Commentary Magazine


Topic: Congress

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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Symbolic Repeal Puts Dems on the Record

Five Democrats broke with their party to support the bill to repeal ObamaCare, which is just two more than in 2011. House Republicans supported it unanimously, Fox News reports:

House lawmakers voted Wednesday to repeal the federal health care overhaul — the latest in a long line of anti-”ObamaCare” votes, but the first since the Supreme Court upheld the law and defined one of its key provisions as a “tax.”

The House has voted more than 30 times to scrap, defund or undercut the law since Obama signed it in March 2010. As with those bills, the repeal bill approved Wednesday on a 244-185 vote faces certain demise in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But Republicans were looking to get lawmakers back on record on the law in the wake of the high court ruling last month. The ruling upheld most the law as constitutional, but in doing so determined that the controversial penalty on those who do not buy insurance technically qualifies as a “tax” and not a “penalty” as the administration had claimed. That definition fueled GOP criticism of the law, and put some Democrats in a politically tricky position.

The bill won’t actually go anywhere — Harry Reid would block a Senate vote on it, not that it would have a chance of passing there anyway. As a completely gratuitous precaution President Obama has also vowed to veto the bill if it miraculously ends up on his desk.

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Five Democrats broke with their party to support the bill to repeal ObamaCare, which is just two more than in 2011. House Republicans supported it unanimously, Fox News reports:

House lawmakers voted Wednesday to repeal the federal health care overhaul — the latest in a long line of anti-”ObamaCare” votes, but the first since the Supreme Court upheld the law and defined one of its key provisions as a “tax.”

The House has voted more than 30 times to scrap, defund or undercut the law since Obama signed it in March 2010. As with those bills, the repeal bill approved Wednesday on a 244-185 vote faces certain demise in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

But Republicans were looking to get lawmakers back on record on the law in the wake of the high court ruling last month. The ruling upheld most the law as constitutional, but in doing so determined that the controversial penalty on those who do not buy insurance technically qualifies as a “tax” and not a “penalty” as the administration had claimed. That definition fueled GOP criticism of the law, and put some Democrats in a politically tricky position.

The bill won’t actually go anywhere — Harry Reid would block a Senate vote on it, not that it would have a chance of passing there anyway. As a completely gratuitous precaution President Obama has also vowed to veto the bill if it miraculously ends up on his desk.

But 185 Democrats are now on the record supporting Obamacare, even after the SCOTUS decision and the classification of the mandate as a “tax.” This will be powerful ammunition for Republican congressional candidates leading up to Election Day. Considering the consistent majority public opposition to Obamacare, It’s surprising that just two Democrats switched sides since the 2011 vote. Maybe even vulnerable Dems figured they already did the damage by supporting Obamacare in the first place — what’s one more vote in favor?

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Health Care Vote Not Just for Show?

Some conservatives have complained that the House vote to repeal ObamaCare tomorrow is just for show and has no chance of passing the Senate or — even if it miraculously did — surviving a presidential veto. True, but so what? Many voters are just starting to tune in to the general election, and it’s worth getting the latest positions of House lawmakers on the record. For Democrats running in conservative districts, this could be the last shot to oppose the unpopular health care law before the election. For Republicans, it’s a chance to show they’re on the side of the majority of Americans who oppose ObamaCare.

And for the White House, it’s a potential political embarrassment, depending on how many Democrats switch over to the anti-ObamaCare side. The Hill reports:

Only three Democrats voted for repeal after the GOP took control of the House last year, but Republicans are confident they can add to this number on Wednesday in spite of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the law is constitutional.

Already, one politically vulnerable Democrat, Rep. Larry Kissell (N.C.), has said he will vote to repeal the health care law after opposing the same measure a year ago.

The GOP’s hope is that a strong House vote — and fresh Democratic opposition — will thwart the White House’s effort to boost political support for the law in light of the Court ruling, said one House Republican leadership aide. Conservatives complaining about symbolic votes are being unrealistic.

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Some conservatives have complained that the House vote to repeal ObamaCare tomorrow is just for show and has no chance of passing the Senate or — even if it miraculously did — surviving a presidential veto. True, but so what? Many voters are just starting to tune in to the general election, and it’s worth getting the latest positions of House lawmakers on the record. For Democrats running in conservative districts, this could be the last shot to oppose the unpopular health care law before the election. For Republicans, it’s a chance to show they’re on the side of the majority of Americans who oppose ObamaCare.

And for the White House, it’s a potential political embarrassment, depending on how many Democrats switch over to the anti-ObamaCare side. The Hill reports:

Only three Democrats voted for repeal after the GOP took control of the House last year, but Republicans are confident they can add to this number on Wednesday in spite of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the law is constitutional.

Already, one politically vulnerable Democrat, Rep. Larry Kissell (N.C.), has said he will vote to repeal the health care law after opposing the same measure a year ago.

The GOP’s hope is that a strong House vote — and fresh Democratic opposition — will thwart the White House’s effort to boost political support for the law in light of the Court ruling, said one House Republican leadership aide. Conservatives complaining about symbolic votes are being unrealistic.

ObamaCare isn’t going away unless President Obama is voted out of office, which means all the GOP can do at the moment is apply political pressure to Democrats and sympathize with voter anger about the law. Because House Democratic leaders are trying to change the subject away from health care, that means it’s probably working:

Democrats, meanwhile, are seeking to portray the GOP as myopically focused on health care at the expense of the economy and other problems. The office of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) released a video mocking the vote by using the mantra employed by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio): “Where are the jobs?”

To refresh Pelosi’s memory, it wasn’t the Republicans who jammed through Obama’s health care law instead of focusing on job creation. Now that ObamaCare’s been spared by the Supreme Court, Democrats would prefer to ignore the unpopular law until after November. House votes like the one tomorrow won’t let them.

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Re: Time to Call Haqqanis Terrorists

Max Boot is correct to call for the designation of the Haqqani Network as a terrorist group, but he does not go far enough in sketching out the implications. The reason why the State Department has not pushed forward with the designation is not only because U.S. diplomats want to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis, but because designating the Haqqanis would make it very difficult to avoid listing Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror.

The fact that the Haqqani Network is a terrorist group is irrefutable. The White House may want to drag its feet in pursuit of some diplomatic fiction, but the Congress may not be so tolerant. Already, there is a bill in the House calling for the designation. It may not be such a long shot: Remember, the White House opposed further sanctions on Iran, but the Senate voted 100-0 to impose them anyway. Only after they showed some positive effect did the White House retroactively claim credit.

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Max Boot is correct to call for the designation of the Haqqani Network as a terrorist group, but he does not go far enough in sketching out the implications. The reason why the State Department has not pushed forward with the designation is not only because U.S. diplomats want to maintain the ability to negotiate with the Haqqanis, but because designating the Haqqanis would make it very difficult to avoid listing Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror.

The fact that the Haqqani Network is a terrorist group is irrefutable. The White House may want to drag its feet in pursuit of some diplomatic fiction, but the Congress may not be so tolerant. Already, there is a bill in the House calling for the designation. It may not be such a long shot: Remember, the White House opposed further sanctions on Iran, but the Senate voted 100-0 to impose them anyway. Only after they showed some positive effect did the White House retroactively claim credit.

Negotiating with the Haqqanis—or any terrorist group—is bad policy; it never works. The Haqqanis are not operating to rectify a grievance, but  are conducting terrorism in pursuit of a radical, religious ideology. They do not see compromise as a virtue. Successful diplomacy is not based on fiction, but on reality.

It is for this reason that we need to have a serious discussion about whether or not Pakistan qualifies as a state sponsor of terror. Pakistan not only hosts and supplies the Haqqani Network but, as Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad shows, its powers that be are also complicit with al-Qaeda. Designation of Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror will certainly have implications on logistical routes into Afghanistan, but as Pakistan’s recent about face on trucking American supplies shows, it recognizes its hand is not as strong as it thought. As my colleague Reza Jan argues, it now has interest bills on loans coming due, and Washington wields more power than Islamabad at the International Monetary Fund and other international financial organs.

If we are ever going to get U.S.-Pakistani relations on the right foot, it is essential we deal with the root problem responsible for all the other ill-symptoms. And if that mandates calling a spade a spade, then so be it.

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Remembering Jason Dunham

Last week, I had the honor to lecture aboard the USS Jason Dunham, our nation’s newest guided missile destroyer, somewhere in the North Atlantic. The ship is named after a young corporal who used his body to shield his comrades from an enemy grenade in Iraq and who subsequently died of his wounds. Dunham seems to have been the real-life inspiration for a similar scene in the recent film “Valor” and posthumously won the Medal of Honor. The crew of the USS Jason Dunham, I am told, has maintained a very close relationship with his family.

Naming a ship for Dunham is the right thing to do, but it should not be the exception to the rule. When President Obama named Ray Mabus the 75th Secretary of the Navy, Mabus distinguished himself by naming or proposing to name ships after political allies such as John Murtha, Gabrielle Giffords, and Cesar Chavez.

I had taken a helicopter to the USS Jason Dunham from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the flagship for Carrier Strike Group 8, on which I was living and teaching for about two weeks. I had always assumed that the Eisenhower was named for Eisenhower as president, but it was not: It was actually named for Eisenhower as general, back at a time when the Navy was honoring famous flag officers rather than politicians. (Its predecessor from which the class of carriers is named was the USS Nimitz, named after World War II-era Admiral Chester W. Nimitz). Prior to World War II, the traditions for naming ships were fairly clear. Aircraft carriers were named after battles (with Enterprise being the exception), battleships for states, cruisers for cities, submarines for marine life and only destroyers being named for individuals.

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Last week, I had the honor to lecture aboard the USS Jason Dunham, our nation’s newest guided missile destroyer, somewhere in the North Atlantic. The ship is named after a young corporal who used his body to shield his comrades from an enemy grenade in Iraq and who subsequently died of his wounds. Dunham seems to have been the real-life inspiration for a similar scene in the recent film “Valor” and posthumously won the Medal of Honor. The crew of the USS Jason Dunham, I am told, has maintained a very close relationship with his family.

Naming a ship for Dunham is the right thing to do, but it should not be the exception to the rule. When President Obama named Ray Mabus the 75th Secretary of the Navy, Mabus distinguished himself by naming or proposing to name ships after political allies such as John Murtha, Gabrielle Giffords, and Cesar Chavez.

I had taken a helicopter to the USS Jason Dunham from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the flagship for Carrier Strike Group 8, on which I was living and teaching for about two weeks. I had always assumed that the Eisenhower was named for Eisenhower as president, but it was not: It was actually named for Eisenhower as general, back at a time when the Navy was honoring famous flag officers rather than politicians. (Its predecessor from which the class of carriers is named was the USS Nimitz, named after World War II-era Admiral Chester W. Nimitz). Prior to World War II, the traditions for naming ships were fairly clear. Aircraft carriers were named after battles (with Enterprise being the exception), battleships for states, cruisers for cities, submarines for marine life and only destroyers being named for individuals.

Alas, in subsequent years, it has become common to name ships after politicians, not only George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, but also George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Carl Vinson, and John C. Stennis. Now under construction, and the flagship for a new class of carrier, will be the USS Gerald Ford. Navy officers are quite open about the reason for choosing politicians’ names: the United States needs the ships to protect its national security, and Congress is much more open to approving ships named after politicians than after war heroes. Nothing could be a greater testament to the venality of Congress. Perhaps it’s time to memorialize Medal of Honors winners in the way they deserve, and make the USS Jason Dunham the first of many.

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Obama’s Systematic Assault on the Truth

The Democratic talking points have been issued and are being followed to the letter (see here and here). And they go like this: The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is not a tax; it’s a penalty. Those who suggests it’s a tax are wrong, in error, disingenuous, and dissemblers.

Here’s the problem, though: characterizing the Affordable Care Act as a tax isn’t simply the interpretation of Chief Justice John Roberts and a majority of the Supreme Court; it’s the interpretation of the Obama administration.

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The Democratic talking points have been issued and are being followed to the letter (see here and here). And they go like this: The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is not a tax; it’s a penalty. Those who suggests it’s a tax are wrong, in error, disingenuous, and dissemblers.

Here’s the problem, though: characterizing the Affordable Care Act as a tax isn’t simply the interpretation of Chief Justice John Roberts and a majority of the Supreme Court; it’s the interpretation of the Obama administration.

As this story put it:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the Court had a duty to uphold an act of Congress if there was a constitutional basis for doing so. And the basis he seized on was the fallback argument [Solicitor General Donald] Verrilli included in the briefs—that the Constitution gives Congress a broad power to impose taxes to “provide for the general welfare.”

The government’s legal brief said the insurance mandate operates in practice as a tax law. No one would be prosecuted or punished for not having insurance. If they had taxable income, however, they would be forced to pay a small tax penalty.

The chief justice agreed with this argument, and so did the four liberal justices. Though Congress may not “order” people to buy insurance, Roberts held in the 5-4 decision, it may impose a small tax on those who refuse.

The Affordable Care Act, then, was upheld as constitutional based on the tax argument put forward by President Obama’s legal team. And yet the Obama administration is now insisting the Affordable Care Act never was a tax, is not now a tax, and shall never be a tax.

This is yet another example of how Barack Obama is a thoroughly post-modern president. Words and facts have no objective standing; they are relative, socially constructed, a way to advance personal reality. If referring to the Affordable Care Act as a tax helps advance the Obama agenda, then it’s a tax. If referring to the ACA as a penalty helps advance the Obama agenda, it becomes a penalty.

You like tomato and I like tomahto.

That philosophy may be fine for liberal arts professors and even tolerable among community organizers. But when the president of the United States systematically assaults truth—if words mean whatever you want them to mean—it becomes rather more problematic. Yet that is precisely where the United States finds itself in the summer of 2012.

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The New “Shared Responsibility” Power

So we now know Congress cannot make us eat broccoli under the Commerce Clause, but can do so by enacting a broccoli mandate and imposing a failure-to-eat-broccoli tax. The lack of a limiting principle was thought to be fatal to the government’s Commerce Clause argument, but now there seems nothing Congress cannot mandate, as long as it does so with a failure-to-do-it tax. Congress need not even call it a tax, because calling it a tax may preclude it from being enacted. The name given to the ObamaCare penalty was the “shared responsibility payment.”

Who needs the Commerce Clause, with its subtle distinctions between commerce and non-commerce, activity and non-activity, regulation of commerce vs. creation of commerce, when you can simply levy a tax while assuring the public it is not a tax? Congress can enact a “shared responsibility payment” to accompany its mandate, even though Congress has no power under the Commerce Clause — the provision under which Congress purported to act – to issue the mandate, and the mandate thereby becomes valid. You can almost hear the Founders saying, “Are you serious? Are you serious?”

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So we now know Congress cannot make us eat broccoli under the Commerce Clause, but can do so by enacting a broccoli mandate and imposing a failure-to-eat-broccoli tax. The lack of a limiting principle was thought to be fatal to the government’s Commerce Clause argument, but now there seems nothing Congress cannot mandate, as long as it does so with a failure-to-do-it tax. Congress need not even call it a tax, because calling it a tax may preclude it from being enacted. The name given to the ObamaCare penalty was the “shared responsibility payment.”

Who needs the Commerce Clause, with its subtle distinctions between commerce and non-commerce, activity and non-activity, regulation of commerce vs. creation of commerce, when you can simply levy a tax while assuring the public it is not a tax? Congress can enact a “shared responsibility payment” to accompany its mandate, even though Congress has no power under the Commerce Clause — the provision under which Congress purported to act – to issue the mandate, and the mandate thereby becomes valid. You can almost hear the Founders saying, “Are you serious? Are you serious?”

Over at SCOTUSblog, Ilya Shapiro’s perceptive post is entitled, “We won everything but the case.” It is worth reading in its entirety. Scott Rasmussen notes that ObamaCare has already lost in the court of public opinion. The electorate will have the opportunity to use its own constitutional power in 130 days.

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Holder Found in Contempt of Congress

As expected, the House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, largely along party lines, 255 to 67. Seventeen Democrats crossed over to vote for contempt with the GOP, while more than 100 Democrats sat out the vote in protest.

Now that the resolution has passed, the issue will be turned over to the Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney for D.C. Ronald Machen to decide whether he wants to pursue charges against Holder, who is, of course, Machen’s boss. Machen, as you may recall, is also leading the investigation into the White House national security leaks, and Republicans have already been raising alarms about that conflict of interest.

According to CNN, Machen has no obligation to do anything with the Holder dispute, and considering his position, he probably won’t. But the GOP will likely point out that the White House is blocking two investigations from independent scrutiny, a major deviation from its rhetoric on transparency.

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As expected, the House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, largely along party lines, 255 to 67. Seventeen Democrats crossed over to vote for contempt with the GOP, while more than 100 Democrats sat out the vote in protest.

Now that the resolution has passed, the issue will be turned over to the Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney for D.C. Ronald Machen to decide whether he wants to pursue charges against Holder, who is, of course, Machen’s boss. Machen, as you may recall, is also leading the investigation into the White House national security leaks, and Republicans have already been raising alarms about that conflict of interest.

According to CNN, Machen has no obligation to do anything with the Holder dispute, and considering his position, he probably won’t. But the GOP will likely point out that the White House is blocking two investigations from independent scrutiny, a major deviation from its rhetoric on transparency.

The criminal charge isn’t the only avenue the House GOP is pursuing. They may be able to get some results through civil action, CNN reports:

House Republicans are well aware of this recent history, which helps explain the separate measure authorizing a civil action. That resolution, according to a GOP spokesman, would allow the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to file a lawsuit asking the courts to examine the Justice Department’s failure to produce certain subpoenaed documents, as well as the validity of the administration’s assertion of executive privilege.

Even then, it will take awhile before Republicans get any documents they may be owed — likely too long to matter in the upcoming election. But that doesn’t mean the White House is off the hook. Politically, this looks terrible. To have an attorney general held in contempt for withholding documents related to the murder of a border patrol officer is bad enough. To have a president who is seen as actively protecting this attorney general is much worse, particularly in an administration that already has a history of eschewing independent investigations.

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The Behavioral Modification Tax

“Don’t give them any ideas” may be one of the most overused phrases, but I think, despite its ubiquity, it sums up today’s Supreme Court decision quite well. And it’s why I disagree slightly–perhaps only rhetorically–with John Steele Gordon’s take on ObamaCare’s survival. John writes that the decision today “greatly expanded the taxing power” of the government by ruling the individual mandate is constitutional as a massive tax. It seems, however, that Congress really does have this expansive taxing power to begin with—John Roberts merely “gave them the idea.” It’s best to think of this less as an unprecedented interpretation of existing law and more as an unprecedented application of existing law.

But nonetheless, John’s point is sound. The Commerce Clause of the Constitution was left intact–but also made virtually irrelevant. What the Supreme Court did today was offer a ludicrously simple—and expensive—way around it. Want to force individuals to do something from which the Constitution protects them? Just add a financial penalty to it. This way, you can increase your control over people and help yourself to some of their cash.

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“Don’t give them any ideas” may be one of the most overused phrases, but I think, despite its ubiquity, it sums up today’s Supreme Court decision quite well. And it’s why I disagree slightly–perhaps only rhetorically–with John Steele Gordon’s take on ObamaCare’s survival. John writes that the decision today “greatly expanded the taxing power” of the government by ruling the individual mandate is constitutional as a massive tax. It seems, however, that Congress really does have this expansive taxing power to begin with—John Roberts merely “gave them the idea.” It’s best to think of this less as an unprecedented interpretation of existing law and more as an unprecedented application of existing law.

But nonetheless, John’s point is sound. The Commerce Clause of the Constitution was left intact–but also made virtually irrelevant. What the Supreme Court did today was offer a ludicrously simple—and expensive—way around it. Want to force individuals to do something from which the Constitution protects them? Just add a financial penalty to it. This way, you can increase your control over people and help yourself to some of their cash.

As I wrote earlier, Mitt Romney will make the case that he is standing in ObamaCare’s way. But he can also argue that ObamaCare is just one example of myriad ways the Obama administration plans to exercise its expanded scope of power. Just imagine, Romney might say, what a completely unrestrained second term would look like. The “call everything a tax” idea, in the hands of today’s left, is like those invisible electric fences people use for their pets. Fido–that’s you, America–doesn’t see anything, but he gets a healthy shock whenever he tries to roam free. Pretty soon he learns his lesson.

The “intransigent” Republicans in Congress, targeted relentlessly by the media for refusing to be the tax collectors of the welfare state, can use this line of defense as well: The president and the Democratic Party have just taxed the middle-class for existing. How much cooperation on “raising revenue” would you like us to give them?

Most Americans have trouble imagining the extent to which this can be abused, now that there is precedent floating around. John asks what else the Obama administration could tax, and offers a few possibilities. I say: don’t give them any ideas.

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