Congress

What Do You Mean, "Both Sides?"

NBC News
Of the many frustrating things about political punditry, one of the most frustrating is the extent to which many writers choose to ignore core facts about our political world and instead rely on generalities, intuition, and lazy conventional wisdom. For one great (terrible?) example of this, look no further than the most recent column from Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal , in which he blames the near-collapse of the fiscal-cliff deal on “both sides”: There are multiple reasons that even what seems easy is hard in Washington right now. The problems start, of course, with the basic polarization of not just Congress but the country. America is in an unusual political state, in which the two parties are quite evenly divided in power, but far apart ideologically. […] In the House, there is almost no middle ground, and the vote there Monday night was far more divided along partisan lines. Most members come from such reliably Democratic or Republican districts that they simply feel no...

Advertising Those Second Amendment Rights

AP Photo/Seth Perlman
After the shooting in Newtown, some politicians who had previously been endorsed by the NRA and long supported nearly unlimited gun rights came forward to declare that they were rethinking their positions. The first and perhaps most notable was West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, and nearly every news story about his change of heart mentioned that in a famous television ad when he ran for the Senate two years ago, Manchin not only touted his NRA endorsement but dramatically fired a bullet through a copy of a cap and trade bill. But if you though a candidate brandishing a gun to demonstrate his cultural affinity with rural voters was something unusual, you'd be wrong. We've assembled some of the gun-totin'-est political ads from the last few years. Let's start with Manchin, who showed voters how he'd deal with legislation that might restrict the West Virginia coal industry's ability to pollute the air: Manchin isn't the only one who knows that the best way to handle a law you don't like...

The Republican Party Is the Problem

Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Gage Skidmore / Flickr After weeks of negotiating, we have a deal on the fiscal cliff, which—in true, congressional fashion—passed hours after the government went “over” the cliff. The details of the deal are straightforward: Tax rates will rise permanently to Clinton-era levels for families with income over $450,000 and individuals with income over $400,000. For everyone below that ceiling, taxes will remain at Bush-era levels. Likewise, for families and individuals at that income threshold, the taxes on capital gains will rise to 20 percent, while staying at 15 percent for everyone else. Given the financial situation of most Americans—who don’t earn much, if anything, from investments—this is a good move, considering the circumstances. Estate taxes will rise to 40 percent, but Republicans were able to win a key concession—estates up to $5 million are exempt from the tax, which amounts to a large tax giveaway for a small number of wealthy families. The deal also reinstated the phase-...

Get Ready for the Next Crisis

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Barack Obama in the Oval Office before he leaves the White House after the passage of the fiscal cliff bill B y the time you read this, President Obama will probably have declared victory in fending off the fiscal cliff/austerity trap, and there are certainly some things in the agreement that progressives should be pleased about. But we should also understand what Republicans won. The great Republican triumph of the current negotiation—and whether it came from hard-nosed negotiating or simple capitulation on the White House's part, I'm not sure—is the fact that an end to the debt ceiling was not part of the deal worked out by Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden. Nor, for that matter, was the question of sequestration resolved; instead, it was simply put off for two months. That means we'll be facing not one but two more crises, when we get to do this all over again. And when we do, the conditions will be very different. On the debt ceiling, President...

Retrench Warfare

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
AP Photo/Alex Brandon Senator Mike Johanns, a Republican from Nebraska, left, walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky to the Senate floor for a vote on the fiscal cliff early this morning. The Senate vote just before dawn in favor of a permanent tax hike on the top one percent defers virtually all of the other budget battles. Assuming the House follows suit today, it is up to President Obama and the Democrats to radically change the conversation. In the deal that the Senate agreed to, with only eight senators voting against, the Democrats won big in two respects. They forced the Republicans to raise taxes on the rich, and they took all spending cuts including in Social Security off the table—for now. If Tea Party Republicans vote against the deal and it passes the House with the voters of nearly all Democrats and a few dozen renegade Republicans, it could cost John Boehner his Speakership. But automatic cuts of $120 billion this year and $1.2 trillion over a...

Obama Appoints Scott Brown as Senator from Massachusetts

Flickr/U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan
Flickr/U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan Senator John Kerry and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzain in Kabul in 2009. The Washington Post reports that President Obama has nominated Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to be the next Secretary of State. This doesn’t come as a surprise; he was on the short list behind Hillary Clinton, and has been a stalwart defender of the administration’s foreign policy choices over the last four years. Clinton is a hard act to follow, but there’s little doubt Kerry will perform well in the position. If there’s a problem, it’s that Kerry’s departure from the Senate leaves an open seat in Massachusetts, and as it happens, there’s a former Republican senator—Scott Brown—itching to get back into the game. It helps that he’s still well liked by most Massachusetts voters; a recent poll from MassINC Polling Group shows Brown with high favorability—58 percent, compared to 28 percent who view him unfavorably. The New York Times ’ Nate Silver isn’t so sure that Brown...

Don't Count Boehner Out Just Yet

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo/John Duricka Representative John Boehner holds up a copy of the Constitution on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday, May 7, 1992, as Senator Don Nickles looks on. T he side of John Boehner we understand most is the one that offers a distant sense of comfort—the one who'll pander to the conservative movement during these fiscal-cliff talks but understands a compromise must come through at the end. This is the John Boehner we dub the "dealmaker," the leader who must "stand up” to the Tea Party—and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the rival who would do him in. His “dealmaker” persona stems from the assumption he isn’t a true believer or an aggressively ideological Republican, which is correct. But it's his other side, the deeply ambitious one, that clouds our ability to predict where the fiscal saga ends. This is the Boehner who clawed his way to the House Speakership for over 20 years, a position that his conference may force him out of if he "surrenders" to President Obama in...

The Nature of John Boehner's Problem

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
So last night, John Boehner suffered a particularly humiliating defeat. Attempting to pass "Plan B," a fiscal plan that would go nowhere in the Senate, and even if it did it would get vetoed by the President, Boehner was hoping that if nothing else he'd be able to say in the face of rising criticism, "We passed a plan!" But he couldn't accomplish even that; realizing that he couldn't muster the votes within his caucus for Plan B, he cancelled the vote. Boehner is the weakest Speaker in memory. I picture Nancy Pelosi, who can corral more votes before her morning coffee than Boehner can in a week of begging, smiling a wicked little smile at her opposite number's bumbling failure. So just why is it that Boehner finds even a symbolic vote like this one so impossible to win? I don't think it's that he's ineffectual, and a more skilled dealmaker would be able to accomplish more. The problem is in his troops. Ed Kilgore offers his explanation : This raises a question that has been at the...

How House Republicans Neutered Themselves

Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Gage Skidmore / Flickr Last night witnessed the implosion of John Boehner’s efforts to pass a Republican-crafted fiscal-cliff proposal, otherwise known as “Plan B.” Unlike the floated compromise, Boehner's proposal would extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone earning under $1 million, preserve a high estate-tax cut-off, and slash spending on tax credits for working-class Americans (in addition to cutting Obamacare and repealing key mechanisms of Dodd-Frank). The idea was to build leverage in negotiations with the White House by passing a bill that could serve as an alternative to any deal that doesn’t give substantive weight to conservative interests. If, for example, the White House refused to concede further entitlement cuts, Boehner could send Plan B to the Senate, and force a vote, thus presenting himself as a sensible negotiator, pace President Obama’s partisan demands. If House Republicans had basic tactical skills, this might have worked. Instead, the right-wing fringe of the...

Prostitution for the Price of a Happy Meal

Why food-stamp bans are perpetuating risky behaviors among America’s most vulnerable

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, file
Carla walked into my office with despair in her eyes. I was surprised. Carla has been doing well in her four months out of prison; she got off drugs, regained custody of her kids, and even enrolled in a local community college. Without much prodding she admitted to me that she had retuned to prostitution: “I am putting myself at risk for HIV to get my kids a f---ing happy meal.” Despite looking high and low for a job, Carla explained, she was still unemployed. Most entry-level jobs felt out of reach with her drug record, but what’s worse, even the state wasn’t willing to throw her a temporary life preserver. You see, Carla is from one of the 32 states in the country that ban anyone convicted of a drug felony from collecting food stamps. With the release of the Global Burden of Disease Study last week, it bears looking at how we are perpetuating burdens among the most vulnerable Americans with our outdated laws. If she’d committed rape or murder, Carla could have gotten assistance to...

Paying for Having Been Raped

AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Cross your fingers, but it looks a s if Congress is going to let women in the military rely on health insurance to pay for abortions in cases of rape or incest. That’s been a long time coming, as Mother Jones reports : Current Department of Defense policy only provides abortion coverage if the life of the mother is at stake. Under the 1976 Hyde Amendment, federal money cannot be used to provide abortion services, except in the case of rape, incest, or if the woman's life is endangered. But since 1979, the DOD has had an even stricter limit on abortions, refusing to cover them in cases of rape despite the high rate of sexual assaults in the military. (Over 3,000 sexual assaults were reported in the armed services in 2010 alone.) If [New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne] Shaheen's measure passes, the 400,000 women in the armed services will have the same access to abortion that other federal employees get. If a Department of Health and Human Services employee working in Washington, D.C. is raped,...

It’s a Mad, Mad Michigan

Right-to-work legislation was only the beginning. State Republicans have an entire docket full of legislation set to limit rights.

(AP Photo/The Detroit News, Elizabeth Conley)
Sure, lame-duck legislatures are bound to be a bit mad. But the session that just closed in Michigan was one for the ages. Aflush with the flurry of bills sent to the desk of Governor Rick Snyder—not so much speaking to his opinion on their quality—a politics-loving friend of mine in Detroit exclaimed, “It’s like Christmas in … well, in December.” The swift passage of right-to-work in Michigan picked up national and international headlines last week. But that overhaul of labor law is only one piece of the expansive legislative plan for the state that now awaits Snyder’s go-ahead. The lame-duck session was the final and powerful display of influence by GOP and Tea Party lawmakers that had a total and triumphant win in the 2010 election. Even as Michigan’s reputation as a “swing state” is diminishing—it’s voted Democratic for president since 1992, and both its U.S. senators are Democrats—local politics remain fractious. Not only does the GOP dominate both chambers in the state...

Social Security: Will Obama Cave?

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Barack Obama looks toward reporters shouting questions at him regarding the fiscal cliff as he walks to the White House after attending a holiday party for the National Security Council. O nce again, President Obama seems to be on the verge of folding a winning hand. Widely leaked reports indicate that the president and House Speaker John Boehner are making a fiscal deal that includes hiking tax rates back to the pre-Bush levels with a threshold of $400,000 rather than the original $250,000, and cutting present Social Security benefits. Obama, the reports say, will now settle for as little as $1.2 trillion in tax increases on the rich rather than the $1.6 trillion that he had originally sought. The difference, in effect, will come out of the pockets of workers, retirees, the young, and the poor. Especially foolish is the cut in Social Security benefits, disguised as a change in the cost-of-living adjustment formula. Before getting to the arcane...

Mitch McConnell Doesn't Understand What the Debt Ceiling Is

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Now that Republicans have pretty much resigned themselves to the idea that there is going to be some kind of tax increase for the wealthy, they're comforting themselves with the idea that come early next year, they'll still be able to re-enact the lovely conflict we had over the debt ceiling in 2011 and hold the American economy hostage to their demands. President Obama has quite sensibly said that we ought to just get rid of the debt ceiling itself, since it serves no purpose and allows a party to engage in just this kind of economic blackmail if it's desperate and cynical enough. So Republicans are pushing back, none more so than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But in the process, McConnell has revealed that he has no idea how the debt ceiling actually works. What McConnell has been saying is that if we eliminate the debt ceiling, it will give the president all kinds of new powers, to spend money willy-nilly however he wants to, run up the debt, and generally become a kind...

What Raising the Medicare Eligibility Age Means

President Johnson signing Medicare into law in 1965.
After a campaign in which Republicans attempted to pillory Barack Obama for finding $716 billion in savings from Medicare (via cuts in payments to insurance companies and providers but not cuts to benefits), those same Republicans now seem to be demanding that Obama agree to cuts in Medicare benefits as the price of saving the country from the Austerity Trap, a.k.a. fiscal cliff. Oh, the irony! You'd almost think that they weren't really the stalwart defenders of Medicare they pretended to be. And there are some hints that the Obama administration is seriously considering agreeing to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 as part of this deal. It's a dreadful idea, and as we discuss this possibility, there's one really important thing to keep in mind: Medicare is the least expensive way to insure these people. Or anybody, for that matter. In all this talk of the bloated entitlement system, you'd be forgiven for thinking Medicare was some kind of inefficient, overpriced big...

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