Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.
Since the White House made it official today, I wanted to note as a matter of full disclosure that my wife Kate Shaw is now an attorney in the Office of the White House Counsel. Obviously, my views are entirely my own, and throughout a long campaign in which I had very dear family members involved with the Obama organization, I'd like to think I maintained a critical distance. I intend to do so in covering the administration.
This has, all things considered, been a pretty great week for the republic: executive orders increasing government transparency, banning torture, and beginning the process of closing Guantanamo. Obama's also given a nuanced, thoughtful and largely pitch-perfect interview to Al Arabiya as his first public interview, reaching out to the Muslim world in a way, frankly, only he probably could. So, overall, thumbs up, Mr. President!
But: today's been frustrating. Earlier in the week we got word that a provision to allow bankruptcy judges to alter mortgage terms will not be included in the stimulus, partly at the White House's behest. Now, it's unclear whether there was ever much momentum inside the House and Senate leadership to put this in the bill, but the fact that it's not going in is nearly criminal. Almost every single economist and expert I've talked to thinks this is an absolutely necessary step in foreclosure mitigation. No less a flaming Marxist than Richard Berner. It's also very easy to implement, since bankruptcy judges already have the power to alter mortgage terms for non-primary residences. On the policy merits, it's a no brainer. And on top of that, Senate Democrats, apparently in direct negotiations with Citigroup have gotten Citigroup to agree not to oppose the provision (so kind of them!), I don't even see where the political opposition is coming from. Get this done, now.
Then there's the word that at Obama's urging, House Democrats are going to cut birth control funding from the stimulus. Yglesias notes, wisely that this seems to be concession in exchange for nothing. It's not like more Republicans are now going to vote for the bill that weren't before.
But more crucially, I think it's really important to put the House Republican caucus in context. After two successive bloodbaths, the house GOP Caucus is pared down pretty far. Those left standing more or less represent fairly hard core, deep red conservative districts. Rep. Jeb Hensnarling is not going to vote for the stimulus because he just doesn't believe in large government spending to stimulate the economy. That's fine: I imagine many of his constituents feel the same way. So kudos to him for representing his district. But there's no reason, then to take what Hensnarling or Cantor or Boehner say about the stimulus particularly seriously. Ideologically they are disposed to oppose it, and politically they can only win if Obama fails. Believe me, if the situation were reversed, if the Democrats were down to a caucus dominated by Barbara Lee's and Dennis Kucinich's, no one in the GOP nor the MSM would much care about their complaints that a Republican-sponsored bill cut food stamps, or LIHEAP, or otherwise screwed poor people.
And it's not like conservative views won't be represented in the final legislation. It's in the nature of the Senate to give outsize representation to the minority. There are plenty of Republican senators who actually represent states where they will face accountability to the voters.
So, note to the White House: whenever John Boehner shows up on your Tee Vee, change the channel.
Correspondent Greg Kaufmann writes in with a look at the week ahead on the Hill:
Here's the big stuff everyone will cover: The $825 billion recovery package will be taken up by the House while the Senate version makes its way through the Finance and Appropriations committees. The Senate will also probably pass its SCHIP bill and confirm Tim "Taxes, What Taxes?" Geithner as Treasury Secretary. The House will vote on the Senate version of the Lilly Ledbetter bill (reverses the awful Supreme Court anti-equal pay decision but doesn't include House provisions allowing victims to sue for more money). CongressDaily writes that Ledbetter will be the first bill President Obama signs into law. Bush holdover Robert Gates will appear before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to discuss Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and other Defense matters (hopefully Senate Chair Carl Levin will finally realize that the current plan calls for sending 20,000-30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan, not 10,000.) Finally, Al Gore will brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on climate change efforts leading up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December.
A little less sexy: The House will take up Congressman Barney Frank's TARP Reform and Accountability Act -- an attempt to force the Treasury to pursue foreclosure mitigation. More on foreclosures -- Senate Democrats will not include language in the stimulus bill allowing bankruptcy judges to reduce the principal of home mortgages. that makes Congressman John Conyers' Helping Families Save Their Homes in Bankruptcy Act of 2009 all the more significant. The House Judiciary Committee will take it up on Tuesday.
Some things you might not know about: on Tuesday, the House begins its effort to once again extend voting representation to 600,000 disenfranchised DC residents (the bill fell just 3 votes shy of the 60 needed to thwart a GOP filibuster in the Senate in 2007). The House Military Personnel subcommittee will hold a hearing on "Sexual Assault in the Military: Victim Support and Advocacy".
And some good work by a couple progressive Senators: Sherrod Brown will push this week to ensure that "Buy American" provisions are part of the stimulus bill…. and Russ Feingold will introduce a constitutional amendment ending appointments to the Senate by state governors and requiring special elections to fill vacancies -- call it the BlagoBurdy amendment. He chairs the Subcommittee on the Constitution and will hold a hearing on this issue soon.
Starting in this week's magazine, I'll be writing a weekly column chronicling the Obama administration's first 100 days. What I'm interested in is the mechanics of changes, that is where the various choke-points are in DC that thwart needed reform, and how successful Obama, Democrats, progressives and others are in opening them. (In a similar vein, Sirota's got a smart column out today about the difference between hope and change.)
My first column, on the inauguration is here. The opening grafs:
Three hours before Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office to become the nation's first African-American president, the crowd already looked impossible. Gazing west from the Capitol, you could see them: an incomprehensible mass of peaceful citizens, overwhelming every monument, impediment and security banner that had been put up to contain them. The sight was so arresting that when the senators marched out onto the rostrum, Patrick Leahy and Orrin Hatch stopped to snap photos.
My first thought, as I took in the sight from the press stand, was that I wanted them all to stay.
Yesterday, Senate Democrats convened the third annual Senate Progressive Summit, a day-long series of panels with the senators and various progressive media folks, Mother Jones, The Nation, Air America producers and hosts and number of bloggers. Greg Kaufmann was there and passes along these nuggets:
Sen. Harry Reid said he would like the Senate to take up EFCA this summer. An aide later said that might be optimistic -- that it wouldn't be brought up until Dems are confident they have the 60 votes needed to stop a GOP filibuster….
Reid also said he was increasing the funding for Sen. Carl Levin's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations so that Levin could look into the Bush Administration's record on torture and other matters….
Levin said he hoped to have a full report on the DoD and torture in the next couple of weeks. The Executive Summary is already available here
Also regarding Levin… since he's the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee it was a bit disturbing that he thought the current plan for Afghanistan calls for 10,000 additional troops. It's actually 20,000-30,000 -- nearly doubling our presence there. Later Sen. Bernie Sanders cited the correct numbers in voicing his concern about President Obama getting bogged down in Afghanistan as we are in Iraq.
It's a been a while since I was a practicing logician in college, but let me see if I can lay this out.
1) Yesterday, AG designee Eric Holder said, without hesitation that water-boarding is torture.
2) Dick Cheney has admitted authorizing water-boarding.
3) Dick Cheney has admitted authorizing torture.
4) Torture is a felony under US law punishable by up to 20 years of prison.
5) Dick Cheney authorized a felony.
QED, right? Is there any other way to reason through these premises and deductions?
One of the first things I noticed when I moved to DC was that while there were a lot amazing progressives working in the city at various non-profits and think tanks, there weren't a ton on Capitol Hill. Of course there are some amazing, heroic lefties on the Hill, but they're definitely in the minority. The culture of the hill, particularly on the Democratic side, tends to be hostile to "ideologues." This really struck me when I was at a party and a staffer for a Democratic senator derisively referred to Ted Kennedy as a "socialist."
OpenLeft's Matt Stoller called this the "rootsgap" in a smart post he put up on OpenLeft the other day. This culture really needs to change, and in order for it to change more movement progressives have to go work on the hill. It just so happens, Stoller's doing exactly that, working as Senior Policy Advisor to freshman congressman Alan Grayson (FL-8).
The other day, Matt posted, under his own name, amazingly, some video of Grayson grilling the Fed's Vice Chair. It gives you a sense of what Capitol Hill might look like if we could close this "rootsgap."
Oh sure, they'll oppose it. They'll say it's too expensive, that it won't work, that it will be wasteful. Some will vote against it, though given the popularity of both Obama and the stimulus itself, less than you might think.
But their heart won't be in it.
Here's my sense of their long-term strategy. This isn't based on anything other than observation and chatting around the Capitol. I think they'll let the stimulus pass and, indeed will be quite fine with it being very big. Much bigger than it is now: a trillion dollars or more. Because once the stimulus passes, Republicans are going to say: OK. We're done. Meaning: no more money. They'll point to the $700 billion for the TARP, plus the $1 trillion for the stimulus, and they'll say: we've spent all the money there is to be spent. There's no money for healthcare. There's no money for anything, really except the Pentagon. They'll run against deficits, waste and bailout nation.
I'm not sure this argument is going to work - a lot depends on what the economy is doing - but it's simple, clear and intuitively appealing. And if you're a Republican, you much rather see Obama and the Democrats spend money on infrastructure, and projects with expiring time horizons, than in creating a universal health care system that voters will have Democrats to thank for the next generation. The real danger of this moment for the Republicans is structural reform, fundamental changes to the American welfare state, or labor law, or regulation of carbon. That's where we'll see the big league, scratch and claw, any means necessary opposition. But on the stimulus? Not so much.
From Eric Rauchway's highly digestible "The Great Depression and the New Deal, A Very Short Introduction."
As to whether the government should take any action, [Hoover] allowed it might cut the tax on capital gains, which would permit investors to keep more of their profits from trading.
And from a passage on his actions in 1932, when Hoover actually pushed through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Federal Land Bank, which were well capitalized and started using their capital to lend to banks and free up capital:
All these measures probably helped loosen restrictions on credit and got bankers and businessmen to lend and borrow more freely again...But they did nothing immediate for non-banker Americans.
I have a small items in the magazine about the latest updates on Larry Lessig's Change Congress. (Which I profiled here last year.) Since it's behind the paywall, I'm just gonna pirate myself and post it below:
GIVE-NOTHING DEMOCRACY: In the summer of 2007 free-culture guru Lawrence Lessig announced he'd be undertaking a project focusing his academic work and activism on understanding and fighting corruption. He founded Change-Congress.org to help create an online grassroots constituency for the kinds of pro-democracy reforms that would reduce the influence of big money on legislative outcomes (see "Mr. Lessig Goes to Washington," June 16, 2008). But while Change Congress slowly built an e-mail list and raised money, its first year was relatively low-key, at least partly because of an amorphous mission and an overly broad set of objectives.
But in preparation for the 111th Congress, the group has doubled its staff from two to four, bringing in Stephanie Taylor and Adam Green, two veterans of MoveOn.org. It has also focused its operation on bipartisan clean elections bills that will be reintroduced in the House and Senate this term. The Senate version, co-sponsored by Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter, would provide public funding for Congressional elections, paid for by a broadcasting fee.
And as this issue went to press, Lessig (who recently moved from Stanford to Harvard) was scheduled to appear on The Colbert Report to announce Change Congress's most ambitious campaign yet: a donor strike. Lessig is urging supporters to pledge not to donate any money to politicians who have not signed on as co-sponsors of the pubic-financing bills. "You can help your democracy and do your civic duty by giving nothing," says interim CEO Green, "which is a perfect message for this economy."