George Zornick | The Nation

George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

Gabby Giffords Returns to Capitol Hill to Push Background Checks

Former Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords, joined by her husband Mark Kelly, left, and Representative Robert Dold, center, speaks on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, about bipartisan legislation on gun safety. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The congressional gun control debate of early 2013 seems like a distant memory to many people in Washington—and the failure of universal background check legislation ensured the Newtown school shootings had essentially no impact on federal law.

But the legislation’s proponents were back on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, trying to jump-start the gun-control push despite even an even more hostile climate in Congress following the midterm elections. Eight House members reintroduced the background checks legislation that never received a vote in the 113th Congress, as former Representative Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly lent their support to the bill.

“Stopping gun violence takes courage. The courage to do what’s right, the courage of new ideas,” Giffords said during her brief remarks. “I’ve seen great courage when my life was on the line. Now is the time to come together. Be responsible. Democrats, Republicans, everyone. We must never stop fighting.”

The bill, authored by Representatives Peter King and Mike Thompson, would expand the existing background-check system to cover nearly all gun transfers in the country, and would close the gaping gun-show and online-purchase loopholes. It would also provide incentives for states to give the national background check system better information, and also establish a national commission on mass violence.

It never received a vote in the House during the last Congress, and the very similar Manchin-Toomey legislation in the Senate failed to clear a filibuster in April 2013. Today, the Senate has been taken over by Republicans and almost certainly holds fewer pro–gun control members, and the Republican advantage in the House has expanded.

But proponents of King-Thompson insist the legislation would still pass the House if Speaker John Boehner gave it a vote. “We need to get a vote on the bill, and when we do, we’ll get it passed,” said Thompson. As evidence the bill could pass, he cited the public support of 189 House members for this legislation in the last Congress, and the “private support of a clear majority,” along with the successful vote last year to devote more funding to the national background check system.

The bill does indeed enjoy bipartisan backing so far: of the eight co-sponsors, four are Republicans: Representatives Peter King, Bob Dold, Pat Meehan and Mike Fitzpatrick.

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But it almost certainly wouldn’t get the support of a majority of Republicans, and Boehner is under ever-increasing pressure not to irritate his caucus by violating the so-called Hastert Rule and bring up legislation that would pass with a majority Democratic support.

The idea now is to at least keep the legislation in the public eye, and try to build in more support—something that might be easier without an overheated national debate on gun control, which was the case last time around. Dold, a Republican, told reporters he will have a conversation with Boehner in the near future and urge a vote.

Read Next: George Zornick on how Obama's AUMF proposal could lead to an open-ended war.

Administration Admits Vague Language in Obama’s AUMF Is ‘Very Deliberate’

President Barack Obama

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

When President Obama proposed an authorization for use of military force last month, he described it as “specific to the threat posed by ISIL.”

Many Democrats feared Obama’s proposal was too broad, and that the lack of geographic limits along with the inclusion, beyond ISIL, of “associated forces” to the bill would write yet another blank check for war.

But the administration pushed back hard: “Our focus, and the focus of this authorization to use military force, is on ISIL,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on the day Obama unveiled his proposal.

This was decidedly not the approach the administration took today in a hearing held by the House Armed Services Committee. Obama’s undersecretary for defense policy, Christine Wormouth, explicitly affirmed to Republican Representative Richard Nugent that the proposed authorization is not limited to ISIL, and could be used all over the globe to fight a broad war against Islamic “extremism” generally.

Nugent began his question by saying he was worried that Obama’s AUMF was “just on ISIS,” and that the bigger problem is “radical extremism in Islam across the globe.” Wormouth’s rather remarkable reply was that the lack of geographic locations in the proposal is “very deliberate,” and meant to “address exactly the kind of concerns you have.” She added that the “associated forces” language was also meant to add “breadth” to “who we go after.”

The full exchange:

REP. NUGENT: We’re worried about strategy. Strategy really needs to be larger than just ISIS. I mean, it really is—and I know the president doesn’t want to go there—but it its radical extremism in Islam across the globe that is affecting us, and our friends across the globe. And so I’m worried with AUMF that it’s just on ISIS—does that really, is that really the strategy? That’s part of the strategy, but is that really where we need to be? Because you see it first-hand, across the globe. And I know that all the combatant commands talk about it, I’m sure.

WORMOUTH: Why don’t I take a crack at this quickly and then have General Austin pile on. The AUMF proposal, as I’m sure you’re aware, doesn’t have a geographic limitation. And that was very deliberate, to address exactly the kinds of concerns that you have. Similarly there is the associated forces, which is designed to give us some breadth and discretion as to who we go after.

(The aforementioned General Austin did not weigh in, as Nugent’s time had just expired.)

Now, it’s been fairly obvious that Obama’s AUMF tried to thread a needle in order to actually pass Congress: on the one hand, it applied some language that least appeared to limit the use of ground troops in any conflict, so as to appeal to war-weary members. The administration also publicly contrasted the ostensible focus on ISIL in this authorization to the overly broad AUMF passed in 2001; Obama specifically highlighted this in his letter to Congress. But the AUMF also was written to simultaneously appeal to hawks, with provisions for “associated forces” and so on.

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In that context, when Wormouth highlighted the broadness of the authorization to a congressional hawk, it is perhaps not a surprise. But the bluntness with which she did it underscores the fundamental logical conflict in Obama’s proposal. Either it limits the president’s war power to the current conflict with ISIS, or it doesn’t.

Here a top defense official is saying clearly: it doesn’t.

Read Next: George Zornick on how the AUMF could authorize US military operations on an ever-growing list of countries.

If Congress Passes Obama’s War Request, It Authorizes Operations in All These Countries

(Click graphic to enlarge)

President Obama has asked Congress for a three-year war authorization to combat “ISIL or associated persons or forces,” regardless of where those forces may be. There are no geographic limitations in Obama’s proposal.

The White House has a straightforward explanation for why: “…if we pass a piece of legislation that says Congress has authorized the President to carry out the use of military force against ISIL targets in Iraq and in Syria, we don’t want anybody in ISIL to be left with the impression that if they moved to some neighboring country that they will be essentially in a safe haven and not within the range of United States military capability,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “So that is why we’ve been clear about not including a geographic limitation in this proposal.”

By that logic, United States military capability could be employed anywhere ISIL is deemed to exist. As the above map shows, this is not a theoretical issue, and it’s not just countries that “neighbor” Iraq and Syria. The New York Times reported Sunday that US intelligence officials claim ISIL is moving outside Syria and Iraq “to establish militant affiliates in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt and Libya” and that extremists have organized under the ISIS banner in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Yemen. Elsewhere, Agence France Presse has reported that in the Philippines, two rebel groups have pledged allegiance to ISIL. (The United Nations has alternately claimed there is no real ISIL presence there.)

It’s rather easy to envision US military operations in many of these countries, though of course not all. (The chance any president sends ground troops into Saudi Arabia is nil.) And the administration has already claimed Congress’s 2001 war authorization gives presidents the power to use military force against ISIL anyhow.

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But there is an ever-growing list of countries where Congress would still be formally, and clearly, authorizing military operations if they pass Obama’s proposal—and perhaps giving the green light to a truly global war on terror.


Read Next: George Zornick on why Democrats need an Elizabeth Warren for foreign policy

Elizabeth Warren Knows Why You Want Her to Run for President

Elizabeth Warren

(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

CORRECTION: This piece originally said Elizabeth Warren commented on the movement to draft her into the presidential race during a constituent meeting in Springfield, MA, citing a report from MassLive.com which explicitly stated that Warren was speaking about "the growing movement calling her to run." However, a review of the full transcript of the meeting shows Warren was speaking about her supporters generally, including those who want her to run for president-- but not about the draft movement in particular. We regret the error, and the corrected post is below.

Elizabeth Warren has said plenty of times—over fifty—that she will not run for president. But she’s never really said anything about the movement urging her to do so, short of her lawyer’s letter to Ready for Warren, disavowing its efforts.

At a constituent meeting Thursday in Springfield, Massachusetts, Warren was asked about "the folks that your message is resonating with, that want you to run for president, that support you as a senator." According to MassLive.com she replied:

 “Americans understand that the game is rigged, and they’ve had enough of it. They’re ready to fight back. They want a Washington that works for them,” Warren said.

“I think that people are getting more engaged, politically, and they’re seeing through a lot of the rhetoric that politicians have been throwing out there for a long time. They want to see some real change, and I think that’s what we need to work on.”

If Warren was speaking about the draft movement in particular, it would be news—though it's not clear that she was; the question was rather broad. Warren still hasn’t really said anything positive about the activists trying to draft her into the race. On Thursday night, Warren's office said only of the draft movement that "Senator Warren does not support their efforts." An aide to Warren told The Nation the Senator was not referring to the draft movement, but rather a general sense of her political support. 

But the groups who want Warren to run still found hope that she responded so postively to a question that, even if glancingly, was about the people urging her to run. “Our message to Senator Warren is this: ‘when you’re ready to run, we’ll be ready to help you fight back,” said Ready for Warren campaign manager Erica Sagrans in a statement. “This movement is about more than getting others to believe in you. It’s about getting you to believe in us.”

"It's clear that Senator Warren hears the hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country want her in the 2016 race, because they know we need a President who's not afraid to stand up to the powerful and fight for working families," said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, which teamed with MoveOn.org to create Run Warren Run. 

Read Next: George Zornick on the Draft Warren movement.

Democrats Need an Elizabeth Warren for Foreign Policy

Hillary Clinton

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Andrew Kelly)

It’s not exactly surprising news, but The Wall Street Journal reported Friday morning that Hillary Clinton is leaning towards a much more interventionist foreign policy than Barack Obama, should she become president:

Private meetings that she’s held with various foreign-policy experts offer some hints as to how she might part ways with President Barack Obama when it comes to crises in Ukraine, Syria and other global trouble spots. The major takeaway from these private talks is that she wants a strategy more suited to shaping conditions overseas, as opposed to reacting to events as they arise, people familiar with the meetings said.…

“She’s much less risk-averse” than Mr. Obama, said Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars who has taken part in Mrs. Clinton’s foreign-policy briefings. [Emphasis added.]

It can be exhausting to funnel important policy debates through endless Hillary speculation, but the fact is she’s an avatar for where the party is headed. Much of the Democratic establishment hopes she’ll be the presidential nominee, and even more of it thinks she will be.

Yet a foreign policy with clear echoes of neoconservatism—pre-emptively shaping events overseas, with less reluctance to use military force—isn’t in line with many elected Democrats nor most Democratic voters. And while the effort to draft Elizabeth Warren into the presidential race is aimed at ensuring Clinton respects the more populist wing of the party on economic issues, no such effort of that scale yet exists on the foreign policy side.

It’s strange, because restrained, diplomatic foreign policy is fertile political ground in the Democratic Party. Just in recent days, many congressional Democrats, from the ranking members of the House Intelligence and Senate Judiciary committees to the entire Progressive Caucus, have opposed Obama’s proposed war authorization against ISIS because they feel it is too broad. Democratic opposition in Congress helped scuttle a 2013 vote Obama sought that would allow strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and this is an area where Clinton has explicitly said Obama still wasn’t aggressive enough. Even dating back to Obama’s first term, congressional Democrats—including all but eight Democratic members of the House—were urging Obama to withdraw more rapidly from Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal report says Clinton’s advisers feel the public is moving away from war-weariness and is ready to embrace more aggressive US intervention again, and cites a NBC/WSJ poll that shows 56 percent of the public disapproves of Obama’s foreign policy.

But looking at the polls when broken down by party identification, it’s hard to find Democratic voters rejecting Obama’s foreign policy course. Fox News released a poll this week showing that among Democrats, Obama has a 71 percent approval rate on foreign policy, and the same level of support for his approach to terrorism. Fox News also asked this rather weighted question: “The Obama administration says the United States is pursuing a strategy in the Middle East that relies mainly on diplomacy and alliances rather than decisive military force. Does this sound more like a serious attempt to address the problem with Islamic extremists or a half-hearted attempt?” Fifty-two percent of Democrats still said serious, while 41 percent answered that it was half-hearted.

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Democrats simply aren’t eager to depart from Obama’s foreign policy approach in favor of a more aggressive posture. Perhaps Hillary can convince them. But it’s eminently clear the party should at least have a serious debate about a more hawkish stance, and among possible presidential candidates, there seem to be few options that could make it happen.

Warren offers no discernible difference from Clinton’s foreign policy. Former Senator Jim Webb is a deep skeptic of military interventions, but until further notice he’s a non-factor that remains unknown to much of the public. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is considering a run, opposes Obama’s AUMF as too broad and generally sketches out more careful foreign policy vision. But he is polling in the low single digits, and the cornerstone of his political persona is economic populism. Beyond that, none of the rumored Democratic candidates seem positioned or even willing to challenge Clinton from the left on foreign policy.

There is some hope outside the 2016 field—Senator Chris Murphy has reportedly been arguing behind the scenes that the party needs a more credible progressive foreign policy vision, and in recent days he’s gone public with that appeal. He told Buzzfeed, “Progressives have been adrift on foreign policy and it means presidential candidates don’t feel a lot of pressure to move away from the right-wing orthodoxy.”

It’s a noble effort to be sure, considering where the center of the party actually lies. But the timeframe for success is short—once a president enters the White House, there’s very wide latitude for executing whatever foreign policy vision he or she chooses, and Clinton is starting to make her plans clear.


Read Next: George Zornick on Obama’s support for an open-ended war against ISIL

Key Democrats Worry Obama Proposal Might Lead to Open-Ended War

U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff

U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff (Reuters/Danny Moloshok)

President Obama sent Congress on Wednesday a proposal for an authorization for use of military force against ISIL, which would give formal Congressional support to a war that is already underway.

Republican hawks in Congress are already criticizing the proposal for putting too many restrictions on the military operation. That’s to be expected. But more notably, some top Democrats are openly questioning if this authorization is essentially meaningless. Others are raising red flags about the scope of the mission Obama outlined, arguing it may ultimately place no real restrictions on military combat and end up blessing a wide and endless war.

Obama’s proposal, which can be read here, would grant the president three years to conduct operations against ISIL, at which point the authorization would automatically sunset unless it was renewed by Congress. This means it would apply not just to Obama, but his successor in the White House.

The legislation would also repeal the authorization for use of military force (AUMF) Congress passed in 2002, which gave George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq. It would not repeal nor alter the 2001 AUMF Congress passed in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks.

However, the administration has already said the 2001 authorization allows for combat missions against ISIL. Secretary of State John Kerry asserted during Senate testimony last year that “good lawyers within the White House, within the State Department, who have examined this extremely closely, have come to the conclusion across the board” that the 2001 authorization applies.

Some leading Democrats have therefore argued the sunset in Obama’s proposal is essentially useless.

“[A] new authorization should also include a sunset of the 2001 AUMF,” said Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence. “[W]ithout one, any sunset of the new authorization will be ineffectual, since the next president can claim continued reliance on the old one.”

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters Wednesday morning that she wants to explore sunsetting the 2001 AUMF when Congress takes up Obama’s proposal. “I would think that one consideration might be, is when this three-year sunset is there, that it sunsets ‘01 as well.”

In addition, several key Democrats are raising concerns about loose language in Obama’s proposal when it comes to limits on US troop involvement.

The draft legislation from the White House would define the fight as being against “ISIL or associated persons or forces,” and would not set geographic limits on combat. It would also prohibit US troops from participating in “enduring offensive ground combat operations,” but would implicitly allow other military operations that included US troops—such as air strikes, special operations efforts against ISIL leaders, intelligence gathering, and essentially anything else that isn’t deemed an “enduring ground operation.”

This ambiguity, so far, isn’t flying with many key Democrats. “This authorization needs to make it crystal clear that U.S. combat troops cannot be sent back into the Middle East as part of this conflict,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has recently tried to create a \progressive foreign policy force in the upper chamber. “I worry that the vague limitations on ground troops in today’s draft may turn out to be no limitations at all.”

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Schiff told reporters Wednesday morning that “a president could surge 100,000 troops into Syria and say ‘this is not enduring.’” In a statement, he said “a new authorization should place more specific limits on the use of ground troops to ensure we do not authorize another major ground war without the President coming to Congress to make the case for one.”

More broadly, the lack of geographical limits and the familiar “associated forces” phrasing also raised alarms with some Democrats. Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement: “I have serious concerns about the breadth and ambiguity of this proposal. The executive branch’s reliance on the 2001 AUMF to justify such things as indefinite detentions and drone strikes far from Afghanistan has taught that Congress must carefully limit any authority it grants a president to engage in war.”


Read Next: Six Americans who rejected the use of torture in America’s “war on terror”

New Trade Data Come at the Worst Possible Time for Obama

TPP members

Leaders of the member states of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Government of Chile/CC BY 2.0)

President Obama’s push for a massive new trade deal with Asia is predicated on the idea it will help everyday Americans: that it will “level the playing field for the middle class,” in Obama’s words. But as the debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership enters its endgame, newly released government data about the US trade deficit shows recent trade deals have done the opposite of what was promised—and have inflicted added damage on American jobs.

The Census Bureau’s annual trade data for 2014, released Thursday morning, shows the US trade deficit in 2014 jumped 6 percent to $505 billion in 2013. This increase received a late boost from the December 2014 numbers, which showed at 17.1 percent increase in the trade deficit—resulting in the biggest trade imbalance since December 2012.

A country’s trade balance is a crucial economic indicator; a nation that is exporting far more goods than it is importing is generally in good economic health. Conversely, a country that is increasingly importing more than it exports—as is the case with the United States—is watching valuable dollars and jobs flow overseas.

The data shows a small, 1 percent growth in US exports for 2014, though the domestic oil and gas boom accounts for much of that. US manufacturing exports fell by more than $5 billion in 2014, and the US goods trade deficit rose to $736.8 billion. (More on that number in a minute; it doesn’t tell the full story.)

There’s a simple explanation for the widening trade deficit: the US dollar is strong, and there’s weak growth overseas, which would naturally depress exports.

But congressional critics of the TPP seized on a broader point on Thursday morning—robust promises about the benefits of past trade deals have turned out to be empty. “We signed those trade deals, and the result has been the opposite,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro on a Thursday morning conference call with reporters. “The administration continues to pursue the same failed policies of the past several years.”

Of particular note is the increasing trade deficit with Korea, which increased a whopping 20 percent in 2014, to $25.1 billion.

Obama signed a free-trade agreement with Korea during his first term, calling the deal “a major win for American workers and businesses,” and it took effect in early 2012. But the US goods trade deficit with Korea was 81 percent higher in 2014 than in 2011. That translates to a loss of 74,000 jobs, by the administration’s own metrics for measuring job gains from trade.

“[The new information] basically confirms a lot of our suspicions, and our positions and votes over the years about how these trade agreements have really been a bad deal for the American worker,” said Representative Tim Ryan.

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DeLauro also offered some broadsides about how the administration was spinning the Census report. If you check the Commerce Department webpage, you’ll see a glowing news release Thursday boasting that US exports have grown for the fifth year. “Exports have played a critical role in America’s economic comeback, and they continued to do so in 2014,” said Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

But it’s impossible to gauge the macro trade picture if you only know the level of exports and not imports. Literally nowhere in the Commerce press release is the word “import,” and including that information would depict a growing trade deficit.

“They deliberately fail to complete the picture by looking at imports,” said DeLauro.

Another major complaint leveled by congressional opponents of TPP, as well as outside advocates, is the administration’s continued inclusion of “foreign exports” into its data. These are good manufactured wholly overseas, imported to the United States, and then re-exported without alteration. These don’t create a single US production job, but are counted in the data as the same as regular exports.

Deep inside the Census report are the export numbers without “foreign exports,” but they are not the top-line numbers used by administration officials, and are nearly impossible for the public to discern. To see them “you had to know what you were looking for and then do the math,” said Ben Beachy of Public Citizen.

Once you do the math, the US goods trade deficit is $911.9 billion, not the aforementioned $736.8 billion. DeLauro called some of the Census numbers “hopelessly distorted.”


Read Next: George Zornick on the “Draft Warren” movement

Obama’s Defense Secretary Nominee Is Open to Having More Troops in Afghanistan

Ashton Carter

Secretary of Defense nominee Ashton Carter arrives to testify before a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on February 4, 2015. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Defense, will tell the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing Wednesday morning that he is open to committing more US. troops to Afghanistan if conditions “degrade” in 2016.

Carter gave his shortest answer to over 300 prepared questions from the committee when asked about more troops in Afghanistan:

Q: If security conditions on the ground in Afghanistan degrade in 2016, would you consider recommending to the President revisions to the size and pace of the drawdown plan announced by the President in order to adequately address those security conditions?

A: Yes.

The ultimate decision on recommitting troops will be made by President Obama, but it’s notable Carter is open, without qualification, to pushing for a broader war in Afghanistan.

The critical context here is the slow re-engagement in Afghanistan being undertaken by the Obama administration, without much public or congressional scrutiny. There is a pleasant fiction in Washington that “our combat mission in Afghanistan is over,” as Obama claimed in his recent State of the Union address, but that ignores several important facts:

  • The administration signed a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government that permits US troops until at least 2024, and does not prohibit them from combat operations.

  • In November, The New York Times reported that “President Obama decided in recent weeks to authorize a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.” This attracted very little media attention, and likewise from Congress.

  • In his final weeks as Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel committed an additional 1,000 US troops to Afghanistan for the coming year.

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When details of the security agreement were leaked last year, a small bipartisan group of senators repeatedly pushed measures to have Congress vote on extending the war before Obama acted. (“Automatic renewal is fine for Netflix and gym memberships. But it isn’t the right approach when it comes to war,” Senator Jeff Merkley said at the time.) But then-Majority Leader Harry Reid never scheduled a vote.

The Carter hearings are another chance for Congress to weigh in, however, and find out why the administration is extending the nation’s longest war, for how long and with what specific goals in mind.

Read Next: George Zornick on Larry Hogan’s assault on LGBT and environmental protections

New Maryland Governor Opens an Assault on Environmental and LGBT Protections

Larry Hogan

Larry Hogan, the sixty-second governor of Maryland, delivers remarks at the statehouse, January 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

When Larry Hogan was elected governor of Maryland last fall, it easily ranked as the biggest surprise of the midterm elections. Even in a bad year for Democrats, a Republican who never previously held elected office was not supposed to triumph over a promising young Democrat in a state Obama won twice by twenty-six points.

The son of a former Congressman and owner of a large real-estate business, Hogan projected himself as fiscal conservative during his race against Lt. Governor Anthony Brown—but also a moderate. His preamble to running for governor was forming Change Maryland, a proudly “non-partisan grassroots organization.”

Hogan has a friendly everyman persona that has earned him some pretty favorable coverage in local papers. (Some recent headlines from the neighboring Washington Post: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s appeal to ‘middle ground’ could revive state GOP” and “Md. Gov. Larry Hogan, the happiest, sweatiest guy at the inaugural ball.”)

But Hogan’s first days in office are proving to be anything but moderate. Rather, a familiar storyline is playing out: the friendly Republican gubernatorial candidate suddenly becomes a hardline conservative governor.

After being introduced by New Jersey Chris Christie at his inauguration Wednesday as someone “who knows how to bring people together,” and after the VIP guests dined on shrimp scampi, crab cakes and grilled chicken, Hogan got to work: he immediately rescinded blockbuster environmental regulations on state coal plants and pollution of the Chesapeake Bay. He also called back regulations designed to protect LGBT Marylanders from healthcare and employment discrimination.

Hogan signaled more regulatory rollbacks are to come, and starting floating budget cuts that have troubled education and healthcare advocates along with state employees. The full budget isn’t out yet, but a Republican ally of Hogan in the state legislature told the Baltimore Sun, “Everyone is going to feel some pain, that’s my sneak preview.”

Hogan “delaying” the Chesapeake Bay protections was the most predictable move, though perhaps not with the speed and totality with which he did it. “We were quite disappointed, because it happened four hours after he was inaugurated,” Dawn Stoltzfus, coordinator of the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition, told The Nation. “It was shocking in that regard.”

The regulations restricted phosphorus pollution from the many farms adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay, a major source of pride—and economic output—in Maryland. The farms are rich in phosphorus from fertilizers and chicken feed that farmers spread on their land, and the runoff from these farms causes algae blooms in the bay and harms underwater plant and aquatic life, including the famous Maryland blue crabs, oysters and fish. It can create entire “dead zones” in the water, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation conducted a study that found the state would lose $20 billion in economic growth by 2025 if it didn’t curtail the pollution.

Former Governor Martin O’Malley enacted the regulations to reduce the excessive agricultural use of phosphorus (after a few delays of his own, it should be noted), and considered the rules a major part of his environmental agenda.

Advocates weren’t quite sure how Hogan would try to blunt the rules, though they were sure he would try—he spoke out against the regulations during his campaign, and after he was elected Hogan hinted his incoming administration had “a few tricks up our sleeve” on phosphorus rules.

The trick ended up being a simple one: Hogan just canceled the regulations, in a fashion unprecedented in Maryland history. The rules had already undergone the required public comment period, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture signed a “Notice of Final Action” on January 16. The rules were supposed to be printed in the state register on Friday—but Hogan halted the publication. He essentially just stopped the presses on the rule. It is ostensibly “under review.”

A representative of the Maryland State Attorney General’s office wrote in a letter that Hogan’s move appeared to be legal, but that she could not predict how a court would see it. “I could find no Maryland case law or previous opinion of the Attorney General addressing the ability of an agency or the Governor to withdraw a notice of adoption after its submission to the [Division of State Documents] but before publication of the notice,” she wrote.

Hogan similarly rescinded a rule governing air pollution at the state’s coal-fired power plants. The rule was under construction for fifteen months, and even had the support of Raven Power, which operates coal plants in the state. It would have forced coal-fired plants to reduce emissions of nitrous oxides, which contribute to smog and poor air quality, by about half over the next four years.

Environment and public health advocates saw it as a crucial regulation; 5 million Marlyanders (86 percent of the population) live in areas classified by the EPA as unsafe to breathe because of smog. Baltimore has among the worst air quality of cities on the East Coast, and 28 percent of Baltimore school children report having asthma.

Hogan’s move caught the advocates off-guard. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind the past few days,” said David Smedick, the Beyond Coal Campaign and Policy Representative of the Maryland Sierra Club. “When you do have that broad support for it, including the people who are operating these coal units, you are surprised by it.”

Smedick added that, to his knowledge, Hogan never talked about the coal-plant regulations during his campaign. The Nation wasn’t able to find any examples where he did.

These were just two of five regulations Hogan held up this week. Another delay outraged the state’s gay and lesbian community—particularly after Hogan preached an environment of “tolerance and respect” in his inaugural address. Hours later, he rescinded a regulation banning Medicaid providers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

State analysts concluded that the regulation wouldn’t impact the state budget—so Hogan’s objection appears to be entirely ideological.

“To withdraw a regulation that prohibits discrimination in the provision of essential medical services, which also has no fiscal impact, seems contrary to the spirit of inclusiveness touted in his inauguration speech yesterday,” said Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, in a statement. “We know that trans people in Maryland face discrimination when accessing health care and we should be working to ensure this doesn’t happen instead of overtly condoning it.”

Hogan’s very first executive order as governor also appears designed to exclude transgendered state employees from employment discrimination protections. His order stated that “Employees shall adhere to all applicable laws and regulations that provide equal opportunity for all Marylanders regardless of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability or sexual orientation.”

Sounds good—but notably absent from that list is gender identity. The state legislature passed a landmark bill last year forbidding discrimination on the basis of gender identity, and by leaving out any mention of it, Hogan’s order seems to be conveying a message to state employees: never mind about that. (Hogan’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment, though it should be noted the governor’s staff said the press office phones were not set up yet.)

It’s not just these regulations that are endangered; Hogan’s office told DelmarvaNow, “The governor has directed all agencies to begin a comprehensive review of all pending regulations.”

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Finally, Hogan is sending some mixed, but still troubling, messages on the budget. Maryland’s budget is somewhat unique in that most of it is dictated by complicated formulas, and less than 20 percent is purely discretionary spending. The state also has a $700 million budget gap which needs to be closed.

Hogan said he will maintain a 2 percent cut to every state agency, initiated by O’Malley, and some Democratic lawmakers gave Hogan credit for not cutting deeper, and for largely leaving education funding intact.

But Medicaid advocates are already upset that Hogan plans to hold Medicaid provider rates despite an increase in costs and population, which amounts to a cut. Hogan is also treating a $156 million cost-of-living increase for state employees last year as a bonus—meaning, it won’t be back this year.

Hogan has not yet presented his full budget, but the Baltimore Sun editorialized Thursday that “it was impossible to avoid the sense that more shoes are left to drop.”

There’s a lot of time left in Hogan’s term—but if the next four years look like the first twenty-four hours, Maryland will be a very different state come 2019.


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Democrats Pan Obama’s Trade Talk in His State of the Union

Obama, State of the Union 2015

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address on January 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)

President Obama makes a declaration. Democrats burst into applause as Republicans sit dourly, as if someone just made a bad joke at a funeral. This was the formula for almost all of Obama’s State of the Union speech—except when the president called for the authority to rush the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress.

“As we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen?” Obama said. “We should write those rules. We should level the playing field. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but are also fair. It’s the right thing to do.”

At that moment, a small handful of Democrats rose up and clapped—perhaps ten. Across the aisle, a majority (though certainly not all) of the Republican members of Congress stood and applauded. It can be bothersome to hyper-analyze who sits and stands during these addresses, but the picture was clear: Democrats do not care for the president’s trade push whatsoever.

After the speech, some members made their displeasure clear. Representative Alan Grayson told The Nation the line was “the single weakest element of a very generally brilliant progressive speech.”

“To say that China is going to write the rules if we don’t is nonsensical,” Grayson continued. “It’s words that are strung together in some pattern that suggests they have some meaning, when they really have none at all.”

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus made sure to note in an otherwise laudatory statement about the speech that the trade talk was not welcome. “[P]utting working families first also means we cannot enter into trade deals that allow corporations to ship jobs overseas,” said the statement by Representatives Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva. “The Congressional Progressive Caucus will not support a trade deal that increases trade deficits and undermines the security of the middle class.”

Wednesday morning, a collection of House and Senate Democrats—Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Rosa DeLauro, Barbara Lee, Louise Slaughter and others—held a press conference to declare the TPP a “race to the bottom.” The day after the State of the Union is generally used for members of the president’s party to come out and amplify the previous night’s message, but Wednesday the members were trying to blunt it. 

“Last night the president gave what I thought was a very good State of the Union speech,” said Sanders. “But he was wrong on one major issue, and that is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I do not believe that continuing a set of bad policies, policies that have failed, makes any sense at all.”

The assembled Democrats warned that Obama was undercutting the main theme of his speech with the trade talk. “It was an extraordinary speech, and particularly we liked the fact that it bore in on the factor of inequality in this country. But what bothers me about it, and has for some time, is we never looked at the reasons for that inequality,” said Slaughter, who went on to say it is “inescapable” that free-trade deals led to massive job losses in her upstate New York district.

Beyond the policy specifics, there was unanimous anger that fast-track would severely limit Congress’s role in molding a potential trade pact. “We know the reality. Fast-track is a plan to push the TPP through Congress with almost no proper scrutiny,” said DeLauro. “It’s bad enough that the administration has chosen to negotiate much of the TPP behind closed doors, with Walmart, Verizon, Halliburton, Dow, General Electric, Caterpillar, Hershey, Boeing, DuPont, Intel, Lockheed Martin, Advamed, PhRMA, Bio and many others. But not with us.”

This story has been updated as events proceeded. 

Take Action: Stop Fast Track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership

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