So the good news this week was apparently that giant mutant space monsters are not, in fact, about to arrive and (assumably) enslave humankind and eat our children for snacks.
In other news...
What caused the alien freakout was a press release by N.A.S.A., in which they announced the discovery of an arsenic-based lifeform, which could be a clue in the search for extraterrestrial life. The carbon-based lifeforms on the blogosphere interpreted this to mean saucers full of bug-eyed monsters would soon be landing on the White House lawn, which (shockingly) turned out not to be the case. Whew!
On a more serious note, this week dawned full of promise, and is ending in a rather downbeat fashion for Democrats. The current subject of discussion among Democrats on Capitol Hill seems to be not whether, but in fact how much President Barack Obama is going to cave on the Bush tax cuts fight. That, to be blunt, is not a very good place to end the week on.
The week began quietly enough. President Obama met with the congressional leadership, an event the more inane (among what passes for a press corps) dubbed the "Slurpee Summit." Enough with the gratuitous and unfounded use of "summit," guys, OK? Anyway, not much news was made by this meeting, and lukewarm words were exchanged with the cameras rolling. Neither side really won the photo op war, in other words.
A big fight on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" played out all week long, after the release of the Pentagon's report on how to make the transition, which was mostly supportive of the idea. Two days of hearings in the Senate were held, where everybody got a chance to grandstand on the issue. Two Republicans are now on record (Scott Brown, and one of the ladies from Maine) supporting repeal -- in the abstract "that's just in general, but not how I'm going to vote on it" kind of way. The outcome, at this point, is very much up in the air.
Adding to the uncertainty was the fact that right after meeting with the president, every Republican senator signed a letter saying, in essence, "rampant obstructionism won us a bunch of seats in the recent election, so we're going to go with that for the rest of the year, just to let you know." Democrats, for the most part, failed to respond as forcefully as they really should have, but that should not exactly come as a surprise by now.
Republicans blocked an extension of unemployment benefits once again, even though it is right before Christmas, because the Democrats have shown over the past year that they will extract no political price from Republicans' hide when this happens. The issue is simply tailor-made for some high dudgeon and indignation, but Democrats have yet to realize this (or something). Adding to this was the unexpected jump in the unemployment rate just announced today -- meaning it could be an even more potent issue for Democrats if they'd just wake up and smell the coffee for once.
The presidential debt commission turned out to have been a pointless exercise, exactly as the Republicans wanted it to be. The commission was originally their idea, which they hastily denounced once Obama got on board. The original idea was to have the commission hand Congress a piece of legislation, which would get an up-or-down vote in both chambers, without amendment. Because Republicans balked, the commission -- from its inception -- had no power to force this upon Congress. This week, it became apparent that even this weakened commission couldn't agree on anything, which means that any solution to our long-term debt is simply never going to take place in Congress -- at least not for the next two years. Well, at least it gave Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson something to do all year. People have already rightly begun calling what the co-chairs came up with (in deference to their last names, of course) the "B/S Report."
About the only semi-positive story this week was one taking place in the background. It is sounding more and more like Senate Republicans are actually going to get on board and allow the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty to pass. This is by no means certain, but President Obama has gotten pretty much every Republican national security expert from every previous administration back to Richard Nixon to strongly and publicly support the new treaty, which has done much to shame Republicans into supporting New START. After all, this is merely an extension of an idea initially proposed by Saint Ronald of Reagan himself, Cold Warrior extraordinaire in the Republican canon. Since Reagan, the treaty has been updated twice, under both Bushes. In other words, the idea has solid Republican credentials. And, sheepishly, some Republican senators are realizing that this is so. But they're still saying "there's not enough time!" in public, so passage at this point is still uncertain, at best.
I should mention that I keep checking the news while I'm writing this, because if Obama's going to cave on the Bush tax cuts, it will likely be announced in the dead zone of political news which begins Friday afternoons and extends into the weekend. Meaning it could be announced any minute...
Sigh. At least the aliens haven't landed yet, I guess.
Last week's winner of the coveted Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award, Joe Lieberman, also deserves an Honorable Mention this week, for championing the movement to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the Senate. Lieberman has been out there making his case, and still says he's got the 60 votes he needs to pass the bill. But since we gave him the MIDOTW award last week, we're going to hold off giving him another one until it actually passes. Keep fighting the good fight, Joe!
Senator Bernie Sanders also deserves an Honorable Mention this week, for something he did earlier in the year. While the original idea was to audit the Federal Reserve, what made it into the Wall Street reform bill which passed was to audit only the Fed's emergency bailouts which happened when the economy collapsed. The Fed chair refused to answer any questions about this when asked by Congress, so Sanders got it written into law that the information had to be publicly released. Which happened this week. Sanders talks about what has so far been uncovered in a Huffington Post article he wrote this week, which is worth reading.
But the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week was none other than outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi has been stymied for the past two years by the glacial pace of the Senate. But that hasn't stopped her from passing tough bills, or making strong political points. Which she just did again, at the end of her Speakership. If Democrats in the Senate would only use the bill Pelosi just passed as a bargaining chip, they'd be in a much stronger position. Instead, both the White House and Harry Reid essentially ignored the House's strategy of passing only the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the non-wealthy 98 percent of working Americans.
Reid and Obama could have made this an ultimatum to Republicans -- pass this first, or we won't even consider passing the tax cut extensions for millionaires. Filibuster it at your own risk, because if this does not pass, then all the Bush tax cuts are going to expire.
That would be in an alternate universe, of course.
But kudos to Nancy for showing the way hardball politics should be played. It's not her fault Democrats on the other side of Capitol Hill and down Pennsylvania Avenue can't seem to manage to do so, as well.
For making this last, valiant attempt to show the others how it is done, Speaker Pelosi is our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week. We will miss you in the Speaker's chair in the next two years, that's for sure.
[Congratulate Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on her Speaker contact page, to let her know you appreciate her efforts.]
The aforementioned Joe Lieberman will have a matching set this week, as he also managed to win a (Dis-)Honorable Mention as well. His response to the Wikileaks controversy was to skate way too close to threatening government censorship on the internet for any civil libertarian's liking. Glenn Greenwald has this story, complete with a followup which posts the scrubbed charts, if you're interested.
President Barack Obama also earned a (Dis-)Honorable Mention this week, for mostly being absent on virtually every political debate currently raging. Other than his continued push on New START, the president's voice has been awfully quiet all week. I guess the bully pulpit is gathering dust in a closet somewhere in the West Wing, or something. Obama started the week in a photo op with Republicans, and then hours later they released the letter promising to shut the Senate down. Obama's response was... um, to fly to Afghanistan? To sign the first pardons of his term in office? That's it?
For his non-visibility last week, Obama's (Dis-)Honorable Mention comes with a special snoozing dog on it -- for letting sleeping dogs lie, and for the dog that didn't bark in the night.
But Obama will have to wait until next week to win the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week, where he is already a strong contender due to the rumors flying fast and thick over just how much he's going to cave on the Bush tax cuts.
Stand back, everybody, I feel a new word coinage coming on. Because it is necessary to combine "chutzpah" and "hypocrisy" to form the new term "chutzpocrisy" to adequately describe Senator Dianne Feinstein's plea for ending the Bush tax cuts on millionaires this week. Her "Won't somebody please stop me?" plea ran on the Huffington Post, and is worth reading just for the belly laughs (it starts off with the maudlin: " I don't know a single millionaire who needs a tax cut right now").
This is the sheerest chutzpocrisy. What DiFi (as we Californians endearingly call her) fails to mention is that she voted for the Bush tax cuts in the first place. That's right -- she voted with Republicans to pass the original bills back in 2001. That would just be standard-level hypocrisy, though. Where the chutzpah comes in is the fact that she is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, and reportedly quadrupled her millions during the Bush tax cut era (not even counting her wealthy husband's sky-high pile of dough).
So, DiFi, cry me no crocodile tears now, please. Spare me the false "I'm for the little guy" rhetoric, if you would. When you stand up and announce to the world that you have calculated every single penny which you would have had to pay in taxes over the past ten years if the Bush tax cuts hadn't been enacted (which you voted for), and have written a check to the federal treasury for that amount, then -- and only then -- will I listen to a single word you have to say on the subject. Because until you do that, it's nothing but rank chutzpocrisy. For which you have won the first of our two Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week awards this week.
The second MDDOTW this time around goes to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, because he just wasted the whole week. And the lame duck simply doesn't have all that many weeks to be wasting one of them. Oh, sure, Harry got a few things done this week. But his response to the Republican letter should have been to push back, forcefully. Reid could have said, "You know what? You want to filibuster an unemployment benefit extension right before Christmas in order to give an unpaid-for tax break to millionaires? Well then, go right ahead. We're not going to mess around with cloture, this time. We're going to have a real hair-on-your-chest filibuster. Get ready to defend your position on the Senate floor for the next few days, with the cameras rolling. We're going to force the media to pay attention to what you are doing this time around. So my response to your letter is: Bring it on!"
Of course, this did not happen, except perhaps in the previously-mentioned alternate universe. Instead what happened was a week of absolutely nothing happening on the Senate floor.
Oh, except the news that Reid had the time to write a bill on online gambling which would help out the casino industry in Nevada. Way to prioritize, there, Harry. We just knew you had it in you to disappoint us one more time before the end of the year! Congratulations on your twentieth Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award -- which now means you have twice as many as the second-place record holder.
Volume 148 (12/3/10)
There seems to be no point, this week, to offer up talking points to Democratic politicians to use over the coming week, because for any of the contentious issues out there it is looking more and more like the party leaders are going to decide what even gets attempted for the rest of the year. The Republicans currently would like this to be "extend all tax cuts, forever, and then go home." They may get their way. Meaning, on the issues, it may not even matter what anyone has to say about them -- their fate may be a predetermined and whimpering death.
Instead, I am in a ranting mood. So here goes...
My "End Of The 111th Congress" Rant
We are fast approaching the end of the One-Hundred-and-Eleventh Congress. The old "triple-one" is about to enter the history books, in other words. In the past two years, there were some good times, and some bad. But, towards the end, things got particularly unproductive.
Democrats took Congress four years ago with such promise. They promised all sorts of things back then. Congress was going to start working hard, and accomplishing the People's Business. Corrupt practices were going to end. But since then, Democrats have slipped back to the same old way of doing things (or, more accurately, not doing things).
Case in point -- vacation time. When Democrats took over, you promised to end the two-day work week (from noon Tuesday to noon Thursday), and to devote more time to actually doing the job voters elected you to do. This was nibbled away over time until you wind up taking almost as many days off as the Republicans you replaced.
When you're on recurring weeks-long vacations, you are not working. It is not a "district work period," I'm sorry. It is a vacation. The more of these you take, the less time you have to do your job. This is an equation everyone understands out here in the real world. You have forgotten this lesson, apparently.
Let's look at the calendar for the past year, shall we?
You took two-and-a-half weeks off in January. You took a week off in February. You took two weeks off in March and April. You took a week off in June. Another week off in July. An astounding five weeks off in August and September. Another five weeks off for the election, in October and November. You worked one week, then took another week off (in exhaustion, one assumes) for Thanksgiving. And you're taking the last two weeks in December off as well.
That is over twenty weeks off, in a fifty-two week year. Which is pathetic. And which doesn't even mention the fact that you've now mostly gone back to an incredibly short two-or-three-day week, so you can all fly home every weekend for four days.
And then you have the gall to tell us you don't have enough time to get stuff done. Please. Must be nice work, if you can get it.
To be fair, I will point out the 111th Congress did manage to accomplish more than most (which isn't really saying all that much, on the face of it). Health reform was (finally) passed, after an excruciating year-long debate. The first few months of President Obama's term, Congress was fairly productive and got a lot of big things accomplished, the stimulus act being the most noticeable. And, just last summer, Congress did manage to pass Wall Street reform.
Since then, though, not much of anything has happened. The most glaring example of this was the fact that not a single budget bill passed on time. The federal budget year starts at the beginning of October, and the dozen-odd bills which make up the budget are supposed to be done and signed into law by then. Not only did Democrats miss this date, but not a single one of these bills has yet passed both houses. This is the same thing that happened under the Republicans, right before you swept them from power on Capitol Hill, I hasten to point out. Which, if memory serves, you denounced at the time.
California just passed a citizen's referendum for their state government. It decrees that if there is no state budget by the deadline set, then all lawmakers' pay is halted. Legislators do not get paid until the budget is in place. What's more, they are absolutely barred from awarding themselves back pay after the fact. This is the sort of thing we truly need on the national level.
Imagine if Congress' pay stopped on October first, if they hadn't passed the entire budget. Think that might light a fire under them? We'll never know until we try....
There's a reason the budget bills haven't passed, and by its rightful name it is called political cowardice. Democrats were afraid of taking on contentious budget issues in the middle of an election season. Blue Dogs begged the leadership not to hold votes that they would have to defend on the campaign trail. This "let's not do anything, and then campaign on it" strategy failed miserably, in case it escaped anyone's notice.
We elect you folks in Congress for a reason. That reason is to do your job. Even if it's tough, or politically dicey, you're still supposed to do your damn job. Democrats elected to punt, instead.
Now, to be fair, the House did a much better job in this respect (as it did in many others, as well). Over four hundred bills -- some of them quite tough votes -- were passed by the House which were absolutely ignored by Harry Reid over in the Senate. Including some budget bills -- very tough ones, like the Pentagon's budget which included a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The Senate refused to move on them.
This has been one of the bitterest disappointments about the 2010 midterms. The House has been productive, and yet they were the ones who largely paid the political price for the Senate refusing to act. This, under our constitutional system, is actually as it should be -- but that doesn't make the irony any easier to swallow. Even more ironic is the fact that Nancy Pelosi is going to have to give up her gavel soon, and Harry Reid gets to stay where he is.
Harry Reid won re-election against a nutjob. Democrats breathed a collective sigh of relief on election night, that they hadn't lost one more Senate seat. But time will tell whether this turns out to be a good thing or a bad thing, in the long run (but that's another subject, for the 112th Congress). If Reid had been defeated, we would be either gearing up for a Senate under Dick Durbin or Chuck Schumer. We'll never get to know how that would have turned out now, but I would bet dollars to doughnuts that in the next few years most Democrats will sadly wonder what such a Senate would have been like.
Reid is a throwback to another generation. The generation (to be specific) where the 24-hour media news cycle did not exist. The era, to be absolutely blunt, before television existed. Reid simply does not understand the power of the media. He is one of the worst Democratic politicians I've ever seen in front of a camera (for starters), on a par with Joe Lieberman or John Kerry. He's not, to put it mildly, photogenic.
This wouldn't even matter, if he realized it was so. Instead of making all the announcements from the Democratic Senate camp, he could instead delegate other, more media-savvy senators to stand in for him. Someone who could answer a question in something other than a monotone, perhaps.
But even beyond Harry's camera appearances, he just does not seem to understand the power of political theater. He just doesn't "get it" when it comes to using the media as a tool to drive the American public's debate in the direction you want -- an important aspect of "leadership" in today's plugged-in world.
Of course, the mechanics of the Senate are tougher to deal with than the House, where the Speaker pretty much rules supreme in parliamentary matters. But, at various times during the 111th Senate, Harry had majorities of 58 Democrats, then 59, then 60, then 59 again, and now 58. His least productive period was when he had 60, as the entire time this was so (after Al Franken was seated, but before Ted Kennedy died) the Senate went precisely nowhere on healthcare reform, and did nothing of any other note when they had the chance. That is mismanagement, not leadership.
Allowing healthcare reform to go on as long as it did can also be laid at the feet of Harry Reid. He gave his committee chairmen all the time in the world, to no particular end. He kept threatening to crack down on them, and then refused to do so. Under a different Senate leader, healthcare reform would have been wrapped up before the summer break in 2009. As it was, it dragged on until spring of this year. This wasted an enormous amount of time, which could have been used getting other things done.
Reid was the chief culprit in punting many big issues from the election season to the lame duck, as well, which is why I have exactly zero sympathy for him pleading that "there just isn't much time" now. There is no time to do this stuff because that is how you set it up. You promised votes on a whole raft of issues before the election break which you did not follow through on. That is precisely why you are in the situation you now find yourself. You could have held votes on the Bush tax cuts before the election, and then gone out and run on the issue, but you did not -- which can only be called political cowardice.
But the biggest disappointment of the lame duck season so far is the fear I have that the White House is going to announce that they've caved on the Bush tax cuts for the next two years. And the part that is most disappointing is the last two words of that sentence. This is a trap, and one the Democrats -- all the way up to Obama -- don't even seem to be aware of (I've written about this previously). For the love of all that's holy, pick an odd number of years to extend them... if extend them you feel you must. Force the Republicans to have this debate over again next year. Or push the whole thing out three years. But if Obama (and the rest of the Democrats in Congress) agree to a two-year extension, this is going to put the issue smack into the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign. And, from the last go-'round, it doesn't seem like Democrats are quite up to winning this debate in the general public -- even though the general public is actually fairly tolerant towards raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy. It's not the public's attitude that's the problem, it's the way Democrats fail to even articulate their position on the matter.
The next two years are going to be a struggle for Democrats. They will be absolutely powerless in the House, and the Republicans will be able to stop anything and everything they don't like in the Senate. President Obama is not going to get a whole lot of political victories for the next two years. If the 111th Congress had passed a few things the Democratic base could get excited about (take your pick: energy legislation, tax legislation, gay rights, immigration reform, education reform, pro-union laws, and a whole host of others) then weathering the next two years would have been a lot easier to do.
Instead, we're left hoping against hope that the lame duck Congress can manage to get anything done in the next few weeks. Beyond extending the Bush tax cuts, of course.
At this point, maybe aliens on the White House lawn wouldn't be such a bad thing. At least it'd be an interesting distraction. And maybe Sigourney Weaver or Will Smith would show up to lead the fight. I'd even take William Shatner, at this point.
-- Chris Weigant