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Policy Versus Politics, Revisited

This fall, I wrote about policy versus politics in the context of Ted Kennedy’s body of work. Health care events of the past few weeks have reaffirmed many of my conclusions. From the left flank, many prominent bloggers and pundits have taken vastly different stances on whether the current Senate health care bill is worth supporting. Let’s take a look at a one sample question from a 20-question back and forth on the current bill among Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight, Markos Moulitsas from Daily Kos, and Jon Walker from Firedoglake. You can read all twenty questions here.

After reading all 20 questions and responses, along with other arguments all over the Web, it becomes clear that this is largely a politics versus policy debate. For an additional example from the politics camp, here’s ex-Hollywood producer turned left-wing blogger Jane Hamsher with her own ten reasons to defeat the bill. Her main conclusion is as follows:

The Senate bill isn’t a “starter home,” it’s a sink hole. It needs to die so something else can take its place. It doesn’t matter whether people are on the right or the left — once they understand the con job that’s about to be foisted on them, they agree. That’s why Harry Reid and President Obama are trying to jam it through as fast as they can, before people get wise. So email the list to your friends and family, tweet it and spread the word.

In the policy camp, here’s an example with health care wonk Ezra Klein answering one of Hamsher’s claims (his full 10 answers to Hamsher can be viewed here):

5) Paid for by taxes on the middle class insurance plan you have right now through your employer, causing them to cut back benefits and increase co-pays.

“You” probably don’t have these plans, which are tilted towards the rich, not the middle class. Your plan probably doesn’t cost more than $23,000 a year. And if it does, the only part that gets taxed is the part in excess of $23,000 a year. The average family health-care plan costs about $13,500 — almost a full $10,000 less than the plans this policy taxes. If we don’t manage to slow the growth in health-care costs, this policy will, over time, hit plans that are less generous. But economists consider the excise tax, which functions as a tax on insurers who let premiums grow too quickly, one of the most effective cost-control mechanisms in the bill.

There’s an equity aspect here, too: The problem with the excise tax is that it doesn’t go far enough. All plans should be fully taxable. This policy begins to chip at the edges of one of the most regressive elements of our system: Health benefits, which are mostly given to better-off workers, are protected from taxes, while income isn’t. A worker at Wal-Mart with no health benefits sees his entire paycheck taxed. If that worker goes to buy insurance on his own, the money he uses to buy it is taxed. A worker at Goldman Sachs with a $40,000 health-care plan is getting $40,000 of his paycheck tax-free. It’s wildly regressive, and not something that liberals should support.

Of course, the main reason for political opposition to the bill from the left is associated with the demise of the public option. While the public option would have been a small step forward in providing more competition in certain markets, its merits were largely overemphasized for political reasons. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the public option passed by the House of Representatives would have covered approximately 6 million or 2% of the 282 million Americans under the 65 years old. The CBO also estimated that this version of the public option would have had higher premiums for consumers, since it would likely have had severe adverse selection, attracting sicker patients on average. A single payer or robust public option would have obviously done more to control costs, but those options were never serious policy options even if President Obama had had the backroom negotiation skills of Lyndon Johnson. In whole, the proposed Medicare expansion would have covered even fewer people than the public option passed by the House.

For many on the left, this was, of course, never about the policy implications of the public option. Rather, the whole debate has been largely about the politics of the public option and what it meant for left-wing morale. After being steamrolled from 2003 to 2007 by a GOP trifecta, the left understandably wanted revenge. The public option was seen as a first step toward the eventual goal of single payer. While the public option would have been a good addition for policy wonks who care about cost control, in reality it was a very small part of the overall bill and the lack of a public option does not necessarily do anything more to preclude future moves toward single payer. (Admittedly, however, the Medicare expansion was perhaps more of a legitimate move toward single payer. Perhaps this should have been the goal of the left from the beginning?)

More importantly, the debate over the public option largely misses the point. The public option, Medicare expansion, and anything else up to and including single payer do not necessarily by themselves do anything to control costs in the long run. Yes, in the short run, they likely do eliminate some excess administrative costs. However, in the long run they do nothing to control runaway increases in costs that, subsides or not, will end up bankrupting the public, the government, or both. Coverage reforms by definition only involve what individuals are covered or not covered by what type of insurance; nothing more, nothing less. Real cost reforms go beyond this to reforming how care is paid for.

Unfortunately, Washington has historically viewed payment reform in the context of payment cuts. This of course leads to limiting of payments but does little to control costs. Real reform that actually bends the proverbial cost curve involves changing incentives and how providers are paid in ways that encourage collaboration, cost control, risk sharing, and sensible evidenced-based rationing. Yes, despite what Sarah Palin may be tweeting, the United States already rations care, largely by socioeconomic status, age, existence of a preexisting condition, and different knowledge levels about how to navigate the insurance appeal process. Rationing by evidence-based effective care and paying for quality instead of quantity are two needed long-term solutions. The Senate and House bills tiptoe in this direction with various demonstration projects. While at first glance, this is too little and too slow, respected health care writer, clinician, and wonk, Dr. Atul Gawande, takes the opposite viewpoint in his latest New Yorker article about how the Senate bill would potentially contain costs.

Another aspect of reform that largely has been forgotten in the political battles over the public option is access, which goes far beyond coverage. Simply insuring individuals does not ensure that there are a sufficient number of providers to care for these newly insured. This is especially true in many rural areas where there is already a severe shortage of primary care providers. Again, here, the Senate and House bills move in the right direction (e.g., payment incentives for primary care and general surgeons who practice in underserved areas), but probably don’t go quite far enough.

Senate vs. House vs. Status Quo

After digesting all of this from a policy standpoint, I would give the Senate and House bills and the status quo the following scores:

Coverage: A-
Access: C+
Cost Control: C
Overall: B-

Coverage: A-
Access: C+
Cost Control: C+
Overall: B/B-

Status Quo:
Coverage: C-
Access: D
Cost Control: D+
Overall: D+

Compared to the current system, the bills that have passed each house of Congress achieve much improvement over the status quo, and there is little overall difference between the House and Senate bills.  Both bills will achieve monumental improvements over the status quo in the area of coverage, adding more than 30 million individuals to the ranks of the insured.  Both bills will make more modest gains in the areas of access and cost control. With that said, thousand of lives could be affected at the margins, and it is important for policy wonks and politicos alike to continue to put pressure on Congress to produce the best bill out of conference. However, considering previous attempts at health care reform over the past 60 years, the current political environment, and the arcane Senate filibuster rules, it is outright naive to assume anything better than a “B/B-” was achievable in the first place. Considering the status quo, those who demand that the current bills be killed in favor of the status quo and the faint hope of a better bill are clearly deciding to put politics over policy. Such political calculations matter little to the estimated 45,000 Americans who die each year due to lack of insurance coverage.

Any views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of any organizations that the author is in any way affiliated with.

You Can Indefinitely Detain Some of the People Some of the Time

May 26, 2009 by Mark Wilson, Editor · Leave a Comment 

One of the larger problems in my life is that, whenever I want to write about a civil liberties issue, Glenn Greenwald has already beaten me to it. And written it better than I could have. Greenwald is a former civil liberties attorney and number one defender of The Constitution. He is not a Democratic apologist. He heavily criticized President Bush. And he is now heavily criticizing President Obama. In Greenwald’s opinion, suggesting that enforcing our laws is “radical” or “extreme” or “left-wing” is disgusting. When did enforcing the law become a partisan issue? He also writes about the media and how he believes that the media are beholden to the political class in a horrible, symbiotic relationship that ensures that the Fourth Estate will never actually hold our leaders accountable for anything.

And I agree with him on all of it. Absolutely all of it. Darn him! Darn him to heck!

For example, Glenn and I were furious this last week when Sen. Harry Reid kept using a verb that could just as easily have been crafted by Karl Rove. The verb was “release,” as in, “Terrorists from Guantanamo Bay will be released into the U.S.” Many pundits, and even Obama himself, used the verb “release” to describe what the government will do to detainees in Guantanamo Bay now that the administration has re-iterated its desire to close the prison there. “Release” evokes images of terrorists approaching the shore on boats and then merrily skipping off, free of shackles and permitted to wander throughout the country, blowing up whatever they please.

Let it be known: terrorists will not be released into anything. They will be shackled, they will be monitored, they will be in our custody and under guard as they are transported from Cuba to the mainland. And once on the mainland, they will continue to be monitored and under guard as they are moved to whatever prison they will occupy next. Those who believe that terrorists will be “released” in the United States are either negligently ignorant, willfully stupid, or maliciously misrepresentative. One guess as to which one describes Harry Reid.

Prior to September 11, 2001, we believed in something called “due process.” It’s a Fifth Amendment guarantee:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation. [Emphasis mine.]

The Supreme Court has ruled before that, since the Constitution uses the word “person” and not “citizen”; and since it would have been very easy to use the word citizen, but person was used instead; and since the author of the Bill of Rights, James Madison, was a lawyer by trade and a very smart man and probably not prone to misusing words; that it therefore follows that the Bill of Rights was intended to apply not only to U.S. citizens, but anyone in the United States. This is affirmed in the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits a state to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Again, note the use of the word person where citizen could have been used, but wasn’t.

In 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed by a group of terrorists led by Omar Abdel-Rahman, better known as The Blind Sheik. The bomb damaged a parking garage and did kill some people, but it didn’t come close to bringing the building down. Abdel-Rahman and three other accomplices were indicted by civilian prosecutors, accused of breaking publicly-accessible laws, tried in open court inside the United States, under the guidelines of the Constitution and the rules of U.S. civil procedure, and sentenced to U.S. civilian prisons. After 1993, the nation was not less safe because Abdel-Rahman and his accomplices were being imprisoned inside the United States. Abdel-Rahman is housed at the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

In 1995, Timothy McVeigh and his accomplice Terry Nichols parked a rental truck containing a homemade fertilizer bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The bomb exploded, killing 168 people, injuring 800 others, and destroying the building. Nichols and McVeigh were indicted, again by civilian prosecutors, accused of breaking publicly-accessible (that is, not secret) laws, tried in open court, and sentenced to U.S. civilian prisons. McVeigh was given the death penalty. The nation is not less safe because Terry Nichols is housed inside the United States.

I think you get the point. Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber; Wadih el-Hage, accused of involvement in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings; Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber”; Jose Padilla, the “dirty bomber.” All of these people are being held inside the United States right now, and no one — no one! — is arguing that the United States is less safe because of it. To suggest that allowing Dangerous Criminals inside our borders is silly; there are already more dangerous criminals here!

It’s also worth noting that, with the exception of Reid and Padilla, all of the above criminals were convicted using the 200-year-old, civilian due process proscribed by the Constitution. Reid and Padilla were held incommunicado in U.S. navy brigs. The government eventually dropped its terrorism charge against Padilla, who was alleged to be making a “dirty bomb” (a traditional bomb filled with radioactive material; it would not cause a nuclear explosion, but it would spread radiation). Since the government didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute the terrorism charge, the charge was dropped. Padilla, nevertheless, was sentenced because even though terrorism is a crime, all the things that terrorists do are already illegal, anyway! Blowing up a building is no more illegal because it was done with a political agenda in mind.

The assertion that Terrorists need to be tried in a special, extra-Constitutional way, held without charge, subjected to torture, and perhaps never afforded a trial is ludicrous. In the paragraphs above, we have ample evidence proving that trying terrorists in civilian courts, using civilian rules, does work. The United States is not less safe. And furthermore, housing convicted terrorists in civilian prisons does work. And furthermore, charging them and trying them does work. For people like Vice President Cheney to suggest that using due process makes us less safe just goes to show us how out of his mind the man is. He would probably be happier living in Iran, where the executive has unlimited power to imprison people for made-up reasons, or no reason at all. Here in the United States, we do not convict people merely on the confidential say-so of the executive branch; that’s the way dictatorships (you know, those countries that we purport to be fighting against — unless your name is “Saudi Arabia”) behave. Here in the United States, it is up to the executive to prove that the accused is guilty. Guilt is never assumed — unless, apparently, you committed a terrorism-related crime after September 11, 2001. Or you were linked to terrorism, no matter how specious the link or how questionable the evidence. Or you associated with terrorists, even if you didn’t know they were terrorists. Or you were planning on committing a terrorism-related crime, even if “terror” wasn’t your goal. Or, as Obama articulated yesterday, the government is afraid you might commit terrorist crimes in the future. Yes, the possibility of future law-breaking is now grounds not only for detaining someone, but for never giving them a trial or even a preliminary hearing to prove that they did what they were accused of doing. As long as the government says “Terrorist,” an individual’s guilt is implicit and that person will never, ever be released. (More likely, as Greenwald observed, you will be imprisoned indefinitely if the government can’t guarantee that it will win a trial. Do show trials sound like the hallmark of a vibrant democracy or a repressive despotism?)

Obama’s plan is definitely a step in the right direction, but it’s not nearly enough. In order to restore the rule of law to this out-of-control country, he must admit that there is no situation in which a person should be held indefinitely; habeas corpus is a right guaranteed to anyone in U.S. custody, and the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed as much. Obama apologists have used exactly the same rhetoric President Bush used to support Obama’s case; namely, “we are at war.” And these prisoners are prisoners of war; therefore, they do not have the right to contest their detention, and they may be detained until the end of the conflict. Seeing as how we’re waging a war on an abstract idea, it’s hard to see exactly when (or if) this war will be over.

Are we now in the business of imprisoning people indefinitely? What does that say about us as a nation? What will historians say fifty years from now? Today, we regard the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II as deplorable and appalling, but at the time, it made sense to our political leaders. We have the ability to stop lawlessness right now instead of musing, decades later, about the mistakes we made, and saying, “We’re so sorry. We’ll do better next time.” Unfortunately, every time “next time” comes up, we fail again (we began failing as early as the John Adams administration, with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts). Obama offers the promise of actually living up to our ideals as a country. Rather than fumble to attempt to explain and excuse his actions, we must ask, “Is what he is doing right? Is it legal?” And, as Glenn Greenwald wonders, “What would I have said if George Bush and Dick Cheney advocated a law vesting them with the power to preventively imprison people indefinitely and with no charges?”

Please do read Glenn’s article. It is a thorough, lucid, and amazing analysis of Obama’s position on these detainees, with some very tough questions and conclusions that must necessarily follow from that position. I do not believe they are questions that Obama and his supporters want to ask, because they lead to the very same places formerly occupied by previous administrations. At the end of the day, Obama & Co. are saying, “Yes, it is okay to detain some people indefinitely, without the government ever having to prove that they committed a crime.” Not only is that assertion illegal, it’s un-American, and if we continue down that road, it makes this country not only less safe, but less worth defending.

What Do You Think a Stimulus Is?

February 6, 2009 by Mark Wilson, Editor · Leave a Comment 

Yesterday, President Obama finally stood up to the Republicans. For the last week, Republicans have been doing what they do best: controlling the message. They have talked about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 only in terms of its negative components: how much individual elements cost, how there aren’t enough tax cuts. They have, as they always do, derided and made fun of specific parts of the bill, like the part that calls for moving the federal vehicle fleet to hybrid cars. In much the same way that Sarah Palin derided certain research projects during the election (research projects that, by the way, benefit the state of Alaska), Republicans have attempted to hold up individual programs and say, “Isn’t this stupid?” Of course, that message is only suucessful if the audience similarly agrees that the program is stupid.

Yesterday, at a Democratic getaway (which cost $100,000, by the way), Obama defended the stimulus plan and even — what’s that — improvised:

When you start asking, “Well what is it that’s such a problem, that you’re seeing? Where’s all the waste in spending? Well, you know, you want to replace the federal fleet with hybrid cars.”

Well, why wouldn’t we want to do that? That creates jobs for people who make those cars. It saves the federal government energy, it saves the taxpayers energy.

Then you get the argument, “Well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill.” What do you think a stimulus is?  That’s the whole point. No, seriously. That’s the point.

Republicans have been pushing more of the same: tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. For businesses and for the wealthy. But businesses have shown that they have no tolerance for spending money right now. They’ll take a tax cut and save it rather than use it for new production, or investment, or to hire workers. The wealthy have all the necessities of life they need. Rather than spend a tax cut on a new car or a new house, they’ll save it. The marginal value of a 10% tax cut is greater for a poor person than it is for a wealthy person. The wealthy person doesn’t need another Rolls. The poor person needs to eat.

Part of the Republicans’ problem with the stimulus package is that it involves the government doing things beyond fighting wars. It’s a generalization to say that Republicans hate government, but certainly part of what it means to be conservative is wanting “less government.” Grover Norquist is, of course, the proprietor of wanting to make the government so small he could drown it in a bathtub, which is why the government was so mismanaged for so many years. It’s hard to do a job well when you don’t think that job is worth doing at all. Given the choice between action or inaction, conservatives have preferred inaction (except, of course, when action increases businesses’ profits, as when Congress voted to take up United Airlines’ pension plan). One conservative pundit last week (who may or may not be able to speak for all conservatives and may or many not also be an idiot) claimed that the government has never created jobs, that government can only destroy jobs. It’s like dealing with an economic al-Qaeda: Republicans don’t want to negotiate, they don’t want to be bipartisan. They want to get exactly what they want, in full. They’ve grown accustomed to that after eight years. (Democrats have the exact opposite problem: they’ll capitulate at the drop of a hat. They’ll volunteer to capitulate if no one has asked them. There’s even a picture of Harry Reid in the dictionary next to the word “pusillanimous.” Someone needs to tell the Democrats that Ronald Reagan stopped being the president a long time ago.)

It’s true that, given enough time, the economy could probably fix itself (of course, John Maynard Keynes famously said that, in the long run, we’re all dead). But while we’re waiting for the free market to operate, people are getting laid off and losing their homes. Can we morally permit ourselves to let the economy remain in shambles for an unknown amount of time just to prove a point about capitalism? Of course not; it doesn’t make sense to do something just because it’s liberal or just because it’s conservative. We should do things because they work; Obama said as much in his inaugural address (though, admittedly, he was referring to more government versus less government).

Right now, the free market is broken. Consumers don’t want to spend at any price (and “any price” here means “any price that would be beneficial to the market”; certainly businesses could offer their goods for free, but that doesn’t exactly help us out of a recession). The cycle is supposed to work like this: a recession occurs, consumers stop spending, businesses lower their prices, consumers start spending again, business make more money, they start hiring people, consumers get employed again, business raise their prices, and we’re on our way back to 99-cent gas and Hummers at a 2-for-1 discount.

Our recession is working like this: consumers stop spending, businesses lower their prices, businesses lay more people off in order to save money, consumers stop spending even more as some of them get laid off, business revenue decreases, business lay more people off to save money, and so on. It’s a downward spiral that the market can’t correct. The market needs a fresh infusion of cash that just isn’t going to be coming any time soon.

Monetarism has failed. The discount rate — the interest rate that banks pay for short-term loans to other banks — is between 0% and 0.25%. It can’t go any lower, and banks still are reluctant to lend to other banks. This isn’t an issue strictly of price; it’s also one of psychology. Until businesses are ready to produce again, government must step in and fill the void to prevent the recession from getting any worse than it already is. Republicans criticize the size of the stimulus and bring up the issue of how we’re saddling future generations with this debt (these same people, by the way, were remarkably silent as the debt doubled under George W. Bush, Henry Hyde, Tom DeLay, and Bill Frist). They forget the other component of Keynesian economics: once the economy has recovered, the government must increase taxes and cut spending in order to pay back the money it borrowed. Let’s hope Congress doesn’t forget that part.

Update: Daily Kos has an interesting article analyzing media coverage of the stimulus bill. The Liberal Media, as it turns out, are not liberal at all. “Republican lawmakers outnumbered Democratic lawmakers 75 to 41 on cable news interviews.” In addition to Congressional Democrats themselves, cable news networks must be informed that Democrats won the election. Also, some of the Democrats who appeared on cable news networks were “Blue Dog” Democrats who side with Republicans on economic issues. And pretty much every other issue. Why are they Democrats, again?

Harry, Are We There Yet?

January 11, 2009 by Kevin Van Dyke · Leave a Comment 

On January 3, 2009, just one week ago, the 111th U.S. Congress was sworn into session. So now that all the dust has settled, where do things stand? The dust has settled, right?

Well, things are pretty straightforward in the House where the exact number of the Democratic majority matters little at this point. With a comfortable majority, even when subtracting conservative blue-dog Dems, most legislation will be a foregone conclusion. Of course, the Senate with its arcane rules and blue-blood past has always been the voice of idiocy and reason at the same time. This is not a new phenomenon. President Garfield is famous for allegedly responding to his wife’s call that robbers were in their house, with a quip of “No, my dear, not in the House, but there are plenty in the Senate.”

Nothing controversial gets done in the Senate, of course, unless you can somehow muster 60 odd votes for your particular bill. With that said, I began to ask myself what exactly is the makeup of the Senate as of today, the 11th of January.  The number of Republicans looks fairly certain.  With Norm Coleman losing the recount in Minnesota and with Illinois refusing to hold a special election, there will be almost certainly 41 Republicans in the upcoming session. However, after that it gets a little tricky. Right now, there are 53 Democratic Senators, not including Joe Biden, who is still a Senator and who will also become vice president in a week. Biden stayed on, unlike Obama, because he got a photoop with Dick Cheney while being sworn in for his seventh six-year term. (Perhaps he and Cheney can talk about whether Biden will actually be switching branches of the government next week.)

So that leaves us with 94 total Senators. Who else is left? Well, there is also one Benedict Liebercrat and one Ben-and -Jerry socialist (Bernie Sanders, Vermont), making 96. But this is not a Lost episode, and I am not having a flashback to before Hawaii became our forty-ninth state in the year my mother was born. Instead, what we have here is four Democratic Senators in limbo, with only one assured of actually becoming a Senator.

Still confused?

Well, let’s take a brief look at all four of these individuals who could potentially fill out the remaining four spots. Or at least at three of them. Or maybe at two.

1. Well, we know who one will be for sure anyhow, Ted Kaufman of Delaware. Mr. Kaufman, a long-time aide to Joe Biden, will be a two-year seat warmer for Joe’s son Beau to continue the nepotism tradition of the Senate. I think we can agree that Mr. Kaufman’s isn’t all that interesting, so let’s move on.

2. Next in the order of likelihood is either Al Franken or Roland Burris. Now these two, unlike Mr. Kaufman, are very interesting stories. Mark Wilson gave a good background about the legalities surrounding the Burris appointment. In short, Burris is the legitimate appointment of illegitimate and recently impeached Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. First, Harry Reid appeared to be playing hard ball, and the Senate Sergeant at Arms (no, this is not Britain) even went as far as denying Mr. Burris’ credentials this past week. However, as the days go on, it looks likely that Burris will probably become the junior senator from Illinois. Well, unless Blago is actually convicted by the Illinois Senate before the U.S. Senate finally caves. The fact that some, including Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush, are comparing the treatment of Burris to a lynching, makes it likely that Mr. Reid will capitulate.

3. The other interesting individual here is a comedian who is ahead by only 225 votes after a two-month recount. Famous for his Saturday Night Live role as Stuart Smalley, Franken looks to be good enough and smart enough to actually become Minnesota’s Senator. However, unlike in Illinois, where the law is probably on Burris’ side, Franken still legally is not allowed to be sworn in as Senator, and it’s not exactly clear when that might change. Incumbent Senator Norm Coleman, who had a few hundred-vote lead before the recount of all the lizard people votes, has filed a lawsuit, and Minnesota law states that the results cannot be certified until this is settled. Yes, Franken will most likely pull this out at the end of the day (or month or winter), but it’s not completely over yet.

4. Finally, we get to the seat that, although everyone this side of Cher is lobbying for it, hasn’t actually had anyone appointed to it yet. New York Governor David Paterson, who is apparently too scared to tick off either the Kennedy or Cuomo family, has waited nearly two months and still has not selected anyone to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. We know it will likely be a political scion–we just don’t know which one yet.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve linked to a few other previous articles that I have written in the past. This isn’t because I’m feeling cocky or self-important tonight. Rather, it’s to demonstrate a point. We have been in purgatory season for U.S. national politics for the past two months, with only Senate seat payoffs, tainted ballots, and dinosaur bailouts to keep our domestic palate wet. Thankfully, this long national political nightmare is about to come to an end. No, I’m not talking about the Bush presidency (although that will be nice as well). Rather, the dead zone between the election and inauguration is finally almost over, and we will at last have some fresh new policy to talk about in the coming months. Now we can start debating important things, like how long until the new Congress actually passes meaningful legislation. Nancy Pelosi has promised to keep the House in business through its President’s day vacation if the Stimulus package is not passed yet. Harry Reid has made no such promises. The word on the street is that the House might even reintroduce the State Children’s Healthcare Insurance Program (SCHIP) expansion bill again as soon as this coming week.

I’m starting to feel excited about U.S. national politics again. Kind of like a kid who might be lucky enough to find health insurance under the Christmas tree (and maybe a tax cut after that). How in God’s name did people wait until March for this dead season to end back in the days when there were actually supposed to be 96 Senators?

Assessing the Gaza Situation

January 7, 2009 by Mark Wilson, Editor · 3 Comments 

So who started all of this? To watch CNN, ABC News, or NBC News, you might say to yourself, “Well, there go those Palestinians again, always blowing stuff up!” Many in the so-called mainstream media talk about how Hamas broke the cease-fire with Israel by launching rocket attacks. The area had been relatively quiet for six months. Then what happened?

In the theatre, they talk about an actor’s “motivation.” You see, theatre is an attempt to emulate reality, with the paradox that, while reality is spontaneous, everything that happens in the theatre is meticulously planned. And so, when an actor needs to walk to the door in order to open it and see another character on the other side, that actor needs a reason to go over there. That reason needs to be more compelling than “The other character needs to be introduced” or “The actor needs to be over on that side of the stage in order for the blocking to work.” Sure, that’s fine, but within the world of the play, the character needs a reason to be over there, or perform that action. This is what is meant by motivation: Why is that character doing that thing? Oh, the doorbell rang; I’d better go answer it. Door opened. Character introduced. “Hi, how are you?” Now the blocking works. Bingo!

And yet  many TV anchors and print journalists assume that, when it comes to terrorism, actions always happen spontaneously, with no provocation. Why is Hamas firing rockets into Israel? Oh, you know those terrorists: they just love to destroy things! That’s just the way they are!

Thankfully, there is a rational explanation one step beyond “just because” for most any behavior.  Since humans — unless they’re mentally impaired in some way — do things for reasons, the logical question should be, “Why is Hamas firing rockets into Israel?” (So maybe I’m being facetious — just a little — but seriously, no one in the U.S. press is asking why the cease-fire broke down after six months. Hardly anyone in the U.S. press is asking why Hamas started launching rockets.) An investigation that delves just a few inches below the surface of this issue would yield a veritable gold mine of understanding. Too bad many in the media want, instead, to stick to simple, Manichaean narratives involving Israel struggling to defend itself against evil Palestinians stopping at nothing to destroy Israel, simply because it is in their nature to destroy things.

Some investigation reveals a lot. Hamas, for example, did not begin lobbing rockets into Israel without at least some provocation. For one, Israel has spent the last year laying siege to the Gaza Strip, a narrow territory carved out of the southwest corner of Israel, bordering the Mediterranean Sea on the west and Egypt on the south. (I use “siege” in the traditional sense.)

For over a year, Israel has been allowing access for Gaza to “only the minimum amount of goods required to avert a hunger or health crisis among its 1.5 million people, and prohibiting most exports,” according to The New York Times. When the blockade began last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned Israel’s actions, the fifteenth time in two years it had done so, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Israel is often accused of having a “disproportionate” response to Palestinian attacks. Total number of people killed by Hamas rockets prior to Israel’s assault: “about two dozen over the past four years” (emphasis mine), according to The Australian. Total number of Gazans killed by Israelis: 550 in the past week. Yes, that is the definition of “disproportionate.” What percentage of those killed are civilians? It seems that Israel is possibly doing more than is necessary to defend itself. For example, Israel is refusing to let foreign journalists enter Gaza despite an Israeli Supreme Court order to do so!

And lest you may think that Israel is undertaking their military action purely for wholesome and upstanding reasons, keep in mind that the Likud party sees the Gaza conflict as a fantastic electoral opportunity:

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not be a candidate in the elections and may be indicted on corruption charges. But the Gaza offensive could be his last chance to rehabilitate a legacy badly tarnished by Israel’s failure to achieve a clear-cut victory against the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in 2006.


For the moment, however, the offensive in Gaza is proving popular with Israelis, and [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak are reaping the benefits. Recent polls show them closing the gap with Likud party leader [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who had opened up a wide lead based on his promise to take a hard line against Israel’s main adversaries — Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

One mainstream news outlet is even suggesting that Hamas was completely in the wrong because Fatah, a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, said it was. Such a conclusion based on that premise seems strikingly superficial and easily explainable: of course Fatah would have nothing but nasty things to say about Hamas; Hamas beat Fatah in Palestinian elections in 2006! They’re competitors for power in Palestine! Just because Pepsi says that their product is better than Coke’s, it doesn’t follow that we should necessarily believe them or take them as a credible source.

Let me be clear that none of this discussion should be read as a justification for launching rocket attacks into Israel. That certainly isn’t justified. In my opinion, nothing would ever justify such abhorrent terrorist actions. However, neither is it justified to obliterate towns (with bombs largely provided by the United States).  Neither side is in the right. But in much the same way that Ron Paul tried to explain “blowback” to Rudy Giuliani, the U.S. media are loathe to talk about the current situation as a result of the choices made by both Hamas and the Israeli government. They would, instead, prefer to talk only about Israel defending itself, as though Israel can do no wrong. Never is the question asked, “Should Israel be doing this? Isn’t this a little excessive? And why is the United States supporting this without question?” But why the United States considers Israel’s foreign policy goals to be 100% congruent with its own is another article for another day.

Glenn Greenwald has written extensively on the issue of the unilateral opinion of Israel within the U.S. government. Is there any issue that both Democrats and Republican politicians seem to agree on, 100% of the time? And, as Greenwald notes, polls suggest that 70% of American people do not want the United States to take sides, and yet 100% of our leaders — President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barack Obama — they all give the impression that they think that not only should the United States be involved, but it should support whatever Israel does, no questions asked.

The justification given for the United States’ unprecedented support for Israel (our “special relationship” with Israel seems to be much more dear to our hearts than our “special relationship” with even the United Kingdom for instance) is that Israel is the only democracy in the region, and to let it fall would be disastrous. Not only is this not true factually (Turkey, Egypt — and now Iraq! — technically “Middle East,” are also technically democracies), but even that argument doesn’t fully account for our government’s almost complete, unyielding support for anything Israel does. And to even dare to suggest that Israel may not be completely in the right is to be subjected to, at the least, howls by many of “anti-semitism” and the debate shuts down.

The international community routinely tries to sanction Israel for such disproportionate responses, but U.N. Security Council resolutions always get vetoed by — guess who?! It was only recently that Israel relaxed its blockade to allow medical supplies into Gaza. Is preventing medical supplies from entering the area for a week really necessary to stopping Hamas? Especially with 500 deaths and thousands of casualties? Furthermore, the platforms from which the rockets into Israel were launched are mobile.

The Middle East problem — which is to say, the problem with Israel and all its neighbors alike — is far more complicated than it is being portrayed. Just once, I would like to see something other than complete condemnation of Hamas and complete veneration of Israel.  Is anyone in the mainstream media capable of talking thoughtfully about the subject and its many nuances? Hamas is a terrorist group, to be sure, but the question is: why is it resorting to terrorism? It’s not just anti-semitism; there are plenty of anti-semitic people in the world who don’t launch rockets into synagogues. With terrorism, religious explanations often mask political ones. Maybe we should be investigating that, instead. I bet if we examined the long-term causes, implications, and solutions in the Middle East, there’s the possibility of lasting peace. Begetting violence with violence is no solution. It only ensures that we will most likely re-visit this problem again.

Why Mr. Burris Won’t Go to Washington

January 2, 2009 by Mark Wilson, Editor · 10 Comments 

Roland Burris appears to be the one to fill Barack Obama’s sexy, well-toned shoes. Maybe. With Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich daring the Senate to do anything about it, what is the Senate to do?

The authors of Slate’s “Jurisprudence” column, Akhil Reed Amar and Josh Chafetz, believe that the Senate can stop Burris from taking office. For those of you following along at home, your relevant citations are Article I, § 5 and Amend. XVII. Oh, and don’t forget Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969). You’ll need that one later.

Prior to 1913, U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures. Constitutionally, senators were seen as a liaison between the state government and the federal government; their election was too important to be left up to the people, who had their own representation in the House of Representatives, anyway. As might be expected, there was a lot of party wheeling and dealing that went on as potential senators exchanged favors in order to get the job. To sidestep the sleaze, many states enacted laws requiring their legislatures to appoint to the U.S. Senate the winner of a popular vote, effectively permitting direct election of senators.

The 17th Amendment finally permitted direct election of senators but with a twist: the “executive authority” of a state must call for a special election to fill a senator’s vacancy, but in the meantime, the state legislature must give that executive the power to name a temporary senator to the office in the meantime.

Amar and Chafetz argue that the use of the word “returns” in Art. I, § 5 is the key to this issue: “Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members,” meaning each house of Congress can decide not to seat someone for one of those reasons. “Returns” in the 18th-century sense “involved a report of an appointment made by a sheriff or other official.” So, argue Amar and Chafetz, the Senate can just as readily exclude a member based on a corrupt appointment as it would based on a corrupt election.

Our friend Adam Clayton Powell, who had been duly elected to the House of Representatives in 1966, had been charged with misappropriating public funds. The House voted to deny him his seat based on these charges. Powell sued, alleging that the House couldn’t stop him from taking office, since he met all the “Qualifications” required of a House member (at least 25 years old, a U.S. citizen for seven years, and an inhabitant of the state he’s representing). The case is a little convoluted, since Powell was never seated in the 90th Congress to which he was elected. That Congress ended, but Powell was elected to the 91st Congress. The U.S. Supreme Court devoted about 90% of its ink to the question of whether or not it even had jurisdiction to adjudicate the issue. Lower courts concluded that they themselves did not have such jurisdiction, for a variety of reasons.

On the issue of whether or not the House had the power to exclude a duly-elected member, the court said it did not. It would be extremely dangerous, the Court said, to allow Congress to use the “Qualifications” clause to mean something other than merely raw qualifications, in this case a red herring to seat someone whom they felt was unseemly due to corruption charges. That would allow Congress to refuse to seat members who were chosen by the people. Appropriate relief, wrote Chief Justice Warren, would be for the House to initiate expulsion proceedings against Powell once the Congress convened.

The opinion, say Amar and Chafetz, emphasizes upholding the people’s choice, which doesn’t apply in the current Burris situation. But it does! Constitutionally, the governor acts in the people’s stead, for good or evil. What really should have happened is that the Illinois state legislature should have passed a bill stripping the governor of the authority to make the interim appointment. The legislature did not do that, however, partially due to Harry Reid and other Senate Democrats not wanting to risk losing the seat to a Republican in a special election. The U.S. Senate cannot make up for the lack of will of the Illinois legislature.

Certainly Senate Democrats are within their rights to refuse to let Burris caucus with them (although, Roland Burris can’t caucus with the Democrats because the person who appointed him initially demanded a bribe for the seat; Joe Lieberman can caucus with the Democrats, even though he actively campaigned against the Democratic presidential candidate to the point where he was stripped of his status as a Democratic superdelegate?). But I cannot see how excluding him from the Senate is possible. Sorry, Dems, you’ll just have to vote to expel him. You missed your opportunity.