First, some revisions to the mission statement of this series. As a relatively attentive, firmly right-of-center, yet critical constituent, I offer this “customer feedback” to a fictional GOP leader curious to know whether and how one constituent received the week’s political messaging. The light analysis is offered to convey those impressions gleaned from a casual political diet of mostly talk radio (Hugh Hewitt via podcasts), news radio (NPR, live and via podcasts), an RSS stream of a few dozen sources (including NRO, Reason, Sullivan, Drum, Powerline, Volokh, Ezra Klein, The Fix, City Journal, New Geography, and lots of smaller blogs), and occasionally following a similarly eclectic Twitter stream. The analysis is specifically not offered as fully researched analysis per se. (But feel free to engage, of course.) They’re mostly uninterrogated first impressions.
The basic idea is that the major political issues of the day ought to be digestible by, at the very least, an educated political observer with a day job. And it is in the spirit of Federalist 62, where James Madison remarked: “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?” The GOP leadership has to educate that sort of person—not conservative pundits and talk show hosts—what they’re up to. If you didn’t convince me you’ve got a righteous position, you’re most certainly not reaching any of the unconverted.
I may also talk about other items from my news feed in the past week not directly related to GOP politics, particularly on slow political weeks like this one.
On with the feedback:
The “Fiscal Cliff”
Relatively quiet on this front this last week due to the holidays. Things started back up again yesterday apparently. Speaker Boehner is convening a meeting with House Republicans Sunday night, I hear, a rare event that suggests the President has given him some reason to think there’ll be something to talk about.
Before I go further, let me take stock. I don’t understand clearly what the GOP is fighting for. If I had to say the first thing that popped into my head, it’d be that the GOP is trying to keep the tax on millionaires from going up. I understand that’s not really it, that they’d be ok with increasing those revenues if they got some “serious” and “meaningful” and “nonfictional” spending cuts. And they don’t believe the Democrats when they say trust us, we’ll identify the cuts later. I read, I think Drum or Klein, this week or last saying that, historically, that approach has worked just fine: Dems propose an amorphous amount of cuts, and they usually do make them when the time comes. But I’m keeping the Regular Joe cap on for now, and I can’t really put in clear terms what the GOP’s goal is here any better than I could put in clear terms what the GOP’s “Replace” plan was in the “Repeal and Replace Obamacare” message.
GOP, you’re not giving me much reason to cheer you on here.
On NPR yesterday, Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving gave a city bus tour of some of the issues at play. I usually don’t jump on the “NPR is a front for the DNC!” bandwagon, but the tilt seemed pretty clear. Granted, I’ve been complaining about the GOP’s messaging, so if you’re painting their picture I can’t fault you for picking up the ugly brush. But Elving discussed the history of the “debt ceiling” dating back to WWI, that it’s been raised “scores of times” and has “just kept going up” without incident—without ever a whisper of concern, from the sound of it. (Is he right?) Raising it should have been just a fait accompli, Elving seems to suggest. But then, Elving goes on, “just in 2011 the newly elected Republican majority in the House dug their heels in and said, you know what, we’re not going to pass that, and we don’t really worry whether or not we’re going to default on the obligations, the debts, the bonds of the United States government because, well, because we just don’t think that’s going to happen.”
But wasn’t that right about the time debt surpassed GDP, an unprecedented, worrisome, and newsworthy event? Even if raising the debt ceiling was heretofore commonplace, spending has not been trending with historical levels. And the “newly elected Republican majority” got there ostensibly because of that, among other things. To suggest they just decided, as if on a lark, to “dig their heels in” seems wrong under the circumstances.
That’s one of several unfair attacks I heard on the Republicans this week. As if they weren’t doing themselves enough damage.
Last Friday, Larry Arnn offered House Republicans this very sound Constitutional advice on Hugh Hewitt’s show:
What the Republicans should do right now, by the way, is they should drive the system back toward its constitutional operation. The government doesn’t work so that the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate and the President can have long discussions and decide what to do. It works instead by the two houses both passing the bill. And so the Republicans have passed a bill. They might very well have stuck with the one they passed and said, look, now it’s time for the Senate to pass a bill, and if they won’t pass a bill, it’s their fault. And they should stick to that.
Now if the Senate passes a contrary bill, that happens all the time, and then they have what’s called a conference committee, and the conference committee is made up of people from both houses, and they follow rules, and the rules are: step one, take everything that’s in both bills; step two, take whatever else you need that’s in between the two bills to achieve the purpose of the two bills—nothing from outside the parameters of the two bills. Now by the way, that happens every week in the American Congress, and that is the solution to this problem.
And one of the reasons the Republicans have trouble is that they forget that they should just stand on that. And Boehner should say, “look, it’s no use for me talking with the President—I mean, I’m happy to talk to him any time, but we’ve passed a bill, it’s time for the Senate to pass a bill. And then when they pass a bill we’ll have a conference and it’ll be a compromise, and both houses will pass it and then this will be over.”
That seems just right to me, and it turns out that’s just what Republicans did. Eventually. Using their indoor voices. As if they didn’t want anyone to know about it. I didn’t hear about it, even though I was waiting for it, until I dug it up in this piece on Huffington Post trying to learn about the House bill that Arnn talked about (link provided from my RSS feed—I won’t go to HuffPo’s website because of the obnoxious videos that autoplay three yards downpage):
“These bills await action by the Senate. And as I, Eric, Kevin and Cathy said yesterday in a joint statement: if the Senate will not approve these bills and send them to the president to be signed into law in their current form, they must be amended and returned to the House,” Boehner said on the call. “Once this has occurred, the House will then consider whether to accept the bills as amended, or to send them back to the Senate with additional amendments. The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass –- but the Senate must act.”
Why wouldn’t this be the first option if you’re the Speaker? Why even attempt a private session deal with a recently re-elected president? He’s supposed to be a post-private-sessions president anyway. Why keep participating in these private sessions? And then why only do you get around to the whole constitutional, bicameralism thing in the quietest week of the year? This might have given you some procedural cover had you done it a month ago. Now it’s probably too late.
In the meantime, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid charged that Speaker Boehner was running the House as a “dictatorship.” (Politico riffed with a “Lord of the Flies” reference.) A “dictator” would have gotten Plan B passed. A “dictator” would not be on the brink of getting blamed for a “fiscal cliff” with nothing to show for it. I imagine Reid knows that Boehner can’t come out and say “Reid calls me a dictator, but he couldn’t be further from the truth: Everyone knows I’ve completely lost control of my caucus!” But Reid understands how to message this. Craven though it is.
One final thought on this, resurrected from the comments of last week’s Customer Feedback: If Republicans are “posturing” here, which Republicans are doing more “posturing”? Establishment Republicans like Boehner? Or Tea Party Republicans? I think the former just wants to get a deal done; they’ll try to make Democrats look like wastrels when in recent memory Republicans have not been much better. The Tea Party folks, on the other hand, seem to really care about getting spending/revenues in line, even if they’re a bit tunnel-visioned about it. They’re not “posturing”—they don’t care about perceptions as much as their principles, for better or worse. They blocked earmarks in 2011 and, more importantly, established the Office of Congressional Ethics, “the only independent watchdog ensuring that members live up to the ethical rules,” which wouldn’t exist if the Tea Party didn’t insist upon it, according to Larry Lessig. (I recently read that many of the insider trading-esque loopholes catalogued in Peter Schweizer’s 2010 book Throw Them All Out were closed after that book’s publication. Anyone know whether this was done through the OCE?)
So, Establishment Republicans are craven and have no principles. Tea party Republicans are dangerous in their unyielding fidelity to principles. That meme gets Republicans coming and going.
The Gun Control Debate
The left really hates Megan McArdle. The flap over David Gregory’s banned magazine and the pending police investigation is obviously just political theater. Do any pro-gun folks think it’s effective? It’s just not my taste. [Ok, Mark Steyn’s column this weekend is pretty good.]
So while the usual suspects throw rocks at each other, The Volokh Conspiracy takes the direct route, continuing to offer the best discussion on gun control over the past couple weeks. Eugene Volokh concludes that the answer to the haunting question “so what are we going to do about it?” is, in the end, to very thoughtfully, and very sincerely, do nothing. Or, at least as much as we do about drunk driving deaths. I have to agree. Whatever the causes are, they are subtle and indirect and will be little assuaged by blunt legislative measures. “[W]e should not presume that there’s somehow a moral imperative to Do Something. In fact, there’s a moral imperative not to do something that’s likely to make matters worse.”
NPR’s Talk of the Nation hosted a wonderful discussion on how some states—including Ohio, led by Republican state senator Bill Seitz—are getting “smart on crime” by reintroducing more rehabilitation measures. Do I ever agree. GOP leaders, take note: This is an issue that will win you points with voters who are tired of “young-white-men’s” economic philosophy and “old-white-men’s” social philosophy.
Right to Work
Forbes published a list of the “best states for business” drawing a correlation between business-friendly states and right-to-work states. Government gives favors to big business and big labor, and I don’t know that the balance is so out of whack in labor’s favor that it warrants a culture war. Private sector unions have been worn way down over the past couple of decades anyway. I typically take a pass unless we’re talking about public sector unions.
It would not be a valid objection to maintain that any legislation making certain types of contracts invalid would be contrary to the principle of freedom of contract. We have seen before (in chap. 15) that this principle can never mean that all contracts will be legally binding and enforceable. It means merely that all contracts must be judged according to the same general rules and that no authority should be given discretionary power to allow or disallow particular contracts. Among the contracts to which the law ought to deny validity are contracts in restraint of trade. Closed-and union-shop contracts fall clearly into this category. If legislation, jurisdiction, and the tolerance of executive agencies had not created privileges for the unions, the need for special legislation concerning them would probably not have arisen in common-law countries. That there is such a need is a matter for regret, and the believer in liberty will regard any legislation of this kind with misgivings. But, once special privileges have become part of the law of the land, they can be removed only by special legislation. Though there ought to be no need for special “right-to-work laws,” it is difficult to deny that the situation created in the United States by legislation and by the decisions of the Supreme Court may make special legislation the only practicable way of restoring the principles of freedom.
Over at New Geography, Joel Kotkin points out that the belated “emerging Democratic majority” might not be as viable as Democrats hope—particularly if the GOP can remediate some of its perennial stupidity. Democrats’ pickups—particularly millennials and Hispanics—may not be long for the party, demographically speaking. When Ruy Texeira dreamed of an “emerging Democratic majority,” he may have had Democrats like Truman, Pat Brown, or even Clinton in mind, who would get behind the natural gas revolution to bolster blue collar jobs; encourage more detached housing and dispersal of work rather than small, cramped, urban living; and focus like a laser on taxing Wall Street income rather than lumping Main Street in with it. As McArdle puts it: “Yes, some people don’t work very hard to earn their money, or earn it in ways that seem illegitimate. But the solution is to change the law so that it’s harder to earn money in illegitimate ways, not to take the majority of their money in taxes–and the majority of the money of other people who work quite hard indeed.”
Or as Clayton Christensen points out, via Reihan Salam, industry overinvests in “efficiency” innovation (short term investments) and underinvests in “empowering” innovation (long-term investments); thus, lawmakers should change the way we tax capital gains by reducing the tax burden for longer-term investments:
We should instead make capital gains regressive over time, based upon how long the capital is invested in a company. Taxes on short-term investments should continue to be taxed at personal income rates. But the rate should be reduced the longer the investment is held — so that, for example, tax rates on investments held for five years might be zero — and rates on investments held for eight years might be negative.
(To my dear fictional GOP leader, this is another issue that will win credibility and voters to your party.)
But as I’ve said, it seems to me the left is more concerned with a general principle about wealth per se: The “one percent” is not vilified because they acquired wealth illegitimately, but simply because they acquired wealth “excessively.” And yet, says Kotkin, “The Holy Places of urbanism such as NewYork, San Francisco, Washington DC also suffer some of the worst income inequality, and poverty, of any places in the country.”
This progressive economy works from the well-placed academics, the trustfunders and hedge funders, but produces little opportunity for a better life for the vast majority of the middle and working class.
The gentry progressives don’t see much hope for the recovery of blue collar manufacturing or construction jobs, and they are adamant in making sure that the potential gusher of energy jobs in the resurgent fossil fuel never materializes, at least in such places as New York and California. The best they can offer the hoi polloi is the prospect of becoming haircutters and dog walkers in cognitively favored places like Silicon Valley. Presumably, given the cost of living there, they will have to get there from the Central Valley or sleep on the streets.
Not surprisingly, this prospect is not exciting many Americans. . . .
In this respect, the class issue so cleverly exploited by the President in the election could prove the potential Achilles heel of today’s gentry progressivism. The Obama-Bernanke-Geithner economy has done little to reverse the relative decline of the middle and working class, whose their share of national income have fallen to record lows. If you don’t work for venture-backed tech firms, coddled, money-for-nearly-free Wall Street or for the government, your income and standard of living has probably declined since the middle of the last decade.
Kotkin doesn’t imagine this belated emerging Democratic majority has much to hold it together: Hispanics have been hit particularly hard by the economy with 28% of that ethic group living in poverty. Besides, Hispanics tend to like big cars and homes with yards—anathema to the new Democratic Party’s gentry. And they need blue collar jobs—not exactly in the new Dems’ wheelhouse. The latest news from the sucking sound in California reports 800 oil jobs just emigrated from California to Texas, and I’m quite certain the left’s response is, more or less, “good riddance.” But there just aren’t enough “internet jobs” to replace all the traditional ones we’re hemorrhaging, and it’s in no way clear that the out-of-workforce is suited for those jobs. [Via Walter Russell Meade, more teens are foregoing college education to take “brown jobs.”] And millennials, the “screwed generation,” may follow the trajectory of the boomers before them, who started out left but moved to the center-right with Reagan and never looked back. If the GOP revises their message and/or position on social issues that millennials hold above most everything else, it might fast-forward that shift in trajectory.
At City Journal, Steven Greenhut makes an interesting observation that, because the best way to diminish the value of something is to create more of it, the best way to diminish the value of legislators in the eyes of lobbyists is to create more legislators. Maybe he’s been reading this blog.
That’s it for the week. Happy New Year!
[Late Add: Gov. Bobby Jindal supports making the pill available over the counter. This is a shrewd move. As Andrew Stuttaford points out (in a post I otherwise didn’t care for), “His cannily pragmatic argument is based on the idea that making the pill available OTC will remove much (all?) of the rationale for including it under the HHS rules.” I like Jindal more all the time.]