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With all due respect to Michael Hoza, his nomination to be US ambassador to Cameroon isn’t exactly a thrilling political development. Few people outside his professional circle likely even know who he is, and no US senators have raised substantive objections to his nomination.
Nor should they—he’s a career foreign service officer with a stellar résumé, and has worked extensively in Africa.
Yet Hoza has been awaiting a Senate confirmation vote since mid-January, one of 145 nominees languishing on the Senate calendar. He is waiting alongside nominees to a wide variety of offices and positions, from the associate director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to assistant secretaries at the departments of Energy and Defense.
Perhaps if these nominees were wildly controversial or had long records demanding extensive examination, the Senate would be properly exercising its constitutional duty to advise and consent on appointments. But many of these nominees are almost laughably benign, and if recent history is a guide, will eventually receive a bipartisan confirmation vote.
So why are these nominees waiting so long? Routine obstruction by Republican senators who are deliberately stretching out the confirmation process for virtually every nominee to come through the Senate. And now Senate majority leader Harry Reid is threatening to once again enact rules reform that would neutralize the GOP’s slow-down tactics.
“If they’re going to continue this, maybe we’ll have to take another look at that. It’s outrageous what they’ve done,” Reid said on the Senate floor Monday when he returned from the July 4 holiday. “There’s no other way to look at what they’re doing. This is obstruction for obstruction’s sake.”
Though Democrats did enact the so-called “nuclear option” eliminating filibusters on executive and judicial nominations (Supreme Court excepted), the cloture process is still in place—and it allows for as much as thirty hours of debate per nominee. Republicans have been regularly using all of the time they can, which dramatically slows the Senate down.
Reid has options for changing the Senate rules to combat the slow-down, which he has said wouldn’t happen until next year (and, of course, if Democrats retain the majority). One possibility is “use it or lose it” reform, which has been advocated by several good government groups, like Fix the Senate Now. Basically, senators would have to use that debate time to actually debate the nominee in question, or they would forfeit it.
So if Senator John Cornyn wants to spend ten hours on the Senate floor talking about the nominee for US smbassador to the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (waiting nearly six months for a vote), he’s welcome to do so, but he almost surely wouldn’t.
This is a particularly effective way of speeding up the Senate because Republicans can’t argue they are losing any means to exercise minority rights—they can still actually use the thirty hours on any nominee they choose. They would just have to explain why they object, which is a tall order since Republicans apparently approve of many of the nominees they are nonetheless slowing down.
A report by Common Cause in May found nineteen examples of Republican senators chewing up cloture time on judicial nominees who were later confirmed unanimously by the Senate. Many executive branch nominees go through the same process. Republicans draw out the process and then end up voting for the nominee, as this chart from the report notes:
The level of obstruction is unprecedented. The average wait time for an executive branch or independent agency nominee is now nine months, according to Common Cause. There are around 110 executive branch or independent agency nominees awaiting action—and at this time in the George W. Bush presidency, there were only thirty-two. The number of cloture votes being forced for executive branch nominees are at record highs:
This obstruction is taking place largely out of the public eye—nobody particularly cares who is the assistant undersecretary to some alphabet-soup agency. But these are crucial posts in the everyday machinations of the federal government.
Take Hoza, for example, awaiting confirmation to be US ambassador to Cameroon. That country has been plagued by violence from the extremist Boko Haram group for months, and has been widely criticized, including by neighboring Nigeria, for being slow to respond to the threat.
Would having a US ambassador in the capital city of Yaounde have helped speed the response? We won’t ever know. Hoza has been on the Senate calendar since January 15, waiting for a vote.
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For years, the National Rifle Association has pressed candidates for local and national offices to answer questions about gun control policy. The highly publicized results, which help form a candidate’s often sacred “NRA rating,” not only affect races in the short term but help shape policy long after as politicians are hemmed into a particular position on guns before even taking office.
Now, a leading pro-gun control group is launching a counter-effort: Everytown for Gun Safety, funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will soon present federal candidates in the 2014 midterms with a ten-part questionnaire about gun control policy. Bloomberg has committed to spending $50 million on the midterms, and the questionnaire is a good starting point for evaluating where candidates stand.
In many cases, this is the first time these candidates will be asked in detail about gun control policy. Among the questions, which you can read in full here:
Does the candidate support closing the gun show loophole?
What about loopholes that allow people to buy guns online without a criminal background check?
Does the candidate support increased penalties for straw purchases and gun trafficking?
Should the size of ammunition clips be restricted? (There is no baseline given).
Some of the questions are traps, in a sense, for candidates who normally hew close to the NRA line and oppose any restrictions on gun rights whatsoever. For example, one question asks if the candidate supports laws to keep guns out of the hands of people who have been convicted of stalking or of abusing a dating partner. (Current federal law only prohibits gun ownership by people convicted of spousal abuse, but not domestic violence more generally.) Any sensible answer to the question would be yes, and a “no” answer is a campaign ad waiting to happen.
Other questions are clearly designed to build political support among potential members of the next Congress for things like expanded background checks or even smaller-bore policy items like increased funding for the federal background check database.
But there is one curious omission, especially for a group whose name is supposed to recall the horror of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut: no question asks about an assault weapons ban. There was notable state-level action around restricting assault weapons after Newtown, but congressional Democrats dropped this from last spring’s major gun control legislation. Apparently Everytown for Gun Safety isn’t too interested in pushing Congress forward on this issue.
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President Obama overstepped his power when he named three people to the National Labor Relations Board at the end of 2011, the Supreme Court decided unanimously on Thursday.
Here’s the background: since 2009, Senate Republicans undertook routine obstruction of President Obama’s appointments by wielding a filibuster that required sixty votes to break. They did this against all sorts of nominees, for offices big and small; in some cases, Republicans didn’t even bother to claim a substantive problem with the nominee. The only criteria for a filibuster, at times, seemed to be that Obama nominated that person.
One area where this was extremely problematic was the National Labor Relations Board—three members had their five-year terms expire in 2012, and Senate Republicans filibustered Obama’s replacements. With three empty seats, the NLRB would not have a quorum to function, and the practical effect would be that US labor law would no longer be enforced. (It’s not hard to see this as the GOP’s goal here).
The White House didn’t want this to happen, and Obama contemplated and ultimately made “recess appointments” to the three seats.
The law around presidential appointments during recess has historically been vague. Article II, section 2, clause three of the Constitution grants the president “power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.” That was a sensible clause for an era when it could take weeks for Congress to return to Washington via horse and buggy—if the war secretary died of tuberculosis, it would not be practical to wait that long to confirm a replacement.
In the modern era, how should that clause be interpreted? Presidents began making recess appointments when the Senate gaveled out of session, even for a few days, which was clearly within the letter of the law, though probably not the original spirit. That was legally fine—even three Supreme Court members were appointed in that fashion.
In the aughts, to prevent President Bush from placing un-confirmable nominees into office when the Senate broke for recess, Senator Harry Reid devised a strategy to hold “pro forma” sessions every three days. This consisted of a senator coming to the floor when everyone else was out of town, gaveling the Senate into session, and then right back out. As a technical matter, the Senate was always in session, and the president could not make recess appointments.
Republicans later adopted this strategy, but Obama—bolstered by a lower-court ruling that those pro forma sessions were not legitimate—decided in late 2011 to issue three recess appointments to the NLRB to keep it functioning in late 2011 in the midst of some pro-forma sessions. This is what is at issue in Thursday’s case, NLRB v. Canning.
The administration urged the justices to look at the practical matter here: the Senate was not really in session in any true sense, and the pro-forma sessions every three days were an obvious ploy by Republicans to prevent recess appointments.
The justices disagreed:
In our view, however, the pro forma sessions count as sessions, not as periods of recess. We hold that, for purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause, the Senate is in session when it says it is, provided that, under its own rules, it retains the capacity to transact Senate business. The Senate met that standard here.[…]
The Solicitor General asks us to engage in a more realistic appraisal of what the Senate actually did. He argues that, during the relevant pro forma sessions, business was not in fact conducted; messages from the President could not be received in any meaningful way because they could not be placed before the Senate; the Senate Chamber was, according to C-SPAN coverage, almost empty; and in practice attendance was not required.
We do not believe, however, that engaging in the kind of factual appraisal that the Solicitor General suggests is either legally or practically appropriate. From a legal perspective, this approach would run contrary to precedent instructing us to “respect…coequal and independent departments” by, for example, taking the Senate’s report of its official action at its word. From a practical perspective, judges cannot easily determine such matters as who is, and who is not, in fact present on the floor during a particular Senate session. Judicial efforts to engage in these kinds of inquiries would risk undue judicial interference with the functioning of the Legislative Branch.
In effect, this ends all recess appointments by the president, except in a rare scenario outlined by the Court in which the House and Senate disagree about the congressional calendar.
What does all this mean? In the short term, not much: Obama withdrew those now-illegal appointments, and the Senate confirmed three others to the NLRB earlier last year. Democrats then undertook rules reform this year that eliminated the filibuster on non-judicial appointments. That removed any real need for Obama to make recess appointments.
But, should things go poorly for Democrats in November, the Senate will become Republican. If history is a guide, they will block any further Obama appointments almost as a matter of reflex. And now recess appointments will be out of the question.
The long-term implications for organized labor here are also dire, as Ian Millhiser at the Center for American Progress has been relentlessly pointing out. The three seats in question here have terms that expire in 2018.
So: imagine a scenario in which Republicans hold the Senate in 2018, and refuse to confirm a Democratic president’s nominees to the NLRB, even if they are entirely noncontroversial. There will now be no recourse, and the NLRB will go dark.
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The GOP scandal machine kicked into a new gear this week when the Internal Revenue Service disclosed late Friday that two years of e-mails belonging to IRS official Lois Lerner are missing and apparently permanently lost.
Lerner has, for some time, been the focal point of the Republican Party’s grand theory of Tea Party persecution as the IRS official supposedly leading politically motivated probes of tax-exempt conservative groups. Coupled with Lerner’s repeated invocation of her Fifth Amendment rights in congressional hearings, the missing e-mails are treated as prima facie evidence of a nefarious plot. “If you think, by the way, that the Lois Lerner e-mails are lost, you need to wake up. There is no way those e-mails are gone,” Rush Limbaugh thundered on Monday. “[The administration is] thinking nobody’s gonna try to stop them, nobody’s gonna push back, nobody’s gonna call them on it. It’s just the way that they’re gonna deal with it.”
While Republicans’ grand theory about the IRS “scandal” has a few holes, to put it lightly, they are correct to be mad here. It’s unacceptable that a high-ranking government official’s e-mails are missing.
Moreover, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Federal record-keeping borders on abysmal. Time and again crucial documents from many different agencies have gone missing. This episode reveals a much more banal form of federal noncompliance and malfeasance than what’s alleged by Limbaugh and company—but a much more real scandal.
In 2010, only 5 percent of federal agencies had a “low risk” of losing records, according to a review by the National Archives. Meanwhile, 46 percent were classified as having “high risk” and 49 percent were at a “moderate risk.” The 2012 review, the most recent one conducted by the National Archives, showed some improvement—20 percent of federal agencies were in the “low risk category” and 36 percent were “high risk.” That’s encouraging, but still far from an acceptable standard.
The basic problem is the federal government has been very slow to adapt its technology to the demands of permanently archiving millions of electronic records, mainly in the form of e-mails. The Federal Records Act theoretically requires agencies to do so, but enforcement is rare, penalties are relatively low, and only the federal government can force compliance.
The government, incidentally, appears to be in no particular rush to fix the system. In August 2012 the National Archives and the Office of Management and Budget said agencies don’t need to have a system to manage their permanent and temporary records in an easily accessible electronic format until December 31, 2016.
This has lead to a patchwork system of record-keeping and frequent data losses. “The truth is the disappearance of agency records is not unusual. Government-wide, records are routinely lost or simply not preserved,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement. “Unless and until Congress gets serious about fixing this widespread problem by amending the Federal Records Act to include increased penalties and to allow outside groups to sue agencies not complying with the law, we’ll inevitably have other missing e-mail scandals.”
The Lerner e-mail imbroglio is pretty clearly a result of a poorly designed record-keeping system. The agency said in a letter to Congress that until 2012, it used digital tape to back up its e-mail servers—but every six months, those tapes were erased and reused. (The IRS has since extended the life of those tapes.) Complicating this arrangement was that employees could only use 500 megabytes of space on the e-mail server, and then had to start deleting e-mails or moving them to their hard drives.
So while the IRS possesses, and has turned over, 67,000 of Lerner’s e-mails, there is a two-year gap from 2009 to 2011. What happened, according to the agency, was that she hit her storage limit and began moving e-mails to her hard drive—which crashed in 2011, and the data on it was deemed unrecoverable. The e-mails were no longer on the agency server, the IRS was not backing up individual employees’ computers, and the digital tapes from when they were on the server had already been recycled.
There’s no evidence that Lerner was acting maliciously, though Congress should—and certainly will—investigate whether Lerner was deliberately deleting those e-mails, knowing that the digital records of them were ephemeral.
It wouldn’t be the first time that federal e-mail records of high importance—that almost surely revealed wrongdoing—were deleted under suspicious circumstances.
In 2009, the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility finished a high-profile probe into how the memos that allowed the United States to engage in torture were crafted. One problem: OPR was looking for e-mails between Deputy Attorney Generals John Yoo and Patrick Philbin, but found that most of Yoo’s e-mails were “deleted and…reportedly not recoverable.” OPR said its investigation was “hampered by the loss of Yoo’s and Philbin’s email records.” Yoo has maintained the e-mail losses were accidental, perhaps even a technical glitch—but it’s probably too late to ever know. Once again, overwriting backup tapes was a central problem—and even there, DoJ didn’t adhere to its own guidelines on overwriting.
The Securities and Exchange Commission issued a controversial directive that SEC enforcement staff should destroy any records created as a result of a preliminary investigation. Accordingly, more than 9,000 case files were destroyed—among them investigations into the activities of Bernie Madoff, into Goldman Sachs trading in credit default swaps in 2009, and into financial fraud at Wells Fargo and Bank of America leading up to the financial crisis. When the SEC later went back to conduct investigations into how it missed so much fraud, crucial pieces of the record were gone forever. CREW sued to stop the deletion, but a federal court ruled the Federal Records Act was written narrowly enough to allow it.
Then there’s the big one: the loss of millions of e-mails from the Bush White House. Former Bush officials screaming about the IRS lost e-mails should perhaps stop and reflect upon this incident. The Bush White House revealed in 2007 that as many as 5 million e-mails from March 2003 to March 2005 had gone missing. They were no longer on the White House servers and digital backups were not maintained. Consequently, investigations into wrongdoing at the White House—like Patrick Fitzgerald’s inquiry into the leaking of Valerie Plame’s name to reporters—were significantly hampered by missing e-mails. The Obama administration launched an effort to recover some of those e-mails, but millions more are gone forever.
Lerner wasn’t the first official to have an embarrassing e-mail gap, and she likely won’t be the last. CREW wrote this week to Representative Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Government and Oversight, and his Senate counterpart Tom Carper, asking for a thorough review of government record-keeping problems and the need to amend the Federal Records Act.
Given Issa’s stated, deep concern for the IRS scandal, perhaps he will act quickly.
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The unfortunate re-eruption of warfare in Iraq will lead to many more questions for Hillary Clinton about her past support for the war—a rather unfortunate thing from her point of view, given the issue was a key reason for her 2008 Democratic presidential primary loss.
Her answer to one such question at a forum in Toronto reveals Clinton still has serious trouble talking about the war in a language recognized by those who opposed it—and there are a great many.
According to Alex Seitz-Wald of National Journal, this is what Clinton said at an event sponsored by the Toronto Region Board of Trade:
Clinton says “smart political move” would have been to recant on iraq vote earlier, but “I couldn’t break faith with” service members.
— Alex Seitz-Wald (@aseitzwald) June 16, 2014
That statement echoes some of the worst impulses of the Bush administration, which were to frame supporting the war publicly as a matter of “supporting the troops.”
One of the central animating concerns of the anti-war movement—from the Cindy Sheehan encampment to a young Senator named Barack Obama’s describing soldiers from Illinois who had been badly maimed by battle—was for the thousands of US troops dying, and the thousands more being injured, in what was ultimately a needless war. When George W. Bush would bash war opponents as people who didn’t “support the troops,” the anti-war refrain was: that’s exactly what we’re doing. Hillary perhaps does not accept that argument—or if she does, it’s hard to tell.
When Terry Gross went after Clinton last week on NPR on gay marriage, she was trying to get at a basic question: Did Hillary always support gay marriage but withhold her public support for political reasons? What about all the people being denied rights, how might they have been helped sooner if she spoke out?
Here, Hillary seems to be pre-answering that same question as it applies to Iraq, and giving a pretty terrible answer for why she didn’t speak her mind on the war.
UPDATE: There is now video of Hillary’s full response to this question, which are hardly exculpatory. Transcript of the response where it begins in earnest (at 1:01) below the video.
CLINTON: I kept trying to say “Well if we knew then what we know now it would not have ever come for a vote,” all of which was true, but just sort of avoided the fact of my saying “You know I just got it wrong, plain and simple. I made a mistake.” I thought a lot about that, because people said well—“You’re not saying you made a mistake for political reasons.” Well in fact, in the Democratic Party at that time, the smart political decision, as so many of my colleagues did, was to come out and say “Terrible mistake, shouldn’t have done it,” and you know blame the Bush administration. I had this sense that I had voted for it, and we had all these young men and women over there, and it was a terrible battle environment. I knew some of the young people who were there and I was very close to one Marine lieutenant who lead a mixed platoon of Americans and Iraqis in the first battle for Fallujah. So I felt like I couldn’t break faith with them. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to anybody else but me, but that’s how I felt about it. So I kept temporizing and I kept avoiding saying it because I didn’t want there to be any feeling that I was backing off or undercutting my support for this very difficult mission in Iraq.
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After 2014 passes, Eric Cantor will no longer represent the 7th Congressional district in Virginia. But after July passes, he will also no longer serve as majority leader of the House of Representatives—a crucial position, and one in which he has used to considerably influence national policy.
As Chris Hayes pointed out last night on All In, Cantor was the chief advocate for driving a 2011 debt-ceiling showdown and the severe austerity measures that resulted. That’s not to say it was his sole prerogative; Cantor was advocating on behalf of a coalition of far-right Tea Party lawmakers who desperately wanted a showdown with the White House. But inside the leadership offices on Capitol Hill, it was Cantor who made sure that Speaker John Boehner heard and reacted to their concerns. As the number-two Republican in the House, he served as a conservative sword of Damocles over Boehner’s head: cross the conservatives too much, and they just might replace Boehner as Speaker with Cantor.
In addition, the majority leader’s considerable influence over the House gives that person unique power to make sure his or her top donors received what they want. In Cantor’s case, it meant Wall Street had an even stronger voice on Capitol Hill.
As of Thursday, only two candidates have emerged to take Cantor’s place: Representatives Kevin McCarthy and Pete Sessions. It’s useful to take a look at the political backgrounds and pet issues of both to see what direction the House might be headed post-Cantor.
Representative Kevin McCarthy
District: California’s 23rd
In Congress since: 2007
Biggest Contributors: Pharmaceutical and Health Product PACs contributed the most to his campaign committee; for individual donations, a plurality were from the securities and investment industry.
McCarthy is to some extent an empty vessel; he rose very quickly through California state politics. After stints with the California Young Republicans in the 1990s, he went on to work for Representative Bill Thomas, a congressional powerhouse who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. Thomas was a titan for the pharmaceutical industry and helped get the Medicare Part D drug benefit passed; the ties McCarthy developed during this time are likely why he maintains high financial support from drug companies.
McCarthy left that office to run for California State Assembly, and won a seat in 2002. He quickly became assembly Republican leader, a theme throughout his career—he seems to excel most at internal politicking and obtaining caucus leadership posts. As Ryan Grim and Ashley Alman wrote at The Huffington Post, “There isn’t much to dislike about McCarthy, unless you’re annoyed with empty ambition.”
McCarthy is almost surely Boehner’s choice for the job, though he hasn’t said so publicly. He’s a moderate (by, of course, the standards of the increasingly polarized and extreme House GOP caucus.) In fact, he’s arguably more moderate than Cantor on the key issue of immigration—he said early this year that immigration reform should include legal status for the undocumented. All in all, McCarthy is unlikely to lead the Tea Party vanguard in the House. In fact, he’ll probably blunt its impact.
Representative Pete Sessions
District: Texas’s 32nd
In Congress Since: 1997
Biggest Contributors: Health Professionals PACs contributed the most to his campaign committee; for individual donations, a large plurality were either ideological donors or people in the Securities and Investment industry.
McCarthy is, quite clearly, not the preferred choice of the more conservative House GOP members. Their hopes initially rested on Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Tea Party favorite and chairman of the powerful and extremely lucrative, from a fundraising standpoint, House Financial Services Committee. Perhaps because he was unwilling to give up that plum spot, Hensarling elected not to run for majority leader and publicly tossed his support to Sessions. Other hardcore conservatives like Representatives Tom Price and Jim Jordan also chose not to run.
So it’s looking, for now, like a two-man race between McCarthy and Sessions. Some conservatives remain unsatisfied—Representative Steve King, for example, said Thursday he still wants a “staunch conservative [and] anti-amnesty candidate” to step up, but so far, nobody else has.
Sessions conservative credentials, though, are hardly in doubt. During the government shutdown last year, a member of the House was reported to have told President Obama, to his face, “I cannot stand to even look at you.” Several people in the meeting later identified Sessions as the speaker, though he denied it.
In early 2009, as Obama settled into the White House, Sessions favorably compared the coming GOP rebellion to the tactics of the Taliban. “Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban,” Mr. Sessions said in an interview with Hotline. “And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes.” (Aides immediately stressed Sessions wasn’t really comparing the GOP to the Taliban, just noting there was a blueprint for insurgent tactics out there. This seemed a distinction without much difference.)
Sessions appears to be basing his campaign around a tough anti–immigration reform stance. While GOP members gathered to say goodbye to Cantor on Wednesday in the Capitol, Sessions was busy finding the assembled press cameras and hinting at why he needed to take Cantor’s position. “I think this administration needs to be prodded and reminded that the entire sovereignty of the United States is at risk if we do not secure our border—north, south, east, and west,” Sessions said, as Breitbart News reported. “The things which are occurring at our border must be stopped and must be controlled before we do anything else that encourages people to come here.”
But some hard-right anti-immigration reform activists aren’t totally sold on Sessions. He faced a Sarah Palin–backed primary opponent who repeatedly blasted Sessions for taking an (extremely timid) step in the direction of reform. At a 2013 town hall meeting, he was caught on tape endorsing a guestworker program—though one that would never lead to full citizenship.
Ethical issues might also undo Sessions. He had an uncanny knack for getting himself mixed up in some of the more unseemly scandals of the aughts. He was caught up in the Jack Abramoff scandal when Sessions wrote letters to Bush administration officials asking them not to shut down certain Indian casinos—and then got wads of cash in campaign donations from tribes represented by Abramoff. He also got significant money from disgraced financier Alan Stanford and flew often on his private jet. Vice reported extensively Wednesday on some of the favors Sessions may have done.
But Sessions is no doubt a true believer—hence the large amounts of ideological money he’s received. He also chaired the National Republican Campaign Committee during the 2010 takeover, which burnished his credentials while making many Tea Party members indebted to him for their seats.
It seems, for now, that McCarthy has the race locked up—but then again, everyone said that about Eric Cantor, too.
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House majority leader Eric Cantor was defeated Tuesday night in the Republican primary for his House seat in Virginia—a truly shocking political loss in every sense of the word. Quite literally nobody in the political arena saw this coming, apparently including the challenger himself, Dave Brat, a professor of economics at Randolph-Macon College. He wouldn’t give a victory speech “until he was sure it was real,” according to Fox News host Megyn Kelly during the network’s Tuesday night broadcast.
The immediate question is obviously: How did this happen? How did one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress lose to a political neophyte that he outspent 26-to-1?
In politics, there’s a rush to find “the answer.” There’s no one reason why Cantor lost, but a crucial part of the story no doubt begins in Central America.
In recent months, tens of thousands of children unaccompanied by their parents have been flooding across the US border with Mexico. Sixty thousand will come this year, up tenfold from 2011, and as many as 130,000 may arrive in 2015. Lackland Air Force Base in Texas is filling up with these refugees, one of three military bases now being used to house the new arrivals. President Obama has declared it an “urgent humanitarian situation.”
The situation has gotten light to moderate coverage in the mainstream press, but in the right-wing press the coverage has been wall to wall: it has been relentlessly covered by online outlets like Breitbart News, and talked about incessantly on right-wing radio. Fox News has also devoted considerable attention to the crisis; the night before the Virginia primary, for example, Kelly had a long segment about it on her prime-time show.
Naturally, the right-wing concern isn’t exactly driven by a humanitarian spirit. The overwhelming message is that the influx—which will indeed cost taxpayers millions of dollars—is not only a harbinger of things to come but a direct result of Obama’s desire for immigration reform. Specifically, goes the narrative, Obama’s promise of a DREAM Act that would confer citizenship on undocumented youth is spurring the stampede.
This is mainly nonsense: for one, the proposed DREAM Act would apply only to youth living continuously in the United States for five years before enactment. Though right-wing outlets like the Drudge Report have found immigrants here and there aware of the bill and hopeful that it might apply to them, by and large analysts agree that increasing violence in Central America is driving parents to send their children to safer areas in large numbers. Escalating drug wars in Mexico and improved US economic conditions are making the United States the obvious landing spot for the northward-bound refugees.
But this all came at a terrible time for Cantor. His biggest foray into the immigration debate was to propose and draft a Republican version of the DREAM Act dubbed the KIDS Act. The bill stalled out late last year, in part over disagreements about whether youth who obtained citizenship would be able to then sponsor their parents for legalization.
So you can see where this is going. Brat was already running hard against Cantor for supposed softness on immigration. He employed an effective approach: instead of coming at it from an unhinged, xenophobic and divisive position, Brat played the populist. He charged that Cantor was a tight friend of Wall Street, the US Chamber of Commerce—another broad theme of Brat’s campaign—and that Cantor’s alleged desire for immigration reform was done so his buddies in the corporate world could employ more cheap labor.
In recent weeks, as the right-wing media fulminated over the refugee crisis, Brat took out the sledgehammer. One ad cooked up by the campaign, released this week, charged directly that “tens of thousands of illegal immigrants are pouring across the border on the promise of Eric Cantor’s amnesty”:
That’s naturally a wild distortion of what’s happening, and the presentation is amateurish in the extreme. (It badly misspells ‘Reuters’ at one point.) But if you’re looking for a reason Cantor suddenly fell, attacks like that could be the answer. “Closing the border is very important,” Brat told Sean Hannity on Tuesday night after his victory. “I ran hard on that issue.”
Now for all the necessary caveats: this was a House race where fewer than 100,000 people voted, and so it’s perhaps unwise to draw broad political lessons. Conservative activists made a convincing case Tuesday night that Cantor’s strong-arming of Tea Party types during state-level political meetings and conventions boiled grassroots anger, which also surely contributed to his loss.
Another caveat is that other pro-immigration Republicans, like Senator Lindsey Graham, won their contests. It should be noted, however, that Graham had some uniquely feckless opponents who did not attack him on immigration with the same zeal as Brat, nor were they as polished. The second-place finisher to Graham in Tuesday’s primary wants South Carolina to mint it’s own currency and compared the IRS to Nazi brownshirts.
It’s also true that Cantor made a sharp right turn on immigration and was basically an ally of anti-reform Republicans: he didn’t push for any of the very modest bills passed out of committee to come to the floor, and just last month he blocked a measure sponsored by a fellow Republican that would have given citizenship to undocumented US service members.
But in politics, perception is reality. Cantor was perceived as soft on immigration by many right-wingers, and may have lost because of it. The perception that he lost for that reason, in turn, will terrify Republicans for even dipping a toe in the reform waters.
One could say the GOP had already decided not to act on immigration any time soon, which might be true. But that intransigence, which perhaps could have been softened by midterm election results or external dynamics, has now only been hardened. Immigration has “been off the table for a while but now it’s really never going back on the table,” a lawmaker close to the House Republican leadership told Buzzfeed Tuesday night. “No one who wants to be in leadership eventually will ever, ever go for it and likely raise holy hell if it comes up.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Cantor’s defeat
President Obama announced a new strategy Monday to combat student loan debt: a dual plan to lower the payments students must make while also giving them an opportunity to lower the principal on those loans.
Obama announced he would take executive action to expand a law enacted in 2010 that allowed recent graduates to pay no more than 10 percent of their monthly income to student loan repayments. That law was limited to people who got loans after October 2007 or who stopped borrowing by October 2011, and the executive action Obama promised Monday would extend it to approximately 5 million people who had older loans.
It will not go into effect until December 2015, however, while the Department of Education implements the new requirements.
Obama also announced he would act to renegotiate federal contracts with a wide variety of companies that service federal student loans in order to give students in danger of default more options to avoid it.
Beyond those relatively small-bore ideas, however, Obama also backed a plan from Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Senate Democrats that would allow people with outstanding student loans to refinance them at the lower rates offered to recent graduates.
In 2013, Congress set the interest rate for new student loans at 3.86 percent. But millions of Americans have loans with higher interest rates, often in the high single digits, and that bill would allow them to refinance the loan. Mass refinancing of federal student loans would naturally cost the government money, but the bill proposes that it be paid for by enacting the Buffet Rule, which closes tax loopholes for very wealthy Americans and ensures that they pay at least a 30 percent effective tax rate.
Warren described the rationale for this bill at a Center for American Progress event earlier this year. “Right now in order to finance United States government, we take in billions of dollars in profits off student loans, but permit billionaires to have enough loopholes that they pay at tax rates that can be lower than those of their secretaries,” she said at the time. “It’s about values. Where, as a country, do we believe we should make our investments? Follow the money on this. Invest in billionaires or invest in students. Well, I want to put my money on students.”
The chance that congressional Republicans would allow this bill to pass is essentially zero, but Obama’s endorsement gives not only a crucial boost to the idea of student loan refinancing, but also Warren’s burgeoning role as a student debt reformer.
It’s an issue likely to only get larger in American politics over the coming months and years. Cumulative student loan debt has reached an astonishing $1.2 trillion, and shot up 20 percent just from the end of 2011 to May 2013, faster than even the growth of revolving credit products like credit cards.
On average, the student loan debt held by 25-year-olds has gone up 91 percent in the past decade. The problem has been exacerbated by tough economic times—nearly one-third of borrowers who have begun repayment are seriously delinquent.
Read Next: Elizabeth Warren on why she ran for office
There’s little doubt the Obama administration’s big push to cut carbon pollution, announced this week, will lead to much less coal-fired power in the United States. That’s a good thing.
But what if states instead turn to natural gas-powered electricity instead? That’s certainly what the administration would like them to do—it’s explicitly laid out as an alternative in the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule, and Obama echoed that suggestion when he spoke on a conference call the day the rule was unveiled. For years, his administration has pushed natural gas as a fundamental part of America’s long-term energy strategy.
If that happens, it could be a disaster for the environment, according to some leading climate experts. Federal regulations on the extraction and transport of natural gas range from insufficient to nonexistent, and the resultant methane emissions from a bigger natural gas boom could neutralize the gains made by the EPA’s rule, and possibly even accelerate climate change in the short-term.
There are, it should be noted, significant reasons that natural gas might not become an energy source of the future, according to some analysts—but any turn away from gas will be thanks to volatile market dynamics, and not an administration heavily pushing its use.
How does the “Clean Power Plan” work?
In its 645-page proposed rule, the EPA examines the “carbon intensity” of power production in forty-nine states—that is, the percentage of carbon pollution in each state’s power generation output. (Vermont and the District of Columbia are exempt because they have no fossil fuel power plants.)
Then EPA regulators give each state a carbon intensity goal for 2030, and each state has a different goal based on what the EPA thinks it should be able to achieve. When you assume all forty-nine goals are met by 2030, the overall outcome is the projected 30 percent reduction of carbon pollution from 2005 levels.
States have many options to reduce carbon intensity. The EPA rule lays out four suggestions: making coal plants more efficient, boosting energy efficiency in the state, increasing wind, solar and nuclear power—and expanding natural gas power production. States can do some, all or none of those things. They are also free to come up with their own plans, like introducing a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme.
Natural gas sector is thrilled
For companies like Exxon Mobil, Chesapeake Energy and Anadarko Petroleum—all leading producers of natural gas—the EPA plan might be a huge boon, as states begin rapidly expanding natural gas production to meet the new carbon intensity standards.
America’s Natural Gas Alliance, which represents these and other major natural gas producers, estimated this week the regulations could increase the energy sector’s daily gas demand by 10 billion cubic feet per day, up from the current demand of 22 billion cubic feet—an astonishing 50 percent increase.
“A disastrous idea”
The critical problem is that the proposed EPA rule is concerned only with the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels at power plants—not the extraction, or transport, of those fuels. It’s true that burning natural gas for electricity generates half the carbon pollution as coal, and that’s where the EPA stops its analysis.
But getting natural gas out of the ground and to the power plant creates massive methane leaks—and methane is a kind of super-greenhouse gas that is over thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide.
“Substituting in natural gas for coal I think is disastrous idea,” said Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell who authored a leading study on the climate effects of natural gas emissions. He believes that converting to natural gas power plants will actually make climate change worse, not better.
A joint study by researchers at Stanford, the Massachussetts Institute of Technology and the Department of Energy found that methane leaks from natural gas extraction and transport actually negate the climate impact of switching to natural gas-powered vehicles. It did find that switching to natural gas from coal for power plants still resulted in fewer overall carbon emissions even considering the leaks, but the climate impact of the switch was heavily moderated.
Still, one critical concern is that methane affects the atmosphere more quickly—and given the ticking climate clock, it presents a unique danger. “We should and must control carbon dioxide because of its long-term consequences, but the climate system is far more responsive on the short time period to methane,” said Howarth. “And so if we are to slow the warming and avoid these potential tipping points just fifteen or twenty years out, we have to control methane emissions.”
The EPA itself estimates natural gas systems are the second-leading source of methane emissions in the United States, and an expanded natural gas boom could exacerbate the problem. Leaks occur first at the wellhead, where the natural gas comes out of the ground—think of the air that sprays out when you go to pump up a bicycle tire. The Obama administration has actually moved to regulate fugitive emissions there, though environmentalists say there are too many loopholes.
As for the pipelines that move the gas, there is literally no regulation. “They’re not regulating at all what the emissions are in the distribution systems, which I think is a big part of the problem and getting the gas to customers. We’re still moving natural gas through pipes that are in many cases over 100 years old, and leak like a sieve,” said Howarth. “I don’t see any move by the EPA at all to even begin to address that.”
Aside from lax regulations, the EPA consistently underestimates the volume and the danger of methane, according to many experts. A November 2013 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found the EPA was underestimating methane emissions by as much as 50 percent.
The EPA may also be low-balling the potency of methane. The official agency estimate is that methane is twenty-one times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, though the EPA will soon switch to a standard of twenty-five times more potent. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses a standard of 34 percent more potent.
The White House did announce in March that it is studying how to implement a comprehensive methane strategy, and some environmentalists are actually fairly optimistic it could be an aggressive one. But Howarth worries nothing can practically be done to contain pipeline leaks anytime soon—except putting far less gas through them.
“The city of Philadelphia has instituted a plan, they’re now doubling their efforts to identify and patch up leaks and try to reduce the distribution leaks there. But they’re planning on doing that over the next eighty years because the cost is so high,” said Howarth. “And there’s no city I’m aware of that’s moving any faster than Philadelphia. We just can’t afford to be continuing to release methane in that timeframe.”
That’s why the EPA shouldn’t be pushing it so aggressively, Howarth says. “If you’re going to put billions, maybe a trillion dollars, into cleaning up distribution systems, wouldn’t it be better to invest in a smart grid and wind power and solar power? There’s only so much capital to go around in our country.”
But will natural gas defeat itself?
The Obama administration—and likely any future administration, Democratic or Republican—is unlikely to also push for less natural gas usage. But market experts predict it could happen anyway, which would bail us out from the worst effects of methane emissions.
“I don’t think that the rule necessarily guarantees a much larger footprint for natural gas, because there’s a bunch of other variables that are going to be determining that,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program. Essentially, he believes natural gas might not remain as cheap as it is today, and will thus become an unattractive alternative.
Natural gas prices skyrocketed during the extreme cold weather this past winter, for example. “That definitely sent alarm bells throughout power markets that natural gas is not automatically cheap if you’ve got significant events or significant demand stresses on the system,” Slocum noted.
Another problem is the uncertain productivity of fracked oil and gas wells. Industry likes to claim they will provide plentiful, cheap gas for at least 100 years, but recent results undercut that claim—newly drilled wells do fine, but then suddenly the production drops off. The average flow from a shale gas well drops as much as 75 percent in the first year. “If that is sustained in these formations, you could see drops in production that return us back to the days when there was closer matches between supply and demand, which had an upward pressure on prices,” said Slocum.
Ultimately, these trends—if they continue—could force states and power producers to turn to other options laid out by the EPA to reduce carbon intensity. “We’ve got to understand, the primary reason [for the natural gas boom] is price advantage,” said Slocum. “The emissions benefits of gas relative to coal come in super-handy, but the bottom line here is that people have been flocking to gas because of price advantages, and if those price advantages evaporate, it is not going to be as popular of a fuel choice.”
That would be good for the environment—but not much to the credit of a government actively trying to encourage extensive natural gas use.
Read Next: The Nation editors explore why Obama’s environmental plan doesn’t go far enough.
The resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was a foregone conclusion by the time it happened on Friday morning. After shocking problems at a VA hospital were revealed in an election year (in Arizona, no less, represented by Senator John McCain, one of the administration’s most powerful foils inside the Beltway) and the heavy suggestion that more mismanagement across the country will soon be made public, Democrats in what promise to be razor-thin House and Senate races had virtually no choice but to call for his resignation as a tide of desperate, angry veterans flooded cable news airwaves and local newspapers.
There was then no way Shinseki could have stayed on in the face of these calls from the very party to whom he owed his nomination; his resignation was the only way to simmer down the scandal that filled up most of the news hole over the past few weeks. (Note that the two most powerful people in Washington not calling on Shinseki to resign were John Boehner and Eric Cantor. They knew that every day he stayed was a good one for Republicans.)
It doesn’t mean his resignation was the right thing to do in practice—in fact, it very well may delay implementation of solutions and make the VA’s problems worse—but it was simply a fact of nature in the political ecosystem.
Now the VA will be set on a new course, and it’s crucial that attention is paid to the true scandal: the overwhelming medical and mental burden suffered by thousands of young men and women returning from largely elective wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our continuing inability to fully care for them.
Last year, the Institute of Medicine released a Congressionally-mandated 794-page study outlining the challenges facing these veterans. Though the findings didn’t result in the same media firestorm, they should have:
More than 16,000 troops were wounded in Afghanistan and 32,000 in Iraq.
In contrast with virtually every previous American conflict, “the all-volunteer military has experienced numerous deployments of individual service members; has seen increased deployments of women, parents of young children, and reserve and National Guard troops; and in some cases has been subject to longer deployments and shorter times at home between deployments.”
Scientific literature shows as many as 22.8 percent of these returning vets—nearly a quarter—suffer from mild traumatic brain injuries, while as many as 20 percent suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder. Up to 37 percent struggle with combat-related depression, and 39 percent for problematic alcohol use.
For many recent years, the unemployment rate for returning vets was nearly double that of the civilian population, which of course isn’t particularly low. (It has been coming down some recently).
As many as 45 percent of female troops experienced sexual trauma in the military, which is driving quite a bit of PTSD in those troops above and beyond what they would have experienced because of combat.
The unfolding VA scandal involves unacceptable cover-ups of coverage problems at VA hospitals, but that is not mutually exclusive with a system that is fundamentally unable to deal with the problems at hand. In fact, the latter may have fostered the former. We don’t fully know yet, and the upcoming investigations should shed light on these issues.
But over the coming weeks, the politicians that have been rushing to appear on camera along with the outlets eager to cover this story should focus on the bigger picture: the crisis facing returning veterans and the current inability of the federal government to help them. There are many reasons why this has happened. And at the heart of all this is yet another scandal, one that continues to echo through American politics over a decade after it began: the decision to commit, and keep, American troops involved in two messy ground wars with unclear goals and uncertain, at best, benefits.
Read Next: Veterans don’t need a political scandal, they need a fully funded and functional VA.