Hello and welcome back to our Friday political news roundup. I must apologize for not writing one of these columns last week, but I was under the weather and far too sick to type (or think coherently). So the events covered today really encompass the previous two weeks, just to warn everyone in advance. Also, this intro is going to move along at an accelerated clip, because there is a lot to cover. Our awards this week are backwards, and then we've got a rant on the Republicans in Congress who are getting ready to have another government shutdown (because the last one worked so well, right?). But enough overview, let's get on with things.
Congress woke up and realized that they should start debate on Obama's war on the Islamic State. Hey, only nine or ten months late, but better late than never, right? It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out in the next few weeks.
Health and Human Services just announced that there will be a special one-time grace period for people to sign up for health insurance right around the deadline for filing income taxes. I wrote about this earlier in the week, and am glad to see they made the right call. This is for people who were unaware that not only will they be penalized on their 2014 taxes for not having health insurance, but because the open enrollment period just ended they'd have been locked into paying the penalty next year as well. With the new grace period, they'll be able to avoid the penalty next year, which is a good thing because it'll motivate more people to sign up. Obamacare already signed up almost 12 million people this time around (up from 7 million last year), and this will help boost those numbers.
Labor seems to be making something of a comeback, as strikes and lockouts are happening for oil refinery workers and those who unload container ships on West Coast ports. So far, the media hasn't paid this much attention, but we'll see where it all goes in the next few weeks.
Gay people are getting married in Alabama and Texas, which at one time might have been a truly shocking headline, but these days it's almost commonplace to read about. The Alabama case got interesting when the chief justice of the state supreme court tried to have a showdown with the U.S. Supreme Court, but was smacked down in the end. By July, the headline is going to read "U.S. Supreme Court Legalizes All Gay Marriages Everywhere," of course, but we've all still got a few more months of state-level news before that happens.
A federal judge in Texas blocked the implementation of President Obama's new immigration policy, but that'll really become bigger news next week, in the heat of the fight over the Homeland Security budget (which we'll get to in the talking points section).
News from the campaign trail: Jeb Bush gave a not-ready-for-prime-time speech on foreign policy this week. Spoiler alert: he wants his brother's foreign policy team, because they did such a bang-up job last time. Also, the Bush team went a little too transparent in a dump of emails from when Jeb was Florida's governor. Problem was, they forgot to strip out such information as addresses and even Social Security numbers. Whoops! And Jeb's supposed to be the smart one?!?
Rand Paul wants to change his state's election law so that he can run for Senate and president at the same time. Boy, that just oozes confidence about his chances to get the Republican nomination, doesn't it?
Scott Walker had his own not-quite-ready moment overseas, when he was asked about his views on evolution. His answer: "I'm going to punt on that one as well." What wasn't widely reported in the American press (due to the embarrassment factor, no doubt) was the questioner's response to Walker [PDF transcript]. First, it was an incredulous: "No, really?" and then the Brit moderator commented: "any British politician, right- or left-wing, would laugh and say: 'Yes, of course, evolution is true.'" Ah, to have such sane and science-based politics -- where such things aren't even seen as partisan!
Marijuana news: Vermont may become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana not through a voter initiative but through the state's legislature. The nation's new drug czar actually supports Washington DC's legalization law, even though (by law) he must be awfully circumspect in how he speaks of it. The Drug Policy Alliance so far thinks the new drug czar is a lot better than the previous one, as well.
At least one U.S. Attorney doesn't seem to have gotten all the Justice Department memos on not prosecuting state-legal marijuana operations, but this is no surprise because she's been pretty gung-ho all along. Debbie Wasserman Schultz seems to be offering up her support for medical marijuana to the highest bidder (pun not intended). Anyone got a bunch of Democratic donation money? Give D.W.S. a call, quick! And finally, Jamaica's senate passed a decriminalization bill on Bob Marley's birthday, which couldn't have been more appropriate.
In massive-disrespect-for-President-Obama news, we sadly have a number of items. Two news organizations ran retractions recently, one for printing a letter with a misleading headline that suggested President Obama was the Antichrist. The retraction: "[the letter's author] does not believe President Obama is the Antichrist, who will come after seven kings, according to Revelation. He thinks Obama could be the seventh king." Elsewhere, the St. Paul Pioneer Press changed a description of Obama from "a self-absorbed assclown" to "a self-absorbed celebrity." Well, glad they cleared all that up!
In politics, no retractions were offered by either convicted felon Dinesh D'Souza, who gratuitously called the president a "boy" from the "ghetto," or from Rudy Giuliani, who read Obama's mind and determined "Obama doesn't love America." Democrat Steve Cohen had the most amusing response to Giuliani, when he tweeted "Maybe he thinks he loves it 3/5 as much as Giuliani & his pals." Nicely done, Steve!
In even-sillier news, a Republican in Georgia wants to pass a law so that nobody splices jellyfish DNA to a human embryo, in order to manufacture human embryos that glow in the dark. No, seriously -- you just can't make this stuff up, folks!
And, finally, the Washington Monument is no longer an easy-to-remember 555 feet high. Seems its official height shrunk 10 inches. Insert your own Seinfeld-style "shrinkage," but-it's-cold-in-February joke here, if you must. Heh.
We usually present these awards in the other order, but since both awards concern the same event this week, we decided to switch them around, to preserve the chronology.
Also, before we really begin, a quick update on the winner of the MDDOTW award from a few weeks back [FTP 333]. Sheldon Silver's problems continue to mount, as the former New York Assembly Speaker was indicted by a federal grand jury on corruption charges which include mail fraud, wire fraud, and extortion. From the news story:
The indictment accuses Silver of a "secret and corrupt scheme to deprive the citizens of the State of his honest services as a legislator" and of using his power and influence as speaker to obtain "millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks masked as legitimate income."
This week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week also falls into the "how the mighty have fallen" category. The longest-serving governor Oregon has ever had stepped down in disgrace this week. John Kitzhaber had just won his unprecedented fourth term in office, but has been under investigation for the activities of his girlfriend for a while.
Kitzhaber finally realized he had to go, after members of his own party privately informed him they could not support him anymore. If he had remained in office with the legal cloud hanging over him, the legislature might have even considered kicking him out. Nevertheless, Kitzhaber hung around, in bizarre fashion, for a day later than expected -- which we'll get to in a moment.
For irreparably tarnishing his legacy, though, John Kitzhaber is the easy choice for this week's MDDOTW award. Oregon deserves better.
[Ex-governor John Kitzhaber is now a private citizen, and it is our policy not to provide contact information for such people.]
Fortunately, Oregon is now in good hands. The state doesn't have a lieutenant governor position, so the Oregon secretary of state is next in line when a governor resigns.
We were first made aware of Kate Brown when reading a rather bizarre story which happened just before Kitzhaber stepped down. Kitzhaber apparently decided he'd step down, then decided he wouldn't step down, forgetting his first decision entirely. Or something -- it's kind of hard to tell. Here's the story:
Kitzhaber reportedly was on the verge of announcing that he would step down yesterday, but changed his mind and announced that he would remain in office. That announcement came after Kitzhaber asked Secretary of State Kate Brown (D) -- the next in line to become governor -- to return to Oregon immediately from Washington so that he could meet with her privately.
Upon returning to the state, Brown immediately went to meet with Kitzhaber. Then things got weird.
"I got on a plane yesterday morning and arrived at 3:40 in the afternoon. I was escorted directly into a meeting with the Governor. It was a brief meeting. He asked me why I came back early from Washington, DC, which I found strange," Brown said in a statement. "I asked him what he wanted to talk about. The Governor told me he was not resigning, after which he began a conversation about transition."
Brown called the situation "bizarre and unprecedented," and said that her staff would be ready if he resigned.
So, let's see, he called Brown back early, then asked her why she had returned early, then said he wasn't resigning, then talked about a transition that would only take place if he resigned. That right there would not seem to be very confidence-building behavior, it would seem.
Kate Brown has since stepped up and been sworn in as Oregon's next governor. One other bit of newsworthiness from the story: Governor Brown is the first bisexual governor ever in America.
We sincerely wish Kate Brown well, and for her poise throughout the entire fiasco, we think she deserves this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.
[Congratulate Oregon Governor Kate Brown via her brand-new official contact page, to let her know you appreciate her efforts.]
Volume 336 (2/20/15)
We're going to consolidate this week's talking points into a longish sort of rant, because it was more fun to write it that way then to separate into discrete soundbites.
If nothing much was scheduled for next week, we might instead have parsed all the ways that Obamacare has proven its detractors wrong, since we read two wonderful articles on this subject that caught our eye. Check them out to review the across-the-board successes of Obamacare so far.
But next week we're going to have another battle royale in Washington, one that not many Americans have even heard about yet. Because the Republicans in Congress are in "let's shut down the government" mode, once again. They planned this last year, so that they'd have a big fight midwinter, perhaps to warm up the halls of Congress with an excess of hot air, while the snow is blowing outside. It's hard to figure what the strategy was, but here we are again.
But next Friday, we may be headed for a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security. Republicans will mostly be fighting with each other (it's a real Boehner-v-McConnell cage match, folks!), but of course they'll all be trying to deflect criticism of their own incompetence over to the Democrats (it's really the only thing they agree on, tactically).
Democrats have been handed this issue on a silver platter. Republicans are jeopardizing America's homeland security to make an unwinnable political point? This just begs Democrats to play hardball. OK, not as hardball as the Republicans played against anti-war Democrats back when George W. Bush was around, but still -- Democrats need to make their own position in this fight clear, to win the battle over public opinion. Luckily for them, it's pretty easy to do so. So here is what I think Democrats should be saying all next week, as Republicans tie themselves in knots once again.
A "shutdown showdown" rant
The Republican Party wasted no time in creating yet another self-induced government shutdown showdown. Not even two full months into their control of both the House and the Senate, and they are pushing a critical federal department towards shutting down, all in an effort to make a political point. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell both promised America that they wouldn't ever shut the government down again, and yet here we are, after less than two months.
Just so nobody misunderstands what is going on here, the Republicans picked this battle and they picked this battlefield. It was entirely their choice to have this fight, and it was entirely their choice to target the Department of Homeland Security. Back in December, they forced the scheduling of this fight in what was called the "cromnibus" bill. All federal departments were funded through the entire 2015 fiscal year, with the sole exception of D.H.S. -- which was done at the insistence of Republicans.
If they don't act within the next week, D.H.S. will run out of money. The federal department which is responsible for keeping the homeland safe would be shut down. Let's all just think about that concept for a moment, shall we?
Imagine for just one second that the parties were reversed in this political fight. Imagine what Republicans would be saying right now if Democrats were holding Homeland Security funding hostage in an effort to pass something on our political agenda. You think the words "traitor" or at the very least "aiding America's enemies" would pop up in their criticism? I do. I remember just how jingoistic these same Republicans were a decade or so ago, when anyone would speak an ill word about what President Bush was doing. The political attacks would -- if Democrats were now the ones holding up Homeland Security's funding -- be vicious and personal, if the past is any guide. Just imagine what Rudy Giuliani would be saying now, just to give one pertinent example.
We will not resort to such ugly name-calling. I will not -- and no Democrat should -- call into question someone's patriotism or love of country over the D.H.S. funding fight. Motivations are not fair game, in other words, but the consequences of Republicans' actions certainly are.
What will happen if Homeland Security is shut down has been downplayed by Republicans. "Most of them are essential personnel, so they have to show up at work anyway," they blithely respond. What this ignores is that they will not be paid for showing up at work after a shutdown. They will be working for free, hoping that Congress not only funds their employer but also remembers to include their back pay for the days they worked with no budget in place. If the shutdown goes on for more than a week -- as the last Republican shutdown did -- this is going to start to impact mortgage payments, overdue bills, and other family financial concerns.
While all this is happening, Congress will still be cashing its paychecks. Every Republican who refuses to pass a clean funding bill will still be paid about $175,000 per year, on schedule. For not doing their jobs. A Coast Guard sailor will be worrying about unpaid bills, but members of Congress will not. A T.S.A. agent will be distracted from keeping our airlines safe from terrorists because he'll be worried about paying the rent. Members of the Secret Service may lose focus from their critical job. All while Republicans who refuse to vote on a D.H.S. budget continue to dine out and live large because they know their paychecks will still appear on time.
This is who will be affected -- the people who go to work every day willing to put themselves on the line to defend this country. For a long time, every politician of both parties has stated that they "support the troops." Are those just words? Do they not mean anything? Support means more than moral support and salutary speeches. It also needs to mean support -- as in "getting a paycheck for what you do."
The people that would lose their financial security if the Department of Homeland Security were shut down are the people who plan for our safety. People working to aid when disaster strikes, like FEMA. People who guard our borders, like the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Border Patrol. People who try to prevent disaster from attacking, who work tirelessly to defend America from computer attacks, nuclear disasters, and virulent disease. They are first-responders -- another category that politicians used to cozy up to when begging for votes. And they will all lose their paychecks if the Republicans don't pass a clean bill next week. So much for supporting the troops, eh?
I remind everyone once again -- this is the battlefield that Republicans chose. Democrats didn't decide to play politics with Homeland Security. Republicans did.
And let me be clear -- we're having this completely made-up fight because Republicans can not govern. Not because President Obama did anything. Our immigration policy is broken -- almost everyone agrees with that statement. So where is the Republican policy on immigration? They are tying this issue to the crucial support for Homeland Security because of their own rank inability to perform their own constitutional duty.
The House has been in Republican hands since 2010. Where is their immigration reform plan? They complained about the bipartisan Senate bill, saying it was too big and too comprehensive. They were going to break the problem down and pass individual bills. They have not done so. They've had more than four years, and they have nothing to show for it. Now that they have control of the Senate, where is their immigration plan? It does not exist. This is because they cannot even agree among themselves what to do. Democrats don't even really figure into it -- they have bungled immigration with a House majority, all on their own.
If Republicans don't agree with President Obama's new policy, there is nothing stopping them from passing their own policy. It would supersede Obama's actions. The president himself said he would welcome this happening. But Republicans don't want to do so, because they cannot get the votes within their own caucus for any plan whatsoever. Instead, they prefer to throw a tantrum, playing unwinnable politics with Homeland Security. Want to debate immigration policy? Great! Let's have that debate. Just put forward a bill, and we'll debate it.
Republicans are going to lose this latest example of tilting at political windmills. Eventually, a clean bill is going to pass, with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. What we're going to witness for the next week is a struggle between Mitch McConnell and John Boehner over who is going to admit this reality first. The public already blames Republicans far more than Democrats or Obama for this mess, and that perception is only going to grow if they go ahead and shut the department down. It's a losing battle legislatively and a losing battle politically. But, once again, Republicans chose this fight, and they chose which department to fight over.
A clean bill has already been proposed by Democrats. It would pass both houses of Congress tomorrow, in fact. Democrats in both houses would vote for it, and Republicans worried about their electoral chances in 2016 would also vote for it in both houses. This idea already is gaining bipartisan support, from Republicans like Senators Dean Heller and Mark Kirk -- Kirk even recently stated: "I generally agree with the Democratic position here. I think we should have never fought this battle on D.H.S. funding." When Obama signs such a clean bill, the entire crisis would disappear.
Republicans even had a so-called "escape hatch" handed to them by a federal judge, who ruled that Obama's new policy won't be implemented before the courts rule. Republicans should have grasped this lifeline and expressed their confidence that the courts would get it right. That they didn't is a clear sign they lack the courage of their own constitutional convictions. After all, if the court blocked Obama, why would a big fight over D.H.S. funding even be necessary? I strongly urge Republicans to take the escape hatch, and end their ridiculous hostage-taking exercise.
Democrats will be fighting hard next week, to support those federal employees whose job it is to protect the homeland. We think it would be disgraceful if Congress continues to be paid while T.S.A. agents and the Border Patrol are not. We think it's a good idea for D.H.S. employees to be worried about smugglers, computer attacks, loose nuclear material, preventing epidemics, and all the other things they do to protect Americans' security here at home -- rather than late charges on their family's bills. If Republicans want to debate immigration in Congress, Democrats are fully willing and able to have that debate. But not when it is tied to hostage-taking of people's paychecks. There is nothing stopping Boehner and McConnell from introducing whatever immigration bill they would like, and allowing the House and the Senate to have a full and rigorous debate. They have been able to do this for over four years in the House, and they have not done so. We actually did have a great debate in the Senate, and passed a good bill with a strong bipartisan majority. We can reopen that debate at any time.
But please, leave the Homeland Security workers out of it. They deserve a lot better than having their paychecks be used as a political football because some Republicans don't like the president. They deserve our unwavering support, in fact, seeing as how they are first-responders standing up every day to protect America from terrorists and others who would do us harm. The least we can do is to pay them for their service to this country.
-- Chris Weigant