Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Judicial nominations

From our "damned if you do, and damned if you don't" files: Earlier this month, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Senator Cornyn complained that the White House had not nominated judges to fill several vacancies in Texas, finally admitting that the Senators from Texas had yet to recommend anyone to fill those vacancies, the traditional method for making appointments. Here's a tape of that portion of the hearing:

But what happens when the White House does send nominees to the Senate? Last week, in response to the Obama administration submitting names to fill several long-standing vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, Republicans started objecting that the President is trying to "pack" the court. Once again, here's the videotape, and once again Senator Whitehouse is called upon to correct the misguided attacks of the opposition party, this time in the form of Senator Grassley's incorrect use of a term employed to describe President Roosevelt's attempt to increase the size of the Supreme Court. If merely nominating an individual to fill a court vacancy can be described as court packing, the term becomes meaningless, as that is what every president does.

The president is doing nothing more than fulfilling his duty to appoint judges to positions that Congress has already authorized, not to change the number of judges that are authorized to fill those seats. What Senator Grassley and some other Republican colleagues are trying to do, which is to push legislation to reduce the number of seats on the D.C. Court of Appeals, is actually a reverse form of what Roosevelt tried. President Roosevelt was frustrated with the conservative Supreme Court's overturning New Deal legislation, and suggested adding additional judges so as to change the ideological balance of the court. Republicans in the Senate are similarly trying to preserve the conservative character of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second most important court in the nation in its effect on federal legislation and regulation, by preventing the president from appointing more liberal judges to existing vacancies, or even by eliminating those seats if they can.

As Senator Cornyn made abundantly clear, if the president fails to act to fill existing judicial vacancies, he will be attacked for that, even when the state's senators fail to submit any names to the White House. But as Senator Grassley also made clear, if the president does act to fill vacancies, he will be attacked for that also.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

New Jersey

Ah, the Jersey shore! My old stomping grounds. Great to see it making a comeback.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Intentional conversations

A friend of mine, Hoyt Hilsman, runs a program called the Intentional Conversation, sponsored by Marymount College. I finally had a chance to participate in my first one of these events this week. The design of the  program is deceptively simple. You enter a large space with a lot of other people, mingle a bit and get some coffee. Then you are assigned to a table, as if you are attending a wedding or a banquet. That becomes your table for the day, which enables everyone at the table to get to know one another fairly well. Everyone at all of the tables is given the same topic and some questions to stimulate discussion of the topic. So there are a lot of conversations going on at once, but you're not really conscious of what is happening at all the other tables, because you stay focused on the discussion at your own.

Other than allowing people of different backgrounds to connect and share experiences and ideas relevant to the topic, these conversations have no particular agenda or goal. At the end of the day, we have not solved any problems; we have no policy proposals to present; we have not resolved any debate topics. Instead, a leader at each table simply summarizes parts of the conversations that occurred at each table, enabling everyone to see some similarities in the discussions, and also how the conversations at different tables often veered in different directions. (See also my previous post on the 1000 tables event in Israel.)

It's inherently a non-adversarial format, in contrast, for example, to a leader presenting a topic, and being challenged by the audience; or a debate, in which opposing factions square off as in a courtroom. And perhaps because there is nothing at stake in these conversations, other than participating in the exercise of listening to a variety of different perspectives on a topic, and contributing one's own perspective; what results is a remarkably civil discourse. Another feature that makes the format work is that we spent the first hour or so simply introducing ourselves to everyone else at the table, talking about our careers, our families and our interests in life. In that way, we established personal connections with others at the table that allowed us to respect one another's viewpoints. Also, because we were encouraged to bring our personal experiences into the discussion of the topic, rather than approaching it as an academic exercise, each person's point of view is more easily validated.

Think about the methods that activists typically employ to accomplish some policy objective or another: a march, a demonstration, a lawsuit, a boycott. All of these methods are inherently militaristic in nature. All of these methods, even when they mobilize and organize supporters, usually provoke, and may even stimulate opposition. Contrast those kinds of tactics with a process of engaging people in small groups to share their personal experiences, discover their common interests and appreciate their differences. Out of that kind of process comes genuine dialogue and greater understanding. That is the promise of small round tables. Imagine if we could get members of Congress to engage in this kind of discussion.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

War is over.

Those with an interest in perpetuating continued conflict, and in inflating the power of our enemies, are going to be frustrated by President Obama's speech at the National Defense University today. And those who want to dismantle the war machine even faster are going to complain also. The rest of us are probably going to be pleased with this new direction.

Here's the quote that justifies the title above:
"The AUMF is now nearly 12 years old.  The Afghan war is coming to an end.  Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self.  Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.  Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states. 
So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.  And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further.  Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue.  But this war, like all wars, must end.  That’s what history advises.  That’s what our democracy demands."
It seems to me that some of the coverage of this speech so far, which has focused on changes in drone policy and similar shifts in direction, is missing the big picture. The big picture is that we are moving away from an open-ended, ill-defined "war on terror" in which our enemies are everywhere, and almost anything is justifiable in its name, to a much more focused effort directed at clearly defined threats.

The problem with the "global war on terror," as defined by the Bush administration (or perhaps the beauty of the war on terror in some people's eyes) was that it fed the permanent war economy and the national security state. In other words, it served the same purpose as the Cold War. It's not that the threats behind either the Cold War or the War on Terror were imaginary. It is more that the scope of these wars was so vague that they caused us to become bogged down in places like Vietnam and Iraq, where our mission was unclear, and that these lengthy, poorly-defined conflicts were used to justify encroachments on the freedom of American citizens that were probably not worth the benefit. Unless we want to live in a permanent state of hostility and fear, that kind of war must come to an end.

 (full text here)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The case for impeachment, part 4

I heard journalist James Fallows interviewed on the radio yesterday about the patterns that seem to have emerged in every modern second term presidency, It seems we have been down this road so many times before that the public and the media are almost following a script. As Fallows describes it,
"I think what has evolved in the generation plus since the Watergate hearings in the mid-1970s is sort of an industry of scandal investigation. The press has its ways of looking for us to advance a story day-by-day."
In other words, these things seem to take on a life of their own. The investigative machinery drags on, because the opposition party has an interest in hobbling the president. And the media keeps up the drumbeat of coverage, because the public is interested in stories about scandal.

But what made my ears perk up in Fallows's description of this phenomenon, was his use of the term "genuine scandal" in reference to prior investigations such as the Watergate or the Lewinsky matters. If those were genuine scandals, it follows that the present scandals are fake scandals. What that means is that even if there might still be legitimate matters to be investigated in the Benghazi affair, the IRS/Tea Party affair, and the AP affair, there is no indication that any of these matters touch the White House. We are rolling out the investigative machinery, and its associated press coverage, which in the past has always been associated with tearing down a presidency, even though objective observers have no reason to think the president is going to be tainted by these accusations.

The question is, can the machinery of fake scandal be driven far enough so that it gives off the whiff of a real scandal? And will that ultimately hurt the president? The history of the Clinton impeachment trial suggests that a fairly minor scandal can be taken pretty far, but it also shows that if no serious accusations of wrongdoing can be proven against the president, the president will ultimately emerge stronger from the crisis than his accusers. Clinton might have been distracted by the impeachment trial, but it was Newt Gingrich who ended up being forced to resign from office. In the case of the fake Obama scandals, signs are already emerging that public interest in these affairs is much lower than in previous versions, and the president's popularity is still ticking up, not down, despite the latest media frenzy.

All signs therefore show that the machinery of fake scandal is only going to hurt the Republicans in Congress, not President Obama. And yet, partly for the reasons Fallows suggested, and partly because the angry GOP base demands it, that machine will grind forward.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The case for impeachment, part 3

If we leave out Eisenhower, every single president in my lifetime who was elected to a second term has gotten into serious trouble in their second term. Nixon was impeached for obstruction of justice and abuse of power and resigned as soon as it became apparent that he did not have the votes in the Senate even from his own party to escape conviction. Reagan faced a significant scandal with Iran-Contra but was probably saved from any serious calls for impeachment by his approaching Alzheimer's. Clinton was impeached over a real but petty scandal, and tried unsuccessfully in the Senate. And George W. Bush ran into major problems with Hurricane Katrina and the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, crises that made him extremely unpopular but were mostly not judged to be impeachable offenses.

With a pattern like that, going back more than 40 years, it's no wonder that the political opposition to President Obama evidently thinks it must be about time for the current administration to stumble and fall. Only one problem. They are lacking a critical element, something the chairman of the Republican Party had to remind his constituents was missing. Reince Preibus  said yesterday that: "You don't call for impeachment until you have evidence." What a concept. Evidence.

The chairman of the Republican Party says they don't have any evidence yet. In other words, if you ask the chairman of the Republican Party about the case for impeaching the president, his answer is "we don't have a case."

Does this mean President Obama will be the first president in history that the opposition tries to hound out of office without any evidence that he has done anything wrong? Or will cooler heads in the Republican Party finally prevail and end all this loose talk?

Friday, May 17, 2013

The case for impeachment, part 2

I want to call this whole IRS scandal a tempest in a teapot. After all, it seems confined to a few agents in one regional IRS office. And their investigations of the bona fides of some 501(c)(4) organizations serve an entirely legitimate purpose, which is to find out whether those organizations are legally entitled to claim tax exempt status. The acting IRS commissioner who resigned over this incident says that these were simply “foolish mistakes . . . made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selection.” In other words, they took some shortcuts because they thought they would be more likely to find abuse among Tea Party-affiliated groups than other types of organizations. At worst, these IRS employees deliberately acted in a politically biased way, but there is nothing so unusual about that. The IRS scandal doesn't seem to compare to the outright politicization of the Justice Department that occurred under President Bush, or the deliberate targeting of political enemies by President Nixon--scandals that reached all the way up to the White House. This problem, by contrast, seems unlikely to involve any officials outside of the IRS itself.

This matter will of course be investigated to the hilt, until all but the most paranoid of the radical right are satisfied that the Obama administration was not misusing government agencies for political purposes. But that is not why we have to take this scandal seriously. The reason that have to take this IRS scandal seriously is because it represents another battle in the ongoing war between the powerful interests seeking to hide the corrupting influence of money in politics, and the rest of us. The way this scandal gets resolved will help determine who wins that battle. In that battle, Tea Party sympathizers are to some extent being used by business interests who want to weaken regulation and lower the costs to business of employee wages and benefits. The right wing fringe and these business interests share a fear of government: in the first case a fear that government will impose liberal values on them, take away their guns, and shower the undeserving poor with benefits; in the second case a fear that government might make industry pay for what economists call the negative externalities of their operations.

It is well documented that business interests, most notoriously the Koch brothers, have financed and fomented the popular uprisings of Tea Party groups, most visibly as a means of opposing health insurance reform. These interests would prefer to conceal their involvement. And that is why it is important to them that organizations that are at least partially performing a political function not be required to disclose their donors. Here's where the tax code comes in. As explained in more detail in places that the people who are stirring up this mini-tempest are probably not reading (e.g., the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the New Yorker), in articles with variations on the title the "real IRS scandal," the tax code allows groups that are primarily social welfare organizations, with religious, educational or cultural purposes, to claim tax exempt status, which also allows them to keep their donors secret. Due to lax enforcement, many organizations are able to claim the benefits of 501(c)(4) status even though they are primarily engaged in political activities.

Politicians of all stripes are not doing enough to combat the corrupting influence of money in politics. Their campaigns depend on that money. And these covert political organizations serve causes that politicians favor.  Combine that with the concerted effort on the part Congressional Republicans to reduce the IRS budget and you have a recipe for undue political influence and abuse of the tax laws.

As this investigation plays out, it will be important to keep the focus on the abuse of the tax laws by organizations that are not entitled to tax-exempt treatment. That way, the efforts by the right to use this scandal to attack President Obama and weaken the IRS could even backfire. Yes, we should demand even-handed treatment of all political action groups, left, right and center. No organizations should be targeted because of their political bent. But ALL political organizations that are abusing the privileges of the tax code should be targeted. We should demand stricter enforcement of the requirements of section 501(c)(4) to expose the influence of every moneyed interest on our political system. If this scandal results in such exposure, that would not only be a delicious irony, but would actually serve a useful and important purpose.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The case for impeachment, part 1

Representative Darrell Issa is now leading the charge in Congressional hearings into the Benghazi affair, which one Republican senator recently called the most egregious cover-up in American history. What exactly is being covered up, however, we still do not know.

AP photo

What Congressman Issa has now made clear is exactly the scope of the president's responsibility, faulting him for describing the Benghazi attacks as an "act of terror," as opposed to a "terrorist attack." Seriously, this is the big point Issa was making at the hearing. Ridicule fails me at the moment, so I'll try to give this undeserving congressman the benefit of the doubt and take the distinction he is making seriously.

The difference Issa was drawing between an "act of terror" and a "terrorist attack" reminded me of the efforts of Secretary of State Warren Christopher to minimize the killings in Rwanda in the 1990's by calling them "acts of genocide" instead of just plain genocide. This may have been done to minimize the level of criminality involved. Calling those killings genocide arguably would have triggered at least a moral, and perhaps a legal obligation, for our country to do something to stop the killings, and there was some hesitation about getting involved more deeply in the Rwandan situation. On the other hand, a State Department spokesman back then eventually admitted that there was no difference between "acts" of genocide, and actual genocide. So it turned out to be a distinction without a difference. But still, in hindsight, maybe a reprehensible effort to downplay the significance of horrendous events taking place in Rwanda. And perhaps done for a questionable reason, to avoid using a label that might have obligated the U.S. to contemplate stronger action.

Is that the example Congressman Issa was thinking of? Was President Obama trying to downplay the level of criminality of those who struck our consulate, by calling the attack an act of terror instead of a terrorist attack? Is there a difference? In this case, unlike the case of using the word "genocide," there doesn't seem to be a real moral or legal distinction between using the term "act of terror," as opposed to "terrorist attack." In either case, there is no clear trigger for action. The report linked above notes that President Bush called the September 11 attacks an "act of terror," and he doesn't seem to have been faulted for that language, nor did that usage limit our ability to retaliate. And while President Reagan used strong language in response to the 1983 bombing of a marine barracks in Lebanon, which killed more than 200 soldiers and sailors, calling it a "despicable act," he took no serious action in retaliation, instead turning tail and pulling out of Lebanon.  Anyway, even if President Obama's terminology was done in an effort to delay a stronger response, and there is no evidence that is the case, is that an impeachable offense? Evidently some of the president's most ardent political enemies think so.

From the evidence we have seen so far, it seems you could almost make the opposite accusation. By calling the Libya attack an "act of terror," President Obama might have been jumping to conclusions a bit, based on what was known at the time. For in the immediate aftermath of the attack, it wasn't entirely clear, according to our own intelligence agencies, whether we were dealing with an assassination, or a riot, or a terrorist attack, or something else. Using any kind of label might even be thought uncharacteristically hasty for a president who is generally so cautious about jumping to conclusions.

I realize that Congressional zealots are interested in setting the bar for this president impossibly high. Whatever he says must be wrong. But this pack of wolves might give a thought to the standards they are setting for future presidents. In the midst of any future crisis, must the president get every nuance perfectly correct, to the satisfaction of every possible critic from every direction, or risk these kinds of ridiculous threats of criminal prosecution?

Benghazi: no there there

Friday, May 10, 2013


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ohio State

Saturday, May 4, 2013