they will stick with the restrictions in the coming months once he has already begun to unravel them?

Will Kerry succeed in stifling congressional action? The jury is out on that question. The administration has a consistent record of opposing all sanctions on Iran in spite of the fact that it currently brags about the impact of those measures that were forced upon it by an aroused Congress in the past. And it hopes it can count on Majority Leader Harry Reid to protect it from embarrassment if push comes to shove.

But having discarded their existing leverage over Iran and begging Congress not to give them more, Kerry has undermined confidence in his negotiating ability, if not his credibility on the issue. For him, diplomacy has always seemed to exist as a goal for its own sake as a game with rules that the players should respect regardless of outcomes. But while he wants to play by the rules, the Iranians have proved time and again that they do not.

Performances like the one Kerry put on today did little to enhance the chances that some key Senate Democrats will back his play. As war-weary as Americans may be, a diplomatic process whose premise is based on an American refusal to increase pressure and an Iranian resolve never to give up its key nuclear objectives is one that is hard to believe in. Passing the new sanctions bill would warn the Iranians that although they may have hoodwinked Kerry, Congress will hold him and the administration accountable for failure. By talking down to Congress today and asking them to have faith in him rather than pay attention to Iran’s record, he may have made the job of his critics a little easier. 

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