Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Election In Hindsight

This shouldn’t come as a shock to most of you, but I think the Democrats’ resounding victory in the election three weeks ago was a good thing for the country. Six years of virtual one-party control in Washington disrupted national priorities, short-circuited cooperative party interaction and limited productive administrative oversight. Worst of all, it derailed the vital deliberative process essential to healthy democracy.

Does that mean that the “glory days” are here? That somehow Democratic control of Congress will solve all the nation’s thorniest problems? No, of course not. Politics is politics. Party shifts never fully exorcize special interests pandering, pork-barrel projects and the ethical gaffes so endemic to American political life. That said, good things await us. Here’s why:

(1) No More Monopoly of Power
For 12 years Republicans in Congress have used procedural rules to suppress Democratic legislative proposals, amendments, and input, and curb minority party rights. They excluded Democrats from the legislative Conference Committees and held votes open for hours to strong arm wavering members to toe the party line. House Speaker Dennis Hastert even had a policy of only allowing votes on legislation that had support from a majority of the Republican majority, regardless of whether there was enough bipartisan support to pass a bill. Republicans also froze out Democratic lobbyists and sought to impose permanent institutional changes on the entire lobbying industry to advantage Republicans. Over time these policies had a corrosive effect on compromise, bipartisanship, and policy-making.

(2) Increased Bipartisanship
Both future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and future Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have made clear that they intend to work with the President and Congressional Republicans when the Democrats take power. Both Reid and Pelosi have stressed that they will treat Republican lawmakers “more generously” than they were treated as the minority party. Two days after the election, Pelosi met with President Bush and both vowed cooperation. Reid has similarly emphasized that Democrats “want to work with [the Republicans] to get things done. We want to be part of a Congress that functions.” With only a razor thin majority in the Senate and the specter of a presidential veto, Democrats will need to reach across the aisle to achieve their legislative goals. I believe they will, and as they do they will find some receptive Republican leaders. As governor of Texas, President Bush showed he could work well across party lines. Given the political necessity of it now, he will be inclined to do so again. Mitch McConnell, the incoming Senate Minority Leader, is someone disposed to bipartisanship. Reid and McConnell are said to have a solid working relationship and neither has his sites set on the presidency, both things that bode well for legislative compromise.

(3) Change of Policy in Iraq
The Democrats already forced a change of course in Iraq simply by virtue of winning the election. In the wake of what President Bush described as an electoral “thumpin',’” the President promptly sacked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a man whose prickly leadership style and poor management of the war effort in Iraq had begun to stir up a rebellion of sorts within both the military and the Republican ranks. The man Bush appointed to replace Rumsfeld is a political realist much more palatable to Republicans and Democrats alike. He is very likely to diverge from the neo-conservative philosophy that has governed much of our policy in Iraq.

Beyond this, Democrats will continue to spur change by pressuring the Bush Administration and actually seeing to a long-neglected Congressional responsibility, holding substantive oversight hearings on the war effort in Iraq. While President Bush clearly will not heed calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq (a move I agree would be unwise at this point), I’m convinced that Democratic pressure will prompt the President to reevaluate just what our goals in Iraq are and what exactly “success” there means. Next week, the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Commission is expected to announce its findings and policy proposals, which purportedly recommend a marked reduction in US troops in Iraq by 2008 and reaching out to both Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq. On the heels of their electoral victory, Democrats will be in a position to push the Administration to implement the Commission’s recommendations. Even if the President chooses not to adopt these recommendations, because of the demands he will be facing on the home front, the President will be in a better position to pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Al Maliki to strengthen the Iraqi government and quell the sectarian tensions that have erupted. Moreover, substantive Congressional oversight hearings (of which there have been almost none) will help our military efforts by holding the Administration, the Pentagon, and all the civilian contractors in Iraq accountable for their performance. This sort of counterbalance is desperately needed given the Administration’s reticence to acknowledge mistakes and its tendency to offer grossly over-optimistic assessments of the war.

(4) A More Fair and Sound Economic Policy
Democrat leadership has pledged to reign in pork-barrel earmarks, reduce the deficit, and implement a more fair tax policy. All of this will be done with an emphasis on helping middle and lower class families and reducing the growing disparity between rich and poor, a disparity that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has warned could harm the economy. The Democratic economic proposals on the table include:

  • Raising the Minimum Wage: The Democrats want to raise the minimum wage by $2.10 an hour. Along with most Americans, I think this is right thing to do. The minimum wage has stayed constant for almost 10 years while consumer prices have risen 25%. Some conservatives fear this will simply raise unemployment, but they are hard-pressed to show that the minimum wage increases of the 1990s had that effect.

  • Fixing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): Democrats want to raise the level at which the AMT kicks in. The AMT sets a minimum tax rate (around 27%) for the richest tax payers so that they can’t use deductions, shelters and loop holes to avoid paying their income tax entirely. Because of inflation and rising incomes, households affected by the AMT are expected to balloon from 3.8 million households this year to more than 30 million in 2010 (and ensnaring millions of middle-class households).

  • Make Pork-Barrel Earmarks More Transparent: Earmarks on legislation have gotten out of control in recent years. Part of the problem is that members of Congress could attach them anonymously. Speaker-Elect Pelosi says the first thing on the Democrat agenda in January is to require that sponsors of earmarks to be identified.

  • Increasing Support for Education: Democrats have pledged to cut the interest rates on student loans by almost half (Congress raised them earlier this year). They also want to increase the maximum Pell Grant available to low-income students from $4,050 to $5,100 and have considered making up to $12,000 a year in tuition tax-deductible (or giving out an equivalent tax credit). These are all proposals I strongly support (though I fear that even this isn’t enough to defray to skyrocketing). Democrats also plan to revisit No Child Left Behind Act to try to fix its deficiencies and ensure that it is fully funded before considering reauthorization.

  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit: Democrats are discussing enlarging the earned-income tax credit which currently gives families with two or more kids $4,536 to offset payroll taxes. This is a smart, market-centered way to help low-wage workers because it allows them to keep the difference if the credit exceeds what they owe in taxes.

  • Income Tax Changes: Several Democrats have floated a number of tax code changes, some which I’m pretty amenable to in order to ensure that social programs I think are important are provided for. These include raising the income tax on the very top tax bracket from 35% to 36% and allowing the cut in the maximum tax rate on capital gains and dividends taxes to expire (this was cut to 15% in 2003).

  • Balancing the Budget: Speaker-Elect Pelosi has promised to restore a House rule from the 1990s that required new spending to be offset by spending cuts or tax increases and the new Budget Chairmen are calling for a balanced budget within five years. While some might target this as window dressing, I think it would have a positive effect on the mindset of congressional appropriators as they approached drafting the federal budget.

  • Economic Shock Absorbers: Democrats have discussed expanding government programs that cushion the fall of those who lose jobs in our country’s rapidly changing economy. These might include targeted federal programs offering help with health insurance, wage-loss, and job retraining. Ultimately, better preparation before and more assistance after job losses would help workers and diminish calls for protectionism (i.e. these are trade-friendly proposals)

  • Changes to Medicare: Democrats have also talked about making changes to the Medicare that would save the federal government billions. These proposals include giving the government the ability to negotiate with Drug manufacturers on drug prices (much like the negotiating power that the Veterans Administration has) and reducing billions in what Democratic leaders claim the government overpays insurance companies that run Medicare’s managed care programs. These proposals are, in a sense, band-aids. But with such a slight Senate majority, Democrats are not in a position to do much more. Ultimately, I’m in favor of more progressive health care reform that does not depend so heavily on company largesse.

(5) Ethics Reform
Democrats back a stronger ethics reform package. Republicans this past year stripped any meaningful lobbying reform provisions from the proposed reform legislation in the months following the Abramoff plea deal in January. As the Democrats prepare to pick this legislation up, they plan on putting several substantive amendments up for a vote. Whether all of these provisions will pass is still in question (there are Democrats who aren’t crazy about all of them too), but allowing each to be introduced to a full floor debate and vote is sure to result in a much more sweeping ethics reform package than would have passed had the Democrats not been elected. In fact, had the Democrats lost, any real chance at a substantive lobbying reform bill would have been scuttled because Republicans would have been left with the impression that the public had moved passed the various ethical scandals that have plagued Congress these past few years.

(6) Comprehensive Immigration Reform
Democrats are much more likely to pass the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that, although supported by the President, stalled in the House last summer. The Senate bill that passed last year struck an important balance in that it provided for increased border security while also dealing humanely with those undocumented immigrants that had been living in the US for years. This was in stark contrast to an earlier House bill that was almost draconian in its approach to undocumented immigrants.

(7) Energy Policy and the Environment
Just by winning the election the Democrats already appear to have had what I consider a positive effect on energy companies and the environment. Democrats, as a whole, simply take environmental concerns like global warming more seriously. A Democratic victory also ensures that the government will focus more on investing in alternative forms of energy and energy conservation rather than rushing to open pristine wildlife preserves like ANWR to drilling (Let me make clear that I’m not opposed to drilling to meet our energy needs, but I would want a more bipartisan, non-ideological survey of what damage might be done to the fragile eco-systems in question and whether that harm is worth the estimated oil reserves we are tapping into). A Democratic victory also prevents the passage of any more duplicitous legislation like the “Blue Skies Act” and the Healthy Forests Initiative that have actually loosened environmental protections.

(8) Overriding the Stem Cell Research Veto
In retaking the Senate, the Democrats appear to have won enough votes to overcome President Bush’s veto this summer of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. The bill won passage by a 63-37 margin in the Senate, not quite large enough to override a veto. But four of the Senators who voted against the bill (Allen, Dewine, Santorum and Talent) were defeated in November’s election, giving the measure what seems like a veto-proof 67 votes.

(9) A More Moderate Democratic Party
This election swept a large number of conservative and moderate Democrats into office. By fielding a broad range of centrist candidates this year, the Democrats ran competitive races in a large number of “red” states and districts. As a result, the two moderate Democratic Caucuses in House of Representatives, the Blue Dog Democrats and the New Democrat Coalition, got 24 new members between them (with some overlap). Similarly, in the Senate three of the new incoming Democrats, Bob Casey (PA), Jim Webb (VA), and John Tester (MT), all come from centrist-conservative stock. This moderate bloc has already begun to put forward centrist legislative proposals.

What does this all mean? Well, as Nancy Pelosi herself pointed out the day after the election, it means that the Democrats will “have to govern from the center.” Some doubt whether Pelosi has it in her to do this, but I think those that do underestimate her. She wants to make her mark as a successful Speaker of the House and to do this she clearly understands that she must work with moderate members of her own party as well as House Republicans and the President. Harry Reid, considered a moderate in his own right, faces an even more difficult task in governing a very evenly divided Senate (51-49). Those who know him best, including several stalwart Republicans, have expressed confidence in his ability to lead in spite of the challenges. Republican consultant Sig Rogich has said of Reid “His personality will be more conducive to being a majority leader than minority leader. He has always been more of a consensus-building type than the over-the-top partisan that his current role has demanded.”

In Conclusion
Certainly there are still many traditional liberals like Charlie Rangel who will be chairing Committees in the new Congress, but look at who these congressmen are replacing. Republicans like Bill Thomas, James Inhofe, Jerry Lewis and Peter Hoekstra are just as extreme as their liberal counterparts. I don't think there is a net loss there. In spite of ideologues, I think that this Congress will, overall, produce better legislation that addresses many of the problems I am most concerned about. The “liberals” have a large wing of moderate Democrats to keep them in check, and the Democrats, as a whole, will keep conservative Republicans in check.

I am really buoyed by the moderating influence that Democrats will have on a broad range of legislative and policy initiatives on the environment, energy policy, intelligence and national security, foreign policy, judicial confirmations, the economy, health care, and oversight. I think they will provide an important check on the President and Congressional Republicans and, through the ensuing gridlock, we’ll manage to come away with more compromise and better all-around legislation.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Why Obama's a Class Act

The year is 2004. A small town reporter for the Henry County Daily News finally builds up the courage to talk to the apple of his eye (a foxy intern for a competing paper) while attending a press conference held by then state senator Barack Obama. This local reporter even manages to sit next to her, probably flirting with just the right amount of charm and humor. No doubt motivated in part by the desire to sweep his coveted intern off her feet, he stands to ask a question during the question-answer period of the press conference... and that's when Obama declares open season on him in front of hundreds. As casanova tries to spit out his question, Obama cuts him off:
“Wait a minute son, this is for professional media only” (Obama)

“What do you mean? I work for the local paper,” (love-struck reporter)

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were a college student. You have such a baby face,” (Obama)
Our reporter turns back only to see his dream girl laughing at him right along with everyone else... and bam, just like that, a budding romance is crushed underfoot. The resentment over a love lost, however, has been nursed for over two years now.

That is... until Obama made things right last week.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Er... Sore Loser?

In a little followed race this year in Texas's 1st Congressional District, Democrat Roger L. Owen challenged the Republican Representative Louie Gohmert for his seat in Congress. Owen got smeared in the general election on Tuesday 68% to 29%. And while Owen's party won back control of the House, the Senate, and a majority of the nation's Governorships, losing his own race apparently still didn't sit too well Roger. He now claims to no longer consider himself an American or a Southern Baptist... oh and it seems he plans on leaving the country too. We'd ask where, but he's made it clear that we're not to contact him.

Update: Just in case anyone was interested in Mister Owen's past criminal history and the special interest groups who were actually responsible for his conviction:

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Why I'm Studying To Be A Lawyer

This summer Melbo and I decided to take on a little home remodeling... I clearly had no idea what I was getting myself into. Our plan was to gut the main floor and install wood flooring, new tiling, a new kitchen, and a revamped bathroom. We kicked off the festivities in August after I finished my time as a summer associate. My brother-in-law, a contractor from cheesehead country, drove down to volunteer two weeks of his life and we went to work (aided by the generous help of my father-in-law and my other brother-in-law). We managed to finish the floor, set the tiling, build a new mantel and hearth, and install most of the kitchen before my contractor brother-in-law had to take leave.

Sounds good, right? Well... that's when school started back up. The remaining remodeling work (the "finishing touches" including caulking and grouting tile, finishing the kitchen, plumbing, re-doing the bathroom, painting, etc., etc.) stretched itself out painfully over the next 6 weeks. It was pure misery. Luckily Melbo's mom came into to pinch hit with the painting (a veritable lifesaver) while her dad did some bullpen work in the bathroom (he's a quintessential jack-of-all-trades), but we ended up living in a state of perpetual construction for almost two months nonetheless. And while there's still a long list of little to dos (like replacing our kitchen ceiling fan), at least the drapes are hung and the semi-normal life of a law student has resumed. We're now relishing the home improvements... and, through it all, I've even learned something. I'm not sure I could hack being a full-time handyman.