The Loot Stops Here

The Loot Stops Here

The Loot Stops Here

Notes from the political sidelines.
Sept. 23 2005 2:58 PM

The Loot Stops Here

How to stop members of Congress before they spend again.


Thursday, Sept. 22, 2005

The Wages of Sin: At first, like most Americans, I was appalled by the television images of irresponsible behavior and rampant looting. How could this happen—in America! But with the passage of time, I have come to understand, if not forgive. Dennis Hastert is right: Those members of Congress couldn't help themselves, and if you don't want to see their looting and reckless acts of desperation, don't watch C-SPAN.


Yesterday, House conservatives announced a project to repent of their wanton ways. "Operation Offset" outlines $100 billion in potential federal savings that could help counter the soaring relief costs of Katrina. As John Dickerson has noted, these fiscal conservatives are lonely, desperate people—and likely to stay that way.

The GOP plan is hardly a serious blueprint for deficit reduction. House members ruled out the most obvious routes back to fiscal responsibility—such as reconsidering the Bush tax cuts—in favor of such conservative standbys as auditing poor people and cutting Medicaid, teen family-planning, and public television. In a lovely piece of palace intrigue, House Republican budgeters even proposed a symbolic cut in staff funding for their counterparts down the street at OMB.

But the most interesting aspect of Operation Offset is that it's like a rewind button for the last few years of Republican rule in Washington. It calls for delaying the Medicare prescription-drug bill, repealing the pork in this latest highway bill, and cutting homeland security funding for communities that are unlikely terrorist targets. Conservatives also would dump Bush's 2003 hydrogen-fuel initiative and scrap the moon mission the administration proposed just this week.

In fact, the list makes a convincing case that when it comes to destroying fiscal responsibility, natural disasters aren't the problem—Congress is the problem. The new motto for members of this Congress: Stop Me Before I Spend Again.


The Has-Been applauds the leaders of Operation Offset for these individual acts of courage and repentance. All of us can sit back in the comfort of our own homes and condemn what members have done in the past. But walk a mile in their shoes and ask yourself: Amid that atmosphere of chaos and moral breakdown, who among us would not have grabbed every scrap for our district that we could?

Compassion for Conservatism: In the new spirit of Operation Offset, the next Katrina package should include a good Samaritan provision to guarantee members who decide to oppose pork they once supported full immunity from charges of hypocrisy and flip-flopping. As the Good Book says, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the repeal of an earmark to go through committee.

How could looting go on in the most indebted country on earth? Instead of condemning desperate individuals, we should lay blame where it belongs: on the failure of local leaders who should have known better.

Even now, those leaders are refusing to take responsibility or change their ways. Tom DeLay—whose performance, most would agree, has been a disappointment from the outset—warned that reopening the highway bill to cut pork would invite others to put still more pork back in.


That is our deepest fear: that the looting will happen again. Too many of the greatest offenders don't even consider it looting—they call it "borrowing."

Never Again: While we commend this new effort to learn from past mistakes, the most important lesson is to take all necessary steps to prevent disaster in the first place. This time, leaders must be willing to take the drastic measure that some experts have urged for years: an immediate, mandatory evacuation of Congress before it's too late.

A complete evacuation will not be easy. Some members cannot afford transportation. Some will need money to get by. Force may be necessary for those who insist on staying put.

Yet we can no longer turn our back on this crisis, not in America. For too long, America has ignored the hard truth that we have "Two Congresses"—one that preaches endlessly about fiscal responsibility, the other that spends like drunken sailors. Many members live in one Congress, but are just a press release or subcommittee vote away from falling into the other.


This Congress cannot endure, half rich and half broke. If we don't our best to get them out of there, we'll have to live with it the rest of our lives. ... 10:29 A.M. (link)


Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2005

Oyez, Oyez: With the deadline looming for a vote on John Roberts, the Has-Been has spent the past 72 hours squirreled away with legal experts. A ruling is expected shortly.

Because Roberts' confirmation has never been in doubt, Democrats are having the usual trouble deciding how best to throw away our vote. Our motto: Give us two minutes, and we'll be of two minds.


Even the rather-fight-than-switch crowd has been slow to do either. In yesterday's Boston Globe, my famously pugnacious friend Paul Begala explained that Democrats running in the 2008 primaries will look weak if they vote for Roberts, while Democrats from swing states will look unreasonable if they vote against them. That means a Democrat from a swing state who runs in 2008 has the potential to look weak and unreasonable—leaving nowhere for the Frist campaign to go.

The Has-Been is prepared to rule on the political aspects of this case and finds in favor of the voters, who have too many other worries to care how Democrats vote on Roberts.

Another heated debate within the Democratic caucus, as the New York Times noted Sunday, is how this vote will affect the next one. Some Democrats say a strong showing against Roberts will increase pressure on Bush to choose a reasonable nominee for the O'Connor seat. Others say that if they vote for this nominee, Bush will know they are free to vote against the next one.

On these tactical matters, the Has-Been rules that Democrats lack standing, because (like the voters) the president doesn't much care what Democrats think about Roberts. Whatever the margin in the Senate, Bush will strive to nominate another Roberts, preferably one who isn't white or at least has worn a dress since high school.

I've Looked at Clouds From Both Sides Now: So, the question of whether John Roberts should head the Supreme Court for the next half century will have to be decided on the merits. H-B will now hear from both sides.

Those in favor of Roberts, such as David Broder, make two basic arguments. First, Roberts is a lawyer's lawyer, with the résumé we all dreamed we'd have at 50. In a political era defined by Michael Brown and on a court defined by Antonin Scalia, supporters insist, Roberts' brilliance and modesty could help preserve our system of hacks and balances.

Second, Roberts supporters contend that he's "not so bad." If you want someone better, they say, try winning the White House. He's too humble to be another Scalia or Thomas. Besides, how could anyone who speaks French and Latin embrace the right's agenda?

The case opponents make against Roberts is simpler: He hasn't made the case. Roberts used the hearings more like a gifted politician than a gifted jurist, ducking hard questions and deliberately leaving both sides in doubt as to what kind of justice he'll be. The Judiciary Committee should have adjourned the hearings midway through the first morning and announced that they had no further questions if Roberts had no further answers.

Snap, Crackle, or Pop: The Has-Been watched enough Perry Mason to know that when a witness like Roberts keeps pleading the Fifth, we're supposed to wait a moment before jumping to the obvious conclusion: He's guilty! Indeed, Roberts raised even more questions than Has-Been readers.

Is Roberts hiding his beliefs, or does he think it would be inappropriate to have some? Is he an ambitious young Reaganite, or an ump who calls them as he sees them? Is he a Scalia posing as a Rehnquist, a Rehnquist posing as a Souter, a Souter posing as an O'Connor, or an O'Connor posing as a Breyer? Or vice versa?

Maybe Roberts will turn out to be a great chief justice; maybe he'll be a disappointment. Either way, he's not telling.

Roberts might have redeemed himself if he had offered a view on Bush v. Gore, the iron test between judicial restraint and activism. As his inquisitors pointed out, that case will never come before the court again—in fact, the court explicitly said it was not intended as a precedent. Every American alive in 2000 has an opinion on that case. By dodging that question, Roberts proved that whether he's a hack or a Holmes, he is trying to pull one over on somebody.

In the end, the trouble with the Roberts nomination is precisely why it has been such a political success: It was designed to be a leap of faith for both parties and even for all sides in both parties. Yet an administration that has been one leap of faith after another has lost its leap and run short of faith. It is hard to give the president the benefit of the doubt, when doubt is meant to be the benefit.

The Has-Been's final ruling: Oppose the Roberts nomination on the grounds that his refusal to answer questions does the one thing Roberts has said he would never want us to doset a dangerous precedent.

Humble Tie: As a gesture of good faith, however, here's a last-ditch compromise that could win H-B's support. In return for a unanimous vote for Roberts, the White House should agree not to fill the remaining ninth seat on the court.

An evenly divided court is a dream come true for advocates of judicial modesty. If every vote is 4-4, the court will not only be unable to overturn settled legal precedents, it will be unable to establish any new ones.

The empty chair would serve as a silent reminder to the other justices that on the Roberts Court, their job is to interpret the law, not to legislate. If Roberts is a true champion of judicial restraint, he'll welcome the opportunity to bring the Supreme Court into a kinder, humbler era. ... 1:13 P.M. (link)


Monday, Sept. 19, 2005

Executive Training: Throughout the Katrina disaster, Americans have scratched their heads, wondering how the first president to graduate from business school and the first vice president to head a Fortune 500 company could do such a lousy job of running the government. Former Bush aides have found the answer: It's good for business.

Give conservatives credit: They're right to marvel at the power of the profit motive. Compare how Joe Allbaugh and Michael Brown, the former-roommates-turned-former-FEMA directors, responded to Katrina. Brown dithered enough to become the poster child for hack government. Disaster-chaser Allbaugh rushed to the scene, running the meter while his clients landed multimillion-dollar contracts.

Iraq offers the same comparison. Vice President Cheney has been roundly criticized for failing to plan for the post-war in Iraq. Yet the company he used to head responded with such dispatch that Pentagon auditors can't believe it could charge so much so quickly. With help from Allbaugh, Halliburton has been just as nimble in the aftermath of Katrina.

It's almost enough to make the Has-Been reach for a napkin and outline a supply-side theory of fiascos: Reducing the level of competence required to serve in government generates a huge increase in the amount of economic activity linked to bureaucratic incompetence.

Case Study: As it happens, a group of ex-administration hacks has just formed a new consulting firm to test this theory. On Saturday, the Associated Press reported that former Education Secretary Rod Paige and his top aides are launching a firm "to offer high-dollar advice on policies they helped create and later enforced."

"It is not unusual for Washington officials to become consultants after leaving government," the AP notes, with wry understatement. "But this venture involves virtually an entire leadership team from President Bush's first term."

Other administrations might wince at the revolving door swallowing a whole department. This one may tout it as testament to the president's firm belief in vouchers.

Paige is a perfect test case of whether the private sector can improve a hack's performance. Long before anyone ever heard of Michael Brown, Rod Paige had retired the title of least-competent member of the Bush Cabinet.

On Paige's watch, the Education Department paid conservative columnist Armstrong Williams $240,000 to shill for its agenda. Paige denounced the National Education Association as a "terrorist organization," then issued a written apology attacking their "obstructionist scare tactics." He caused such a bureaucratic backlash with the department's tone-deaf implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act that even conservative states like Utah rebelled.

Paige proves the Washington adage: Those who can, do. Those who can't, consult. The AP story suggests that while Paige and his team "did not have a reputation in office for showing the flexibility that many potential clients may want," they'll probably make a fortune off their connections, anyway. They used to be intractable bureaucratic hacks. Now they're the ones with an inside track to the intractable bureaucratic hacks who took their place.

The new firm's CEO, John Danielson, who was Paige's chief of staff, told the AP that the company will go after companies, states, and "even countries seeking American education as a model." This confirms H-B's longstanding belief that the quickest way to help American students do better against foreign students would be to convince more countries to adopt our educational methods.

If we can persuade China, India, and other competitors to scrap their rigorous systems in favor of the American model, our students will reap a double benefit. Saddled with our lax standards, long summer vacations, and mediocre schools of education, other nations will watch helplessly as their test scores plummet. Meanwhile, the more time America's education consultants spend abroad, the less damage they can do our students here at home.

Red, Blue, and Green: Of course, Republicans are not alone in profiting from their time in government; the revolving door has been far too good to plenty of Democrats as well. The major difference seems to be how much more Republicans seem to enjoy it.

As one Democratic lobbyist recently put it, most Democratic hacks view their time on K Street as a necessary evil to pay the bills between jobs in government, while most Republican hacks tend to see public service as a necessary evil on the road to private riches. Allbaugh and Paige are proof that while we may have seen the peak of the housing bubble, the Has-Been Bubble has just begun.

Last week, I recommended setting aside one backwater agency as a safe place to dump loyal, mediocre people. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has already found an official dumping ground for hacks: It's called the private sector. ... 1:49 P.M. (link)


Friday, Sept. 16, 2005

We Can Rebuild Him: Several news analysts note that Bush's speech last night was not only about rebuilding the Gulf region, but about rebuilding his image and presidency as well. Slate's own John Dickerson was the first to make this point last night; headline writers at the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times quickly followed suit.

I don't want to be the Dennis Hastert at the garden party who asks whether, in the wake of this latest disaster, it makes any sense to rebuild the Bush presidency. There is no way to imagine America without a president. Moreover, the Has-Been has fond memories of younger days spent at the White House and is eager to see its glory restored.

But conservative budget hawks are right to raise a related question: How much more can we afford to borrow from future generations to revive a presidency that has already cost so much and achieved so little? Time and again, we have seen that this administration cannot be fixed by throwing money at the problem.

It might be cheaper to give the president and his aides modest retraining accounts. Unfortunately, we know that turning the White House into a laboratory for conservative ideas doesn't work, either.

But my greatest concern is that like any massive undertaking, the reconstruction of the Bush presidency will be rife with scandal, fraud, and abuse. Despite Bush's promise last night that "we'll not just rebuild, we'll build higher and better," I fear that in the end, the same hacks, profiteers, and scam artists will charge us a fortune to rebuild the Bush presidency on the same low ground.

For that reason, the Has-Been urges the president to put a Reconstruction Czar in charge of rebuilding the Bush presidency. This individual would have complete authority to fire hacks on sight, root out partisan feather-bedding, and blow the whistle on White House aides for pointing fingers.

If necessary, the czar would even have the power to sanction the president himself, if Bush reverts to passing the buck, responding slowly to crises, or planning more vacations.

What prominent American can be trusted to rebuild the Bush presidency on higher ground? Tom Kean can't do it—he's too busy as chair of the Permanent Select Committee to Investigate Bush Failures. Colin Powell is preoccupied with a rebuilding effort of his own.

So far, the only Republican name that comes to mind is John McCain. He despises corruption and knows how badly the office has been damaged by disaster. Best of all, McCain understands what the president may not: Rebuilding the presidency is far too big a job to get done in the time Bush has left. ... 9:09 A.M. (link)


Thursday, Sept. 15, 2005

Post-Speech Scorecard: How did Bush do? Count the buzzword mentions:

Compassion: four times

Responsibility: once (with reluctance)

Trust: zero                                     ...  7:19 P.M.

Master of Disaster:By now, Michael Gerson has sent President Bush a moving, forceful address to deliver to the nation this evening. Give the Bush White House its due: FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security may let America down in a crisis, but Speechwriting always comes through with flying colors.

If you're scoring at home, here's Gerson's checklist of buzzwords: "trust," "compassion," and of course, "responsibility." We also can expect an extra helping of such Bush standbys as "never happen again" and "the American spirit." All these lovely sentiments remind me of this old Far Side cartoon. No matter what Bush says, the only word Americans will hear is "disaster."

What would it take for tonight's speech to earn a second chance for one of the most unpopular presidents in history? Let's review the buzzwords one at a time:

Trust: While it may be the most massive reconstruction effort in American history, the bricks-and-mortar side is actually the easy part. Given enough bloated appropriations and cost overruns, even the hapless Army Corps of Engineers can repair and rebuild the New Orleans levees.

The far more difficult breach to repair will be trust. In today's New York Times poll, the percentage of Americans who trust the federal government to do the right thing is dangerously low. African-Americans have more reason than ever not to trust this administration.

The reason Bush is on the brink is that he has built his entire presidency not on achieving results for the American people, but on convincing them to have faith in his leadership instead. Those days are long gone. The only way Bush can begin to regain Americans' confidence is to acknowledge that in this crisis, he and his government lost that trust and are determined to earn it back. The best thing Bush could do for himself would be to say plainly, "We let you down."

Every White House learns the old adage that the real danger from scandals is the cover-up, not the crime. There should be a corollary for fiascos: The lasting political damage comes not from the screw-up, but from ducking blame for it. When the FBI botched the Branch Davidian stand-off at Waco in 1993, Janet Reno could have been out on the street quicker than Michael Brown. But to her credit, Reno stood up and took responsibility, without excuses or spin. She became a national hero overnight.

Responsibility: According to the Post and the Times, the president will use tonight's speech to emphasize what he does best: spend money. To underscore its compassion, the White House has already developed a remarkable talking point: They're prepared to spend more in the next year on reconstruction here at home than they have on three years of war and reconstruction in Iraq.

The Post points out that Congress has already spent $62 billion on Katrina, more than the four largest disaster relief bills in history combined. The rest of the federal bureaucracy may be slow off the dime, but not this Republican Congress: They practice spending hundreds of billions all year long so that when disaster hits, they'll be ready.

Don't get me wrong—we should spend billions rebuilding the Gulf Region. But just how big does a disaster have to be before Congress and the White House roll up their sleeves and find a way the country to make sure can afford it? 

In the 1990s, when we still had a president (and Republicans) who believed in balanced budgets, emergency spending was the one legitimate loophole in the pay-as-you-go rules that required new offsets for new spending. Now there are no rules, and emergency spending has become a loss leader that Congress uses as an excuse to waive restraint everywhere else.

Bush is on track to break his own record for the largest budget deficit ever. Over the last four years, Washington has reverted to form as a classic binge eater, whose response to falling off his diet during the holidays is to decide that every day is special.    

In our political system, presidents are the only ones who can enforce fiscal discipline. Tonight, Bush's instinct will be to throw as much money as he can at the political mess he has just put himself in. If Bush wants to turn his problems around rather than simply massage them, he must shed his go-along fiscal cowardice and learn to make hard choices.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay insists that his colleagues have already cut government to the bone: "My answer to those that want to offset the spending is 'Sure, bring me the offsets.' "

The Has-Been understands DeLay's dilemma: You can bring lobbyists to the fund-raiser, but they'll never give you offsets. So, here's a list of $1.8 trillion in savings. If Congress and the president passed a fraction of it, they'd still have room for their next fiasco.

Compassion: Ironically, the last time the word "Reconstruction" was on every politician's lips was 140 years ago, in the days when Republicans really were on African-Americans' side in the South. Let's hope this time the good that comes of it is longer lasting.

Bush can stick a fork in compassionate conservatism, which has become a cop-out for addressing hard problems on the cheap. I'm all for faith-based programs, but the nation's response to Katrina cannot be to expect Americans to build their own ark.

Tonight's address is Bush's last chance to change the tone of his own administration.

He would be wise to settle for something more in line with our low expectations: competent conservatism.

The Bush team has a hard-earned reputation for exploiting partisan advantage. Yet from the outset, Bush has consistently squandered the greatest political asset of his office, which is that even Americans who voted against him will rally behind a president who rises above the fray in times of crisis.

After 9/11, the Bush White House rushed to restore politics as usual by making patriotism a partisan advantage in the midterm election. This time, Republicans were quick to point fingers at Democratic leaders in New Orleans and Louisiana. The administration has already used the crisis to advance the conservative wish list on Davis-Bacon and is reportedly considering turning the Gulf region into a laboratory for school vouchers and other right-wing hobby horses. According to the Times, the White House has put Karl Rove in charge of the reconstruction.

Americans are more desperate than ever for a leader who will put politics as usual aside for the good of the country. If Bush wants to get back on track tonight, he has to show us that the era of Michael Brown government is over. ...2:59 P.M. (link)


Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2005

Quiet Man: The good news is that John Roberts now believes in a constitutional right to privacy (chug once). The bad news is that he seems to think it applies primarily to questions about his personal views.

As Dahlia Lithwick predicted, Roberts spent much of Tuesday taking the Fifth. Reporters who've spent two months describing him as modest found themselves grasping for new adjectives: "enigmatic," "noncommittal," and best of all, "Delphic." If it doesn't work out for Roberts to become chief justice, he could always take over the Fed for Alan Greenspan.

Roberts' opening statement on Monday left us eager to find out whether his humility was genuine or false. Tuesday's hearings raised a similar question of whether his Delphic manner is real or a pose. When Lindsey Graham asked him how he'd like to be remembered in the history books, Roberts said, "I'd like them to start by saying, 'He was confirmed.' " The joke would be funnier if we were sure he didn't mean it.

Offspeed: Graham showed why Slate readers have a better strategy than the Judiciary Committee. As Dana Milbank points out in the Post, when Graham asked the closest thing to an off-the-wall question ("I think it stinks that somebody can burn the flag, and that's called speech. What do you think about that?"), Roberts needed a moment to figure out how to be noncommittal.

Howie Kurtz may be right that Roberts "must be a good ballroom dancer." But even the Oracle of Delphi stumbled when she couldn't see what was coming.

Roberts says the role of justices is to call balls and strikes, and fans don't go to baseball games to watch the umpires. He's right—we go to yell at them. In fact, that's also the reason conservatives throng to watch the Supreme Court.

Today's off-the-wall question is a follow-up from David Griffith: "Do you believe major league baseball umpires should have some flexibility in calling balls and strikes, or do you support the league's crackdown to bring uniformity to the strike zone?" In other words: If justices are the umpires, who are the owners?

Update: The White House decided to name Roberts as Chief Justice in part because of his supposed talent for building consensus on the Court. Yet just one day after Roberts promised that to remember that "it's my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch," the Chicago Cubs announced that before tonight's Cubs-Reds game at Wrigley, Justice John Paul Stevens will throw out the first pitch. The  Chicago Tribune  says Stevens is the first Supreme Court Justice to do that since William Howard Taft.

Perhaps the 85-year-old Stevens, a lifelong Cub fan, was inspired to dispense with recent precedent by the return Monday of 41-year-old Barry Bonds. Perhaps Jack Shafer's recent piece on Rehnquist's drug habit  led the Court to revisit its testing policy and make it easier to get steroids. But don't be surprised if Stevens is throwing a brushback pitch to remind Roberts that if you want to be an ump, go to umpire school. When you show up at the highest bench in the land, you'd better come prepared to play. ... 12:38 P.M.

Field of Dreams: At the close of his humble soliloquy on Monday, Roberts invoked soaring memories of his Indiana youth:

For me those images are of the endless fields of Indiana, stretching to the horizon, punctuated only by an isolated silo or a barn. And as I grew older, those endless fields came to represent for me the limitless possibilities of our great land.

Since Monday, The Has-Been has been wandering the prairies in search of those images. Here's one of his boyhood home that shows limitless possibilities, but no barn. Here's one of his club, with endless fields but no silo. Here's his school, La Lumiere, where he found punctuation, but no horizon.

At long last, however, H-B has found one possible source of these nostalgic memories. We've known for weeks that Roberts still reads to his kids. Now we may have discovered what he reads them.

The October 2000 edition of Lynx, an online poetry journal, includes a poem by Melissa Dixon called "Prairie Ramble":

under wide skies
the fenced woodlot
endless fields

Clichéd coincidence, right? But scroll down further, to Sheila Murphy's "An Excuse for Milk":

Once removed from alter ego, one became polite. That is to say heroic from the look of arch replies to long, drawn questions mounted on a field. … Why was the famous man so friendly?

Still think it's a coincidence? Look at Murphy's "Narration":

All language moves like a gazelle. As trembling hastens our devised consent, the raptures of a white sky drape those fears to which we frequently succumb. At the school called "La Lumiere," the boy wore dark blue. She watched the freshness leave him.

What does it mean? It's like John Roberts—I have no idea! It's almost Delphic.... 8:28 A.M. (link)


Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2005

Humble Pie: Because Washington is a city of such massive egos, the trait I admire most about John Roberts is his modesty. I just wish he'd stop bragging about it.

No biographical profile of Roberts is complete without a few references to his famous modesty. According to Google, the word "modesty" has already appeared alongside "John Roberts" more than 18,000 times. By contrast, the search engine records a grand total of 424 mentions – lifetime – for "modesty" and "Karen Hughes."

Maybe Bush should have put Roberts in charge of winning America some friends in the world. His message is coming through loud and clear: "Trust me – I'm modest."

Roberts's humility is a welcome change from the haughty tone that spoils the editorials he wrote in high school and memos he sent in the Reagan era. It's too bad he has to wear it on his sleeve. When a country lawyer starts saying aw-shucks, it's usually time to reach for your wallet.

Overachievers usually blow their job interviews by boasting, "Working too hard is my greatest weakness." Roberts runs the risk of inventing an answer that is almost as annoying: "Modesty is my greatest strength."

But humility isn't just part of the Roberts charm offensive. It's the only glimpse of a judicial philosophy he's going to give us. He wants to reassure both sides that he'll to do as little as possible for the next 30-40 years. Conservatives breathe a sigh of relief whenever he promises to restrain himself. Liberals consider the alternative and count their (modest) blessings that he isn't full of himself like Scalia.

If humility is all there is to the Roberts judicial philosophy, shouldn't we find out whether it's for real? Senators ought to give the nice man a chance to prove his modesty is genuine, not false. So here's today's off-the-wall question: "Judge Roberts, on a scale of 1-10, how humble are you?" 

We'll know we're in trouble if he gives the  Karen Hughes  answer: "L'humilité, c'est moi!" ... 9:14 A.M. (link)


Monday, Sept. 12, 2005

Bottoms Up:If the Federalist Society and the ACLU had joined forces to design a drinking game for this week's John Roberts confirmation hearings, players would be chugging once for each Democratic mention of privacy, twice for each Republican reference to judicial restraint, and three times for each committee staffer caught yawning on C-SPAN. Feel free to play along at home, but make sure the beverage you chug is high in caffeine.

Republicans' only question for Roberts is whether he'll live to be 100. Democrats are so sure they can't stop this nominee they're just going to ask his advice on how to stop the next one.

Al Gore and John Kerry warned us that the Supreme Court would be the most important battle of our lifetimes. Now, even Hollywood seems to be preparing for life under Chief Justice Roberts.

U.S. v. Kabuki: Legal correspondents for the Post and the Times worked all weekend to provide tabbed and collated briefing books of the questions Roberts should expect. They even explain how he rehearses all the answers:

He boiled down his arguments to a few main points, then committed them to index cards and memorized them, then shuffled the cards to practice delivering them in different orders with different segues. ... He will seem to be mulling his responses, but he will have anticipated just about every question and will have prepared every answer in advance. Nothing will sway him from his script. 

As Dick Durbin told the Times, "Has anything come up before the hearings that is a showstopper for Roberts? The answer is no—no showstoppers."

Ah, but the show must go on. Or as Roberts might put it, "C'est la guerre!"

And Now for Something Completely Different: Luckily, Has-Been readers aren't quitters. For weeks, they have been plotting a stealth campaign to throw Judge Roberts for a loop. The strategy: Surprise Roberts with offbeat questions that aren't in his notecards. That way, America can get a spontaneous and unrehearsed view of how his mind works before deciding whether to put him in charge for the next half century.

Of course, H-B readers are a diverse lot and don't conform to a narrow, pinched view of what's "offbeat." Some are deeply philosophical: Shane Ham asks, "Where does law come from?"; utz9000 wants to know, "What are the limits of reason in doing justice?"

Others would like to find out if Roberts is even more boring than he is letting on. Martin Benjamin asks, "What are your thoughts on the theory of gravity?" Peter Bullock wonders, "How did growing up in Indiana influence your view of foreign trade?"

Some hope to trip Roberts with practical questions. A law student named ­Cram asks about the standards for passing the bar. Others, like Daniel Lebovic, want to sneak up on Roberts by pretending they're applying for clerkships: "Which do you believe is more difficult for an attorney to perform, trial or appellate advocacy? Which has been more difficult for you to perform? Why?"

Many readers, like Judith Sapp, are ready to take this out back and go nerd to nerd with Judge Roberts: "In the context of the new Hague Convention on Choice of Court agreements, please explain why a judgment obtained by substantive fraud should be enforceable by the State addressed."

A few are more conspiratorial, like m dunn, who urged that these questions be conveyed privately to Judiciary Committee staffers in order to prevent Roberts from reading them in Slate.

Showtime for Patty: Most readers, however, simply want to find out how (and whether) John Roberts ticks. He can learn the lines, but does he know how to dance?

So, thanks to legions of readers looking for a chief justice who can roll with the punches, here are the 13 Most Surprising Off-the-Wall Questions for John Roberts:

13. If you were stuck on an island at sea and had to choose one reality TV star to be your only companion, who would it be and why? And which one condiment would you take with you? (Elysia Aufmuth)

12. Follow-up question: You are trapped alone on a deserted island. What five amendments do you take with you? (Gerald Glover)

11. Who is your least-favorite philosopher, and why? (Mike Doyle)

10. Why does a chicken coop have two doors? (Laramie Taylor)

9. Who do you like better, Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers? (Joe Murphy)

8. Have you read On the Origin of Species? Explain the bit about the sexual relations of barnacles. (Lee Golden)

7. If a person could travel back in time to the 1940s and prevent a political enemy's parents from meeting (and thus prevent the enemy from existing), who would have claim to bring suit against the time traveler, and which decade would have jurisdiction? (Michael Caulfield)

6. What's your strategy for solving Sunday's Su Do Ku in the Washington Post? (Sam Shipley)

5. Why shouldn't the ground be able to cause a fumble in football? (David Griffith)

4. What changes would you recommend to the motion picture rating system? (John Depko)

3. If you and five other friends were going to dress up as the Village People for Halloween, which Village Person would you want to be? (Craig Roberts)

2. If you had to cast a vote to end either pornography or abortion, but not both, which would you choose? (Gary Silverman)

1. Which Rice Krispies mascot would make the best Chief Justice: Snap, Crackle, or Pop? (Gerald Glover) ... 12:37 P.M.  (link)