Institutionalized Shouting

The day arrives late out here in Los Angeles. When the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard – like in that once wildly popular Sheryl Crow song (although three blocks up the hill here the sun comes up over the Griffith Park Observatory just across the hills) – the sun has been up back east for three hours. Back in New York and Washington, where the important stuff happens, the important stuff is well underway, or it already happened. If it happened in Paris, it happened nine hours earlier – but nothing important has happened in Paris since the late eighteenth century, save for the recent international rally regarding the mass murder of those Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and editors by the Jihadist assholes. The whole western world stood up for free speech, and then everyone went home. No, the big stuff happens in New York and Washington.

Dawn is when we catch up out here. It’s black coffee and the morning paper – yesterday’s stuff – and burbling away on the television in the other room, the local news (fluff and nonsense) and CNBC with the financial news – the markets already way up or way down and Cramer and Santelli ranting about this or that – and CNN with the big stories as they break. That’s kind of background noise, because most of the news is ongoing news – riots that continue, trials that continue, airplanes that are still missing, and of course wars that go on and on. The Sunnis still hate the Shiites. Vladimir Putin still wants the Ukraine back – and maybe the Baltic States too. The Republicans still hate Obamacare, and Obama, by the way, and Donald Trump says he will run for president again. CNN reports “developments” – new news is rare. There’s seldom anything all that surprising.

That’s why the news is on in the background. What happened, happened earlier, or it’s happening now, far away. We’re a bit mellow about such things out here on the West Coast – but sometimes there’s a ruckus in the other room. This time it was two senators shouting at each other:

In an emotional speech on the Senate floor Thursday, Republican Sen. John McCain blasted Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois for recent comments suggesting Republicans had racial motivations for delaying a vote on Loretta Lynch to be attorney general.

“That is unfair, it is unjust. It is beneath the decorum and dignity of the United States Senate,” McCain said. “Such inflammatory rhetoric has no place in this body and serves no purpose other than to further divide us.”

Durbin’s controversial comment came during a floor speech Wednesday when he complained that Lynch “is being asked to sit on the back of the bus when it comes to Senate calendar.”

That back-of-the-bus comment made McCain go ballistic, but the Republicans are a little defensive about such things after the big event marking the fiftieth anniversary of that march in Selma across that bridge. No one in the Republican leadership in Congress decided to attend. Maybe they thought they’d get booed. Maybe they would have been booed, so maybe they made the right decision – the cost of showing up was probably higher than the cost of not showing up and looking like racists, even if they’re not racists, or don’t want to be seen as racists.

That’s part of what was behind McCain’s anger, the unfairness of it all:

“At no time has the majority leader ever indicated that he would not bring the Lynch nomination to the floor,” McCain said. “Had the senator from Illinois and my colleagues on the other side of the aisle not filibustered this bill over a manufactured crisis we could have considered the Lynch nomination this week.”

“I deeply regret that the senator from Illinois chose to come here yesterday and question the integrity and motivation, mine and my Republican colleagues,” McCain went on. “It was offensive and unnecessary and I think he owes this body, Ms. Lynch, and all Americans an apology.”

That warranted a response:

Durbin, who listened while McCain spoke, took to the floor immediately after but never directly discussed his “back of the bus” comment. Instead he spoke about how unfair it is that Lynch, who was first nominated in November, has had to wait so long to get a vote.

He said Lynch has had her nomination pending for 131 days, which he says was twice the length it took for Attorney General Eric Holder to be confirmed.

“Why?” he asked. “I sat in the hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, for this nominee Loretta Lynch. There were no questions raised of any nature of any kind questioning her ability to serve as attorney general, none.”

Wednesday in response, Durbin told the Senate floor that “Loretta Lynch, the first African-American woman nominated to be attorney general, is asked to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to the Senate calendar.”

“That is unfair. It’s unjust. It is beneath the decorum and dignity of the United States Senate. This woman deserves fairness,” he added.

Lynch would be replacing an African-American attorney general, Eric Holder, so McCain might have had a point, but this was about something else. It always is, and the Los Angeles Times covers the basics:

The nomination of Loretta Lynch, currently the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and was tentatively slated for a vote this week after languishing for more than four months.

But the delay now seems likely to continue. In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would not bring the nomination to the Senate floor until the chamber passes a bill to assist victims of human trafficking. Democrats oppose that bill because it includes a controversial provision on abortion.

“I had hoped to turn to her next week. But if we can’t finish the trafficking bill, she will be put off again,” McConnell said.

Ah, so this was about a bill to assist victims of human trafficking – and no one would vote against that – but the Republicans slipped in some anti-abortion stuff that the Democrats would have to vote for too, or else be in favor of human trafficking. This was clever, the perfect trap, but the Democrats held firm. Take out the anti-abortion stuff or we’ll continue to filibuster the bill. Oh yeah? Keep doing that and they’ll be no new attorney general. So there!

That’s what all the shouting was about, but this tactic is not new. Initially, Republicans held up the nomination to demonstrate their outrage about Obama’s immigration policies. Reverse those executive directives or they’ll be no new attorney general! That didn’t work. That wasn’t attached to any pending legislation. This is, and it comes down to this:

The human trafficking bill would set up a special fund to assist victims. Both parties support that proposal. But Republicans put language in the bill barring any use of the money for abortions. Democrats voted for the trafficking bill three months ago in the Judiciary Committee, but later noticed the abortion provision and now want it removed.

Of course they do. This is the first legislation that would require victims of rape and incest to carry to full term, and give birth. The idea on the right is that abortion should be illegal, no matter what the Supreme Court once said, and there should be no exceptions, ever – not for rape or incest or the health of the mother – none of that immoral nonsense. God said so. Did they expect the Democrats to agree?

So that’s what all the shouting was about:

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Lynch had “an impeccable record for prosecuting terrorists and criminals.”

“Senate Republicans appear intent on making history for all the wrong reasons,” Leahy said in a statement. No other nominee for attorney general in the last three decades has waited as long for a confirmation vote, he said.

And there was this:

Several Republicans have said they will vote for Lynch once the nomination comes to the floor – enough for her to be confirmed, although passage might require Vice President Joe Biden to cast a tie-breaking vote. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. has said he will continue in the job until his successor is confirmed.

There you have it. She’s a shoe-in if they ever vote, and Eric Holder is fine with taking care of things until they vote. Everyone knows how this ends up. She’ll be confirmed, after all the shouting.

Dana Milbank has some thoughts about this:

The very white, very male Republican Party has managed to get itself caught in another thicket in the hostile terrain of identity politics. Ashton Carter, Obama’s white, male nominee to be defense secretary, was confirmed in just under 70 days. But Lynch, nominated a month before Carter, continues to languish in the Senate – 131 days and counting – even though she is by all accounts superbly qualified for the job and she got through her confirmation hearings without so much as a scratch.

It didn’t have to be this way:

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and his fellow Senate Republicans got themselves into this situation by violating the first rule of extortion: Don’t take a hostage you aren’t willing to shoot. McConnell on Sunday said he wouldn’t take up the Lynch nomination until Democrats acted on a sex-trafficking bill that had enjoyed bipartisan support before Democrats noticed that it included an antiabortion provision. But Democrats have little political incentive to comply with his demands, because they know Lynch has the votes to be confirmed and because the GOP’s troubles with women and minorities worsen each day McConnell delays.

This is a done deal, and the incentive structure shows that, but the fight will go on:

The controversial provision, blocking funds from being used to perform abortions, has been in the legislation since it was introduced in January, and Democrats and abortion rights groups apparently failed to notice it. Democrats also contributed to the Lynch delay, by discouraging Obama from making a nomination before the election and by declining to move the nomination during the lame-duck session.

But McConnell lost whatever high ground he held when he decided to hold up Lynch unless Democrats swallowed the abortion provision in the sex-trafficking bill. Harry Reid (Nev.), the minority leader, protested before Wednesday’s attempt to break the Democrats’ filibuster that “Loretta Lynch has waited 130 days. There’s no reason to delay her confirmation another minute.”

That may not be true:

McConnell is himself being held hostage. He can’t bring up the Lynch confirmation without the unanimous consent of his caucus, which he probably couldn’t get. And if he was to shelve the trafficking bill, Republican senators would be furious at him for backing down. That’s not something McConnell is likely to risk after inflaming conservatives with his surrender in the Department of Homeland Security funding battle last month.

And so Democrats are watching McConnell squirm. They point out that Lynch has waited longer for a confirmation vote than any nominee since Edwin Meese 30 years ago. And they say that she has been on the “executive calendar” – awaiting a Senate floor vote – for 18 days, longer than the last five attorneys general combined.

“It’s time for the majority leader to release the hostage,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) demanded Wednesday morning at a news conference featuring four U.S. flags and seven women: Murray, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and representatives of five women’s groups.

Patty Murray knows what she’s doing, and the New York Times’ Gail Collins piles on:

The United States Senate is worse than ever.

I know this is hard for you to believe, people. But, really, this week was a new bottom. The Senate found itself unable to pass a bill aiding victims of human trafficking, a practice so terrible that it is one of the few subjects on which members of Congress find it fairly easy to work in bipartisan amity.

“This has got to get done for me to continue having faith in this institution,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who’s particularly concerned about sexual exploitation of Native American women. She has always struck me as one of the more cheerful members of the Senate, so this seems like a bad sign.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has passed twelve bills against human trafficking already this year.

Wow, the House is doing great! If you overlook the introduction of a budget that features terrible math and many assaults on hapless poor people, the lower chamber has been on a roll lately. Speaker John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, rescued the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, and now they’re working out a plan to avoid the next fiscal cliff, which involves keeping Medicare running.

Plus, this week, the Republican majority got rid of disgraced Representative Aaron Schock, who decorated his office as if it was a scene from “Downton Abbey.” In the wake of questions about his mileage reimbursement requests, Schock announced his resignation. Since he had never successfully sponsored any legislation in his six-year congressional career, his greatest legacy may be a reminder that members of the House of Representatives should avoid brightening the workplace with vases of pheasant feathers.

So the House is working on a new fiscal-cliff plan, passed twelve human trafficking bills and subtracted Aaron Schock. Maybe it’s going to become the center of bipartisan cooperation the nation has been waiting for!

At least the House is better than the Senate:

At the beginning of the month, the Senate was working on its own anti-trafficking bill, sponsored by Republican John Cornyn of Texas, with several Democratic co-sponsors. The idea was to fine sexual predators and give the money to groups that help sex-trafficking victims.

Sounded promising! The Senate Judiciary Committee had easily approved Cornyn’s bill earlier this year. Then before it reached the floor, someone discovered that it had acquired a clause forbidding the use of the money to provide victims with access to abortions.

“They’re putting poison pills in their own bills!” said Senator Chuck Schumer in a phone interview.

Before we discuss how badly the Republicans behaved, we need to take time out to note that none of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee seem to have noticed that somewhere along the line this change had been inserted in the bill. (One senator acknowledged that an aide knew, but never shared the information.)

It was easy to miss, the Democrats contended, being very oblique and super-tiny. “Out of a 112-page bill, there is this one sentence,” complained Democrat Dick Durbin.

I believe I speak for many Americans when I say that missing a change in important legislation is excusable only if the Senate Judiciary Committee is suffering from a shortage of lawyers.

That’s not the half of it:

No one seemed clear on how the new language got there in the first place, but abortion restriction is not something you casually toss into a bill that you want to pass with support from both parties. It would be as if the Democrats had quietly added a stipulation requiring all trafficking victims be barred from carrying a concealed weapon.

Cornyn argued that it made no difference whatsoever because there were plenty of exemptions that would allow any sexually exploited trafficking victim to qualify for an abortion anyway. That was a good point, except for the part where you wondered why he was so insistent that this allegedly meaningless language be preserved at all costs.

Yeah, there is that, and this:

Lynch did get some support from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who penned a letter urging Republicans to get behind her. When Giuliani is the most sensible voice in the room, there’s not much farther down to go…

There’s only McCain and Durbin shouting at each other on the television in the other room, but Sahil Kapur of Talking Points Memo reports this:

The House’s top two leaders are on the verge of securing a sweeping deal to permanently fix a gaping hole in Medicare that has haunted Congress for more than a decade while also securing significant long-term savings in the program.

And shockingly, it has broad support among Democrats and Republicans, including even some hardline conservatives who have spent years thwarting bipartisan agreements.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) are aiming to finalize the deal this week and put it to a vote next week, leadership sources said. There’s always a possibility of it imploding, but if the plan passes and is signed into law, it would be the most important piece of health care legislation since Obamacare, and a huge achievement for a Congress that has so far been marked by unusual dysfunction.

The deal would end the perennial Medicare “doc fix” problem by replacing the widely-maligned formula for reimbursing physicians, which currently imposes steep annual cuts that Congress has regularly overridden since 2002. It’s a huge headache for lawmakers as powerful health industry groups have been clamoring for a permanent fix for years. The cost of repealing the existing “Sustainable Growth Rate” payment formula is $170 billion over a decade.

The plan would also extend for two years the Children’s Health Care Program, which helps insure families with children, and runs out of funding on October 1, lawmakers and aides said.

Something will get done without muss and fuss? It seems so, and Paul Waldman has the details:

Just to clarify, the Sustainable Growth Rate sets the level of Medicare reimbursements; without the doc fix, doctors would see the amount they get paid for treating Medicare patients slashed. But because the fixes have always been temporary – not changing the SGR itself but only addressing it for a year at a time – Congress has had to come back and pass doc fixes over and over, every time finding some way to pay for it. It’s a ritual nobody likes, because they’re under pressure from doctors in their districts, it requires finding spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere, and it doesn’t get you a whole lot of credit with the voters. What Congress is contemplating now is essentially ripping off the bandage all at once and making the fix permanent.

This is indeed a big deal, an important piece of legislation of the kind we thought Congress incapable of achieving (and let’s not forget that nothing has actually been accomplished yet). So why can they do it now?

It’s a matter of incentives:

To understand why plenty of Republicans will go along, you have to ask: What do they have to lose, and what do they have to gain?

The answer to the first question is, not much. The doc fix is a wonk’s issue, not one that stirs partisan passions, so Republicans aren’t really risking the ire of their base by solving the problem. There are unlikely to be fiery denunciations from right-wing radio hosts over it, and no tea partyer is going to mount a primary challenge to a sitting member of Congress because he supported this deal.

And there are a few things to gain. The first is substantive: Republicans find the status quo as absurd as Democrats do, and no one likes having to come back year after year to pass temporary fixes. Second, Republicans would like to have something they can point to and say see, we can govern responsibly and solve problems; this is as good a candidate as any. Third, it will get the doctors in their districts off their backs; that may be a small constituency, but it’s a vocal and wealthy one. Fourth, paying for it by making high-income seniors pay higher premiums is something Republicans find appealing.

That may sound strange, since Republicans are supposed to be the guardians of the interests of the wealthy – but when it comes to a social program, the calculus changes. Many conservatives have supported greater means-testing for Social Security and Medicare in the past, and the best explanation for why is that universal government programs are a little unsettling to small-government conservatives. Benefits equally shared by all, which join rich, poor, and middle class in a common set of interests, make for bulletproof programs. On the other hand, if you make different groups pay different amounts – and you have those with the most political influence (the wealthy) paying more, that can reduce their affection for the program in ways that make future change possible. When you then propose something like a partial privatization of Medicare, wealthier recipients may say, “Well, I’m already paying more than I’d like to for this benefit, so I guess that’s OK with me.”

That’s a long-term and hypothetical connection, of course. But it explains why means-testing a program such as Medicare is something Republicans often advocate and why Democrats have traditionally been against it: They want to maintain universal support for the program by making the benefits as universal and equal as possible.

But it looks as though Democrats are willing to accept some higher premiums for wealthier recipients, if it means they get a permanent doc fix and an extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program as part of the bargain, something they very much want.

That may be a bit hard to follow, but our politics are like that, all about secondary incentives:

This deal looks like one in which both sides gain something they want and neither side loses very much. That’s true not just on the collective level, but for each individual member as well. And this is a key point, because there are plenty of occasions in which the group can’t do what seems like the rational thing, because on an individual basis it’s actually irrational. The Republican Party would like to pass comprehensive immigration reform to appeal to Latino voters, but such reform is deeply unpopular in the districts of most Republicans in the House, so it goes nowhere. Causing a crisis over something such as the debt ceiling makes the party look bad, but those individual members need to show they’re standing up to President Obama to avoid primary challenges. And so on.

That makes this rather special:

The doc fix is a rare case where the incentives for Republicans and Democrats run in the same direction, one that may actually lead to solving the problem. If this deal actually happens we should savor it, because we won’t see many more like it for some time.

We may never see such a thing again, so out here on the West Coast, when the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard, occasionally there will be the sound of someone shouting at someone else from the next room, something that’s happening far away. That’s fine, let them shout, but it’s not far enough away.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Institutionalized Shouting

  1. Rick says:

    A tiny disagreement about means-testing government programs, such as Medicare.

    According to Paul Waldman in the Washington Post:

    …if you make different groups pay different amounts – and you have those with the most political influence (the wealthy) paying more, that can reduce their affection for the program in ways that make future change possible. When you then propose something like a partial privatization of Medicare, wealthier recipients may say, “Well, I’m already paying more than I’d like to for this benefit, so I guess that’s OK with me.”

    That part may very well be true, I don’t know. In fact, I’ve always wondered why it is that Republicans would want their traditional constituency, rich people, to pay more for public services and whatnot, when they do not, at the same time, seem to be insisting that the wealthy pay a higher share of taxes.

    Still, there’s something about this that doesn’t make sense, and that is that if the wealthy — the ones that have so much political influence — disliked the idea that much, why wouldn’t they use that influence to dissuade their own party from pushing for means-testing? But, in fact, I would also think that if some wealthy voter is so put-off by the comparative chump change of an increase they might have to pay for these programs, he or she is probably just not all that wealthy in the first place. And so, the fact that we don’t hear that much squawking from the super-rich about all this leads me to believe that Waldman may be barking up the wrong tree.

    And maybe also about this:

    That’s a long-term and hypothetical connection, of course. But it explains why means-testing a program such as Medicare is something Republicans often advocate and why Democrats have traditionally been against it: They want to maintain universal support for the program by making the benefits as universal and equal as possible.

    Yeah, but no.

    Yes, we Democrats do want to keep up the massive support for Social Security and Medicare (and even wish we could somehow amass the same popularity for Medicaid), but I think there’s an even more important reason to favor “universal support” for this stuff, and it has to do with the somewhat patriotic motive of maintaining the belief that, as Americans, we have common American experiences — that, rich and poor, we’re all in this together. We all pay taxes, we fight wars, we go to the polls, and we all have access to the same old-age benefits.

    Think of the public school system:

    Should we means-test families and not allow any child attend who’s family can afford to send them to some expensive private school? If we were to do that, our “public school systems” would come to be thought of as “poverty school systems” even more so than they are today, and that the third-world-like division between rich and poor in America would become even more pronounced than it is already.

    We need to remind ourselves that not all policy positions are based on political calculation, that some are based on deeply-held convictions about the kind of country we want our country to be.


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