Commentary Magazine


Topic: Congress

The Ongoing Case for Public Morality

Back in September, I celebrated the defeats of Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer in Democratic primary elections in New York City and put forward the notion that perhaps the belated end of the political careers of these scandal-mired characters should cause us to not shy away from putting forward a case for public morality in the future. That’s a proposition most of our chattering classes reject since they tend to believe that when liberals mired in scandals are considered useful or popular (paging Bill Clinton), they tell us not to confuse private conduct with public duties. But it is all the more necessary to return to the topic today now that a Republican has become one of this week’s prime subjects for late-night comedy humor.

Rep. Trey Radel’s arrest in a drug sting for cocaine possession may seem like something straight out of House of Cards. Yet his apparent intention to stay in office requires both liberals and conservatives to come to grips with the question of whether Congress ought to tolerate having lawbreakers in their midst even when they are preemptively seeking to invoke a redemption storyline to gain sympathy. By claiming a leave of absence from Congress to go to rehab during which he will forgo pay, Radel is seeking to silence calls for his resignation. He’s not contesting the facts of the case against him and seemed to be thanking the police for giving him a “wake-up call” to get his life back together as a result of the arrest. “I’m struggling with this disease, but I can overcome it,” he vowed.

I hope he wins that fight. Drug addiction is a disease and those who suffer from it are faced with a lifelong battle for which they deserve our sympathy and encouragement. But that doesn’t entitle them to a seat in Congress. Rep. Radel needs to go home and members of the Republican caucus shouldn’t refrain from pointing this out to him.

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Back in September, I celebrated the defeats of Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer in Democratic primary elections in New York City and put forward the notion that perhaps the belated end of the political careers of these scandal-mired characters should cause us to not shy away from putting forward a case for public morality in the future. That’s a proposition most of our chattering classes reject since they tend to believe that when liberals mired in scandals are considered useful or popular (paging Bill Clinton), they tell us not to confuse private conduct with public duties. But it is all the more necessary to return to the topic today now that a Republican has become one of this week’s prime subjects for late-night comedy humor.

Rep. Trey Radel’s arrest in a drug sting for cocaine possession may seem like something straight out of House of Cards. Yet his apparent intention to stay in office requires both liberals and conservatives to come to grips with the question of whether Congress ought to tolerate having lawbreakers in their midst even when they are preemptively seeking to invoke a redemption storyline to gain sympathy. By claiming a leave of absence from Congress to go to rehab during which he will forgo pay, Radel is seeking to silence calls for his resignation. He’s not contesting the facts of the case against him and seemed to be thanking the police for giving him a “wake-up call” to get his life back together as a result of the arrest. “I’m struggling with this disease, but I can overcome it,” he vowed.

I hope he wins that fight. Drug addiction is a disease and those who suffer from it are faced with a lifelong battle for which they deserve our sympathy and encouragement. But that doesn’t entitle them to a seat in Congress. Rep. Radel needs to go home and members of the Republican caucus shouldn’t refrain from pointing this out to him.

Let us concede that all of us are fallible and no one should expect moral perfection or the façade of it from public officials. But all too often politicians seem to forget that public office is a public trust, not an entitlement. In their egotism, they seem to think their power gives them the impunity to misbehave. And when they get in trouble, they slip into redemption mode and ask us to love them because they are reformed sinners. Sometimes this ploy works better than others (Mark Sanford as opposed to Anthony Weiner) but the main point of these pieces of cheap theater is to perpetuate their grip on power and position.

In the past, House Speaker John Boehner has taken a dim view of scandal-plagued Republicans and quickly shown them the door. It should be recalled that a few months before Anthony Weiner imploded on Twitter in 2011, Rep. Chris Lee, a New York Republican, got in trouble when the married congressman was found to be soliciting women on the Internet. With a firm push from his leadership, he quickly resigned. The question today is why was Lee’s transgression considered political poison but Radel’s lawbreaking is worthy of possible forgiveness? That’s the implication of Boehner’s decision to hold off on pressure on Radel to leave office.

Let’s remember that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has rightly called for “zero tolerance” of ethical issues. What’s changed?

Anyone who gets into hot water in Washington can always point to the pass President John F. Kennedy got from the press for his scandalous doings behind the scenes in the White House even as the public was fed a fairy story about the first family of Camelot. They can also cite the pass President Bill Clinton received from Democrats and the way he has become a political elder statesman whose past disgrace is never thrown in his face. That’s regrettable, but perhaps as a nation we have “evolved” to the point when we no longer consider the spectacle of a powerful middle-aged public official sexually exploiting an intern a big deal. But have we also gotten to the point where we are prepared to tolerate junkies in Congress?

Whatever your position about the utility of the war on drugs or legalization, their use is a plague on society and does enormous damage. Congress’s image may be so bad these days that no one considers them role models, but are we really prepared to normalize lawbreaking associated with their use to the point that we are prepared to “move on” (as Clinton’s defenders said) and welcome them back to Capitol Hill after they return from rehab or the courthouse? Not to mention the hypocrisy of his getting arrested for drugs days after voting for drug tests for people who get food stamps.

The wake-up call here is not just for Radel. It’s for a political class that has too often tolerated wrongdoers in their midst. The American people have a right to expect that those entrusted with high office behave as if it is a public trust. That involves, at a minimum, avoiding public misbehavior. Lawbreaking and drug use ought to be beyond the pale.

Radel holds a safe Republican seat in Florida and, as Sanford proved, Southern voters seem to love a reformed sinner. But Boehner and Cantor ought not even consider allowing Radel to hold on until November 2014. He needs to resign. Now.

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Kerry Wants Congress to Ignore Israel; It May Ignore Him Instead

Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden went to Capitol Hill to privately brief the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee about the nuclear negotiations with Iran and plead with them not to toughen sanctions on the rogue nation. But according to multiple sources that spoke to the press, their appeal went over like a lead balloon. As the New York Times reports:

They faced extreme skepticism from lawmakers in both parties who worry the administration is prepared to give the Iranian government too much for too little.

The reaction from Democrats was scathing with, as the Times reports, even loyal administration soldiers in the Senate like Majority Leader Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer distancing themselves from Kerry’s position and later expressing doubt to reporters about his negotiating strategy. The reaction from Republicans was no less hostile, with Kerry being denounced in scathing terms by Senator Mark Kirk.

Why the hostility to their former colleague? Part of it stemmed from what appeared to be Kerry’s less-than-candid approach. As BuzzFeed reported, Senator Bob Corker was incensed about the fact that Kerry gave no details about his talks with Iran and instead made only what he called an “emotional appeal” for them to back off on sanctions. But the negative reaction seemed to stem more from the nature of what Kerry said rather than what he didn’t say:

“It was fairly anti-Israeli,” Kirk said to reporters after the briefing. “I was supposed to disbelieve everything the Israelis had just told me, and I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service.” He said the Israelis had told him that the “total changes proposed set back the program by 24 days.”

A Senate aide familiar with the meeting said that “every time anybody would say anything about ‘what would the Israelis say,’ they’d get cut off and Kerry would say, ‘You have to ignore what they’re telling you, stop listening to the Israelis on this.’”

If this is the kind of presentation Kerry thinks will convince the Senate to give a stamp of approval of a drift toward appeasement of Iran, it’s little surprise that there seems to be little trust on the Hill in his judgment.

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Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden went to Capitol Hill to privately brief the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee about the nuclear negotiations with Iran and plead with them not to toughen sanctions on the rogue nation. But according to multiple sources that spoke to the press, their appeal went over like a lead balloon. As the New York Times reports:

They faced extreme skepticism from lawmakers in both parties who worry the administration is prepared to give the Iranian government too much for too little.

The reaction from Democrats was scathing with, as the Times reports, even loyal administration soldiers in the Senate like Majority Leader Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer distancing themselves from Kerry’s position and later expressing doubt to reporters about his negotiating strategy. The reaction from Republicans was no less hostile, with Kerry being denounced in scathing terms by Senator Mark Kirk.

Why the hostility to their former colleague? Part of it stemmed from what appeared to be Kerry’s less-than-candid approach. As BuzzFeed reported, Senator Bob Corker was incensed about the fact that Kerry gave no details about his talks with Iran and instead made only what he called an “emotional appeal” for them to back off on sanctions. But the negative reaction seemed to stem more from the nature of what Kerry said rather than what he didn’t say:

“It was fairly anti-Israeli,” Kirk said to reporters after the briefing. “I was supposed to disbelieve everything the Israelis had just told me, and I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service.” He said the Israelis had told him that the “total changes proposed set back the program by 24 days.”

A Senate aide familiar with the meeting said that “every time anybody would say anything about ‘what would the Israelis say,’ they’d get cut off and Kerry would say, ‘You have to ignore what they’re telling you, stop listening to the Israelis on this.’”

If this is the kind of presentation Kerry thinks will convince the Senate to give a stamp of approval of a drift toward appeasement of Iran, it’s little surprise that there seems to be little trust on the Hill in his judgment.

Kerry’s remarks were in keeping with the tone of Kerry’s temper tantrum during a press interview last week in Israel, during which he vented his frustration about Israel’s opposition to his proposed deal with Iran and placed all the blame for the failure of the peace talks he has pushed with Palestinians on the Jewish state and even seemed to rationalize Palestinian violence.

But the unwillingness to take Kerry at his word isn’t just a matter of being shocked at his animus toward America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East. It’s also because senators who remember the U.S. missteps that led to North Korea getting a bomb have seen this movie before. As Kirk noted, Wendy Sherman, Kerry’s aide who is leading the U.S. participation in the P5+1 talks with Iran, has little credibility when it comes to nuclear negotiations:

Kirk also criticized Sherman, whose “record on North Korea is a total failure and embarrassment to her service.” Sherman was part of the U.S. negotiating team that focused on North Korea in the 1990s.

“Wendy wants you to forget her service on North Korea,” Kirk said. “You shouldn’t allow her.”

This is significant because Kerry wants the Senate to believe that he knows what he’s doing in advocating a deal that would have left in place Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and did nothing to halt construction on its plutonium reactor. Those terms were so transparently weak that even the French couldn’t stomach the effort to appease Iran, resulting in Kerry leaving Geneva last weekend without the accord that he’s so desperate to sign.

His claims that more restrictions on Iran’s ability to sell oil to fund terrorism and nukes would “break faith” with Iran are also puzzling and will only feed speculation that the U.S. has been conducting secret back-channel talks with Tehran that have been predicated on Obama administration promises to give the ayatollahs the sanctions relief they want while getting little or nothing in return.

But by throwing down the gauntlet on Israel in this fashion in a Congress where a wall-to-wall bipartisan coalition in support for the Jewish state exists may have been a stunning miscalculation. Kerry has dared the Senate to call him out for a campaign of feckless diplomacy that seems motivated more by a desire to achieve détente with the Islamist tyrants of Tehran and resentment of Israel than concern about the dangers of a nuclear Iran. Whatever little credibility the secretary had left after the foreign-policy disasters concerning Egypt, Syria, and the Middle East peace process that he has presided over this year seems to have gone down the drain in another fit of temper. Kerry may want Congress to ignore Israel, but judging by the poor reviews he got yesterday, it’s a lot more likely that it will ignore him and ratify more Iran sanctions.

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Why Congress Must Act Now on Iran

The administration is in full damage-control mode today as the failure of Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to make a nuclear deal with Iran has exposed the true nature of its diplomatic agenda. While both the president and Kerry have consistently claimed that their only goal was preventing Iran from going nuclear, the botched effort to rush to a deal last week was based on a decision to accept in principle the Islamist regime’s longstanding claim that it had a “right” to enrich uranium. While many in the Senate think the administration is making a terrible mistake, the White House and its defenders are claiming there is no real choice. As the New York Times asks in its editorial defending a faltering Kerry, “what is the alternative?”

But the administration and the Times are asking the wrong question.

By getting trapped in a diplomatic tangle that can only be resolved by a deal that will leave Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure, its uranium enrichment process, and its plutonium option in place, Kerry is accepting Iran’s point of view about the dispute. In essence, he is telling Congress, Israel, and the Saudis that there is no way the Iranians will ever give up their reactors, centrifuges or their stockpile of enriched uranium so all we can do is get them to accept limits that, even if they will be easily evaded, will at least avoid the threat of further confrontation or war. If the question they are really posing to critics is not whether this course of action is the best way to avoid a nuclear Iran but whether it is the best way to avoid a messy and unpredictable conflict, Kerry is right.

But if we change the question from how best to come to some agreement with the ayatollahs to how to stop them from getting a bomb, the answer is very different. And that is why Congress must use the pause in the talks to step up and demand that the president and Kerry stick to what has always been America’s goal: preventing a nuclear Iran. And the only way to do that is to tighten sanctions and to insist that any deal be predicated on eliminating any chance that the Islamist regime will not do as the North Koreans have already done and simply negotiate and delay their way to a bomb.

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The administration is in full damage-control mode today as the failure of Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to make a nuclear deal with Iran has exposed the true nature of its diplomatic agenda. While both the president and Kerry have consistently claimed that their only goal was preventing Iran from going nuclear, the botched effort to rush to a deal last week was based on a decision to accept in principle the Islamist regime’s longstanding claim that it had a “right” to enrich uranium. While many in the Senate think the administration is making a terrible mistake, the White House and its defenders are claiming there is no real choice. As the New York Times asks in its editorial defending a faltering Kerry, “what is the alternative?”

But the administration and the Times are asking the wrong question.

By getting trapped in a diplomatic tangle that can only be resolved by a deal that will leave Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure, its uranium enrichment process, and its plutonium option in place, Kerry is accepting Iran’s point of view about the dispute. In essence, he is telling Congress, Israel, and the Saudis that there is no way the Iranians will ever give up their reactors, centrifuges or their stockpile of enriched uranium so all we can do is get them to accept limits that, even if they will be easily evaded, will at least avoid the threat of further confrontation or war. If the question they are really posing to critics is not whether this course of action is the best way to avoid a nuclear Iran but whether it is the best way to avoid a messy and unpredictable conflict, Kerry is right.

But if we change the question from how best to come to some agreement with the ayatollahs to how to stop them from getting a bomb, the answer is very different. And that is why Congress must use the pause in the talks to step up and demand that the president and Kerry stick to what has always been America’s goal: preventing a nuclear Iran. And the only way to do that is to tighten sanctions and to insist that any deal be predicated on eliminating any chance that the Islamist regime will not do as the North Koreans have already done and simply negotiate and delay their way to a bomb.

What almost happened last weekend in Geneva was so dangerous precisely because by presenting a fait accompli to the world, Kerry would have permanently altered the terms of the debate about Iran. The proposed accord that Kerry planned to sign, had not the French intervened at the last minute to insist on better terms for the West, would have left in place the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and made the achievement of their nuclear capacity inevitable and taken tougher sanctions and the use of force off the table for good. Though Kerry is acting as if this is only a temporary setback that will be rectified later this month when the parties reconvene, it did not escape Iran’s notice that Kerry was hot for a weaker deal than was ultimately offered. That means they will continue to hold out for those easily transgressed terms since they reason that sooner or later the U.S. will tell the French to pipe down and let diplomacy triumph.

That is why it is crucial that Congress act in such a way as to strengthen the West’s resolve not to settle for a bad deal now. There is little chance that Iran will ever give up its nuclear quest, as it has become a fundamental issue for the regime. But a sanctions bill now will signal to Tehran that its belief that America is the weak link in the international community’s efforts to rein them in is mistaken.

The whole point of Kerry’s haste to put a deal with Iran in place is that he wanted to avoid a debate on its terms and to head off any effort by Congress to tighten sanctions. The Senate should move ahead on the sanctions that will make it more difficult for Iran to continue selling its oil and using the proceeds to fund terrorism and its nuclear project. Kerry’s latest follies make it imperative that what we have now is not so much an argument about tactics but also one about the goal of American diplomacy.

What must be rejected are not only the terms of a weak diplomatic deal that was so repugnant that even the French couldn’t stomach them, but the mindset that made it possible. After years of failed diplomacy, the administration is now accepting the notion that rollback of Iran’s nuclear program is impossible. That’s why even though no agreement was signed in Geneva, the latest negotiations were such a triumph for Iran.

Instead of conceding defeat, an America that was truly dedicated to frustrating Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be doubling down on sanctions rather than offering to weaken them. Iran has proved time and again that it regards diplomacy as merely a way to delay and prevaricate until they reach their nuclear goal. But even if we were to hold onto hope that diplomacy could succeed, the only way that could possibly happen is by increasing pressure on the Iranians now that they are finally feeling the impact of sanctions. If every chance must be given to diplomacy, then what is needed now is an approach that illustrates to Iran’s supreme leader that his only alternative to war is a surrender of his country’s “right” to enrichment and the rest of their nuclear toys.

Thus, the responsibility now for members of the Senate is not so much to poke a stick in Kerry’s eye by ignoring the administration’s pleas and passing the tough sanctions that were already approved by the House as it is for them to help restart the discussion about what America’s goals are. If the rush to appeasement of Iran is to be halted, now is the moment for action.

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Sebelius and the Arrogance of Power

At one point early in her appearance before a House committee this morning, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius gave the country a moment of clarity in response to a question. “Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.” Yet almost every other thing she said in her testimony was aimed not only at evading her own responsibility for the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare but also to obfuscate the lies the administration has told about the program as well as the utter lack of accountability about the expenditure of vast sums on a website that is not only dysfunctional but insecure.

The most egregious of her comments was to claim in an exchange with Rep. Joseph Pitts that “the website has never crashed.” Ironically, at the very moment that she was saying this, the website had crashed. That sort of denial is almost clinical in nature. But what was most telling about Sebelius’s performance was not so much the ongoing denial that uncounted millions are losing the coverage they were told they could keep or her difficulty in answering any detailed questions about why the website had been so poorly designed or why her department had failed to supervise the project adequately or account for its lack of functionality or security. Instead, it was the arrogant, cavalier nature of her responses to questions about the debacle.

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At one point early in her appearance before a House committee this morning, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius gave the country a moment of clarity in response to a question. “Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.” Yet almost every other thing she said in her testimony was aimed not only at evading her own responsibility for the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare but also to obfuscate the lies the administration has told about the program as well as the utter lack of accountability about the expenditure of vast sums on a website that is not only dysfunctional but insecure.

The most egregious of her comments was to claim in an exchange with Rep. Joseph Pitts that “the website has never crashed.” Ironically, at the very moment that she was saying this, the website had crashed. That sort of denial is almost clinical in nature. But what was most telling about Sebelius’s performance was not so much the ongoing denial that uncounted millions are losing the coverage they were told they could keep or her difficulty in answering any detailed questions about why the website had been so poorly designed or why her department had failed to supervise the project adequately or account for its lack of functionality or security. Instead, it was the arrogant, cavalier nature of her responses to questions about the debacle.

Sebelius came to the committee with plenty of notice after delaying her appearance by a week, but arrived armed with no firm answers on how the website problems had occurred, why the preparations for it were inadequate, and how her team had failed to note the questions that had been raised about its ability to function. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent, but no one in Sebelius’s department appears to have been capable of briefing her on this or even to supply simple answers to questions about the decision-making process that allowed the debacle to proceed. She tried to portray herself as a remote spectator to the process that led to the debacle even as she sought to pretend that she was the one to blame.

Sebelius contradicted herself almost continually. At one point she blamed crashes on Verizon and other times, as she told Pitts, she claimed there were no crashes. She claimed 700,000 persons had been enrolled, but when pressed for details about the numbers, she said that the website problems meant there was no reliable data to report. She said at one point that the problems would be fixed by November 30 but then qualified that to say that what we could expect was merely a gradual improvement with no end date at which all problems would be resolved.

Yet the consistent theme of her testimony was that a program the entire country knows is malfunctioning was working just fine. The cost increases and plan cancellations that so many Americans were facing in the coming months were mere technicalities. She denied that she and the president had lied about people keeping their coverage but then said that those who had lost their plans should just “go shopping.”

Sebelius could barely contain her contempt for the questions Republicans asked her about these points (since almost all the Democrats on the committee used their time to merely criticize the GOP for talking about the problems). Her eye rolling and barely concealed impatience with demands for accountability never stopped. While this was a stylistic failure, it betrayed more about ObamaCare and the spirit with which it is being imposed on the country than she may have thought.

ObamaCare was a bill that was rammed through Congress on a partisan vote in which the normal legislative process was ignored and questions were swept under the rug. It was sold to the public with lies and it is now being implemented in a fashion that is hurting at least as many citizens as those it is supposed to help. But at no point in this process has the administration shown itself willing to listen to the people being inconvenienced or harmed or even, as Sebelius repeated today, to give an exemption or a delay in the personal mandate as a result of the website debacle.

In a perverse way this makes sense, since it is in keeping with the top-down spirit of this attempt to have the government begin the process of taking over American health care. In the view of the president and Sebelius, the lies and the failures are mere details that are insignificant when compared to their ambitions and what they believe are their good intentions.

There is no better example of the arrogance of unchecked power than this legislation and the manner in which its authors have foisted it upon the country. While a divided Congress is unlikely to hold Sebelius or the administration accountable for this, it will be up to the American people to remember this awful, arrogant performance and the huge credibility gap of this administration the next chance they have to hold Washington, if not Sebelius, accountable.

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Congress Won’t Spoil Iran Diplomacy

With the Western powers set to sit down in Geneva next week for another attempt at diplomacy with Iran, the foreign-policy establishment’s hopes for an end to the confrontation between Tehran and Washington are high. But those who have worked to revive the failed Obama administration policy of engagement with Iran are still worried. According to the New York Times, their main concern isn’t Iran’s long history of deceitful diplomacy whose only purpose is to buy time for their nuclear program by fooling gullible Western envoys. No, the main obstacle to the goal of stepping back from confrontation with Iran over its drive for nuclear weapons is Congress. With the Senate set to consider new sanctions on Iran in the coming weeks, the fear is that Congress will spike any chance for engagement and empower the “hawks” in Tehran to stop new Iranian President Rouhani’s supposed efforts to make peace with the West.

While Congress is about as popular as bubonic plague these days, this assessment of the situation which predominates in the Times account is nonsense. Just as it was only Congress that dragged President Obama, kicking and screaming, to belatedly adopt tough sanctions on Iran, it now appears that the only possible restraint on an administration that appears determined to go back down the garden path with the ayatollahs is the continued willingness of the House and the Senate to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. While the president has posed as the adult in the room when it comes to budget talks, in this case it is the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue that is taking the realistic view. Indeed, if there is any remote chance that Iran will be prepared to give up its drive for nuclear weapons, it will only be the result of congressional action that forced the president’s hand.

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With the Western powers set to sit down in Geneva next week for another attempt at diplomacy with Iran, the foreign-policy establishment’s hopes for an end to the confrontation between Tehran and Washington are high. But those who have worked to revive the failed Obama administration policy of engagement with Iran are still worried. According to the New York Times, their main concern isn’t Iran’s long history of deceitful diplomacy whose only purpose is to buy time for their nuclear program by fooling gullible Western envoys. No, the main obstacle to the goal of stepping back from confrontation with Iran over its drive for nuclear weapons is Congress. With the Senate set to consider new sanctions on Iran in the coming weeks, the fear is that Congress will spike any chance for engagement and empower the “hawks” in Tehran to stop new Iranian President Rouhani’s supposed efforts to make peace with the West.

While Congress is about as popular as bubonic plague these days, this assessment of the situation which predominates in the Times account is nonsense. Just as it was only Congress that dragged President Obama, kicking and screaming, to belatedly adopt tough sanctions on Iran, it now appears that the only possible restraint on an administration that appears determined to go back down the garden path with the ayatollahs is the continued willingness of the House and the Senate to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. While the president has posed as the adult in the room when it comes to budget talks, in this case it is the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue that is taking the realistic view. Indeed, if there is any remote chance that Iran will be prepared to give up its drive for nuclear weapons, it will only be the result of congressional action that forced the president’s hand.

This is a dismaying prospect for those who, like the president and Secretary of State John Kerry, have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the Rouhani charm offensive. That effort has a two-fold purpose. One is to give Western governments whose heart was never really in the effort to stop Iran an excuse to back away from the sanctions that have ruined the Islamist regime’s economy. As I wrote yesterday, the Europeans are already signaling that they wish to go in this direction and are also warning Israel that there is little chance they will stick to a position that requires the Iranians to give up all enrichment of uranium or to scrap their plutonium option.

There is little reason to trust Rouhani, a veteran of Iran’s bait-and-switch diplomacy as well as a faithful servant of a hateful, anti-Semitic terrorist-sponsoring regime. Nor is there any reason to think that he is any less interested in preserving Iran’s nuclear options than his far-less-presentable predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But those who are appalled at President Obama’s consistent rhetorical stand threatening the Iranians with force if they don’t back down and give up their nukes (a group that may include the president himself) have used Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s fake democratic election as an excuse to reboot a diplomatic process that the Iranians had seemingly finally ended earlier this year. But with the international press buying into Rouhani’s appeal, a path may have been cleared that will lead to Western recognition of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and putting in place safeguards that will be as easily ignored once the sanctions are scrapped as were similar efforts to stop North Korea from going nuclear.

But that’s where Congress comes in. Unlike most of the foreign-policy establishment, few there are buying into the Rouhani ruse. Indeed, one Iran appeaser lamented to the Times that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on the Iranian threat in which he rightly labeled Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” was “widely ridiculed in this town but it largely reflects the views of many members of Congress.”

He’s right. There is a solid bipartisan majority in both houses that understands that the only measures short of war that can impact the situation are draconian sanctions. The new sanctions will make it even more difficult for businesses to deal with Iran and for the regime to go on using the sale of oil to finance their nuclear and terrorist activities. Had it not been for the determined efforts of senators like Republican Mark Kirk or Democrat Robert Menendez, the administration might well have succeeded in spiking past sanctions bills that it now brags about having enforced.

It should also be understood that the notion that Congress will give ammunition to Iranian hardliners and hurt Rouhani’s peaceful efforts is an absurd reading of what is happening in Tehran. His boss Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is using Rouhani as a human shield. But nothing has changed about Iran’s policies or its intentions, as their successful recent military efforts in Syria prove.

If diplomacy has any chance at all it will only be because Congress has forced Obama’s hand via enacting measures that have manufactured economic pressure on Iran. That’s as true today as it was two years ago. Just as important, the excuses that will be used to put off more sanctions once next week’s Geneva meeting proves as much a failure as past gatherings need to be discounted in advance. The whole point of the Iranian diplomatic strategy is to create delay. The Times accurately summarizes the rationale for delaying sanctions:

The problem, say former administration officials, is that this round of talks is unlikely to produce a tangible proposal. While Iran may signal a commitment to negotiate, they say, it is not expected to offer to suspend its enrichment of uranium or mothball suspect facilities.

“If people on the Hill are waiting for dramatic results on the evening of Oct. 16 to decide whether to pass sanctions, that’s wrong,” said Robert Einhorn, a former special adviser for nonproliferation in the State Department. “One shouldn’t set up a situation where unless major progress is being made, we impose new sanctions.”

Actually, that’s exactly what the U.S. should be doing. Nothing short of a total economic embargo of Iran will convince the ayatollahs that their latest effort to pull the wool over the West’s eyes won’t work. If Congress listens to the voices calling for them to pull their punches on Iran, the result won’t be a diplomatic breakthrough. What will follow will be more months and perhaps years of delay that will enhance the chances that Iran will get its bomb long before President Obama summons the will to do something about it.

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ObamaCare Exemption Is GOP Landmine

Now that President Obama’s humiliation at the hands of Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons has made it safe for Americans to go back to ignoring foreign policy, conservatives are set to resume their own civil war on funding ObamaCare. The efforts of some on the right to try and force the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to play chicken with the administration on defunding ObamaCare implementation remains a priority for Tea Partiers. In the unlikely event that they succeed in buffaloing the House leadership into going along with a plan that has zero chance of success in stopping ObamaCare, it would give a faltering President Obama the only chance he has of reversing the downward spiral of his lame-duck presidency. But the members of the suicide caucus that back this mad plan aren’t the only Republicans who are blind to political reality. Those Republicans and their staffers who are seeking to aid Democrats in stopping Senator David Vitter’s drive to prevent Congress from giving itself an exemption from ObamaCare are just as stupid. Should the GOP go along with the inside-the-beltway campaign to protect the generous federal subsidies given to congressional employees, it is playing with political dynamite.

As I wrote last Friday, the fight about the subsidies has gotten personal. Anger over Vitter’s efforts to tie up the Senate in order to derail the Democratic majority’s efforts to protect the subsidies—which are illegal under current legislation that mandates that Congress must live by the same flawed ObamaCare system it has imposed on the rest of the country—crosses party lines. Both members of Congress and, just importantly, their staffs, will suffer financially should they be forced into Obama-created health exchanges. According to Politico:

 Sources said that multiple Republican offices have reached out to Democrats to ensure that either the [Vitter] amendment doesn’t get a vote or that if it does, it fails.

If this is true, and I don’t doubt that it is, that poses an interesting question for Republicans. While they may believe that defying an ill-considered Tea Party campaign to force them to defund the government over ObamaCare will not lead to a revolt from the grass roots, do they really think they can get away with exempting themselves from the consequences of ObamaCare? If so, they may be in for a rude surprise.

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Now that President Obama’s humiliation at the hands of Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons has made it safe for Americans to go back to ignoring foreign policy, conservatives are set to resume their own civil war on funding ObamaCare. The efforts of some on the right to try and force the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to play chicken with the administration on defunding ObamaCare implementation remains a priority for Tea Partiers. In the unlikely event that they succeed in buffaloing the House leadership into going along with a plan that has zero chance of success in stopping ObamaCare, it would give a faltering President Obama the only chance he has of reversing the downward spiral of his lame-duck presidency. But the members of the suicide caucus that back this mad plan aren’t the only Republicans who are blind to political reality. Those Republicans and their staffers who are seeking to aid Democrats in stopping Senator David Vitter’s drive to prevent Congress from giving itself an exemption from ObamaCare are just as stupid. Should the GOP go along with the inside-the-beltway campaign to protect the generous federal subsidies given to congressional employees, it is playing with political dynamite.

As I wrote last Friday, the fight about the subsidies has gotten personal. Anger over Vitter’s efforts to tie up the Senate in order to derail the Democratic majority’s efforts to protect the subsidies—which are illegal under current legislation that mandates that Congress must live by the same flawed ObamaCare system it has imposed on the rest of the country—crosses party lines. Both members of Congress and, just importantly, their staffs, will suffer financially should they be forced into Obama-created health exchanges. According to Politico:

 Sources said that multiple Republican offices have reached out to Democrats to ensure that either the [Vitter] amendment doesn’t get a vote or that if it does, it fails.

If this is true, and I don’t doubt that it is, that poses an interesting question for Republicans. While they may believe that defying an ill-considered Tea Party campaign to force them to defund the government over ObamaCare will not lead to a revolt from the grass roots, do they really think they can get away with exempting themselves from the consequences of ObamaCare? If so, they may be in for a rude surprise.

Much of the discussion about the Vitter amendment has focused on the personal attacks launched by Democrats against the Louisiana senator. In an effort to humiliate Vitter and/or to blackmail him into dropping his objections to the exemption, the Senate majority is considering including its own amendment to the bill preventing any member who is suspected of soliciting prostitutes from getting a subsidy. Since Vitter’s disgraceful role in the “D.C. Madam” scandal makes him the only senator that we know of that fits into that category, there is no doubt of its purpose. The public already holds Congress in low repute, but this sort of thing can only make things worse.

Vitter has largely escaped any accountability for his involvement in the scandal (and thanks to Louisiana’s ethically challenged political culture was reelected in 2010), but the use of his past against him in this manner is more of an ethical violation than his misdeeds. Though it’s hard to believe that the Senate would actually pass legislation that would be the moral equivalent of a bill of attainder, the willingness to play hardball with Vitter shows just how determined many in Congress are to keep their sweet health-care deals even as the rest of the country is forced into ObamaCare.

But as dangerous as such a double standard would be for the entire institution, it would be doubly so for Republicans, especially those facing reelection next year. Whatever anyone thinks of Vitter as an individual, he is dead right about opposing the exemption. He’s also right that the law should be extended to requiring White House officials and other federal political appointees to be forced into the exchanges along with the rest of the hoi polloi.

Should he fail and the exemption is preserved and if Republicans had a hand in such a crooked, self-interested deal, you can bet that everyone that supports it will face a primary opponent that will use such a vote as a cudgel to beat them.

While many Republicans rightly fear the consequences of such a bloodletting that might lead to the defeat of many GOP members and candidates who are far more electable than their Tea Party opponents, this is the sort of issue that will not go away or be explained.

Those who say that forcing Congress into ObamaCare will cost the institution many skilled and experienced staffers are right. That would be a shame. Any further financial hardships imposed on them and on members, most of whom labor under the burden of having to maintain two households on an inadequate salary (even though it is more than most voters make) would also be unfortunate. But like state legislatures that raise their pay on the assumption that the public understands that the measure is reasonable, Republicans who preserve the ObamaCare exemption will learn that there are some sins that the public just doesn’t forgive.

Instead of joining efforts to sandbag Vitter, GOP members need to stand with him. If they don’t, they will live to regret it.

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Obama Has the Authority to Act on Syria

The British Parliament’s refusal to support action in Syria, even in principle, means that if President Obama does decide to act, he will be, in some sense, acting even more “unilaterally” than President Bush did in Iraq. Bush, after all, had the support of our second-oldest and closest ally—that would be the United Kingdom. He had numerous UN resolutions he could point to which Saddam Hussein had violated, even if, then as now, the UN has not been willing to authorize the use of military force to uphold international law. And he had overwhelming support in both houses of Congress for resolutions authorizing him to use military force.

Obama has none of those things. As a result many Republicans are lambasting him for supposedly unlawful use of force by an imperial chief executive. Not so. Obama’s use of force in Syria may be unwise—we will have to see about that—but it is certainly not unlawful. As the law professor John Yoo notes, the Founders gave Congress the power to “declare” war but gave the commander-in-chief the power to “engage” in war. The distinction may seem arcane but it means that presidents have ample executive authority to conduct hostilities, at least on a limited basis, without immediate authorization from Congress.

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The British Parliament’s refusal to support action in Syria, even in principle, means that if President Obama does decide to act, he will be, in some sense, acting even more “unilaterally” than President Bush did in Iraq. Bush, after all, had the support of our second-oldest and closest ally—that would be the United Kingdom. He had numerous UN resolutions he could point to which Saddam Hussein had violated, even if, then as now, the UN has not been willing to authorize the use of military force to uphold international law. And he had overwhelming support in both houses of Congress for resolutions authorizing him to use military force.

Obama has none of those things. As a result many Republicans are lambasting him for supposedly unlawful use of force by an imperial chief executive. Not so. Obama’s use of force in Syria may be unwise—we will have to see about that—but it is certainly not unlawful. As the law professor John Yoo notes, the Founders gave Congress the power to “declare” war but gave the commander-in-chief the power to “engage” in war. The distinction may seem arcane but it means that presidents have ample executive authority to conduct hostilities, at least on a limited basis, without immediate authorization from Congress.

This is not a new development. As I argued in my book The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (which is coming out in a revised edition in 2014), presidents have been employing military force on their own authority ever since the early days of the Republic to fight Barbary pirates, Indian tribes, and other perceived menaces. More recently this power has been utilized by numerous presidents of both parties, whether it was Ford rescuing the USS Mayaguez crew in 1975, Carter trying to free the hostages in Iran in 1980, Reagan sending a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon in 1983 and bombing Libya in 1986), Bush the elder sending military forces to Somalia in 1992, Clinton bombing al-Qaeda camps in 1998, or Obama bombing Libya in 2011.

As a practical matter there is no necessity for the president to get a formal authorization from Congress to use force on a limited basis. (Obviously it’s a different matter if a major war is in the offing.) Getting such authorization is still a good idea, however, if it’s practical to do so, not least because it will help inoculate the president to some limited extent if things go wrong. (I stress limited extent—most members of Congress quickly forgot they had ever ratified the invasion of Iraq.) It is a matter of prudential calculation, then, whether President Obama should seek Congress’s blessing before the use of force in Syria, which turns on whether such blessing is likely to be forthcoming.

I would hope that it is, because there is an important international norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction which needs to be upheld. I hope most Republicans can see that even if Labour and Tory “Little Englanders” (the British version of isolationists) did not.

Instead of trying to block the president, Republicans would be well advised to push him to make the looming military action in Syria more wide-ranging and strategically significant than news accounts currently depict. Obama vows to send a “shot across the bow” of the Assad regime with cruise missiles. He would be better advised to use air power in cooperation with ground action by vetted rebel forces to cripple and ultimately bring down Assad’s regime, making impossible further atrocities such as the use of chemical weapons last week.

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Congress Can’t Weasel Out of ObamaCare

During the course of the long, contentious and often under-handed battle to pass ObamaCare, Congress did do one honorable thing: it included the Grassley Amendment in the legislation that ensured that the government could not offer members of the House and Senate and their staffs any insurance plans but those created by the bill or those that were part of the exchanges set up in association with it. The principle was clear. If Congress, acting at the behest of President Obama, was going to shove this unpopular idea down the throats of an unwilling nation, those involved in making the law were going to have to live with it the same as the rest of the country. But three years later and with only six months to go before this provision goes into effect, it appears a new bipartisan consensus has emerged in the Congress about the misnamed Affordable Care Act: they want no part of it.

Though Democrats have mocked the more than three dozen attempts by House Republicans to repeal the act, the party leadership views the impending deadline with horror since the prospect of being forced into ObamaCare insurance has set off a mass exodus of members and their senior staffs. As Politico reports, there could be a surge in resignations before December 31 since doing so will allow representatives, senators and other congressional employees to retain their old federal insurance plans. That has led the same Democrats who pushed for the passage of ObamaCare to demand that it be changed to let the inhabitants of Capitol Hill of the hook. But even though Republicans have just as much incentive to want to amend the bill to save their own members and their staffs, their answer should be no. If Congress doesn’t want to cope with the far higher costs and poorer coverage that ObamaCare will ensure, they can scrap the entire misbegotten bill rather than just change it to suit their own interests.

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During the course of the long, contentious and often under-handed battle to pass ObamaCare, Congress did do one honorable thing: it included the Grassley Amendment in the legislation that ensured that the government could not offer members of the House and Senate and their staffs any insurance plans but those created by the bill or those that were part of the exchanges set up in association with it. The principle was clear. If Congress, acting at the behest of President Obama, was going to shove this unpopular idea down the throats of an unwilling nation, those involved in making the law were going to have to live with it the same as the rest of the country. But three years later and with only six months to go before this provision goes into effect, it appears a new bipartisan consensus has emerged in the Congress about the misnamed Affordable Care Act: they want no part of it.

Though Democrats have mocked the more than three dozen attempts by House Republicans to repeal the act, the party leadership views the impending deadline with horror since the prospect of being forced into ObamaCare insurance has set off a mass exodus of members and their senior staffs. As Politico reports, there could be a surge in resignations before December 31 since doing so will allow representatives, senators and other congressional employees to retain their old federal insurance plans. That has led the same Democrats who pushed for the passage of ObamaCare to demand that it be changed to let the inhabitants of Capitol Hill of the hook. But even though Republicans have just as much incentive to want to amend the bill to save their own members and their staffs, their answer should be no. If Congress doesn’t want to cope with the far higher costs and poorer coverage that ObamaCare will ensure, they can scrap the entire misbegotten bill rather than just change it to suit their own interests.

If a Democratic leader like Connecticut’s John Larson thinks it’s unfair to expect his employees to be put in the same boat as his constituents, then maybe he should rethink the entire measure that he played a pivotal role in passing when his party controlled Congress.

Most Americans, who already think little of Congress, will shed no tears for the travails of these servants of the people. Nor will they think the surge to the exits on the part of members and staff will do the country much harm. But, to be fair, if the kind of turnover that Politico discusses today really happens, a brain drain of experienced staffers and veteran politicians will make the Hill an even more dysfunctional place than it already has become.

That’s not good, but the answer to this mess simply cannot be for the Congress to allow its own members and employees to opt out of the catastrophe that is about to land on the necks of their fellow citizens. Republicans may be as miserable as Democrats about this mess, but they need to understand that if they vote for a fix that will exempt Congress they are signing their own political death warrants. Any Republican that votes for such a “fix” will be betraying the voters and the political principles of their party. Losing their staffs (who provide much of the expertise and institutional memory of this branch of government) may be a disaster, but Congress must suffer along with the rest of us if they are to retain even a shred of credibility. 

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ObamaCare and the Congressional Circus

Last night, Politico published what seemed like quite the scoop: members of Congress from both parties were holding secret negotiations with the aim of passing legislation that would exempt their staffers from unwieldy ObamaCare rules. The backlash was immediate, and virtually guaranteed that whether or not the Politico story got it right (it didn’t), it would at least have the effect of snuffing out whatever legislation was being contemplated.

The countdown began, and ended this afternoon when Harry Reid announced that the problem they spent months in secret negotiations trying to fix doesn’t actually exist, in his expert opinion, and thus would not require legislation that reeked of hypocrisy. So what actually happened? As Ezra Klein explained at the Washington Post, during the ObamaCare negotiations Chuck Grassley had proposed, and Congress subsequently passed, an amendment that requires congressional offices to purchase their health insurance policies from the insurance exchanges set up by ObamaCare. Grassley’s amendment was designed to embarrass Democrats by forcing them to reject part of ObamaCare as good enough for the ragged masses but not for them. Democrats, instead, accepted the amendment.

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Last night, Politico published what seemed like quite the scoop: members of Congress from both parties were holding secret negotiations with the aim of passing legislation that would exempt their staffers from unwieldy ObamaCare rules. The backlash was immediate, and virtually guaranteed that whether or not the Politico story got it right (it didn’t), it would at least have the effect of snuffing out whatever legislation was being contemplated.

The countdown began, and ended this afternoon when Harry Reid announced that the problem they spent months in secret negotiations trying to fix doesn’t actually exist, in his expert opinion, and thus would not require legislation that reeked of hypocrisy. So what actually happened? As Ezra Klein explained at the Washington Post, during the ObamaCare negotiations Chuck Grassley had proposed, and Congress subsequently passed, an amendment that requires congressional offices to purchase their health insurance policies from the insurance exchanges set up by ObamaCare. Grassley’s amendment was designed to embarrass Democrats by forcing them to reject part of ObamaCare as good enough for the ragged masses but not for them. Democrats, instead, accepted the amendment.

Democrats thought they had won the battle by meeting Grassley’s dare head-on. But there was a problem: the law excludes from those exchanges, in most cases, large employers–a category that includes the federal government. Which meant Hill staffers might have to foot the entire bill for their health insurance–of course made even more expensive thanks to ObamaCare–because the Grassley amendment, which Democrats so proudly accepted, put them into a strange new category Klein refers to as a regulatory limbo. They’ve been arguing ever since over what this means, with the fear that their staffers will all quit on them when they see the price tag on their shiny new health insurance plans.

In other words, the United States Congress has no idea what the law says or how to comply with it. But at least they’re not hypocrites, so don’t you feel better?

Klein is fairly sanguine about the whole thing, since it turned out to just be a terrible misunderstanding. But I actually think that’s the story. Congress started by trying to pass a massive bureaucratic overhaul of nearly one-fifth of the American economy, stared blankly at thousands of pages of regulations they wouldn’t even consider reading, and voted to make it the law of the land. Along the way, they treated the amendment process like a game of frat house beer pong, and their personal pride determined which amendments got through. Unsurprisingly, they passed amendments that made a hash of the law, because they didn’t read the law before enacting it.

When Nancy Pelosi suggested that it would just be tremendously exciting if no one looked at the bill and then we all found out together afterward to what extent Congress had just wrecked an entire industry, she was speaking for members of Congress as well as the public. So when Congress found out what Congress had wrought, they got to work trying to undo part of what they had done (the part, naturally, that affected them the most).

But that brought up another problem (just as we Jews famously answer questions with questions, so Congress “solves” problems with other problems): namely, that it would be quite a bummer if the public found out what they were up to. That’s because there are only two possible explanations for what they were doing, and neither sounded good. Either it would be exposed that they had no idea what was in the health care bill they passed, or it would seem like they did and now were trying to weasel out of part of it. And of course, by doing this in secret in a town where there are no secrets, they ensured the public would have both reactions.

Now that the public found out, Reid says there’s no need to take any action, that the law as written won’t do what they thought it might (he’s probably right). But Reid is a senator, not emperor, so he doesn’t get to make that decision–it’s up to the Office of Personnel Management. Reid’s statement, Klein notes, “doesn’t say much about what will happen if OPM doesn’t rule as Reid hopes.” It’s almost as if he’s not planning ahead. Klein continues:

If OPM doesn’t rule as Reid expects, I’ll be surprised to see this get fixed, at least quickly. Republicans view any chaos around Obamacare as a win for them. As of today, they’re telling me that that even extends to chaos caused by a Republican senator’s amendment that mainly effects (sic) their health insurance. I don’t think they’ll hold out long on that if it turns out they actually have to shoulder the full cost of their premiums. But it will be tough to preemptively back down too.

More games, more bluffing, more staring contests in response to the chaos they’ve created. Welcome to Congress.

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The GOP Can’t Surrender on Debt Ceiling

On Friday, my friend and colleague Peter Wehner wrote about the question of how the Republican Party can avoid a repeat of the fiscal cliff debacle in the upcoming months as a new deadline for raising the debt ceiling looms. Throughout the last few weeks, Pete has been spot-on in his analysis of what he rightly called the Republicans’ “losing hand” as President Obama and the Democrats forced them to accept a terrible fiscal cliff deal. Though some think the debt ceiling discussion will be very different from the cliff debate, Pete fears the GOP is headed down the same path and will suffer if they allow themselves to be portrayed as holding the country hostage again. To avoid that accusation as well as what he accurately describes as the futile pretense that the president will negotiate in good faith, he advises that they preemptively take the debt ceiling issue off the table sooner rather than later.

There is much to be said for this point of view, but I don’t believe Republicans can or should do as he says. If the Republican majority in the House of Representatives were to concede on the debt ceiling now they might as well just go home and let the Democrats have their way without the fig leaf of a debate. Doing so would tear the party apart and lessen rather than enhance their chances of winning in the 2014 midterms. Though Pete is right about the calamity of a rerun of the GOP fiascos of 1995 and 2011 and 2012 when they were beaten in such confrontations, there is more than one way to lose a political fight. As much as House Republicans need to worry about being marginalized as extremists who are willing to allegedly sabotage the economy to make an ideological point, they also need to worry about playing the role of the pliant opposition that is unable and unwilling to offer a stark alternative to the Democrats.

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On Friday, my friend and colleague Peter Wehner wrote about the question of how the Republican Party can avoid a repeat of the fiscal cliff debacle in the upcoming months as a new deadline for raising the debt ceiling looms. Throughout the last few weeks, Pete has been spot-on in his analysis of what he rightly called the Republicans’ “losing hand” as President Obama and the Democrats forced them to accept a terrible fiscal cliff deal. Though some think the debt ceiling discussion will be very different from the cliff debate, Pete fears the GOP is headed down the same path and will suffer if they allow themselves to be portrayed as holding the country hostage again. To avoid that accusation as well as what he accurately describes as the futile pretense that the president will negotiate in good faith, he advises that they preemptively take the debt ceiling issue off the table sooner rather than later.

There is much to be said for this point of view, but I don’t believe Republicans can or should do as he says. If the Republican majority in the House of Representatives were to concede on the debt ceiling now they might as well just go home and let the Democrats have their way without the fig leaf of a debate. Doing so would tear the party apart and lessen rather than enhance their chances of winning in the 2014 midterms. Though Pete is right about the calamity of a rerun of the GOP fiascos of 1995 and 2011 and 2012 when they were beaten in such confrontations, there is more than one way to lose a political fight. As much as House Republicans need to worry about being marginalized as extremists who are willing to allegedly sabotage the economy to make an ideological point, they also need to worry about playing the role of the pliant opposition that is unable and unwilling to offer a stark alternative to the Democrats.

Pete believes that since Republicans will have to give in on the debt ceiling eventually and will inevitably come out the losers in any such confrontation, they’ll do better by quickly discarding the illusion that they have any real leverage over the president. Instead, he thinks they should pick their fights carefully and use the coming months to put forward a competing vision of government that will bring us back to fiscal health. There is, he writes, no alternative but to patiently wait for the inevitable moment when the public tires of “Obamaism.” It will only be then that Republicans can implement a growth agenda based on low taxes and a far-reaching reform of entitlements and other spending that will ensure the nation’s fiscal health.

But while no one on the right should assume that they are in a strong position on the debt ceiling, it is not as weak as the one they were stuck with on the fiscal cliff. With the White House and the Senate obsessed with passing tax increases on the wealthy for ideological reasons and equally determined to avoid dealing with entitlements and spending, there was no way the GOP could stick to its own principles without allowing taxes to go up on all Americans.

Now that Obama has gotten his tax hike on the rich, the argument that the GOP is holding the nation hostage for the sake of millionaires is effectively neutered. The president arrogantly assumes that his status as a re-elected president is so secure that he can dictate not only the outcome of the negotiations but also even the nature of the debate. But as we approach the moment when the current debt ceiling will expire and a government shutdown is possible, the holdup is not a controversial Republican pledge to not raise taxes under any circumstance but a Democratic refusal to entertain substantive entitlement reform. The political advantage he gained in the past could disappear once the public understands that it is his arrogant refusal to deal that is the holdup rather than Tea Party extremism.

In the president’s favor is one of the factors that helped his re-election campaign: a liberal mainstream media that continues to paint the Republican position as radical rather than reformist. It’s entirely possible that any attempt to use the debt ceiling to force the president off his high horse on spending will be portrayed as a radical putsch that the reasonable commander-in-chief is right to oppose. If an already bruised GOP House doesn’t bow to his ultimatum, they will get another thorough working over in the press.

But what he fails to take into account is what will happen if they run up the white flag on the debt ceiling without a fight.

A surrender on those terms would lead to the sundering of the GOP that could derail what is left of Speaker John Boehner’s already shaky hold on his caucus. Without even the semblance of a fight, it won’t be just a couple of dozen Tea Partiers roaming off the reservation but a full-scale revolt. More than that, the base of the Republican Party that elected a conservative House majority will be sent a message that their votes were obtained with false promises. Any notion that an aroused conservative core of the party could be enticed to the polls in 2014 to reverse the Obama agenda will be lost.

As much as Boehner needs to avoid being fitted for the sort of Newt Gingrich clown suit that will ensure this coming debate ends as badly for the GOP as did their 1995 government shutdown, he also knows that the specter of Gingrich’s predecessor as head of the House Republicans looms over his efforts.

Bob Michel, the minority leader of the House of Representatives from 1981 to 1995, was an honorable public servant but he is also a symbol of everything that was wrong with the Republicans before the Gingrich-led Republican revolution. Many politicians and liberals in the media may lament what they consider the change from the more sedate political culture of that era to the angrier and less collegial style of politics that is practiced today. Indeed, they see a willingness of Republicans to use deadlines like the debt ceiling or the fiscal cliff to advance their cause as unthinkable breaches of courtesy that show how far out the GOP has become. But conservatives understand that when dealing with liberals it is just that go-along-to-get-along philosophy that is perhaps unfairly associated with the Michel era that led to Republicans being co-opted into backing up a corrupt and sinking system that is sending the country careening along the path to bankruptcy.

They can’t let that happen. There is a vast difference between the deferential style of a Michel-led GOP minority and what Pete thinks would be good politics and good policy now. But if Republicans don’t put up a fight and hold the president’s feet to the fire now, that will be seen by most Republicans and Democrats as a distinction without a difference.

The only way for House Republicans to be able to act as any kind of a check on the president’s plans for tax increases, more spending (though it will be called “investment”) and functional status quo on the chronic problem of entitlements in the next two years will be to stick together. That won’t be possible if Boehner caves.

There are worse things for the GOP than being branded as radicals by the president and his friends in the media. If John Boehner unilaterally surrenders on the debt ceiling, they will find that out.

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Sandy Funding is Earmark Revival

Speaker John Boehner’s since-rescinded decision to put off a vote on a bill providing disaster relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy turned out to be another black eye for House Republicans. The televised rage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the move was just one among many condemnations that were shown over and again on TV news channels. It fit right into the prevailing media narrative about congressional dysfunction as well as the idea that the House is led by extremists who don’t care about the Northeast. Given that the hurricane gave an unanticipated boost to President Obama’s re-election (though it almost certainly didn’t affect the outcome), Sandy appears to be a gift that just keeps on giving for Democrats.

Boehner had no choice but to backtrack on allowing a vote on the relief bill since to stick to his position in the face of so much opposition, including the disagreement of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was impossible. But before we file away this episode as just another example of an unforced error on the part of the GOP, it is vital that the objections to the bill be understood outside of the context of the grandstanding on the part of Christie and others, such as Rep. Peter King. Far from being a pure relief package that hard-hearted Republicans were obstructing, the bill is a stereotypical piece of legislative pork filled with funding for projects that are unrelated to recovery from Sandy’s devastation, but which feathers the nests of supporters of various senators and members of Congress as well as federal agencies. Seen in this light, the lambasting of Boehner is just a cover for a revival of a practice the speaker and other reform-minded members thought they had already gotten ride of: earmarking.

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Speaker John Boehner’s since-rescinded decision to put off a vote on a bill providing disaster relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy turned out to be another black eye for House Republicans. The televised rage of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the move was just one among many condemnations that were shown over and again on TV news channels. It fit right into the prevailing media narrative about congressional dysfunction as well as the idea that the House is led by extremists who don’t care about the Northeast. Given that the hurricane gave an unanticipated boost to President Obama’s re-election (though it almost certainly didn’t affect the outcome), Sandy appears to be a gift that just keeps on giving for Democrats.

Boehner had no choice but to backtrack on allowing a vote on the relief bill since to stick to his position in the face of so much opposition, including the disagreement of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was impossible. But before we file away this episode as just another example of an unforced error on the part of the GOP, it is vital that the objections to the bill be understood outside of the context of the grandstanding on the part of Christie and others, such as Rep. Peter King. Far from being a pure relief package that hard-hearted Republicans were obstructing, the bill is a stereotypical piece of legislative pork filled with funding for projects that are unrelated to recovery from Sandy’s devastation, but which feathers the nests of supporters of various senators and members of Congress as well as federal agencies. Seen in this light, the lambasting of Boehner is just a cover for a revival of a practice the speaker and other reform-minded members thought they had already gotten ride of: earmarking.

Earmarks had been banned by the House but under the cover of sympathy for Sandy, they have made a remarkable comeback. Here are just a few of the outrageous items that somehow were slipped into the $60.4 billion relief package:

 * $150 million for Alaskan fisheries

* $41 million for military facilities such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

* $8 million to buy cars for the Justice and Homeland Security departments

* $3.1 million for an animal disease center

* $2 million for repair of the roofs of the Smithsonian Institution museums

* $58 million for reforestation on private land

* $100 million for Head Start day care centers

* $17 billion for Community Development Block grants that act as slush funds for members of Congress

While much of the money in the bill is intended for and will go to genuine victims of Sandy, these items demonstrate that a great deal of the funds allocated here will not do so. That’s why the mockery of the calls for accountability by congressional critics of the bill is mere partisan flummery. The fact that such practices are traditional is no defense of their continuation.

The willingness of the mainstream media to jump on Boehner for slowing down the rush to pass this pork-laden bill gives the lie to all of the lip service being paid to the idea of reducing spending and ending the corruption endemic to the earmark process. Though relief for Sandy’s victims can and should be passed, natural disasters should not be used as a flimsy cover for corrupt earmarks and patronage schemes.

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Why Both Parties Failed

It almost goes without saying that even if a deal is somehow reached today that would prevent a massive tax increase and defense cuts, the disgust of the public at the fiscal cliff hijinks that have gone on in Washington the last few weeks will outweigh the relief they feel. If the last-second talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell succeed in crafting a short-term compromise that enough Democrats and Republicans can live with, the country will be spared the disaster that would ensue should the scheduled across-the-board tax increases and devastating sequestration of funds for national defense be implemented. But as much as both sides have spent more time casting aspersions at each other’s motives than negotiating in good faith, there needs to be a full accounting of why this happened in the way that it did.

To say that both Republicans and Democrats have failed in this episode is stating the obvious. But each failed in different ways and an analysis of their shortcomings tells us a lot about the direction in which the country is heading.

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It almost goes without saying that even if a deal is somehow reached today that would prevent a massive tax increase and defense cuts, the disgust of the public at the fiscal cliff hijinks that have gone on in Washington the last few weeks will outweigh the relief they feel. If the last-second talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell succeed in crafting a short-term compromise that enough Democrats and Republicans can live with, the country will be spared the disaster that would ensue should the scheduled across-the-board tax increases and devastating sequestration of funds for national defense be implemented. But as much as both sides have spent more time casting aspersions at each other’s motives than negotiating in good faith, there needs to be a full accounting of why this happened in the way that it did.

To say that both Republicans and Democrats have failed in this episode is stating the obvious. But each failed in different ways and an analysis of their shortcomings tells us a lot about the direction in which the country is heading.

The Republicans failed because a critical mass of the House GOP caucus believed their mandate to stop Washington’s out-of-control spending and taxing outweighed their responsibility to keep the government running properly. The Tea Partiers were right that the country has a spending problem rather than one based in taxes that were too low, and their desire to reform the entitlements that are sinking the nation in debt brought a note of sanity to the irrational nature of the way Congress usually does business. But the idea they were empowered to stand in the way of any compromise on the debt ceiling and now the fiscal cliff was just as foolish as the refusal of the other side to address the root cause of the crisis.

After their smashing victory in the 2010 midterms, conservatives were right to say they were elected to throw a monkey wrench into the government machine even if the Senate and the White House were still controlled by the Democrats. But after the people voted to keep government divided last month, there was an obligation on the part of even the most hard-core conservatives to compromise in order to keep the government afloat. They may have been faced with a negotiating partner in the president who was working to prevent a deal since he believes he benefits politically from the implementation of the fiscal cliff taxes and cuts. Yet it would be dishonest to absolve the GOP caucus from blame here, since they were unable to pass House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B compromise because many of them simply would not sign onto any tax increases of any kind.

Being right about policy does not excuse a political party from the need to keep the government functioning. In this case, that means the reforming zeal of many conservatives that is to be praised in principle prevented them from doing what needed to be done in practice to prevent today’s impending catastrophe. Though the public is wrong to blame Republicans more than Democrats for this mess, it isn’t wrong to see the GOP has having potentially sacrificed the well-being of the citizens for the sake of political purity.

As it turns out, the Democrats are guilty of almost the exact opposite sins.

Over the last year and a half, the president and his party correctly gauged the political effects of any discussion about entitlement reform. They knew doing anything to cut back on such spending would be unpopular even if many of them understood it was necessary. But rather than deal in good faith with the Republicans for a deal that would address the country’s long-term peril rather than merely a momentary shortfall, they spent this time engaging in demagoguery about the wealthy and their opponents. That was smart politics but bad public policy.

The tax increases they have been demanding will do little to fix the deficit. Indeed, they may prove entirely counterproductive since their soak-the-rich scheme will probably diminish the investments needed to produce robust growth instead of the anemic recovery we have been experiencing. Yet the only fact Democrats seemed capable of grasping was the one that told them that the public was dubious about the Republicans’ reform plans and that such ideas were unpopular.

That has left us with one party with sound economic principles but which lacked the willingness to compromise for the sake of the public good, and another with sound political instincts but a cynical view about policy that makes problem solving impossible. The Democrats’ intransigent cynicism is far more disreputable than the Republicans disregard for political reality, but put the two together and you get what we are currently seeing: a perfect storm of government dysfunction. If the long-term fiscal crisis is to be addressed it will require both parties to sober up and address their shortcomings.

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“Toxic” Pelosi Clings to Power

Nevada Democrat Shelley Berkley lost a close election for Senate last week. Although it was a Senate campaign, Berkley was coming from the House, which meant her opponent, Dean Heller, had had an easy weapon to deploy against her: Nancy Pelosi. Tying candidates like this to Pelosi has been a favorite tactic of congressional Republicans and their supporters. When Fred Barnes profiled Harry Reid in September, he asked GOP operatives why Pelosi was constantly invoked but Reid wasn’t.

Pelosi is “toxic” with voters, he found; Republican strategists described her as “the gift that keeps on giving.” Barnes continued: “In focus groups conducted by Republicans, swing voters respond negatively to any mention of Pelosi. It’s clear she’s a drag on Democrats. But when Reid is raised, the reaction is weak.” And so it is that Pelosi compounds the Democrats’ “Obama problem,” so to speak: the punishment voters have meted out to Democrats, especially in the House and in gubernatorial elections, for the array of unpopular big-government excesses of the Obama administration. House candidates are particularly susceptible to the mood swings of the electorate, so you would think Pelosi would step down as House minority leader and give the Democrats a fighting chance as they head into the often-difficult second-term midterm elections. But you would be wrong.

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Nevada Democrat Shelley Berkley lost a close election for Senate last week. Although it was a Senate campaign, Berkley was coming from the House, which meant her opponent, Dean Heller, had had an easy weapon to deploy against her: Nancy Pelosi. Tying candidates like this to Pelosi has been a favorite tactic of congressional Republicans and their supporters. When Fred Barnes profiled Harry Reid in September, he asked GOP operatives why Pelosi was constantly invoked but Reid wasn’t.

Pelosi is “toxic” with voters, he found; Republican strategists described her as “the gift that keeps on giving.” Barnes continued: “In focus groups conducted by Republicans, swing voters respond negatively to any mention of Pelosi. It’s clear she’s a drag on Democrats. But when Reid is raised, the reaction is weak.” And so it is that Pelosi compounds the Democrats’ “Obama problem,” so to speak: the punishment voters have meted out to Democrats, especially in the House and in gubernatorial elections, for the array of unpopular big-government excesses of the Obama administration. House candidates are particularly susceptible to the mood swings of the electorate, so you would think Pelosi would step down as House minority leader and give the Democrats a fighting chance as they head into the often-difficult second-term midterm elections. But you would be wrong.

Today, Pelosi announced that she intends to stay on as Democratic leader. It’s true that substantively this may not make too much of a difference, since the Democrats have just about eliminated any moderate wing of their party and moved their entire caucus much closer to Pelosi’s liberal extremism and patent unwillingness to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans. So it isn’t clear the Democrats had anyone much less extreme to replace her with.

At the same time, she is broadly, if unsurprisingly, disliked by the national electorate, and the Democrats may have had an opportunity to at least try some of the rebranding efforts that Republicans are now undertaking in the wake of their own shellacking last week.

In a sense, Pelosi’s party needs all the help it can get. With messy, costly legislation and high unemployment, Pelosi has presided over a difficult term as party leader. That probably won’t improve much if the president’s stated budget negotiation aims are any clue: Obama would like to raise taxes a bit more than he previously indicated, it seems. Obama doesn’t have another reelection campaign coming up, but the House Democrats do.

Not only does Obama share in the blame for what keeps happening to Pelosi’s caucus, but so does Reid. Under his leadership, Senate Democrats have chosen to grind the legislative process to a halt, shutting Republicans out and refusing to pass a budget for going on three years. Until the Democratic Party leadership takes their foot off the neck of the economy, it’s Pelosi’s House Democrats that that can expect to keep paying the price at the ballot box.

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Will Congress Avert Defense Cuts?

Both parties have good reason to avoid another government shutdown standoff this fall, as the fiscal year ends a little more than a month before the election. Any hint of Republican obstructionism in the House will be used in anti-Romney attacks, and Senate Democrats won’t want to rock the boat so soon before Election Day. Roll Call reports both sides are nearing a compromise on a continuing resolution to fund the government for another six months, which they’ll vote on before the Sept. 30 deadline:

The announcement of a House-Senate deal to fund the government for the six months after Sept. 30 appeared imminent this afternoon.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said that any spending agreement would have to be at the $1.047 trillion level established by last year’s debt limit law. Current funding runs out at the end of the government’s fiscal year Sept. 30, and without new appropriations or a stopgap continuing resolution, the government would shut down. …

The continuing resolution could not be considered by either chamber until after the August recess, sources said, because the Congressional Budget Office would need time to score the proposal. In addition, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget will need to provide Appropriations Committee staffers with lists of changes from the current spending levels called “anomalies” for inclusion in the measure.

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Both parties have good reason to avoid another government shutdown standoff this fall, as the fiscal year ends a little more than a month before the election. Any hint of Republican obstructionism in the House will be used in anti-Romney attacks, and Senate Democrats won’t want to rock the boat so soon before Election Day. Roll Call reports both sides are nearing a compromise on a continuing resolution to fund the government for another six months, which they’ll vote on before the Sept. 30 deadline:

The announcement of a House-Senate deal to fund the government for the six months after Sept. 30 appeared imminent this afternoon.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said that any spending agreement would have to be at the $1.047 trillion level established by last year’s debt limit law. Current funding runs out at the end of the government’s fiscal year Sept. 30, and without new appropriations or a stopgap continuing resolution, the government would shut down. …

The continuing resolution could not be considered by either chamber until after the August recess, sources said, because the Congressional Budget Office would need time to score the proposal. In addition, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget will need to provide Appropriations Committee staffers with lists of changes from the current spending levels called “anomalies” for inclusion in the measure.

It’s not exactly happy news that Washington is going to take up another short-term spending agreement, but there really isn’t an alternative. Congress can’t even agree on an actual budget during a non-election year, and there’s no way anything is going to be accomplished in the politically-charged two months leading up to the election.

But there is one important provision that Congress can add to the continuing resolution, which could avert the automatic defense cuts under sequestration. Defense News reported on the option during the weekend:

Increasingly concerned that time is running out for the U.S. Congress to avoid $500 billion in automatic defense cuts, the Pentagon is assessing all options, including the possible implications of a one-year, $100 billion government-wide, “mini-sequester” deficit-reduction deal, Defense Department and industry sources said. …

Congress inserts language into a continuing resolution that delays sequestration another year or two when there is a less-heated political environment, but the government implements the first and perhaps second year of cuts, which some refer to as the “mini-sequester.”

The $100 billion in government-wide cuts seem far preferable to $500 billion in defense cuts alone. The one- or two-year window would also give Congress more time and a less-politicized atmosphere to come up with a plan to replace the automatic cuts.

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House GOP Releases First F&F Report

The House Oversight Committee is holding five Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) officials responsible in the Fast and Furious operation failures, according to a draft report released last night:

The report determined that five officials in the ATF were responsible, ranging from a former low-ranking special agent to the former acting head of the agency. Congressional investigators called attention to the weak leadership at the ATF and pushed for the agency to be strengthened.

“Strong leadership is needed at ATF to overcome the deep scars left by Operation Fast and Furious,” the report states. “Greater accountability within ATF would underscore that ineffective supervision and recklessness both have consequences.”

Specifically, the report pins blame on former Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix Field Division William Newell, former Deputy Assistant Director for Field Operations William McMahon, former Assistant Director for Field Operations Mark Chait, the former Deputy Director William Hoover, and former acting ATF director Kenneth Melson.

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The House Oversight Committee is holding five Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) officials responsible in the Fast and Furious operation failures, according to a draft report released last night:

The report determined that five officials in the ATF were responsible, ranging from a former low-ranking special agent to the former acting head of the agency. Congressional investigators called attention to the weak leadership at the ATF and pushed for the agency to be strengthened.

“Strong leadership is needed at ATF to overcome the deep scars left by Operation Fast and Furious,” the report states. “Greater accountability within ATF would underscore that ineffective supervision and recklessness both have consequences.”

Specifically, the report pins blame on former Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix Field Division William Newell, former Deputy Assistant Director for Field Operations William McMahon, former Assistant Director for Field Operations Mark Chait, the former Deputy Director William Hoover, and former acting ATF director Kenneth Melson.

The Hill reports that all five of these officials have been reassigned to other positions. But this oversight report is just the beginning. There are two more reports set to be released, which will both deal with the Department of Justice directly. According to The Hill, the next one will be focused on the deputy attorney general’s office, and the third one will address the failings at the top level of the attorney general’s office and AG Eric Holder. The point of the staggered release may be to give Obama time to back down on executive privilege, Allahpundit writes:

The point of this leak, I assume, is to give Obama one last chance to drop his executive privilege claim over the DOJ documents that [Rep. Darrell] Issa wants to see. (The LAT quotes the report as saying it’s based on “the best information available as of now.”) If he does that, then the report will be held back while GOP investigators go through the new evidence. If he doesn’t do it, then the GOP can argue that there must be nothing in those e-mails that exculpates any of the five guys they’ve named.

Anybody think there’s a chance of this happening? Me neither.

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McCain’s Stance on Cybersecurity Is Wrong

There are few politicians–heck, few Americans, period–for whom I have greater respect than John McCain. Not only do I have endless admiration for his character, I find his policy judgment, especially in the national security area, to be close to faultless. Which may be just another way of saying I seldom disagree with him. But I find myself in disagreement with his stance on cybersecurity–as does one of his closest Senate colleagues, Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman is co-sponsoring legislation that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to set minimal cybersecurity standards for air traffic control systems, dams, power plants and other such facilities that are absolutely essential to the safe functioning of the American economy. This is a major issue at a time when, as Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, has just warned cyberattacks aimed at U.S. infrastructure increased seventeenfold from 2009 to 2012. General Alexander further said that “on a scale of 1 to 10, American preparedness for a large-scale cyber-attack is ‘around a 3.’ ”

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There are few politicians–heck, few Americans, period–for whom I have greater respect than John McCain. Not only do I have endless admiration for his character, I find his policy judgment, especially in the national security area, to be close to faultless. Which may be just another way of saying I seldom disagree with him. But I find myself in disagreement with his stance on cybersecurity–as does one of his closest Senate colleagues, Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman is co-sponsoring legislation that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to set minimal cybersecurity standards for air traffic control systems, dams, power plants and other such facilities that are absolutely essential to the safe functioning of the American economy. This is a major issue at a time when, as Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, has just warned cyberattacks aimed at U.S. infrastructure increased seventeenfold from 2009 to 2012. General Alexander further said that “on a scale of 1 to 10, American preparedness for a large-scale cyber-attack is ‘around a 3.’ ”

The only way to raise our level of preparedness is to give the federal government more authority to protect civilian infrastructure. As things stand, Alexander’s NSA can mount offensive cyberoperations against other countries but can only protect Defense Department networks in this country. The Department of Homeland Security is supposed to protect the civilian networks on which we all depend–and whose disruption via cyberattack could cripple our economy. But DHS does not have the resources or authorities to get the job done. Understandable concerns about privacy have made it impossible to fix this situation on Capitol Hill. Lieberman’s legislation is a start toward fixing this major vulnerability but, thanks to objections from Sen. McCain and the Chamber of Commerce, the bill has been watered down so the cybersecurity standards will now be optional. Optional standards make sense when it comes to governing the size of sodas–not when it comes to protecting critical infrastructure.

While the federal government has undoubtedly extended its reach into all kinds of areas where it does not belong, national defense remains its core responsibility–and in the 21st century that must mean defense from cyberthreats as well as physical ones. Until Congress moves to fix our vulnerabilities, we will remain wide open to attack by China, Russia, and other countries in the forefront of developing offensive cyberwarfare capabilities.

One only need look at the damage that the Stuxnet virus–cooked up by the U.S. and Israel–did to the Iranian nuclear program; now imagine the Iranians returning the favor with a virus that incapacitates major parts of the American electric grid. That is a nightmare scenario that we must worry about, and Congress’s failure to act will only encourage the world’s cyberpredators to continue developing and deploying ever-more fiendish computer weapons against us.

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Finding an Alternative to Defense Cuts

With the sequester looming, Republicans are scrambling for an alternative that will save the defense budget and the defense industry. The Hill reports on one idea being floated by Sen. Mitch McConnell, which would increase government and sales fees — but the idea could violate Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge:

“If you want to turn off the sequester, and I think that’s a good idea, there is a way to do it; we spent a lot of time last year finding legitimate pay-fors in the Biden talks,” McConnell said. “There are all kinds of legitimate pay-fors that were studied on a bipartisan basis in the so-called Biden talks, leading up to the final passage of the Budget Control Act.”

McConnell’s comments reflect a growing urgency among Republicans on Capitol Hill about finding a compromise to stop $55 million in spending cuts slated for defense programs in 2013.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and other Democrats have insisted that any replacement of the so-called defense sequester also reduce cuts to domestic programs and raise new revenues.

Focusing on sales and federal fees could be a way to raise revenues without violating the tax pledge GOP lawmakers have made to their constituents.

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With the sequester looming, Republicans are scrambling for an alternative that will save the defense budget and the defense industry. The Hill reports on one idea being floated by Sen. Mitch McConnell, which would increase government and sales fees — but the idea could violate Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge:

“If you want to turn off the sequester, and I think that’s a good idea, there is a way to do it; we spent a lot of time last year finding legitimate pay-fors in the Biden talks,” McConnell said. “There are all kinds of legitimate pay-fors that were studied on a bipartisan basis in the so-called Biden talks, leading up to the final passage of the Budget Control Act.”

McConnell’s comments reflect a growing urgency among Republicans on Capitol Hill about finding a compromise to stop $55 million in spending cuts slated for defense programs in 2013.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and other Democrats have insisted that any replacement of the so-called defense sequester also reduce cuts to domestic programs and raise new revenues.

Focusing on sales and federal fees could be a way to raise revenues without violating the tax pledge GOP lawmakers have made to their constituents.

Democrats are demanding some sort of revenue-increasing measure to offset the defense cuts. Some possibilities that may not violate the anti-tax pledge could include fees related to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and an increase in TSA fees — but Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, told The Hill that it would need to see the specific legislation before deciding whether it violates the pledge.

There are also some actions Congress can take in late September, when last year’s continuing resolution funding the government expires. As the Bipartisan Policy Center has pointed out, Congress could pass another continuing resolution to exempt war funding from the defense cuts — though that could also mean that other defense programs take a bigger hit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has suggested that Congress could increase war funding this fall to a level that offsets the sequestration cuts, which is an interesting idea but would result in no real-life reductions. If it comes to that, then Congress should obviously do everything in its power to save defense; but considering our fiscal situation, it would be preferable to find other non-defense cuts to offset it, if possible.

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The Damaging Sequester

If you missed Thursday’s Wall Street Journal editorial on defense sequestration, go back and read it. It’s as powerful a case as I’ve seen about the damage that mindless budget cutting will do to our nation’s defense. It also makes a powerful case that President Obama is being negligent for refusing to get together with concerned lawmakers to stop the deep slashes in defense spending that are due to begin in January. Instead, the president and Sen. Harry Reid are using the threat of sequestration to try to pressure Republicans into agreeing to tax increases.

Of course, the fault is not entirely the president’s. Hill Republicans also bear part of the blame, as the Journal notes, for accepting “the sequestration deal while leaving entitlements off the table, thus handing Mr. Obama more leverage.” That Republicans voted as they did last summer, despite the misgivings of many members, was understandable given that the federal government faced the threat of default if the budget ceiling wasn’t lifted—but nevertheless, the vote was a mistake and one that may come back to haunt the country.

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If you missed Thursday’s Wall Street Journal editorial on defense sequestration, go back and read it. It’s as powerful a case as I’ve seen about the damage that mindless budget cutting will do to our nation’s defense. It also makes a powerful case that President Obama is being negligent for refusing to get together with concerned lawmakers to stop the deep slashes in defense spending that are due to begin in January. Instead, the president and Sen. Harry Reid are using the threat of sequestration to try to pressure Republicans into agreeing to tax increases.

Of course, the fault is not entirely the president’s. Hill Republicans also bear part of the blame, as the Journal notes, for accepting “the sequestration deal while leaving entitlements off the table, thus handing Mr. Obama more leverage.” That Republicans voted as they did last summer, despite the misgivings of many members, was understandable given that the federal government faced the threat of default if the budget ceiling wasn’t lifted—but nevertheless, the vote was a mistake and one that may come back to haunt the country.

The good news is it is not too late to prevent these devastating cuts from taking place—but to achieve anything we will need to break through the partisan gridlock. At this point, that looks like a long shot.

 

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Dems to Turn Obama Campaign Talking Points into Legislation

Democrats in Congress frustrated by President Obama’s repeated refusal to release all of his papers from his days in the Illinois state senate and his college transcripts are introducing legislation that would force the president to release his political records and Columbia transcripts–just in case he misrepresented his back story to enable his transfer there.

Just kidding! Democrats are introducing legislation to force Mitt Romney to release his tax returns. Running out of retired baseball players to prosecute and looking for some other creative ways to cynically use their taxpayer-funded salaries to waste everyone’s time and money on a political stunt designed to treat the Congress as if it were a liberal super-PAC, Democrats have seized on the issue of Romney’s tax returns as a nifty way to legislate campaign ads from the Senate floor. Senators Carl Levin and Dick Durbin can’t even pretend that this is not what they’re doing, even though the legislation would obviously force all candidates to comply:

Sen. Carl Levin told reporters that the Senate proposal would shed new light on the use of shell corporations based overseas to help U.S. companies and individuals avoid U.S. taxes. But Durbin confirmed the timing of the proposal is designed to highlight Democratic complaints with Romney’s investments.

“Clearly, I think the American people are entitled to more,” Durbin said, of the two years of tax returns Romney has so far said he will release. “I also think he has an obligation to explain why he and his family decided that offshore tax havens are the right place to park their money and their wealth. Those are legitimate questions.”

The two suggested they would move the item as an amendment to some other larger bill in coming weeks, which could force a Senate floor debate.

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Democrats in Congress frustrated by President Obama’s repeated refusal to release all of his papers from his days in the Illinois state senate and his college transcripts are introducing legislation that would force the president to release his political records and Columbia transcripts–just in case he misrepresented his back story to enable his transfer there.

Just kidding! Democrats are introducing legislation to force Mitt Romney to release his tax returns. Running out of retired baseball players to prosecute and looking for some other creative ways to cynically use their taxpayer-funded salaries to waste everyone’s time and money on a political stunt designed to treat the Congress as if it were a liberal super-PAC, Democrats have seized on the issue of Romney’s tax returns as a nifty way to legislate campaign ads from the Senate floor. Senators Carl Levin and Dick Durbin can’t even pretend that this is not what they’re doing, even though the legislation would obviously force all candidates to comply:

Sen. Carl Levin told reporters that the Senate proposal would shed new light on the use of shell corporations based overseas to help U.S. companies and individuals avoid U.S. taxes. But Durbin confirmed the timing of the proposal is designed to highlight Democratic complaints with Romney’s investments.

“Clearly, I think the American people are entitled to more,” Durbin said, of the two years of tax returns Romney has so far said he will release. “I also think he has an obligation to explain why he and his family decided that offshore tax havens are the right place to park their money and their wealth. Those are legitimate questions.”

The two suggested they would move the item as an amendment to some other larger bill in coming weeks, which could force a Senate floor debate.

I, for one, agree that the American people are entitled to more. I’d start with a budget–something Senate Democrats steadfastly refuse to do. GOP House Speaker John Boehner also thinks the American people deserve more: “The American people are asking, where are the jobs? They’re not asking where in the hell the tax returns are,” he told the Washington Post.

Well that may be, but what could Durbin and Levin possibly care what Americans are asking for? It’s silly season, after all–a time that seems strangely permanent in Harry Reid’s Senate. Besides, it’s just congressional legislation designed with a specific individual political opponent of Durbin and Levin’s in mind. It’s not like there’s any way such a standard could be abused. What could possibly go wrong?

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DISCLOSE Act Shields Labor Unions

How’s this story for further proof that the real point of the DISCLOSE Act is not transparency, but kneecapping conservative groups while protecting labor unions from disclosure burdens? The Free Beacon’s CJ Ciaramella reports that Senate Democrats dropped a key provision from the DISCLOSE Act requiring political groups to disclose their names in the advertisements they fund:

“The ‘stand by your ad’ provision was dropped in response to objections we’ve heard from folks on the other side of the aisle,” the spokesman said. “It’s now targeted specifically at requiring disclosure.”

However, a senior Republican aide told the Free Beacon the provision was dropped due to union pressure.

The “stand by your ad” provision would have required the CEO or equivalent position of an organization buying electioneering ads—AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, for example—to endorse them, similar to the endorsements required at the end of ads purchased by political campaigns.

“The Trumkas of the world aren’t exactly the warm, fuzzy personalities you want appearing at the end of your ad,” the aide said.

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How’s this story for further proof that the real point of the DISCLOSE Act is not transparency, but kneecapping conservative groups while protecting labor unions from disclosure burdens? The Free Beacon’s CJ Ciaramella reports that Senate Democrats dropped a key provision from the DISCLOSE Act requiring political groups to disclose their names in the advertisements they fund:

“The ‘stand by your ad’ provision was dropped in response to objections we’ve heard from folks on the other side of the aisle,” the spokesman said. “It’s now targeted specifically at requiring disclosure.”

However, a senior Republican aide told the Free Beacon the provision was dropped due to union pressure.

The “stand by your ad” provision would have required the CEO or equivalent position of an organization buying electioneering ads—AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, for example—to endorse them, similar to the endorsements required at the end of ads purchased by political campaigns.

“The Trumkas of the world aren’t exactly the warm, fuzzy personalities you want appearing at the end of your ad,” the aide said.

The Senate votes on the DISCLOSE Act today, and the main provision remaining would require political groups to disclose contributions that are more than $10,000. Of course, public sector unions take most of their money in (often mandatory) dues, which means they would largely fly under the radar on that requirement.

Again, the DISCLOSE Act is not about political disclosure and transparency, which are both important and laudable goals. It’s about stifling free speech. The ACLU, not exactly a pro-corporate group, has raised alarms about the legislation for the last few years. In a March letter (via the Free Beacon), the organization urged members of Congress to vote against the DISCLOSE Act:

We acknowledge that the sponsors of the DISCLOSE Act seek the laudable goal of fair and participatory federal elections. We also appreciate the drafters’ efforts to address the ACLU’s concerns with previous campaign disclosure legislation.  And, we do support numerous campaign disclosure and fair election measures that promote and inform the electorate, including disclosures of corporate political spending to shareholders and rules that provide low-cost airtime to all political candidates.

However, we believe this legislation ultimately fails in its attempts to improve the integrity of our campaigns in any substantial way, while significantly harming the speech and associational rights of Americans. We urge you to oppose S. 2219 when it is considered before the committee.

The ACLU is right, for the following reasons:

  1. If you’re fortunate enough to own a newspaper or a television channel, you can use the platform to support or oppose candidates and legislation. Why shouldn’t private citizens who don’t own newspapers be allowed to  do the same by investing in their own media platforms — i.e. TV commercials, films, or print ads?
  2. If this is protected speech, then what right does the government have to limit it?
  3. If this is protected speech, why shouldn’t donors have anonymous speech rights?

Those in the media who support this misguided legislation because it purports to encourage disclosure might want to reconsider. Transparency in elections shouldn’t be bought at the price of free speech.

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