Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.
President Obama's 2013 State of the Union address. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
For those who doubted that Barack Obama would maintain his commitment to a gun-safety agenda that challenges the supposed political power of the National Rifle Association, and the political caution of Democrats who more than a decade ago decided for the most cynical of reasons to abandon the struggle to address gun violence, the president’s fourth State of the Union address provided the answer.
Obama’s speech delivered a bold economic message—a rejection of the austerity threat posed by Paul Ryan and the Republican right in favor of a job-creation agenda—and it renewed the liberal promises of his recent inaugural address: fair pay for women, fair treatment for lesbians and gays, immigration reform, a return to seriousness with regard to climate change. The president was still too supportive of free-trade fantasies and he made an unsettling, if ill-defined, bow to the wrongheaded approaches of the Simpson-Bowles commission. Yet, his speech was aggressively progressive on a host of issues, calling for a hike in the minimum wage to $9 an hour, for real investments “in high-quality early education” and for a renewal of America’s commitment to voting rights.
That would have been enough in most years.
But this year’s State of the Union Address—coming just two months after the nation was shaken by the gun massacre at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school—demanded more.
And the president recognized that demand.
The emotional highpoint of his address to a joint session of Congress came late in the speech, when Obama pivoted from a review of his global vision—bringing troops home from Afghanistan, reducing nuclear arsenals, a genuine embrace of diplomacy—toward domestic affairs. And toward the most human, the most genuinely and understandably emotional of concerns.
“Of course, what I’ve said tonight matters little if we don’t come together to protect our most precious resource—our children,” Obama began.
“It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans—Americans who believe in the Second Amendment—have come together around commonsense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned.”
Then the president went deeper. He went beyond the policy provisions that are to be expected in State of the Union addresses to a specific, and pointed, demand.
“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” said the president in remarks that were directed two men seated within feet of him: House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Addressing the crisis of obstruction, which has stalled action on so many fundamental challenges, the president said: “If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
Then the president struck the most poignant and powerful note of the night.
“One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house,” the president announced with his voice rising as he declared:
Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.
Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.
The families of Newtown deserve a vote.
The families of Aurora deserve a vote.
The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence—they deserve a simple vote.
Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.
That reference to “the work of self-government” might have been lost in the moment, as thunderous applause shook the chamber to which more than thirty members of Congress had invited constituents who have been affected by gun violence. But it will not be lost on Americans whose attention has been refocused by their president on the gun-safety debate.
Obama’s determination to devote so substantial a portion of his State of the Union Address to the gun debate that is still in formation, and his willingness to make specific and repeated demands for House and Senate votes, provided another indication that he will not let this issue go. He will press Congress to act, as he must. After decades of neglect, not just by NRA-tied Republicans but by Democrats who were willing to put political expediency ahead of principle, Barack Obama engaged in the work of self-government. And he reminded Americans that their Congress has a responsibility to do the same.
Where are the student voices in the gun control debate? Read more at TheNation.com's StudentNation blog.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The great debate in America is not about the “fiscal cliff” or the “debt ceiling” or the “sequester” or whatever other fantasy pops into Paul Ryan’s head when he’s not reading Ayn Rand.
The great debate in America is between austerity and growth.
And Tuesday’s State of the Union address is the right moment for President Obama to make a clean break with the austerity lie in combination with a firm embrace of the growth agenda that is needed.
Bill Clinton, who has emerged as something of an economic “explainer-in-chief” for the Obama administration, proposed as much in an address last week to congressional Democrats. “The debt problem can’t be solved right now by conventional austerity measures,” said the former president, who reminded his attentive listeners that “everybody that’s tried austerity in a time of no growth has wound up cutting revenues even more than they cut spending because you just get into the downward spiral and drag the country back into recession.”
Clinton is right. But he has only provided the president with the talking point. Obama will need more than that to counter the determined campaign of Ryan and the Republicans—along with the “Fix the Debt” astroturf scam promoted by free-spending CEOs—to advance their austerity agenda as part the of coming sequester and debt-ceiling debates. Ryan and the Republican proponents of austerity are for making deep cuts in order to balance budgets at any cost—except, of course, taxing their wealthy campaign donors. As such, they are more than ready to render cherished programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as vital services such as the Post Office, so dysfunctional that Americans will start thinking the unthinkable: that these programs should be privatized.
Unfortunately, austerity doesn’t work. Clinton says so. The Congressional Budget Office says so. Both The Economist and the Financial Times—not exactly left-wing rags—say so. Indeed, The Economist and the Financial Times decry European austerity schemes that have created high unemployment and economic instability. So it is appealing to suggest that Obama need only say “no” Tuesday tonight.
But “no”—or worse yet the compromise of “yes” and “no” that some Democrats entertain—is not a sufficient alternative to austerity.
As part of its campaign to get Obama to use his State of the Union address to oppose austerity, New York's Working Families Party says: "Truth be told, we need to expand our commitment to our fellow Americans."
That's the point. Simply opposing austerity is not enough. The president must present a specific growth agenda that has a goal of expanding job creation initiatives and strengthening families and communities.
That’s what key members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), have provided.
Obama does not have to go all-in with the progressives to get the point across. But he should recognize the value of this outline for countering the fiscal fabulism of Ryan and the Ayn Randites who would make America a nasty and brutish place.
Arguing on behalf of the progressive “Balancing Act” proposal, Ellison says that America has already gone too far down the austerity path—not just at the federal level but in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, where Republican governors have attacked public services, public schools, public workers and (in Michigan’s case) private sector workers.
“Almost $2 trillion has been cut over the past two years from teachers, firefighters, police officers, loans for college students, and infrastructure investments,” the congressman says of warped federal budget priorities. “The American people shouldn’t continue to pay the price for massive tax breaks for millionaires and billions of dollars in subsidies to oil companies.”
To that end, Ellison, Grijalva, Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Washington Congressman Jim McDermott, New York Congresswoman Yvette Clarke and California's Jerry Nadler, Barbara Lee and Judy Chu have proposed the “Balancing Act” alternative to across-the- board cuts that would damage society and the economy.
* cancels the across the board “sequester” budget cuts that are now looming
* achieves a fair and balanced approach to long-term deficit reduction that reduces the burden on working families
* finds needed revenues by requiring that multinational corporations pay their fair share of taxes
* makes $300 billion in judicious long-term cuts to Pentagon waste
* creates 1 million jobs nationwide by investing in infrastructure and teachers and putting money in consumers’ pockets
“We’ve cut non-defense budgets to the bone,” says Grijalva. “There are simply no major savings hiding in school lunch or nurse training programs. We need investments. The Beltway refusal to make job creation our number-one priority is a scandal, and the Balancing Act is the right way to fix it.”
The House Democrats who have the Balancing Act achieve their goals—which mirror the goals of the American people, as expressed in every major poll—by eliminating the impending “sequester” cuts (which would fall disproportionately on working families and Americans living in poverty) and replaces them with an equal amount of revenue by closing corporate and individual tax loopholes.
This, they explain, will created an equal overall cuts-to-revenue balance when looking at the budget beginning in 2011, when the Budget Control Act was passed. That will free up resources for the sort of job creation that will help families and communities while spurring the economic growth that will ultimately balance federal, state and local governments.
That’s the real alternative to austerity.
President Obama does not have to embrace the Balancing Act in its entirely. But he should make its basic premises part of his State of the Union Address, and his governing agenda.
The president, Democratic leaders in the Senate and House and responsible Republicans should recognize the importance of adopting those premises—not for political reasons, but because austerity doesn’t renew the economy or help people get jobs. Growth does.
Watch John Nichols break down Bill Clinton's recent speech to Congressional Democrats.
(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
When Lyndon Johnson was president, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman William Fulbright held his fellow Democrat to account with hearings that challenged Johnson’s escalation of the undeclared war in Vietnam. It was the right thing to do.
When Ronald Reagan was conducting a lawless dirty war in Central America, Republicans such as Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and Charles Mathias of Maryland raised objections to the policies and actions of their party’s president.
When Bill Clinton steered the United States into the conflict in Yugoslavia, Senator Russ Feingold and Congressman Dennis Kucinich rejected partisanship to demand that the Democratic president respect the constitutional requirement that wars be declared.
Even when George Bush and Dick Cheney were enforcing the strictest party discipline, Iowa Congressman Jim Leach co-sponsored a resolution of inquiry into whether his fellow Republicans had conspired to lie about the supposed “threat” posed by Iraq.
In every case, the members of the Congress rejected the party line in order to defend the rule of law, which requires in our system of separated powers that the legislative branch check and balance the executive. It wasn’t personal. It was a matter of principle. In this, they accepted an understanding of the separation of powers articulated by then-Senator Barack Obama, who said in 2007: “The notion…that the president can continue down a failed path without any constraints from Congress whatsoever is not warranted by our Constitution.”
Checking and balancing the Obama administration on its use of drones is also a matter of principle. That is why it is not just appropriate but necessary for Democrats to ask the right questions, raise the right concerns and mount the appropriate constitutional challenges to administration policies.
Give Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, high marks for making the same demands for transparency from Democrat Barack Obama that he would make of a Republican president. “Every American has the right to know when their government believes it’s allowed to kill them…,” says Wyden. “[This] idea that security and liberty are mutually exclusive, that you can only have one or the other, is something I reject. So we’re now going to have to begin the heavy lifting of the congressional oversight process by examining the legal underpinnings of this program and to make very clear I am going to push for more declassification of these key kinds of programs. And I think we can do that consistent with national security.”
Wyden should not stand alone in a moment when Democrats have a unique constitiutional duty. There needs to be much broader recognition within the president’s party that it is possible to respect Obama while at the same time respecting the demands of a system where powers are appropriately separated.
With the credibility of Republican senators diminished by their grumbling about any and every action of Barack Obama, they are ineffectual when it comes to checking and balancing this president. So the task of asserting essential constitutional premises, along with the very American principle that Americans have a right to know what is being done in their name but without their informed consent, falls to responsible Democrats. A few have stepped up. Last year, Congressmen John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) introduced an amendment to the House version of the 2013 defense budget bill that sought to roll back the White House decision to expand drone strikes against terrorist targets around the world.
Conyers and Kucinich—who finished his House service in January—were not suggesting that the United States ought not defend itself, but they were demanding transparency, accountability and respect for the rule of law.
In a letter to the White House, they wrote,
A recent article published in The Washington Post revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have been given new authority that allows them "to fire on targets based solely on their intelligence 'signatures'—patterns of behavior that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance, and that indicated a presence of an important operative or plot against U.S. interests." Allowing the CIA and JSOC to conduct drone strikes without having to know the identity of the person they’re targeting is in stark contrast to what the administration has previously claimed regarding its drone campaign: that they are targeted strikes against suspected terrorists on lists maintained by the CIA and JSOC.
The implications of our use of drones for our national security are profound. They can generate powerful and enduring anti-American sentiment. Such "signature" strikes raise the risk of innocent civilians or individuals who have no relationship to attacks on the U.S. of being killed. The government has the right and the obligation to protect the citizens of this country. Yet Congress must be given the opportunity to weigh in and demand that there be a minimum of transparency and accountability for our U.S. drone program abroad.
Ultimately, two dozen House members joined Conyers and Kucinich in asking the White House to provide more information to Congress regarding drone strikes. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) were among the signers. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the Constitution subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, was a signer. So, too, were two of the few House Republicans who have been serious about checking and balancing the war-making powers of Republican and Democratic presidents, Texan Ron Paul (who has since retired) and North Carolina’s Walter Jones, Jr.
Paul and Jones had credibility because they had opposed President Bush’s lawless actions. They weren’t acting as mere partisan automatons. They were acting as members of Congress whose oath of office requires them to check and balance the executive. Democrats such as Wyden and the House members who have stepped up are similarly motivated. They are not disrespecting the president. They are respecting the Constitution.
This is a principle well understood by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who cast the only vote against the overly broad 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force act that continues to be read as justifiction for an ill-defined and apparently endless “war on terror.”
Congresswoman Lee, one of the first backers of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and a key player in writing the 2012 Democratic Party platform, is very loyal to the president. But she is also loyal to the Constitution.
“The recently leaked Justice Department memo that outlined the overly broad and vague legal boundaries used to justify drone strikes should shake the American people to the core. While I applaud President Obama for releasing more information to the Senate and House intelligence committees, the root of the problem remains: The administration is using the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by the House on Sept. 14, 2001, as one of the justifications for the lethal use of drones. As the only member of Congress who voted against this blank check, I believe now more than ever that we must repeal it,” argues Lee in a letter published Sunday in the Los Angeles Times.
“We need a full debate of the consequences of the September 2001 action, and meaningful oversight by Congress is vital. As commander in chief, it is Obama’s duty to keep our country safe, but Congress must not retreat from its constitutional obligation of oversight. These checks and balances are the foundation of our democracy, and they must stay intact.”
Along with Ron Wyden and John Conyers, Barbara Lee is striking the proper balance for all members of Congress, but especially for Democrats.
Read Greg Mitchell's take on the Brennan hearings.
The proposal by the US Postal Service to end Saturday mail delivery—which can and should be blocked by Congress—poses a dramatic threat to the economic and social viability of rural communities and inner cities. The move endangers small businesses that rely on affordable, universal and regular service. And it threatens the elderly, the disabled and vulnerable Americans who count on the connections made through the mail—and with the letter carriers who deliver it.
But there is another threat contained in this wrongheaded plan to put the Postal Service out of commission from Friday to Monday. Cutting mail delivery would undermine democracy by making it harder for the tens of millions of Americans who vote by mail to continue to do so.
Though the numbers vary from state to state, it is now generally accepted that 20 percent of American voters—including First Lady Michelle Obama—are casting ballots by mail. The numbers have increased at an exponential rate in recent years. Most mail voters do so via traditional absentee ballots, although roughly 5 percent live in states that formally conduct elections using a vote-by-mail system. And the practice is expanding; next week in California, 44,000 vote-by-mail ballots will be mailed to voters in advance of a March special election for the State Senate.
In the weeks before presidential and congressional elections, tens of millions of ballots will move through the postal system, with the final period before an election seeing many days when the volume of mailed ballots exceeds a million. Weekend days are especially busy because that’s when working people can find the time to apply for, fill out and send in absentee ballots. It is also, election officials say, when family members of the elderly and the disabled are most free to help them access and complete ballots. Only those who do not understand the stresses on already over-taxed election systems would suggest that it does not matter to reduce the number of days when tens of millions of voters can obtain ballots and cast them.
This is not a matter of Democrats versus Republicans, or liberals versus conservatives. While Democrats have made significant inroads, there are still regions where Republicans maintain absentee-voting advantages.
This threat goes deeper, to democracy itself..
Taking Saturdays out of the rotation deals a serious blow to existing absentee and vote-by-mail operations, and reduces the likelihood that this voter-friendly approach will be expanded. One of the top election experts in the nation, Cook County Clerk David Orr, who runs elections in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, has predicted that “mail [voting] will dramatically grow over a period of time.” But that will happen only if the postal service is reliable. That’s what is maddening about the proposed cut in Saturday delivery: with election officials looking to expand voting by mail as a response to long lines and other Election Day challenges, the reduction in service threatens the growth potential of the USPS at precisely the time when the postal service needs new volume and revenue.
In Oregon, a pioneering vote-by-mail state, Secretary of State Kate Brown has been an outspoken critic of moves to cut postal services, arguing that eliminating Saturday delivery threatens to create delays, increase burdens of election workers and, ultimately, to “disenfranchise voters in Oregon.”
In Washington state, which has also moved to a vote-by-mail system, Secretary of State Kim Wyman has expressed disappointment in USPS for proposing the cut delivery days. Wyman is hustling to develop contingency plans that will have to be implemented if the cuts go through.
But in communities across the country, local election officials are worried that it will be difficult to address the gap that would be created by the elimination of mail service on key weekends before local, state and national elections.
“Forget the ‘future of voting,’ as many want to discuss. The present is drying up…” argues Johnson County, Kansas, Election Commissioner Brian Newby. “Without Saturday postal delivery, Johnson County voters who get ballots issued on the last day allowed by law [the Friday before the election] will have no way to turn them around and know they were delivered by Tuesday. There likely will be others who will find they need the Saturday delivery 10 days before the election to get their ballot before going out of town the following Monday morning and now otherwise will be unable to vote in an election.”
Doug Chapin, the director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs speculates that election administrators may have to develop their own systems of secure drop boxes to manage the masses of mailed ballots. That will cause more expense, and raise the prospect of disenfranchisement—especially in Northern and Western states that have placed an emphasis on making it easier to vote. Notably, vote-by-mail states Oregon and Washington consistently rank among in the top five for turnout, along with states that have high levels of absentee voting, such as Wisconsin.
This is an issue where policy makers need to put the pieces together. Congress is addressing the issue of long lines at polling places. Eliminating postal services will not reduce lines on Election Day, it will increase them. And that’s a step in the wrong direction.
The austerity agenda that would cut services for working Americans in order to maintain tax breaks for the wealthy—and promote the privatization of public services—has many faces.
Most Americans recognize the threats to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as pieces of the austerity plan advanced by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), and the rest of the Ayn Rand–reading wrecking crew that has taken over the Republican Party. But it is important to recognize that the austerity agenda extends in every direction: from threats to Food Stamps and Pell Grants, to education cuts, to the squeezing of transportation funding.
But the current frontline of the austerity agenda is the assault on the US Postal Service, a vital public service that is older than the country. And it is advancing rapidly. On Wednesday, the Postal Service announced that Saturday first-class mail delivery is scheduled for elimination at the beginning of August—the latest and deepest in a series of cuts that threatens to so undermine the service that it will be ripe for bartering off to the private delivery corporations that have long coveted its high-end components.
“USPS executives cannot save the Postal Service by tearing it apart. These across-the-board cutbacks will weaken the nation’s mail system and put it on a path to privatization," declares American Postal Workers Union president Cliff Guffey.
“The postmaster general cannot save the Postal Service by ending one of its major competitive advantages. Cutting six-day delivery is not a viable plan for the future. It will lead to a death spiral that will harm rural America while doing very little to improve the financial condition of the Postal Service,” says US Senator Bernie Sanders, who has had some success in promoting Senate efforts to avert deep cuts to the Postal Service. “Providing fewer services and less quality will cause more customers to seek other options. Rural Americans, businesses, senior citizens and veterans will be hurt by ending Saturday mail."
There is no question that Congress can save Saturday service.
Unfortunately, while the Senate has endorsed smart reforms that benefit the service and its customers, the House has resisted action.
The House will act only if Americans raise an outcry.
And they should. Because if this austerity fight is lost, it will not be the last defeat for public services and public workers.
The damage associated with the curtailing of Saturday delivery will be most severe in rural areas and inner cities, where small businesses and working families rely on local post offices that are already targeted for shuttering. It will, as well, be particularly harmful to the elderly, the disabled and others who rely on regular delivery and the human connection provided by letter carriers and rural delivery drivers.
The plan to end key Saturday services, which has been correctly described by the National Association of Letter Carriers as “a disastrous idea that would have a profoundly negative effect on the Postal Service and on millions of customers,” is not necessary. Ryan and his fellow proponents of austerity manufactured the current crisis in USPS funding, when they enacted the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA). The PAEA forced the Postal Service to prefund its future healthcare benefit payments to retirees for the next seventy-five years. That’s something no major corporation could or would do, as it required the service to divert more than $5 billion annually to prepay the health benefits of retirees who have not yet been hired.
“Slowing mail service and degrading our unmatchable last-mile delivery network are not the answers to the Postal Service’s financial problems,” says National Association of Letter Carriers President Fredric Rolando. “If the Postmaster General is unwilling or unable to develop a smart growth strategy that serves the nearly 50 percent of business mailers that want to keep six-day service, and if he arrogantly thinks he is above the law or has the right to decide policy matters that should be left to Congress, it is time for him to step down.”
Rolando is right. Congress can and should intervene to preserve Saturday delivery, to provide bridge funding for the service and to develop a plan that undoes the damage done by the PAEA and reforms rules so that the Postal Service can compete in the digital era.
This is doable. The Postal Service needs to make changes. No one argues with that. But the changes should—along the lines outlined by Sanders and his allies in the Senate—allow the service to compete with private delivery firms, and they should capitalize on a rural infrastructure that can play an key role in broadband buildout and the development of new financial and community services.
The current leadership of the Postal Service will not save it; they have bought into the austerity lie. Indeed, with the Saturday delivery cut, they are promoting austerity on steroids.
Any move to save the Postal Service requires members of Congress, not just Democrats but responsible Republicans, to reject austerity and get serious about maintaining vital public services.
This is not an option. It is a constitutional responsibility.
If Congress will not follow a constitutional charge to protect the Postal Service, should we really expect that it will defend Social Secuity, Medicare, Medicaid and other public services? The question should tell us that the work of preserving and expanding the Postal Service is an essential battle in the fight against the austerity lie.
Read Allison Kilkenny’s take on the slashing and burning of Philadelphia’s public school system.
The Pennsylvania state capitol building. (Flickr/Paul Vasiliades)
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has been blunt about his determination to rig the Electoral College. So it should come as no surprise that, even after his partisan minions were "named and shamed" into distancing themselves from an initial strategy for gaming presidential politics, key Republicans have returned with another plan to make it possible for a GOP loser to "win" the 2016 presidential race.
Thwarted in an effort to assign electoral votes based on the results from gerrymandered congressional districts, Republicans are now proposing a "proportional representation" plan that offers another avenue to assign substantial numbers of electoral votes to Republican nominees who lose key swing states such as Pennsylvania.
The proportional proposal—which Pennsylvania state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a top Republican closely allied with Governor Tom Corbett, says he will introduce in short order—sounds on the surface like a somewhat fairer approach. But, if implemented, it would put the “fix” in just as surely as the previous plan.
Indeed, a Pileggi spokesman admits, "The major goal remains the same..."
It is the goal of rigging the rules to benefit future Republican presidential nominess that has always mattered most to Priebus and his allies.
The RNC chair and those aligned with him have never evidenced any great concern regarding specifics. They're concerned with gaining an illicit advantage for Republican presidential candidates who Priebus has essentially admitted are unlikely to win a fair fight under the existing rules.
In the arcane language of the permanent political insider, Priebus says: "states that have been consistently blue that are controlled red ought to be looking at" ways to alter rules for distributing electoral votes. Translation: In states where Democrats regularly win presidential races, Republicans should use their transitory control of governorships and state legislative chambers to grab as many electoral votes as they can.
Priebus initially talked up the idea of to having Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania abandon the current model of assigning electoral votes to the winner of the state and instead implement a model where the allotment would be based on the winners of congressional districts. That plan, which would have allowed the loser of the popular vote in many states to "win" most of the electoral votes, was such a blatant rip-off that shamed Republicans in Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin and other states abandoned it.
But they did not abandon the basic premise laid out by Priebus—that states that are "controlled red" by the Republicans should game the rules so that they are less "consistently blue" in presidential politics. They've just shifted strategy.
Under the plan now being entertained by Pennsylvania Republicans, electoral votes would be distributed based on the percentage of the vote received by the contenders. Had the plan been in place in 2012, President Obama, who won 52 percent of the Pennsylvania popular vote, would have gotten 11 or 12 electoral votes, while Republican Mitt Romney would have gotten 8 or 9.
That looks like a more reasonable result than under the plan for allocating by congressional district results, which would have given Romney most of Pennsylvania's electoral votes despite Obama's popular vote win.
But here's where things get tricky. If Pennsylvania and other swing states that tend to back Democrats move to the proportional model, while big states such as Texas and Georgia that have been voting Republican stick with a winner-take-all plan, they will lock in a national advantage for the Republicans.
The Pennsylvania initiative may not be quite as "sweet" for Republicans as the initial Priebus plan. But if states that vote Democratic assign substantial numbers of their electoral votes to the Republican loser, while states that vote Republican make no such concession, it will be a lot easier to chart a course where a Republican nominee who is trounced in the national popular vote might still "win" the electoral vote and the presidency.
The necessary response from democracy advocates to the latest plan to rig the Electoral College is essentially the same as the response to the last scheme.
The very fact that the rules for distributing electoral votes can be so easily rewritten to thwart the will of the people regarding the election of the president of the United States “should give us all pause,” explains FairVote's Rob Richie.
“The Election of the president should be a fair process where all American voters should have an equal ability to hold their president accountable,” says Richie. “It’s time for the nation to embrace one-person, one-vote elections and the ‘fair fight’ represented by a national popular vote. Let’s forever dismiss the potential of such electoral hooliganism and finally do what the overwhelming majorities of Americans have consistently preferred: make every vote equal with a national popular vote for president.”
That—not the Priebus plan, or the Pennsylvania variation—is what the people want.
Indeed, a Gallup poll taken January 8-9, 2013, found that 63 percent of Americans would support “doing away with the Electoral College and basing the election of the president on the total vote cast throughout the nation.”
The people are right.
Priebus and his pal in Pennsylvania are wrong.
Read John Nichols's takedown of Reince Priebus.
Obama the skeet-shooter. (Flickr/White House)
Forget the “birthers.”
The tin-foil hat crowd demand that President Obama produce evidence of his American birth is so 2011.
The whacked-out fantasists of the moment are “skeeters”—Obama critics so unhinged that they have trouble imagining that a president who promotes gun safety would ever actually touch a gun.
When Obama mentioned in a recent interview that, like millions of responsible gun owners, he enjoys skeet shooting, it was open season for the skeeters. So incredulous were they about the notion that the president might actually enjoy shooting clays that a Republican congresswoman, Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), went on national television to join what was referred to as “a chorus of skeptics who questioned President Barack Obama’s recent comments about his hobby of skeet shooting, a sport where participants fire shotguns to break airborne clay disks.”
“If he is a skeet shooter, why have we not heard of this?” grumbled Blackburn in a CNN appearance that mocked the president. “Why have we not seen photos? Why hasn’t he referenced this at any point in time?”
So the White House released a photo of the president firing what looks to be a 12-gauge Browning.
Obama’s stance may not meet Olympic skeet competition standards. But he looks comfortable enough with the gun. So comfortable that the photo might ease the concerns of a lot of gun-owning Americans who—like most National Rifle Association members—appreciate their firearms but are coming to accept that some regulations are necessary to protect against illicit trafficking in weapons and gun violence.
That’s got the gun lobby rattled. If they can’t portray the president as reflexively anti-gun, it gets a lot harder to oppose background checks and other simple gun-safety measures.
So now the skeeters, no longer in complete denial, are claiming that the skeet-shooting picture’s are “a ploy” to advance the cause of gun control.
“One picture does not erase a lifetime of supporting every gun ban and every gun-control scheme imaginable,” griped Andrew Arulanandam, spokesman for the National Rifle Association. NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre rushed to the nearest Fox News camera to declare: “During the campaign, when he said to people, ‘I will not take away your rifle, shotgun, handgun,’ they leafleted the country with flyers like this, ‘Obama’s not gonna take your gun,’ ‘Obama will protect gun rights,’ And now he’s trying to take away all three.”
But, just as the skeeter skeptics were wrong to question the president’s shooting claim, so they are wrong to lie about his gun-safety agenda. It’s not anti–Second Amendment, and its not anti-gun. It’s the response of a leader who understands that “we can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible, law-breaking few from inflicting harm on a massive scale.”
That’s what’s got the NRA leadership scared.
The gun lobby just got bit by its skeeter fantasy.
And LaPierre knows, though he will never admit it, that one picture might yet speak a thousand words about Obama’s balanced stance.
The NRA's political power is a myth. Read John Nichols's takedown.
Tom Harkin. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Tom Harkin’s decision to retire from the Senate at the end of his current term will create an immeasurable void in the chamber where he has served for more than a quarter-century. A progressive populist with a history of defending organized labor, working farmers, public education and public services, the Iowan arrived in the Senate as a fighting FDR Democrat and he will leave as one.
As The Des Moines Register well recognized in its editorial on the Iowa Democrat’s decision to retire:
A variety of terms have been used to describe Harkin’s politics. He has been called a progressive or a populist from the prairie school. He is that but more: He was a close friend of the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone who used to say he belonged to the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, meaning he was not ashamed to be called a liberal. That’s the same wing of the party Harkin has represented without apology.
Actually, Harkin’s politics and his philosophy of government are rooted in the age of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which swept in a historic change in the role of government in the affairs of the nation.
On a national political landscape that could use a good deal more of FDR’s ideological and political determination—especially in the updated and extended form that Harkin employed it—this is a retirement that will be felt by every American who recognizes that formation of a more perfect union requires the forging of a truly national, urban and rural progressive politics.
Harkin has for almost forty years, first as a member of the House and then as a senator, represented a swing state with a Republican governor, a Republican senator and a competitive streak in presidential politics. Yet, he has won, again and again, and by ever-expanding margins. Elected to the Senate in the same year that Ronald Reagan won his second term by a landslide both nationally and in Iowa, Harkin has repeatedly bucked Republican tides and prevailed when more moderate Democrats have been defeated. His electoral success confirms the progressive premise that voters are more likely to back a determined Democrat than a compromising centrist.
But there has always been more to Harkin than populist rhetoric and ideological clarity. He came to Congress to get things done: to end secret wars in Latin America, to keep family farmers on the land, to make workplaces safer and to enact the groundbreaking civil rights protections contained in the Americans With Disabilities Act. Many of his greatest legislative victories came when Republicans sat in the White House, most were enacted with Republican co-sponsorship.
Harkin has always understood something that only a few other progressives—Wellstone, Russ Feingold, Bernie Sanders—have ever really “got”: that it is not necessary to sacrifice principles when organizing coalitions of conscience across lines of party and ideology.
For Harkin, the key word has been “conscience.”
Harkin has consistently clung to an old faith in what politics could and should be. He speaks of morality, of right and wrong. And his colleagues know he is serious; so serious that they often put aside cynicism and cooperate to accomplish that which—and the ADA is a classic example of this—few thought possible.
Harkin could compromise. He was proud if those compromises advanced the common good. If they went awry, he was usually the first talk about it. When Harkin cast a wrong vote—and he did sometimes—it tore at him. But he has rarely suffered in silence. He voted for the 2002 resolution that became President Bush’s excuse for a war of whim in Iraq, but by 2003 he was declaring: “I made a mistake, and I wouldn’t do it again.” He bluntly said that Bush “misled Congress and got his war…a pre-emptive war that has ended in disaster.”
By 2004, Harkin was an enthusiastic, and because of his Iowa prominence, essential backer of Howard Dean’s anti-war campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Harkin would eventually become one of the loudest congressional critics of the war, and of the Bush administration’s abuses of power, joining with Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold in a lonely effort to censure the president. When Bush nominated the noxious John Negroponte to serve as US ambassador to Iraq, the Iowan broke not just with the administration but with fellow Democrats to vote against a man who had been linked to human rights abuses in Honduras two decades earlier. Harkin battled, essentially alone, to hold Negroponte to account.
The senator came full circle in the 2004 debate over Negroponte’s nomination.
Harkin’s first big fight on Capitol Hill, as a young congressman from a competitive district representing rural Iowa, was to demand that the entire thrust of US foreign policy be altered.
As a young congressional aide in 1970, Harkin had played a critical role in exposing South Vietnam’s abusive treatment of prisoners, who were held in so-called “tiger cages.” Horrified by mounting evidence of US support for right-wing coups, murderous dictators and torture states in southern Asia and Latin America, Harkin in 1975 proposed an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act that prohibited the United States from providing economic aid to any country determined to be engaged gross human rights violations unless. The only exception was a provision that permitted allocation of US funds if could be proved that the money who directly benefit the most impoverished citizens.
The amendment, which passed with relative ease, became Section 116 of the Foreign Assistance Act, which declared: “No assistance may be provided under this part to the government of any country which engages in consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person, unless such assistance will directly benefit the needy people in such country.”
Presidents and their congressional allies invariably circumvented human rights responsibilities, to Harkin’s great frustration. As a new US senator in the mid-1980s, he joined another new senator, John Kerry of Massachusetts, in seeking to expose and end the Reagan administration’s support for right-wing dictators and death squads in Latin America. Others softened in their stances, but not Harkin. When Bush nominated Negroponte for the Iraqi ambassadorship, the senator from Iowa took to the floor of the chamber and recounted the dark history of the nominee’s “service” as Ronald Reagan’s administration gave lawless support to death squads and paramilitary murderers. Harkin accused the nominee of lying to Congress and the American people about circumstances on the ground in Honduras in the early 1980s—where 184 people, including an American priest, “disappeared” while Negroponte was ambassador to Honduras.
“Ambassador Negroponte turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the human rights abuses in Honduras,” Harkin thundered. “To send Mr. Negroponte to Iraq would send entirely the wrong message at this time.”
For Tom Harkin, it was not enough to amend the laws of the land to defend human rights. It was necessary to hold to account those who circumvented those laws.
It was a conscience call. A moral duty. And for Tom Harkin, this has always been the point of being a senator.
For those of us who know Harkin, and his record, this is our source of regret at the news of his decision to retire. He has surely given a full measure of service. But his kind is rare, too rare, in a Congress that will be deeply diminished by his departure.
Chuck Hagel is also no favorite of foreign policy hawks, John Nichols writes.
Chuck Hagel. (AP Photos/Nati Harnik)
There is no worse place than a Senate confirmation hearing to get a sense of whether a nominee for a critical cabinet post is up to the job.
Chuck Hagel proved that Thursday, delivering a predictably cautious opening statement at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to serve as President Obama’s secretary of defense. The questioning—from Republicans who now appear to despise the former Republican senator from Nebraska (including the ungrateful recipient of Hagel’s 2000 presidential endorsement: Arizona Senator John McCain) and from Democrats who are still wrapping their head around the idea of Hagel as a member of the Obama cabinet—was only slightly more illuminating.
But there is nothing drab or predictable about Hagel. There’s a reason neocons and military contractors are so determined to block his confirmation. Hagel’s shown an independent streak that is not just rare in Washington; it explains why leaders of both parties are so frequently unsettled by the former senator, and why it is really quite remarkable that Obama has nominated this Vietnam veteran to serve as the first-ever “enlisted man” secretary of defense.
I don’t count myself as an enthusiast for Hagel on every front; I’ve still got troubles with his 2002 vote to authorize George W. Bush to take the country to war with Iraq, for instance. I know he will not be an ideal secretary of defense. I know he will disappoint at some point if he is confirmed. Probably at some point sooner than later.
But Hagel is a rare political figure who evolves, and who admits his errors. And he is not afraid to call out those who lied to him along the way, and those who continue to lie to themselves. It bugs the John McCains of the world that, in a town where few prominent politicians ever come clean, Hagel went honest on them.
And he did it at a point when a good many Democrats were still wrestling with the truth.
I spent a good deal of time following Hagel in the period from 2003 to 2007, when he emerged as the Republican Republicans loved to hate, and as the Republican who showed Democrats that they could—and should—be much more critical of the Bush-Cheney administration and the Pentagon.
Here is a piece I wrote back in those days that, I suspect, tells us a lot more than anything we’ll hear from an Armed Services Committee hearing about where Chuck Hagel is coming from, and why he stirs such anger among the guardians of the neocon fantasy and the keys to the military-industrial complex:
Chuck Hagel: Opposition Senator
Originally published on August 2, 2006
Who is the most outspoken and through-provoking Senate critic of the Bush administration’s misguided foreign policies?
Hint: The boldest opposition voice is not that of a Democrat.
Over the course of the past week, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a maverick conservative Republican from Nebraska, has scoured the administration for its misguided approaches in language far wiser and bolder than the empty stream of rhetoric that continues to pass the lips of his Democratic colleagues.
Here’s Hagel on Iraq: “[The occupation’s] an absolute replay of Vietnam.” The Vietnam veteran deplored the fact that U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq had become “easy targets” in a country that he told the Omaha World Herald had descended into “absolute anarchy.” Hagel condemned the decision of the Bush administration and its rubberstamping Pentagon to suspend military rotations and add new troops in Iraq—increasing the size of the occupation force from 130,000 to 135,000. “That isn’t going to do any good. It’s going to have a worse effect,” argues Hagel. “They’re destroying the United States Army.”
More significantly, here’s Hagel on the failure of the United States to use its influence with Israel to end the killing of innocent Lebanese men, women and children and the destruction of that country’s civilian infrastructure: “How do we realistically believe that a continuation of the systematic destruction of an American friend—the country and people of Lebanon—is going to enhance America’s image and give us the trust and credibility to lead a lasting and sustained peace effort in the Middle East? The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now,” Hagel said on the Senate floor. Delivering the message that should be coming from the opposition party, the senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declared: “President Bush must call for an immediate cease fire. This madness must stop.”
Most significantly of all, here’s Hagel making the connection between the occupation of Iraq and the broader Middle East crisis: “America is bogged down in Iraq, and this is limiting our diplomatic and military options.” Because the Bush administration deals in unreasonable “absolutes” when it approaches disputes in the region, the senator said, the United States in no longer seen as the “wellspring of consensus” that might be able to develop multi-national support for peace initiatives.
Finally, here’s Hagel on what the U.S. should be doing in the Middle East: “We know that without engaged and active American leadership, the world is more dangerous,” explains the senator, who has been talked about as a possible 2008 presidential contender. So, he says, the US must engage. Instead of Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s hands-off approach, Hagel argues, US diplomats should be working with Arab governments, including governments that leaders in Washington may not like. Rejecting Bush’s ranting about Syria and Iran, Hagel says the US should be in direct negotiations with those countries. The senator characterized the administration’s decision to pull the US ambassador out of Damascus as “mindless.” Paraphrasing the advice of a retired senior US intelligence officer, Hagel said, “Even superpowers have to talk to bad guys. We ought to be able to communicate in a way that signals our strength and self-confidence.”
To those who would suggest that the US must choose between supporting Israel and engaging with its Arab neighbors, even those neighbors that Washington may consider to be “bad guys,” Hagel offered one of the sanest statements heard on the floor of the Senate in the whole debate over the Middle East crisis: “Our relationship with Israel is special and historic,” the Nebraskan said. “But it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice.”
Hagel is far from a perfect player. He doesn’t have all the answers. He’s not even proposing bold responses to the current crisis, and not all that he suggests is wise or responsible. The senator’s simply a throwback to the old bipartisan consensus that said diplomacy and common sense ought to guide US foreign policy, as opposed to messianic ranting and kneejerk reaction. Bush and his neoconservative colleagues are so out of touch with global realities and traditional American values with regard to diplomacy that they don’t even understand where Hagel is coming from. Unfortunately, the Democrats are so lacking in spine and vision that, while they may recognize that Hagel is right about the failures and false choices that are the byproducts of this president’s policies, they lack the guts to borrow enough pages from Republican senator’s playbook to make themselves an effective opposition party.
Read John Nichols’s primer on Chuck Hagel’s candidacy for secretary of defense.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. (Flickr/Rappaport Center)
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has rejected former Congressman Barney Frank’s request that he be appointed to fill the vacancy created by Senator John Kerry’s resignation to serve as secretary of state. Despite the fact that progressive groups urged the Frank pick for the temporary slot—arguing that the former congressman could play a critical, perhaps definitional, role in budget fights over cutting Pentagon waste and taxing speculators—the governor instead picked his former chief of staff.
The new senator, William “Mo” Cowan, has long been close to the governor, having formerly served as Patrick’s legal counsel. He’s experienced, capable and politically connected, a well-regarded lawyer who has worked not just with Patrick but also with former Governor Mitt Romney (whom Cowan helped identify judicial picks). He’ll be the state’s second African-American senator, after liberal Republican Ed Brooke, who served in the 1960s and 1970s. As a lawyer, Cowan has been active with the American Constitution Society—joining in the society’s “work to advance the progressive values and principles of the U.S. Constitution”—which counts for a lot with Americans who seek to challenge right-wing judicial activism.
But, as with his selection of former Democratic National Committee Paul Kirk to fill the interim vacancy created by the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, Patrick has gone with a connected insider rather than someone who is likely to shake things up in the Senate.
Patrick says he’s now got “a valued ally” in the Senate.
And there is no reason to doubt that this is the case.
But, of course, this is the problem with letting governors, be they Republicans or Democrats, appoint US senators. The Massachusetts circumstance is less troublesome than in states such as Hawaii and South Carolina, which will be represented for more than two years by recently appointed senators. A special election in June will replace Cowan with a senator chosen by the voters.
But gubernatorial appointments of senators, be they for a few months, or for a few years, make the United States Senate, never a perfectly representative body, a good deal less representative.
Cowan will join three appointed senators in the chamber during what Barney Frank correctly identified as a particularly critical period in the chamber.
Another new senator, Tim Scott, has been appointed by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, rather than elected by the people of that state. The same goes for Brian Schatz, Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie’s pick to fill the vacancy created by the death of Senator Dan Inouye.
Cowan, Schatz and Scott come from different parties and different ideological backgrounds. There is every reason to believe they will serve honorably, and ably. Progressives are already excited by some of what Schatz has done, while conservatives are enthusiastic about Scott.
But none of these details change the fact that a trio of unelected senators will be powerful, perhaps even definitional, figures in what is supposed to be a representative body. They will play critical roles in deciding whether to approve or reject cabinet nominees and Supreme Court selections, they will vote on tax policies and budget measures and they will decide whether to crack the “debt ceiling”—or send young men and women off to war. But they will do so without democratic legitimacy.
No member of Congress should serve without having been elected by the people of the district or state they represent.
Unfortunately, the new Senate will have at least three members who serve not as representatives but as mandarins—appointees assigned to positions by governors who have assumed dubious authority.
The point here ought not be to do disparage Cowan, Shatz or Scott.
The point is to raise a concern about the fact that more laws will be proposed, more filibusters will be sustained, more critical votes will be tipped in one direction or another by “senators” who never earned a single vote for the positions they are holding.
Because of a deliberate misreading of the vague 1913 amendment to the US Constitution that replaced the old system of appointing senators with one that said they were all supposed to be directly elected.
The Seventeenth Amendment sought to end the corrupt, and corrupting, process of appointing senators. But a loophole was included to give governors the authority to make temporary appointments. That meant that, while no one has ever been allowed to serve in the US House of Representatives without having first been elected, dozens of men and women have served in the Senate without having been elected. And those appointed senators often serve for two full years, as will South Carolina’s Scott and Hawaii’s Senator Schatz, both of whom will serve until at least 2015. To the end of the 113th Congress, senators chosen by individual governor in South Carolina and Hawaii will have the same authority as a senator elected by 7,748,994 voters (California Democrat Dianne Feinstein).
Former House Judiciacy Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-MI), rightly points out that this is a fundamental voting-rights issue. It is, as well, a question of “basic consistency in how our Representatives in Congress are elected.” Says Conyers: “The Constitution has always required that House vacancies be filled by election. The Senate should not be subject to a different standard. Americans should always have a direct say in who represents them in Congress—in both Houses, all of the time.”
Conyers was a key House backer of former US Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), when the then-chairman of the Senate Judiciacy Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution tried to amend the Constitution to address the problem.
Feingold’s proposal, which would have required special elections to fill all Senate vacancies, got a little bit of traction when Feingold was still serving in the Senate. In 2009, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution approved Feingold’s proposed amendment to end gubernatorial appointments to vacant Senate seats.
Recalling a series of appointments following the 2008 election, Feingold said: “I applaud my colleagues on the subcommittee for passing the Senate Vacancies Amendment, which will end an anti-democratic process that denies voters the opportunity to determine who represents them in the US Senate. The nation witnessed four gubernatorial appointments to Senate seats earlier this year, some mired in controversy, and we will soon see another one in Texas. This will leave more than 20 percent of Americans represented by a senator whom they did not elect.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), was not enthusiastic about the amendment. He defended the appointment of senators, saying, “In the state of Nevada the governor appoints. Even though we have a Republican governor now I think that’s the way it should be so I don’t support his legislation.”
No one with a taste for democracy can possibly respect the majority leader’s position on appointed senators.
More thoughtful senators, including the number-two Democrat in the chamber, Illinoisan Dick Durbin, co-sponsored Feingold’s amendment.
Reid got that one wrong. Feingold got it right.
“It is time to finish the job started by the great progressive Bob La Follette of Wisconsin to require the direct election of senators,” the former senator from Wisconsin said in 2009. “No one can represent the American people in the House of Representatives without the approval of the voters. The same should be true for the Senate. I hope the full Senate Judiciary Committee will soon get the chance to consider this important constitutional amendment to entrust the people, not state governors, with the power to select U.S. senators.”
The worst deficit facing America is the democracy deficit.
It can be addressed, at least in part, by making the Senate a representative chamber.
Feingold can’t complete the process he began. But his former colleagues, led by Dick Durbin, should do so. As Durbin said several years ago when he chaired a hearing on the issue: “Over a half century ago, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said: ‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ The same might be said of special elections to fill vacant U.S. Senate seats—they are the worst way to fill such seats, except for all the others.”
Read John Nichols’s primer on Barney Frank’s Senate candidacy that was.