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Posts in "Balance of Powers"
August 5, 2014
Richard M. Nixon’s fate was effectively sealed 40 years ago today. It’s a curious coincidence at the start of an August recess when the extraordinarily serious matter of presidential impeachment is going to be tossed around in such a cavalier and cynical manner.
In the current era of partisan gamesmanship and governmental gridlock, it’s understandably difficult to comprehend what a genuine constitutional crisis feels like. But there is no doubt that’s what steadily swelled toward its climax on Aug. 5, 1974.
That Monday afternoon, Nixon made public transcripts of three conversations he’d had with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman just six days after the June 1972 break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. The move ended parallel standoffs — between the president and Congress and between the president and federal prosecutors — that had festered for two weeks, even after the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that Nixon could not claim executive privilege and had to fork over the records subpoenaed for the Watergate cover-up trial. The House Judiciary Committee had also been stiff-armed after issuing similar subpoenas on the way to approving its three articles of impeachment, with solid bipartisan support, in July.
Beyond breaking the separation-of-powers fever, the transcripts provided all the evidence necessary to bring Nixon’s presidency to a dramatically swift end. His words, preserved on what came to be known as the “smoking gun” tape, left no doubt he had personally launched a criminal conspiracy. The president had effectively ordered the cover-up of the Watergate burglary, agreeing that top CIA officials should be instructed to pressure the FBI to halt its investigation of the crime on cooked-up “national security” grounds.
Within hours, Nixon’s tenuous wall of congressional support crumbled. All 10 Republicans who had voted against impeachment in committee said they would vote on the floor for at least the article alleging obstruction of justice. (The other charges were abuse of presidential power and contempt of Congress.) Senior Republican senators were dispatched to inform the president he could not count on more than 15 votes for acquittal at a Senate trial. Nixon chose instead to resign, announcing that decision Thursday night and leaving office the morning of Friday, Aug. 9.
The anxiety of that sustained constitutional impasse — capped by a president who had proclaimed “I am not a crook” quitting after being forced to reveal he really was one — is seared in the memories of everyone on the Hill who lived through it. (The most recent reminder was the July 29 death, at age 89, of former Rep. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, who as a freshman on Judiciary conceded he broke down and wept after becoming among the first committee Republican to announce support for impeachment.)
But Watergate also was the formative national trauma for anyone who arrived in Congress from the 1970s through the 1990s, the generations who still hold sway over the national debate. For those politicians, regardless of ideology, Nixon’s forced resignation ranks with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as the dates in their lives that most live in infamy.
The desire to prevent a repeat of the Nixon drama helped prompt Democrats, just 12 years later, to quickly quash calls for President Ronald Reagan’s impeachment, despite solid evidence he violated the law and misled Congress in the Iran-Contra affair. Similar sentiment fueled the Senate’s never-in-doubt, bipartisan 1999 acquittal of President Bill Clinton on the House GOP’s charges that he should lose his job for lying to a grand jury and otherwise trying to cover up his affair with West Wing intern Monica Lewinsky. A decade later, Democrats made clear they had no interest in spending the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency prosecuting him for launching the Iraq War under suspect pretenses.
In that context, this summer’s casual talk sounds astonishing. Full story
July 11, 2014
More seems curious than straightforward in Speaker John A. Boehner’s current plan for suing President Barack Obama.
But one of the easier things to understand is what the litigation might accomplish inside the House Republican Conference: a cooling of the intensifying and politically problematic talk about how nothing short of impeachment will do.
Legislation to authorize the lawsuit will get its first public hearing on July 16 at the Rules Committee. It’s on course for passage entirely along party lines in two weeks, just before the August recess begins. So it will be toward the end of September, just as Congress is preparing to decamp for the campaign trail, before the House’s lawyers actually take their complaint to the federal courthouse at the foot of Capitol Hill.
That means there’s almost no chance for even a preliminary resolution before the midterm elections. But the schedule will nonetheless provide the infuriated House Republicans several opportunities for venting their bloodlust this summer and fall.
Giving members of the GOP rank and file this way to focus their red meat rhetoric, and their appeals for donations from the hard right, could make calls for impeachment fade, if not quite disappear. And that is what Boehner has made clear he wants.
In this curious way, he is in the same place as his predecessor as speaker, with whom he sees eye-to-eye on next to nothing. Full story
June 10, 2014
He called off the traditional picnic for lawmakers not once but twice last summer, then missed both congressional holiday balls so he could speak at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. But now plans seem locked down for everyone in the 113th Congress to have at least one sociable interaction with President Barack Obama at the White House.
Don’t expect those feel-good moments to do anything to alter the do-nothing nature of the relationship between Congress and the president.
Save-the-date emails have gone out to every member. They advise lawmakers to plan on bringing their spouses and kids to the South Lawn for supper, family-friendly entertainment and maybe even a snapshot with the first couple on Sept. 17. (There’s even a rain date, scheduled for the next night if necessary.)
Given that it will be approaching two years since rank-and-file members were able to break bread with the president, and that the party is in the middle of a week when both the House and Senate will be in session, turnout is guaranteed to be strong. Even the most combative junior Republicans and the most jaded senior Democrats can’t resist a social invitation from the White House — especially one that allows them to usher their families into town to taste the sort of history-tinged glamour that’s largely disappeared from congressional life.
The picnic also guarantees at least one weeknight in Washington this year when the relentless machinery of campaign fundraising will be throttled to almost a full stop.
There’s no chance that an evening of bonhomie and burgers will do anything to narrow the partisan chasm. And the opportunity to peer into Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden at dusk won’t prompt any lawmaker to think better of the West Wing’s legislative liaison efforts. Full story
May 18, 2014
As the justices bring this season’s caseload to a close, they have a pretty clear idea how the rest of this Supreme Court year will play out. The rest of the country, however, will remain almost entirely in the dark until the remaining decisions are unveiled over the next six weeks.
The outcome in at least four of the most important disputes will help shape both the policymaking and campaign agendas of Congress through the midterm elections and beyond. But it’s possible no single ruling will have as much impact on the national political climate as the pattern that emerges in how the cases get decided.
The members of the current court are getting a reputation for being just as partisan and polarized as the politicians populating the other two elected branches of government. New polling shows the public is none too pleased with the Supreme Court’s perception, which is backed up by some pretty solid evidence, and people want term limits for the justices in an effort to depoliticize the court.
May 5, 2014
For those lulled into thinking the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has devolved into nothing more than an over-the-top Hollywood-D.C. mashup schmooze fest, one small scene offered a reminder of how real congressional business can get done in the least likely places.
While the gawking was focused on celebrities like the drummer Questlove and the actor Freida Pinto, three prominent Republicans huddled near the bar at one Saturday evening reception: pollster and messaging savant Frank Luntz, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Trey Gowdy, a conservative second-termer from South Carolina who’s about to take his first step into the national spotlight.
Their body language made clear the conversation was serious, so glad-handers should please stand clear. Still, it’s safe to assume the talk touched on the House GOP leadership’s decision to reverse course and establish a select House committee to investigate the 2012 terrorist assault on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, announced Monday that Gowdy would be the chairman, because he’s “as dogged, focused and serious-minded as they come.”
For the Republicans, creating the panel is a high-reward as well as a high-risk proposition. On the one hand, its hearings are guaranteed to excite and solidify the party’s conspiratorial and conservative base right through the campaign season, while forcing the White House to keep playing defense on another high-profile front and making life particularly unpleasant for Hillary Rodham Clinton (who was secretary of State during the attack) just as she’s deciding whether to run for president in 2016.
On the other hand, its work will subject the GOP to criticism that perpetuating congressional interest in an incident that eight Hill committees have already hashed over is an especially wrong focus in this election year, which should be about promoting policies to put more people to work at home instead of more costly political theatrics about a foreign policy foul-up.
But for the House’s newest would-be chairman, the next six months represent a career-altering opportunity with more potential upsides than downsides. Full story
April 21, 2014
It could be dubbed the federal contractor trifecta.
Employees at businesses that do a lot of work for the government began this election year hoping to benefit in three distinct ways from President Barack Obama’s vow to act on his own whenever Congress deadlocked on his legislative priorities.
Two of those expectations have now been met. In January he ordered contractors to start paying their blue-collar laborers at least $10.10 an hour, realizing his proposal to raise the $7.25 federal minimum wage to that amount was doomed. And this month he declared that workers on federal contracts must be free to discuss their salaries, so women may more easily expose pay inequities at those companies while legislation that could close the wage gender gap nationwide languishes.
Now, the pressure will only intensify for Obama to make good in the third area. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees being paid under federal contracts want to benefit from the same sort of executive order that is aiding female and low-wage workers. And their advocacy groups, along with allies on the Hill, are signaling they’re tired of waiting for the president to apply his “we can’t wait” mantra to their cause.
The issue is job bias against LGBT people. While steady advances continue in the states for same-sex marriage — still the paramount political cause of the gay community — outlawing employment discrimination has become the principal gay rights cause in Washington, in part because it’s unambiguously subject to federal regulation or legislation in a way that marriage equality is not.
Only 21 states have made it illegal to fire or harass someone based on sexual orientation, or to deny a raise or refuse to hire on that same basis. More than 11 million people work in the remaining 29 states for companies without policies protecting workplace civil rights for gay people, according to a recent study by UCLA Law School.
Last November, 10 Republicans joined 54 Democrats in the Senate to pass legislation that would prohibit gay job bias nationwide at businesses with more than 15 workers, with some exceptions for religious organizations. But House Republicans have no interest in putting the bill on the floor. (Known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, it’s currently 16 votes shy of guaranteed passage, in any event.)
In short, the gay rights community sees their “ask” as a clear parallel to the minimum wage and pay parity issues. They argue Congress isn’t ready to change the situation nationally, so Obama should at least start paving the way by helping out people working for or seeking employment from government contractors. Full story
April 16, 2014
The lead plaintiff in the “Can you lie in politics?” case going before the Supreme Court next week, anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, says Ohio’s law against false campaign assertions will stifle that state’s midterm congressional debates.
The group is apparently not worried about a similarly chilling effect elsewhere – at least not in four races elsewhere in the country where it’s inserted itself in recent days.
Over the weekend, the SBA List said it has arranged to put space on billboards across three Southern states to lambaste a trio of incumbent Democratic senators in some of the closest Senate races of 2014: Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Because all of them voted for the 2010 health care overhaul, each of them can fairly be described as supporting federal financing of abortion, the group says, and that will be the central message on the roadside signage. Full story
February 23, 2014
Republicans angry at President Barack Obama’s muscular use of executive authority are returning from recess more focused on litigation than on legislation.
The Supreme Court’s docket for this term is unusual for including two cases with potential to reorder the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches. In oral arguments six weeks ago, the justices seemed open to a significant clipping of the president’s appointment power when the Senate is in recess. On Monday, the court will consider how much an administration can do through regulation before it has seized the congressional prerogative to alter the law.
Both decisions, expected by June, could change the relationship between Congress and the White House in ways that constitutional lawyers and politicians will be arguing about for decades. In the shorter term, though, the outcomes may play a meaningful role in the midterm campaigns and then in Obama’s final two years.
If Obama loses one or both cases, even on narrow grounds, Republicans can be counted on to crow that their complaints about an “imperial presidency” have been vindicated. They likely would further say that, to make sure his power stays diminished, they need to be rewarded with more seats in the 114th Congress. If Obama’s positions prevail, the GOP will seek to raise more money, and court more base voters, with a slightly different argument: that electing an all-Republican Congress is the best way to prevent this president from even more executive overreach. Full story
January 29, 2014
“Upbeat.” That’s the adjective being used as much as any other to describe the tone of Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Members from both parties could be forgiven for hearing it a bit differently.
The speech may well be remembered longest for its genuinely stirring finale, when President Barack Obama merged the story of a 10-times-deployed and gravely wounded Afghanistan war veteran, who was sitting in the balcony, with the country’s difficult path toward a more perfect union. “Like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” Obama declared to a sustained and teary-eyed standing ovation.
But in the preceding 63 minutes, the president mixed it up plenty with the audience in the House chamber. And he made clearer than ever that he views the Capitol as a readily avoidable impediment — generating headlines about Obama pursuing a “year of action” mainly on his own authority. He also took a handful of swipes at Congress, and they were arguably aimed at least as often at the institution’s bipartisan shortcomings as at his Republican tormentors.
The japes were somewhat subtle, by the standards of today’s political discourse. And they are being overlooked, probably for a couple of reasons that have to do with the ritualized ways of the modern State of the Union:
The lawmakers themselves have become almost excessively adept at cooking up their partisan talking points hours beforehand, and repeating them verbatim with minimal regard to what they actually hear. So not all that many of them picked up on his poking one-liners — all of which were at the relative low end of the dismissive-disdainful-disparaging spectrum.
January 28, 2014
Among the stranger phenomena of the modern State of the Union tradition is how White Houses of both parties work so hard to drain it of almost all news value before the speech actually gets delivered.
The demands of the continuous news cycle, which affords the president so many opportunities to spoon out dollops of his agenda, now easily outweigh the traditional virtue of surprise — and the old-time verity that there’s no use annoying your hosts, your opponents or your potential partners before you absolutely have to.
The trend seemed locked in place Tuesday morning, 13 hours before the national television audience was asked to start paying attention. That was when the administration revealed what was guaranteed to be among the biggest, if not the biggest, headlines out of the address: President Barack Obama is going to give many thousands of blue-collar workers a raise — on his own authority.
In other words, not only was Obama making good on his promise to make this his most assertive year yet for maneuvering around the gridlock at the Capitol, but he was getting started even before going through the formalities of seeking congressional buy-in. (Of course, he made a major push for a $9 minimum wage in his State of the Union address a year ago, and that went nowhere.) Full story
January 12, 2014
One of the biggest congressional stories of the decade starts unfolding Monday — not at the Capitol, but across the street.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in an epic balance of powers battle between the other two branches, one that’s been waiting to happen since George Washington’s time. During the hour, the justices may or may not signal clearly whether they’re going to permit the continued expansive use of the president’s recess appointment authority — or seriously limit its use for the first time.
That second outcome would give the Senate enormously more influence over the leadership of the departments and agencies and the tenor of the federal courts. But if the court rules that way, it will be almost impossible to notice any difference in the power dynamic before the beginning of next year — if then.
It may sound a bit paradoxical, but it’s the “nuclear option” that would guarantee such a delayed reaction.
And during that delay, a new measure of importance would get attached to the midterm elections. Full story
December 8, 2013
The answer is 178 and a half hours.
The question is: What’s the maximum amount of time it could take to secure the confirmations of all six prominent nominees President Barack Obama wants to get on the job in the new year?
Only one of their timetables has been set, and it’s likely to be the exception that proves the rule: On Monday afternoon, senators will spend just 30 minutes “debating” the virtues of Patricia Ann Millett, a prominent 50-year-old Washington appellate litigator, before confirming her for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
However she distinguishes herself during that lifetime appointment, Millett will be remembered by congressional historians for this: She’s the first person to benefit from the limitations on Senate filibuster rules muscled through by the majority Democrats three weeks ago.
Since Millett was the nominal subject of five dramatic roll calls during the parliamentary maneuvering that put the “nuclear option” into effect — lowering from 60 to a simple majority the number of senators required to cut off debate on almost all nominations — Republicans agreed to not delay her final vote for the 30 hours they still have available for such protests. The duration of the Thanksgiving recess, they conceded, would suffice.
But the GOP minority has not decided how much of a fuss it will make about the other five: Federal Reserve Vice Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen to take the helm of the central bank, former top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson to be the fourth-ever secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency and, for the two other vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, Georgetown law professor Nina Pillard and federal trial Judge Robert Wilkins. Full story
November 22, 2013
Thirty years ago this week, more than 100 million Americans tuned in for the first airing of “The Day After” on ABC — the audience eager, during the final years of the Cold War, for a blockbuster vision of what the heartland might look like if both Washington and Moscow exercised their nuclear options.
On the day after the biggest change to the congressional rules in four decades — sharply curtailing the power of the filibuster, an essential element of life in the Senate — the public may be clamoring for some insight into what just happened.
These six questions and answers may help.
1. Why is it called the “nuclear option”?
The allusion to an atomic blast is as much about how the Senate rules were changed as about the way in which the rules were changed.
The breadth of the impact on the legislative process, and on the balance of power at the Capitol, is undeniably significant, although its extent cannot be precisely measured just now. The number of political players who have seen their power hobbled by the move is also extensive, but can’t yet be quantified.
In those ways, the situation is analogous to the detonating of a nuclear bomb: Plenty of the damage is plain to see, but the breadth of the fallout takes a long time to measure. For now, it’s only clear that the minority’s right to filibuster most judicial and all executive branch nominees has effectively been destroyed, and that means the Republicans are the only victims. But there is nothing to prevent efforts to end the legislative filibuster from bubbling up soon enough. And it’s a dead certainty that whenever the Republicans win control of the Senate, whether next fall or in an election years later, they will turn the tables on the newly-entrenched-in-the-minority Democrats with a vengeance.
The way in which Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., deployed his power play on Thursday also had some similarities to the start of a nuclear war. Like many missile attacks, his series of choreographed parliamentary moves and roll call votes had been threatened for a long time, was stealthy in the planning, undisguised in the execution and swift to reach completion. And it was impossible to contain the damage once the launch sequence was begun. Full story
October 29, 2013
Seven skirmishes in the Senate confirmation wars are being fought more or less simultaneously this week.
By the time these tussles conclude — after a series of test votes that could stretch into next week — there’s a decent chance President Barack Obama and his Democratic front men will have emerged undefeated, or nearly so.
That would amount to a solid second victory for the president on top of this month’s triumph in the shutdown and default standoff, one he could bask in for a few days because the oppositional Republican House will be silent for the next week, in recess from Wednesday until after Veterans Day.
Advancing so many contested nominees so quickly would also mark an important turning point toward finishing the Senate’s year with a return to functionality — if not quite regular order. At a minimum, it would mean that senatorial nuclear winter won’t be setting in early this year because the Democrats were able to help the president put his stamp on the government without upending decades of precedent in their own workplace.
The first two rounds went to Obama with relative ease on Tuesday.
October 16, 2013
The dam is breaking today. The two Senate leaders finalized an agreement this morning to reopen the government until Jan. 15 and avert an imminent debt default by giving the Treasury authority to continue borrowing through Feb. 7.
The deal was to be announced just after noon on the Senate floor, and was then likely to be sped across the Capitol so that the pivotal vote — both procedurally and politically — can happen first in the House. Speaker John A. Boehner signaled that he would put the package to a vote by the end of the day, but a final decision was awaiting the results of a GOP leadership meeting.
Still, some members of that group predicted the measure would pass the House, with the bloc of combative conservatives who are opposed to almost any realistic fiscal policy patch getting overwhelmed by significant numbers of both Republicans and Democrats. Full story