George Zornick | The Nation

George Zornick

George Zornick

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

The Vast, Unregulated Online Gun Market

Listings for semi-automatic rifles on the popular online gun website Armslist.com, September 27, 2013.

Last October, while most of the country was obsessed with the presidential election only a week away, Radcliffe Haughton walked into a Wisconsin spa with an entirely different obsession. Earlier in the month, Zina Daniel, his estranged wife, obtained a restraining order against him after a long history of domestic abuse and stalking. She worked at the spa, and he had visited before—seventeen days prior, he slashed her car’s tires in the parking lot outside.

But now he came with more than a knife: Haughton had a .40 caliber semi-automatic Glock handgun with him. Immediately upon entering the store, he shot Zina dead—and then murdered one of her co-workers, and then another. He continued shooting, and four other people were wounded before he finally turned the gun on himself.

The judge’s restraining order specifically forbade Haughton from buying a gun, and had he gone to any licensed firearms dealer, he presumably would have been denied. Instead, Haugton went to the increasingly popular Armslist.com, where tens of thousands of guns are up for sale, and where the vast majority of the sellers are private citizens. Within days he had the Glock.

Armslist.com is only a part of the online gun marketplace, but it is a big part—there were almost 100,000 listings on the site in August. The site, and many others like it, went from being virtually unknown to hugely popular in a matter of months, as other mainstream online retail markets, like Craigslist, cracked down on gun listings:

Courtesy Mayors Against Illegal Guns

A new study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns has revealed that every thirtieth gun sold on Armslist.com was sold to someone who would have failed a background check. Of 607 would-be buyers in the sample, which stretched from February to May of this year, 3.3 percent were sold to someone who committed a crime that prohibited firearm possession under federal law.

That ratio is many magnitudes higher than the one for licensed gun dealers—based on the rate of background check denials, only 0.87 percent of would-be buyers at licensed dealers are prohibited purchasers. The report gives a troubling analogy for the Armslist.com marketplace: if one in every thirty passengers on a Boeing 747 were on the federal terror watch list, there would be twenty-two suspected terrorists on board.

And in fact, the ratio is likely much higher. Mayors Against Illegal Guns had a relatively simple methodology—the group examined 13,000 “want-to-buy” ads where the buyer entered a name and contact information, and then compared that information to publicly available criminal records.

So the one-in-thirty result is almost definitely an undercount, because it doesn’t include people who are precluded from gun ownership for other reasons: serious mental illness, immigration status, a history of drug abuse or other non-criminal criteria.

But more notably, only 5 percent of the people who place “want-to-buy” ads on Armslist.com disclose their name and contact information. So one could fairly assume that among the people who choose anonymity, the ratio of prohibited buyers is higher. The analysis also doesn’t, and couldn’t, take into account the people who simply respond to the sellers’ ads directly—another likely approach if someone knows they can’t buy a gun legally.

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And again, Armslist.com is only one part of the huge online gun marketplace; Mayors Against Illegal Guns is just scratching the surface here. But other investigations have borne similar results. In 2011, investigators working for New York City called 125 sellers in fourteen states advertising on ten different websites, including Armslist.com. The investigators plainly said they were unlikely to pass a background check—and 62 percent of the sellers agreed to transfer a weapon anyway. On Armslist.com the rate was 54 percent.

These are exactly the kinds of sales the Manchin-Toomey gun legislation that failed in the Senate earlier this year was designed to stop. Under that bill—which 90 percent of the public supported—a background check would be applied almost universally, including, crucially, for online sales.

“Loopholes in our federal gun laws have taken a devastating toll on communities and neighborhoods across America. Yet in April, a minority of US senators blocked the common-sense legislation that would have closed these deadly loopholes,” said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino when the study was released. (He is a co-chair of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.) “It’s time for our leaders in Washington to put public safety first and pass sensible gun laws that will help save lives.”

The common refrain from pro-gun activists is that criminals will avoid background checks anyway—which, as this study shows, is true. But maybe we shouldn’t make it so easy for them.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee on breaking the cycle of anger.

Wall Street’s Odd Calm About a Debt-Ceiling Breach

Wall Street sign outside the New York Stock Exchange. (Press Association via AP Images)

When Senator Elizabeth Warren addressed members of the Financial Services Roundtable in Washington on Thursday, she began by recounting the first time she spoke to the trade group, representing the country’s largest banking and financial interests, in 2010.

At the time, the Dodd-Frank bill had just been passed after bruising battles with the industry, and she was in the process of setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which the financial sector and its allies in Congress loathed and would repeatedly try to defang. “When [Chairman] Richard Davis introduced me, he said that in the interest of safety, all knives had been removed from the tables,” Warren recalled. “It was a joke—or at least I hope it was.”

Indeed, Warren is very familiar with Wall Street’s awesome power to influence the policy process in Washington. Which is why she came to them with a plea: please do more to avert a debt-ceiling breach and the potential calamity that would result.

You protect your interests every day in Washington. Ending this destructive notion of politics by hostage-taking is in your interests. And preventing an actual default—a self-inflicted wound that could cause a spike in interest rates and a freeze in our credit markets—is clearly in your interests.

I know that many of you have already spoken out, and I’m grateful for that. But please keep at it. For those of you who haven’t, please start now. Speak up publicly and write op-eds and give interviews. One conversation won’t get this done. Think of it this way: it took years of effort—press conferences and op-eds and town halls and hearings—for the debt-ceiling hardliners to raise this issue in the public consciousness, and now almost half of the country thinks that Congress should not raise the debt ceiling. It will take that kind of effort to reverse the tide.

What’s odd is that she had to say anything. One would think the financial sector would be applying a full-court press to stop a devastating fiscal meltdown that would wreak havoc on the Street (and most everywhere else). But implicit in Warren’s plea was that bankers haven’t been doing nearly enough.

Sure, some have spoken out, as she noted—like Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein at the Clinton Global Initiative yesterday. But the pleas have been soft, and virtually no pressure is actually being exerted in Washington. There’s nothing like the coordinated campaign that almost stopped the CFPB from actually having a director.

Why? The most obvious explanation is that Wall Street as a whole simply doesn’t believe the country will default. As always, the financial sector lets its money do the loudest talking, and the markets clearly are not anticipating a default. Goldman just released a report that found no discernible reaction in the S&P 500 to a potential debt-ceiling breach. “Complacency is even more pronounced on stocks with high government exposure,” wrote Goldman analysts. “Fear priced into options on these stocks dropped over the past few months to new lows.”

This all seems to be based in a belief that lawmakers will find their way to a deal—that the risks are so high, it is just a foregone conclusion. “DC always gets very close to the edge and then in the end finds an eleventh-hour solution,” Goldman’s chief economist told Politico last month. Another analyst told Business Insider this week that “I tend to think Wall Street has gotten numb to the antics out of a very partisan DC process.”

This attitude was more colorfully described by a trader in another Business Insider story: “I’m just here looking at my charts minding my own business you know what I’m saying? I don’t have time to worry about debt ceilings and the government. These people are a hot mess. I can’t…. You got a bunch of clowns reading each other Dr. Seuss. Why should I worry about what they’re doing, or not doing?”

Wall Street should care, however—a lot. As Ezra Klein noted earlier this week, the dynamics of this showdown are uniquely dangerous, much more so than what happened in 2011.

Then, at least both sides agreed there had to be a deal on the debt ceiling. Now, Obama is refusing to negotiate on it (much to his credit, of course—the country can’t keep playing chicken with calamity) and Republicans not only want to negotiate, but many members insist on pie-in-the-sky demands Obama cannot and will not honor even if he wanted to negotiate. That’s alongside the non-trivial number of members in the House who want to vote against raising the debt ceiling almost regardless of any deal, just to teach the country a “lesson” about debt.

If John Boehner can’t put together enough votes to make all these members with wildly disparate imperatives by October 17—at the latest—the country really might default. And the damage would be catastrophic.

The country did actually default briefly once before, by accident, due in part to a word-processing error. As Pema Levy wrote this week, that brief blip cost investors about $12 billion. A prolonged and purposeful default could create a real calamity in the financial markets. “I disagree incredibly strongly with the notion that breaching the debt ceiling would not have major, catastrophic consequences,” economist Mark Zandi told Levy.

Warren informed the Financial Services Roundtable’s guests, in case they didn’t already know, that it would be quite bad. “If the government’s borrowing costs go up, your costs will go up. And if consumer confidence drops, your customers will spend less. The debt ceiling isn’t a Washington problem; it is an American problem,” she said.

But it could be worse. Much worse—the sort of disaster on Wall Street that sees CNBC footage traders clutching their belongings in a box outside their firm, which just went belly-up with no warning. Then a domino effect of failed financial institutions and a global economic crisis.

Former Representative Brad Miller, a Democrat who served on the Financial Services Committee until retiring last year, persuasively sounded that alarm in Politico this week in a piece titled “How Congress Could Blow Up the Economy.”

He observed that Wall Street’s shadow banking system is particularly vulnerable to a default. It’s a system based on so-called “repo lending,” which is short-term lending outside the commercial banking system. Basically, a financial institution sells an asset to another institution with a contract to repurchase it the next day.

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The lender keeps that asset as collateral, and as long as that collateral exists and is trusted by all the market players, everything might be fine. Which is good, because the Federal Reserve estimates $4.6 trillion changes hands in repurchase agreements every day, and it touches most all corners of the financial system.

But the most common form of collateral in these arrangements are US Treasury notes—and their value would naturally be called into question if the Treasury stops paying debts because of a default. Their value could be called into question even if that prospect suddenly appears real. Lenders would start asking for more collateral, on a scale that many institutions might not be able to meet.

Miller warns that a sudden flood of demands for more collateral is the stuff of massive institutional collapse—it could destroy this massive shadow banking system. A sudden demand for collateral is largely what created the 2008 financial crisis.

More recently, Miller notes, it’s what sunk the infamous MF Global, which bought a bunch of Italian sovereign debt through repurchase agreements, at low prices, and gambled the debt would be repaid in full eventually. The firm would make a killing in that case. But doubts were then raised about the stability of the Italian financial system, the firm’s shadow bank lenders demanded more collateral, and boom—the firm went under.

Miller charges that Congress simply doesn’t realize how real, and dangerous, this possibility is. “MF Global’s failure to anticipate demands for more collateral was perplexing, since they were thought to be smart and to have a sophisticated understanding of the financial system,” he wrote. “Does anyone think that about Congress?”

Few do. So here is a situation with the debt ceiling where members of Congress are blasé about risks to the financial sector and world economy, while meanwhile people in the financial sector are blasé about the very real chance Congress can’t reach a deal. And a economic calamity awaits.

That’s why Warren made her plea today—there isn’t much hope that the Ted Cruzes of the world will suddenly wise up. So Wall Street should probably stop fiddling.

John Nichols wonders if they House GOP forgot who won the election in 2012.

The GOP’s No Good, Very Bad Food Stamp Cuts

A sign announcing the acceptance of electronic Benefit Transfer cards at a farmers market in Roseville, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

As expected, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a measure Thursday night that cuts nearly $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. If signed into law, the bill would push at least 4 million people off food stamps over the next ten years, including many poor and unemployed Americans.

In case you haven’t been following the extensive food stamp debate in Congress this year, here’s the basic rundown: Republicans proposed a farm bill in the spring with deep food stamp cuts: about $20 billion dollars over ten years. That wasn’t enough for hard-core conservatives, who helped kill the bill in June while demanding deeper cuts.

So Thursday night House leadership came back with double the reductions, and passed it this time.

We’ve covered (over and again) the cruelty of these cuts, but it’s worth rehashing quickly how bad they are—and how dishonest the arguments marshaled for them have been.

The Republican argument is based on the premise that food stamp funding has exploded over the past few years mainly because people are ripping off the system, and mainly because the “food stamp president,” in the nomenclature of Newt Gingrich, is letting them.

Said Representative Rick Crawford, a Republican from Arkansas, on the House floor Thursday: “Throughout the Obama presidency, we’ve seen the food stamp program grow exponentially because the government continues to turn a blind eye to a system fraught with abuse.”

But that’s just not true. The program has a rigorous payment error oversight program; 98 percent of SNAP benefits were issued to eligible households in 2011. Food stamp use, and thus expenditures, boomed because of the great recession:

And the program is scheduled to reduce outlays all by itself over the next several years, as the economy recovers:

Still, Republicans press on. Aside from plain fraud, the GOP argument is that lazy folks who just don’t want to work are taking advantage of the program. Even if some people technically qualify, they’re probably using the program as a crutch instead of finding work.

“When did America trade the dignity of a job for a culture of permanent dependency?” asked Representative Mike Cramer of North Dakota yesterday. He then theatrically read a passage from Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography: “ ‘We knew toil and hardship, hunger and thirst. But we felt the beat of the hearty life in our veins because ours was the glory of work, and the joy of living.’ Madam president, I say let’s encourage the dignity of work again, and let’s pass these modest reforms.”

Once again, there’s a complete disconnect from reality. The average daily food stamp benefit is about $4 per person per day, and if you think that paltry amount isn’t enough to keep people from seeking work, you would be right:

Specifically, Republicans are cutting the program by instituting so-called “work requirements.” For a lengthy debunking, read Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The short version is that SNAP already kicks people off benefits after three months if they aren’t employed or in a job-training program. But the law also allows governors to waive these requirements, and forty-five governors, both Democrat and Republican, have done that in recent years—since we are in the middle of one of the worst economies in modern American history. The House bill passed last night simply ends all such waivers.

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The real kicker is that many people aren’t in job-training programs because states don’t have enough slots—and the House budget and appropriation bills also cut funding even further for job-training programs.

In short, Republicans want to cut $40 billion from SNAP because of waste that isn’t happening, and because people are failing to find jobs that don’t exist. They also want to cut job-training programs, and then cut people’s food stamps because they are unable to enroll in job-training programs.

This is no small deal—SNAP benefits lifted a record number of people out of poverty in 2012:

And finally, it’s worth noting that for all the paeans to the virtues and dignity of hard work emanating from the House floor yesterday, here is a running counter of how many jobs bills the Republican House has passed:

Sasha Abramsky on the Census Bureau’s latest poverty figures.

SEC Makes Important Move Towards Reining In CEO Pay

(Securities and Exchange Commission/Flickr)

It is not often federal regulators stand up to pressure from Wall Street, applied with millions of dollars and all sorts of seen and unseen lobbying. But this week provided a rare example: on Wednesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission voted 3-2 to release a rule on executive pay that the corporate sector tried desperately to avoid or water down.

The new rule would require US corporations to disclose how the paychecks of their CEOs compare to the paychecks of the median worker at the company. Since the 1990s, executive pay at US companies has doubled, and top executives at large public companies now take home an average of 10 percent of their company’s profits each year, or 343 times worker pay.

The proposed rule—which was mandated by Section 935b of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act—is of course somewhat modest. It just mandates disclosure of the median worker/CEO pay rate for each company, and doesn’t actually impose any legal limits.

But massive corporate and trade groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the Center on Executive Compensation spent millions trying to get the rule watered down, and deployed a small army of expert lobbyists to Washington. (A Public Citizen analysis breaks down the specific efforts, down to the names of some lobbyists.)

Publicly, those in the corporate sector argued that the rule was basically useless, a “name-and-shame” provision meant to embarrass them. But they didn’t spend millions of dollars just to avoid a tough Ed Schultz segment on MSNBC. The real concern is that investors will have their hands on this CEO pay data—and an increasing body of research, also available to investors, indicates that top-heavy compensation schemes indicates mediocre performance and ultimately a bad investment.

An excellent report from the AFL-CIO has summed up the research. It notes the work of Jim Collins of the Stanford Business School, who analyzed “great” companies, meaning, in his definition, those that over a fifteen-year period generated cumulative stock returns that exceeded the market by at least three times.

He came up with 1,500 companies—and not one had a highly paid, so-called “celebrity CEO.” Collins concluded that exorbitant CEO compensation sapped motivation and creativity from lower-level executives and transformed the management structure into “one genius with 1,000 helpers.”

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Several other studies have demonstrated a decline in morale, high turnover and a significant deterioration in the quality of products produced at companies with a high disparity in CEO pay. One study in the Academy of Management Journal found that at companies with highly disproportionate CEO pay, the negative impacts extended ten levels down the chain of command.

In other words, CEO pay ratios are material information for investors when choosing where to put their money. The trade groups fighting this measure tried to have the ratios watered down in all sorts of ways—by allowing corporations to exclude, for example, foreign, part-time or seasonal workers.

But the SEC stood firm, and passed out the rule with no exceptions. If they finalize the rule, it could create real market pressure against top-heavy compensation schemes—which is exactly what the lobbying groups feared.

Lee Fang on the Koch brothers new anti-Obamacare front group.

Navy Yard Shooting: A Jarring Reminder of America’s Gun Problem

Police block off the M Street, SE, as they respond to a shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, September 16, 2013. (Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

At least thirteen people were killed at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday, including a suspected gunman, in the latest iteration of a now-familiar US news event: a mass shooting that claims victims apparently at random.

As the streets of DC came to life Monday morning, reports emerged around 8:20 am that shots were fired at the naval facility on the city’s southeast waterfront, less than two miles from the US Capitol. It quickly became clear that multiple people had been shot during a rampage, and at a 2 pm news conference on the perimeter of the crime scene, police confirmed that twelve people lay dead inside. The number was later updated to thirteen.

During a press briefing at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center not long after the shootings, a spokeswoman speculated that “it had to be a semi-automatic [weapon],” based on witness descriptions of gunshots heard in “rapid succession.” Authorities later confirmed that indeed the suspected gunman had an assault rifle as well as a pistol.

Police identified the deceased suspected shooter as Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old man from Fort Worth, Texas, who reportedly worked at some point as a contractor for the Navy.

In the context of increasingly frequent mass shootings and a highly visible congressional debate on gun control, any further mass gun violence is sure to become a political issue—all the more so when it happens in Washington itself.

Had the scene outside the Navy Yard been in a movie about a fictional gun control debate, it probably would have been rejected as too didactic.

The Capitol dome was part of the nearby skyline as reporters, television cameras, scattered passerby and law enforcement officers converged on M Street Southeast at the western edge of the perimeter set up by police. To the east, all one could see was a small army of emergency responders in the street; the sidewalk-to-sidewalk flashing lights made individual vehicles almost indistinguishable. A US Park Police helicopter flew in tight circles extremely low overhead.

In isolation it was not that unusual of a sight in DC: it looked like perhaps one of the many motorcades that criss-cross the city from time to time. But people on the street were unusually quiet and unsettled, because of course there was no dark limousine nor group of dignitaries in the middle of the chaos but rather the scene of a grisly multiple murder.

Many of the reporters at the scene wore congressional press credentials and might have otherwise been covering a comparatively dry budget debate, but instead scoured around for witnesses to the shooting. Blocks away, Senate office buildings were placed on a two-hour lockdown, with staffers unable to exit or enter, and intimidating military-style vehicles surrounded the Capitol complex.

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In that fictional movie, this is where a dysfunctional Congress finally springs into action and helps solve the problem. The very same staffers who worked behind the scenes to scuttle this year’s big gun control legislation, now trapped in their offices because a mass shooter might be on the loose, suddenly see the light and pull the Manchin-Toomey legislation out of their desk drawers.

But will that happen here? While it’s clearly very early on, and the gun control debate has taken some surprising turns in the past year, this scenario seems unlikely. Senator Manchin already told reporters Monday afternoon he still didn’t have the votes to get his gun control legislation passed; no previously opposed members suddenly announced a new position. Only hours before the shootings, members of Congress and gun control advocates were bemoaning a recent loss of momentum in Congress thanks to recall elections in Colorado that cost two longtime legislators their jobs because they supported tighter gun rules earlier this year.

Continued inaction seems likely because the gun control debate has never suffered for an absence of bloodshed. Manchin-Toomey didn’t fail because the slayings at Sandy Hook Elementary School weren’t quite tragic enough. More indiscriminate killings—even right in the backyard of Congress—probably won’t change the fundamental calculus made by Senators to sidestep the wrath of the National Rifle Association (on display in Colorado just last week) and extremely pro-gun conservative voters, who value “gun rights” to the exclusion of almost any other issue.

That said, the gun control package was only a couple of votes short in the Senate this year. Maybe more shootings will finally convince someone to change his or her vote. But more likely, until the fundamentals of the debate change, this mass bloodshed will only serve as gruesome illustrations of a problem nobody in Washington can seem to solve—nor even meangingfully address.

Beware the New Senate Bill on Syria

Protesters against US military action in Syria march to Capitol Hill from the White House in Washington, Saturday, September 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Events are moving at a rapid pace, but it appears in the past twenty-four hours that the international community moved towards a diplomatic response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Russia’ potential embrace of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria’s the use of chemical weapons in Syria, coupled with a deadline for UN control of Syria’s stockpiles, might avert US military intervention.

Accordingly, yet another “Gang of 8” senators is crafting a resolution more in line with the new dynamic. It would, in practice, supplant the resolution passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, which was already losing momentum. (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he would not support it, as did a raft of other senators, from Rob Portman to Ed Markey.)

The new “Gang” bill, according to news reports, would authorize US military force in Syria if the Security Council can’t pass a workable resolution, or if Syria fails to comply with it. The New York Times reported the details are “far from complete.”

In theory, this sounds good—it’s roughly similar to a compromise floated by Senator Joe Manchin last week; both would give Syria an opportunity to comply with international chemical weapons bans before military action occurs.

But Manchin’s bill was short and direct, and tried to force a number of safeguards that would limit the chances of military action, including a strategic plan from the White House with specific benchmarks.

A quick look at the gang working on the new Senate bill would indicate the new resolution is unlikely to be similarly limited. The members are, according to the Times: Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and Saxby Chambliss, along with Democratic Senators Carl Levin, Charles E. Schumer and Chris Coons. Senator Bob Menendez chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is reportedly “in consultations” with the group.

Notably, while some remained uncommitted on intervention, like Ayotte, no members of the group oppose it. And some, like McCain and Graham, are extreme hawks on the issue, and favor all-out regime change, not just limiting chemical weapons use.

McCain’s role on the Foreign Relations Committee last week was instructive. He held out his support for the final bill until language was added expressing that the goal of the mission is regime change. The new language—and the corresponding expansion of the target list by the Pentagon—made the bill “too broad” for many to support. Both Franken (who is still undecided) and Markey cited concerns about the scope of the authorization.*

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Now, McCain is a key player in the new “Gang,” and the final language deserves an enormous amount of scrutiny. This compromise bill is still ultimately an authorization for use of military force, and if McCain, Graham et al. work in language that lowers the bar for intervening or expands the mission’s goals—or both—it’s potentially quite dangerous. The system has worked to this point because Congress hasn’t authorized an unpopular and potentially unnecessary military operation, and thus prevented it from happening; a real diplomatic breakthrough shouldn’t allow hawks in the Senate to backdoor a use-of-force resolution that the administration can rely on down the road.

Similarly, the administration is privately making the case that the potential breakthrough at the UN should prompt Democrats to vote for the original use-of-force resolution from the Foreign Relations Committee, according to Greg Sargent at The Washington Post.

That, too, rushes Congress along in a way it doesn’t need to be rushed. Authorizing military force is an enormous decision, and one that’s hard to revoke—as we learn every time the September 11–era authorizations are cited for some recent and only very lightly related operation.

Already, some are pressing the case that there’s no need for any force authorization until the UN process concludes. “What’s clear is that the diplomatic resolutions to the crisis in Syria have not been exhausted and, until they are, the president should not continue to press Congress for authorization for the use of military force,” said Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America.

Whether Obama presses forward with that request tonight, and what final language might ultimately emerge, is of massive importance.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story said Senator Al Franken opposes the legistation that came out of the Foreign Relations committee last week. While he has expressed some concerns about the bill, he has not said how he would vote.

​Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel on the diplomatic alternative to war in Syria.

Manchin Bill Would Force the Administration to Create Benchmarks in Syria

Senator Joe Manchin, D-WV (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Last week we noted that Senator Joe Manchin was drafting a resolution that would create a forty-five-day waiting period for military intervention in Syria, which President Bashar al-Assad could avoid if he signed onto the international Chemical Weapons Convention and took “concrete steps” to comply with the terms of that treaty. Senator Heidi Heitkamp also supports the measure and has been working with Manchin.

Over the weekend, the actual bill was put on paper, and Manchin’s office told The Nation it is shopping the bill to other senators today, seeking support.

The full text of the resolution aligns with what was described to reporters last week, and also puts a little meat on the bones of a secondary aspect to the bill: a requirement that the Obama administration present a strategy to Congress within forty-five days of passage.

Many members have expressed concern that military intervention could quickly escalate into more prolonged involvement, and the bill would require the administration to clarify specific goals and benchmarks before launching any strikes:

That could be a very attractive provision to some senators—even if one believes the resolution only delays the inevitable, as Assad won’t sign the CWC treaty, it at least forces the administration to set specific benchmarks before intervention.

The bill also subtly reflects some of the growing uncertainty in Congress over the administration’s evidence of Assad’s culpability in the August 21 chemical weapons attack.

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Some members who have seen the classified evidence remain unconvinced, and yesterday on Meet the Press, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Buck McKeon, said plainly that “they haven’t linked it directly to Assad, in my estimation.” In his House testimony last week, Kerry hedged a little at times, blaming the attack on Assad or “generals under his charge.”

The preamble to Manchin’s resolution says, “Whereas the use of chemical weapons by the government of Bashar al-Assad against civilians in Syria…is an abhorrent act and a serious violation of international norms and the laws of war.” Notably, that language doesn’t pin the blame directly on Assad, and allows for the possibility that independent regime actors might have launched the attack.

Manchin’s office would not confirm the language was crafted with that uncertainty in mind, but declined to deny it.

Obama is proposing a war in Syria, not a limited strike, says Bob Dreyfuss.

Possible Compromise Bill on Syria Intervention Emerges in Senate

Smoke rises after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the village of Dourit, August 17, 2013. (Reuters/Khattab Abdulaa)

A familiar refrain among proponents of intervention in Syria is that “doing nothing is not an option.” While a wide range of non-military options have been proposed in the public sphere, from increasing aid to rebel groups to plowing money into programs for refugees, there hasn’t been much in the Senate outside of the military intervention proposal passed by the Foreign Relations Committee.

But Friday, Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp floated one possible alternative: a bill that would demand that Bashar al-Assad sign Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty and take “concrete steps” to comply. If he failed to do so within forty-five days, the United States would launch a military attack.

The bill, which was first reported by Politico is still being drafted. Here is a full summary obtained by Roll Call:

Statement of Policy. It is the policy of the United States that-

The Government of Syria must become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention and take concrete steps to comply with the terms and conditions of the Convention;

The failure by the government of Bashar al-Assad to sign and comply with the Convention clearly demonstrates a disregard of international norms on the use of chemical weapons;

and If the Government of Syria does not sign the Convention within 45 after the date of the enactment of this resolution, all elements of national power will be considered by the United States government.

Requirement for a Syria strategy and building and international coalition. Not later than 45 days after the date of the enactment of this resolution, the President shall submit to Congress a long term strategy for Syria, while concurrently using all appropriate diplomatic tools to develop and secure commitments from the international community with the shared strategic interest of preventing the proliferation and use of Syria’s chemical weapons.

The bill has some obvious drawbacks—namely, if one believes the intelligence, Assad has already explicitly failed to comply with the treaty by launching attacks. The bill is vulnerable to criticism that it essentially gives Assad a pass on the initial attack, and just offers him the opportunity for a do-over. Moreover, as Juan Cole and other observers have speculated, Assad used the weapons because he feels existentially threatened by the rebellion in his country. A warning from the United States might not change his calculus at all, and thus only forestall, but not prevent, military action.

On the other hand, proponents of intervention repeatedly say their goal is to stop the use of chemical weapons, and if this resolution passed and Assad did sign the treaty, the mission would be accomplished. Manchin and Heitkamp aren’t commenting on the bill yet, but would likely argue it at least gives a diplomatic solution a chance before the bombs started dropping.

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It seems unlikely this legislation could pass the Senate, given presumed opposition from the White House and proponents of intervention, along with doves who don’t want any roadmap to military intervention, period. But it may still have an immediate effect on the debate: namely, it could give senators who want to vote against the military intervention some cover, by providing an alternative they can support.

The bill will likely be introduced in full next week, and we’ll be sure to follow up.

Live Updates: A Weak Case for Intervention Before Congress

Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin E. Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, September 3, 2013, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

When President Obama decided to ask for input from Congress on a military strike in Syria, it created a crucial opportunity to probe two questions about the intervention: will it be limited? And how effective will it be?

The answers provided by Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday were unclear on several of these points. And few of their answers inspired much confidence. The House will host these officials this afternoon—and hopefully get more clarity.

On the issue of entanglement, Kerry made the biggest headlines by hypothesizing about US troops on the ground in Syria early on in the hearing. The draft legislation sent over by the White House notably contained no prohibition on ground troops, and while Senators quickly confirmed they would add that language, it certainly raised eyebrows about the administration’s intentions.

When Senator Robert Menendez asked Kerry about ground troops, he said this:

SEC. KERRY: Mr. Chairman, it would be preferable not to [have prohibition language], not because there is any intention or any plan or any desire whatsoever to have boots on the ground. And I think the president will give you every assurance in the world, as am I, as has the secretary of defense and the chairman. But in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country. So that was the only kind of example, that’s the only thing I can think of that would immediately leap to mind.

The blowback inside and outside the hearing room was swift. Polls show the public is heavily opposed to intervention in no small part because they fear deeper entanglement, and so Kerry’s remarks were seriously damaging to the administration’s case. “In the event Syria imploded” is no doubt an extremely fungible term. Already, the regime has lost control of large swaths of the country; a third of the population has fled and become refugees; daily, grinding violence including, now, chemical weapons, has claimed tens of thousands of lives. What does a real implosion look like, exactly?

Senator Bob Corker, moments later, told Kerry “I didn’t find that a very appropriate answer regarding boots on the ground.” Kerry recanted—again, and again throughout the hearing—and ultimately the White House has agreed to such language in a new draft bill. But surely there are now only larger questions about how deeply involved Obama’s foreign policy apparatus would like to be in Syria.

On effectiveness, there were some serious and probing questions from a wide range of senators, from Republican Marco Rubio to Democrat Tom Udall.

The basic problem the senators—and many others—have regarding intervention is that it’s not clear what the actual goal is. Dempsey has already acknowledged that airstrikes cannot stop Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again, and indeed a Rand Corporation study concluded it would be impossible to destroy his capability without a massive infusion of ground troops.

Meanwhile, administration officials have been clear they don’t intend to end the civil war and topple Assad with the airstrikes—if that were even possible—and so the question is, what is the objective?

There was a lot of pablum from intervention supporters on this point. “This is not a declaration of war but a declaration of our values to the world,” Menendez said during his opening remarks. Kerry repeatedly talked of “reputation” and taking a stand against the use of chemical weapons.

But the closest thing to an actual logistical argument came from Dempsey, who said at several points the idea was to “deter and degrade” the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in the future. He said the strikes could eliminate key launching stations and apparatus, and invoke a certain price to be paid for using chemical weapons that Assad may want to avoid in the future. This would also weaken—but not defeat—Assad, in the administration’s eyes. “The consequence of degrading his chemical capacity inevitably will also have downstream impact on his military capacity,” Kerry said.

John Judis describes the administration’s theory best—by weakening Assad, the United States can force a diplomatic resolution to the civil war.

But Juan Cole sees the opposite result playing out. “The prospect of a US missile strike is emboldening the rebels. They increasingly hope that the US will come in militarily with them. The rebels don’t look at the proposed US missile strikes as a limited affair or as solely related to chemical weapons use,” he wrote. “By striking Syria, Obama has all but guaranteed that a negotiated solution becomes impossible for years to come.”

Several senators tried to unearth what the outcome of intervention will truly be. “Are we really going to be giving them credibility if we go in with a limited strike and, the day after or the week after or the month after, Assad crawls out of his rat hole and says, Look, I stood up to the strongest power on the face of this Earth and I won?” asked Senator Jim Risch. Kerry said plainly that wouldn’t happen, but didn’t have much in the way of detail why that wouldn’t be the case.

Ultimately these two issues of entanglement and effectiveness are deeply, and dangerously, related. The airstrikes, by the administration’s own admission, won’t eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons capability nor topple his regime. If he indeed emerges more emboldened—with more desperation that could lead to more unconventional warfare—all while the country plunges further into civil war, the situation clearly becomes much more dire.

If that happens and the United States is already militarily involved, it’s a recipe for a drawn-out disaster. Today, administration officials are already sketching out in public scenarios in which US troops could be on the ground. What will they propose then?

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These central questions will hopefully be probed further in the House of Representatives this afternoon. Check back in this space for updates from the hearing, which you can also watch here.

1:18 pm House Syria resolution in doubt? Representative Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, informed Kerry of a “rumor” that the House won’t hold a vote on a Syria resolution. Kerry said hasn’t heard that, and it seems quite unlikely—there will almost certainly at least be a vote—but having one of the top foreign policy Republicans in the House float that possibility is not a good sign for proponents of intervention.

1:32 pm General Dempsey won’t rule out escalation. Representative Gregory Meeks asked pointed questions about the risk of further entanglement in Syria. General Dempsey’s response was honest, but not particularly reassuring. “What we’re talking about here is not [a longer engagement]. That’s not to say that I discount the risk of escalation, which I never discount, but I can tell you we’ve mitigated it to as low as possible.”

2:41 pm Hearing grinds towards uselessness. The House hearing is beginning to drag, re-covering old ground and with members delving into theatrics. Representative Jeff Duncan self-caricatured a Tea Partier by holding up a picture of someone killed in Benghazi. He drew a sharp rebuke from Kerry. “We’re talking about people being killed by gas, and you want to sit here and talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious.”

2:46 pm A dollar figure (sort of) for intervention. Hagel was asked about the cost of US military intervention in Syria, as outlined by the administration. He said “it would be in the tens of millions of dollars.”

2:49 pm Cantor promises House vote. An aide to the House majority leader told CBS News that Ros-Lehtinen is wrong, and “We are planning on having a debate and a vote in the House.”

3:05 pm Grayson questions administration’s evidence of regime culpability. Representative Alan Grayson pointedly asked Hagel if he would agree to declassify intercepted communications between Syrian commanders, in redacted form. The administration has already said it will not declassify these documents, which allegedly show commanders talking about a chemical attack. But Grayson referenced media reports suggesting the communications actually reflect surprise among the commanders—making him the first member to openly question the administration’s evidence during these hearings.

Grayson kept pushing Hagel to declassify the documents, but Hagel declined, and said he had “no idea” what Grayson was referring to, and said only he’d have to “go back and look” at the intelligence.

3:28 pm Senate panel approves intervention. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, following yesterday’s debate, has approved a resolution to intervene militarily in Syria. The measure allows ninety days of intervention, with a prohibition on any ground troops. The vote was 10-7-1, with new Senator Ed Markey voting “present.” The full Senate will now consider the resolution early next week.

4:22 pm Hearing over, vote uncertain. After over four hours of discussion, the House debate has ended. The administration is likely pleased with how it went; opponents of intervention were somewhat muted, and no solid blows against the administration’s case were landed. But that doesn’t reflect the very tough vote coming up in the House, where at last count only forty-three members were likely to approve intervention.

Why did The New York Times cut its reference to AIPAC lobbying in its Syria coverage?

Pushback Against Safety Net Cuts During August Recess

Trays of printed Social Security checks wait to be mailed. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)

When Congress returns from its five-week recess this fall, a huge task awaits: passing comprehensive immigration reform. The House will (or, maybe won’t) pass its plan, which will then have to be reconciled with the bill already passed by the Senate, and the final legislation then passed again by both chambers.

Hence, there’s been a lot of coverage about what members are hearing from their constituents about immigration during this recess, and rightly so. But there’s another huge decision Congress must make this fall: funding the government and avoiding the debt ceiling. These negotiations have always produced talk, from both Democrats and Republicans, about cutting safety net—and members of Congress are hearing from their constituents on that, too.

Some brief context: Chained-CPI is a way of recalculating inflation in federal formulas in a less generous way. Obama proposed this to resolve the post-election budget impasse (as well as the summer 2011 debt-ceiling standoff) and also included it in his most recent budget. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell also recently said he’d like to see it enacted. In short, this proposal will definitely be on the table when the two parties try to hash out a deal this fall.

Most notably, Chained-CPI would mean a cut in benefits for people on Social Security: a net loss of $15,615 for average seniors over the course of their retirement if Obama’s proposal is enacted.

And people on Social Security know it. Here is one woman breaking down in tears at a town hall meeting in Iowa with Senator Tom Harkin earlier this month:

She said:

I have $624 a month, that’s what I’m living on. Ninety-nine [dollars] of that goes to Medicare Part D and B. After I get my check, in two weeks, it’s gone. I have nothing. I live on what I eat here. And I just do not want my cost of living cut because I’ve paid in since I was 16 to the government. I’m looking for work in my retirement years so that I can exist. I do own my house, but I don’t know how long that will go because I have property taxes to pay.

Harkin has long opposed Chained CPI, as he told the constituent.

The issue also came up at a town hall event with Representative Dan Maffei, a centrist Democrat in New York State. He assured constituents he would oppose Chained CPI this fall:

“I’ve opposed it because at least in this district, we’ve noticed that the inflation seniors actually have to pay already is higher than the current CPI cost-of-living adjustment that you get, not lower,” he said. “You can see this in the last couple of years when there was no adjustment for cost of living because there was allegedly no inflation. But seniors did have inflation.”

In New Hampshire, Representative Annie Kuster, who was narrowly elected in 2012, heard from a 65-year-old coordinator of a local farmer’s market about cuts to Social Security during a telephone town hall meeting. Kuster told the woman “I am determined to stop this.”

Save McConnell, I haven’t uncovered any member openly calling for Chained CPI during the recess. But plenty won’t disavow it. Take Senator Mark Udall, who said during a town hall meeting in Colorado that while he doesn’t prefer Chained CPI, he won’t rule it out. “At this point, I think it is important to exhaust every option with Social Security. There are a lot of things we can do before we turn to that.”

But the backdrop to these spontaneous moments is an increasing progressive campaign to push back against any safety net cuts during the fall—one that’s being mobilized during recess.

Last week, the AARP unveiled a petition specifically opposing Chained CPI with 1.5 million signatures.

They dropped it off in Capitol Hill offices to await members upon their return. Elsewhere, the DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is pressuring key members to opposed Chained CPI, including Representative Vern Buchanan—a top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, but also the representative with the more Social Security recipients in his district than any other member of the House. He, quite notably, hasn’t taken a position on Chained-CPI.

Meanwhile, a coalition of progressive groups—including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, Credo Action, MoveOn.org, Progressives United and Social Security Works—have mobilized to back a plan from Senators Harkin and Mark Begich to actually boost Social Security benefits.

This campaign reared its head in Kentucky this week, where the PCCC released an ad calling on Mitch McConnell to support an expansion of benefits:

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This opposition to cutting Social Security—and the push to actually expand it—is operating on a pretty slow burn during this annual Congressional recess. The question is how much heat concerned citizens and activists can bring to DC when it’s dealmaking time in the fall.

Will voters forgive Obama for cutting Social Security?

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