We will soon post, as promised, Parts II and III of Blog No. 43 with our thoughts on Afghanistan and Ukraine (and perhaps even a few more on ISIS). Meanwhile, however, the recent activities (and inactivities) of Congress seemed to demand some comment before they are entirely forgotten. When Congress skipped town for its August recess (some things, after all, are sacred), it did so in considerable disarray. Most notable, of course, was the failure to address the problems created by the influx of unaccompanied children at our border with Mexico. But there was no shortage of other issues left unattended. An article in The New York Times noted a few:
The immigration system is still in crisis. Companies are renouncing their American citizenship over tax breaks. The Highway Trust Fund is running on empty as the nation’s infrastructure crumbles, and entitlement programs are creaking under the weight of an aging population.
Given its performance, it is not surprising that public opinion of Congress could hardly be worse. While Obama’s numbers are at an all time low, Congress’s are far lower. According to a recent NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll only 14 percent approve of the job Congress is doing – the seventh-straight NBC/WSJ poll dating back to 2011 when this rating has been below 15 percent. In addition, “A whopping 79 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with the U.S. political system, including nearly half who are very dissatisfied. The words of Yeats’s “Second Coming,” written in 1919, seem to resonate once again… “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold….The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” And Congress itself perhaps, is Yeats’s rough beast, slouching not towards Bethlehem but November. Surely it is an environment that should be daunting to office holders and candidates in both parties. Yet Republicans seemed to betray a covert giddiness over their prospects in the fall elections. It is widely thought that Republicans will retain control of the House and have a better than even chance of gaining control of the Senate. If the projections are sound, the Republicans’ success will not spring primarily from high esteem for the party (or disapproval of Obama) but from the peculiarities of the election map and who is running against whom and where. (For one account, by a liberal pundit unhappy at the outlook, see John Cassidy in The New Yorker.)
The notion of the Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress brings to mind the old joke of the dog chasing a car with no idea of what to do if he should catch it. If the Republicans did control both Houses, it would be reasonable for the public to expect them to show some ability not only to object but to actually govern, to address problems and find solutions. But it is not clear what the Congressional Republicans will want to do and still less clear what they will be able to do. In the House, John Boehner will have the continuing problem of attempting to march forward in the shackles of his Tea Party colleagues. In the Senate, if Harry Reid is demoted to Minority Leader, he will not by any means be disarmed. On the contrary, having been schooled in the tactics of obstruction that Republicans have honed to near perfection, Reid would now have the opportunity to deploy them from his side of the aisle. (Not even the most optimistic Republicans expect the Party to hold as many as sixty seats in the Senate, which, in the modern era seems to be the sine qua non of getting much done.) And, oh, yes, Barack Obama will be lurking in the background with his veto pen at the ready.
All in all, it appears that the 114th United States Congress, commencing on January 3, 2015, will be just as unproductive as its predecessor and perhaps more so. Thus the Presidential election in 2016 could be a reprise of 1948 when Harry Truman campaigned relentlessly–and successfully–against the “Do Nothing 80th Congress.” Truman, it may be recalled, thereby gained not only his own reelection but Democratic control of both the House and Senate. There will be differences in 2016, of course, including the fact that the incumbent President will not be on the ballot, but a demonstration of paralysis by a Republican-controlled Congress could be a problem for the Republican candidate. (Of course, if Harry Reid overplayed his hand as Minority Leader, he could be tagged with the onus for a “Do Nothing 114th Congress.”)
Still, the future need not be so bleak. One bright spot, perhaps not adequately recognized, was the ability of Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman George Miller to craft bipartisan legislation to reform and provide funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs. While the bill they drafted did not go as far as some (e.g., The Wall Street Journal) would wish in reforming the Department, it was a constructive start and it passed both houses swiftly with near unanimity. (Whatever elixir Sanders and Miller were partaking of should be bottled and provided to every member of Congress.)
We believe that there other issues on which it may be possible to find common ground, including the emotional dilemma of unaccompanied children at the border. (See Blog No. 41 The Mess at the Border.) Just before the August recess the Republicans in the House finally got their act together and passed a bill on the subject. The President labeled the bill as “extreme and unworkable,” but did not pause to explain why it deserved those terms. The bill would create an expedited deportation procedure, which is an anathema to some Democrats and which was omitted entirely from the bill drawn up by Senate Democrats. That is, however, a concept that the President and his Secretary of Homeland Security had endorsed not long ago. Democrats should recognize that some procedural reform is not only a political necessity but sound policy. For its part, the “Deportation Caucus” in the House (so-dubbed by The Wall Street Journal) must accept that expedited procedures cannot become a rubber-stamp for automatic deportation. There should be room for negotiation of the issue if Republicans in the Senate remove the procedural roadblock that has prevented passage of the Senate bill.
Another issue on which it might be possible to reach bipartisan agreement is the problem of “inversion,” the tax-avoidance maneuver by which U.S. corporations reincorporate themselves overseas by acquiring an existing foreign corporation. Inversions are a matter of concern on both sides of the aisle in Congress, but Republicans are reportedly resisting any legislative remedy that is not part of a broader corporate tax reform package. The Republicans have a legitimate point, but given the increasing pace of inversions, and the stickiness of the road to tax reform, it may not be practical to wait. Possibly a short-term bar to inversions could be coupled with credible commitment to take up tax reform.
The 2015 budget will present very difficult issues which are likely to be postponed, by way of a Continuing Resolution, until after the November elections. Presumably, however, the Republican scars from 2013 are sufficiently fresh that they will not again rally around the self-inflicted wound of a government shutdown in dealing with the budget (or, in March 2015, the debt ceiling).
Finally, a word or two about the notion of impeachment and the suit against the President. The former is so farfetched that it is hardly discussed outside the Sarah Palin claque and the fraternity of Democratic fundraisers. The suit against the President, alleging that he has exceeded his Constitutional powers, is less farfetched, but not much. The suit reflects a legitimate objection, but it is unlikely to have any practical effect. Although the House has now voted along partisan lines to authorize the suit, many observers have questioned whether the House has standing to bring such suit. Moreover, it is not clear what relief is sought. We have been unable to find and read, let alone analyze, a copy of the draft complaint, but we admit to puzzlement. The focus of the suit is said to be the President’s delay by executive order of the employers’ mandates under the Affordable Care Act. A fair enough point, but do Republicans now really seek to accelerate the mandates? In any event, if the case is not quickly dismissed, the mandates will likely have become effective, and the issue mooted, before the case is finally decided. Some Republican leaders have acknowledged that the suit against Obama is purely symbolic, but the symbol for most of the public may be an obsession with attacking Obama at every turn while failing to focus on other issues. It is doubtful that Obsisto ergo sum is much of a rallying cry outside the narrower precincts of the Republican base.
None of the above, however, should be taken to excuse, let alone endorse, the sweeping administrative actions with respect to granting legal status to millions of immigrants and barring corporate inversions now reportedly under serious consideration by the President. We will defer comment on those actions until they are actually announced. In the meantime, however, interested readers are referred to Ross Douthat’s “Obama’s Impeachment Game,” and “Anatomy of a Power Grab,” and The Wall Street Journal’s, “Obama’s Tax Law Rewrite.” Should the President proceed with one or both initiatives, it will not only intensify Republicans’ wrath but provide the substance that their attacks thus far have lacked.