Friday, June 30, 2006

Short Takes

- First, an update on the flooding. The water is slowly receding now along the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers; the worst appears to be over. Tremendous loss of property and several lives due to this round of flooding, which was among the worst ever recorded in many areas, including my hometown and those nearby. There are some pictures of the water in Bainbridge here; the Evans Street examples near the bottom show the water near its peak, less than fifty feet from our house. Quite a mess.

- I haven't yet had the chance to read the Hamdan ruling, and will reserve full comment on it until I've done so, but will recommend today's Linda Greenhouse piece in the NYT. At first glance, this seems like broadly positive decision on behalf of the rule of law.

- There is finally!!! agreement in the Senate to take up legislation to loosen federal restrictions on stem cell research. Under a plan proposed by Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Senate will debate three bills: one identical to H.R. 810, which allows federal funding on stem cells from embryos that would otherwise be discarded; another proposed by Senators Specter and Santorum which "encourages the National Institutes of Health to finance work that might someday allow scientists to produce cells equivalent to embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos"; the third, offered by Senator Brownback, would "make it a crime for anyone to trade in tissues from fetuses that were conceived and aborted expressly for research purposes."

Each portion of the package would need sixty votes (which all of them are likely to attain without a problem). The three together will be debated for twelve hours on a date in July yet-to-be-determined. No amendments will be allowed. This was reportedly a very tough unanimous consent agreement to reach, as Senator Coburn withheld his consent through much of the negotiating process.

The president has threatened to veto the H.R. 810 portion of this package, and a spokesman reiterated that threat yesterday. Seems like an unwise move to me. Nonetheless, this agreement is excellent news, and has been a long time in coming.

- Redistricters in Texas have two weeks to propose new boundary lines for the 23rd congressional district declared unconstitutional by the Court this week. Federal judge John T. Ward wants proposals by July 14, responses a week later, and has scheduled oral argument about the plans for August 3.

- The WaPo reports that Senate leaders may be caving in to House demands on the immigration bill; there is reportedly talk that the upper chamber would agree to a multi-phase process beginning with enhancements to border security, and the "When those measures are fully funded and operational - a process that could take as much as two years - debate on some version of the Senate's broader proposals would begin." This is utterly absurd. Pass the comprehensive plan, and do it before November. The problem is not just going to go away, folks.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Declare Your Independence

Declare Your Independence -

If you haven't seen this yet, you haven't been reading enough centrist blogs :-) Nonetheless, I invite all of you to stop by the Unity08 site and sign their Declaration of Independence. It's a pretty simple, concise statement of good centrist principles:

"When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for the governed to warn the government, a decent respect for democracy requires them to declare the causes of their anger. We hold these truths to be self evident:

- That elected officials should be public servants first and partisans second;
- That to bicker is not to lead;
- That those bought by lobby money cannot represent the people;
- And that to polarize the Congress is to paralyze the nation.

We therefore, as representatives of all the people of the United States regardless of party, beseech our leaders to listen to our voices and hear our pleas. And to that end, we mutually pledge to each other our sacred honor in declaring our independence from politics without purpose."

In about a day and a half, more than 2,600 people have added their names, myself included. Let's get those numbers up there and really send a message.

The Great Floods

Well I just talked to my mom in Bainbridge, NY, a little town once near and now under the Susquehanna River. No power because the substation's underwater, no way in or out because all roads are either flooded or washed away. The worst flooding in recent memory, and the water's still rising. Mom and our 94-year old neighbor are being moved to higher ground this morning, as the water has gotten to within two houses of ours overnight.

The Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin has full coverage of the floods, including a bunch of pictures. The Daily Star in Oneonta is also trying to keep up with things. Governor Pataki flew over the Chenango/Otsego/Broome County region yesterday and estimated preliminary damages at over $100 million. It's nasty out there, and the region (not to mention my mom) could use your thoughts (and prayers, if you're so inclined) today.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Redistricting Watch: The Gerrymander Lives

The Supreme Court has kept the partisan gerrymander (pictured here in its original form) alive and kicking. A splintered ruling today in the case of League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry held that while one congressional district in southwest Texas had been drawn in a way that contravenes the Voting Rights Act by diluting the rights of Hispanic voters, the overall 2002 redistricting plan was acceptable; the Court further agreed with Tom DeLay and other partisans that mid-decade redistricting is allowed.

A plurality of the Court held that those who brought this suit have failed to provide sufficient evidence in any of their many lines of argument that a politically-motivated gerrymander violates the Constitution. They permitted a Dallas-area district to stand over objections that black voters had been disenfranchised, but ordered that the 23rd district be redrawn.

Justice Stevens, joined by Breyer, wrote in a dissent "By taking an action for the sole purpose of advantaging Republicans and disadvantaging Democrats, the State of Texas violated its constitutional obligation to govern impartially. 'If a State passed an enactment that declared 'All future apportionment shall be drawn so as most to burden Party X's rights to fair and effective representation, though still in accord with one-person, one-vote principles,' we would surely conclude the Constitution had been violated.'" (That internal quote, by the way, is from Justice Kennedy in an earlier redistricting case). In his own opinion later, Breyer adds "The record reveals a plan that overwhelmingly relies upon the unjustified use of purely partisan line-drawing considerations and which will likely have seriously harmful electoral consequences."

The gist of the arguments from Kennedy, Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer is that they can't come up with any single rationale for striking down partisan gerrymanders that can claim a majority on the Court (even though they admit that such justifications could exist) - so they just can't act on them. Chief Justice Roberts and Alito say they're not sure there is any justification for striking down partisan gerrymanders, but they don't want to deal with that today. Justices Scalia and Thomas say bluntly "claims of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering do not present a justiciable case or controversy."

On the issue of mid-decade redistricting, a majority (all but Stevens and Breyer, in fact) concluded that under current law, they're allowed: Kennedy writes "With respect to a mid-decade redistricting to change districts drawn earlier in conformance with a decennial census, the Constitution and Congress state no explicit prohibition." He adds "The text and structure of the Constitution and our case law indicate there is nothing inherently suspect about a legislature's decision to replace mid-decade a court-ordered plan with one of its own. And even if there were, the fact of mid-decade redistricting alone is no sure indication of unlawful political gerrymanders."

I agree with that determination. There is no Constitutional prohibition to mid-decade redistricting, nor has Congress acted to put one in place (as they certainly have the power to do; Article I, Section 4, from Kennedy's opinion: "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for ... Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations."). It is time that Congress pass such a law; such a provision is a key component of Rep. John Tanner's Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, which I have written of often (see the link to previous Redistricting Watch posts at the end).

Tanner issued a statement today following the ruling. He comments "I am disappointed that the Supreme Court is endorsing the Supreme Court is endorsing the idea that professional, partisan politicians can overhaul their state's Congressional map whenever they feel it will benefit them politically. This will lead to a free-for-all through which the party in power in any state capitol at any time can negatively impact the people's business in Washington." He added that partisan gerrymandering increases political polarization in D.C., "shrinking the political center in Washington" and called for the passage of "serious redistricting reform."

The immediate impact of this ruling for those of us who are concerned with redistricting reform is simple. We must continue our push for passage of Tanner's bill to govern mid-decade redistricting and remove partisan politicians from the district-drawing process. We must support non-partisan reform efforts at the state level, and we must make clear that we will not accept mid-decade partisan redrafting of districts in our own states.

The gerrymander lives; now lets get busy and kill it.

For my previous Redistricting Watch posts, see here.

SCourt Rules on TX Redistricting

The Supreme Court has issued a ruling (PDF) in the Texas redistricting case. I can't read the 132-page opinion at work (unfortunately) but will have much to say about it once I've gotten a chance to go through it later on tonight. At first glance, it looks incredibly muddled and divided - not surprisingly. More soon.

Judiciary Committee Tackles Signing Statements

Senator Specter hauled an administration official (this time it was Michelle E. Boardman, deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel) before the Judiciary Committee yesterday to sit and take a lambasting for the Administration's use of "signing statements" as an m.o. to get around provisions of the law they just don't like (I've discussed signing statements before in the context of the anti-torture bill, and don't like 'em much myself). There is coverage of yesterday's hearing in the CSM, NYT, and WaPo.

"There is a sense that the president has taken the signing statements far beyond the customary purviews. There's a real issue here," Specter began, "as to whether the president can, in effect, cherry-pick the provisions he likes and exclude the ones he doesn't like. Wouldn't it be better, as a matter of comity, for the president to have come to the Congress and said, 'I'd like to have this in the bill; I'd like to have these exceptions in the bill,' so that we could have considered that?"

Specter grew frustrated at Boardman's (lack of) answers and demanded written responses from her office. Boardman responded that because her office is currently flooded, it will "take a week." Boardman argued that the use of signing statements is "not an abuse of power." "Congress should not fear signing statements, but welcome the openness they provide," she said. "The president must execute the law faithfully, but the Constitution is the highest law of the land. If the Constitution and the law conflict, the president must choose." That's funny, I always thought we kept the courts around for that sort of thing ...

Senators Leahy and Kennedy (among others) were also sharply critical of the Administration's position. Leahy suggested that the signing statements were what has kept Bush's veto pen tightly capped: "The president hasn't vetoed any bills, but basically he has done a personal veto. He has said which laws he will not follow and ... put himself above the law, even the same law he has signed."

Kennedy asked Boardman for a list of all the bills on which Bush has issued signing statements (more than 750, by a recent estimate). She told him "I cannot give you that list," to which he replied "No, then who can? Is there any way for the public to know the president has made a judgment that he is not going to enforce a law?" Boardman's status also came in for some criticism; Leahy commented that the Administration should have dispatched "anybody who would have authority to speak on this. But then, considering the fact that they're using basically an extra-constitutional, extra-judicial step to enhance the power of the president, it's not unusual."

Now, some of those in attendance were underwhelmed; Senator Cornyn brushed it off by saying "This is a fascinating topic, mainly something law students and lawyers can love. As a practical matter, I don't know what impact it has.... It promotes public discourse and discussion about what the roles of the legislative branch and the executive branch are." He added of the use of presidential statements "It is precedented. It's not new." Georgetown law prof Nicholas Rosenkrantz called what he termed the "recent brouhaha" over signing statements "largely unwarranted."

I am inclined to disagree with Rosenkrantz; taken as part of a whole, the recent ballooning use of signing statements seems in fact quite worthy of discussion, as the Administration continues to arrogate more and more powers to itself at the expense of the legislature and the courts. It is positively striking to hear an Administration official say "If the Constitution and the law conflict, the president must choose." That's a troubling statement when our system of separated powers is balanced so precariously: if the executive chooses his own interpretation of the Constitution, he might just as well make the laws himself too. Not on my watch.

Good for the Judiciary Committee for holding this hearing, and once again I call upon them to keep this issue alive, keep demanding the answers and don't shut up until you get them.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Supreme Court Muddies Campaign Finance Waters

Yesterday's Supreme Court "decision" in Randall v. Sorrell, the Vermont campaign finance case is one of those collections of concurrences, dissents and opinions that come along every year at the end of the term, the kind that must drive reporters who cover the Court up the wall.

There were six separate opinions in this case: Justice Breyer announced the Court's judgment with an opinion joined by Chief Justice Roberts and partly by Alito; Alito wrote his own opinion "concurring in part and concurring in the judgment"; Kennedy had his own simply concurring in the judgment, with Scalia and Thomas sharing another. Justice Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion, as did Souter, who was joined by Ginsburg and (only partly) by Stevens. Confused yet?

Breyer, Roberts and Alito (combined with Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy) held that spending limits placed on candidates by Vermont law were unconstitutional infringements on free speech, sticking with the formula first laid out in 1976's Buckley v. Valeo. On the contribution limits side, the three-member plurality argued that the low limits enacted by Vermont are too low. As Linda Greenhouse writes in her excellent recap of the case today, "Justice Breyer's opinion was so nuanced, applying a two-part test to the decision of how low is too low, with five factors making up the second part of the inquiry, as to leave the court's next move uncertain."

Breyer and Roberts alone (Alito having left their opinion for this part) argued that the stare decisis principle controlled their thinking on the approach to Buckley. Breyer:

"Stare decisis thereby avoids the instability and unfairness that accompany disruption of settled legal expectations. For this reason, the rule of law demands that adhering to our prior case law be the norm. Departure from precedent is exceptional, and requires "special justification." This is especially true where, as here, the principle has become settled through iteration and reiteration over a long period of time. We can find here no such special justification that would require us to overrule Buckley. Subsequent case law has not made Buckley a legal anomaly or otherwise undermined its basic legal principles." Interesting, that (i.e. just substitute Roe for Buckley) ... and possibly quite telling that Roberts would sign on and Alito decline to do so.

Justice Kennedy's opinion concurring in the judgment makes clear his uneasiness with how for the Court has waded into the morass of campaign finance regulation: "The universe of campaign finance regulation is one this Court has in part created and in part permitted by its course of decisions. That new order may cause more problems than it solves. On a routine, operational level the present system requires us to explain why $200 is too restrictive a limit while $1,500 is not. Our own experience gives us little basis to make these judgments, and certainly no traditional or well-established body of law exists to offer guidance."

Justices Scalia and Thomas would overrule Buckley and throw out all restrictions on contributions and spending as unconstitutional: "I continue to believe that Buckley provides insufficient protection to political speech, the core of the First Amendment. The illegitimacy of Buckley is further underscored by the continuing inability of the Court (and the plurality here) to apply Buckley in a coherent and principled fashion. As a result, stare decisis should pose no bar to overruling Buckley and replacing it with a standard faithful to the First Amendment."

On the other side, Justices Souter and Ginsburg (joined partly by Stevens) would have upheld the contribution limits as not being too low, and they would have remanded the question of expenditure limits for more examination (centering on the question of how much time candidates must spend fundraising). "... the constitutionality of the expenditure limits was not conclusively decided by the Second Circuit, and I believe the evidentiary work that remained to be done would have raised the prospect for a sound answer to that question, whatever the answer might have been. Instead, we are left with an unresolved question of narrow tailoring and with consequent doubt about the justifiability of the spending limits as necessary and appropriate correctives. This is not the record on which to foreclose the ability of a State to remedy the impact of the money chase on the democratic process."

And finally, Justice Stevens' dissent is the mirror opposite of that offered by Scalia and Thomas. He would overrule Buckley in order to allow expenditure limits as well as contribution limits. This draws on Stevens' long-held view that money happens to be property, and does not necessarily equal "speech" under the First Amendment. This is a view with which I am, in principle, inclined to agree - but of course it depends on the specifics. Stevens gets in the best jabs about the Court's decision in this case, which he calls "today's cacophony" (not at all off the mark, clearly). Most interestingly, it is Stevens, not Scalia/Thomas, who cites the Framers in his opinion, attempting that dangerous divination act of "what would they do?"

"I am firmly persuaded that the Framers would have been appalled by the impact of modern fundraising practices on the ability of elected officials to perform their public responsibilities. I think they would have viewed federal statutes limiting the amount of money that congressional candidates might spend in future elections as well within Congress' authority. And they surely would not have expected judges to interfere with the enforcement of expenditure limits that merely require candidates to budget their activities without imposing any restrictions whatsoever on what they may say in their speeches, debates, and interviews."

This is, for sure, only the first of many muddled campaign finance cases from this new Court. Without a sharp controlling authority, there will be countless cases coming down the pike in which the Court will be asked to determine "how low is too low?" when it comes to contribution limits, and you can be sure that they'll also be asked to revisit the question of just what it would take to justify limiting expenditures. "Today's cacophony", given the wide range of views on display here, seems unlikely to quiet anytime soon.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Hearing Kerry

On my way to work this morning I was handed a flyer announcing that Senator Kerry would be speaking at noon at Faneuil Hall; since I figured that would be significantly more exciting than work, I decided to take a long lunch and go down and listen. After waiting in a shockingly long line where I was bothered by some Lyndon LaRouche supporters (I didn't even tell them I'm a Republican and they still wouldn't leave me alone - clearly they sensed annoyance and pounced) I finally found a seat inside for the speech, which was focused on some new energy proposals Kerry's going to introduce. I got one of the press aides to give me a copy of the advance text (they like bloggers, she told me), which was handy - I marked all the passages I wanted to remember to post about as he spoke. Of course you can also now read the whole speech; the text is here on Kerry's website.

It was, for the most part, a good speech, although one that has, for all intents and purposes, been given for decades by leaders who have made the same arguments, from John Anderson to Al Gore. Kerry's indictment of both parties for the feckless energy policies of recent decades was both harsh and fair; I really liked a passage criticizing last summer's energy bill (as I did). Kerry called that legislation "a monstrosity with no guiding national goal, no tough decisions, no change in priorities - just a logrolling, back-scratching collection of subsidies for any industry with the clout to get a seat at the table and a share of the pork." Not too far off the mark.

While Kerry was at times quite partisan, I was somewhat surprised that he spent most of the speech attacking "Washington" - clearly he's going for the "outsider" angle. He focused sharply on the "energy independence is a national security issue" angle, making the important if unoriginal correlation between the sacrifices our soldiers are being asked to make in Iraq and the sacrifices the American people are not being asked to make here at home. One of the biggest applause lines of the speech was this:

"We wouldn't elect a candidate who said terrorism wasn't a threat. We wouldn't tolerate a candidate for national office who didn't say he was committed to capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. But for too long we've tolerated those who treat the threat of energy insecurity and the truth of global climate change as an inconvenient myth. Well, from now on, every American who walks into a polling place can and should vote to kick out anyone who stands in the way of energy independence."

A couple of other good lines before I get to the proposals Kerry laid out today.

- In urging "presidential muscle" behind alternative-fuel vehicles: "You want hybrid vehicles out on those highways? Make it affordable for Americans to buy American hybrids - because that's a hell of a lot better than subsidizing Saudi sheiks who look the other way while madrassas teach kids hatred and violence."

- Following praise for President George H.W. Bush and the passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, "The story since then is not just a disappointment - it is a flagrant, dangerous, arrogant disavowal of science at the behest of the powerful. It is a damning story of public irresponsibility and private profiteering. Those who have encouraged, facilitated and acquiesced in it will go down in history as modern day robber barons who sold out future generations for their own selfish gain. We need to use this November to throw the robber barons and their cronies out of the Congress and put the peoples’ interests back in."

-The question now – even more than it has been for the last years – is not whether climate change is happening but what are we going to do about it? No, I don't mean how does the political system moan and groan and adopt makeshift responses. I mean what are we really going to do? How do we turn this danger into opportunity? How do we meet a challenge of epic proportions with an epic American response?

Well we have to start by ending the bizarre disconnect of American politics. Real crises stare us in the face, screaming for solution. But non-existent, contrived ones replace the real ones on the agenda of a Congress that wants to change the political climate instead of dealing with climate change. They remain bent on dividing the country with flag burning and gay bashing amendments to the Constitution when we should be strengthening the country with a determined attack on global climate change."

Kerry's three "big new ideas" today were these.

- Freeze and Reverse Greenhouse Gas Emissions: By establishing an economy-wide cap and trade program (beyond what McCain and Lieberman have proposed), Kerry claims that he can freeze U.S. emissions levels by 2010 and then reverse them to 65% below 2000 levels by 2050. He did not provide cost estimates for this plan, but said that it would include tax incentives/credits, increased funding for research and development. While this certainly sounds nice, I'd have to see a great deal more specific about the proposal before I'd sign on to that (once he actually introduces the bill I'm sure we'll know more).

- Mandate Reduced Oil Consumption: Kerry will propose legislation to mandate a reduction in American oil use by 2.5 million barrels per day by 2015. "Yes," Kerry said in his speech, "I said mandate - and I said it because we've lost too much time for voluntary measures to be put to the test." Some of the options he mentioned for meeting this target include increased funding for flex-fuel vehicles, increasing CAFE standards, tax credits for retrofitting manufacturing facilities and funding additional research in alternative fuels and other potentials. This doesn't seem like too harsh a requirement, and I think through a combination of ways it could be a huge step toward both energy security and a cleaner world.

- Developing Energy Technologies for the Future: This was the catchall; Kerry wants to double federal funding for research and development in energy-related areas and form what he calls an Energy Security and Conservation Trust Fund (his version of the lockbox, I guess). This would be funded by rolling back oil company tax breaks and use the money to speed new technologies.

Obviously the specifics of these plans will need to be seen before I'll come down for or against them. In principle, they don't sound too bad, and frankly if Kerry keeps talking about them (combined with Gore's recent resurgence) it can only be a good thing as we move forward. It is not a stretch to say that these or similar measures will have to be taken sooner or later ... and to me, it seems to make sense that we do them while we can choose to, rather than waiting until our hands are forced.

It was an interesting speech today, and I'll be watching to see what comes of it.


NSA Program Oversight Near?

Senator Specter said on one of the talk shows yesterday that his discussions with the White House have been increasingly centered on submitting the NSA warrantless eavesdrop program to the FISA court for review, reports the NYTimes. Let's just say the devil's definitely in the details on this one and I'll reserve judgment on any deal until I know what it entails.

On another front, Rep. Peter King declared Sunday that he wants "the attorney general to begin a criminal investigation and prosecution of The New York Times, its reporters, the editors that worked on this and the publisher." He's referring to the Times article from last Thursday which revealed widespread monitoring of financial transactions. Asked why he went after only the Times in his comments (the LATimes and WSJ also printed details of the program), King said that the NYT is "more of a recidivist," but that the other newspapers should be investigated too.

In response to criticism about the publication of Thursday's article, Times editor Bill Keller posted a letter to readers on Sunday. It reads in part:

"It's an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press. Who are the editors of The New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other publications that also ran the banking story) to disregard the wishes of the President and his appointees? And yet the people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy, and an essential ingredient for self-government. They rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish.

... It's not our job to pass judgment on whether this program is legal or effective, but the story cites strong arguments from proponents that this is the case. While some experts familiar with the program have doubts about its legality, which has never been tested in the courts, and while some bank officials worry that a temporary program has taken on an air of permanence, we cited considerable evidence that the program helps catch and prosecute financers of terror, and we have not identified any serious abuses of privacy so far. A reasonable person, informed about this program, might well decide to applaud it. That said, we hesitate to preempt the role of legislators and courts, and ultimately the electorate, which cannot consider a program if they don't know about it."

I think Congress has got plenty of more important fish to fry and the attorney general much more important things to investigate than the New York Times. The editors there seem to be doing exactly their job, which is more than I can say for Congress most of the time.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Book Review: "Fight Club Politics"

One month ago today, I recommended a "Fresh Air" interview with WaPo correspondent Juliet Eilperin, who was speaking about her new book Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the U.S. House of Representatives. I've since gotten a copy of the book, and read it on this rainy Saturday in Boston.

Eilperin's major themes in the book are those she outlined in her interview with Terry Gross: that gerrymandered districts, schedule changes and the centralization of power in Washington have all contributed to sideline centrists in the House and decrease the effectiveness of both individual House members as well as the chamber as a whole. In an atmosphere where "bipartisan cooperation amounts to betrayal," and members are not given the opportunity to either debate or interact with members from the opposite side of the aisle except for in scripted sound-bite attacks, it's no wonder things have gotten so nasty, Eilperin concludes.

This book realizes that the mused-after "good old days" of bipartisan comity probably weren't quite as amiable as some seem to think they were, and blames both parties for their role in the state of today's affairs. As Eilperin puts it, "each side nurses its own wounds, ignoring how its political barbs and harsh tactics can alienate members from the opposing party." There is some justified recognition, however, that the Republican claims of "changing the tone" and "opening government" that were major themes of the '94 "revolution" have largely fallen by the wayside in the last twelve years of GOP majority status.

Eilperin's discussion of the role of congressional centrists is particularly important, and deftly argued. Because centrists have become less common in Congress, those who are left are "less able to pressure their respective leaders, ... they cannot broker deals between the parties like they did in the past." The diminishing number of centrists, she recognizes, is a product of the current redistricting process, another key section of this book. The system in place in most states today has "spiraled out of control," Eilperin writes, "with party operatives engaging in a never-ending game of tit for tat that has alienated voters as well as some of their elected representatives."

The process of creating "safe" districts, whether done on a bipartisan collusive basis (see California, New York, and others) or through partisan manuevering (see Texas, Michigan, Georgia), has "ensured that more politicians from both the extreme left and right have Washington sinecures, from which they face little chance of being ousted." (Except of course by resignation or indictment, which only results in the election of an ideologically indistinguishable replacement in recent cases). With the primary election now effectively functioning in many districts around the country as the general contest (and with more restrictive primary rules being enacted), candidates must continue to play to the most extreme members of their respective bases, contributing to the vicious cycle.

Eilperin's chapter on the various methods of redistricting reform is quite good, and she writes favorably of Rep. John Tanner's Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, which would be a giant step forward [lots of my posts on that are listed here].

Clearly a discontented centrist at heart, Eilperin has written an important book, which I recommend to all, whether you share her concerns already or not.

McCain Attacks GOP Spending

Speaking at the Reagan Library on Friday, Arizona senator John McCain lashed out at the Republican leadership for allowing federal deficit spending to balloon so sharply in recent years. According to an AP writeup of his prepared remarks, McCain was sharply critical of the GOP for its profligacy.

"Why has our party, the party of small government, lately adopted the practices of our opponents who believe the bigger the government the better? I'm afraid it's because at times we value our incumbency more than our principles," McCain said. "We came to office to reduce the size of government. Lately, we have increased the size of government in order to stay in office. Soon, if we don't remember what we were elected to do, we will lose both our principles and our office and we will leave as part of our legacy a mountain of debt and bankrupt entitlement programs that our children's grandchildren will be suffering from."

Later in the speech, McCain set his rhetorical sights on earmarking, noting that the recent explosion of special projects is "
not a record Ronald Reagan would have been proud of. We need to stop this, now."

Friday, June 23, 2006

Abramoff Report Issued ... Trouble for Reed and Ney?

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee released its report [PDF] yesterday on the sordid tale of the Jack Abramoff-run operation to bilk several Indian tribes out of millions of dollars ($80 million, give or take). The 357-page tome, backed by more than a thousand additional pages of emails and financial statements, has been in the works for almost two years - and it could spell serious trouble for GA Lt. Gov. candidate and former Christian Coalition poster-child Ralph Reed as well as former House Resources Committee chairman Rep. Bob Ney.

Interestingly, the major papers each "pick a target" in their coverage of the report: the NYTimes focuses on the $5.3 million payoffs made to Ralph Reed, who is "depicted as having used his contacts among conservative Christian groups in the South and Southwest beginning in the late 1990's to block the opening or expansion of casinos that might compete with the gambling operations of Mr. Abramoff's clients." Reed said yesterday "The report confirms that I have not been accused of any wrongdoing," adding "... it is now clear with the benefit of hindsight that this is a piece of business I should have declined." While Reed may not be in legal jeopardy, having his relationship with Abramoff so thoroughly detailed could be (and one hopes would be) a major political liability.

While the Times article mentions Ney, the main coverage of his role in the Abramoff ring comes from the Washington Post; their report today is headlined "Senators' Report on Abramoff Case Disputes Rep. Ney." Ney told committee staff in the fall of 2004 that he "'was not at all familiar with the Tigua', and could not recall meeting with members of the tribe, the report said." Later testimony from tribal representatives revealed that at a meeting in Ney's office in 2002, the congressman had "assured them he was working to insert language that would reopen their casino into an unrelated election reform bill." Ney says that when he was asked, he didn't recognize the name of the tribe.

The report also notes that Abramoff attempted to stifle the investigation by the Indian Affairs Committee; a Choctaw representative "told the committee that 'Abramoff asked me if I would ask the Chief to approach Sen. McCain and suggest that each of the tribes, since they had their own police departments and courts, conduct their own internal investigations.'"

An important report at the end of a key investigation, issued by a committee which has managed to work without partisan rancor and come to a good conclusion. Imagine that.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Judiciary Committee Wants Info on NSA Programs

In a surprise move yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee adopted - by voice vote, mind you - a Democratic motion to demand that the Administration turn over documents relating to the NSA warrantless eavesdrop and phone call data collection programs. The proposal, introduced by Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, is non-binding, and still must be approved by the full chamber; nonetheless, its acceptance by Republican committee members, including chairman James Sensenbrenner, was unexpected.

Dana Milbank reports this morning on Sensenbrenner's action:

"'I hope this committee will report this resolution favorably to send the administration and the Justice Department a message,' the jowled chairman growled. 'The Justice Department has once again failed to respond fully to questions,' he said in an exasperated, singsong voice, and it is 'imperative that this committee be provided the information it needs to provide appropriate oversight to ensure the constitutionality of this program.' The committee obliged."

The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, is set to consider several proposals relating to the NSA programs at a meeting today. Similar action could be taken at that meeting, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

House Leadership Dooms Immigration Bill

House Speaker Denny Hastert and Majority Leader John Boehner have taken a decision that almost certainly means there will be no immigration bill passed by this Congress. Yesterday the leadership announced that House committees will hold a series of "field hearings" around the country during Congress' August recess ... meaning that a House-Senate conference to reconcile the different bills passed by each chamber wouldn't be able to begin work until September - i.e. right before things ramp up for election time. Coverage of this can be had from the NYTimes, WaPo, LATimes, or pick your favorite.

Majority Whip Roy Blunt suggested that with this new timetable, final debate on immigration policy might come after the election, when Congress remains in lame-duck session - but this seems a poor alternative, if not completely unlikely.

The president's spokespeople said yesterday that Bush will continue to push for a comprehensive bill along the lines of that passed by the Senate. Such a bill would almost certainly pass the House with the support of many Democrats and a fair number of Republicans. However, the leadership's misguided and polarizing "majority of the majority" requirement continues to hobble the House unecessarily. There is no good reason for this delay (don't be fooled by the "we want to know what you think" claptrap the leadership is spouting), and both the White House and the Senate should push back hard against this maneuver. It's time for the negotiators to sit down and get it done.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

New NPS Plan Emphasizes Preservation

Newly-minted Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has rejected a proposed policy shift for national park management which would have allowed snowmobiling and increased commercialization, according to a report in today's LATimes. Instead, policies will continue to encourage preservation as the preeminent function of the park system. Kempthorne said yesterday that preservation "is the heart of these policies and the lifeblood of our nation's commitment to care for these special places and provide for their enjoyment."

According to the Times report, the new plan, which will become final in a couple weeks, "explicitly instructs park managers to maintain clean air, water and natural sounds, and not allow any activities that might damage park resources," and also "contains sections that acknowledge the impact of global climate change in the parks and encourage cultural diversity."

The earlier draft plan would have opened up some parks for increased snowmobile activity, grazing and mining, and would have "weakened air quality standards" for the parks. It was written by former Deputy Assistant Secretary Paul Hoffman.

This new plan, unless it contains gaping loopholes of which I'm not aware, sounds pretty darn good. The media reports indicate that it was drafted by NPS officials rather than by Interior department bureaucrats, which makes a great deal of sense. Of course it's too early to say whether this is "the rest of the story," or if there's more to come - but this seems to me like a good, positive step.

[Update: This story was featured on NPR's "Morning Edition" this morning; you can listen to the report here.]

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Problem with Earmarks

If you've been unconvinced by my continuous prattling on about the issues with earmarks, I hope that a Charles Babcock article in today's Washington Post will help. Called "The Project that Wouldn't Die," Babcock's piece examines funding for "Project M" - an earmark-funded contract given to Vibration & Sound Solutions Limited (VSSL) of Alexandria, VA. Since 1997, the company has marketed its product successively as "a way to keep submarine machinery quieter", "a way to keep Navy SEALs safer in their boats", and now "as a possible way to protect Marines from roadside bombs."

Congressional funding for this program, long sustained by Virginia congressmen, is drying up - and since the company apparently has no other business, it's closing. Babcock: "Analysts and others who follow congressional earmarking closely say the company's experience exemplifies one of the pitfalls of the process: Once begun, promising but speculative programs like Project M are hard to kill, sustained by members of Congress who want to keep jobs in their districts, military officials who want to keep their options open and businesspeople who want to keep their companies afloat."

The Pentagon wasn't ever particularly interested in VSSL's technology. The man in charge of overseeing the project for DoD is quoted as saying that the company "seemed to me a solution looking for a problem the Navy might have. But it kept failing to solve any problems the Navy had. It looked at first as if it might have some merit. But we found out quickly it didn't really solve the problems. And the company wasn't very responsive and wasn't very robust."

Babcock's report adds that even after the Pentagon rejected VSSL's plan in 2001, Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) kept pushing funding for the company (and he has also received more than $17,000 in campaign contributions from VSSL's president and his wife).

Some stats: "The number of earmarks in the annual defense spending bill increased from 587 worth $4.2 billion in fiscal 1994 to 2,506 worth $9 billion in fiscal 2005, according to a recent Congressional Research Service study. There were 231 'plus-ups' - the Navy's term for the money Congress adds for its members' pet projects - totaling nearly $600 million just in the Office of Naval Research budget in fiscal 2005, about a quarter of the total."

This is a problem. And until members of Congress take serious steps to end their addiction to earmaking, it's not a problem that's going away.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

A New Venture

I just wanted to post briefly to note that I've added another blog to my portfolio: PhiloBiblos will be my outlet for literary musings and other things non-political, including some book reviews (others I'll continue to post here). I've wanted to do something like this for a long time, and finally the right moment hit yesterday afternoon. So, there you have it. I don't intend that this will change much about Charging RINO - I'll post here and at TMV with about the same frequency as the last several months. I hope you'll join me once in a while at PB, and I'll be glad to hear your thoughts.

Senators with High(er) Hopes

Today's recommended read comes from the LATimes, in the form of this Janet Hook article on the even-higher-than-usual number of senators who are considering presidential runs in 2008. She counts eleven potential candidates (Frist, Allen, McCain, Hagel and Brownback from the GOP; Clinton, Bayh, Kerry, Dodd, Biden, Feingold on the Democratic side, with Obama as an additional wildcard/fantasy candidate) - that's more than a tenth of the total Senate membership, and she even omits Santorum.

Hook: "There are so many lawmakers considering a run for president that they are practically tripping over each other. The outbreak of ambition adds an 'every man for himself' dynamic to an institution that is already struggling to build consensus on important issues such as how to combat illegal immigration and high gas prices."

My favorite line from the article comes from Dick Durbin (D-IL), who told Hook he describes himself as one of the Senate's "designated drivers": "We are driving the Senate while so many of our colleagues are intoxicated with the idea of being president."

The article discusses how presidential aspirations can be a double-edged sword: candidate/senators either try to play to their respective bases (i.e. Feingold calling for censure, Frist holding votes on flag-burning and gay marriage amendments, McCain inexplicably reversing himself on tax cuts) or attempt to "broaden their appeal" (i.e. Hillary sponsoring legislation with Lindsey Graham, or Hagel criticizing the war).

It is unfortunate that the Senate's business will be impacted (perhaps even greatly impacted) by the effects of the 2008 presidential campaign. But that is the nature of the republican beast, and the best we can do is hope that some good comes of it all in the end. Until then, let's hope the designated drivers can hold their own and keep the Senate moving.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

On End-running the Electoral College

I mentioned yesterday morning that I planned some comments on this article from the CSM, about the FairVote plan to circumvent the electoral college through some kind of inter-state compact. After I wrote that, I realized the subject seemed awfully familiar to me ... and thankfully I thought to check, since I had in fact written about the plan, back at the end of March. What I said then, in the post and in the ensuing comments, remains operative.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Short Takes

It's been a while since I've done one of these, but there's just so much going on concurrently right now that I want to comment on.

- The Supreme Court decided 5-4 yesterday that police don't necessarily have to knock before they enter a home to execute a search warrant. I've not yet had time to read all the opinions, but what seems clear from the coverage is that this case - which was re-argued after the confirmation of Samuel Alito - woul have come out differently if Justice O'Connor was still on the Court. This seems like an awfully slippery slope for the Court to set out on, and severely weakens the long-term viability of the "knock-and-announce" rule (because why would you knock and give up the element of surprise unless you had to?). I may have more on this after I've had a chance to go over the case more fully, but on its face, this is a troubling ruling. Still to come from the Court are decisions on the Texas redistricting and Vermont campaign finance cases, among others.

- In answer to my question of "Who'll Blink?" on the so-called emergency supplemental to fund Iraq, Afghanistan, and Katrina relief (other posts on that here and here), the answer's in: the Senate blinked. The House passed a pared down supplemental of $94.5 billion on Wednesday, and yesterday the Senate followed suit. The bill was approved 98-1, with Senator Specter voting against passage because he argued the bill wasn't expensive enough. President Bush signed the bill. Importantly, Senate passage was complemented by the 98-0 approval of a proposal (in the form of an amendment to the '07 DoD authorization bill) to force the Administration to submit its requests for war funds through the normal budget process, rather than via "emergency" spending bills. This was a McCain move, and a good one as long as the Senate sticks to its guns.

- New Jersey's attorney general has issued subpoenas to five telephone companies in order to discover the extent of their cooperation with the federal government on providing call data. Now the Administration has sued to block the subpoenas. This could be a watershed moment, depending on how the case works its way through the courts. The government asserts that the state is intruding on federal matters, and that the subpoenas would endanger national security. Definitely something to keep an eye on.

- Some liberal Democrats are up in arms about statements from DSCC chair Chuck Schumer that the national Democratic organization would support an independent bid by Senator Joe Lieberman if he should be defeated by primary opponent Ned Lamont. Democracy for America's Jim Dean (yes, the brother of DNC chair Howard Dean) was annoyed, writing "The DSCC's mission is to elect Democrats to the Senate. Yet in this case, they would prefer to back an incumbent who leaves the party instead of a principled progressive who's proud to be a Democrat." Markos from DailyKos was even more irate. Just another example of partisan extremists working to sideline those in the center. Bully for Schumer. While I may not agree with Lieberman all the time (he's much more positive on the war than I have been for a long time, for example), he's a great senator and deserves another term.

There were more things I wanted to write about this morning but I can't remember them. One is this article in the CSM about the proposal to circumvent the electoral college. I decided I want to write more in-depth about that though, and will do so over the weekend.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Earmarks Challenges Fail

Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of the Lonely Crusaders Against the Earmark, took to the House floor this week and demanded that the sponsors of four specific earmarks (including two inserted by Appropriations Committee chairman Jerry Lewis) stand up and defend them, and offered amendments that the earmarks be stricken from the transportation-housing appropriations bill. Those amendments failed, garnering just 63, 73, 58, and 61 votes apiece.

The fight goes on.

Bush Creates Largest Protected Marine Area

Now there's a title I never thought I'd get to use.

But it's true ... the president today will announce the designation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a national monument, making the 140,000-square mile area the largest protected marine area in the world (surpassing even the Great Barrier Reef). According to reports in the NYTimes and WaPo today, the region of uninhabited islands and atolls is home to more than 7,000 marine species, including several that are listed as endangered (and nearly 25% of which are found nowhere else on earth).

The president had planned to designate the area as a marine sanctuary, which would have required a year-long approval process (with the potential for many years of lawsuits) to construct rules for the use of the area. By using the National Antiquities Act (for only the second time), the area is protected immediately, and the papers report that Bush will announced a "suite of strict rules for the area, including a five-year phasing out of commercial and sport fishing." The rules "will allow Hawaiians to have access to the area for other traditional activities and will include the Midway World War II memorial, a facility that is open for research, education and ecotourism. Visitors wishing to snorkel, dive or take photographs in the area will have to obtain a permit, and no one may take fish, wildlife, corals or minerals from the region," according to White House sources.

I'm stunned, to say the least. I never in a million years expected this president to take such a protective action. Does this make up for all the nasty things he and his Administration have done to the environment in the last six years? Not a bit. But it's still a good step, and one I will applaud even as I continue to urge him to do more.

Jean-Michel Costeau recently showed a documentary about the area at a White House screening, which apparently had a "powerful effect" on George and Laura Bush and helped prompt his decision to name the area a national monument. Perhaps a screening of "An Inconvenient Truth" should be arranged.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Bloomberg for President?

The Bloomberg Bubble continues. Speaking this weekend at a fundraiser for centrist Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT), NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg was asked if he's considering a run for the White House. According to the NYTimes (citing the Norwalk Hour), Bloomberg replied "Absolutely not. And anybody who's running will say exactly that."

"According to the article, Mr. Bloomberg waxed prolific about a possible run, offering his views on the challenges of mounting a bid, saying that he is too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals, and how daunting an independent campaign would be. Discussing campaign finance issues, he volunteered that he could easily afford to pay for a presidential run."

Bloomberg aides say the mayor intends to start a foundation when his mayoral term ends, not run for president. Shays said that Bloomberg had been "very clear" that he did not intend to run. And yet ...

Something's Happening in Kansas

All sorts of exciting political news this morning (and it's also Flag Day), but I forgot to write about this article last night and did want to comment on it at least briefly. It's from yesterday's LATimes, and discusses recent events in Kansas, where a former state Republican chairman is now the Democratic governor's running mate. Mark Parkinson's not alone, either; at least two other prominent state Republicans have switched parties in recent months, citing a growing chasm between centrists and conservatives which was becoming increasingly impossible to bridge.

"Moderates who emphasize economic development and religious conservatives concerned with limiting abortion and gay rights have battled for more than a decade for control of the Kansas Republican Party, which dominates the state with 48% of registered voters. The remaining voters are split evenly between Democratic and Independent registration.

... Today, websites for some county branches of the party instruct on how to identify RINOs - Republicans In Name Only - and keep them from gaining influence. Social conservatives have solidified their power over the party and are especially influential in low-turnout primaries and local elections. Increasing numbers of moderates like Parkinson are saying they've had enough."

I have a deep-seated suspicion (perhaps I should call it hope) that Kansas is only the beginning. There's an article in this month's Atlantic discussing the weakening Republican hold on the interior West (from Idaho to Colorado to Arizona), which seems to stem from the fact that the GOP has become obsessed with wedge issues (intelligent design, gay marriage, etc.), and the voters want something else. Author Ryan Sager (who has a very interesting-looking book coming out in September) quotes the Republican minority leader of the CO house: "Our party has basically made the party platform 'guns, God, and gays,' and that wasn’t a winning message."

From Kansas to Montana, voters and centrist political leaders are realizing that the big-government, wedge-issue style of the current national GOP just isn't working. If the party doesn't start to change, and quickly, it could find it's missed the boat.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Book Review: "The Medici Conspiracy"

Journalists Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini offer up a timely and riveting account of the vast conspiracy to procure and trade in looted antiquities in their just-released book The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums. This book reads at times like a thriller novel, describing the descent of Italy's Art Squad on apartments and Swiss warehouses in search of looted goods. While it also, at times, reads like a trial transcript (the duo quote them at some length), its plodding moments are well offset by its periods of action.

I have often said that Miles Harvey's book The Island of Lost Maps should be required reading for anyone who works with rare books/maps/etc. Watson and Todeschini's work should be the same for anyone in the museum field, particularly if one happens to deal with antiquities. This is the sordid tale of a great web that encompasses tomb raiders, unscrupulous dealers and middle-men, the great auction houses of England and America, and some of the most important museums in the world.

Watson and Todeschini find it difficult at times to disguise their disgust for the subjects of their work, particularly those (i.e. curators at the Getty, the Met, etc.) who ought to know better. Some might criticize these expressions of contempt; I won't do so - if anything, they're too muted. (I should say here that my views on the looting or theft of antiquities and other cultural artifacts are rather draconian - Hammurabi's Code somehow seems appropriate for those who engage in such activities).

The story that this book tells is still ongoing, with several of the subjects (including former Getty curator Marion True) still on trial and other cases on appeal. Nonetheless, I have no reservations about recommending it to anyone whose interests run to art, antiquities, or true crime.

Government Wants Eavesdrop Case Tossed

By way of followup to yesterday's post on the NSA eavesdrop program's day in court, I'd point to today's article by Adam Liptak in the NYTimes. He reports that the hearing room was packed for the arguments yesterday, and that the government, as expected, urged the judge to toss the case on "state secret" grounds. Lawyer Anthony Coppolino argued that the while program is lawful, "the evidence we need to demonstrate to you that it is lawful cannot be disclosed without that process itself causing grave harm to United States national security."

The ACLU's attorney maintained that the suit hinges on two questions: whether those who brought it have standing to do so, and then whether the president was authorized to institute the program under existing law. Liptak: "The government's main argument on Monday, repeated over and over, was that more facts are required but that more facts cannot be disclosed. Judge Taylor asked few questions but at one point appeared frustrated by this approach," saying "You have conceded, have you not, that a program has been authorized?"

Coppolino responded "There is very much a difference between the existence of an activity and the details of that activity." Continuing the (in my view specious) line that the president has unlimited war-making power, Coppolino continued "The president's constitutional power doesn't simply disappear when Congress enacts a statute. Surveillance of an enemy is indeed a necessary incident of war."

The ACLU's Beeson: "If FISA didn't work, the proper procedure under our constitutional system was for the president to go back to Congress and ask it to amend the law. Our constitutional system was set up to require the president to follow the law just like anyone else. If our view of the separation of powers is extreme, then the Constitution is extreme."

I think this case will end up hinging on the standing issue, which the judge wanted to hear more about than planned yesterday. She has also scheduled a hearing for July 10 at which the government will make its case to throw out the suit altogether.

Maybe it's just the bits and pieces that Liptak picked for the article (or maybe not), but the arguments offered by the ACLU here seem much more reasonable than those put forth by Coppolino. I'm not convinced that they'll be able to overcome the standing questions, let alone the state secrets argument, but in many ways I hope they do.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Byrd Sets a Record

Today, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) becomes the longest-serving senator ever, surpassing the record set by Strom Thurmond just a few years ago. There are a pretty large number of stories circulating in the media about this feat, but I thought this piece from yesterday's LATimes was quite a good one. Roll Call reports that the senator has now served for 17,327 days ... and of course he's running for a record ninth term this fall.

Warrantless Eavesdrop Program Goes to Court

As the LATimes reports, the NSA's warrantless surveillance project will be the subject of a federal court hearing in Detroit today, as part of a suit brought by a coalition of groups and individuals including the ACLU, the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, author James Bamford, and others.

From the Times article: "The suit in Detroit, like one filed in New York by the Center for Constitutional Rights, asserts that the NSA's eavesdropping program has violated free-speech and privacy rights and has had a chilling effect on the communications of potential surveillance targets. None of the plaintiffs have offered proof they were spied on. Rather, they maintain that the simple existence of the program has impeded their ability to perform their jobs as journalists and lawyers."

The Justice Department, not surprisingly, wants the Detroit and New York cases thrown out for violating the so-called "state secrets" doctrine, while the complainants argue that public statements about the program by top Administration officials should allow the suit to proceed. US District judge Anna Diggs Taylor ruled that she could hear the ACLU's motion before taking up the question of whether the "state secrets" doctrine should be invoked; a hearing to determine that will occur on July 10 (although DoJ has asked again that the judge respond to that question at today's hearing).

If this case were to somehow go forward, which is highly unexpected (as the article makes clear, invocation of "state secrets" seems to be the nail in the coffin, since judges have been very unwilling to overrule that claim by the executive branch), it would involve an incredibly important series of rulings and arguments. What happens today in Detroit will be very interesting indeed, and I'll keep an eye on things as we move forward.

Also today, watch the Supreme Court - we could see some major end-of-term rulings this morning.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Recommended Read

The most interesting article I read in today's papers is this one from the LATimes. It's about a recently-published scientific article that has raised the hackles of the forest industry, at least one congressman, and some federal agencies. Yet another example of attempts to stifle scientific findings, or legitimate scientific disagreement? You decide.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Saturday Funny

This story has already made the rounds, I'm sure, but I just had to take a moment to pass it along as well. Here's the opening paragraph from a Wednesday National Post article:

"The Conservative government's $227-billion budget accidentally passed with unanimous consent yesterday after two opposition parties sat quietly through what was supposed to be a debate on the measure."

Says Liberal Party leader Bill Graham, "It was an unfortunate error, but it doesn't change anything.... We're opposed to the budget. I don't think anybody thinks that we're not."

The leader of Bloc Quebecois, whose party was expected to join the Tories in support of the budget, said that the opposition party leadership was either "incompetent" if they in fact forgot to debate the budget, or "liars". He added "Whether it's one or the other, they are not the required qualities for doing politics."

Jubilant Finance Minister Jim Flaherty quipped "I think they must have seen the wisdom of this budget and decided they made a mistake, some of them, on second reading, and decided to support it fully on third reading. I'm very excited about it. It's springtime in Canada."

Oh Canada.


It's been waaaay too long since I did one of these. Here are some of the great things I've read recently:

- From today's WaPo, Newt Gingrich continues to surprise me. Check out some of the comments he makes in this article ... if he keeps this up, he's might just manage to turn himself into a decent presidential candidate - and no, I never thought I'd write those words.

- Alan at Maverick Views has excellent posts up on the death of Zarqawi and the marriage amendment.

- Dennis Sanders reminds us that while the move to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage was a distractive issue, the issue of equal rights and marriage itself is hardly unimportant.

- Before he began "hiatusizing," Michael Reynolds posted a must-read on the "Notroots".

- The Bull Moose warns the Democrats that they must offer an alternative this fall, or risk losing again: "What fuels the Moose's increasing skepticism is that the Democrats are offering no governing vision. And while Democrats believe that there is no comparison between Republican and Democratic corruption scandals, that distinction may not be as clear to the general electorate." Absolutely right.

Friday, June 09, 2006

DeLay Leaves Congress, Nasty as Ever

Today marks Tom DeLay's last day in Congress, and, with any luck at all, the beginning of the end of the super-partisan atmosphere he has worked so hard to create during his years in the House of Representatives.

In a farewell speech unlike any I've ever read (I couldn't bring myself to watch it for fear my stomach wouldn't be able to take it), Tom DeLay delivered a paean to partisanship on the floor of the House yesterday, unrepentant and vicious to the last.

Here's a sample:

"In preparing for today, I found that it is customary in speeches such as these to reminisce about the good old days of political harmony and across-the-aisle camaraderie, and to lament the bitter, divisive partisan rancor that supposedly now weakens our democracy.

Well, I can't do that because partisanship, Mr. Speaker, properly understood, is not a symptom of democracy's weakness but of its health and its strength, especially from the perspective of a political conservative.

...You show me a nation without partisanship, and I'll show you a tyranny. For all its faults, it is partisanship, based on core principles, that clarifies our debates, that prevents one party from straying too far from the mainstream, and that constantly refreshes our politics with new ideas and new leaders.

Indeed, whatever role partisanship may have played in my own retirement today or in the unfriendliness heaped upon other leaders in other times, Republican or Democrat, however unjust, all we can say is that partisanship is the worst means of settling fundamental political differences -- except for all the others.

Now, politics demands compromise. And Mr. Speaker, and even the most partisan among us have to understand that, but we must never forget that compromise and bipartisanship are means, not ends, and are properly employed only in the service of higher principles.

It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle.

For the true statesman, Mr. Speaker, we are not defined by what they compromise, but by what they don't."

I could not disagree more. While compromise for the sake of compromise is not healthy for a government, neither is partisanship for the sake of partisanship ... in fact I'd argue it's worse. Some of the most effective and best pieces of legislation have emerged after compromise and long debate; that is how good laws are passed, not by shoving them through unread in the wee hours of the morning after a hours-long roll call votes. Debate, discussion, and yes, compromise with all those concerned, not just within the majority caucus, is what we should strive for in our representative government.

Tom DeLay has done more damage to the House of Representatives, the Republican Party, and the political climate of the United States than any other single person in recent memory. I am not sad to see him go, and I hope that his departure will signal the start of a reversal of the trends he perpetuated and exacerbated in recent years.

Good riddance, Mr. DeLay.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Specter Letter II: Cheney Responds

Vice President Cheney has responded to Senator's Specter's letter with a missive of his own, in which he called his lobbying of Judiciary Committee Republicans "government at work" and "not unusual." Cheney added "The respectful and candid exchange of views is something to be encouraged rather than avoided." That is true, and had that been what Cheney was doing, I'd agree with him.

The Veep's letter went on to say "While there may continue to be areas of disagreement from time to time, we should proceed in a practical way to build on the areas of agreement," and said that he is "willing to work with Congress on new rules governing the White House's eavesdropping program," according to an AP report.

Reuters notes that Cheney and Specter spoke on the phone this afternoon to discuss the issues brought up in Specter's letter, and CNN reported earlier this evening that Cheney also arranged a phone call between Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the irate chairman.

Most importantly, however (as Knight Ridder's write-up notes) Cheney's letter maintains "the administration believes there is no need for legislation to carry out the Terrorist Surveillance Program." Neither Specter nor any of the rest of us should believe for an instant that this Administration intends to become open and honest on these issues anytime soon. Senator Specter and the Judiciary Committee need to keep up (and increase) the pressure on this Administration to ensure that action is taken, instead of just platitudes exchanged.

Zarqawi Down

Looks like Zarqawi's been taken out. One word: good.

The Specter Letter

Has Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter finally reached the end of his rope when it comes to patience with this Administration's stonewalling? A letter [PDF] he sent to Vice President Cheney yesterday seems to indicate that he's getting pretty close.

This week, Specter was planning to seek approval from his committee to hold a closed session with telephone industry executives regarding the recent revelation that their companies have provided call data to the federal government. The execs had requested the closed session to avoid being subpoenaed. However, in advance of Tuesday's 2:30 p.m. committee meeting, Specter writes in his letter to Cheney:

"I was advised yesterday that you had called Republican members of the Judiciary Committee lobbying them to oppose any Judiciary Committee hearing, even a closed one, with the telephone companies. I was further advised that you told these Republican members that the telephone companies had been instructed not to provide any information to the Committee as they were prohibited from disclosing classified information.

I was surprised, to say the least, that you sought to influence, really determine, the action of the Committee without calling me first, or at least calling me at some point. This was especially perplexing since we both attended the Republican Senators caucus lunch yesterday and I walked directly in front of you on at least two occasions enroute from the buffet to my table."

Specter goes on to note that at a meeting of Republican committee members at 2 p.m. Tuesday, he announced his plan to go ahead with a closed meeting with the telecom execs, with Senator Hatch then "urged" him to delay, "saying he would get Administration support for my bill which he had long supported" (the bill to provide for judicial oversight/sanction of the warrantless eavesdrop program). Specter says that he agreed to this delay, a decision which was not particularly popular with Committee Democrats, who protested Specter's decision quite vociferously.

The letter continues (and I'm going to quote at length because it's important): "It has been my hope that there could be an accommodation between Congress's Article I authority on oversight and the President's constitutional authority under Article II. There is no doubt that the NSA program violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which sets forth the exclusive procedure for domestric wiretaps which requires the approval of the FISA Court. It may be that the President has inherent authority under Article II to trump that statute but the President does not have a blank check and the determination on whether the President has such Article II powers calls for a balancing test which requires knowing what the surveillance program constitutes.

If an accommodation cannot be reached with the Administration, the Judiciary Committee will consider confronting the issue with subpoenas and enforcement of that compulsory process if it appears that a majority vote will be forthcoming. The Committee would obviously have a much easier time making our case for enforcement of subpoenas against the telephone companies which do not have the plea of executive privilege. That may ultimately be the course of least resistance.

We press this issue in the context of repeated stances by the Administration on expansion of Article II power, frequently at the expense of Congress's Article I authority. There are the Presidential signing statements where the President seeks to cherry-pick which parts of the statute he will follow. There has been the refusal of the Department of Justice to provide the necessary clearances to permit its Office of Professional Responsibility to determine the propriety of the legal advice given by the Department of Justice on the electronic surveillance program. There is the recent Executive Branch search and seizure of Congressman Jefferson's office. There are recent and repeated assertions by the Department of Justice that it has the authority to criminally prosecute newspapers and reporters under highly questionable criminal statutes.

All of this is occurring in the context where the Administration is continuing warrantless wiretaps in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and is preventing the Senate Judiciary Committee from carrying out its constitutional responsibility for Congressional oversight on constitutional issues. I am available to work this out with the Administration without the necessity of a constitutional confrontation between Congress and the President."

This seems to be Specter's "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" moment. I certainly hope it is. He has been far too patient with this Administration's stonewalling and back-handed put-offs for way too long. Coming close on the heels of this recent lambasting of a DoJ official by the Judiciary Committee, Specter's letter may signal a sea change in the way the Commmittee operates from here on out. Let's hope so.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Senate Kills Marriage Amendment

The proposed amendment to define marriage in the Constitution failed in the Senate today (hardly surprising to anyone). It needed sixty votes to achieve cloture, and only got 49. Forty-eight senators voted in opposition. I'll update this with a link to the roll call when it's available.

Now, Senate, get back to work on some important issues.

Update: The roll call is here. Democrats Byrd and Nelson (NE) voted in favor of cloture; Republicans Chafee, Collins, Gregg, McCain, Snowe, Specter, and Sununu voted against. Senators Dodd, Hagel and Rockefeller did not vote.

Bush Backpedalling on Immigration?

Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports in the NYTimes this morning that President Bush "shifted his tone" yesterday in an immigration appearance, seeming to edge away from his support for the Senate's "comprehensive" plan in favor of a stricter bill dealing more closely with border enforcement.

I'm not entirely sure where Stolberg's getting that line of argument from, however (aside from the fact that Bush was speaking at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, in front of a bunch of border patrol agents). Reading the speech, I see that he used the word "comprehensive" at least eight times, and once noted that any comprehensive plan needed to include a temporary worker program. Later he said "I believe strongly this, that [sic] if we don't address all the elements together, none of it is going to be solved at all. The reason I called for a comprehensive bill is because I understand that in order for these good folks to do their job, we've got to link all five aspects together. We've got to be realistic about what it takes to enforce the border. So I look forward to working with Congress on this important issue."

It's become fairly clear that the only way to pass the comprehensive bill through the House is through the suspension of the moronic "majority of the majority rule" that the leadership of that chamber has instituted. Enough Republicans and Democrats could then come together to pass the bill already supported by the Senate, and send it to Bush before the end of the summer. With each passing day, that prospect (of anything happening prior to the elections) grows dimmer. Let's get it done.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

"An Inconvenient Truth"

I went this afternoon to a showing of Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," and boy am I glad I did. This is a movie that had the potential to be absolutely horrible (yes, that would be the vision of Al Gore giving a slide show about global warming), and yet it was not that at all. It managed to be powerful without preaching, intelligent but not overwhelming, and, perhaps most importantly, not boring in the slightest.

From fuel efficiency standards to the melting of ice shelves and the fragile balance of ocean currents, Gore in this presentation makes a personal, persuasive, and realistic picture of what global warming is doing to our planet and what it will continue to do if we do nothing. The movie is at times very funny, but there were also times when humor was about as far as possible from what I was feeling.

Unfortunately, I'm sure that many people won't see this film because they disagree with Al Gore's stance on global warming. If you are one of those people, I implore you, reconsider - go see the movie. I agree with Roger Ebert, who in his review writes "You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to." I read Ebert's review when I got home tonight, and as I got to the last line I had to chuckle. He writes "I did a funny thing when I came home after seeing 'An Inconvenient Truth.' I went around the house turning off the lights." Why'd I laugh? Because I had, just minutes before, done the exact same thing.

Weld's Out

Former MA Gov Bill Weld today dropped out of the race for the GOP nomination in the NY Gov's race. Most unfortunate.

Debating the Marriage Amendment

Just a quick comment for the record on the ridiculous waste of time currently being engaged in by the "greatest deliberative body in the world." The Senate is spending several days this week (starting Monday, through at least Wednesday) discussing the proposed constitutional amendment that would define "marriage" as between a man and a woman. Everyone knows that the two-thirds majority vote to pass the thing aren't there, and yet Senator "I Want to be President" Frist is tying up the Senate's time just to allow the measure's proponents to jump on their soapboxes and stir up the so-called "conservative values voter" base before the fall elections.

President Bush has been out on the stump pushing for this amendment (two speeches in the last three days), and I watched for a little while in the Senate yesterday afternoon as Senators Allard and Brownback (two of the main sponsors of the amendment) droned on about how if this amendment isn't passed, the American family will wither away and cease to exist. Conservative groups are "watching carefully," as the NYTimes reports today, and will be using this issue as a "litmus test" for the fall.

First of all, I agree with the position taken by Senator McCain (as well as a majority of other senators, the vice president, etc.) that this amendment has no place in the Constitution of the United States. This issue should be left up to the states and allowed to work its way through the normal channels as it has been in recent years. While I may disagree with actions taken by some of those states (I personally have no problem whatever with gay marriage, having lived in Boston now for nearly a year and failed to witness the complete breakdown of the social order that opponents said would ensue), it is their jurisdiction which should apply here.

It is important for senators (from both parties, and all across the country) to understand that this amendment is hardly "conservative" in the true sense of the word. It is a radical attempt to insert divisiveness into the Constitution, and I think the Senate ought to hurry the debate along and get back to discussing issues of actual importance.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Book Review: "What Would the Founders Do?"

Journalist Rick Brookhiser's biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Adams family, and Gouverneur Morris are all quite good, if limited, treatments of their subjects. Unfortunately his latest book, What Would the Founders Do? Our Questions, Their Answers fails to compare favorably in almost any way with Brookhiser's earlier works.

First of all, I should say at the outset that I wholeheartedly agree with Brookhiser when he writes on pages 4-5 "In moments of struggle, farce, or disaster, the founders are still with us. We look to them for slogans, cheap shots, inspiration, and instruction. We seize on them for sleazy advantage and for moral guidance. We ransack what they said and did for clues to what they would, and what we should, do." It is true that all those things are done ... what is up for debate is whether they should be done. Brookhiser continues toward the end of his introduction (page 10): "All their lives they had to say what they would do. So why should they get a rest when we need a little advice?"

Here's a simple reason why. The founders of our government did not live in twenty-first century America. They could not possibly in their wildest dreams have imagined that the fruits of their labors would result in today's United States ... or even that the Constitution they put in place would have lasted as long as it has. It is little short of ridiculous to attempt, as Brookhiser does, to put words in the mouths of the Framers (a term I prefer to founders) on topics such as stem cell research, Social Security, gay rights, or the federal reponse to natural disasters.

This book is a collection of short essays in the form of responses, usually drawing on one or two quotations from any of the rather large pool of potential sources at Brookhiser's disposal. It is selective at the best of times (i.e. when it tackles questions that the Framers actually dealt with, like the death penalty, censorship, partisanship or the separation of church and state) vacuous at others (weapons of mass destruction, the war on drugs, drilling in ANWR). Sometimes he allows his questions to go entirely unanswered, apparently being unable to muster even the scantiest of evidence in one direction or the other (oddly one of these is his section on terrorism, for which he simply discusses guerilla tactics during the Revolutionary War; I can think of several appropriate examples of possible citations for this topic, from Indian massacres to slave revolts to the French Revolution).

Brookhiser's cliched, glib quips and infinitely broad generalizations overpower any sense of reasoned discussion this book could have offered. Comparing Alexander Hamilton's description of an eighteenth-century hurricane to that of "a youthful Anderson Cooper" (page 48) seems frivolous, and his statement on page 51 that "The founders who framed the Constitution believed that the national government needed more power" is severely in need of qualification.

A couple more quibbles: I found Brookhiser's pseudo-appendix "Founderblogs" (a selection of putative blogs written by the Framers) obnoxious and trite. Leave the faux humor out of it, Rick, you're no Jon Stewart. And finally, Brookhiser's lazy excuse for not including footnotes ("The founders used footnotes sparingly") is downright lame. To be fair, he does cite direct quotations, but give me a break.

This book's conclusion, after all the fluff and nonsense, somehow manages to be sound: "What we can always take from the founders," Brookhiser writes on 218-219, "whether we are honoring the letter of their law, or improvising madly, as they sometimes did, is a style of thought, a way of working, a stance. We can be as intelligent as they were, and as serious; as practical, and as brave. We can know as much as they did, and work as hard. We can compromise when we have to, and kill when we must. We can; as they said, all men are created equal." I have no problem with most of those statements (except I think "compromise when we have to" is inappropriately harsh), but I wish that Brookhiser had taken his own advice.

We (and particularly writers as talented as Brookhiser) should not be in the business of trying to extrapolate vague out-of-body pronouncements from those who came before us; we must, rather, think through today's problems ourselves, just as they did. Sure we may get it wrong sometimes ... so did they. That's the nature of the beast. But today's questions are our own, and we must deal with them on our terms. Please, all you authors out there, let this be the last book of its kind. And Mr. Brookhiser, I humbly implore, go back to biography, it's what you do best - you simply don't contain the makings of a medium.