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One last chance on the budget

OK, so Alito is now a Supreme Court justice, which is very much too bad. (At the end of the day, you can’t defeat a nominee unless he or she cooperates in the effort and/or is significantly worse than the alternative you would expect from the current president.) That fight is over, the next one comes tomorrow.

I often say that there are two factors that are transcendent issues, because they shape the parameters of what’s going to be possible as a society for generations to come: One is judicial nominations, and the other is fundamental choices about budget and tax policy. On the current path, all hope for a government that addresses even basic economic and social needs in the next decades will be cut off. On Wednesday afternoon, the House is scheduled to vote a second on the "Deficit Reduction Bill," which should more appropriately be called the "Make Way for More Tax Cuts Bill." I’ve written recently about the cuts to child support in the bill, and about the wedging of the entire welfare reform reauthorization into the bill, others have focused on the cuts to student loans and Medicaid.

There are a dozen other reasons to oppose this bill, but one of the best is that it represents the end of the game, of the misuse of this closed, anti-democratic process to sneak through provisions that would never pass in the light of day, or to justify further massive tax cuts.

The bill passed by six votes in December, then the Senate forced some irrelevant changes that require a second vote in the House. To bring it down, six Republicans will need to switch their votes and vote against exactly the bill they voted for six weeks ago. But it could happen. CongressDaily reported this morning:

  House Republican leaders face more possible GOP defections Wednesday when they bring legislation to the floor that would trim the growth of entitlement programs and otherwise reduce the deficit by $39 billion over five years. Reversing last month’s 212-206 vote in favor of the bill would still appear to be a long shot, however.
     Over the weekend House Science Chairman Boehlert, who supported the measure last month when it came to the House floor, told Gannett News Service, "I don’t know how I’m going to vote."
     Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., also said over the weekend he was now undecided on whether to vote for the reconciliation bill. The freshman lawmaker voted for the bill last month. "This is a matter that’s under consideration," Fitzpatrick told The Intelligencer of Upper/Central Bucks and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania.
     The reconciliation bill has passed both chambers by slim margins, but another vote is necessary in the House because of small changes made by the Senate before passage. Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., another reconciliation supporter last month, is also undecided, a spokeswoman said, because he wants to review the Senate-made changes. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., also has indicated some hesitation. Only one Republican, Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut, has thus far publicly announced he will switch from supporting to opposing the measure.

This afternoon, word came that Rep. Joe Schwartz of Michigan (who, interestingly, holds the seat occupied by Rep. Nick Smith, the Republican who said he was essentially offered a bribe in exchange for his vote on the Medicare Prescription Drug bill) has changed his vote. That’s two switches and, based on the CongressDaily list, four more on the fence. Two+four=just enough votes to bring down the bill.

A word here for the Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities, which has led this fight. When this project started, my reaction was doubtful. It shouldn’t be an emergency campaign, I thought, it’s a permanent campaign. But the creativity and the intensity they have brought to the fight, bringing grass-roots groups to members’ offices and blocking every attempt to evade responsibility. Above all, they prevented individual interest groups from being bought off with improvements to their particular piece of the legislation, and kept the focus on the legislation as a whole. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it had not been done effectively before.

The impact of a defeat on this bill will be huge. It will certainly affect the leadership race, probably bringing DeLayism to an end. The ability of Bush and the congressional leadership to move more tax cuts or unpopular policies through on a strictly one-party basis will be over. And Republicans will still have nothing to show for their years of unilateral power but bigger, more corrupt, ineffective government.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 31, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

It's Campaign Money, Not Lunch

The problem of lobbying is obviously not a matter of who pays for lunch, but who pays for politics. So I welcome those politicians, almost exclusively Democrats, who have pointed this out and acknowledged that changing the way we finance campaigns is the most essential reform that will end the culture of corruption. I have a slightly idiosyncratic take on that, which I"ll get to shortly, but in the meantime, I want to gripe about how out of touch even the very best Democrats are with what can really be done to free politics from the distortions of money. Reps. Dave Obey and Barney Frank (the very smartest and most capable Dems) this week announced they would introduce the "Grassroots Clean Campaign Act," summarized here.

What"s disappointing about this is that they are proposing a system of full public financing of campaigns, without showing the slightest awareness that there are systems of public financing, such as in Arizona, Maine, New York City and now Connecticut, that work and that are entirely constitutional.

The summary of the bill linked above fails to mention the key point of their proposal: It appears that it would simply prohibit candidates from raising or spending any private money, and instead, all funding would come from a "Grassroots Good Citizenship Fund," comprised of voluntary contributions and a special tax on corporate profits above $10 million. Here are the other key provisions, with comments:

Because costs vary widely from district to district, the Grassroots Good Citizenship Fund would
provide each Congressional district with an amount to be distributed amongst the candidates based
on the median family income within that district.

That"s interesting, but median family income in the district is unrelated to cost of campaigning. Rep. Donald Payne"s Newark, NJ district has a low median income but broadcast campaigns there would cost no less than in the affluent districts nearby.

That money would be distributed to candidates based on their party’s performance in the last two
elections. Ex: If the GOP garnered 52% of the vote in the last two elections, their candidate would
receive 52% of the money for that district.

Which would lock in party disparities forever. There are not a lot of districts where one party gets 52% of the vote. As FairVote has shown, 83% of congressional elections in 2004 were decided by landslide margins of 20% or more, and only 23 races had margins of less than 10 percentage points.

All challengers can qualify for an amount equal to the highest funded candidate by demonstrating
public support through a petition system.

Third party and independent candidates are funded based on demonstrated public support in the past
2 elections, using three methods and choosing the one that gives them the highest funding - but they
can also gain greater parity with the highest funded candidate through the petition system.

It seems this system makes no provision for primaries, and the treatment of third parties is unclear. Either it would trap third parties at levels of minimal funding, or, if it gave full public funding based on petition signatures alone, it would invite sham candidacies. Existing public financing systems have developed better, though imperfect, ways to deal with this.

In the vast majority of House races the Grassroots Good Citizenship Fund shrinks the financial gap
that now exists in the current system between incumbents and challengers.

There would still be an enormous gap, though, given the "last two elections" rule. Most of the members of Congress involved in the current scandals -- Ney, Doolittle, Duke Cunningham -- would still have twice as much money as their opponents.

All other independent expenditures are banned outright so that only the candidate is responsible for
his/her message.

That"s a nice idea, but it"s just plain unconstitutional. It will be almost impossible to convince any court that they can regulate completely independent actors, not incorporated and not coordinating with the campaign, from expressing their own views about an election or about issues. And when the basic funding is so limited, the incentives for independent spending are that much greater.

The Act contains a Congressional finding that the limitations it creates are required to preserve the
integrity of the electoral process, to encourage the courts to uphold the plan.

If the courts overturn these limitations then the bill contains a requirement for expedited
consideration of a constitutional amendment that would allow the implementation of these changes.

A congressional finding regarding the purpose of the bill is unlikely to carry much weight with the courts, especially on issues such as the complete ban on independent spending. And a constitutional amendment -- the first that would limit the scope of free expression -- is simply not going to happen, expedited consideration or not.

To propose something like this is simply to set an unattainable and impractical standard. And the problem with that is that real reform of money in politics is not unattainable or impractical! The voluntary public financing systems in Maine, Arizona, New York City and Minnesota all work reasonably well if the goal is to help challengers be heard and meliorate the influence of the wealthiest private interests. In Maine and Arizona, candidates who raise a certain level of seed money in very small contributions get full public funding for the rest of the campaign. About half the candidates participate. In New York City, contributions of $250 or less are matched at 4:1 with public funds, so a candidate has as much incentive to go after $100 donors as $500 donors. In Minnesota, small donors get an immediate refund or tax rebate on their first $50 in contributions to any candidate, a system that in effect resembles voucher systems such as Bruce Ackerman"s Patriot Dollars.

What all of these systems have in common is that they focus on helping candidates find the resources to be heard, without resorting to big-money lobbyist contributions, rather than just trying to limit money. They are voluntary systems that encourage candidates to use public funds or seek support from small donors, or both. They can accomodate primary challengers as well as general elections, which is very important since in our increasingly one-party congressional districts, often the only effective challenge to a corrupt member will come from within his own party. These systems aren"t perfect, and the differences among them are not irrelevant, but taken together, they show the path toward a much more realistic reform.

The Obey-Frank proposal won"t pass, so it"s not dangerous in that sense, but it is a missed opportunity. Instead of showing that reform is possible, it is likely to feed the cynical perception that campaign finance reform is a waste of energy, because we"ll never get it past the courts or amend the Constitution.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 27, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Wanton Destructiveness

Representative Rob Simmons announced yesterday that he would switch his vote and vote against the Budget Reconciliation conference report when it comes back to the House for a revote the day after the State of the Union. This is huge news, an indication that the all-out press led by the Emergency Campaign for American Priorities is not in vain. (Although the same cannot be said for Rep. Simmons" bid to add two more years to his doomed political career.)

There are so many terrible things in the budget bill that it"s hard to say what provision is the worst, in terms of consequences. But to my mind, there is one provision that symbolizes all the pointless, wanton, ignorant destructiveness of the last five years: the $4.9 billion in cuts to child support enforcement.

Child support enforcement is one of the great success stories of modern government, and it was a completely bipartisan and cross-ideological success story. The major improvements in child support enforcement were passed in the 1996 welfare reform bill, and both supporters and opponents of that bill praised them. Liberals and conservatives were able to agree that every child should have at least the financial support of both parents even if they live separately, that both parents had responsibilities, and that single parents would be more likely to escape the trap of welfare dependency if they were getting help from the other parent.

A dozen years ago, enforcement of child support was a disaster. Every state had its own system, its own support guidelines, and a different agency in charge. (They still do.) Interstate enforcement -- enforcing an order from one state on a parent who lives in another -- was a complete mess. States were supposed to develop new computer systems with federal money but they were years behind in doing so. A rule of thumb at the time was that a non-custodial parent who moved to a different state and changed jobs every couple of years could easily avoid ever having his wages garnished for child support. As a result less than 18% of child support payments were actually made.

The movement to fix this system begins in the mid-1980s. A bipartisan Commission on Children chaired by Senator Rockefeller made some recommendations, and then in 1988, a commission on interstate enforcement was created, which four years later recommended several hundred changes, many very complex, some very simple, such as trying to establish a child"s paternity at birth rather than years later in a court. The bill creating the commission was introduced by Senator Bradley, so when I worked for him later, I was responsible for getting legislation introduced based on the recommendations, and then getting most of them included in the welfare reform bill of 1996. (That"s why I feel so strongly about this, but I should acknowledge that these weren"t my ideas and I was not then or now a real expert. I was more or less the temporary caretaker of a set of very important fixes that had been worked out over years and would continue for years after.) This wasn"t an ideological fight; it was just a matter of hard, hard work to figure out how to structure the incentives and requirements so that parents got the support they were due.

The most complex changes had to do with the structure of the financial relationship between the feds and the state government. There is an obvious federal interest here, because of the link to the welfare program and because of the problem of interstate enforcement. A system of matching payments and performance incentives to states was developed in order to force state investment in child support enforcement which, studies show, save government $4 for every dollar spent on enforcement.

And it worked. In 2004, 51% of child support was paid. From 18% to 51% is a huge transformation. I doubt that anyone in the mid-1990s would have predicted that. One study showed that improved child support enforcement was responsible for a quarter of the reduction in welfare caseloads. See this report from the Center on Law and Social Policy for a summary of the success.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cuts in the incentive payments to states will cost families $8.4 billion in child support. Even that estimate assumes that states will make up half of the federal money they will lose; if they don"t, children will lose twice as much in child support.

The era of bipartisan collaboration on basic problems like child support or health care is long gone. I"ve gotten used to that. What I can"t grasp is why this Republican majority wants to take some of the basic accomplishments of that era, accomplishments that took a decade or more of serious work, and casually toss them aside.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 27, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

The Missing Abramoff-to-Dems Cash

One point to add to Brad DeLong’s, and others’, dogged and appropriate insistence that the Washington Post finally correct its own and its ombuds-person’s errors regarding possible Democratic beneficiaries of Abramoff-tainted cash: To defend her modified, limited clarification that Abramoff "directed" money to Democrats from his clients, the Post’s Deborah Howell cited this graphic, which features a fragment of a list that Abramoff sent the Louisiana Coushatta tribe suggesting congressional incumbents and candidates and party organizations they should contribute to.

Brad has noted that the fragment, which contains mostly names beginning with the letter C (the full document is not publicly available) proposed $4,000 in contributions to Democrats, against $115,000 to Republicans. But a look at actual donations from the Coushatta raises even more questions

The Howell fragment indicates that Abramoff asked the Coushatta to give $2,000 each to two Democrats, then-Senators Jean Carnahan and Max Cleland, as well as an amount, illegible on the graphic, to Tom Daschle, at the time still Senate Majority Leader.

The full list of contributions from Abramoff and his clients is available from the Center for Responsive Politics here. This list makes no attempt to determine wehter the contributions were "directed" by Abramoff or reflected longstanding loyalties to legislators who, like Daschle or Byron Dorgan, "have been supporting the tribes for longer than Jack Abramoff has been bilking them."

Comparing this list to the Howell fragment, one finds that neither the Coushatta nor any other Abramoff client actually gave money to Jean Carnahan, although Abramoff himself and his clients gave $3,000 to her Republican opponent, Jim Talent. The Coushatta did give to Cleland, not $2,000 but $500, while Abramoff and his tribal clients gave eleven times as much to Cleland"s opponent, now-Senator Saxby Chambliss. Daschle, based on the CRP list, got nothing from the Coushatta, although other tribes did support him, while Abramoff himself and other clients backed his opponent, Sen. John Thune.

In short, rather than $4000 to Democrats, the Howell fragment together with contribution data shows only $500 in contributions directed and actually given, and even that one, given the $5,500 to Chambliss"s shameful campaign, is kind of like pulling a guy up off the mat so you can give him another punch in the gut.

It"s possible that the Center for Responsive Politics analysis didn"t capture everything, if, for example, a Coushatta contribution was made in the name of an individual who did not list the tribe as an employer. (There are no other contributions from the tribe"s zip code.) It"s also possible that the tribes received Abramoff"s recommendations and ignored them, which could be a defense by Abramoff. Or, it may be that the Howell fragment wasn"t Abramoff"s final recommendation to the Coushatta.

But the bottom line is that this fragment of a list is no evidence of actual contributions to Democrats made at Abramoff"s direction.

Another point occurred to me as I was overindulging in this data: the period of Abramoff"s peak influence was fairly brief, centered around the 2002 election. That year he, his tribal clients and SunCruz Casinos gave more than $2 million to candidates and committees (on a par with what General Electric or Wal-Mart, together with all their employees, gave in that cycle), up from $600,000 the cycle before and then it dropped again to $1.4 million last year.

And in retrospect, 2002 was really the killer election for Democrats, arguably more than 2000 or 2004. It established absolute one-party control over all of government, and set the model for the shameless Rovian abuse of national security as a weapon, particularly in the Cleland-Chambliss race, which in turn left the Democrats utterly paralyzed in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and even today accounts for the anxious, paralytic response to Rove"s announcement that the party will pursue the same strategy again.

Democrats bear plenty of responsibility for their 2002 defeat, particularly for neglecting to articulate an economic strategy in the middle of a recession. But it"s striking to realize what a large role Abramoff played in targetting money to Republicans in tight races that year.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 23, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Cynicism and the Anti-Entitlement

[Update: comments now enabled, sorry.]

I used to be obsessed with the Medicare Prescription Drug bill, especially when I was starting my blog more than two years ago, but I haven"t written anything about it since the law took effect this month and all manner of chaos ensued. Why not? Aside from the usual excuses (Where"s that promised follow-up on lobbying reform? What about my half-finished takedown of the "unitary executive" theory?), none of this feels like news to me. Every single thing that"s happened this month was entirely predictable at the time the bill passed. Not just predictable, it was predicted, not just by me, but by everyone who wasn"t engaged in trying to get the bill passed or profit from it.

That"s a very important point to get across to the seniors who are now so predictably outraged. Their GOP representatives will blame it on "unintended consequences" and glitches in implementation, but that spin must not be allowed to stand. Every problem they are encountering was built in from the start in the structure that forces elderly and disabled people, their adult children or helpers, to make immensely complicated financial and medical choices, for a benefit that amounts to nothing more than a modest discount on wildly inflated prices. This is what they voted for, and they know it.

But this brings me to my main point: They really did know it. The Republican leaders who forced this bill through in a three-hour vote are many things, but they are not, in the main, complete idiots. They have their ideology about market systems and they don"t necessarily have an Yglesian appetite for analysis of policy detail, but they surely knew that there would be a backlash when this bill took effect. They had to have known it, at least some of them. They"ve got mommas. And yet as far as the public record shows, and accounts such as one published in The Hill on the anniversary of the three-hour vote which included a lot of the private conversations, none of this seemed to play any role in the debate. Advocates for the bill largely touted its immediate benefit for the President"s and their own reelection -- delivering on a promise, capturing the senior vote, never mind the details -- while opponents, or those who needed to be "persuaded," challenged the expense, or the betrayal of small government ideology, but for some reason never seemed to doubt the political calculation.

I"m skeptical, though. I think they expected a backlash and thought they could either ride it out or benefit from it. Sometime after the bill passed, I tried to write an essay called, "Bad government is good politics." It turned out not to be publishable because it was largely speculative and because the Medicare bill was really the only example I had at the time. But I wish I"d stuck with it. . My thesis was that Republicans knew there would be a backlash against the Medicare bill, but they understood that it would take the form of a backlash against government in general, and that would be to their advantage. Seniors struggling over a dining table covered with complicated forms, small-print prescriptions, and no-win choices weren"t going to be muttering, "Goddamn Dennis Hastert, I"m never voting for his party again." They would be muttering, "Damn government, can"t do anything right."

Seniors have been bonded to government, and hence to the Democratic Party, by the painless single-payer health system known as Medicare. The Medicare drug benefit would, in effect, reverse this bond. In another piece last year, I referred to the prescription drug benefit as an "anti-entitlement," because it takes all the advantages of an entitlement -- predictability, fairness, efficiency -- and turns them on their head. As I see it, the political goal of the Medicare drug bill was not to cement a new alliance between seniors and the Republican Party around a government program, but primarily to destabilize the old alliance.

Granted, this is a very different interprepretation of the political calculus than that advanced by Robert Novak, who claims that this was all a plan by Rove to capture the loyalty of lower-income seniors and it merely backfired. If that is true, the word "genius" must never again appear in the same sentence as "Karl Rove," and Tom DeLay"s reported contempt for Rove as a direct-mail guy with an outsized ego seems spot on.

As rage against the Medicare drug bill built, I predicted, Democrats would be unable to take advantage of it because of the Robert Samuelson-type conventional wisdom that the only good thing about the Republican bill was that it was cheaper and simpler than whatever expensive mess the Democrats would produce. Never mind that that wasn"t true. After all, Bill Clinton had proposed a plan in 2000 that, without cooking the books, was estimated to have cost $253 billion over ten years, had no donut hole, and, unlike this plan, would have covered every dime above $4,000 in prescription costs so no senior would be bankrupted by drug costs alone. That would have been a true entitlement, fair, efficient and predictable. Unfortunately, rather than pulling out that well-vetted plan, House Democrats played to expectations, treating the bill as a bidding war and opening the bidding at $1 trillion.

The backlash against the Medicare drug bill may or may not be a backlash against the people responsible for the Medicare drug bill. If it merely increases cynicism and deepens the sense that government can"t do anything right, then the ground remains fertile for the Republican anti-government message -- even if it is Republicans themselves who betrayed their own anti-government message. Democrats have a very complicated (but absolutely true) story to tell here: They have to show that the Medicare bill was a guaranteed disaster from the start, that its consequences were not accidental but imtimately related to the corruption of the Republican majority, and that there is an alternative that would do more an cost less, and that Democrats would make it happen. We cannot assume that this story will occur automatically to people as they struggle with the program.

There"s a similar problem with issues of corruption. The current scandal is huge, probably the biggest congressional corruption scandal ever, and provably a Republican scandal. But it"s nonetheless possible that, with the happy cooperation of the media, it will just increase the general sense that politicians are crooked, and some evidence from polling that that"s the case.Again, the story has to be clear, and accurate: The level and type of corruption in this enterprise were something we have never seen before, and they were endemic to this particular congressional leadership. This is not a natural thing that happens when one party holds power, and if Democrats hold power, things will be different. The rules, written and unwritten, will change.

But people have a natural inclination to believe in concepts like good intentions gone awry (Medicare) or that power inevitably corrupts. Those natural inclinations are right now a barrier to understanding the real true stories behind these two scandals.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 19, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The K Street Project Theory Lives On

I"m going to return to the theme of "It"s Not a Lobbying Scandal," probably by the end of the day, but for now, let"s just take a close look at what the Republican"s think "lobbying reform" means. This is from John Boehner"s document, "For a Majority that Matters," which has been read mainly for its humor value (reminiscent of Newt Gingrich"s famous seminar describing himself as "Definer of Civilization/Teacher of the Rules of Civilization ...Leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces") but has some substantive points as well:

The sordid spectacle of Jack Abramoff arises from two factors whose connection he personified, and I would suggest that any response that’s actually going to be effective will have to address those factors.

The first factor is the tremendous power of the federal government [boilerplate about how big government causes corruption]…

Second is that many of the lobbyists who enter our offices every day to represent their clients are, for all practical purposes, complete mysteries to us. Yet for the House to function, some degree of trust is necessary. Many lobbyists are of the highest integrity …But there’s every incentive for those with more questionable ethics to shortchange us and the House. And absent our personal, longstanding relationships, there is no way for us to tell the difference between the two.

We should think seriously about bringing greater transparency to the lobbying industry. Anyone – anyone – can call himself or herself a lobbyist, recruit clients, and make appearances on their behalf on the Hill. Clearer standards and greater transparency would promote greater institutional integrity and protect us against those in the industry who put their own short-term interests against the public trust.

This not only puts all the blame on the lobbyists, rather than the members who empower a lobbyist, it also describes the cosa nostra aspect of the K Street Project exactly. What the House Republicans did was to tell K Street, "Don"t send anyone up here who"s not a known guy." They told the firms and trade associations who to hire and then, in essence, made them full partners in the governmental process. Letting in Abramoff was a mistake, he wasn"t checked out properly.

Boehner"s complaint reflects all those basic assumptions of the K Street project. Instead of "their own short-term interests" lobbyists should prioritize "the public trust," defined as the interests of "us [the Republicans] and the House." But a lobbyist"s job to promote short-term private interests, not the public good. It"s the legislator"s job -- his public trust -- to weigh and balance those competing private interests in the public good. And how can a lobbyist "shortchange us and the House"? That statement only makes sense under the assumptions of the K Street Project. Let"s say it again: a lobbyist does not hold power. He can"t "shortchange" you as a legislator unless you delegate your power to him. And of course "anyone can call himsel or herself a lobbyist...and make appearances on the Hill." That"s democracy. The idea that House Republicans need even greater control over access, over who has the opportunity to make their own or their client"s case, is a formula for delegating even more power to a smaller, presumably more carefully selected, group.

It"s this conception of lobbying that"s the problem, not any particular practice. All the restrictions on trips and meals won"t matter if the Congressional majority continues to hold this peculiar view that their small cadre of selected lobbyists are essentially partners in "the public trust." I have a concept of lobbying that"s at once more benign and more distrustful. Sure, anyone can be a lobbyist. And every cause or interest -- including Food Stamps and early childhood education -- should have advocates who make the best case possible to legislators. Legislators should try to be open and accessible to all those viewpoints, but should at least initially be mistrustful of all of them, especially those representing private claims. There is plenty of room for abuse under that conception. No mortal legislator or staffer will ever be able to balance competing claims dispassionately or avoid the entanglements of friendship, subjective preferences, and fundraising. But that"s a very different matter from the K Street/Boehner concept of lobbying that puts those entanglements ("our long-term, personal relationships) at the very center of the public"s business.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 13, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Please, Don't Say "Lobbying Reform"

Democrats and Republicans are falling over each other to introduce "lobbying reform" bills -- requiring lobbyists to disclose contacts with legislators, banning trips, etc. By the end of next week, we will have between two and four lobbying reform packages, and will enter a ridiculous debate about which bill would leave fewer loopholes.

Can I take this Sunday evening calm to plead with Democrats not to go down this road. Where’s George Lakoff when we need him??? Please don’t reinforce the frame that this is a "lobbying scandal" and the villain a "lobbyist" named Jack Abramoff. That’s the other side’s frame. This is not a lobbying scandal. It’s a betrayal-of-public-trust scandal. Lobbyists have no power, no influence, until a public servant gives them power. That’s what DeLay and the K Street Project was all about. What they did was to set up a system by which lobbyists who proved their loyalty in various ways, such as taking DeLay and Ney on golf trips to Scotland, could be transformed from supplicants to full partners in government.  

Abramoff did lots of terrible things and should go to jail, but never forget that every single criminal and unethical act of his was made possible by a public official. On his own, Abramoff had no power. At another time -- say, 1993 -- he would have been a joke.

But every time we say "lobbying reform," we reinforce the idea that it is the lobbyist who is the wrongdoer. Sure, many lobbyists are slimy and aggressive. (Others, in my experience, can be helpful and informative, as long as you understand that they represent only one side of an argument.) But no one forces any legislator or staffer to accept lunches, trips, or favors from a lobbyist. And the reason not to do that is that the legislator risks surrendering some of her power, which is a public trust, to these private interests.

I’ll have more to say on specific proposals for reform in a day or two (hint: the best way to prevent these scandals is to put a watchdog on every member of Congress, in the form of an adequately funded challenger), but I just want to get this plea in immediately, to avoid the language that reinforces the idea that congressional leaders are helpless pawns of malevolent lobbyists.

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Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 9, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

A Comment on Comments

In the middle of a massive attack of "comment spam" a couple weeks ago, I changed the setting on typepad so that I would have to approve comments before they were posted. It was the only way I could find to stop a wave of links to Italian beastiality sites that were being attached to every single post here, coming in faster than I could delete them. (I sometimes ignore a few ordinary porn links in comment spam, but for some reason I like to get the beastiality links off my home on the internet pretty quickly -- call me a prude.)

But then I didn’t get around to actually approving real legitimate comments, and some readers thought I was deliberately blocking comments. That wasn’t my intent. The attack seems to have ended, and so I’ve turned off the "approve comments" setting, and approved everything legit since then. From now on, all comments should go straight through. I’ve only blocked or deleted actual comments twice in two years, both in the case of extremely abusive language. I apologize for holding up the comments here.

And, I should also add, I’ve been cross-posting almost everything here at TPMcafe.com. Usually there are more comments and a richer discussion at that site, although I certainly appreciate the readers and commentors here.  

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Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 8, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Pope DeLay Still Wants to be a Cardinal

Don"t miss a key line at the end of Tom DeLay"s letter to Speaker Hastert:

<blockquote>Dear Mr. Speaker,<br>
I am writing to inform you of my decision to permanently step aside as majority leader...<br>
I will continue to serve my constituents and seek re-election ...while I work to clear my name of the baseless charges leveled against me. &nbsp;<strong>I will also be reclaiming my seat on the Appropriations Committee</strong> when the second session of the 109th Congress convenes later this month.</blockquote><p>
Because he was elected in 1984, DeLay would rank sixth on the Appropriations Committee. He would be in a position to claim the chairmanship of the VA/HUD subcommittee (the subcommittee chairs are known as cardinals), one of the more powerful subcommittees for doling out pork to allies or denying it to enemies. Will Rep. James Walsh of Syracuse, New York, who currently holds that chair, quietly step aside for his master’s return?

[UPDATE: I botched something here, because I was looking at the subcommittee lists from the 2004 Almanac of American Politics (I guess a true geek has a current edition of the Almanac at home and at the office): the subcommittee structure was changed in this Congress, and the number of  subcommittees cut from 13 to ten. This reorganization was actually engineered by DeLay himself, in order to get NASA (Texas pork) out of the VA/HUD/Independent Agencies subcommittee where it had to compete with veterans’ funding. Sam Rosenfeld covered this story <a href="<A href=’http://www.prospect.org/web/printfriendly-view.ww?id=9370">thoroughly’>http://www.prospect.org/web/printfriendly-view.ww?id=9370">thoroughly back in March.</a> It’s quite a measure of his power at his peak that he was able to strip three appropriations subcommittee chairs of their jurisdictions without provoking a backlash! But it makes it less clear which jurisdiction he would try to reclaim along with his committee seat.)

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Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 8, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

They're Lovin' It

This is as frightening as anything I"ve read in the last two weeks. From a Newsweek commentary by Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey:

 Judging by the twin speeches of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday, the big theme of the 2006 elections is the same as it was in 2002 and 2004. It’s the war, stupid.... According to the veep, speaking to the conservative Heritage Foundation, it’s essentially the same debate whether you’re talking about the elections in Iraq or the NSA eavesdropping program. You’re either with the administration or a naive fool who helps the terrorists. Or, as Cheney put it more elegantly, "Either we are serious about fighting this war or we are not. And as long as George W. Bush is president of the United States, we are serious-and this nation will not let down its guard."

....The debate over the NSA and the Patriot Act is one the White House wants to have. Bush and Cheney have come out swinging-against ... those who say Bush doesn’t have the legal authority to conduct domestic wiretaps without warrants and, above all, against their political opponents. For most of 2005, Bush was forced to defend himself on Iraq against a faceless but deadly enemy: the insurgents. Now, in early 2006, he is reverting to his faithful strategy of painting Democrats as weak on defense and national security.

....When one reporter asked if the Patriot Act vote reflected his loss of power and public support, Bush’s face brightened and he flashed a smile. "If people want to play politics with the Patriot Act," he warned, before catching himself, "it’s not in the best interests of the country." White House aides were actually looking forward to the Senate’s six-month extension of the act because it pushed the debate closer to the midterm elections in November. (In the end, the House insisted on a one-month extension.)

Frightening because it’s true.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on January 5, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack